Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.
— Deuteronomy 16:20 (the Law)
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?
— Micah 6:8 (the Prophets)
Strive first for the reign of God and God’s justice.
— Matthew 6:33 (the Gospels)
Was Jesus a law-abiding citizen? Or did he teach us to step outside the law when needed in the name of compassion and justice? Traditional orthodox Christianity claims that Jesus was perfect and sinless, fulfilling the Law of Moses and the Prophets of ancient Israel. Therefore, he obeyed the Hebrew Law completely. But the truth is more complex, illustrating the tension between written and oral laws and the biblical call to justice.
During his life, Jesus experienced three despotic structures of government organized for a privileged few at the expense of the common good of the majority. Upon the death of Herod the Great (73–4 BCE), his kingdom was divided among his three sons. Galilee was a monarchy ruled by his son Herod Antipas (born before 20 BCE – 39 CE). After the removal of his brother Herod Archelaus (23 BCE – 18 CE) by Rome in 6 CE, Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator who reported to the governor of Syria. However, the day-to-day operations were entrusted to a wealthy oligarchy (meaning the ruling few) of the Sadducees, sometimes referred to in the gospels as “the leaders of the people,” or “the chief priests and the elders.” In conquered territories, it was always Rome’s practice to find indigenous collaborators to rule on their behalf. And they always chose people from the wealthy class who saw it in their personal interest to support power when it advantaged them. On top of these structures was an emperor in Rome—first Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE), and then Tiberius (42 BCE – 37 CE)—who was essentially a self-appointed dictator. So Jesus was confronted by a monarchy in Galilee, an oligarchy in Jerusalem, and a dictatorship in Rome.
There were obviously overlapping legal systems in place in this conquered nation, but the one that is usually discussed in regards to Jesus is the Hebrew Law found in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. At the time of Jesus, there were three levels of Hebrew Law. At the core were the Ten Commandments, which we are told were given on stone tablets to Moses by Yahweh. Surrounding these were 316 laws (mitzvot) found in the Covenant Code of Exodus, the Holiness Code of Leviticus, and the Deuteronomic Code of Deuteronomy that were written over hundreds of years. The three codes are significantly different in the range of social and religious issues they cover, the style in which they are written, and the fundamental rules they establish. They can broadly be conceived of as the law of the tribes, the law of the Temple, and the law of the royal court. They show a progression from a primitive tribal confederacy to a sophisticated temple-state ruled by a king. Debating specific interpretations of the Law was an ongoing activity, resulting in an oral law developed by the Rabbis and Pharisees. They viewed it as creating a ‘fence’ around the Law to keep its precepts from being violated.
And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ (Luke 12:15–21, NRSV)
In the Cotton Patch translation of verse 15, Clarence Jordan (1912–1969) brings out its original earthiness: “You all be careful and stay on your guard against all kinds of greediness. For a person’s life is not for the piling up of possessions.”
Jordan develops this parable in an interesting way in The Substance of Faith, a collection of his sermons. He elevates the parable to a broad social and political level.
“Jesus said, ‘There was a certain rich farmer.’ Now, he didn’t say what the man’s name was. Jesus left him rather impersonal. To make it a little bit more personal, let’s give the man a name. We’ll call him Sam. ‘Sam’s fields brought forth abundantly.’ Now, we might even want to call him uncle. That would be all right, too. ‘Uncle Sam’s fields brought forth abundantly.’” (Cotton Patch Sermons, pp 81–82)
And what did Uncle Sam do with his rich yield? He kept it all to himself and ignored the hungry of the world. So, although the parable may have been intended to be understood on a purely individual basis, we could legitimately expand the reading to include the entire nation and thereby entertain a new lesson. In either reading, the problem is greediness and self-interest, an unwillingness to share with those in need.
Holy Week recounts the story of Jesus’ march to Jerusalem, his teachings and disruptive actions in the Temple, his arrest, trial, and execution. And on Easter Sunday, we hear of his resurrection from the dead as a vindication by God of his life and message. On Easter, we celebrate the uprising of Jesus, an uprising that has the power to transform lives and the course of history.
According to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), sometime in his third year of healing and teaching in Galilee, after building the core of his movement, Jesus set his sights on Jerusalem in Judea. He decided to go here to confront the Sadducees—the rich and powerful rulers of the people—at their symbolic seat of power. He entered the city in a noisy act of political street theater and then interrupted the operations of the Jerusalem Temple with a demonstration for economic justice.
Jesus clearly understood that imprisonment, torture, and death are always potential and likely consequences of the pursuit of justice in an unjust society. He cautioned his followers that in order to follow him, they must be willing to risk public execution on a cross—the Roman penalty for civil disobedience and insurrection by impoverished and dispossessed people. It was a time requiring courageous decision. Jesus was heading towards a confrontation with power that risked his life and the lives of his followers. Continue reading
I recently heard a Christmas Eve sermon titled “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” recited entirely in rhymed couplets and delivered by the preacher without a manuscript. Running for nearly eleven minutes, it was quite a remarkable feat.
The gospel text was John 1:29: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The theme is introduced in this way:
Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.
Herein these words from childhood dear
Contain the gospel message clear:
Mary, the mother pure and mild,
The lamb is Christ her sinless child.
Here are words to young and old,
A message that had been long foretold,
That God would send the holy lamb
Who would die for sinful man.
(You can see and hear the entire sermon here)
The point of the pastor’s message was that Jesus was born primarily to die for the sinful nature of humanity. This is standard Christian theology that proclaims that a sacrificial death was the central purpose of Jesus’ life on earth—essentially thirty-three years of marking time until he could die on a cross—enabling us to join him and our loved ones in heaven. For many Christians, this is the essence of the gospel. In fact, the historic Apostles’ Creed takes us immediately from Jesus’ miraculous birth to his agonizing death with nothing in between:
He [Jesus] was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
This is sometimes referred to as the creed with the empty center. Nothing about the life and teachings of Jesus is considered consequential to Christian faith.
But there is another gospel message found in the writings of the New Testament. As one reads the four gospels and the letters of Paul, it becomes evident that there are two distinctly different messages of good news proclaimed in those ancient writings—two contrasting narratives at the heart of Christianity. The first message of good news that we encounter in the New Testament is presented in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke: the good news announced by Jesus. The second and contrasting gospel is the good news announced by Paul in his letters or epistles, and in the gospel of John. To clarify the difference, we might say that the first is the gospel of Jesus, while the second is a gospel about Jesus. Continue reading
(Note: This was written during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.)
A number of commentators have mentioned the impracticality of Bernie Sanders’ ideas and objectives for change in American society—an American revolution fueled by an animated and passionate young electorate. Given the intransigence of Republicans in Congress—these commentators often state—there is no hope that any of his radical ideas (breaking up the big banks, reversing the decline of the middle class, a living minimum wage, health care for all, free college education, addressing climate change, and making the wealthy pay their fair share) will become a reality. The commentators state that Hillary Clinton, being more practical and realistic, has a better chance to accomplish her more modest objectives. Frankly, I think that this viewpoint is as out of touch with reality as Sanders’ objectives may seem. The only difference is that if expectations are lowered, our disappointment will also be lower when Republicans inevitably continue to obstruct the plans of any Democratic president. If the Republicans hate anyone more than Barack Obama, it’s Hillary Clinton. But if all we want to accomplish is to not rock the boat of establishment politics and maintain the status quo of income inequality, then Hillary Clinton is the ideal candidate.
Change, however, requires a vision, often an extraordinary vision. Visionary leaders like Gandhi and King were able to mobilize dedicated movements for change because they each held out a vision of a better and more just society based on the impracticalities of love and nonviolence. They were widely criticized for being too ambitious, too radical, and much too impractical. Jesus was also an impractical visionary. Who would give any credibility to his vision of the kingdom of God that proposed a new community based on loving your neighbor and enemies, forgiving offenses repeatedly, lending to those in need without expectation of return, welcoming the immigrant, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, being compassionate toward prisoners, and turning the other cheek? Continue reading