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the judgment of Jesus

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

—Jesus, according to Matthew

 

I have recently received feedback from people who feel I am judging and shaming those who hold political views that harm marginalized people in our society. Many people believe that Jesus taught only spiritual truths and did not care about the politics and economics of his day, even though they had a great impact on the poor peasants and fishermen who followed him. A close reading of the gospels tells a different story. Jesus was very concerned about oppressive political regimes and an economy of commercialized agriculture that was impoverishing the peasants of Palestine at an alarming rate, and he offered a contrasting vision of society—the kingdom of God.

moral choices

Throughout our lives we are faced with moral choices, both personally and politically. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will someday judge between those individuals who choose to practice compassionate action (the righteous) versus those whose indifferent inattention does nothing to help the conditions of poor and marginalized people. His judgement was not meant solely for interpersonal interactions, but also for the corporate actions of social groups—the “nations.” Surely no follower of Jesus believes that their personal charity and service can be separated from their social and political actions. You cannot serve two masters.

The word righteous in this text may need some clarification because the common understanding of righteousness is 1) being morally right, or 2) being right with God. But a more holistic biblical understanding of righteousness is standing up for what is right—doing what is right and just. Righteousness means seeking justice in human society. A righteous person is one who seeks economic and social justice for poor and marginalized people.

The terms righteousness and justice are often linked in biblical texts. That is because they are synonymous, redundant terms. In the original languages of the Bible, the word for justice also means righteousness. The Greek word dikaios (DIK-ah-yos) in the New Testament and the word tzedakah (tze-dah-KAH) in the Hebrew Bible have this dual meaning. Righteousness implies a personal and individual dimension, while justice implies a social dimension, but they both have the same objectives—acting on behalf of those suffering from hunger, poverty, sickness, injustice, discrimination, and imprisonment.

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the complicity of moderates

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)

 

I wish you were either hot or cold; if I had my way you’d be one way or the other, all the way, but you lukewarm types, you passionless types, you make me want to vomit.[1]

—John of Patmos, speaking for God (late first century)

 

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

—Edmund Burke (1770)

The well-known quote attributed to statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797) perfectly describes the role played by moderates and political independents in any society—good people who do nothing to stop the triumph of evil.

The persistence of evil in a nation is more due to the inaction and inattention of political and religious moderates than it is to the actions of dedicated white supremacists and authoritarian politicians. Throughout history, those who consider themselves moderates, centrists, and independents have, by their silence, been complicit with the rule of autocrats and evil regimes. Whether they realize it or not, they are often collaborators with tyrants and despots. They have historically allowed racism, misogyny, antisemitism, ethnic cleansing, war, poverty, and oppression to flourish by their self-centered lack of attention and action.

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (1929–1968) wrote:

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God.

Today, political moderates and centrists like to portray themselves as common-sense people who keep an open mind on issues, are willing to listen to different viewpoints, think for themselves, and are not extreme in their beliefs. These are the so-called independent voters who do not strongly affiliate with either major party or their ideologies. They often feel themselves to be above the partisanship that afflicts the rest of us.

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the kingdom of God: an introduction

The time is fulfilled, the kingdom is at hand. (Mark 1:15)

The kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)

The kingdom of God is among you. (Luke 17:21)

The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it. (Gospel of Thomas 11)

At the heart of the gospel of Jesus is the kingdom of God. This one phrase sums up the entire ministry of Jesus and his whole life’s work. Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the New Testament was written in Greek. The expression kingdom of Godbasileia tou theou (bas-il-EH-ah too THEH-oo) in Greek and malkutha d’elaha (mal-KOOTH-ah dehl-ah-HAH) in Aramaic—points to the ruling activity of God over human social relationships.

As we read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see that every thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing: the realization of the reign of God’s love, compassion, justice, and peace within human society. Although Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God frequently, he never clearly defined it. Instead, he spoke of it in parables, comparing something familiar (mustard seed, leaven, lost coins, a man who sowed a field) with something unfamiliar.

Then he said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” (Luke 13:18)

Therefore, we must always test any proposed definition or meaning of the kingdom against the parables. Over the centuries, a variety of interpretations of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God have been put forth. We will briefly examine six of the most common explanations: the reign of God as 1) heaven, 2) an inner spiritual experience, 3) the church, 4) a separate society, 5) a new state, and 6) a new world. Continue reading

the death of Jesus

Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
—Luke 14:25–27

 

the cost of discipleship

To further his movement for social and economic justice, Jesus had gathered a core team of 82 disciples, with twelve in a leadership role. He had sent the remaining 70 out in pairs to the villages of Galilee to share meals, heal, and proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God.[1]

Jesus told his disciples that following him was going to be extremely difficult, even dangerous. His words about hating family are strange—words we would rather not hear, words we would like to go away. They are difficult to comprehend from a man who consistently preached love over hate.

In joining the Jesus movement, the disciples had entered what is known as a “fictive family,” not related by blood but through bonds of love for one another as sisters and brothers. In the traditional culture of ancient Israel, individuals had no real existence apart from their ties to blood relatives, particularly their parents. Jesus prioritized the creation of the kingdom of God over the pulls of family responsibility, commending his disciples for cutting their ties—leaving home, livelihood, and family behind. He knew this would be a difficult decision and a challenging test. These were strong words meant to open people’s eyes to the reality of what Jesus was about, what he was proposing, and where he was going.

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.[2]

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 penalty for civil disobedience and insurrection by common people under Roman rule. It was a time of decision. Jesus was heading towards a confrontation with power that risked his life and the lives of his followers.

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Jesus, Justice, and the Law

 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.[1] Surrounding these were 316 laws (mitzvot) found in the Covenant Code[2] of Exodus, the Holiness Code[3] of Leviticus, and the Deuteronomic Code[4] 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.

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the weakness of God

[God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is the way, the only way, in which [God] can be with us and help us.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945)

As we enter the postmodern world, the age-old omnipotent God is slowly dying in the human imagination. For many, this supernatural being is already dead. The image of a God who acts with power and might in the natural world and in human society is becoming increasingly incredible.

Yet, there is another image of God, an alternative way of envisioning God, in the Bible. We have no idea who wrote the treatise that we now refer to as the first epistle or first letter of John in the New Testament. Some authorities claim that this writer is the same author who wrote the gospel of John, but without much evidence other than tradition to back that up. Although the writing style is different, the author of “First John” seems to have some familiarity with ideas expressed in the gospel of John and may have come from the same community as the gospel writer. Whoever he was, the author of this letter developed an extraordinary theology sometime around the end of the first century.

Here is what he wrote:

God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:16)

To think of God as love is radically different than the ancient image of an all-powerful being dwelling on a throne in the heavens. In regards to power, the chief characteristic of God as love is weakness. Love can only act in the world through the relative weakness of human beings. Continue reading

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