Thursday, January 27, 2011

Covenant, not Government: The Kingdom of God

Finally we come to the goods.  What was Jesus talking about when he preached about the Kingdom of Heaven?  I believe that Jesus wanted to show us an ideal, a radical departure from the then current rule of the Romans and the Sanhedrin, with every person accountable to God, and submitting to one another.

This is a big topic, and I just want to look at a few elements of it for now.  I will once again go over some historical context, and then take a look in Luke 6:20-49 to see what Jesus can tell us about the new kingdom.

We have in the Old Testament and ancient Jewish sources a form of writing called the covenant (I say writing, because we of course only have the texts.  The form is almost certainly originally an oral agreement, not a written one).  Probably the best example of covenental writing is the book of Deuteronomy, as well as some of the extrabiblical writings of the dead sea scrolls.  A covenant is an agreement between a group of people that gets the seal of approval from God.  Usually it is in regards to how they are to interact with each other, and the writings take a very distinct Jewish form.  They start with a proclamation of the power of God's deliverance by remembering the way he delivered them out of Egypt, or remembering some other incident of God's saving power.  After that they will go on to lay out the laws for their society.  Finally, there will be a proclamation of blessings to be attained by following the covenant, as well as curses layed out for those who fail to follow the covenant. 

A shorter version of a covenant can be seen in Joshua 24.  It is a dialogue between the people of Israel and Joshua, and all the main elements are there pretty clearly.  In verses 2-13 you have the reminders of deliverance.  After that you have the rules of the society he is laying out (fear the LORD, throw away your idols).  The blessings part is missing, however the occasion of the covenant makes the blessings inherent, land and prosperity in the promised land.  The curse can be seen in ver. 19-20.  One thing that is interesting to note in this passage is the voluntary nature of the covenant.  It was an agreement that was entered into by each family by choice, not a mandate for living in the area.

In Luke 6 (as well as the sermon on the mount) Jesus is laying out a new covenant with the people he is talking to.  If you read the passage closely, he is paralleling all the aspects of an ancient covenant, but in a slightly tweaked form.  I believe that the prevalence of these speeches in Luke and Matthew gives us a view into what Jesus' ideal is for people's interaction with each other.  I won't go verse by verse, because it is a pretty long section, but I do want to highlight some things.

In verses 20-26, we have a modernization of the practice of calling to mind God's deliverance.  In ancient israel, when the people were in their promised land, it made sense to hearken back to the times of God's saving power, that He brought them into the rest they experienced.  But for Jesus, in his day, there was trouble all around, and it didn't help that God had once done things.  Instead, what he does is to call to attention the future deliverance of God in the coming of the Kingdom of God.  If you like more theological terms, he is acknowledging the immanent eschaton.  Instead of looking back and saying "see how God delivered us from the hands of the Egyptians and brought us to a land of His choosing" he is saying, "This current suffering will shortly be done away with in God's coming deliverance.  The fortunes of men will be reversed, the present age will pass away, and God's kingdom will come into power."  Note the blessings and woes, a contrast between how things are in the present and how they will be in the near future.

In verse 27 there is a shift.  "But to you who are listening I say:..."  Here Jesus is changing the focus to the substance of the covenant(v. 27-45).  In Matthew we have a much expanded version, but most of the main points are here as well.  Do good and be just, regardless of what the other party is doing.  Do not judge and help one another.  These all relate directly to our social and political interactions.  Jesus is calling us to live out the Kingdom, even before it comes.  It is a call to hasten the coming of that kingdom by enacting it on earth.  This is the covenant that Jesus is inviting us into, an agreement to choose how to live our lives, with a view towards other people.  In the times of Jesus, like today, the poor and downtrodden were falling through the cracks.  There were no "social programs" that the government enacted to help the less fortunate.  The only hope for those with nothing was charity from their neighbors.  Jesus is calling for that to happen, for his followers to voluntarily agree to live out the kingdom in the fallen world.

Note the section on cooperation, and judging others(v. 37-42).  In these verses Jesus is encouraging a new system of leadership based on experience instead of authority.  We are no longer to be rulers and judges over other people, but to aid them in things we have learned, but that they still struggle with.  This is the point of removing the plank in your eye before helping your brother remove his speck.  It is also present in the student not being above the teacher, and the bit about the blind leading the blind.  All over the place in the Gospels we have this idea of the servant leader.  Jesus has no use for a leader who tells people what to do, but instead desires leaders who will teach by example, lifting their fellow man up to their level, so that all can live in peace with one another.

The final portion of a covenant is the blessings and curses for following or not following.  This is to ratify the agreement, similar to a binding signature, with God as the person who is binding it.  Jesus tweaks this part a little bit, but not much.  Verses 46 through 49 comprise this part of the covenant.  Jesus here is not compelling anybody to follow his words, merely stating the consequences for regarding or disregarding his words.  The Kingdom is coming and nobody can stop it.  The wise man will heed the words of Jesus and willingly become an instrument of the kingdom.

In conclusion, we have now seen the ideal kingdom of God as explained by Jesus.  There are no earthly rulers, only leaders who can help others by virtue of their experience.  The poor and downtrodden are looked after by the willingness of the well off to put the welfare of the needy above their own.  We have a kingdom where God is the ruler, no earthly man, much like the ideal that was in place before Israel sinned by asking for a king.  Jesus lays all this out in covenant form, recognizable by the people of his day as a voluntary contract between the individuals involved, and to be followed regardless of what is being done by those not beholden to that covenant.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Christ in the Robber's den: Jesus and Jerusalem

So in studying Jesus' relationship with the Jewish leaders of the day, I have the problem of too many things to talk about.  Much of what Jesus says and does in the synoptics is in opposition to the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law.  That being said, I want to focus on a few passages in Mark that I feel illustrate my point pretty clearly while maybe looking at things a little different than usual.

First, as before, some background.  Around the time of Jesus, Judaism wasn't one monolithic religion like we may think of it.  In the Bible we can see there are quite a few groups (Pharisees, Saducees, Zealots, etc.) and from other sources we learn of such groups as the Essenes, who had a community at Qum'ran where we got the Dead Sea Scrolls from, and of many popular movements under the leadership of particular individuals (Acts 5:34-40).  The "official" Jewish religion was given some standing within Rome.  They had a court system with the jurisdiction to enforce Jewish laws, they had hearings with the Roman leaders, civil authority, etc.  This group consisted mainly of Pharisees and Saducees.  We see their courts (the Sanhedrin) commanding people to be flogged, but they did not have the ability to give the death penalty.

This authority must have come from Rome, as Israel had not been a free state for hundreds of years, excepting the Maccabean revolt (160-63 CE).  This meant that the Jewish Ruling class had to cooperate with Rome and accept their rule in order to maintain what control they had over the people.  Though this could be considered a religious authority similar to the Catholic Church, it had strong political implications as well, and one of those implications was the ability to collect the tithe (temple tax) a portion of which went to the Romans in addition to the imperial tax we discussed last time.

In the golden years of the nation of Israel, many of the people were farmers and shepherds.  During this time, the tithe and first-fruit offerings made a lot of sense.  Between that time and the time of Jesus, the demographics of the Jewish people changed significantly.  They lost sovereignty of their land, and while many still farmed, there was emerging a larger merchant class as well.  On top of this, many people were displaced in the Roman occupation.  This is the context for the money changers in the temple.  Many people didn't have first fruits or animals to sacrifice, so they had to buy those things in order to fulfill the law.

When Jesus clears the Temple (Mark 11:15-19) he is pronouncing judgement against the system that is in place.  Note the words he uses.  "Is it not written 'My house will be a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"  Similar to his words regarding man's relationship to the sabbath (Mark 2:27) Jesus is proclaiming the proper place of the temple for the worship of God.  In essence, he is saying, "No longer are the priests serving the interests of the people, now the people are serving the interests of the priests."  Things are backwards from the way they are supposed to be, and the cure is a radical reorganization of the priesthood, symbolized by a miniature destruction of the temple.

After that, in Mark 12, this point is driven home in a much more personal way.  The entire chapter is driving towards the same point.  The parable of the tenants is a blatant condemnation of the system.  The leaders know it, and want to kill him for it.  In the confrontation about the imperial tax, which we have already looked at, Jesus is condemning the relationship the Jewish leaders have with the Roman leaders.  Toward the end of the chapter, he focuses it down to a pin-point.

As they are watching all the people putting in their contribution to the temple, a widow comes and throws in a few pennies.  Jesus addresses his disciples.

"Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more in the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything - all she had to live on."

The image there is almost too hard to think about.  In the name of the God of Love, the priests are taking the last two cents of a woman who they should be using their resources to support.  There is no social justice, no help for a victim of the hard times in which they live.  The following of the laws and traditions has completely swept aside any sense of social responsibility for the priests.

There are many more verses that I could use to bring the point I am making home (Mark 7:9-13).  Jesus was not just against the hypocrites, he was against the entire system that encouraged hypocrisy.  The real purpose of God's law had been overshadowed by the greed of the religious leaders for power, a power which was made possible by a collusion with the people who were usurping God's throne.

After exploring Jesus' relationship with the powers of the time, I want to shift gears next.  Jesus did set out for us an ideal.  A way of living apart from having rulers.  A direct kingdom of God which we will get into next time.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Render unto Caesar: Jesus and Rome

Now I want to talk about Jesus' relationship with Rome, the ruling power of the day. You will note in the introduction that I didn't talk about the "religious powers and the secular powers" but rather about the Roman and Jewish powers.  There is good reason for this.  Back in the Roman empire there was no such thing as separation of church and state.  Religion was integrated into the public sphere in a variety of ways, politics included.  For this reason, you had what may be called the "state cults", deities sponsored by the ruling powers that the people were compelled to worship.  This included the emperor himself as one of the gods.

A little OT history will show how this relates to Jesus, who's life was steeped in OT culture.  The book of Daniel shows very clearly that Kings can have a tendency to force worship from their subjects, a book which Jesus often relates to himself (see Daniel Chapter 3).  It is possible that this relation is partially due to the similarity in situation between his time and the time of Daniel.  The OT furthermore unequivocally equates having a king with false worship.  1 Samuel 8 is really interesting in this regard, especially ver. 6-9.  Compare what is said there to John 19:15 where the crowds scream, "We have no King but Caesar", clearly inferring more than simply an earthly ruler.  To stand against emperor worship cannot be viewed as simply a religious stand, but a political stand as well.  We see later christians being persecuted, not because they worshipped Jesus, but because they worshipped ONLY Jesus.  They wouldn't acknowledge the perceived rightful place of the emperor among the gods.

So there are some background reasons to think that Jesus had a problem with Roman occupation, but the question remains as to whether there are any passages that demonstrate that he felt that way.  For that, I want to unpack the incident of the imperial tax, Mark 12:13-17.

"Later they sent some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words."

So here is the set up.  A few things of note pop out at me, and I want to try to look at this in the context and time that it was written, remembering the Jewish culture of the people involved, and the hardship that comes from the foreign occupation of the land and the heavy associated taxes, on top of the tithes and temple taxes they are paying. 

Some men come up to Jesus while he is teaching.  We know who the Pharisees are, but the Herodians we are less certain about, as they don't come up as often.  Probably they are either king Herod's men, or else Jewish people sympathetic to the Roman occupation.  These people come expressly for the purpose of catching him in his words.  They want to trick him, make him say something to either bring a charge against him or else make him lose face in sight of his followers.

  "They came to him and said, 'Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity.  You arent swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  Is it right to pay the imperial tax or not?  Should we pay or shouldn't we?'"

Here is the question.  The picture becomes clearer.  The flattery ensures that he must answer the question, lest he lose his integrity.  It is a challenge to his teaching, and to his truthfulness.  Will you stand up for what you know is right, and go against the Romans, or will you bow to authority and lay a burdon on your people that they cannot handle?  This is the trap they have set for him.  The people are struggling under these taxes, and to pay them is making it hard to survive.  If Jesus says "go ahead and pay the taxes" then he is going against what he knows is right and giving in.  The Pharisees and Herodians know this, or else why would this have been the question with which to trick him?

On the other hand, if he says "don't pay your taxes, the Romans aren't legitimate kings here" then he would be arrested on the spot, which is what the Pharisees would have loved to have happen.  Jesus is in a tight spot here.  Does he give in, or does he make a stand for justice, most likely ending his ministry then and there?

"But Jesus knew their hypocrisy."

This goes deeper than just his knowledge of their trickery.  The entire crowd was aware of the trap they had set, it was no hypocrisy just to set a trap.  There was something inherent in the question itself, being asked by the Jewish leaders, that he was to expose in his answer.  Not only did he know of their intent, he also knew that they knew what was right, and were going against their own teachings.

Often when Jesus is teaching, he demonstrates his lesson by bringing what the people already believe into the light, exposing the hypocrisies of the people who are trying to trick him.  You can see this with his teaching about healing on the Sabbath, as well as when the Pharisees ask by who's authority he does his works.  In these cases he shows that those condemning him are groundless in their accusations, they cannot push the issue without exposing themselves as frauds.  This is the method Jesus will use in the answer to their question.

"'Why are you trying to trap me?' He asked."

Jesus exposes them by getting behind their empty flattery to the root of their plot, not allowing them the pretense of an honest question.

"'Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.'"

Jesus doesn't have a denarius of his own, so he has to ask that one be brought to him.  This is interesting to note.

"They brought the coin, and he asked them, 'Who's image is this? And who's inscription?'
'Caesars' They replied."

Jesus here is forcing the Pharisees and Herodians to acknowledge their hypocrisy.  There is no hint that his point is to show a separation of church and state, but more likely a reference to the second commandment (See exodus 20:4).  In having them recall who's image is on the coin, they are admitting to the crowds that they are worshiping a false god, that even the money they use is an idol to the state cult.  This is the reason that Jesus doesn't use the state money, because just to carry it would be blasphemous, and to use it is to accept that the Romans have the right to rule the land of the Jews.

"Then Jesus said to them, 'Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.' And they were amazed by him."

Finally we come to the end, where Jesus answers the question.  He does leave it ambiguous, but by this point the crowds will know what he means.  "Caesar can keep his blasphemous coins, but he is a pretender on God's throne and has no right to our allegiance or respect.  The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it (Psalm 24) so give everything to God, for he is our true Ruler."

In conclusion, Jesus was against the rule that the Romans exercised over God's people.   They were placing burdens on the poor that they couldn't support, and taking God's rightful place in society.

Next time we will talk about Jesus' relationship to the Jewish leaders of the time.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jesus and Anarchy: Part 1

Lately in my studies I have been looking at Jesus and his relation to politics.  I have come to the conclusion that Jesus was what we would call an anarchist.  I think that our views of government today are much different than what they had back then, so the term might not bring up the right picture to the mind, however I think it fits quite well.  For that reason, I first want to clarify what I mean, and then spend a few posts backing up my position.

I believe that Jesus stood in opposition to the control of the people by the politically active forces of the time, both Roman and Jewish.  Jesus advocated an ideal kingdom with no earthly rulers, simply a direct rule of God.

Over the next 3 posts I will defend the three main points of the previous paragraph.  His opposition to Rome, his opposition to the priesthood, and his advocacy of a kingdom without rule.  Stay tuned next time for... "Render unto Caesar: Jesus and Rome".