Blogging Towards Sunday, November 7th
This week's passage makes me think of hazing to enter a fraternity or some sort of gauntlet to run to prove one's worth. I'm using a larger passage than that suggested by the lectionary [Luke 20:27-38] because it gives more perspective to what I think this teaching of Jesus is lifting up. Faith isn't merely maintaining a tradition or talking about doctrine in metaphysical or philosophically abstract ways. Jesus is saying that faith is what we believe in, where we place our hope and what shapes the way we relate to and interact with God, our neighbor and all of the universe. It's this approach and his interpretation of who a neighbor is and his commitment to radically inclusive nonviolence that make waves for his contemporaries.
Jesus lived at a time in which the Roman Empire controlled the "known" world. They were the foreign occupier of Palestine. Jesus' people were colonially conquered even if Palestine had been granted a unique sort of autonomy for religious reasons within the Empire. Whereas today we ardently profess a separation of Church and State, in Jesus' day there was no separating religion, ethnic-identity and nationalism. When a people was conquered by another nation the assumption was that the god of the conquerers must be the real divinity. Jesus, and his Jewish brothers and sisters, looked at the notion and experience of God in daily life differently though, in particular in light of the trails of exile in the 7th and 8th centuries BCE.
In Jesus' day there were multiple voices giving shape to the experience of Judaism.
The Pharisees were religious fundamentalists, insisting upon a holistic and whole practice in daily life of the laws of the Torah. They were for purity, remaining apart as the people of God, which translated into a life of rigid observance of purity laws in the First Testament all in view of obtaining and maintaining personal holiness.
There were also Scribes - often called lawyers in the gospels - who were more like the Pharisees: observant followers of the Law, yet they different from the Pharisees in terms of understanding which laws had precedence in terms of the authority. Was it those written down by Moses? Was it those that had been reinterpreted by the rabbis of yore? Was it the written or oral teachings?
The Sadducees were more liberal, laxist (depending upon your perspective). They rejected the oral tradition. They were more about cultural adaptation, seeing the writing on the wall that Rome was in charge and that Greek Culture was the glue of imperial civilization they view holiness more as something to strive for not in opposition to the pagan, or foreign, cultural context but with it. Alongside the Sadducees were the Herodians, those that Rome had appointed to become the "royal family" to govern the province of Palestine for Caesar.
On the extreme edge were the members of the community of Qumran: the Essenes - those that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. They had given up, believing that the Temple run by the Sadduceess and Herodians had lost its way, and had gotten into bed with the Romans. They withdrew from life into the caves along the Dead Sea to live in community in a way that they believed most most faithful to the lifestyle and worldview that the God of the Bible had called them to.
So Jesus lived in this tension, this jockeying between groups to dominant the religious sphere (which was also social, political and economic). The first test comes in verse 20-26 from the Scribes and Pharisees. If he says don't pay taxes he's an insurrectionist and will be arrested by Rome. If he says to pay taxes he comes off as a laxist or collaborator, not a true patriot. Jesus responds differently to an either/or question. He points to a third way, to something underneath the surface question. Who do you live for? Who is the real authority?
The second test [20:27-38] comes from the Sadducees who (unlike the Pharisees) don't believe in the resurrection of the dead. It's a crazy question with lots of caveats. I hear Jesus responding by saying that the hypothetical and philosophical "if this than what?" statements distract from the purpose of life and the passion with which God invites us to live. "Elohim is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive." verse 38
It was complex. Which group would support Jesus? From which group would he claim authority? In the end he chose a different way, not of polarization or division, but of invitation to community with a common cause of living our faith, a hope of a more inclusive society and a culture that was counter-cultural and subversive through radical nonviolence and community organization. Was he merely a marxist, or a community organizer working towards nationalism? I don't think he was just about that. I hear Jesus pointing to the existential truth underneath, describing how heaven and earth, the ways of God and the ways of humanity, how life is today and how God longs for it to be, that they are not the same. How things are are not how they always will be. It's not a humanistic belief in the bedrock philosophy of modernism and the enlightenment: that progress is inevitable. Rather it's a life-transforming promise that God is calling us to the freedom train, to a new way of being that Jesus talked of as the kingdom of God. It's not about restitution or retribution, but about resurrection and recreation. A promise of our worth in the eyes of God as beloved creatures. An affirmation of faith that life is worth living and that each one of our lives, especially for what Jesus calls "the least of these" is precious.
In a week dominated by pre-election coverage of anticipated post-election fallout, in which we talk about problems with no solutions, budget holes, taxation, and blame-games that seem to fail to get beyond an either/or choice. I find these words of Jesus and underlying affirmation of the worth of life to be a radically empowering and challenging call to justice, commitment and community.
I heard this song "You Are More" and it's promise of purpose and importance by Tenth Avenue North resonated with me as I wrestle with these words of Jesus this week.
Tenth Avenue North - You Are More from Provident Label Group on Vimeo.