Monthly Archives: June, 2011

Blessings and Woes

p { margin-bottom: 0.08in; } Why do we get this list of blessings and woes here, just as Jesus is setting out the essence of his teachings here (and in Matthew)? Well… Jesus is taking on the role of Moses as depicted in Deuteronomy, addressing Israel as the people prepare to enter/re-enter the Promised Land.

There is a Covenant announced, a deal with God– and for God, there are enforcement clauses. Moses is portrayed offering blessings the people will enjoy in their new land, if and only if they fulfill their part. If they do not, those blessings are reversed and become curses.

Israel has been occupying the land for centuries, since Moses, but as the prophets warned, and most of Jesus’ hearers agree, they have long suffered exile because their fathers broke the contract and came under its penalties.

Jesus is announcing ‘the Kingdom of God’, the chance to live in Israel under God’s restored rule and favor.

But as before, there are conditions, including the chance to choose life, and blessings, or to remain under the curses of disobedience, to die in “the wrath to come” that John had spoken of. As NT Wright has eloquently, compellingly, and exhaustively argued, this ‘wrath’ is not ‘the end of the space-time universe’; it is the same kind of calamity that earlier prophets had warned of, when it was Babylon that would punish Israel by conquest and exile.

In Jesus’ warnings, the hovering threat is the overwhelming force and brutality of Rome crushing a nation of rebellious subjects. Some forty years later, Rome will kill and enslave multitudes in Judea, destroy the Temple, forbid Jews to visit Jerusalem, a shaking of the prevailing Jewish religious cosmos that only “apocalyptic” language could possibly express.

Despite the reference to “a rich reward in Heaven,” Jesus is not telling individuals how to receive a pleasant afterlife. Like previous prophets, he is warning the nation and its rulers of oncoming doom, and what must be done to stave it off. He knows that his message will be equally unwelcome, that he and others will suffer and risk death in proclaiming it.

Unlike the Deutronomic Moses, addressing an Israel whom he knows will prove incapable of fulfilling God’s demands, Jesus is offering the Kingdom to two Israels, one made up of people “with ears to hear”– and the Israel of the Herodians, the High Priesthood, everyone who’s been doing well under the present regime.

The poor can accept this covenant, and do it; the rich are content with their present condition, and will not.

Those who have been going hungry can accept, and will be fed; but those who have been content to leave their neighbors hungry… will remain content while their opportunity lapses.

Those who weep at the present state of things… will know a better; but those who can laugh in such times will find little to amuse them when the karmic bill comes due.

It is unlikely that this was a single sermon, given to all on one occasion. It would have been the message that Jesus spoke everywhere, differing slightly from one audience to another. Matthew’s version is softened and abstracted in some details (the reference to “poor ‘in spirit’” for example) but carrying the same message.

Wright explains the beatitudes well:

“Israel longs for YHWH’s kingdom to come. She is ready to work and struggle and fight to bring it in. But the people to whom it belongs are the poor in spirit… YHWH has in mind to give her, not the consolation of an national revival, in which her old wounds will be healed by inflicting them on others, but the consolation awaiting those in genuine grief. Israel desires to inherit the Earth; she must do it in Jesus’ way, by meekness. Israel thirsts for justice; but the justice she is offered does not come by way of battles against physical enemies. It is not the way of anger, of a ‘justice’ that really means ‘vengeance’. It is the way of humility and gentleness. Israel longs for mercy, not least the eschatological mercy of final rescue from her enemies. But mercy is resolved for the merciful, not the vengeful. Israel longs for the vision of her God; but this is the prerogative not of those who impose an external purity, but of those with purity of heart. Isreal desires to be called the Creator’s son, being vindicated by him in the dramatic historical proof of national victory. But those whom Israel’s God will vindicate as his sons will be those who copy their Father, and that means peacemakers. Persecution will be inevitable for people who follow this way, Jesus’ way, but those who are persecuted because they follow this way are indeed assured of a great vindication. In other words, the promise that would formerly apply to those who were faithful to Torah now applies to those who are faithful to Jesus [and his message.] Whatever they have meant to subsequent hearers or readers… the beatitudes can be read, in some such way, as an appeal to Jesus’ hearers to discover their true vocation as the… people of YHWH, and to do so by following the praxis he was marking out for them, rather than the way of other would-be leaders of the time.”

Then Turning to His Diciples He Began to Speak (Luke 6.20-26)

“How blest are you poor; the kingdom of God is yours.

“How blest are you who now go hungry; your hunger shall be satisfied.

“How blest are you who weep now; you shall laugh.

“How blest are you when men hate you, when they outlaw you and insult you, and ban your very name as infamous, because of the son of man. On that day be glad and dance for joy; for assuredly you have a rich reward in Heaven; in just the same way their fathers treated the prophets.

“But alas for you who are rich; you have had your time of happiness.

“Alas for you who are well-fed now; you shall go hungry.

“Alas for you who laugh now; you shall mourn and weep.

“Alas for you when all speak well of you; just so did their fathers treat the false prophets.

Bringing The Law Down the Hill…

In Matthew, the teachings to come… are delivered “on the mountain”; but here Jesus comes down from there with his new “laws”.

Two related things going on here: Jesus implying that he is the divinely authorized King of Israel (Jesus citing the precedent of David, anointed King but still on the run from Saul’s partisans, bending sacred regulations in case of need. Jesus appointing twelve of his followers as “apostles”, ‘disciples’ in the other gospels except that here we have an emphasis on them as “messengers” or “missionaries”, the role they are to take up after Jesus’ death. But the basic reason for choosing precisely 12 is that they match the number of tribes that traditionally make up Israel. In Mark we find them avidly discussing who is to get the best place when Jesus takes power and they can start ‘judging Israel’ from their 12 thrones.) And Jesus delivering the terms of a new Covenant, ala Moses.

As Wright points out, Pharisees were unlikely to make too much fuss over one individual Jew shading one of 600+ Commandments– but when that Jew is a Messianic candidate, possessed of evident spiritual power and great personal charisma, everything that he and his closest followers do is a matter of concern.

This man is a great prophet, possibly the Messiah– or he has a covenant with Beelzebub and is leading Israel astray, in which case finding an occasion to kill him looks like their plain duty: “If a prophet arises among you, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder which he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of dreams, for the Lord your God is testing you… That prophet or that dreamer shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk.” [from Deuteronomy 13].

So where does a difference of interpretation… not that far from what the rabbis eventually decide about the Sabbath (that it should be violated in cases where human life is at stake) become an outright incitement to rebellion against the commandments? Can one establish a “new covenant”?– without raising questions about the Covenant one has? This is not the “Jesus” of John’s gospel… but the claims he is implying, by everything he says and does, are putting his rabbinic critics on the spot. If he isn’t in fact the Messiah, he is a very dangerous man, and not one they’re allowed to indulge.

Coming next: the laws of this new deal.

Luke 6.1-19

One Sabbath he was going through the cornfields, and his disciples were plucking the ears of corn, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them.

Some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is forbidden on the Sabbath?”

Jesus answered, “So you have not read what David did when he and his men were hungry? He went into the house of God, and took the consecrated loaves to eat, and gave them to his men, though only priests are allowed to eat them.” He also said, “The son of man is sovereign even over the Sabbath.”

On another Sabbath he had gone to synagogue and was teaching; there happened to be a man in the congregation whose right arm was withered. The lawyers and the Pharisees were on the watch to see whether Jesus would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they could find a charge to bring against him.

He knew what was in their minds, and said to the man with the withered arm, “Get up and stand out here.” So he got up and stood there.

Then Jesus said to them, “I put the question to you: Is it permitted to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”

He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your arm.” He did so, and his arm was restored.

But they were beside themselves with anger, and began to discuss among themselves what they could do to Jesus.

During this time he went out one day into the hills to pray, and spent the night in prayer to God. When day broke he called his disciples to him, and from among them he chose twelve and named them Apostles: Simon, to whom he gave the name ‘Peter’, and Andrew his brother, James and John, Philip and Batholomew, Matthew and Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot who turned traitor.

He came down the hill with them and took his stand on level ground. There was a large concourse of his disciples and great numbers of people from Jerusalem and Judea and from the seaboard of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to listen to him, and to be cured of their diseases. Those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured, and everyone in the crowd was trying to touch him, because power went out from him and cured them all.

More About ‘Sinners’

Specifically about those scandalous meals:

“Most writers now agree that eating with ‘sinners’ was one of the most characteristic and striking marks of Jesus’ regular activity. This would not have been of any significance, of course, if Jesus were acting simply as a private individual. But when it is allied with the claim, made in praxis and story, that Jesus was inaugurating the long-awaited kingdom, it aroused controversy. Jesus was, as it were, celebrating the Messianic banquet, and doing it with all the wrong people.” [NT Wright]

—–

And, of course, the tension we find here between the official representatives of 1st Century Jewish orthodoxy, and those disreputable people accepted by Jesus… has continued to be a feature of Christianity, in that it implies a deep suspicion of the judgements of the rich, the powerful, and those prominent in the Church– continually holding up the likelihood that God, like Jesus, sees things quite differently.

re NT Wright’s Take on This Passage

“Fasting in this period was not, for Jews, simply an ascetic discipline, part of the general practice of piety. It had to do with Israel’s present condition: she was still in exile. More specifically, it had to do with commemorating the destruction of the Temple. Zechariah’s promise that the fasts would turn into feasts could come true only when YHWH restored the fortunes of his people. That, of course, was what Jesus’ cryptic comments implied: ” [ referring to the passage in our last post]

….

“…Fasting spoke of an Israel still in exile. Sabbath spoke of the great day of rest still to come; also, both to Israel and the pagans, it announced Israel’s determination to remain separate. Food laws, too, spoke of an Israel separate from the nations… Jesus’ whole work was aimed at announcing that the day of mourning, of exile, of necessary and God-ordained national separateness, was coming to an end. His claim that Israel’s God was acting to fulfil the ancient promises in and through his own work was therefore seen to be deeply threatening by the self-appointed guardians of Israel’s heritage…”
[from Jesus and the Victory of God, pg 433]
———-

So, did Jesus consider himself “founding a new religion,” as we would normally read the allusions to “new wine” and “old wine” here? Probably just ‘another movement within Judaism’, which like some other such movement, provided radically different alternatives to the Temple for reconciling God and Israel. “A new religion” would probably not have appealed to his followers; Jesus’ reframing of the old symbols did– while deeply offending many who’d “found the old wine good.”

Luke 5.27->

Later, when [Jesus] went out, he saw a tax-gatherer, Levi by name, at his seat in the custom house. He said to him, “Follow me.”

And he rose to his feet, left everything behind, and followed him.

Afterwards Levi held a big reception in his house for Jesus. Among the guests was a large party of tax-gatherers and others.

The Pharisees and the lawyers of their sect complained to his disciples: “Why do you eat and drink with tax-gatherers and sinners?”

Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to invite virtuous people, but to call sinners to repentance.”

Then they said to him, “John’s disciples are much given to fasting and the practice of prayer, and so are the disciples of the Pharisees. But yours eat and drink.”

Jesus replied, “Can you make the bridegroom’s friends fast while the bridegroom is with them? But a time will come; the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and that will be the time for them to fast.”

He told them this parable also: “No one tears a piece from a new cloak to patch an old one; if he does, he will have made a hole in the new cloak, and the patch from the new will not match the old. Nor does anyone put new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will be wasted, and the skins ruined. Fresh skins for new wine! And no one after drinking old wine wants new; for he says, the old wine is good.”

A Little More About Sin

“Your sins are forgiven you” is not a blasphemous statement. It’s the same as “God has forgiven you” except that it politely avoids directly naming God, whom everyone knows is the actual agent. Everyone goes home afterwards, not saying “What a powerful magician this Jesus is,” but “praising God.”

Why the complaints, then? The obvious answer is that the Temple cult is supposed to provide the proper channels for having sins forgiven, plagues cancelled. But Jesus is not the only healer around offering prayers & exorcisms; what makes him such a threat to the established [pre]Judaism of his time?

NT Wright’s perspective explains some of this vehemence: “‘Forgiveness of sins’ is another way of saying ‘return from exile'”. Jesus isn’t just healing individual woes; he is proclaiming ‘The Kingdom of God’ (aka ‘return from exile’) and his healings are taking place in that context.

“The prophets of the time of exile (in particular Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah 40-50) saw Israel’s exile precisely as the result of, or the punishment for, her sins. It should be clear from this that if the astonishing, unbelievable thing were to happen, and Israel were to be brought back from exile, this would mean that her sins were being punished no more; in other words, were forgiven…

“[Jermiah] ‘The days are coming, says YHWH, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt… But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says YHWH: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know YHWH,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says YHWH, for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sins no more.’…

“Forgiveness… is not simply one miscellaneous blessing which will accompany covenant renewal. Since covenant renewal means the reversal of exile, and since exile was the punishment for sin, covenant renewal/return from exile means that Israel’s sins have been forgiven, and vice versa…

….

“From the point of view of a first-century Jew, ‘forgiveness of sins’ could never simply be a private blessing, although to be sure it was that as well, as Qumran amply testifies. Overarching the situation of the individual was the state of the nation as a whole; and as long as Israel remained under the rule of the pagans, as long as Torah was not observed perfectly, as long as the Temple was not properly restored, so Israel longed for ‘forgiveness of sins’ as the great, unrepeatable, eschatological and national blessing promised by her God. In the light of this, the meaning which Mark and Luke both give to John’s baptism ought to be clear. It was ‘for the forgiveness of sins’, in other words, to bring about the redemption for which Israel was longing.”

“…The point at issue was not that Jesus was offering forgiveness where the rabbis were offering self-help moralism… Jesus was offering the return from exile, the renewed covenant, the eschatological ‘forgiveness of sins’– in other words, the kingdom of God. And he was offering this final eschatological blessing outside the official structures, to all the wrong people, and on his own authority.”

Luke 5.17-26

One day [Jesus] was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting around. People had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem; and the power of God was with him to heal the sick.

Some men appeared carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They tried to bring him in to set him down before Jesus; but finding no way to do so because of the crowd, they went up onto the roof and let him down through the tiling, bed and all, into the middle of the company in front of Jesus.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you!”

The lawyers and the Pharisees began saying to themselves, “Who is this fellow with his blasphemous talk? Who but God can forgive sins?”

But Jesus knew their thoughts and answered them: “Why do you harbor thoughts like these? Is it easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you?’– or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But to convince you that a son of man has the right on Earth to forgive sins”– He turned to the paralyzed man– “I say to you, stand up, take your bed and go home.”

At once he rose to his feet before their eyes, took up the bed he’d been lying on, and went home praising God. They were all lost in amazement and praised God, filled with awe. “You would never believe the things we saw today!”

Luke 5.12-16 & abt…

[Jesus] was once in a certain town where there happened to be a man covered with leprosy. Seeing Jesus, he bowed to the ground and begged his help. “Sir,” he said, “if only you will, you can cleanse me.”

Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “Indeed I will. Be clean again.” The leprosy left him immediately. Jesus then ordered him not to tell anybody. “But go,” he said, “Show yourself to the priest, and make the offering laid down by Moses for your cleansing; that will certify the cure.”

But the talk about him spread all the more; great crowds gathered to hear him and to be cured of their ailments.

But he withdrew to the wilderness and prayed.

—————-
The same story is in all the synoptic gospels; Mark has it that Jesus was angry about the request. Angry, knowing that the news will get out and he will be overwhelmed with other people in need?

Or is it that he’s being drawn into conflict with the Temple in Jerusalem? The system of sacrifices was the officially-sanctioned means for returning people to right relationship to God, for “forgiving” whatever obstacles prevented the nation from ending its long “exile” and enjoying God’s “kingdom” as it was supposed to be– not for example, dominated by pagan foreigners allied to corrupt local rulers. Which is precisely what Jesus is setting out to do… without such sacrifices.

“Cleansing” of leprosy is what a priest, provided with a suitable sacrifice, is supposed to do. But Jesus has been asked to “cleanse” this man– and is sending him to the priest to make the sacrifices afterward, merely to “certify the cure.”
There’s a conflict of jurisdiction that’s going to worsen, as we will soon see.