Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Jesus the Radical (by guest blogger Tiny Thinker)


This is a guest spot by a friend named Tiny Thinker, he was always one of the most intelligent atheists I knew on the net; now he's a Christian. I met Tiny on CARM years ago when I first started (1998). Then he was a graduate student in anthropology, now he's a professional anthropologist.

Guest blogger tinythinker is the author of Blog Peaceful Turmoil

Metacrock recently wrote a post titled Jesus The Revolutionary. But how revolutionary was he?

Nearly everything Jesus is reported to have said in the Gospels would have been considered subversive or scandalous by the hearers of his day.  If his sayings don't strike you that way, either the historico-cultural context isn't clear or the impact of the sayings have become dulled by familiarity.  Some are easy to spot, such as the cost of discipleship, which is recorded in both Matthew and Luke:

Matthew'>http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2010:34-39&version=NIV">Matthew 10:34-39

"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
     " 'a man against his father,
     a daughter against her mother,
     a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law -
     a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'

"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."

Luke'>http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2014:25-33&version=NIV">Luke 14:25-34

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

"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. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple."

The people whom Jesus was addressing would have been raised to believe in the primacy of the family and the head of that family, the patriarch.  Our modern Western emphasis on individualism would have been foreign to these people.  The family was the source of your security, your respect and your identity.  Losing the favor of your family would often spell ruin.  Allegiance to family often came before all else.  Rejecting the traditional religion of your family, or rejecting the values of power and status (which could shame ones family), would have been difficult.    Jesus is acknowledging here that those of his day who follow him may be misunderstood and rejected and even persecuted by those closest to them.  His shocking language suggests his hearers shouldn't make the decision to be his disciple lightly and would force them to reconsider their ideas about who Jesus was and what he was offering.

Then there is the passage in Matthew'>http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew%205:38-42&version=NIV">Matthew 5:38-42, which says:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."

This is sometimes quoted merely to emphasize the non-violent path Jesus advocates, but an'>http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/wink_3707.htm">an examination of the laws and customs of Roman-occupied Palestine at that time suggests it is more about non-violent resistance to societal injustice. By turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and giving ones cloak in these situations, the one abusing you would be publicly shamed and humiliated.

Other passages are just as shocking, but more obscure to modern audiences, especially the parables in which Jesus describes the Kingdom of God.  The Jews of his era had been raised with a vision of God bringing all nations together under the banner of Israel, celebrated with a feast on a mountain.  The symbol of this kingdom was a mighty oak.  So imagine the reaction of his listeners when he said the Kingdom of God was within them.  Or when he compared it to a mustard seed.  Mustard was considered by gardeners of this period to be an undesirable and pernicious weed, hardly the same as the majestic oak tree.  Yet it started off very tiny and spread like mad, growing to an impressive size.  Once it had taken hold it was nearly impossible to get rid of.  For modern audiences, it might have been the equivalent of calling the Kingdom of God a virus.

Perhaps even more offensive was the parable in which Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a massive amount of dough in which a woman had placed leaven, which was produced by letting an old piece of bread grow stale and moldy.  Jewish custom equated leaven with moral corruption and societal decay, so basically the message was that these were the conditions where one should look for the coming of the Kingdom -- in the ghettos, the slums and barrios.  In the people considered failures or rejects or undesirable.  The last place where many of his listeners would have thought to look.

This is supported the parable of the great banquet.  I have found authors like Fr. Thomas Keating useful in helping with this. His take on the parable (which appears in Matthew and Luke) is particularly interesting -- a wealthy man invites his rich neighbors to a banquet but none will come because they are too busy. So he tells his servant, "Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame." When there is still more room at the table, he tells his servant to go grab people from "the roads and country lanes", which would have brought in tax collectors, foreigners, perhaps even prostitutes.

As Keating and others have pointed out, the people gathered at the table would have been from all backgrounds and classes, some poorly dressed, many if not most uncomfortable at first in the mixed company because of their roles in life before coming to the feast. Yet there they are all dining and having fellowship together in peace. While the audience might not have been surprised to see the poor having a place of honor, the presence of blatant sinners may have been more of a surprise, along with the fact that the rich and powerful declined their invitation.  The expectations of many in his audience would have again been confounded.

Other examples of Jesus' form of expression are less clear but suggestive. When convention said "These people will incur the wrath of God" or "Those people will face torment", Jesus would turn it around and suggest that others would be punished instead. Does that mean, as some suggest, Jesus was condemning people to hell? Or was it another example of his rhetorical style? Given the other examples and additional teachings, the latter seems more consistent with the overall message of Christ. Of course, there are other hard passages, such as Luke'>http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2017:1-2&version=NIV">Luke 17:1-2 (the saying here is also found in Matthew and Mark), where Jesus is reported to have said: "Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin."

Harsh language indeed, but as we have seen, Jesus was not against dramatic oration and flourishes which carried emotional impact and offered a punch to the hearer.  He was no stranger to strong challenges to moral ambivalence and unethical behavior.  Matthew, Mark and John all report his confrontation with the money-changers in the temple.  In this instance, visitors were expected to bring an offering, but the poor often had enough trouble making the journey, let alone finding and bringing a suitable animal.  Some business people set up tables for the visiting pilgrims and charged them over-inflated prices for doves.  The merchants knew they had their customers over a barrel, and had no qualms cheating them.   These are the people Jesus drove from the temple.

The taming of Jesus in some depictions into a soft-spoken teacher of mild temperament and generic wisdom is a disservice to his teachings and his ministry.  It does little to provoke or inspire, and fails to convey either the urgency or clarity of Christ's convictions.  Jesus was indeed revolutionary, and in many ways quite radical.  Through the fog of history and over-familiarity his message of uncompromising commitment to compassion and justice still echo to us today.

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