A Cynic-like, Human Jesus…

Posted: July 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 6C. 2016 Luke 9:51-62

A Cynic-like, Human Jesus…

What is it that is holding us firm to the received traditions?  What are the exciting discoveries of progressive theology that take us further into renewed faith communities of expression and practice? Robin Meyers suggests that it is the chicken livered ministers that are holding the church back. He suggests they pretend to respect parishioners yet sanctimoniously hide behind the suggestion that ‘their people won’t understand’ or ‘don’t want to hear the truth’. Gretta Vosper suggests that the task of contemplating church doctrine has outranked the task of contemplating life itself. In practical terms it could be said that this is where the two theological worldviews are in conflict. The truth about what is true belief is in conflict with what is true life.

Over the past couple of weeks we have been looking at the material from the anonymous storyteller whom we call Luke. He has been laying out his program, via a collection of short Jesus sayings. Foxes have holes, but have nowhere to lay your head… Leave the dead to bury the dead… Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals…. Salute no one on the road… Take what food and drink is offered you…

The first thing here is that the sayings are perhaps the most important parts of the text. These short, sharp sayings are important because contemporary biblical scholarship suggests they are either from, or have been strongly influenced by, the code of the Q Movement… Q thought to be the important collection or memory of Jesus’ sayings, which in their earliest state, echo the cynic’s style of making social critique.

While we might speculate about the idea of Qs existence and some scholars do their existence and importance is based in the Thomas Gospel which has gained considerable credibility. Subsequently, we can now also speculate that those same Q people were not only part of a very lively Jesus movement in Galilee, but that their ‘voice’ is probably the best record we have of the first 40 years of the Jesus movement.

First we have the assumption that the best Jesus we can have is a credible one. The Jesus of the movement has to be a credible as possible, He has to make sense given what we know. So here’s the first speculation as to why these sayings are important. First is the claim that they shed some light on a credible human Jesus.

The second assumption is that like David Galston is quoted as saying “It is never possible to reach absolute conclusions about antiquity because the sources are fragmentary, varied, and come from a world no modern person has or ever can visit” The very best speculation is that a search for a credible Jesus is the best path to take and the earliest picture of Jesus is the most likely to be the most credible one. All the study and all the talk and all the sermons we have shared or participated in, or listened to, whatever conclusion one might come to about Yeshua/Jesus, that conclusion must offer a possible Jesus and not an incredible one.

And as far as we can honestly claim is that a possible Jesus is a Jesus situated in his historical circumstances of Galilee, Palestine, in the first century under oppressive Roman imperial rule, and who said or did things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done, at that time. This is not to suggest that we can discern nothing true at all about Jesus but rather that we can be certain that whatever happened was possible, not incredible. As David Galston said; Once this credible ‘authentic Jesus tradition’ is identified, the point for us will be to carry forward “into the contemporary world, the momentum of the Jesus movement: grasping the style of the teacher, capturing the spirit of his words, and living out the implications of these words in our own time with our own creativity.”

We can safely assume that the sayings are the most like record of what Jesus said, they are most likely foundational of Jesus world view and of his challenge to the status quo. Foxes have holes… Leave the dead to bury the dead… are sayings which go against the conventional common sense wisdom of the everyday world of Galilee, under Roman rule, in the time of Jesus.

So what was the everyday common sense stuff?

We have a country that has a long history, even then of changing regimes. It was a major land route for regional trade and travel. I understand that because of the prevailing winds that the north south travel was quickest by boat across the Mediterranean and by land up around the coast which meant up through what was the north western arm of the fertile-crescent known as Phonecia. This suggests that while the movements were over decades and even centuries there is a history of social, political, religious and economic diversity in it’s past. This also suggests that the institutions of that part of the world would be responsive to that environment. They would seek to exploit and enhance the situation. In this sense things like home, family, community and cohesion are particularly important factors. A bit like the subtle differences between urban and rural. A house and home in a pluralistic society was necessary; the streets were very likely unsafe. A son must honour the family above all else, especially in death. One’s distinctive social identity is also linked to one’s economic wellbeing in a patriarchal world. Women are chattels in need of management. Money and clothes and provisions are about living – and status. Respect given and received was what made the world go around. Without respect the moral system breaks down. Health and safety regulation existed than too. Only clean or organic food is what one should always eat. Kosher or not kosher. Religious systems are social systems when faith and state are one.

Recent progressive biblical scholarship also says that Jesus always challenged his listeners with his sayings… those sayings were sayings that invited those listeners to re-imagine the world away from everyday common sense. Especially those formed by fear and rumour and innuendo. The challenge Jesus makes then is the same as today. Different in context but the same in the form of challenge. Can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people?  Outside your norm, outside your assumptions. Not only can you re-imagine your response but can you offer the other a chance for a more humane reply?

A pilgrim says; I slept in my car the other night as protest against the government housing policies. Jesus says; there are lots of spare rooms around. To another he says move to the regions and the reply was I need to see if I can stay where I am first. Jesus says; Let those who can stay, stay but as for you, go and do what is right for everyone.

This brings us to another reason why these sayings are important. They invite us to re-imagine the world differently by considering the human condition of all, not just the condition of our own race, family, nationality, or football team. This invitation is not be in a in a different world, but rather to be in this world differently. The challenge of this is to move into a values thinking mode. To take account of the kind of in-depth values thinking, means that something different can be accomplished. A change of attitude or behaviour. A new vision of what it means to be human on equal terms. Being right about what to believe or what to do when faced with a dilemma is not as important as being alive to the present moment in all of its possibilities—positive and negative. Jesus didn’t give us, or anyone else, a formal moral code. Neither did he give us a list of things we needed to do to be good, or to avoid so we won’t be bad. He was an observer of people and of life.  He saw the things that people valued.  He challenged assumptions and questioned the norm.

It seems that underneath all this Jesus wanted to point out a truth or three: He wanted to say, yes life is short.  So what are you going to do about it? He wanted to say the fact is that those people you have around you won’t be there forever. So what are you going to do about them? He wanted to say is your goal to make a good living or to make a good life? And do you even know the difference?

On reflection we see that he challenged authoritative structures and conventional wisdom. He exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders and the cruelty of those in power. He criticized the economic ideas for the frauds they were. He poked and prodded (Shuck 2011).

Now centuries later, he pokes and prods us today. The problem is that insightful people who poke and prod us are hard to take. Our human tendency is to react to them out of extremes. Just listen to talk back and it doesn’t take long before we hear people respond to someone’s challenge by suggesting they are capitalists or socialists, bludgers or entrepreneurs. In the case of Jesus, he was crucified and we turned him into a god. Easier to put his challenge away in some too hard basket that way. And then to support and control that decision, we invented doctrines and creeds which all are expected to believe and not question…

In this way ‘Orthodoxy’ or ‘right thinking’ has outranked the task of contemplating life itself. But the truth is that most people don’t need or look for biblical or doctrinal persuasion. Their own human condition is enough to move them to compassion and inclusion. They can see the results of a rule driven, oppression based, violence supporting world. And for that they wouldn’t be seen dead in a church!

What this says for the church is that living out the implications of embracing the human Jesus vision in our own time, with our own creativity, is still before us. We still have to get a handle on what the gospel is saying to us today. We still have to do the interpreting. We cannot hide behind a dead myth.

The argument is that the thoroughly ‘human’ Jesus of much progressive biblical scholarship provides us with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority by which we can measure our humanness and humaneness.

One thing’s for sure. The world in these early years of the twenty-first century requires that we think differently about the questions of: what it means to be Christian; about what Christianity is, and who decides. If we decide to order our lives in terms of the human Jesus and human values it will be we who do the deciding, and we who take, or fail to take, the steps to carry out that decision.

It will not be some supernatural extra-human power, or a set of prescriptive regulations let alone the imposition of an archaic set of rules designed for an earlier time and an earlier social, political and religious era. Think about it! Any attempt by dogmatists to impose fourth century creeds on today’s twenty-first century living, (as is still happening in our church) is an act of abusive power!

In conclusion then: because the sources are fragmentary, varied, and come from a world no modern person has or ever can visit” we must interpret for ourselves in our time. Jesus used sayings to open up new thinking, to encourage imagination and to change the institutional assumptions of his day, so what does that say about the call upon us? Are we to be cynics too? Amen.

Notes: Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012. Shuck, J. “A Sermon”. 2011. Blog site: ReligionForLife. Vosper, G. Amen. What Prayer can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. Canada: Toronto. HarperCollins, 2012.


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