Challenging the Social and Religious Boundaries

Posted: October 26, 2019 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 20C, 2019
Luke 18: 9-14

Challenging the Social and Religious Boundaries

One of the most interesting things that arises from much recent research on Jesus and his environment or situation in life is that his attitudes towards his world have become more human as they have been released from the boundaries of the created myths, the institutional controls and the insatiable search for the meta narrative and the absolute truth. The result being that Jesus is allowed to be more human than God and this in turn has opened the stories to be more applicable to human limitations and become what might be termed ‘more real’.

Marcus Borg put it this way. He said “The point is not that Jesus was a good guy who accepted everybody, and thus we should do the same (though that would be good).
Rather, his teachings and behaviour reflect an alternative social vision
Jesus was not talking about how to be good and how to behave within the framework of a domination system. He was a critic of the domination system itself”

Here, is my title. That as a critic of the domination system he was placing a direct challenge to the social and religious boundaries of his day. Today’s scripture is one of those areas of social order that he challenged. One of the interesting things we need to consider as we approach this text is that there is a subtle difference between Tax collectors and toll collectors and that there were good and bad toll collectors. This suggests that when we come to our text we need to hold this in mind to remind ourselves that like most things in life labelling them is often too simplistic.

Rex Hunt some years back searched his Mother’s family history and engaged in some of his family’s stories. He discovered that all the stories seemed to have strong connections with Scotland, Ireland, and England. With just a touch of Italy and Malta on his father’s side, thrown in for good measure. When researching the Dickson cum Dixon/Lampard mob – his mother’s side, he made a couple of interesting discoveries:

  1. the family can trace its tree back to a Richard Keith, son of Harvey de Keith, Earl Marshall of Scotland in the early 1400s – hence the surname Dick son.
  2. a James Dickson, sixth child of James Dickson, grandson of James Dickson, great grandson of James Dickson (he noted a pattern developing here!), was born on 5 August 1807; and later was to become the Toll keeper of the Lamberton Tollhouse in Mornington, Berwick-on-Tweed. He then did what many others do… he checked out Wikipedia to see what he could find out about the tollhouse. Apart from collecting road taxes and protecting some royal ’dalliances,’ he also read: “The now demolished Old Toll House at Lamberton, situated just across the border in Scotland [on the Great North Road], was notorious for its irregular marriages. From 1798 to 1858 keepers of the Toll, as well as questionable men-of-the-cloth used to marry [run-away] couples…” As researcher of the family history, Rex was taken aback by this discovery, and its added comments: such as “The public associated these marriage houses with images of irate fathers chasing errant daughters and their boyfriends determined to elope… [but] records show the majority of couples to have lived within 30 miles… Roughly a third were Scots”. And all of this tickled Rex’s fancy, and he wondered why this was never spoken about at family gatherings because it would have added much hilarity to proceedings if it had. All this suggests that history is often written within the expectations of culture and social norms of the day.

Taking this to out text we perhaps need to begin by acknowledging that Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian (Galilean) Jew. He was not a Christian.  He never rejected his Jewish ‘family tree’ roots. His spoken language was a Galilean dialect of Aramaic, an identifiable accent and manner of speech that we are told was disdained by the religious elite and urban dwellers. In fact, more than that; one only needed to come from Galilee or be in a group of Galileans to arouse suspicion and cause trouble! The dialect could prove to be deadly. (Horsfield 2015:14) Again, this reminds us to take care when we label and generalize and assume it is simple. The strong likelihood was that the society he and his family were born into was diverse and highly stratified socially, economically. Like today the focus on difference and identity and separation was present. In other words, boundaries were all the go.

On top of this was the religious boundaries also those inside verses those outside, the good and the not so good, the proper and the improper were the subject of Toll keepers and they all lived under the broken bodies and crushed spirits of compulsory offerings to the Jerusalem Temple, taxes to Herodian landlords, and tribute to their Roman conquerors. The sum total of taxes levied upon the people, including religious obligations,
would have been nothing short of enormous, and the haves and have nots would have been a consuming matter. A tiny percentage of wealthy and powerful families
lived comfortably in the cities from the tithes, taxes, tribute, and interest they extracted from the vast majority of people, who lived in villages and worked the land.

As several scholars have recorded, the purpose of taxation was not social well-being
but enhancement of the position of elites. Period. Leadership was concerned with plundering rather than with developing! (Herzog 1994:180)

Named among those who were despised and hated because of their abusive behaviour against the poor, were representatives of the Temple as well as toll collectors. Jews regarded toll collectors as collaborators who profited by preying on the countrymen on behalf of the Roman Empire. The storyteller we call Luke even has a story about them.
Actually there are two stories about them. The first is the Jesus story. Short. Sharp. Leaving little other than questions. The second is the Luke adaptation of that Jesus story some 50 years after the original. And his conclusion: Pharisees are smug, self-seeking, judgmental. We heard the latter as the Gospel reading for today.

Traditionally… that story has been called the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, due to an incorrect translation of the word ‘telones’. It should be Toll Collector… “normally Jews who had become tax-farmers for the Romans – or in Galilee for Herod Antipas”. (Funk 2002:50)

Traditionally… that story has been read as a contrast between two types of oppositional piety: One; the arrogant and the humble…

Traditionally… that story has been interpreted by some as a story about prayer: being persistent and humble…

All these traditional readings of the parable are, very likely, unfortunate misnomers.
All these traditional readings ‘spiritualise’ the story, or make it an allegory or example story, rather than hearing the raw, blunt edge of the original. All these traditional readings are full of literary traps for unwary readers and listeners!

There is something both sad and radical about this particular Lucian Jesus story. Not always obvious.

The sad bits…The Pharisee, a member from the faction of moral entrepreneurs and rule-creation, stood apart. He did not want to risk contacting uncleanness from brushing the garment of an ‘earth-worker’ (read: ’sinner’) – those who failed to observe the rules of purity laws. His ‘standing apart’ it seems, was to emphasize his self-importance, his prominence, and his power over others. The Toll Collector’s ‘standing apart’ from the congregation was because “he was a deviant shunned by the faithful”. (Herzog 1994:185) He was hated. He didn’t belong. And he knew it! He sort to be inconspicuous.

The radical bits…A Toll Collector (and here we hear ‘sinner’). A Toll Collector in the Temple grounds was unheard of! And the hearers of this story – so-called fellow sinners- would have drawn that conclusion before the story’s end. Both he and they were excluded, despised, ruled and taxed over.

So, what do we have? The actions of the Toll Collector were outside the negative prescribed script. He refused to accept the limitations imposed on him by the religious pure. He never rebuts the Pharisee’s shaming nor his efforts to reinforce the status quo, “but he speaks directly to God, seeking mercy. He breaks through the intimidation and fear that the Pharisee’s words [prayer] have created, and by his actions, challenges the Pharisee’s reading of God’s judgments… He claims God’s ear for himself”. (Herzog 1994:192)

Here we have it, God listening and speaking outside official channels! A ‘sinner’ at the Temple praying: Include me in! Make an atonement for me! This is an astonishing assumption, Wow!!!!! How radical can you get?

This radical; Jesus had a positive regard for toll collectors and all who were outside the social and religious boundaries of others. All, brokered religion (and remember that priestly mediators are the necessary link between God and the individual) is at an end here. God’s domain has no brokers. Everyone has direct access to the Holy One. Petitioners are their own brokers.

One progressive scholar takes all this to its logical end: He says, “A brokered religion produces a cyclical understanding of the faithful life: sin, guilt, forgiveness – the latter at the hands of the church and priest… In addition, it tends to produce a passive relation to the Christian life… It is a passivity carried over into the social, economic, and political realms as well”. (Funk 2002:131)

It is no wonder then that Jesus’ Galilean family and friends, are always under suspicion because they were Galilean. It was logical to think of him as a threat to their welfare. So much so as to be even mentally unstable! It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers then, heard a voice that shattered settled reality and opened up questions and new possibilities!
It is no wonder that when the muted ones begin to speak, as shown so often in the Book of Psalms, their speech was funded by “the burdens of rage, alienation, resentment, and guilt. These burdens had been reduced to silence, but now they are mobilized in their full power and energy”.  (Brueggemann 1989:51) It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers then and now, who consider brokered Christianity (and here we hear: ‘orthodoxy’) simply incredible, are shunned and considered heretics!

And just in case you missed that: a non-brokered Christianity, the Christianity that we progressives articulate, goes against nearly everything Christianity has structured and theologically claimed, since the early fourth century! Then the the key focus became the worship of Jesus as the sole divine bearer of salvation, rather than the faith that enabled boundaries to be challenged and changed. A colleague is more pointed in his comments about the fourth century church when  he said: “It is as if Jesus was the subject of a corporate takeover, where the new company retained his name and reputation but the values and aspirations of what he started were replaced by a totally different corporate ethos and agenda that have nothing identifiable to do with him”. (Horsfield 2015:290)

The early followers of Jesus did not make claims about him because they sensed in him a different essence, or saw a halo circling his head! They made claims about him because they had heard him say and seen him do certain things. They experienced him acting in their lives. And what they experienced in the company of this person, empowered and moved them deeply. (Patterson 1998:53)

The life to which he called his followers involved a reversal of ordinary social and political, cultural – and too often – religious standards.

These words of Canadian Bruce Sanguin ring true when he says: “Jesus was proclaiming the end of one era for humanity and the dawning of a new one – one person at a time… His very being was a proclamation of what the new human looked like… In his teachings he conveyed new spiritual wisdom, which if adhered to, effectively overturned the world of conventional wisdom”. (Sanguin 2015)

If Jesus is continued to be remembered, it will no longer be because people give him divine titles…He will be remembered as long as his words offer an abiding challenge. (Dewey 2015:4)

 The radical challenge of distributive justice. The empowering challenge to move forward from the ugly inhumanities “in which we seem to be trapped toward reconciliation of contending peoples, nations, cultures, and religions”. (Kaufman 2006:113)

Luke’s Jesus misses all this. So too does the spiritualized Jesus of traditional or ‘orthodox’ interpretation. But, says Walter Wink; “ we can rescue Jesus from the cloying baggage of Christological beliefs unnecessarily added by the church”. (Wink 2000:177)

So, today’s invitation is to accept the challenge to ponder some more creditable alternatives. Both about the human sage called Jesus. And about those we or our church or government exclude for political, cultural or religious reasons.

As the former outspoken advocate for the environment, Thomas Berry, has lamented:
“To learn how to live graciously together would make us worthy of this unique beautiful blue planet that was prepared for us over some billions of years, a planet that we should give over to our children with the assurance that this great community of the living will nourish them, guide them, heal them and rejoice in them as it has nourished, guided, healed, and rejoiced in ourselves”. (Berry 2014: 190) Amen.

Berry, T. “Spirituality and Ecology: A Sermon” in M. E Tucker & J. Grim (ed) Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community. New York. Orbis Books, 2014Brueggemann, W. Finally Comes the Poet. Daring Speech for Proclamation. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 1989.Dewey, A. “Editorial: Testing the Atmosphere of God” in The Fourth R 28, 1, 4. 2015. Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.Herzog 11, W. R. Parables as Subversive Speech. Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.Horsfield, P. From Jesus to the Internet. A History of Christianity and Media. New York. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2006.Patterson, S. The God of Jesus. The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning. Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998. Sanguin, B. The Way of the Wind: The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Kelowna. CopperHouse /Wood Lake Publishing, 2015. Wink, W.  “The Son of Man the Stone that Builders Rejected” in The Jesus Seminar. The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.


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