Drawing Exclusive Circles…

Posted: August 25, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 7:1-8

Drawing Exclusive Circles…

The problem an authentic progressive Christianity seeks to address is what I call an applied theology or a relevant incarnational theology and what is commonly the strongest criticism of Christians, that of being hypocrites. Not doing as we say.

Twenty-five or so years ago no one had heard the term ‘Progressive Christianity? It used to be expressed as ‘liberal’ terminology so fuzzy and ‘anything goes’ it was for many almost meaningless. Then along came ‘The Centre of Progressive Christianity in the United States and an organization was born. Churches around the world began to identify themselves as ‘Progressive’ St David’s Khyber Pass Rd in Auckland was one of maybe three in Auckland who signed up to the movement and subsequently became part of the ‘Common Dreams Conference group based In Australia. Throughout New Zealand small groups of people still watch video series ‘Living the Questions’ produced by the Centre, and Marcus Borg’s book ‘Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time’ is still hailed as an entry book to read.

Rex Hunt quotes the following story the German theologian, Ernst Kasemann. wrote in his book from 1969 Jesus means freedom. It begins; The scene is a parish in Amsterdam, Holland, where people felt themselves strictly bound to obey God’s commandments, and therefore, the keep the Sabbath holy. The place was so threatened by wind and waves that the dyke had to be strengthened on Sunday if the inhabitants were to survive. The police notified the pastor, who now found himself in a religious difficulty. Should he call out the people of the parish and set them to do the necessary work, if that meant profaning the Sabbath? Should he, on the contrary, abandon them to destruction in order to honour the Sabbath? He found the burden of making a personal decision too much for him, and he summoned the Church Council to consult and decide. The discussion went as one might suppose: We live to carry out God’s will.  God… can always perform a miracle with the wind and the waves. Our duty is obedience, whether in life or in death. The pastor tried one last argument: Did not Jesus himself, on occasion, break the fourth commandment and declare the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath? Thereupon a venerable old man stood up: I have always been troubled, pastor, by something that I have never ventured to say publicly. Now I must say it.  I have always had the feeling that our Lord Jesus was a bit of a liberal.

Having completed a long and complicated tour through some of the sermon-stories of John, this morning the lectionary returns to the stories of the earlier storyteller we call Mark. And this particular story, with all its different layers and subsequent interpretations,
raises this important question: How do we treat those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’?

The vehicle our storyteller Mark uses, is a supposed encounter between Jesus, some pharisees, and his own disciples, over the entrenched purity laws and the traditions which encased them. Even though many scholars now agree such a debate, if it happened at all, probably took place among branches of early Christianity itself – between Christian what did it look like? Jews and Christian Gentiles – long after Jesus’ death. Through the tradition of purity laws and the symbolic action of ritual washing, Mark appears to show a liberal or progressive Jesus, claiming such Torah provisions and associated inherited traditions, must be set aside. A liberalization perhaps? The question we are left with is Why? Why the liberalization and what was the growing conservatism that Jesus and Mark were referring to?


As for Mark it’s possibly that he knows such inherited religious traditions always need to be critiqued. Maybe this debate is not about health issues or hygiene – and must be re-imagined and rethought in new situations. Maybe Mark knows that such inherited religious traditions can create enormous ‘power’ tensions between those who seek to include, and those who seek to exclude. And as such, maybe, just maybe, Mark captures Jesus’ priorities, correctly. Maybe even some so-called ‘biblical injunctions’ should be disregarded because they can pollute the human heart and destroy social relationships. Maybe Biblical traditions should never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring! Mark in focusing on attitudes of the heart and resultant behaviour, Mark invites his hearers and his readers to begin reimagining and rethinking.

Let me just backtrack a little and ask just how much we actually know about the historical Jesus? Can we identify, with any probability, which of the teachings and deeds attributed to Jesus are based on accurate memories of him and which are the embellishments or inventions of the preachers and storytellers among his earliest followers? And what I think is more important. How can we discern the ‘vision’ or foundational insights that inspired and informed his individual teachings and actions? And then having caught a glimpse of that vision how can that vision rooted in the particular time and place of Jesus still speak to us today? And this is even more difficult in that it is too easy to get caught up in squabbles over ‘truth’ and ‘real’ and not focus on what the vision was that has taken millions of followers on the path till today and what it is that that vision says to us here now and today?

Perhaps we might start by acknowledging that we cannot know as much as we would want about the historical Jesus but we can be clear that we have quite a bit of data none-the-less. Then we might acknowledge that we can identify with appropriate nuance, his authentic sayings and deeds. Roy Hoover and Robert Millar in a recent article in “The Fourth R” magazine suggest that profiles of Jesus can and have been discerned that will be sufficient to sustain a valuable historical Jesus of faith.

What can be said is that Jesus did not think that the world would come to a catastrophic end in his lifetime and be succeeded by a new age brought into being by divine intervention, nor did he say that he had come into the world to give his life as a ransom for many. This is a foundational change for many of us today because One: it asks, if an apocalyptic hope or an eschatological expectation was not part of Jesus’ ordering vision and not the view that furnished coherence to his teaching and guided his course of action, what was? And if it was not his aim to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, what was he trying to do?  This claims that his ordering vision, his driving motivation, his aim in life, has to be based on what we do believe we know about him as the ‘authentic words of Jesus” and they appear to be from the work done of ‘The Five Gospels” in 1993. That work asked the questions” What can we discern in the aphorisms and parables and is there a unifying theme that holds them together? Is there a coherent point of view that characterised Jesus’s teaching as a whole and guided his course of action?

The second question was that if there is such a thing as an ordering vision or characteristic, and coherent point of view, what was he trying to do? Roy Hoover suggests that Jesus’ ordering vision is most clearly expressed in two clusters of authentic sayings` preserved by Matthew’s Gospel as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Hoover suggests that these two clusters of text hold the vision of Israel’s religious ideal. He suggests that the Essenes specifically through the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, the Pharisees, and John the Baptist, all embraced what they regarded as Israel’s religious ideal as the remedy for the wrongs that plagued religion and society for Israel in their time. Each had a particular and characteristic view of the Temple establishment in Jerusalem that was consistent with their vision of Israel’s religious ideal. Jesus; teaching and activity can be seen as his own version of such a quest and carried with it his own view of Jerusalem’s Temple.

Hoover also suggests that Jesus’ aim was to persuade all who could hear him to embrace his vision and to accept the challenge to actualize this ideal, to live this vision. He believed that by actualizing this ideal among themselves and by proclaiming it as good news about the reign of God, they could change the life of their whole society from the way it was to the way it ought to be. If that were done, what was wrong in his country would be righted and its people would come to know the good life in their own experience. Is this not a relevant vision for us today, for our whole world as it faces the questions of the very survival of the planet and our civilization? Why is it that few people see that Jesus vision can be theirs today?

Maybe the questions we face today are “How do we address issues which, if not addressed, will destroy us?  And how do we treat those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’? As Mark is saying.

Maybe we could heed Edwin Markham’s simple religious poem:

He drew a circle that shut me out –

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win;

We drew a circle that took him/her in!

Maybe we can discern Jesus’ vision in the two blocks of text from Matthew’s Sermon of the Mount.

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil, when someone slaps you on the right cheek turn the other as well. When someone want to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to one who begs from you. And don’t turn away the one who tries to borrow from you.

Love your enemies and pray for your persecution. You’ll then become children of your Father in the heavens. God causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust. Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that? Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they? So be ‘perfect’ just as your heavenly Father is ‘perfect’. Matthew 5: 39 – 48

No one can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account. That’s why I tell you: Don’t fret about your life – what you’re going to eat and drink – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. There is more to living than food and clothing, isn’t there? Take a look at the birds of the sky; they don’t plant or harvest, or gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You’re worth more than they, aren’t you? Can any of you add one hour to life by fretting about it? Why worry about clothes? Notice how the wild lilies grow; they don’t slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them. If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t God care for you even more, you also who trust God. Matthew 6: 24-30

In the commentary on these passages Robert Funk notes that the three aphorisms in Matthew 5: 39 – 41 forms ‘an exceedingly tight series’ and that they seem never to have circulated as individual sayings. “These cleverly worded aphorisms provide essential clues to what Jesus really said. Funk suggests that these passages convey to us a sense of Jesus; ordering vision, in other words that view of things that furnished his teaching with its coherence and guided his course of action.He also says that these two clusters could bridge the distance between the authentic Jesus traditions in the gospels and the historical figure about whom they were written. They take us as close as we can every be to the voice of the Jesus of history. In these clusters of sayings Jesus urges his hearers to have a total trust in the generosity and care of the Father in Heaven and to be single minded in their commitment to do God’s Will by imitating the divine generosity. To do this is to live under God’s reign. Here we have the centrality of the message as the manifestation of the kingdom of God in Jesus life and work and we have the claim that it is through love that it shall be manifest. Have faith means to trust the divine process and as Spong suggests Love wastefully is the means of revealing the reign of God already come. Jesus’ vision seems to be saying that there is a vision of life under God’s reign that invites the hearer to abandon the accepted, ingrained habits of dealing with life on the basis of self-defense and self -interest. See things a new way, imagine and act out a way of life that trusts God’s care absolutely and imitates God’s justice unconditionally. Scary, life changing stuff as it is radical challenge to the economic, social religious and political norms of the day yet it was understood by those who caught his vision of God’s reign. Are we not in this time of planetary change, social, economic and political turmoil not in need of such a vision?

But and there is a big but in here. Be careful not to make do with a singular focus on social justice, – doing good works look for the hyperbole that exposes the literal and look out for the tactical answer. The idea of the reign of God is more than a ploy to bring about social and cultural change, it is more than a strategy to modify the economic system, it is more than a new way of being church or religious, it is also an ideal to realize. It is always to come, always an ‘Almost’ but not yet. It is not about supporting the destitute the discarded by society it is about banishing self-interest, about a real generosity of soul, of meeting the other in in a fullness, it is a Way of living.

And when we come to the loving one’s enemies it is the indiscriminate generosity of that which we call God that confronts us. There is no prayer for or appeal to the immanent end of history and the creation of a new age by divine intervention as grounds for showing one’s enemies unusually generous considerations. Only God’s generosity is in play here and that is through the sun rising each day.

God’s behaviour is perfect according to Matthew, Compassionate according to Like. The key here is that God’s behaviour cannot be improved upon. It is the ideal. In Jesus’ vision it is always the call to do the right thing, always to imitate and trust in God’s goodness. Love your enemies. Not in terms of having affection for but rather an unconditional good will, that is revealed as the Way of Jesus. How one reveals their love of humankind, how one manifests friendship in a reciprocal way. The love one seeks to emulate is unilateral, grounded in an unlimited goodness far beyond the mutuality of the likeminded this love of God is a generosity that transcends all differences between people and peoples.

To sum up for now is to say that we have little historical evidence but we have enough to be able to share in Jesus’s vision for humanity, the planet and be relevant in the evolutionary progressive world that reflects the divine agency and purpose. The unfinished nature of our profiles of Jesus reflects the potential not the problem and the unfinished character of Jesus’ work in effect invites anyone so inclined to ‘complete; what he began as one’s own work. Again, I suggest an incarnational theology. Amen.

Notes: and drink – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. Thwer
Kasemann, E. Jesus Means Freedom. London. SCM, 1969.
White, L. 1967.  “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”.
McFague, S. Super, Natural Christians. How We Should Love Nature. Kindle edition, 2000. rexae74@gmail.com

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