Progressive Christianity

Posted: October 21, 2022 in Uncategorized

Challenging the Status Quo and Ugly Inhumanities

Progressive Christianity

Challenging the Status Quo and Ugly Inhumanities

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 disdained by the religious elite and urban dwellers. Indeed, 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)

There is growing evidence that the society he and his family were born into was diverse and highly stratified socially, economically, and religiously. Boundaries and differences were all the go. 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, was nothing short of enormous. 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.

(a) The Jesus story. Short. Sharp. Leaving little other than questions.

(b) 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 (this morning) as the Gospel reading.

(i) 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)

(ii) that story has been read as a contrast between two types of oppositional piety: the arrogant and the humble…

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

It is now suggested that all these traditional readings of the parable are unfortunate misnomers. That 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. That 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. The first sad bit being 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’ (we might read here: ’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 sought to be inconspicuous.

And the radical bits…  A Toll Collector (hear again ‘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 have we… 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 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)

God listening speaking outside official channels! A ‘sinner’ at the Temple praying: Include me in! Make an atonement for me! How radical can you get? This radical!  This radical Jesus had a positive regard for toll collectors and all who were outside the social and religious boundaries of others. Not only that, all brokered religion in other words the need for priestly mediators as the necessary link between God and the individual; is at an end. 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: “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… A passivity carried over into the social, economic, and political realms as well”. (Funk 2002:131) It is no wonder that Jesus’ Galilean family and friends, are always under suspicion because they were Galilean, they and he were thought of as threats to others welfare. Sometimes even mentally unstable! (Brueggemann 1989:51) Jesus’ voice shattered settled reality and opened up questions and new possibilities! And, when the muted ones began 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 over the years of a settled captivity to Rome, but now they are mobilized in their full power and energy”.  It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers who consider brokered Christianity (and we hear: ‘orthodoxy’) were considered simply incredible, and were shunned and considered heretics! And just in case you missed that: a non-brokered Christianity goes against nearly everything Christianity has structured and theologically claimed, since the early fourth century! And Some might say began as early as the second century. As the key focus became the worship of Jesus as the sole divine bearer of salvation. The mythical, traditional cross cultural change agent of society had begin to become the exclusive structured absolutist faith that people no longer believe.

Someone is also said to have been more pointed in his comments about the fourth century church: “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)

It is increasingly clear that the early followers of Jesus did not make claims about him because they sensed in him a different essence, not a divinity like that claimed of Roman Ceasar’s, not that claimed of traditional Messiahs but a promised humanity beyond that status, a halo circling his head suggests that What Jesus brought was something more than the divine role they had come to understand! They made claims about him because they had heard him say 
and seen him do certain things that seemed like beyond the natural they knew. They experienced him acting in their lives in unknowable ways. And what they experienced in the company of this person, a sense of empowerment that moved them deeply. The life to which he called his followers involved a reversalof ordinary social and political, cultural – and too often – religious standards.

The words of Canadian Bruce Sanguin suggest this when he said : “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… Words are not enough unless they evolve and express this that is not super natural, not super anything but rather poetic, and musical and mindful beyond and including reason.

He will be remembered as long as his words offer an abiding challenge, Dewey says. The radical challenge of distributive justice that Dominic Crossan speaks of. 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 we can “rescue Jesus from the cloying baggage of Christological beliefs unnecessarily added by the church”. (Wink 2000:177)

Progressive thought invites us 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 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, 2014

Brueggemann, 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 A, 1, 4. 2015.

Funk, R. W. 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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.