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What Really Matters

Posted: October 18, 2017 in Uncategorized

What Really Matters

Exodus 33: 12-33.  Matthew 22:15-22

“I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen“ The message from God to Moses is that things are not as one might seem and there will always remain the element of mystery. God’s face will not be seen.

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This is one of the sayings that the Jesus Seminar Scholars judged as distinctive, unlike any known contemporary Jewish saying yet both memorable and fully consistent with the overall teaching of Jesus. It remains today one of Jesus’ most memorable statements, familiar even to people who know little about the New Testament. It’s familiar, yes, but what does it mean? We tell ourselves that there are two things that are certain in life. One is death and the other taxes, but that assumes that there exists a desire to work against that assumption because we are not comfortable with certainty.

What if we can avoid death? Maybe a supernatural God can get us past death. Or what if we can find a way to do without taxes? Change the way we fund the collective society, make it all user pays, maybe that’s the answer? We find it easier to divide the two certainties and seek a way of combating the certainty they both claim. And in doing so we miss the message that Jesus gives. His suggestion that to each their rights. Caesar and God are due their allegiance, God and the state are due a measure of allegiance, though of course our allegiance to God necessarily comes first.

Let’s just stay with the metaphor for a bit and hear Jesus says that if the state demands something that does not conflict with one’s allegiance to God, his followers should fulfill the demand. Another perhaps un fortunate but seemingly necessary corollary of this statement is that church and state should be kept separate so that people can more easily distinguish between the call of God and the call of the state. This is the way we deal with the experience that when the state begins either supporting or opposing a particular religion, or religion in general, it interferes with religion’s task of serving God, and it potentially puts religious adherents at odds with both church and state. The question is does it really do this or is this what comes with the separation? This I think is an outcome of the reformation when with Luther the religious world tried to value imagination and called it justification by faith. There has since the separation of church and state an attempt to chip away at the wall of separation be ween church and state probably because it has led to confusion about legislation, about the freedom of people to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience, and about the government’s support or opposition to particular religious groups. We are still fighting Luther’s battle.

The most important outcome of this is the constant call for Christians to heed Jesus’ clarion call to distinguish between what we owe to Caesar and what we owe to God. We think we are hard done by death and taxes but our hard done by is peanuts to what environment Jesus was talking into. Yes, we have to admit that tax collectors have never been popular.  Not in biblical times. Not in the medieval world. And not today! Yes; we need to debate the pros and cons of the tax system, because all systems need to be interpretive of needs, relevant and responsive as opposed to tools of control, taxes for taxes sake, social manipulation or ideological entrenchment, but I’m not sure that’s the point in Jesus’ words. He was advocating examination of the tax system and this we think was because the Galilee of Jesus’ time was an agrarian economy where it is likely 2 percent of the population controlled 50 percent of the wealth. Those at the top of this society were required to be two faced to achieve their wealth. They had to give allegiance to Rome and they had to buy the right to levy the required tribute and they had to maintain control of the peasantry to ensure their income because this was the basis of their business. The Roman allegiance was symbolized by the Imperial Tax.  There were a variety of taxes levied on the people of the empire, but this was the most despised of all taxes. In essence, Rome levied a tax on the people to pay for the Roman legions that controlled the region. As you might expect, occupied people never like paying the salaries of their occupiers. The tax collectors had to cover the costs of this imperial tax make a profit and maintain a business and this meant that they made loans to the heavily taxed peasants at rates that could never be met and ultimately gained ownership by default of the lands, becoming either brokers or landowners. A bit like car dealers in the 60s in this country who leased cars to people at rates they could not sustain so regaining ownership time and time again and making money of the same care over and over again. Or today’s example where rich and powerful countries topple leaders and support replacements that serve their needs and thus gain control of resources they need. Like members of the economically dominant they participate in a process designed to transform prior injustice into seeming justice. As system that rips of the peasant is justified by the outcomes for the clever, The ones who lose are the cause of their own demise whereas the ones who win are doing what all should do. Everyone deserves what they get.

In Matthew’s narrative, we are nearing the end of the journey to the cross. Jesus has already entered the city. The contest between him and his opponents in the religious and political elite is ratcheting up.  He is seen as a radical who threatens the status quo. Not because has a huge army massing against the military might, not because he has a NZ First sort of political influence but because the elite then and now fear an uprising by those living on the margins. And I am not suggesting that NZ First is on the margins but rather that the 2 percent who hold the resources are fearful of the fact that the control of the 50% of the resources will not be enough to hold off a revolution. In our text Jesus’ threat confused the Pharisees by his appeal to give both Caesar and God their due.

A group representing the Pharisees (we’re told that these were students) and the Herodians (a party that supported the client royal family, and therefore would have supported the tax system) raises the issue of paying taxes with Jesus. Note how they approach Jesus – offering him a degree of “respect” that they in reality didn’t accord him. It is assumed, that flattery will get a favourable response. They obviously knew that if he said that they should pay taxes then he would alienate his base, which included many nationalists and people just fed up with Roman occupation in general.  If he responds by saying they shouldn’t pay taxes he would put himself in hot water with the Romans (thus the reason for the presence of the Herodians).  It’s a good tactic, but Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap. He simply offers an enigmatic statement about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, to God what belongs to God.  In one sense he puts their challenge back in their lap.  It appears that he is not going to say one way or the other, but like all Jesus words there is, something subversive about his answer. Paying taxes to the Romans wasn’t something people enjoyed, but the people had little hope of overturning Roman rule. Jesus understood that, which is why he didn’t appear to follow the messianic predilections of at least some of his followers. Jesus may have had Zealots among his followers, but nothing in the biblical record suggests that he was one himself. Instead, he took a very different path. This made him very difficult to pigeon hole or categorize. And as we have said on other occasions his approach wasn’t a “spiritual” one as opposed to a “political” one, but it was one that was secular and realistic.  He pursued a path of bringing wholeness at a people level to the neighbourhood, inaugurating the kingdom through his preaching and through his healing actions even if he knew that the forces gathering against him would not be happy. We talked about kingdom language the other week and it might be more accurate to talk about the empire of God in this context. There was an understanding of empire and it was a Roman empire and God’s empire was a challenge to its very existence.

In our case; what Jesus did was ask for a coin. Then he asked the inquirers whose image lay upon the coin (a denarius). Of course, they said – Caesar’s. Coins of the realm were all stamped with the Emperor’s image, along with a statement hailing the Emperor as son of God. Of course, coins have always born the images of those who rule. Our own coinage bears the image our Queen but even these hold a certain sacredness. They are produced by the government and made available to us so that we can participate in an exchange value culture by buying and selling what we need to survive.

Since the government produces the money, they have the right to ask for something back so they can provide the services we desire. Give to Caesar what is Caesars and God what is God’s. Yes; we know that not everyone is exactly happy about the way the government spends its money. There are those who resent having to spend money to pay for some aspects of social welfare, especially that which makes people dependent or enables people to avoid their shared responsibility. There are others in some counties who are outraged that they have to pay for a military that they believe is illegitimate and unnecessary.  The fact is we don’t get to individually choose which programs our taxes pay for. Parliament and an elected government make those kinds of decision. We note here of course that in our case we can vote for or against these representatives whereas Jesus’ and his hearers couldn’t. Their economic environment was much more oppressive than ours. But more important for us is the second half of the response – giving to God what belongs to God. To whom does our allegiance ultimately belong? Even if you believe, as I do, that governments have a legitimate purpose and therefore one should expect to pay taxes to support such a government, as followers of the Jesus Way, the government doesn’t have our ultimate allegiance. Long before Constantine it seems that Jesus followers believed that they were good citizens, they just couldn’t worship Caesar. Paul affirmed the legitimacy of government (Romans 13) as did the Second Century Fathers. And even though I think that the Church Fathers were drawn into error about the constitution of a doctrinal approach, they also understood that they stood under a higher law. Peter said to the Sanhedrin, one has to obey God rather than human authority when the two come into conflict (Acts 4:19-20). The challenge is the when, where, and how we do this. and this is our task. Not to advocate that people not pay taxes where taxes are due but rather to carefully consider whether the tax system is the best way of caring for each other. As a human system there is always room for improvement.

So what belongs to God?  Well, I don’t think it’s about belonging to, but rather about responsibility for, or stewardship of. The question is how do we use what we have? Maybe the key to the answer is the issue of image. The coin bears Caesar’s image. That which bear’s image is the human creation (Genesis 1:28). Humanity has been created in the image of God, and therefore humanity is part of God. And God and humanity have a responsibility – to steward creation, or be creative as engaging in creation. Perhaps in the sense of Jesus’ words, humanity as image of God already has a higher place than Caesar.

And if talking about allegiance, and I am not always comfortable with using that word, then our ultimate allegiance belongs to God, to the mystery, the I am, or the No name, or the face that is never seen; then what does that mean for the way we live our daily lives. How do we live in this world and yet not be defined by its rule?  In the Constantinian system there has long been an assumption that membership in the church is the equivalent to citizenship in the state. While NZ has never had an official state church/religion, we have had an assumed reliance on the Church of England as our Civil Religion and this means that we have not been considered a Catholic Nation as opposed to a Protestant one. There was a time in my childhood that we were considered the second most secular nation in the world after the Netherlands. But we have always to my knowledge been considered a Christian nation.  Our anthems etc confirm this assumption despite attempts to change the words of parliamentary prayers etc. swearing oaths on the Bible, express this vision.

With regard to Jesus’ response to his inquisitors, in his answer, he offers us a way of navigating our present realities. He reminds us that our alliances are always temporary, dictated perhaps by the demands of the circumstances, but ultimately directed by our relationship with the creation and in that image that we share. This means that following Jesus’ counsel is always a matter of discernment, prayer, and confession, always a matter of interpretation. The passage seems to be saying; think about what it means to live as a follower of Jesus and as a citizen of a nation-state. What “compromises” are required of us? Where do we draw the line regarding our engagement in the public square? Do we separate ourselves from worldly affairs, or do we (even as church) engage with it, do we challenge it in our pursuit of the common good?  Amen.


‘Kingdom or Folly, Fear or Love?’

Pentecost 18 8.10.2017

Exodus 20: 12 -21 Matthew 25: 37 – 39

Last week we looked briefly at what being a Christian in today’s world might look like and we explored briefly what some guides might be that we could use to undergird what the behaviour of a progressive Christian might look like. We talked about humility, and what a familial and communal approach might be. We talked about the place of scripture as conversation stimulation about the function of forgiveness and healing as selfish acts in the process of transformation and we talked about language, and action as service and renewal. We also talked about compassion as suffering with and not just doing our bit. We talked about prayer being a conversation with ourselves that takes seriously the power of awareness and the call to pray without ceasing. And then finally we talked about a simple life as less about what one needs, to live as a Christian, and more about how one lives one’s life here and now.

After last week’s service Gordon raised the question of charitable works. I might be wrong but I think he was asking what the place of ‘doing’ good things has when ‘being’ was so important in being Christian. I revisited last week’s sermon and in partial response to Gordon, I think the last suggestion of a ‘simple life’ touches on where I want to go today and that is, to explore the idea of the kingdom or the realm or the collective that we name as God’s world. Not as somewhere to go or be but rather as perhaps as an example of life.

Perhaps we might begin by touching base with some of our traditional ideas and assumptions about God’s kingdom and then see the differences that Jesus seems to be suggesting. In church tradition, the kingdom of God has meant God’s Rule, (basileia regnum, imperium) The kingdom has been a place where God is our pilot, where God has been at the controls and where the world has been subject to the rule of God. It has been implied that God makes our enemies our footstools. There has been no doubt that the Kingdom is the domain of the high and mighty where God steps in and takes over when needs be and the powers and the principalities are scattered, brought to their knees, and made to rue the day they were so foolish as to take on the Almighty.

This means that the coming of the kingdom means that the tables are turned on a world that is made up of fools and it is God who holds all the cards. But what if that is not so? What if the turning of tables that Jesus was on about is that very world? What if the world is not made up of fools, and what if God doesn’t hold the cards? What if the ‘rule of God is a kind of divine irony in itself that does not hold with the almighty idea or with any form of violence or power over? What if the business of the kingdom is conducted according to the logic of the cross? What if the kingdom is actually a folly in terms of the powers of the world. Paul seems to be saying this in his first letter to the Corinthians 1: 18-25.

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

19 For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.

22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,

23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

What if the kingdom is foolishness rather than what counts as a kingdom in today’s world?

In this idea of the kingdom the folly of God is something unconditional and without sovereignty. When we speak of God we are speaking in terms of a weak force with no army or if you like as John D Caputo says the powerless power of the kiss, not of the power of the sword. And let’s be clear hear we are talking about both the kingdom and God differently. Another kind of kingdom. A kingdom without a king; a kingdom subject to the soft sway of something unconditional without power as we understand it. This is not the power of achievement or winning and weakness is not a strategy to be used by God to make the winning move.

And let’s not fool ourselves here. To shift our thinking to the view of a weak God or a kingdom that is folly is not easy when the opposite is so deeply grounded in our culture and one might even say our very way of being. The issue of this approach is that the kingdom of God does not need God and maybe even having a supreme being at all is dangerous. Not dangerous because without God we have nothing but rather that without God we have to go beyond God into the mystery itself. In this approach it is a waste of time to ask whether or not God exists because that question cannot be answered. It is more important to ask what is beyond theism, atheism. What is the coming of the kingdom about if it is not the arrival of someone in charge with all the control and power. What if is about understanding the powerless power of something unconditional yet without power as the world knows power?

When we pray saying ‘let your kingdom come’ what are we asking for? Is it for the Supreme Being to intervene in history, to come to our aid and do something here below in space and time, to make something happen? Are we then left in suspense waiting for a response? Is the mystery we name God or the kingdom to come at some future date set by the Supreme Being? Our question might be ‘how does this make sense when we no longer believe that myth? What if the kingdom we are seeking is one that would actually be impeded by such a coming? If the Supreme Being turned up in all his glory, surrounded by his angels, seated on his throne with all the nations arrayed before him would it not be bad news because such a kingdom is what Jesus most feared and spoke against.

The folly is that the kingdom calls unconditionally, without the power to enforce its call or to reward or threaten its responders. As Caputo says, “The ikon of the God in the kingdom of God is an unjustly crucified man who forgave his executioners and whose disciples scattered in the moment of maximum peril. There is no greater folly than that.” In this sense the call of the kingdom is a call to itself. The coming of the kingdom is the call, the promise of something ‘to come’, while our come is the response, the hope, the prayer, the dream of a form of life that lures us on its own and not form above, beyond or from on high. The kingdom of God is within us and not a powerful force from without. We could say it runs or operates under the impulse of the events that already pulse through it and not ruled from above by a strong if invisible hand. It is always to come, always almost come, but not as a state of affairs, It is the certainty of the almost already begun thus already here, and already soliciting us. It is found every time the displaced are given shelter and the hungry are fed, every time the poor are comforted, every time the imprisoned are visited.

It is here that I want to say that as I was writing this I was encouraged to hear that a fellow Presbyterian had told a ‘St David’s Friends’ supporter they were missing the boat. The call of the kingdom was not to preserve buildings but rather to provide spaces and places where community could gather and find support. The Church needs places where community meets and supports itself, church only needs a chapel to celebrate but it needs to be a place where community is created, valued, enhanced and encouraged. His comment was that with the changes in the living environments and the intensification of living it is even more important that the church is involved in space for community connections such as a school where families can be families.

To return to my argument, it has to be said that the kingdom to come is not about a future presence but rather the weak force of a call for something coming. The rule of God takes place by way of the gentle provocation of a poetics, without a powerful metaphysical theology to back it up; without a Supreme ruler who dispatched a heavenly host of warrior angels to come to our aid; without an apologetic theology to defend God’s rule against its detractors, and without a worldwide system of divinity schools and seminaries to work out its logic and train and commission its emissaries. The rule of God is more unruly, more disarmed, more like an outright folly.

Perhaps I could end here today by saying that the kingdom is like love. It is a weak force, not one of the principalities that threaten reprisal if it is not headed and promises a reward if it is. The works of the kingdom and love are performed without the ‘why’.

This means that the weakness of God requires our strength and courage to make God whole and the folly of God is to let so much depend on us. The folly of God requires our courage to take a risk on God, our courage to let go of control, safety, security, certainty, and absolutes and to risk engagement in the weakness of God. Unconditional loving calls us into the weakness that is the nothing is guaranteed place, the place where nothing says the worst will not happen. The place where there is no invisible hand ensuring a good outcome. A weakness where there is nothing that says the good will triumph or that evil will be overcome. To pray for the coming of the kingdom is an exercise of hope and the kingdom is sustained best if at all, when it abides by the searing, searching, and simple account of the unconditional in Matthew 25: 37-39.

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”


John D Caputo, ‘Does The Kingdom Of God Need God?’ Fourth R Volume 30 Number 5 September/October 2017.

‘Being Christian Today’

Posted: September 26, 2017 in Uncategorized

‘Being Christian Today’

Micah: 6: 6-8            Matthew 21: 23-32

Over the last few weeks we have been engaged in a liturgical season known as the Creation Season and most of the season has been focused on the creation of what we know as Christianity. We have look at the scriptures as a whole and we have conformed our understanding of them as a library or a collection of writings developed from an oral culture and that the topic of these writing has been a search for the historical Jesus. We have looked at the earliest known writings and asked of them questions about what Jesus might have said and done that set in motion what we now know as Christianity. In that brief journey, we have discovered that we do not know a lot about Jesus and what he said and did but we have also discovered again that what he said and did resonated so strongly with the people of his time that they shaped their lives on his sayings and actions. We have also discovered that in doing this they set in place amazing opportunities for people to take his story and make it their own, sometimes they read too much into the story and at other times not enough but what has been enduring is that they gleaned motivation, were encouraged to engage in life and were convinced that change was possible with confidence, conviction and dignity.

Our reading from Micah is interesting in that Micah was one of the minor Prophets of Ancient Judaism whose stories fluctuated between prophesies of doom and gloom and prophesies of restoration. Our reading is one of those where Micah questions the efficacy of making a sacrifice. He asks whether or not the offering of a new born calf or thousands of rams and lots of oil are enough when what he understands as important is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. There is something in there about what is important, tradition, doing it right, being a strong church organization as opposed to doing justice, loving kindness as a primary value and living life with humility.

Our reading from Matthew seems to be saying also that it is more important to get on with living the values as opposed to arguing which are right and wrong. We could say that its more important to live as though goodness and kindness and love are the way of living as opposed to defining who is good or bad and who is kind and loving. The new reformation is that ‘being a Christian’ is the outcome of a liberating, transforming community and not because one is identifiable as a member of an organization.

Last week we watch a short clip where Richard Rohr, a Catholic Franciscan invited us to see that this reformation is a reformation in understanding and it is already taking place. I think he was saying that this new understanding of spirituality is underway and what was needed was a new organizational and social construct of community and that this community was to be non-denominational, non-traditional and functional as opposed to structural. Perhaps a way of saying this better would be to say that new models of ministry anchored in and born out of a liberating, transformative faith community are what will bring about a reformed Jesus Way.

What he said was what we have been saying for some time but perhaps without wanting to prescribe the new as much. We have said that we need a new understanding of what might be termed the ‘Eternal Reality we call God’, a new meaning of community that is not simply the gathering of people but the gathering of ideas, the idea of what gathering means that includes the social media gatherings in the ether, and valuing the cohesion of ideas in new ways. This will include the reconstruction of language and symbols used in communication. Perhaps the idea of a language that differentiates between what is fake and what has been verified and how it has been verified?

All of the above sounds far too complex to get one’s head around so I have borrowed from an article by Les Switzer a journalist, academic clergyperson who has written books, articles and essays on expressions of faith community. He suggests 9 things that might be helpful in defining what it means to be Christian today. These nine things are not definitions but rather approaches to their use. Approaches or actions of humility, storytelling, meaning, forgiving and healing, speaking. discipling. empowering praying and simplifying. I will try to fill these out a little so that we can talk about them more.

Religious humility – No one person has all the answers and no one religious system can encompass the Eternal. In other words, humility is about living the questions, about living with uncertainty, knowing that the difference we find in our reality are not to be feared because all is of the divine, the each of us is a reflection of the divine. If our understanding is that to be human is to be the universe seeing itself, then as followers of the Jesus Way is to emulate the divinely human Jesus in the idioms of today’s culture. Or in other words, love oneself, love one’s enemies and emulate God who is love. Walk humbly with God.

Religious narrative – The important narratives in life are not the biggest ones nor the smallest ones, they are not the ones about faith or belief, they are about being the good shepherd, being the manifestation of loving, and this narrative or story is not about being literally true or untrue but rather about enhancing, unfolding and displaying the complexity of living. And at the core of the purpose of these narratives is being good for family, friendship, community and good for those who don’t seem to fit our preferences. In other words, the literal is a tool of narrative as opposed to the authority of it. The more important aspect of the narrative may be the metaphorical, poetic, and the imaginative.

Scripture – Scripture or the holy bible is the invitation to meaning and not about historical fact or literal truth. Our interpretation of scripture like our reading of church doctrine and tradition, our personal religious experiences and our rational understanding of these experiences are part of an ongoing, unfinished, incomplete conversation. Just as we have discovered with the bible that began with oral sayings and ended up in a canon all scripture is far from permanent, and infallible. It is a living and in our case a collection of experience.

Forgiveness and healing – First of all we need to forgive for our own sake. True forgiveness is a selfish act. Why? Because it sets us free from the bondage of our past and allows us to get on with our living. It is primarily for us, created by us and serves us in our living. Not as some sort of pretense that nothing is wrong, nor that it provides a new platform from which to begin again but rather because it only becomes real when we discover that we have already absolved our offender, we discover that there is no sufficient reason to hold the other accountable and in that discovery, we see that we have already begun the healing process by letting go of our hurt. We have changed and the transformation of the community has begun. People begin to wonder how, why and their amazement challenges it. This reminds us that one of the components of forgiveness is the intent within it. It its service of the self it engages with the community. Our actions in transforming ourselves transform our community.

Speaking or Language – A crucial part of the co-creative partnership with the divine is what comes out of our mouth. If we believe that human beings are made in the image of God and that God is more than an anthropomorphic creation then we are bound to explore the relationship with the divine and our language becomes a crucial part of creativity. In brief, the divine image resides in part in our ability to speak. How we choose to use this divine power or energy is of ultimate experience. What we say matters and spreading destructive gossip, lies and unsubstantiated rumour, or even false praise, is to belittle conversation as a creative act. The ninth commandment of the Jewish tradition reminds us that this is not new, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’.

Discipling – It is probably risky to use this traditional word because of the traditional baggage it comes with but there is a need to maintain a word or a concept of walking the Jesus Way or following Jesus that is more than just our human action Walking the Jesus Way is more than doing something. It is also being someone, a new being, an alternative expression of what it means to be human. Les Switzer talks about the essence of discipling as letting go of the familiar and walking away, be careful with what you are comfortable with, get outside your zone, read the book that is not where you are at, live in the present but always look for ways to serve others and to help make the world a better place.

Empowering – Here we have perhaps the most difficult response. Difficult because it is perhaps the manifestation of all of the above, the rubber meeting the road, the situation in life. It is also hard because it begins with assumptions. The assumptions that empowering is required because there are powerless who need empowering. There are suffering who need empowering to free themselves. Here is the need for humility to avoid the assumption of knowing it all, the need to listen to empathise, the need to draw together the information that informs the strategy needed, the need to ask who it is that benefits from the empowering, is it the suffering or is it oneself and where is the balance in that? Here is the need for the conversation to put into action all the above and to begin to raise liberating and empowering options. In simple terms, one has to avoid living with a can-do attitude and a can fix it culture because that in itself creates a negative for the powerless and a helpless victim. It re-stigmatises and re-victimizes the suffering. The empowering approach requires the valuing of compassion, not as giving money and time to causes, there is an imbalance in favour of oneself in the benefit of this sort of compassion. We end up with the power rather than the suffering one. We need to go to the root of the word compassion and to begin with the idea that compassion means to suffer with, to embrace the powerlessness of the victim. It is less about doing anything and more about being with and feeling with the one who is suffering.

Two more to go.

Praying – Prayer is a conversation with ourselves, a non-verbal act that is about being open to the God within in silence, in love, in the natural world, and in the sense that we should pray without ceasing. In this way prayer is a contemplative, meditative, engagement not with anything but in oneself, a state of awareness of self, and of one’s engagement with the world.

The last is simplifying – This is more about attitude to life than making it easier or dumbing down. A simple life is that which arises out of living intentionally as if the Kingdom of God, to use traditional words is already here and now. When Micah asks; what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? He is reminding the reader that all of the above can be summed up in that sentence. Justice, kindness and humility and we might say that they are the attributes of a liberating, transforming community that walks the Jesus Way. Amen.

Secular and Thematic

Posted: September 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

Secular and Thematic

Mark 2: 22. Luke 5: 37-38, Mark 3: 27, Luke 6:29, Luke 11: 17b-18

This week we take a quick look at some sayings most likely to have been from the mouth of Jesus and in doing so we will look for the challenge made to ancient wisdom by Jesus the sage. We hold in our minds the notion that this radical wisdom is to be found in Ambiguity, Hyperbole, and Common Sense. We do this in order to seek the voice print that Robert W. Funk refers to as the residue of the individual sayings most likely to be attributed to Jesus. This is because we have so little actual historical material and are reliant on his voice that emanates from the compendium of parables, aphorisms, and dialogues that we do have. We know that a voiceprint is a graphic or photographic representation of a person’s voice, uniquely characteristic of that individual speaker therefor the fragmentary discourse of Jesus we have constitutes what remains of his voiceprint. If a literary description is used for this modern method of turning sound into graphics or photograph, the discourse fragments most likely coming from Jesus would be described as his idiom— his distinctive way of speaking. The principal question about the data, however, is does the residue of his discourse provide a foundation large enough to enable a reconstruction of his idiom, or as Funk thinks, a reconstruction of his vision?

We also note that for good reason Funk doesn’t mention the traditional form we call the proverb, among the residue of Jesus’ discourse. The reason is that a proverb is the product of community wisdom or lore and as such, proverbs attributed to Jesus would not have originated with Jesus. Another reason is that given the ancient practice of attributing sayings from whatever source to sages and wise men in antiquity, it is not unusual that proverbs would be falsely attributed to Jesus as well. There is however at least one unquestionable proverb among the sayings attributed to Jesus by the Jesus Seminar, which is Mark 2: 17. We also note that proverbs and aphorisms are very similar, making it difficult to sort them out, one from the other? Dominic Crossan argues that a similarity and continuum exist between such brief sayings as the adage, aphorism, apothegm, epigram, fragment, gnome, proverb, maxim, sentence, and the saying; and that these short forms constitute a literary genre that he designates as the “prose miniature.” After a survey of the literature on these forms, he concludes that all these described prose units are related and constitute the broad field of gnomic discourse; such units he calls simply the “saying.” They are brief prose units or sayings as opposed to narrative, story, or parable. Crossan then distinguishes between the proverb and the aphorism (or epigram) on the basis of the authority to which each makes an appeal. Proverbs constitute collective wisdom and appeal to ancestral authority, while aphorisms are based on personal insight and appeal to individual authority. The characteristics of aphorisms are the following: an aphorism is a short pithy statement, produced by an independent mind; it is assertive and appeals to no outside authority; it employs overstatement, exaggeration, hyperbole, paradox, and understatement. As a general rule, aphorisms are not readily understood. And as we said last week to present the remains of the discourse of Jesus as isolated sayings without social or literary context would need to recognize the pre-literary phase, or oral period, in the trajectory of the Jesus tradition. It also helps the historical analysis of the sayings themselves apart from the hermeneutical applications of the evangelists. The current literary settings in the gospels derive from the authorial creativity of the evangelists and encourage readers to ponder the saying as it was understood by the evangelists. One problematical issue that emerges from this analysis of the saying apart from its literary context is that the Jesus Seminar authorized as originating with Jesus multiple versions of what appear to be highly similar sayings without explaining how they are related. Some of the sayings are virtually identical, but others, while clearly similar, have a different tenor or say remarkably different things (for example, compare Matt 5: 3 = Luke 6: 20b; and Matt 5: 6 = Luke 6: 21).

So, we enter today’s discussion with what we might call the raw data for a profile of Jesus, his Probable Sayings. Our particular sayings come from the section where all the sayings printed in red and pink in the Five Gospels. In the collective judgment of the members of the seminar these sayings form the residue of sayings that most probably originated with Jesus. In short then what we do today is to look at some sayings on the understanding that these sayings along with the parables are the raw data for developing a profile of Jesus.

And the goal of what we do today is to begin to develop a profile of Jesus relying on what he said rather than on what others said about him. This means that we think that all the sayings constitute approximately half of the resource material to use as a historical basis for such a profile. The parables constitute the other half of the available resources. The parables, we note constitute another problem given the history of parables interpretation. On the one hand, the sayings are one part of a dialogue between Jesus and his Judean audience in real time. In other words, they directly express his ideas to his contemporaries about issues he found important. The parables, on the other hand, only obliquely express his ideas. He is not speaking in his own persona directly to auditors in his own time and space about real time issues. The parables are fictional stories with invented characters, dialogues, soliloquies, and situations; each constitutes a realistic episode reflecting life in first-century Palestine. The difference is the parables are not autobiographical; Jesus is not a character in the stories but their inventor, and the narrative voice that relates them to whomever would listen. In the parables Jesus does not speak directly, but rather his invented characters speak out of their own circumstances, which Jesus invented in his design of the character and the narrative. The stories are at best oblique sources for Jesus.

Classifying the Sayings

Charles Hedrick classifies a saying for us in his book and we will look at a few of these, the last of which is one that appears in more than one classification. We remember here from previous weeks that the sayings can also be classified into several literary types such as proverb, aphorism etc. and the sayings we will look at today appeal either to traditional wisdom or common sense

The first two are classified as wine and wine making sayings: and they are our Mark 2: 22. Luke 5: 37-38 readings.

No one pours new wine into old skins otherwise the wine will burst the skins and be lost along with the skins. But new wine (is) for fresh skins.

In Jesus Seminar ranking the Mark reading has a pink ranking and it has three parallels, each more elaborate than Mark’s version: Matt 9: 17 which is considered gray; Luke 5: 37– 38 and Gos. Thom. 47c which are both pink rated. The saying has all the earmarks of common wisdom in its appeal to what “no one does.” Given the importance of agriculture in Palestine, the content of this saying would have been common knowledge to every farmer, and would be part of that lore (L.o.r.e) that responsible parents would teach their children. Viticulture was a cottage industry in Palestine, and virtually every farmer was a vintner and wine maker. New wine could not be put into old skins because it had not finished fermenting; the carbon dioxide produced by the fermentation process would cause old skins to burst, and then both wine and skin would be lost. Luke has a final concluding statement to the saying (Luke 5: 39a), which the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar also regarded as originating with Jesus: “No one upon drinking old [wine] desires new”. The Gospel of Thomas is a slightly different version of Luke 5: 39b, the verse after our reading.

The next three readings from Mark 3: 27, Luke 6:29 and Luke 11: 17b-18 are as classified as having a Violence theme;

Mark 3: 27

No one can enter the dwelling of the strong (man) to plunder his things, unless he first binds the strong (man), and then he may plunder his dwelling.

There are three parallels to this pink saying in Mark, all of them are considered by the Jesus Seminar to originate with Jesus. Matt 12: 29 turns Mark’s first statement into a question and the second statement becomes the answer to the question. Luke 11: 21– 22 expands and elaborates on Mark’s brief statement about what it would take to plunder the dwelling of a powerful man. The Gospel of Thomas 35 is the closest version to that of Mark. The saying’s appeal (Mark 3: 27) to what “no one can do” is an appeal to common sense. A powerful man is able to protect his property. It would be absurd to attempt a plundering of his dwelling without first neutralizing the powerful man. That is why no one can do it, for only a more powerful man is able to do it, as Luke’s version of the saying has it.

Luke 6: 29

To the one striking you on the cheek offer also the other, and from the one taking your outer garment do not withhold even the undergarment.

This saying derives from Q; its Matthean version (Matt 6: 39b– 40) is more graphic, specific, and confusing: “Whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also; to the one wanting to haul you to court to take your undergarment, let him also [have] the outer garment.” In Matthew, it is a slap on the right cheek, so it is the left that must be turned in order to comply with the saying. The context of the taking of the garments is specified— a judicial context. It is odd, however, that the plaintiff wants the undergarment. One would think that the suit would begin with the outer garment. In Luke, the blow appears to be an assault, whereas in Matthew it is an insulting slap (using the back of the right hand). In both versions of the saying the injured party is counseled to give up the remaining item of clothing and is hence left nude, or virtually nude.

Luke 11: 17b-18

Every kingdom divided against itself is devastated; a house against a house falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his rule endure? [Because you are saying I drive out demons by Beelzeboul.]

This saying appears in all three synoptic gospels, but only Luke’s version was thought by the Jesus Seminar to originate with Jesus. The explanation at the end (“because you are saying that I drive out demons by Beelzeboul”) is to explain the last statement in the saying Luke 11: 17– 18 which is (“how will Satan’s rule endure”) Charles Hedrick suggests is Luke’s attempt to connect Luke 11: 18 and 11: 19 in a coherent way. The versions in Matthew and Mark have clarified Luke’s more primitive version of the saying.

So, in conclusion for today, what do we come to? Well I think we have affirmed that what we know is not a lot and that what we do know is an invitation to search for more understanding. We know that the sayings are a key learning opportunity that complement the parables as material for understanding. We have confirmed I think that our contemporary approach to the scriptures, our philosophical approach to truth, and our understanding of God is on the right track. I also think it confirms that our Mission statement of ‘Honouring the Mind, Living The questions and exploring the adventure of Humanity’ is sound and encouraging of a future with intellectual integrity.

And for your amusement I offer some contemporary sayings for your examination.

The one with experience informs the present,

One who lives in the past limits the future,

To champion the past is to shadow the present,

Knowledge is due those who would save the past from itself,

The future comes from harmony between past and present.


The Sayings of Jesus

Posted: September 5, 2017 in Uncategorized

The Sayings of Jesus

Exodus 34: 14, Matt 4: 10, Matt 10: 16; Mark 12: 17, Matt 5: 43– 44

As I indicated last week the approach of the Jesus Seminar and their colour scheme for evaluating the sayings of Jesus (red-pink-gray-black) is the approach that represents the most critical sorting of the Jesus tradition to date. The sayings we examine a little today are those in the gray area meaning they include some that many Jesus Seminar scholars include as most likely out of the mouth of Jesus. Web remember also my claim of last week that Jesus’ idiom is basically the language of the secular world. He is generally not straightforward, but oblique; he is not clear but appears deliberately ambiguous. He is provocative and permissive— in that he leaves it to his hearers to decide how they should incorporate what he says into their lives. Sometimes he speaks obliquely in hyperbole, at other times he is brutally direct. We note particularly that his direct speech gives hearers the most difficulty, since what he says seems to work against one’s own human self-interest— many of the sayings strike the reader as unclear, or impractical and unreasonable. It’s from these that we look at today.

Be as sly as snakes and simple as pigeons. (Matt 10: 16; Gos. Thom. 39b)

This perplexing saying throws together two contrasting personality traits. Its brief form and content, identifies it as an aphorism. Aphorisms are terse statements unclear on their surface forcing the auditor/ reader to ponder them. This aphorism, it turns out, presents the reader with a paradox. It is impossible to be both sly and simple at the same time. Why? Because, “Sly” connotes someone who is shrewd, calculating, cunning, or wily. Whereas, “Simple” connotes someone who is uncomplicated, guileless, or gullible. Trying to be both at once is like mixing oil and water— they simply don’t mix. The character traits are so different.

But it then gets even more complicated. In general, in the ancient world the saying would evoke a consideration of certain positive character traits valued in community: shrewdness and prudence versus candor and purity. Yet when associated with snakes and pigeons and played off against each other, community morals are caricatured, ridiculed, and turned on their ear: shrewdness becomes slyness, and purity appears as gullibility. Such teasing language offers no hint of a resolution between the two personality types— and who would want to be regarded as sly or gullible in any case. Neither of these, now transformed, character traits are something to be valued as a description of oneself.

What we can say about this saying is that such language is not the stock-in-trade of an apocalyptic prophet delivering an urgent message of repentance before the imminent end of the world, nor is it the kind of language used by a teacher of religious morals, expecting clearly defined behaviour in response to a message on ethical behaviour. So, the challenge we are left with is where exactly are we expected to orient our behaviour on the landscape of this perplexing saying? How do we choose between being shrewd and accommodating, between cautious and accepting? Or maybe it’s not an either or? Maybe its situational or maybe it’s about the need to do this analysis as a process of discernment?

Give Caesar what’s his, and what belongs to God give to him. (Mark 12: 17)

In Jesus’ day this saying, a quip, would be a politically sensitive statement, considering the state of affairs in Palestine, where Rome was in charge. On the one hand, it would certainly please the imperial regime, but, on the other, it would clearly infuriate first-century Judean Zealots who recognized no king but Yahweh over Israel. The saying appears to recognize that people have an obligation to support the authority of the ruling political authority simply by virtue of the fact that the regime has the political power— similar to what Paul said in Rom 13: 1– 7. Maybe it’s about trying to choose between political parties at an election, who is the most beneficial for society? But as a guiding principle for evaluating the relationship between social organizations and the state or with respect to the individual’s obligation to the state, it falls considerably short of clarity. Not unlike choosing a party where one hates the idea of one of their policies but likes the others. The saying says nothing about the morality of the Roman Empire (and neither does Paul in Romans). We notice also that the saying lacks any specifics. It does not specify exactly what it is that is due Caesar or exactly where one’s obligations to God begin. Individuals must decide for themselves where to draw the line between the state and God— that is, what they owe the state and what they owe God. Jesus does not suggest what should be done when the state encroaches on what one considers obligations due God, or what should be done when God’s prerogatives are asserted over what one considers the responsibility of the state. Life is never that simple and to prove that the saying expresses a beautiful sentiment, but there never has been such a thing as a perfect balance between religion and the state, as seems implied in the saying. The question is: precisely where does one draw the line between the demands of the state and what one considers the prerogatives of God? And Jesus leaves the answer to that practical question to the individual, and offers no guidance for resolving the tension.

Our third saying for today is; Love your enemies. (Luke 6: 27b; cf. Matt 5: 43– 44)

We of course are more familiar with “love your neighbour” (Matt 19: 19, 22: 39; Rom 13: 8; Jas 2: 8– 9), which in the Hebrew Bible means your fellow Israelite (Lev 19: 17– 18, 33– 34). It is possible that early Christians broadened the frame of reference of what is meant by “neighbour” to include fellow human beings (Rom 13: 8– 10). And while Jesus may have endorsed loving the neighbour in this expanded sense to include fellow human beings, what is most characteristic of him is “love your enemy.”

So far as we know the sentiments reflected in this saying do not occur elsewhere in the ancient world. But what does “love your enemy” mean in actual practice? Does it mean that you really should love an enemy, someone who has made it a goal in life to destroy you, with the same devotion that you love family and close friends? Such an attitude would be personally dangerous, and early Christians clearly had a problem with this explanation of the saying. Every time the saying “Love your enemy” appears in the literature it is always conditioned by other statements clarifying precisely what loving your enemy means. What the radical statement of Jesus means in actual practice, according to early Christians, involve behaviour that one can do for the enemy without actually “loving” them, and thereby exposing oneself to danger. For example, Luke 6: 27– 28 qualifies “Love your enemies” in the following ways to show what loving an enemy means in actual practice: “do favours for those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for your abusers” (see also Matt 5: 43– 48). All of these behaviours involve minimum risk. But what does one do when the welfare of family (and close friends) and enemies clash? How is it possible to love both with an equal degree of intensity and trust?

In the final analysis, the idea that one should love one’s enemies is irrational or even absurd — even if it is noble and idealistic. For in trying to love the one, an individual will inevitably break faith with the other. Or to state it baldly: loving your enemy can get your neighbour killed! So how exactly should we incorporate such a strange idea into the practical affairs of our daily lives? Again, that crucial judgment is left to the reader.

Last week I claimed that the one core assumption we could make is that the search for an understanding of wisdom lies at the centre of the sayings journey and we have to say that in terms of the wisdom reflected in these sayings of Jesus it is difficult to characterize in terms of content. It is far easier to describe what it is not.

So, it is not an esoteric wisdom. such as we find, for example, in Gnostic texts. His words do not describe the secrets of the ages, or how the world came into being. These sayings are also not about the nature of a heavenly realm. They do not describe the nature of a future life— or even suggest that there will be some kind of future existence; his words do not predict the future, announce the end of the physical world, or describe the character of God in analytical philosophical language. It is also not a practical wisdom, like traditional community wisdom, that is based on generations of experience providing practical instruction about how to get on in the world and be a successful member of society.

Rather the wisdom it denotes is decidedly impractical, unrealistic, and remarkably challenging in what it suggests. It cuts against the grain of human self-interest, and practical living in the human community with its established traditions and values. It is more like what we find in the wisdom of Socrates — a question thrown down challenging what we thought we knew, including the tried and true values we were taught. Maybe the nature of the wisdom we are looking for in these sayings is more about seeking a quality or state of being wise coupled with just judgment as to discernment, insight and possible action.

In general, these five sayings as a group challenge the traditional community wisdom found in the sages of ancient Israel, which seem concerned to help people make a successful life under God in the world. They raise questions as to the nature of the wisdom being espoused. The wisdom is not traditionally religious in the manner of most of Israel’s ancient sages. Jesus does not appeal to Torah as the embodiment of divine wisdom or to Lady Wisdom, the primordial origin of all wisdom. God is not invoked as authority for the statements. Also lacking are the trappings of the Judean religion contemporary with Jesus, such as temple, synagogue, sacrifice, Sabbath observance, etc. The one saying in which God is mentioned recognizes the authority of Caesar, along with God, as receiving an honour that is his rightful due. Putting anything on a level with God, however, violates the principle of the singularity of God in the Israelite tradition (Deut 6: 13 LXX; Matt 4: 10), for God is a jealous God (Deut 4: 24), and claims the exclusive loyalty of God’s people (Exod 34: 14).

These few sayings do not constitute a large enough sampling to enable an evaluation of the discourse of Jesus as a whole, but it does suggest that traditional religious piety may not have been an interest of Jesus. Next week we will take a quick look at the sayings most likely to have been from the mouth of Jesus and in doing so we will look for the wisdom found in Ambiguity, Hyperbole, and Common Sense


Hedrick, Charles W.. The Wisdom of Jesus: Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (p. 90). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.


Pentecost 11A, 2017 Matthew 16:21-27

The Sayings; ‘An Invitation To Be Creative’

Last week we explored the sources and place of the biblical writings in the life of faith and today as promised we will touch on the sayings which I claimed are the most authentic writings as history and thus can claim that they are the voice print of Jesus from which the Christian or Jesus Way developed. The first thing we need to recognize is that the sayings fragments of Jesus and the stories from that time were about the reality of life as if living in that time. They did not have any other purpose that making it better for the hearer.

I would also suggest along with others that this is the purpose of the gospel story we heard this morning be it for a different time and different audience. Matthew is a storyteller, and a storyteller’s imagination is necessary to the life of religion. This is a claim that imagination is important when approaching the scriptures, both in terms of searching for the historical context and the interpretation of the writings we have we shall take a brief look as promised at the sayings.

We acknowledged last week that our bewilderment and frustration is a result of Jesus having so little to say by way of explicit direction for getting on in the world. The fact is that Jesus chose not to be explicit, but rather to indulge in hyperbole, irony, and metaphor. And we presume he did this so that he could be more lucid in teaching his listeners to live wisely and judiciously. Insofar as Jesus’ teachings are to be honoured as the ground rules for a Christian ethic, reinterpretation, manipulation, supplementation seem not only to be permitted but actually required. We also acknowledged last week that nothing we have in early Christian literature goes directly from Jesus’ mouth to the evangelists’ ears! Everything that Jesus is credited with saying by all the writings is hearsay!

The current critical understanding of the Jesus tradition is as follows: The best we can tell is that the conclusion to Jesus’ brief public career occurred sometime between 26 and 36 CE. Some things he said during his public career were remembered by his earliest companions, and repeated to others after the crucifixion. These remembered words were later repeated around the Mediterranean basin and interpreted in new social settings and languages to still others. In the transmission the sayings were applied to a wide range of social and cultural contexts, which were different from the original context in which Jesus first uttered them. This period of oral tradition, is the social context in which the Jesus traditions (i.e., stories about Jesus and sayings attributed to Jesus) existed in living memory; it lasted well over a generation before being reduced to writing in the latter part of the first century, even though the oral transmission of the Jesus tradition survived into the second century. In the process of transmitting these traditions orally they were inevitably changed as they were performed in different languages and under different cultural situations. When trying to get a handle on just what these sayings went through in this oral period we can say that there are a few implications and some of them are as follows; Remember this is over approximately two generations.

  1. The first is that no sequential account of Jesus’ life was preserved.
  2. The second is that things were remembered because they were significant for faith.
  3. The third is that different explanations were given to the same saying or story.
  4. Subsequently;
    • The distinction between the original tradition and its later explanations becomes blurred.
    • The transmitted traditions were modified to suit the later social contexts on the basis of the languages and cultural environments in which they were performed.
    • Some things later attributed to Jesus did not originate with Jesus.
    • Sayings and stories orally performed tend to be reduced to a memorable core.

If these conclusions, reached by the many scholars who have analyzed the circumstances of the Jesus traditions in the oral period, are accurate, then we have little choice other than to wrestle with the reliability of the Jesus tradition as we have it preserved in the early Christian gospels, and this on top of what we know happened to the stories in the centuries nearer to our time.

We won’t have time to unravel any sayings today but I want to focus on the method of approach to the sayings, the first of which is what is known as Form Criticism. In other words; studying the forms of oral literature and their development. We also need to remember that it was only at the beginning of the last century that Hebrew Bible scholars began investigating the formal aspects of the Hebrew language. They recognized that in particular the book of Genesis consisted of small units of religious folk traditions having a lengthy oral history before being committed to writing. They analyzed the evolution of these oral units over time tracing them to a purported original social setting in the life of the Israelite community that produced them.

It may or may not be possible to sort out earlier oral forms from later oral forms when beginning with a written tradition and projecting backward over numerous years, but there is no denying the traditional aspects of the literature and its recognizable formal character, which is also found elsewhere in the ancient world. For example, Hermann Gunkel, the first scholar treating the book of Genesis to this kind of analysis, described the stories in Genesis as folk legends about the progenitors (i.e., the patriarchs) of the people of Israel. New Testament scholars eventually began applying the same approach to the gospels. They had the same goals as Hebrew Bible scholars which was to determine the original form of a piece of narrative, a dominical saying or a parable. In the process we learn to distinguish secondary additions and forms, and these in turn lead to important results for the history of the tradition.”

The earliest scholars to apply the methods and insights of Form Criticism to the gospels did not reach the same conclusions on either the formal identification of the traditional units in the gospels or the social contexts out of which they arose. They began from opposite ends of the form-critical process and as is logical came out with different answers. One approach begins by reconstructing the history of the synoptic tradition from a study of the community and its needs; and the other begins with the analysis of the particular elements of the tradition. Their answers were not opposed to each other, but rather engaged in mutually complementary and corrective work. They were engaged in the same enterprise, but their designations for the forms of the tradition were quite different. Subsequently however form-critical scholars have, in the main, been more influenced by the formal characteristics of the Jesus tradition. What we have quite a bit of, is the analysis of the traditional forms of language in early Christian literature— that is to say, the written forms of literature in the synoptic gospels. This is because we can only imagine the oral state of the form, which no longer exists. What is significant for us today is that every study of the gospels written from a critical perspective includes a short section on sayings attributed to Jesus from the perspective of oral tradition.

The work of the Jesus Seminar, upon which I depend falls into this same category of critical study. The seminar’s final five-year report on the sayings of Jesus found that 18% of everything attributed to Jesus in the first and second centuries following his public career passed the critical tests, and hence were considered to be sayings originating with a Galilean pundit for the imperial rule of God. It is from that 18% that we will look at one or two later in the month.

Before that we need to get more of a handle on what a saying might be and the first thing we note is that a description of a saying is in itself complex. Of the Language of Jesus all we have is some sayings and the first description is that a saying is a Quip: in other words a short memorable statement that can be amusing, strange, curious, eccentric, ironic, or, on occasion, sarcastic (i.e. a gibe). And when we talk about a saying we are looking for Hyperbole: In other words a statement that is extravagantly exaggerated. It presents something as greater or less, better or worse, or more intense than it actually is. We are also looking for ambiguity: in other words a condition in which something is capable of being understood in more than one way; it is equivocal, obscure, imprecise, and hence difficult to understand. We are looking for humor: in other words having a light or comic character which strikes one as amusing. We are looking for wisdom: in other words, sound judgment; having the quality of discerning what is true or right. We are looking for summary: in other words a brief abstract or compendium on a particular theme. We are looking for idiom: in other words a characteristic way of speaking that is peculiar to a particular person. We are looking for an Aphorism: in other words we are looking for a terse statement of a principle or precept usually unclear on its surface. We are looking for a Proverb: a brief distillation of community or traditional wisdom that is instantly clear on its surface. We are also looking for Paradox: a statement seemingly self-contradictory or absurd on its surface, but in reality possibly expressing a valuable insight. We are looking for a Pundit: an authority who announces opinions, judgments, conclusions in an authoritative manner. And we are also looking for a Quibble: an ambiguous or unclear statement to avoid a direct answer; an equivocation.

All of the above raises the question: how could any statement characterized by humour, hyperbole, ambiguity, and paradox contain a wisdom for practical living that can be orally passed on with some degree of precision, and that can also be easily accessible to the average person? The obvious answer is: it cannot. Essentially, the critical residue of the tradition originating with Jesus is largely enigmatic if one intends to forge from it a guide for daily living. Taken as a whole the, the Jesus tradition reveals Jesus to be, in Robert Funk’s words, a laconic sage (a wise man of few words), or perhaps a comic savant (one who embeds wisdom in humour). Over all it has to be said that lengthy speeches by Jesus (as opposed to the brief saying and short story) were not preserved in the oral period because of the difficulty of mentally retaining the speech and passing it on without condensing it.

We find that the sayings of Jesus most probably originating with him do not reveal him to be: an apocalyptic prophet who announced the end of the present world and the beginning of a new world, or a crucified redeemer who came to die for the sins of the world, or a religious mystic concerned primarily about personal union with God, or the founder of a universal religious institution, or even a moral teacher. In his terse quips Jesus strikes one like a provocative social critic and to judge from the stories he told, Jesus was a person of considerable native intelligence and a creative story teller who, was far more interested in life in this world than in the end of the world and an afterlife. It should never be forgotten that his idiom did not reflect Christian concerns, but rather consists of a wry perspective on the agrarian world of the Judean state religion in which he lived.

To judge from his discourse, Jesus was not religious in a traditional sense. He clearly believed in God, but, to judge from the vestiges of his discourse, he did not engage liberally in God-talk. His actual words dealt more with lower class village life in the early Roman Empire than it did with a philosophical probing of the Judean state religion, or in setting out a specific code of conduct for daily life— rather, he dealt generally in sweeping unrealistic challenges to daily life rather than in positing narrow legal rules to be followed as a code of conduct, and he leaves vague the practical decision as to how his ideas should be incorporated into daily life.

His sayings would have provoked questions with no definitive answers and his stories would have raised issues with no stated solutions. He did not engage auditors head-on with propositions and discursive arguments that led to their resolution. And thus, we are left with secular stories and brief challenging sayings, which leave auditors, and now readers, considering what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus leaves it up to the auditor— to his or her imagination and ingenuity, to make practical sense of his sayings. Today readers must struggle with the vestiges of his discourse first in terms of a first-century Palestinian setting, in which Jesus speaks to his fellow Israelites, in order to evaluate how a particular saying of Jesus may have resonated in the ancient Mediterranean world. Then readers must ponder what his words might mean for values and behaviour in the twenty-first century. A second important step here is to realize that the “meaning” of a saying is not the same under all circumstances. There is no one final irrevocable meaning to a saying for all time and every place that will be suitable as an explanation for a saying of Jesus, for “meanings” change with the “life baggage” individuals bring to the saying and with the circumstances in which the saying is considered. Meaning is individually constructed. Within certain parameters there is no one right or wrong explanation, and a range of plausible responses is always possible. The importance of this claim is its challenge to a faith dependent upon belief as a noun as opposed to a faith based on trust in human/divine co-creativity.

Matthew takes several stories well known in his small community, and borrows from Mark, and reshapes the story of Jesus needing to go to Jerusalem, into a teaching moment for his community. What we have here is Matthew looking back over some 50 to 60 years or so, on past events or stories, rather than looking forward to some expected future event. This is a primary concern of all the written material we have so while we can only ever work with story fragments, we have to presume that Jesus’ vision of God or the sacred, of wisdom beyond convention, of the central traditions or stories of Israel’s heritage, and his sensitivity to the poor and marginalised, struck his hearers as truly radical and for some, very risky. New imaginative thinking always is, and because of all of this ‘political’ stuff, Jesus died on a Roman cross. Not because of some preordained cosmic Divine Plan or Purpose which required his execution as a so-called act of redemption through blood. But because he was unwilling to compromise his vision of a possible re-imagined world. Reactors try to tighten their personal worldviews around them to protect themselves. Actors allow their lives to have spaces in them, and to greet life as ‘invitation’ rather than as ‘plan’. We are left with ‘an invitation’… in spite of the present economic circumstances or political arguments and/or grandstanding, an invitation to create our world, our community, our congregation, differently. Theology is always an ongoing activity of fresh, imaginative, and the re-construction of our understanding of the world and of God, and of human life in the world and under God.

Notes: Cupitt, D. 1995.  What is a Story? GtB: London. SCM.

Hedrick, Charles W.. The Wisdom of Jesus: Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (p. 86). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

‘Who Do You Say That I Am?’

Posted: August 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 12A

Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10            Matthew 16: 13-20

‘Who Do You Say That I Am?’

I never had the good fortune to learn languages at school but I am told that the French language has a very small number of words in comparison to English and that the various subtleties of meaning come from body language. The British, it is claimed were generally more reserved in temperament, need more words. Whereas ….The French, being perhaps more demonstrative in temperament, needed less words… And leaping ahead to today we see that one of the interesting things about Internet communication is that there are various sets of characters which are used to express, in shorthand, the spirit in which something is said. We see that a full colon followed by a dash, followed by a closing bracket, makes up a smiling face. This suggests that the preceding statement is meant to be funny not serious. But if the colon is replaced with a semicolon, this denotes a ‘wink’ – whatever a wink denotes! This is apparently the Internet way of making meaning: the spirit in which something is ‘said’.

Why that introduction? Well I suspect that when we approach the translations of the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures we need to consider that it is not just a matter of substituting a word in English for a word in Greek because there are interpretive and cultural differences involved in both the texts and the translators that colour the meanings given to the words used. Just taking one example, we see that in the Hebrew text of Isaiah from which Matthew quotes to undergird his story of the birth of Jesus there is no word let alone concept of virginity. It is only in the Greek that the understanding of virgin is present. Likewise, the Bible is not a scientific textbook.  Bishop Jack Spong writes: “Jesus could not have imagined such an idea as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity… Concepts commonplace today in the world of physics, subatomic physics, astrophysics, and cosmology would have drawn from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to say nothing of the author of the Book of Genesis, nothing except blank stares of incredulity” (Spong 1991:25).

To claim the Bible is the inerrant and authoritative word of God for all time has very little justification. Like the question of whether or not to pull down all the confederate statues that support slavery in American history is not too dissimilar from the veneration of the Bible as a Holy Bible. Why because many of us have been taught that its content is a message from God that is set in concrete.  Untouchable and the only spiritual resource. If that is the case then I guess I need to be fired and banished from the Ministry or listened to very carefully. I have been struggling lately with just what we are saying about the Bible by carrying it in and out prior to and after our services. In that simple ritual we venerate the bible and confirm many of the magic notions about it. If it is Holy, what does that mean? The reality is that it isn’t a message book. Neither is it ‘untouchable’ or holy. It is rather a very human collection of writings assembled over 1,000 years or more. And as Spong says; those who want to insist otherwise, are putting the Bible in jeopardy, and becoming, even if unwittingly, “accomplices in bringing about the death of the Christianity they so deeply love” (Spong 1991:32).

And let’s be clear also. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the Bible seriously because we should.  And when we do take the Bible seriously, a question we need to bring to every story is: “What do you make of it? not What is the meaning of the story?  You and I bring the meaning to it.  It’s not there without us reading it and getting something out of it.  We are the context in which it will be figured out and lived, if it’s worth it. This is the freedom the storytellers of our readings have and they use that freedom all the time.

Now you might be saying well if that’s the case why bother with the scriptures at all? But again that is not the only approach one can take. The scriptures are still examples of how people approached and recorded what they believed to be important. The importance was however not dependent upon a so called absolute truth or a single account of recorded fact. What we have is much richer than just a single verifiable factual account. We already know this because we have huge interpretation differences in the four Gospels of the biblical canon and the reason for the differences is that none of what we have is an original nor an eye witness account of the life of Jesus. In fact historians know very little about the personal life of an average peasant in Roman Palestine in the first half of the first century of the Common Era let alone the peasant life of the man we know as Jesus. Archaeology reveals physical aspects of the setting in which they lived out their lives and archaeologists must use artifacts and imagination to sketch out in very broad outline aspects of peasant life, but the peasant as a real flesh and blood human being remains elusive. All that remains are places and things to be pondered and interpreted. No narrative descriptions of day-to-day activities of peasant life and those of the still lower classes in the Roman province of Palestine exist. Such sources do not even exist for peasant life in the whole of the Roman Empire, where a great deal can be known about the private lives of people of means.

According to the earliest sources we have, Jesus was a first-century man from the region of Galilee, which was a part of the broader geographical area known in the Greco-Roman world as Judea. The people who populated the area were generally known by outsiders as Judeans. Jesus was the heir of the ancient Israelite religion, which in his day was associated primarily with the “land of [Judea], Jerusalem and the temple, and the cult and law as practiced there.” He belonged to the elusive impoverished classes of the greater Palestine area, and except for the early Christian gospels would have suffered the fate of oblivion, as did others of the impoverished classes of that period. We do not know for certain when he was born, his course of life, what he looked like, or where he was buried.

We have no personal information about him in contemporary documents originating in the period in which we think he lived. The earliest information we have as to his personal history is inadvertently provided by a first-century man who described himself as the apostle of Jesus. Only six personal features from the life of Jesus are mentioned by Paul, the apostle. Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4: 4)— meaning that he was a human being who was born into a social context under the authority of the Torah of the Israelite people. The names of his parents are not mentioned, which suggests they were likely unknown.

Paul’s description of the birth of Jesus does not use incarnation language such as is found in Matthew, Luke, and John. He does however in his need to hold Jesus as special indicate that Jesus is a descendant of the legendary Israelite King David (Rom 1: 3). This is suspect as an unprovable ascription of faith and Paul is using confessional language anyway. Paul also knew an apostle named James, whom he described as “the brother of the Lord” (Gal 1: 19). Again this is suspect in that in the undisputed Pauline letters the word “brother” (ἀδελφός) always refers to a religious connection (i.e., a “spiritual brother”), whereas here Paul seems to have resorted to a familial relationship to distinguish this James from another James. Paul mentions only three incidents from the life of Jesus and his failure to mention others suggests that he does not know anything like a sketch of the life course or even a career of Jesus.

According to Paul, Jesus ate a meal “on the night he was delivered over” (1 Cor 11: 23– 25). The clearly liturgical language he uses in describing the bread and the cup makes it doubtful that he knows this event independently of early practice when followers of Jesus gather. He further knows that Jesus was both crucified (Gal 3: 1) and buried (1 Cor 15: But the lack of detail does not instill any confidence that Paul has any independent information apart from what has come to him through the kerygma of the early followers gatherings. Four narratives emerge in the latter half of the first century (70– 90) purporting to describe the public career of Jesus and with these texts began the attempts to explain the origins of the church’s message. Mark, the earliest of the four writings about a generation after the death of Jesus, begins the narrative this way: “Beginning of the gospel about Jesus, the Anointed” (Mark 1: 1). What follows in Mark’s narrative is a brief abridgement of the public career of Jesus, containing examples of things Jesus said and did, things said about him, and things done to him.

The same is true for the other three gospels. Basically all four gospels are aiming to explain who this mysterious figure is that is preserved in the gospel message preached by the church (cf. 1 Cor 15: 3– 9; Acts 2: 22– 24). Only one author of the four gave a reason for writing a narrative about Jesus; Luke’s reason for writing a gospel was so that his patron would “know the truth about the things of which you have been informed” (Luke 1: 4).

All four accounts, all the gospels, describe the content of that “truth” differently, and they had no primary historical sources uninfluenced by religious faith on which to draw. Scholars theorize that the basic sources used by all four are derived from a generation of oral tradition about Jesus passed along by word of mouth; this oral tradition depicts him through the eyes of faith as bigger than life. As a result, the gospels themselves belong more to the category of “evangelistic tract” or propaganda literature than they do to disinterested historical narrative. The church’s canonical gospels are not the ultimate authoritative historical descriptions of Jesus; rather they should be conceived as among the very first attempts at fleshing out the kerygma about Jesus of Nazareth on whom the church based its message, aiming, as it were, at clarifying the origins of the church.

Who do you say I am? Takes on a richer background I suggest, as the interesting feature of these four narratives is their portrayal of situations in which the contemporaries of Jesus were perplexed as to how to regard him. For example, in the synoptic gospels there are several pronouncement stories, which can be anecdotes of identity. They are comprised of a brief setting, confusion over the identity of Jesus, and conclude with a pronouncement saying. The evangelists also include other brief descriptions of reactions to Jesus in longer narrative units where people are perplexed as to his identity. Certainly these latter descriptions are novelistic and intended to heighten the mystery surrounding Jesus. But they have the added effect of introducing uncertainty into the narratives as to how Jesus should be understood. The four canonical gospels suggest that mystery had always surrounded him. In Mark’s gospel, for example, we have Jesus as both crazy and possessed, as well as common or mundane as carpenter, son of Mary, and regional as Jesus of Nazareth. He is given some are titles of community respect asteacher, 9: 17; rabbi, 9: 5; prophet, 6: 4; lord/ sir, 7: 28, 11: 3; son of David, 10: 43– 4815), and political titles (king of the Judeans, 15: 2; king of Israel, 15: 32) or enigmatic as son of man, 9: 9). The religious appellations, including those suggesting that Jesus has some special relationship to God, are not explained or clarified further in Mark (son of God, 3: 11; holy one of God, 1: 24; son of the most high God, 5: 7; the Anointed, 8: 29; the Anointed, son of the Blessed, 14: 61; a son of God, 15: 39).

Of all these Jesus is portrayed as applying only the title “son of man” to himself, and interestingly accepting the appellation of the Anointed, son of the blessed. This is the reason I have chosen to use the anointed in our community prayer. Rightly or wrongly it seemed to describe someone who was a special human being in history but not God.

The result over all this defining stuff is a confusing portrait of the protagonist of Mark’s gospel. How should a reader of Mark’s gospel describe Jesus? Is he an unschooled peasant with enough native ability to be regarded as a teacher or rabbi? Should he be included among the prophets of Israel? Did he have political aspirations? How should a reader regard the religious appellations used in Mark in the light of the other designations that seem to cast Jesus as a common man with unusual gifts (cf. Mark 2: 7)? Matthew and Luke have appellations much the same as Mark, which might prompt a similar confusion as to the identity of Jesus were it not for their birth narratives (Matt 1: 18– 2: 23; Luke 1: 5— 2: 52) that influences readers to see Jesus as a divine emissary, although they never clarify how humanity and divinity are united in the man from Galilee.

Matthew goes so far as to identify him with Lady Wisdom herself (Matt 11: 16– 19). On the other hand, the status of Jesus in the Gospel of John is heightened to the point of portraying him as a divine agent in human guise (John 1: 1– 18; 20: 28; cf. Phil 2: 5– 11).

Using these admittedly confessional narratives, as well as noncanonical sources, modern historians have been engaged for over 200 years aiming to develop a historical understanding of Jesus of Nazareth with mixed results. They have been quite successful in understanding and describing the nature of the sources, but have not been as successful in developing a historical description of Jesus that commands the general agreement of New Testament scholarship.

This means that views about Jesus of Nazareth at the end of the twentieth century have become numerous and quite different from one another. Marcus Borg has summarized at least six distinct ways of viewing Jesus as human being that have appeared in major studies. Borg elaborates further in his book but according to E. P. Sanders, “Jesus was an eschatological prophet standing in the tradition of Jewish restoration theology.” Burton Mack characterizes Jesus as a ‘Cynic sage’ or ‘Cynic teacher,’ more Hellenistic than Jewish, in a thoroughly Hellenized Galilee.” Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza regards “Jesus as a wisdom prophet and founder of a Jewish renewal movement with a socially radical vision and praxis.” Borg’s own view is that Jesus “was a charismatic healer or ‘holy person,’ a subversive sage who undermined conventional wisdom and taught an alternative wisdom, a social prophet, and initiator of a movement the purpose of which was the revitalization of Israel.” John Dominic Crossan argues that “Jesus was a Jewish Cynic peasant with an alternative social vision.” Bart Ehrman describes Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who expected the end of the old world and the establishment of a new world order on earth.

Today; given the nature of the sources with which scholars must work almost any view of Jesus is possible. The most common up to date study draws on the critical eight-year sifting of the sayings of Jesus by the Jesus Seminar, and this present study aims at describing Jesus simply on the basis of those sayings that have the highest claim to have originated with him. A description of Jesus based on his sayings alone will naturally vary depending on the sayings identified as having the highest claim to have originated with him. Nevertheless, the most reasonable place to begin a study of Jesus’ ideas and character based on his own words is with the sharpest critical sifting of the sayings tradition. This study identifies a range of historical valuations of the entire data base of sayings attributed to Jesus. The “voiceprint” that emerges from such a study casts him in a rather different light from the majority of lives of Jesus published at the end of the twentieth century. The question; ‘who do you say I am?’ takes on another part of its journey. Amen.

Notes: Funk, R. W. 2002.  A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Spong, J. S. 1991.  Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco. Vosper, G. 2008.  With or Without God. Why the Way we Live is more Important that What we Believe. Canada: Toronto. HarperCollins.

Hedrick, Charles W.. The Wisdom of Jesus: Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (p. 2). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.