“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 12

The Jews are a uniquely trampled-upon people.

They are history’s sufferers-in-chief. As one global empire after another sought to control the land of Judea—the strategic land bridge between Africa, Europe, and Asia—it was the Jewish people who suffered most. Owing to their position as the world’s perpetual underdog, the Jews became champions of social justice and consummate visionaries of a world beyond the imaginary capacity of what the Apostle Paul called the “principalities and powers.”

If you got nothing else from this series, I hope you see that the project of that rabbinic Jew from Galilee we know as Jesus was not to position us for where we go when we die, but to fulfill the Jewish dream of how good societies are arranged while we live. The gospel is about broad human flourishing, and it cannot be explained divorced from the global empires that subjugated the people who wrote the Bible.

To make my case, I’ve taken you all over the Bible and stressed the earthy significance of recurring literary signifiers like “gospel,” “kingdom,” “Jesus is Lord,” “Messiah,” “Son of Man,” “King of the Jews,” and even “Armageddon.” I’ve tried to articulate the great power in the more humble, ordinary, and even boring parts of the Bible (think Ruth). And I’ve tried to give necessary context to understand parts of the Bible that might be lost on readers who aren’t ancient middle eastern Hebrew slaves.

 

Critical to the motivations of those who wrote the Jewish Bible is the question: what do we need to do so that we quit being destroyed and conquered and losing everything we have to the self-centered ambitions of these global empires?

Over many centuries, various movements and developments within Judaism answered that question differently. These responses often found their inspiration in the literary and cultural achievements of their neighbors and, in particular, the various empires who subjugated them. You see this within the Old Testament: The writer of Deuteronomy had different ideas on this question than the writer of Ruth; the writer of Nahum had different ideas on this question than the writer of Jonah; the writer of Leviticus had different ideas on this question than the writer of Psalm c40 v6. Some streams of thought emphasized that Yahweh would come to the defense of the Jews only if they maintained fidelity to the temple regulations and sacrifices. Others emphasized social justice and explicitly downplayed the importance of the temple. Others sought to exclude foreigners from the assembly, while others welcomed foreigners. Some thought that the Jews would have to take up the sword in a final apocalyptic battle.

And these different lines of Jewish thought continued to develop and evolve between the Old and New Testament.

Which gets me back to the Jewish-Roman War that started this obnoxiously long series of essays—the war that was principally responsible for the fact that we have the written story of Jesus. This was a tax revolt. It was humiliating enough that the Romans had conquered and subjugated Israel; it was unbearable that they forced the Jews to pay the imperial tax that supported the very military that kept them subjugated. It was taxation without representation, so they did what Americans celebrate every July.

They revolted.

Mark tells the story of some Pharisees and Herodians who wanted to trap Jesus. If they could have caught him instructing his disciples not to pay the imperial tax, they could have haled him before Pilate and had him executed. So, they asked him,

“Rabbi, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

I have no doubt that, before you read this series, you knew Jesus’s clever response. It was indeed clever.

“Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

If you grew up as I did, you probably understand Jesus’s words as a neat way of saying something that in substance is not super remarkable: Pay your taxes and follow laws. I agree that Christianity is not a religion of lawlessness, but if that is the bare amount you got from this story, you really missed its subtle enduring power. Jesus was too good at what he did to ever say something so one dimensional as “follow laws.”

It turns out, Jesus took this question about taxes and laid out one of the essential tenets of his whole ministry: Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s. This sentence is Jesus’s answer to the whole Jewish project of how to the defeat the empire. It is where the whole Bible had been heading since it began in Eden. And this powerful, yet brilliantly sneaky quote is made all the more interesting by the fact that Mark places it within a dispute about taxes—the very thing that led to the war that led to the devastation that led to the Gospel of Mark in the first place. When the story was read aloud for the first time after the war, I promise you they got it. It’s a simple line. It’s a clever line. But it is a heavy line, and I love it.

Because when you start to think about what belongs to Caesar, all you have to do is start looking around.

In Part 11, I wrote about the Iron Triangle of Herod, Pilate, and Caiaphas. I wrote about the mutually beneficial relationship of the concentrated economic powers, war powers, and religious powers. If you read Jesus’s command for all it’s worth, at the heart of the Jesus movement is his followers giving that system away. Rabbi Jesus tells us to give back our systems that advance a small few at the expense of many. He tells us to give back to Caesar our desire to inflict violence back on those who harm us. His teaching reflects what should be too obvious by now: that the world isn’t made peaceful by blowing up bad people. He tells us to give back our religious systems that merely reinforce Caesar’s triangle. Those things aren’t God’s. They are Caesar’s.

Imagine surviving a war and hearing that for the first time.

Like EVERYTHING in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s response to the question is a prophetic critique of both sides of the war. On the one hand, Mark clearly portrayed Jesus as condemning the Jew’s violent tax revolt. That message would not have been missed. But on the other hand, if you place the story within the stories of the people who survived the war, Jesus’s response to the Pharisees was a message of hope: If you will give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, you will finally be rid of CaesarYou will be rid of the thing for which you started and lost in war.

Have I ever told you that the Bible is sharp?

And it speaks loudly to those who today might consider themselves part of the “Resistance.” It speaks loudly to those who see a world gone wrong and dream about a world made right. Imagine if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that African Americans take to the streets with clubs. Imagine if when Nelson Mandela in 1990 left Victor Verster Prison, he declared to the large crowd that black Africans must arm themselves with machetes and fight back against apartheid?

That would have been the pursuit of justice by the very reviled system already mastered by the powerful. It wouldn’t have gotten rid of the ways of Caesar, but only perpetuated them. In perhaps more tangible terms, it would have been a human disaster. It would have been the story of suffering I told you in Part 1.

But, instead, Rev. Dr. King Jr. and Mandela’s deputy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, knew their Hebrew prophets and knew the prophetic tradition out of which came Jesus the Messiah. The struggle for civil rights remains unfinished, but millions of people today are far better off because these leaders were brave enough to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Every movement that is courageous enough to see beyond the present power structure must also be brave enough to see beyond the present means of obtaining power. Those movements that embrace violence in its various forms always end poorly. You could say, “those movements that live by the sword die by the sword.” When you open your Bible and read somewhere that Jesus forgave people of their sins, the big story was not that they would be pure enough on some future judgment day so they could hang out in the clouds with his dad. The big story is that Jesus had broken down the thing that separated people.

You are reading about the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Jesus’s first words of the new world of his resurrection were “Peace be with you.”

The followers of Christ are to be a peaceable people. In the second century, it was their peaceable nature that made the Jesus Movement explode with new followers. Giving back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and instead being a peacemaker is how we tangibly realize the imaginative literary painting at the end of Revelation when Heaven comes down to Earth. It is how we win.

Blessed, then, are the peacemakers.

….

When I started this project, I expected about six parts. This being part twelve, I hope this wasn’t terrible. Nevertheless, I’m ready to call it and move on to the next thing.

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“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 11

Jesus grew up a rural peasant, but on Good Friday found himself before Governor Pontious Pilate in his Praetorium. The chamber was lined in marble. Above Pilate’s seat was the imperial seal. Stately attire, statues, art, torches, guards, and spears. Everything in the scene conveyed the full might and grandeur of the known world, and here came a Galilean who was born among the cattle.

Pilate had little patience to hear a Jewish dispute against a rabbi from Nazareth, so he moved to the heart of the matter as it concerned him. “Are you a king?” he asked. Remember from earlier that this was a loaded question: Only Rome had the power to make kings, and decades before had made Herod “King of the Jews.”

“It is as you say,” Jesus responded.

This trial was actually one of three short trials Jesus endured on this day—first before Caiaphas, then Herod, and then Pilate. The literary work here is important. Don’t miss it.

  • Rome appointed Joseph Caiaphas to be the high priest.
  • Herod was one of the wealthiest individuals in the world at that time, owing to Rome installing his father as “King of the Jews.” The family continued to dominate the economic landscape well into Jesus’s lifetime.
  • And Rome appointed Pontious Pilate governor of Judea. His task was to route out and quash any rebellions that might form in what was an oft-troubled region of Judea.

The three individuals who tried Jesus each exercised a different kind of power, but each received their power from Rome. The gospel writers really, really, really want you to make this connection. In fact, this connection is the very thing at issue at the start of Jesus’s ministry. This is Jesus’s forty days of fasting and temptation in the desert, the beginning of the story:

  • Satan first tempted Jesus with the idea of turning stones into bread. Don’t read that simply as Jesus being tempted to eat. I’m sure that was part of it, but the real temptation was about economic power, a monopoly over the world’s grain supply. The power to turn stones in bread would have made Jesus, not Herod, the most wealthy man in the world.
  • Then, he tempted Jesus with the idea of jumping off of the temple and commanding angels to catch him. Anyone performing this stunt would instantly be recognized as possessing the authority of the temple institution. This would have made Jesus, not Caiaphas, the holder of the religious power in the triangle.
  • Finally, he tempted Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world. This is war power, which Rome had given to Pilate.

The gospel writers were thoughtful literary artists, and they want you to notice how what happened at the very beginning of the story connects with what happened at the very end. They want you to see that Jesus’s three trials on Good Friday were the same three trials he had faced in the wilderness.

So, getting back to the trial, Jesus had just affirmed that he considered himself a king, and then it was Jesus’s turn to get to the heart of the matter as it concerned him: “For this purpose I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who listens to the truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” responded Pilate, who we are to believe has suddenly become a philosopher. Kidding aside, do not skip over this question; it is crucial in the narrative. As you’ll soon observe, Pilate unknowingly answered his own question and, thus, tied together the whole narrative of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus’s declaration and Pilate’s response show off yet more literary flourish and are critical to the arc of the narrative. You will see this shortly.

Pilate sent Jesus to the barracks, which, to the absolute hatred of the Jewish people in Israel, he had set up directly adjacent to the Temple. After the soldiers flogged him there, they decided to have fun with him. They’d heard that this homeless rabbi claimed to be a king, so they placed a purple imperial robe on him, put a reed in his hand to resemble a staff, and then lodged thorns into his skull to resemble a crown. Having decorated their beaten-up prisoner to look like a Roman client king, they chanted “Hail King of the Jews!” and bowed down to him.

Of course, they meant it as a joke, but this was the precise moment Jesus had spoken of a week earlier.

During his march to Jerusalem, Jesus explicitly told his disciples that he was going there, in his words, to become king. (Except, in a way that would confound the Caesars for centuries.) Instead of entering Jerusalem on a war horse, he entered on a colt donkey. Then, for a week, he prophesied against each three interconnected powers of Rome—over and over emphasizing that his kingdom would be a difficult place for the powerful to enter.

And finally—garbed in purple robe, back bloody from being whipped, thorns lodged in his head, and mocked by the Roman soldiers—Jesus was now what he claimed he had come to Jerusalem to become. This beaten up peasant from Galilee was king of the world.

And having been corronated king in this once-in-history fashion, Jesus was brought back to the Praetorium to face down Pilate again.

“Where are you from?” Pilate asked. But, Jesus was king now, and he no longer answered to Pilate. Pilate had no power to interrogate him.

So he remained silent.

Don’t you realize I have the power to release you or to crucify you??!!” shot the incensed Pilate.

And there it was. This is what the gospel writers are wanting you to see. This is statement that completed the arc of narrative. In Pilate’s words, he had answered his own question from earlier.

What is truth?

I’ll tell you what truth is. Truth is power. The only truth is I have power over you. I can let you go, or I can release you because the world is run by men of power.

Economic power.

Religious power.

War power.

Armies, economies, and temples. These three make up an iron triangle: always in tension, and yet mutually reinforcing. According to Pilate, the triangle is the thing that rules the world. But Pilate didn’t know that Jesus had outlasted the triangle three years before. Jesus could have chosen to be a billionaire. Satan offered this to him. Jesus could have commanded the authority of the temple. Satan offered this to him. Jesus could have become the next world conqueror, the successor to Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. Satan offered this to him. But Jesus declined the whole system. In his forty days of fasting and temptation in the desert, Jesus had overcome the iron triangle. And he did it again on Good Friday.

“For this purpose I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who listens to the truth listens to me.” Do you feel the weight of those words now? What Jesus did on Good Friday was expose the triangle for the lie that it is. If your imagination has no space for a world that is not ruled by the iron triangle, you have not been properly formed as a follower of Yeshua. And that gets me to this sad tweet from the president of the largest Christian college in the United States:

The kingdom that Jesus described is a direct threat to the triangle (the Caesars understood this well), and yet the church as I’ve seen it in my life has mostly operated in a way that effectively defends it. While the war powers and the economic powers openly work towards their patently greedy ends, my observation of the church has mostly been to either (1) team up directly with the other parts of the triangle (“we have no king but Caesar”, “what is truth?”), or (2) to draw our attention away from the abuses of the triangle (“this world is not my home”) and effectively render Jesus subservient to the triangle. In this understanding, Christ is king the decisions we make as private individuals but not king over anything else. Christ has nothing to say to whoever occupies the White House (excepting, of course, when it involves abortion—a topic found zero times in the Bible).

But in a world in which Jesus is not king over Caesar, Jesus would find himself back in the Praetorium still under the authority of Pilate’s questioning. Pilate would still be interrogating Jesus, and Jesus would still be compelled to answer. This is not the story that the Gospels tell.

We are eleven posts in and have finally reached the point of the title I chose for this series.

While the kingdom of Jesus described and performed is one in which the triangle bows down to him, the modern church mostly works in the service of having us bow down to the triangle. When the war powers and the economic powers work to crush the life chances of the world’s most vulnerable, our church leaders tell us that the spiritual thing to do is to just focus on going to Heaven—in effect releasing the triangle from the authority of Jesus. Focusing on earthly things like systemic poverty and justice and peace, we are told, is below us. The triangle spends incredible sums of money propagating these ideas in the churches and books and films and speaking engagements of prominent religious leaders who defend the triangle.

Many church leaders and church congregants are innocently caught up in this system and are simply blind to it. These are the ones to whom I hope my writing reaches.

But still many church leaders are outright in the business of securing White House invitations.

This is Caiaphas.

When Pilate brought Jesus out to Caiaphas, whom Pilate hated, he mocked him with, “behold, your king.” Of course, Caiaphas wanted no more to do with this outsider to the power triangle than did Pilate, but his response reflects more and more the direction I see churches trending today.

“We have no king but Caesar.”

Joseph Caiaphas is Israel’s teacher. He should know better, and, for this reason, among Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas, Caiaphas was the worst of all.

Caiaphas got Pilate’s “truth.” In this rare moment of candor, Caiaphas took off his mask and revealed that he was playing the same game that Pilate was playing. His words were the same as Pilate’s in the Praetorium: The world is run by men of power.

Again, some people are stuck in the Christianity of Jesus as savior of the afterlife. It’s wrong, but it’s an honest mistake.

Mr. Falwell on the other hand, is mostly an echo of Caiaphas. He is America’s teacher, and yet so obviously, life for him consists of proximity to power. He is the defender of the triangle and his position in the triangle. Caesar does not bow to Jesus. Pilate does not bow to Jesus. Herod does not bow to Jesus. Caiaphas does not bow to Jesus.

This speaks loudly today. This is why the church has lost its prophetic voice—what Walter Bruggeman calls its “voice from elsewhere.” We aren’t a voice in the wilderness preparing for the kingdom of the world; we are rightly recognized as merely the third leg of a power triangle. So obvious is this to most people that they want nothing to do with the church.

Frankly, I’m happy about this. I’m happy that young people are dropping out of churches as they are currently constituted. I don’t sit around worrying about losing numbers. I hope it only happens faster. Why? Because when Jesus said, “everyone who listens to truth listens to me”, that means that when people are leaving the triangle that Jesus condemned in the wilderness and on Good Friday, they correctly recognize it for the falseness that it is. As we see church numbers decline, I’m reminded that the world isn’t full of cynical people like Pilate and Caiaphas and Herod, but the large crowds of ordinary people who received news of the kingdom with rejoicing.

Religious leaders play their game in the White House, get the blessing of the powers, and then bless whatever power gives them power. They bless our devastating wars. They bless our massive concentrations of wealth.

You know you’ve seen this. You know that the economic powers and the war powers enjoy in America freedom that they do not enjoy in less religious countries. You know that the wellbeing of people who live in the most religious parts of the America is worse than the wellbeing of those who live in its least religious parts. Where there is broad human flourishing in the world, the war powers and the economic powers don’t have the religious powers in their service to deflect attention.

 

Part 12

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 10

For nine posts I’ve hammered home that God’s plan from the beginning was mostly concerned with how societies are arranged. No doubt, the arrangement of society involves the actions of individuals. And no doubt, the proper actions of individuals arise out of the proper formation of individuals. This is religion, and this is our religion. Last post’s topic, Jubilee, was about a massive transfer of wealth from society’s winners to its losers (or, you could say, from its job creators to those who “should have just gotten a job”). Jubilee is radical, and it is a matter of faith.

But other parts of the Torah also demanded that society take from its winners and give to its losers.

Those other parts are readily identifiable, and I could just list them here and be done with it so we could move to Part 11. That would be an easy way to simplify my work, but in this post I would rather you walk Torah. I would rather take your imagination to where Torah really does its work. Sometimes Torah is best taught from a vantage point way up in the sky, but today we will see it operate at the ground level.

Today I’m going to tell you a love story.

This story is already in the Bible, but it’s almost always told poorly, and I think it deserves retelling. The story is complex, edgy, absolutely scandalous, rebellious, controversial, political, rule breaking, and unmistakably Jesus. Tragically though, the way the story virtually always gets taught saps out all of this.

Of course, I’m talking about the Old Testament book of Ruth. If you’ve been taught the story of Ruth and didn’t come away with what I just described, you need to go back to whoever told it to you and demand your money back. 

I used to think Ruth was boring—kind of a vanilla story about two friends.

Today, I can’t believe they ever allowed that book in the Bible.

Before we get to the story, I want to make a few general observations about it. First, in order to appreciate the story, you need to accept the fact that the Old Testament does not speak with a single voice. I’ve written about this plenty, but its worth saying again: the Old Testament is constantly arguing with itself. This is not a flaw but an essential feature of the whole project. When you read the Old Testament, you are reading on-going debates about a variety of issues, and both sides are usually presented without censorship. Ruth is part of that tradition. It was written as part of a big dispute. When you get to the life of Rabbi Jesus in the New Testament, the subtext of much of his teaching is him actually picking sides in on-going debates. What I’ve just said is an essential part of reading the New Testament well. Ruth is important for the Christian not simply because it is in the Bible, but because Jesus emphatically sides with the arguments its author makes throughout the story.

Ruth is also important because of its unique perspective. The first seven books of the Bible—Genesis through Judges—are dominated by larger-than-life characters and stories: Noah and the Ark; Abraham, the “father of all nations”; Jacob, the father of the tribes of Israel; Joseph, the prime minister of Egypt; Moses, the giver of the Torah; Joshua; Sampson; Gideon; etc. Their stories are epochal, supernatural, and fantastical. But the story of Ruth is none of that; Ruth is an ordinary person. Her story involves no conquests, no parting seas, no battles, no angels or spirits, and no miracles. Also, Ruth is the only book of the Bible in which women do more of the talking than men (interesting then that Jesus would adopt so much of this book). For these reasons, Ruth provides perspectives that the rest of the Bible sometimes misses.

Lastly, as Old Testament stories go, Ruth is probably one of the more recently written stories. As I said earlier, Ruth wasn’t written to tell you “what happened”. It’s not just some history. It’s not just a nice thing that involved a woman named Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi.

Ruth is a polemic.

It is an argument.

It may not be a “true story”, but yet it is a completely true story.

Sickness, Death, and Bitterness

The story of Ruth begins not with Ruth, but with Naomi. She has a husband and two sons, Mahlon and Khilion. They live a spartan but content life in Bethlehem. Beit-lekhem is famous today, but it carried zero notoriety in this time (as when Jesus was born in one its many caves that are used as barns). Few people lived there, and what few people did live there were unmistakably poor.

So to begin the story of Ruth, the author tells us that the conditions of this poor village were made all the worse by a regional famine (read this as “economic crisis”). Economic crises, of course, hit hardest the most poor, and so it did with Naomi’s family. And the problems piled on. After months of the stress that comes from living in any famine, the economic crisis hit Naomi’s family especially hard. They couldn’t pay their debts, the bank foreclosed, and they lost their home. By the way, all of this takes place before the very first sentence of the story is completed. It’s as if whoever was first listening to this story was already well acquainted with these kinds of life events.

Ruth doesn’t finish the first verse, and the story is already ground level stuff.

Having lost all they owned and all hope of survival in Bethlehem, the family moved across the Jordan River to the nation of Moab, hoping to find work there. Naomi’s sons married two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, but the drought continued.

(Yes, this is the Orpah after whom the leading 2020 presidential candidate is named).

But, as Naomi had known so often, good times were always followed by tragedy. First, Naomi’s husband died.

And then her two sons died.

(BTW, her sons’ names, “Mahlon” and “Khilion”, are Hebrew words that mean “sickness” and “death.” Unless you’re inclined to believe that a real mother had real children and actually named them Sickness and Death, you should be clued in by now to Ruth’s literary genre)

In this time when people—let alone women—had few means by which to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, Naomi and her daughter-in-law suddenly found themselves all alone and vulnerable in Moab. Naomi was too old to work for herself, and now she had no one to support her. Of course, she had no economic prospects back in Judah either, but at least she had some friends and some family there. And one day, after hearing that Judah was beginning to recover from its economic crisis, she decided it would be better to trek back to the village of Bethlehem than die as a childless widow in Moab where there was no social safety net. She left for Judah when Orpah and Ruth began the trek along behind her.

But, in one of the more tender scenes of the Bible, Naomi turned around to face her daughters-in-law. “Go back to the land of your family. May the LORD grant you kindness as you have shown me kindness. Why would you come with me? Even if there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight then gave birth to sons—would you wait until they grew up?” Naomi could muster the strength to utter those words, but could hold it in no longer. The women wept together on the road, and Orpah agreed to go back home.

Ruth, however, was insistent, and the words she spoke have resonated for thousands of years: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”

No doubt, those words are a beautiful statement of devotion and friendship. They stand on their own as an exemplar of loving faithfulness, but where modern-day Christians make an important mistake is assuming that this was the point of the story. That this is what made Ruth important. Judaism’s guiding ethical principal is and has long been khesed, or faithful devotion, but this was true long before the book of Ruth was penned down.

Yet, in recording these words of the story—which has found its way into untold women’s devotional books and Bible studies and sisterhoods and traveling pants—the author could not have been more controversial if he or she had tried. I’ll explain shortly.

Naomi and Ruth entered the village of Bethlehem, and, even through the new wrinkles on Naomi’s face, people soon recognized her. However, in one of the sadder moments of the Bible, Naomi protested that no one in the village call her Naomi (which means, “pleasant”). “Call me Mara,” which means “Bitter”, “for I’ve had a hard life. I went away full, but have come back empty.” Naomi had always had a hard life, but the previous ten years had given her the face of one who had known little more than hunger, worry, exhaustion, and thirst.

Naomi and Ruth entered Bethlehem homeless. As such, they were tired, hungry, and afraid.

Edges, Wings, and Blankets

Before we advance further, I have to teach you some Torah and some Hebrew. As I said earlier, the story of Ruth was part of a Torah dispute, and the author uses different parts of the law as well as some Hebrew wordplay to connect different parts of the story and, thus, to shape the questions you should be asking about it.

The Torah instructs those who own land not to harvest the edges of their fields; the edges of the fields are for the poor of the community to come in and “glean” whatever had grown there.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus c19

Not only did the edges of the field have to remain unharvested, but if you were harvesting the middle of your field and a sheave of grain were to fall off of your cart or wagon, the Torah said that you could not pick it up. Those sheaves were for the poor.

This law of gleaning sets in motion what happens when Ruth and Naomi enter Bethlehem.

Now some Hebrew: The Hebrew word for “edge” is the word kanaf. It also means “wings” and it also means “blanket.” As you’re about to see, the author of this story gets a lot of mileage out of this word. These different uses of the word are meant to make you link different parts of the story.

And now back to the story.

When Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem, the author tells us about a relative on Naomi’s late husband’s side named Boaz, one of “standing” who owned several barley fields. Naomi—who before would have been too ashamed to enter the life of a dependent welfare recipient—now instructed her daughter-in-law to go glean in the field of her relative, Boaz.

Gleaning was frustrating, humiliating, and even dangerous work. First of all, landowners knew well the commercial parts of the Torah and were careful to leave just as little unharvested grain as permissible under the law. Gleaners were maligned and frequently were attacked.

(Had Fox News been around in this time in Judah, Tucker Carlson would have run nightly reports on “those lazy, immoral, and ungodly gleaners.”)

Nobody wanted their field to be known as the place for gleaners to feel too comfortable. This was especially true when the gleaners were women, even more so when the female gleaners were foreigners.

Further, Ruth is shy, she’s a foreigner, she’s in a new land, and she’s about to embark in a lifestyle that was subject to harassment. The author of Ruth assumes you know that it is only out of profound desperation that anyone would take on this sort of life.

And that gets us to Boaz.

When all the nervous gleaners arrived on this particular morning at the start of the harvest, Boaz didn’t try to run them off. He didn’t call the police. He greeted them. At some point in the day, Boaz noticed Ruth, for she was a gleaner he hadn’t seen in years past. When Boaz asked one of his workers who she was, the man responded, “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi.”

And that gets me to a second point about the Torah. There’s something I haven’t told you this whole time, this time about one of the Torah’s darker corners. The Israelites and the Moabites were bitter enemies, and, by the time of this story, had been for a long time. Most of Israel’s national stories go out of their way to paint the Moabites in a bad light. There’s a story behind that, but what you need to know is that the Torah is absolutely 100% clear that Moabites may not have any participation in Israelite society.

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.

Deuteronomy c23

Just pause and think about what this story is doing.

Not only is Ruth poor.

Not only is Ruth a welfare recipient.

Not only is Ruth a foreigner.

Ruth is an illegal immigrant.

And one from a place the Israelites would have considered a shithole country.

Ruth should not be as virtuous as she is. She should be rotten to the core. She should be selfish and greedy and violent and foaming at the mouth—she’s a Moabite. She’s illegal. If this Moabite wants to glean in our fields—the fields we worked hard on—she should go back to Moab.

But that’s not how the author the story describes her. Ruth is a Moabite who has the best qualities to which Israelites would aspire. Imagine a modern Israeli story about a Palestinian with these qualities, and you will begin to understand the scandal. The words that we read earlier, “I will go where you go; your people will be my people; your God will be my God,” would suddenly jump off the page.

Can you believe what Ruth said??? would have been a common response.

So Ruth, a woman of noble character, finds herself on this morning at the field of Boaz as the prime target for savage mistreatment. And that’s when Boaz activated some pre-Jesus Jesus, “My daughter, you are welcome to glean in this field. Just follow along after the harvesters. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.”

If at this point you need a moment to let out a good cry, I assure you this post will wait on you.

Of course, Ruth too was in shock over his kindness. She’d never encountered in Moab such a generous national system like this one for taking care of poor foreigners like her. It was dog-eat-dog in Moab. But Boaz was not even done! While Ruth was pondering it all, Boaz quietly went over to his field hands and instructed them to make sure that plenty of grain sheaves would accidentally fall out of the wagon. “You’re going to do your worst work today”, he said. Finally, he goes back to Ruth and tells her this:

“I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

That word, “wings” is that word kanaf again. It’s the place where the poor and foreigners and refugees could come and glean in the fields. This is what God has in mind for societies of means. The gods of Moab didn’t take in refugees and let them glean in fields, but the God of Israel was insistent on it.

And then, just to make sure she felt 100% welcome there, he offers her to take some bread and dip it with him in some wine.

(Are the blinkers on your Christian dashboard going off yet? Are you seeing the literary tradition from which centuries later Jesus would borrow?)

It’s okay to cry again.

I want to repeat what I said earlier: this story is scandalous, and it’s only just getting started. Sure, the Torah required that foreigners be able to glean in fields. But Ruth is a Moabite! She is in violation of the Torah. Boaz should have called ICE and had her deported. At the very least, Boaz should not have been kind to her.

Because the law!

Over some period of time, Ruth continued to glean in Boaz’s barley fields and brought home each day more than she and Naomi even needed, yet Boaz continually insisted that she bring home even more, just in case her mother-in-law might need more. Out of Boaz’s illegal generosity it appears that over time, Ruth was able to use some of the surplus to make a living and buy some clothes.

And that gets me to Naomi’s plan.

One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. Tonight Boaz will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor in his barn. Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the barn, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, go and uncover his feet and lie down with him. You will know what to do.”

Ruth agreed to the plan. She put on some of her new clothes and put on perfume. Then that night she went out to the barn and hid behind some sheaves of barley. Boaz worked that night threshing barley, finished for the night, ate and drank, and fell asleep in the barn. Once the commotion of threshing and carousing had ceased, Ruth came out of her hiding place and laid next to Boaz.

Now, your Bible says that she “uncovered his feet.” Before we go further, you need to understand is your Bible uses a whole range of euphemisms for the main male organ and for sex in general. So, I don’t care what you think you’re reading in the third chapter of Ruth, she was not uncovering his feet, nor laying at his feet. I’ll let you use your imagination to figure out what she really did.

Regardless, when Ruth did what she did, it caused Boaz to wake up. Before I can explain what happened next, I have one more bit of Torah to teach you: the law of guardian redeemers. Under the Torah, if a creditor were to foreclose on a property, a relative of the property owner had the right to pay the creditor to redeem the property. This was true even if the creditor had already taken the property.

If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and loses some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have lost. If, however, there is no one to redeem it for them but later on they prosper and acquire sufficient means to redeem it themselves, they are to determine the value for the years since they sold it and refund the balance to the one to whom they sold it; they can then go back to their own property. But if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property.

Leviticus c25

So when Boaz asked the woman who she was, she replied: “I am your servant Ruth. Spread your blanket over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.”

(yes this is sexual, yes the author is connecting it to the story’s other uses of the word kanaf, yes she is using sex to get out of her poverty, yes this is in the Bible—are you starting to see what this story would have caused outrage?)

So, after a night of passion under the blanket in the threshing barn, Boaz the next day went out to find the man who ten years before had foreclosed on Naomi’s home. But it turned out Boaz could not redeem the property because there was another man who was more closely related to Naomi. Under the law, this man had the first right of refusal.

Boaz found the man and let him know that he wanted to buy the property and add it to his estate, but that he had the right of first refusal. The man at first indicated that he was interested in exercising his right of redemption, but in a final literary exclamation point, the author tells us that the man changed his mind when he found out that redeeming the property would mean under the law that he would have to marry the Moabite woman. Because of course.

In the end, Boaz redeemed the property, married the illegal Moabite, and gave the property back to Naomi.

I’m not impressed with people who say that we want our country to be generous, but these people are illegal so we can’t. Our nation doesn’t get to avoid being a place under whose wings foreigners come to take refuge by hiding behind its laws. The story of Ruth is the story of a man who avoids the law by finding an incredibly questionable loophole. Further, and more importantly, if our laws are the thing that stands between what we have today and justice rushing like a river, what we need to do is change our laws.

I’m also not impressed with those who say that relaxing our laws will lead to lawlessness.  The book of Ruth did not lead to an outbreak of crime and anarchy. It did develop the Israelites in their vocation to shine justice on the rest of the word. And just as the redeemer of Ruth woke up in a barn in Bethlehem, the redeemer of the world also woke up in a barn in Bethlehem. Later, he would offer all people a see at the table to take some bread and dip it in wine.

Or maybe I could sum up this long post by saying it this way: I cannot imagine God blessing a country that complains about how many of its immigrants come from shithole countries. Today, America is in the position of Boaz. We have the means. We don’t have to find loopholes in our laws; we can simply change them. And, like Ruth, people are exposing themselves to great risk and humiliating themselves in numerous ways to come here and try to feed their families.

So here is the question: Do we want to be like Israel or do we want to be like Moab?

 

Part 11

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 9

If you’ve kept up so far, I doubt you’ve struggled to pick up on my goals for this series. I want you to see God’s deep concern for the earth, the life that lives on it, and the ways in which societies arrange themselves (which is a less offensive-sounding way of saying “politics”). I want you forever rid of the modern private-salvation-in-the-afterlife Christianity that saturates most churches these days and instead become immersed in a theology of here and now. To work on that, we’ve raced in a dizzying route from one part of the Bible to the next: Rome’s war with Israel, Messiahs, Caesars, the Gospel of Mark, pigs, Herod, Isaiah (lots of Isaiah), Armageddon, stonings, Daniel, genealogies, and Jesus’s baptism. When you go deep into these topics, you start to see patterns that repeat and feel weight that supports these themes I’ve talked about. Because these themes show up virtually everywhere in the Bible, I’ve written this series—unlike the last series—with almost no plan. I’ve not needed one!

So of course today is all about the Jewish calendar.

The sacred calendar—like the rest of the Torah—was designed to form the Hebrews into a weird sort of people. By that I mean, a small people uniquely equipped to prophetically critique the practices of their big, destructive neighbors—while enduring the punishment that would accompany that vocation and conducting their nation with integrity to their own words. And, yes, to do that well, you have to be sort of weird. You can’t fall into the standard patterns of normal. You have to be formed in ways that are a bit out of this world. I use the word “weird.” The Bible uses the word “holy.” And that gets me to the calendar.

Shabbat intensely reminds the Jews that humans—all humans—are made in the image of God.

Seder reminds them of the inhumanity of humans owning other humans. Jews for centuries have been on the side of learning this the hard way.

Sukkot reminds them of vulnerability. God’s heart is mostly with the vulnerable.

Shavuot reminds them of justice. Justice is most uniquely and powerfully articulated among the vulnerable.

Yom Kippur reminds them of grace and mercy. The world will never heal while arrange ourselves according to who we understand are most deserving.

But the calendar events aren’t ends in of themselves—they are going somewhere. If most of the calendar is about preparation and formation, one part of the calendar answers the question, “for what?”

This is Yubal, the Year of Jubilee.

Jubilee happened every 50th year of the Jewish calendar, but before I say anything further, notice that this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. If you didn’t know anything else about Jubilee, that one observation should at least hint that the human was the principal aim of it. And if Jubilee is the destination of the entire Jewish calendar, that should hint that the actual lives of humans are what this whole religion is about. And if that’s what you’re thinking, you would be right.

Jubilee is what God wants for the world. It’s how he wants it to work. Three things happen during Jubilee. As I explain it, resist the temptation to spiritualize it. Make it earthy. Make it political, economic, radical, and scary as hell.

  • All debts: cancelled.
  • Everyone who sold themselves into slavery to pay debts: freed.
  • All land that was lost from failure to pay debts: returned.

Just think about that. Debts are cancelled, debt collection practices are ceased, and people are returned to their foreclosed homes. You may not be able to imagine that actually happening, but the Hebrew prophets did.

I can already hear the ancient Hebrews grumbling how debt is an essential part of a free market economy and the government can’t pick winners and losers and if we release people of debt we’ll create economic moral hazard and they shouldn’t have borrowed so much money and Israel is becoming nothing more than a socialist nanny state and Yahweh is punishing the job creators and the Torah is just a bunch of job-killing regulations!

Can you hear it? I can because I live in America. Not only can I hear it, but I can show you graphs and charts and formulas that support each of these contentions. These are the arguments, both before and after studying economics in college, that I too would make. But God doesn’t call us to economic models. He calls each of us to faith. He calls our nation to faith. Real faith. Not what we write on our currency kind of faith, but what our nation spends its currency on kind of faith.

And God’s heart is for those who fall into the poorest rungs of society—even when we believe they get there only by making poor choices (because everyone makes poor choices, but some pay more than others). Even when it requires a society to make decisions that the economists at the Heritage Foundation say will reduce growth and destroy our economy.

But let’s dig deeper.

I want you to notice something else about this.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Jubilee is that almost no one in Israel had to follow it. Virtually no one had money to loan or land to foreclose. Almost everyone was too poor. Basically nobody had any means of disobeying this command even if they wanted to. Think about what I’m saying. The year of Jubilee applied to just a handful of wealthy families and businesses.

(Yahweh wants to take your land and give it to a bunch of people who will just waste it. What we need is to cut regulations like the Torah and create jobs.)

And yet, this calendar event—this command that applied to almost no one—was the fulfillment of all the contemplation in the other Jewish holidays. It is the fulfillment of Sabbath, when Jews think about the divine in all humans. It is the fulfillment of Passover, when the Jews think about the ways in which humans can own other humans. It is the fulfillment of the Festival of Tabernacles, when the Jews think about the plight of the most vulnerable. It is the fulfillment of Pentecost, when the Jews think about restorative justice (the principal kind of justice in the Hebrew mind). And it is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement, when grace and mercy are extended regardless of merit.

And that brings me to Jesus—the man who gives me the only reason I as a Christian have any business ever being in the Torah. In the same way that Jubilee is the fulfillment of the Jewish calendar, Jesus is the fulfillment of Jubilee:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke c4

When Jesus over and over calls himself the fulfillment of the Isaiahs and the Jeremiahs and Ezekiels, he is talking about the world he is creating. If you confess Jesus is Lord, that categorically means your vision is of a world in which those who fall into the slavery of financial ruin are given Jubilee. A society with no permanent elite and no permanent underclass. So, of course, modern American Christians do what we always do: we spiritualize it all.

The only time you will hear Christians use the word Jubilee is when we talk about forgiveness of sins so we don’t burn in fire after we die. “We are all slaves to sin and Jesus is the Jubilee” is a common American sermon. But the Jews weren’t waiting on a Messiah who would forgive their sins; they already had Yom Kippur.

What Jews were actually waiting on (and what you actually find in the prophet descriptions of the Messiah) was one who would fulfill their vocation: to take what the Jews already had and share with everyone else.

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Isaiah c49

If the whole point of centuries of the Torah was simply—as is way too often said in churches—to prepare God’s people to believe (1) that sin leads to eternity in fire and (2) you need God’s son to avoid the wrath of Jesus’s angry dad, you just have to understand what a big “haha, just kidding” move that would have been. The whole Old Testament would be like a big “psyche!” A sick kind of joke to be honest.

When Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount tells the Jewish crowd “you are the light of the world”, he isn’t saying, “you are in charge of telling everyone how an angry God is appeased by killing his son.” He is reminding his listeners of their purpose. He is reminding them that they are weird. And he is bringing to completion what made them weird.

He is bringing Jubilee to the world.

(this world)

 

Part 10

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 8

I spent the first half of the year portraying the Bible as the freeing thing that it is instead of the enslaving thing that we’ve made it. And I’ve spent the second half of the year working on your spirituality becoming more earthy. So today we’re going to tackle what you surely have been thinking is the most obvious question.

Why was Jesus baptized?

(didn’t see that coming, did you?)

The Bible provides little about Jesus’s life until the day he went to the Jordan River to visit his thunderous but mysterious cousin, John. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke inform us that John was immersing large crowds in the Jordan River in a “baptism of repentance.” Jesus traveled among the crowds to participate in these baptisms. Now, before I go any further, let’s stop right there and pay attention to what should be a nagging problem.

According to all the atonement theory I heard growing up, God needs stuff to die when we sin and Jesus could perfectly atone for our sins as a sacrifice only if he himself was a perfect sacrifice. Yet, the only baptisms we find in the New Testament are John’s baptism of repentance and Peter’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins. According to Paul, when we are baptized we enter into Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. And, of course, we read that to mean: I’m a wretched sinner, but Jesus as the sinless sacrifice means I get my sins forgiven! I’m saved! Hallelujah!

We baptize thousands of frightened young teenagers in summer camps all over the country by convincing them that that one time they masturbated means God now views them as a loathsome spider, and they will spend eternity in a scorching and searing torture chamber—unless they accept the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ!

(and we wonder why kids leave their upbringings with all kinds of psychological problems)

Except . . . wait a second.

Wait just one second.

If Jesus was the perfect atoning sacrifice who never sinned—who never needed to repent of anything—then what was he doing at his cousin’s baptism of repentance extravaganza in the Jordan River?

Of course, the church of Christ (my tribe) has a quick theological answer for this (as we always do when we get backed into a theological corner). In order to protect our tight biblical scheme, we like to say that Jesus would never ask us to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself, and so he set the example to emphasize that we either do that little thing in water or else burn in fire for eternity. And that does it. We swiftly move on from the temptation in the desert through the rest of Jesus’s life—not asking too many questions about what we find there—until we reach the writings of Paul where we really stop and savor good old atonement theology.

But, really. Is that it? Is that really the point of the whole baptism story? Is that the point of Paul’s writings on atonement? Is that the whole point of life? Believe in Jesus and get in some water and you’ll be saved from fire?

(Really, this is a point for another post, but if conservative Christians understood Paul’s writings more critically, I’m convinced we’d use them nowhere near as much as we currently do.)

Well, I think that is a miserable understanding of Jesus, Jesus’s baptism, Paul’s letters and the years you’ll spend on this planet of coral reefs and glaciers and swamps and rainforests and beaches and mountains and deserts and sunsets and wind and rain and sunshine. The good thing is there’s a better way of understanding the story—a way that doesn’t suck all the life out of the thing. But it requires more critical reading than we usually bring to the Bible.

The first thing you need to notice about the story of Jesus’s baptism is what Luke does immediately afterwards. Unfortunately, that thing is the very thing that your attention-sapped brain is almost certain to ignore: a genealogy.

Not just a genealogy.

But a long one.

Full of names you don’t know.

Or care about.

(And—most importantly—one that has nothing to do with what one must do to get out of Hell.)

Do not ever skip a genealogy. Never ever, ever. If ever there was a sin worthy of being consigned to the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness, skipping a genealogy in the Bible might be that sin. You need to understand that every time you read your Bible and it suddenly forces you to read a genealogy—a long one full of names you don’t know or care about and you think “this has nothing to do with what I must do to get out of Hell”—what your Bible is really doing is making an important argument about something.

When Jesus comes out of the water, the story tells us that a voice comes out of Heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” In the baptism story, God announces from the Heavens that Jesus is the son of God. Remember that when you read the genealogy, which states as follows: “Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli . . . [skipping a lot] . . . the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”

That’s very interesting. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus gets baptized, God announces Jesus as the son of God, and, immediately after that, we read a genealogy in which Adam is named the son of God. And if you’re wondering whether Luke wants you to connect those two things, you are absolutely right. Luke wants you to connect Jesus with what happened in the Hebrew creation myth of Genesis.

On day one, God saw what he made and said that it was good (“tov”).

On day two, God saw what he made and said that it was good.

On day three, God saw what he made and said that it was good. (twice actually)

On day four, God saw what he made and said that it was good.

On day five, God saw what he made and said that it was good.

On day six, God made plants, animals, and humans, and God saw what he made on that day and said that it was very good (“tov meod”).

Very. Good.

The story of the Old Testament is the story of how God made everything in the beginning to be tov but greedy systems of oppression, injustice, inequality, poverty, war, and empire (played out in the narrative of the Old Testament and symbolized in the garden story that itself is a repurposing of important national myths from the mighty Babylonian empire) separated humanity from God’s adama tov (“good earth”). It should be no surprise then that Jesus’s baptism took place in the same river where the Israelite’s historical myths recorded that they entered the land of Canaan (and slaughtered everyone they found). Jesus’s baptism is in one sense a kind of redo. A kind of lets-start-from-the-beginning-and-try-again. A return not just to the entry into the promised land but a return to the original blessing that all created things are good.

Luke wants you to think of Jesus as the new Adam.

Not as one who came so we could separate ourselves from the Earth. Or who came to announce that we should live in accordance with only those things that fit into neat religious categories.

No.

God loves the Earth. He loves the cherry blossoms in Japan. The Grand Canyon in Arizona. He loves the Northern Lights in Iceland. The sequoia redwood trees in California. The Alps of Switzerland. The rice fields of Vietnam. The cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta.

He loves brown bears. And antelope. And hippos. And kangaroos. And eagles. And alligators. And lions. And big dogs. And small dogs. And those little bitty dogs in the toy category of the National Dog Show. And maybe a few cats.

He loves humans. And human culture. He loves the English language. The French language. The Chinese language. The Swahili language. He loves the riddled poetry of T.S Elliot. The literary triumphs of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He loves the Delta Blues songs that were sung on Saturday nights by black plantation workers in Mississippi and the gospel music songs that were sung by those same plantation workers on Sunday mornings. He loves the paintings of Marc Chagall and Mark Rothko. He loves the heartbreak of Beethoven’s symphonies and Shakespeare’s sonnets. And plenty more.

Dance.

Food.

Wine.

Exploration.

Discovery.

Science.

Government.

But what God doesn’t love are the systems of Caesar, Pharaoh, and Nebuchadnezzar. Systems that work for some but don’t work for most.

This is what John the Apostle meant when he wrote “do not love the world or anything in the world.” When John wrote those words, he wasn’t questioning the first chapter of Genesis. He wasn’t arguing against God, who said it was good. He wasn’t arguing with Jesus who said that God so loved the world that he sent his only son to save it. He wasn’t saying that what Jesus really meant was God sent his only son to save us from it. No, he was warning us not to love the systems of power he observed in the world that had not yet been reconciled in the image of Christ (which he calls “the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”). He was warning us against systems that seduce us into feelings of power, but ultimately bring about suffering to most of the world.

And this is the sin from which Jesus repented when he made the long hike down from Galilee to the Jordan River. We confess that Jesus committed no individual sins, and I have no qualm with that.

As we confess that Jesus saves us from our sins, Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan calls us to question what exactly that means. I think Jesus’s baptism is a recognition that our primary sin is the sin we do as a group—as a nation—as a planet. A recognition that we are all in this together. A recognition that you cannot separate the individual from the system. Jesus lived in systems that separated the mass of humanity from the good creation that the poets of the post Babylonian exile described in Genesis. He grew up in and lived in them.

And because—as John’s words reverberated throughout the countryside—the kingdom of Heaven was at hand, Jesus repented of the system.

I’ve been talking about systems for several posts now. God’s care for them is central to a proper and complete understanding of the Bible. It is central to what Jesus calls “abundant life”. Yet, most conservative, atonement-theory Christians simply aren’t good at this. We lump all of life into (1) things that fit into our atonement-for-sins-so-we-don’t-burn-in-fire theology and (2) everything else. Once we’ve successfully placed everything into the holy and the profane (or “spiritual” and “worldly”) we celebrate the one and neglect the other, thinking we’re being godly.

We aren’t.

I’m calling Christians to a more earthy, more Jewish theology. A theology in which everything is spiritual. A theology of rocks and trees and soil. Of sweat. A theology of wine. A theology of justice. A theology of peace.

I’m calling Christians to turn their gaze away from some invisible place beyond the clouds (where nothing is changing) and return it down to God’s adama tov.

The amount you can learn about God from trying to use your Bible to escape this world pales in comparison to what you will learn by sitting in the mountains, reading great literature, listening to Delta blues, eating strange foods with foreigners, and involving yourself with the most vulnerable people in your midst.

 

Part 9

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 7

The six posts that came before today’s post have been a very long introduction to what I have for you today. I don’t know if that’s the most effective way of writing, but anyone who knows me knows I play the long game and always have. Today I directly address what has been the title of this series. Today we get systematic and theological.

Stones

The Gospel of John c8 tells a story familiar to believers and nonbelievers alike. It takes place on the day immediately after the weeklong, boisterous, and wine-aplenty Jewish Festival of Tabernacles. It’s morning time and Rabbi Jesus is teaching in the temple court of Jerusalem when a group of Jews brought to Jesus a woman and the words: “Rabbi, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The Torah commands us to stone such a woman. Now what do you say?” Of course, you know what he said next: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” You know this story because it is a beautiful story. A story of compassion and a daring embodiment of the sacred teaching to “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

However, a few things need to be said.

First, the Jewish leaders were good at reading the Bible, and they were correct. Deuteronomy c22 really did command what they said it did. Second, Jesus’s statement may have been nice, but it most certainly is not what the Torah says. Frankly, the most fair and sound way to read the Torah is that when Jesus didn’t like it, he simply found a way not to follow it. That’s what he did. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” not only isn’t in the Torah, but it effectively swallows up what is.

And that brings me to stoning, a barbaric practice and one that— as the ancient (and barbaric) ancient Hebrews first came into contact with Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—they surely assumed that God had commanded stoning all along.

But there’s something else about stoning that you need to understand to get what Jesus is saying to us today.

Stoning is an incredibly inefficient way to kill someone. We know enough about ancient people to know that they had much faster ways of killing people. But stoning was employed, nevertheless, because when a community engages in a stoning, no single individual can be said to have killed the person. Ancient people were conscientious of the moral implications of their choices just like anyone, and a stoning by a mob allowed the guilt of what would otherwise be imputed to an individual to be imputed to an impersonal, fictionalized, and separate collective body. As long as everyone in the community throws a stone, no one person could be said to have killed the offending person. As long as the guilt might be said to impute to the mob, each person who made up the mob could say, “Well, I’m not the mob.”

Keep that in mind, and let’s go back to the story of Jesus and the woman.

When the Jewish Rabbis brought to Rabbi Yeshua the woman to be stoned, they brought with them their Satanic understanding that if we just stone her as a group, then no one individual will be the cause of her death and so guilty of her death. This is the subtext required to understand the genius of what Jesus’s words, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Folks.

This is brilliant. Subversive. Revolutionary. World changing. Jesus message to all who would ever live is this: we don’t get to circumvent what the Sermon on the Mount would prohibit individually by instead just doing it as a group. Jesus’s kingdom does not consist of doing as a group what could not be done individually.

We don’t stone people today, and I’m glad we don’t.

However, I can’t say that the reason we don’t stone people is because we’ve fully embraced Rabbi Yeshua. The real reason we don’t stone people is because instead we have stealth fighters and aircraft carriers and surface-to-air missiles and tanks and laser-guided missiles and nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles and special forces.

We have a half-trillion-dollar-a-year professional military, the work of which we rarely see up close.

And we tell ourselves that we didn’t carpet bomb Vietnam. Our military did. Our government did. Our nation did.

Jesus’s literal words would imply that you get to stone people if you’re without sin, and I’ve heard people preach this. Please stop that. The point of what Jesus said to the rabbis was not you get to stone people if you’re without sin. His point was you’re all sinful. You don’t get to stone people. All of you. Even your mobs. Even your tribal fighting men. Even your Roman legion. Even your professional military. Even your Air Force. Even your Army. Even your Navy. Even your Marines. Even when it’s done under the authority and splendor of the star-spangled flag.

And even when your stones become F-22s. 

Goats

Today’s lesson is about the individual and the collective.

We live in an individualized, self-realizing, privatized Western world. It is how we organize our residences, our communities, our political rhetoric, our free time, our economics, our popular culture, our cultural mythologies, our western movies, the state of Texas, and even our theological categories like salvation and entry into the kingdom. One of the popular talking points of politics these days is “privatization”—moving traditional public sector functions to the private sector. We make the government to be separate and apart from ourselves and mostly like a kind of leach. I’m talking about the growth in libertarianism. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, in the same vein, our rhetoric and theology about the “kingdom of God” has trended largely along the same lines. Salvation is mostly (1) a privatized thing and (2) a thing that becomes realized mostly when we die, with little to know regard to how we arrange our society. But let’s listen to Jesus.

In the same way that groups (or nations) cannot do what individuals cannot do, the nations must do what individuals also must do.

Jesus spent most of his three-year ministry in Galilee, but in Matthew c23-25, Jesus is in his final week of his ministry and is in Jerusalem, where we confess he was coronated king on a Roman cross. In that week, he relentlessly teaches about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and he flavors that teaching with a series of parables about what his kingdom will be like. These teachings are a single thought. They cannot be divorced from each other, but must be read together. Otherwise, you will do what most modern Christians do, and that is apply them to post-mortem concerns when they aren’t about that at all.

This includes the famous parable of the sheep and the goats.

In that parable Jesus says that when the Son of Man (more on that below) comes in his glory (more on that below), he will gather all the nations before him.

(Don’t ignore that word)

Then he will separate them to his left and right. The ones he places on his right (the sheep) will be those who provide for the poor, provide for the sick, and treat prisoners and foreigners (think immigrants) with compassion. Those are the nations who inherit from Heaven “the Kingdom that was prepared since the creation of the world.” They will live as God wanted people to live from day one in the garden and will never be destroyed.

But those nations on the left (the goats) don’t provide for the poor, don’t provide for the sick, don’t treat prisoners with compassion, and make life miserable for the immigrant. They are the ones who scoff at the poor. Who say “in America there is no excuse to be poor”. Who say, “they just don’t work hard enough.” Who buy into every scary idea of brown people from across the border. Who embrace in churches the teachings of the atheist, Ayn Rand. They are consigned for what Jesus calls the “eternal fire.”

You need to not miss that Jesus spends the final week of his life talking about the nations.

When Jesus teaches this parable, he had just talked in great detail about the inevitable destruction of Jerusalem. He had just finished explaining how Jerusalem had not embraced the way of the kingdom he had described. And he tells them sternly, “How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?” (Gehenna is a valley to the south of Jerusalem. We translate that word “Hell.”)

But what about the timing of all of this? When will this happen? Jesus said that it would happen when the Son of Man “comes in his glory.” When is that? Unfortunately, most moderns understand this to mean sometime in the future when Jesus comes back to the earth. That is not what he meant. In fact, “the Son of Man coming in his glory” has already happened, specifically about two thousand year ago.

I know this because Jesus plainly said so. In the very next chapter of Matthew, we read this:

Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Matthew c26

So when are the sheep being separated from the goats? Right then. Literally right in front of Caiaphas! Not way off in the future. Not when we all die and float up into the clouds or something (I hate writing crap like that). But right there in front of the Sanhedrin.

And wouldn’t you know it? Within one generation it happened exactly as Rabbi Yeshua had predicted. Jerusalem persisted in everything Jesus had warned and against and in AD 70 was burned in the “eternal fire” and its dead were burned up in the valley Gehenna (“Hell”).

And Rome came to an end too.

So what does this mean? The parable of the sheep and the goats isn’t about what happens to your soul for eternity. It’s about the world—the whole world—being made in the image of Jesus. Further, with regard to the things that don’t look like Jesus, they end and always will.

The Son of Man

And my point just keeps going.

The “Son of Man” was by far Jesus’s favorite self designation. He identifies himself that way more than eighty times, of course the most dramatic of them occurring during his trial in front of the High Priest Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. The phrase “the Son of Man” (“ben-adam“) first appears in the Old Testament prophetic books of Daniel and Ezekiel.

It’s a loaded political phrase.

So when Jesus uses it, he is channeling political thoughts. In other words, in those words you learn (or should learn) quite a lot about his intentions for the world. Let me explain.

In the Old Testament book of Daniel, we read that Daniel has a series of wild dreams (the writer of Revelation borrows the images of these dreams to talk about the beastly Roman empire).

In the dream Daniel sees a succession of animals that each represent one of the successive world empires. Each of these empire enforce their will upon the peoples of the earth, to the suffering of all. Then, after the animal is a something that’s not even really an animal but is really just a freakish “beast”, really the summation of all the empires. These are the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and ultimately the most beastly of all—the Roman Empire. The image of a beast is used because the characteristics of these empires are not humane. They are the antithesis of human flourishing and wellbeing.

Then Daniel sees “one like a Son of Man.”

(oh yes, you know who this is)

He is brought up from the earth before the throne of God and given authority over all the kingdoms of the world.

I saw one like a Son of Man
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to God
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

This is the literary tradition that Jesus is channeling in his final week in Jerusalem as he pleads with the city to abandon its hellbent march to destruction. This is what’s behind the parable of the sheep and the goats. This is what’s happening in front of Caiaphas. This is what’s happening on the cross.

Jesus is becoming king of things. All the governments are to serve Jesus now. They are to be like him.

One of the more popular ideas in the modern American Christian imagination is the idea that taking care of the poor is the work of churches and individuals but is not the work of the government.

But notice what’s really happening in this rhetoric. Think how happy Caesar would be with this. It’s the same thing we’ve been talking about this whole time. The American theology of “individual responsibility” is a kind of theology in which Jesus’s teaching effectively applies to what we do individually but not to how we collectively organize the resources of nation.

In the American theology of “individual responsibility”, Jesus is the Son of Man over our soul but not over anything else.

(not surprisingly, the American Evangelical South is where you will find the highest rates of poverty, the worst health, the highest rates of teen pregnancy, the highest abortion rates, the most racism, the most illiteracy, the least progress, the most high school drop outs, and so )

Am I abdicating individual responsibility?

No.

Christ is King over me.

But Christ is not just King over my soul and Christ is not just the Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.

Christ is King over all.

All things are subject to Christ the King. We will be judged for what we do individually and our nation will be judged for what our nation does as a nation.

Whether our nation flourishes as the Kingdom of Jesus will depend on four things:

How did we treat the poor?

How did we treat the sick?

How did we treat the prisoner?

How did we treat the immigrant?

I’m bound by the Sermon on the Mount, my church is bound by the Sermon on the Mount, my nation is bound by the Sermon on the Mount, and my government is bound by the Sermon on the Mount.

It’s not one or the other.

It’s not either the church is to take care of the poor or the government is to take care of the poor. It’s not the church is subject to Christ but the government and our national economy is not.

Everything is subject to Christ.

When you tell me that Christ is king of our souls but not over the way we arrange the resources of our society, I have to ask you WHAT PART OF “CHRIST IS KING OVER ALL” DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 6

Diana Butler Bass says it better than I could, so I’ll just let her lead off.

Hi.

I’m one of those who grew up under exactly what you just read. So, when President Trump announced the new policy of the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I knew exactly the work and the players moving behind the scenes.

(By the way, before we go any further, I’m under no illusion that President Two Corinthians Trump has any knowledge or passion for Jerusalem, let alone the nuances in the book of Revelation that we’ll be addressing today. However, what he is acutely aware of is that he is slowly losing support of the white evangelical voting base that single-handedly got him into office and got me started on this blog series.)

From a distance, this discussion to many nonreligious people seems trivial at best, and really kind of odd. But, as Bass correctly asserted, President Trump’s decision is the sad result of assenting to a very small evangelical Christian community who are absolutely terrible at reading the book of Revelation. I say that, and will not apologize for it. They are terrible.

And that’s tragic. This is a more obvious example of something that happens more often than religious and nonreligious people are usually aware: bad theology puts lives in the balance. In fact, most of the problems in our world really do start with, or at least continue because of, the terrible ideas of southern evangelical Christians.

Which is why I tell nonreligious people all the time that the real battle to make our world less violent, make our societies more just, afford opportunity to all, and protect our environment is not on the streets or in political parties but in churches. The rich and the powerful have found great use in churches, and the progressive, forward thinking, and truly compassionate have wondered why their efforts elsewhere have been so fruitless. When nonreligious people advocate for the poor, protest war, and organize for community justice, we evangelicals call their work “worldly”. On the other hand, when religious people vote and act to all but ensure that the most vulnerable among us remain so, but nevertheless get someone baptized, theirs is “kingdom” work.

(I’m angry as I write this.)

So, lets go to Revelation.

First of all, we would be better off if preachers were required to obtain a special license before they could preach from that book. In the hands of people who still operate under a simplistic and flat reading of the Bible, it is truly a dangerous book. And that is a major shame.

Revelation is a triumph of literature. Of ingenuity. Of courage.

And 21st century American Christians are apt to claim that it is the most relevant book in our time. But, the fact that I agree with them is rich in irony.

Revelation is a political book.

Yes, that’s right.

Eugene Peterson, in speaking about Revelation, says, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses.” Revelation is almost always used to talk about the afterlife and where your soul will go for eternity. But Revelation has virtually nothing to do with the afterlife and everything to do with the inevitable destruction that comes to nations that understand greatness to mean military superiority.

Know any nations like that?

I know of one.

The images you see in Revelation are not images of what Heaven looks like. In Part 6 of the Bible that Borrows, I wrote extensively on how the author of Revelation brilliantly borrowed specific and identifiable military and cultic propaganda devices from the Roman Empire. His purpose? Not to describe what Heaven looks like, but to shame them. If you never read that post, I highly recommend doing so. It’s long, but I’ve probably received more positive feedback from that post than any other.

Almost everything you read about in Revelation is either (1) a propaganda device from the Roman empire, which the author uses to mock the Roman empire, or (2) one of the wild images from the Old Testament book of Daniel that its author used to denounce the beastly, exploitative empires of his day.

If I had to summarize the book of Revelation, it is the story of the world ruled by and in the image of the Beasts (the Caesars and their military, exploitative might), but is coming to be made more in the image of the vulnerable slaughtered lamb (Jesus). John uses a lot of wild imagery to tell that story, but that’s basically the story. At the end of the persecution from the mighty, scary monsters of the Empire, the followers of the Lamb win. Not by warring back, but by following the moral arc of the universe that is being made in the image of Jesus.

There’s one word in Revelation that you need to not miss: down.

At the end of the battle, a city—the New Jerusalem—comes DOWN to earth. This is because this is the big story of the Bible. Not going up to Heaven when we die, but Heaven coming down to Earth while we live. This is the New Jerusalem, where all are invited to come, even those outside in the lake of fire—those who cling to the ways of Caesar. We see lots of people in the gospels and in Actwho left allegiance to Caesar and formed their allegiance to Jesus Christ. This is what you are reading in Acts 10.

After all, we are told, the gates to the city are never shut.

The differences in these modern readings of this ancient book from Patmos are not small. They are the difference in whether you think investing in the well-being of this world is important. Whether the “new Earth” is actually a place in the clouds or the renewing of this Earth. Whether you believe this earth is being renewed—as Paul once said, that God would “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven”—or whether everything on earth is simply going to be destroyed one day and who cares what happens here.

What I’m saying is that the way you read Revelation is more or less the difference in whether you are the type of Christian who makes the world better or the type of Christian who doesn’t give a literal damn about the world.

Armageddon

Few passages of the book of Revelation get so toxically abused and yet advance the point I’m trying to make than an obscure passage in chapter 16 about Armageddon. If you’ve spent much time at all in conservative Christian circles, you’ve probably been taught that before the end of time, there will first be a massive war at some place called Armageddon and all evil will be destroyed. In fact, as I was taught, Jesus cannot come until a series of global cataclysms make way for a final megawar.

“And the demonic spirits gathered all the rulers and their armies to a place with the Hebrew name Armageddon.”

Revelation c16

Then comes the “fury of God’s wrath”, which sounds pretty scary. In fact, it has provided the substance of untold numbers of bad fiction books. Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was the best-selling novel of the 1970s, and by a wide margin.

But what’s actually happening here?

Does Jesus renounce the Sermon on the Mount and go on to kill billions of people in the Middle East?

It turns out that Armageddon, like the lake of fire, is another potent image that the author uses to describe the fate of empire that I’ve been talking about in all of AD 2017. “Armageddon” is a Hebrew word that literally means “valley of Megiddo.” A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is located in northern Israel and today is called Tel Megiddo (a “tell” is an archeological mound).

תל_מגידו

That’s where evangelicals say a war will happen.

Okay, so why is that important and why is this location an archeological mound?

Because the city has been destroyed and rebuilt twenty-six times.

You read that correctly.

Twenty.

Six.

Now do you see why the anti-empire book, Revelation, in the anti-empire collection of books, the Bible, might have found poor Megiddo as the perfect illustration of what comes when we worship the Beast?

Megiddo’s location in the land bridge between the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires to the north and the Egyptian Empire to the south made it all but inevitable that it would suffer the worst at the hands of the world’s most powerful and ambitious. It’s important that you not let your mind simply make in this number, twenty-six, just some new historical trivia to recite.

This is about people.

This is about communities.

Twenty-six communities of real people who lost everything they had because of empire and military conquest. Because of what Revelation calls the Beast. Megiddo is a brilliant and heartbreaking symbol for what the author of Revelation is trying to convey. God cares about people and the work that people put into the bonds of their communities. He cares about how we work and live and struggle and solve problems together for the common good. And yet, the ambition of the Beast always leaves the most vulnerable and hard-working communities to suffer the fate of Megiddo.

That brings us to today.

You won’t hear any of this in your typical church service. What we’re about is positioning ourselves to leave this world—to belittle and snicker at those who have “too much” concern with rebuilding the Megiddos as just “obsessed with worldly concerns”. When the author of Revelation wrote that the rulers and their armies would meet in a place called Armageddon, of course what he had in mind was the fate of Rome. But don’t assume that prophetic message from exile in Patmos doesn’t apply today. Don’t assume that our United States of America turns out to be the New Jerusalem in the end.

We might instead be aligned with the Beast in the story. And our fate might be with those on the outside, thirsty from their proximity to the lake of fire. Fortunately, we hear those on the inside who have aligned themselves with the Gospel of Peace calling out to us:

Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

Revelation c22

 

Part 7