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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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?
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?