Monday, December 23, 2013

Joseph, Jesus, Justice

Revised Common Lectionary, Advent Year 4A

In this passage, Joseph is portrayed as one who exemplifies the kind of justice that Jesus will reveal about his Father’s.

I see a chiastic (ring-composition) structure in Matthew’s rhetoric. The outer envelope (1,9) mention “Jesus,” the center section (4-6) is concerned about names, and the very center (5) is the directive to Joseph to name the child “Jesus” and gives the meaning for this name.

Matthew 1_18-25

This passage is not Matthew trying to “prove” the Virgin Birth. For Matthew he simply accepts it as true. Given the lack of scientific knowledge about childbirth and the numerous mythologies available about miraculous births and deities conceiving with humans, it probably wouldn’t have been too far-fetched for ancients to tacitly accept this as true, even if much suspicion remained about the “real” facts about how Mary conceived.

The real concern of Matthew in this passage is to show how Jesus could be a Son of David when he is clearly not biologically [1:1-17] a son of Joseph. (Traditionally Luke’s genealogy [3:23-38] has been said to be Mary’s through David’s son Nathan, but this view should not be accepted as hard fact.) Thus Matthew gives an expanded account of the genesis (translated as genealogy [v1]and birth [v18]) of Jesus. By the act of naming, Joseph makes Jesus a son according to the Law [Galatians 4:4].

This takes care of the genealogy and Matthew’s main concern, but we notice that in comparing envelope 3-7, the former is greatly expanded. We are invited to ask, “Why did Matthew feel compelled to expound upon Joseph’s thoughts and feelings?”

The word rendered as “considered” has a much more emotional connotation. We should read it as Joseph fuming and angry with the predicament he is facing. Part of it certainly has to do with what he perceives as Mary’s violation, whether of her volition or raped. His property has been violated; the betrothal contract (law) broken. But we also see his heart where he considers Mary as a person. Even though love was not a requirement for ancient Jewish marriages, I think it is right to read love in Joseph’s heart. Joseph wants to treat Mary compassionately and with mercy. But he is in a dilemma: the law says one thing and his heart says another. I read this as the main reason he is fuming. He cannot find an adequate way to resolve this dissonance.

For both Joseph and us, contracts and laws too often mediate relationships. Laws can certainly simplify relationships. Everything is spelled out in black and white.

I believe Jesus came to remove Law as
a mediator of relationships

Instead Jesus came to be “God with us.” No more mediator. We can speak with and fellowship with God directly. Paul, in Galatians 3:15-4:7, seems to be saying the same thing. Those who belong to Christ are no longer bound by law but are adopted into God’s family through grace.

What then of the angel’s explanation of the name “Jesus” as “he will save his people from their sins?”

Joseph had a distorted picture of God. He saw God pictured one way through the Torah, but his heart gave him a different picture. He couldn’t find a way to reconcile the two images. It is the same with people today. We get distorted pictures of God and our actions are influenced by the distortions. If we think God is controlling and abusive, we tend to become that way. If we think God is hateful, we think it is okay to hate. If we think God is vengeful and violent, well, we think that’s okay for us. If we think the Law defines God’s character, we become legalistic. And so on.

Wrong thinking about God is sin. Jesus came to deliver and save his people – us – from all the terrible portraits humans have painted of God. He came to show us that Law does not define him. In fact God is transcendent over the Law. The Law describes aspects of Him, but He is not a slave to it. Righteousness and justice (they’re essentially the same words) transcend the law (read Galatians again).

The angel told Joseph to break the law. Joseph was told that justice trumps law; that mercy and compassion always take priority over legal correctness. If love could be constrained by law, Jesus had no reason to become incarnate, “God with us.” But he came to show that relationships based on love are messy and unpredictable, that it cannot be codified by law.

Jesus came to save us from the
Sin of Law

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Does Jesus Offend You?

Revised Common Lectionary, Advent Year 3A

Jesus wasn’t exactly what John the Baptist expected. Or more likely, very little what he expected. When announcing Jesus, John had spoken of the Messiah/Christ as one coming in judgment against evildoers and oppressors (Matthew 3:7-12). But John had been imprisoned before he had a chance to observe Jesus. All he had to go on was what he was told and rumors that he overheard. And what he heard didn’t seem to be very good news. He may have wondered when was Jesus going to overthrow Herod and get him out of this dungeon, but Jesus didn’t seem to be in a hurry to do any such thing. The Messiah – wasn’t he supposed to “come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:4b ESV)?

John sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask whether he (Jesus) is the Messiah, or whether he (John) should wait for someone else. Jesus doesn’t respond unequivocally but rather refers the disciples to his actions, his signs.

And Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me." (Matthew 11:4-6)

Jesus reminds John that the same prophecies that speak of judgment also speak of signs of mercy.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:5-6)

When we read these texts we might be tempted to interpret them as Jesus simply ministering to individuals and healing their immediate afflictions. But when the entire chapter of Matthew 11 is seen, I believe these examples of healings are symbols of his judgment against oppressive systems of power.

Let me explain. When Jesus refers to “reed shaken by the wind” (v.7) and “a man [singular] dressed in soft clothing” (v.8) he is referring to Herod Antipas[1]. Then immediately afterwards, Matthew has Jesus speaking woe against a number of cities in which he had performed signs but did not repent. We tend to read into “repentance” individual repentance, but there is nothing in this pericope about individual repentance. In its context it seems best to read it as repentance (change) of abusive systems of power, as the example of Nineveh following the preaching of Jonah illustrates.

The end of the chapter is one with which most Christians are familiar: Jesus offering an easy yoke and rest to those who come to him. What is this rest? Common people were probably living in fear of political, economic, and religious abuses of power. They were suffering under onerous obligations of traditions. They were living under a system in which the sick, the maimed, and the poor were considered less than human and under judgment from God. I believe Jesus was offering a different way. The abuses might not go away immediately, but at least they could be free from fear. They could be free from the onerous traditions to be right with God. And the system that considered some less and some better would be abolished.

I found it instructive and helpful to read Matthew 21 alongside Matthew 11. Both chapters share a number of similar themes:

  • Question: Who is Jesus?
  • Question: Who is/was John the Baptist?
  • What are the signs of the Christ?
  • Jesus’ judgment against systemic and institutionalized abuses
  • Fulfillment of OT prophecies
  • The nature of the Kingdom of Heaven/God
  • How “children” and “sinners” understand Jesus whereas the “wise” and “learned” cannot

The questions for us:

  • How are we so acclimatized to systemic and institutionalized abuses of power that we believe them necessary to maintain for our own well-being and livelihood?
  • How is Jesus calling upon us to give them up and join his kingdom?
  • Are we offended by Jesus and his priorities?

I also refer you to the post, “Jesus used to be offensive—What changed?” at Question the Text on this topic that helped me work through my discussion.

[1] Reading the New Testament Series: Matthew, section “Doubt, Indifference, and Dissent – Matthew 11:2-12:45”

Sunday, December 08, 2013

What kind of Messiah are we celebrating?

Revised Common Lectionary, Advent Year 2A

Over at Question the Text, Rev. Mark Stenberg wrote up some thoughts to help pastors think about different ways of approaching John the Baptist. What particularly got my attention was the following words:

“In our heavily revivalist, affluent, individualistic culture of success and achievement, with the all-responsible atomistic self at the center, have we not reduced this message to a word of purely personal repentance? What have you done with your life? Are you a success? Did you give your life to Jesus? Where are the fruits?

But the Bible was written from the underside. That’s what’s so hard for us to hear. These texts are a product of people who lived in fear, in anxiety, in the shadow of the empires of history.”

In preparing for our discussion at church, I flipped over to the Old Testament reading for the week found in Isaiah. What struck me in this passage was the second half:

6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

In our tradition this has most often been used as imagery of what things will be like in heaven. But in the context of the chapter, this is a parable or a metaphor, of what justice and righteousness looks like when the Messiah comes. (So in a sense, it does apply to the results of the Second Advent. In our discussion we observed that even when we apply the image to “heaven” we usually omit the part about the child playing with venomous snakes. We are selective in what we read.) We discussed what this metaphor might mean, especially in the light of the reality that Christians are already partially living in the Age to Come – the Kingdom Age. What I think this means is that peoples that were once opposed to one another, in conflict with one another, oppressors and victims, in the Church, are to come together in peace and harmony. Not only that but the Church as the earthly body of the Messiah (Christ) in the world today, we are to work to promote the kind of justice that John the Baptist and Jesus preached.

This brings us back to Matthew. Did John the Baptist and Jesus preach the same message or did Jesus preach something different from John? In Matthew 3:2 and Matthew 4:17, both John and Jesus are preaching the exact same thing: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

When we flip over to the Lucan account, additional details are found about the content of John’s message (Luke 3:10-14). This was in response to John’s indictment of the Pharisees and Sadducees that had come to John the be baptized.

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

As this makes clear, John’s message was against the sins of systemic social injustice. He was speaking out against hoarding, the accumulation of excess wealth, and the abuse of position and power. These were behaviors considered acceptable. These were what those in privilege believed they had the right to do and had to do in order to maintain and increase their privileges.

And that brings things back to us now. The modern American Christian with our privileges, is closer to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, denounced by both John and Jesus. In our traditional readings of passages like the one we have here, we try to soften it by first, identifying ourselves with the masses, and second, by treating the message as one of individual sins and repentance (as Rev. Stenberg noted in the excerpt at the top). But I believe that does violence (by neutering) to the force and thrust of the true nature of what Matthew intended by including John’s words.

As our discussion revealed, this message against systemic injustices is a hard one for us to swallow. We do indeed like our privileges. We like the system that allows us to have it. So what does it mean to live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, to espouse and live out its principles against social injustice? Offering compassion to the oppressed and marginalized is far easier than taking steps to change the systems that cause and perpetuate injustices. We can more easily swallow that Christians are called to the former, but what about the latter? Are we willing to go against the economic structures and civil policies, even if it means we might have to give up the very things that helped us achieve our privileges?

Many Christians punt on these questions by pointing to the Second Coming as the solution to all the world’s ills. But is that what Jesus really intended? Even if systemic injustice will never be eliminated, isn’t Jesus telling his friends – us – that part of our work is to make the effort to reduce injustice?

There are no easy answers. But these questions are ones Christians (myself included) need to really think about and digest.

In this Advent season as we are looking forward to the memory of Christmas, the arrival of the Messiah, we must ask ourselves, “What kind of Messiah are we celebrating?” A docile, inoffensive Baby? Or the Savior who has come to judge and destroy injustice and all who are support it?