(This is a reprint of an article I posted on my Abraham’s Journey Facebook Page about a year ago. Some of the things I do here I initiate – though more and more I find myself posting things that you, dear readers, have made clear are important to you. It has become kind of a hidden dialogue. For this one, anyway, the prime mover to get it here is a reader, Kathleen)
For a period of a decade and a half, beginning when I was 16, I rarely spoke of religious matters at all, except to people who were very close to me. I would not get involved in religious disputes. I had seen how much damage religious people could do, how they could take the heart out of others. So I prayed that I say nothing at all until what I had to say would help build up rather than tear down. Despite my reticence, religion was the most important thing in my life. I read and re-read the Bible intensely, praying I might see it with ‘fresh eyes,’ without the cultural gloss that comes with most teaching. I was well aware that many who had a reputation for vast knowledge of Scripture knew very little at all. Most partisans I met knew 20-30 verses by heart which supported their doctrinal emphases and were almost completely blind (whether willingly or unintentionally I don’t know) to all the verses that contradicted their emphasis. It seemed to me that either the whole thing must hold or none of it did. Just because a system is internally coherent does not make it true, but if it is not internally coherent it cannot be true.
Obviously, I knew Jesus and various heavenly beings, so I was Christian – and I really wanted a spiritual home. For a period of years, I would go to a denomination until I found the sticking point – the parts of Scripture ignored or glossed over because it contradicted their doctrinal emphasis. I would question the preachers about it – and when they brushed me off would, with no little sadness, move on, knowing this could not be my home. I am profoundly grateful for this now, for in the various denominations I discovered important charisms that are profound and authentic. Though they could not be my home, I left with deep respect for many denominations. It was fullness most lacked, not authenticity. It was God’s plan that I should search so long in the wilderness that I might see my fellow Christians with affection and respect rather than as rivals. But it was important to me to see what Jesus’ listeners actually heard, not just how our late second millennium cultural assumptions interpret it.
When I was 16, an event occurred which sent me to the library for months, researching the origins of various denominations. Even today, some 40 years later, I can tell you the name of the man or woman who founded many of them and their doctrinal emphases. It was a startling discovery – and I think played a large role in why I became so absorbed by history in general. We assume the world is very much like we know it, with only minor variations; but it is not. For many years, like most, I assumed Samaritan was synonymous with good. It was a shock to discover that Samaritans were considered the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth in Jesus’ time. It added profound new depth to Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. His parable shocked His listeners in its pointed emphasis that it is not your status that sanctifies you, but the reach of your heart’s compassion. To get the same shock value in today’s terms, you would need to tell the story of the Good Pimp or some such. It made me want to learn more about the cultural norms of the society Jesus lived in, for I suspected we were probably hearing other things in a very different way than His original audience did. Today, I want to tell you of just a couple; things that particularly irritate me because our modern sensibilities in some cases have completely turned some of Jesus’ teachings on their head. I do it in hopes it will inspire you to look at Scripture with fresh eyes, too.
First, Matthew 19:24, where Jesus tells His disciples that “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This is almost invariably cited as a condemnation of the rich. But if that is what it is, why were the disciples so astonished, asking if this is so how is it possible for anyone to get into heaven? It helps to know that in Jesus’ time, Jews considered temporal wealth to be a sign of God’s special favor – that the rich were the ones with a sure ticket to heaven. To get a sense of how shocking this saying was, imagine Jesus saying, “..it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Pope John Paul, Mother Teresa or Billy Graham to enter the kingdom of God.” That would shake you up…and get across Jesus point that it is through grace and not our feeble efforts that we may enter – and it would be no more a condemnation of John Paul, Mother Teresa or Billy Graham than Jesus’ original saying was a condemnation of the rich.
The most over-simplified and misunderstood passage is Matthew 5:39-42. It begins with Jesus telling the people to not resist or fight one who is evil, then goes into the sequence of turning the other cheek, giving your cloak to one who takes your coat, and walking the second mile with one who forces you to go the first. Far from a command to meek subservience, this was a brilliant prescription for effective civil disobedience that would emphasize the dignity of the oppressed. Let me explain:
In Jesus’ time there were factions of Jews, called Zealots, who were ever plotting armed revolt against the Roman overlords. Cooler heads at the Sanhedrin tried to suppress this because there was a massive power imbalance between the Romans and the Jews. A revolt would trigger a retaliation which would lead to deeper oppression for Jews who survived it. But many in the Sanhedrin, over time, had crossed over from prudent restraint to active collaboration with the oppressors, like Vichy French officials. If you were slapped by an official, either a Roman or a Jewish religious official, the prescribed response was to immediately fall to your knees and, with your forehead touching the ground, beg forgiveness. To remain standing with your other cheek turned was not an act of submission, but of cool defiance. When Rosa Parks responded to the slap of being sent to the back of the bus by refusing, she turned her cheek to receive the additional slap of being fined and detained at the local jail. Cohorts of soldiers frequently passed through the city. These cohorts were authorized to force random citizens to walk the equivalent of a mile with them to help carry supplies. If you walked two instead of one, you were volunteering citizenship rather than merely conscripted. If a thief robbed your cloak and you gave him extra, focusing on his presumed need, you were a philanthropist instead of a victim. In each case, Christ urged his listeners to decisively assert their dignity in a way that was not provocative – and calculated to cause the oppressor to recall his own humanity. And in each, there is a subtle, but real, shift of power in the encounter. The Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King’s leadership was a living example of these instructions.
Jesus worked from a perfect set of guiding principles; love, dignity, and responsibility among them; and perfectly applied them to whatever the situation at hand was. People try to reduce Him to formulaic legalisms that match their own preferences, but Christ will not be contained. Though often indulgent of sins of weakness, He was not a ‘do-your-own-thing’ feel-good guru. Though He defined and condemned sin in clear terms, He was not a joyless scold. Though He sought the most peaceable solution to every problem, He was not a reflexive pacifist. He is tTrue God and Perfect Man.
I pray that some of these writings will encourage you, too, to look at the Gospels through fresh eyes; to see Jesus for the dynamic, charismatic and joyful man and leader He was while He walked this earth. (To that end, swear off watching any movie that depicts the Master as a joyless bore who drones on constantly in a sleep-inducing monotone. Whatever Jesus was here, He was certainly not a bore.)