© Rex A E Hunt
The second of Three presentations to the Network of Biblical Storytellers Australia Gathering in Victoria
(RE)BIRTHING… JESUS: GIVE SINNERS A BREAK!
I wish to acknowledge the traditional caretakers
of the land on which we gather this day.
I acknowledge their deep spiritual connections to this land
and thank them for the care they have shown the earth
over thousands of years.
I invite you to listen to a story.
Three people are sitting around a campfire at a storytelling Gathering. Each of them was formerly blind. Jesus restored their sight. They each tell the story of how that was accomplished… (Matt 9:27-29; Mk 8:22-25; Jn 9:6-7)
v1 I was with my friend and I shouted out to Jesus:
"Have mercy on us Son of David!"
He asked us, "Do you believe I am able to do this?"
We said, "Yes, Lord!"
He touched our eyes and said,
"According to your faith let it be done to you."
v2 No, you are wrong. That isn't how Jesus heals.
I was in Bethsaida when my friends brought me to Jesus.
He led me out the village, put saliva on my eyes,
and laid his hands on me.
He asked me if I could see, but the people looked like trees walking.
Then he laid his hands on my eyes again and I could see clearly!
v3 No, you are both wrong. Neither of you can see.
I was sitting and Jesus took saliva and made mud and put it on my eyes. Then he told me to wash in the pool of Siloam.
After that I could see!
v1 No! That isn't how it works!
You have to say you believe and your faith
makes you see after Jesus touches you!
Only I can see!
v2 No! Faith has nothing to do with it.
You have to be touched twice by Jesus.
Once with spit, and then again!
Only I can see!
v3 No! Jesus has to take his spit and make mud.
Then you have to wash in the pool!
Only I can see!
And they argued on and on and on.... (JShuck2: 2011).
Let me begin this presentation by offering some theological ‘health warnings’.
• Christianity as we know it did not originate with Jesus of Nazareth. Neither was Jesus the first Christian. He was a Jew who never rejected his Jewish roots.
• Although some of the stories about him suggest he encountered opposition from the religious authorities of the day to his perception of religion and reality, just how hostile this opposition was, is a matter of speculation.
• Jesus can be understood as a wandering secular Galilean peasant, after the ‘style’ of a sage. His story language was indirect, at times highly metaphorical, and more often than not, subversive.
• The primary information regarding him comes from the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and the Gospel of Thomas.
In my own thinking, shaped by progressive theology, I distinguish between the ‘historical Jesus’ (pre-Easter Jesus) who lived in a particular time and place, and the ‘mythical Christ’ (post-Easter Jesus). One of the leading places for the study of the ‘historical Jesus’ is the Westar Institute, founded by the late Robert Funk, particularly its Jesus Seminar. Yep, Funk is “of THAT ilk” as Tracy Radosevic said disparagingly of Marcus Borg in a recent edition of TABS – the Australasian Biblical Storyteller (Vol 2. No. 1, 2011), and distributed to many of you. (I intend to speak severely to Tracy next time I catch up with her!)
Funk claimed the task of the Jesus Seminar was to attempt to discover the Jesus ‘voice print’ as distinctive discourse, and as it stood out in contrast to both ordinary speech as well as from the speech of other ‘sages’ and speakers of his day. That is, to discover the distinctive or original voice in the Galilean crowd, the forgotten Jesus.
The fragments of that ‘voice print’ indicate some good news, that
“sinners and outcasts are welcome in God’s kingdom; indeed, God’s domain belongs to them. The bad news is that those who think they are leading upright lives will be surprised to learn that they have missed the messianic banquet, the great supper, because they were too preoccupied with misleading and deceptive aspects of life” (Funk 1996:41).
The cultures and communities in which the Jesus Movement arose were essentially oral. Spoken. People learned mainly by hearing. Therefore, tradition was not a fixed thing as it is in cultures shaped by writing or print or even the electronic era. It is very fluid, passed on as talk and imagination, from generation to generation.
Oral storytellers do not ordinarily remember exact wording. Knowledge is shaped by memory. Not memory mindlessly regurgitated, but memory rethought (Boomershine 1988). As storyteller and scholar David Rhoades says: “Most… did not memorize. They put their own stamp on the composition and adapted it to audience and circumstance” (Rhodes 2010:8). While Jesus Seminar scholar Brandon Scott is a bit more direct: “in oral communities purveyors of the tradition freely omitted, invented, modified, enlarged” (Scott 1988:3) their stories, layering and stitching them together to conserve tradition in an episodic manner.
Scott goes on to say:
“The question for scholars is how to distinguish these levels of talk, and especially, how to isolate Jesus’ talk about the kingdom from other levels of talk in the written records, which is all we now have” (Scott 1988:4).
Jesus wrote nothing. He spoke Aramaic and very possibly some Greek. But we don’t know if he could speak Hebrew. His words have been preserved only in the Greek. Our biblical stories portray him as one who speaks rather than as one who writes.
The primary form of communication in an oral-aural culture was the human voice. The word is something that happens. When the sounded word is received by a listener, there is always community. It “takes two to sound!” (Jensen 1993: 19).
Let’s remind ourselves… the imprint of orality is shaped by:
• short sentences,
• provocative and memorable words,
• oft-repeated phrases,
• being situational rather than abstract,
• stories often stitched together.
The world of Jesus’ speech is the fabric of daily life—Monday to Friday—in a Galilean rural village or family rather than an urban setting (Scott 1989). His speech did not focus on himself but rather “on the social dynamics of the public realm “ (Bessler-Northcutt 2007: 49).
Around the time of Jesus, Galilee’s rural areas, especially in the lake area with its abundant supply of fresh water, and crops of wheat, barley, olives, grapes and vegetables, were being taken over by the big city ‘Collins Street’ farmers.
Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper. Small farm owners were losing their land and farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line. Farm land was being eaten up by a big city development. Urbanisation was beginning. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent. Penalties for non-payment could be severe. The atmosphere was explosive (Horsley & Silberman 1997).
The subjects of his parables and sayings were robbery on an isolated road, coins, a vineyard, day labourers, sheep, and wayward children, turning the other cheek, and carrying a soldier’s daypack. The socio-economic conditions of first century Palestine and Galilee in the 20s CE helped shape the content of Jesus’ teaching.
Therefore, I take as my underlying ReBirthing premise that Jesus was a travelling secular ‘sage’ who engaged with the social and cultural memory of the people, as well as with those around him, orally. He did this more in the ‘wisdom’ stream than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism—although there are scholars who would want to debate that.
So to shape that ReBirthing a bit, I want to explore with you two word pictures.
(i) Artisan Jesus
(ii) Jesus and sinners
In another of his books, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? our ‘fellow traveller’ Peter Gomes suggested the problem with much preaching today is “the church is preaching Jesus instead of what Jesus preached” (Gomes2009).
While not wanting to unpack that right now, let’s listen to some fragments of Jesus’ ReBirthing preaching/teaching, as offered by retired Anglican priest, Harry Cook…
Matthew 5: 38-48
(Translated and paraphrased by Harry T. Cook.)
"You know that it used to be said,
'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
"But I say do not resist.
“If someone hits you on your right cheek, turn the other to him,
and if any one threatens to sue you to get your shirt,
just give it to him along with your coat;
and if someone forces you to go one mile, go the second voluntarily.
"You also have heard that you should love your neighbour
but hate your enemy. Wrong.
I'm telling you to love your enemies,
for if you love people who love you, so what?
"Try to be mature instead of infantile.
Don't be a Gentile.
Be a Jew."
Arthur Dewey, professor of Theology, a radio commentator on religion, and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, in one of his many articles explores the possibility of viewing Jesus through the ‘lens’ of a peasant artisan or craftsman. Why this particular ‘lens’? Dewey reckons this could help us work out what Jesus was about, as expressed in those ReBirthing fragments we have just heard.
“It appreciates the texture of his imagination. How did Jesus craft his words? What did he envision as he worked? How did his words invite his listeners into his vision… What can we make of those words? (Dewey 2002:73).
How does he suggest Jesus went about crafting his words? Dewey goes on:
“Working in wood or stone demands envisioning ‘what is there within’ the material… He ‘sees’ what is ‘there’ and works painstakingly toward it. The task is to see a vision and to use the ‘grain’ in seeking to realize that vision" (Dewey 2002:74).
Then this comparison:
“The same is true for an artisan in words… The storyteller searches for the words to communicate a vision that generates, sustains, and moves the words forward. The historical Jesus was not only a craftsman but an artisan of words” (Dewey 2002:74).
So let’s rub Dewey’s suggestion together with Harry Cook’s take on Matthew’s Jesus. What might artisan Jesus have ‘seen… what is there within’ his audience, as folk gathered at meals, beside a lake, or on a hillside, to listen? I offer these suggestions and invite you to ponder them.
I reckon these ReBirthing sayings:
(i) dispute the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality
(ii) admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegal boat people/immigrants—whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’
(iii) challenge us all to reshape our social categories, especially those of others, formed by our fears and rumors and innuendo.
What might be the ‘grain’ to realise this required re-imagining or new vision?
Arthur Dewey again offers this suggestion:
“…can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people? …not only to re-imagine [your] response but also to offer [your] oppressor a chance for a more [humane] reply” (Dewey 2002:80).
When we rub these sayings together we get a stereo response.
• Take some space to re-imagine your so-called ‘natural’ response.
• Give the other party/person space to act more humanely.
Jesus didn’t give us, or anyone, a moral code. What he did do was give those who were prepared to listen, a poke. “His parables and aphorisms,” writes a colleague,
“was a prod, a poke, and a push. He wasn’t giving us a list of things we needed to do to be good or to avoid so we won’t be bad. He was an observer of people and of life. He saw the things that people valued. He poked” (Shuck1: 2011).
JESUS AND SINNERS
Let us listen to some more fragments of Jesus’ ReBirthing stories, this time using a composite text composed by the Jesus Seminar…
Gospel of Jesus 8:1-11
(Mark 2:15-17, 22; Matthew 9:10-15, 17; Luke 5:29-34, 37-39; 15:1-2)
On one occasion Jesus happens to recline at table,
along with many toll collectors and sinners.
(Remember, there were many of these people
and they were all following him.)
And whenever the Pharisees’ scholars saw him
eating with sinners and toll collectors,
they would raise the question:
“What’s he doing eating with toll collectors and sinners?”
“Since when do the able-bodied need a doctor? It’s the sick who do.
I did not come to enlist religious folks but sinners!”
Now the toll collectors and sinners kept crowding around Jesus
so they could hear him.
But the Pharisees and the scholars would complain to each other,
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
John’s disciples and the Pharisees were in the habit of fasting,
and they come and ask him,
“Why do the disciples of John fast, and the disciples of the Pharisees,
but your disciples don’t?”
And Jesus said to them,
“The groom’s friends can’t fast while the groom is around, can they?
So long as the groom is around, you can’t expect them to fast.”
“Nobody drinks aged wine and immediately wants to drink young wine. Young wine is not poured into old wineskins,
or they might break, and aged wine
is not poured into a new wineskin,
or it might spoil” (Funk 1999:43,45).
Listening to these stories and returning to modern biblical scholarship, there is general agreement meals played an important role in the Jesus tradition. Jesus regularly accepted invitations to attend meals and banquets, as a guest rather than as a host. Indeed, he seems so closely associated with meals that one of the criticisms levelled against him was as a “glutton and drunkard” (Matt 11:19). Another was he ate with “toll collectors and sinners”.
But with whom is Jesus eating? Who are these people? Who are these “toll collectors and sinners”? Various scholars have tried to identify these people. Robert Funk says they are generic terms for outcasts and expendables, those who belonged
“to the excluded class of Jews who did not follow the Pharisaic interpretation of the purity codes …to be the dregs of society” (Funk 2002:51, 55).
Other scholars claim this was a ‘demonising’ of one group as a way of dismissing Jesus and his mission. Toll collectors were normally Jews who had become tax-farmers for the Romans—or in Galilee, for Herod Antipas. The job of toll collectors
“was to collect tolls and tariffs on commerce and goods passing through toll stations such a Capernaum and Jericho. They gained the unsavoury reputation they had because they were unethical, given to abuse and dishonesty” (Funk 2002:50).
Jews, becoming rich doing their job, exploiting fellow Jews. The storyteller says Zacchaeus was a toll collector.
What about sinners? There is a traditional stream of biblical studies and preaching—I am sure we have all heard it, or perhaps even said it—that argues ‘sinners’ were those who were perpetually ‘unclean’. That is, they did not, or would not, or could not, keep the purity laws—especially about preparing food and with whom one ate, as codified in Leviticus. We are reminded of that in this explanation:
“Eating with those who were ritually impure would make you be contaminated as well. The accusation that Jesus eats with sinners is an accusation that he is not a true teacher of the law. He doesn’t even observe the basics of ritual purity” (Shuck2: 2011).
However such a view, that Jesus’ social world was ‘dominated by the politics of purity’, is challenged by many. There is another view. A view I was alerted to some years back by a doctoral student in Canberra, and again recently by an American colleague.
James Crossley, in his challenging book Why Christianity Happened, argues sinners were more than simply the outcasts or the ritually impure. They were not necessarily the poor, exploited, or uneducated. They were actually the exploiters! They were the oppressive, unpleasant rich folk:
“people deemed to be exploitative, rich, unjust, and possible in cahoots with the Romans and/or Antipas… that sinners were people who have a negative influence, not the least on a respectable teacher like Jesus of Nazareth” (Crossley 2006:95).
The mere associating with such a group or groups who were considered ‘different’, was frowned upon. Certainly controversial, especially when it included meals or table fellowship. Why? Not just because it could be seen as “sleeping with the enemy” (Crossley 2006:94) as we now might say, but such activity left one exposed to being influenced or ‘converted’ by them. Who changes whom?
Jesus opponents had a point. The biggest scandal regarding Jesus is not that he hung out with the poor, but that he also, maybe often, hung out with the rich. That should give all of us hope, as when compared to the population of Earth, we would fall into the ‘rich’ category! Jesus held out hope that people could change and they could develop a conscience on behalf of justice and compassion. As a colleague says:
“Apparently, [Jesus] did have followers, wealthy and poor, who were inspired by his vision. Think of Zacchaeus the toll collector. Regardless of whether or not that story is historical, it does tell a memory of Jesus being able to transform the most hardened exploiter into a generous and compassionate man” (Shuck2 2011).
Jumping forward a couple of thousand years, the Church as we might know it, has caused a lot of pain on how it deals with ‘difference’ by putting people into categories:
deciding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’;
deciding who ‘belongs’ and who are ‘outcasts’;
deciding who is ‘acceptable’ and who is ‘not acceptable’;
deciding who is ‘righteous’ and who is ‘not’;
deciding who can be ordained, or remarried, or orthodox, or heretical.
“Christianity must repeatedly, generation after generation, make its best historical judgment about who Jesus was then and, on that basis, decide what that reconstruction means as Christ now” (Crossan, in McLennan 2009:76).
Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, who has done a lot of work on the nature of ‘difference’, asserts,
“It may not be too much to claim that the future of our world will depend on how we deal with identity and difference” (Volf, Quoted in Ogden 2011: 62).
Earlier on in this presentation I suggested the style of Jesus’ sayings seems to fit the paradigm of ‘sage’, and better that than ‘prophet’ or ‘messiah’, even though he didn’t promote himself to be a wise man. Yet if we are to be completely honest it is difficult to get a complete handle on Jesus. And it isn't hard to see why. The ‘historical’ Jesus as presented by the various storytellers, appears in shards and fragments. A ‘voice print’ here. A ‘foot print’ there.
The parables of Jesus usually originated as a response to an oral encounter: supporters’ questions or skeptics’ challenges or slander. Little connects these fragments, except one's own fiction. But what would happen if we were to attempt to connect those storytellers “shards and fragments” with what we reckon we can speculate about Jesus’ life? That is, how to reconstruct a historically reliable profile of Jesus from Jesus’ own imagination (Smith 2002:97) and the situations he actually encountered. He must have got the inspiration for his characters from somewhere!
Using the lens called the parable of ‘A Father Had Two Sons’—traditionally called the ‘Prodigal Son’—what might we find?
(i) the younger son was impatient, asking his father for an immediate share of his estate…
Likewise, Jesus demanded his Abba’s domain, confident that whatever he requested would be granted;
(ii) the younger son does not keep his capital but ‘spends it’ in an unconservative lifestyle…
Likewise, Jesus mocked efforts to preserve life or property and perplexed conservative Jews by associating with those they regarded as riffraff;
(iii) the younger son provokes his older brother to issue a contemptuous denunciation…
Likewise, Jesus too was caricatured as a shameless libertine;
(iv) the younger son’s homecoming prompts the father to celebrate with a feast…
Likewise, Jesus regarded the present as a time to celebrate;
(v) the older son stayed outside the celebration…
Likewise, Jesus’ family remained outside the circle of those who idolized him – until after his death;
(vi) the older son is portrayed as dutiful, self-righteous…
Likewise, Jesus’ brother Ya’akov (James) was nicknamed ‘the Righteous’ and was held in high regard by those ‘who were strict in keeping the laws’ (Smith 2002:105).
Where did Jesus get the inspiration for his characters? From both those who were being exploited, and from those who were doing the exploitation – ‘sinners’! Or is that just ‘humanity’?
Let me draw this second presentation to a close with some possible implications from all this:
(i) As we hear his parables and aphorisms we find Jesus taking the power away from the institution. He wasn't giving it to himself, but showing by example what any of us can do or be. That is why many of his stories are really about political and/or institutional power. A story about personal piety won’t bother anyone. But a story that exposes the illegitimacy of a sacred institution—a story seen as ‘subversive’—will get you into serious trouble!
(ii) As storytellers, we are freed to go on the journey that Jesus chartered, rather than to worship the journey of Jesus.
“…Jesus becomes uniquely a criterion of humanness. He shows us something of what it means to become human, but not enough to keep us from having to discover our true humanity ourselves. That means finding in ourselves the same powers that were manifest in Jesus, rather than projecting those powers solely onto him” (Wink 2000:178).
Jesus provides a glimpse into another this-world reality. His vision of a better humanity is worth exploring. Indeed as storytellers, our passion for telling the Jesus story is to recover what Jesus unleashed, and to keep true to his spirit. For we are encouraged to celebrate life, to suck the marrow out of existence, to explore and probe and experiment, to venture into uncharted seas without fear of a tyrannical and vindictive God. He does not set limits on our curiosity.
“We need to capture the awe of the creative spirit flowing through all human communities,” writes Melbourne Uniting Church minister Francis Macnab, “as people in all walks of life become part of the ongoing discovery of new ways to be a human community in a world where destructiveness and disease are never far from us, but where global survival is the objective” (Macnab 2011:205).
It takes a lot of trouble-makers to change history.
It’s time to ReBirth Jesus and give sinners a break!
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