Matthew 6: 24-25, 31-34
A Liturgy is also available
ON A JOURNEY. LIBERATING THE ‘HISTORICAL’ JESUS…
For the past few weeks we have been hearing
and reflecting on, Matthew’s version of Jesus as a teacher
of the realm or kingdom of God.
And some of Matthew’s stories have had Jesus
using different metaphors and phrases… Such as:
‘light’ and ‘salt’,
‘turn the other cheek’, ‘go an extra way’, and
Plus a few more.
In between we paused to reflect of some modern areas of teaching, as expressed in the Theory of Evolution.
And we heard how a growing number of people around the world,
both religious and scientifically minded, and who are conscious that
we are a ‘web of life’ within a ‘web of life’, are recognising
that our modern life-style is:
• harming other creatures,
• diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and
• altering global climate patterns.
Earth under assault!
Now we return to another aspect of Matthew’s Jesus.
Some warnings or teachings on ‘God’s realm and riches’.
“No one can be slave to two masters…
"You can’t be enslaved to both God and mammon” (Matt 6:24).
Or as our reading from the Scholars Edition puts it:
“…to both God and a bank account”.
For middle-class Christians we can easily go on the defensive.
Especially when we also learn that the scholars of the Jesus Seminar
listed this saying as ‘pink’: Jesus probably said something like this!
So we should at least take the saying seriously.
Well, let’s listen to what Robert Funk, the founding initiative
behind the Jesus Seminar, said on all this:
“The invisible realm of God is populated with the poor, the destitute, the tearful, the hungry, and… with unwanted children, in sum, with outsiders and outcasts…
Yes Robert Funk, we’ve heard that all before. Go on:
“The entrance to that realm is sufficiently narrow to prevent those whose pockets bulge with money to squeeze through…
And we’ve heard that too.
So you want to challenge the rich? For what?
“To be aware of that realm one has to have eyes wide open – eyes capable of catching a glimpse of what lies beyond the reigning view of the world. Such eyes are empowered by trust” (Funk 2002: 28. My emphasis).
What lies beyond the reigning view…
The popular view then and now was/is: prosperity is a sign of divine favour.
Just check out the theology of Hillsong.
Such distortion makes one want to ‘throw up’!
But Funk goes on even further.
“Trust does not involve believing something or in something. Trust involves seeing the world and other people for what they are when viewed trough God’s eyes… [and] acting on that perception. That is the heart of Jesus’ vision” (Funk 2002:31).
This is core stuff, I reckon. And I am sure
we will need to ponder these words some more…
Jesus is remembered as a person – I would say, sage – whose
unconventional wisdom teachings were primarily made up of
aphorisms (short, witty sayings) and stories (parables).
And those early writers who have spoken about him, namely the ones
we call Thomas, Mark, Matthew and Luke,
often have Jesus using these sayings and stories
in dialogue with others.
Let the dead bury the dead…
Don’t let your left hand in on what your right hand is up to…
It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the ey of a needle than for a person of wealth to gain entrance to God’s domain…
And some others we have heard over the past few weeks.
But it also needs to be said that much of the cutting edge of
these sayings and stories have been lost.
This edge has been lost under the 'other world' message of the disciples.
This edge has been lost under layers and layers of 'orthodox' church doctrine.
This edge has been lost under cuddly Sunday School pictures
cute Christmas carols - not to mention, general boredom.
Hence many people, including many who describe themselves as Christians,
"no longer take seriously the good news of the original Christian message" (Kaufman 2006:90).
So what can take its place?
How can we hear anew?
If we are to really hear the radical message of Jesus, I reckon we must
continually seek to liberate the ‘historical’ Jesus
“from the various prisons in which he has been confined since the early centuries, when… Jesus became the God of both the Christian Church and the Roman Empire” (Cain 1999:135).
Following some thoughts of another (Cain 1999), let me
offer five ways/areas where we might ‘liberate’ Jesus.
(i) from popular Christian piety;
(ii) from ancient language and thought patterns;
(iii) from ‘apocalyptic eschatology’;
(iv) from the Bible, and
(v) from the church.
I can only briefly touch on these five areas. But I hope you might
also reflect on and continue to read and study,
these areas yourselves.
(i) From popular Christian piety
Traditionally Jesus has been understood as the sweet,
sentimental, miracle-working moralist, who
“came down from heaven to die for the sins of the world” (Cain 1999:135).
That notion must give way to a Jesus who was a real person,
a first century Galilean Jew, who dared to challenge
the power and political systems of his day.
(ii) From ancient language and thought patterns
The ‘ancient’ Nicean Creed worldview was a three-tiered universe:
heaven above, the nether world below, and earth between.
It was/is earth-centred and supernaturalist.
Indeed, earth was the battle ground between forces of good and evil,
and expressed in a vast myth of cosmic Creation, Fall and Redemption.
That view is no longer intelligible to folk who calculate the universe
is around 15 billion years old, with evolution suggesting that universe is:
(i) unfinished and continuing;
(ii) involves chance events and struggle, and
(iii) natural selection took the place of
“design according to a preordained [divine] blueprint” (Birch 1965:29).
(iii) From ‘apocalyptic eschatology’
Much theology has been inspired by John the Dipper rather than Jesus of Nazareth.
And this theology often suggests that something in the future,
usually destruction, is to happen – indeed must happen - rather than
honouring creative present day and present world living.
The notion that the lives of millions of Arabs, Jews and others
“will have to be destroyed for God to win in the end… is bizarre” (Cain 1999:137).
(iv) From the Bible
The study of the ‘historical’ Jesus must go beyond the limited
understanding of the biblical writers.
And go beyond the so-called ‘accepted’ writings of the Bible.
“Jesus is bigger than the biblical writers… [and] the church’s creeds” (Cain 1999:138).
(v) From the church
Jesus was a Jew not a christian. He never rejected his Jewish roots.
He made no theological statements.
Neither did he set out to establish a new religion,
appoint clergy or inaugurate celibacy.
As a wandering secular Galilean sage, he belonged more
to the ‘wisdom’ stream than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism.
To encounter Jesus the Galilean Jew, we need to distinguish between
• the historical Jesus (pre-Easter Jesus)
who lived in a particular time and place, and
• the mythical Christ (post-Easter Christ) of church canon and creed.
In the traditional church the ‘historical’ Jesus
is smothered by superimposing the heavenly figure of Christ – second person of the Trinity - on him (Funk & Hoover 1993:7).
Why take all this time and trouble to talk about Jesus this way.
Well, quite simply, I reckon our task as 21st century christians
is not to worship the journey of Jesus.
Rather it is to go on the journey which Jesus chartered.
And that is an important difference.
Because this way we can rescue Jesus
“from the cloying baggage of christological beliefs unnecessarily added by the church… and offer him to anyone looking for a guide to true humanity” (Wink 2000:178).
And that makes real and passionate sense to me!
On the other hand, I am alarmed that the people and institutions
- our church leaders and theological colleges - who should be
leading the way in this movement from old symbols and language to the new,
are either unprepared or unwilling to assist.
So I invite you to continue your important, personal journey, with passion.
For if not you, who?
(And perhaps this absolutely mythical story…)
Upon Jesus’ arrival in heaven, a vast host of angels greeted him.
After the formalities, they asked him whom he had
left behind on earth to finish the work he had begun.
‘Just a small group of men and women who love me.’
‘That’s all?’ asked the angels, astonished.
‘What if this tiny group should fail?’
‘I have no other plans.’ (Bausch 1998:336-337)
Bausch, W. J. 1998. A world of stories for preachers and teachers. CT: Mytic. Twenty-Third Publications.
Birch, L. C. 1965. Nature and God. GtB: London. SCM Press.
Cain, M. F. 1999. Jesus the man. An introduction for people at home in the modern world. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Funk, R. W. 2002. A credible Jesus. Fragments of a vision. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Funk, R. W.; Hoover, R. W. 1993. The five gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus. NY: New York. The Macmillan Press.
Kaufman, G. D. 2006. Jesus and creativity. MN: Minneapolis. Fortress.
Wink, W. 2000. ‘The Son of Man: The stone that builders rejected’ in The Jesus Seminar (ed) The once and future Jesus. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.