One of the most famous episodes in the life of Jesus was his “cleansing of the temple.”
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11)
It’s a far cry from Jesus “meek and mild”! But what exactly was Jesus up to? For many years I assumed there was something he found objectionable about the moneychangers. But what? After all they enabled people to buy animals for sacrifice? And the dove sellers? Didn’t they enable those who were poor to participate in temple worship?
In The Final Week Marcus Borg and John Crossan provide an answer. The clue is in the reference to a den of robbers. A den is not the place where robbery occurs but the place of safety to which thieves retreat after their crime. Jesus’s critique is not of moneychangers and dove sellers but of a corrupt leadership that exploited the people then took refuge in the temple, imagining that by offering the right sacrifices they enjoyed the favour of God.
This was the point the prophet Jeremiah, whom Jesus references, made centuries earlier:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? (Jeremiah 7)
Historians tell us that at the time of Jesus the majority of the population were peasant farmers, that they were taking loans from the wealthy in order to pay the exhorbitant taxes demanded by Rome, only to find their wealthy countrymen foreclosing on them when they couldn’t repay. As a result a small elite were acquiring large estates while their countrymen were reduced to landlessness and poverty. This was in clear violation of God’s law that called for interest free loans and debt forgiveness to avoid this very situation.
This corrupt elite were centred in the temple – it was the high priest and the circles around him that ruled Israel in collusion with the Roman governor. Jesus’s action in the temple temporarily disrupted the regular order of things and drew attention to the disjunction between the actions of the elite toward the poor and their worship of God. Crossan and Borg argue that this was a prophetic foreshadowing of the destruction of the temple.
Just as in the times of Jeremiah and Jesus, so in ours. Worship is meaningless if not accompanied by justice.
At church we’re preaching a series based on a book by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg that follows the last week of Jesus’s life as told in the Gospel of Mark. I’m finding it exhilarating. Crossan and Borg are helping me see things in Mark’s story that I never realised before. I thought I’d share a few of them in a series of posts.
Jesus’s last week commences with the well-known story of his entering Jerusalem on a colt. Crossan and Borg point out that this was the beginning of Passover week, a festival that celebrated the dangerous memory of God liberating his people from slavery in Egypt. If ever there was a time that nationalistic fervour would be whipped up and the people tempted to rebel against their Roman masters, it would be this week. And so there was another regal procession into Jerusalem, one of which I was unaware before reading Crossan and Borg. The Roman governor, whose normally took up residence was in Caesarea, would enter the Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week regaled in his most imposing costume, surrounded by troops bearing aloft the Roman standards. The procession was designed to convey power and glory, to remind inhabitants of the city of the might of Rome and the folly of rebellion.
When Jesus enters on a colt his intention is quite clear. The Old Testament prophet Zachariah prophesied that Israel’s true king would come to the city riding on a colt.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth (Zechariah 9.9-10)
To make sure that the inhabitants of the city don’t miss the point people have been prepared beforehand with palm branches and proclaim Jesus as the son of David. I had always imagined the branch waving was spontaneous, but Crossan and Borg suggest it was a planned demonstration. After all people came prepared with branches cut in the fields.
In these two regal entrances we have before us two very different kingdoms: the Kingdom of Rome that proclaimed Caesar to be the son of the gods and the bringer of peace, a triumph of propaganda given this peace was forged with an army, maintained by the slaughter of any who opposed, and conducted in such a way that people who were already poor were stripped of their wealth in order to feed the insatiable greed of Rome. Over against this stood the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, with a completely different set of values. In the Kingdom of God love not power lay at the centre; to be great was to be concerned with the least and to serve the interests of others; its inhabitants were called to love their enemies, pray for those who persecuted them, forgive each other’s debts, and share what they had with one another. There could not be a greater contrast between the ways of the Kingdom of Rome represented by Pilate’s procession and the ways of the kingdom of God represented by Jesus’s procession.
The same choices lie before us today. Will I surrender to the values of the world around me, or will I surrender to the values of the kingdom of God?
The most horrific of all Christian doctrines is the doctrine of the eternal judgement, the declaration that vast numbers of humankind will experience eternal punishment at the hands of their Creator. In its most extreme form it imagines a house of horrors in which people experience excruciating torments that never end and for which there is no hope of an end. In its milder forms it imagines those who don’t embrace Christ as simply passing out of existence. While the extreme form turns God into a monster, the milder form leave him a failure, an omnipotent God who cannot bring about the redemption of the bulk of those he wishes to save.
For those who ascribe authority to the teachings of Jesus and Scripture it seems that only one of these two options is viable. Or is it? One of the great challenges in reading the New Testament is how to make sense of the relationship between what I call “one group” and “two group” texts. Both sets of texts imagine what the future will look like. The two group texts see humankind divided into two groups, one which goes off into eternal life and the other into eternal punishment. This two group approach can be found in Jesus’s parables of judgement and talk of the eternal destruction of the wicked in the New Testament letters and the book of Revelation.
The one group texts, on the other hand, speak as though all humankind is to be saved. In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul contrasts the act of Adam, which was to bring death to all humanity with the act of Christ which was to bring life to all humanity. In Colossians 1:15-20 Christ is described as reconciling all things to himself. In 1 John 2:2 it is stated that Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and also for the sins of the whole world. In Romans 10 we’re told that salvation comes via the confession that Jesus is Lord, then in Philippians 2 that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ is Lord.
If all we had were the two group texts it would seem clear that some humans will experience eternal life and some will experience eternal judgement. If all we had were the one group texts it would seem clear that eventually every human being that has ever lived will be reconciled to Christ and experience salvation. Clearly both can’t be true.
The standard evangelical approach is to take the two group texts as iron clad descriptions of the future and to read the one group texts in a way that fits with that. The all who are saved in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 are not all human beings but all who place their faith in Jesus; the reconciliation of all things in Christ spoken of in Colossians 1 does not refer to making peace but to the subjugating of all; the confession of Christ as Lord in Philippians 2 is not a willing confession, but forced through gritted teeth; the atoning sacrifice spoken of in 1 John 2 is for the whole world that it’s effective only when it is received by faith.
I find these interpretations unconvincing. They only work by altering the natural meaning of the words. In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 the suggestion that the all who are saved refers only to those who place faith in Christ completely evacuates the texts of their force. The argument is that Christ has more than counteracted the consequences of Adam’s actions. That only makes sense if the all who benefit from the work of Christ are the same as those subject to death as result of Adam’s actions, which is what the text actually says. Otherwise Christ has failed and has not counteracted the consequences of Adam sin.
Likewise, the suggestion that the “reconciliation” of all things to Christ in Colossians 1 actually means the “subjugation” of all things plays fast and loose with what is a rich theological concept in the writings of Paul. To reconcile in the Pauline corpus is always to bring about a state of peace, which any first theology student will tell you means not the absence of conflict but the presence of harmony, well-being and right relationship. The subjugation model suggests that in this one instance alone and without any signals that he’s doing so, Paul abandons this rich notion of peace shaped by the Old Testament and instead imports into its place the notion of peace as subjugation employed by the Roman Empire, a notion he has rejected his entire ministry.
Is there a better way of making sense of the two group and one group texts? I suspect there is.
Judgement serves three purposes in the Bible. First it rescues people from those who exploit and oppress them, such as the Israelites being rescued from slavery in Egypt. Second, it calls us to account for how we have behaved. And third, it prevents evil from occurring in the future.
These ends can be served either by retributive justice or restorative justice. Retribution achieves the three goals by imposing penalties and, if necessary, removing the offender from the community. As such it is always incomplete, for it leaves people and communities broken. It may be the best we can do, particularly when there is no repentance on the part of the offender or an unwillingness to forgive on the part of the victim, but it falls short of healing both offender and offended. That end is only achieved through restorative justice, a process that sees the offender confronted by his victim, forced to acknowledge the pain and suffering he has caused, and then offered forgiveness and the chance to heal. To those who can think only in retributionary terms this seems a weak justice, but the experiences of communities in South Africa and Rwanda where people were victims of almost unimaginable violence suggest otherwise. It could not always be achieved, but when it was, the open, public acknowledgement of wrongdoing was healing for the victims of violence, the shame felt by the offender was a catalyst in their transformation, and the forgiveness offered by the victim somehow rebalanced the equation so that things were rightly ordered once more.
Could it not be that this is the model for judgement that we are presented with in the death and resurrection of Christ? In the cross of Christ we’re confronted with our evil, forced to acknowledge that we’re no better than those who cried “crucify him”, nor those who engineered his death. We’re forced to recognise the ways we behave towards God, others and creation that is self-serving, destructive, exploitative, oppressive. And at that very moment of realisation we are confronted with the extraordinary graceful and humbling response of Christ, which is not to exact vengeance, but to absorb the pain we have inflicted and instead offer forgiveness and resurrection. Forgiveness opens up the possibility of a fresh start and reconciliation, while resurrection offers the promise of transformation, the capacity to be the people were created to be.
It’s against this background that the judgement texts can be read. They operate with the logic of retribution, the only justice that can be achieved without repentance on the part of the offender and forgiveness on the part of the offended. But the very intention of judgement texts is that they not be fulfilled. They are in fact designed to drive the offender to repentance and so open up the possibility of restorative justice. This principle is played out in the story of Jonah. Sent to Nineveh to declare the judgement of God upon the city, Jonah flees because he knows that God’s intention was not to punish Nineveh but to save it. Yet Jonah’s message was given in absolute terms:”40 more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” There was no conditionality, no declaration that should the Ninevites repent God will withhold judgement. Just the bald assertion that Ninevah’s time was up. The goal however of driving the Ninevites to repentance was successful and God repented of the destruction he was going to inflict. What began as the declaration of retribution served to achieve an outcome of restoration.
Prophecies of judgement then, even when stated in categorical unconditional terms, are never meant to be read as ironclad predictions. Rather they are declarations of the consequences that should rightly fall based upon the current behaviour of human beings according to the logic of retribution. They declare the only justice that is possible when there is no repentance on the part of the offender, yet as such they are designed to bring people to a place of repentance.
For years I was taught that it was inevitable that the scenarios depicted in the texts of judgement would be played out, for there was a cut-off point after which there was no further opportunity for repentance and the cut-off point was death. Retributory justice would be the final word in the universe.
The problem is that the Bible actually doesn’t say this anywhere. People keep quoting the verse in Hebrews that it is appointed to humans to die once and after that the judgement. But that doesn’t say anything other than we all face judgement sometime after our death. Not only does the Bible nowhere teach a cut-off point for repentance, but those who argue for it face a terrible dilemma. Either they suggest, like Jonathon Edwards in his famous sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”, that a time is reached where God ceases to be forgiving, ceases to be graceful, ceases to be merciful, where he will shut off his heart to those seeking reconciliation, an argument that turns on its head everything Jesus taught us about God, or they follow the path of great thinkers such as CS Lewis who argued that the door to hell is closed from the inside, that is, that after death human beings who are already turned against the Creator become increasingly more opposed, that they remain defiant and will never repent.
But what if the opposite holds true? Assuming there is some kind of afterlife in which we retain consciousness, what if people are actually more inclined towards God? What if they now see more clearly than ever before the reality of God and fall on their knees seeking mercy? And what of those alive at the time Christ returns? What if their bewildered “Lord, Lord when did we see you hungry and not feed you?” is followed with a recognition that Christ is right and a desire to turn and be the very people were created to be? If there is no cut-off point for repentance can we imagine God doing anything other than embracing them? Could it not be that declaration of retribution brings about the restoration of all?
Of course this is speculative, but no more so than the assertion that the opposite holds true, that people will become more intensified in their opposition to love, grace, generosity, justice. Could it not be that God will keep seeking people for as long as it takes for them to be transformed, that nothing will exhaust the determination of God to win back that which is lost and heal that which is broken? If so, restorative justice not retribution will win the day. And if that is the case there is no contradiction between prophecies of judgement and those texts that speak of all creation being redeemed, for the former speak of what should be on the basis of the current unrepentant behaviour, while the latter speak of what will be on the basis of the rich grace and generosity of God.
One of the most helpful books I’ve read in recent years is a short popular work by the Jesus scholar Marcus Borg. Titled Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Borg describes his shift away from the conservative faith of his childhood to a fresh engagement with Jesus. I found myself excited by the Jesus he described: a spirit person with profound knowledge of the spiritual realm who calls me to be engaged with this oft neglected dimension of reality; a prophet who calls me to a politics of compassion; a teacher of wisdom who called into question dominant paradigms of his time and subversively calls me to another way of seeing the world.
But is Marcus a Christian?
As I read Borg it becomes clear that he doesn’t believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus, nor that Jesus was the unique figure orthodox Christianity proclaims. For Borg Jesus’s bones are still rattling around in a grave in Palestine.
Being nurtured in the Western tradition of Christianity, I have tended to define my faith in terms of a belief system. The Christian to me has always been somebody who believes that Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord and gives their allegiance to him.
My experience with Marcus Borg leaves me wondering whether I have got it right. It is clear that Jesus shapes Marcus Borg’s life, even if he doesn’t hold orthodox views. Is a Christian somebody who believes a particular set of things about Jesus or someone who follows the ways of Jesus, and if both of these things are important, which is more important than the other?
I think back to those first followers of Jesus. According to the Gospels it took them some time to recognise that Jesus was the Messiah, and when they did their notion of what it meant for Jesus to be Messiah was as far removed from the reality as it could be. All indications are they didn’t understand him to be the incarnate Son of God until after the resurrection. And I doubt any of them could have articulated the doctrine of the Trinity as we know it today. So when did they become Christians?
It seems that in the Gospels the key issue was recognising that God was with Jesus and that the appropriate response was to give one’s allegiance to the God Jesus made known and to the values Jesus embodied. So perhaps this should be our starting point for defining Christians, that we are people who sense God was present with and in Jesus, seek to know God in terms mapped by Jesus, and seek to live in the ways taught by Jesus.
I find myself attracted to this broader understanding of what it means to be Christian. It seems to resonate much more with what I hear and read of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus seemed much more concerned with the direction in which people were headed rather than whether they crossed some imaginary boundary line between “Christian” and “non-Christian”. Which leaves me wondering whether it’s even a question worth asking.
I certainly hold different beliefs in some key areas to Marcus Borg. For me the resurrection of Jesus is an absolutely pivotal point for my faith. But in Marcus Borg, and many friends I have who hold similar views to him, I find fellow travellers on a journey led by Christ. And I suspect that is the most important thing, that at the end of the day trying to place boundaries around who is a Christian and who is not is simply not a helpful task.
So is Marcus Borg a “Christian”? I don’t know and I don’t care. What I do know is he is a companion with me on the road, that we each sense the presence of God in Jesus and are seeking to follow the way he laid out before us. I have never met the man other than through his writing, but he has enriched me immeasurably, and I am glad that he has become part of my journey.
What does it take to live successfully? What does a life well lived look like? These questions have occupied human beings throughout history.
Some centuries before Christ there was an international movement dedicated to these questions. We meet some members of this movement in Old Testament books such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Commonly described as the “Wisdom movement”, its thinkers assumed there was a moral order built into the universe, and that by studying it they could learn how to live in harmony with it. Their conclusions often come by the way of proverbs, short pithy sayings that try to encapsulate a particular insight.
Something many scholars have highlighted about Jesus is that he seems to fit into this mould. We don’t find too many extended sermons on a single theme. Rather the Gospels provide a collection of stories and sayings of Jesus. Short and pithy, striking and often confronting, they represent his roadmap to a life well lived.
Jesus’s type of wisdom was subversive. Conventional wisdom reinforces the status quo, gives expression to “common sense” (which usually refers to the culturally sanctioned way of viewing the world). Subversive wisdom calls that into question, and provides another way of viewing the world.
Woe to you who are rich. Bless are you who are poor.
You cannot serve God and money.
Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will save it.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… But store up treasure is in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or about your body what you will wear.
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock on the door will be open to you.
You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.
Forgive someone who sins against you not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction… Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only if you find it.
Jesus, the teacher of subversive wisdom, calls me to an alternate way of viewing the world, an alternate view of what constitutes a successful life. His wisdom teaching is about more than a series of sayings; it’s an entirely alternate orientation to life.
I worry sometimes that the church has become so mainstream and the individuals in it so middle-class (including myself) that rather than questioning the dominant world view, we unwittingly embrace it. Our points of distinction become things that really belong on the periphery. I find that Jesus the teacher of subversive wisdom keeps bringing this into question, keeps forcing me to ask uncomfortable questions. But in asking these questions and finding a faltering way to answer them in my lived experience, I find life, freedom and meaning.
This is a Jesus I can follow.
If you’re prone to bad dreams or have a penchant for horror movies, then you’ll relate to the Old Testament book of Daniel. It’s full of terrifying dreams, but rather than waking up at the climactic moment of terror, the dreams continue until they find a hopeful resolution. One of them in particular seems important for how Jesus framed his mission.
The dream pictures four unnatural beasts, each one more ferocious than those that precede, each representing a monstrous and grotesque exercise of government. The fourth beast is particularly hideous:
it had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left
Daniel describes the experience of oppressed people all over the world and throughout history. They stand almost powerless before seemingly unconquerable forces that wound, steal, imprison, torture, and take with violent impunity.
Then something remarkable happens in Daniel’s dream. As the fourth beast boasts of its invincibility, a court is set up, the Ancient of Days presides as judge, a verdict Is rendered and the beast is slain. Just like that the reign of terror is suddenly over.
A very ordinary figure is now led into the presence of the Ancient of Days. In contrast to the terrifying and monstrous distortions that were the beasts this figure is “like a son of man”, a regular human being. He is granted “an everlasting dominion that will never pass away.” The peoples of the world worship him, not because they are forced to but because they want to.
Here is the earth ruled in the way God always intended – the “dominion” granted to humankind in Genesis 1 is not used to destroy, hoard, steal, but to create equity; justice; peace; caring, inclusive community. People, animals, and the earth thrive and flourish.
If the beasts represent the experience of oppressed peoples, the son of man represents hope. Hope that things can be different, that Orwell’s image of tyranny as a boot stamping on a human face forever will prove illusory.
As I survey a world where over 1 billion live in extreme poverty, where millions are trapped in slavery, where multinational corporations illegally spirit hundreds of millions of dollars out of developing countries, where blood stains too many streets and homes; as I survey a planet that we seem hellbent on destroying, I too find myself longing for the world depicted at the end of Daniel’s dream.
This is where Jesus fits. Throughout the Gospels his favourite self designation is that he is a “son of man”. There it is. There is a certain ambiguity. Is he merely being self deprecatory, saying he is just another human being, or is he styling himself as Daniel’s figure of hope, or both? I think the careful reader sees it as both. Jesus, the most fully and completely human of history, is the one who leads the way to the kind of world we long for. He calls us to another way of living, one that favours grace over merit, forgiveness over retribution, service over honour, generosity over greed, the powerless over the powerful, the lowly over the mighty, and love over all. He provides the hope that as we embrace these values now we can experience something of the flourishing God intends, even as the beasts continue to rage, and the hope that a time will come when God will finally bring an end to all the grotesque caricatures of power and replace them with a world marked by power used to ensure the flourishing of this planet and every creature on it.
This is a Jesus I want to follow. He is not the Jesus who beckons me to leave this world behind for the fluffy delights of harp bearing angels singing on clouds, but the Jesus who beckons me to become fully and completely human as I embrace his ways rather than those of the beasts and who offers me the hope of this world becoming all it is intended to be.