August 18, 2013

13th Week after Pentecost

“I have come to bring fire and division,” Jesus exclaims. “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” It was a hard time. The strains on Jewish life in the first century were profound. The social order was unraveling inevitably toward a crisis which eventually resulted in the catastrophic war that destroyed the temple in Jerusalem 35 years later. If you can get a feeling for the circumstances of that “present time,” you can better understand what it was that Jesus sought to do, and why indeed he brought division and conflict to his world.

Israel was occupied. Rome had two priorities – military control and maximum economic exploitation. The political and religious elites ruled from their urban capitals, and both squeezed the poor farmers and peasants unmercifully. Jews already lived with a system of tithes required by the Torah’s divine laws. A peasant farmer’s tithes and taxes exceeded 35%. (And that doesn’t include the tax collectors’ fees adding his profit to the take.) It was crippling.

Since the Jews had no political power to compel payment, many Jewish farmers stopped paying the tithes, creating a large class of “nonobservant” Jews. Growing numbers of small farmers could not pay the Roman taxes and lost their land, creating a lower social class of landless day laborers and beggars. Economic stability was unraveling.
How would a Jewish society respond to such pressures? They sought to preserve their separate identity as a people through the politics of separation: the politics of holiness. “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy.” Survival by separation. We shall be a holy people. It worked for us in the past; it will work today.

The Jewish leaders structured their entire society based on the polarities of holiness as separation: clean and unclean, pure and defiled, sacred and profane, Jew and Gentile, righteous and sinner. Their strategy centered on attacking the greatest form of Jewish nonobservance – the nonpayment of tithes. The punishment was ostracism. Treat the nonobservant as a Gentile.

The irony is that this holiness strategy which was intended to preserve Jewish identity, only served to divide. One group, the Essenes, preserved holiness by withdrawing away from society like survivalists; another group, the Zealots, became an underground movement of resistance fighters; and the largest group, the Pharisees sought to transform the people into a kingdom of priests by teaching and observing strict laws of purity and ostracizing those who didn’t.

Their Jewish world was divided more severely than our red states and blue states. There were the righteous, the sinners, and the outcasts. The righteous followed the purity laws; the sinners were those who could not or would not follow the holiness codes; the outcasts were like untouchables – shepherds, tax-collectors, beggars, bandits and thieves.

When your world is under great pressure, the human tendency is to respond by creating laws and rules to control the threat.

Jesus taught a different way and called his followers to a life of sacrificial love. Jesus insisted that regardless of how bad things may look, the truth is that we serve a God who is gracious and compassionate. God is worthy of trust. God loves and is gracious to all, regardless of status or religious behavior. If God is gracious and compassionate, we can be gracious and compassionate. Therefore, respond to your neighbors because of their need, not their status.

Jesus welcomed sinners and outcasts. He called a tax-collector to be among his intimate twelve. He shattered the social world of purity and impurity, holy and not-holy, righteous and wicked. He wiped out boundaries between men and women, he touched lepers and spoke to Samaritan women. He proclaimed good news to the poor and taught his followers to give to beggars, to lend without expecting repayment and give alms without reward.

In response to the Romans he told his people to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile when a Roman soldier exercises his legal right to require you to carry his equipment one mile.

Jesus undermined the central concerns of the dominant consciousness of the Judaism of his day – family, wealth, honor and religious identity. He challenged family as the primary identity and social unit inviting his followers to break with their family and family obligations in order to join a larger, more inclusive family of God. He criticized the wealthy when others presumed they were wealthy because God had blessed them. He mocked those who sought places of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogue. He challenged the religious identity of Jews as Abraham’s children – “God can turn these rocks into children of Abraham” – and overturned the tables of the religious establishment.

He brought fire to the earth of first century Israel. He challenged the entire purity system that dominated his culture. He refused to let fear and separatism be his response to threat. And lots of people didn’t like it one bit. Including the religious factions of his day.

His message can be pretty challenging and divisive today. Especially for those whose instinct during threatening times is to create more separation in order to try to protect themselves from feeling threatened. Fear is a terrible motivator. But what Jesus did was break down those dividing walls of hostility by giving up his life for us and for those we call enemies.

What an irony that in his name, some have created their own forms of purity codes, dividing the world into righteous and sinner, sacred and profane. Some have depreciated forgiveness into a form of escape instead of the forgiveness which is gracious and compassionate welcoming of the ostracized into a free and open table fellowship with a generous and forgiving God. Some have reverted to the first century idolatries of family, wealth, honor and religious identity and lost the expansive generosity of Jesus’ original message of embrace beyond cultural and economic boundaries. And some have lost site of that compassionate vision of our responsibilities toward our neighbors’ need in times of economic stress.

The reality is that we are a house divided, and the fire of Christ’s baptism is yearning to ignite our hearts until they are baptized into his revolutionary way, the way of the cross. May we follow Jesus’ way, reaching beyond our comfortable cultural and economic boundaries, welcoming all to the reconciling table of acceptance where we are fed and healed by God, where fear and separation are overcome by the transcending generosity and compassion of God. It is a different way, which will bring conflict. But it is worth the struggle.