MSV Foundations Blog

Robert's Blog: Mustard Seed Foundations Series

Our foundation is a unique view of Jesus and his teachings. Our original members joined in this vision through years of meetings and classes in Sedona, Arizona. Therefore, to give those who are joining us online the opportunity to have a comparable experience, we have decided to start our new network with a Mustard Seed Foundations series. The series consists of a weekly blog post by Robert Perry, in which he lays out, one step at a time, our understanding of Jesus and his teachings. In the week following a given post, we will all have an opportunity to discuss the ideas put forward in that post. During this time, the activity on the forum will just be the Foundations series. After the series has concluded, we will open up the social network’s full range of functions, so we can all participate in bringing this vision to life!

We recommend starting with Foundations Series Blog #1:  The Question of Jesus

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Week 28: Final Reflections

This is my final post in this series. I hope you have enjoyed reading and discussing the posts as much as I have enjoyed writing them. As I conclude the series, there are two final questions that are on my mind: How could we have gotten Jesus so wrong and what is his relevance for the world today? 

How did we get him so wrong?

The portrait I have drawn is obviously nothing like a traditional portrait of Jesus, even though it is largely inspired by our earliest and best record of his teachings in the Sayings Gospel Q. So if this portrait is somewhere in the ballpark of the real story, then we naturally are left wondering how the traditional picture could be so far off. There is, after all, an unbroken continuity between us and Jesus, via the oral traditions passed down by his disciples and the written gospels that were based on those oral traditions. Given that continuity, how could we have gotten him so wrong? 

There are probably many answers to this question. There is the brevity of his ministry, which may have lasted as little as one year. There is the fact, as I mentioned in week 4, that he, like Socrates, stirred something so deep in his followers that it became hard to separate out the real man from what he had stirred within them. There is what’s called “the Rashomon effect,” which comes from the 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie, in which four eyewitnesses tell their startlingly different versions of the same rape and murder. There is also the tendency in human nature toward what I can only call hero worship, for want of a less derogatory term, which could go a long way toward explaining the seismic shift that scholars have observed in which, as Rudolf Bultmann put it, “the proclaimer became the proclaimed.” 

There is one factor, though, that in my mind virtually guarantees that Jesus would have been profoundly misunderstood. This is that, as many of his teachings make plain, he taught an alternative vision of reality that turned upside down conventional assumptions and values. 

We expect religious teachers to essentially say, “More obedience, more piety, follow the old truths. You know what’s right, you just need to do it—or else.” That’s a message we understand. It rests on a framework that is already deeply embedded in us. But Jesus brought in a whole different framework. He taught of a God who showered his blessings just as much on the sinner as on the saint, a God who didn’t divide people into the categories of approved and disapproved. This different God was the basis of a different world based on unconventional values, a world that we were invited to enter and live in. This world was so utterly contrary to the familiar that wherever it entered it did so in the form of radical reversal. Everything turned upside down. The sick were suddenly healed. The excluded and degraded were honored. Enemies became friends. The dead arose. 

He didn’t, therefore, simply stay within the old framework and say “Obey it better.” He asked us to enter a new framework. He asked us to make a fundamental shift in our perception. The difficulty of this, of course, is that one’s fundamental framework is the basis for all of one’s perceptions and feelings and behavior. Everything rests on it. How, then, does one shift to an entirely new framework? At least, how does one do it successfully, without great confusion, misunderstanding, and inadvertent retention of the old? 

I am intimately familiar with this problem. I have been teaching A Course in Miracles for thirty years and this is the same problem that its students face. The Course asks us to step into its alternative vision of reality, which entails an entirely different set of values and perceptions, and which enters the familiar world in the form of radical reversal. And despite the fact that we have 1200 pages of clear teaching, confusion and misunderstanding are rampant among students, not just in the details but in the basics. As human beings, we interpret everything we see on the basis of our current framework, and so when we are presented with a new framework, we naturally interpret it from the standpoint of our current framework. This throws us into an uncertain no man’s land between the two frameworks, in which they become confused and melded. The confusion is so great that we don’t even know where we are—how close we are to the new side versus how stuck in the old. 

Actually, I don't think it's as innocent as I'm making it sound. I think what I'm describing is the visible evidence of unconscious resistance. Our basic framework works to protect itself at all times, and it does so very effectively. And so just as the ruling elites in Jesus' day sensed the threat that he posed and moved to extinguish that threat, I think the same dynamic plays out within our individual minds. The ruling power structure in our minds quite aptly senses the threat that his message poses and moves to neutralize it. I think this happened in the minds of his earliest followers and I think it has continued to happen in all minds that are exposed to his message—ours included—to this day.

Based on my experience with A Course in Miracles, then, it seems obvious to me that once Jesus called us to undergo such a fundamental revolution in perception, he was bound to be thoroughly misunderstood. It’s hard to imagine how it could have been different. 

What is his relevance for us today?

Once we step outside of the traditional view of worshiping Jesus as the only begotten Son of God who died for our sins, it is easy to see Jesus as having merely historical value; study of him matters because he is an important part of our history. 

Or, if we are spiritually-oriented, we might see him as relevant because he actually stood for truths that we ourselves believe in. That’s how I saw him back in my Edgar Cayce days—he taught oneness and reincarnation, just like Cayce did. You see this approach in many places. Those into Christian mysticism see him as teaching their truths. Those into Eastern enlightenment see him as standing for their journey of awakening. There is no doubt that it is empowering to have Jesus now on your side, rather than against you. It is healing to reclaim him as your own. 

In my eyes, however, his relevance for us today is quite different from any of the above views. I believe that he came to convey a truth that, to a significant degree, was unique to him, a shining truth of paramount importance, a truth that our world desperately needs but cannot see through the thick layers of fog. Through Jesus that shining truth entered our world in a way that it had never done before. It briefly shone with piercing brightness, yet as might be expected, the fog moved in to snuff it out. And then, in a brilliant move, the fog appropriated him as its own, thereby sidelining his truth. And so that truth was to a large extent lost from view, buried in the mist. 

We still need that truth. We need it just as much now as then. It is just as radical now as it was then. It’s not as if in the intervening centuries we have grasped it and outgrown it. It still towers high above us. For we still love those who love us. We still defend ourselves when attacked. Rather than lovingly giving our attacker twice what he tried to take, we still try to give him a double dose of his own medicine. Our society is still riven by fault lines of hatred, still divided between those who matter and those who don’t. And we still see God as justifying it all. As I quoted Huston Smith saying, “H.G. Wells was evidently right; either there was something mad about this man or our hearts are still too small for what he was trying to say.” 

And so his message is not a historical curiosity from the ancient past. And it is not a comforting reaffirmation of truths we already believe in the present. It is a beacon that shines to us from a distant future, calling us forward. 

It is easy to think that, if this message has been mostly lost for two thousand years, it’s simply too late now. And maybe it is. Maybe this message will have to reemerge in a new form, one that is less encumbered by centuries of encrustation. However, I feel that I see indications of another process playing itself out. 

It is very interesting to me that the twentieth century saw a number of developments that could be interpreted as a rebirth of the truth about Jesus. There was the discovery of the revolutionary social implications of his teachings that I sketched in week 7—the line of thought and activism that runs from Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela. There is the field of Jesus scholarship, which for two hundred years has tried to separate the real historical figure from the Christ of faith, and which, for all its shortcomings, continues to make, I believe, absolutely vital contributions. There is the scientific study of the Shroud of Turin, which I believe was the burial cloth of Jesus (despite the 1988 carbon-dating that is now widely seen as discredited). The Shroud contains a record of everything that happened to Jesus in the crucifixion, in forensic detail, and its image is possibly a photographic imprint of the resurrection, yet it was impossible to truly study it before we possessed twentieth-century technology. We couldn't even properly view its image before the invention of photography. And there was the publication of A Course in Miracles, which claims to be written by Jesus and which, in my view, contains his unique essence and genius, only expressed in twentieth-century terms. 

All of these developments involve conceptual tools and methods, and in some cases physical technologies, that were simply not available to us until recently. 

If one is open to the idea of a higher plan, one might be tempted to see evidence here of a plan through which the shining truth that Jesus represented, after being hidden for so long, is gradually coming to light. It’s as if the truth he brought to this world is so crucial that, rather than being allowed to stay hidden in the fog, it must be recovered, even if it takes us thousands of years. 

Perhaps, then, it is not too late. Perhaps various strands of his light are slowly emerging from the mist, developing, and heading toward an ultimate convergence. Perhaps one day we will actually arrive at the foot of that beacon that has been shining to us from far in the future. 

If this is a process that is actually going on—and I would dearly like to believe it is—then, based on what I sketched above, it is a process in which people from all over the world and from different eras have a part to play. 

The question is: What is our part?

Read more…

Week 27: Who Was Jesus?

We are nearing the end of this series and it is time now to look at the big question of what category we place Jesus in. Once you decide this, whatever category you choose will shape and even dictate how you see every individual piece of data. The same saying will mean one thing if you decide he is an apocalyptic prophet and another if you decide he is a Cynic sage. As you stand before each saying, each parable, each miracle story, you will silently ask yourself, “Given that he is a ______, what must this mean?” This is why I believe that categorizing Jesus belongs at the end of the process, so that it can grow out of a sensitive and open-minded consideration of each individual datum. Too often, in my view, the category is chosen at the start, which I see as an invitation for one’s global biases to dictate the entire search.

My starting place has been Jesus’ teachings, especially those teachings that are found in Q and that tend to be considered authentic by scholars. I believe that these teachings, sensitively examined, reveal themselves to be what I would call spiritual teachings. They show Jesus aiming for a spiritual transformation in his hearers. This says to me that whatever category we place Jesus in, it needs to be essentially spiritual.

“Jewish mystic”

In terms of categorizing Jesus, I think Marcus Borg, who we sadly lost a year ago, is the prominent scholar who got it most right. Borg started out categorizing Jesus as a “spirit person” and later modified this slightly to saying that Jesus was a “Jewish mystic.” Here is Borg summarizing his view: 

Jesus stands in this tradition of Jewish figures for whom God, the sacred, was an experiential reality. The data in the gospels supporting this claim are early and widespread, particular and general, direct and indirect. They are found in the earliest layers of the gospel tradition, in both Q and Mark, as well as in later layers. Texts report visions, long hours of prayer, and a sense of the presence of the Spirit in him. His language often expresses an intimacy with God. His activity as a healer and exorcist is linked to an awareness of the Spirit of God active through him. More generally, his wisdom teaching often reflects a transformed perspective and perception most compatible with an enlightenment experience of the sacred. His passion and courage as a prophet suggest an experiential grounding in God like that of the prophets of the Jewish Bible. (Jesus: The Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, p. 117) 

Let me lay this condensed summary out in slightly more detail: 

He had religious visions. The vision that began his ministry was one in which “He saw the heavens being torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:11). 

In his subsequent forty days in the wilderness, it is reported that angels ministered to him and that he had visionary encounters with the devil. Borg likens this to the cross-cultural pattern of the vision quest or wilderness ordeal that often follows one’s initiation into the world of Spirit. 

He withdrew into solitude for hours of prayer. This was most likely not verbal prayer, which is usually far more brief, but contemplative prayer, in which one stills the mind in order to experience God. 

His hearers experienced him as teaching with “a numinous authority not derived from tradition” (Jesus: A New Vision, p. 47). Behind the Greek word for “authority” lies the Jewish term Gevurah, the power of God. Jesus was seen to teach, in other words, from the mouth of the Gevurah

He was an exorcist and healer. His power to work miracles most likely flowed from his connection with the Spirit (which seems true of miracle workers in general). Indeed, this is how he himself spoke of it: “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons…” (Matthew 12:28). 

There was an “otherness” to him that was widely perceived but variously interpreted. His family thought he was crazy (Mark 3:21). His opponents thought he was demon-possessed. His followers experienced a “Buddha field” around him: “Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were filled with awe” (Mark 10:32). 

He referred to God as abba—how one would address one’s human father—and called God “father” frequently. This most likely flowed from his intimacy with God. 

His teaching contained a different way of seeing, a wisdom that was both astonishing and unconventional. This was very likely a result of Jesus himself having seen differently. “In this, he was like the Buddha, who taught an enlightened wisdom that flowed out of his own experience of enlightenment” (Jesus: The Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, p. 131). 

His alternative social vision most likely came out of his ecstatic experience. “There is a kind of ecstatic experience that radically minimizes cultural distinctions by disclosing their artificial character; the distinctions are a humanly created grid imposed on reality, and not an order built into reality itself” (Profiles of Jesus, p. 136). 

He saw himself and was seen by others as a prophet. A prophet’s calling and passion came from his experience of God. 

I think Borg makes a brilliant case for Jesus being a Jewish mystic. I remember being electrified when I first read his overview of Jesus more than twenty years ago. At the same time, what Borg has done is capture in historically sound terms what everyone basically senses when they read the gospel stories. It’s obvious that Jesus is one of those figures who is close to the world of spirit. There is a reason that so many people very naturally class Jesus and Buddha together. 

Spiritual master

However, I wish Borg had taken one small step farther. I wish he had used the term “spiritual master,” which seems actually implicit in what he does say. I personally believe that is the best way to categorize Jesus. 

What is a spiritual master? The concept seems to be more of an informal one than a formal category that has been rigorously defined. However, I think we all have a sense of what it means. A spiritual master is someone who 1) has mastered the spiritual life—has experienced a profound change of consciousness and thereby become realized, enlightened—and who 2) then enters into a master-pupil relationship with disciples, to 3) lead them toward the same profound change in consciousness. In short, a spiritual master has reached the top of the mountain and then attempts to guide others up those same heights. 

Does Jesus fit this bill? I think he does. Let’s look at each of the three components I identified in the above definition. 

1. “Has experienced a profound change of consciousness.” The whole thrust of Borg’s argument is that Jesus had undergone a profound change of consciousness that was akin to achieving enlightenment. 

2. “Enters into a master-pupil relationship with disciples.” That Jesus called disciples is common knowledge, but have you ever thought about the implications of this? Discipleship was not as common as we may assume. The Greek word for “disciple” does not even appear at all in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Borg comments: 

Though it was relatively common for a teacher within Judaism to have devoted students, the phenomenon of discipleship is different and uncommon, involving an uprooting and a following after….The phenomenon of discipleship is located within the charismatic stream of Judaism, occurring in response to a charismatic [in the sense of possessing divinely inspired powers] leader.” (Jesus: A New Visionpp. 47-48) 

3. “To lead them toward the same profound change in consciousness.” As I said earlier in this post, a close examination of his sayings suggests that Jesus was seeking a spiritual transformation in his audience. The goal of his teachings was for his hearers to “enter” the kingdom of God, so that the kingdom could then “come” through them to others. The kingdom seems to be a domain or space in which God’s love and care palpably “reign” in one’s experience. Being in the kingdom, then, equals attaining an altered state of consciousness, in which you see, feel, and experience the world in a radically different way. Borg described the kingdom in very similar ways:

“Kingdom of God” here is Jesus’ designation or “name” for the primordial beneficent power of the other realm, an energy which can become active in ordinary reality and which flows through him in his exorcisms. (Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, p. 261) 

Thus to enter the Kingdom of God was to enter the place of God’s presence.  (Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, p. 262) 

So Jesus clearly does seem to fit the definition of a spiritual master. 

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, however, we have to admit that Jesus seems to go outside that definition’s usual boundaries in that he is not just focused on his disciples, but rather takes his cause to the wider public. We often think of spiritual masters as expending almost all their energies on the few who are really serious, who want to “go all the way,” and nearly ignoring the shallow masses who have no interest in enlightenment. So we may picture masters virtually holed up in their ashram, perhaps rarely (or even never) seen by the public. 

Yet this is not a necessary element of the concept of spiritual master. One need look no further than Buddha to find an enlightened master who both had disciples and took his message to a wider public. In fact, it strikes me as perfectly logical for a master to do this—to work toward the inner transformation of a close circle of disciples and to also seek the same transformation (albeit to a lesser degree) in society itself. So it makes sense for Jesus to have his inner core of disciples but then to ultimately seek to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). It makes sense for him to want to get everyone up the mountain. 

Simon Joseph’s portrait of the “ascetic Jesus”

In fact, there is one scholar who has developed a portrait of Jesus very much along these lines. Simon J. Joseph has mounted a very detailed and thoroughly researched argument that notes the parallels between Jesus and spiritual masters in other ancient cultures. In “Jesus in India? Transgressing Social and Religious Boundaries” Joseph likens Jesus to the pattern of the “wandering, ascetic holy man [who] travels from village to village teaching and giving advice. He has few possessions and depends on the voluntary contributions of the villagers for his food. Some wandering holy men gathered disciples who looked to them for spiritual instruction” (p. 168). He points out that “Jesus’ prolonged periods of withdrawal, meditation, prayer, voluntary celibacy, and ascetic renunciation of worldly ties and attachments suggest that he was engaged in rigorous spiritual practices” (p. 167). He stresses that Jesus’ disciples were called to join him in his lifestyle of worldly renunciation. He notes “the many similarities in traditional characterizations of Jesus and Buddha” (p. 167). He even draws specific parallels between Jesus’ reputed miraculous abilities and the yogic powers described by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra in India. Joseph’s portrait goes further than Borg’s in taking seriously just how much Jesus resembles a traditional spiritual master. We can hope, therefore, that his portrait can gain traction in scholarly circles and can also reach a wide, popular audience.

What difference does this make?

Seeing him first and foremost as a spiritual master dramatically changes our entire picture of Jesus. The primary lens, it seems to me, through which he has been seen historically is that he came as an agent of God’s plan to deal with the world in a new way. That, of course, is the whole point of the traditional interpretation of the crucifixion: God wants to forgive us and let us into heaven, but before he can do that, he requires Jesus to come down to earth and die for our sins. Jesus, then, is God’s instrument. Through Jesus, God is able to deal with humanity in a new way. 

This, it seems to me, is also the point of the apocalyptic Jesus, which for over a century has been (and I think remains) the dominant paradigm in Jesus scholarship. Here, Jesus comes to announce that God is in the process of doing something new. God is bringing his kingdom to earth, which involves overturning the power structures, punishing the wicked, and exalting the humble. And Jesus does more than merely announce this; the kingdom is actually dawning in and through his ministry. So again, God wants to deal with humanity in a new way, and Jesus becomes (or sees himself as) the agent of that. 

So in both paradigms, there is a coming shift in the history of God’s dealings with humanity, and Jesus is there to inaugurate that shift. True, we have our part to play in this. We have to respond to this new state of affairs, by believing in Jesus (traditional paradigm) or by following his “interim ethic” (apocalyptic paradigm). But the picture still revolves around this shift in how God deals with humanity. In this picture, God plays the primary role and then our secondary role is to respond appropriately to his part. 

If we view Jesus as a spiritual master, however, this whole picture basically goes away. Now it’s no longer about a change in how God relates to the world. Rather, it’s all about the change in consciousness that Jesus seeks to catalyze in us. Jesus is not there to inaugurate God’s new way of dealing with humanity. He is there to inaugurate a new way for humanity to deal with God. For in Jesus’ view, God doesn’t change. He is always raising his sun on the good and bad alike. He is always seeking his lost sheep. He is always offering to restore his prodigal sons to full sonship. 

We, therefore, are the ones who have to change, in order to accept what God is always offering. In this view, then, it’s all about the last change that we will ever pursue: the change in us. As a spiritual master, Jesus came as the agent of that change. He first sought to transform the consciousness of a small band of disciples, but his ultimate goal was to “make disciples of all nations,” so that eventually the consciousness of the whole world could be transformed. So that everyone could get up the mountain. So that the kingdom could come.

Read more…

Last week we looked at the pervasive theme of reversal in Jesus’ life and teachings, as a clue to the meaning of that greatest of all reversals: the resurrection. We saw it in relation to Jesus’ miracles and his aphorisms (short sayings expressing an individual point of view). This week we will conclude the discussion by looking at the theme of reversal in the parables. 

Reversal in the parables

The parables—which are basically short stories with a message—are the other category of sayings in the Jesus corpus. Just as Jesus’ aphorisms are expressions of his individual cast of mind, so the parables are an invaluable window onto his unique perspective on the world. Indeed, parable expert Bernard Brandon Scott (whom Mustard Seed brought out to speak in Sedona) says that they were his distinctive form of rhetorical art: 

Despite various assertions to the contrary, there is no evidence of parable tellers contemporary with Jesus. The rabbinic parable develops after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE and follows a very different stereotyped use. (Listening to the Parables of Jesus, p. 97) 

As windows onto Jesus’ mind, many of his parables follow an interesting pattern. Edward Beutner describes it this way (the first ellipsis below is his): 

[In contrast to romantic or escapist poetry] parables focus our attention ever more closely upon this world…and suddenly disconnect its accustomed dots and disorder its rigid boundaries….Jesus’ parables routinely frustrate our inherited expectations by means of narrative twists that reflect what [Jesus Seminar founder Robert] Funk names “the logic of grace.” (Listening to the Parables of Jesus, p. 97) 

In other words, in Jesus’ parables, we are first shown the world unadorned, in very familiar and realistic terms. Everything goes as we have seen it go so many times before. And then at the end, something abruptly intervenes from outside “our inherited expectations,” something that does not follow our logic but rather “the logic of grace.” 

This pattern is so striking that I want to walk you through it in the case of three parables. 

The good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35): “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” Two fellow Jews—religious authorities, no less—came by, but rather than rendering assistance they passed by on the other side of the road. 

Isn’t this the way life actually goes? We know how this sort of thing ends in real life: the man either dies or slowly drags himself back home. Yet, of course, that is not how this story ends. Just when hope seemed lost, a hated Samaritan shows up. The Samaritan should look on this man far less kindly than the two religious authorities had; Samaritans and Jews are enemies. And yet this Samaritan treats this Jew like a member of his own family—dressing his wounds, carrying him on his animal to an inn, caring for him there the rest of the day, and the next day paying the innkeeper to take further care of him. 

This is not how life normally goes. It is as if a shaft of light from another realm has interrupted the normal progression of things. 

The prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31): The younger son of a wealthy man asked for his inheritance while his father was still alive, treating his father as dead. He then took his newfound wealth to a pagan country and blew it all on loose living and prostitutes. He sunk so low that he took a job feeding pigs (which for Jews are unclean animals). In his desperation, all he could think to do was to crawl back home and throw himself on the mercy of the man whose property he had wasted and who he had essentially disowned, begging his father for the chance to be treated like a hired hand. 

This story, too, is something we have heard before. I don’t mean from the Bible; I mean from life. Younger sons are like this. They take everything for granted, and can therefore easily bring themselves to ruin. And yet just as with the previous story, when the man has hit bottom, a bolt comes in from out of the blue: The father is overjoyed to see him. He embraces and kisses him; puts his best robe on him, a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet; and throws a lavish feast to celebrate his return. All that matters is that he has his son back. 

The dinner party (Luke 14:16-24): A man of means decided to throw a party for his high-society friends. This would be a great way, he thought, to cement his status among them. When all the preparations had been made he sent his slave to the people he had invited, only to find that they were all too busy. Some were busy with more important social obligations; most were just busy making money. He had been snubbed by everyone. 

We already know from life experience the essence of this story. Whose attempt to climb the social ladder is not punctuated by memorable rejections? And we already know what this man will do in response: He will think long and hard about how he is going to “show them”—how he will end up on top and, while on the way up, will knock them down toward the bottom. 

But that is not what happens in this case. Just when the man has reached his point of greatest humiliation, something inside him gives way. He decides not that these particular people let him down, but that the whole concept of the social ladder let him down. And so, in a life-altering act, he simply throws the ladder away. He instructs his slave to welcome to his dinner “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14:21). He makes sure his slave invites people indiscriminately, even randomly: “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find” (Matthew 22:9). He has left his old world and stumbled into a new one. 

The pattern: In each case, the story begins with life going through its familiar progression. This progression involves someone, through completely ordinary means, falling from his normal estate. It is as if he has stumbled into an antlion pit, where as he tries to climb out, the ground gives way beneath him and dirt (thrown up by the antlion) rains down from above him, so that he is pulled inexorably to the bottom, where the jaws of the antlion await. 

And then, just as those jaws are scratching at his heels, something happens. It is not merely the unexpected; it is not an unlikely event from within the usual order. It is a visitation from another order. It is an intrusion into the familiar from a place where the rules are completely different. 

And so the main character’s fortunes are reversed. The man in “the good Samaritan” is lifted from the ditch and simultaneously liberated from the confining belief that friendship and love are limited by ethnic boundaries. The prodigal son is lifted from destitution, humiliation, and guilt and back into being the son of a father whose love knows no bounds, no questions asked. The man throwing the dinner party is lifted out of his petty climb for status and into a larger world, a world without boundaries in which everyone matters. 

In all three cases, the kingdom has come. It comes in from left field and nullifies the familiar order, bringing with it the laws of a new order. It is the arising of a new world, a world in which God is in charge. It abrogates the old order of conflict, estrangement, and suffering, replacing it with a world in which everyone is honored, everyone laughs, everyone shares a feast, and most of all, everyone loves. 

Not what we expect from a story

This is not at all what we expect from stories. We do, of course, want a happy ending, but we expect that ending to take place within the rules that govern the story as a whole. We don’t expect to follow one set of rules all the way through, only to have it overturned at the very end by a new ruleset. What is typically in question in a story is not its basic rules, but how things will go within those rules, especially how things will end. In the conflict that is at the heart of any story, will our protagonist (which means literally “first combatant”) win? Will he or she come out on top? That’s what is in question. 

We can readily see our assumption of the continuity of the rules in the context of sports. Imagine, for instance, that you are watching a baseball game. It’s the bottom of the ninth and the home team is down by two points, but their best hitter is at the plate and there are two runners on base. If he can manage to hit a home run, therefore, he will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The only question is: Will he hit that home run or will he strike out? We’ve all seen this movie (The Natural comes to mind) or read this story (in sixth grade I had to memorize the poem “Casey at the Bat”). This is a story we understand. 

Yet now imagine that, as the batter faces the final pitch, he puts down the bat and the pitcher puts down the ball and they embrace in a sudden expression of friendship. Then they turn to the crowd and say, “There’s been a change of rules. We just don’t believe in competition anymore.” That kind of unexpected, wholesale reversal is exactly what we see in the parables of Jesus. 

The resurrection as parable

I’m sure you can see where I am going with this. Isn’t it astonishing just how closely the resurrection fits this pattern? It is as if Jesus has become one of his own main characters. Now he is the protagonist who suffers a downfall. He is the one who falls into the antlion pit, where he is dragged down to the bottom and then dragged under by the jaws of the antlion. And when the sand goes still, everyone walks away, because they’ve seen it all before; it is just the way the world works. 

But then, exactly as in his own parables, something unexpectedly flashes in from a whole other order, a place where this is not the way things work, a place where antlion pits just don’t make sense. And under the sway of that other order, everything is reversed. Jesus is lifted out of the pit and into a condition that is literally not of this world. “The logic of grace” has overturned the relentless logic of the world. The kingdom has come! 

I’ve mentioned before that scholars sometimes use the term “parabolic acts” to describe the fact that Jesus’ actions were like lived-out parables—real-life short stories with a message. At this point, how can we not be tempted to extend this concept to the resurrection itself? The fit is just too perfect. It’s as if after telling all those arresting parables, Jesus somehow managed, at the end of his life, to step right into one. 

The pattern that pervades his ministry

In hindsight, we can see that this pattern is not unique to his parables. His miracles obviously fit this same pattern: someone is chronically ill for years and then—flash!—the rules of another order come in and reverse her condition. The aphorisms we looked at last week also now appear to just be compressed versions of the same pattern. To say that the poor—the lowest, the most forgotten, the last—will be given God’s kingdom is like a brief encapsulation of the very reversal we see in these parables. Even things like Jesus’ table fellowship fit this pattern. For a man of God to dine with the sinners who have been excluded by a godly society is very much like the surprise endings in the parables. 

It’s as if Jesus’ whole ministry is contained in this pattern of reversal. More importantly, it’s as if his whole message is contained in this pattern. Here is a shortened version of how I summarized that message: 

1. The world assaults us. Everyday life is characterized by conflict between ourselves and the world, so that our lives are filled with anxiety, fear, guilt, lack, humiliation, and sickness. 

However, we can leave this state by entering the kingdom, “a state of being in which God’s unconditional love is the ruling power” (point 3). We enter the kingdom “through a psychological transfer of our trust, investment, valuing, and sense of identity from the world to the kingdom” (point 4), or the kingdom comes to us through someone who is in it “extending its beneficence to others” (point 7). Finally, 

5. Once in the kingdom, its love and care will become our experience, while the world’s assaults will seem remote and powerless. In the kingdom, we will be free from anxiety, fear, guilt, lack, humiliation, sickness, and all the ills of the human condition. 

If we look at points 1 and 5, we see that same reversal that we have been talking about. We see this message of reversal everywhere. We see it in his aphorisms. We see it in his miracles. We see it in his parables. We see it in his table fellowship. We see it in his crucifixion. And we see it in his resurrection. 

What, then, is the message of the resurrection? It is the same message we see everywhere we look in the life and teachings of Jesus. The resurrection is no different.

The resurrection as demonstration

Yet, of course, the resurrection is different. Though in the same category as his miracles, it was clearly a much bigger miracle. And unlike his teachings, it was more than just words; it was (as I have argued) a real happening. By acting out his teachings in a real-life situation, Jesus was, intentionally or not, giving us a demonstration. 

What is a demonstration? The definition that Google gives me is this: “an act of showing that something exists or is true by giving proof or evidence.” If we apply that definition to the resurrection, then it becomes an act of showing that Jesus’ teachings are true by giving proof or evidence. 

This addresses a crucial question: How exactly do we know that Jesus’ teachings are true? Yes, there is a distinct ring of truth to them. They resonate with something deep in our minds. Yet is that enough? After all, these teachings are not on the order of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” They are far more extreme than that, far more radical.  How do we know that God loves the sinner just as much as the saint? How do we know that turning the other cheek does not equal suicide? How do we know that these teachings can be successfully lived out in real life? There is a reason that, as Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Let’s face it, Jesus’ teachings can easily seem to be some of the most impractical teachings that have ever been uttered. 

Given their pie-in-the-sky appearance, the question of whether these teachings can be successfully lived out should probably be broken down into two questions. First, can we live them out under normal, everyday circumstances? Second, can we live them out in really extreme circumstances, where our lives are on the line? Teachings that may appear to work on the first level can fail miserably on the second. It is one thing to turn the other cheek when a neighbor gossips about you. Even if you are following an unrealistic teaching, all you can lose is a bit of your dignity. But it is quite another thing to turn the other cheek when you are being held at gunpoint. Now an impractical teaching can cost you your life. 

The resurrection, and the crucifixion as well (which I’ll now include again), have the appearance of being tailor-made to answer these questions about the realism and practicality of Jesus' teachings. We really could not ask for better demonstrations of the idea that these teachings actually work in real life. 

The crucifixion, as we saw, is an uncanny fit for the famous “turn the other cheek/go the extra mile/give your coat as well” trio of sayings. It makes the statement that, yes, you really can respond to an attacker with defenselessness and love. You really can love your enemies. And not just when the waters are relatively calm; you can do so even in response to the most extreme assaults, even when your life is on the line. 

And the resurrection, as we saw, is an uncanny fit for the reversal pattern in Jesus’ life and teachings, seen best in his parables. It makes the statement that when you do respond with defenseless love, when you do live out these selfless teachings, the logic of the world doesn’t just have its way with you, dragging you down its relentless course. Instead, the logic of grace intervenes, lifting you into another order, governed by another set of rules. Lifting you into the kingdom. And this happens not just in normal circumstances; it happens when your life seems to be hopelessly destroyed, when literally everything is on the line. 

These events work so well as demonstrations that we have to wonder if this wasn’t by design. Jesus spent his ministry giving forth beautiful, lofty teachings that stretched our concept of the practical and the possible. Throughout his ministry he backed these up with teaching demonstrations, such as his miracles and table fellowship, in which he showed that these teachings are practical and are possible. Could it be that he saved his biggest teaching demonstration for last? Could it be that somehow—we don’t know how—he took the central themes of his message and lived them out on a public stage, before the eyes of the world and ultimately the eyes of history, to answer our inevitable questions as to the viability of his words? Could it be that his final act was designed to show us that his "unrealistic" teachings actually work, even under conditions of the harshest realism? Could it be that he ended his own story with one final, unforgettable proof that everything he taught us was true?


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Having explored the question of whether or not the resurrection happened, and having offered my conclusion that it did, I will now turn—over the course of two posts—to the crucial question of what it meant. It seems to me that this question receives surprisingly little theological reflection. All of the attention goes to the meaning of the crucifixion. It’s as if the meaning of the resurrection is simply “+ happy ending!” 

What I usually read about the meaning of the resurrection is that it is God’s affirmation of Jesus, as a reversal of the world’s rejection of him. It is God’s “yes” overturning the world’s “no.” The Empire’s sentenced him to death as a criminal and messianic pretender, yet God reverses that, declaring that he is innocent and he is king. Seen this way, the resurrection is the Supreme Court’s (read: God’s) overturning of a lower court’s (read: Pilate’s) ruling. This idea of the resurrection as God’s “yes” then easily becomes the idea of the resurrection as proof of Jesus’ divinity—God’s affirmation of Jesus as Son of God. So now the resurrection becomes yet another statement that Jesus was divine. 

All of that admittedly has a certain logic to it, but notice that none of these reflections are rooted in Jesus’ own teachings. They treat the resurrection in a kind of vacuum. It’s as if we have no guide in sight for how to see it, and so we have to simply sit there, think it through, and reason out what it must have meant. This implicitly sees the resurrection as floating free from Jesus’ teachings, which then becomes the first step in transferring the spotlight to his final weekend and pushing his teachings into the shadows. 

Why aren’t we looking for the clues as to its meaning in Jesus’ life and teachings? If the resurrection really happened, then surely the key to its meaning must lie in his own ministry, especially in his teachings. 

And in fact, when we look in these places, it should come as no great surprise that we find abundant clues as to the resurrection’s meaning. Indeed, everywhere we look there are foreshadowings of this final great event. The resurrection, of course, is an incredibly dramatic reversal, and it turns out that Jesus’ ministry and teachings are full of the theme of reversal. Jesus’ words and deeds constantly reverse conventional assumptions, expectations, and the conventional state of affairs. 

This theme of reversal, in fact, is so characteristic of Jesus that the Jesus Seminar, famed for voting with colored beads on the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings, made it one of their criteria for identifying the authentic voice of Jesus. Here is how they describe one of their rules of evidence: 

  • Jesus’ sayings and parables surprise and shock: they characteristically call for a reversal of roles or frustrate ordinary, everyday expectations. 

They then go on to explain this rule: 

This criterion is based on several of the great narrative parables, such as the Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), the vineyard laborers (Matthew 20:1-15), and the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), as well as on the so-called beatitudes (Luke 6:20-23) and the injunction to lend to those from whom once can expect no return, either interest or principal (Thomas 95:1-2)…. 

This criterion has turned out to be exceptionally durable in the quest for the authentic sayings of Jesus. (The Five Gospels, p. 31). 

I want to look at this theme of reversal in some detail (which is why I’m devoting two posts to it) in Jesus’ miracles, in his aphorisms, and, in the next post, in his parables. 

Reversal in the miracles

There is very little that needs to be pointed out here. The miracles are all about reversal. As such, they provide our most obvious foreshadowing of the resurrection. We also need to remember that the miracles were framed by Jesus as little advents of the kingdom. It’s worth quoting here something I said in Week 20’s discussion of the miracles: 

These stories contain an entire picture of God and his kingdom. They say that in ordinary life one can spend years groaning under a burden that seems immovable. No matter what you do, you cannot seem to shift the boulder that lays on top of you. And then the kingdom comes, and in an instant that boulder has turned to dust. Now you can stand again. You are free. You are whole. Someone has seen you, has cared enough about you, and has been powerful enough to undo your chains. That, as Helen Bond says, is “what it would be like to live under God’s reign.” 

How can we not see the resurrection in that? 

Reversal in the aphorisms

The theme of reversal is also very clearly present in the aphorisms. Aphorisms are short, pithy sayings that express an individual point of view (rather than stating what everyone knows). The aphorisms are peppered with depictions of reversal. First, we have the beatitudes as recorded in their original Q version: 

And raising his eyes to his disciples he said: Blessed are you poor, for God’s reign is for you. Blessed are you who hunger, for you will eat your fill. Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be consoled. (Q 6:20-21) 

This looks like three scenarios, but I think it is really one: Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, and mourning, for God will give you his kingdom, and there you will eat your fill and be consoled. Notice that Jesus is not talking about the “poor in spirit,” as in Matthew’s redaction. He is talking about the literally poor, the people at the bottom of the totem pole, who feel crushed by life (mourning) and who worry about their next meal (hungry). The good news is that God doesn’t see them the way society does, and so he will reverse their lowly condition. He will make them honored members of his kingdom, where they will have a feast, where their weeping will be replaced with laughter (as Luke has it). 

This can’t help but bring to mind another well-known saying: “The last will be first and the first last” (Q 13:30). This is what we saw in the beatitudes, isn’t it? Those on the bottom will be placed on top. As for the other side, the first being made last, I don’t think that God in his wrath lays low those who are currently on top. I just think that, as other sayings suggest, since they are relying on “treasures on earth” (Q 12:33), they do not lay hold of what God promises them, and so they lose out on what really matters: the kingdom.

Finally, we have another famous aphorism: “Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33 SV). This looks so much like the crucifixion and resurrection that no commentary is needed. 

In fact, all of these aphorisms are reminiscent of the reversal from crucifixion to resurrection. In the crucifixion, Jesus had everything taken from him. He fell so far down the totem pole that he fell past the poor, to the pile of discarded bodies at the very bottom of the heap. He forfeited his life. He became the last. Yet, of course, all of that was miraculously reversed. His life was preserved. He was made first. God’s reign was for him. 

The crowning drama of his life, in other words, looked like something straight out of his own sayings. 

Next week, we’ll continue with this and look at what I consider the most important clues as to the meaning of the resurrection: the parables.

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Week 24: The Resurrection: Did It Happen?

Having discussed the crucifixion, we now face perhaps the stickiest question of all in examining the historical Jesus: the resurrection. Did the resurrection actually happen?

As the spark that lit a movement that now commands two billion followers, the resurrection—or at least the claim of the resurrection—changed history. So naturally we would look to professional historians to determine for us whether or not the resurrection actually happened. We would want the benefit of their informed and seasoned historical judgment. 

The problem with the resurrection, though, is that it bears directly on the issue of worldview. To accept it, you obviously have to be willing to entertain a worldview in which resurrections can occur. And that is not the worldview of most professional historians. 

My own observation is that, while I go to the scholars looking for their professional evaluation of the evidence, what I get is simply their worldview projected onto the evidence. And while they are experts in rendering historical judgments, they are just ordinary people when it comes to forming their worldview. On that level, they are not experts. So while I go to them looking for expert assessment, what I get is basically a man-on-the-street point of view, simply expressed in very sophisticated terms. 

The scholars I have typically read tell me that Jesus’ body was not buried, and was probably thrown in a pit and eaten by dogs (Crossan), that nothing special at all happened on Easter Sunday, that “the body of Jesus decayed as do other corpses” (The Acts of Jesus, by the Jesus Seminar), that the post-resurrection appearances were just visions (probably motivated by psychological factors such as grief and guilt), that Paul clearly did not believe in a physical resurrection, that the earliest resurrection belief did not involve an empty tomb, that the whole idea of an empty tomb was first invented forty years later in the Gospel of Mark, and that the idea of a physically solid post-resurrection Jesus had to wait another fifteen years for the Gospel of Luke. The idea of the resurrection, therefore, was one of those stories that grew in the telling, beginning with a tiny kernel that gradually developed, as decades of reflection and faith slowly stretched it into the biggest miracle story of all time. 

All of that sounds like “case closed” until you explore the arguments in detail. As I’ve done so, my conclusion is that these scholars are not telling us what the evidence suggests, but rather what their worldview permits. And that, in the process, they put what I see as genuine strain on the evidence itself. For instance, it seems clear to me that whatever Paul (in 1 Corinthians 15) meant by Jesus’ resurrected “spiritual body,” he believed that Jesus’ physical body transformed into it. This means he believed in an empty tomb. Yet to acknowledge that Paul, who was on the scene very early and knew Jesus’ brother and his chief disciple (Peter), believed in an empty tomb would blow the entire picture of the resurrection as an idea that developed gradually over decades. And so liberal scholars just do not see the clear implication of Paul’s words. 

Bart Ehrman is quite open about the fact that the question of the resurrection must be decided simply by the historian’s worldview. In a debate about the resurrection with conservative scholar William Lane Craig, Ehrman said: 

Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened. By definition, it probably didn’t. And history can only establish what probably did. 

So, “by definition” a miracle is always “the least probable occurrence.” Therefore, “by definition” the resurrection “probably didn’t” happen. Case closed. The court can reach its verdict before a single witness is examined, before a single piece of evidence is presented. What kind of court is that

I believe that when it comes to the question of our worldview, we need to carry a fundamental humility. In the face of the biggest question of all—what is reality?—the front door of our mind must always remain open. Whatever evidence shows up, it needs to be welcomed in and given a cup of coffee, so we can sit down and talk with it and see what it has to contribute. And if what it tells us implies that we need to throw out all the furniture, knock down some walls, and put in new windows, then so be it. The evidence needs to be what drives everything. Human nature, of course, wants it the other way around. It wants to decide all specific issues by simply stamping its preconceived assumptions onto them. It wants worldview to dictate what only evidence can decide. 

If the resurrection really happened, then that has colossal significance—precisely because it stretches our view of reality. If it really happened, then it is a window onto a different reality; at least a different one than the “reality” we carry around in our heads. In our “reality,” no matter what we want, the physical world goes through its natural cycles in which everything breaks down and ultimately dies. And the human world goes much the same way: our personal aspirations and our higher ideals are typically crushed under the boot of life’s conflict, injustice, and chaos. No matter how strong are the hopes we carry, the harsh reality of the world has the final word. 

In the reality implied by the resurrection, it is precisely the opposite. That “final” word, in which the world crushed our hopes and ideals, turns out to not be final at all. The balance of power between the two sides is completely reversed. Now our deepest longings and highest aspirations have all the power, while the harsh “reality” of the world has none. Even the most irreversible ending of all—death—simply vanishes as a light from above shines on it. Now life, in the fullest and broadest connotations of that word, is what has the final say. 

Wouldn’t we want to know if this is in fact the way reality really is? Wouldn’t we be intensely interested if there were actual evidence in support of it? Therefore, rather than ruling out the resurrection because it doesn’t fit with our worldview, why not greet any evidence for it as a welcome guest, as the potential messenger of a higher, happier worldview? 

When I started reading debates about the resurrection, I was very surprised at how strong the evidence for it is. I think there’s little question that if the naturalistic worldview (in which the resurrection is impossible) was not privileged in the process and the evidence alone was allowed to decide the question, the resurrection would be by far the strongest conclusion. I’m not saying that historians can just set aside their worldview as they evaluate the resurrection. No one can truly do that. However, I think there is a great deal of evidence out there that suggests that mind and spirit have more reality and more power than our current scientific model allows, and that as such they can not only act on the physical, but can even overturn normal physical processes. (For instance, the study of near-death experiences shows us that apparently miraculous things can happen to seemingly dead bodies, restoring them to life beyond all medical expectation.) This, I think, injects a legitimate uncertainty into the whole question of worldview. It means that we can genuinely maintain an openness about the nature of reality. And that means that, on questions like the resurrection, we can consciously attempt to set our worldview aside and let the evidence speak for itself—potentially opening up new possibilities on the level of worldview. 

To get the real state of the evidence for the resurrection, in my view, you need to go to scholars whose worldview is congenial to that evidence. These are the evangelical scholars who argue that we can virtually prove the resurrection based on the historical evidence. In my opinion, it is from them that you will get the straightest story. You just have to overlook the fact that they tend to slide uncritically from “something like the resurrection seems required by the evidence” (a historical claim) to “God raised Jesus from the dead” and “Jesus is Lord” (theological claims). If you can ignore the theological claims, then it is from these guys that you can get, I believe, the clearest view of the actual state of the evidence. 

I have said almost nothing about the specifics of the case for the resurrection because I am going to send you to two places outside this blog (though still on the site). I hope you’ll find time to check both of them out. One is a video by the conservative scholar Gary Habermas on what he calls the “minimal facts” approach, an approach that he helped pioneer. The video is called “The Resurrection Argument That Changed a Generation of Scholars - Gary Habermas at UCSB.” This video is anything but boring. I find it gripping, simply because of the power of the information presented. 

The other is an article I wrote two years ago titled "Did the Resurrection Actually Happen?” In it I go through my own reasons for believing the resurrection was a real historical event. It was written to students of A Course in Miracles, but only the first few paragraphs specifically involve the Course. The rest is just about the historical evidence. 

I am hoping we can have a lively discussion about the resurrection in the coming week. Then, next week I will move on from “Did it happen?” to the equally vital question of “What did it mean?”

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Week 23: The Crucifixion

We now come to the event that ended up to some degree eclipsing everything we have discussed in the previous 22 weeks. That event, of course, is the crucifixion. Everyone knows that Jesus had a ministry, that he did miracles and gave teachings, but it is easy to get the impression that all of that was secondary at best. If you ask ten people why, according to Christianity, Jesus Christ came to earth, I suspect that almost all of them will give the same answer: to die for our sins. It’s as if he was born simply to die. The Apostles’ Creed is often cited in this context, for it jumps straight from his birth to his death, as if nothing of real consequence happened in between: “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Between his birth and his crucifixion there is nothing but a comma. 

Why don’t his teachings focus on him dying for our sins?

If in fact the whole significance of his life was to die for our sins, you would think that this would be a major focus of his teachings. Every teacher wants to emphasize and repeat his most important points. Why, then, does Jesus say so little about his own death and its meaning? He does predict his death in the gospels, but he says very little about it purchasing salvation for mankind. There is a comment in Mark 10:45 (which Matthew also incorporates), in which he says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This doesn’t seem quite the same as taking on himself the punishment for our sins, since in a “ransom” you pay off the captor, which is usually interpreted here as being Satan or death. But it’s close enough. 

Then there are the words of the Last Supper as recorded in Matthew 26:28: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This saying is so isolated that even the versions of it in Mark and Luke do not include “for the forgiveness of sins.” 

If Jesus came to die for our sins, then why did he not say more in his teachings about the Main Event, the fulcrum on which turned the whole salvation of mankind? Even as a young person just out of my church days I noticed the oddness of this. In a debate with an evangelical friend of mine I asked him why Jesus’ teachings were so clearly focused on ethics. If our salvation hinged on us simply accepting Jesus as our savior, why didn’t he stress that point, instead of going on and on about the importance of living a selfless life? My friend initially had no answer, so he went away and asked a respected teacher, and then came back to me with perhaps the lamest answer of all time: Jesus taught that way because he was teaching Jews who were still under the law. Because Jesus hadn’t yet died, the law was still in force and his hearers were still under it, so he was simply teaching what was relevant for them to hear at that time

The more you think about that point of view, the worse it gets. In the evangelical belief-system, Jesus is all-knowing, and being all-knowing he surely knew that he would soon die for our sins and that his words would be written down for all time. Why, then, would he speak words that would almost instantly become completely obsolete, even though he was in effect speaking them to generations to come? Why not say, “Guys, just wait a few months and then you can accept me as your personal savior and stop worrying about trying to live up to the law (which, my future servant Paul will tell you, is impossible anyway)?” I doubt that many Christians share this extreme point of view, but it just shows the difficulties one has in reconciling the main thrust of Jesus’ teachings with the traditional interpretation of his death. 

Conflict between his teachings and the traditional view of the crucifixion

Yet the situation, of course, is much worse than this. That Jesus died for our sins implies an entire picture of God. As the traditional theory of Atonement is usually explained, our sins require payment before God can forgive us. He would no doubt like to forgive us, but his hands are tied, as he is a just God. This payment is so huge that we ourselves can’t pay it. Even if we spend an eternity in hell we still can’t pay it, for our debt is infinite. This infinite debt, then, can only be paid by the death of someone who possesses infinite merit. 

The traditional interpretation of the crucifixion has given comfort to countless people because of its message that God forgives them without requiring any change or punishment on their part. Yet it has also, in my opinion, done incalculable harm, because of the way in which God manages to forgive them. Imagine you are a child and your father comes to you and says, “You know when you didn’t clean your room yesterday? Don’t worry about it. You’re off the hook. You’re totally forgiven. I tortured your brother instead and that satisfied my wrath. And don’t worry about him, either. He’ll be out of the hospital and good as new in three days.” How could that message not instill terror in you? 

If you have read my earlier posts, you know that this is precisely the kind of God that Jesus seems to have rejected. In week 12, I spoke of two models of God: God as King and God as caregiver. The crucifixion as traditionally interpreted is a natural extension of God as King. We all know how kings are. The king must be obeyed or else one faces his wrath. Perhaps the offender will be spared his wrath and it will instead be taken out on someone else, like the jester. But the wrath, once kindled, must be satisfied. 

Yet, as we saw, there is a core of teachings that seems to be generally accepted as authentic in which Jesus espouses a whole other model of God. In these teachings, God is a caregiver, and the ideal of all caregivers is to simply care for those in their charge, regardless of questions of merit. And so this God raises his sun on the evil and the good. He broadcasts life-giving seed on receptive and unreceptive soil alike. He prefers that his messengers dine with sinners, simply because they need healing. He leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and goes in search of the one lost sheep, because that precious sheep needs rescuing. He welcomes the prodigal son back with open arms in spite of the son’s shocking sins against his father. 

There is no hint that he requires Jesus to die so that he can do these things. The father of the prodigal son doesn’t say, “I forgive you because I just offered your brother as a burnt sacrifice.” That supposed middle term is absent in all cases. And indeed, according to the logic of those sayings, it is actually ruled out. In them, it is simply God’s nature to treasure his children so deeply that their welfare is the only thing on his mind. All other considerations—most explicitly considerations of merit—are swept aside. It wouldn’t occur to this God to hold back on caregiving because his children haven’t earned it. They did earn it—by being his children

It is inconceivable that Jesus could rest his teachings on this view of God as caregiver, could defend it in the face of opposition from his contemporaries (see week 10), could possibly even go to his death for it (see week 22), and then at the very end switch sides and view his death as an expression of the other model. That makes about as much sense as imagining that Martin Luther King, Jr. believed his death had great value because it would strike a blow for white power and privilege. 

How did Jesus see his own death?

If this is right and Jesus didn’t view himself as dying for our sins, then how did he view his death? It wouldn’t take an all-knowing Jesus to realize he was likely to be killed. After all, John the Baptist before him had been killed. Anyone stirring up the crowds was in danger.

The only real basis we have for discerning his own view of his death has to lie in his teachings. Can we find anything in his teachings that resembles the crucifixion? Actually, I don’t think this is all that difficult. His teachings are full of images of us being under the thumb of life’s difficulties, including being assaulted by social superiors. That is why the very first point of my seven-point summary of his teachings began this way: “The world assaults us. Everyday life is characterized by conflict between ourselves and the world.” 

And his teachings consistently ask us to respond to this assault not with retaliation, but with defenselessness, because we feel wrapped in God’s care and therefore immune to the slings and arrows of the world. As I said in an earlier post: “The person in these sayings is so immune to the seemingly awful circumstances facing him that it’s almost like he’s mentally living somewhere else.” And out of this sense of immunity, he is defenseless. 

Even though we don’t know how much we can trust the details of the crucifixion stories, the one thing that comes through consistently is Jesus’ defenselessness. That theme runs through the accounts in all four gospels. He doesn’t retaliate. He doesn’t lash out in anger. He doesn’t try to defend himself

So the pattern of someone who is assaulted by social superiors and responds defenselessly, as if he is immune to the assault, is shared by Jesus’ crucifixion and Jesus’ teachings. It’s there in both. In fact, this match between his death and his teachings gets eerily specific in the “love your enemies” teaching in the Sayings Gospel Q. Right after telling us to "love your enemies and pray for those persecuting you" because God raises his sun on the evil and the good, Jesus then gives us three images of carrying out this injunction: 

The one who slaps you on the cheek, offer him the other as well; and to the person wanting to take you to court and get your shirt, turn over to him the coat as well. And the one who conscripts you for one mile, go with him a second. (Q 6:29/Matt 5:41) 

This trio of sayings becomes oddly relevant when you understand them according to their social context. The slap on the cheek is most likely the slap of a social superior who is putting you humiliatingly in your place, presumably for something you have done wrong. The person taking you to court to get your shirt is doing so because your shirt was put up as collateral on the debt you owe him. Further, giving him your “coat as well,” in a two-garment society, would leave you naked. Finally, the “one who conscripts you for one mile” is a Roman soldier who has the right to make you carry his heavy pack for him. Then, in all three cases, you respond with a seemingly serene defenselessness, as if you aren’t concerned about yourself at all. Instead, your concern seems to be for your attacker. Why? Because you love your enemies. 

Seen in light of their original context, these sayings are strangely reminiscent of the crucifixion. There, Jesus is repeatedly slapped in the face (see Matthew 26:67) as part of the process of putting this wrongdoer in his place. He is taken to court. He is stripped naked while others take possession of his clothes (remember how they divide up his clothes by casting lots?). He is forced by Roman soldiers to carry a heavy burden (the cross). The match between that trio of sayings and what was done to Jesus is almost too good to be true. 

And so is the match between those sayings and his response. As I said, he responds defenselessly, just as he urged his followers to do. And we can guess that the reason for his defenseless response is the same as the reason given in his teachings: Because he loves his enemies. Could it be, then, that in his crucifixion he was simply doing exactly what he had told his followers to do? (With the picture above that depicts those three sayings, notice how, with just a little imagination, the Jew in the picture can become Jesus.) Could it be that he was offering us a lived-out version of that famous trio of sayings?

To the one at trial who slaps you on the cheek, offer him the other as well.

And to the ones who, after taking you to court, strip you naked and take your clothing, give them willingly.

And to the soldiers who force you to carry your own cross, offer no defense.

For you are to love your enemies and pray for those persecuting you.

How different would history have been if only we had seen Jesus’ crucifixion as an extension of his teachings. According to his teachings, when the world assaults us, we needn’t be concerned for ourselves, for we live under God’s care. Rather, we can respond out of love for our attacker, because we are the children of a God who raises his sun on the evil and the good. Because we love our enemies. Imagine if we had seen Jesus as using his own death to give us an unforgettable illustration of that same message. Think of the power that message would have had to echo down the centuries. Imagine that Jesus was remembered not as the lamb of God who died for our sins, but as the teacher who loved his enemies and asked us to do the same.

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Week 22: What Was All the Conflict about?

The gospels are full of conflict. Jesus stands at the center of a storm of friction and controversy. His family thinks he is mad and wants to take him away. The people of his home town question and dismiss him. His disciples squabble amongst themselves. But of course the real conflict happens between Jesus and the religious authorities, who clearly feel threatened by him and are constantly criticizing his teaching, healing, and table fellowship. By the time the Temple priests turn him over to the Romans to be crucified, even a first-time reader would not be all that surprised, given the climate of conflict that has dogged Jesus from the beginning. 

But what was the conflict about? As Helen Bond says, older scholarship saw it as a case in which “Jesus’ completely new conception of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness could be contrasted with the sterile, legalistic ‘Jewish’ view of God, represented above all by the Pharisees” (The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 123). Bond, however, goes on to say that “these caricatures of both the Pharisees and contemporary Judaism are no longer sustainable.” However, I wonder how far off the mark that older scholarship was. Marcus Borg’s Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus was devoted to the theme of conflict in Jesus’ ministry, and his conclusion is more or less in the same ballpark. Borg concluded that the conflict was between “the politics of holiness”—holiness being defined as separation from all that is sinful and impure—and “the politics of compassion”—compassion being seen as the imitation of God’s character. 

I suspect that what was off about the emphasis of an earlier scholarship on Jewish “legalism” is that it failed to appreciate that Jesus’ new perspective would have clashed with any culture at any time in history. The details of the clash would have been different, depending on the culture, but the gist of it, in my opinion, would have been the same. It’s not about how rigid and legalistic the Jews were, as if our culture is somehow superior. I think it’s about how radically different Jesus’ operating assumptions were from human culture in general. 

Conflict stories in the gospels

Let’s look at a few of the conflicts in the gospels. In Mark 2:15-17, Jesus is eating with “tax collectors and sinners,” and the scribes of the Pharisees criticize him, saying, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus responds, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” There you see exactly what Borg was saying. The scribes are emphasizing holiness, and see that as separation from sinful people. Jesus is emphasizing compassion, and so instead of avoiding the tax collectors and sinners, he includes them. Rather than being concerned with maintaining his own purity, his concern is for them. He sees them not as evil but as merely having a disease, and he has the cure. 

In Mark 3:1-6, Jesus on the Sabbath encounters a man with a withered hand. He asks the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” They offer no response. Then, “grieved at their hardness of heart,” he tells the man to stretch out his hand, and the hand is healed. Here again, the Pharisees are concerned with maintaining purity by staying away from labor on the Sabbath, while Jesus is once more concerned with the man who needs healing. 

In Mark 2:1-12, we have a somewhat different conflict story. Here, Jesus is faced with a paralyzed man (who has just been lowered down through the roof because the crowds made it impossible to get through the door). To heal this man Jesus then says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The scribes grumble, saying, “It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus responds, saying, “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—and then heals the man. 

Now this story looks somewhat different than the others. It’s not a matter of purity vs. compassion, but a question of whether Jesus carries divine authority. But is that what the question really was? The term “Son of Man” seems to function here as a title for Jesus, but if we just take the caps off and make it “son of man” (which for all we know is how Jesus meant it), now it stands for everyone, and this changes the whole meaning of the story. Now, as the Jesus Seminar notes, this verse “may represent a bold claim on Jesus’ part that gives the authority to forgive sins to all human beings” (The Five Gospels, p. 44). Now the conflict story contrasts the God of the Pharisees, who keeps for himself the right to forgive sins, and the God of Jesus, who maximizes forgiveness by giving everyone the right to grant it. 

A conflict between two conceptions of God

It seems to me that behind most of the conflict stories lies this very conflict between two different conceptions of God. On the one hand was a God who above all wanted people to obey him. This focus on obedience had the unfortunate side effect of leaving certain people out in the cold: the disobedient were not to be dined with; the man who needed healing had to take a back seat to the obeying of Sabbath laws; the other man who needed healing had to wait for God to exercise his exclusive divine right to forgive (which, given God’s focus on obedience, may take a while). 

On the other hand was a God who wanted above all to care for his children. He therefore wanted nothing to stand in the way of that care reaching them. If they could find the care and healing they needed from Jesus, then he absolutely should dine with them. If the day they could be healed happened to be the Sabbath day, then God forbid they should have to wait even one more day. If God’s healing forgiveness could better reach them by him “deputizing” everyone as conduits of his forgiveness, then of course he would do so. Nothing should stand in the way of his care and compassion reaching his children. 

These two ideas of God are, of course, the very same models that we looked at in Week 12. There, I called them God as King and God as caregiver. I personally suspect that the conflict between these two models was the primary source of the conflict in the ministry of Jesus. It certainly fits most of the stories in one form or another. Lately, I have begun to suspect that it was this conflict that ultimately got Jesus killed. 

Did Jesus die for an idea?

It’s not all that hard to understand why the Pharisees would want him dead. We ourselves look at the conflict as, you could say, consumers. We therefore have the luxury of being able to sit back and ask ourselves which model, which God, we prefer. But the Pharisees were producers, providers. They were providing the one model (God as King), and their role as authorities within that model was the source of their power. For such a different model as Jesus’ to become popular was a threat to their power. And people die when powerful people believe their power is threatened. 

There is a problem with this idea, however. In recent decades, scholarship has increasingly emphasized the role of Jesus’ “cleansing of the Temple” in his crucifixion. Scholars now tend to see the Temple disturbance as leading directly to his death. And the religious authorities in that case are not the Pharisees in Galilee but the Temple priests—the Sadducees—in Jerusalem. Totally different players. 

However, it’s difficult for me to not envision some degree of continuity between the conflict in Galilee with the Pharisees and the conflict in Jerusalem with the Sadducees. The gospels hint at this as well. After Jesus heals the man with the withered hand, Mark says “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 2:6). The Herodians were generally against the Pharisees, being more aligned with the Sadducees. Perhaps Jesus’ new model of God as caregiver so threatened the power of the various religious authorities that different factions found themselves hastily joined in common cause. 

I will confess that I’m not well-versed on the issues surrounding possible collusion between the Pharisees and Sadducees. And the exact reason for Jesus’ Temple disturbance is still being hotly debated. What I will say is that I suspect that Jesus’ conflicts with religious authorities in Galilee reveal the essence of what got him killed. 

If this is correct, then he was killed for an idea, a bold new idea of what God is like, a liberating idea that challenged the boundaries, exclusion, and rejection that are foundational to every culture. History teaches us that to include the wrong sorts of people threatens the established order. Including the wrong people, then, is a very dangerous thing to do. This would not be the first time, or the last, that someone got killed for it.

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Week 21: Inclusive Meals

Last week we looked at the miracles. This week we will look at another aspect of Jesus’ ministry that is not as well-known but that has received a great deal of attention from scholars. This was Jesus’ practice of inclusive table fellowship, which John Dominic Crossan calls “open commensality.” 

Central to Christianity is the symbolic meal of the Eucharist. While we normally think of that meal as going back to Jesus’ final meal, the Eucharist may be an echo of Jesus’ wider practice of sharing meals with others as part of his ministry. This practice was clearly one of the central features of his mission. A number of scenes in the gospels take place at meals. Some of his teachings feature meals (we will examine one important one below). And there is frequent conflict over meals. 

Conflict over Jesus’ inclusive meals

These meals, in fact, were an enormous source of conflict, to the point where noted American scholar Norman Perrin suggested that they may have been what got him killed. Marcus Borg believed that they were the real source of his conflict with the Pharisees. To understand this conflict, let’s look at the complaints reported in the gospels: 

Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners? (Mark 2:16) 

He has gone in to be the guest of one who is a sinner. (Luke 19:7) 

This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. (Luke 15:2) 

Look! A person who is a glutton and drunkard, a chum of tax collectors and sinners! (Q 7:34) 

It’s clear what the problem is: He is dining with the wrong sorts of people—specifically, “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors collected tax for the occupying power and were thus seen as collaborators and traitors. They were also seen as thieves, in that they often collected extra for themselves. Sinners were people who were insufficiently observant of the Jewish Law—or at least so in the eyes of those applying the label. 

Why was it so scandalous that Jesus was sharing meals with tax collectors and sinners? Let’s face it, who you eat with is an issue in any society. If you yourself were dining with the really wrong sort of people, wouldn’t that be an issue? I once read that class differences show up in the primary concern one has about food. With the lower class that concern is “Is there enough?” With the middle class it’s “How does it taste?” With the upper class it’s “How is it presented?” Now first think about which of these is your primary concern. Then ask yourself how often you have dined with people whose primary concern is one of the other two. 

In Jesus’ society, however, as Marcus Borg pointed out, who you ate with had symbolic significance beyond what it has for us, for two reasons. First, in that social context “sharing a meal was a form of social inclusion, and refusing to share a meal was a form of social exclusion” (Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, p. 159). Borg quoted S. Scott Bartchy in this regard: “It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of table fellowship for the cultures of the Mediterranean basin in the first century of our era.” Table fellowship reflected social boundaries. When you ate at the same table with someone, that meant that the social boundaries between you were absent. To keep boundaries intact, then, you had to refuse to eat with the wrong people. 

But there was a second reason why table fellowship was so important in Jesus’ day. Borg said, “For at least two groups, the Pharisees and Essenes, meal practice had become a symbol of what God wanted Israel to be” (Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, p. 159). Members of these groups would only eat, in other words, with those who shared their strict observance of the laws of purity. You can see the problem that Jesus posed for them: Why was a holy man, a representative of God, dining with the impure? 

Perhaps we can now begin to understand why Jesus’ inclusive table fellowship was so incendiary. The boundaries and the purity of his society were at stake. Crossan writes that Jesus’ open commensality 

…was a challenge launched not just on the level of Judaism’s strictest purity regulations, or even on that of the Mediterranean’s patriarchal combination of honor and shame, patronage and clientage, but at the most basic level of civilization’s eternal inclination to draw lines, invoke boundaries, establish hierarchies, and maintain discriminations. It did not invite a political revolution but envisaged a social one at the imagination’s most dangerous depths. No importance was given to distinctions of Gentile and Jew, female and male, slave and free, poor and rich. Those distinctions were hardly even attacked in theory; they were simply ignored (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 196). 

The parable of the dinner guests

But Jesus didn’t just practice inclusive table fellowship himself; he also asked his followers to do so. We see this in the parable of the invited dinner guests. Here is its version from the Critical Edition of Q (14:16-23): 

A certain person prepared a large dinner and invited many. And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. One declined because of his farm. Another declined because of his business. And the slave, on coming, said these things to his master. Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave: Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled. 

We are accustomed to seeing this parable in light of the version in Matthew (22:2-14), where the householder has become a king throwing a wedding feast for his son. So now it is an allegory of God inviting people to his Son’s messianic banquet. I think, however, that it is better framed as Luke’s gospel does, where Jesus introduces the parable by saying, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:12-13). 

I have a story to tell about this parable that left a real impression on me. Several years ago I was teaching the parable for our Q class in Sedona and I had recently had a new insight about it. Because, I think, of Matthew’s version, we are accustomed to making it all about the guests—how wrong the first set were to refuse, and how they thus needed to be replaced by the second set of guests. But if the parable was really an injunction to behave like the householder did at the end, then it’s really about him. And if it’s about him, then what you immediately notice is the contrast between his first set of invitations and his second. 

That thought unlocked the parable for me. I decided it’s not about how wrong the first set of invited guests were. Rather, it’s about the change the householder went through. Suddenly, the whole parable took on a different meaning. 

If you look at his first set of invitees, they are high-status. In Luke, one has just bought a farm and another has just bought five pairs of oxen. In Thomas, one is awaiting money from merchants and another has just bought a house. These are high-status guests, and why does one invite high-status guests? Is it not to cement one’s own status, or perhaps raise that status? 

But, of course, all these guests turn him down. No one agrees to come. He is throwing a big party for his wonderful high-society friends and he has been humiliatingly snubbed. Based on his reaction, we can surmise that something inside him snaps. He decides he has been let down by more than these particular “friends.” He has been let down by the entire system. The whole framework in which he seeks status by hobnobbing with others who possess that status has abandoned him. 

So what does he do? He abandons it. He opts out of the entire structure of social boundaries and hierarchies. He invites anyone and everyone to his meal. In Luke this means “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” In Matthew it means “as many as you find…both good and bad.” And it Thomas it means “whomever you find.” His friends now are not his fellow property and business owners. His friends are anyone and everyone. 

He has left the world as we know it. He has entered the kingdom. 

After teaching this interpretation at our Q class, I went home and watched a video on Gandhi that I had borrowed from Netflix. Just a few minutes in, I was stunned to find myself watching my interpretation of that parable in the form of the life of Gandhi. 

Like the householder in the parable, Gandhi is trying to gain status in society: “For a time, his highest ambition was to become an English gentleman. He sported a top hat and silver-tipped cane, took lessons in dancing, violin, and French. But no superficial skill could hide his inexperience and insecurity.” 

Then, like our householder, instead of being embraced by that society, he experiences a devastating rejection: “Just days after arriving in his new country, Gandhi experienced an epiphany. Unaware of discrimination against Indians in British-run South Africa, he innocently booked first class passage on a train to Pretoria. ‘A white passenger spots him, complains to the conductor, insists that he be placed in a third class compartment, even though he has the first class ticket. Gandhi resists. At the first major stop, Pietermaritzburg, he’s thrown off the train, and I mean thrown brutally off the train by the conductor.’” 

Like our householder, this rejection sparks a dramatic change in him: “That humiliation was really what sparked off his desire for change. And he spent the whole night sitting on the platform wondering how to get justice.” 

And similar to our householder, this ultimately leads him to gather people together in communities of equals: “Victimized by white South Africans, Gandhi resolved to act as a unifying force. He began developing communities of people from different races and religions, all brought together to live as equals. He insisted on treating his own family, which soon included four young sons, no differently than anyone else.” 

It was hard to not feel confirmed in my interpretation by this. Here someone had actually lived out the parable as I interpreted it, giving that interpretation an undeniable feeling of realism. Also, it was incredibly synchronistic to encounter that real-life story right after teaching my new interpretation of the parable. I couldn’t help feeling like something had “sent” me that story as a kind of seal of approval. 

The meals and the kingdom

It almost goes without saying that these meals fit perfectly the interpretation of Jesus’ teachings that I have been promoting. By eating with both Pharisees and sinners, Jesus was precisely mirroring the behavior of the God that he spoke of, who “raises his sun on bad and good.” 

Therefore, just as his miracles were advents of the kingdom, so his inclusive meals were enactments of the kingdom, a kingdom in which there is sustenance, there is lack of care, there is togetherness, there is inclusion, and (mediated by Jesus) there is God. It’s hard, actually, to think of a better symbol for the kingdom, as well as a better contrast to the toil, deprivation, boundaries, and exclusion that characterize conventional life. 

His inclusive meals, therefore, were lived-out parables, parabolic acts, as scholars have called them. Like his miracles, they fit his teaching so perfectly that, in a sense, they were just more teaching. 

Unlike the miracles, however, they place before us a very immediate and very personal question: Are we ready to step toward this kind of social inclusiveness? Can we perhaps put ourselves in the shoes of the householder and say that we too have been let down, not just by certain people, but by the whole system of boundaries and hierarchies? Like Gandhi, are we too perhaps ready to jump ship and embrace a whole different system? Or at least move in that direction?

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Week 20: What about the Miracles?

I’ve now finished the seven-week tour through Jesus’ teachings. Below is a summary of those posts and an attempt on my part to summarize his teachings. If you read it slowly and treat it as personally relevant, I think you’ll find it more rewarding.

 1. The world assaults us. Everyday life is characterized by conflict between ourselves and the world, so that our lives are filled with anxiety, fear, guilt, lack, humiliation, and sickness. 

2. God unconditionally loves and cares for us. His love does not exalt some and debase others due to their merit. Rather, it is abundantly showered on everyone alike, simply because we are all his children. 

3. God’s kingdom is a state of being in which God’s unconditional love is the ruling power. The kingdom is already here, unseen, and can be experientially entered by anyone who chooses. 

4. We enter the kingdom through a psychological transfer of our trust, investment, valuing, and sense of identity from the world to the kingdom. We move our heart from one world to the other. 

5. Once in the kingdom, its love and care will become our experience, while the world’s assaults will seem remote and powerless. In the kingdom, we will be free from anxiety, fear, guilt, lack, humiliation, sickness, and all the ills of the human condition. 

6. We can then embody the kingdom in our dealings with others. Regardless of their perceived merit or treatment of us, we can extend to them the kingdom’s unconditional love and unconditional care. We thereby restore them and make the kingdom their experience, too. 

7. This is how the kingdom “comes,” through those in it extending its beneficence to others. Jesus calls his followers to become vehicles of the coming of the kingdom, to ultimately disappear into this mission, and to change the world. 

What I would like to do in my remaining eight posts is take this summary of Jesus’ teaching and expand it into an overall portrait of Jesus, including his deeds, his mission, and himself. In this post, I want to discuss the crucial subject of Jesus’ miracles. 

Remembered as a miracle worker

Jesus appears as a miracle worker throughout the tradition, in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Q. In Mark his miracles feature more prominently than his teaching. If we look beyond these sources to what was said about him by non-Christians, he was clearly remembered as a miracle worker and a teacher. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, wrote “For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.” Even Jewish critics, writing in the first few centuries after Jesus, acknowledged him as a miracle worker. The Talmud says, “Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic” and “Jesus the Nazarene…practiced sorcery.” 

It is clear that his miracles were much of the cause of Jesus’ fame. The gospels often report large crowds pressing in on him and frequently connect this to his miracles: 

Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. (Mark 3:7-10) 

Did the miracles actually happen?

However, the question, of course, is: Did he actually do miracles? The scholars that I have read tend to either shy away from this question or find some naturalistic way to affirm certain miracles. The Jesus Seminar, for instance, was willing to affirm only those miracles that healed illnesses known to be potentially psychosomatic, like skin disease, paralysis, and blindness: “From today’s perspective, Jesus’ cures are related to psychosomatic maladies” (The Acts of Jesus, p. 531). 

How do they know that? They know it because, as the quote states, that is “today’s perspective.” In other words, we know that miracles are impossible because “today” we understand more about reality than the ancients did. Our science has concluded that reality is only matter and energy. This means that there is no independent mind or spirit that is hovering above or outside the physical and can come in and change the physical. This relieves us of having to make a historical judgment based on the data; science has already made that judgment for us in theory, before we ever even look at the data. 

My personal belief is that our science is very young—only a few centuries old, really—and is prone to the same kind of biases that pervade every human endeavor. Humans are extremely susceptible to a grand narrative that purports to make sense of everything, and once such a grand narrative is embraced, it becomes powerfully self-reinforcing. This happens on an intellectual level—the narrative unconsciously guides us to focus on evidence that supports it and dismiss evidence that doesn’t. And it happens on a social level—funding, hiring, promotion, approval, and recognition come to those who play by the rules of the narrative, whereas the opposite of those things come to those who break the rules. 

In these ways, it is quite natural for an entire discipline and an entire culture to become tightly wrapped in a false grand narrative, so tightly wrapped that the narrative is collectively seen as self-evident, and the possibility that it is just a myth, just a massive bias, seems to be the height of insanity. 

I personally believe that our science and to some extent our culture are wrapped in just such a false grand narrative: the idea that the physical is all there is. This idea, of course, automatically rules out miracles, along with a long list of other things, such as free will and life after death. It makes our consciousness at best a secondary byproduct of matter and at worst an illusion. I believe this is a false grand narrative because there are overlapping networks of evidence that do not fit the narrative. They instead suggest that we are living in a reality in which mind and even spirit are fundamental realities, perhaps the fundamental reality. 

I expect I am preaching to the choir here, but the upshot is that I don’t feel bound by the worldview of the academy, just as the early scientists like Galileo didn’t feel bound by the worldview of the church. When a culture is enfolded in a grand illusion, I believe it is our duty to stand outside the consensus. 

So, in my worldview, miracles do happen, there have always been miracle workers, and, as attested in all of our earliest accounts, Jesus was one of them. Even outside observers like Josephus acknowledged this. And even Jesus’ enemies did—they just ascribed his miracles to “sorcery.” 

What did they mean?

If you share my view, the question we now face is: What did they mean? It seems to me that Jesus’ miracles have become wrapped in Christianity’s grand narrative: that everything centers on Jesus’ divine identity and saving role. In this view, the miracles are of course signs of Jesus’ divinity. They are proof that he really is the Son of God. 

But that is not how they are portrayed in our earliest sources. In the synoptic gospels and in Q, the miracles are little advents of the kingdom. The Jesus Seminar wrote, “It is evident that the evangelists and earlier storytellers regarded Jesus’ exorcisms, cures, and other miraculous feats as signs of the kingdom’s arrival” (The Acts of Jesus. 532). And in an excellent overview of Jesus scholarship, Helen K. Bond writes, “The miracles were examples of the Kingdom breaking into people’s lives, concrete expressions of what it would be like to live under God’s reign” (The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 108). 

You see this very clearly in two key passages from the Sayings Gospel Q. In the first, Jesus is sending his disciples out to spread the news of the kingdom. At the conclusion of his practical instructions about provisions, lodging, and eating, he says, “And cure the sick there, and say to them: The kingdom of God has reached unto you” (Q 10:9). In other words, in the act of your sick being cured, the kingdom has reached unto you. 

In the second passage (Q 11:14-20), Jesus has just cast out a demon from someone who was mute, and “once the demon was cast out, the mute person spoke.” The crowd is amazed, believing they have just seen God at work. But some have a more sinister interpretation: “By Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, he casts out demons!” Jesus responds very logically: “if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” and then comes this key line: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign.” In the act of demons being cast out, the kingdom has come upon you. 

These stories contain an entire picture of God and his kingdom. They say that in ordinary life one can spend years groaning under a burden that seems immovable. No matter what you do, you cannot seem to shift the boulder that lays on top of you. And then the kingdom comes, and in an instant that boulder has turned to dust. Now you can stand again. You are free. You are whole. Someone has seen you, and has cared enough about you and been powerful enough to undo your chains. That, as Helen Bond says, is “what it would be like to live under God’s reign.” 

The kingdom, then, means liberation from the vicissitudes of the human condition. Living under God’s reign means living within his care. Our suffering was not his doing. It is only our liberation that is God’s will. And when we are at last under his will, we are set free. 

This is a view of his miracles that not only fits our earliest evidence, it also fits Jesus’ teaching as I have been presenting it. Both are about liberation from the human condition by coming within the power of a caring God. Thus, even though it is natural to divide his ministry into teaching and miracles, it is really all one thing. The miracles were just concrete illustrations of the teaching. You could say that, in a sense, they were just more teaching.

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Week 19: Thy Kingdom Come

This is the final post in our seven-week mini-series on the teachings of Jesus, in which I have presented condensed chapters from my ebook, Entering the Kingdom. After this I will cover some additional aspects of Jesus’ life, showing how they fit into the interpretation of his teachings that I have presented, and then will try to come to some kind of overall portrait of who he was and what he was about. 

7. Thy Kingdom Come 

7. This is how the kingdom “comes,” through those in it extending its beneficence to others. Jesus calls his followers to become vehicles of the coming of the kingdom, to ultimately disappear into this mission, and to change the world.

Even though we have been talking about the kingdom coming on an individual basis, by its very nature the kingdom of God is about more than the individual. It is about the whole world. If we take the story told in the gospels seriously, Jesus’ ministry was aimed directly at that target. It was all about bringing the kingdom to the earth as a whole. 

From Galilee to “all nations”

Let’s trace the beginning and expansion of that mission. First, Jesus is baptized by John and a voice from the skies calls him God’s “beloved son.” There is the sense that Jesus has just had a mantle dropped over his shoulders, a sense that the starting gun has been fired. 

Then Jesus comes to Galilee proclaiming the good news: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). His mission has begun and it’s all about the coming of the kingdom. He calls his disciples to him, saying to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). There is something so compelling about him that they leave their nets, leave their lives, right there, and follow him. 

When he bursts on the scene in Galilee, the feeling is electric. 

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. (Matt 4:23-25)

As you read story after story, it’s as if in his presence there is no disease or sickness that can stand. There is a sense of the kingdom actually dawning. And as the rays of this new dawn touch any disease, pain, or affliction, it disappears. The crowds follow him because, as he moves from person to person and village to village, they can feel a new world rising. 

What he’s doing personally, though, is only the beginning. The kingdom must be brought to a wider range of people. So he calls his disciples to him and sends them out to teach and heal: "He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits" (Mark 6:7). 

The instructions for the road are similar in Mark (Mark 6:7-11) and Q (Q 10:4-9), though not the same. Mark and Q agree on certain points: Do not take on the road any money or a knapsack. If a house welcomes you, stay there until you leave town. Whatever place doesn’t welcome you, leave and shake the dust off your feet. 

But they differ on other points. Mark permits a staff (which was perhaps for self-defense) and sandals. Q prohibits sandals and stick. Mark prohibits bread. Q doesn’t mention bringing food, but does talk about “eating and drinking whatever they [the families you stay with] provide.” Q also adds: “And cure the sick there, and say to them: The kingdom of God has reached unto you.” 

For John Dominic Crossan, these missions instructions go to the heart of the early Jesus movement:

The missionaries do not carry a bag because they do not beg for alms or food or clothing or anything else. They share a miracle and a Kingdom, and they receive in return a table and a house. Here, I think, is the heart of the original Jesus movement, a shared egalitarianism of spiritual and material resources….The mission we are talking about is not, like Paul’s, a dramatic thrust along major trade routes to urban centers hundreds of miles apart. Yet it concerns the longest journey in the Greco-Roman world, maybe in any world, the step across the threshold of a peasant stranger’s home. (The Historical Jesus, p. 341)

So we see two main elements: 

  1. Going out on the road in defenseless trust, relying on God for safety and sustenance.
  2. Entering into an intimate connection with strangers, in which you freely offer them the gifts of the kingdom (teaching and healing), and they in turn accept you into their home and give you food and a roof. 

After a time, Jesus brings his message of the kingdom out of rural Galilee and to Jerusalem, the center of power for his people. Again, the scope of the kingdom is expanding. 

We all know what happened in Jerusalem. I consider the final events of his life, the crucifixion and resurrection, to be the supreme demonstration of the kingdom. I will elaborate on this idea in later posts. For now, I want to focus on their effect on his followers. 

I believe it’s safe to say that Jesus’ crucifixion, and even more so his resurrection, were the spark that lit the fuse of Christianity. Without them, we most likely would had never even heard of Jesus. How did those final events lead to the story of Jesus being told around the globe? The answer is that they transformed a small band of poor, scared, uncertain, and generally clueless followers into a force that changed the world. 

Imagine you were a follower of Jesus. You had traipsed around the countryside with him for a year or two or three, listening to him teach, watching him heal, managing the crowds that followed him wherever he went. You probably saw him as the Messiah, which means you probably expected this ministry to somehow lead to the promised new age for your people, maybe even to the throwing off of Roman rule. In your mind, there was a straight line from this ministry in Galilee to a glorious new era for your people, even if the details of how that would happen were mysterious. 

Then you go with Jesus to Jerusalem, perhaps hoping that this was the climactic moment when the new age would dawn. But instead, everything goes horribly, tragically wrong. Your teacher is arrested. You flee in fear that you will be, too. While you are hiding from the authorities, you hear that he has been crucified—a horrible, agonizing way to die, designed to make a public example out of those who challenge Roman authorities. Jesus had promised a time when the powers that be would no longer oppress the lowly. Yet here he had been brutally executed by those very powers. 

At this point, your whole world must have been shattered. For your world was centered on this man—on love of him, belief in what he taught, and hope in what he would accomplish. That was your whole life, on the outside and on the inside. And now, all of it had been crushed. Along with the man himself, the power of his teaching and the very existence of his mission had all seemingly been demolished. And you, rather than sitting on a throne with your fellow disciples, presiding over a new nation, were just trying to avoid the authorities. 

But then imagine that two days later, while hiding in Jerusalem, with your world lying in pieces, a couple of women burst in and say they found his tomb empty. (As I’ll explain later, I do believe the resurrection happened, that there is very good historical evidence for it, but I also see its meaning in light of Jesus’ own teachings, rather than in light of Christian theology.) Then imagine Peter showing up and saying he has actually seen Jesus alive. Then imagine that Jesus suddenly appears in the room where you’re all hiding and speaks to you. 

He tells you it is time to take his message out to the world. He tells you to proclaim forgiveness to all nations (Luke 24:47), to teach the world everything he has taught you (Matthew 28:20). He sends you out again; this time not to the local villages, but to the world. 

What would the effect of all of this be on you? Your world had been shattered. Everything you believed in had been destroyed—the man, the kingdom, the coming of the kingdom. But now it is absolutely clear that none of that had been destroyed. The man is obviously unharmed, and has even been lifted to a higher state. The kingdom he taught is revealed to be infinitely more powerful than you had imagined. And the coming of the kingdom is apparently still on schedule. It may not be the coming that you expected, but it’s clearly the one that God did. 

After being taken apart, you would have been put back together again in a new way. You thought it had all been destroyed—the man, the message, the mission—but now an astonishing realization penetrates the depths of your being: It is all more powerful, more real, more true than I ever imagined

And that realization, written on your heart in fire, turns you into a pure and potent messenger of the coming of the kingdom. Indeed, I suspect that that was the primary immediate goal of the resurrection, for without that, the whole thing dies right there. You and your fellow disciples are the crucial link. Without that link, he is swallowed up by history, a forgotten nobody. But with that link, the message of Jesus spreads across the world. And with it, the life and teachings of Jesus are written down, by followers like you, to be preserved for all time. True, it is all done incredibly imperfectly—the person of Jesus comes to the forefront while the kingdom recedes to the background—but more important than that, it is done. And wherever the story of Jesus goes, the essence of the kingdom goes with it, however hidden between the lines. 

To me, the greatest symbol of the disciples being transformed from humble peasants to world-changing forces is Peter. He starts out a fisherman, an uneducated man who, like countless others like him, would have lived and died in obscurity, in the same village in which he grew up. But instead, tradition has it that he died in Rome 34 years later, preaching the message of Jesus. What allows a humble fisherman, a powerless nobody, to go from a rural backwater to the capital of the world, where the empire views him as such a threat that it must kill him? Clearly, somewhere along the way, he underwent a profound transformation, which turned him into a fearless vehicle for the message of Jesus. The gospels, of course, imply it happened on that fateful weekend, which started with him trying to save his skin by denying he even knew Jesus, and ended with him being (according to Luke and Paul) the first to see the risen Jesus. After that, he no longer feared death, for he, as Jesus had before him, had disappeared into his mission. 

In summary, what we have is a story in which Jesus’ life seems designed to bring the kingdom on an ever-wider scale—first, to the villages he visits, then to those places his disciples visit, then to Jerusalem, and then to “all nations.” His life was all about bringing the kingdom down to earth—to the whole earth. 

And as we have seen, the key link between Jesus and the general bringing of the kingdom is his disciples, the people he calls to be messengers of the kingdom. 

Surely that is still true today. After all, the kingdom is far from having come to the world as a whole. It is still the exception rather than the rule. We can expect, then, that Jesus is still calling people to leave their nets, still asking them to become fishers of men. 

The question, then, is: Is he calling us? Is his ministry in some sense still going on, unbroken, and as part of that ministry is he still calling disciples to follow him and apostles to carry his message to the world? Is it possible that we ourselves are on that list? If so, why do we think that? What makes us think we are called? And in what way do we think we are meant to carry his message to others? Is it quietly, as a kind of undercover agent of the kingdom? Or is it more openly, as someone who overtly spreads Jesus’ message? Or is it perhaps a combination of both, or something in between? I realize these are very personal questions, but I’d be very interested in hearing the answers from any of you who feel comfortable sharing them.

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Week 18: Giving the Kingdom

We are nearing the end of this series-within-a-series, in which I present condensed chapters from my ebook, Entering the Kingdom. This is our sixth post in that mini-series and next week will be our last. After that, we will look beyond Jesus’ teachings to other issues regarding his life. 

6. Giving the Kingdom

 6. We can then embody the kingdom in our dealings with others. Regardless of their perceived merit or treatment of us, we can extend to them the kingdom’s unconditional love and unconditional care. We thereby restore them and make the kingdom their experience, too.

Jesus’ teachings are intensely focused on interactions with others. It is in these interactions that we most clearly see the coming of the kingdom. How do we interact with others when in the kingdom? 

In this post I am going to depart from my usual practice with these condensed chapters from Entering the Kingdom. If you have that ebook, therefore, I would encourage you to read Chapter 6 there in full, as a supplement to this week’s post. Instead of summarizing that chapter, I am going to make some overall remarks about this issue of how Jesus sees us interacting with others, remarks that reflect my latest thinking on the matter. 

We relate to others as God relates to us, with unconditional love and care

This, I would argue, is a signature aspect of Jesus’ teachings. As we saw in Week 14, there are a variety of sayings in which God (or a symbol for God) is faced, either explicitly or implicitly, with two categories of people: the obedient and the disobedient. We all know how the traditional God responds to those two categories—he rewards the obedient and punishes the disobedient. Yet in the teachings of Jesus God shatters this universal assumption. He instead treats the disobedient with the very outpouring of love and care that we expect him to lavish on the obedient. 

This takes two forms. In some sayings, he (rather shockingly) treats both categories the same. He gives equally to both. “He raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust” (Q 6:35). He gives the same to the laborers who worked just one hour as he gives to those who had been hard at it since sunrise. In other sayings, though, he gives more attention and care to the disobedient, not because they are more worthy, but simply because they need it. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17). He therefore leaves the ninety-nine obedient sheep to go in search of the lost one. He throws a big party for the return of the prodigal son, while the obedient older brother gets no such special attention. 

This is, of course, a radical departure from the traditional God, yet it strikes a chord in us. Something deep inside of us says that God ought to be this way. However, while we can perhaps envision God being able to pull this off, it's a much greater stretch to imagine doing this ourselves. How could we feel equal love for everyone? 

Yet, of course, this is exactly where Jesus goes. He takes this very distinctive theological pattern and then applies it to the interpersonal realm, to the arena of ethics. He calls us to relate to others with the same unconditional love and care with which God relates to us. Again and again in his teachings we are faced, explicitly or implicitly, with two categories: those who would normally be in our favor and those who would normally be in our disfavor. In short, inner circle people and outer circle people. The latter category includes social superiors who are mistreating us (as in other cheek/coat and shirt/extra mile) and social inferiors who need what we have (such as beggars).

Just as with the traditional God, we know exactly how we would conventionally respond to these two categories: We love those in our inner circle and hate and/or shun those in our outer circle. Yet in the teachings of Jesus, of course, we do the nearly unthinkable. We respond to them as the God of Jesus responds to his two categories. We give the outer circle person—the enemy (Q 6:27), the persecutor (Q 6:28), the abusive superior (Q 6:29), the beggar (Matthew 5:42), the borrower (Q 6:30), those who mistreat us (Q 6:31), those who don’t love us (Q 6:32), the sinner (Mark 2:17), those we are tempted to judge (Q 6:37)—the same love and care and generosity that we normally reserve for our closest comrades. We display the same unconventional response to our two categories that God does to his. Ethics flows directly from theology. 

This connection between theology and ethics is made explicit in the saying that I have come to regard as the key saying in the Jesus tradition—Love Your Enemies: “Love your enemies and‚ pray for those persecuting you, so that you may become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust” (Q 6:27-28, 35). If you want to be like God, if you want to be a chip off the Old Block, then do as he does: love your enemies. Respond to good and bad, friend and foe, with the same unconditional love that God has for them. Raise the sunshine of your love on bad and good. Send the life-giving rain of your care on the just and unjust. 

This is how we bring the kingdom to others. This is how it comes. This, I believe, is how we heal the sick, bring relief to the guilt-ridden, expel inner demons, and include the excluded. We bring healing to them by loving them as God loves them. Or more accurately, we channel God's unconditional love to them. 

The overall pattern we are looking at here, which as we’ve seen spans both the divine level and human level, is so distinctive, as well as so pervasive in the Jesus tradition, that I have come to see it as the foundation on which we need to build our portrait of him. This pattern has to come from him. Where else do we find it in world religion? It is so rare that it has to come from a single distinctive mind. And it has to be foundational for his entire teaching, given that it establishes both his theology and his ethics—two core areas. Finally, given how central his teachings were to his ministry, it has to be foundational for his entire sense of mission. 

This, I believe, is the rock on which we need to build our whole understanding of Jesus. There are many other bricks that need to be put in place on top of that foundation, but any brick that we put there needs to fit with that foundation. It needs to follow the tone set by this distinctive pattern. 

If we build our picture of Jesus on this rock, I believe we are building on truly solid ground. Every scholar I have read treats the sayings in which this pattern is displayed as coming from Jesus, as part of the bedrock of the Jesus tradition. Everyone seems to agree that when we are looking at these sayings, we are touching Jesus. If, then, we can accurately identify the pattern contained in these sayings, we have a real foundation on which to build our whole picture. This is not an exercise in projection, then, in which we just read into Jesus what we want to see there. This is starting with a historical core and, rather than making it a sidelight, letting that solid core set the tone for everything else. 

I would like us to try to imagine two things. First, let’s imagine that this pattern—that God responds to good and bad with equal love (theology) and that we should too (ethics)—became the heart of what Jesus’ followers proclaimed after his death. Imagine that their revelation to the world was not “God sent his only son to die for our sins,” but rather “If you want to be a son of God, love your enemies, just as God loves those who act as enemy to him.” Let’s try to imagine a Christianity like that (though it probably wouldn’t have been called Christianity), and then let’s try to imagine a world in which that religion was the legacy that Jesus left behind. What might that world be like? 

Second, let’s imagine that this pattern became the heart of our own psyches and our own lives. How might our lives be different? What kinds of things might we find ourselves doing that we don’t do now? What kinds of things might we refrain from doing that we do now? How would our relationships be different? How would our level of happiness be different? How would our own legacy be different? 

Finally, let’s ask ourselves this question: Is it too late to resurrect this original message and have it spread in the world? You may think I want you to answer “no” to this question, but I honestly don’t know what the answer is. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Week 17: Inside the Kingdom

After a break for Christmas and New Year’s, I’ll pick up right where we left off. We are still partway through a seven-week series-within-a-series, where I am trying to summarize Jesus’ teachings by presenting condensed chapters from my ebook, Entering the Kingdom. This is our fifth post in that mini-series.


5. Inside the Kingdom

5. Once in the kingdom, its love and care will become our experience, while the world’s assaults will seem remote and powerless. In the kingdom, we will be free from anxiety, fear, guilt, lack, humiliation, sickness, and all the ills of the human condition.


A wind of freedom

Huston Smith in The Religions of Man said about the teachings of Jesus, 

There blows through these teachings, Berdyaev has said, a wind of freedom and liberty that frightens the world and makes it want to deflect them by postponement; not yet, not yet! H.G. Wells was evidently right; either there was something mad about this man or our hearts are still too small for what he was trying to say. 

“A wind of freedom and liberty”—that is the primary note I feel in Jesus’ teachings. They show everyday life in this world unvarnished, with all of its anxiety, struggles, assaults, obligations, and injustices. But then they show a way of being that glides above that, unchained to the world’s struggles and burdens. This wind of freedom and liberty is radical, breathtaking. It is both deeply attractive and oddly frightening. 

Below is a brief sampling of sayings in which you can feel that wind of freedom on your face. With each one, try to picture yourself in that situation, and then try to picture yourself making that response. What comes up for you when you do that? 

Other Cheek, Coat and Shirt, Second Mile

The situation: A social superior is forcibly taking from you, both taking something very physical (shirt, time/energy, physical wellbeing) and intentionally taking your dignity in the process. 

Your response: “Being wrapped in God’s love, my security is not at issue. I haven’t a care in the world. But I’m really concerned about this poor guy. What can I do to supply his worrisome sense of lack?” 

Congratulations Poor, Hungry, Sad

The situation: The rich and powerful have excluded you to the point of effectively pushing you out of your society. You are destitute, hungry, and mourning the tragedy of your existence. 

Your response: “God, the most powerful of all, has given me an honored place in his kingdom, and this will give me all that my society took away. Do not pity me. I should be congratulated!” 

Love of Enemies, Better than sinners: sunrise, Better than sinners: love

The situation: Someone is treating you like his enemy, trying to put you beneath him and make you suffer. 

Your response: “God I love this person! I love him just as intensely as God loves him. I feel no more love for my dear children than I feel for this priceless person.” 

On Anxieties

The situation: It’s up for grabs whether you will have enough food and enough clothing. 

Your response: “Why on earth would I worry? God takes care of the birds and the grass, and I am far more valuable than they are. So why wouldn’t God care for me even more? What’s there to feel anxious about?” 

The basic idea

The person in these sayings is so immune to the seemingly awful circumstances facing him that it’s almost like he’s mentally living somewhere else. And that is the key. In these teachings, “you” (the person in the teachings) have psychologically left the world as your world. Its happenings no longer seem so significant, no longer impinge on you like they used to. Instead, you have experientially taken up residence in the kingdom. It has become your world. As a result, the kingdom looms larger in your mind, while the world seems to have shrunk. The kingdom is what seems present, here and now, while the world has receded. The kingdom’s love and care are what surrounds you, while the world’s assaults leave you untouched. 

The saying that best captures this exact state of affairs is “Treasures in Heaven”: 

Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and gnawing deface and where robbers dig through and rob, but treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor gnawing defaces and where robbers do not dig through nor rob. For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart. (Q 12:33-34)

The key is that last line: “For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart.” If you treasure the things of earth, which are always at risk, you have placed your heart on that field of risk. It becomes a hockey puck, constantly swatted about by all the cruel sticks of the world. 

But if you treasure the kingdom of heaven (this passage doesn’t say “kingdom” but I think it’s safe to add that onto “heaven”), you have placed your heart beyond all the robbing, breaking-in, and eroding forces of earth. Your heart is safe from all the storms of the world, safe in God. 

This saying, then, pictures exactly the contrast I am talking about between psychologically living in the world vs. living in the kingdom. 

The image of the inclusive feast

To get a better grasp on this concept, think about Jesus’ main metaphor for the kingdom, which was an inclusive meal—a dinner party, a wedding celebration, a joyous feast. This image shows up everywhere in the Jesus tradition, in his teachings and in his demonstration. 

At these meals—either in his teachings or in his life—everyone was included. Everyone was joined together, without regard for their rank in society (“Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled”—Q 14:23). So you have love and you have togetherness. Also, of course, when you attend a feast, you just get to enjoy yourself. You aren’t in the act of providing; you’re being provided for. And there is plenty; all the worries about there not being enough are, for the moment, gone. Finally, the meals in Jesus’ teachings are often celebrations (“Let’s have a feast and celebrate, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and now is found.”—Luke 15:23-24 SV). 

So you have this zone apart, a carefree space filled with love, inclusiveness, togetherness, abundance, and celebration. And then outside that zone is the usual: the hate, exclusion, separation, toil, care, deprivation, and drabness inherent in ordinary life. 

With his teachings and with his real-life meals, Jesus was saying, “This is what the kingdom is like, an inclusive meal, a feast of plenty, a joyous celebration—and you are invited. You can stay outside, subject to everything this feast is not, or you can come inside, and make it your home. You can live in this zone apart all the time, where the sorrows of earth can never enter.” 

Experiences of the transition in perspective

The movement from the world to the kingdom is really a transition in perspective. You go from feeling surrounded by a harsh world to feel surrounded by a luxurious feast. In many spiritual experiences, we see this exact same transition in perspective, in which suddenly the kingdom feels like everything and the events of this world seem like nothing. 

A friend of mine named Barbara Whitfield had a near-death experience (NDE) while confined in a circular hospital bed (she described it as “a Ferris wheel for one”). During that NDE, she had a life review, in which, she said, “God’s love...was holding me. It felt incredible....God was totally accepting of everything we—God and I—reviewed in my life.” Then she said something that captures this transition in perspective perfectly: 

No matter how I judged myself in each interaction, being held by God was the bigger interaction. God interjected love into everything, every feeling, every bit of information about absolutely everything that went on, so that everything was all right.

Being held by God was the bigger interaction.” That’s it. 

Here is another example, an experience collected by the Religious Experience Research Centre: 

Briefly speaking the experience is of deep peace a feeling of well-being when everyday life is reduced to a trivial level. I loose [sic] track of time and may be two or three hours sitting still experiencing a peaceful joyful sort of feeling. I seem to become insulated from the outside world, sound for instance is not noticeable and it is only as the feeling withdraws that I become conscious of my surroundings which at that time always seem imbued with great beauty, even ordinary objects. 

Notice that while in this experience of “deep peace,” the person feels “insulated from the outside world,” such that “everyday life is reduced to a trivial level.” That’s being in the kingdom. 

A favorite example of mine comes from Arthur Koestler (1905-1983). He was accused of being a spy during the Spanish Civil War and imprisoned in solitary confinement. While standing by the recessed window of his cell, he used a piece of iron spring from his wire mattress to scratch mathematical formulae on the wall. After scratching a particularly beautiful formula—Euclid’s proof that the number of primes is infinite—Koestler felt so enchanted by the beauty of it that he felt transported: 

I must have stood there for some minutes, entranced, with a wordless awareness that “this is perfect—perfect”; until I noticed some slight mental discomfort nagging at the back of my mind—some trivial circumstance that marred the perfection of the moment. Then I remembered the nature of that irrelevant annoyance: I was, of course, in prison and might be shot. But this was immediately answered by a feeling whose verbal translation would be: “So what? Is that all? Have you got nothing more serious to worry about?”—an answer so spontaneous, fresh and amused as if the intruding annoyance had been the loss of a collar-stud. Then I was floating on my back in a river of peace, under bridges of silence. It came from nowhere and flowed nowhere. Then there was no river and no I. The I had ceased to exist. 

Here again, even dire circumstances become “trivial” and “irrelevant.” Instead, floating along on that river of peace becomes everything. 

These individuals experienced exactly what Jesus seems to have been talking about. They entered the joyous celebration, and while inside it they were completely insulated from the harsh world outside. 


Close your eyes and relax.

Get in touch with some sense in which you are poor—some basic need you lack.

Get in touch with your sense of being excluded and unimportant.

and with your sense of being constantly threatened by the uncertain happenings of the world.

In some sense, you are out in the cold. Feel that.

Now see before you a beautiful golden door. See it open.

Inside there is a joyous feast going on.

Warmth and welcome radiate from that open doorway.

Someone beckons you inside, saying, “We have been waiting for you. We have a place of honor prepared for you.”

You say, “But I have not brought anything to give to the feast.”

In response, you are told, “The only gift we ask of you—and it is priceless to us—is that you accept your welcome.”

You step into the warmth and glow of the room and are taken to your seat.

You feel immediately accepted and valued by everyone present.

Everyone feels familiar to you. No one feels like a stranger.

No one is higher, no one is lower. All are equally included.

The room is filled with a sense of togetherness and joy.

The air is pervaded by a feeling of love, as if the air is love.

There before you on the table is the very kind of food you’ve been lacking.

Your every need is effortlessly provided for, and the supply is endless.

You feel absolutely safe, without a care in the world, filled with a fullness of joy.

You know that the situations that have been troubling you still exist outside this room, but they don’t seem to matter anymore.

All that matters is here, now, this moment.

Just when you thought it couldn’t be any better, a hush falls over the room and Jesus walks in.

And then you notice something else in the room—a sense of holiness, a feeling of God’s presence.

It feels like God is right there in the room. He is the love in the air. He is the host of the feast.

Jesus walks up to you, addresses you by name, and says, “I’m so very glad you came. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”

Then he says, “Now that you are here, you have a choice before you.

You can choose to stay. This can be your home forever.”

Then you realize you feel like you have come home.

It’s as if, after a long, difficult journey in a foreign country, you finally have come home.

Then he says, “You can live in this feast in your mind all the time,

even while your body is outside, in the rough and tumble of the world.

Even while you interact with the world, your presence here will always be the bigger interaction,

and by comparison, the happenings outside will seem trivial, not worth worrying about.”

You want to stay more than anything you’ve wanted in this world,

but you’re worried the choice required of you will be too much.

So with some trepidation, you ask, “What do I need to do to stay here?”

He answers, “All you have to do is value this more than what the world can give you.”


The question I’d like to throw out for discussion this week is this one: Is this how we genuinely think of the spiritual life vs. conventional life? Do we think of the spiritual life as a carefree feast and conventional life as an experience of deprivation? Or do we think of it the other way around, where the spiritual life seems full of hard work and sacrifice, offering only modest rewards, while conventional life seems to offer all the goodies? I’m asking this not so much in terms of what we believe conceptually, but what we believe in the moment of choice, when we are faced with a concrete instance of having to choose one way vs. the other. In that moment when we choose, for instance, whether to be generous vs. retaliatory, which side are we seeing as the feast—the spiritual life or the conventional life?

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Week 16: Entering the Kingdom

This is the fourth post in my series-within-a-series, which attempts to summarize Jesus' teachings, based on my ebook, which happens to have the same name as today's post: Entering the Kingdom. 

4. Entering the Kingdom

4. We enter the kingdom through a psychological transfer of our trust, investment, valuing, and sense of identity from the world to the kingdom. We move our heart from one world to the other.

Now we come to the key issue: How do we enter the kingdom? If, as I emphasized in the last post, the kingdom can be experientially entered by anyone who chooses, then how do we do that? We have actually already seen some of answer to this, so the first part of this post will be a review.

We need to withdraw trust, investment, and identification from the world

In the first post of these chapter summaries (“The Plight of the Self”), we saw that, in the sayings of Jesus, we experience ourselves as a small, vulnerable self in a life-and-death struggle with an uncaring world, a world that assaults us and kicks us down the social ladder. We struggle to climb up the ladder, and feel guilty for the things we end up doing. As I said there, “It is not hard to see why we spend our lives anxious and afraid, crippled by a small and fragile sense of worth.” 

The only natural response to this is to stop looking to the world for our happiness. We need to stop trusting it to take care of us. We need to withdraw the emotional investment we have placed in it. We need to psychologically relocate. 

What is our hesitancy? Isn’t it our hope that we can win this game? We’re like gamblers in Vegas. Like all the other gamblers, we know the odds are against us—we know the house almost always wins—but we are banking on being the exception. In a city full of losers, we hope to go home with the jackpot. 

Yet, as we also saw, in Jesus’ teachings even the guy who walks home with the jackpot gets robbed. As I said in that post, “The man who plans to build larger barns to store his grain and goods, so that he can ‘relax, eat, drink, be merry,’ dies the very night he conceives the project (Luke 12:16-20). The man who tries to enhance his status by throwing a big feast and inviting high-status guests is snubbed by everyone he invites (Luke 14:16-23; also in Q).” Further, the most profound way in which the winners end up losing is that they lose out on the kingdom: “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” (Mark 10:25). 

I think this is the lens through which we need to see such sayings as “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16), “Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled” (Q 14:11), and “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it” (Luke 17:33). “The first will be last” is just another way of saying that the winners end up losing. 

The kingdom will take real care of us, and so we should give our trust to it

In the second post in the current mini-series (“God’s Love and Care”), we saw that “God unconditionally loves and cares for us.” All we need do is seek and we shall find, knock and it will be opened to us (Q 11:9). All we need do is seek the kingdom, and God will grant us all material necessities (Q 12:22-31). As part of the coming of his kingdom, he will give us “our day’s bread” (Q 11:3). We need not be afraid, for just as he watches over insignificant sparrows and counts the hairs on our heads, so he will take care of us (Q 12:6-7). 

If that is how God treats us, then the natural response to him and his kingdom is trust. Throughout many sayings, Jesus advocates a trust that is absolute and unequivocal, regardless of what we are facing. This trust then unleashes divine power into our lives and, through us, into the lives of others. 

So because of the nature of God, we can greet every situation with unqualified, unconditional trust. And because of the nature of God, he will respond to that trust with all the power of his generosity. 

The transfer

If we put the implications of those first two posts together, then, what we get is a massive psychological transfer, from the world to the kingdom. We withdraw all the trust, investment, valuing, and identification we have placed in the world and place it instead in the kingdom. It should come as no surprise a number of Jesus’ sayings depict this very transfer: 

No one can serve two masters; for a person will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon. (Q 16:13) 

Right now our master is money, and we kid ourselves into thinking we can have God as our master at the same time—we can do both. We need to realize that, no, they are mutually exclusive. We have to give up our false god (the name “Mammon” portrays wealth as a deity that one worships) in order to have the real God.

And someone said to him: I will follow you wherever you go. And Jesus said to him: Foxes have holes, and birds of the sky have nests; but the son of humanity does not have anywhere he can lay his head. (Q 9:57-58) 

Here he lays before us another stark choice: We can choose conventional security—symbolized by nest and bed—or we can hit the road and follow him. 

But another said to him: Master, permit me first to go and bury my father. But he said to him: Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead. (Q 9:59-60) 

Yet another stark choice: We can stay behind chained to conventional obligations, dwelling among the dead, or we can follow Jesus. 

A certain person prepared a large dinner, and invited many. And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner‚ to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. «One declined because of his» farm. «Another declined because of his business.» «And the slave, on coming, said these things to his master.» Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave: Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled. (Q 14:16-23) 

What has happened to this man? His world has let him down, completely. Just when he needed it, it abandoned him. So what does he do? He jumps ship. He decides to move over to another world, a world containing another set of values. His world was all about ranking—wining and dining the high-rankers to massage the height of his own rank. The other world is all about lack of ranking—inviting in anyone and everyone, even those without rank, regardless of the impact this has on his rank. 

Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and gnawing deface and where robbers dig through and rob, but treasure for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor gnawing defaces and where robbers do not dig through nor rob. For where your treasure is, there will also be your heart. (Q 12:33-34) 

This is a near-perfect encapsulation of the transfer to the kingdom: 

  • Do not treasure the “treasures” of earth.
  • For they will be taken from you through the gnawing, thieving forces of earth.
  • Transfer your treasuring to heaven (I would say “to the kingdom”).
  • Nothing there can be taken from you, for the gnawing, thieving forces of earth cannot reach there.
  • For where your treasure is, there will you be psychologically centered.
  • Psychologically centered in heaven, you will be immune to the gnawing, thieving forces of earth. 

This last point is often overlooked, but crucial. If your heart is in a place “where neither moth nor gnawing defaces and where robbers do not dig through to rob,” then your heart is in a place of complete safety

Sell everything

This transfer is most dramatically expressed in three passages about selling everything: 

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44) 

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it [Thomas 76 adds “for himself”]. (Matthew 13:45-46) 

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.. (Matthew 19:21-22) 

In the first two cases, a man finds treasure, the gaining of which becomes his sole desire. He sells everything. In the other case—at least in the Thomas version—he actually goes out of business just to possess this one pearl. 

In the third case, again the man has the possibility of gaining treasure, which is this time explicitly labeled “treasure in heaven.” But in this case, the fever does not bite him. He remains tied to his possessions. He is too anchored to the earth to step onto the balloon leaving for heaven. 

In all three cases, though, it means selling everything. Selling all of the old in order to obtain the new. Selling all that we value in order to gain hold of true treasure. 


Several things stand out. First, movement from the world to the kingdom is essentially moving your treasuring, your heart, from one to the other. This takes place through the simple decision that one is worth treasuring and the other isn’t

Second, we want to have it both ways, but we can’t. We want to have both money and God as our master. We want to be chained to conventional obligations and security and follow Jesus. And obviously we’d like to hang on to everything we own and have that pearl of great price. We want an inclusive “both/and.” But it doesn’t work that way. This is a true “either/or” proposition. Buying one means selling the other. 

Third, if we saw the kingdom for the incomparable treasure it is, we would rush to sell all our investment in the world. We would catch the fever and be unable to restrain ourselves. 

What does this look like? Even though there are images of physically selling and physically leaving, the essence of it seems clearly psychological. We sell our investment in money, we treasure a different world, we abandon our attachment to social ranking. But here is the kicker: If you really sell all your emotional investment in your money, possessions, and home, then if you are asked to physically leave them behind, you’ll be fine with that. 

Do we do this all at once or gradually? I think in principle Jesus is talking about a single movement: We move our heart from one world to the next. In principle, we could make this choice all at once. However, millennia of spiritual pursuit the world over have shown us that in practice we make this single choice in countless little installments. We tend to see the bankruptcy of the one world and the pricelessness of the other in tiny, partial glimpses, allowing our hearts to move a little forward, which in turn reveals further glimpses. 


Try to think of this process as moving a slide control knob, one of those knobs that can be slid back and forth along a whole line, between two poles. The knob is your heart and the poles are the world and the kingdom. So just place your heart where, on balance, you think it is now (I've placed it all the way to the left just because I don't have a lot of technical control over its placement in this post), and then imagine moving it toward the right.



                World                                                                                                                           Kingdom

  • Movement to the right means “The world is not deserving of my heart being placed there while the kingdom is.” Or, “The world has always and will always let me down, while the kingdom is a priceless treasure that is also safe and trustable.”
  • Movement to the left means the opposite: “The world offers real gifts that can really be relied on, while the kingdom’s gifts are unreliable, unreachable, intangible, and come at too high a cost.”
  • Movement towards the right is simultaneously movement away from the left.
  • For reflection: To what degree are you acting as if there are two knobs, one that can remain fixed at the left while the other is moved toward the right? 

Until the next post, in one situation after another, picture moving the knob of your heart to the right (which means away from the left). Try to do this generally, but mostly try to do it in the context of particular situations. While in the situation, just reach your hand to the knob and move it to the right. It might help if you have a particular phrase you repeat while doing so (like, “I move my heart to where my treasure is” or “I want my heart to be in the kingdom”). 

It would be great if you would share about this here in our discussion. What helps you move the knob? What are your resistances? What benefits do you experience from successfully moving it? The more you can communicate about it, the more movement all of you will make.

Read more…

Week 15: The Kingdom

This is the third post in which I explore Jesus' teachings by going through the chapters of my e-book Entering the Kingdom: What the Historical Jesus Teaches Us about the Kingdom of God. This week we cover the central question: What is the kingdom of God? 

3. The Kingdom

3. God’s kingdom is a state of being in which God’s unconditional love is the ruling power. The kingdom is already here, unseen, and can be experientially entered by anyone who chooses.

Scholars agree that Jesus’ central proclamation was the kingdom of God. This is very clear in Mark, Matthew, Luke, Q, and Thomas. The question is, what did he mean by the kingdom? 

Scholars also agree that the kingdom is not heaven. Rather, it is an earthly condition in which God rules. But what is that earthly condition? Is it an apocalyptic kingdom that God brings about through cataclysmic destruction of the current evil world order? Or is it an enlightened society that we grow through following the teachings of Jesus? Or is it an inward spiritual condition, in which God rules the mind, heart, and life of the individual? 

I have come to believe that it is the latter—an experiential condition that the individual can enter. And once that happens, the kingdom can “come” through that individual, into the experience of other individuals. This means that if enough people “enter” the kingdom, the kingdom will “come” to the entire world. We will enter into that second option I listed above: an enlightened world. 

I believe that the kingdom is an inward condition because that, I feel, is the logic of the earliest layers of the Jesus tradition, especially as represented by the core material in the Sayings Gospel Q. The teachings in that earliest layer call us to undergo a transformation in which we enter a different state of being, a state that is centered on God. 

Even more importantly, many of the sayings about the kingdom make it clear that we as individuals can enter it now, based on our inward condition. This is extremely important. If the kingdom is something that will come collectively to the entire world in the future, why are there so many sayings urging us to enter it on an individual basis now? 

The kingdom is already here; we just don’t see it

There are two key passages, which many of us are no doubt familiar with, that express the present nature of the kingdom:

But on being asked when the kingdom of God is coming, he answered them and said: The kingdom of God is not coming visibly, Nor will one say: Look, here! or: There! For, look, the kingdom of God is within you! [SV: “is right there in your presence”; RSV: “is in the midst of you”] (Q 17:20-21)

His disciples said to him, “When will the Father’s imperial rule come?” “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s imperial rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” (Thomas 113)

These sayings appear to be variations on a single saying. Look at all they have in common:

  1. Jesus is asked when the kingdom will come.
  2. He answers that it will not come as something you can see.
  3. It will not be said, “Look here” or “Look there.”
  4. Rather, the kingdom is already here right now, unseen.

This bears reflection. The kingdom is already here, right here in our presence, in our midst, spread out upon the earth. We just don’t see it. If that is so, then the crucial thing is not the coming of something not yet arrived, but our seeing of something already here. It’s not about waiting for the heavenly city to float down from the sky; it’s about entering the gate that has been standing silently in front of us all along, unseen by our clouded eyes. 

Passages on entering the kingdom

There are many passages that speak of us being near, finding, or (especially) entering the kingdom. Let’s look at these one by one: 

“But seek [the KJV has ‘seek ye first’] his kingdom, and all these shall be granted to you.” (Q 12:31) 

This key passage tells us to “seek his kingdom” and then, if we do, all our material necessities (like food and clothing) will be granted us. It assumes that we need not wait for the kingdom. It is available to us, awaiting our seeking. We can afford to seek it single-mindedly, because once we find it, all that we need for our material wellbeing will be “granted” us. 

This is a key passage. It suggests that entering the kingdom means being in a state in which you are cared for by God. This has a certain amount of logic to it. If God is a God of unconditional love and care, and being in his kingdom is being in a state or domain in which he is the ruling power, then what must his kingdom be? It must be a state in which God’s love and care become the ruling power in your experience. 

“I swear to you, whoever doesn’t accept God’s imperial rule the way a child would, certainly won’t ever set foot in his domain!” (Mark 10:15 SV) 

So, if we are willing to accept the kingdom “the way a child would,” we will enter it. Conversely, if we are not in the kingdom, then clearly we haven’t been willing to do that. 

Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, “These nursing babies are like those who enter the Father’s domain.” (Thomas 22:1-2) 

This passage suggests that we can enter the kingdom by becoming like nursing babies. This to me suggests resting in an unquestioned trust in and dependency on God. This saying is very similar to the “seek ye first” saying quoted above, isn’t it? If we become like nursing babies and enter his kingdom, then we enter into this wondrous state of having all our needs supplied by God—our material sustenance and our need for love and closeness. 

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”…It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23, 25) 

Just as being like a nursing baby allows you to enter, so being rich makes it incredibly hard to enter. I think we can assume it’s not the money itself that’s the problem, but some effect that the money has on the mind. After all, the state of mind of someone who looks to their own bank account for security is worlds apart from the state of the nursing baby who looks only to the mother. So again, conditions in us either block or make way for our entry into the kingdom. 

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20) 

This passage sees one’s righteousness as the key issue for entering the kingdom. You not only need righteousness, you seem to need a great deal of it, more than the scribes and Pharisees. 

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matt 7:21) 

This passage speaks to a universal problem in spirituality: We would rather talk the talk than walk the walk. 

The disciples said to him, “Your brothers and your mother are standing outside.” He said to them, “Those here who do what my Father wants are my brothers and my mother. They are the ones who will enter my Father’s kingdom.” (Thomas 99) 

This is similar to the previous one. Blood relation to Jesus does not yield real closeness to him, nor does it get one into the kingdom. Rather, you have to do “what my Father wants.” 

When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. (Mark 12:34) 

The man had just said, “To love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This acknowledgment signaled that he was “not far” from the kingdom. 

“Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31) 

Jesus has just told a parable to the chief priests and the elders, found only in Matthew, in which one son tells his father he will go and work in the vineyard but never does, and the other son says he won’t but then thinks better of it and goes. Clearly, the first son stands for the chief priests and elders while the second stands for the tax collectors and prostitutes. 

Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in nor let in those trying to get in. (Q 11:52) 

Once again, it’s about getting in. Here, the religious leaders are shutting the kingdom of God, so that no one gets in. They don’t go in, and they don’t let others in. 

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matt 13:44) 

The man in this parable clearly does something dishonest. Can you imagine, for instance, viewing a house for sale, finding a stash of gold coins peeking through the dirt in the back yard, and then quietly putting a rock over it and buying the house? But I think this says something about the effect on us that the kingdom has. When we really catch sight of it, all other considerations go by the wayside. We go after the kingdom with total abandon. 

We can enter it now

I think what happens when people read these passages is that they automatically add a step: If you seek his kingdom, accept it like a child, etc., then when it comes you will enter it. But is that justified? Or does it change the whole message? Imagine how some of these sayings would sound if we inserted that meaning: 

But seek his kingdom, and when it finally comes to the world, then at last all these things shall be granted to you. 

The kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he buys that field. And after a really, really long escrow, he finally gets to enjoy the treasure. 

The sayings on entering the kingdom just don’t sound like this, do they? Marcus Borg spoke to this very issue in his book Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (p. 257). He said that many interpreters assert “that one should add an interpolation to all of the Kingdom sayings” so that they speak of “not a present entry, but ‘right disposition for future entry.’” He then asked, “What is the warrant for such a gloss, which the text themselves do not include?” 

Instead, “the texts themselves” all suggest a direct cause-and-effect relationship, in which fulfilling a certain condition (seeking it, accepting it like a child, doing God’s will, buying the field) causes you to enter the kingdom—period. And if this is correct, if you can enter the kingdom now, then it can’t be a collective condition that descends on the world in the future. It has to be what Jesus said in Thomas, a state that is here already, but that is invisible to most people. 


What, then, have we learned about the kingdom? It is a domain that is present right now, it is right here in our midst; we just don’t see it. Because of this, we can enter it now, through certain inward conditions, through seeking it, accepting it like a child, becoming like a nursing infant, relying on God rather than money, doing God’s will, selling everything we have to lay hold of it. 

Once we do these things, we enter a paradise condition. Isn’t that what the kingdom of God is? We return to Eden. We enter a condition in which God’s love and care are the ruling power. We become like carefree infants nursing from our Mother. It makes me think of a Sufi line I heard Huston Smith quote: “If on earth there be a paradise of bliss, it is this, it is this, it is this.” This condition is so irresistible that when we merely get a glimpse of it we catch the fever—we are overcome with joy and go and sell all we have in order to purchase it. 

It’s such an ingrained idea that Jesus was telling us how to go to heaven once we die. But there is actually very little “heaven” in his teachings. Instead, based on our best evidence, he was asking us to enter a paradise state while alive, a transformed condition in which we throw away our cares because we are resting in the lap of God’s care. This is such a different picture than “he came to die for our sins so we could go to heaven.” No, he came to show us the way to enter an Eden that “is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” 

Because Jesus is such a part of our cultural heritage, it can have quite an effect on us to change our picture of him in this way. Perhaps you have already changed your picture in just this way. But even then there can be lingering remnants of the old picture, like hidden scar tissue in your internal organs. So what happens in your mind when you envision that, rather than telling us how to go to heaven, Jesus was inviting us to enter this kind of kingdom now? 

Yet obviously the more insistent question is this: How can we catch the fever? How can we become so overjoyed at the prospect of living in paradise that we can’t restrain ourselves, that we are willing to seek it first, to cast off all our sources of false security, to sell all our investments, to do literally anything to buy that field?

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Week 14: God's Love and Care

This is our second week in a systematic exploration of Jesus’ teachings, in which I summarize the chapters of my e-book Entering the Kingdom: What the Historical Jesus Teaches Us about the Kingdom of God. Last week we covered the problem Jesus was trying to solve. This week we cover the foundation of his solution, and indeed of everything he taught and did and was. As I did last week, I recommend reading the complete chapter in the e-book if you have it. 

2. God’s Love and Care

 2.     God unconditionally loves and cares for us. His love does not exalt some and debase others due to their merit. Rather, it is abundantly showered on everyone alike, simply because we are all his children. 

Indiscriminate broadcasting of sustenance

One of the themes that I find very interesting is the image of God distributing blessings indiscriminately, across all boundaries. Here is the classic saying along these lines:

Love your enemies and pray for those persecuting you, so that you may become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust. (Q 27-28, 35c-d) 

In addition we also have two well-known parables. The first is the parable of the sower, in which a sower scatters seeds not only on good soil, but on the road, on rocky ground, and among thorns (see Thomas 9:1-5 for a nicely compact version). The second is the parable of the vineyard laborers (Matthew 20:1-12), where a landowner hires day laborers at different times of day. Some start with him first thing in the morning and some are hired at five o’clock and work only an hour. Yet despite the expectations of those who worked all day, the landowner pays them all the same. 

In all three of the above images, someone is distributing something life-giving, something needed for survival: rain, sunshine, seed, money. In the first, God is sending sunshine and rain down on both the bad and good. In the second, the farmer is scattering seed over both good and bad soil. In the third, the master of the vineyard is giving the same wage to both deserving and seemingly undeserving workers. It’s the same basic pattern, isn’t it? 

What I find especially interesting in the parable of the sower is that he is doing what in farming is called “broadcasting.” We think of this in terms of radio and TV, but it actually comes from farming, where it refers to casting handfuls of seeds over a relatively broad area. So it is literally “broad-casting.” 

That, then, is what God does: He broadcasts (or “broad-casts”) his blessings. More accurately, he broadcasts the sustenance necessary for survival, for life. Just like a TV signal that goes to the homes of everyone alike, God broadcasts his blessings indiscriminately, whether the recipients are saints or serial killers.

Perhaps more to the point, God is broadcasting his love. We know this from the first saying, where we should love our enemies because, it is implied, that is what God does. In that saying, the images of sun and rain are really meant to illustrate how God loves

If he cares for the birds and flowers, won’t he much more care for you? 

Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? And yet not one of them will fall to earth without your Father’s consent. But even the hairs of your head all are numbered. Do not be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows. (Q 12:6-7)

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you are to eat....Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not better than the birds?... And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe‚ the lilies, how they grow: They do not work nor do they spin. Yet I tell you: Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. But if in the field the grass, there today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, God clothes thus, will he not much more clothe you, persons of petty faith! (Q 12:22, 24, 26-28) 

Notice that again God is supplying life-giving sustenance, and it is falling alike on two different groups. Only here, the one group (birds and flowers) is evidence that his care must also apply to the other group (people). The logic in both of the above sayings is really identical: 

  • God watches over and cares for sparrows, ravens, and lilies.
  • You are more important than they are.
  • Therefore, he will watch over and care for you even more.
  • So “do not be anxious/afraid.” 

If the human parent, the friend at midnight, and the corrupt judge can give good things... 

What person of you, whose son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or again when he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? So if you, though evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, by how much more will the Father from heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Q 11:11-13) 

Suppose you have a friend who comes to you in the middle of the night and says to you, “Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine on a trip has just shown up and I have nothing to offer him.” And suppose you reply, “Stop bothering me. The door is already locked and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything”—I tell you, even though you won’t get up and give the friend anything out of friendship, yet you will get up and give the other whatever is needed because you’d be ashamed not to. (Luke 11:5-8 SV) 

He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” (Luke 18:2-5) 

These sayings, I believe, are, like the previous two sayings, an example of what’s called a qal wehomer argument, which argues from lesser to greater. The reasoning goes like this: 

  • If you can give good gifts to your children, how much more will God give good things to his.
  • If you will give to a neighbor just to avoid shame, how much more will God give to those he genuinely loves.
  • If the callous judge will rule favorably just to avoid being pestered, how much more will God rule favorably for you whom he loves. 

In other words, if ordinary, fallible people routinely give good things, how much more will God, whose love is beyond the limits of human love, give good things to you? 

God is like the father of the prodigal son, like the shepherd with the lost sheep, like the woman with the lost coin 

But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:22-24) 

Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. (Q 15:4-5a, 7) 

Or what woman who has ten coins, if she were to lose one coin, would not light a lamp and sweep the house and hunt until she finds? And on finding she calls the friends and neighbors, saying: Rejoice with me, for I found the coin which I lost. Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels over one repenting sinner. (Q 15:8-10)

What do all three of these characters have in common? 

  • They are caretakers of a group of precious members (sons, sheep, coins).
  • One of these precious members is lost.
  • The caretakers show deep concern about this, to the point where two of them (shepherd, woman) go on an extensive search for the lost member.
  • In the process, two (father, shepherd) seemingly neglect the members who weren’t lost (although, in the case of the father of the prodigal, it’s clear this isn’t really so).
  • When the lost member is found, they rejoice. They are so full of joy, in fact, that two of them (father, woman) invite others to celebrate with them. 

The point is obvious: Even though you are only one of the crowd, and even though you aren’t the most obedient one—even though you’ve lost your way—you absolutely matter to God. And he will not let his duty toward the rest of the crowd get in the way of his single-minded search to find you and bring you back in from the cold.           


As you can see, the material in this post on God’s love and care meshes completely with the material in the last post, on the plight of the self. There, we saw that the problem was human suffering, not human disobedience. Here, we see that God’s whole role is to take care of us, which also means to lift us up from suffering. These two things obviously meet, and we see that meeting in the sayings themselves. One thing we see repeatedly in these teachings is God being there for those who suffer. He promises his kingdom to the poor. He promises a feast for the hungry; laughter for those who mourn. He embraces the prodigal son. He seeks the lost sheep. 

What we have in this second point, then, is the basis of a solution to the first point. The human condition is suffering (first point). But God’s love is devoted to lifting us out of suffering and into happiness (second point). We will see this turn into an actual solution to our suffering over the following posts. 

I have reflected for many years on the pattern in these sayings, and the more I reflect, the more profound and unique it seems to me. In the last few years I have been especially struck by a very specific pattern that runs through a number of the sayings we have just covered. In this pattern, God (or a symbol for God) is faced with two classes, the obedient and the disobedient (or at best less obedient). He may be faced with a larger range of classes, but they still boil down to these two categories. 

  • God is faced with the “good and bad,” the “just and unjust” (Q 27-28, 35c-d)
  • The sower is faced with the good soil, on the one hand, and the road, rocky soil, and thorns—the unreceptive soil—on the other (Thomas 95).
  • The landowner if faced with those who worked all day and those who worked one hour (Matthew 20:1-12).
  • The father is faced with the prodigal son who asked for his inheritance (thus implying his father was dead) and then squandered it all in a Gentile country (on prostitutes!) and his older son who has always served him and “never disobeyed” his commands (Luke 15:11-32).
  • The shepherd is faced with one sheep who has gone astray and ninety-nine sheep that have stayed put like they were supposed to (Q 15:4-5a, 7).
  • The woman is faced with one coin that is lost and nine coins that are not (Q 15:8-10). 

We, of course, know exactly what to expect of God in these circumstances. He should reward the good and punish the bad. We should scatter seed on the good soil and rain down fire and brimstone on the bad. He should amply reward those who served him all day and minimally reward those who worked for just one hour. He should punish the prodigal son, or at least put him on a lengthy probation, while he works to pay back the inheritance he wasted, while he lavishly rewards the older son. He should lift the ninety-nine sheep into heaven and send the stray sheep down to hell. And he should give the nine coins a place of honor, while the lost coin is thrown out “into the darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Q 13:28). 

But, as we know, that is not what God does in these teachings. He either treats the obedient and disobedient the same (the first three) or he expends even more energy on the disobedient (the last three). In the final three sayings, God is shown devoting extra energy to those who are lost. They receive this extra energy because, although they are the least obedient, they are the most in need. God’s care is need-based, not merit-based. 

To appreciate the significance of this pattern, we really have to reference our general experience of living beings. Based on our experience, we can apparently conclude quite safely that all living beings divide the other beings in their sphere into different categories, reserving favorable treatment for some and unfavorable treatment for others. What determines who is placed in the first category and who is placed in the second? It’s all about how those other beings treat the first one, or to put it more broadly, affect the first one, impinge on the first one. I think in practice this gets very complicated and takes many forms. For instance, I may treat you favorably, not because you treat me well now, but because you are exceptionally high-status and I’m hoping you will let some of your precious favor trickle down onto me in the future. But the basic idea, I think, holds: If I see you as affecting me in a positive way, I will treat you positively. If I see you as affecting me in a negative way, I will treat you negatively. Ultimately, it’s as simple as that. 

I said, “living beings” earlier because this principle does not just hold for people. It holds for animals, too. It seems to hold so universally that we automatically assume that it holds for God, too. The only difference in God’s case, we believe, is that when God does it, it’s just. He sorts the categories out fairly, whereas we do it unfairly. And he needs to do that sorting, because he is the apex of the cosmic justice system. If he doesn’t sort people the bad guys into the appropriate bin, all hell will break loose. 

What Jesus asks us to do is consider the possibility that God works completely differently than living creatures as we know them. We picture, for instance, God sorting us into our appropriate category, based on how well we have obeyed him. Because we carry a sense of having done wrong, been unfaithful to him, and disobeyed his will, we (at least unconsciously) picture ourselves as being not entirely in his favor. We probably picture him being at least a little lukewarm toward us, a little less than overflowing with love toward us. Would could be more natural? We haven’t been perfectly good and he is, after all, a living being. Why wouldn’t he be somewhat indifferent, a little standoffish, a tiny bit forgetful of our needs? Try to imagine for a moment that he doesn’t work that way at all. 

Concluding visualization

Close your eyes.

Imagine God’s love and care as being like a television broadcast,

like invisible waves rippling unseen through the air right now,

cast broadly over the land, reaching all homes everywhere, without exception.

The strength of this signal is the same in all places.

No matter where you are, the signal strength is total.

Realize, therefore, that this signal reaches you as well, in total strength.

However, it is not a mindless physical signal. It is love.

And as love, it loves you very personally and individually.

And it loves you totally.

This love is unaffected by anything about you.

It is unaffected by the flaws in your personality. It loves you just the same.

It is unaffected by the mistakes you’ve made in the past. These don’t hold a candle to the worth it sees in you.

It is unaffected by hurtful things you’ve done. It comforts you from the pain of them.

It is unaffected by your lack of spiritual dedication. It knows that deep-down you want God, just as he wants you.

It is unaffected by how responsible you have or have not been today. It overlooks such tiny things.

It is unaffected by how well you are doing with this exercise. That’s too trivial to even mention.

All of the things you regret about yourself are completely disregarded by this broadcast of total, unconditional love.

All that remains is for you to tune your set to this signal.

In this case, you are the TV set. You are built to receive this signal.

Your heart has just been tuned to the wrong channels.

But you can tune your heart to the channel of God’s love and care.

So imagine doing that. Picture yourself reaching in and turning the knob of your heart to God’s channel.

You might imagine turning it so that the dial points straight up.

As a result, the sunrise of his love blazes on the screen of your mind,

and the heavenly music of that sunrise fills you completely.

And when you forget, and out of habit change the channel,

realize you can just reach in and change it back again.

The more you do this, the more it will stay on God’s channel,

until there is never a moment when you are not laying back in the everlasting arms,

resting in his love and bathed in his care.

Read more…

Week 13: The Plight of the Self

For the next seven weeks I am going to attempt to lay out Jesus’ teachings as I understand them in a step-by-step fashion. To do this, I will be drawing upon the little e-book of mine that Mustard Seed Venture has recently published (which we soon hope to bring out in hard copy), Entering the Kingdom: What the Historical Jesus Teaches Us about the Kingdom of God. Each week I will present a condensed version of one of its seven chapters, in which much of what I say will be lifted from the chapter and some will be new material. The condensed versions won’t be quite as effective as the full presentations, so if you do have the e-book, I encourage you to read the corresponding full chapter each week. My hope is that these seven weeks will allow us to engage with these teachings on both an intellectual level and a personal level, which, I believe, is exactly what Jesus wanted us to do with them in the first place.

 1. The Plight of the Self

 1. The world assaults us. Everyday life is characterized by conflict between ourselves and the world, so that our lives are filled with anxiety, fear, guilt, lack, humiliation, and sickness.

In this post I will explore the problem as Jesus saw it, the problem he was trying to solve. If we look at his teachings, I think we see examples of this problem all over. Virtually everything he said contained snapshots of the problem. As a result, if we put it all together, I don’t think the problem as he saw it will remain particularly mysterious. I’ll go through it in various categories.

The world assaults us

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30) 

We struggle to survive

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you are to eat, nor about your body, with what you are to clothe yourself. (Q 12:22)

You poor…you who hunger… (Q 6:20-21)

We are held captive to money

The issue of money crops up in a number of sayings. These sayings tend to picture us as captives of money. One way they do this is by talking about being enslaved to “Mammon” the god of money:

No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and Mammon. (Q 16:13)

Another way in which we see this is the focus on debt. Jesus more than once speaks of debt, as in the Lord’s Prayer where he mentions “our debts” and “those in debt to us” (Q 11:4). He also mentions “the one who borrows” (Q 6:30). If you think about it, when you are in debt, you are held captive by money.

We lose the things we strived to gain

Do not treasure for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and gnawing deface and where robbers dig through and rob. (Q 12:33)

Loss is a frequent topic for Jesus. He speaks of the person with a hundred sheep who loses one (Q 15:4), the woman with ten coins who loses one (Q 15:8) and “you who mourn” (Q 6:21)—mourning, of course, being a response to loss.

We try struggle to climb up the social ladder

You love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. (Q 11:43)

Those in power kick us down the ladder

The sayings about “the one who slaps you on the cheek…the person wanting to take you to court and get your shirt…the one who conscripts you for one mile” (Q 6:29, Matt 5:41), are also about power relations. The slap on the cheek is often viewed by scholars as the humiliating slap meant to keep a subordinate in line. The guy taking you to court is most likely a creditor suing you for unpaid debt, trying to collect the shirt you had offered as collateral. And the one who conscripts you is a Roman soldier, who had the right to compel Jewish peasants to carry his heavy pack.

We feel a sense of small and precarious worth

Jesus refers to our sense of lacking worth, in two important passages, and implies that it is why we approach life with so much anxiety and timidity:

Yet your heavenly Father feeds them [the birds]. You’re worth more than they, aren’t you? (Matt 6:26 SV)

Don’t be so timid: You’re worth more than a flock of sparrows. (Luke 12:7 SV)

Social obligations make demands on us

Jesus’ characters tend to be slaves to social conventions. There is the one who says, for instance, that before he can hit the road with Jesus, he must first “go and bury my father” (Q 9:59). If being on the road with Jesus represents freedom, then this man is imprisoned by social obligations.

We are saddled with guilt over our self-serving actions

Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” (Luke 15:21)

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)

We face health problems and ultimately death

In the first three chapters of Mark alone, Jesus heals a leper (Mark 1:40-45), a paralytic (Mark 2:1-12), a man with a crippled hand (Mark 3:1-6), along with “people afflicted with various diseases” (Mark 1:34).

Even the winners lose

We have seen that Jesus’ teachings are filled with those who lose in the game of life—the poor, the hungry, the powerless—yet the winners of this game show up as well, and oddly enough, they lose too. This seems to take two main forms.

First, they lose the worldly treasures they have so carefully sought and collected. The man who plans to build larger barns to store his grain and goods, so that he can “relax, eat, drink, be merry,” dies the very night he conceives the project (Luke 12:16-20). The man who tries to enhance his status by throwing a big feast and inviting high-status guests is snubbed by everyone he invites (Luke 14:16-23; also in Q). The one who stores his earthly treasures in a secure treasure house is cleaned out by “robbers [who] dig through and rob” (Q 12:33).

Second, the “winners” end up losing because they lose out on what is truly valuable: the kingdom. “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” (Mark 10:25). They have chosen worthless junk over the greatest treasure of all.

What is the big picture?

I don’t think it is very hard to weave all these categories together. The one idea that brings them all together is that our small, largely powerless self is in a life-and-death struggle with an uncaring, even hostile world, a world that is, of course, much larger than we are. This world assaults us, makes demands on us, and kicks us down the social ladder. We struggle to survive and climb up that ladder. But what we acquire soon slips from our grasp, and even those who make it to the top seem as miserable as the rest of us. If we lack money, it holds us captive in the form of debt. If we have it, it still holds us captive as the god to which we are enslaved. And we are hardly innocent in this process. We fight for our advantage, and receive a crushing burden of guilt for our misdeeds. It is not hard to see why we spend our lives anxious and afraid, crippled by a small and fragile sense of worth.

I’ll boil all this down in the form of the first of my seven points:

1. The world assaults us. Everyday life is characterized by conflict between ourselves and the world, so that our lives are filled with anxiety, fear, guilt, lack, humiliation, and sickness.

As I mentioned last week, this is such a different vision than the traditional obedience model. There, the problem is usually framed as extreme disobedience. The New Testament is peppered with lists of various forms of extreme disobedience. For instance, “For you have spent enough time already living the way the pagans want you to live—in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, wild parties and forbidden idol-worship” (I Peter 4:3 CJB).

Yet Jesus’ teachings in Q1 are noticeably free of such lists. Clearly, he is seeing a different problem. If we could boil down the problem as framed by Jesus to a single phrase, I think it could be this: the suffering inherent in ordinary life. It’s not our disobedience, it’s our suffering—that’s the problem. And it’s not about exceptional disobedience, it’s about everyday suffering.

And this everyday suffering is shared by winners and losers alike. Conventional life is a game in which nobody wins. We’re all anxious. We’re all struggling. We all get sick. And we all die.

There seems to be no way out, only gradations of pain along a spectrum. Isn’t that all we are shooting for—the lighter bands of suffering on that spectrum? Jesus, however, is telling us that there is a way to get off the spectrum entirely. If that is really true, it would, of course, be the most wonderful news we could ever receive.

For discussion this week, let me ask: Do you feel that Jesus is speaking to your condition? Do you think that he could possibly be offering a genuine way out of the human condition? If you were convinced that there really was a way out of suffering, how much would you be willing to give to this way? If you feel you are already on that way, do you feel that you are giving it enough?

Read more…

This week we will begin a more direct exploration of Jesus’ teachings, based on the sayings of Q1 and consonant sayings throughout the gospels. In this week I want to lay out a broad contrast between two models, one that we expect from any religious figure and one that, in my view, Jesus actually taught. I will sketch these models briefly and won’t have the space here to support everything I say, but in the coming weeks I will be elaborating especially on the second model, the one I believe Jesus taught, and will provide, I believe, strong support for it. 

The standard model in traditional religion as most of us know it is what I call the obedience model. This model is so ubiquitous that, in the context of conventional religion, we simply expect to encounter some variation on it. It is so familiar that a description is hardly necessary, and so a brief reminder will do. 

The basic idea is this: God is Lord and King, and we all know there is a pact between any king and his subjects: they give him their undying loyalty and he then blesses them with his largesse. And so it is with the King of the universe. As his subjects, we should be pouring our praise and worship out to him. We should give him our undying faith and allegiance. And we should above all obey his dictates, follow his commandments. Giving God his due is our job in life. And if we do that, God will greatly bless us, both in this life and in the life to come. But if we don’t, of course, we will face his consuming wrath, in the form of earthly afflictions and, more importantly, in the form of being sentenced to endure the unspeakable tortures of hell for literally an eternity.

It’s easy to spot this model. You know it’s there whenever you see a major focus on acknowledging how wonderful God is. This focus includes literally singing his praises, as well as buttering him up with flowery titles. There is also an overriding emphasis on our obligations to God and the importance of fulfilling them. And there is a repeated condemnation of extreme disobedience, along with promises of the punishment it will reap. Note these two passages from the New Testament: 

The results of giving in to self-serving desires are obvious: sexual immorality, moral corruption, flagrant indecency, idol worship, sorcery, bitter hostility, violent conflict, jealousy, fits of anger, selfish ambition, divisiveness, factionalism, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and other such vices. (Galatians 5:19-21 SV) 

[Jesus said] But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8) 

In light of just how familiar, widespread, and ancient the obedience model is, I find it fascinating that Jesus, in light of Q1, seems to have stepped out of it. For example, even though Jesus’ main teaching is the kingdom of God, it is almost impossible to find any reference in his teachings to God as king. Doesn’t that seem odd? Jesus doesn’t seem to have really conceptualized God according to the analogy of a human king. Further, in terms of human life, his focus is not extreme disobedience to God. We find no lists in Q1 of the fornicators and sorcerers. Rather, his focus is everyday life and the suffering entailed in everyday life. A man on a journey gets robbed and beaten. Someone slaps you on the cheek. A man throws a party and no one comes. As Marcus Borg pointed out, Jesus’ focus is not on the “hot sins,” but on normal life and its attendant anxiety. 

Jesus, in fact, seems to have adopted an entirely different model, which I will call the caregiving model. Here, the focus is not on us fulfilling our obligations to God, but rather on God providing care of us and us extending that care to others. I’ll break this model down into its component parts. 

To begin with, rather than God being imaged as a king, he is pictured as a caregiver. We see this in the metaphors used for him. The main one, of course, is father, but there is also doctor (“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick—Mark 2:17) and shepherd (e.g., the parable of the good shepherd in Q 15:4-7). Think about these caregiver roles. Inherent in each of them is the concept of unconditional care. Even though this ideal may not be realized in practice, the concept is a fundamental part of the role. Does a doctor say, “You’re a drunk, so I won’t treat your cancer”? Does the shepherd say, “That sheep is too noisy; I’m not going to rescue him”? Does a decent father say, “Your sister got better grades than you, so unlike you, she gets to eat this week”? 

Obviously not. The caregiver’s role is simply to take care of his or her charges. It is not about deservedness; that is not part of the equation. It is simply about need. If a charge is in need, the caregiver is there to meet that need. And that is exactly what God is shown doing in the teachings of Jesus: He meets our need, regardless of our obedience-level. Jesus dines with sinners because he is a physician caring for his patients. The shepherd gives his attention to the lost sheep rather than the obedient ones because that is what shepherds do. 

This also explains what I mentioned above, that Jesus’ focus is not on our disobedience, but on our suffering. The relevant fact is not that we have defied God and so deserve what we get, but that we are simply in need. We are not there to pour praise and adulation onto God; he is there to attend to our welfare. 

In line with God’s role as caregiver, Jesus constantly shows him providing for our needs. God provides us with food and clothing (Q 12:22-31). He gives us bread (Q 11:3). He takes care of us just as he does the ravens, the lilies, the sparrows. All of this seems to be rolled into Jesus’ concept of the kingdom, in which living under God’s kingship (a kingship that, as I said, doesn’t seem to be explicitly referred to) means living under his unconditional care. Many sayings portray the kingdom as something that we can enter at will, implying that it is always available to us. And being in this kingdom is such a happy experience that finding it is like happening upon treasure in a field (Matthew 13:44) or a “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:46)—something of such supreme value that we would naturally sell all we have to buy it. Whereas normal life is often brutal and impoverished, life in the kingdom is like being at a joyous wedding feast. 

Finally, Jesus calls us to extend this same unconditional care to others. Rather than only loving “those loving you” (Q 6:32) we should love everyone, even those who assault us. Rather than lending to those who will pay us back, we should simply give, and “not ask back what is yours” (Q 6:30). We need to look on others not as a king looks on his subjects, but as a father looks on his children, as a doctor looks on his patients, as a shepherd looks on his sheep. 

As I said at the start, this is just a brief sketch of these two models. I’ll say more, especially about the caregiving model, in the weeks to come. My main goal here is to just quickly lay out both models and show their contrast. My own belief is that much of the story of Jesus lies in the tension between these two models. Onto a scene dominated entirely by the obedience model, Jesus brought the caregiving model, and people immediately sensed the difference. Some loved the difference and some hated it. It seems to me that most, if not all, of the conflict that runs through the gospels can be explained by the clash between these two models. Jesus’ whole society was based on the obedience model. Why, then, wouldn’t its power structures move to defend themselves from the revolution implied in this new model? Why wouldn’t they criticize him, plot against him, and move to stamp him out? 

For discussion this week, I’d like to throw out the question: How do you think of God, as King or as caregiver, or as something else? I don’t just mean how you think of God on a more formal intellectual level, but how you think of God on an emotional level. What is your unconscious image of God, the one that’s there before you remind yourself of your formal beliefs?

Read more…

In this week I am going to wrap up my arguments for Q1, the wisdom layer of the Sayings Gospel Q, representing the authentic Jesus and Q2, the apocalyptic layer, being added by later followers. 

In week 9, I tried to show just how different these two layers are, not just in content but in style, and also how leading Q scholar John Kloppenborg has argued, based on internal literary evidence, that Q2 was added in a later redaction. In week 10 I argued that Q1 and Q2 are theologically incompatible, that the God of Q1 seems to be intended as a rejection of the very kind of traditional God found in Q2. I also argued that Jesus’ hearers understood this, that this evoked complaints from some of them that in essence channeled the Q2 God, and that Jesus responded quite directly to those complaints by defending his Q1 position. This meant that Jesus was quite aware of the conflict between the two models and promoted one as a rejection of the other. He could not have maintained both. This week I will give some additional arguments in support of Q1 as coming from Jesus and Q2 coming from later followers. 

1. Original vs. derivative

Q2 is not just an expression of the traditional view that God’s judgment on a sinful world is approaching. It is an example of a fairly specific mindset, which is called deuteronomistic theology—named after the biblical book of Deuteronomy in which Moses warns the children of Israel of the curses that will befall them if they stray from God’s covenant. Q scholar Arland Jacobsen summarizes the deuteronomistic perspective: “Israel’s history is depicted as a history of disobedience. God’s forbearance was shown in sending prophets to warn the people, but they rejected and even killed them. Therefore God’s wrath was—or will be—experienced” (The First Gospel: An Introduction to Q, p. 72). 

As you can see, the prophets figure prominently in this view. Jacobsen says, “Certain distortions of history are conventional [in deuteronomistic theology]: the prophets appear almost exclusively in the role of preachers of repentance; far more prophets are said to be killed than can be accounted for in Jewish literature; there is a tendency to expand the list of prophets” (The First Gospel, pp. 72-73). As Jacobsen points out, this view is all over Q: 

For this is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Q 6:23) 

Woe to you, for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. (Q 11:47) 

Therefore also .. Wisdom said: I will send them prophets and sages, and some of them they will kill and persecute, so that a settling of accounts for the blood of all the prophets poured out from the founding of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, murdered between the sacrificial altar and the House. (Q 11:49) 

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! (Q 13:34) 

These quotes are pure deuteronomistic history. They not only focus on the prophets, they even include the specific “distortions of history” noted by Jacobsen, including the “tendency to expand the list of prophets.” Since when was Abel—the son of Adam in Genesis—a prophet

Deuteronomistic theology was in the air at the time of Jesus. It had influenced the writing of several books of the Old Testament and thus was part of his social world. Q2 appears to simply lift its themes straight out of a prevalent current in the culture. It puts a slight twist on classic deuteronomistic history by apparently adding John the Baptist and Jesus to the list of prophets, but then, as Jacobsen said, the tendency to expand the list of prophets was already there. 

To summarize: Q2 is plainly derivative. 

We can’t say the same thing about the teaching in Q1. Different commentators have focused on the uniqueness of the command to love one’s enemies. In “‘Love Your Enemies’: The Adamic Wisdom of Q 6:27–28, 35c–d,” Simon J. Joseph first comments on attitudes of the Torah towards enemies: 

The Torah “sanctions warfare” (Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, pp. 27–28). The Torah expects Israel to “struggle for God’s purpose.” It is a “religious duty to resist evil, to struggle for good, to love God, and to fight against those who make themselves into enemies of God. The Torah knows nothing of not resisting evil.” 

He then adds this significant remark: “Apart from the Jesus tradition, love of enemies is virtually unknown in Early Judaism.” 

We also find the following comment in The Lost Gospel Q, by Marcus Borg, Mark Powelson, and Ray Riegert: 

The idea of loving your enemies rather than retaliating against them was as radical in Jesus’ time as it is today. As one ancient Greek thinker put it, “I consider it established that one should do harm to one’s enemies and be of service to one’s friends.” (p. 47) 

Q1 was highly original, containing wisdom that had no known parallels. Q2 was run-of-the-mill. It was a voice that had been shouting from every street corner for centuries. 

2. World-changing vs. convention-reinforcing

In week 7 I wrote about what I called the “immortal, world-changing wisdom” of Q. This, we now know, was about Q1. Because Q1 is so original, because it offers such a radically new perspective, it has the power to change hearts and change society. And it has demonstrated this power, through the stream of those who took the wisdom of Q as their marching orders, stretching from Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. 

In contrast, the general Q2 perspective is part of conventional society. Religion has built into our cultural DNA the idea that God will reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Even the idea that God’s judgment will soon descend on this wicked world is not far from mainstream thinking. The conservative Christian movements that focus on the coming End Times may see themselves as some kind of countercultural force of renewal, but the rest of us see them as simply adding to the pandemic of judgment and hate that already plagues our world. 

3. It makes perfect sense that Q2 seeped into an originally Q1 tradition

In my mind, it is the most natural thing in the world to think that Q2 thinking would leak into an originally Q1 Jesus tradition. 

First, Jesus’ teachings were unconventional. They were something new. They offered an alternative vision of reality, in which God loved the good and bad equally and in which we should love our own friends and enemies equally. It is hard to imagine a picture of reality that more sharply differs from the program we follow every day. 

In my experience, when you try to convey to people a fundamentally new understanding of reality, two things happen. First, they have an incredibly difficult time understanding it. They become confused and foggy-minded, even while they feel inspired. Second, they naturally accommodate this new vision to what they are used to. They blend this radical new voice with the more conventional voices they hear around them all the time, failing to notice just how different the voices are. 

I see this every day with A Course in Miracles, which is known for its alternative vision of reality and its penchant for turning upside-down our usual ways of seeing things. Several years ago I wrote a piece called “Miracles Boomeritis,” about how a pervasive cultural mindset that philosopher Ken Wilber calls “boomeritis” (the central dictum of which is “Nobody tells me what to do!”) has thoroughly infiltrated understandings of A Course in Miracles. Boomeritis has profoundly shaped the views of Course students and teachers, and yet it is fundamentally alien to the Course itself. 

It is human nature, therefore, to fail to grasp an alternative vision of reality and to accommodate it to more conventional thinking. Yet there is an additional reason for the early Q community to have watered down Q1 with deuteronomistic theology. There are all kinds of hints in Q that its community’s mission was experiencing a great deal of failure. This community had already seen John the Baptist killed and then seen Jesus killed. Now they themselves were being rejected by town after town. If you were them, wouldn’t you be tempted to say, “This is how the wicked always treat God’s prophets”? Wouldn’t you want to call down God’s judgment on those evil towns? Wouldn’t you want Jesus himself to have said, “Woe to you, Chorazin…Bethsaida…Capernaum” (Q 10:13, 15)? 

In short, it is difficult to see how Q1 would have been maintained in purity, it is difficult to see how more conventional thinking would not have leaked in, and it is difficult to see how the wrathful God of Q2 in particular would not have found its way into the tradition. I see no problem at all in claiming that the wisdom of Q1 comes from Jesus and that the apocalypticism of Q2, even though found in our earliest source, must be rejected as antithetical to his message. 

This concludes my argument for embracing only Q1 as coming from Jesus. I have perhaps belabored this, but it is the foundation on which we will now proceed. On this foundation I will in the coming weeks attempt to lay out an understanding of Jesus’ teachings, his actions, his miracles, his mission, his death, and his resurrection. 

To spark discussion, I’ll ask basically the same question that I asked at the end of the last post: Do these reasons for rejecting Q2 as coming from Jesus work for you? More specifically, can you reasonably picture Q2 leaking in as a foreign influence from outside Jesus’ original teachings?

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Last week I talked about just how different the two layers of Q are (Q1 being wisdom and Q2 being apocalyptic), not just in their outlook, but in the kind of sayings they contain and in the kind of authority they appeal to. 

This week and the next I am going to put forward my arguments for believing that Q2 did not come from Jesus, that only Q1 did. Now when you hear “put forward arguments” there is probably a light that starts flashing in your brain that says “warning: boredom approaching.” However, I would like to encourage you to try to turn that light off. The topic of the historical Jesus is such a quagmire of bias and uncertainty. And yet somehow in that quagmire, Q2, the apocalyptic Jesus, has managed to find secure enough footing to more or less dominate the boggy landscape for over a century. The beauty of a sound argument against Q2—if you decide I have mounted one—is that we can set the apocalyptic Jesus aside without the lingering fear that we are just projecting our own twenty-first-century wishes onto actual history. More importantly, the beauty of a sound argument is that it can actually put us in touch with Jesus. 

I realize I am promising a lot, and I realize you are probably already convinced that we should chuck the apocalyptic Jesus, but please follow carefully what I will share in this post and the next, and see if you don’t feel that we are on solid ground in rejecting the Q2 Jesus and settling firmly on the teacher of wisdom we find in Q1. 

We saw last week that according to John Kloppenborg, the teaching in Q1 rests on a certain view of God: “This legitimation is accomplished by reference to a God who is generous to enemies and friends alike, who is superabundantly provident” (Excavating Q, p. 144). Let us look more carefully at this God, for he is rather remarkable as gods go. Again and again he is shown facing two different kinds of people—the good and the bad, the obedient and the disobedient. Now we all know how God is supposed to respond to these two different categories: He rewards the obedient and punishes the disobedient. Yet, rather strangely, that is precisely what the God of Jesus does not do. As Kloppenborg says, “He is generous to enemies and friends alike.” 

In a Q1 passage we have already seen, Jesus tells us that God “raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust” (Q 6:35). In this same passage, we are told to love our enemies because that is what God does—he loves his enemies. In a Q1 parable, Jesus portrays God as a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in the mountains to go hunt for the one sheep that has strayed (Q 15:4-7). In another Q1 parable, he portrays God as a woman who has lost one of her ten coins and then gives all her attention to the one coin that has, in a sense, gone astray—lighting a lamp, sweeping the house, and then rejoicing when she finds it (Q 15:8-10). 

We see this same pattern in passages that are not in the Sayings Gospel Q but contain the same manner of wisdom. For instance, in the parable of the sower, Jesus depicts God as a farmer who “broadcasts” his life-giving seed over a general area, casting seed on receptive ground and unreceptive ground alike (Mark 4:3-8). In the famous parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus paints God as a father faced with two very different sons, an obedient one and an extravagantly disobedient one, yet this father refuses to slight either one. They are both embraced as part of him. Finally, in the parable of the vineyard laborers (Matthew 20:1-15), God is a landowner who hires laborers at various times throughout the day. The main contrast, though, is between those who started work at the crack of dawn and those who worked one hour starting at five o’clock. Violating all expectations, the landowner pays both groups the same. 

Again and again, then, Jesus shows God in a traditional scenario, faced with the obedient and the disobedient. Yet despite our ingrained expectations that God will reward the former and punish the latter, he does nothing of the sort. He includes both of them in his love, he showers equal blessing on both, and in some cases he devotes greater attention to the disobedient (lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son), simply because they are in greater need. 

As Kloppenborg said, this God is the foundation for Jesus’ entire teaching in Q1. The rest of the teaching then flows from this: We are supposed to respond to this God of unconditional love by entering into his kingdom where we live under his care, by trusting and relying on his generosity, and by showing the same unconditional love and care to our fellow humans, good and bad alike. All of these responses rest on the premise of this rather unconventional God. 

Why is this so important? Because this God is fundamentally incompatible with the God of Q2. In Q2, like Q1, everything flows from a certain view of God, but this God is not the unconventional God we have just seen. Rather, he is just another variation on the same old angry, judgmental God we all know from religious tradition. The Q2 God is faced with the same two categories as the Q1 God, but his response is worlds apart: 

And many shall come from Sunrise and Sunset and recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God, but you will be thrown out into the outer darkness where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. (Q 13:27-28) 

Here, the obedient will “recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God,” but the disobedient “will be thrown out into the outer darkness.” Let’s look at another example: 

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the wonders performed in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon [pagan cities], they would have repented long ago, in sackcloth and ashes. Yet for Tyre and Sidon it shall be more bearable at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, up to heaven will you be exalted? Into Hades shall you come down! (Q 10:13-15) 

So we have two pagan cities that would have responded favorably to Jesus’ miracles, and we have three Galilean towns that rejected him. Faced with this situation, the God of Q2 does the thing we all expect him to do: He goes easy on the pagan cities and brings down to Hades the Galilean towns. He does surprise us a little in that he is willing to cast out his own (disobedient) Israelites in favor of (obedient) pagans, but this is really a minor twist. The basic paradigm remains fully intact. 

I’m sure you can see the significance of all this: the teachings in Q1 and Q2 rest on two entirely incompatible Gods. These Gods are not just different; they are contradictory. The Q1 God refuses to do the very thing we all expect from the more traditional Q2 God—he refuses to favor the obedient and punish the disobedient. How can Jesus have possibly taught both of these Gods? Since scholars generally regard Q1 as tracing back to Jesus, and since Q2 is incompatible with Q1, we seem to have no choice but to reject Q2. 

Perhaps this post should end here, but I feel I should deal with a point raised by respected scholar Dale Allison. His point is that human beings contradict themselves all the time. Why should we think that Jesus was any different? 

However inconvenient this point is, it is a fair point and deserves an answer. Allison is right—we are all bundles of contradiction. Why should we assume that Jesus was consistent when none of us are? Why could he not announce the God of Q1 one day and then turn around and teach the God of Q2 the next day? 

The simple answer is that he not only argues for the God of Q1, he also argues quite obviously against the God of Q2. 

Let’s look at this in stages. First, all of Jesus’ Q1 teaching about God is implicitly against the Q2 version of God. The God of Q2 is basically the traditional God. He’s the God that everyone knows. OK, maybe he’s a bit angrier at his own people and a bit more willing to let compliant pagans inside the tent, but he’s basically the God we all know (and fear). And we all know what this God does when faced with the good and the bad. We know what he does to the former and what he does to the latter. 

So when Jesus speaks of his God being faced with those same two categories and when he shows God loving and blessing both equally, and even giving special attention to the bad, he doesn’t have to add “And note that I am rejecting the traditional God.” We already know that’s what he is doing. 

Moreover, there is good evidence that his original hearers knew it too. Their voices of protest show up in Jesus’ teachings. In the parable of the prodigal son, the obedient son complains about the lavish treatment given his disobedient brother: 

“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours [he won’t even call him his brother] came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30) 

We hear the exact same voice in the protest of the laborers who were hired first thing in the morning: 

Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more [than those who started at five]; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” (Matthew 20:10-12). 

So Jesus places these complaints within his parables, and then he has the God-figure in the parable respond to the complaints and defend his actions, and that defense then becomes the conclusion of the parable. This suggests that he is using the parable to defend his teaching against the criticisms being voiced against it. He seems to be defending his Q1 God against the Q2-like voices raised against it. 

Further, there are stories in the gospels where this conflict comes out in the open. Here is one: 

And as he sat at dinner in Levi's house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:15-17) 

In this story, Jesus is doing exactly as the Q1 God does: he is being inclusive of the disobedient. The religious authorities complain about this, just as the prodigal son’s older brother did, just as those who worked all day in the vineyard did. You can almost hear them say “Why would a man of God dine with sinners and tax collectors? Surely he should behave as God would.” They are channeling the voice of the Q2 God. Jesus’ response is classic Q1, for he implies that God is like a doctor and, as everyone knows, doctors give their attention to the sick, not the well—just as the shepherd, the women with ten coins, and the father of the prodigal son gave their attention to the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. So here we have the same two categories of obedient and disobedient and the same surprising emphasis on extending to the disobedient not punishment, but nonjudgmental care. 

This, then, is basically the same scenario that we saw with the parables, only here it is played out in an actual scene. In both cases, Jesus’ Q1 teaching or behavior evokes criticism that comes from a Q2-like perspective, in response to which Jesus defends his Q1 stance. 

I won’t go into detail here (this post is already overlong), but Jesus gets into a lot of conflict in the gospels, and many of the conflict stories could plausibly be argued as coming down to the same basic clash, a clash between two different Gods and the two different paradigms that flow from them. 

In conclusion, my argument is simple: The teachings in Q1 and Q2 are rooted in two very different visions of God. And these two Gods are mutually exclusive in principle. Indeed, the God of Q1 is so directly and obviously a contradiction of the traditional God of Q2 that all of Jesus’ teaching about the Q1 God is an implicit rejection of the Q2 God. Further, this point was not lost on his hearers. Coming from their Q2-like framework, they complained about Jesus’ generous Q1 stance toward the disobedient. Their complaints appear to show up both in parables and in conflict stories in the gospels, where in each case Jesus defends his inclusive teaching and behavior. He thus defends the Q1 God in the face of Q2-like criticisms. 

We have a number of indications, then, that the conflict between the God of Q1 and the God of Q2 was not lost on Jesus and was not lost on his hearers. Both sides were quite aware of the conflict. It is thus very hard to see how Jesus could have blithely taught both sides as if he simply failed to notice the contradiction. These two sides faced each other on a battleground, and on that battleground Jesus stood on just one side. 

Given all this, I think we have every reason for seeing Q2 as a voice that is alien to that of the authentic Jesus, as being just another variation on the same basic voice that criticized his teachings and ministry while he was alive, and that he defended himself against. 

I’ll give further reasons in my next post for rejecting Q2, but for now let me ask you: Do you think this argument works for you or do you see holes in it? And if it does work for you, does it have any discernible effect on you? I’ll go ahead answer that last one, even though it was my question. 

The effect that laying bare the conflict between Q1 and Q2 has for me is that I feel like I have climbed in a time machine that takes me back before the gospels, back to the actual ministry of Jesus. And as I get off the machine and put my feet on the streets of a village in Galilee, what I see is a man who offers his audience a new God, a beautiful God who transcends human egotism. I see many people flocking to him because they feel the liberation contained in his new vision. And I see many others who object because they hold on to the old, all-too-human God, who happens to be the source of their position and power. And I wonder, as this man’s story plays out, if this conflict will grow until it eventually gets him killed.

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Week 9: Layers in Q

In last week’s post I talked about two very different kinds of material in the Sayings Gospel Q, which I called wisdom and apocalyptic. I also said we need to face the question of which of these most accurately reflects the historical Jesus. Was he mainly a wisdom teacher or mainly an apocalyptic prophet? This week we will lay a foundation for answering that question and next week I will provide arguments for what I see as the answer. 

My understanding of Q has been greatly influenced by John Kloppenborg, who is often considered the foremost Q scholar. In The Formation of Q, he fleshed out a theory in which the wisdom and apocalyptic in Q are actually two distinct layers, incorporated into Q at different times. This theory has met with widespread acceptance, and I have the impression it is now the dominant view. I’ll summarize some of his observations and conclusions. 

What I find particularly interesting about these two layers is that it’s not just their content that is different. Their tone, forms of speech, and mode of persuasion are also distinctly different. 

“The radical wisdom of the kingdom of God”

Kloppenborg gives the wisdom layer the title “the radical wisdom of the kingdom of God.” Its overall themes urge a radically different way of life that includes forgiveness, non-retaliation, and indiscriminate generosity, all supported by a certain view of God: “This legitimation is accomplished by reference to a God who is generous to enemies and friends alike, who is superabundantly provident” (Excavating Q, p. 144). 

The wisdom layer’s tone is hortatory (strong urging) and instructional. Its forms of speech emphasize second-person plural imperatives (“expressing a command or plea”) often with a motive clause (why you should carry out the imperative). We see this in the famous saying on love of enemies: “Love your enemies [imperative]…so that you may become sons of your Father [motive clause].” In other words, this layer often says, “Do this, because…” For example, “Ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find.” 

The rhetoric of this layer is what Ronald Piper has called a “rhetoric of persuasion.” Jesus is not authoritatively declaring what’s what. Rather, he is trying to persuade you. He asks rhetorical questions that appeal to ordinary reason (“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”). He makes appeal to observations of nature (“Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap.”) and of ordinary human relations (“What person of you, whose son asks for bread, will give him a stone?”). He is, in other words, appealing to some faculty in you for recognizing the truth, based on logic, reason, observation, and experience. He is appealing to a sense of truth in you, so that you yourself will see the truth in what he is saying. 

If we put all this together, in the wisdom layer, Jesus is trying to reason and motivate his hearers into a new way of life. He is appealing to their innate sense of truth and their innate desire for happiness. He is attempting to persuade them to follow his way. 

“The announcement of judgment”

The apocalyptic layer couldn’t be more different. Kloppenborg calls this layer “the announcement of judgment.” The overall scenario here is this: God sent his prophets in the past to preach repentance, yet Israel rejected and even killed them, thus meriting God’s judgment. This pattern has been repeated in this generation. God sent John and Jesus as envoys of Sophia (divine wisdom), yet they were rejected by this evil generation. Therefore, God will send his judgment, which will be universal, highly visible, sudden, and unheralded. 

The main form of speech in the apocalyptic layer is called a “chria.” A chria is a short, pithy saying which is given a brief introduction or setting. Here, for instance, is a chria about John the Baptist: “He said to the crowds coming to be baptized [introduction/setting]: Snakes’ litter! Who warned you to run from the impending rage [short saying]?” (Q 3:7). As you can see in this example, these sayings tend to consist of prophetic judgment sayings or apocalyptic words by Jesus or John the Baptist. Their tone is polemical or threatening. 

In these sayings, it is clearly implied that Jesus and John are, like prophets, tapping into God’s authority. Look at this saying, for instance, “And many‚ shall come from Sunrise and Sunset and recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God, but you will be thrown out into the outer darkness‚ where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Q 13:27-28). Jesus is declaring that when the kingdom comes, many Gentiles will be feasting with the patriarchs of old, while Israelites will be “thrown out.” How does Jesus know that this future will happen? He apparently has received a word from God. And that is the only basis on which you can believe him. You can’t consult your own reason and experience. How would you know if that will happen? You simply have to trust that Jesus has in fact received a prophetic word. 

So the rhetoric here is characterized by prophetic pronouncement. And the rhetorical strategy is one of praise and blame. Jesus and his followers are praised, while the out-group (usually called “this generation”) is criticized. “The intent seems to be to defend the ethos (character) of Jesus and that of the Jesus group” (Kloppenborg, Excavating Q, p. 129). This stands in contrast to the wisdom layer, where it is simply assumed that Jesus is a reliable and authoritative teacher. There, the focus is not on defending his authority and undermining those who oppose him, but on inviting you to embrace a whole new way of life. 

As you can see, these two layers, the wisdom and apocalyptic, are so different in both content and form that they are almost like two separate worlds. 

Which came first?

But why does Kloppenborg called them different “layers”? He labels the wisdom layer Q1 and calls the apocalyptic layer Q2 (there is a Q3, but it is not as significant and doesn’t concern us here). His claim is that Q1 was the original Q, and that Q2 was inserted later, during what he calls “the main redaction.” 

How did he come to that conclusion? He arrived at this conclusion, he says, not because of some judgment that Q1 (wisdom) reflects Jesus while Q2 (apocalyptic) does not. And not because Q1 and Q2 are theologically incompatible (he does not believe they are). Rather, he stresses that he came to this conclusion on purely literary grounds. 

The key is interpolations. Kloppenborg sees Q1 as consisting of six wisdom speeches. These speeches each have an organization to them. They open with an introductory statement. They have a core consisting of imperatives and instructions, presented not as simple lists but as balanced and developed arguments. And they often conclude with the consequences of not following the teaching. 

However, in Q as we now have it, right in the middle of these speeches there are insertions of apocalyptic material, insertions that interrupt the flow of the wisdom material. Let’s look carefully at an example: 

10 But into whatever town you enter and they do not take you in, on going out from that town, 11 shake off the dust from your feet. 12 I tell you: For Sodom it shall be more bearable on that day than for that town. 

13 Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the wonders performed in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, in sackcloth and ashes. 14 Yet for Tyre and Sidon it shall be more bearable at the judgment than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, up to heaven will you be exalted? Into Hades shall you come down! 

16 Whoever takes you in takes me in, ·and‚ whoever takes me in takes in the one who sent me. (Q 10:10-16)

The material in bold is apocalyptic, while the non-bolded material at the beginning and end is from the Q1 mission speech, which is agreed to be very ancient. Notice two things about the above block. First, if you simply remove the apocalyptic material in bold, going directly from “your feet” to “Whoever takes,” it reads perfectly smoothly, with both sides emphasizing the “take you in” theme. Second, notice how the apocalyptic material is attached to v. 11 on the basis of the theme of a town rejecting Jesus’ envoys. 

Put these two things together, and you can see why the apocalyptic material (vv. 12-15) was inserted at this spot, and you can also see that it very much appears to be an insertion, one that breaks the flow of a pre-existing speech. 

Interpolations such as this one imply that the wisdom material was already there, and the apocalyptic material was “attached” to it later, just as the hat rack must have been there before the hat was hung on it. This is how Kloppenborg established the chronological order of the layers, and that is why he labeled the wisdom layer Q1 and labeled the apocalyptic layer Q2

Kloppenborg himself strongly emphasizes that saying Q1 was there first does not imply it more accurately reflects Jesus. He also stresses that we should not assume that the two layers are incompatible, since wisdom and apocalyptic often existed side by side in the same ancient writings. So why wouldn’t they here? 

However, others have ignored these cautions. The Jesus Seminar, for instance, built much of their voting on the sayings of Jesus on the idea that Q1 reflects the real Jesus while Q2 does not. And I personally think that the fact that wisdom and apocalyptic were often combined is not relevant in this case, for the question here is whether this wisdom can be combined with this apocalyptic. What is important here is not the general categories of wisdom and apocalyptic, but the specific form those categories take here. 

This has been a long post and probably the most technical one so far. But I feel it is important to see just how thoroughly different these two layers really are. Their difference goes way beyond them merely saying different things. Everything about them is different. Next week I will share my reasons for rejecting Kloppenborg’s cautions and deciding that Q2 could not have come from the same teacher as Q1

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts and feelings about these two layers. How do you respond to Q1 when you read the descriptions of it above? How do you respond to Q2? I tend to have visceral reactions to both. And finally, what are your thoughts about how they might fit together or not fit together?

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