Archive for August, 2010

Luke 11:27-12:12

The Revised Common Lectionary skips everything Luke wrote between the ask-seek-find scorpion-for-an-egg hypothetical and the parable of the rich farmer.  Much of what is skipped in Luke is also skipped in Mark and Matthew.  Of course, much of what is skipped is actually repeated nearly verbatim elsewhere in all three synoptic gospels.  Luke repeats himself in 11:33.  For a discussion of the original in 8:16, see To Have and Have Not.

To give the Elves their due, very little of what Luke describes in those intervening verses is particularly edifying.  He has a woman exclaim how privileged his mother must have been to have nursed him as a baby.  Apparently she was quite enamored of Jesus (think: I don’t know how to love him from Jesus Christ Superstar).  Luke’s Jesus piously brushes her off: “Rather, privileged are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”  Then Luke takes off on a tirade about how evil “this generation” is, and tries to make a point about Jonah and Ninevah, and how Jesus is a sign that at judgment time “the citizens of Ninevah will come back to life” and condemn them.  After referring to “the queen of the south,” who apparently listened to Solomon’s wisdom, and will also reappear like the ghost of Christmas future, Luke seems to have written himself into a corner.  At that point, he repeats Jesus’ one-liner about the lamp under the bushel basket.

But then, Luke regains his own light of inspiration, and launches into a full court press against Pharisees and lawyers.  Ignoring this part of Luke’s gospel allows church leaders to pretend that Jesus never lost his temper, or used the kind of language for which your mother used to threaten to wash out your mouth with soap.  Luke’s Jesus says “damn you!” no fewer than six times, three each for Pharisees and “legal experts.”  Needless to say, “By the time [Jesus] left there, the scholars and Pharisees began to resent him bitterly . . .”

After the rant, Luke’s Jesus warns against the “leaven of the Pharisees, which is to say their hypocrisy.”  He seems to be advising his followers to say the same things in public that they would say in private, and to say them without fear of retaliation or even death.  “Don’t be so timid,” Luke’s Jesus admonishes: “You’re worth more than a flock of sparrows.”  The whole sequence ends first with the warning that those who disown Jesus in public “will be disowned in the presence of God’s messengers.”  Luke seems to be confused about the difference between the man Jesus (“son of Adam”) and the holy spirit.  But he ends with the assurance that when faced with persecution, “the holy spirit will teach you at that very moment what you ought to say.”

Instead of ignoring Luke’s series of damnations frothing from the mouth of Jesus, 21st century followers of the Way might want to consider what Luke was trying to do.  Present-day scholars are fairly certain that Luke’s audience was highly likely to have been among the better educated and privileged members of Roman society, probably in Syria, 30 to 50 years after the destruction of Jerusalem.  Pharisees and legal experts (scholars) would have been fair game for a rant against corruption and hypocrisy amid the culture wars between those who were trying to preserve Judaism, and those who wanted to update it, and proclaim that Jesus was the long hoped-for Messiah.  Today’s culture wars are analogous to the culture wars in Luke’s first century community.  Who and what is a Christian, and what is meant when that name is claimed, are in debate.  Fundamentalist and conservative Christians are clamoring for their own brand of Christianity to be enshrined in government policy, in direct contradiction to the first amendment establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.  Hatred of the sojourner, the foreigner, indeed anyone outside the white male normalcy of U.S. civilization, is justified on religious grounds.

In what may be a perfect contemporary illustration of who Jesus was condemning in 11:47-50, self-appointed Christian Pharisee Glenn Beck has organized a Tea Party rally on Washington’s Mall on the same date as Martin Luther King’s 1963 rally for civil rights.  King’s words from that day reflect Luke’s concluding advice:  “But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

If the public face of Christianity today is supposed to be love of neighbor and enemy, then where is all the greed and violence coming from?  Luke’s Jesus has no time for those who “neglect justice and the love of God.”  Jesus himself may well have condemned those who are more interested in prominent seats in the halls of power and being treated with respect in the marketplace.  Luke’s Jesus says, be on your guard against hypocrisy so that you don’t fall into the same traps the religious and political leaders and lawyers do.  Everything will become clear sooner or later, so be sure that whatever you say in the darkness and behind closed doors can be said and done openly.  Take courage.  Speak truth to power.  Above all, don’t worry about how you will defend yourself or what you should say when they bring charges against you.  If you are aligned with God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion, you will know what to do and say.


Luke 11:14-26

These verses constitute Luke’s version of the “Beelzebul controversy.”  Both Matthew and Luke lifted this series of sayings from Q.  Mark’s version includes some Q material, but not what appears in Matthew and Luke (Mark 3:20-35; Matt. 12:25-32).  The Jesus Seminar scholars suggest that “the similarities and differences in these clusters demonstrate that the same stories and sayings could be put together in different ways” (The Five Gospels, p.51).  Apparently in order to settle potential arguments, the Elves eliminate both Matthew’s and Luke’s renditions from the Revised Common Lectionary.  Because of the vagaries of the Western, moon-based,  movable feast called Easter, Mark’s “controversy” can also be preempted by the reading from John’s gospel for Trinity Sunday.  This was the case in Year B, 2009.

Scholars are clear that these series of sayings and stories were put together in their various forms well after Jesus’ death.  However, the Jesus Seminar scholars are fairly certain that the sayings in large part probably go back to the historical Jesus.  If, as scholars propose, Jesus was an itinerant cynic, engaging the local religious leaders in debate and aphorism, he might very well have come up with the following argument: “Every government divided against itself is devastated, and a house divided against a house falls. [So] if Satan is divided against himself – since you claim I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name – how will his domain endure?  If I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name, in whose name do your own people drive them out?  (In that case, they [your people] will be your judges.)  But if by God’s finger I drive out demons, then for you, God’s imperial rule has arrived” (The Five Gospels, p. 329, emphasis and brackets added).

Jesus would seem to have his challengers where he wants them.  Satan’s domain cannot possibly endure if Jesus is dividing it by driving out the demons, and if Jesus is driving out demons by the power of God, then God’s realm has indeed arrived.  The arrival of the kingdom, here and now, and how to participate in it was the whole point of Mark’s Gospel.  Luke confirms that arrival.  But then he goes on to obscure the radical change in paradigm that God’s imperial rule brings with it.
Luke puts Jesus’ illustration about the strong man who is attacked and overwhelmed by an even stronger one in his continuing context of exorcism.  He follows this with a common aphorism, not original with Jesus: “The one who isn’t with me is against me.”  Finally, Luke finishes his series on exorcism with the curious saying about unclean spirits which, upon finding no resting place, come back to the original host along with seven additional ones.  The person who was supposedly exorcized and free of demons is worse off than before.  Scholars have no idea what the context was for this saying, which came from the Q tradition.  Luke’s placement seems to call into question the efficacy of exorcism that is not based on God’s power.  But in Rome, Cesar was God.  So long as there is the possibility that the transformation that is not caused by God’s [Cesar’s] power will not take hold, the Romans can continue to consider Christians to be irrelevant, and no threat to Rome’s imperial rule.

So what does it all mean?  In a 1st century context, where neither physical nor mental illness was understood as they are in the 21st century, exorcisms were a sign of spiritual power.  Jesus’ success as an exorcist would have called into question the authority and legitimacy of religious leadership – both Roman and Jewish.  But pre-modern people were just as capable of understanding metaphor as are post-enlightenment sophisticates.  Earlier in his gospel Luke picks up Mark’s story about the man healed of a demon named “Legion.”  This is not a miracle story about medical cures, demon possession, and the mis-use of livestock.  It is a parable about subverting political and spiritual oppression; it shows how trust in God’s reality transforms life under occupation by the imperial Roman legion into freedom and justice.  In Luke’s context, this is what Jesus’s real “mother and brothers” are supposed to be doing.

So now, when Luke’s Jesus retorts that, “if by God’s finger I drive out demons, then for you God’s imperial rule has arrived,” he is putting local collaborators with Roman injustice on notice. After sparring with his opponents about driving out demons in God’s name, Jesus compares the arrival of the kingdom of God to a robber who overpowers a fully-armed man, who is guarding his possessions in his impregnable courtyard.  This joke successfully sailed over the heads of Jesus’s opponents, and apparently right past Luke as well.  He has Jesus say, “the one who isn’t with me is against me, and the one who doesn’t gather with me scatters.”  But the point is not who is with or against the church of Christ.  The point is that participation in the realm of God can overthrow the strongest of oppressive empires.  The weapons upon which the oppressor relied are taken away, and justice is restored.

Jesus changes the paradigm from imperial, retributive justice (an eye for an eye) to non-violent covenant with God’s kingdom where distributive justice-compassion rules.  In fact, Jesus is saying, those same collaborators might be the most pious in town, but the moment they abandon God’s covenant for Roman retributive justice, seven other spirits more vile than the one that led them astray in the first place will move in and take over, and the collaborator will be worse off than before.

On the eve of the 9th Anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City, the people of the United States are embroiled in a fight over whether a local mosque should be allowed to build a community center two blocks from “ground zero.”  Some believe that allowing this to be done is a betrayal of the surviving families of the 9/11 victims.  They claim to honor the first amendment guarantee of freedom of religion, while demanding that Muslims give up theirs.  It seems reasonable, on the level of not hurting the feelings of the victims.  But the religion called Islam did not bomb the Twin Towers.  In attempting to prohibit a community center that would benefit the entire neighborhood, the spirit of perhaps the most profoundly transforming principle of government in the history of governments has been swept out.  Finding no place to rest elsewhere in the unwelcoming 21st Century zeitgeist, that spirit will likely return, bringing with it multiple spirits of fear, hatred, intolerance, retribution, and – ultimately – oppression of all religion.

 The kingdom comes like a thief in the night, says Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:2).  As for you, be as sly as snakes and as simple as doves, says Jesus (Matthew 10:16).   Unless and until we get Jesus’ subversive joke, the house will be effectively divided.  The terrorists will have won.

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