Archives For Jewish thought

There are times where Jesus says something nice and heartwarming like, “For God so loved the world…” etc. etc.*

Then there are times when Jesus says something like this:

This is why I speak to them in parables . . . ‘Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’

This little aside comes near the start of a mini-marathon of parables in Matthew 13. After the first parable (the sower and the seeds), Jesus’ disciples ask about his sudden shift into storyteller mode. “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” they wonder.

Jesus’ answer is unsettling to say the least. Basically, it’s so people won’t understand what he’s talking about. To drive the point home, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6, where the prophet is sent to further harden the already callous hearts of God’s rebellious people:

Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes.

(Jesus’ choice for “verse of the day” is even more alarming when you read what comes next in Isaiah.)

For some, his statement about parables is yet further proof of a limited atonement, the idea that God chose a select group of people and determined that only they would understand the teachings of Jesus.

At the very least, it begs the question: why would Jesus deliberately keep people from understanding his message? Why would God-in-the-flesh not want to be found?

Calvinists find the answer in their theological presuppositions about God and salvation: Jesus conspires to confuse because he only wants to save those who were chosen beforehand.

Fortunately, there’s a better answer to be found by looking at the historical and cultural backdrop of Matthew 13.

For starters, Matthew 13 is part of a much bigger section of scripture. Altogether, Matthew is arranged into five main sections; this one occurs smack in the middle. It starts with chapter 11 and continues through chapter 13.

In this section, Jesus encounters opposition from all sides:

Jesus’ deliberate obfuscation has to be read in light of all this. It’s a reaction to the opposition he encountered, not the cause of it.

It also helps to remember that everything Jesus said was spoken against the backdrop of Roman occupation. There was an intense debate raging among the Jews over what to do about their unfortunate situation. Some said cooperate with Rome; others advocated violent resistance. Most devout Jews expected the Messiah would sort out the Romans and restore power to Israel when he came. (Even after the resurrection, the disciples still seemed to think this would be the case.)

Jesus came as messiah, but he radically redefined the messiah’s role. He walked the line between Rome’s demand for total acquiescence and the call by some for armed resistance. He knew full well where the people’s thirst for violent revolt would get them. (He didn’t have to google A.D. 70 to figure that one out.)

In Jesus and the Land, Wheaton professor Gary Burge writes:

In the volatile climate of first-century politics — among a people living under the harsh realities of Roman military occupation — we should not expect a public teacher like Jesus to speak explicitly. . . . To exhibit resistance to Rome is to run up against a skilled army which is watching for signs of subversion. To show cooperation with Rome is to run up against fellow Jews for whom such sympathies are intolerable. In every explosive political context (both today and in antiquity), people with opinions must remain opaque to the many listeners standing in the shadows who are choosing sides.

In short, Jesus didn’t obscure his message simply because he was playing favorites. He didn’t hide the truth from certain people because God had predestined them to perish in their ignorance. There were other factors at work.

A little context can be a wonderful thing.

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*Fun fact: In reality, Jesus might not have even said “For God so loved the world….” More likely, this was John’s commentary on the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. That’s what happens when Greek manuscripts don’t have any punctuation. Scholars get to play “guess where the quotation marks go.” But still.

In the Old Testament, God kicked off his redemptive plan by forming a covenant nation called Israel. The nation as a whole was a chosen instrument, predestined by God.

But each person had a choice to make. If you were born into the covenant, there were dozens of ways you could opt out — that is, be “cut off.” If you were born outside the chosen nation, there was nothing but your own pride to keep you from joining it.

Which leads to another important point about predestination in the Old Testament: it’s always for the benefit of others — i.e. the not-predestined. This idea is woven into the very first promise God made to Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Notice the promised blessing is unlimited in scope. Anyone who blesses God’s people (and by extension, God himself) will be blessed by God in return. And notice that God’s action comes in response to human action.

Yes, God is orchestrating redemptive history. Yes, he alone initiates salvation. But he does so in a way that leaves room for us to play a meaningful part.

The promise ends with “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This is the whole reason for God’s covenant with Abraham. God is not raising up a chosen nation for its own sake, as if to carve out a tiny portion of the human race for himself. He intends to use this nation as a vehicle to bring salvation to the entire world.

After the exodus, God established his covenant with the whole nation at Mount Sinai, calling them a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19). A priest is a human conduit for grace. Someone who not only points the way to God, but helps others walk the path.

In other words, the Israelites were not predestined to be “saved” for their own sake. They were predestined to be priests. They were predestined to draw others to God — or as Isaiah puts it, to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42, 49).

In the New Testament, we see the same connection between predestination and priestly proclamation. Paul refers at one point to his “priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God” (Romans 15). Elsewhere, Peter writes to the church:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession [all of which is predestination language], that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Predestination is never an end unto itself. We are not predestined to be members of a club, we are predestined to be ambassadors and priests, proclaiming the good news to others so they in turn can be predestined to do the same.

Calvinism views predestination as a means by which God narrows the scope of his redemptive agenda, applying its benefits to a select few. But in the Old Testament, predestination works in reverse, gradually expanding the circle to include more and more people — with the end goal of blessing “all peoples on earth.”

It’s time I said something nice about Calvinism.

The Reformed tradition puts a lot of emphasis on having a biblically informed worldview. Maybe more so than other Christian traditions. In fact, this might be one of Calvinism’s most important contributions to the wider church.

Everyone has a worldview — a framework of core beliefs, values, etc. But not everyone is intentional about who or what shapes their worldview.

For me, this changed with a book I read in college. Albert Wolters’ Creation Regained is a good presentation of a traditional Dutch Reformed worldview, heavily influenced by 20th-century theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper.

Wolters organizes his worldview around the defining events of the biblical narrative: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

Perhaps most importantly, he reminds us that creation is something God pronounced “good.” This is a much-needed corrective to some of the rhetoric you hear from some Calvinists, particularly in the neo-Reformed camp. At times it seems like they bypass creation altogether — as evidenced by the iconic TULIP acronym, which begins (unfortunately enough) with “total depravity.”

A truly Reformed worldview starts with creation, not the fall. Wolters insists that God made the world good and still has plans for it. In other words, don’t read Genesis 3 until you’ve read Genesis 1-2.

This has serious implications for how we engage the world today. Wolters argues that we are still called to fulfill the cultural mandate of Genesis 1. As divine image-bearers, we are God’s representatives to every aspect of creation. We’re not supposed to compartmentalize into categories like “sacred” and “secular.” It’s all sacred.

This doesn’t mean we don’t take the fall or its consequences seriously. The fall is precisely why we need the last two motifs of the biblical story: redemption and restoration.

And this is precisely where the Reformed tradition (or the best of it, anyway) offers a vital alternative to the escapism so prevalent in some corners of the American church: if God hasn’t given up on his creation, then redemption and restoration must have something to do with this world (as opposed to some far-off, ethereal realm).

This explains how the psalmist, writing long after the fall, could declare that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1). It explains why both Old and New Testaments envision a “new heaven and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21). And it explains why Jesus looked forward to the “renewal” — not the eradication — “of all things” (Matthew 19:28).

Ultimately, God is our only source of redemption and restoration. But he invites us to participate in in the renewal of all things. We are still his image-bearers — not only his voice, but his hands and feet to a world he intends to restore.

Now, different people have applied a Reformed worldview in different ways — not all of them good. Some historians believe that Kuyper, for example, was the inspiration for Christian nationalism (sometimes known as dominionism), which gave rise to such ill-advised projects like apartheid in South Africa.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s one unfortunate consequence of combining a Reformed worldview with a belief that God predestined only a select (and therefore superior) minority and consigned the rest of the world to damnation. Many of the Jewish religious authorities of Jesus’ day thought along similar lines, and it led to a theological and racial arrogance not unlike the worst elements of Christian nationalism or dominionism in more recent times.

But if a Reformed worldview (minus the baggage of doctrines like limited atonement, perhaps) can help us rediscover a world that God made good and intends to renew, then that would be something worth celebrating.

So what do you think is Calvinism’s best contribution to the wider church?

Part 5 of this series can be found here.

This is an updated version of something I wrote a few years ago. One of the comments to a recent post about the Love Wins controversy inspired me to revisit it…

This is Gamla. Or more precisely, what’s left of it.

The ruins of Gamla. The Sea of Galilee is visible from the topmost peak.

Carved into a steep hillside northeast of Galilee, Gamla is where the Jewish Zealot movement was born. Zealots demanded strict adherence to the law and total separation from anyone who didn’t believe exactly as they did.

To be a Zealot was to be perpetually angry. Angry at the apostasy of your own people. But most of all, angry at the occupation. Because if you were Jewish and alive in the first century, your destiny was not in your own hands. You were a subject of the Roman Empire. Your destiny was in pagan hands.

Zealots couldn’t abide by that. Occupation had to be resisted by any means necessary. There were rumors in Galilee of Zealot assassins who roamed the streets by night, carrying small daggers called sicarii with which they silently cut down their enemies.

To a Zealot, God’s kingdom advanced on the tip of a sword.

And if he ever needed reminding of who (and where) his enemies were, a Zealot could simply climb atop his fortress and look across the Sea of Galilee.

There, on the opposite shore. Tiberias.

Tiberius in the distance, located on the western shore of Galilee

Tiberias was established during Jesus’ lifetime. An entire city built by Herod Antipas, puppet-king of Galilee, to honor his new boss, the Emperor Tiberius. (Apparently, Herod had trouble with spelling.)

The city of Tiberias was home to the Herodians, Jewish families who had allied themselves to Herod Antipas and, by extension, to Rome itself. The Herodians didn’t believe in God’s kingdom; they were too busy building one for themselves in Tiberias.

The Zealots’ response to occupation was to fight. The Herodians’ response was to make the most of it — and, if they could, make a buck from it.

Two extremes, literally on opposite shores of the sea.

Caught in the middle, on the northern edge of Galilee, was Capernaum. Home base, as it were, for Jesus and his followers.

While the Herodians loved their friends (those they could benefit from) and the Zealots hated their enemies, Jesus climbed a hill between Tiberias and Gamla and said:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

While the Herodians cashed in on Roman oppression and Zealots fought back with swords, Jesus taught:

Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

Jesus stood between the extremes of groveling accommodation and reciprocal violence and offered a third way. He rejected the separatist impulse of the Zealots and the opportunistic impulse of the Herodions. Instead, he taught his followers to subvert evil with love. Not the kind of love that involves becoming everyone’s doormat. But the kind that seizes the initiative, exposes oppression for what it truly is, and always — ALWAYS — leaves the door open for the oppressor to repent.

Exploring Jesus’ command to go the extra mile, Walter Wink once wrote:

A soldier could impress a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go further carried with it severe penalties under military law. Nevertheless, this levy was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.

Jesus does not counsel revolt. One does not “befriend” the soldier, draw him aside, and drive a knife into his ribs.

But why walk the second mile?

The question here is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their human dignity. The rules are Caesar’s but not how one responds to the rules.

Imagine then the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack. You say, “Oh no, let me carry it another mile.” Normally he has to coerce your kinsmen to carry his pack; now you do it cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Are you insulting his strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther than you should?

From a situation of servile impressment, you have once more seized the initiative. You have taken back the power of choice. The soldier is thrown off-balance by being deprived of the predictability of your response.

Some readers may object to the idea of discomfiting the soldier. But can people engaged in oppressive acts repent unless made uncomfortable with their actions? Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.

Being followers of Jesus means becoming people of the third way. People who transcend categories, stereotypes, and extremes. People who are not co-opted by a single ideology, whose response to evil cannot be predicted based on all the usual categories. People who rise above polarization and find compelling and creative ways to bring heaven to earth, bit by bit.

In fact, it is by doing so that we truly become followers of Jesus.

Take another look at Matthew 5. Notice the connection between loving your enemies and being children of God.

Many in Galilee thought they were automatically God’s people because of what was on their birth certificate: descendant of Abraham. They saw themselves as the elect, the chosen, the predestined.

You can imagine how this kind of thinking cultivated in people an “us vs. them” mentality. Just like the one that incited the Zealots to violence.

When Jesus spoke these words in Matthew 5, there were, doubtless, Zealots or Zealot sympathizers among the broader audience. Imagine what it was like for them to hear this itinerant rabbi — who they hoped was the Messiah who would lead them into battle against Rome — tell them, “If you want to be God’s children, then you must learn to love your enemy.”

I imagine that was the last time many Zealots had anything to do with Jesus.

What if being the people of God isn’t defined by how well we separate ourselves from those who don’t believe as we do, but rather by how well we love those who don’t believe as we do?

Finally… it’s worth remembering that neither the Zealots nor Herodians lived to see the end of the first century. The Herodians, lost in the pursuit of power and comfort, cast their lot with the family of Herod. After the first century, there were no more Herods to benefit from.

As for the Zealots, in A.D. 67, Rome laid siege to Gamla, breaching the city wall and killing thousands. Those who survived the attack committed mass suicide, jumping off cliffs above the village. Later, the Zealots briefly took control of Jerusalem and ruled with a brutality surpassing that of their enemies.

Their legacy is a reminder that violence breeds only more violence. Extremism breeds extremism. Oppression breeds oppression.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to break the cycle of violence. We are called to be people of the third way.

The breach in the wall at Gamla, where Vespasian’s army broke through

This is a picture I took a couple years ago in an olive grove halfway up Mount Carmel in Israel. According to our guide, the trees in this grove are more than two thousand years old.

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Notice the newer branches growing out of the stump. It makes me think of the practice of grafting—where a branch from one plant is fused into the trunk of another. I don’t know if that’s what happened to this tree, but the end result is pretty much the same: something new growing out of something old.

Paul uses the grafting analogy in Romans to explain why he brought the gospel to Gentiles and not just Jews:

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

—Romans 11:17-21 (TNIV)

This passage is used by lots of people to make a lot of different points. It’s part of a larger section of scripture, Romans 9-11, that many in the Calvinist tradition consider the linchpin of their argument for individual predestination—the belief that only those handpicked by God for eternal life have any real hope of salvation. The rest, are (depending on what kind of Calvinist you are) either predestined to hell or simply passed over. This is what I used to take from this passage. Never mind the fact that Paul is quick to point out that the original branches, which represent ancient Israel, were only broken off because of their “unbelief.”

Among evangelicals, there are at least two major views on the relationship between Christians and Jews—and both camps appeal to Romans 11:17-21 for support. One camp argues there is a clear distinction between Israel and the church. The church, they say, is sort of a parentheses or interlude in the middle of God’s dealings with his chosen people, Israel. This view emerged in more or less its current form back in the 19th century, and it gave rise to Christian Zionism, a unique blend of theology and foreign policy.

The other camp argues that the church has replaced Israel; the church is the new Israel and baptism is the new circumcision (and pork is the new lamb, presumably). Ancient Israel had its chance and blew it, according to this view. And now the distinction of being the “chosen people” has been transferred to this thing called the church.

And of course, there are plenty of nuances to both views and many good efforts to arrive at some sort of middle ground between the two. But in the end, I think both camps miss the point of Romans 11:17-21. Maybe if we pay better attention to the analogy Paul uses, we can avoid making the same mistake.

In horticulture, grafting is done for a number of reasons: to increase fruit yield; to create new, hybrid breeds; to improve plant hardiness; to repair damage… the list goes on. Whatever the reason, grafting is a lot like God’s idea of marriage: two things, previously separate, becoming one.

Saying either that the church is totally separate from ancient Israel or that it has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people both lead to the same conclusion: missing out on a big part of our heritage.

If, on the one hand, we reduce the church to a mere parentheses in between God’s dealings with Israel, then for those of us in the Christian tradition, the Hebrew scriptures are of little use aside from their historical value. And the church—God’s best plan for putting his love on display—will be reduced to a mere historical footnote. We may even forget the redemptive role we have to play in this world and waste our time with lesser things.

On the other hand, if we say that we have replaced God’s formerly chosen people, then like the wild branches in Paul’s analogy, we’re in danger of thinking ourselves superior. We might forget that we’re building on a foundation someone else laid for us. We may end up making the same mistake that some Jews made in Jesus’ day, thinking their lineage gave them an all-access pass to God’s kingdom (Matthew 3:9-10).

The good news of Romans 11:17-21 is that as Christians, the Hebrew tradition is our tradition. Their promised blessings are our promised blessings.

But the even better news of Romans 11 is that God’s economy does not operate according to the principle of the zero-sum game. Just as God always meant to extend his blessing beyond the original “chosen people” (Genesis 12:3), our blessing does not have to come at the expense of theirs (Romans 11:30-32).

There is room in God’s kingdom for all of us.

One of the projects I’ve been working on lately has had me spending lots of time in the beatitudes. And I’ve been struck by other-worldly they aren’t:

For the poor: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven…”

For the meek: “They will inherit the earth…”

And for the persecuted, again for good measure: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven…”

Luke is even more down-to-earth in his rendition of the beatitudes. “Blessed are you who are poor,” he writes. Not just those who are poor in spirit. And, “Blessed are you who hunger now.”

According to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not just a distant promise for the persecuted and the poor. It’s meant to be a present reality, affecting their lives in the here and now.

According to Jesus, the inheritance of the meek is not a pile of heavenly riches. It’s the earth—this world. In Greek, the word for earth is the same as the word for “ground” or even “dirt.”

All of this begs the question: If Jesus meant for the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the persecuted to experience blessing now, exactly how is this supposed to happen? Who will bring for them the kingdom of heaven, the earth, and satisfaction for body and soul?

Maybe it’s our job. Maybe, when we see to it the needs of the poor are met, we bring a little bit of God’s kingdom to earth. Maybe, when we defend the rights of the meek (read: powerless), we carve out a small piece of earth for them. Maybe, when we give food to the hungry, we bring more than just physical sustenance.

Come to think of it, maybe all of the beatitudes have a present (and not just a future) dimension to them. Maybe those who mourn are comforted and the pure in heart see God whenever we live up to our calling to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

To be sure, Jesus at times speaks of “reward in heaven.” But for ancient Jews who, like Jesus, believed in the afterlife, the line between this life and the next was blurry at best. Eternal life was something that began not the moment you died, but the moment you entered into a relationship with God.

The kingdom of heaven is a blessing that lasts for eternity. But according to Jesus, you don’t have to wait till you die to enjoy this blessing—or to share it with others.

Flipping through my Bible this afternoon (actually, using an online Bible search tool, but somehow that just doesn’t sound the same), I came across this passage, which I’m sure I’ve read a thousand times before:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

— Matthew 23:23 (TNIV)

Some translations have it as the “weightier matters of the law.”

In the Hebrew scriptures, there were 613 commands… a lot to keep track of, if you were Jewish. Rabbis spent countless hours debating which laws were more important than others—which laws were “greater” and which were “lesser.” Which were “heavier” and which were “lighter.” After all, a comprehensive list, sorted by order of importance, might come in handy, should you find yourself in a situation where obeying one law requires you to break another.

What should you do, for example (assuming that you’re an observant Jew living in ancient Israel) if someone’s donkey collapses under a heavy load… on a Sabbath? On the one hand, you would be obeying Exodus 23:5 (not to mention Leviticus 19:18) if you lent a hand. On the other hand, by doing so you would violate Exodus 20:8-11. Dilemma.

How do you decide which law to keep and which to violate? Do you go by whichever passage is longer? Whichever has more verses? (Probably not the best method of deciding if you’re an ancient Jew, since your scroll wouldn’t have had verse numbers…)

Do you choose not to help, because the command about not working on the Sabbath was obviously more important, since it made it into the Ten Commandments, while the precise words “love your neighbor” did not?

You could ask some trusted rabbis, but you might not get the same answer twice. The good news is, pretty much everybody agreed that “love the Lord your God” was the greatest command. The bad news is, that’s where the agreement ended.

Some rabbis thought that “you shall have no other gods” was the next greatest command. Others said is was “keep the Sabbath.” Still others nominated “love your neighbor” for the distinction of “number two command in the Bible.”

Jesus weighs into the debate in Matthew 22:37-39, siding squarely with the “love your neighbor” camp—with a twist, of course. He says that the second greatest command in all of scripture is like the first. In other words, you cannot truly love God unless you love your neighbor. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commands, Jesus taught.

Well, that’s nothing new. In fact, I think I’ve blogged about it before. Possibly more than once. (Can you say “one trick pony”?) But slightly less well known is Jesus’ rant in the very next chapter. Jesus works himself into a frenzy, directed at the religious establishment. Seven times he pronounces a “woe” upon them—which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says is a word “used to express grief, regret, or distress.” Um, that’s putting it mildly, especially when you read the content of Jesus’ seven woes. Not very nice stuff.

But it’s woe #4 that caught my attention today. The Pharisees and teachers of the law measured out even their tiniest spices to make sure they gave the required ten percent—not an ounce less (and presumably, knowing their hearts, not an ounce more). The problem is, at this point they wiped their hands in satisfaction, thinking they’d done their bit to stay in God’s good books.

Jesus accuses them of getting their priorities out of whack—obsessing with the most obscure minutiae of the law while completely forgetting about the “weightier matters.” And what does Jesus say these weightier matters are?

Justice.

Mercy.

Faithfulness.

In other words, making sure the poor are taken care of matters more than making sure your prayer shawl is on straight. Or, perhaps, making sure we sing the “right” kind of songs (whatever your preference) in church.

In other words, freely extending God’s mercy to everyone we meet (which, according to Scripture, is a nonnegotiable if we hope to enjoy some of that same mercy for ourselves) is more important than making a list of who has and hasn’t got their theology straight and discriminating accordingly.

In other words, spending a lifetime caring for the poor and extending God’s mercy is more important than spending a lifetime playing religious games.

All of scripture matters to God—and the Pharisees were not wrong to make sure their tithes were in order, according to Jesus. But what they were doing was a lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Some scholars think that Jesus was expounding on Micah 6:8 in this particular rant (leave it to Jesus to always be interacting with the scriptures, even when he’s ripping into someone):

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

That’s it. And when it comes right down to it, Micah 6:8 and Matthew 23:23 are just different ways of saying this:

Love your neighbor.

End of story.

John 5:1-15 tells the story of a paralyzed man healed by Jesus at a pool called Bethesda. It’s one of the most bizarre healing stories in the gospels, for a number of reasons.

First, the setting. The pool of Bethesda was located just north of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. People started coming here about 150 years before Jesus was born, convinced the waters of Bethesda possessed healing properties. The pool still drew a crowd in Jesus’ day:

Here a great number of disabled people used to lie — the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. (John 15:4)

What’s unusual about this miracle is that Bethesda was a place of healing. Most of Jesus’ miracles happen in far more ordinary places: houses, streets, synagogues, hillsides.

So why does Jesus come to a place of healing to do some healing of his own?

Second, the method of healing. Jesus doesn’t touch the man. He doesn’t use any water from the pool. Under most other circumstances, either would have been perfectly normal for Jesus. There are 16 other healing miracles in the gospels (not counting demon possessions); Jesus touches the person being healed in 12 of them. Twice he uses his own spit, and once he uses mud from the ground. So why does Jesus heal the man at Bethesda with nothing more than a word?

Third, the paralyzed man’s attitude. He doesn’t show any sign of faith in Jesus. He doesn’t seem to know who Jesus is.

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” (John 15:6-7)

Later, John confirms for us that the man had “no idea” who Jesus was (John 15:13). It’s almost as if the paralyzed man can’t take his eyes off the pool long enough to have a proper conversation with Jesus.

Jesus often credits a person’s faith as having some part in their healing (Matthew 9:18-22, 27-30). There was even a place where Jesus was unable to do many miracles because of people’s lack of faith (Matthew 13:58).

So why is the paralyzed man’s faith — or lack of it — apparently not an issue at Bethesda?

Fourth, Jesus’ reaction following the miracle. After the man complains that he is unable to get into the pool, Jesus tells him to pick up his mat and walk. He does. A while later, Jesus bumps into him at the temple, and Jesus’ reaction is, well, weird:

“See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14)

Not exactly the usual uplifting words of blessing that follow one of Jesus’ miracles (see Matthew 9:22; Luke 17:19). So which of the disciples spit in Jesus’ breakfast that morning? What made him so cranky?

Just a few chapters later, Jesus rejects the idea that suffering is necessarily a sign of God’s displeasure (John 9:3). So why does he tell this guy, in effect, “Get your act together, or else you’re going to get it”?

Maybe there’s more to the pool of Bethesda than we realize.

Archaeologists from Yale Divinity School have excavated the site. Here’s what they discovered:

Between 150 BCE and 70 CE, a popular healing center was located in this area… The baths, grottos and a water cistern were arranged for medicinal and religious purposes. After bathing, patients could sleep in a grotto. “Priests” were available to interpret dreams as part of the healing ritual.

This description precisely matches the ritual of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.

(Note: the pictures to the right are from a trip I took to Turkey. They’re ruins of a large sanctuary in Pergamum dedicated to Asclepius.)

The pool of Bethesda was a shrine to Asclepius. A couple centuries after Jesus, the Romans replaced the bath and grottos with a full-fledged temple to Asclepius.

Kind of adds a whole new dimension to the story in John 5, doesn’t it?

You can almost understand why some later manuscripts sanitized the story by adding the line, “From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters.” (Which was almost certainly not a part of John’s original manuscript.)

The pool of Bethesda was not some innocent place where the mildly (but forgivably) superstitious sought relief from their ailments. Bethesda was a place of pagan worship — sitting in the shadow of the Jewish temple.

But why would Jesus go to a place like this? Why would he risk his reputation and his religious purity?

It’s almost as if Jesus is seeking a confrontation — as if he goes to the pool of Bethesda to challenge Asclepius’ claim to the title of “great physician.” Jesus does not use water from the pool to induce healing. He does not even touch the paralyzed man, leaving no doubt that his power comes from God Almighty, not Asclepius.

The man Jesus healed may have been a syncretistic Jew — someone who spent their Fridays at Bethesda and their Saturdays at the temple. He doesn’t indicate any faith in Jesus because his faith is in Asclepius. That’s why he’s come to the pool in the first place.

Which also explains Jesus’ seemingly harsh rebuke near the end of the story. The man was sinning; he had broken the first commandment, forsaking God and putting his trust in Asclepius instead. Maybe Jesus is telling the man, in effect, “Stop trying to have it both ways; it’s time to decide who you stand with.”

But I think there’s one more thing to this story. Notice something else about the man Jesus chose to heal.

He’s the one who kept being getting left behind. The one who was always cut off by someone else on their way to the pool. The one who was consistently overlooked and ignored by Asclepius.

Sometimes Jesus healed simply because he saw needy people and had compassion on them (Matthew 14:14). Jesus healed the ones no one else would. His earliest followers accepted those who were rejected by the other gods.

Asclepius won’t heal you? No problem. Jesus will. Apollo won’t give you a word of wisdom because you can’t pay his fee? No worries. Jesus has the very words of life, free of charge. Mithra won’t accept you because you’re a woman, a slave, or some other “undesirable”? No problem. Jesus is building a kingdom where the last come first.

It reminds me of something a professor in college once said.

Jesus is for misfits.

Not of this world…

28 May 2007 — 1 Comment

“My kingdom,” said Jesus, “is not of this world” (John 18:36).

It was good enough for Pilate, so, naturally, it belongs on a T-shirt like the one I saw at a Christian retail show.

The question is, do we know what these words mean?

For some, the phrase “not of this world” draws a line of demarcation between the “spiritual” and “secular” worlds. The assumption being that spiritual is good, while secular is bad.

A letter from the apostle John (the same John who recorded Jesus’ “not of this world” statement) is sometimes quoted in support of this idea:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If you love the world, love for the Father is not in you. For everything in the world — the cravings of sinful people, the lust of their eyes and their boasting about what they have and do — comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

Along similar lines, some think the phrase “not of this world” indicates a heavenly, eternal life — as distinct from this earthly, temporal life. Which may be why some Christians like to sing, “This world is not my home / I’m just passing through…”

But what if that’s not what “not of this world” means? What if this world is our home and we’re not just passing through?

Come to think of it, “the world” referred to by John has to be something different, unless the psalmist was wrong when he wrote:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it…

(Incidentally, Paul uses this psalm to argue that early Christians were free to eat meat sold at the public market — meat that likely had been sacrificed to a pagan god before being sold to the masses.)

The concept of separating sacred from secular (and spiritual from physical) is not new. During the early days of Christianity, it was called Gnosticism. The New Testament writers and early church fathers rejected this separation as heresy.

But there is an even older idea than Gnosticism; it’s the notion that God made the world good. It is as old as creation itself. In the opening chapter of the Bible, God sees that his creation is “good” not once, but seven times. In the Jewish context, the use of the number seven is anything but arbitrary. The number seven indicates that creation is good in a complete and total sense; it is exactly as God wants it to be. And no amount of sin and darkness can completely erase that kind of good — the kind that comes from an all-powerful, all-loving God.

If this world and everything in it belong to God, like the psalmist believed, then it doesn’t seem right to make a distinction between “sacred” and “secular.” It’s all God’s, so it’s all sacred.

So what does it mean to be “not of this world”?

Let’s go back to the context of John 18. What is Jesus talking about? His kingdom.

Who is he talking to? Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.

What prompted Jesus to say his kingdom was “not of this world”? Pilate asked him if he considered himself king of the Jews.

What’s more, Jesus went on to say, “If [my kingdom were of this world], my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”

For Jesus, the contrast is not between sacred and secular; it’s not between physical and spiritual. It’s between the powerful and the powerless. Between the violent and the nonviolent. Between those who rule at the expense of the poor and those who serve on their behalf. Between those who deify human power (as the Romans did with their emperors) and those who recognize God is the only one with any real power.

What makes Jesus’ kingdom “not of this world” is precisely the fact that his servants will not fight to prevent his arrest. They will not use their power against others; they will not resort to violence. They do not swallow the Roman ideology of “peace through victory” but instead pursue peace through justice, salvation, redemption, and mercy.

When John warns us against the love of the world and all that comes with it — the cravings of sinful people, the lust of their eyes, and boasting about what they have and do — maybe what he’s warning us against is the love of power. The addiction to our own self-importance and our ability to control others.

Maybe, in the end, we are called to love the world. Not the world as it is now, but the world as God sees it and means it to be.

This is Gamla.

Carved into a steep hill northeast of Galilee, Gamla gave birth to the Jewish Zealot movement, which came on the scene around the same time as Jesus.

Zealots demanded strict adherence to the law and total separation from anyone who believed otherwise.

To them, the presence of an occupying army in the Promised Land, particularly a pagan occupying army, was unacceptable. It was to be resisted by any means necessary. Zealot assassins roamed the streets of Galilee by night, using small daggers called sicarii to assassinate their enemies: Roman officials and their collaborators, Gentile and Jewish. Zealots believed the sword was the primary instrument of God’s kingdom.

From their hilltop fortress of Gamla, the Zealots looked across the Sea of Galilee and saw, on the opposite shore, Tiberias.

Tiberias was established during Jesus’ lifetime—an entire city built by Herod Antipas (ruler of Galilee) to honor Rome’s new emperor, Tiberius.

The city Tiberias was home to the Herodians, those loyal to the family of Herod—those who curried favor with Rome. Herodians didn’t believe in God’s kingdom; they were too busy building their own. Most religious Jews refused to set foot in Tiberias.

The Herodian approach to Roman occupation was to make the best of it… and, if they could, make a buck from it.

Two extremes, literally on opposite shores of the sea. Caught in between, on the northern edge of Galilee, was Capernaum—home base, as it were, for Jesus and his disciples.

While the Herodians loved their friends (the ones they could benefit from, anyway) and the Zealots hated their enemies, Jesus climbed a hill between Tiberias and Gamla and taught:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
—Matthew 5:44-45 (TNIV)

While Zealots resisted oppression with violence and Herodians sought to cash in on the situation, Jesus taught:

Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
—Matthew 5:39-41 (TNIV)

Jesus stood between the two extremes and offered a third way. He rejected both the violent, separatist impulse of the Zealots and the accommodating, opportunistic impulse of the Herodions. Instead, he told his followers to undermine evil with love. Not a wimpy, passive love that involves being everybody’s doormat. But a love that seizes the initiative, reveals oppression for what it really is, and always leaves the door open for the oppressor to repent.

Exploring the theological and political significance of Jesus’ command to go the extra mile, Walter Wink once wrote:

A soldier could impress a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go further carried with it severe penalties under military law… Nevertheless, this levy was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.

To this proud but subjugated people Jesus does not counsel revolt. One does not “befriend” the soldier, draw him aside, and drive a knife into his ribs. Jesus was keenly aware of the futility of armed revolt against Roman imperial might. He minced no words about it, though it must have cost him support from the revolutionary factions.

But why walk the second mile? Is this not to rebound to the opposite extreme: aiding and abetting the enemy? Not at all. The question here… is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed. The rules are Caesar’s but not how one responds to the rules. The response is God’s, and Caesar has no power over that.

Imagine then the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack (sixty-five to eighty-five pounds in full gear). You say, “Oh no, let me carry it another mile.” Normally he has to coerce your kinsmen to carry his pack; now you do it cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Are you insulting his strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther then you should? Are you planning to file a complaint? To create trouble?

From a situation of servile impressment, you have once more seized the initiative. You have taken back the power of choice. The soldier is thrown off-balance by being deprived of the predictability of your response. Imagine the hilarious situation of a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew, “Aw, come on, please give me back my pack!” The humor of this scene may escape those who picture it through sanctimonious eyes. It could scarcely, however, have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have delighted in the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.

Some readers may object to the idea of discomfiting the soldier or embarrassing the creditor. But can people engaged in oppressive acts repent unless made uncomfortable with their actions? There is, admittedly, the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation. There is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality and softness that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice. Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.

Maybe, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be people of the third way. People who transcend categories, stereotypes, and extremes. People who are not owned by one ideology, perspective, or party. People who rise above polarization to find creative, compelling ways to bring bits of heaven to earth.

Two final thoughts.

First, I noticed today (for the first time) the connection in Matthew 5:44-45 between loving our enemies and being children of God. Many in Jesus’ day assumed they were automatically God’s people because of their lineage—their ethnic connection to Abraham. They saw themselves as the elect, the chosen, the predestined. This way of thinking encouraged an “us versus them” mentality that drove the Zealots to violence.

There were, doubtless, Zealots (or at least Zealot sympathizers) in Jesus’ audience during the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine how shocking it was for them to hear, in effect, “If you want to be God’s children, then you must learn to love your enemies.”

What if being the people of God is defined not by how well we separate ourselves from those who don’t believe as we do, but by how well we love those who don’t believe as we do?

Last, it’s worth remembering that neither Zealot nor Herodian lasted through the end of the first century. The Herodians, lost in the pursuit of power and comfort, cast their lot with the powers of the moment—the family of Herod. After the first century, there were no more Herods to benefit from.

As for the Zealots, in A.D. 67, Rome laid siege to Gamla, breaching the city wall and killing thousands. Those who survived the attack committed mass suicide, jumping off cliffs above the village. Later, the Zealots briefly seized control of Jerusalem and ruled with a brutality surpassing that of their enemies. Their legacy is a reminder that violence breeds only more violence. Extremism breeds more extremism. Oppression breeds more oppression.

Maybe, as followers of Jesus, we are called to break the cycle. Maybe we are called to be people of the third way.