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Géza Vermès was a prolific Hungarian Jewish “historical Jesus” scholar and translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls who died on May 8th (see this 1994 interview, Escape and Rescue—An Interview with Géza Vermès, and this eulogy by Hershel Shanks). Vermès’ 1973 Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels was powerfully influential in reintroducing us to Jesus as the greatest in a tradition of charismatic Galilean holy men. The following is quoted from the epilogue of Vermès’ 2000 book, The Changing Faces of Jesus (New York, NY: Penguin Compass, 2002 paperback edition, pp. 287-88).
In this dream the real Jesus staged a return shortly after the onset of the third millennium. He appeared as a middle-sized, middle-aged, dark-haired Jewish man, with strong arms, and the deep suntan of a Galilean from Ginossar or Kfar Nahum….
“Shalom,” he saluted the Jews.
“Forget the lies about me. I’m one of yours. Look, my religion is that of Moses and the prophets. I only lay extra emphasis on seeking the Lord our God who is one in and through all that we do to our fellow men in every single humble and love-filled deed of all our todays.”
He seemed surprised when he saw the many assembled Christians….
“I’m amazed to see so many of you calling yourselves my followers despite some of the unkind words I let out about non-Jews. I’m all the same delighted and grateful….
“But I feel I must exhort you to rely more on yourselves, on your own insights—you may call it the voice of the Holy Spirit—on your strength and goodness. You’ve been told to expect everything from me. I say, you must save yourselves. Don’t forget that the Kingdom of God is always at hand. Get on with it at once. You can do it, on your own, as you are children of our heavenly Father who alone is God, blessed forever. You may carry on with your rites, customs, and prayers, but be careful not to take the symbol for the reality….”
He then turned to the company of those who no longer practiced their religion, but who were seekers filled with remorse.
“I know you well and love you. You remind me of the publicans who were longing for a kind word from me…. I recognize you, too, ostracized sinners…. Recognize your weakness and do the right thing. Repent and be confident. You are close to the Kingdom of God. Now as in my lifetime the father welcomes with greater joy the returning prodigal son than the son who has been conventionally (and boringly) good all the time.”
And so it is.
This post has also been published on Quaker Universalist Conversations.
The parable of the weeds in the field
In a July post on Walhydra’s Porch, I built a story around the troublesome contrast between a new Lutheran pastor’s doctrinally correct sermon and the palpable, all-inclusive embrace of an image of Jesus which spreads its arms over the sanctuary where the sermon was preached.
Since then I have read a remarkable new book by James P. Carse called The Religious Case Against Belief (2008). Carse’s valuable central distinctions are reflected in the contrast I just mentioned. Reading him has not resolved my discomfort with that July sermon or the gospel lesson upon which it was based, yet it has given me new ways to open out and explore that discomfort.
[Jesus] spun out another parable for them:
Heaven’s imperial rule is like someone who sowed good seed in his field. And while everyone was asleep, his enemy came and scattered weed seed around in his wheat and stole away. And when the crop sprouted and produced heads, then the weeds also appeared.
The owner’s slaves came and asked him, “Master, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then why are there weeds everywhere?” He replied to them, “Some enemy has done this.”
The slaves said to him, “Do you want us then to go and pull the weeds?” He replied, “No, otherwise you’ll root out the wheat at the same time as you pull the weeds. Let them grow up together until the harvest, and at harvest time I’ll say to the harvesters, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to burn, but gather the wheat into my granary’.”
(The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version,
It was not actually this parable itself which troubled me. Or, rather, the parable troubled me in the way that parables are meant to do, as a deliberately puzzling story, devoid of context or particularity, designed to draw its hearers into a perpetual debate over its meanings.
What troubled me that Sunday, as it always does, was the second half of the lesson, the allegorical interpretation which the author/editor of Matthew contrives to have Jesus share privately with his disciples as an “explanation” of the parable:
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. His disciples came to him with this request: “Explain the parable of the weeds in the field to us.”
This was his response: “The one who ‘sows the good seed’ is the son of Adam; ‘the field’ is the world; and ‘the good seed’ are those to whom Heaven’s domain belongs, but ‘the weeds’ represent progeny of the evil one. ‘The enemy’ who sows (the weeds) is the devil, and ‘the harvest’ is the end of the present age; ‘the harvesters’ are the heavenly messengers.
“Just as the weeds are gathered and destroyed by fire—that’s how it will be at the end of the age. The son of Adam will send his messengers and they will gather all the snares and the subverters of the Law out of his domain and throw them into the fiery furnace. People in that place will weep and grind their teeth. Then those who are vindicated will be radiant like the sun in my Father’s domain.
“Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”
For most of my adult life, I have resisted Matthew’s portrayal of a Jesus who would cast out some and vindicate others. A Jesus who would instruct the crowds only in parables, yet give his privileged disciples in private “the secrets of Heaven’s imperial rule” (Matt. 13:10-11). Or, more accurately, I have resisted the way institutional Christianity has interpreted and applied Jesus’ words about “sorting out” over the millennia.
I understand now that Matthew was writing in a historical context, interpreting Hebrew scriptures in a way he hoped would minister to his little congregation of proto-Christian Jews. In the years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., they had been expelled from the synagogue (Matt. 5:11) over the debate as to who was the true Israel. Was it the rabbinic Jews, the Pharisees, who valued the continuing revelation available through the study of scripture? Or was it those like Matthew’s group, who saw a special role for Jesus as bearer of a unique revelation, the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophetic tradition?
In The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006), Karen Armstrong writes that the Pharisees believed
the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law…. [The] essence of the Torah was not the letter of the law but its spirit…, summed up in the Golden Rule” (453).
One can see how such a transformation of Judaism from a temple-centered religion to one of attentiveness to daily life, contemplation and communal generosity would have been salutary to Jews of the post-Jerusalem Diaspora. Ironically, one can also see how similar the values of rabbinic Judaism, as described by Armstrong, are to those taught by Jesus.
Armstrong adds this:
In Rabbinic Judaism, study was as important as meditation in other traditions. It was a spiritual quest: the word for study, darash, meant “to search,” “to go in pursuit of.” It led not to an intellectual grasp of somebody else’s ideas, but to a new insight. So rabbinic midrash (“exegesis”) could go further than the original text, discover what it did not say, and find an entirely fresh interpretation….
Scripture was not a closed book, and revelation was not a historical event that had happened in a distant time. It was renewed every time a Jew confronted the text, opened himself to it, and applied it to his own situation. This dynamic vision could set the world afire.
There were, therefore, no “orthodox” beliefs. Nobody—not even the voice of God himself—could tell a Jew what to think…. (455)
When they spoke of God’s presence on earth, they were careful to distinguish those traits of God that he had allowed us to see from the divine mystery that would always be inaccessible to us…. [The] reality they experienced did not correspond to the essence of the Godhead. No theology could be definitive…. God had, as it were, adapted himself to each person “according to the comprehension of each.” What we call “God” was not the same for everybody. (456)
Meanwhile, in the midst of the Diaspora communities were smaller groups of Jews like those for whom Matthew wrote. Probably for a variety of reasons, these people had been overmastered by the stories and personal witness shared with them by those of the previous generation who had known or heard of a teacher and healer named Yeshua or Yehoshua (Hebrew for Joshua, meaning “the Lord is salvation”; translated into Greek as Iesous, Latin Jesus). For these Jews, Yeshua was a profoundly compelling mashiah (“anointed one”; translated into Greek as christos).
While both Temple ritual and the study of Torah (“the Law”) had been ongoing traditions, Yeshua was the contemporary incarnation of a counterforce in the history of Judaism: the disruptive intrusions of the prophets. These were spirit-filled men who confronted the people when their ritual practice or argument of the Law had become superficially pious behavior, masking their real abuse and neglect of their neighbors.
The prophets had the role of calling people out from such unreflective, habit-bound practice of outward forms, calling them back to a life in which the reality of the mysterious and awesome YHWH (“G-d”) breathed in and through them, even without forms.
For Jews like those in Matthew’s congregation, Yeshua was a man in whom this Spirit (Hebrew ruach, “breath”) walked with unbounded clarity and compassion, yet also with a fierce, unflinching judgment. When he spoke in confrontation, whether gently or with anger, it was not with condemnation or malice, but with that same spiritual clarity.
Look. This is how things really are in G-d’s world. The Law is not commandments, rules to follow. It is—couched in human words and images—simply a description of how we live spontaneously whenever we let ourselves be led by G-d’s Spirit. When we, even for a moment, find ourselves together in the already present Kingdom. “Mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6a).
Imagine, then, a synagogue of Greek-speaking post-Jerusalem Jews, taking refuge in the hope and experience of G-d’s presence in their midst as they hear and interpret their scriptures. Imagine the ferment stirred by those among them who responded with enthusiasm (Greek entheos “possessed”; en– “in” + theos “god”) to the stories of this new prophet, Yeshua. Imagine the distress, uncertainty and conflict at this disruption of a recently regained sense of spiritual security in those communities.
However the conflicts played out across the Diaspora, in various places the rabbinic Jews forced out the Yeshua-followers. And scholars like Matthew, ministering to their expelled fellows, created their own midrash, reinterpreting Hebrew scriptures to place Yeshua in the center of expectations for a new mashiah. It was an effort to assure continuity between the Judaism they knew and this new revelation. It was also an effort to persuade those still in synagogue with their own scriptures.
Yet the hurt of expulsion vibrates through the text. The Pharisees and scholars are recast by Matthew as the “villains” who rejected Yeshua. Whatever actual dealings Yeshua had with such people during his life, Matthew tells us of them through the perspective of one who was expelled from synagogue. When he does his own rabbinic interpretation of Yeshua’s words, when he portrays Yeshua as doing such interpretation, how do we know whether we are hearing Yeshua in his own context or Matthew in his?
Wait, though. Even as I write this, I can recognize the temptation to use this “historical Jesus” perspective on Matthew as a dodge, a way to avoid having to consider the possibility that Yeshua did warn, both directly and in parable, of a sorting out of “weeds” from “wheat” in the community of humankind.
Whatever I may want him to have “really meant,” it is clear that Yeshua voiced scrupulous judgment and gave compassionate yet unwavering warnings to those whom he met personally. I must do as Armstrong says those first century Jews did. I must confront the text, open myself to it, and apply it to my own situation.
In Part II of this series, I will describe how my reading of James Carse has contributed to this process.
[To be continued]