Originally published in the Purcellville Gazette, August 9, 2014
I must confess that I am committed to a liturgical tradition of reading regularly designated portions of the scriptures from Sunday to Sunday. It’s a reminder that, as so-called Christians, we are, after all, a Jewish sect. So reading the scriptures in a methodical way is like unrolling the scrolls, and we’re always reminded of the unrolling of the scroll in Nazareth when Jesus was invited to be the reader. And this is what he read:
“The spirit of Yahweh has been given to me,
and has, (in fact), anointed me.
(And) sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives
and to the blind new sight,
to set the downtrodden free,
to proclaim Yahweh’s jubilee year!” [Luke 4:18,19]
Mark and Matthew tell the story a little differently, but their bottom line is a description of how Jesus began his public ministry by proclaiming: “Repent (start thinking and acting in new and different ways) for ‘the Reign of God’ is here!” [cf Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15]
Reflecting on this, the late Dr. Krister Stendahl, the former Dean of Harvard Divinity School and later Bishop of Stockholm, Church of Sweden, once said, “Jesus came preaching ‘the Reign of God,’ and the church has forever been preaching ‘Jesus.’” However, the ‘Jesus’ being preached in many churches today would have little resemblance to the ‘historical Jesus.’ No one in the contexts of his times would have a clue as to what contemporary churches mean when they speak of Jesus as ‘Son of God’ or as ‘Lord and Savior’ – especially when those terms are relegated to notions of salvation and the alternatives of either heaven or hell. Such understandings of Jesus simply miss the deeply historical and material contexts in which he lived and in which he proclaimed a heavenly vision as a radical alternative to the social, economic, and political contexts in which life had become a living hell for Palestinian peasants and laborers living under the imperialistic rule of Rome
But let’s get back to the liturgical tradition of reading designated portions of the scriptures each Sunday. In recent weeks we’ve been treated to interesting commentary about Jesus’ ‘Reign of God’ teaching and preaching, and among the most relevant are some agricultural parables about both “soil” and ‘seed’ in Matthew 13:4-9, 18-23. Not only do they make for great commentary on church history since Constantine pulled the church into an imperialistic orbit in the 4th century, CE, they relate to realities today among many church people when an authentic historical Jesus is being proclaimed, and point to a variety of conditions that can hinder and block even the ‘good seed’ of preaching an authentic and historical Jesus.
Some seed just never gets into the soil: the anti-imperialism realities of the ‘Reign of God’ just never get heard! Some seed falls on shallow ground—there might be some initial enthusiasm, but with a lack of rootedness it just withers and dies. Then there are seeds that fall among thorns, but competing values relating to worldly material values choke off any growth. But sometimes, there is some rich soil, and then, based on some good cultivation that takes seriously some contextual and historical analysis, ‘good seed’ has liberating and productive possibilities.
But then comes Jesus’ parable about ‘wheat and weeds’ (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) that is really about how we might carefully go about dealing with situations in which some ‘weedy theologies’ have become the norm, especially in the ‘mega-plantations’ in which Jesus becomes a cultic idol who blesses ‘feel good’ religious experiences and even becomes yoked to a ‘gospel of prosperity.’ And along with cultivating a false spirituality around Jesus, those ‘mega-plantations’ continue to cultivate a spiritual atmosphere in which the ‘wheaty theologies’ based on a Jesus who brings justice, liberation, and good news to the poorare dismissed as heresies and a threat to imperial stability.
So Jesus’ parabolic mantra continues: Listen, anyone who has ears! And, for anyone who reads, look for the book entitled “The First Paul” by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.
Minister, St. James United Church of Christ
Ministries for Economic Justice