Outsiders & Jesus

Jesus is often cited as being a peaceful, loving guy. How do we square this with his violent act of overturning tables of money changers and driving them out of the temple – with a whip? His stated purpose is: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ 

In this account as well as numerous others, we are confronted with a God-man of seeming contradictions. And on one issue – God’s view of insiders versus outsiders – this Jesus of Nazareth can come across as a man with a split personality.

In the temple incident, Jesus appears to be welcoming both insider and outsider, both native and foreigner – a place of gathering “for all nations.”

But on the other hand, he was explicitly exacting vengeance against money-changers. Why?
The reasons are not clearly stated but the information available suggests a possible nativist bent to this savior.

The money changers were exchanging local and Roman currency for the pure silver shekel coinage of Tyre – even though the Tyrian coins were often stamped with pagan images. The pure shekels were then used to purchase animals for sacrifice.

In effect, Jewish rabbis had decided that the commandment to give the half- or full-shekel Temple tax, with its proper weight and silver purity, was more important than the prohibition of who or what image was on the coin. For Jesus, it would appear that the rabbis had it all wrong. On God’s holy site, purity should be more about coinage that reflected Jewish monotheistic values than silver content.

Trump vs. Outsiders

Today, the American and global landscape is being shaped by a president who puts “America first.” A leader who wants stricter enforcement of borders – even if it may mean separation of children from parents. A president willing to use high tariffs in an effort to promote purchasing of domestic goods over products shipped in from elsewhere.

And this president’s view is not just that of a lone wolf. It’s a perspective shared by a substantial (though perhaps not majority) contingent of American voters. And it is a viewpoint that is increasingly gaining traction abroad – from Europe to China – further fueled by retaliatory motives of our trading “partners.”

What Would Jesus Do?

Jesus never made an explicit statement about tariffs or closing borders or separating children from parents – at least nothing recorded. If we are looking for a clear-cut Christian perspective on contemporary issues that are now tearing the social U.S. and global fabric, that distinctly Christian position is hard to find – even harder to biblically defend.

Jesus’ own ambivalence on matters bearing on the current debates makes the job of articulating right from wrong yet more challenging. Should Christians then sit silently on the sidelines? Or actively engage in the debate – even when believers may be pitted against each other?

While there is no clear-cut Christian platform on which to run, Christ’s ministry offers some guideposts useful to better frame the believer’s response. So, let’s consider the evidence.

A Random Gospel Walk

Jesus’ temple experience occurred just a few days before his death by crucifixion. Let’s start this walk from in Jesus’ formative years – from childhood – then travel forward to his short period of earthly ministry:

  • Geographically speaking, the most glaring omission of the New Testament gospels is the lack of any reference to the most important Galilean cities of Jesus’ youth and adulthood – Sepphoris and Tiberias. Located about an hour’s walk from Jesus’ hill country hometown of Nazareth, Sepphoris was the capital city of Galilee while Jesus was growing up. As a city being rebuilt after recent destruction, Sepphoris was a major construction site, perhaps a source of employment for carpenter Joseph, with Jesus perhaps accompanying his earthly father to the construction site.
    In adulthood sometime before beginning his ministry, Jesus moved to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was only about 6 miles from Tiberias to which Herod Antipas had relocated his capitol (from Sepphoris) in about 20 AD.
    Unlike smaller largely Jewish settlements of the Galilee, Sepphoris and Tiberias were multi-cultural with substantial pagan influences – including those of the Herodians and Romans. Why are these cities never mentioned in the New Testament? Is it because Jesus assiduously avoided places dominated by “outsiders?” We are not told but this deafening silence seems more intentional than inadvertent.
  • Jesus appears to have mixed views on the Samaritans – those half-breeds of Jews not deported during the Babylonian exile who intermarried with surrounding non-Jewish neighbors. There is a time (recorded in Matthew) when Jesus instructs his disciples to “enter no town of the Samaritans” during their missionary travels, but to confine their ministry to “the lost sheep of the Jews.”
    However, Jesus would interact with Samaritans, most notably with the woman he met at a local well – the one who had five husbands  but became a convert to the “living water” offered by this Jewish and messianic itinerant.
    And there was the time when Jesus was again traveling through Samaria, but not received kindly by the local population. And so his disciples ask: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But now Jesus comes to the Samaritans’ defense. He tells his disciples that “the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”
  • This unpleasant Samaritan encounter must weighed on Jesus mind afterward. Because it’s not long thereafter that he lays out a parable for his disciples and a Jewish lawyer to ponder – the story of the Good Samaritan. This was in response to the lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbor?”
    Jesus tells the tale of a Jewish priest and a Levite who passed by a man on the roadside who had been beaten by thieves and who is then finally rescued by a lower class Samaritan. So at the end of his story Jesus asks: “Which of these three do you you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” The lawyer was boxed in, and so answered : “He who showed him mercy.” And so Jesus drives his point home, telling this lawyer to “Go and do likewise.”
  • Consider another encounter by Jesus with an outsider. Jesus and his disciples are traveling when a non-Jewish Canaanite woman accosts him, crying out: ““Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” Jesus refuses at first to acknowledge her. His disciples suggest that he act more definitively and tell her to go away.
    Jesus then observes that “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (an Israel first type of comment). The woman is not deterred as she comes and worships him, literally begging: “Lord, help me.”
    Jesus is still in no mood to lend a hand but rather responds in rather pejorative (if not racist) terms saying: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
    To her everlasting credit, this petitioner does not back away but again confronts Jesus with this rejoinder: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” At this, Jesus finds himself with little choice but to acknowledge: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.”
    Matthew’s gospel records that immediately (as at “that very hour”) the daughter was healed. Score one for confronting the divine and winning!

We could continue with yet other examples of Jesus’ seemingly contorted responses to the never-ending divisions between locals and foreigners, insiders versus outsiders. If this great teacher – this divinely appointed figure – comes across as conflicted, is it any surprise that people of otherwise goodwill might also come across as deeply divided?

Statutory vs. Common Law

There is one other issue that rears its ugly head in issues pitting insiders versus outsiders. That is the question of whether rules-based statutory law should prevail over a more flexible, situational common law approach. This conflict is particularly evident with the current immigration question of whether to follow existing statute which appears to mandate separation of children from parents versus a more humane and situationally responsive approach to the unique circumstances of this particular immigration crisis.

Again, the question could be posed: What would Jesus do? And again, Jesus’ position could come across as fairly confused – at least based on an initial cursory review.

After all, it is Jesus who is recorded by the gospel writer Matthew as firmly stating:

“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

This suggests a fairly rules-oriented messiah. However, Jesus could say one thing and do another. In practice, this itinerant master and his disciples would intentionally violate the myriad of legal provisions of first century Judaism – in matters both trivial and consequential – for example, engaging in prohibited practices ranging from picking corn to healing on the Sabbath.

And it was in response to the corn-picking incident that Jesus would opine for a more fundamental concept, that: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” To wit: laws were made for humans, and not humans for statutory compliance.

And there’s an even more fundamental statement, boiling down statutory to common law as two commandments. First, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And the second: “to love your neighbor as yourself.”

The bottom line is: when push comes to shove, Jesus is more of a common law and less of a statutory kind of guy. 

Of course, the first command is directed to those who are adherents to a heavenly kingdom and not applicable to an earthly state such as the U.S. with clearly stated separation of church and state.

Jesus’ second command is directly applicable to earthly common law – the dictum to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And who is your neighbor. It’s the one who is prepared to show mercy – not limited to sectarian or nation-state borders.

Take Aways

What can you or I take away from what Jesus has to say. Three possible answers – not necessarily comfortable, but yet maybe imperative:

  • Expect conflict even between persons of good-will – not all issues are readily resolved.
  • There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing localized over broader global concerns – so long as localized actions for the benefit of insiders do not come at the expense of outsiders.
  • Treat the outsider as you would want to be treated – consistent with the heavenly mandate of a creator who prioritizes mercy over sacrifice.

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For additional information on multiple topics of earthly to divine import from our web site, check out: http://www.jesustheheresy.com

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