John the Baptist – Who Was This Guy, Anyway?

Meet one of the most enigmatic figures of the New Testament – the wild man known as John the Baptist. Consider this introduction by the gospel writer known as Matthew:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord;

Make His paths straight.’ Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire, His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

– Matthew 3:1-12 (NRSV)

What must of us know John comes from his name “the baptized.” Yet, this man clothed in camel’s hair is more than the Baptist – he is perplexing.

Stepping back from Matthew: Who was this wild man? What was his message about? And what is the relevance today?

The Players

To get started, it’s important to know a bit about the cast of characters – people important in the story of the Baptist:

  • Zechariah – of the priestly order – lived in a hill town of Judea, was chosen to enter the sanctuary of the Lord. In the temple, an angel appeared to tell him he would have a son who would “turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.”
  • Elizabeth – wife of Zechariah and descendant of Aaron (first priest), barren “getting on in years,” relative/kinswoman (possibly cousin) of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus.
  • John the Baptist – son of Zechariah and Elizabeth – born a year before Jesus, he grew to be a man who would “never drink wine or strong drink”. In the 15th year of emperor Tiberius’reign, he “went into the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
  • Mary, mother of Jesus, relative of Elizabeth and perhaps of well-known Jerusalem family – one that traditions says owned Garden of Gethsemane.
  • Joseph, (adoptive) father of Jesus, married Mary only after being talked into it by an angel. A carpenter by trade.
  • Jesus, son of Mary, born 6-4 BC just before the death of king Herod the Great.
  • Herod the Great (died 4 BC) client king of Caesar Augustus at time of Jesus birth. He died shortly thereafter.
  • Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, was made tetrarch of the Galilee by Rome. He was the ruler who would order the beheading of John the Baptist. And later, Jesus would stand trial before Antipas before being put to a temporary death by crucifixion.
  • Phasaelis, first wife of Antipas, daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea. Antipas divorced her to marry …
  • … Herodias, 2nd wife of Antipas, who herself was formerly married to Herod II (or Herod Philip I), a half-brother of Antipas.
  • Salome (?) – the unnamed daughter of Herodias is reputed to have danced before Antipas so becomingly that he offered up her to half his kingdom. She asked only for and received the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
  • Elijah – is the Old Testament prophet who some people of Jesus’ day say has returned in the likeness of John the Baptist. Much as Elijah was charged with the mission of challenging the idolatry of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel during Old Testament times, so John would take on the mission of challenging the illicit relationship between Herod the Tetrarch and his wife Herodias (the former wife of his half brother Herod Philip).

John The Baptist – Gospel Chronology

Now let’s scan the major recorded events of the Baptist’s life – including source of information in parentheses ( ):

  • Birth of John – to Zechariah and Elizabeth in Judea (Luke)
  • John’s Baptism of Jesus (all 4 gospels)
  • Jesus begins ministry in Galilee after the arrest of John – moving from Nazareth to Capernaum (Matthew)
  • John and Jesus – or disciples – both baptizing (John)
  • Rumor that “Jesus is baptizing more disciples than John.” (John)
  • John’s disciples come to Jesus and ask why his disciples don’t fast (Matthew, Mark)
  • A 2nd time, John who is now in prison sends his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the one – the Messiah (Matthew, Luke)
  • Jesus compares his testimony to that of the Baptist(John)
  • John is executed by Herod Antipas (Matthew, Mark)
  • Herod is reported as being perplexed at whether Jesus is “John had been raised from the dead.” – or Elijah. He says: “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Luke)
  • Jesus at Caesarea Philippi asks disciples who people say the Son of Man is, First response is “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah” then Peter says “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew, Mark)
  • Coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus says that “Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him. Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist. (Matthew)
  • In the Temple, Jesus is questioned as to his authority. He asks a question as to whether “the baptism of John comes from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (Mark)
  • And, finally. after escaping an attempted stoning in the Temple, Jesus says he has a “testimony greater than John’s.” (John)

Introducing Josephus

Before going further, it’s time to introduce one other character. For some added perspective on this wild and woolly Baptist, consider the testimony of a non-Christian, the Jewish historian Josephus. First a bit of background on this first-century historian:

  • Josephus was born a bit after the ministry of Jesus to parents of priestly and royal ancestry.
  • Even before turning 30 years of age, Josephus served as commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee at the beginning of the Jewish insurrection against Rome, before surrendering to the Roman army in 67 AD.
  • Like Benedict Arnold, Josephus then flipped to the other side, becoming an adviser to the Roman General and future emperor Vespasian. In this new capacity Josephus attempted (but failed) to negotiate a surrender by resistance forces in Jerusalem – with the result being the total destruction of the holy city in 70 AD.
  • In later years , Josephus became a prolific historian – who wrote major books still available today: The Jewish War (c. 75) and The Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94).

There are only three persons associated with Jesus and the early church that Josephus mentions in his writings. He does mention Jesus, but only as a one-paragraph (and hotly disputed) sidebar to his main story.

Josephus has much more to say about two other figures in the Jesus movement – John the Baptist and James the leader of the Jerusalem church. The reason he writes about these two followers of Jesus and not others is that they were important figures in the political as well as the religious events of 1st century Judaism. And maybe it’s not coincidence – but the Baptist and James are also both blood relatives of Jesus.

Josephus on John the Baptist

We are now ready to take a look at what the Jewish author and historian Josephus has to say some 65 years after the death of John the Baptist.

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.

Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.

Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. 

– Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5
(bold for emphasis)

What was the punishment of Herod about? Well, Josephus records earlier that it was for the taking of his half brother’s wife unto himself – the same sin that John the Baptist railed against. That divorce got Antipas into trouble not just with John, but with King Aretas, the father of Herod’s first wife Phasaelis.

Conveniently enough, a dispute arose with King Aretas over territory east of the Jordan on the border of Perea and Nabatea, and war ensued. History records that Antipas did not go down easily. He appealed to Roman emperor Tiberius to help but the emperor died before reinforcements arrived. Antipas not only lost a war to the father of his first wife, but he went on to lose his kingdom – under the reign of emperor Caligula  and at the instigation of his nephew Agrippa, who was brother of Herod’s 2nd wife Herodias. Antipas and Herodias would spend the remainder of their days in exile in Gaul (today’s France).

Now you probably have been told more than you ever known or wanted to know about the life of John the Baptist – about his political role as well as his spiritual mission. So, let’s turn to a question about his theology.

The Mikveh / Purpose of Baptism

Based on the seemingly contradictory testimony of gospel writers versus both secular and Christian historians, there is this nagging question: “What is baptism all about?”

For John the Baptist, the purpose as stated by the gospels Matthew and Luke was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But, as we just read, the Jewish historian Josephus has a different interpretation – that baptism was primarily for “the purification of the body,” not for anything about repentance.

Writing two centuries later, church historian Eusebius is even more dogmatic in restating John’s purpose – saying that the washing with water was “not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body.”

And we wonder why baptism remains such a touchy subject for Christians of different persuasions today …

For your consideration, here is a different take on this question – driven by wandering among the baptismal pools (or Mikvehs) that are lined around much of the Temple Mount even today in Jerusalem:

  • A Mikveh is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Biblical rules require full immersion in water to regain ritual purity after impure incidents contacts ranging from sexual activity to eating meat from an animal that died naturally. A person was required to be ritually pure in order to enter the Temple – creating a thriving business for pilgrims coming to Jerusalem as during Passover.
  • During the time of Jesus, there was an “explosion” of purity among the Jewish population in Palestine. There are countless excavated mikvehs around at least two sides of the Temple Mount. One can literally spend hours wandering around and through baths such as the one pictured on the screen. As you see, this particular mikveh has a low raised partition which is thought to have separated the descending impure person (on the right) from the pure person leaving the bath (on the left).

    Ritual mikveh bath near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount

  • More common are also smaller mikvehs with a single stairway – intended for no more than one person at a time.
  • The wealthy had their own purification baths, right in their own homes.
  • And there were larger pools as at Bethesda and Siloam (pictured as the place where Jesus sent a blind man to wash and receive sight). These were designed to accommodate almost all of the ritual purification needs of the large numbers of Jewish pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem at festival time.

    Pool of Siloam (an excavation in progress)

  • So we have different pools for persons of different means and needs. An observant Jew would use the pool for purification. John was on to something else when he spoke of and practiced baptism not just for purification, but for the more fundamental requirement of repentance.

Jesus View of John

How are we to deal with John’s message and politics? For an answer, look to Jesus.

Consider the occasion when John’s disciples come to Jesus and asked: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus avoids taking this head-on but instead responds by comparing himself to a bridegroom –saying don’t fast while the bridegroom is with you; that can wait till later.

And later, after John has been imprisoned, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus again avoids a direct answer, telling the messengers to tell John to look to Jesus’ example as one who heals the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf – who raises the dead and brings good news to the poor.

As the messengers leave, Jesus turns to the rest of the crowd and re-assures them that, yes, John is a prophet and a messenger who prepares the way. And he says:

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen! 

– Matthew 11: 11-15

In effect, Jesus both confirms John’s role and John’s fallibility in preparing the way for the kingdom of God. Despite being given a God-critical mission, John remains as much or even more a questioner of his faith than others who enter the kingdom.

Whether it’s with Jesus relative John or with us far removed from the action 20 centuries later, we don’t always get it. But maybe that’s ok, so long as we demonstrate humility like John, acknowledging that we are not even fit to carry Jesus’ sandals.

In Summary

Based on John the Baptist’s example, the question is posed: how then shall we live? Three observations are noted:

  • God calls some of us to be out on point all the time – or perhaps most of us to be on point some of the time – preparing the way for glimpses of his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
  • Don’t worry that we don’t fully measure up – that we often get confused or need to ask questions along the way. If John the Baptist could question his savior and his theology, then so might you or me. God can use us as we are – even with our questioning and our doubts.
  • When you move down the path of following this master, consider your baptism as an on-going event. The baptism of repentance, the baptism of the Holy Spirt and fire, and the baptism of purification.

And a Prayer

Heavenly Father, thank you that you call people like Elijah and John to prepare the way for your kingdom. Thank you for the courage and the willingness to question and to learn the wisdom that you impart. Help us to do our part when we are called to act as agents on your behalf – whether in matters mundane or monumental.

In your name,
Amen

——-

For more information on our web site, click: http://www.jesustheheresy.com

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Jesus vs Trump – On Trade (Part 2)

In the wake of the November election, I wrote that President-elect Trump’s opposition to free global trade was not only bad economics but downright immoral. Looking back to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the case is made that if The Donald is to define neighborly based on America first (to the exclusion or detriment of our extended neighbor network), then he’s missed the point of what the Christ advocated.

The message of Jesus is clear. Eternity belongs to the neighborly – even when it may cost to be neighborly. And in the end, squeezing our global neighbors will prove counterproductive. The road kill we pass by will inevitably include our own.

In this sequel to the earlier blog, a counterargument is made from another event during Jesus’ ministry. That counterclaim is that Jesus argued that taking care of your own comes before taking care of the alien, the other. Is Jesus contradicting himself? Or How are these two seemingly opposed viewpoints to be reconciled? And what practical advice can be drawn for application to the steps that Mr. Trump may take upon inauguration.

And was asked in the first installment of this blog discussion, the question is posed: What would Jesus say about being pro- or anti-trade? 

Jesus A Racist?

For a different perspective on how the Christ – the anointed one – might react we look not to a parable but to perhaps the most perplexing encounter that Jesus has with a stranger as recorded in the Christian New Testament. As recounted by the gospels of Matthew and Mark, this is Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman from the non-Jewish area of Tyre and Sidon (in present day Lebanon). Jesus deliberately left communities in the Galilee with Jewish population to venture into less familiar Gentile territory. He finds and enters a house where he could be incognito. But alas, his whereabouts are soon discovered – by a women desperate to find a cure for her demon possessed daughter.

The exchange that then unfolds between the male rabbi and the female foreigner is nothing short of astounding:

  • The Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.
  • Jesus doesn’t answer – but ignores this foreigner, this alien.
  • Jesus’ disciples pile on, urging Jesus to “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”
  • Then to make sure the welcome mat is withdrawn, Jesus for once supports the logic of his disciples, saying: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
    Implication: Preferred access to God’s kingdom is for the Jewish population to the exclusion of all others.
  • The woman tries again, calling out to him: “Lord, help us.”
  • At this point, the Savior of the universe comes across as more than a little bit perturbed, answering: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” Meaning little bitches, or at best little puppies. The debate over what Jesus meant rages down over 20 centuries. What we do know is that dogs were not man’s best friend in Jewish culture – but were low on the animal pecking order. As the Proverbs say, “As a dog returns to his own vomit, So a fool repeats his folly.”
  • In today’s world, Jesus remark would be taken as blatantly racist, certainly not politically correct. But this alien woman holds her ground, bypasses the insult, and responds with even a bit of good humor: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
  • She has the better of the exchange and Jesus caves: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed “that very hour.”

So, What Does this Have to do with Donald Trump & Global Trade?

Put yourself in the shoes of Jesus Christ – or Donald Trump. Do you see much difference?

  • Both demean the foreigner
  • Both espouse taking care of the people at home first
  • Both deliberatly insult the one(s) who come across as their adversary
  • Both engage in what at least appears to be racist rhetoric
  • And both are engaged in no holds barred negotiation.

Jesus makes a 180° turn, yielding to the woman’s better reasoned case. The Donald has shown, in some cases, similar flexibility (witness his bromances with Dr. Ben Carson, maybe even Mitt Romney). Could he cave on trade as well?

And the Moral of the Story Is …

Put aside the apparent put-downs, the seeming racism, the disingenuous baiting of the audience, the blatant inequity of parochialism. Admittedly, these are thorny moral questions. But morality may be irrelevant to outcome.

What is on display with Jesus  and Mr. Trump is the willingness, the seeming reckless abandon, to push for resolution that would not have been possible without an adversarial encounter.

And What does this Mean for the Global Community?

Based on the parable of the Good Samaritan,  I have argued that President-elect Trump’s opposition to free global trade is not only bad economics but downright immoral. How is the example of the caring Good Samaritan to be reconciled with the image of a grasping Canaanite woman and her belligerent all-powerful adversary?

The answer comes down to the distinction between free trade and fair trade:

  • The example of the Good Samaritan speaks loudly for free trade – a world where every nation, every person is our neighbor.
  • The example of the Canaanite woman speaks volumes for fair trade – if you’re going to get, you have to give.

So, it is for Mr. Trump. Uphold the global community. Reward those who can do more for less – for improved standard of living and reduced environmental footprint.

Concurrently, push without ceasing for exchange that recognizes the full cost versus benefit for all transacting parties.

And if it all involves a bit of hard-edged politics along the way, so be it.

—————–

Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician (Canaanite) Woman (Matthew 15:21-28, NKJV)

Then Jesus went out from there (around the Sea of Galilee) and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”

But He answered her not a word.

And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”

But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”

And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

—————–

For the first installment (Part 1) of Jesus vs. Trump on Trade, click: https://jesustheheresy.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/jesus-vs-trump-on-trade

And for additional information and insights on jesustheheresy, check out our full web site at: http://www.jesustheheresy.com

Jesus vs. Trump – On Trade

President-elect Donald Trump ran a campaign focused on scrapping current and pending trade agreements, and increasing tariffs on imported goods from countries like Mexico and China. It’s all part of an America First approach to doing business domestically and globally.

The arguments over trade are  being made on economic grounds. Free traders articulate the case that everyone is better off when people in each part of the world produce and sell what they’re best at doing. Those who would retreat from trade point to perceived and real loss of American jobs to other countries – especially in manufacturing.

But to date, few consider whether not just economic but more fundamental moral issues are at stake. Is it moral or immoral to say I will no longer buy from the country next door – or even half a world away?

And so the question is posed: What would Jesus say about being pro- or anti-trade? 

The short answer: Jesus is a free-trader. And not on primarily economic but rather on moral grounds.

Trump is wrong. So are fellow travelers Hillary and Bernie. Shutting down free trade is not just bad economics, it’s downright immoral.

Even if it could work, a beggar my neighbor world where my counterpart in China or Korea or Vietnam loses his or her job so I can (maybe) keep mine is helping is certainly not making human-kind better. But rather, more impoverished.

Jesus’ Good Neighbor World

Does Jesus have anything to say that bears on the morality of free versus restricted commerce? Very simply, it’s all to be found in the most famous story ever told by Jesus – the parable of the Good Samaritan.

If nothing else, Jesus is a story teller. In this case, the impetus for Jesus to tell the parable of the so-called Good Samaritan comes from Jesus’ interaction with a lawyer – a trained debater who wants to test the God-man by asking a basic question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds not with an answer but with a question of his own: “what is written in the law?”

As a legal question, the lawyer quickly gives a rote legal answer about loving the Lord your God with all your heart … and loving your neighbor as yourself. Jesus indicates the lawyer has passed His test: “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But rather than being shown up by an  itinerant Savior, the lawyer presses the point by asking a definitional question: “And who is my neighbor?” A bit like Bill Clinton before a grand jury parsing out “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

Jesus is more than game. He defines “neighbor” not as Webster’s or Wikipedia might do it, but with a story. And to refresh, here are the essential points:

  • A man is robbed and left half dead.
  • The first people to come across the beaten man are a priest and a temple helper, agents of a supposedly compassionate faith. Neither stops to help but stay away as far as possible.
  • Next comes a Samaritan, a low life in the eyes of the first century Jewish elite. But the Samaritan stops, treats the wounds, takes the victim to an inn, even pays for about 24 days of lodging during which time the wounds can heal. The Samaritaan even says he’ll pay more if the tab runs higher.

Here, Jesus’ story ends – as he focuses back on the lawyer to ask a pivotal question: “(who) was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer has no choice but to answer the obvious: “The one who showed him mercy.” Or as another New Testament translation puts it: “The one who helped him.”

And then comes the master’s punchline: “Go and do likewise.”

The World of Trump vs. Jesus

America’s president-elect is like the priest or the temple helper who passes as far as possible from the wounded, the “losers” of this universe. Perhaps a bit more charitably, The Donald might first go over, pull out the wounded’s ID to verify if this victim is native born – preferably one who voted for him on November 8.

For the president-elect, a woman or man is a neighbor only if bred and born in the U.S. For Jesus, the neighbor was the Samaritan – of a different ethnicity, a different religion, a different nation. For Jesus, our neighbor is as much the person in the Vietnamese footwear manufacturing shop or the Indian call center as it is the steelworker in Ohio or aircraft manufacturer in Seattle.

For Jesus, our neighbor is not only the person next door but the individual, family, nation half a world away. Our neighbor is anybody with whom we interact or affect – wittingly or otherwise.

The arbitrary restriction of trade would mean that the person or nation who can do the most for the least is cut out of the action – in favor of the person, business or nation that will do the least for more. Everyone loses. The productive soul that could do it best is displaced, impovrished, beaten. And the less productive entity gets its just reward by paying more for the same (or perhaps inferior) product, resulting in a reduced standard of living, especially for those of the most limited means.

There is a case to be made for free trade that is also fair trade – no selling below cost, no stealing someone else’s invention, no lying or cheating to make the sale. Jesus speaks favorably of those who play by the rules and work or invest for positive, predictable return.

But for those displaced by American industries no longer competitive, consider again the words of Jesus when he admonishes: “Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done in Capernaum (or China), do also here in Your country (state, city, rust-belt – as the case may be.)” No people, no country is entitled to rest on its laurels. Eachand every  day is a fresh new occasion to prove oneself worthy in the global marketplace of goods, services, ideas and values. 

Conclusion

There are two questions the lawyer asks. #1 – what can I do to inherit (not earn) never ending life? Jesus’ answer: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

Lawyer question #2 – who is my neighbor? Jesus’ answer: It’s anyone whose path I cross – whether intentionally or inadvertently.

In other words: I need to be prepared buy from or sell to the worker halfway around the world on similar terms as I would buy or sell from my immediate family member, co-worker, or store down the street. And to give each the same measure of respect.

The bottom line: if The Donald is to define neighborly based on America first (to the exclusion or detriment of our extended neighbor network), then he’s missed the point of what The Christ advocated. The message of Jesus is clear. Eternity belongs to the neighborly – even when it may cost to be neighborly.

In the end, squeezing our global neighbors will prove counterproductive. The road kill we pass by will inevitably include our own.

So come, listen to Jesus’ story, again and yet again. And then, act accordingly.

Rather than beggar thy neighbor; how about assist and enrich the neighbor – whether that neighbor be Mexican, Canadian, Indo-Chinese, Indian, African, Russian, Kurdish, or …

—————–

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37, NRSV)

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite (temple helper), when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii (paying for 24 days lodging), gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

—————–

For additional information and insights on jesustheheresy, check out our full web site at: http://www.jesustheheresy.com

Let my people go …

The people of the U.S. have spoken. And the electors will soon follow:

As Moses implored the Pharaoh of Egypt repeatedly: “Let my people go…

Moses’ campaign pleas were made on behalf of Israelites who believed in their leader as well as those who though this aged murderer was leading them to disaster.

President-elect Trump has just made a mockery of the elites of the U.S. – the pollsters, the media, the high-tech gurus, the entertainers, the Wall Street tycoons, the educators and those inside the Beltway.

The president-elect may be a coarse buffoon but he knows his people. He has made promises impossible to keep, but he has given hope to those screwed over by the last decade or more. Even as the elites have come to control more of the goodies while the “deplorables” work harder and receive less – except the patronizing derision of their new techno masters.

Moses called out: ‘”Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.”
The Donald cries out: “Let my people go, that they may celebrate the return of hope in the wilderness of a depleted middle America.”

Shame on the elites for dumping on those who made America great!

And the Trump cries out: “Let my people go, to work again in jobs that provide a livable income and a sense of self-worth in life.”

“Let my people go, to worship the God of their fathers and mothers, without fear of censorship or exclusion from the circles of community leadership and authority.”

“Let my people go, to rebuild families torn apart by underemployment, substance abuse, and an overweening state that parses out social welfare to keep the masses fat, satiated, and compliant.”

“Let my people go, to grab their share of capitalism’s booty and put the elites on notice that the thievery of arrogant liberalism is now cut short.”

As Jesus would say, “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” And that’s justice.

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Jesus the Boomer?

A columnist for the Washington Post, Dana Milbank, has recently posted a pre-election op-ed with the headline: “Baby boomers, you’ve done enough; it’s Generation X’s turn.”

The columnist’s invective is strong and spot on. While much of his fire is aimed at Donald Trump, much the same could be said of fellow baby boomer Hilary Clinton. As Milbank says: “Boomers, coddled in their youth, grew up selfish and unyielding. When they got power, they created polarization and gridlock from both sides. Though Vietnam War-protesting boomers got the attention, their peers on the right were just as ideological, creating the religious right.”

Beyond the harsh condemnation of the baby boom generation, Milbank offers a an insightful categorization of generational patterns that “repeat over time.” And jesustheheresy.com asks the question: could there have been a similar patterns of intra- and inter-generational conflict much earlier – for example, dating to the time of Jesus’ sojourn two millennia  back?

Generational Patterns

Consider first the four generational descriptions offered up by Milbank:

  • The Civics – most recently epitomized by those termed as the Greatest Generation, born in the first 2-3 decades of  the 1900s, serving on the front lines in World War II and building the post-war America of Leave it to Beaver.
  • The Adaptives – a much smaller cohort coming of age during the Depression and World War II, also known as the Silent Generation. 
  • The Idealists – aka today’s Baby Boomers born amid the great population explosion of 1946-64.
    Note: Donald Trump was born in 1946; Hilary Clinton in 1947.
  • The Reactives – today comprising the group known as Generation X, a much smaller cohort in numbers but now with the task to “clean up idealists’ messes.”

Milbank observes that idealists  are responsible for previous messes throughout American history. Idealistic generations led us into the U.S. Civil war, followed by a similar generation leading into the Great Depression, and with the latest incarnation of idealists giving us everything from civil disobedience in the 1960s to the financial collapse of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession.

But our columnist also offers hope via the next up-and-coming generation of Millennials. If history repeats itself, it will be today’s twenty-somethings who will take the helm as the next installment of Civics, building on the clean-up by Gen X of the now fractured American polity.

What Generation Jesus?

Can the American experience be translated back into the era of 1st century Palestine? Consider the evidence that Jesus’ generation may serve as a remarkable forerunner of today’s baby boomer set:

  • Start with The Civics – some of the greatest builders and power players the world has ever known – Caesar Augustus, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Herod the Great – all born between about 63 and 83 BC. Just as the Civics of the last century produced leaders of great good (Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower, Marshall), so this generation also produced those of great evil (as with Hitler and Stalin). Much the same could be said of the Civics that preceded Christ.
  • Then look for the Adaptives – a relatively silent generation then as well as more recently. Examples of persons born from the 50s to 20s BC include the conservative Jewish philosophical leaders Shammai (a counterpoint to the older and more liberal Hillel), Johanan ben Zakai (a primary contributor to the core text of Rabbinical Judaism after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD), and Philo (Jewish Hellenistic philosopher). Another born with this generation was the man who would become Emperor Tiberius during Jesus adulthood (and who retreated from the rigors of imperial governance for the isle of Capri after his own mid-life crisis).
  • Now we come to the Idealists – persons born from about 20 BC to the first decade of the common era – including Jesus, Jesus’ mother Mary (at the older end of the same generation), the disciples, Paul the apostle, and the birth of the Jewish zealot movement.
  • Finally, there are the Reactives – those born up to about 30 AD including King Herod Agrippa II (respected by Paul) and the Roman General and future Emperor Vespasian (who initially led the fight to suppress the Jewish insurrection against Rome starting 66-67 AD).

As is potentially the case with today’s Millennials who follow in the footsteps of America’s Greatest Generaion, so there was a new round of Civics born in the Mediterranean region in the decade of the 30s (about or just after the time of the crucifixion of Jesus). Examples are Luke (the writer of a gospel and the Acts of the Apostles), Josephus (Jewish general turned historian), and Emperor Titus (son of Vespasian, conquerer of Jerusalem and acclaimed final builder of the Roman Coliseum).

The Road Ahead

Despite strong condemnation of today’s baby boom generation, columnist Milbank concludes as bullish on prospects for a better world – as the reins of leadership and power are inevitably transferred from “narcissitic” boomers to Generation X and then the Millennials.

But just how rosy is that future? Yes, America patched up the wounds of the Civil War over the decades that followed. And, after another generation of idealists led us into the Great Depression, a world war pulled us out – establishing American preeminence that only now is beginning to fade. In both instances, the case can be made that the U.S. ended up better than before – despite the pain and suffering in-between.

But there is a darker scenario to consider – the experience of the 1st century AD. Rome fared well but first century Judea did not survive its spell of what Milbank terms as “hyper-partisanship and polarization and gridlock.” Rather than solving their own problems, the cities of Judea and Galilee were destroyed and the population dispersed – waiting nearly 1,900 years for the long awaited re-establishment  of a Jewish state in Israel. Two millennia earlier, the ultimate idealist – Jesus of Nazareth – saw it all coming in advance but stepped aside for history to take its own course.

As an American nation and as a global community, we may get lucky again – survive, heal and rebuild from the nasty divides engendered by the Clinton-Trump campaigns – not to mention all the rocky battles ahead. A positive outcome is by no means assured. The downside risk is that this American experiment fails; that democracy is proven as not sustainable. The Gen X’ers may start but not finish their clean-up of Boomer inflicted wounds on each other and the nations. Millennials will never get their chance to rebuild anew. And the world will be the worse for it.

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For additional information and insights on jesustheheresy, check out our full web site at: jesustheheresy.com

Jesus & New York Values

Ted Cruz lit the fuse back in January when he criticized the “New York values” of his campaign adversary Donald Trump. Since then, everyone who is anyone has piled on – exposing the widening chasm between urban versus suburban, exurban and rural perspectives on America.

Despite protestations, all of our candidates evidence traces of this American urban/rural dichotomy:

  • The son of a Cuban immigrant, Ted Cruz was raised a Texan but left for the elite meritocracies of Princeton and Harvard; wife Heidi has worked for JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs – all New York based Wall Street firms.
  • Born in Queens, counterpart Donald Trump epitomizes the wealthy New Yorker, stepping out for just two years to get educated at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Finance.
  • Like the Donald, Bernie Sanders was born a New Yorker, raised in Brooklyn, then ventured to Chicago and Israel before settling in Burlington, the largest city in the otherwise rural state of Vermont.
  • Hilary Clinton was born in Chicago, grew up in suburban Park Ridge Illinois, escaped for the more rarified worlds of Wellesley and Yale, went to Washington DC and then further south to Arkansas before returning to Washington and ultimately to New York as U.S. Senator from her newly adopted state.
  • The outsider of the group, John Kasich was born and raised near Pittsburgh, graduated from Ohio State University – but did burnish his “inside the beltway” credentials with 18 years in Congress including six years as House Budget Committee chair, before a private sector stint with Lehman Brothers and then currently as governor of Ohio.governorship.

With the departure of the man termed by The Donald as “lyin’ Ted Cruz” followed by dark horse Kasich, it appears that New York values trump all. Which specific New York values prevail – the in-your-face brashness of Trump, the socialism of The Bern, or the Wall Street coziness of Hilary – all remain to be seen.

Jesus & New York Values

Strange as it may seem, we have been here before. The conflict between rural and urban has animated humanity since the earliest days of civilization. And this interplay is nowhere as evident as with one Jesus of Nazareth. The questions posed here are two-fold:

Did Jesus embody rural (Galilean) or urban (Jerusalem) values?

And what message does the experience of 2,000 years past possibly convey today? 

At first blush, the answer seems obvious. The Galileans of Jesus day were the uneducated, poor working classes of Palestine – lorded over by Judeans and Romans alike. And Jesus’ home town was particularly insignificant. As John’s gospel records, one of the earliest disciples Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law, the One whom the prophets foretold—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathaniel responds dismissively with the rhetorical question: “Can anything good come from Nazaraeth?” Like any good Missourian of today, Philip is ready with the simple come-back: “Come and see.”

But let’s retreat back just another century or so in history. With the Maccabees successful revolt against foreign domination, the largely unsettled region of the Galilee was quickly repopulated. Much as  the rural kittbutzim of the 20th century served to secure the viability of the modern Israeli state, so the initiative to rebuild a self-sustaining economy prompted the re-settlement of urban Judeans to the countryside in the century before Christ as a means to make the deserts and marshes of the Galilee bloom again.

The available evidence suggests that, while perhaps disparaged by their urban counterparts, the Galilean settlers were a surprisingly educated, certainly religious, perhaps even sophisticated group. And the evidence is that Jesus knew how to mix it up in both worlds. Consider that:

  • His (step) father Joseph had family roots in Bethlehem, next door to Jerusalem; tradition is that the Garden of Gethsemane may have been owned by Jesus’ mother’s family.
  • At the mere age of 12, young Jesus engagedwith the teachers in the Temple – and those who interacted with the boy were “astonished at His understanding and answers.”
  • As an adult, Jesus was equally at home with the poor, the dispossessed and working classes of the Galilean villages as with the elites of the Jewish capital.
  • Even when on trial for his earthly life, he could confound an Idumean king, a Jewish high priest, and a Roman governor.
  • And the gospel writer John (possibly Jesus’ cousin), finds privileged access to the Herodian household even as Jesus finds himself inexorably led toward death by crucifixion – a disciple “known to the high priest” … who went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest as sidekick Peter was forced to remain temporarily outside the door.

The Aftermath

Even as he faced his own untimely demise, Jesus would lament over the fate of his adopted city:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ”

The destruction of the urban capital would be delayed beyond Jesus’ earthly sojourn by nearly two generations. But the destruction would come – a remarkable calamity for all. The leaders of the Jewish revolt and final defenders of the City before its destruction in 70 AD were the Zealots from out of the Galilee. While battling the Roman besiegers, within the City walls they were simultaneously executing the religious and political elites – even burning the graineries as added incentive for those still alive to fight for life. Meanwhile, their urban revolutionary counterparts – the Sicarii – fled the city to die via mass suicide at the desert fortress of Masada.

The Last Word

Today, the upper hand remains with the elites of the Big Apple – as disparate as they are. However, history suggests that in the end it is the folks of the hinterland that carry the day. Slow to anger, but with a fury not easily abated when finally aroused.

New York values may carry the day in 2016. But if the underlying frustration and anger of the electorate is not satisfied by this election, watch out! The fuse has been lit; if and when the explosion occurs for marginalized America is still anyone’s guess.

More: A Sampling of Recent Candidate Views on New York Values:

Exchange with Ted Cruz (January  2016):

MARIA BARTIROMO (Fox News): “Senator Cruz, you suggested Mr. Trump, quote, ’embodies New York values.’ Could you explain what you mean by that?”

CRUZ: “You know, I think most people know exactly what New York values are.”

Donald Trump (sometime long before 2016): “I’ve lived in New York City and Manhattan all my life. So, you know, my views are a little different than if I lived in Iowa — perhaps.”

Bernie Sanders (on the Nightly Show April 2016): “That’s right, it’s me, Bernie ‘Brooklyn Born’ Sanders, and guess what, Ted Cruz? I have New York values. I value a living wage for all Americans. I value a justice system that treats everyone fairly. I value a government which works for all of us, not just Wall Street and powerful special interests. Those are New York values.”

And in the closing remarks from the April 14 debate with the Bern just ahead of the state primary, Hilary Clinton was asking for the support of voters in her adopted state so she can take “New York values to the White House.”

From John Kasich: “I’ll tell you the way I see New York values: It’s excitement, it’s innovation, it’s fun, it’s big-time living.” And then the comparison with Ted Cruz and his views via TV ad: “Ted Cruz divides to get a vote, John Kasich unites to get things done.” (But no matter, both Ted and John are now out of the game).

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Harper Lee & Mary Magdalene

Reality & Myth Embedded in Go Set a Watchman

Wittingly or otherwise, the 89 year-old author Harper Lee has set off a firestorm with the release of her first novel – Go Set a Watchman written in the mid-1950s but released 55 years after her second book To Kill a Mockingbird. This new release turns the story of family patriarch Atticus Finch inside out.

Instead of the color-blind attorney of To Kill a Mockingbird, we now see an older Mr. Finch with clear vestiges of continuing if not hardened racism. All coming at a time when a now 21st century America that we thought might be post-racist  is again experiencing repeated instances of violent interactions between law and order and the nation’s African-American communities.

The story is fascinating not only for the re-take on the fictional Mr. Finch as villain (or perhaps realist), not hero. It’s fascinating on another level as well – for the interplay between the fictional child Scout now (or Jean Louise as adult) and the author Ms. Lee. A real life tale of mystery, perhaps intrigue.

All of which brings to mind a similar tale from two thousand years back – that of Mary Magdalene, devotee of one Jesus of Nazareth.

Parallels?

The details including the timing of the two stories are worlds apart. Yet there are interesting similarities:

  • It is difficult to know where the real world of Harper Lee merges with or diverges from the fictional world of Scout/Jean Louise. Similarly, it can be challenging to separate the reality from the myth of Mary Magdalene. Was the Magdalene the prostitute whom Jesus saved from stoning or was she the well educated daughter of a prosperous family who was possessed (or mentally ill) till encountering Jesus?
  • The men in the respective stories are both larger than yet inextricably part of the world in which they live. Are they heroic, or with feet of clay? Is Atticus a racist, realist, or hero? Is the Jesus of the beatitudes the same as the wild man who berated Jewish leaders, rampaged through the temple mount, belittled a non-Jewish woman, and cursed a fig tree? Was the man at the tomb just the gardener – or a resurrected friend?
  • What is the relationship of the women to the larger than life men in these stories? At the end of the day, is Jean Louise disowning or accommodating the vile characteristics she sees in Atticus? For Mary, is she merely a devoted acolyte (and financial supporter) or also romantically attached to her savior? Could there be any truth to the persistent rumors that they may even have been married?
  • And while there may be sexual overtones, isn’t the real action all about gender politics? Jean Louise standing up to father and boy-friend – both respected community leaders? Mary taking on the post-resurrection skepticism of the male apostles?
  • Bottom line, is Jean Louise the new hero or is she overly self-righteous and unaccepting? Is Mary Magdalene saint or sinner?

The Meaning of Mary

For a bit more perspective, let’s dive a bit deeper into the story of Mary Magdalene. Most likely, she came from the town of Magdala on the southwest coast of the Sea of Galilee.

After Jesus reportedly healed her by exorcising seven demons, she became a devoted follower. Along with other well placed women, she also may well have helped finance the travels of the carpenter from the Nazareth village and his entourage of male disciples.

The Magdalene was a doer, most clearly evidenced by her initiative to attend to the grave of her master at the earliest opportunity after death and the intervening Sabbath. This is where she takes center stage.

After the initial grave site visits, the disciples apparently return to their homes. Only Mary stays around the tomb site, where she then has her encounter with the assumed gardener, actually Jesus.

So, it was to the Magdalene that a newly resurrected Jesus first appears, as recorded by John’s gospel saying: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

The conflict between the women including Mary and the disciples can be found in the New Testament gospels – especially in the accounts of Mark and Luke indicating that their accounts were received by the eleven disciples as “idle tales.” It takes the fragmentary non-canonical manuscript of what is today known as the Gospel of Mary to offer a more detailed counterpoint to male-centric Christianity. For this, let’s travel back to the resurrection – this time as told by Mary.

Mary’s account begins mildly enough. Upon issuing a commandment to “preach the good news of the domain” (much as is recorded in the four gospels), Jesus leaves them. The disciples “were distressed and wept greatly”. It is at this point that Mary takes command:

Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all and addressed her brothers: “Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts by irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has joined us together and made us true beings.” When Mary said these things, she turned their minds toward the Good, and they began to ask about the words of the Savior.

Following this, Peter is reported as saying to Mary: “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the Savior that you know, but which we haven’t heard.” Mary then begins to “report to you as much as I remember that you don’t know.”

After speaking of the secrets of what she terms the seven Powers of Wrath, Mary falls silent. At this point, gender surfaces as the real issue:

“Andrew said: ‘Brothers, what is your opinion of what was just said? I for one don’t believe that the Savior said these things, because these opinions seem to be so different from his thought.’

After reflecting on these matters, Peter said, ‘Has the Savior spoken secretly to a woman and not openly so that we would all hear? Surely he did not wish to indicate that she is more worthy than we are?’

Then Mary wept and said to Peter, ‘Peter, my brother, what are you imagining about this? Do you think that I’ve made all this up secretly by myself or that I am telling lies about the Savior?’

It is Levi (Matthew) who finally comes to Mary’s defense, rebuking Peter for his “constant inclination to anger” and for “questioning the woman as if you were her adversary.” Mary carries the day, with Levi leaving to “announce the good news” of a resurrected savior.

A New Paradigm?

The Gospel of Mary (at least with the manuscript fragments as currently available) ends here. Clearly, this non-canonical (and deeply heretical) gospel provides the most open assessment of the tension between the sexes that appeared early in the history of the Christian movement.

From both New Testament and non-canonical sources, the weight of the evidence available is clear. Without the Magdalene to carry the message of resurrection, there would be no Christian church. For women, the message of this gospel also is one of hope; Mary prevails over the objections of other prominent male disciples.

For Jean Louise, Go Set a Watchman comes with reconciliation between father and daughter. After all the disagreement and hostility, Atticus tells his daughter: “I’m proud of you.” And he dismisses the harsh words spoken in the heat of the battle with the comment: “I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right – stand up to me first of all.”

What is the legacy that Mary of two millennia past and Harper Lee of the 20th century have in common? It resides in the victory of a voice of justice, a woman’s voice that prevails over the male-centric voice of tradition, no matter whether right or wrong.

Neither succeeded in full. Mary Magdalene kept the nascent Christian movement together at a point when all was falling apart at the seems. But any hopes of keeping her man were lost in the process.

Harper Lee (aka Scout, Jean Louise) gains the recognition of Atticus that justice needs to prevail over continued segregation. But at the cost of a revolution – transitioned to a slow (perhaps unending) work in progress. As the sins of racism continue to haunt a nation known for freedom – even into this current 21st century.

These are tales of reality interwoven with myth. With Mary, the biblical and non-biblical evidence is clear that she brought the early disciples back together when they were ready to call it quits. But, just how special was the nature of her individual relationship that may have made all this possible?

With the contending works of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, we are left to ponder the inter-relationship of the author with the subject(s) of her stories. Who speaks for whom? Will the real 89-year old Harper Lee please tell us what we should really think?

Epilogue: Reality & Myth in Go Set a Watchman

We end on the note that Harper Lee’s first (and most recently published) book is titled from a passage in Isaiah 21:5-6 of the Hebrew Scriptures, with the directive to:

Prepare the table,
Set a watchman in the tower,
Eat and drink.
Arise, you princes,
Anoint the shield!

For thus has the Lord said to me:
Go, set a watchman,
Let him declare what he sees”

Obviously, Harper Lee has some affinity for the Hebrew Scriptures. So did Jesus, for whom Isaiah was clearly his most quoted source.

In the novel, the watchman (the declarer) is the grown-up Scout, Jean Louise. She calls her father and community to task – with a little help from her Uncle Jack. In the New Testament gospels, a case can be made for Mary Magdalene as the watchman who declares that the movement isn’t over but just getting started – with a little help from her risen savior.

And that’s it for now – for the rest of the story.

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For a more complete account of Mary Magdalene’s role in the life and resurrection of her savior, click http://jesustheheresy.com/marymag.html

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