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Redrawing the Lines of God

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Jesus: The Jewish Teacher

Redrawing the Lines of God
Thursday, March 5, 2015

[Most religion] drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love [Jesus] and I had the wit to win:
we drew a circle that took him in!

–“Outwitted” by Edwin Markham (with my agreement added)

In Jesus’ time, the very architecture of the temple revealed what Jesus was trying to reform. The design of the building named and protected degrees of worthiness, as early stage religion always does. At the center was the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest could enter, and on only one day a year. This was surrounded by the court of the priests and the Levites, which only they could enter. Outside that there was the court of the circumcised Jewish men, which only they could enter.

The outer court of the temple was the court of the Jewish women, although during their menstruating years they could rarely enter the court, because of beliefs about blood, menstruation, labor, and ritual purity (see Leviticus 15:19-30). Outside this entrance there was a sign warning non-Jews, who entered the temple, that they would be punished by death.

In the temple we see structured in stone what all religions invariably do—create degrees of insiders and outsiders. Jews defined all non-Jews as “gentiles”; some Catholics still speak of “non-Catholics”; and many Muslims today call non-Muslims “infidels.” You would think the three monotheistic religions would be more enlightened. Almost everybody seems to need some kind of sinner or heretic against which to compare themselves—but only at the lower levels. Remember that Judaism is an archetypal religion, and what they do right and wrong illustrates the same pattern of most religions. On some level, we all create “meritocracies” or worthiness systems and invariably base them on some kind of purity code—racial, national, sexual, moral, or cultural. This is much of Leviticus and Numbers, the pattern of almost every Christian denomination after the Reformation, the dark lie of the Nazis, and today it takes the form of massive terrorism which has coopted Islam for its own purposes of supposed purity. The pattern never changes, because it is the pattern of the fearful and over-defended ego.

Now, perhaps, we are beginning to see what a radical reformer of religion Jesus really was. He showed no interest in maintaining purity systems, or closed systems of any kind, because they only appeal to the ego and lead no one to God. Jesus actively undercut these systems, even against his own followers when they wanted to persecute others (see, for example, Luke 9:49-56). He showed no interest in the various debt and purity codes of Israel (see Matthew 15:1-14), which are merely the religious forms of power and exclusion. In fact, Jesus often openly flouted many of the accepted purity codes of his own religion, especially the Sabbath prohibitions, rules about washing hands and cups, and the many restrictions that made various people “impure.” Jesus’ attempts at reform comprise half of the Gospel text directly or indirectly.

Jokingly, I sometimes say that Jesus appears to lie in a hammock from Saturday night until Friday at sunset, and he goes out of his way to do most of his work on the Sabbath! It is pretty obvious that he is provoking the religious system that puts customs and human laws before real people. Jesus says the same when his disciples are criticized for breaking these human commandments. He defends their official “sinner” status by saying to the lovers of the law: “The Sabbath was made for humanity; humanity was not made for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Such a line is rather scary and, frankly, rather “humanistic” in its immense implications for all law and religion. Even stronger is what Jesus said to the elders who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery: “Let anyone who is without sin, throw the first stone!” (John 8:7). Just that statement alone should have been enough to redirect the tangent of moralism, priestcraft, and purity codes. But sadly, it didn’t seem to have its desired effect on history.

Gateway to Silence:
Teach me Your truth.

Adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp. 105-106, 138

Image credit: Head of Christ (1648/detail) by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)
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