The following are my notes from the annual Jesus Seminar on the Road in D.C., which this year was on April 5 on “Jesus and Politics in His Time and Ours”:
Early Christians turned Jesus into a divine Savior who demanded worship. The historical Jesus, however, talked about the Kingdom of God, not about himself. Jesus did more than simply talk about the Kingdom. He lived and invited others to live this radical vision of human life under God’s rule — not in the afterlife, but in the here-and-now.
Session I: Roy Hoover: “Josephus says that the Pharisees, Essenes, and Sadducees were the principal forms of Judaism in the First Century CE. How does the agenda of Jesus’ Kingdom of God message compare with theirs?”
- Jesus did not have an overtly political agenda [at least in his early ministry]; instead, about becoming genuinely the people of God.
- “Q” is a hypothetical list of Jesus’ sayings that many scholars believe was independently used by both Matthew and Luke in composing their respective Gospels. According to John Kloppenborg’s Excavating Q,
the center of Q’s theology is not Christology [that is, claims about Jesus’ status, such as Messiah, Lord, Song of God] but the reign of God…. The kingdom sayings of Q1 [the earliest layer of the Q document] are concerned with exhortations to a counter cultural lifestyle that includes love of enemies, nonretaliation, debt forgivness, and a willingness to expose oneself to danger, all undergirded by appeals to the superabundant care of a provident God. (391-392)
An excellent, accessible introduction to Q is Kloppenborg’s Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus.
Session II: Lane McGaughy: “How can Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God be translated into ethical terms? We will look at the implications of his sayings and actions both for individual and social ethics and by extension, for politics. The Temple incident in Mark 11:15-19 will be compared with the saying about taxes in Mark 12:12-17.”
- Poetics: how Jesus crafted a parable. Hermeneutics: how hearers heard/interpreted parables.
- Mark: parables are riddles (“told that they may not understand“). Matthew: parables are illustrations (“that they may understand”). Jesus Seminar: parables as metaphors.
- Iconoclasm: comparing Kingdom of God to leaven bread is flipping expectation on its head. In Judaism, expectation would have been unleavened bread (sacred from Passover story).
- Contemporary parallel: “The Parable of the Good Palestinian.” Another example would be Greg Barrett’s The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq:
In 2003, three U.S. Christian peacemakers weathered the first horrifying days of Shock and Awe in Baghdad only to be nearly killed in a car accident as they rescued by Iraqi Muslims who took them to a clinic in the bombed-out town of Rutba, where they received protection and care. In sending the Americas on their way, their hosts had only one request: God and tell the world of Rutba. In fulfillment of that pledge, the peacemakers returned to Rutba in 2010 to thank the doctors and all who saved them and to contribute to an ongoing process of peace, friendship, and reconciliation.
- The expectation of The Parable of the Mustard Seed would have been for the comparison to have been to a Cedar Tree, a symbol of empire in the ancient world. Among many Hebrew Scripture examples, consider Ezekiel 17:
22 Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. 24 All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.
The expectation is for Jesus to say that the Kingdom of God is will become like a Cedar Tree — that is, the tiny kingdom of Israel will grow to rival the Kingdom of Assyria, etc. But a Mustard Plant might be only a few feet tall — that the kingdom of God is like a weed, not what would typically be considered a rival to the empires of this world.
- To what extent are Jesus’ parables still relevant, classics, and polyvalent — and to what extent have they become obsolete due to cultural change?
Session III: Roy Hoover: “What wisdom about the relation between gospel and ethics might the church today gain from considering the case of the historical Jesus? If “What would Jesus do?” is not an adequate response to the ethical questions of our time, what is?”
- “Humanity’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but humanity’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” ~Reinhold Niebuhr, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses.
Session IV: Lane McGaughy : “The church’s struggle during the l960s was an attempt to recover its prophetic role in American culture. From the Puritans through World War II American civil religion combined piety and patriotism. This merger of religion and politics reached a boiling point during the McCarthy era of the l950s. What does the message of Jesus have to say to a culture in which piety and patriotism are equated and any prophetic challenge to the corruption of power is rejected as unpatriotic?”
- Recommended reading: Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
- Jesus’ parables created “word pictures” from an illiterate populace, who didn’t have direct access to reading Torah. Ancient literacy was 10% in Urban areas and 2-3% Rural Areas (Q and Mark could be the result of this level of “village scribe”).
Roy W. Hoover is Weyerhaeuser Professor of Biblical Literature and Professor of Religion Emeritus, Whitman College, where he taught courses in ancient Greek, biblical history and literature, capitalism and socialism in theological perspective, and world religions. Hoover is co-author with Robert W. Funk of The Five Gospels as well as co-author of The Authentic Letters of Paul (2010).
Lane C. McGaughy is the Geo. H. Atkinson Professor of Religious and Ethical Studies emeritus at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. The Interim Director of Westar Institute, he is the author of two books on New Testament Greek and of numerous scholarly articles in academic journals and anthologies. Dr. McGaughy co-authored The Authentic Letters of Paul (2010).Dr. McGaughy is an ordained United Methodist minister.
The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).
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