Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (25 October 2014)



  • Deuteronomy 34:1-12 & Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 [Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 & Psalm 1]
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
  • Matthew 22:34-46

First Reading: Death of Moses

The first reading this week describes the death of Moses—alone on a mountain, in sight of the promised land but unable to experience it, dying without any companions and with no one to bury him except Yahweh. It is a poignant ending to the story of Israel’s founding hero and its unsatisfactory character was perhaps intended as a device to encourage the reader to press ahead to the story of Joshua, the one who would lead the people of God into the land of blessing.

Dewey M. Beegle (Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary IV, 909–18) comments on this scene:

Thus, Moses vicariously bears Yahweh’s wrath against his people. His death alone in Moab takes on a vicarious quality as well. Yahweh buries him and “no one knows the place of his burial to this day” (34:6). There can be no sacred monument where pilgrims can share in a memorial ceremony for Moses. He must live in the hearts of the people as the greatest prophet of all, the one with whom Yahweh spoke “face to face” (34:10).

Second Reading: Church as religious club

Collegia and Koina in the early Christian movement

As we continue our series on 1 Thessalonians, this week we consider the question of what kind of social organization Paul formed as he moved from one place to another, leaving more or less viable Christian communities in his wake. Paul addressed his friends in Thessalonika as:

… the Assembly (Greek, ekklesia) of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

But how did he understand this new community? How would the members of Thessalonika “assembly” have understood their community, and in what way did it relate to the wider civic community? Were these primitive churches new social types created from nothing, were they adaptations of the traditional Jewish synagogue, or were they traditional Hellenistic social types?

For some time now, it has been clear that the voluntary associations found in many Hellenistic centers provide a convincing model for the creation and early development of Christian communities such as the Thessalonian church.

The Greek word for such a group is koinon (from which we derive the word koinonia, community or fellowship), while the Latin collegium survives in the English word, College. With that in mind, the familiar words of “The Grace” take on a new significance:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Categories of voluntary associations

Richard S. Ascough has been a prolific researcher in this area with numerous publications to his credit:

  • “Associations, Collegia, and Clubs.” The New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld. Nashville: Abingdon.
  • “Greco-Roman Philosophic, Religious, and Voluntary Associations.” in Richard N. Longenecker (ed), Community Formation in the Early Church and the Church Today. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002) Pages 3-24.
  • “The Thessalonian Christian Community as a Professional Voluntary Association.” Journal of Biblical Literature 119 (2000): 311–28
  • “Translocal Relationships among Voluntary Associations and Early Christianity.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 5 (1997): 223–41.
  • “Voluntary Associations and Community Formation: Paul’s Macedonian Christian Communities in Context.” Ph.D. diss., University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto School of Theology, 1997.
  • What Are They Saying about the Formation of Pauline Churches? New York: Paulist, 1998.

Ascough (2002) provides a helpful definition for voluntary associations as a specific kind of group in antiquity:

A “group” is generally defined as a collection of persons with a feeling of common identity, goals, and norms. For example, slaves working the Roman mines in Spain had—whether they liked it or not—a common social identity (slave), a common goal (mining), and shared norms of behavior (work or be punished). “Associations,” however, are more formal than groups. Associations are composed of persons who not only share common interests and activities but also have deliberately organized for some specific purpose or purposes. As such, associations have established rules of organization and procedure and established patterns of leadership.
Associations can be divided into two basic categories: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary associations have a membership based on birth or compulsion. This was generally the case with the demes and phratries of ancient Athens. It is also true of a conscripted army. Voluntary associations, however, are formed by persons who freely and deliberately choose to join and who can likewise choose to resign. Examples would be a guild of actors or a gathering of Isis worshippers.
Voluntary associations in the Greco-Roman world have a long history, going back at least to the laws of Solon in sixth-century B.C.E. Athens. Such associations continued to grow through the classical period and were flourishing in the Hellenistic period. During the first century C.E. their presence was felt throughout the entire Roman Empire in cities and villages alike—although, of course, there is considerably more attestation for associations in urban centers than in rural areas. A variety of extant sources attest to various voluntary associations in antiquity. These include literary texts, papyri, inscriptions, and archaeological remains.

In his opening contribution to the 2002 set of essays edited by Richard Longenecker, Ascough focuses on three types of associations in the Greco-Roman world:

(1) philosophical associations, which are sometimes called philosophical schools;
(2) public religious associations, which are often called “mystery religions”; and
(3) private religious and professional associations, which are usually referred to more generically as “voluntary” associations.

His comments on the public religious associations can be noted briefly before we consider in more detail his description of the private religious associations which may have provided the model for many early Christian communities:

When discussing “religious associations” the primary focus is usually on the ancient mysteries, which are often misnamed “mystery religions.” Walter Burkert distinguishes three types of organization around the ancient mysteries: (1) the itinerant practitioner; (2) the sanctuary; and (3) the association of worshipers (Ancient Mystery Cults, 31). In the case of the itinerant, “there was no backing by a corporation or community” (ibid., 31). The remaining two categories can be characterized as “public” and “private” religious associations, respectively. And although they had some similar organizational characteristics, they were dissimilar enough to warrant separate investigation. Public religious associations were most often found connected to a public sanctuary and fell under the administration of the city (polis). Within this realm lies the mystery cults, which themselves were often tied to the polis—as was the case of the mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis, near Athens. Other well-known and popular mysteries include those of Dionysus, Demeter, Isis, and Mithras. For the most part these mysteries began as local cult groups but, at least by the first or second century C.E., grew to have a broader appeal throughout the Greco-Roman world.

His general observations about the character of private religious associations are immediately relevant to early Christianity:

Whereas the philosophical associations (“philosophical schools”) and public religious associations (“mystery religions”) were legal within the Roman Empire, private religious associations and professional associations (usually referred to more generically as “voluntary” associations) were technically barred under various Roman laws enacted as early as 184 B.C.E. Exceptions were granted to associations considered to have been established for some time—as, for example, the Jewish synagogues, which used this exemption to claim protection from local civic authorities. Yet despite occasional suppression by the authorities, voluntary associations never completely disappeared, and they were always able to reassert themselves as a viable presence in Greco-Roman society.

Private Religious Associations

Private religious associations met for the primary purpose of religious worship, but did so outside of the larger, civically sanctioned mysteries and cults of the day. Their domain was generally domestic—although a number of associations met in public spaces, and some even met as private religious associations within a larger public cult. Membership in a private religious association was based primarily on the attraction of the particular deity or deities worshiped. As such, they tended to draw persons from all strata of Greco-Roman society— although the elites of society were probably not as numerous in such associations as were the urban poor, slaves, and freed persons. Religious associations were generally gender-inclusive, at least in admitting to membership both males and females. As one inscription puts it, they are open to “men and women, freeborn and slaves” (SIG, 3d ed., 985). One even finds instances of the membership of children in Dionysiac religious associations. Nevertheless, there were also religious associations that were gender-exclusive—either all male or all female. And in mixed gender associations positions of leadership tended to be predominantly male, although there were a number of exceptions.

In view of Paul’s personal occupation as a “tent maker,” it is also worth noting what Ascough has to say about professional associations based on the members’ occupations:

Professional voluntary associations, or guilds, were made up of artisans or manual laborers. Guilds from a wide range of professions existed throughout the Greco-Roman world. Among laborers there were guilds for almost every profession, including leather-workers, purple-dyers, carpenters, bakers, tanners, silversmiths, and the like. Domestic workers tended to stick together and so formed associations comprised exclusively of such. Entertainers had their own guilds; evidence exists for such associations as actors (“Dionysiac artists”), gladiators, and athletes. Professional musicians even formed themselves into professional associations, with their members being employed each year for the various cultic celebrations—such as those of the Andanian mysteries. There are, in fact, very few professions not represented in the extant records of the professional voluntary associations of antiquity.
Although the central commonality among members of professional associations was their occupation, the religious aspect of such associations should not be discounted. In every instance professional associations claimed the patronage of a deity or deities, and they took seriously their worship of such deities; whenever they met, the gods were invoked, and special festivals and rituals were central to their communal life. Often the deity or deities chosen had some connection to the particular profession. Thus we find such connections as a Delian association of shippers who worshipped Poseidon, the god of the sea, or an association of gardeners dedicated to the earth goddess Demeter. A number of different professions were associated with Dionysus, such as winegrowers, cowherds, actors, and pantomimes.
Professional associations, as well as private religious associations, were generally small in terms of membership, averaging perhaps fifteen to one hundred— although at times they could reach as high as four hundred or even twelve hundred members. The social status of the members was generally tied to the status of their particular profession within Greco-Roman society. As a highly structured culture, each profession would have had its place within the social stratification of the day. It is therefore safe to assume that, being laborers, the majority of the members of professional associations were of the artisan class, and so generally poor. Within this underclass, however, professional associations could include slaves, freed persons, and free persons. In a number of instances, in fact, recorded members of professional associations have three names, which indicates that they were Roman citizens. Likewise, the professional associations of antiquity had some wealthy members and drew on patrons to sponsor their activities.

Ascough discusses questions such as the role of gender in these associations, their organizational structures, their finances and key functions, the role of benefactors and the pathways to leadership roles within the association, tensions between different associations and between members of the same association, allegations of immorality made by outsiders and internal admonitions to moral conduct.

He then cites a particularly illustrative text from Philadelphia, in Egypt, where a papyrus text sets out the “authoritative” laws of the association (synodos) of Zeus Hypsistos (P. Lond. 7.2193; dated about 69–58 B.C.E.). The association met in a public temple and elected a president and his assistant for a one-year term, during which time a monthly banquet was to be held, with libations, prayers, and “other customary rites on behalf of the god.” The text then goes on to set forth the association’s communal regulations:

All are to obey the president and his assistant in the matters pertaining to the association (koinon), and they shall be present at all command occasions to be prescribed for them and at meetings and assemblies (synagogai) and outings. It shall not be permissible for any one of them to [. . . . . . . . ] or to make factions or to leave the brotherhood of the president to join another brotherhood or for men to enter into one another’s pedigrees at the banquet, or to abuse one another at the banquet, or to chatter or to indict or charge another or to resign for the course of the year or again to bring the drinking to nought.

The Island of Delos

Ancient Delos is often cited as an example of a Hellenistic community whose archaeological remains provide a glimpse into the diversity of public and private religious associations from that era. John Dominic Crossan (In Search of Paul, 48) describes the evidence from Delos:

Over twenty congregational cults are mentioned on Delian inscriptions, and a number of their buildings have been excavated. Down in the civic center, altars and inscriptions testify to the “Hermaistai,” a collegium of Italian merchants who gathered under the patronage of and sacrificed to the Roman god Mercury, whom the Greeks called Hermes. Another inscription mentions the association called the “Heraclesiastai of Tyre, Merchants and Shippers,” a group from the Phoenician coastal city of Tyre who worshipped the ancient Semitic god Melkart, now called Heracles in Greek. Another Phoenician association, the “Poseidonistai of Berytos, Merchants, Shippers and Warehousemen,” met under the patronage of the sea god Poseidon and sacrificed to him for safe passage.

A little later on the same page, Crossan describes one of the sarapeia, buildings dedicated to the worship of the Egyptian god Sarapis and his consort, Isis:

[The first Sarapeion] enclosed by walls and rooms encircling a courtyard that contained a small temple, was somewhat sheltered but not quite hidden from public view. That temple housed the deities’ images and was built above a subterranean crypt and spring. Outside the temple in the courtyard there was a moneybox for donations and three altars where oxen, pigs or birds were once sacrificed, and behind that was a large trapezoidal dining hall with marble benches lining all four walls. A lengthy inscription found there proclaims that “seats and eating couches were installed in the dining hall for the feast to which the god invites us,” and a now damaged relief portrays the goddess Isis serving Sarapis as he dines at a banquet. The members not only sacrificed but also socialized in the Sarapeion by eating the meat at sacred meals honoring Sarapis and Isis.

Crossan expresses the underlying question:

Is this little dining hall, which seats some or or two dozen people, the sort of place we should imagine Paul celebrating the Lord’s Supper? Or is this the sort of place that newcomers expected after Paul invited them to a communal meal? Or did they anticipate a Jewish model instead of a pagan one?

Crossan answers his final question with a brief description of a Jewish synagogue found at Delos, whose architectural features are “not much different from that of any other voluntary association.” The structure is identified as a synagogue mostly because of epigraphic data from some surviving inscriptions that refer to “the Most High God.” Crossan draws out the significance of this discovery:

… the structure was not radically distinct from its context or clearly identifiable as Jewish. Jews had, to some degree, assimilated architecturally to their diaspora settings, and those on Delos had adopted the more or less common structure of the island’s other voluntary associations. Like the members of those other groups, they sat on benches and held banquets; and they inscribed in Greek like their neighbors and not in Hebrew like their ancestors. But unlike their neighbors they had no altars and no sacrifices, since, for Jews, sacrificing was only valid in Jerusalem, just as, for Samaritans, it was only valid on Mt Gerazim. In accordance with the second commandment of Moses, they had no shrines set aside for statues and no images of their deity, even though a few lamps with pagan images were found inside the building. Like many later synagogues, it faced the rising sun, but so did many pagan temples.

Paul and the koinonia of Christ

The widespread social phenomenon of the congregational cult, as Crossan terms the ancient koina, provided Paul with both a network of communities within which he could operate, as well as a familiar model for his fledgling communities to adopt for their own communal gatherings to celebrate the supper of the Lord, to share the cup of blessing, to share the one bread and to pool their resources for the common good. This context helps us make sense of a text such as 1 Cor 10:14-22, which now reads almost like a Christian parallel to the rules of the synodos of Zeus Hypsistos:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Gospel: Jesus and the Pharisees

The Gospel this week presents two incidents in which Jesus confronts the Pharisees, serving here as representatives of post-70 Judaism.

Recent studies of Second Temple Judaism and of Galilee prior to the Jewish-Roman war have suggested that Pharisees were not typically found in Galilee in the time of Jesus, but would have been present in Jerusalem. While Christians have often contrasted the theological emphases of Jesus and the Pharisees, these stereotypes may not reflect the situation in Jesus’ own time. Indeed, the only first century Pharisee whose religious writings have survived is Paul of Tarsus, the great Apostle of Jesus. While he describes himself as a persecutor of Christians prior to his own encounter with the risen Christ, it is not cear whether his vehement opposition to “the Way” was derived specifically from his beliefs as a Pharisee or more generally from his disposition as a Torah-observant Jew.

Anthony J. Saldarini has been one of the leading scholars researching this topic. The following extracts from the synthesis at the end of his extensive article in the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (V, 289-303) is both enlightening and cautionary:

The Pharisees in Josephus’ narrative function as a political interest group which had its own goals for society and constantly engaged in political activity to achieve them, even though it did not always succeed. They generally did not have direct power as a group and were not as a whole members of the governing class. They were members of a literate, corporate, voluntary association which constantly sought influence with the governing class. As such they were above the peasants and other lower classes but dependent on the governing class and ruler for their place in society. They were found in Jerusalem, and they probably fulfilled administrative or bureaucratic functions in society at certain times. They appear in each era of Jewish history from the Hasmonean period until the destruction of the Temple struggling to gain access to power and to influence society.
The Pharisaic association probably functioned as a social movement organization seeking to change society. The social, political, and economic situation of Palestinian Jews underwent a number of upheavals in the Greco-Roman period which demanded adaptation of Jewish customs and a reinterpretation of the Jewish identity fashioned by the biblical tradition. The Hasmoneans and the governing class changed Israel into a small, militarily active Hellenistic kingdom and took control of political and economic resources in order to control society. The Pharisees probably sought a new, communal commitment to a strict Jewish way of life based on adherence to the covenant. If they did so, they sought to capitalize on popular sentiment for rededication to or reform of Judaism. Such popular sentiment can produce a social movement which seeks reform, but a long-lasting, complex campaign for reform or renewal requires the formation of a social movement organization which aims at promoting or resisting change in society at large.

A major question unanswered by the sources concerns the daily activities of the Pharisees and the source of their livelihood. The older theory that they were urban artisans is very unlikely because artisans were poor, uneducated, and uninfluential. The more common theory that the Pharisees were a lay scribal movement, that is, a group of religious scholars and intellectuals who displaced the traditional leaders and gained great authority over the community (most recently, Rivkin 1978: 211–51), is likewise very unlikely. Though some Pharisees were part of the governing class, most Pharisees were subordinate officials, bureaucrats, judges, and educators. They are best understood as retainers, that is, literate servants of the governing class, who had a program for Jewish society and influence with both the people and their patrons. When the opportunity arose, they sought power over society. This means that their organizations cannot be viewed as a monastic-like community or withdrawn sect which demands primary and total commitment from every member. It is most likely that Pharisees were active in a number of occupations and roles in society and were bound together by certain beliefs and practices and by endeavors to influence social change.
Concretely, a person was not primarily a Pharisee. A member of the Pharisees retained his family and territorial allegiances, his roles in society and occupation, his friends and network of associates. In some way not revealed in reliable first-century sources he committed himself to be a Pharisee, and this commitment with its particular understanding of the Jewish covenant and Jewish life guided many of his endeavors and claimed a part of his time, energy, and resources. The Pharisaic movement has some characteristics in common with Greek schools of thought and must have educated its members to some degree. This view of the Pharisees, admittedly hypothetical due to lack of evidence, is consistent with what the sources tell us of the Pharisees, including the information given by Saul the Pharisee.

The greatest commandment

The first exchange this week presents a classic scene that certainly can be imagined within the context of 1C Judaism, but is even more likely to reflect the tensions between followers of Jesus and Torah-observant Jewsh communities in the final decades of the frst century.

The following excerpts from the notes at 201 The Chief Commandment underline the essential Jewishness of this question, and of Jesus’ response:

A proselyte approached Hillel with the request Hillel teach him the whole of the Torah while the student stood on one foot. Hillel responded, “What you find hateful do not do to another. This is the whole of the Law. Everything else is commentary. Now go learn that!” (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b-24a) Jesus’ saying about the double commandment of love was clearly coined before his time. … both verses from the Bible (Deut. 6:5 and Lev, 19:18) begin with the same word. It was typical of rabbinic scholarship to see similarly phrased passages from the Bible as connected in content also. The first great commandment of Jesus—love of God—was thus in harmony with the spirit of contemporary Pharisaism. … the double commandment of love existed in ancient Judaism before, and alongside, Jesus. The fact that it does not appear in the rabbinical documents that have come down to us is probably accidental. Mark (12:28-34) and Luke (10:25-28) show that on the question of “the great commandment” Jesus and the scribes were in agreement. [David Flusser, Jesus, 89f]

Son of David

The theme of Jesus as a descendant of David enjoys early and wide attestation in ancient Christian texts, as reviewed at 007 Of Davids Lineage

In this scene the theme is asserted in an argument that relies on a pre-critical understanding of the Psalms, but reflects a widely-attested view of the Psalms as prophetic texts. Such views are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as in the New Testament texts. They presumably reflect the biblical knowledge of early Christian scribes rather than the rhetorical strategies of Jesus himself.

In the aphorisms and parables—which seem to reflect the “voice print” of Jesus more closely than a passage such as this—there is no suggestion that Jesus relied upon Scripture for his material, nor that he engaged in the hermeneutical practices of the scribal elites—such as we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Rather, Jesus seems to have been an oral poet who drew his inspiration from observations of everyday life and from his participation in the life of Second Temple Israel, a community whose values and hopes were inscribed in the Scriptures but mostly transmitted in the living oral tradition of a society with minimal literacy rates.

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (19 October 2014)



  • Exodus 33:12-23 & Psalm 99 [Isaiah 45:1-7 & Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)]
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
  • Matthew 22:15-22

First Reading: Close encounters of the divine kind

This week’s first reading, from Exodus 33 in the Old Testament, is one of the classic biblical stories of a close encounter with the sacred reality whose radical otherness typically generates a profound sense of awe and mystery when humans find themselves in close proximity to the One who escapes all our attempts to define or manipulate.

Other similar texts that might profitably be read in conjunction with this week’s passage include:

  • Jacob wrestling with the stranger by the River Jabbok (Gen 32:22-32)
  • Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-14)
  • Elijah and the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13a)

The influential work of Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) is especially relevant here, with his definition of numinous as a mystery (Latin: mysterium) that is at once terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans).

Second Reading: Paul to the Thessalonians

This Sunday all the major western lectionaries begin a series of readings from the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. In the case of the RCL, the selections over the next 5 weeks will be as follows:

  • 1:1-10
  • 2:1-18
  • 2:9–13
  • 4:13-18
  • 5:1-11

Rather than focus on the Gospel reading, as would usually be the case, our notes over those weeks will take up issues related to that letter:

  • Letters in antiquity
  • Paul as founder of local Christian community cells
  • Thessalonika: the city and its culture
  • Practical holiness: Facing death with hope and courage
  • Practical holiness: Anticipating the coming of the Lord

New Testament letters

When Paul composed a letter to the fledging Christian community at Thessalonika in the northern winter of 49/50 CE he was doubtless unaware that this marked a literary milestone: the first piece of Christian literature and the earliest writing for the future New Testament Scriptures.

The opening formula observes traditional forms and yet hints at the significance of the new movement that was beginning to take shape in the eastern Mediterranean:

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians
in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.

Twenty-one of the 27 books that comprise the NT are letters:

  • 13 attributed to Paul
  • 3 attributed to John
  • 2 attributed to Peter
  • 1 attributed to James
  • 1 attributed to Jude
  • 1 anonymous (Hebrews)

In addition we also find more letters embedded in other NT books:

  • Acts
  • Revelation

The Revelation to John is an apocalypse, but it has the overall form of a letter and contains a series of letters to individual local churches.
The four Gospels represent the only other literary type found within the NT, and even then this unusual “gospel” form owes much to the idea of an imperial announcement rather than the genre of the Life.

The letter was clearly a favorite literary form of earliest Christians, and we find it well represented in the extra-canonical Christian writings from the first two or three centuries along with apocryphal Acts and Gospels.

For a helpful list of these texts see Peter Kirby’s Early Christian Writings web site.

For a select set of letters from the ancient world chosen for their relevance to this topic, see:

1 Thessalonians

Paul’s longer letter to the Christian community in Thessalonika is usually dated to 49/50 CE. As we have noted, this would make it the earliest written text in the New Testament.

The shorter letter to Thessalonika (usually called “2 Thessalonians”) is either a letter written within a few weeks of the other letter — either before or after — or else it is a later forgery that has been written on the model of 1 Thessalonians. That is a not a debate that needs to detain us at this stage, but it is interesting to note that 2Thess is aware of false letters as well as the need to offer some form of authentication:

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. (2Th. 2:1-2,15)

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. (2Th. 3:17)

In the case of 1 Thessalonians, Paul has the following major sections:

  • Opening Formula (1:1)
  • Prayer of Thanksgiving (1:2–3:13)
  • Message (4:1–5:24)
  • Closing Formula (5:25–28)

Note the traditional ending, including the instruction for the letter to be read (out loud?) to all members of the community being addressed:

Beloved, pray for us.
Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.
I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

Of more significance, however, is the impact of the considerable expansion of the brief prayer of thanksgiving so that is covers three chapters. With 42 of the 89 verses in the letter, this section represents almost half the total length, and is exactly the same length as the formal instruction section (4:1–5:24).

Such an unusual emphasis gives the letter a very positive tone, and celebrates the affectionate relationship enjoyed by author and addressees. It stands in stark contrast to Galatians, where there is no thanksgiving — just an immediate verbal attack on the recipients:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! (Gal. 1:6-9)

Next week we shall explore what we know about this early community to whom Paul addressed such an affectionate letter.

Gospel: Whose head on the coin

The following is an extract from Gregory C. Jenks, Jesus Then and Jesus Now: Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves (Morning Star / Wipf & Stock, 2014):

Ch. 2: Whose Head is on the Coin?

“Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:15b–17)

The well-known episode in the gospels when Jesus asks to be shown a coin, and then asks whose head is on it, alerts us to the value of coins for anyone seeking to understand the social and political dynamics of first-century Palestine. In the first place, the assumption that at least one of those standing around him would have some coins indicates the extent of monetization in the territories of Herod and his successors. Secondly, the presence of the emperor’s image on the coin reflects both the power of Roman influence in everyday Jewish affairs, as well as the avoidance of such images on coins minted by Jewish authorities. Coins were more than a means of exchange, they were symbols of the tension between the empire and its Jewish subjects.
As Jesus moved about among the villages of Galilee and navigated the complex responses of his contemporaries to the raw reality of Roman rule, a scene such as this would not have been improbable. Mark locates the confrontation in Jerusalem during the final days of Jesus’ life, but the underlying dynamic was always a factor in the time of Jesus as it was also when these traditions were finding written forms in the gospels known to us. This incident could have happened anywhere in Roman Palestine.

[Footnote 46] The question of just which type of coin was involved in this episode is one we may never be able to resolve. With the exception of coins issued by Philip the Tetrarch, coins with the image of the emperor did not circulate in the Jewish territories in the time of Jesus. On the other hand, pilgrims visiting Jerusalem for Passover may well have brought such a coin with them from the Diaspora, and their reason for seeking a ruling from Jesus may not have been as mischievous as the Synoptic Gospels now suggest. For an interesting suggestion on the identity of this coin, see Lewis, “The Actual Tribute Penny”.

For some further brief notes on this classic pericope in the NT Gospels, see the relevant Jesus Database page: 055 Caesar and God

One of the items on that page is the following poem by Gene Stecher:

Lawyers and politicians are everywhere,
Silver tongued hypocrites running for office.
You sir, are the embodiment of integrety,
Does the law require taxes to be paid?
Now would that be Hebrew law or Roman law.
This Denarius has Caesar’s head, right?
Everywhere you look and see Caesar’s image,
return whatever it’s stamped upon to him.
Every where you look and see God’s image,
return whatever it’s stamped upon to him.

Jesus Database

  • 055 Caesar and God – (1) Gos. Thom. 100; (2) Eger. Gos. 3a [50-57a]; (3) Mark 12:13-17 = Matt 22:15-22 = Luke 20:20-26.

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (12 October 2014)



  • Exodus 32:1-14 & Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 (Isaiah 25:1-9 & Psalm 23)
  • Philippians 4:1-9
  • Matthew 22:1-14

Kissing calves

The episode of the “golden calf” is an archetypal symbol for apostasy, and it has an interesting history within the biblical texts.

As the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary entry indicates, there are 4 major biblical references to this topic as well as several minor references:

  • Exodus 32:1-35 (the basic story and the OT reading for this Sunday)
  • Deut 9:13-21 (Moses berates the people for their apostasy but the calf is not central to the passage)
  • 1 Kings 11-12 (Jeroboam sets up a golden calf in the royal sanctuaries at Bethel and Dan)
  • Hosea condemns Israel for its worship of gold and silver calves (Hos 8:4-5; 10:5–6; 13:2)

Since the Hosea passages may be less known, and yet also present fewer historical problems, they may be worth citing in full here:

They made kings, but not through me;
they set up princes, but without my knowledge.
With their silver and gold they made idols
for their own destruction.
Your calf is rejected, O Samaria.
My anger burns against them.
How long will they be incapable of innocence?
(Hosea 8:4-5 NRSV)

The inhabitants of Samaria tremble
for the calf of Beth-aven.
Its people shall mourn for it,
and its idolatrous priests shall wail over it,
over its glory that has departed from it.
The thing itself shall be carried to Assyria
as tribute to the great king.
Ephraim shall be put to shame,
and Israel shall be ashamed of his idol.
(Hosea 10:5-6 NRSV)

And now they keep on sinning
and make a cast image for themselves,
idols of silver made according to their understanding,
all of them the work of artisans.
“Sacrifice to these,” they say.
People are kissing calves!”
(Hosea 13:2 NRSV)

The minor references to the golden calves can be listed as follows:

  • 2 Kings 10:29-31 refers to the sin of Jeroboam and condemns Jehu (king of Israel, 842-815 BCE) for not eradicating the calf cult
  • 2 Kings 17:16 explicitly names the maming of the two golden calves as one factor leading to the fall of the northern kingdom
  • 2 Chronicles 11:13 & 13:8 refer to calf cult in negative terms
  • Nehemiah 9:18 includes the golden calf in the time of Moses among the sins to be confessed
  • Psalm 106:19 refers to the making of a calf at Horeb

It seems clear that there was a well-established place for an image of a young bull in the cult of Yahweh in ancient Israel. This was apparently popular in the northern community but not adopted in the temple cult of Jerusalem. They, of course, had their own favourite cult images, including the large bronze serpent, known as Nehustan (cf 2 Kings 18:4).

See the Healing Serpent tradition in ancient Judah for more details on the southern religious traditions.

In ANE iconography the bull, and especially the bull-calf, was a symbol for Baal and related deities. Its occurence in the worship traditions of the Israelite tribes associated with the northern kingdom would be entirely consistent with the cultural continuity they shared with their neighbours and what the OT tells us in other passages about the survival of non-Yahwistic worship practices in both Israel and Judah.

The famous stela from the Iron Age IIB stratum at Bethsaida is graphic evidence for the bull-god tradition in this region:
Whatever the historical origins of this golden calf which Hosea—a northern prophet active in the middle of the 8C BCE—roundly condemns, it has clearly been picked up by the southern writers as the defining sin of their northern cousins. Whether or not the northern traditions projected the origins of its calf symbol back to the time of Moses, just as the southern tradition projected its bronze serpent back to Moses, the authors of the Pentateuch and of the great National History found in Joshua-Kings, as well as the post-exilic authors of the Chronicles & Ezra-Nehemiah all viewed such a practice as a very serious error.

While the OT does not have the concept of “original sin,” this theme takes us close to that idea as the southern composers of the Jewish Scriptures saw the primary sin of the northern kingdom to have been grounded in an even earlier occasion of apostasy in the time of Moses.

These stories do not tell us how the calf cult developed, but they do tell us how the monotheistic and aniconic traditions of Second Temple Judaism viewed such practices and those (such as the northerners) who were thought to observe them.

Gospel: The Feast

We have three versions of this basic story. Two of them (Thomas and Luke) are quite similar, while the third (Matthew) has been developed in some distinctive ways:

Thomas 64

64 Jesus said, Someone was receiving guests. When he had prepared the dinner, he sent his slave to invite the guests. 2The slave went to the first and said, “My master invites you.” The first replied, 3″Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I have to go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner.” 4 The slave went to another and said, “My master has invited you.” 5The second said to the slave, “I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I shall have no time.” 6 The slave went to another and said, “My master invites you.” 7The third said to the slave, “My friend is to be married, and I am to arrange the banquet. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me from dinner.” 8The slave went to another and said, “My master invites you.” 9The fourth said to the slave, “I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me.” 10The slave returned and said to his master, “Those whom you invited to dinner have asked to be excused.” 11The master said to his slave, “Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.” 12Buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my Father. [Complete Gospels]

Luke 14:15-24

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.'”

Matthew 22:1-13

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2″The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11″But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

The International Q Project reconstructs the original Q saying as follows:

A certain person prepared a [large] dinner, [and invited many]. And he sent his slave [at the time of the dinner] to say to the invited: Come, for it is ready.
He came to the first (and) said to him: My master invites you. he said: I have bills for some merchants. They are coming to me this evening. I will go (and) give instructions to them. Excuse me for the dinner. he came to another (and) said to him: My master has invited you. He said to him: I have bought a house, and I have been called (away) for a day. I will not have time.
He came to another (and) said to him: My master invites you. he said to him: I have bought a village. Since I am going to collect the rent, I will not be able to come. Excuse me.
He went to another (and) said to him: My master invites you. He said to him: My friend is going to marry, and I am the one who is going to prepare the meal. I will not be able to come. Excuse me for the dinner.
The slave went away. He said to his master: Those whom you invited to the dinner have asked to be excused. The master said to the slave: Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.

The Jesus Seminar assessment of this tradition is as follows:

  • Thom 64:1-12
  • Luke 14:16b-23
  • Matt 22:2-13

The commentary in The Five Gospels (p. 352) concludes that, on balance, Luke’s version of this story is closer to the original than Matthew’s version. Overall, the GThom version was preferred although it also has signs of editorial adaptation to fit its current context (p. 510). While Luke perhaps tells the story to illustrate some of the points about table fellowship made in the previous verses, Matthew has modified the story to serve as an allegory of salvation history, including a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by armies acting at the command of the angry king (God).
Bernard Brandon Scott [Re-Imagine the World, 111f] comments on the distinctive features of Matthew’s version:

Matthew clearly has the same parable, but its deviations have led to some debate as to whether Matthew has reworked a Q parable similar to the one found in Luke, or has received the parable already changed in his oral tradition. I incline towards the former view. The themes of the parable are too clearly Matthean not to be from the hand of the author of that gospel.
In this case, the man giving a banquet is a king giving a wedding feast for his son. In the Matthean allegory those first invited are the Jews and when they reject the invitation to the wedding feast, the king destroys their city — clearly a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem. In the second invitation “the good and the bad alike” is a clear reference to the church, which Matthew consistently views as mixed, as for example, in his interpretation of the parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt 13:37-43).
The guest without the wedding garment refers to those who do not produce proper fruit. The parable ends with the man being thrown out into the darkness where “they’ll weep and grind their teeth,” another favorite phrase of Matthew (Matt 8:12; 12:42,50; 24:13; 24:51; 25:30).
In Matthew’s hands the parable becomes an allegory of Jewish rejection, Christian acceptance, and final judgment.

The rabbinic tradition has several parables around the theme of a ruler hosting a feast for his son but, as Samuel T. Lachs observes [Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 356f], none of these provide a parallel to this parable apart from the following (and then only to the wedding garment motif found in Matthew):

R. Johanan b. Zakkai said: “A parable of a king who invited his servants to a banquet but did not specify to them the time. The clever ones among them adorned themselves and sat at the entrance of the king’s house. They said: ‘Does the king lack anything?’ The foolish among them went to their work, for they said: ‘Can there be a banquet without preparation?’ Suddenly the king asked for his servants. The clever among them entered before him as they were adorned, but the foolish among them entered before him dirty as they were. The king rejoiced to greet the clever ones but was angry with the foolish ones. He said: ‘These who have adorned themselves for the banquet, let them and eat and drink, but these who have not adorned themselves for the banquet, let them stand and merely observe.'” The son-in-law of R. Meir said in the name of R. Meir: “But the foolish would appear like attendants, let both sit down, but let the clean servants eat and drink, while the dirty ones shall go hungry and thirst.” [B. Shab. 153a and Koh. R. 9.8, 3.8]

John Dominic Crossan [Historical Jesus, 261f] suggests:

All three extant versions have interpreted and applied the parable to their own situations by contextual connections and intratextual developments. I think, however, that a common structural plot is discernible behind them all. … It is the random and open commensality of the parable’s meal that is its most startling element. The social challenge of such egalitarian commensality is the radical threat of the parable’s vision. It is only a story, of course, but it is one that focuses its egalitarian challenge on society’s mesocosmic mirror, the table as the place where bodies meet to eat. And the almost predictable counteraccusation to such open commensality is immediate: Jesus is a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He makes, in other words, no appropriate distinctions and discriminations. He has no honor. He has no shame.

For a more detailed discussion of this parable by Crossan, see Four Other Gospels (1985: 39-52).
More recently, Bernard Brandon Scott [Re-Imagine the World, 110-17] comments on the significance of the invitation — and the lack of acceptances — within the honor/shame system of ancient Mediterranean societies:

Banquets of the rich followed a set form; they were not spur of the moment activities. One of their primary functions was to bring honor to a host. If honor is to be maintained, guests must show up. Thus part of the set form of a banquet was an invitation issued days before the banquet. Normally this was delivered by a slave who either read it, if he were literate, or recited it. A number of papyrus invitations have survived. … After the formal invitation, a slave would return at the appropriate time to escort the guests to the banquet. At this point the parable begins.
But something is wrong with this banquet. Every one of those who was invited had an excuse and refuses to come. It cannot be a coincidence that all those invited guests have excuses, every single one of them. The man is being snubbed. Instead of redounding to his honor, this banquet will create great shame.
… Whatever the man’s strategy [of gathering people randomly from the street], the banquet he ends up with is very different from the one he planned. It is now a banquet of the dishonorable, and he is shamed.
The messianic banquet lurks around the edges of this parable … The parable of the Banquet burlesques the messianic banquet just as the Mustard Seed burlesques the great cedar of Lebanon. The banquet proposed by the man might be a fitting model for the messianic banquet but the actual banquet is something else. It also points to the here and now as the place of the banquet, and to life on the streets among the peasants as the appropriate model for the banquet, not the world of the elites. Just as the parable of the Unforgiving Slave rejects the imperial model of the messiah, so this parable rejects the banquets of the elites as the model for the messianic banquet. God’s banquet is something else.

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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Jesus and the divine presence

Notes for a presentation to a symposium on the ‘Divine Presence’ at the Worship Centre, Murdoch University, Perth on Thursday, 2 October 2014 with Harold Ellens, Gregory C. Jenks, Alex Jensen, and Suzanne Boorer

It is good to be back in Perth as a guest of the WA Progressive Network, and I am especially pleased to have been invited to participate in this conversation.

As we begin, allow me to bring greetings not only from my immediate academic community at St Francis College in Brisbane, but also from the Christian communities in Haifa and Nazareth where I have close connections. This is a difficult time for Christians in the Middle East, including Palestine and Israel, and I know they value our prayers and our solidarity.


It is important to clarify at the start that I come to this conversation as a biblical scholar, and not as a theologian or mystic. My professional focus is on the texts, the communities that formed them, and the communities that now read them. I am not all that interested in the God question, nor in religious experience. I do not doubt the reality of either, it is just that I find other questions more pressing.

On the other hand, I am deeply interested in what it means to be human and how to live a life that is “holy and true”, by which I mean “authentic and with some spiritual depth”. As a Christian myself, Jesus plays a significant part in all this for me, so I hope I may have something to offer to our conversation about the ‘divine presence’ this evening.

My contribution is therefore shaped by and derives mostly from one sphere of intellectual inquiry, and within that already limited domain of biblical studies I will restrict myself to Jesus.

Further, even when considering Jesus and the encounter with the divine, I will avoid speaking about the experience(s) of the divine that Jesus may have had.  In other words, I am not so much interested in the religious experience of Jesus as I am interested in the role of Jesus within our own (or at least my own) religious experience.

Jesus and the encounter with God

Recently I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book on the “God Encounter” being edited by Nigel Leaves. A number of us were asked to choose some topic or figure (prayer, Jesus, the Bible, etc) and write about how that connected with our encounter with God. Having just finished a book on Jesus I naturally thought of that option for my chapter, but imagined it would have been already taken by someone else — if not Nigel himself, who teaches the Christology class for us at SFC!

To my surprise and delight, no one else was bidding for Jesus. The topic was mine! That still strikes me as a bit strange, but I was very happy to undertake the assignment.

My chapter was eventually entitled, “Encountering God in Jesus of Nazareth”, and I will draw on some of the material in that essay as we start the conversation, although taking some things in a different direction as I never find any form of words a satisfactory statement about God or Jesus, including my own.

God was in Christ …

For millions of Christians the primary and quintessential way that Jesus impacts their experience of the divine presence is his presumed divinity as an incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. To see (know) Jesus is to see/know God. John 14:9 comes to mind: “… to see me is to see the Father.”

This idea is implicit in one of my favourite descriptions of Jesus: “the human face of God”.

To express it more discursively perhaps, millions of people throughout the last 2,000 years including hundreds of millions of people alive on the planet right now, are devoted to Jesus as a divine figure. They worship him, they seek to serve him, they anticipate his direct involvement in the smallest details of their everyday lives, they experience their own lives as being in a relationship with Jesus, and they understand the future of the world — as well as their own destiny at and after death — to be in his hands.

This “Jesus” – if indeed it is Jesus with whom they are engaged – is not the historical figure of first century Palestine but a divine saviour fashioned in the religious experience and the theological imagination of the early Christian movement. Many NT scholars would refer to this figure as the “Christ of faith”, although Luke Timothy Johnson might prefer to argue that this is the “real Jesus”. Marcus Borg famously speaks of “Jesus before Easter” and “Jesus after Easter”, and I wish to take my lead from that distinction.

The human face of God …

What Jesus has become after Easter in the imagination and practice of Christianity is not the topic I want to raise in this forum. Rather, I would like to focus on the contribution of the historical Jesus to our experience of the divine.

Again, to express this in slightly different terms, what does it mean that the distinctively Christian understanding of God is centred on the figure of a Jewish man from Galilee? His human experience, his actions, his teachings, his fate lie at the very centre of the Christian understanding of God, and that God is present here among us as one of us. The Christian God is neither an abstract idea nor a remote spiritual power.

How does “Jesus before Easter” impact on our experience of the divine? In what realistic sense can we speak of that Jesus as the “human face of God”?

For me there is a cluster of themes that are highly significant in this regard:

  • The humanity of Jesus
  • The historical particularity of Jesus
  • The character of Jesus (compassion, integrity, vulnerability)
  • The wisdom and wit of Jesus
  • The community of practice

The humanity of Jesus

The phrase “son of Man” is one of the most evocative titles for Jesus. There are good reasons for thinking it reflects his own choice of self-description, and it is interesting to note that it means simply, “the human one”.

If we take this idea seriously, Jesus matters most deeply because of his humanity.

Jesus took his humanity seriously. He accepted that it defined him, and he did not seek divinity. Jesus lived within the constraints of creature-hood.

It seems to me that the church loves to talk abut God, but the world needs to hear us speak about being human. Reframing our God-talk in terms of Emmanuel discourse may be our most urgent mission for the sake of the world. We do not need to learn how to become gods, but we do need to learn how to live as humans.

If we take the humanity of Jesus more seriously, perhaps we can reclaim some ancient truths about the Christian experience of God-with-us.

The historical particularity of Jesus

Jesus was not a generic human, an abstract man (sic). Rather, he was (like each of us) a person of a particular time and place.

Taking the humanity of Jesus seriously means that we notice his ethnicity, his religion, his economic status, and his political situation. If such categories seem odd for a discussion of Jesus it may well be an indication of just how little significance we have attributed to the humanity of Jesus.

Some key aspects of Jesus would include:

  • Palestinian
  • Jewish
  • small town
  • third world (cf MDGs)
  • expendable

Are these only attributes of Jesus? Are they not also attributes of the Christian God? And if so, in what sense? And to what extent are they attributes of us? Have we become estranged from our place, from our people, from our village, from our planet? Do we consider ourselves indispensable?

The character of Jesus

It seems to me that we admire most about Jesus are his human qualities, not his supposedly divine attributes. Divine attributes seem to be like stainless steel: cold and hard, untarnished, dead.

On the other hand, the attributes of Jesus that we most appreciate would include:

  • compassion
  • integrity
  • vulnerability

Like Abraham, it is the faithfulness of Jesus to God’s call on him that saves others. At least, so Paul would have us think in Romans 3 and 4.

The Jesus we knew before Easter continues to be a significant prophetic figure with much to say to us today, and it is as a prophet that Jesus is honoured within Islam. The faithful humanity of Jesus is itself a prophetic act that cuts across the centuries and invites us to get ready for the coming reign of God. Jesus speaks for God, and he does not always need to use words. Often it is sufficient for us to note how Jesus treated people. We find ourselves in the presence of God. That presence has a missional dimension; it compels us to action to bring the future possibilities into present reality.

The wisdom and wit of Jesus

The teachings of Jesus continue to challenge and liberate, even if the church continues to evade them. These sayings are mostly secular. Very few of them speak directly about God or deal with religious topics, even if – ultimately – they concern the elusive kingdom of God.

The words of Jesus rarely focus on “sin” (except perhaps in the Gospel of John, but there is not much left of the voice of Jesus in that document). Rather than turning the spotlight of divine wrath on a sinful audience, these words are invitations to see, to reimagine, and to turn towards the future.

How does this reflect the nature of the divine presence as understood by Christians? Is God primarily concerned with “holiness” and “purity”, or with life and “becoming”? 

The community of practice

From birth to death Jesus lived in the presence of others. There was no splendid isolation for this human face of the eternal God. That tells me something abut the social nature of the Christian god, and invites me to escape the caricatures of androids on steroids, existing in eternal divine isolation far from the messiness of the life they are presumed to have created.

In between that communal birthing and dying we have the public years that leave no mark on the creeds and confessions of Constantine’s church. The hallmark of those years was that Jesus gathered a community of people around him. Our God is a gregarious god. God’s preferred company is comprised of the broken and the misfits, the blind and the lame, the poor and the outcasts, vulnerable widows and haemorrhaging women, parents with sick children, collaborators, and women with reputations. Cast the first stone, our God says, if you have no sin! Come as you are. Come and eat at my table.

Come to the table

Let me finish with that image of the table of life. It is prepared by God and placed in our midst. The table is open for us to come and enjoy.

That table is the sign of the divine presence, yet we have argued over the ontological status of the bread and wine. And all the while we have overlooked the human faces of God gathered around the table.

This Christian God has a human face. This God is not just compassionate, but suffers and dies and rises again. This God knows what it is like be alone, cold, hungry, loved, mocked, and touched. This God sets a table and calls us to eat. This God overturns the crass transactions at the centre of our lives and challenges us to become houses of prayer for all nations. This God has become the Spirit poured out on all flesh, so that Paul could also say, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17).

(Note: The texts in blue are citations from Jesus Then and Jesus Now).
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Personal reflections on safety by a frequent visitor to Israel

It is natural — and very understandable — that people would have some concerns about travel to the Middle East, including Israel, at this time.

As a general comment, I remind people that Israel is actually a very safe destination for travel. While not entirely reassuring, I often observe that the most dangerous thing about being in Israel is driving on the highways. Then I assure them that our bus drivers are very good, and accidents involving tourist buses are rare.

Short of an outbreak of full-scale war with a mass attack on Israel by its Arab neighbours, there is almost no risk of a Western tourist falling victim to military action or terrorist activity. Since most Arab neighbours are working in coalition with the Western powers to contain the threat posed by ISIS, there is a very low risk of an Arab attack on Israel at this time. Following the recent conflict in Gaza, it is unlikely that Hamas will initiative any military action against Israel for a couple of years.

There are safety issues around certain locations that are the focus for internal tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel and on the West Bank. The most notable of these is Gaza, and no responsible tour leader would take a group to such locations. We monitor the local situation on a daily basis and adjust our itinerary if we discern a need to avoid places that we had otherwise planned to visit. For example, I routinely avoid having people in the Old City on Fridays as that is the day for Muslim prayers at the Haram as-Sharif and there is a higher potential for demonstrations and riots. These pose no serious risk to tourists, but I prefer to be somewhere else on Fridays!

The venues where we stay all have arrangements for security and personal safety, including air raid shelters.

Despite all these precautions, it is impossible to guarantee that military activity will not erupt or that personal violence against an individual will not occur.

On the other hand, millions of people go to Israel every year, and it is exceptionally rare for any visitor to be caught up in civil unrest or military activity.

The program for the  Bethsaida archaeology project is mostly based in the north of Israel, and this is an area with very low risk factors.

As a program under the auspices of Charles Sturt University a comprehensive risk management plan is prepared prior to each year’s trip, and the University has formal arrangements with international travel insurance providers to ensure emergency support is available for individuals or groups that require assistance. If local tensions rise, as happened during the 2014 tour program, the tour leader is in daily contact with CSU by email or phone to monitor the situation and confirm that appropriate steps are being taken to ensure everyone’s safety.

Each participant needs to form their own assessment of the dangers involved in the travel and their own tolerance of the risks. Anyone who is deeply concerned about the level of risk is perhaps better advised to make other travel plans, even though they would almost certainly have a trip that is both safe and deeply rewarding.

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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (5 October 2014)



  • Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 & Psalm 19 (or Isaiah 5:1-7 & Psalm 80:7-15)
  • Philippians 3:4b-14
  • Matthew 21:33-46

First Reading: The Decalogue

Those communities using the Revised Common Lectionary will be reading the story of Sinai, where the divine Torah is given to the covenant community and especially encapsulated in the Ten Words, or Decalogue.

The commentary by Nahum Sarna in the JPS edition of the Torah, offers the following observations:

The arrival at Sinai inaugurates the culminating stage in the process of forging Israel’s national identity and spiritual destiny. The shared experiences of bondage and liberation are to be supplemented and given ultimate meaning by a great communal encounter with God. Henceforth, Israel is to be a people inextricably bound to God by a covenantal relationship. The Hebrew term for a covenant is the seminal biblical word berit. The Christian designation of sacred Scripture as “testament” reflects this understanding of the covenant concept as the controlling idea of biblical faith; “testament” is a now largely obsolete word for the written record of a compact.
In the ancient world, relationships between individuals as well as between states were ordered and regulated by means of covenants, or treaties. Numerous examples of such instruments of international diplomacy have survived, deriving from various parts of the ancient Near East. These divide into two basic categories: (1) a parity treaty, where the contracting parties negotiate as equals; (2) a suzerain-vassal treaty, where one party transparently imposes its will on the other.
A study of these documents, particularly those of the latter type, leaves no doubt as to the influence of the ancient Near Eastern treaty patterns on the external, formal, literary aspects of the biblical berit. The affinities are to be expected. In order for the berit to be intelligible to the Israelites, it made sense to structure it according to the accepted patterns of the then universally recognized legal instruments.
The Decalogue and its contents are, however, in a class by themselves. The idea of a covenantal relationship between God and an entire people is unparalleled. Similarly unique is the setting of the covenant in a narrative context. It is the latter that imparts to the covenant its meaning and significance; the covenant would be devalued were the link between them to be severed. Another major and original feature is the manner in which the content of the berit embraces the internal life of the “vassal” by regulating individual behavior and human relationships. Such a preoccupation with social affairs is beyond the scope and intent of all other ancient treaties, whose sole concern is with the external affairs of the vassal.
The uniqueness of the Decalogue notwithstanding, it is undeniable that many of its provisions are closely paralleled in the wisdom and ethical literature of the ancient world. Several other ancient law collections rest upon foundations of ethical and moral principles of justice and morality. Sins of a moral and ethical nature, such as bearing false witness, disrespect of parents, theft, adultery, and murder, are all listed in the magic texts from Mesopotamia known as the Shurpu series. The “Declaration of Innocence,” located in chapter 125 of the Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” is formulated in negative terms and clearly testifies to the reality of positive moral ideals. It is obvious that the great civilizations of the Nile and Mesopotamian valleys could not have functioned without a commitment to a set of ethical ideals and principles of morality.
What is revolutionary about the Decalogue in Israel is not so much its content as the way in which these norms of conduct are regarded as being expressions of divine will, eternally binding on the individual and on society as a whole. Both are equally answerable to the deity, which was not the case in pagan cultures.
Another extraordinary Israelite innovation is the amalgamation of what in modern times would be classified separately as “religious” and “secular,” or social, obligations. This distinction is meaningless in a biblical context, where both categories alike are accepted as emanating from God. Social concern, therefore, is rooted in the religious conscience.
Still another outstanding feature of the Decalogue is the apodictic nature of its stipulations—the simple, absolute, positive and negative imperatives are devoid of qualification and mostly presented without accompanying penalties or threats of punishment. The idea is that the covenant is a self-enforcing document. The motivation for fulfilling its stipulations is not to be fear of retribution but the desire to conform to divine will, reinforced by the spiritual discipline and moral fiber of the individual.

Five + Five

The two sets of five “sayings” that captured the essence of the covenant obligations were perhaps related to the ten fingers on the two hands of a person: five for God, five for others. In their primitive form, the demands of the Decalogue may literally have been 10 curt sayings: No-idols, No_Murder, No_Adultery, etc.

The traditional number ten, like the well-attested preference for twelve in both Jewish and Christian texts, seems to have survived despite the presence of at least eleven (and by some medieval Jewish accounts, thirteen) commandments in these verses. (In a similar fashion, “The Twelve” survived as a special apostolic term in early Christianity despite the significance of additional apostles, including Paul and Barnabas.) The tension between the desire to identify ten specific commands and the presence of a greater number of commands, is seen in the different ways that various communities have divided the Decalogue:

[1] 20:3 you shall have no other gods before me.
[2] 20:4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
[3] 20:5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 20:6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
[4] 20:7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
[5] 20:8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 20:9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 20:10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 20:11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
[6] 20:12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
[7] 20:13 You shall not murder.
[8] 20:14 You shall not commit adultery.
[9] 20:15 You shall not steal.
[10] 20:16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
[11] 20:17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

The numbers in square brackets identify the eleven commandments that are found in this text, as well as in its parallel in Deuteronomy 5. There is also an entirely different version of the “Ten Commandments” to be found in Exodus 34 although they are said to be a replica of the first set of stone tablets destroyed by Moses in a fit of rage.

Different religious communities combine two of the first few commandments in various ways to achieve the desired number of ten:

In the JEWISH tradition, vs. 2 is considered to be the first commandment, while vss. 3-6 are combined to form a single commandment prohibiting false gods, including idols (both their manufacture and their use). In the ROMAN CATHOLIC AND LUTHERAN traditions, following St Augustine in the ancient church, vss. 2-6 are combined into a single commandment, while splitting vs. 17 to form two separate commandments:

9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; and
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, …

ANCIENT PATRISTIC sources, as well as most PROTESTANT CHURCHES, typically combined vss. 2-3 to form a commandment demanding exclusive loyalty to YHVH, while vss. 4-6 are also combined to form a single prohibition on idolatry.

Some CONTEMPORARY SCHOLARS have suggested that the series did not originally include the commandment concerning honor of father and mother, and at one stage may have been as follows:

1. No god/s but YHVH
2. Make no images
3. No worshipping of idols
4. No false swearing …
5. Keep the Sabbath holy …

6. No murder …
7. No adultery …
8. No stealing …
9. No false witness …
10. No coveting

If this is correct, then the original tradition had five duties to God and fives duties to the community, with respect for parents being a later addition and requiring some compression of the preceding injunctions.

The heart of torah

In subsequent Jewish tradition the 613 commandments revealed to Moses were reduced to smaller sets and ultimately (according to the Talmud) to a single command: Seek me and live:

Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses, three hundred and sixty-five negative ones, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and two hundred forty-eight positive commandments, corresponding to the parts of man’s body…
David came and reduced them to eleven: A Psalm of David [Psalm 15] Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle, and who shall dwell in thy holy mountain? (i) He who walks uprightly and (ii) works righteousness and (iii) speaks truth in his heart and (iv) has no slander on his tongue and (v) does no evil to his fellow and (vi) does not take up a reproach against his neighbour, (vii) in whose eyes a vile person is despised but (viii) honors those who fear the Lord. (ix) He swears to his own hurt and changes not. (x) He does not lend on interest. (xi) He does not take a bribe against the innocent,…
Isaiah came and reduced them to six [Isaiah 33:25–26]: (i) He who walks righteously and (ii) speaks uprightly, (iii) he who despises the gain of oppressions, (iv) shakes his hand from holding bribes, (v) stops his ear from hearing of blood (vi) and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, he shall dwell on high.
Micah came and reduced them to three [Micah 6:8]: It has been told you, man, what is good and what the Lord demands from you, (i) only to do justly, and (ii) to love mercy, and (iii) to walk humbly before God…
Isaiah came again and reduced them to two [Isaiah 56:1]: Thus says the Lord, (i) keep justice and (ii) do righteousness.
Amos came and reduced them to a single one, as it is said, For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel, Seek Me and live.
Habakkuk further came and based them on one, as it is said [Habakkuk 2:4], But the righteous shall live by his faith.
— Talmud, b. Makkot, 24(a) [cited in Jacob Neusner, The Way of Torah, 22]

Gospel: The Tenants & the Rejected Stone

The Tenants

The Jesus Seminar considered this parable on more than one occasion, with some movement in the voting outcomes between sessions:

Thom 65-66
Thom 65
Thom 66
Mark 12:1-11
Mark 12:1-8

Mark 12:9-11
Matt 21:33-43
Matt 21:33-39
Matt 21:40-43
Luke 20:9-18
Luke 20:9-15a
Luke 9:15b-18
Barn 6:4a

The commentary in The Five Gospels (p. 101) describes this parable as “the classic example of the predilection of the early Christian community to recast Jesus’ parables as allegorical stories.” The Seminar votes reflect a view that Thomas preserves a version of this parable closer to the original form.

John Dominic Crossan [Historical Jesus, p. 351] proposes that this saying, along with its related saying 47 The Rejected Stone [1/3], originated as a story featuring a vineyard owner’s son but told with no self-reference to Jesus. In the subsequent tradition the story was allegorized, with the story then developing in either of two directions. In the Similitudes we see the story transformed in a positive way, with the tenants and the son jointly inheriting the vineyard. Alternatively, if the death of the son was taken as an allegory for the death of Jesus then there needed to be some reference to the resurrection. Crossan suggests this was achieved by combining the story of the tenants with the saying about the rejected stone.

He then asks what the original form of this parable may have meant when spoken by Jesus:

It is not impossible, first of all, that Jesus could have told the parable about his own fate, as a metaphorical vision of his own possible death. After the execution of John, and in the context of what he himself was doing, such a prophecy required no transcendental information. Indeed, if the idea never crossed Jesus’ mind, he was being very naive indeed. I find that explanation less plausible, however, because I cannot see how its narrative logic coincides with the situation of Jesus himself. How, in terms of Jesus’ own life, would the tenants acquire the vineyard by his murder? The story, on the other hand, is absolutely understandable as spoken to peasants who know all about absentee landlords and what they themselves have thought, wished, and maybe even planned. I am inclined, then, but somewhat tentatively, to read it as one of those places where the political situation breaks most obviously on the surface of the text. Presuming that the original parable ended with the son’s death, how would a Galilean peasant audience have responded? May like this. Some: they did right. Others: but they will not get away with it. Some: he got what he deserved. Others: but what will the father do now? Some: that is the way to handle landlord. Others: but what about the soldiers?

Gerd Lüdemann [Jesus, pp. 81f] discounts the parable as an allegory based on Isaiah 5:1-7 and rejects attempts (such as Crossan above) to identify an original version that could be traced to Jesus:

As the tradition can be derived from the community, its degree of authenticity is nil. But it is often argued in favor of the historical authenticity of the passage that the imagery (e.g. the rebellious mood of tenants against the owner) is well-attested for the world of Jesus. However, this plausibility must not seduce us into historical conclusions.

The Rejected Stone

In the Testament of Solomon, a Christian text dated somewhere in the first three centuries of the Common Era, we find the Legend of the Immovable Cornerstone:

/22:1/ The king of Arabia, Adarkes, sent a letter containing the following: “King of Arabia, Adarkes, to King Solomon, greetings. I have heard about the wisdom which has been granted to you and that, being a man from the Lord, there has been given to you understanding about all the spirits of the air, the earth, and beneath the earth. /2/ There still exists a spirit in Arabia. Early in the morning a fresh gust of wind blows until the third hour. Its terrible blast even kills man and beast and no (counter-)blast is ever able to withstand the demon. /3/ I beg you, therefore, since this spirit is like a wind, do something wise according to the wisdom which has been given to you by the Lord your God and decide to send out a man who is able to bring it under control. /4/ Then we shall belong to you, King Solomon, I and all my people and all my land; and all Arabia will be at peace if you carry out this act of vengeance for us. /5/ Consequently, we implore you, do not ignore our prayer and do become our lord for all time. farewell my lord, as ever.”
/6/ After I, Solomon, read this letter, I folded it, gave it to my servant, and said to him, “After seven days, remind me of this letter.” /7/ So Jerusalem was being built and the Temple was moving towards completion. Now there was a gigantic cornerstone which I wished to place at the head of the corner to complete the Temple of God. /8/ All the artisans and all the demons who were helping came to the same (location) to bring the stone and mount it at the end of the Temple, but they were not strong enough to budge it.
/9/ When seven days had passed and I remembered the letter of the king of Arabia, I summoned my servant boy and said to him, “Load up your camel, take a leather flask and this seal, /10/ and go off to Arabia to the place where the spirit is blowing. Then take hold of the wineskin and (place) the ring in front of the neck of the flask (against the wind). /11/ As the flask is being filled with air, you will discover that it is the demon who is filling it up. Carefully, then, tie up the flask tightly and when you have sealed (it) with the ring, load up the camel and come back here. Be off, now, with blessings.”
/12/ Then the boy obeyed the orders and went to Arabia. Now the men from the region doubted whether it was possible to bring the evil spirit under control. /13/ Nonetheless, before dawn the house servant got up and confronted the spirit of the wind. He put the flask on the ground and placed the ring on (its mouth). (The demon) entered the flask and inflated it. /14/ Yet the boy stood firm. He bound up the mouth of the flask in the name of the Lord Sabaoth and the demon stayed inside the flask./15/ To prove that the demon had been overcome, the boy remained three days and, (when) the spirit did not blow any longer, the Arabs concluded that he had really trapped the spirit.
/16/ Then he loaded the flask on the camel. The Arabs sent the boy on his way with gifts and honors, shouting praises to God, for they were left in peace. Then the boy brought in the spirit and put it in the foremost part of the Temple. /17/ The following day I, Solomon, went into the Temple (for) I was very worried about the cornerstone. (Suddenly,) the flask got up, walked for seven steps, and fell down on its mouth before me. /18/ I was amazed that (even though the demon was entrapped in) the flask, he had the power to walk around, and I ordered him to get up. Panting, the flask arose and stood up. /19/ Then I asked him, saying, “Who are you?” From inside the spirit said, “I am a demon called Ephippas (and I live) in Arabia.”
/20/ I said to him, “By what angel are you thwarted?” He said, “By the one who is going to be born of a virgin and be crucified by the Jews.”
/23:1/ Then I said to him, “What can you do for me?” he responded, “I am able to move mountains, to carry houses from one place to another, and to overthrow kings.” /2/ I said to him, “If you have the power, lift this stone into the beginning of the corner of the Temple.” But he responded, “I will raise not only this stone, King; but, with (the aid of) the demon who lives in the Red Sea, (I will) also (lift up) the pillar of air (which is) in the Red Sea and you shall set it up where you wish.”
/3/ When he had said these things, he went in underneath the stone, lifted it up, went up the flight of steps carrying the stone, and inserted it into the end of the entrance of the Temple. /4/ I, Solomon, being excited, exclaimed, “Truly the Scripture which says, It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the keystone, has now been fulfilled,” and so forth. [Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1, 984-85]

Jesus Database

  • 046 The Tenants -(1) GThom. 65; (2) Mark 12:1-9,12 = Matt 21:33-41,43-46 = Luke 20:9-16,19; (3) Herm. Sim. 5.2:4-7.
  • 047 The Rejected Stone – (1) GThom. 66; (2) Mark 12:10-11 = Matt 21:42 = Luke 20: 17-18; (?3a) Eph 2:20*; (3b) Acts 4:11*; (3c) 1Pet 2:7*; (4a) Barn 6:4; (?4b) Justin Martyr, Dial, 100*; (4c) Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.5*; (4d) Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV.33.1*; (4e) Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV.36*; (4f) Tertullian, Against Marcion, IV.35*; (4g) Tertullian, Against Marcion, V.17*; (4h) Hippolytus, Refutation, V.2*; (4i) Cyprian, Treatises, IV.35*; (4j) Cyprian, Treatises, XII.2.16*; (4k) ApostConst, VII.17*; (4l) Origen, Against Celsus, VIII.19*; (4m) Origen, CommJohn, 23*. [* indicates the item is not in Crossan's inventory]

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Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (28 September 2014)



  • Exodus 17:1-7 & Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 [Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 & Psalm 25:1-9]
  • Philippians 2:1-13
  • Matthew 21:23-32

Gospel: The two sons

This week all three major lectionaries will focus on the parable of The Two Sons, although the RCL will also include the preceding verses where there is a dispute over the authority of Jesus.

Textual questions

The material shared by all the major lectionaries is only attested in Matthew. In addition, the manuscript tradition reveals considerable uncertainty about this passage, with the surviving texts being so confused that we cannot make a firm decision on the original version of the story. Bruce Metzger devotes almost two pages to a discussion of the textual confusion in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament.

In short, Matthew 21:28-32 does not make a strong claim on us for acceptance as an authentic Jesus tradition, although the orphan saying found in vs 31 may prove to be of historical value.
The Jesus Seminar commentary in The Five Gospels notes:

(1) the significant textual variations as copyists have tried to make sense of this difficult parable.

(2) 58% of Fellows votes red or pink, seemingly because (a) the contrast between prostitutes and tax collectors on the one hand, and self-righteous audience on the other seems authentic Jesus; (b) the “genuine dilemma” posed for any Galilean family by the dishonorable response of both sons to their father’s request.

(3) Sufficient Fellows voted gray (11%) and black (32%) to bring about a weighted average of just 0.46 for the core parable. The reasons for these negative votes include (a) some doubts as to whether the story is actually a parable (given the lack of metaphor, exaggeration or reversal of anticipated outcomes); (b) the typical Matthean contrast of saying and doing; (c) the lack of attestation outside Matthew; (d) the poor fit of conclusion and story; and (e) the way that the conclusion links this story back to the previous unit By Whose Authority?

Similarly, Gerd Lüdemann tends to dismiss the parable while affirming the saying about tax collectors and prostitutes entering the kingdom ahead of the observant practitioners of religion. Lüdemann notes that Matthew has added to the material taken over from Mark (vss 23-27), two further items:

(a) an otherwise unattested parable about two sons that puts the emphasis on obedience to the divine will;
(b) an apparently authentic saying (vs. 31c) that affirms the righteousness of the disobedient, namely tax collectors and prostitutes.

Concerning this latter saying (Matt 21:31c), Lüdemann comments:

The saying is authentic (without the addition ‘before you’), since it is offensive, rare in the world of Jesus, cannot be derived from the community and fits the main thrust of the preaching of Jesus (cf. on 11.18-19a; Luke 7.36-50). In content it corresponds with the authentic beatitudes on the poor, the hungry and those who weep (cf. on Luke 6.20-26). [Jesus, 219]

Traditional Jewish wisdom or distinctive Jesus traditions

The mostly conventional wisdom presented in the parable is also seen in this partial rabbinic parallel cited by Samuel Lachs:

… a parable of a king who had a field and he desired to hand it over to a tenant farmer. He called to the first and said to him, “Will you take this field?” He said to him,”I don’t have the strength, it is too hard for me.” So it was with the second, the third, and the fourth, they too did not accept it from him. He called to the fifth and said to him, “Will you take this field?” He said to him, “Yes!” The owner said, “On condition that you work it according to the Law?” He said, “Yes.” When the tenant farmer entered the field, he left it unworked. With whom should the king be angry? On those who said they were unable to accept it or on the one who took it upon himself and having taken it upon himself left it unworked? Should he not be angry with the latter? Exodus R. 27 [cited in Lachs, Rabbinic Commentary, 353]

On the other hand, the Jewish NT scholar, David Flusser, has noted that the attitude implicit in the saying about prostitutes and tax collectors is widely-attested in the Jesus traditions, and comes from the core values of Jesus himself:

That which Jesus recognized and desired is fulfilled in the message of the kingdom. There God’s unconditional love for all becomes visible, and the barriers between sinner and righteous are shattered. Human dignity becomes null and void, the last becomes first, and the first becomes last. The poor, the hungry, the meek, the mourner, and the persecuted inherit the kingdom of heaven. In Jesus’ message of the kingdom, the strictly social factor does not, however, seem to be the decisive thing. His revolution has to do chiefly with the transvaluation of all the usual moral values, and hence his promise is especially for sinners. “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31-32). Jesus found resonance among the social outcasts and the despised, just as John the Baptist had done before him. [Jesus, 111f]

An orphan saying?

Finally, for this week’s reflections on this seemingly marginal and not very authoritative text, we can note the glimpse into the dynamics of the related but different missions of John the Baptist and Jesus which this passage may preserve.

John P. Meier discusses Matt 21:31-32 as one of what he calls “stray traditions” relating to Jesus and John the Baptist. He sets it over against Luke 7:29-30, which reads as follows:

29 (And all the people who heard this,
including the tax collectors,
acknowledged the justice of God,
because they had been baptized with John’s baptism.
30 But by refusing to be baptized by him,
the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)

In both Matt 21:31-32 and Luke 7:29-30 we have texts that appear as additions to other traditions with which they had no original connection:

  • Matt 21:31-32 is appended to the Parable of the Two Sons (vss. 28-30)
  • Luke 7:29-30 is appended to Jesus’ words about John the Baptist

Both these passages contrast a group of Jewish people who responded to John’s message, including “tax collectors” in each case.

There are, however, a great many significant differences between these traditions, and this leads Meier to agree with Fitzmyer against these being from Q, and in favor of them being independent stray traditions “which mention the important detail that John’s message and baptism were well received by at least some religiously and socially marginal groups like tax collectors and prostitutes, while they were largely rejected by Jewish leaders.” (p. 169)

Meier adds:

That this tidbit of information may indeed have a historical basis is made likely by its echo in Luke 3:10-14 (the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers all seek moral guidance from John) and in the Jewish Antiquities, where Josephus seems to distinguish a first wave of adherents to John, made up of morally zealous Jews, and a second wave, made up of ordinary Jews (Ant. 18.5.2 §116–19).

Meier builds on this insight to suggest that historical reconstructions which portray John as a recluse and “super puritan” — while Jesus is seen as a party animal eating and drinking his way around Galilee — are exaggerated. Rather, Meier suggests that Jesus may have built upon and then shifted the emphasis upon a prophetic word to the social and religious outcasts which he inherited from his mentor, rather than creating it entirely by himself.

He suggests:

[John's] tie to the “desert” (however widely that designation be interpreted), his need to have abundant water at hand for numerous baptisms, his own ascetic diet of locusts and wild honey, and perhaps his jaundiced view of what was going on in the Jerusalem temple, all kept him within a restricted area, and thus kept him from a wide-ranging, all-inclusive mission. On the whole, sinful and therefore marginal Jews came to the ascetic and therefore marginal John, not vice versa.
In contrast, Jesus undertook an itinerant mission throughout Galilee, parts of Judea, parts of Perea, parts of the Decapolis, and perhaps even areas north of Galilee reaching as far as Tyre and Sidon — as well as engaging in numerous journeys to Jerusalem. All this cannot be put down to small-town wanderlust. Jesus was consciously reaching out to all Israel in its last hour, especially to marginal groups like tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners in general, as well as to the not-especially-sinful but not-especially-well-shepherded poor. Thus, we see again the familiar pattern of nexus-yet-shift. Jesus picked up on John’s contact with the morally marginal, but shifted to a more expansive approach, an aggressive program of outreach through a peripatetic mission throughout Israel and its environs. (p. 169f)

Meier then identities a shift in message that went with the new method:

Corresponding to this geographical and psychological shift was a shift in the basic message. Moving from the Baptist’s fierce stress on repentance in the face of imminent doom, Jesus, while entirely abandoning John’s call and eschatology, shifted the emphasis to the joy of salvation that the repentant could experience even now as they accepted Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God, somehow present and yet to come. (p. 170)

Meier’s reference to Jesus “entirely abandoning” the distinctive message of John the Baptist (“repent and be baptised”) along with its underlying eschatology (of an imminent apocalyptic event) is intriguing. Such a view would tend to align Meier with the approach adopted by the Jesus Seminar when it controversially argued for Jesus as rejecting the apocalypticism that was typical of his mentor (John the Baptist) and his followers (such as Paul). The Seminar has been strongly criticised for taking such a view, so it is interesting to see Meier coming to a similar conclusion.

Jesus Database

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