Monday, April 11, 2016

Jesus was a Democratic Socialist and other urban legends

Communism in Poland. And you thought Franklin's was bad.
"... We did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty." --II Peter 1:16

There's a Robin Hood version of Jesus in the popular imagination with whom I have an on-again/off-again relationship.

On one hand, I like that just about the entire world wants a piece of Jesus of Nazareth. Even hard-core secularists who indict the God of Abraham for alleged war crimes and laugh off the Holy Spirit as a mere superstition revere Jesus to some degree. They like what he represented. He "stuck it to The Man" and preached love and forgiveness. Even Gandhi, a Hindu's Hindu, famously said "'I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

It's that Folk Hero Jesus that paves the way for me to introduce my Lord and Savior to just about anyone I meet. It's like asking someone if they'd like to talk about Mr. Rodgers. Evangelism made easy.

On the other hand, I cannot stand the way personal attitudes and biases are often projected on Jesus. Because he preached forgiveness, he must be indifferent to whatever sin you're practicing. Because he was all about healing the sick and helping the blind to see, then anyone who boldly preaches Christ (or happens to hurt someone's feelings otherwise) must be a hypocrite that has never read the Red Letters.

This Folk Hero version of Jesus I can do without, as it flies square in the face of many things Jesus taught as a perfect Jew and one with God the Father. The one who would go to the bar and have a drink with you, while laughing his way through all the heartache and bad life decisions. "Buddy Jesus."

Fewer than 12 percent of Christians surveyed (according to a Barna study) thought Joan of Arc was Noah's Wife. A recent Lifeway Research study discovered only 45 percent of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week, 40 percent occasionally, and 1 in 5 never read it at all.

Non-Christians read the Bible even more seldom, naturally. But this doesn't stop them from building opinions about Jesus. Be their misconceptions stem from church tradition, folklore, non-Christian religions, or even TV, it's comforting to believe a popularly-held lie.

In a recent worship gathering, I thought I'd engage in a little myth-busting on these folk tales about Jesus. I'm not talking about apocryphal accounts of Jesus (such as turning clay into pigeons or rebellious children into goats or a Gnostic take on the crucifixion) but the twists-of-truth that plague us even in the 21st Century.

Here are four I could think of off-hand. If you can think of any others, by all means leave a comment!

Folk Tale No. 1: Jesus was too busy performing miracles and good deeds, and never had time to tell anyone to stop sinning or repent.

Truth: "Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." --Mark 1:14-15.

Jesus would explain this gospel (good news) throughout his ministry. As a matter of fact, John 3:16 was a direct Jesus-quote!

Folk Tale No. 2: Jesus was for the redistribution of wealth, so he would be a Socialist if he were on earth today.

Truth: "For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat." --Paul (an Apostle called by Jesus!), II Thessalonians 3:10.

While there are some interesting theological discussions going on currently about Distributism (particularly in Catholic circles in lieu of the pope's comments which seem to favor Socialism), there is a persistent myth that our Lord favors the nationalized collection of each individual's wealth. But we see in Acts 2 that there was a voluntary sharing of resources on the local level. In no way did Jesus ever order this -- it was a spiritual outgrowth of love that unified people on a very practical level. This does not mean the Early Church were Socialists. "Communitarians," perhaps. But not Communists. And not even Democratic Socialism, as much as certain people of the liberal political persuasion would have us believe a vote for Bernie Sanders is somehow a more enlightened moral choice in the 2016 Presidential race! (No, seriously -- people are actually saying that!)

So what about the flip-side? Was Jesus an overt Capitalist? The "cleansing of the temple" is often used to make a point that Jesus must have hated it when money exchanged hands (if so, why did he ever say "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's?" and why did he praise the Widow's Mite offering?)

"Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business.
When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers' money and overturned the tables." --John 2:13-15.

(See Matthew 21:17-23 for another instance where Jesus turned over the money changers' tables. Yes, there are more than one.)

It was likely the profiteering that he was opposed to, not so much the act of paying someone for a service rendered. After all, it was ordered that every Jew use local currency to make a payment in lieu of an animal offering. If you came in with any currency other than Judaen legal tender, it would not have been accepted. Jesus didn't address this practice, but instead the thievery that was taking place in the name of temple worship.

Folk Tale No. 3: Jesus said not to judge and did not preach moral absolutes.

Truth: Often ignored in the table-turning story is the verse that occurs after the tables are turned in John 2:

"Then His disciples remembered that it was written, 'Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.'" --John 2:17 (cp. Psalm 69:9).

This zeal translates to some pretty strict standards Jesus had: especially when it came to the equally strict Pharisees and Saducees who routinely hounded him (he was much less prone to quibble with non-Jews, but they weren't playing by the same set of rules -- something to keep in mind when we address non-Christians). Jesus would often cut to the heart in these doctrinal discussions, and distinguish between man's Law and the Law God sent to Moses (there's a difference).

While Jesus sometimes intentionally bucked authority, by no means did Jesus even once break GOD's Law. Even when he used mud and spit to heal a man's blindness on the Sabbath day, it was a rejection of the Mishnah (man-made) and not the Law given directly by God.

Wait a minute: didn't Jesus say to "judge not?" Yes, but the full quote is "judge not lest ye be judged" (Matthew 7:1). In other words, be prepared to be judged yourself if you are being judgmental. Clean up your own backyard, first. That kind of thing.

Consider that Jesus also ordered us to judge, but to be incredibly careful when doing so.

"Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment." --John 7:24.

So it's not religious zeal or personal holiness that Jesus was opposed to, but self-determined righteousness and man-made religiosity.

Folk Tale No. 4: Jesus was against riches.

"Then [Jesus] entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.
And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house."
So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.
But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, "He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner."
Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold."
And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; "for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."
--Luke 19
This is related to the "was Jesus a Socialist" thought above, but putting politics aside, would Jesus smile at someone who was commercially successful? What about a tax collector? What about a normal guy who just really likes his money? The answer is obvious that he did, but he often had a lot to say about how wealth and the world's expectations can distract from God's will.

Consider this: If he was such a foe to the rich, why did he befriend them? Matthew, one of the twelve disciples, was a tax collector and likely rich. And that "wee little man" Zacchaeus was very much rich. But then you have the Rich Young Ruler, and the disciple of Christ's who wanted to delay following Jesus because he had to tend to his father's estate.

I'm sure there are more "folk tales" out there, and I'm certain there are way-better, lengthy discussions about each of these four points I've brought up. I don't claim to be a scholar. But those are the ones I hear all the time in my regular interactions here in the Austin, Texas, area.

It doesn't take a theology degree or a textbook on biblical interpretation to see beyond our cultural biases and look instead to the actual Risen Christ. It's easy for anyone to read for themselves -- but again, how few of us actually do and follow after "cunningly devised fables."  It's more fun to believe in Robin Hood, but it's a belief in the Risen Lord that leads to the joy that the Holy Spirit can give and the peace that passes understanding.


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  2. I’ll add the unreachable Jesus. The Jesus some people believe they can’t have direct communication with. Some believe a Pastor has better reception than they do or that they must pray through a Saint. This makes me sad we are all able to have the same umbilical cord and BFF relationship if we just ask for it.