The Governance of “Sar Shalom”

lioin and lambIn February 2012, former Senator Rick Santorum made headlines in a controversial statement criticizing President Obama’s worldview. Santorum was running for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Although his comment puzzled many news analysts, it was clear to many Christians that Santorum had implied that the president’s worldview was not sufficiently biblical to ensure wise political direction for the country. It’s far too easy, however, for us Christians to kick back and assume that we have a thoroughly biblical worldview about politics.

But let’s reflect on that assumption. Our country is poised for long, tedious, and potentially heated political campaigns to begin for the Republican and Democrat nominations for President of the United States. So this seemed like a good moment to press pause and reflect.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we need to ask ourselves how consistently do we see political life through the eyes of Jesus? How much of our political wisdom, to put it in words of Colossians 2:8, depends on the basic principles of this world rather than on a philosophy based on Christ?

More pointedly, through what filter do we interpret domestic and international issues and events, prescribe policies, engage with our political opponents – and elect presidents? Blue? Red? Liberal? Conservative? Libertarian? The mainstream media? Talk radio? The blogosphere? “Wisdom” is a good biblical word I often use as a replacement for “worldview,” and far too much of our wisdom, I believe, relies on American attitudes and allegiances rather than on Christ. Here’s why.

Jesus had a strange view of politics, at least according to American lights today. Think with me for a moment about the Palestine of his day and how he handled it. Ancient Palestine was not a land filled only with Jews. It was a land of great diversity. For one thing, Palestine was part of the Roman Empire, which was the superpower of the time, and, like all superpowers, you could not escape the presence of the Roman military, its legions, and soldiers.

Besides military personnel, Jesus’ audiences could at any time have included any cluster of ethnic, social, religious, political, and occupational vested interests and conflicting agendas that were daily in close contact with one another – Jews, of course, but also Romans, Greeks, religious leaders of various stripes, government officials, political zealots, a magistrate’s political spies, apostates, pagans, philosophers, fishermen, soldiers, tax collectors, lawyers – you name it. That land was not unlike the pluralism of our major cities today.

What can we learn from our Lord in the midst of all this human diversity, with its competing and conflicting interests and agendas? For one thing, we know what Jesus did not say in the Gospels. When people came to him seeking wisdom, Jesus did not regurgitate the vested interests, sectarian agendas, or partisan politics of the region’s economic and political powers, or those of the pundits in the media or on talk radio. He never told them, “Just get better at it; you’re being inconsistent.” Jesus did not say such things because he knew that their adherence to such views was what had landed them in the broken relationships and troubled situations they had come to Jesus to repair.

Neither did Jesus affirm the views that people might have been accustomed to hear from their religious leaders. Nor did Jesus – as many were doing – promote Greek philosophy or faithfulness to Roman ideology, any more than, today, he would align himself with American Exceptionalism or any other form of nationalism, be it Russian, Chinese, or Middle Eastern.

And when Jesus taught the crowds, he did not tell people that it would take becoming a Sadducee, or a Pharisee, of a Democrat, or a Republican, or even a Jew or a Christian, before they could have their broken relationships and troubled situations changed.

Instead, to his mixed audiences, whoever you were, Jesus taught such things as:

Don’t repay anyone violence for violence
Settle matters quickly with your adversary
Go the extra mile
Turn the other cheek
Stop throwing stones
Drop the hypocrisy
Repent of your to violence
Forgive, forgive, forgive
Love you enemies even

And I can image Jesus at times saying: If you hold a career in politics you are not precluded from this way of seeing and doing. No wonder Jesus’ teaching seemed strange!

white doveWhat’s going on? In short, Jesus was teaching people to apply God’s peaceable wisdom of shalom across the whole of life in their pluralist situations, with those who were different from them. Jesus called civic officials, religious leaders, and government authorities, not to mention ordinary folk, to commit themselves to shalom – to social, economic, and political well being. This meant not just shaking off dehumanizing habits of the heart as individuals but as communities, thereby creating opportunities and possibilities for living cooperatively and peaceably with one another amid the diversity of their land. This vision for life, as we have considered elsewhere, is a normative understanding of the biblical wisdom tradition.

Now the opposite of shalom is not war but brokenness, whether economic, social, or political. And as Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff once explained to me, “There is no shalom, even if bullets are not flying, if hearts, minds, and souls, or even dreams, are still broken. We, as God’s partners (according to Jewish theology), must help mend and repair the brokenness of the world.”

His use of the word “repair” was a deliberate reference to the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, which means “repairing the world.” The phrase appears in many contexts in rabbinic literature for influencing both Jewish communities and the world at large toward societies of love, peace, justice, kindness, generosity, and suchlike – seen by some as a kind of rehearsal in this life for the anticipated Messianic age of shalom (creational and human well-being, wholeness, or flourishing).

Making possible shalom between God and human beings, and therefore between human beings themselves, is what Jesus died for. He was offering the peoples of Palestine samples of shalom with God throughout his itinerant ministry on the hillsides of Galilee and in the towns of Judea. So here’s how you do it, said Jesus the wisdom teacher to his mixed audiences. Follow my lead and you will create samples of the anticipated future of shalom in the here and now. It’s doable, he said, if you see it through the filter of God’s peaceable wisdom and act accordingly.

Peace with God and with others, across the spectrum of life, is what the governance of Sar Shalom is all about. Sar Shalom (Prince of Peace) is one of the stunning titles for the Messiah given in Isaiah 9:6:

“For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”

“Prince of Peace” is Sar Shalom in the Hebrew Bible. And notice that the context is “government,” of which the next verse adds:

“Of the increase of his government and peace [shalom] there will be no end.”

A “sar” was a ruling or governing official, such as a prince or a king. The plural of sar is sarim, as used in the Hebrew Bible to refer a king’s high-level officials and advisers,
who are to rule wisely (Proverbs 8:16) and with righteousness (Isaiah 32:1). But here in Isaiah 9:6, the word is singular, “Sar,” a Prince (or King) who is given the title Sar Shalom.

A philosophy based on Christ giving direction to our politics, it seems to me, then, takes personally and very seriously Jesus’ call to shalom. Of course we are not only inconsistent at living this calling but at times fail miserably, so as part of our Christian discipleship we must steadily identify and exorcize from our wisdom (worldview) whatever voices, values, attitudes, and influences conflict with the peaceable way of wisdom that comes from above (James 3:17).

Shalom is God’s love offered to us for political life in this world amid its diversity. Does this seem strange to us today? I hope so.

Upon hearing it preached by Jesus and seeing it demonstrated, people “were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their teachers.” Dumbfounded, they asked, “Where did this man get this wisdom?” (Matthew 7:29; 13:54). Yes, where?

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Mike Quinn and hapal respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

JESUS AS A TEACHER OF WISDOM IN ANCIENT PALESTINE part 7 of 7

Was Jesus a philosopher? Before he became president of the United States the first time, George W. Bush seemed to think so. In 1999, when running for the Republican nomination for president, he was asked by a TV journalist: “Who is you favorite philosopher and thinker?” To which the then governor of Texas unhesitatingly replied, “Jesus Christ.”

Philosophers and thinkers dating back centuries have had views on the question. Suffice it to say that is has evoked negative and positive answers from the learned and others. Even as far back as the New Testament book of Acts, the apostle Paul is seen debating representatives of major philosophical schools in Athens. And it can be argued, I think truly, that the question was addressed in the striking prologue of John’s Gospel, as the answer to what Greek philosophers were grappling with regarding Logos.

Colossians title pageFor those who like this stuff, as I do, a short, readable book with the nifty little title On Jesus, by Doug Groothuis, is worth reading. Groothuis, a professor of philosophy at Denver seminary, and an old friend, I should probably add, employed the classic philosophical areas of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics to argue that Jesus was a unique kind of philosopher. But he concludes that the Gospel record does not present Jesus as merely a philosopher, or a healer, or exorcist, or a teachers, and so on.

A philosopher at heart with a passion for wisdom, I found myself challenged with the question around twenty-five years ago, when I began to get seriously into teaching and writing about a wisdom-based way of seeing life and living in it. (If you want a quick idea about a biblical use of the word “wisdom,” that is about as tight a one as you are going to get: a way of seeing life and living in it.) I became quite happy, and probably a bit conceited, when it occurred to me that the word philosophy means “love of wisdom.” But that does not come across in English as it does in the Greek: philo (love) + sophia (wisdom).

There are many ways we could take this, but let’s go this way. Follow me now. This is merely a short post on a fascinating idea, so I’ve got to cover a lot of ground quickly here. But at least you will have the start of a roadmap, which you can come back to, reflect on, and then go places yourself from here.

Let’s start with wisdom as “a way of seeing life and living in it”; or, alternatively: “a way of making sense of the creation in order to live in it effectively.” Now think of philosophy as “a love of wisdom.” There are only two places in the New Testament where philo+sophia is used. One is in Acts 17, where the apostle Paul debates Epicurean and Stoic “philosophers” (Acts 17:16-32). There, he relies on the resurrection of Jesus (although he does not use Jesus’ name) to radically challenge the religious ground motives of their philosophies. (Not unlike John’s challenge in his prologue, with his use of “Logos.”) The other is Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy [philo+sophia], which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ.”

The passage in Colossians is often incorrectly interpreted to mean: Have nothing to do with philosophy whatsoever, when it is actually warning about a love for philosophy that is not based on Christ. The implication is: It’s okay to be taken captive by a love of wisdom that is based on Christ. But that meaning is hidden by the English word “philosophy” in the text. This conclusion is supported by previous verses, where the text explains that it is in Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom [sophia] and knowledge” (Col. 2:3), and that it is to proclaim this that the apostle is “admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom [sophia]” (Col. 1:28).

It would take much more space than we have, here, to explore the richness of this. But having started you down a road, I’ll leave you with a few more signposts. Make your own paths from here, by reflecting on the biblical addresses. Many people ask, What is philosophy? Here is my simple definition by way of comparison, which is a key category of the wisdom literature. “Theology is way of thinking about God; philosophy is a way of thinking about the world. ” This, I believe, is what the Bible typically means by its use of the word “wisdom.” And that squares with wisdom as “a way of seeing life and living in it,” “a way of making sense of the creation in order to live in it effectively.”

Try reflecting on the “wisdom” verses, above, and the following verses, by using the definition of wisdom just given. In 1 Corinthians 1-2, Paul repeatedly contrasts two ways of seeing the world and living in it; that is, he denigrates “the wisdom of the world” as opposed to “the wisdom of God.” And this is the place where Paul indicates that Jesus is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), God’s way of seeing the world is Jesus’ way of living in it. What the apostles John and Paul are on about is having a love that sees life and lives in it consistent with Jesus as Logos.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.

JESUS AS A TEACHER OF WISDOM IN ANCIENT PALESTINE part 6 of 7

wisdom traditionThe ways in which Jesus personally modeled his peaceable wisdom were almost always controversial, beginning with his choice of his twelve closest followers, a motley crew for sure. And it went on from there, nonstop. Jesus kept reaching out to include persons whom others had excluded. Here are some vignettes.

A crowd in Jericho complained when Jesus included a rich tax official, Zacchaeus – who really was up a tree. A Pharisee named Simon threw a dinner party for Jesus and was shocked when Jesus not only permitted a “sinful” woman to remain in their midst but let her participate in a ceremony.

In the stories of the Samaritan and the Syrophoneican women, the twelve disciples (who were all Jews) learned to open up their hearts as Jesus crossed boundaries of ethnic, religious, social, and gender otherness to express God’s love to two women who were citizens of cultures that most Jews found repulsive. In Jesus, the Samaritan woman found “a Jew who did not impose on her the Jewish stereotype of a Samaritan [or of] a woman.” And the Syrophoneican woman, a Greek (a Gentile) who lived in the region of Tyre, historically a non-Jewish enclave, found in Jesus a Jew who practiced mercy over exclusivism. In both narratives, a Jewish rabbi is willing to dialogue with these excluded others in ways that initiate them into the community of compassion. (Quoting Judith Gundry in the “Introduction” to Glenn Stassen’s Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War, p. 28).

It may even be that the Syrophoneican woman’s clever appeal to Jesus, which seems to get him to change his mind, inspired him soon after he left that region to reach out with compassion to a huge gathering of probably chiefly Gentiles at the Sea of Galilee. There, Jesus clearly modeled for the twelve that Gentiles “are part of the community of compassion. God’s mercy had triumphed over ‘the prejudiced-based distance between nations and cultures.’” (Quoting Judith Gundry in Stassen, p. 29).

I am sure that those twelve Jewish men must have felt their faith was at great odds with itself many times seeing Jesus practice what he preached. Jesus was knocking their sectarian interests and exclusivist, social and religious ideologies to pieces.

And if you did not get it from the real-life travels of Jesus, you could get it from some of the parables. Parables are basic to the wisdom tradition and Jesus ingeniously supplied them. Some he told specifically in hopes of awakening his listeners to become agents on the gospel-shaped love of God that includes the excluded. In the parable of the dinner guests, for instance, social outcasts are brought in for fellowship with the rich. And in the often misunderstood parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus’ listeners are challenged to imagine themselves seeing a dying man who is in need of immediate mercy – and what would they do about it? Would they stop and provide for his well-being, reach out with shalom? Or would they leave him on the street corner to bleed to death because of their religious or other beliefs?

The parable, I believe, calls us to exercise impartial justice to one another even when we have religious and other basic differences. This a biblical principle of justice, through and through, from Leviticus 19:33-34 to 1 Timothy 5:21. “Wisdom is proved right by her actions,” Jesus said. The Samaritan man in the parable “proved” that wisdom by the impartial justice he exercised. He stopped what he was doing that day and reached out to save the dying man, whom two Jewish religious leaders in the parable would not help. And it cost him some coin to do it. All of this was to the dismay of another figure, the real-life Jewish religious leader, to whom Jesus directed the parable.

Decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, this may have been on the mind of James, a Jewish Christian leader and step-brother of Jesus, who seems to have adapted the principle to a different problem. Writing in an Epistle that shows clear correspondence to a wisdom agenda, James has found a Christian synagogue guilty of showing favoritism, or partiality, to the rich, and embarrassing the poor in their synagogue in the process. They are not being impartial in their dealings with others, and James challenges them to treat rich and poor the same, lest they be found guilty of discrimination, having “become judges with evil thoughts” (James 2:1-4). Acts of favoritism, he notes, do not reflect well on “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”

street light crossFor us today, however, the parable is not poignant, not even outlandish. It doesn’t make us smart because we don’t live 2,000 years ago in ancient Palestine. We have not absorbed the social taboos and religious pressures that made Jesus’ parable so startling. I mean, something quite profound is going on, here, in the public imagination, when the religious figure to whom the parable was directed can’t even say “the Samaritan” in answer to Jesus’ question “Who was the injured man’s neighbor?”, but instead answers “the one.”

I think we need a parable of the good Samaritan for today. I wonder how Jesus would tell the parable today. It would certainly challenge our contemporary imaginations. I had an idea for one a few years ago, but I gave up trying to finish writing it when I read The Parable of the Good Palestinian, by Stephen Sizer, an English vicar.

Throughout the four Gospels, we see that in Jesus the peaceable way of the sages’ wisdom becomes the gospel-shaped way of loving outcast and adversary. Civic officials, religious leaders, government authorities, and ordinary people—his own followers, too—were being challenged with a wisdom-based praxis that emphasized not just shaking off dehumanizing habits of the heart as individuals. By following Jesus’ lead they would become agents of a wisdom that would rehumanize relationships amid their diversity.

The ultimate act of Jesus’ personal modeling of his peaceable wisdom was the crucifixion, when Jesus went so far as to die to be able to include even his enemies. More than any of his inclusive personal acts, however, this one became known in the early Church as “a stumbling block” to some, “foolishness” to others, and “the wisdom of God” to others still (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

See next post for the conclusion of this series.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.

JESUS AS A TEACHER OF WISDOM IN ANCIENT PALESTINE part 5 of 7

©2014 by Charles Strohmer.

At the start of his public ministry, Jesus chose twelve close followers, and most of them were so different that they would never have come together on their own in any sort of initiative. We do not know much about any of them from the Gospels, and some we don’t know anything about. But here are some things we do know.

There were four professional fishermen, a tax collector, a political zealot, a guy who was sort of the “nobody” of the group, a man who held huge doubts about who Jesus really was, and the guy who betrayed Jesus. If there is any one thing this motley crew of disciples learned early on from Jesus it was to include the other in their midst.

wisdom tradtionHere is why we should consider this. In these current posts we have so far chiefly been focusing on ways in which Jesus taught his peaceable wisdom in ancient Palestine and counseled people to apply it. Stories and incidents in the four Gospels show different responses. Some people accepted Jesus’ wisdom and applied it. Some said, That’s interesting; I’ll think about it. And to others it was either foolishness or a stumbling block. And almost everyone was at the very least surprised by Jesus’ wise words, even if they did not take them to heart.

But what we see taking place with Jesus in ancient Palestine is not just about other people. For Jesus personally modeled his wisdom, quite publicly, in his own daily actions. Now those actions themselves surprised people. I don’t think they were surprised because they expected the teacher to be a hypocrite. I think they were surprised, even shocked at times, to see what the shapes of that wisdom would look like if applied in family, social, and political life. It challenged the normal shapes of things in Palestine. It did not square with their own wisdom – their own ways of seeing life and living in it.

It is by his choice of the twelve, with their diverse, and sometimes conflicting, interests and visions, that Jesus starts to get everyone’s serious attention about the shape of his peaceable wisdom – across the spectrum of life. The strange witness of shalom amid diversity starts in ancient Palestine with Jesus and the twelve.

Jesus deliberately stuck all thirteen of them into an initiative in which the group had to grapple for three years with its contradictions, competing interests, misunderstandings, personal issues, perceived lack of parity, and much more. And learn to live with it. No, I did not say that right. It was more than that. The twelve had to learn wisdom for expressing their diversity peaceably, everyday. It would change them personally. And it was meant to become their normative public witness amid that cosmopolitan diversity – for that was what Jesus himself, their teacher, was modeling. “A student is not above his teacher,” Jesus said, “but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).

Of course the twelve failed terribly at times. But Jesus was afterward always showing them what course corrections they then needed to make, if the were going to continue to follow him, Sar Shalom, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

And it went on from there, full speed ahead. After assembling the twelve, Jesus continued not just to teach his peaceable wisdom but to personally model it. And it was almost always controversial. We will explore some of these narratives in the next post.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.

JESUS AS A TEACHER OF WISDOM IN ANCIENT PALESTINE part 4 of 7

©2014 by Charles Strohmer.

widsom traditionIt is becoming clear that when we think about Jesus as teacher of wisdom, this is not about someone who went around quoting the book of Proverbs. Something else was taking place. Jesus was teaching from a way of reasoning about life, relationships, and decision making. It was a peaceable way of reasoning that was wisdom-based, and it had strong similarities to the ancient Hebrew sages’ peaceable way of reasoning. We have been exploring some vital and often overlooked aspects of this wisdom – this way of seeing life and living in it – since the first post in this series.

To quickly recall one of those aspects, the Hebrew sages had a way of reasoning in which shalom played a vital role in cooperative human activity and decision making across the spectrum of life. In ancient Israel this provided a morally responsible means for peoples of different faiths and cultures not only to meet and greet but to negotiate peaceable initiatives and agreements across all sorts of perhaps otherwise unnegotiable boundaries.

However, as an authoritative form or mode of knowledge and instruction, Christianity today, whatever the reasons, has in some ways clipped this way of reasoning from its Bible. That is, we are big on the Law (Torah) and the prophets as authoritative. But wisdom? We see a clue to the problem in the book of Jeremiah. Some conspirators (they are not identified) are plotting against the prophet, and while doing that they summarize three sources of authoritative knowledge for ancient Israel: the teaching of the law by the priest, the counsel from the wise, and the word from the prophet (Jeremiah 18:18).

I like Walter Brueggemann’s treatment of this triad (The Creative Word, chapter 1). “Torah,” “counsel,” and “word” are three shapes of “Israelite authoritative knowledge,” and “the priest,” “the wise,” and “the prophet” are the three agents of that knowledge and instruction. Each form of knowledge, he argues, “has a special substance and a distinct mode in the life of Israel. And a faithful community must attend to all three, not selecting one to the neglect of the others” (p. 8, his emphases).

In all four Gospels, Jesus can be seen as the archetypal agent of all three of these forms of authoritative knowledge and instruction. What I am hoping for in these posts on Jesus as a teacher of wisdom is to help us think about the form that we have neglected for far too long.

Jesus’ way of reasoning squares with that of the Hebrew sages and their wisdom tradition, with its emphases on shalom as vital to cooperative and peaceable human relations amid their diversity (see the earlier posts). But in Jesus, the sages’ peaceable way of wisdom gets taken up in the love of God and transformed into the gospel-shaped wisdom for loving not only one’s neighbors but also one’s adversaries.

In the previous post, we looked briefly at some ways in which Jesus taught this peaceable wisdom in ancient Palestine amid that roiling diversity with its conflicting ethnic, social, political, and religious interests. But Jesus did not just teach it. He also personally modeled it. This we will see in the next post.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.

JESUS AS A TEACHER OF WISDOM IN ANCIENT PALESTINE part 3 of 7

©2014 by Charles Strohmer.

wisdom traditionIn Jesus, the sages’ peaceable way of wisdom gets taken up in the love of God and transformed into the gospel-shaped wisdom for loving not only one’s neighbors but also one’s adversaries. How is that possible? If it seems like a pretty bold claim, a large part of the reason why, I think, must be laid at our feet. The role of Jesus as a teacher of wisdom has been lost to us today. And we are the poorer for it.

This series of posts offers some thoughts about what it might take to start regaining that lost wisdom and get a line on what practicing it might look like today. We began this in the first two posts by getting a good feel for the region and the time in which Jesus lived and moved as a wisdom teacher. The diverse social, religious, and political atmosphere of ancient Palestine under the domineering power of the Roman empire, including its military presence, was felt by everyone everywhere. Including Jesus. Broken relations, sectarian agendas, and political injustices were as common to ancient Palestine’s disturbed polyculturalism as they are today.

Having set the stage, let’s look start to explore Jesus’s wisdom-based way teaching within those roiling waters. To his audiences, Jesus had a strange view about how people with conflicting interests could live more cooperatively and peaceably with one other. Jesus, regularly addressed as “Rabbi,” taught a wisdom-based way of resolving problems of differing interests, decision making in diversity, broken relationships, and community formation. For him, this way was natural. But to his audiences, even to his own followers, it sounded alien. Why was that?

Let’s start from the negative, by first identifying several things that we do not see Jesus saying or doing as a teacher of wisdom. When people came to him seeking counsel, Jesus did not regurgitate the vested interests, sectarian agendas, or partisan politics of the region’s economic and political powers, or those of the pundits in the media or on talk radio. Adherence to such views was often what had landed people in the broken relationships and sorry situations they had come to Jesus to repair. Neither did Jesus affirm the views that they were accustomed hear from their religious leaders. Nor did he, as so many were doing, promote Greek philosophy or faithfulness to Roman ideology – any more than today he would align himself with American Exceptionalism or any other form of nationalism.

And there is this. Jesus did not tell anyone that it would take becoming a Sadducee or a Pharisee, or a liberal or a conservative, or a Democrat or a Republican, or even a Jew or a Christian before they could start to have their relationships and situations repaired. This is quite a different approach, for instance, and to use Evangelical parlance, than getting people “saved” first, before any thought of saving their relationships and situations could move in more peaceable directions. You only need to consider the bloody internecine history of Christianity to see that “being Christian” is no guarantor preventing brother from rising up against brother.

Well, as they say, you can’t build a case on negatives. So what did Jesus to do? What did his wisdom consist of in the roiling cosmopolitanism of ancient Palestine? To his mixed audiences, and to whoever you would have been in those audiences, Jesus said some pretty outlandish things:

Don’t repay anyone violence for violence. Settle matters quickly with your adversary. Go the extra mile even with a soldier. Turn the other cheek. Forgive, forgive, forgive. Stop throwing stones. Drop the hypocrisy. Forget sectarian allegiances. Repent of your tendencies to othering and violence. Love your enemy, even. And if you hold a career in politics you are not excluded from practicing this wisdom.

This is only a small area of what a close engagement with the four Gospels reveals about Jesus the wisdom teacher. We will pick that up in the next post. But what does any of that have to do with the wisdom tradition and the wisdom of Jesus? Let me close this post with the following.

Those “sayings” from Jesus all comes from Matthew’s Gospel, which Ben Witherington calls a Gospel of wisdom (Jesus the Sage, chapter 8). Witherington concluded this after wondering “what it would have looked like to tell the story of Jesus in light of Jewish sapiential thinking about wisdom in general” and about Jesus himself “as the great parable of God’s wisdom, like and yet even greater than Solomon” (p. 335). Because Matthew was put together chiefly for Jewish audiences, and because it carries so much direct and indirect evidence of the Hebrew wisdom tradition, I think Witherington is on to something.

And to note just this also, “contrasts,” especially brief, striking ones, are integral to the Hebrew wisdom tradition. And at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which is in Matthew’s Gospel, which is where most of the above “sayings” are found, Jesus not only makes a striking contrast but one that deftly summarizes the entire (wisdom) book of Proverbs: If you put these word of mine into practice, you are a wise; if you don’t put them into practice, you are foolish (Matthew 7:24-27).

Continued in the next post.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.

JESUS AS A TEACHER OF WISDOM IN ANCIENT PALESTINE part 2 of 7

©2014 by Charles Strohmer.

wisdom traditionIn the previous post I offered a thumbnail sketch of the domineering political and military presence and rule of the Roman Empire over ancient Palestine in Jesus’ day. The empire brooked no quarter whenever uprisings were considered threats to its national, regional, or local interests, which were believed to be under the protection of the Roman pantheon of gods, with “Jupiter Great and Blessed” as its head. The imperial system of the magistrates, with its diverse military forces, keep the people of Palestine in line with the Pax Romana.

I admitted in the previous post that it was not until researching the new book that I began to consider Jesus’ role as a teacher of wisdom in ancient Palestine. I also should admit that I had never grasped the region’s religious and social cosmopolitanism. I had been taught as a young Christian that the region was uniformly Jewish. Any diversity was Jewish diversity. There were Pharisees, Saducees, political zealots, rich and poor Jews, that sort of diversity. And of course the were “the Romans,” whom the Jews despised.

But think with me for a minute about what the religious and social chemistry of Palestine in Jesus’ day was really like. That land, it was crazily pluralist, not unlike ours today. Besides Pharisees, Saducees, or ordinary Jews, Jesus’ audiences could at any time have included any cluster of Jews, Romans, Greeks, non-Jewish religious figures, government officials, political zealots, a magistrate’s political spies, apostates, pagans, philosophers, fishermen, soldiers, tax collectors, lawyers, you name it. One only has to visit the opening scenes of the book of Acts chapter two to see that Palestine under Roman occupation was a land of great diversity.

Further, and significantly, just as today, any number of ethnic, social, religious, political, or other interests and agendas would have been daily in close contact with one another, vying with each other, contributing to every conceivable kind of relational problem in a community or town. It was into this disturbed, regional context, under Roman rule, that Jesus was born and raised. Discovering how Jesus handled this as a teacher of wisdom held many surprises for me.

As discussed in earlier posts, it was the ancient sages who developed the wisdom tradition. Sometime during the Second Temple period before the birth of Jesus, the word “sage” began to be displaced by the word “rabbi” in the Jewish community, although connotations of wisdom remained strong in the emergence of rabbinic Judaism. As a Jewish rabbi of his time, Jesus would have been skilled in the Hebrew wisdom tradition. Exploring what this meant allowed me to start seeing Jesus as a sage for the first time. I began to see his wisdom-based way of reasoning about life and decision making and how much it squared with that of the Hebrew wisdom tradition, with its emphases on shalom, relationships, human diversity, and mutuality. (See previous posts.)

Focusing on Jesus’ role as a teacher of wisdom amid the contentiously disturbed cosmopolitanism of ancient Palestine added a dimension to his life that became so obvious I wondered how I had ever missed it. But because I had missed it, I had missed just how much the wisdom tradition informed what Jesus taught his mixed audiences. And what the might mean in a very practical way for us today.

We will pick it up from here in the next post.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.

JESUS AS A TEACHER OF WISDOM IN ANCIENT PALESTINE part 1 of 7

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

So far in this series of posts on the wisdom tradition we have been considering two core features of wisdom that are vital for building and sustaining more cooperative relations amid human diversity. These two core features are peaceableness (shalom, as flourishing) and human mutuality (wisdom is for all humankind). And we have been considering reliance on them chiefly in local community and regional contexts.

Soon the posts will be going international. We will be exploring biblical and related narratives in which the wisdom tradition played prominent roles in the international relations and foreign policy of the old-world Middle East. Afterward, we will experiment with ways in which the agency of wisdom may be relied on in international relations today, with a special focus on U.S. – Middle East relations and foreign policy decision making. But just before we go international, I thought it would be good to dedicate several posts to the disturbed, regional context of ancient Palestine in Jesus’ day, and how Jesus as a teacher of wisdom handled it.

Roman empireFocusing on Jesus as a teacher of wisdom can be a bit difficult at first, at least it was for me, because other views of Jesus were prominent in my mind. As a Christian in America, I was taught to see Jesus as a healer and miracle worker, and as someone who was angry with the pharisees, and as someone who told great stories, and as the leader of twelve disciples, and so on. And especially as the savior. “Reading” Jesus’ life through such frames, however, as true as all of those are, gave me a blind spot. I was unable to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher. Sure, I knew that Jesus was a teacher and that the New Testament called Jesus the wisdom of God. And I knew that Jesus told a lot of parables and that the parables were part of the wisdom tradition. But I had never linked “teacher” to “wisdom” or heard any Christian instruction which emphasized that.

It was not until I was well into the research for this new book that I started considering Jesus in his role as a teacher of wisdom. That led to some surprising discoveries in how Jesus handled his own version of our contemporary, pluralist regions, with their great ethnic, political, and religious diversity. These discovers have added immensely to how I see Jesus, and in ways that I would not want to live without.

These discoveries began after I decided to get a good picture of the cultural, social, political, and religious scene of ancient Palestine in Jesus’ day. Here are few vignettes.

It was the time of the Roman empire and the empire’s occupation of Palestine, which affected your aspirations across the spectrum of life. At the top of the empire was the emperor and his imperium, exercising absolute control, with the blessing and favor of the gods. Just as Israel’s political and social life was rooted in its belief in Yahweh, Rome’s was rooted in belief in the Roman pantheon of gods, with “Jupiter Great and Blessed” as its head.

Just below the emperor and his imperium were the aristocratic families and the Senate. These aristocratic families were what we today would call the elite. The fathers had absolute control over these families, and the fathers could be summoned by the emperor at any time for their counsel. Well-reputed fathers of aristocratic families could become elders in the famed Roman Senate, which was an advisory body on both domestic and foreign policy. But the Senate did not legislate or have executive power.

In short, you lived under the dictatorial powers of the emperor and his imperium who, when analyzing a situation or making policy, may or may not listen to his elite advisers in the Senate or to the counsel of the aristocratic fathers.

But there was more still: the complicated and powerful imperial system of the magistrates. It was through the complicated hierarchical structure of the Roman magesterium that the tremendous political and military power of the empire was exercised over its vast holdings. The magistrates were tasked with keeping society moving along like a well-oiled machine. It was a system of government that had authority and power to legislate, to put down rebellions, and even to wage regional wars. In his writings, Luke gives us poignant glimpses of the power, authority, and functions of this system of governance (Luke 23; Acts 16).

And then of course there were “the people.” The empire grew by increasingly conquering and absorbing under its rule all sorts of diverse societies, ethnic populations, religious people-groups, tribes, city-states, and so on. This eventually hugely pluralist enterprise came to be know as the populus Romanus, the people of Rome. But having been conquered, you did not automatically become a citizen of Rome. In fact, one of the more ingenious political and social features of the empire was to make it possible to become a Roman citizen. We know from historians and from Acts chapter 22 that if you were not born a citizen you could pay a large sum of money for the privilege. You then gained the rights of Roman citizenship. But in return for that you served the empire, especially if required to during times of war.

Last but by no means least was the Roman military. Rome was an empire of war, as are all empires. Before Rome conquered the many and diverse peoples that came to rule, those peoples often waged regional wars against one another. It was the increasingly vast military superpower of Rome that clamped down on local and regional aggression and thus held the widespread empire at least somewhat peaceably together. Roman emperors ensured that their military forces – typically arranged throughout the empire as “legions” and “century units” –  suppressed revolts and kept social order. This was done under the authority of local and regional magistrates. The narrative recounted in Acts chapter 19 is a clear example of this authority being exercised during a riot at Ephesus.

We will pick it up from here with the next post.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.