Christ’s Passion and God’s Grace for You

Christ on the CrossEaster weekend is a good time to take a sabbath from chocolate bunnies and colored eggs to remind ourselves of how harshly the weekend began for Jesus 2,000 years ago. The following reflection is from one of my first books, edited here. It appears in the book in a discussion about pride, humility, and the amazing grace of God.

The sin of pride may not be the most basic sin, but it is probably way ahead of whatever is running in second place. The great American preacher Jonathan Edwards, in his typically vivid imagery, put it this way: “[p]ride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ; it was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building, and is the most difficultly rooted out” (Advice to Young Converts). Powerful words.

Pride is the all-too-human condition that makes “self” the center of my life, so that all others, including God, become subservient to me. The sin of pride is not the pride you may take in winning a scholarship to Juilliard, or by making an impossible catch in deep center field, or by the good feelings that arise when your child comes home from school with an “A+.” It is the kind of pride that says, however subtly, and in many diverse ways, “My will be done” (Isaiah 14:13–14 depicts the gravest expression of this).

Pride is the enemy of humility. Humility is about turning one’s attention away from self to God and to others. When we consider the purposes of God and the welfare of others as greater than ourselves, that is humility. “Self-forgetfulness” is the way C. S. Lewis put it.

Strange and annoying thoughts break in on our personal peace and security when our regard for God’s will and others’ welfare replace our attention to ourselves. A humility, or lowliness of mind, heart, or circumstance, then develops in us. This may occur with the discovery that I am inferior to God and must do what God says. It may come with the acceptance that I am powerless to do anything about the kind of hardship or suffering that is suddenly upon me. It may occur with the recognition of a barrier between myself and Jesus that must be terminated – a chosen career, a proposed marriage, an immoral relationship. There is, then, a shifting of priorities in the move from self to humility.

It may seem unlikely at the time, but in the process that spoils our own desires, hopes, pleasures, ambitions, or longings we receive more of God’s amazing grace to enable us to do what God is requiring of us. “Clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5).

As we approach the reality of deeper obedience, our imaginations clarify as never before. For what we are about to lose or suffer appears on the path in a last-ditch effort to try to turn aside a heart moving into tender obedience. It is a pivotal moment. Might we not turn the wrong way? We may not want to, but still . . . .

The “self-forgetfulness” of our Lord is our model for humility, as he is in all things. One of the most concentrated expressions of the clarification process comes into sharp relief when our Lord is praying in the Garden of Gethesmane, as it is described in Mark 14:32–34:

“They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took Pete, James and John along with him, and he began to he deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. Stay here and keep watch.”

Just hours before his death by crucifixion, Jesus has walked to the Garden of Gethsemane, which in the Aramaic language means “oil press.” He has gone there to pray about what lay ahead for him, and that imminent future is being clarified to him through the agony he endures there.

Christ’s passion begins. The unbelievable cost of Calvary is being clarified to the Suffering Servant. In Mark’s description, three Greek words in the original New Testament reveal what was taking place in our Lord’s mind. A more accurate rendering of “deeply distressed,” “troubled,” and “overwhelmed” are the words “aghast,” “depressed,” and “grief-stricken.”

That Jesus did not like what he saw is also evident from the long time he took in prayer to ask the Father if “the cup” could pass from him. Drops of his bloody sweat stained the ground while he endured that racking oil press of lowliness. We know that he could have called on his Father to send legions of angels to fight for him (Matthew 26:53).

But Jesus chose to drink the cup, to place the importance of others as greater than himself. This comes ringing home in that climactic outburst before he walks from the garden, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Thus strengthened by God’s grace, the Suffering Servant declares, “Rise! Let us go” (Mark 14:42).

Jesus exemplifies both the height and depth of realistic self-understanding before God, who has promised grace to the humble. If God had enough grace for Jesus in his passion, God will have more than enough grace for you in your humility. As the infinite depths of Christ’s descent mount up to the fullness of grace in Him, the humble have a share in both.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: Christ being raised of the cross, by Reubens

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while, to see if you like it. You can always unfollow anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Christ the Editor

pen, poem, and inkI’ve been thinking again about a peculiar collection of poems that God is writing, and about how great poems get written.

Just as every note in a musical score is significant, every word in a poem tells, and tells significantly. And it does not line up that way by chance or sloth. Poetry, with its compact, exact language and precise punctuation, may be the most carefully crafted and painstakingly written, and edited, form of communication. Poets will fight tooth and nail with a publisher over placement of a comma. And long before that, poets, at least the best of them, may die a thousands deaths over just one poem. Without a will to erase, add, move, or revise lines, to puzzle perhaps for hours over the right word, image, or phrase – then decide to leave it as is – and then to run through the process again, and then again, you just don’t get ascending poetry.

Back in the days of the Greek epic poet Homer (eight centuries before Christ), pieces crafted from metal were called poiēma, a word derived from poiēo, which was a basic term for all kinds of craftsmanship. Within a few centuries, around the time of Plato, poiēma in Greek literature had developed into a word that often denoted what we today would call artistic work, including the work of someone who wrote a book or a play. Plato and others after him also used poiēma especially of poetical works. Quite easily, then, the early church pressed poiēo into service in New Testament Greek to indicate God’s works as creator and redeemer and Jesus’ works and deeds.

So along comes the literate St. Paul, apostle to the Greeks, or Gentiles (as he is called). Paul has a knack for raising the stakes of the common language of his day, as he does with poiēma. In the context of what it means for the believer to be saved by grace through faith in Christ, Paul says, “We are God’s poiēma,” which English translators typically render: “We are God’s workmanship,” or God’s “handiwork,” or God’s “masterpiece.” (I think the latter is the most accurate rendering in this context, Ephesians 2:10.)

The apostle has involved us in a little wordplay here. I don’t mean that we should get all sentimental and call for a new translation: “We are God’s poems.” But we do get our English word “poem” from poiēma. So we have good reason for meditating on the implications of what it means by God’s grace to be God’s poems. You can bet Paul was.

For God’s poiēma, the editorial process began when we submitted our stories to Jesus the Editor, for consideration to be published. Submission is the hard part. We have worked so terribly hard, and for such a long time, on our own stories. And we’re so proud of them. If anyone tries to touch them, look out! So we’re deathly afraid of editors. There may be too much we are going to have to part with, or they may not even like our stories. Never mind that, as any seasoned writer will tell you, working with a skilled editor makes for the emergence of an ascending story.

antique penAfter submission, the editor says, “I like what you’ve got in mind, but there’s stuff we’ve got to work on, correct a few lines, polish it up here and there, if you want to publish with us. Still interested?” Crumbs. More hard work! But what other choice is there if you you want to get published and read. Sure, you could submit elsewhere, but you’ve already done that and nobody else has come even close to the contract that this publisher has offered.

What to do? “Don’t worry,” the editor says. “I’ll save your story for you. I know what to do. I’ve been at this for a long time. I’ll get those flaws out of it. But you’ll need to leave it with me for a while. I’ll get to work on it and then send it back to you for some revisions. But you may need to delete some bits and add some new material, change a few things around here and there, which, by the way, may take you some time. But we will be working on this together. Don’t worry. And thanks for the submission.”

When your story arrives back in your hands you nearly faint dead away. You had no idea! Such extensive surgery. This is going to take time. Yet as you follow the Editor’s guidelines and margin notes, you start to gain a new intuition, which says, yes, this makes perfect sense now. This is the way it should be.

You make the changes and resubmit it. Further drafts of your story then pass back and forth, and you’re sometimes elated at the editor’s work, sometimes deflated. Man, this is taking longer than I thought. When will it be finished? When will it be published so that everyone can read it?

“Patience,” Christ the Editor responds. “You’re making good progress, but we’ve still got a few wrinkles to iron out. You have a tendency to get ahead of yourself or fall behind or forget about a change that’s been made. And your still inclined to insist on keeping material from the old story.

“I know it’s slow and painful at times. I get that. But keep in mind that I’ve already been sending parts of your story around for reviews and, as you know, they’re being well-received. So hang in there. You want that masterpiece I promised, don’t you?

“So when will you have that next draft ready for me?”

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Jonathan Blocker and Fantomette, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” Whenever I publish a new post, you will then receive a very short email notice. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell some friends! Thank you.

Today’s Sons of Thunder and the Call of Jesus

peaceful water sceneDuring a church luncheon recently, I landed in a long conversation with new friend who is on a self-imposed learning curve about Christian – Muslim relations. He is reading what Muslims themselves think about their religion, currently in the area of what Islam teaches about love and mercy.

Driving home that afternoon, I found myself giving this Christian high marks for reading original sources. He is avoiding a number of traps. (1) Of making up his mind about Islam based solely the news media’s continual barrage of reporting on terrorism. (2) Of drawing conclusions without having read anything other than non-Muslim sources. (3) Of taking his cues from the diabolic rantings of the militant extremists. I’m hear to warn you that if those are your only sources, that militant radicalism may subtly, over time, begin knocking even the most well-meaning Christians off their stride of following the Price of Peace.

I don’t mean that they will suddenly grab a gun and start shooting. It’s subtler than that. For instance, and briefly, in a milder form, the path of military solutions to the knotty problems of backing down the appeal and the spread of the jihadis militant ideology has displaced the tough slog of inter-religious dialogue and what Chris Seiple calls relational diplomacy.   And in extreme forms, even some long-churched believers can now be heard singing “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.

All of this plunged me, not for the first time, meditatively into what it means to be an ongoing follower of Sar Shalom, the Prince of Peace, and this day my thoughts turned to those of Jesus’ followers whom he knew as “sons of thunder” (James and John; Mark 3:17). I want to conclude this post with the text I reflected on, and leave you to do your own soul-searching.

Now it came to pass, when the time had come for him to be received up, that he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before his face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare [things] for him. But [the Samaritans] did not receive him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But he turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”And they went to another village.  Luke 9:52-56 (NKJV)

The Son of God is not the son of Zeus, Ares, the god of war and of weapons of war. He is Jesus, the Prince of Peace, Sar Shalom. Just as those two first century sons of thunder needed that rebuke from Jesus, and then had to think through and work out the implications of being ongoing disciples of Sar Shalom in their own lives, perhaps Christianity’s sons of thunder today need a reminder that it is not the militants that Jesus pronounced as blessed.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Christy Rush (permission via Creative Commons)

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, which 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 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 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.