What is the Bible? #4 Rev. Dave Rogalsky November 4 2018
Scriptures: Mark 13:10; Mark 11:15-17; Isaiah 56:1-8; Mark 14:1-2
Theme: Jesus lived in the Jewish, first century world. He lived among Sadducees, Hellenists, Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots. Somehow he managed to unite these very different groups against himself. What did he do?
We’ve been travelling through the Bible for a number of weeks now. In many ways what we’ve been doing is following the path I’ve taken to get to the place of Christian Universalism. Let me recap what we’ve done so far:
In the first sermon I gave three ways in which we use the Bible
The Bible is a sure source of information from the past since it was written over many centuries. It reveals information about belief, practice, geography, culture, and many other historical facts.
We use the Bible to hear God in our time. We read, allowing the Spirit of God to speak to us in our lives, in our day. Emmanuel Swedenborg’s use of the Bible as a diary of Jesus’ life is one such devotional use.
We read the Bible as a history of God in relationship with humanity, from the perspective of humans, over many centuries, always rooted in their particular times and places.
In the second sermon we looked at the story of the Bible up to the exile to Babylon. We saw that God had chosen a people, the Jews, to be God’s light to the nations. They learned that there was only one God and that this God loved them, even when they failed God. God rescued them first from Egypt, and then from Babylon.
In the third sermon we learned that there was a conversation going on in the Bible between those who believed that God was God of all people in the world, and that Jews were to be welcoming all to worship in Jerusalem. But there was another group which believed that God was only God of true and pure Jews, ethnically, ethically and religiously Jewish. We learned that this conversation was preserved in the Bible because when the Old Testament was edited together around 250 before Jesus the conversation was not done.
This Sunday we come to the New Testament and Jesus. What did Jesus have to say to this conversation? What was his opinion in the discussion? Why did all the groups of his day unite to have him executed, both the excluding and the including groups?
Jesus was a Jewish person from birth to death. He lived in the Jewish homeland in Canaan, though from a lesser area in Galilee. He went through the rituals – circumcision, dedication, bar mitzvah, baptisms for cleansing – he practiced the Sabbath, and he regularly went to Jerusalem at the high festivals of Passover, Yom Kippur, Pentecost, and Sukkot—Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles). He went to synagogue regularly and had learned the Jewish scriptures thoroughly. In a world where few could read Jews were known as the people of the book and most men and many women could read. Jesus knew his spiritual history backward and forward, and knew his place in that history.
In his day there were four major groups among the Jews:
The Hellenists were Jews who had come to agree with their Greek overlords from 200 years earlier that Greek culture and language was the best. Because they were associated with the Herodian kings sometimes they were called Herodians. Some of these families didn’t practice circumcision since that would mar the perfect creation of the God. They spoke Greek, read the Jewish Scriptures in the Greek translation called the Septuagint, and partook in Greek culture – meals, the games, dress codes and so on. These were very acculturated Jews.
Next were the Sadducees. These were Jews who only accepted the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, as scripture. They were focussed on the temple and on the practices and festivals there. Many of these Jews were a kind of Jewish aristocracy, living in Jerusalem. They were in close contact with the Roman rulers and were very political in their dealings. Matthew the tax collector, one of Jesus’ disciples and named an apostle, was most likely either a Hellenist, or a Sadducee.
Closest to the common people were the Pharisees. Pharisees believed that it was through obedience to core 612 laws in the Old Testament that people would be loved by God, and the Jewish people would have success in the world. The scriptures for them included the prophets and the writings as well as the Torah. They were often found as the rabbis in the local synagogues all over the land, and beyond in the Jewish diaspora throughout the Roman world and beyond. There were significant communities of Jews in both Babylon and Egypt, and in many other places. Because they were so focussed on the laws they found in the Bible they often trained as kind of religious lawyers, commonly called scribes. But they were responsible for the literacy rates of the Jews. They believed that all Jews, especially the men, should be able to read the scriptures in the original Hebrew. Most of Jesus’ disciples, and the apostles were Pharisees. Jesus himself fit most closely into this group.
More legalistic yet than the Pharisees were a group to which John the Baptist might have belonged. Knows as the Essenes, some of them withdrew into the dessert to form pure communities. It is they who hid the scrolls in the Dead Sea area that were found in the 1940s and 50s. They practiced purification rites. Some were celibate, and many would only come to Jerusalem to worship in the temple.
Associated with these more conservative Jews were groups of guerilla fighters called the Zealots, Cananeans or Sicarii. The last of these were named after their daggers which they used for assassinations. Jesus had a disciple whom he named an apostle who was called Simon the Cananean or Zealot (see Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13). I wonder what it was like to have both Matthew, the sworn target of the Zealots, and Simon the Zealot, in Jesus’ inner circle
While Jesus was most closely associated with the Pharisees, and so had for them his strongest criticisms, by the end of his ministry he had all the main groups – Hellenists, Sadducees, and Pharisees – against him (see Mark 12:13-27). They in fact would gang up on him, and in the final act of the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, they joined together to condemn him to death (see Mark 14:1-2).
A few weeks ago we saw that when the Jewish Bible, our Old Testament, was being edited together about 250 years before Jesus, the question of whether the Jews were to be an open and including group, or a closed and pure group, was still very much alive. As you might see from the groups in Jesus’ day it was not yet solved or closed. The Hellenists and Sadducees were more acculturated with the peoples around them, while the Pharisees and Essenes believed in a pure, Jewish people.
Jesus did not fit any group well. He spoke out against the legalism of the Pharisees often, condemning them for literalism and for a graceless religion of rules which no one could keep. They found ways around the laws for themselves but demanded that others keep them – Jesus called that hypocrisy – wearing a pious mask like the Greek actors did. So they were very angry with him.
But at the same time Jesus held to the idea of the people of the Jews as a people with a particular place in God’s plan for the world. That meant he was critical of the Sadducees and Hellenists for whom religion was just a cultural thing, a veneer over their core lives which they used for political purposes. By the end they too were very angry with him.
I believe that Jesus saw himself in the long tradition of the Isaiah prophets. While Isaiah himself had preached in the time just before the southern Jewish kingdom of Judah was taken to exile in Babylon, his followers kept on preaching in and after the exile. It is in these writings that we find most clearly the call for the Jews to be God’s people, but not just for themselves. They were to be “a light to the nations” (see Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 60:3), inviting others to come to God. This thought evolved through the years and Jesus was yet another evolution in this direction.
We’ve seen before that Jesus himself did not limit his ministry to Jews. He healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:21-28), the demonic in the Ten Greek cities (Mark 5:1-20), and a deaf and speech impaired man there too (Mark 7:31-37). The feeding of the 4000 was in that same mixed racial area (Mark 8:1-10). Jesus believed that the message of the Jews was right, and that it was to be brought to the nations!
That message is summed up for us in Mark 1:14-15:
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." Mark 1:14-15 (NRSV)
The good news of God is that God has made the first move. God has drawn near to humanity, most specifically in Jesus himself. God has come to humanity without humanity making any move. Humanity just needs to respond to God’s offer of love and friendship. Jesus would have learned this from the prophets in the Old Testament. The school of Isaiah prophets wrote:
18 I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will lead them and repay them with comfort, creating for their mourners the fruit of the lips. 19 Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the LORD; and I will heal them. Isaiah 57:18-19 (NRSV)
God has seen the ways of the Jews – their failure to obey the laws, to worship purely, to practice justice and righteousness. But God will heal them, lead them, and give them peace. God is making the first move. God will no longer hold them responsible for their past failings and will work among them, giving them peace.
Jesus believed that God was expanding this to include not only Jews, but all the people of the world. This drove the Pharisees crazy and challenged the Sadducees’ complacency. They found that they needed to get rid of him to have peace.
But when Jesus met with his disciples after his death, and just before his ascension into heaven, he told them:
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Matthew 28:19-20 (NRSV)
And in another telling of that story:
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Acts 1:8-9 (NRSV)
I believe that the message of the Bible is that God is acting first to draw all people into relationship with Godself. I think that message is there from beginning to end. It got hidden by those who misunderstood God to be choosing the Jews and the Jews alone, but the message of God’s love and acceptance is the message of the Bible. There is enough material there for those who want to be narrow minded. We’ll look at that more next week. But the core, the foundation, and the goal of the Bible, is to teach God’s love and acceptance of everyone.
God loves us exactly as we are. And God loves us too much to leave us in our pain and troubles – even if they are of our own making.