Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Some Thoughts on Status & Position in the Gospels

I've preached through all four Gospels.  It took me 16 years of morning sermons to go through them all paragraph by paragraph.  After finishing them I want to go back and do it again.  One of the reasons is that I now have a better grasp on them all.  There's a great deal I could say about that. But what I want to call attention to in this post is the importance of reading the Gospels in the context of the early, Apostolic church.

I am convinced of the early church "Augustinian" view of the order the Gospels.  The first Gospel to be written was Matthew's, then Mark's, then Luke's, then John's.  The canonical order is the order in which they were composed.  In fact, I'm pretty radical.  I believe Matthew was written within a year or so of the church's formation in Acts 2.  The apostles needed a "book" to ground what they were teaching on the life and words of Jesus.  Mark was written about a decade later and reflects the intense persecution the church was experiencing at the hands of the Jewish leaders.  That was already going on at the time of Matthew's Gospel, but it had increased in the 40's.  Luke, of course, was written under the supervision of Paul and addresses the church's situation in the wider world, especially the inclusion of the Gentiles.  John penned his Gospel in the late 60's when the old world was about to be deconstructed with the judgment against Israel and the destruction of the Temple.

During this time of transition (AD 30–70) the disciples of Jesus were in a precarious position.  Having no status and position in the old world of Judaism, the challenge was to trust Jesus' promises that the church would one day be exalted and be at the center of a new civilization (= the Kingdom of God).

A number of modern commentators have noted that there's a lot in the Gospels about "status" or "position."  Jesus and his disciples are the poor, the meek, the humble, the despised and rejected.  Those who enter the new kingdom are not the rich and the powerful.  They are the marginalized and weak.  The leaders of the Jews often mock Jesus and his disciples as unschooled and part of the "common" people.  Do I need to cite references?  Just look at what the Jewish leaders say to the apostles in Acts 4.  These are code words used by those in power to marginalize the followers of Jesus.

Modern readers of the Gospel need to be careful not to universalize all of this stuff on position and status, making it some sort of absolute statement about economic or social status & the kingdom.  Take Matthew's account of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew's Gospel has a context. And that context is the very early days of the Apostolic church.  In fact, it could hardly be called a "church" as we understand it. As it turned out, all those who believed Jesus was the Messiah were marginalized, thrown out of the synagogues, and even demonized, persecuted, and executed.  They were outcasts.  But not necessarily economically.

Rather, we should remember that ecclesio-socio-political status among the Jews was tied to one's relationship to the establishment order, the curators being the chief priests, scribes, pharisees, and elders.  The Jewish leaders were on the top; the disciples of Jesus were on the bottom precisely because of their new commitments to Jesus.  This was also true in a real sense even before Jesus.  The true believers were the little people--Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Anna, Simeon, etc.  So I'm gonna argue that the application of this "status" talk in the Gospels is more about ecclesiastical status than economic or political position. Sometimes, of course, they are intertwined.  But what we don't have in the Gospels is some universal commendation of poverty and powerlessness.

Think about the use of economic language in the New Testament.  More often than not the "economic" language used in the Gospels has to do with "spiritual transactions" if you will.  I'm not entirely comfortable with that language. But let me try to explain.  When you get to the symbolic description of the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in Rev. 18 the relationship between the nations and Jerusalem is described in symbolic "economic" language.  Right? Buying and selling, cargo and merchandise.  Jerusalem has an exalted status and position in relation to the nations from which she is removed.  Her "religious" position is described in economic language.  She was exalted as an exporter of "goods."  Remember, too, that Jesus advises the church to "buy" from him "gold refined by fire, so that they may be rich" (Rev. 3:17).  He wants the church to occupy the empty seats of power and use it as he has taught them.  He wants the church to be "rich" in the sense of having "goods" to distribute to the nations.

Given the historical context of Gospels at the beginning of the new world, Jesus has no intention of leaving his disciples in the "status" and "position" in which they find themselves under the apostate leaders of Israel.  He wants to "bring down the mighty from their seats and exalt those of low degree" (Luke 1).

If we absolutize these sayings in the Gospels Christians will never be able to accept exaltation and positions of cultural authority.  This is the legacy of the anabaptist reading of Scripture—the perpetual fear of power and position.  That kind of reading misses the point entirely.  The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and ushered in was a new way of organizing humanity under his Lordship.  That necessarily means new people in positions of authority.  So much of Jesus' instruction to the disciples in the Gospels is designed to insure that the kingdom he is ushering in avoids the "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" danger.  We see this happening in the book of Acts.  The old world leaders must be dethroned, as Mary prophesied in the Magnificat.  But in the kingdom of Jesus authority flows to humble servant leaders—Peter, James, Paul, and those Christians that Paul leaves in the cities to fill the vacuum created by the lawless, evil Jews.

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