Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dreams and Decisions: The Story of Joseph and the God Who Risks

As is well known amongst even the most casual readers of the Gospels, Matthew’s story about the birth of Jesus differs from Luke’s. While Luke focuses on Mary, the beginning chapters of Matthew’s Gospel focus on Joseph. What might we learn from what Matthew tells us about Joseph?

First, Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man, and he tells us this in the context of Joseph discovering that his betrothed is having a child that is not his. Joseph’s discovery of this leads him to believe that Mary has been unfaithful to him. But, what makes him righteous?

Joseph is righteous because he is obedient to the law, and that law directs him to take one of two actions in regards to Mary. He can either have Mary stoned or he can divorce her. Joseph chooses to divorce Mary.

But notice that he chooses to do so quietly, not wanting to bring shame on Mary. His continual love for her and his just character causes him to decide that a quiet, non-public separation is best. Yet, he is still resolute to dissolve the marital contract.

All of this changes, however, through the visitation of an angel to Joseph in a dream. The dream that comes to Joseph, and the message delivered by the angel, speaks about God’s quickly approaching future. The angel says,
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)
Joseph’s dream forces a decision. Does he continue his plans to divorce Mary in secret, or does he believe that God is doing something new, now that he has heard this unbelievable story from the angel? And the that matter, why must Joseph take Mary as his wife? The reason this plot line is important may be found in the way the angel addresses Joseph as “son of David.”

This title eventually becomes an important title for Jesus, but it becomes very important here in relation to Joseph and his role as Mary’s husband and Jesus’ future proxy father. To understand this, we need to back up to the opening of Matthew’s Gospel where the author begins with the genealogy of Jesus.

What is important in the genealogy for what the angel tells Joseph is the emphasis on David within the lineage of Jesus. Matthew is very concerned to narrate his story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, and particularly as it relates to the prophecies that the messiah will be in the line of David. But how is this possible if Joseph is not the father of Jesus, which, according to Matthew and Joseph, he is not?

It is possible because Joseph does take Mary as his wife and when she does give birth, Joseph names the baby just as the angel instructed him to do. When Joseph names Jesus, he takes on the role of father and he becomes the one who cares for and protects Mary and the child.

Think about this for a moment. If Jesus is the messiah, the son of David, then it is imperative that Joseph take on the role of father of Jesus. If he does not, then Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus crumbles and Matthew’s whole narrative about Jesus falls apart. And if Joseph does not take Mary as his wife, this places God’s plan at risk and the promises of the past may not be fulfilled.

All that Matthew has said, all that the gospel promises, hinges not just on the providence of God, but on the decision of Joseph in response to that strange dream.

This story involving Joseph, a mere and unknown mortal, critiques our traditional and accepted understandings of God, causing us to consider God’s vulnerability. To me, this narrative tells of a God who risks.

We could even look at this whole story of Joseph and Mary and ask, “Why these two?” Why this unknown couple, about whom we still no very little, except that they were part of the lower class of Israel?

I’m not sure I have good answers to these questions, but perhaps the best answer is found in what the angel tells Joseph about the coming child.
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 2:23)
Perhaps in making this statement about the name Emmanuel, the angel is saying to Joseph, and to all of us who hear this story, that God does not simply desire to intervene in our world like a master, but that God desires to interact with us in loving relationship.

Moreover, maybe God so desires to be with us that in choosing to come as one of us, God took on the most vulnerable existence. In being Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus would get his start in a pregnancy that carried great social stigma, in a home of an impoverished couple, and in the frailty of the first century Roman world. Not the start that any of us would want for any of our children, but God chooses this path of risk and vulnerability, and God chooses and takes a chance with this little known man named Joseph.

That should make us all pause and reflect on whether or not we are open to the improbable that God wants to do through us.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Mary's Song: The First War on Christmas

The Nativity is a longstanding symbol of the Advent and Christmas Seasons depicting the holy family gathered together on that blessed night. As we view the scene of the Nativity, our attention is of course drawn to Jesus, the new born babe. Yet, we cannot help but give some attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and ponder what thoughts were in her mind that night.

Although Mary is a central figure in Christian history, she is perhaps one of its most enigmatic figures. Much of the problem in our not knowing Mary more fully is that the biblical texts do not offer us a lot of insight into Mary’s life, particularly after Jesus’ childhood.

Yet, while Mary remains somewhat of a mystery to us, beyond her giving birth to Jesus, there is one piece of biblical material that offers us insight into the kind of person Mary may have been. The song of Mary, or as it is known by its Latin title, the Magnificat, is found in Luke 1:46-55, and may give us enough material to help us understand her and her impact on Christianity.

From an historical critical viewpoint, we must admit that Mary may not have actually sung these words. It is probably the case that the author of this Gospel created this poem and placed it on the lips of Mary. However, this does not mean that Mary would not have sung such a song. Indeed, by placing this song on Mary’s lips, the author of Luke’s Gospel may have understood that such a poem fits Mary’s perspective on the birth of her son.

But beyond these historical issues, we are left with this narrative character singing a song that is very personal; expressing her joy for what God was doing in her life. It is a song that comes from deep within her as she responds to the mighty promises of God. It is a song she sings as a result of her hope in what God is doing both in her and through her. Indeed, it is because of the joy that wells inside her that she cannot help but sing this song.

But at the same time that Mary’s song is a song of personal spiritual fulfillment and hope in the promises of God, it is also a very revolutionary song. It is a political song. It is a song about social justice. It is a song about the redistribution of power and wealth. It is, in fact, a politically dangerous song for Mary to sing at her time and at her place in life.

She is a young peasant female who sings as an unlikely and unauthorized prophet, declaring the coming of God. Outside the religious power structures of formal Judaism, this young peasant female sings a song that is a radical shift from the religious messages of her day, and her vision of God is starkly different from that held by the religious establishment.

Her vision of God shaped her understanding that God was turning upside down the normal power structures of her society. Her song announced that the proud and powerful would be cast down from their high places, and the lowly would be lifted up. The hungry would be fed, and the rich would have nothing. She understood that God was coming to alter the economics of her world by redistributing wealth and by overturning the normal politics of her world that were based on status.

This may give us some insight into the kind of person Mary really was. For her to sing a song that is so dangerous and so subversive, and one that is focused on justice for the poor and oppressed of her time, meant that she hungered for justice not just for herself, but for all her people. She witnessed daily the pain and struggle of the marginalized and oppressed poor around her, and she found in God’s visitation of her a sense of hope that things were moving toward God’s justice and peace.

Does this sound familiar to you? It should. For what we find buried in Mary’s song is the message of her son, Jesus. Though I have no strong evidence for this, I believe that more than any other person who shaped Jesus’ central message of justice for the poor and freedom for the oppressed, it was Mary’s world view that had the greatest impact on him.

But all of this raises a significant question for us this Christmas Season. While we sing the popular carols of Christmas, do we dare to sing Mary’s song? And if we chose to sing Mary’s song, can we envision and enact a new economy that embodies simplicity and generosity, and a new culture that is characterized by welcoming strangers and loving our neighbors and our enemies?

In our greed and consumption driven cultural celebration of Christmas, Mary's song stands as the first "War of Christmas"; one that challenges our American values and calls us to embrace the values of God and of God’s son, Jesus.

Mary’s song is not just her song, and she should not sing it alone. It is a song followers of Jesus are to sing throughout all generations. But we cannot just sing this song, and continue to pay lip service to God. It is a song we are called to live in defiance of the norms of our culture until God’s revolutionary hope for the world is fulfilled.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Jesus Calls Us to Feed the Hungry: A Response to House Vote on Cutting SNAP

In response to the House voting to slash $39 billion from the food stamp program, I am posting a slightly revised version of a blog post I wrote in 2012.

The story about Jesus feeding a multitude of people is one of the few stories about Jesus that is found in all four Gospels. This tells us that this story was of great importance for early Christians in describing who Jesus was and what Jesus’ ministry was about. And, while all four tell this story, I am particularly intrigued by John’s rendition in John 6:1-14.

In reading John’s account, one should notice that Jesus goes up on a mountain. This portrays him in Mosaic terms, and because John mentions that the Passover was near, we are to perhaps understand that this feeding story reflects the Exodus story, and specifically the wandering in the wilderness when God provided manna for the people to eat.

But wait, something is different in this story concerning the provisions for nourishment.  In the giving of manna to Israel in the wilderness, it is God who causes the manna to fall from heaven to the people. Manna just falls from heaven. 

But in the story of the feeding of the multitude in John, Jesus asks one of his disciples, Philip, what they were going to do about feeding the people. Yes, John does insert the little comment that Jesus asked Philip this question in order to test him, because, as John tells us, Jesus knew what he was going to do. But why is Jesus testing Philip in this way?  Why does he not just create enough food for the people? Why get the disciples involved in all of this?

What seems most interesting to me is the question Jesus asks Philip: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” It seems like a very leading question to me. Why did Jesus not ask, “Do you think I can miraculously create enough bread to feed these people?”After all, if the people followed him because he had cured many of great illness, would not the disciples, his closest followers, know that he could do most anything? This seems to be a more testing question than asking Philip where to buy food.

Philip’s answer to Jesus’ question is very telling as well: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” In other words, even if they had a half year’s wages, they could only give each person a small amount of food, perhaps only a mouthful.  Philip seems to suggest to Jesus, “Surely this is not your plan.”

Philip’s answer exposes what he is most concerned about—Money. You can almost hear him say, “This will cost too much, Jesus.” “Even if we had this money Jesus, would we want to spend it on feeing this multitude of people.” “These folks are not our problem.”  Or, as he might say in our American context, “These lazy people need to work for their own food.”

Philip is not the only disciple to fail in this story. Andrew, the only other of the Twelve to be mentioned, comes to Jesus with some bread and fish he has received from a young boy. But in doing so, he looks on the small amount of food with doubt, as if it is nowhere near enough to feed the large crowd.

Which brings us to one other character in the story who is not mentioned by name. This character never speaks, but his actions speak loudly. He is the little boy. Even though he appears to be insignificant, this little boy plays a very important and central role in what Jesus does. Unlike the disciples, this boy shares what he has, possibly all he has. He probably knows that it is very little, but he is willing to share what he has.

In this way, the young boy serves as a model of faithfulness. If he and his gift, so insignificant to the followers of Jesus, can have an impact on feeding the large crowd, then no one can excuse themselves from giving and sharing in generosity in an effort to work toward the end of human hunger.

The problem facing Jesus, the disciples, and this crowd was hunger. We still live in a very hungry world. This story is also about real hunger, something millions in our world, yes even in our neighborhoods face each and every day.

But hunger is a symptom of something that is more deeply troubling: Poverty.  When people live in poverty, they cannot provide for themselves or their family members and this manifests itself in different ways, but particularly in the need for food.

Moreover, we know that hunger leads to sickness, which causes health care costs to rise. Hunger contributes to an inability for children to concentrate in school, thus they fail to learn, which leads to underemployment and unemployment. We could trace poverty and hunger to many of the ills facing our society today. But the question for us is the question Jesus posed to Philip, “How do we feed the hungry?”

We can approach feeding the hungry in two equally important ways.  First, on a personal, we can find ways of sharing what we have with others who are in need of food. We can support food banks that provide food for the hungry. We can serve lunches to children each day, especially during the summer months when they do not get meals at school. We can provide fruits and vegetables to homes that cannot afford to purchase healthier foods. We can give money to international food programs such as Bread for the World or Heifer International. There are many more ways that we can help feed the hungry.

Yet, another way to combat hunger and feed the multitudes often escapes us, for we have so reduced Jesus’ message of love and justice to a personal level. We need to understand that hunger and poverty are caused by political and economic circumstances. People do not choose to be hungry. For most, but especially children, hunger is caused by the system in which we live that often favors the more fortunate while neglecting those who are poor.

Christians, indeed, all caring human beings have a moral imperative to proclaim to our lawmakers that God demands justice for the poor. We must understand our role in changing systems that contribute to the hunger of people and that continue to entrap people in poverty. We must stand against economic policies that cut programs that help the poor, such as the SNAP program, and we must push for programs that lift the poor out of their plight to find not only nourishment, but also human dignity.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

An Example of Religious Ignorance in Arkansas in Arkansas has reported that the Sheridan School District in Sheridan, Arkansas withdrew the invitation extended to a Muslim man to speak at the district's middle school on September 11 due to parental outrage. You can read the story here.

The news story quotes a woman identified as Kathy Wallace: "Since that nationality was responsible for 9/11," she explained her feelings. "We just didn't feel like it was right for him to come speak on 9/11 to the American children."

I have written about religious ignorance and the need for religious literacy before, and this is a perfect example.

There are two things I would like to point out about Ms. Wallace's statement that expose her religious ignorance. In the first part of her statement she mistakenly identifies Islam as a nationality, not a religion. This would be like saying Christianity is a nationality.

Moreover, her statement reveals the continued efforts on the part of some to refuse to see that the majority of Muslims find the events of September 11 to be horrifying. Because the terrorists who committed these horrible acts of violence claimed to be Muslim, many still want to lump all Muslims into the category of terrorist. Ms. Wallace appears to be one who does this.

The second part of her statement is just as revealing. If Ms. Wallace is quoted correctly, she is reported to have said that it is not right for him to "speak on 9/11 to the American children" (my italics). This seems to imply that the man who was scheduled to speak is somehow less American, or, if he has children, they are also less American. This is another common perception among those who believe that Muslims living in this country are not really Americans.

However, what we find from the vast majority of American Muslims is that they love this country as much as the rest of us. Indeed, one of my Muslim friends told me once that America is the greatest country in the world to be a Muslim. They, like many of us, are peace loving, compassionate, and responsible citizens of this country who value the freedom to practice their religion just like all of us.

But I also find the statement by the school district's superintendent very telling as well. She is quoted as stating, "The purpose of the invitation was to have a member of that faith inform our students that Muslims are not identical in their beliefs with regard to the use of terror."

Her statement seems to suggest that there are only degrees of disagreement among Muslims regarding the use of terror. I may be misinterpreting what she said, but would not a clearer statement make what I assume to be her point better. Perhaps she should have said, "The purpose of the invitation was to have a member of that faith inform our students that the majority of Muslims are not terrorists. Or, perhaps even better, "that Muslims are normal people just like the rest of us."

I realize the sensitivity of having this man speak on 9/11 brought about the outrage and the protest. But let's remember that there were many Muslims lost on that day as well, and Muslims in this country have been facing bigotry and persecution ever since. Perhaps we should not only continue to remember those who tragically died on that day, but maybe we should use each September 11 to bring understanding and healing.

The bottom line is that the school district showed its cowardice in the face of loud and ignorant voices and the parents who voiced their ignorant protest missed out on an opportunity to have their children not be as ignorant as they are.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Why Tolerance is Not the Answer to Exclusion

In the first chapter of his 1967 book entitled, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. describes the state of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the state of white America’s acceptance of African Americans. He asserts:

“With Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase opened, but few observers realized it or were prepared for its implications. For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade—the first phase—had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination. The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor. It appeared that the white segregationist and the ordinary white citizen had more in common with one another than either had with the Negro.”

Dr. King captures so pointedly what I believe continues to be the great sin of our world. In these insightful and prophetic remarks, King offers to us a portrait of the repetitive state of humanity that is blinded by the promotion of exclusion. Certainly we persist to live in a world that is saturated with oppression, hatred, and violence, but Dr. King also draws our attention to a sin that is more subtle than the sin of hate and violence and the sin of exclusion.

We have been duped into believing that the answer to hatred and bigotry is tolerance. The world has preached a message to us to be tolerant of others who are not like us, to bear with the differences we have and to merely tolerate them. But the downside of tolerance is that it is very short sighted. Tolerance does not go far enough.

Sure, tolerance may be the better option in the face of those who continue to ward off the message of tolerance because, in their words, it weakens the so-called truth of the Christian message. But those who preach tolerance to us are not promoting the fullness of God’s love in Christ.

The irony of the tolerance debate is that those who preach against tolerance and those who preach in favor of tolerance have made the same grave mistake. One side considers tolerance an evil, while the other considers tolerance the answer. One group preaches to us that tolerance is a construct of the pluralistic, and therefore, evil world. The other side preaches to us that tolerance is the height of humanity’s progress in social relationships.

No one doubts that Dr. King delighted in the fact that white Americans were being convinced that the brutality carried out against African Americans was immoral. But in the words that I quoted above, Dr. King is certainly lamenting the fact that this is not enough; it fell short of what it needed to be.

True community is not just the removal of exclusion and replacing it with tolerance. Tolerance must move beyond itself to become the full embrace of the other, not because the other is innocent or not, but because the other is human. While some call for an abandonment of tolerance, and still others call for an acceptance of tolerance, the gospel of God in Christ calls us to move beyond mere tolerance to full and vulnerable embrace.

So where does the answer to the sin of exclusion rest? Is it tolerance or the rejection of tolerance? Should we hide behind a false gospel that calls us to separate ourselves from those not like us, which only reinforces our stereotypes of others and increases our hatred of them? Or should we accept the mediocrity of tolerance, knowing that tolerance merely calls us to grit our teeth and bear with others not like us, but keeps us at a distance from them?

The biblical answer lies neither in abandonment of tolerance nor the reluctant acceptance of tolerance. The biblical answer lies in the activity of God in Christ, who excludes no one, and who does not merely tolerate us, but who has fully embraced us.

In the words that appear on the final pages of Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King wrote these words:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of the now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. We still have a choice today: non-violent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”

And so, the time is now. We must redeem the time that has been lost to exclusion, oppression, hatred, and violence. We must repent of our sin of exclusion and our sin of mere tolerance. We must choose between chaos and community. One will lead to our destruction. But the other will lead us to embrace the world through love, justice, forgiveness, humility, and peace, through which we can foster the common good of all humanity and build the Beloved Community.

Monday, July 29, 2013

What Did Jesus Mean by “Do Not Worry”?

Perhaps one of the more comforting passages from the teachings of Jesus is found in Luke 12:22-34, where Jesus commands his listeners not to worry about the concerns of life, for God will take care of you. But, is this really Jesus’ meaning? I once read the passage this way; but I wonder if there is something more. 

One thing we must keep in mind is the literary context in which we find Jesus speaking about worry. It follows his telling of the Parable of the Rich Fool, who Jesus says is a fool because he pursued more and more wealth for himself with no thought for what God would demand of him. Indeed, that very night, God demanded his life, and his riches were wasted.

In light of this context, at least for Luke, we might understand Jesus’ command about not worrying as more related to our pursuit of wealth and possessions than the lack of our needs being met. In other words, taking into account what Jesus has said in the parable about the landowner, he may be suggesting that worry and anxiety happen when we are striving for wealth and things. Worry will dissipate if we stop seeking these things and instead put our trust in God.

But what are we to make of the three illustrations Jesus offers in this passage?
Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!
What is Jesus’ purpose in using the ravens, the life span of human existence, and the flowers to make his point?
First, we can perceive from Jesus’ statements about birds being fed, humans not being able to lengthen their lives, and lilies that are clothed in beauty that all of God’s creation, both nature and humanity, are dependent on the goodness of God for life and sustenance. This is the heart of understanding God as the Creator, who not only brings things into beings, but who also sustains those things until their natural end. All life is God dependent.
This is what the rich fool failed to see or recognize. He thought that what he had was all because of what he had done, and he gave no thought for how God had blessed him. He failed to be dependent on God.

Second, when Jesus speaks about birds not gathering into barns, humans not being able to add hours to their lives, and grass that is here today and thrown into the oven tomorrow, he is expressing the temporality to our current existence. Neither us, nor any of creation, is promised a tomorrow in this world, and thus we are not to spend our short existence striving for wealth and possessions that are here today and gone tomorrow.

Again, the rich fool failed to see this, for he thought that just by having his abundance he would have a happy future. But none of us are promised even tomorrow.
Third, the choice of birds, plants, and humans represents the consistent biblical teachings that all of creation is the concern of God. God, as Creator, sustains creation by God’s love, and God desires that creation live out its intended design. 
I think it is particularly important that the statement about humans not being able to lengthen their lives is placed between the statement about the birds and the one about the lilies. It seems reasonable that Jesus is intending his hearers to understand two important things.
One, they are a part of creation and not above creation. And, two, since we are a part of creation, and not above creation, we have a God-given purpose of using creation, but with great care and responsibility. Creation is a gift to humanity. It provides us not only with the needs of food, clothing, and shelter; it also provides us with beauty and meaningfulness.
But for humans to ravage God’s household for selfish purposes, is to live recklessly in God’s creation. Jesus’ use of the birds and the flowers, along with his statement about human life, spells out for us that God cares for God’s entire creation, and we ought to do the same.
We might interpret the actions of the rich landowner as transgressing this care for creation. He owns a lot of land, and though he is free within the bounds of the human understanding of ownership to use the land for his own purposes, he seems not to care for the creation itself, but only for what it can give him; a comfortable life.
Striving for what is temporal, as the rich man did, moves our focus from God and those around us to our own lives of selfish need and want, which results in our living as the world lives, in a constant struggle with the anxiety of desiring more. Then, it becomes about us, and we start speaking about “I” and “my” just as the rich fool does in Jesus’ parable.
But Jesus offers a different striving. Instead of striving for the things in this world that bring worry, and that pass away, Jesus calls us to strive for the kingdom of God, in which we are dependent on God and God’s goodness toward us and all of creation. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Jesus’ Call to Radical Living

One of the actions Jesus carries out in the Gospel of Mark soon after announcing that the kingdom of God is near is the calling of his disciples. While Jesus was certainly calling individuals to follow him, he was always calling them into the community of Jesus in which they were to find a new way of existing in the world that demonstrates the ethics of God’s rule. Indeed, the followers of Jesus formed somewhat of a political community who viewed their ethics in opposition to that which was present in the Roman Empire.

In forming an alternative political community that acted, in its own way, subversively to Rome, the early Christian community offered a radical way of living that was counter to what Rome stood for. In light of Jesus’ teachings, and his death on a Roman cross, this way of living became the norm for the community.

There are some significant practices modeled or stated by Jesus that clarify this radical way of living. These very much apply to today’s followers of Jesus as they are emblematic of what it means to be a disciple.

First, Jesus called followers to service, not political domination. Jesus is the paradigm of service as he claims to give his life for others (Mark 10:32-45), and he called his followers to be a community in which imperial ideas of authority were cast out and replaced by a new ethic of service.

The political symbol of Roman power and domination, the cross, became for the followers of Jesus the symbol of service in the community, and the pattern of lordship practices found outside the community were to be replaced by the service demonstrated by the Son of Man.

Second, Jesus called for inclusive welcoming, not exclusion based on status, as the norm of living in community. The discussion of who was the greatest among the twelve in Mark 9:30-41 prompts Jesus to take unto himself a child and declare that faithfulness to Jesus is found in the actions of welcoming a child. While we can take the child to mean literally a child, we may also view Jesus as using the child to represent those seen as weak or of lowly status.    

Roman society was built on a distinct class structure. This system helped to maintain the practice of patronage, through which clients were held down. Moreover, this class structure prevented social mobility, which meant that the classes maintained a degree of pedigree and segregation, preventing social interaction between the classes.

Jesus rebuffs this exclusion by declaring that the weakest of a society must be welcomed into the community. The practice of such inclusion may have been shocking to new members, who may very well have struggled with letting go of their status over another within the Jesus movement. Yet, the norm of the community was one of inclusion that was not based on status. 

This is illustrated in the life of Jesus himself as he welcomes the marginalized and as he institutes the community meal. In eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus was affirming that the banquet of God’s kingdom was open to all to come and partake. All would find equality and acceptance in the rule of God.

Third, Jesus taught his followers that the power of goodness, not oppressive power, is the norm for making and keeping peace. Peace and non-violence are the heart of Jesus’ message and life, and he calls his followers to “be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50)”. Jesus’ idea of peace is realized through the power of goodness; not through violence, as the infamous Pax Romana dictated.

Fourth, Jesus commanded the sharing of possessions in community, not self-indulgence and prosperity, as the economic norms of the community. Jesus’ encounter with the rich man who seeks eternal life in Mark 10:17-22 serves as instruction on the use and possession of worldly goods in the community. The man desires eternal life, and, upon hearing Jesus list the commandments, which he claims he has observed, the man assumes that all is well. Yet Jesus calls him to a more radical decision to sell his many possessions and give the money to the poor.

The story does not reveal how this man gained his wealth. We do not even know he is wealthy until he walks away (Mark 10:22). Perhaps this man has gained his possessions through some form of oppression of others. More certainly he may have neglected caring for others by hoarding his wealth, much like we can assume about the rich fool in the parable Jesus tells in Luke 12:13-21. Both will not relinquish their control over their abundance so that they might share with those who do not have. 

Jesus called his followers to relinquish control over their wealth and give it to the community to be used to care for those in need. Joining the Jesus movement demanded a renunciation of one’s wealth as a tool of power and position and called for Jesus’ followers to sell “their possessions and goods” and to give “to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:45).

It is clear that Jesus set forth and modeled a radical way of living that is contrary to what has been and still is often the dominant world view. In doing so, Jesus’ teachings are not so much focused on the personal salvation and spirituality of a person, but on a radical way of living in community with others that challenges the norms of our society.