As some folks already know, I’m planning a fall sermon series examining the political implications of Jesus’ preaching as the would have been experienced in the first century. With the backdrop of the presidential election, it seems like a good time to cover material I’ve hit tangentially in the past. Basically, I’m led to preach this series because I keep coming across a basic matrix of beliefs regarding Jesus’ message that I feel a need to address. This matrix has three axis, and covers many of the variations you may have encountered yourself:
- Jesus’ message had no political implications whatsoever, he was only about “saving souls.”
- Jesus was/is a teacher who adheres to “family values.”
- Jesus is/was a teacher who believes in progressive individualism.
These ideas, and the ideas which form as their paths cross, make no sense to me. So, during a season in which people will likely be rattling off each of these views I thought I’d offer something “different.” My goal, is to help give people a better “toolbox” by which they can better interact with this world in the image of Jesus – this toolbox will help people recognize their own cultural assumptions as they are confronted with the dissimilarity between their own world, and that of First Century Palestine (“Palestine” is what the Romans called the collective region).
To that end, I’ve been doing a lot of reading New Testament Sociology. Much of it is helpful, some of it helps me realize what field all the Freudians when into after he fell out of favor in main-stream psychology – but it’s all rewarding reading, and I still have much to read (thanks to my good friends Sarah and Jim).
Now that I’ve got some more grounding in the field which studies the social situation of the New Testament world, I’ve started reading the Gospels themselves (again). I know many people may have said that I did this backwards, but I’ve read the Gospels so much that I’m generally unaware of my own biases that I bring as I read them – so I deliberately read the sociology material first so I could better be able to “change lenses” as I came to the text. Now, because I’m attempting to experience, in some small way, the “ear” by which the first readers of the Gospels would have heard the text – I’m doing something I haven’t done to this point in my life, I’m reading each the Gospels through in one sitting – only taking the shortest of breaks to jot down references which might be helpful in my fall series. This is likely how the Gospels were first encountered by the early Christians.
The effort to this point has been rewarding. I did break with the canonical order and started with Mark rather than Matthew (I don’t feel bad about this, heck new believers aren’t even told to start with one of the Synoptics). I did this for two reasons. First, Mark is shorter – and my attention-addled brain finds that appealing. Second, I do think Mark is the earliest Gospel and provides much of the source for the later Synoptic Gospels (Matthew and Luke) – by reading Mark first I could see how similar accounts became expanded in the later Gospels.
As I said, the result has been rewarding. Matthew has always been my favorite Gospel, and I always instinctively neglected Mark as a sort of “also-ran” cousin. Mark’s accounts seemed almost colorless to me, while Matthew painted the image in more. Reading Mark through in one sitting, however, has changed my perspective entirely on this little Gospel. In Mark Jesus is deliberately portrayed as one having authority, and the brevity of his account only highlights that more. Jesus takes on evil spirits, challenges the status quo, and conquers them on the cross. While the “cliff-hanger” ending is unsatisfying when one reads Mark in short spurts, when you read it one sitting the artistry of the ending is made clear. The entire Gospel is set up to highlight Jesus’ authority and leave the audience wondering out loud at the end, “So, who is this? What does this mean?” In a real sense, Mark doesn’t so much answer questions as it is meant to provoke the right questions. One of these days we’ll have to read through Mark as a congregation, just so people can experience that purpose.
Matthew was similarly rewarding. While I was aware of some of the repetitions in Matthew, I never realized just how much was mirrored. His teaching on the power of prayer was one of those moments for me – my memory has meshed both “mountain moving” (Matthew 17 & 21) statements into one teaching – but Matthew wanted it flagged as something important, so he recounts it twice (Jesus certainly repeated that teaching, I have no doubt, but in a world where space was at a premium for books you tended to only repeat accounts/teachings that you wanted the reader to take special note of). I also appreciate Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as a human being. He shows great compassion on people, and yet at the same time is not “pastoral” as we might understand it today. Matthew shows us Jesus as being capable of hostility, and even making gruff (and even caustic) remarks towards those who not only oppose him, but also towards those who come seeking his help! Matthew pictures a more “real” Jesus than exists in a lot of our sermons (where Jesus kinda floats through life on a cloud). Reading Matthew in one sitting shows just how “human” the portrayal of Jesus is in it (he is portrayed as divine as well, certainly, but the emphasis seems to be on his humanity without losing Jesus’ other nature).
So have I come up with my text for the fall series yet? Nope. I’ve got some Ideas, but I still have two Gospels to read before I take that step. I’ll keep you updated.