(March 7, 2021)
from Easter Horror Stories- Rescuing Jesus’ Good News–
The web version of a book draft exploring the dark side of the salvation stories in the lectionary. Print book slated for 2024 based on comments from readers.
Salvation for obedient Jews. Shut up about the Messiah!
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
We will follow the main Hebrew story – the story of the xenophobic Covenant between God and “his people”- for one more week, before turning to some of the Hebrew voices which undermine it.
All around the world today, the churches are reading the delivery of the Ten Commandments by God, through Moses, to the liberated community in the desert, on the way to their entry into, and ethnic cleansing of, Canaan.
People often feel compelled to admit that they don’t go to church when they find out I’m a minister. Rather than admit that they find church boring, irrelevant, too early, too alienating, or just too wrong, they usually say that they really should go to church more often, but never explain why. Almost immediately this is followed by reassuring comments about the Ten Commandments, which they “believe in.” I doubt many could recite them, but they certainly believe in them.
They may be shocked to know that the second commandment includes this reflection on the nature of God,
“I am a jealous God- punishing children for the sins of parents, to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 5:9)
This may once have been a reasonable explanation of why people suffer when they have done nothing wrong, but is it an explanation we want to cling to today?
Do we want to keep it as part of the modern Christian story?
Has God kept a ledger of my great, great, great grandfather’s evil deeds during the white invasion of Australia, for which I am now being punished?
Will God torture my great great, great grandchildren because of what I do?
And to add to the confusion, God continues by asserting his steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love him and keep his commandments. So, if I’m lucky enough to be descended from a faithful Israelite who was there on the day Moses came down the mountain, does that cancel out my wicked great, great, great grandfather?
I agree with whomever wrote Exodus that things do happen for a reason, and often the consequences of an action aren’t felt by the perpetrators, but instead by innocent victims, even future generations.
But these bad things don’t happen because God is still grumpy. Climate Change is an obvious example of people suffering for the (in)actions of previous generations. But there is not a direct lineal curse as in Exodus. Instead, the actions of rich people in one part of the world lead to consequences for poor people especially in other parts of the world. Aboriginal people today suffer the effects of racism going back generations, and would even if Australia was suddenly, miraculously, turned non-racist today. Again, it is not their ancestors, but the ancestors of others who laid the groundwork for their suffering.
But climate chaos has well understood scientific explanations, and racism has sociological ones. Blaming that kind of suffering on God’s intergenerational wrath makes no sense anymore. Good News that is grounded in the bad news of God’s intergenerational wrath, as it is if we take the Ten Commandments as an accurate portrayal of the nature of God, also makes no sense.
The gospel ought to be able to say something about generational ecological political and social consequences. We could hear God warning us that our actions will affect future generations, and calling us to repent. But to imagine that God is the cause of those consequences must be abandoned in a scientifically literate society.
Moving on from the first Ten Commandments of our jealous God, we get to the other hundred or so, including some real doozies,
“When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property. (Exodus 21:20)”
In this new community, which itself only just escaped the horrors of slavery in Egypt, slavery will continue, but this time with the Israelites as masters. And not particularly socially conscious ones at that.
The list of Laws is repeated on the eve of the crossing over into the “promised land”, with the reminder that God’s deal of deliverance/salvation is only valid if,
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you, and when you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them.” (Deuteronomy 7:1ff)
In this new, divinely delivered community of faith which is called to be God’s light to the nations (Isaiah42:6 etc), life is to continue pretty much as usual. Men own everything, including Jewish women and foreigners, and animals will continue to be sacrificed because apparently God can’t just forgive people, he needs something to die, even if it is a creature totally unrelated to the offence.
I must confess something.
I’m beginning to feel like I’m flogging a dead horse, going on and on about how unacceptable various offers of salvation are. And I’m feeling very naughty, like some kind of teenage rebel who delights in undermining authority- in this case God’s or the Bible’s.
When I sit back and reflect though, I am pretty confident that at fifty I’m over my rebellious phase. It is just so confronting, once you start replacing the question- “What’s nice about this story?” (rainbows, babies being born to old people, delivery from slavery) with “What is being offered in this story, to whom, and by what sort of God?”
It is so confronting when we start to ask, “Who misses out in this story?”
It really troubles me that some people could think that God is the kind of God represented in these lectionary stories, which churches around the world are reading together. That these are good stories, good news. That it doesn’t matter about the humans and other animals who are excluded.
Especially because, to a large degree, the church has by sleight of hand claimed that these offers of salvation are for us. Many Christians claim that we are now Abraham’s people, the people of the Covenant. The new Covenant admittedly, but this new Covenant is seen as a continuation or culmination of, rather than a repudiation of, the original one.
Matthew in particular interpreted Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law, and this is a common Christian assumption today. Jesus is the fulfilment of this whole story from Abraham to Joshua. Not one dot or comma of the Law will pass away. In many churches, the story is that most of the Jews of Jesus’ day rejected him, they are out, and we are in. Ignoring the need for circumcision and a few other crucial clauses, we have taken over the exclusive offers of salvation and flipped their frequent xenophobia into anti-Semitism. We see it in John especially, and even Matthew (Matthew 27:24-26).
Should we just ditch these stories then?
No. We need to keep reminding ourselves just how misguided, selfish and illogical people of faith can be, just how badly we can misrepresent God in our own interests, and just how blind we can be to the harm we cause to those who are left out of the promises.
Recently the political darling of American Conservative “Christianity” promised to build a wall to keep people out of their promised land, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is back again in a few years. Certainly, the kinds of inward looking, xenophobic, racist versions of salvation which got him into office remain.
Is Jesus really the fulfilment of these biblical stories of murdered slaves, animal butchery, ethnic cleansing and male domination?
What did Jesus himself think? There is no single answer to that in the New Testament, and untangling what Jesus thought, from what his biographers and Paul thought about him has been proven to be a tricky business, judging by the number of books written on the subject.
But since this year the church is focussing on Mark’s gospel, so here’s a clue from Mark. Mark is also very short, so you have no excuse not to read it.
Notice that when the disciples hear the clue, they are far from impressed. If you read how Matthew rewrites this story, you will see that he was far from impressed too.
Jesus and his followers have just returned from the feeding of the four thousand, which, significantly for us, was performed outside Israel, in the land of the Greek foreskin keepers.
“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
And Jesus rebuked them, ordering them not to tell anyone about him.” (Mark 8:27-30)
Peter has just said that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the long-awaited fulfilment of God’s offer to the chosen race. The culmination of the Covenant- the dawning of their salvation.
And Jesus rebukes him and tells him to shut up!
According to all that Peter and the other disciples expected of the Messiah, according to how the story is meant to end, Jesus is not the Messiah. He is not the Christ they were expecting. Jesus goes on to talk, not about the Christ, but about the Son of Man, and his suffering.
Matthew cannot tolerate this. He is adamant that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law, the Messiah, the new Moses. When Simon Peter answers Jesus’ question, Matthews has Jesus say, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17)
Did Jesus rebuke Peter, or congratulate him for being in tune with God?
More on that after God kills a few more people, this time for grumbling.
 In contrast, Paul agrees that the original community has been rejected, but he is confident that somehow this is part of yet another divine plan to make them jealous, and eventually welcome them back (Romans 10-11).
 The NRSV says “sternly warned” but in most passages the Greek word is translated ‘rebuke’
This book uses the ‘New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.’ In all cases where there are italics, they have been added by myself