Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Discovery from The Last Week

Have been reading Borg and Crossan's book, The Last Week, as part of my Lenten journey. It was published in 2006, primarily as their response to Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ. The talk generated by the movie made them realize that many Christians have poor understandings of what actually took place the last week of Jesus' life. They follow the day by day outline of Mark's gospel, with their usual scriptural, sociological, and historical-critical method.

Borg and Crossan are usually labeled on the liberal side of the scale as Jesus scholars. So I was surprised to see a Brian McLaren (of the emerging church culture) endorsement on the book jacket. I don't know McLaren's way of reading them, but I know how I and a few others do: we love their analysis and the way they paint the full cultural picture of what's happening around Jesus, but then we don't draw the same conclusions about the nature of God's actions/interventions or the meaning in terms of Christian doctrine. To me, it seems Borg and Crossan shy away from any divine manifestations that call for a pure faith acceptance.

What this book does well is define the political/economic/religious domination system in which the temple was enmeshed. They show how Jesus stood with the poor and dispossessed against the exploitation by the powerful of that day - both Roman and Jewish power brokers. That must be the theme of Lent for me. I just finished John Grisham's novel, The Appeal, about a large chemical corporation "buying" a supreme court justice election in order to overturn a $41 million dollar damage verdict. Grisham's book is a well written reminder that a yearning for justice against corrupt systems is as vital today as it was when Jesus "cleared the temple."

What inspired this post, however, was a "gem" unearthed in The Last Week, that I'd never considered before. As they describe the dominance of the temple and tax system in Jesus' day, Borg and Crossan tell us that the opposition to the corrupt temple dominance is announced at the beginning of Mark's gospel. John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mk 1:4) The temple system, however, controlled the only legitimately sanctioned means of "forgiveness of sins." And that was through sacrifice, done only at the temple, of course.

John the baptizer, and Jesus (who thought it just as appropriate to "forgive sins" as to "heal infirmities" cf. Mk 2), subverted "the temple's essential role as the mediator of forgiveness and access to God." (p.21) I thought about all the times I've read Mark 1:4 and just considered it in individualistic terms, the way we interpret so much of the gospel. But John's ministry was a bold challenge to the system, to restore the access of grace to common, everyday people. No wonder John baptized in the wilderness at Bethany beyond the Jordan - he needed a good bit of distance between his activity and the contolling powers of the temple in Jerusalem.

Now the application of this has me wondering: in what ways is the Church perceived as "controlling" the access to grace/forgiveness in our day. What formulas, sinner's prayers, signs of repentence, etc. do we insist upon that keep the unchurched at bay. And in what ways are we breaking down barriers, to see and celebrate the grace of God in ordinary, daily lives?


gavin richardson said...

those are some great questions. for many people it might be the 'reborn' through baptism and whether baptist that might be the perceived only way to be 'reborn' or 'renewed' in life.. could be that idea that some churches hold hostage the bible and never go out and share the good news..

i think mclaren's endorsement comes from the whole empire notions. he is a friend of that perspective. but i would be surprise if he sided with your great breakdown that borg and crossan do the historical very well, but leave out the divine. that is an excellent point.

Tom Vansant said...

I've been reading this book again too and have been struck by the same issues. I do like that as Methodists we encourage a discipline but we do not insist that it is the only way, just a way we know. But Keepers of "forgiveness"? I'd have to say no.

I do think this book connects very closely to the insistence by many in our churches that if you don't tithe then you aren't really a committed Christian. This might be a prudent stance for funding the budget of the church and paying apportionments but it's not Biblical.

God even loves the non tither.