Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Jesus and Institutional Religion


A friend of mine, who is a minister, recently made the following comment on his Facebook status update:
The more I learn about Jesus, the more I realize that His biggest problems weren’t with non-religious people, they were with religious people. That has major implications.
I agree with this position completely, and wanted to expand upon it by providing some textual discussion to back it up.


What does it mean to say that Jesus had bigger problems with religious people than non-religious people? As I noted in response to my friend’s comment, one must admit that “non-religious people” would have been virtually “non-existent” in 1st century Galilee, so it is not so hard to see that Jesus would have faced off against other religious people far more often (if not exclusively) than against non-religious people. The fact is, in the 1st century Jewish homeland, an atheist would have been essentially unheard of, and while some people would have been more or less pious than others, religion and religious traditions permeated every aspect of life – for the shallow and devout alike.

So the key is not that Jesus faced off more often with religious people, it’s that Jesus – as a religious person – was facing off against institutional religion. His beef wasn’t with religion itself, it was with how religion was being practiced around him. This antagonism between Jesus and institutional religion, in fact, formed the basis of Jesus’ entire life and message.

As many scholars have noted in recent years, one cannot understand the historical Jesus without understanding the Judeo-Roman context in which he lived and worked. As scholar J.D. Crossan has argued, Jesus’ message was a retaliation against the “violent normalcy” of Roman imperialism and commercialism in the 1st century Jewish homeland, and the collaboration with that Roman system by the Jewish religious and political elite.

Imagine a modern scenario in which a society with a very long-standing cultural heritage is overtaken by a new government structure. The new government begins to dramatically infringe on the traditions and rights of this old society. People are pretty upset. Imagine now that the primary and powerful religious institution of this old society not only does not fight against the new overlords, but instead collaborates with them in their oppression of the populace. Now people are even more upset, and are angry not just because of the upheaval in their ways of life, but also because they feel betrayed by their own leaders.

This is the scenario into which Jesus was born, and from within which he lived and worked. Jesus’ problem was not with Jews or Judaism. He was a Jew, after all, living and teaching from within Judaism. His problem was with Jewish leaders and their collaboration with the Roman overlords who governed their nation. In short, his problem was with institutional religion and how it was being practiced at the expense of the common Jew.

The four gospels of the New Testament continually illustrate this friction between Jesus and the Jewish and Roman elite.

With all that in mind, we will consider a few of the more famous sayings from Jesus throughout the Gospels.


From Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; and Luke 20:25:
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
Many folks take this statement from Jesus as a command to pay one’s taxes and support one’s government. But when understood in context, this is a far more radical statement than that. Here, Jesus is saying that the pretty little coins with the offensive graven image of Caesar don’t interest him at all. Caesar’s coins, after all, represent the commercial oppression of the Jewish people. Caesar can keep his blood money. Instead, Jesus is concerned with what God wants.

Despite its common modern application to encourage Christians to support their political leaders, this statement from Jesus is actually a radical rejection of the political status quo and its oppressive greed.


From Luke 10:30-37:
Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite…But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds…Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
This parable of Jesus, found only in the Gospel of Luke, is every bit as radical as his statement about Caesar’s money. Among 1st century Jews, Samaritans were sinful half-breeds. They were descended from a group of ancient Jews who had intermarried with Syrian gentiles – thus making them unclean. They had their own Samaritan version of the ancient Israelite religion, which they claimed was the one true religion of Abraham. The Jews, of course, disagreed with this wholeheartedly and considered Samaritans not just as bad as gentiles, but actually worse because they were half-breeds and they followed what the Jews believed was a profane version of the Torah. They were heretics. The Samaritans even had their own holy mountain – Mt. Gerizim – which they claimed was the true location of God’s earthly home, as opposed to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In short, Jews detested Samaritans.

Typically, this parable is interpreted in modern sermons to encourage folks to care for one another, even strangers from different ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. Though there is certainly nothing wrong with this interpretation, it often misses the true radicality of what Jesus was saying.

In Jesus’ parable, notice that the two men who pass by the injured stranger are both Jews. One is a priest, which specifically refers to a priest of the Jerusalem Temple who offers sacrifices to God on the great altar. A very powerful person in the Jewish hierarchy. The other is a so-called “Levite.” The Levites, unqualified to be priests because they came from the tribe of Levi instead of the priestly tribe of Aaron, instead became assistants to the Temple priests, singing the sacred hymns, keeping the Temple and the sacred utensils clean, performing the ceremonies of opening and shutting the temple gate, and so on. They were, essentially, junior priests.

The point here is that the two men who passed by the injured stranger were not just ordinary Jews, but specifically Jewish leaders in the Temple. By saying that the priest and the Levite passed by the injured man (who is also a Jew), Jesus is illustrating his contempt for the Jewish leadership and its collaboration with Roman oppression. The injured man represents the common oppressed Jew; the passing priest and Levite represent the Jewish leadership who, in Jesus’ opinion, and to put it frankly, don’t give a damn. More specifically, their regulations about cleanliness prevent them from helping someone who needs help. Jesus found this abominable. It was a systemic evil imbedded in the institutional religion of 1st century Judaism, and Jesus railed against it.

Rather than the powerful priest and Levite, the hero of this story is, of course, the unclean Samaritan. The half-breed. The sinner. The enemy of the Jews and, therefore, of God. A modern parallel might be “non-Christian.”

Indeed, the parable of the Good Samaritan is radical and shocking in myriad ways.


From Matthew 15:1-14:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition…? Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean.”

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

He replied, “…If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
The gospels, of course, are replete with stories about Jesus bickering with, and sometimes even openly insulting, the Pharisees. Scholars generally agree that much of the antagonism depicted in the gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees is more a reflection of Christians versus Jews in the late 1st century than it is a reflection of the historical Jesus versus the Pharisees in the 20’s and 30’s C.E. Still, there is little doubt that Jesus had run-ins with these powerful Jewish teachers.

The Pharisees were a very prominent Jewish sect during the time of Jesus. Modern rabbinical Judaism, in fact, is derived from the traditions of the Pharisees in the 1st century. The Pharisees were well-educated and influential people who provided sweeping interpretations of the Jewish scriptures. In modern parallel, they were the preachers and teachers of their day, wielding enormous influence on Jewish and even Roman leadership.

Often times, Jesus’ antagonism against the Pharisees is interpreted as a rejection of Judaism. In fact, Jesus wasn’t attacking Judaism so much as he was attacking the traditions and teachings of the Pharisees in particular. The story quoted above from Matthew is a prime example. The Pharisees had come up with countless rules and regulations, based on their reading and interpretation of Jewish scripture. Jesus wasn’t rejecting scripture when he stated that “what goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean.” Instead, he was rejecting Pharisaical interpretation of scripture that insisted that one was unclean, and therefore sinful, if they ate without washing their hands. For Jesus, the hate, malice, and evil that comes out of people’s mouths is what makes them unclean and sinful, not the dirty-hand tainted food that goes in.

This passage, of course, can create problems for the modern reader. Washing your hands before eating, after all, is a smart thing to do. But the reasons the Pharisees had for washing their hands had nothing to do with germs, because neither the Pharisees nor Jesus nor anyone else in the 1st century had any idea that germs cause illness. The Pharisees argued about hand washing because it was, as the passage says, a long-held tradition. It may be worth noting that there is no commandment in the Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament) about washing one’s hands before eating. Hand-washing instructions in the Jewish scriptures are few and far between, and are only in reference to Temple priests handling sacrifices, a time when they are also required to wash their feet (see Exodus 30:17-21).

In Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, he is not attacking Judaism, nor is he attacking Jewish scripture. Instead, he is attacking the traditions, doctrines, and dogmas of institutional religion. He is providing an alternate interpretation of God and scripture, over against the common and well-known and widely-accepted interpretations and sacred traditions.


A Biblical study of Jesus shows us time and again that Jesus’ message was one of love and compassion, peace and acceptance, mercy and forgiveness. This message stood in radical contradiction to the religious traditions and political scenarios of the Jewish homeland in the 1st century. Jesus lashed out against Roman imperialism and commercialism, and the Jewish religious leaders and cultural elite who collaborated with that system. He faced off against prominent religious teachers who were more concerned about tradition and doctrine than love and acceptance.

To Jesus, the religious institution had become bloated with rules and regulations, interpretations of scripture that served the few at the expense of the many, and religious traditions that were silly and no longer made any sense in what was to Jesus the “modern” world.

As my pastor friend noted, all of this should have major implications on what it means, today, to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus on the Way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Of course Jesus had most problems with the religious leaders of the day! i believe he saw it as profane when what they stood for undermined the truth within ordinary people. he saw the way it was going and it was not good. in a way when religions 'kill' spirituality it is tantamount to killing God and therefore a blasphemy. and they do kill spirituality, why else have so many abandoned spirituality as the most important thing in life? so many throw the baby out with the bathwater because of the great damage done. i don't mean to blame anyone but 'religion' has really messed things up for us and the damage is very real and it will take a miracle to get back on the right path. we don't live in a system that could be called the kingdom of God, it's corrupted too much to save and has to be destroyed and it's the same system that Jesus was intent on destroying in order that the world may be saved, or if not destroy then utterly replace with what works and embraces not alienates the people