Saturday, March 30, 2013

To Find Ourselves With Jesus [Luke 23.46] (6 April 2012)

If you were to dramatize this word, or rather the fulfillment of this word, how would you do it? If you were given the reins in the production of a movie, how would you visualize what Jesus is promising this thief? You see, this is the only word among the seven that actually explicitly contains a promise.

And this is also the only word that contains grammatical and socio-cultural difficulties – one of each type. On the grammatical front is the possibility of two readings. First, Jesus could have said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Second, Jesus could have said, “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.” Just a matter of where to place a comma!

Was Jesus saying that the promise would have been fulfilled on that very day when the two of them hung from their respective crosses? Or was he simply asserting that he is making a promise on that very day? This is no idle difference because where God is concerned both the making and the fulfilling of the promise are important. This is why we observe Maundy Thursday and partake of communion – it was the occasion when Jesus made a promise to all his followers, that he would be present when we remember him. And this is why we are here to observe Good Friday – it was when Jesus fulfilled his promise of being the Son of Man who would give his life as a ransom for many.

On the socio-cultural front is the word ‘paradise’. Is paradise like the recent Idea advertisement in which Bacchhan the younger floats before some gates in the clouds? Is paradise a way of talking about heaven, the realm which is the abode of God? 

The word ‘paradise’ strictly refers to a garden. If you know a Muslim or Parsee named Firdaus, you have encountered the word ‘paradise’. Firdaus is the most beautiful garden in the afterlife.

Our difficulties are compounded by the fact that, apart from this passage, the word appears in the New Testament in only two other places – 2 Corinthians 12.4 and Revelation 2.7. In the first passage, Paul writes, “I know that this man was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” A verse before this Paul speaks of someone being caught up to the third heaven. 

In Revelation, to the church in Ephesus Jesus writes, “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” This seems to indicate a garden, for where else would a tree grow?

If we are honest, we will have to say that neither of the verses really tells us what paradise is like. Paul’s use pulls us in the direction of heaven while Revelation pulls us in the direction of a garden.

So if we try to interpret this word in a grammatical or socio-cultural manner, we simply get bogged down with questions that cannot be resolved.

But if we interpret this word by placing ourselves in the shoes of the thief, we reach a different conclusion. If we were dying on a cross, what would be going through our minds? If I were a Jew dying on the cross, I would have thought of Deuteronomy 21.23, which says, “Anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” What would have been at the forefront of his mind is the fact that he had done something that had resulted in his being in this accursed situation. What he would have been yearning for at that point is for the situation to be reversed, for the curse to be lifted.

And now we are in a position to see that no matter when the promise is fulfilled – on that day or at some point in the future – and no matter where – in an earthly garden or in the heavens – paradise was a place in which no accursed person would be found.

And so what Jesus does here is brilliant. The thief has just stated that Jesus is an innocent man by saying, “This man has done nothing wrong.” And so, when the thief turns to him, Jesus responds, “You will be with me in paradise.” 

The thief has just stated that Jesus is innocent, meaning that Jesus will go to the place where the righteous go. Jesus uses the word paradise as a means of affirming the thief’s faith. No matter how you imagined paradise to be, it was where all the righteous people would go. By declaring Jesus innocent, the thief had already declared that Jesus would go to paradise. 

Jesus does not introduce anything new in his use of the word paradise. He could have said ‘heaven’ or ‘in God’s kingdom’ or ‘in Abraham’s bosom’ or any of the numerous ways in which Jews referred to the place where the righteous go.

What is specific to Jesus is his words ‘with me’. To the dying man, the dying Jesus offers the assurance that he will be with Jesus. You see we can get bogged down by grammatical issues. We can debate what the nature of paradise is. 

But frankly, when you strip everything away, if we imagined the next world to be a garden, would we rejoice if we found ourselves in a garden, but without Jesus? If we imagined we would be in a throne room or in a palatial house or in a beautiful city with gold streets, would we be happy if we found ourselves in such an environment, but without Jesus?

It does not matter when it will happen – at the moment I die or many years after that. It does not matter where I find myself – in a garden or in a city. What matters eventually is that I find myself with Jesus.

Monday, March 25, 2013

To Whom Do We Belong? [Matthew 22.15-22] (4 March 2012)

Recently, I had the remarkable experience of dining in the dark. Absolute, pitch black darkness. Darkness of such depth that opening your eyes was actually painful to me as my pupils probably dilated beyond anything they had done before, trying in vain to capture the slightest bit of light so as to make the world around me visually comprehensible. And as I have thought about this experience, I have realized that I was, for that brief period, exposed to another world to which I previously had no access – the world in which the visually impaired live and move and have their being. It was a world I could not fathom before this experience.

A Roman in first century Judea was in a similar situation. He was surrounded by a world filled with Jews and Jewish hopes and throbbing with Jewish expectations. A world in which there were objections – violent at times and repeated – to what most peoples considered unobjectionable.

In his speech in Acts 5 Peter mentions a Judas the Galilean who opposed a tax. This was at or around the time when Jesus was born, when Joseph and the pregnant Mary went to Bethlehem to be registered. This was not the only occasion on which Jews revolted over the issue of taxation.

No other province of the Roman Empire ever had such an issue. And the questions we must ask ourselves are: Why were the Jews opposed to being taxed? And why did the Pharisees and Herodians ask Jesus about this? And what is the meaning of Jesus’ counter-question and his final answer?

Now let’s get this clear, we all are opposed to being taxed! If the Income Tax department were to announce that they were raising the tax exemption limit, I reckon there is not one person here who would complain. If they announced a reduction in the taxation rates across the board, there would be celebrations galore!

But some of the Jews were violently opposed to being taxed. Why? I must tell you that we have been misled. The New Testament has three different words that are often translated with the English word ‘tax’. In this case it is the word κῆνσος from which we get the word ‘census’. In fact, from the fact that this tax involved the payment of only one denarius, or a day’s wage for an average worker, we can conclude that this was not a way of filling the coffers of the Empire. Rather, it was an issue of counting the people. No one would give two denarii when only one was required. So by counting the denarii the Emperor would know the number of people.

Once we realize this, we can understand the Jewish sentiment by reading Exodus 30.12: “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the LORD a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them.”

The ransom was to be paid to God. However, in a Roman census, the money obviously went to Caesar, not God. Some Jews concluded that they were still under Roman oppression because Jews were paying the census money. And so whenever the Romans initiated a census, there was a Jewish revolt – no exceptions!

So we know now why some Jews were violently opposed to the census. They concluded that a census by a Gentile ruler violated the command in Exodus 30.12. There is more, but that will come out a little later. Now we have to ask ourselves why the Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus about it.

We have to realize first that the Pharisees and Herodians were opposed to each other. The Pharisees did not like Roman rule and decried Herod’s Edomite heritage. The Herodians supported Herod’s rule and therefore Roman rule since Herod was a vassal king. 

A sharp person like Jesus quickly smelled something fishy when these two groups came together to interrogate him. But they asked him about the census. Why? 

What about Jesus would have led them to do this? We should not think of the account in Matthew 17, which was concerning the tax paid to the temple, which would have gone, therefore, to God. Thus far there is no explicit reference in Matthew’s Gospel to any taxes.

But we have a list of Jesus twelve apostles. And that list includes Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot. This indicates that Simon belonged to the group of Zealots, while Judas belonged to the group of Sicarii. Both were anti-Roman groups, violently opposed to Roman rule. 

The presence of these two among Jesus close followers would immediately have raised the issue about the census. Was Jesus sympathetic to the views of these two disciples and the seditious groups they were from? Were they with Jesus because Jesus held the same views about the census?

The Pharisees and Herodians come and ask Jesus a question. They address him as Rabbi, indicating that they expect him to take on a rabbi’s mantle and answer. Hence, the question must be about an issue of religious law.

“Is it right to pay the census or not?” they ask. If Jesus says, “Yes” then the Pharisees would say he is a Roman collaborator. And if he says, “No” then the Herodians would label him a dissenter, one who opposed Caesar’s rule.

Jesus asks them a counter question, which gets to the heart of his response. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” The second commandment of the Ten Commandments prohibits making of images of God. However, the denarius then in use carried Tiberius Caesar’s bust profile and an inscription that read: “Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God Augustus.” 

The image and inscription were other reasons for which some Jews were violently opposed to the census. It struck at the very roots of their faith at so many points.

When Jesus finally responds by saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” he has done the impossible. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, he has emerged having shattered both.

The Herodians cannot complain because Jesus has said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” and according to them the coin belonged to Caesar. In fact, the coin would have been a constant reminder of Caesar’s rule over the Empire. So, from their perspective, Jesus has said that it is okay to pay the census. 

Unfortunately, this is how most Christian interpreters view what Jesus is saying. This is because we Gentiles try to understand Jesus as though he were a Gentile, when we know that he was Jewish.

But the Pharisees would have gotten two more levels of meaning. First, they would have realized that Jesus was saying, “This image and inscription strike at the very foundations of our faith. According to our faith, the whole world, the whole universe belongs to God. And so nothing belongs to Caesar. Caesar’s rule and God’s rule are exclusive. You cannot have both together. You either say that Caesar owns the coins and deny your faith in God or you say that God owns everything and deny Caesar the right to hold a census.”

Only this can account for the charge leveled against Jesus in Luke 23.2: “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.” The Pharisees understood what Jesus was saying and they used it against him when they brought him before Pilate. In fact, they twisted Jesus’ words and made it apply to all taxes and not just the census. But they could not have done this had Jesus not given them some ammunition to play with!

Second, the Pharisees would have understood that Jesus was alluding to the opening chapter of Scripture, in which humans are said to be the image of God. Looking at the coin Jesus asks, “Whose image is this?” And then he concludes, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The obvious question, left unasked, is, “If this coin bears Caesar’s image, then where can we find God’s image?”

Then from the narrative in Genesis 1 we can conclude that all humans are the image of God. And so what Jesus is saying is, “If this coin, bearing Caesar’s image, can be considered to be the property of Caesar, then humans, bearing God’s image, are the property of God.”

In other words, the question originally asked has been rendered nonsensical because Caesar himself, being a human, belongs to God. How then is he appropriating for himself things that bear his image? Caesar, being human, belongs to God, and therefore possesses nothing.

Now it is important to step back and actually see the context once again. This passage is not about the taxes we are burdened with such as income tax or professional tax or sales tax or value added tax. It is blatantly incorrect to understand Jesus supporting the payment of taxes or opposing it based on this passage.

The passage is about a method of carrying out a numbering of the citizens of a nation. The most commonly used method was to collect a small piece of currency for the simple reason that you would never over count when you ask people to cough up money!

And frankly it is not about the money eventually. As we have seen the denarius was the daily wage of an average worker. It was not a huge prohibitive amount.

What this passage is about is simple: To whom do humans belong? Do humans belong to the king or the country or the government? 

According to Exodus 30, the census amount was paid when the person was counted, “a ransom for his life at the time he is counted.” Why? Simply because were it not for God’s provision, the person being counted could have been dead the day before or a week before! He is alive and ready to be counted not because of the king or the country or the government, but because of God.

The census practice is a simple step of faith by which the Jew proclaimed, “I am alive today by the grace of God.” The same practice was conducted by the ancient rulers by which they proclaimed, “Everyone numbered in this way belongs to me.”

The divergence of these two perspectives is like the difference between my daily experiences and the one I had when I dined in the dark. Unless experienced, neither can comprehend the other.

And hence, the Herodians withdraw thinking Jesus has said it is okay to pay the census money when Jesus has actually done the opposite. He has said, “Counting must be done by the owner. Humans belong to God. And so, only God can do the counting. Counting of humans as done by Caesar, is an affront to the reign of God.”

Give to God what belongs to God.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Excluded Prophet [Matthew 3.13-17] (22 January 2012)

If ever there were a passage that requires an understanding not only of history, but also of geography, it is this one. But before we get to that, let us ask a simple question: What images play out in our minds when we read the accounts of Jesus’ baptism? 

Many movie directors have attempted to visualize this scene for us. Here are a couple of such visualizations. 

  1. Baptism of Jesus
  2. From Jesus of Nazareth
  3. From Jesus

If we compare these visualizations with current Christian practice we would find a lot of overlap. And one would come away with the impression that the baptism administered by John was a ritual that looked very much like Christian baptism. 

But is this necessarily so? More to the point, is there evidence that this was so? 

Just to make a stark contrast, would you imagine that the prayers of a devout Hindu or Muslim were similar to your prayers? The word for prayer exists in every language, but we know that Christian prayer is quite different from Hindu and Muslim prayer. Indeed, even different from Jewish prayer. 

Further, a Christian fast differs from a Hindu or Muslim or Jewish fast. Just on Friday, Alice and I went to a place in Jayanagar that dishes out Maharashtrian food. And prominent on the menu were items to be eaten when one is fasting, something quite out of place within the Christian context. 

My point is simply this: The context within which a word appears determines its meaning. And this is true also of the words ‘baptism’ and ‘baptize’. We cannot assume that the mode of John’s baptism was the same as that practiced by Christians. And we will see that the mode of John’s baptism is critical to understand the puzzling fact that, though John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus, whom we believe was sinless, nevertheless submitted to this baptism. 

The noun form ‘baptism’ is found only in Christian writings, so it is difficult to understand from it what John was doing. However, the verb ‘to baptize’ is common in Jewish writings by the time of Jesus. In the Septuagint, it appears only once, in 2 Kings 5 to describe Namaan’s act of immersing himself in the Jordan. 

This single occurrence, however, gave rise to a common Jewish use and the verb ‘to baptize’ appears in numerous Jewish writings. The main idea in these writings is that of a cleansing ritual. Like all the Jewish rituals, these were supposed to be done repeatedly, whenever one had done something that rendered a person unclean. 

Moreover, as in the Namaan passage, all occurrences are in the reflexive form. One performed this baptizing on oneself. 

These two aspects – repetition and self-administration – set the Jewish usage of the word apart from both John’s baptism and Christian baptism. Christian baptism and John’s baptism differed from Jewish baptism in that they were both administered only once and by someone else. 

However, the New Testament writings link baptism with cleansing, something that John does not do. In other words, we are talking of three different meanings for the verb ‘to baptize’ – the then common Jewish one, the one that would develop within the church, and the one meant by John. The first two – Jewish and Christian – differed from John’s in that they linked baptism with cleansing, while John linked it to the act of repentance. 

Further, Jewish and Christian baptism could be performed anywhere, but John seemed to have insisted on performing his baptism near the Jordan. The Gospel of John indicates that John administered his baptism while on the Eastern bank of the Jordan. So what did this area look like?

Click here for pictures

From these pictures, one thing is clear. The Jordan was quite a dirty river in the region around Jericho and Bethany. In other words, if John intended his baptism to be a cleansing ritual, he couldn’t have chosen a worse place! No one would have gone to the Jordan to become clean. That was precisely what Namaan objected to! 

So what in the world was John the Baptist doing? The key to this lies in the location he had chosen. He did not choose just any part of the Jordan, but the region right across from Jericho as we saw in the aerial view of the Jordan valley. 

This was an evocative location, filled with history and remembrance for the Jews and we dare not forget that John, his disciples, Jesus and his disciples were all Jews. What would these Jews have brought to mind? 

What else but their ancestors standing at the threshold of the promised land a millennium and a half earlier!? Something was happening here under the eye of John that was intended to bring to mind the end of the desert wanderings and the entry into the Promised Land. 

In a nutshell, the Exodus story was this: Israel was enslaved in a land of captivity. Under the guidance of Moses they were led out of Egypt and into the wilderness where they were tested for 40 years. At the end of the 40 years they find themselves at the Eastern bank of the Jordan, across from Jericho, waiting to enter the land God had promised Abraham. 

Now let us turn our focus back on John. The Gospel accounts of his ministry place him clearly in the wilderness region. And here he is at the Eastern bank of the Jordan. He has called Israel to come out of the land of enslavement to sin and to join him on the Eastern bank of the Jordan to prepare for the Kingdom of God, the ultimate Promised Land. 

This view of John’s baptism accounts for a number of things that are otherwise inexplicable. 

First, it accounts for why John’s ministry is a desert ministry. There is nothing really great about being in a desert unless it were pointing to a larger truth, in this case the Exodus and desert wanderings. 

Second, it account for why John located himself across from Jericho. At that time, Jericho was a village of insignificance in the first century. John could very well have located himself further North, nearer Galilee where Jesus would begin his own ministry. The only reason for choosing Jericho was once again to evoke the entrance in the Promised Land. 

Third, it accounts for why the dirtiness of the Jordan did not faze John. His was not a baptism of cleansing, which would require clean water. The idea here was not that of having water poured on you or of your being immersed in the water. Rather the idea was that you cross a body of water, like the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. And then you enter the desert. 

Fourth, it explains why the Gospel accounts indicate that when Jesus came through the water, he was led to the desert to be tempted for 40 days. If John’s baptism were simply like Christian baptism, this would be a mysterious thing. 

However, if John were re-enacting the Exodus and desert wanderings, this makes sense. Coming out of a land of enslavement and then being in the desert for a symbolic 40 days is as close to a re-enactment as one could get. In other words, we should treat the account of Jesus’ temptation as another aspect of his baptism by John rather than a separate occasion. 

Fifth, it explains why, contrary to Jewish baptism and the water rituals of every other religion, John’s baptism was not self-administered. The Israelites in Egypt needed a deliverer to take them out of Egypt and to herd them through the desert. They couldn’t do it themselves and so also John’s baptism required the hand of John. 

Sixth, it explains why, contrary to Jewish baptism and the water rituals of every other religion, John’s baptism was done only once on a person. If it were cleansing, it would have to be repeated again and again, like the Christian counterpart of confessing of sins. But if it were an enactment of the Exodus and desert wanderings then it needed to be done only once. In fact, it could not be done more than once. Entrance into the Promised Land is not a repeatable event. 

Seventh, it explains what is embarrassing if we pause to think of it. Which religious movement would begin with an account that its Guru was actually sanctioned by someone lesser than he? Krishna, in the Mahabharata, needs no human sanctioning. He arrives at the scene and is self-attested. The same is true of Ram in the Ramayana. And Mohammed too has no pre-cursor. But here we have Jesus coming to John right after John has declared openly that he is unworthy even to do a slaves work for Jesus. 

We are now in a position to understand what John was saying and therefore what was happening when Jesus was baptized. John calls the attention of his hearers to the fact that there are two non-repeatable baptisms. On the one hand, there is his baptism of repentance in water for the forgiveness of sins. On the other hand, there is the baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire, the baptism that Jesus administers. And this is why the Gospel of John clarifies that Jesus did not baptize people with water as the medium. 

Now we can understand the strange exchange between John and Jesus. This is what our passage says: 

John has made a distinction between the baptism he administers and the baptism Jesus administers. And he has already said that Jesus’ baptism is the superior one. When he says, “I need to be baptized by you” he does not mean that Jesus should immerse him in water or pour water over his head. Rather, he is saying that he wants to experience that wonderful Spirit baptism that Jesus administers. 

And when Jesus says, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness” what does he mean? The conventional view of John’s baptism that makes it like Christian baptism cannot account for this and we then have to speak of Jesus identifying with sinners. But if he was sinless, this baptism at John’s hand would have been a farce. 

But if John was like Moses leading the former slaves to the border of the Promised Land, then it makes sense. For Moses did not enter the Promised Land. Rather, the one who took the Israelites into the Promised Land was the one after whom Jesus himself was named – Joshua. 

What Jesus is saying is this, “You have begun a re-enactment of the Exodus and desert wanderings. You have taken on the role of Moses. But you know that you cannot enter the Promised Land. You must now hand over the mantle to the one who will complete this enactment – me. This is how you and I are related in God’s plan. You are like Moses. I am like Joshua. And while both you and I would love it if you could experience this wonderful Spirit baptism, you, like Moses, cannot experience it.” 

This is why later in his ministry, Jesus would say, “The law and the prophets were until John. Since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is being preached.” What else would we expect from the one who is to complete what John began and bring his people to that Promised Land which is the life in the Spirit?