Book 3: The Beloved Son as Tantalizing Teacher: Jesus Encounters His World

Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2021.

The near history that perhaps had the greatest impact on the thought world of the Jews of Jesus’ time in their relationship to their oppressors was the great successes of the Maccabean revolt. The Maccabean brothers, Judah, Jonathan, and Simon, against all odds and expectations, were able to achieve victories over the Syrian E mpire, cleanse the Temple, wrest Jewish freedom from this Hellenistic state, and restore the independence of the government and priesthood within 24 short years of the beginning of the revolt (166-142 B.C.). Their achievement was confirmation of the OT stories and ideology of the Holy War which assured, no matter the size of Israel’s armies, God would fight on their behalf and win for them victory. That the Maccabeans thought and acted in terms of this ideology is clear from their practice of carrying out the Herem, i.e. “the ban,” the extirpation of everything connected with idolatry including pagan peoples themselves. This led, of course, to the smoldering animosity that developed between Jews and Gentiles. The society was riven with revolutionary fervor powered by the conviction God would once again deliver the people from Roman occupation. It was expressed explicitly in various movements such as the militaristic messianic movements and bandits who also claimed to be judges as in days of old.

Against this backdrop the peasants, who represented over 95% of the population, lived with their “backs against the wall.” I’ve described their hapless situation in my previous book as rural residents farming small plots of land. They led a more or less hand to mouth existence  paying perhaps as much as 40% of the produce of their small farms in taxes leaving what was left over for food, seed for the next harvest, and for purchasing or bartering for other needs.

In contrast to them, the upper 2% of the wealthy enjoyed living off the production of others and whose indolent lives depended on and exploited the work of others. Work to them was considered beneath their station. Included in this class of people were the high priests and their elite and wealthy lay associates who, when taken together, were known as the Sadducees.

In the first volume of this series I analyzed the dynamics of Jewish society in the first century from six perspectives, characterizing each factor on the basis of the reality of the times. It is clear from this little overview that the society suffered under economic inequality, social tensions, political injustice, religious competition, ecological divisions, and the hopes for a renewal that would restore the historical society of old.

Jesus clearly understood that revolutionary ideology would lead to disaster. His message and lifestyle eschewed hostility and violent revolution and labored in favor of an interdependence and mutual support where all were givers and all receivers. In this way he intimately identified with the peasantry by living in solidarity with them and the oppression they experienced.

1. Birth, Baptism, and Temptation: Jesus’ Identity

My understanding of the person and identity of Jesus arises from the “Christ Hymn” quoted by Paul in Phil 2:5–11 “. . . the Messiah Jesus being in the form of God did not regard equality with God as a plundered prize but emptied himself and took the form of a slave . . .” So Jesus was totally human and did not have any divine powers more than any other person.

These narratives make clear, however, Jesus was not Joseph’s son and therefore underscore that there was a transcendent aspect to his existence. He was also known to be of Davidic descent. Both go back to early traditions. The one asserts that Jesus cannot be understood apart from God and the other that he is to fulfill the divine intention for Israel’s restoration. Although Jesus possessed no divine power he had a consciousness of a unique relationship with the God of Israel. That filial relationship was expressed in his majesterial teaching without reference to previous authorities; his forgiving sin; his power over unclean spirits, and claiming exclusive knowledge of God.

His baptism at the Jordan confirmed his incipient self-consciousness of a filial connection with his Father-God. The voice confirmed his sonship with the Father and that he was the “beloved son” that he, in a priestly fashion, represented all Israel. The descent of the Spirit was a sign of his call as a prophet to lead Israel out of exile into the new creation of the kingdom of God. So all of Israel’s holy offices coalesce in Jesus at his baptism where he is named the “beloved son.” The “beloved son” designation bore the whole weight of biblical associations: he is the “first-born” son who belongs to God by sacrifice (Exod 13:2)

Closely associated with Jesus’ baptism is the story of his temptation. His forty days in the wilderness recapitulates Israel’s forty years of wandering in the Sinai desert. But he reverses Israel’s faithlessness. Jesus enacts a new exodus corresponding to the turn taken in the eschatological schedule between him and John. The new age of the kingdom is dawning for which Jesus, the new Joshua, is preparing the way. He shows the way of faithfulness: he refuses the way of power.

His self-consciousness was also expressed in his use of the “son of man” title. His usage was distinctive. No other figure in early Judaism used it as a self-designation. He used the appellation in three distinctive contexts: as the coming one, as the presently acting one, and as the one who would suffer and be raised. Sometime he simply meant “I.” Other times it reflects the collective view of Dan 7 where the “son of man” has both a transcendent quality and is identified with Israel. So Jesus as the son of man embodies the kingdom. It was in and through him that the kingdom was present and when he returned as son of man the kingdom of God would arrive in its fullness. He also used the title in a collective sense. It included the community of the new age which he led. Jesus did not proclaim any apocalyptic scenarios. He merely proclaimed that the kingdom was at the door and one had only to prepare for it and live in its light, i.e., in fellowship with him. As the suffering servant who embodied the nation he would return when the kingdom arrived to judge the nations.

2. The Pronouncement Stories.

Here I will refer to some of these stories to give you a flavor of their contents.

The biographical pronouncement stories give us a firsthand encounter with Jesus’ personal experiences, his interaction with individuals, how people responded to him, his understanding of himself and the current events of the day, and some of the activities of his ministry. More importantly they reveal how he met the circumstances of his people in their encounter with the oppression under which they lived.

Jesus’ visited two of his friends, Mary and Martha, who were also no doubt his supporters supplying him with his needs in his itinerant ministry. Mary sits at his feet to listen to him. She assumes the posture of a disciple and portrays the repose and rest of the Sabbath, a little Jubilee. Judaism was a listening culture. Each day the faithful Jew recited the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God . . . ” Martha meanwhile busies herself with food preparation. She then complains that Mary isn’t helping her. Her work is then not a freely offered action but done with a grudge on the edges. He says to her, “Only one thing is needful and Mary has chosen the better part.” Jesus had put food in its proper place when in his temptation to create bread out of stones he quoted the scriptures: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” The “good part” that Mary has chosen is the kingdom of God itself. It is the “one thing” that is truly needful. Jesus does not disparage action. After all he was very active in bringing healing to the needy. But action and activity is not unreflective busyness but “doing the will of the Father.”

This little vignette contains, in its own poignant way, the whole ministry of Jesus: he is the “beloved son” who faces opposition which leads to his death; he is embedded in the foundations of Judaism; he proclaims and makes the kingdom present by his actions of healing; he is dependent on his people for sustenance but ultimately he is totally dependent on his Father God and doing his will; and he calls everyone, friend and stranger and even the nation’s enemies, to enter the kingdom, the great Sabbath rest and Jubilee where all are reconciled to one another and to God.

An example of a controversy dialogue is the story of the woman who some Shammaite Pharisees dragged before Jesus in some village square in Judea. She had been caught in flagrante delicto and asked to render the verdict that she be stoned as the Torah demanded. This was an obvious act of hoping to catch him in a clear-cut breach of Torah since his practice of receiving sinners had to have been well known. His provocateurs thought for sure they had him. But he turns the tables on them. He tells them that whoever was without sin to cast the first stone. Who could claim to be sinless? They were caught in their own judgment. Jesus reveals his identity with the God of Israel who shows mercy. It is mercy alone that will bring people to repentance. In the upside down kingdom of God mercy comes first and repentance later. He, by implication, nullifies the competency of anyone who also would demand a strict application of the Law in the case of a moral trespass. So he becomes the source of forgiveness and the mercy of God. In him she also has the right of access to the Temple. He includes her in the kingdom and, because she shares in that fellowship, she can go forward “forgetting what lies behind” (Phil 3:13) and repent of her sin and live a new life.


3. The Response Jesus Expected from the Nation

For the elites it meant practicing justice and not hoarding wealth. Poverty and wealth loom large in Jesus’ encounter with his society. His understanding of the meaning of wealth diverged from the popular opinion which thought of the wealthy as especially righteous and pious. Wealth for him meant inclusion in the kingdom and inaugurating the Jubilee by forgiving debts. It could even mean divesting oneself completely of one’s wealth and joining Jesus in his ministry (Mk 10:17–22).

He affirmed the people’s sense of exile but instead of following the contemporary prophets who promised to effect the wondrous liberation of the past he creates the community of the coming age where one is already at home with Israel’s Father-God. But there is a martial aspect to Jesus’ activity. He and his fellow workers are like men mustered into a holy war. But instead of martial aggression against the Roman overlord they burst into Satan’s “house” and bind him by their exorcisms so that they can “plunder his house” (Mk 3:27, 2 Cor 10:14).

4. The Messenger

Jesus is totally embedded in the kingdom that he proclaims. Or to put it differently, he is utterly subject to God and his rule (i.e., his will and purposes). However, he does not quite speak as one of the classical prophets. His embeddedness in the kingdom makes him speak in a sovereign way: the Sabbath is subject to him as are the demons. Obedience to the law does not qualify for existence in the kingdom. The scribe who affirms the double love command is “not far from the kingdom.” Israel’s leaders must also submit to his authority and the power of his pungent arguments. Because he cannot be trapped and meets the arguments of his opponents head on they are deprived of their authority and are reduced to attacking him with ad hominem arguments: he’s demon possessed, he’s a blasphemer, and obliquely judged as unclean and a sinner because he consorts with such people. Such opposition foreshadows his passion and death which he understands as taking upon himself the sins of the people and suffering in their stead.

5. Endorsements

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