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Go and Tell John: Third Sunday in Lent

Galatians 1:1-3:5; Matthew 11:1-19

The Elves skip Matthew 11:1, 11:12-15, and 11:20-24; they put 11:2-11 on the Third Sunday in Advent.  Then they pair Matthew 11: 16-19 and 25-30 with Romans 7:15-25a, which is a typical non-sequitur that happens in mid-July.  All this cherry-picking may reinforce Christian dogma, but it hardly contributes to an understanding of who Jesus was, what he taught, and what it all may have meant to 1st century followers.  This is especially the case when Paul’s letters are considered after the gospel reading in Christian liturgy.  The result is that Paul’s insights and arguments get interpreted in the light of the gospel writers instead of the other way around.

Indeed, there is some question whether Paul should be considered in conjunction with the evangelists at all.  As Burton Mack points out in The Lost Gospel of Q, an altogether different mythos developed from what he calls the “Christ Congregations,” which were organized around the interpretation put forth by the Apostle Paul in the seven letters that were actually his.  The Q tradition of sayings and stories did not combine with Paul’s mystical ideas about the crucified and risen Anointed One until the writer of Mark pulled it all together 30 years after Paul disappeared on his way to Rome.

Suppose we consider not what seems to be confirmation of 4th century Christian dogma, but what might be similar subject matter in the gospels and in Paul’s letters.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul scolds them for listening to some other kind of teaching and abandoning what they heard from him.  (This seems to be a recurring problem for Paul:  If it weren’t for an apparent report from “Chloe’s people,” Paul may have not realized he was losing control of the Corinthian community until too late.)  He seems to be obsessed with proving to the Galatians that he has the credentials for presenting himself as an “envoy” of God’s “world-transforming news.” That means, a royal messenger representing God’s imperial rule, not Caesar’s, and God’s counter-cultural covenant, not Caesar’s peace through war.

This early letter holds some major clues into what happened to Paul that changed him from being a persecutor of a curious sect within traditional Judaism to the primary interpreter and champion of a movement that ultimately became Christianity.  Westar Institute scholars have essentially agreed that the Acts of the Apostles cannot be trusted as a resource for anything Paul might have done.  Acts was written by Luke, perhaps as late as 120 c.e., long after both Paul’s time and the writing of the synoptic gospels.  It often does not agree with Paul’s own letters; it is silent on some crucial missing information.

What is happening in this letter is that Paul has learned that his Galatian friends have become confused by some missionaries who represented the faction that thought to incorporate the Jesus people into traditional Judaism.  They claimed that the old, familiar, traditional religion was the best, and in order to be acceptable to God, pagan converts must comply with all the traditional Jewish customs – most especially, circumcision.  Paul’s rants about “circumcision” versus “uncircumcision” are generally dismissed as eye-rollingly irrelevant because those verses are usually lifted from their context.  When that happens, Paul’s argument – and it is an argument – gets lost and confused.

So what is going on here?  Paul believed that the risen Christ – the one Anointed by God as the one who would restore and re-establish God’s rule – would come again at any moment to transform the earth into a new realm.  Instead of the old order of retributive, imperial, unjust systems, a new order of radically inclusive, distributive justice-compassion would take over.  He had an apocalyptic vision.  For Paul, there was no time to lose quibbling over physical attributes or Mosaic rules and regulations that determined who was Jewish and eligible to be part of God’s Covenant.  The “world transforming news” Paul talked about was that Jesus, God’s Anointed One, was accepted by God and taken up to be in God’s realm even though he had been executed as a criminal – and therefore, according to Mosaic law, unacceptable to God.  Because of God’s action, Paul said, anyone who trusted God’s power in the same way that Jesus had trusted God’s power would also be accepted by God and automatically included in the transformed world that was coming.  That is usually translated as “grace” – a free gift from God, with no prerequisites.  Even more, the transformation had begun, expressed in the lives of the people in Paul’s communities.  It’s not what you believe or what religious customs you follow.  It’s how you live your life.

He was exasperated with the Galatians, who accepted the old order instead of trusting God and Paul’s message.  So he spends a lot of expensive scribal time explaining his credentials.  The problem is, he doesn’t have the kind of credentials normally offered.  All he has is his own inspired interpretation.  So he claims divine authenticity:

Let me make it clear, friends, the message I announced does not conform to human expectations.  I say this because it was not transmitted to me by anyone nor did anyone teach it to me.  Rather it came to me as an insight from God about Jesus as God’s Anointed.  Gal. 1:11-12 (SV).

Then he spends more papyrus spelling out his life history, and how he spent time in Jerusalem with Peter and the brother of Jesus himself.  Finally, perhaps with some desperation, he says, “The point is, if I now endorse what I previously rejected, then I am demonstrating that I have no integrity.  In fact, my old identity, defined by religious customs, passed away so that a new God-given identity could come to life.”  And as though that was not enough he says, “I was crucified with the Anointed.  The person I used to be no longer lives.  God’s Anointed lives in me; and the bodily life I now live, I live by the same confident trust in God that the ‘son of God’ had.  He loved me and gave up his life for my benefit.”  All this to emphasize that none of this happened to him because he observed the traditional religious practices.  His claim in 2:21 is over-the-top.   “If acceptance by God comes about through traditional religious observances, then God’s Anointed died for no reason!”

These are radical words for a first century Pharisee.  Paul is convinced completely that in order for human life to be transformed from a greed world to a share world, from unjust, retributive systems to radical fairness, from a selfish focus on personal gain to a radical abandonment of self-interest, from slave to free, it cannot happen through religious custom or by the normal laws that govern civilization.  It can only come through individual decision to live a transformed life.

In the first century, where God was a personal force, that individual decision could only be made by someone who had the same unconditional trust in God’s power that Jesus had.  Paul’s words scream from the page:  “You foolish Galatians!  How stupid can you be?  Do you really think that what was begun by God’s presence and power can be completed by a merely earthly life? . . . Is the one who empowers and works miracles among you able to do so because you rely on traditional religious practices or because you are convinced by the message you heard?”  This is not about heaven later.  It is about justice now.

For Paul there was no time to lose.

Matthew is perhaps even more certain of the coming apocalypse than Paul was.  Jerusalem has been destroyed.  Temple Judaism is gone.  “Go and tell John what you see and hear,” his Jesus says.  “The blind see again, the lame walk; lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear; the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.”  He sets up John as the Elijah – the messenger who prepares the way for the Messiah.  Clearly, Matthew is saying, the time is now, and Jesus is the one.  Look at what has been happening: “From the time of John the Baptist until now, Heaven’s imperial rule has been breaking in violently, and violent men are attempting to gain it by force.”  Jerusalem and the old way of life are no more.  But no one is listening.  “We played the flute for you, but you wouldn’t dance; we sang a dirge but you wouldn’t mourn. . . . John appeared on the scene neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘he is demented.’  The son of Adam came both eating and drinking, and they say, ‘There’s a glutton and a drunk, a crony of toll collectors and sinners!”  Nobody is listening.  No wonder Matthew puts words of apocalyptic frustration into Jesus’ mouth.

Two thousand years later we are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.  All we have to do is start living the rule and the kingdom will come.  What could be easier?  Abandon self-interest; give everyone an equal chance in the marketplace and the courtroom.  Instead we join fundamentalist sects, prefer that “ol’ time religion.”  We create political movements left and right.  We try vegetarianism, anti-nuclearism, green footprints.  We give credence to crazed reactionaries on radio and television, and we either elect them or allow them to roll in with their money and their limos and their private armies.  Our elderly are in jeopardy, our middle classes are disappearing, our children can’t read, and the idealist we hailed as the savior of the American Dream panders to his opponents and squanders his power.

What do we have to tell John?  We did not expect someone in soft robes hiding out in a royal palace.

Review & Commentary