Archives For Ched Myers

Did you know Crackers and Grape Juice is now in the top 3-4% of all podcasts on the interwebs?

Boom.

All the more reason for you to check out our latest guest. Ched Myers’ commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man, is one of the most influential books I read in seminary.

Crackers and Grape Juice got to interview Ched Myers to discuss what solidarity and resistance look like in the age of Trump and social media.

Ched is an activist theologian, biblical scholar, popular educator, author, organizer and advocate who has for 35 years been challenging and supporting Christians to engage in peace and justice work and radical discipleship.

Coming up, we’ve got conversations for you with David Bentley Hart, Richard Rohr as well as Robert Jenson. And don’t forget to check out our lectionary-based offshoot of the podcast. We’re calling it Strangely Warmed.

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rainbow-cross_aprilAnd it may not be one that you want to hear.

This weekend we conclude our September sermon series on the Holy Spirit.

Jesus calls the Spirit ‘the Comforter’ in John’s Gospel, but what Jesus has to say about the Holy Spirit in Mark’s Gospel is anything but comforting.

Mark 3.20 – 4.1 contains this little stick of theological dynamite:

28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

For his spare artistry, pregnant irony and subversive Jesus Mark’s Gospel is far and away my favorite of the four narratives.

Needless to say, though, the idea of loving, compassionate Jesus categorizing a particular sin as ‘unforgivable’ less than a quarter of the way into the Gospel didn’t sit too well even with me.

‘He doesn’t really mean unforgivable, does he?’

‘Jesus is just being rhetorical right? Exaggerating?’

‘I thought God forgives everything?’

I recall an adult Sunday School I taught in which we methodically made our way through Mark, and, asking them what they thought Jesus meant by ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,’ I found little variance in the responses:

‘Cursing God’

‘Rejecting that Jesus is the Messiah.’

‘Refusing to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.’

‘Resisting the Spirit’s work to make us confess that Jesus is God.’

All told their responses didn’t deviate very much from the neanderthal Calvinist, John Piper, who defines the blasphemy thusly:

‘The unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an act of resistance which belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that he withdraws for ever with his convicting power so that we are never able to repent and be forgiven.’

My friend Morgan posted on this same topic, reflecting on how John MacArthur went off the rails and accused most of his Pentecostal brethren of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ by attributing words and directions to the Spirit that the Spirit did not give.

Certainly I’m sure there’s a good deal of such attribution in Pentecostalism but that would be called idolatry- or anthropomorphism- not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

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What John Piper and John MacArthur and even the folks in my class failed to do- what we almost always fail to do when thinking about the unforgivable sin- is read Jesus’ words within the context of Mark’s early chapters.

In chapter 1, right after Jesus speaks on stage for the first time about how the Kingdom of God has arrived, he casts out a demon in church. By doing so, Jesus usurps the authority of the temple priests, whom, Mark leads us to surmise, had previously turned the possessed man away.

Jesus leaves church that day telling people to keep hush- not in order to keep his ‘Messianic secret’ but to keep his wonder-working on the down low because now he’s a marked man.

And ritually impure to boot, which is why he retreats away.

Skip ahead to the end of chapter 2. Offstage the scribes apparently have been dispatched to follow Jesus, presumably for the purpose of finding a chargeable offense against him.

Jesus encounters a leper, who asks Jesus to make him clean.

[First!] Jesus touches him.

And then, only after touching him, does Jesus cleanse him.

In both instances Jesus explicitly violates the law.

The first renders Jesus ritually impure once again. He’s literally taking on the sin of the people, making himself an outcast.

Oh yeah, and Jesus applies to himself the divine-political title ‘Son of Man’ in the heated exchange that ensues with the scribes.

In chapter 2, Mark tells us that Jesus is reclining ‘on his left elbow’ with sinners and tax collectors. Chilling with them, in other words. He’s accused of carousing with them, eating and boozing with the oclos, the unclean masses. This is the first time the word ‘disciple’ to reference Jesus’ followers.

In chapter 3, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, violating the law and presuming to possess the authority to interpret the law in one fail swoop.

Starting in the initial chapter, each of these encounters elicits increasing hostility towards Jesus- from the temple priests, from the scribes and even from his family, who think Jesus has gone insane.

The scribes, keepers of the ancient texts and the interpretation of them, presume they’re on God’s side.

So they accuse Jesus of being demonic.

Those in power have the power to impugn the motives and character of those not in power.

Jesus turns it back on them with the little quip Abraham Lincoln made even more famous about a house divided against itself.

Jesus’ point is different from Abe’s:

If I’m demonic how is it I could exorcise demons?

Conclusion: only someone on God’s side could exorcise demons.

Implication:

Those who assume they’re on God’s side…aren’t.

‘Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ is the culminating, summary charge that erupts as the conclusion to the increasingly hostile encounters Jesus has with the keepers of the status quo.

As such, any interpretation of what constitutes such a blasphemy should be read in light of those exchanges.

The scribes for ideological reasons- and even Jesus’ own family- refuse to see the liberating work of God right before their eyes.

Refuse to see this new healing, liberating activity of Jesus as GOD’S WORK.

It’s not like they haven’t seen Jesus heal and exorcise and cast out. It’s just that their ideology, their interpretation of what God said or did in the past, in the Hebrew scripture, doesn’t conform to what Jesus is doing in the present.

And so they reject Jesus and attribute the demonic to him.

After all, it’s not like the scribes were wrong in their interpretation of scripture.

Jesus doesn’t have the authority to heal in the temple. He shouldn’t be touching lepers. Who told him he could heal on the Sabbath…not God’s word that’s for sure.

To make it plain, what so many interpretations of what constitutes ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ miss is why Jesus would specify the Holy Spirit.

What is it about the Holy Spirit Jesus wants us to take notice?

The_Holy_Trinity

This is where Trinitarian language always comes in handy. Because the Holy Spirit, we profess, is the revelation of God in our midst, in the present, in the here and now.

The Holy Spirit is what reminds us that God didn’t speak or work in the past.

God continues to speak and work in the present.

God can do a new thing.

And that new thing might even go against everything we’ve understood about what God did and said in the past.

God can affirm and welcome and ‘declare clean’ what God’s word once declared quite to the contrary.

If I have to connect the dots to make clear how this is a relevant issue today, I’ve not been nearly the writer my wife tells me I am.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit =

So reifying your understanding of how God willed and spoke in the past- in scripture- that you’re willfully blind to see the liberating, healing work of God in the present.

And if you’ve connect the dots and want to blow me off as a knee-jerk liberal then fine.

Except, be warned, Jesus says it’s unforgivable.

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The word to which Inigo Montoya refers in the Princess Bride is ‘inconceivable.’

For many people outside the Kingdom of Florin, it’s inconceivable that another Word doesn’t mean what they think it means.

From the Christmas creche to Christ’s Cross, many of the Bible passages so near and dear to our (the-Lord-laid-it-on-my) hearts don’t mean what we think it means.

Very often it means exactly the opposite of what we think it means- an impressive feat, no? Sometimes Christians read into biblical passages something that is not remotely there at all, what biblical scholars call eisegesis. Other times Christians miss, almost willfully, what is right there in front of them on the page.

From cliched, Christian-speak catch-phrases (‘wherever 2 or 3 are gathered’) to familiar flannel-graphed VBS stories (‘Truly, this was God’s Son’), Christians are guilty of routinely misunderstanding, misquoting, misapplying or just plain MISSING verses of scripture.

So I offer you (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) the 15 Most Misunderstood Bible Verses.

#15: The Widow’s Mite

“As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Where Can You Find It?

Mark 12.38-44

Luke 21.1-4

What Do You Need to Know First?

The ‘story’ of the widow’s mite (really, Jesus just points to her in the crowd) comes after Jesus has entered Jerusalem, as a mock Caesar, to a Messiah’s welcome.

2 mites equaled 1 quadron in Jesus’ day, the smallest coin in Roman currency. The widow, in other words, offered the modern day equivalent of 2 half-pennies to the Temple treasury in Jerusalem.

What Jesus says about money and the Temple immediately compel the chief priests and the scribes to ‘search for a way to arrest Jesusby stealth and kill him.’ 

Jesus’ notice of the widow’s offering happens within the larger context of Jesus railing about ecclesial greed, collusion with the Empire and his prediction of the Temple’s imminent destruction by God.

How Is It Always Interpreted?

Bottom Line: This widow gives her last mite to the Temple and Jesus is pleased by this and holds her up as a good example.

This is go-to passage for sentimental children’s sermon, passive aggressive stewardship appeals and slap-yourself-on-the-back sermons against the hypocrisy of the rich, powerful or organized religion.

Almost always this passage guest-starring the widow and her mite is used as an illustration of giving as a leap of faith. The (usually) preacher will put all his or her emphasis on the ‘giving all she had to live on’ clause whilst ignoring the obvious, black-and-white (literally) context within which this pericope falls. Consequently, the widow becomes an example to all of us of someone who so trusted God to provide for her that she gave what she did not have to give: her last 2 half-pennies.

Thus Jesus draws for us a ‘contrast between the religious hypocrisy of the scribes and the genuine piety of the poor woman.’

Insert (fabricated) moral of the story:

It doesn’t matter what you give. What matters is the faith in which your gift is given.

Or:

Our offering should be in proportion to what we possess; wherein, the poor widow upstages the rich for her sacrificial generosity.

Or:

We ought to go and do likewise. Give everything and trust the Lord to provide (Cue: Mount, Sermon on)

Besides being willful misreadings of the passage, it’s never said how all these interpretations are rife with opportunities to exploit the vulnerable.

What are the Problems with this Interpretation?

Jesus doesn’t speak one iota about the widow’s faith, attitude, disposition or motivation in giving. Why? Because, as a widow, she had no freaking choice!

 

Jesus, no stranger to ‘go and do’ exhortations, doesn’t say anything of the like.

 

Right before this oft-cited passage, hidden in plain sight, in 12.40, Jesus directs his ire at the caste of the Temple. With these words:

 ‘They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.’

And then 2 painfully obvious verses later Jesus points to a particular widow and says:

‘She out of her poverty has given everything, all she had to live.’

And then 2 painfully obvious verses later, in 13.2, Jesus predicts the destruction of the very Temple to which the widow has given her last penny:

Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

Why would Jesus celebrate a widow’s impoverished giving to the Temple just after condemning those religious leaders who extort widows?

Why would Jesus praise a widow giving to an institution whose destruction he will praise in just 2 short verses?

What Does It Actually Say?

Jesus condemns the scribes for preying upon widows- the most helpless of people in 1st century Israel- and the Temple system which necessitates it.

Then he sees a poor widow coming in to the Temple grounds and forking over her last penny in the scribes’ coffers. And Jesus essentially says:

‘You see?! That’s what I’m talking about! The Temple system doesn’t hurt the rich who have abundance from which to give to it, but this widow has given every last damn thing has because to them.’

So Jesus isn’t praising the widow’s gift to the Temple.

He’s lamenting a system where she must give it rather than feed herself                                (and possibly her children).

She’s still an illustration, just for a different kind of sermon: she’s a widow who’s had her house devoured. And very soon, Jesus promises, God will devour the scribes’ house. Of worship.

Rather than citing the widow in a sermon meant to gin up a pledge drive, she should be mentioned just before exhorting people of faith to examine how they themselves participate in systems (let’s use Walmart as an example) that exploit the poorest among us for the gain of the rest of us.

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6008952208_80ed84260d_mOver Memorial Day Weekend, I participated as a pilgrim at the Taize gathering at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. During part of our time we selected small discussion groups in which to reflect on the intersection of Christian worship and the systemic poverty and injustice of the rez.

Unbeknownst to me until much later, the facilitator of my small group was Ched Myers.

Who? (You might wonder)

Ched Myers is a biblical scholar and a Christian mediator. He’s the author of perhaps the best biblical commentary of the last few decades- and one of my favorites: Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.  BSM 20th

One of Myers’ chief critiques is the propensity among believers to spiritualize and thus neuter the message and ministry of Jesus. If Jesus’ Gospel is about the world to come the here and now can breath a sigh of relief. Fortunately, as long as Christians are stuck with the image of state-sponsored torture as our primary symbol we’ll continually be reminded that our Savior, despite our wishes to the contrary, is a thoroughly political figure.

A “spiritualized” interpretation of the references to Jesus’ ministry and gospel as “good news to the poor” misses the ways in which Jesus addressed the concrete, spiritual and material realities of his time and, specifically, of the peasant Jewish community of which he was part.

“Only a real debt-cancellation and land-restoration could represent good news to real poor people,” says Ched Myers.

Many scholars, including Myers, have noted that Jesus seems to have regarded himself as one who proclaimed and brought a new season of jubilee such as that mandated in the ancient Jewish law. The text from Isaiah that Jesus quoted and declared fulfilled at the synagogue in his hometown when he began his ministry is itself a reference to the jubilee year from the ancient Jewish law.

Many have also noted the relationship between the way in which Jesus talked about the forgiveness of sins and the forgiveness of debt. This is seen most clearly in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer with its pleas to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”   

“The gospels agree,” says Myers that “Jesus’ first substantive clash with the authorities arose as a result of his practice of ‘unlicensed’ forgiveness of sins, which has clear Jubilee overtones.”

Richard Horsley has offered a helpful account of the relationship between forgiveness of sin and debt in the context of first century rural Galilee.

There are indications …that the people…may have been blaming themselves.  Insofar as they were suffering hunger, disease, and poverty, it was because they had sinned, by breaking the covenant laws.  They were therefore now receiving the curses.  This is surely what Jesus was addressing in this forgiveness of sins in connection with healings (as in Mark 2:1-12).   In addressing the people’s self-blame and despair, therefore, Jesus transforms the blessings and curses into a new declaration of God’s assurance of deliverance for the poor and hungry and condemnation of those who were wealthy, almost certainly because they were expropriating the goods of the peasantry.

To announce forgiveness of sins is truly good news for those who are literally poor.

Jesus not only sought to lift the spiritual burden associated with poverty, but also to transform the material relationships that produced that poverty.

Myers indicates for example that

“Jesus’ Jubilee orientation” is seen not just in his forgiveness of sins/debts but also in: 1) his instructing the disciples to “to help themselves to field produce” justifying it with “his punch line: ‘The Sabbath was created for humanity’” (Mark 2:27); 2) “his efforts to rebuild community between socio-economically- alienated groups” such as tax-collectors (Levi, Zaccheus) and the debtors they exploited; 3) and his call for radical restructuring at all levels, from the household (Mark 3:31-35) to the body politic (Mark 10:35-45).

Myers regards “table fellowship” both in Jesus’ practice and in his storytelling as the typical venue chosen by Jesus to illustrate his Jubilee claim that “first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31).

Meals lay at the heart of ancient society: Where, what, and with whom you ate defined your social identity and status.  Thus the table was the “mirror” of society, with its economic classes and political divisions.

In the extended banquet story of in Luke 14, Jesus systematically undermines prevailing conventions and proprieties which advocating a new “table” of compassion and equality.  The opening episode deals (not surprisingly) with a dispute over the Sabbath practice (Luke 14:1-6).

Next comes Jesus attack on the dominant system of meritocracy, with its hierarchies, prestige posturing, and ladder-climbing, and his invitation to “downward mobility” (verses 7-11).

He then offends his host by criticizing his guest list, rejecting the reciprocal patronage system of the elite and calling for a focus upon “those who cannot repay” (verses 12-14).

The series concludes with Jesus pointed little fable about an exemplary host who finally understands the bankruptcy of meritocracy and decides instead to build a Jubilee community with the poor and outcast (verses 15-24).

In the light of these and other “Jubilee footprints” in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, Myers finds it not surprising that the early church practiced what he calls “Sabbath economics” as exemplified in the story of radical sharing of property among believers in the aftermath of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first day Pentecost.

And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved [Acts 2:44-47].

Christian conviction is that God promises a comprehensive fulfillment of human existence in the universe.

Salvation includes our souls and our bodies, our individual and our collective or corporate existence.

Jesus’ primary metaphor for speaking of salvation was a political one, “The Kingdom of God.”

It was an economic metaphor as well.

We are bold to proclaim that among the promises of God to us is this: the situation of mass poverty and gross material inequality that reigns now shall not be when God reigns.   

And where God reigns even now in the world that he so loves, that poverty and inequality is being transformed in justice.