Jesus was into change

July 31, 2006

Sunrise over Cemetery.  Photo by Richard BoltI was reading today’s Daily Office Gospel lesson this morning, and it occurred to me that Jesus wasn’t one to sit around and long for the past.

In fact, his activities, which got him into lots of trouble with the authorities, showed over and over again that he wanted to change the status quo.  He didn’t like the system, he didn’t like the way the religious authorities were doing things, and he wanted to change it.

Just like I wrote in my post yesterday, change isn’t easy.  In this case, what the reading from Matthew reminded me of is that people get pretty upset when you go around changing things.  Yesterday one of the things I mentioned was the burning of Jan Hus in 1415 for supporting non-Latin translation of the Bible.  That is what I thought of when reading of the torture of Jesus today in Matthew.

The high priest and Jewish council couldn’t stand the change that Jesus was proposing, so they lashed out against Jesus.  The Romans got on board and carried it one step further.  The “mob rule” completely took over and threw out all reason when sentencing Jesus Christ instead of Barrabus.

And, from a strictly historical point of view, the funny thing is that the death of the founder of Christianity did nothing to stop the movement of “The Way.”  As we know, it is one of the world’s largest religions, so the Jewish and Roman authorities failed in their attempt to stop further change by stamping it out with annihilation.

When I discuss this historical perspective with more orthodox folk, I sometimes get responses that I don’t quite understand-  feedback that has to do with somehow moving people through a preset plan in order to get to the crucifiction for all of our sins so that we can find the resurrection and grace for all of humanity.  (I guess that’s based somehow in a fear that if Caiaphus had accepted Jesus then he wouldn’t have been crucified and we wouldn’t have grace?  That’s a little too self-serving for me, and doesn’t rely enough on trust in God to work it all out somehow.)

Of course grace from resurrection is the crux of traditional Christianity.  But I would think it is important to look at how we got there.  It isn’t simply the execution of a plan that makes the crucifiction and resurrection meaningful.  For me, one of the things we need to examine is the predictable pattern of human behavior, that when introduced with something wonderful but something new, humans automatically reject it in favor of the status quo.  Even the disciples had their moments of rejection and disbelief– Peter certainly had his moments.

In other words, I don’t think that Caiaphus was just destined to be born at the wrong time to be high priest.  I think he had a choice to either change the teaching of the church and embrace a new way or to stick to the same ol’ same ol’ and kill the Messiah.  We all know how the story ends.  What’s the lesson there?

For me, its the same as I wrote yesterday.  We can’t be too willing to kill, get angry, hold our ground, push with vitriol, or be too confident that our position is right.  We just don’t know.  Change happens.  And Jesus was into it.  I don’t think we should keep our eyes closed to that, or we may end up with the same historical judgement as Caiaphus and Pilate.



16 Responses to “Jesus was into change”

  1. That is a very good point, we have to be willing to let go of control to see how the change can manifest itself. The winds of the Spirit flow in ways we mere mortals can not see.

  2. FrMichael Says:

    Dear Jeff:

    I see the bogus charge of of Huss being burned for supporting non-Latin translations of the Bible is still being leveled at your site. Do you have any proof of this assertion? Huss was burned for a large number of things, including (as I recall) supporting an inaccurate translation of the Bible. It’s been a while since I’ve studied Huss in a secular college course on the Reformation (taught by a pro-Huss Czech professor), but translating into the vernacular wasn’t a cause for Roman heartburn. Inaccurate translations, such as those of Wycliff and Huss, were.

  3. Rick Harris, O.P. Says:

    William Tyndale was hanged and then burned at the stake for the crime of translating Scriptures directly from Hebrew and Greek into English. His translations later gained wide acceptance in England, were often used in the Church of England under Elizabeth I, who was the first English monarch to decree that an English translation of the Bible should be available in every parish. In the 17th century, much of Tyndale’s language and phrasing was adopted by the Hebrew and Greek scholars who were commissioned to come up with a definitive English translation of the Bible by Elizabeth’s nephew and successor, the first Stuart monarch, King James.

    Jesus was persecuted for teaching that the legalistic and works-centered theology taught by the Pharisees, the Saducees, and the High Priests availed nothing. He taught that obsession with rules and ritual sacrifices led to self-idolatry and away from God. He taught that the greatest sin of all is the sin of pride. He taught that even the most craven and treacherous Jews, the tax collectors, could be sooner justified before God than the most pious Pharisees, if the tax collectors acknowledged their sin while the Pharisees wallowed in their pride. Jesus radically challenged the prevailing ideas of who the Messiah would be and what He would do when He got here. The priests and lawyers were expecting a person of royal blood who would become a great political and military leader and drive out the alien occupiers of Judah once and for all. Instead they got the son of a carpenter who taught that when we petition God for a particular thing or change in circumstances, He answers us by telling us that we should change ourselves instead.

    Most of all Jesus demanded that we should recognize that He was the light of the world, and He said that those who could not recognize His light were those who prefer the darkness.

    In the Synoptic Gospels, the High Priests decided that they had had enough after Jesus (temporarily) drove out the money changers and the vendors of sacrificial animals in the Temple of Jerusalem. The priests got a cut of all the sacrificial animal sales (which were at exorbitant prices) and money changing (which was at an unfavorable rate to Temple visitors) Jesus had become a threat to their financial interests.

    In the account in the Gospel of John, Jesus drove out the money changers near the beginning of his ministry rather than at his last visit to Jerusalem. According to John, it was the raising of Lazarus from the dead that finally provoked the high priests to action. At the end of John 11, Caiphas voices the fear that Jesus would lead a great religious movement which would challenge Roman occupation and lead to the end of Roman tolerance of Jewish religious practices. We see that it actually was the high priests who were the worst collaborators of all. Ironically, the fear voiced by Caiphas became a reality around A.D. 70 when Jewish rebels took over Jerusalem, which led the emperor Nero to order a brutal response, killing thousands of Jews and ending with the utter destruction of the Temple.

    Jesus was much more than a mere teacher, Jeff. He was very clear that He came to this world to be crucified as a sacrifice for the sins of us all. The cross is the victory over sin. The resurrection is the victory over death. Jesus was able to foresee how Caphas would react to His ministry, just as He was able to foresee that Judas would betray Him. We are all flawed people, and God finds ways to use all of us, believers and non-believers, to further His plans. The story of Christ’s passion is not the story of a strong pastor and teacher whose ministry was tragically cut short. It is the story of the Son of God, who came to redeem the entire world, obediently fulfilling that plans of His Father.


  4. Jeff Says:

    Rick –

    That’s the response that I discussed that I usually get from more traditional folks- a point I believe I already addressed. I hear what you are saying, but it isn’t my point.

    My point is this– what if the pharisees and the saducees, the priests and the temple authorities, had accepted Jesus as the messiah and his teachings?

    They could not; they would not. Jesus did not look, act, or think like they expected the Messiah to behave. He did not preach the message that they expected the Messiah to preach.

    The point I’m making is that they couldn’t change the way they were asked. I hear you are making a different point. I’m just saying there are multiple layers of the narrative, multiple lessons- and this is one of them.

    I believe we are called to push ourselves to listen closely to what we are asked to do, the way the taxpayers and other sinners were listening. When we don’t, we fall into the trap of the religious authorities. The taxpayers were able to hear the message because they weren’t closed. The religious authorities thought they knew all the answers already.

    I think that closely parallels many things in the church today.

    The subject of whether or not “the main point” of Christ’s coming was one of a ministry which radically transformed the world or one which somehow magically saved the world in a moment of “mystical murder” is a point I’ll save for another post- its an important topic but its just not the focus of this post.


  5. Jeff Says:

    Fr Michael –

    I’m not sure why you are so intent on proving that the Roman Church has embraced multiple translations. It just clearly isn’t the case, and was a major friction point in the reformation.

    Even if we throw out Hus (I will agree that historical accounts vary – many times it is difficult to separate the exact reasons why actions are taken; it is my opinion they are taken for a general mood towards a person rather than concrete actions during this time period), it is clear that the papacy and church establishment during this time period did not want translations of the Bible, nor did it want its leadership questioned. Hus was executed, there is no doubt about that, which quite frankly isn’t a very Christian act, and I think that speaks directly to this post and the unwillingness of religious authority to tolerate change.

    On the translation of the Bible, we can go instead to John Wycliffe, removed from his post at Oxford, and then by Papal order his remains were exhumed and burned 44 years after his death. Again, it is difficult to separate all the different pre-reformation issues that might have lead to this action, but of the Biblical translation, his opponents said, “The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity.”

    Of course, Luther was excommunicated before he began his translation of the Bible.

    It is hard to say with any surety exactly which actions were related to which intolerances and corruptions of the Roman church during that time, but it is fair to say that at least some of them were related to an attempt to keep the Bible out of the lay person’s hands in an effort to keep control of the people. This is not out of line with the rest of the things going on in the church to try and keep control during the period: selling of pardons, indulgences, etc.- whatever was needed to keep control.


  6. Rick Harris, O.P. Says:

    Jeff, you describe the traditional and orthodox view of the Passion by saying that it is something that “somehow magically saved the world in a moment of ‘mystical murder'”. The language we choose to describe something is important, and the language you chose to describe the Passion sounds, to me at least, dismissive. A fairer description of the orthodox view is that through the Passion, God used His supernatural power to open a door to reconciliation with Himself.

    I’m not sure I understand your point about– what if the high priests had accepted Jesus as the Messiah? It’s like saying, what if God’s plan for the world does not work out the way He thinks it will? Or what if Jesus was lying to the apostles when He told them, “”Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour.” (John 12:27) Or what if we didn’t need to be redeemed by Jesus? There is absolutely no Scriptural authority, anywhere, for the proposition that Jesus’ Passion was anything other than a voluntary act.

    I agree with you, though, that Jesus was all about change. But I think the change that Jesus was all about was a change in each of our hearts. The Social Justice Gospel of Jesus’ day was preached by the Pharisees and Saducees and High Priests. Be pious, they taught. Observe all the thousands of rules. Fast. Tithe. Offer sacrifices of perfect, unblemished animals in the Temple on Holy days. Obey the Sabbath rules. And when we as a nation have attained sufficient piety, God will send us a Messiah descended from David who will once again lead our nation and, with God’s help, overthrow all of the social injustice that we must endure, principally, military occupation.

    Jesus said that the only way to change the world is to change our hearts within. There can be no social justice until everyone puts God and neighbor above self. That can only happen one heart at a time.

    We all constantly ask God to change the world in this way or that. God answers by telling us to change ourselves. But even to change ourselves, we need supernatural help. Having a repentent, obedient, thankful heart is a gift of grace. It is not something we can engineer alone.


  7. Jeff Says:

    Rick –

    I’m not trying to dismiss your beliefs, I just have a different emphasis. That was the point of my wording; sorry if it was offensive.

    For me, the point of love God, and love your neighbor as yourself does not mean love your neighbor MORE than yourself. You cannot serve others if you have no self-respect.

    I think that is one of the biggest problems with American Christianity. It goes against the modern understanding of good mental health. We must love ourselves if loving others as ourselves has any meaning.

    That is not to say that loving ourselves must be a selfish love, and that is where I think people get confused. But we have to know what our gifts are as well as our shortfalls. To concentrate only on our weaknesses is not healthy. We must know where our gifts are so that we may use them for God’s service.

    As my old rector used to say, we cannot think ourselves into a new way of acting, we must act ourselves into a new way of thinking.

    I think that is the big difference between what you and I are saying. My experience is that asking God to change my heart is not enough. Of course I receive grace no matter what, but if I really want to change– if I really want to make that choice– I have to change how I act. I have to stop trying to get into heaven and I have to start trying to bring heaven to earth (another of my old rector’s favorite lines).

    With God’s help, my actions can then make a difference in the world, and my experience can lead me to places I never knew existed spiritually. That is very difficult to do without action- without relationship. Sitting and praying for change without action, in my experience, is probably not really going to change much. God helps those who help themselves.


  8. Rick Harris, O.P. Says:

    Of course, our witness comes from our own experience, and my own Christian walk has been characterized by moments when God called me to things I could not have even imagined doing until the call came. For example, I am a novice Dominican friar. There is no way, NO WAY, that I could have come up with joining a religious order on my own. But someone I trust and respect and admire decided he was interested in the Dominican vocation, and one day, completely out of the blue and unbidden, he invited me to consider the same vocation.

    My initial reaction was that it was a ridiculous idea. But that night, I sat in a chair and just thought about the religious life and how adopting a religious rule of life would change me, and a phrase suddenly came into my mind that I could not shake. It just kept recurring and recurring. The phrase was, “A pearl of great value.” Two months later I was a postulant, and six months after that I was a novice. As a Dominican and as a novice in a religious order, I am called to “do” many things. I started a Bible study and men’s fellowship at my parish. I am involved in some very intentional prayer and study and writing. We are all expected to participate in mission work. The general charge laid on the order is to proclaim the word of God. But quite definitely the work I do is work that God calls me to do in very sudden and unexpected ways, and I simply find myself doing the work almost before I realize I am answering a call.

    I do a lot of prison ministry through the Kairos program. One of the real pitfalls in Kairos happens when very evangelically-minded guys come in for their first weekend program and want to start having altar calls and pressuring inmates to accept Jesus Christ or to recommit their lives to Him. There are a lot of prison ministries, and most of them like to keep score in that way– so many prisoners saved tonight. But the point of Kairos is not to rack up merit badges in heaven. The point is to share the love of Jesus Christ with people who are starving for love in their lives, trusting at all times that if we are faithful to that message, the Holy Spirit WILL show up and WILL draw people to Jesus Christ in God’s special and perfect timing. The last thing a Kairos weekend leader says to the team before they set foot in a prison for the first time is: “Remember. We are not called to accomplish anything. We are called to be obedient.”

    In all honesty I cannot distinguish between the zealous evangelical who is eager to win souls for Jesus Christ, right here right now, and the zealous social justice advocate who is eager to right a wrong or a social ill, right here right now. Both are proceeding from altruistic assumptions and both believe they are doing God’s will. But both are also trying to reshape a corner of the world into an image that springs from their own personal sense of right and wrong, or justice and injustice. And I say this as someone who at one point in my life was a passionate legal services attorney and later an opponent of the death penalty who took on a few cases that resulted in great personal and professional cost.

    I have learned that God does not need me to tell Him how to re-order society. To the contrary, I need God to tell me what He would have me do, and I don’t really need to know what ends He has in mind when He sends a call my way.

    If I am utterly committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ– if I am determined to make Jesus, and not me, the sovereign in my life– then what does it matter to me whether I think a particular thing needs to be done? If I have put God in charge, then the only question is whether God wants me to do it. And if I keep taking control back from God, if I keep trying to help Him decide how to bring about social justice, or how to evangelize the whole world, if I keep turning back to my own understanding of things rather than a simple decision to obey God at all costs, doesn’t that very loudly indicate an area where my faith is weak? To say in another way, if I trust that God knows what He is doing, then what business have I worrying about anything other than whether I am attentive and obedient to His call? My faith convinces me that God will find work for me to do that is important to Him, and He will compel me to do that work, if I simply turn to Him in a spirit of unfeigned obedience.

  9. FrMichael Says:

    Jeff, it seems to me three different positions have been conflated into one:

    1) The Catholic Church forbade vernacular Bibles

    2) The Catholic Church forbade vernacular Bibles translated directly from Hebrew and Greek manuscripts

    3) The Catholic Church forbade, or at least heavily discourged, possession of the Bible by the laity.

    Position one is obviously false by the historical evidence of vernacular Bibles in medieval times. As clerics were expected to understand Latin, there wasn’t a perceived need for vernacular Bibles except to coddle intellectually lazy or poorly-trained priests. But there were vernacular Bibles in Christendom long before the Reformation.

    Position two is true, as the execution of Tyndale demonstates.

    Position three is true if one segregates the small number of highly educated laity (think St. Thomas More) who also had access to the Scriptures. Not until the Duoai-Reims Bible did English-speaking Catholic laity have access to a Bible in their own language.

    Unless, of course, they just read one of the Anglican ones. 🙂

  10. Jeff Says:

    Rick –

    I’m in complete agreement.

    I would probably phrase things a little differently (e.g. “trust” God instead of “be obedient” to God) but I think the point is the same.


  11. Jeff Says:

    Fr. Michael –

    I don’t even remember at this point why it was important to prove or disprove that the Roman church didn’t want the laity to have Bibles.

    So, I’ll just say, “OK”!!



  12. FrMichael Says:

    Dear Jeff:

    The thought that maybe this was a bit overblown by me did come across my mind as I was typing my last comment… 🙂

  13. Athena Says:

    Dismissing prayer?

    Jeff writes:
    Sitting and praying for change without action, in my experience, is probably not really going to change much.

    Athena responds:
    There is a long tradition of Christian who have devoted themselves to prayer rather than to what Jeff probably means by “action.” The life of prayer is, undoubtedly, a special calling, but still a calling that has been answered by many through the centuries. Can a Christian really believe that prayer “does nothing” or “changes nothing?” I think not.

    I certainly don’t have the person, psychological or spritual maturity to attempt such a life, but, as a Christian I necessarily must respect those that do follow that path and reject the idea that it is a useless exercise or waste of time

  14. Jeff Says:


    You misunderstand me.

    I believe that prayer is extremely important.

    See my post on The Chief Commandment. Spirituality is tremendously underrated in the church today.However, prayer and the contemplative life is not the end of the story. We are called, in my opinion, to both have a relationship with the Almighty AND with each other.

    Prayer is only half of the equation. Read the post at the link above for the further explanation.  My point in this thread is that faith without action is neglecting our neighbor.


  15. Athena Says:

    Spirituality is tremendously underrated in the church today?

    Which church? It might come as a surprise to the Orthodox to hear that.

    Have you informed the media?

    Returning to the original point:
    “Sitting and praying for change without action, in my experience, is not going to change much.”

    This isn’t a discussion about whether both prayer and active interaction with others is required of a Christian. There is no real debate about that point.

    My comment was intended to address what your words reveal about your worldview. First, it is clear that “change” is your first and most important goal. Whether or not not something effects “change” is the test. I suspect that the change you have in mind is not much different from the change that many social activitsts have in mind, that is, change in social and political structures. My comment was intended to point out that this is truly your first concern: “change” not spiritual matters. In fact, the tone and wording of your comment betrays a fairly well-developed contempt for purely spiritual matters whether you choose to acknowledge it or not

  16. Jeff Says:

    Athena –

    You are correct that, like Jesus, my intent is to change social infrastructure, which requires change in political infrastructure, and may require change in religious infrastructure as well.

    That is what I feel called to do in my spiritual practice.

    I do not differentiate between my spiritual practice and my call to action. I feel guided to act by my spirituality.

    Your comment, “the tone and wording of your comment betrays a fairly well-developed contempt for purely spiritual matters” is accusatory and inflammatory in nature.

    In my mind, there is nothing to be gained from a defensive posture towards your comment.

    Instead, I will simply state this: spirituality, in my definition, consists of a well defined relationship with God through healthy, intentional, and focused spiritual practice: meditation, deep centering prayer, listening, journaling, and the like, under the guide of a trained spiritual director.

    I do not think that focused spiritual direction is something that is fully practiced by enough of the church, and that was my point. I believe that most parishioners, orthodox or progressive, lead most of their spiritual lives with occasional- maybe even daily prayer, and that is the extent of their spiritual practice.

    If that works for them, great. My belief is that it is not enough. Spiritual practice can and must be developed much deeper. AND spiritual practice alone is not enough.

    Athena, it is obvious you have a different point of view than I do. I do not know you, but I am not sure why you come to me in this accusatory manner. My belief and experience is that focused spiritual practice removes such tension, anxiety, and anger. In that experience with God, God helps us to hear and see how to move forward in less biased ways.

    If your experience of spiritual practice is that God calls you to the accusatory and inflammatory way in which you are treating me, then we have a very wide gap between us indeed.


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