St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury

July 13, 2003                     


What became of Yeshua's Agenda?


Last week we tried to go behind scripture with the question "Who did Yeshua think he was?"   We said that was not the same question as who the bible says he was or who the church says he was.  We said it was safe to assume he would not have agreed with christian doctrine.  We suggested that he began as a travelling teacher, with little or no interest in starting a mass movement.  Responding to the needs of his people, he began to assume a higher profile, taking on the style of a prophet like Elijah.  In this role he spoke of a new order he called 'the kingdom of God'.  Finally, with a colourful bunch of followers, he found himself cast in another role he had once considered, but rejected: national deliverer.  Because the Roman prefect Pilate believed Yeshua saw himself this way, and that he was a threat to the stability of the province, he had him executed.


Apart from some complicity between the Temple hierarchy and Pilate, there was no big Jewish conspiracy to get rid of him.  That story is the result of later interpretation: reading back into the events what would serve the purpose of the writers. Those who believed Yeshua was 'messiah', and were in process of cutting loose from the mainstream of Judaism, engaged in an old tactic: making themselves look good by making the others look bad!  Hence the caricature of certain groups (like Pharisees) and blaming the death of Yeshua on 'the Jews'.  Furthermore, when people needed no more Roman repression, it probably seemed smart to the gospel writers and other spokespersons for the movement to let Pilate off the hook.  That's why he looks to be cleared of blame!


So to the question of what eventually happened to Yeshua's own agenda.  In another congregation a man about my age said, "John, I've a question that has bothered me most of my life.  What happened to the life and teaching of Jesus? If you put together every word attributed to him in the first three gospels, the lot could be said in the time we've been here tonight.  What became of the rest?"  What did, indeed?  I have four points. The script will be available afterwards.




In attempting to answer that man's question, we have to look at what can be called 'the sanitizing of a tragedy'.   Let me explain that.   As you know, Jews are no strangers to trouble; witness Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof"!  But for those who saw Yeshua as a beacon of hope, his shameful death was the ultimate reversal, the absolute end.  It made no sense at all.  If God had indeed been with this person, why did it happen?  This was surely the all-time catastrophe.

You see, they had always thought God was at work in the world, like an 'invisible hand'.  Moreover, they believed they were chosen with a special role.  Hence, for the first followers of Yeshua (all Jews) it was imperative to find how God was involved in this business.  The alternatives were unthinkable: a defeated God, or a God who cleared out when things got tough!  And so, they looked for a hidden meaning in the death of Yeshua.  If God knew what was happening and hadn't intervened, then it must have been because all this was somehow in accordance with the divine will.  God meant it to be. 


This became their explanation.  Yeshua had the seal of the divine, but obviously he was a different sort of 'messiah' from what they had expected.  He wasn't a figure of power, but a suffering and unprotesting martyr, whose sacrifice would somehow trigger the start of a new order.  Something else happened, not at first connected with what we have said.  However, it soon was connected, and it provided massive reinforcement to this interpretation of Yeshua's death.  I refer, of course, to what we call the resurrection.  We don't know what happened, because nobody was there.  But the followers became convinced that death had not extinguished everything Yeshua had been for them.


Now we have two very powerful story lines, which become interwoven.  We have the life and teaching of the 'pre-Easter' Yeshua, remembered in detail by those who knew him well.  We also have a story line that says the cross makes sense if it's interpreted as part of God's great eternal plan, and that Yeshua is vindicated as God's 'anointed' one, in the resurrection.  But amalgamating the pre-Easter story and the post-Easter story is not easy.  You remember we said last week that almost from the start of his ministry, people saw Yeshua differently and spoke of him differently.




So, to 'the tale of two traditions.'  One of these is carried by those who knew Yeshua personally in the same way Martin Luther King was known by intimates like Ralph Abernathy.  For these men and women Yeshua was both teacher and prophet; above all he was a good and godly person.  By his teaching and example they were constantly reminded that the Eternal was nearer than breath itself.  He called them back to the heart of their faith, and showed them how it could be lived.  They caught from him a holy impatience about the way things should be.  The belief that death could not extinguish him, or extinguish what he had begun, fired their determination to continue spreading what he had taught.  It was probably these people who preserved the teachings that have come down to us.  A key figure among them is James (or Yakob), the brother of Yeshua and author of an epistle.  We will return shortly to James, because he is very important in keeping alive Yeshua's agenda.

The other tradition developed predominantly among those who had heard about Yeshua post-Easter, who had not known him personally.  They also believed he had the seal of the divine, but they went a lot further.  They elaborated on this with ideas borrowed from Greek thought.  It was they who developed the story of the martyred messiah, sacrificed on behalf of humanity and through whom we can approach God.  For this tradition Yeshua did more than point people back to God; he actually became the way of access to God.  They began to think about him not just as 'godly man', but as 'god-man'.  The key figure here is Paul.


You find evidence in scripture (especially the Acts of the Apostles) of these two traditions. One is much more focussed on the agenda of Yeshua: what he taught.  The operative word in this tradition is 'following' Yeshua.  The other tradition, which is gathering gentile converts, is focussed not on what he taught, but on who he is: saviour of the world.  The operative word here is 'believing' in Christ for salvation.  So, what becomes of these two traditions?  To that we now turn, because it's pretty obvious today that one of them eventually 'submerged'!




So to the rise of Mark and Paul, and the submerging of Yeshua's agenda.  As long as the original disciples were alive and maintaining the focus on what Yeshua taught, the two traditions would have co-existed, although not easily.  But then Mark, the earliest of the gospels, develops a plot in which the primary concern is with who Yeshua was, rather than with what he taught.  Also, you find in the gospels a negative portrayal of the first disciples.  They often look like duds. This is deliberate by those developing the new tradition: disparaging the guardians of the 'pre-Easter' tradition.   "That's not so important, any more!"


Meanwhile Paul has come on the scene, taken a leadership role in the new tradition, and announced he is apostle to the gentiles.  He has little interest in what Yeshua taught.  For one thing, he has never met him.  Increasing numbers hear instead his story about the saviour Christ.  The school of Yeshua the rabbi and prophet is gradually submerged under this more powerful tradition. Those who knew the pre-Easter Yeshua are all, or nearly all, dead.  We are left with a situation best illustrated with a rather bizarre kind of analogy.


Try to imagine a conference of the followers of Johann Sebastian Bach, at which none of his music is played!  Instead, there is one stirring address after the other on how old JSB changed the course of music.  Imagine a riveting analysis of his preludes and fugues in that collection called  "The Well-tempered Clavier".  You say, "Fantastic!  Inspiring! Sure beats having to listen to old JSB's music. Tell us more about how he changed the history of the musical world."  So then we have another stirring address on how JSB changed the lives of chaps like Mozart and Beethoven.  "Amazing!" you say.  "More!"  I wonder what JSB is muttering while this twaddle goes on.  "I don't want all these eulogies.  I want them to hear my music.  Lots of my music.  All of my music!  What have you done with it?"


See what we have done?  We have created a whole new industry to employ people who interpret how Bach has changed the history of music.  But nobody listens to the music any more.  Nobody loves it any more.  Nobody plays it any more. Most of it has been mislaid. Whatever became of those compositions?  Has it ever occurred to you that something like this happened with Yeshua Ben Yosef?  We have developed a whole industry around who he was and what he was and how he changed the world and mislaid the music he gave us!




That's not strictly accurate. We do have some precious fragments of his agenda, in two places.  One is the letter of Yakob (James) in our scriptures.  Yakob was the brother of Yeshua.  This is the only book in the New Testament that seems to be concerned pre-eminently with what Yeshua taught.  It sounds like parts of the Sermon on the Mount, which is exactly what you would expect of Yeshua's brother.  There's none of that complex mixture of sin, redemption, atonement, faith and salvation developed by Paul.   That's why Luther called it 'an epistle of straw'!


I said there was other material we believe to be remnants of Yeshua's agenda.  This is the collection of sayings common to Matthew and Luke, and found only in those two gospels.   Some of the scholars call this material 'Q'.  The original document has never been found.  Maybe there never was a written record.  But this material is believed to be a genuine collection of the sayings of Yeshua, preserved by his earliest disciples.  In it we hear one speaking of an unpretentious life; speaking of a way that is free of anxiety and acquisitiveness, a way of non-violent conflict resolution; speaking of an uncomplicated spirituality which is the birthright of all.  Sometimes he speaks in tasty proverbs; sometimes in ways that tease us to think for ourselves about hidden subtleties.


But always he sounds like one who has discovered the meaning of existence, and who is eminently worth following!  This is why it is so important for us to recover the historical Jesus (or Yeshua).



Isaiah 61:1-4   Hope for people longing to reconstruct their nation and life

Luke 4:16-20    A bold statement bound to upset someone!


An address delivered by the Rev Dr John Bodycomb at St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury,