St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
and Paul Compatible?
I've met the Dalai Lama on three occasions, and on one had quite a long chat with him. I've not had a chat with Billy Graham, although I was at a reception for him. I would like to be a fly on the wall if those two were discussing what the world needs most. There would be convictions held in common, but I suspect they would answer the question differently. This would also be the case if Yeshua and Paul were to discuss that question. They were contemporaries, but there's no evidence they ever met. Let's bring them together for a conversation!
As I've warned you, 'Jesus Research' is risky. It takes us into unexplored areas and upsets a few ideas. The goal is to go behind creeds and scriptures, hymnody and sermons, sanctuaries and stained glass. It is to tussle with the question of who was the real person behind all this, and what was the real message he brought? This is important for two reasons.
· One is that he belongs to the world to history, to art, to music, to universal human knowledge. He doesn't belong exclusively to the church.
· The other reason Jesus research is important is that he and his message are apt to get buried under layer on layer of religious detritus.
I want to propose this morning something I would
probably not have said fifty years ago. It
is that we have inherited two 'gospels' not easy to harmonise: the message of Yeshua, and the message about
him, according to Paul. I want to
look at these, and then ask what Yeshua would make of Paul.
message of Yeshua. He lives and breathes a
deathless, unconditional, all-embracing love. He knows this will never be
withdrawn from even the most stupid and recalcitrant.
He puts flesh on this love by embracing the contemptible, the low life,
the marginal. Remember the
criticism that he kept such terrible company!
Human worth is not measured by the achievement, recognition, prestige or
power given us by the culture. Worth is inherent, because one
belongs to the Eternal Lover! Indeed,
Yeshua seems to say this for the whole biosystem.
"Dont be afraid of those who can kill the body, but can't kill the soul. Can't you buy five sparrows for two cents?
Not one of them will fall to the ground without God knowing about it.
Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.
So don't be afraid. You are
worth more than many sparrows."
He affirms their potential in God's sight, and calls
them to make a difference in the here and now. "The Kingdom of God is among you!" He doesn't trade in vague generalities like "be
nice", "be happy", "be kind".
He can be blunt. He says, "Quit wasting your juices on that which doesn't
deserve power over you. Don't fuss
about what you'll eat or drink or wear . . . " He says, "Face the
absurdity of pursuing riches. Don't
try to hoard treasure on earth where moth and rust consume . . . "
And again, "Repudiate aggression; overcome evil with good."
He lays it on hearers who are hedging.
With some it sounds like he sets aside the gentler, teasing style of the
parable for more direct language. He
doesn't have much time for the harmlessly insipid.
He wants it clear that following him is not for wimps and the wavering. He says change can start with anyone. "Get the beam out of your own eye first." One can
make a difference now; the kingdom of God is breaking in wherever men and women
respond to him. God is nearer to
them than breath itself. They can
all pray, "Our Father. . . "
message about Yeshua, according to Paul. We know Paul mostly from his letters.
Some over his name are written by others: colleagues or pupils.
His first letter was written around 50CE
and the last in the early 60s; at least a ten year span.
Not surprisingly, there are changes in his thinking over this time.
For instance, early on he expects the quick return of Yeshua the Christ;
later he's modifying his view on this. I often wonder how many letters may have
gone missing. It would be odd if one who wrote at such length should have
confined himself to seven or eight such letters over more than a decade.
The message varies also according to the audience he is addressing. You can observe that also in the book of Acts, recounting his
missionary journeys and preaching.
But the heart of it seems fairly consistent.
It is that Yeshua is divinely anointed; he is the messiah
of God who inaugurates a new order. He
was crucified, but the grave could not hold him. He is risen, and will reign
indestructible. Through his death humanity is somehow brought near to God, from whom we have
been estranged by sin. He is the intermediary through whose death and
resurrection we are 'saved'. By embracing this message, hearers get right with
God. Hence, Yeshua is the 'saviour'
of the world. The message concerns
who Yeshua is; not what Yeshua taught.
Paul writes to Corinth,
handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ
died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and
that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures . . . If Christ
has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins."
Nowhere does Paul actually say that Yeshua is divine,
although he gets close to it in his last letter the one which is addressed
to the Philippians. That doctrine comes later, in the council of Nicaea, but he
leaves the way open for it to develop. In all this Paul is influenced more and more by dealing with
gentiles (non-Jews), and he builds into his message ideas drawn from Greek
He presents his message about Yeshua as the
fulfilment of biblical prophecy, of course.
Although he doesn't dismiss Judaism as now obsolete, he does say that the
law of Christ (love) must be paramount. This
leaves the way open for careless interpreters of Paul to express contempt for
Jews and Judaism. He also tells
women in the church at Corinth to shut up. This allows aggrieved women to say he is a chauvinist, and
chauvinistic males to invoke him as champion of male superiority!
That also is to misunderstand Paul.
Paul is, in fact, a great humanitarian. He declares
that God makes no distinction between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and
free person. He writes passionately
about the breaking down of barriers people put between themselves and others on
the basis of race or gender or social inequality. One of his letters (the letter to Philemon) is a heartfelt
plea to reinstate a runaway servant, and treat him as a full member of the
So, what would Yeshua make of all this? Let me recall that tale of a man with two sons. The younger is keen to escape restraints of home, to spread his wings, to sow his wild oats. He asks for an advance on his inheritance, and squanders the lot. Destitute and desperate, he decides that home is best. He will cast himself on his father's mercy and offer to work as a servant. His father, seeing this ragged figure in the distance, runs out and embraces him. There's no long prayer of humble contrition, much less any sacrificial offering to atone for his behaviour. There are no intermediaries. That he returns ('repents') is enough. His father restores him to the family, shouts his delight and throws a party.
So, what would Yeshua have made of Paul? He would not have been easy with the idea that his death was somehow needed for reconciling humanity to God. The crude version of what we have inherited is a mix of Paul, pagan religion and evangelical reading of scripture. Yeshua, the altogether good person, is sacrificed in my place to placate the bloodlust of a vengeful deity, who would otherwise consign me to eternal damnation. I must accept this in its entirety if I'm to get right with God. This line of thinking would have horrified Yeshua not only for its human sacrifice (alien to Judaism) but for an image of God foreign to him, and the crude 'trade-off' mentality. Paul himself would probably be appalled at many so-called evangelical sermons.
Yeshua would not have been happy about being 'exalted' to near godlike status in the message of Paul. Indeed 'messiah' (christos) never equates with divinity in Judaism. Nor, as we've already suggested, would he support any idea of 'intermediaries' being necessary to intercede for us with a remote and inaccessible divinity. He would not have liked any diminishing of Judaism, especially of Pharisees. We think that Yeshua himself was a Pharisee. Contrary to their image in scripture, Pharisees were humane, imaginative and flexible. Those words "the sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath", are a Pharisaic maxim. His use of parables was typically Pharisaic. Expressions like 'a camel going through a needle's eye' and 'take the beam out of your own eye' are Pharisaic statements found in the Talmud. It may be that Yeshua would have liked least Paul's arrogance plus his claiming a c.v. of dubious validity. Paul claimed to have been a Pharisee and to have studied at the feet of the greats, but there's nothing in his writings to prove this, and plenty to suggest otherwise. He was probably a member of the temple police!
But there's much in Paul that Yeshua would have approved, and approved wholeheartedly. Notably his humanitarianism, his inclusiveness, his emphasis on the relational aspect, and especially on the ethic of love. As Paul puts it to the disorderly Corinthians, "I can be faithful, discerning, eloquent, generous, but all that's like a rattling empty garbage bin if it's loveless." Like Yeshua, Paul repudiated any kind of legalism. Yeshua would have liked that.
Most importantly, Paul was able to do something Yeshua could not; namely, take to the nations this ennobling faith in a God who creates and redeems and sustains all things effectively opening Yeshua's own faith to the non-Jewish world. The world was ready for a new faith: for that particular kind of 'monotheism' (one God to love and adore), but equally for the powerful message that religion is 'lived' in relationship with one's fellows and with the society to which one belongs. That was the faith of Yeshua. And despite the oddities and perversities attaching to various forms of it, that is still foundational to our faith.
Paul may have been responsible for some emphases Yeshua wouldn't have been too happy about, but history attests that it was through this unusual man (mockingly called a little dickeybird by the intelligentsia of Athens) that word about the God of Yeshua spread around the globe. So praise God for Paul, and let's continue our commitment to recovering the real Yeshua. Next Sunday we're going to look at the fact that sometimes he had to escape, in order to maintain the fundamental rhythm of giving out and replenishing the self.
Romans 5:6-11 Is this the gospel of Paul?
Luke 15:11-24 Is this the gospel of Yeshua?
address delivered at St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury, by the Rev Dr John
Sunday, July 20, 2003.
MAY BE REPRODUCED WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT