Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jesus, The Wisdom Teacher

For all of you just joining us, I'm sharing experiences I had at the 2009 UUCF Revival in Tulsa in March, and we're using those experiences as springboards for discussion and reflection.

One workshop I attended that weekend was called "Saving Jesus from the Christian Right and Secular Left" and was moderated by a minister from the United Church of Christ. As one participant said, "I don't think that Jesus needs to be saved. He can do that for himself. But I'm willing to listen."

First, we watched a video from the Saving Jesus curriculum, a 12-week DVD-based study for small groups presenting leading religious voices of today, such as John Dominic Crossan, Matthew Fox, Marcus Borg, and Amy-Jill Levine. The sixth video is Teachings of Jesus: Wisdom Tradition and focuses on the oral tradition that Jesus used to greatest effect in his ministry--parables. Parables are an exquisite form of storytelling which ground the story in commonplace, everyday images, and then shifts perspective within the commonplace to make you think, sit up and take notice, or nudge your perceptions. The power of Jesus was his ability to create these stories with a radical force. He described the status quo: the Roman occupation, the status of Jews in society, the rule-based Jewish community. He showed how the status quo oppressed. Then he shifts. Through his storyline he tells his listeners that they are pure, worthy, everything that society tells them they are not.

I particularly valued the teaching that in reading all the parables, we should be on the lookout for not only personal sin, but also systemic sin; not only personal injustice, but also systemic injustice. Jesus was a master at showing both at the same time. The example parable is the one about the generous landowner and the laborers in his vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Remember? The landowner hires laborers throughout the day and when the end of the day comes, he directs his manager to pay them all the same rate whether they worked a full day or only a few hours.

Jesus begins by saying the "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner..." So we know that Jesus is going to describe the environment, our mind set, our internal moral compass the way God wishes it to be. The story is one of outrageous generosity. Underneath, two other realities arise. First, is the gut reaction we (and the grumbling laborers) have to such generosity. It's unfair. It's unjust. People should be paid at a rate reflecting the work they do. Jesus' first lesson is that we need to radically reorder our thoughts on this matter to create the kingdom of heaven on earth.

The second reality is more subtle. Here we are, at the height of the harvest season when it should be "all hands on deck" so to speak, but at the end of the day, there are still laborers milling around without a job, "Because no one has hired us." (v.7). Here is systemic injustice. There is something wrong with a system that has jobs available, but can not bring the workers and jobs together so that workers can work and jobs can be filled.

This second reality is evident even today. Jobs in the suburbs could be filled by workers living in the city, except for a lack of good public transportation and affordable daycare. High tech jobs go unfilled due to a lack of re-training for manufacturing workers and less emphasis on math and science in our schools.

Jesus often speaks on two levels; it's up to us to recognize it and become aware of the situation around us. Personal injustice and systemic injustice. If we tackle the systemic injustice, will all the personal injustices be resolved? What's better, putting our efforts toward systemic solutions like teaching the person to fish, or putting out the brushfires by feeding him today?

What do you think? What will you DO?

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