#52 Living into a New Consciousness

The Holy Thursday Revolution by Beatrice Bruteau

Jesus and the Covenant Community~Chapter 8

Helene O’Sullivan, MM, has done a précis of this insightful book, and we share here excerpts adapted from Chapter 8.

The Historical Jesus

When we begin to speak about Jesus himself, as distinguished from what other people made of him afterwards, this matter becomes very problematic.  How do we sift out a real, historical Jesus from materials constructed by writers who have their own views and agendas?

There is one general category of story that depicts the Jesus character as behaving in a unique way. These stories about Jesus are different from other categories, and they portray his relations with what we now call “marginalized people.” These include the poor, the diseased, the outcast from the general social life, and children. 

Into this marginalized category also falls the particular set of stories about Jesus’ interactions with women, where Jesus is shown as treating women as peers and friends.    He is depicted as interacting with them as ordinary social equals, with whom it is appropriate to have serious conversations.

The Social Situation in the Late Second Temple Period 

In his book, Jesus and the Economic Questions of His Day, Douglas Oakman tells us that the late Second Temple period was a time of major social stress. Palestine was a conquered and occupied country, a province of the Roman Empire. The combination of insult and injury was severe, especially as experienced by the peasants. They were living in a strong centralized state, with absentee landlords, high rents, and taxes.

More than 90% of the populations were peasants, dominated by domestic and foreign overlords. The peasants’ social unit was the village, the land traditionally divided among extended families.  It was thus an agrarian society, and the unit of production was the family. Traditionally, production and consumption had been mostly local; the village families farmed, made tools, build houses, made clothes and helped one another. This lifestyle was threatened and considerably disrupted by the administrative and economic system imposed by the conquerors and their representatives in the Jewish homeland.

The basic crops raised by the peasants were wheat and barley, plus grapes, olives and figs. Beans and lentils were also popular and the farmers also produced various fruits and vegetables.  But with the coming of the empire and incorporation into its “globalization,” there was pressure to concentrate production in large plantations given over to cash crops. 

A family that lost its land or the right to control what was planted on its land lost also its secure livelihood, its capacity for subsistence.  The question of who controlled the land was crucial. Traditionally the land itself was the inalienable property of the clan.  The people lived on their land and cultivated it themselves.  People and land existed together and they took care of one another.

Many peasant families in this period had already lost their land when it was incorpor-ated into one of the large estates. Many were working as tenants on their own ancestral acres, now the property of the invader or his client. Some were daily wage earners with no connection to any particular piece of land.  Families fell into debt as a result of the taxes imposed by the conquerors. The farmers lost their land and were displaced. Landless and unskilled people were obliged to compete with one another for daily jobs.  A person’s value was whatever the labor market was paying that day. 

The old covenant values of sharing and cooperation so characteristic of village life were disappearing, while hostility was growing where there had once been trust and generosity.  But it was far from clear what could be done about it.  There were three major peasant uprisings following the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE. All of these attempts ended in further destruction and oppression of Jewish life and land. 

It is in this general social context that Jesus ~ and before him, John the Baptist ~ pursued a vocation to aid the injured people.  John had stationed himself on the Jordan River, outside the city on the edge of the desert to announce the imminent coming of the reign of God.  The Jordan River is the symbol of Israel’s origin when from the banks of the Jordan they first took possession of the Promised Land.  John offered a cleansing from sin because the Temple authorities were religiously bankrupt and incapable of mediating the moral renewal the nation needed. To return to that new beginning, Israel would have to return to the ideals of its origins.

Beatrice Bruteau’s midrashic interpretation of John the Baptist is that by being baptized by him people were making a commitment. They were saying in public that even if the invading Romans now controlled their Temple’s high priesthood, they could still practice their religion by undertaking actions that would move toward an alternative lifestyle independent of the establishment. They would go back to essentials and find vitality in them.  What were the essentials? 

The central idea is that the God of the Jews stands with the people ~ in particular, with the poor, the oppressed and the helpless. 

God is merciful and generous.

It is the obligation of God’s people, who are made in God’s image, to do likewise.  This is the heart of the Teaching (Torah).

The Reign of God

Neil Douglas-Klotz, in a book on the Aramaic background of the Greek gospels, has an interesting speculation on the word malkuta, the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek basileia, “kindom.”  He says that the root letters mlk are associated with well-formed and focused energy, creativity, and empowerment, “that which says ‘I can!’ to life.”  An important dimension of Jesus’ ministry is that he and his companions encouraged the people which they were trying to help by saying energetically, “We can!”  They believed that things could be improved, that people could change their attitudes and behaviors, that the deep meaning of life is goodness, generosity, caring, sharing and happiness.  The reign of God is a world in which such values prevail and it is brought into being just as fast as people actually assent to those values and express them in their daily lives.  In this sense, the reign of God is both within the people and among them in their relationships. The reign of God is the faithful and creative “We can!” of all the people together.

The Book of Job and Suffering

The first thing that this renewal movement has to do is to deny the prevalent belief any suffer-ing must be due to sin.  Job’s lament and his anger can be seen as social protest.  His so-called comforters were actually engaging in what we now call “blaming the victim.”  In Israel’s history it was common for the prophets, the government and the people to explain their ill fortune in terms of their not having been faithful to the covenant.

They had not kept their side of the pact adequately, so God was letting other nations punish them. Individual misfortune was likewise divine punishment for sin. Conversely, of course, it was argued that a successful life is proof of God’s favor.  So the link between favor and fortune, on the one hand, and between sin and suffering, on the other hand, becomes a principle for social organization.

It supported the argument that the powerful hold their positions by God’s approval and the unfortunate are receiving due punishment for their sins or the sins of their ancestors.  The actions of Jesus in the gospels can be interpreted as a definitive dissolution of the link between sin and suffering.  

Another misconception is where people easily are categorized: rulers, pharisees, the rich, tax gathers, prostitutes, lepers, samaritans, gentiles. The appropriate attitudes to take toward them were suspicion, hatred, contempt, deference, respect, obedience, and so forth.  The reign of God cannot grow until these attitudes have been dissolved and the practice of categorizing people stops.

We need whole communities reordered on these lines in order to bring about systemic change.  It is not a matter of individual, personal conversion and rectification only. Individuals are members of communities and it is the systemic values and actions on the community level ~ family, village, town, and nations that need changing.

We need virtues of interaction. The reign of God is the net of interactions themselves.  The reign of God is not something in the far future that is going suddenly to come down from heaven and settle on you and magically turn everything right.  You yourselves have to do live the reign of God or it will never come. 

The Covenant Community

Dominic Crossan makes the suggestion that the Jesus covenant community expressed their mutual commitment by communal meals and perhaps communal sharing of posses-sions.  The significance of this practice lies in its distinction from patronal sharing of meals and possessions. Patronal arrangements are made at the pleasure of a wealthy person who elects to share a meal or a field with the poor. Communal arrangements involve everyone in contributing to what is shared in common. 

People are to experience their social equality with one another and not judge their social standing by how much each had contributed to the meal.  Jesus seems to have been working from the idea that people have to share with one another in order to resist the system that is being imposed upon them.  They are called to practice generosity ~ concentrate on how they can help their neighbors instead of how they can protect themselves. When each seeks one’s own welfare, the community fragments and each one is then at the mercy of the powerful system. But if each member of the community is in covenant with all the others and each seeks the well-being of others, then the community coheres.  It has solidarity and strength. The power of united people is inestimable.

We affirm a covenant that is dependent only on God and  our own goodwill; our commitment to one another to seed each other’s well-being and creative development. This implies that we use our intelligence and sensitivity and every talent we possess to devise ways for this reign of God to take form among us. The covenant community as an image of God is responsible for itself as a living, adaptive, innovative, sharing and unifying people.