Journey to the Jordan: Context Matters—1st Century Palestine
A Sermon for University Congregational Church
Sunday, March 5, 2017
2 Chronicles 36:22-23
Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying:
Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord, the God of heaven, given me; and He hath charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people–the the Lord his God be with him–let him go up.’
From the Tanakh—Jewish Publication Society
1 Thessalonians 2:1-4
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters,[a] that our coming to you was not in vain, 2 but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. 3 For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.
From the Christian Testament—New Revised Standard Version
SETTING THE STAGE
For as long as I can remember I have been fortunate to be able to occasionally join with a local theater company and act in a play or musical. Many of you were able to see me recently in the Wichita Symphony’s combined production with Music Theatre of Wichita for Carousel. And then the weekend after that I performed in Signature Theatre’s production of A Man of No Importance. I agreed to take on these projects, because when I was approached about them, I was on my Christmas break from Phillips and I had some free time in the evenings and, sure, I could make it fit—if the producers didn’t mind working around my trip to Nicaragua and the beginning of my final semester. Oy! I’m delighted I was able to do these two projects, but in hindsight—didn’t I already have plenty on my plate? What is wrong with me that I couldn’t just enjoy a few nights off? I suppose it’s the same drive that has led me to pursue a seminary degree while working fulltime for this congregation—and singing in the choir—and serving on 3, count ‘em, 3 community non-profit boards—and still finding time to ride my bike and take care of my family and dogs. I’ll say it again—Oy! But I love this work more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. Working with this congregation is a journey that is showing me what it really means to live in community with others—and for that I am profoundly and eternally grateful.
But back to the theater—if you’ve ever been involved with a theatrical production of any kind you know we have to set the stage. We have to build a set and paint it and find props and costumes. We have to deal with all of these preliminary steps before we can present the drama to an audience. And that’s what we’re up to today—we’re setting the stage for the great drama that is to come: Holy Week, the crucifixion of Christ and then Easter morning. We’re contemplating what life might have been like in First Century Palestine and setting the stage for the upcoming Christ event. We’re dusting off our imaginations and flexing our empathy muscles as we try to imagine what it might have been like—way back then…
I have chosen two scriptures to bookend our work here this morning: One from 2 Chronicles and one from 1 Timothy. I chose these particular verses because as far as well can determine they are the last verses of the Hebrew Bible, the 2 Chronicles verses, that made it into the canon, that is, the approved books of the bible and then the 1 Timothy words are believed to be the earliest of the Apostle Paul’s writings that were then canonized, or made “official”. These two sets of scripture create a frame around the Christ event of antiquity. I’ve printed these verses in your bulletins: The 2 Chronicles being the last words of the Hebrew Bible, roughly 3 or 4 hundred years before Jesus and then the word of Paul writing in roughly the year 50 or 51 after the birth of Jesus. With Jesus’ life and ministry happening between these writing of these two documents. Mind you—every scholar has a different idea and different methods for determining the dates of these documents—I’ve used the common, progressive consensus on these two books. I wanted to use them to frame our thoughts about what life might have been like for a human being living in this context—in first century Palestine—just before this disruptive Jewish preacher named Jesus showed up on the scene. I’m setting the stage for us.
Do you have bookmarks in your own life? Maybe a song you heard that has stuck with you and when it comes on the oldies station you are instantly transported back to that time in your life. Maybe it’s a memory of a trip—or an aroma that you associate with some happy, good memory. Our very human brains like to use these bookmarks and place holders because they can give us palpable sensation of memory—we really feel it in our core—and we remember the event associated with the marker maybe a bit more clearer. Let’s use these two scriptures this morning as our bookmarks.
In the 2 Chronicles text we are given great hope. But we are also given a clear distinction between certain classes of Jewish leaders—primarily we are given a distinction between the priestly caste and the more inclusive Levites caste—that is we are given the division of authority by the priest of and in the temple and authority of the people—by means of being of the tribe of Levi and ultimately all Jewish person. Now these distinctions can’t be made solely from the brief lines in your bulletins, this is an overarching theme of 2 Chronicles—us versus them: The priest as authority figure versus the entirety of the Jewish people having the authority to determine the fate of the covenant of Israel. Sound familiar? It should—it could be argued that the Protestant Reformation came out of a similar conflict. The authority of the Church of Rome versus the priesthood of all believers.
And then we put the 1Thessalonians letter on the other side of the life of Jesus, written about 20 years after his crucifixion , and we get another division—that of the traditional Jewish community and the burgeoning followers of the Christ movement. The Apostle Paul is writing to the newly formed church in Thessalonica. Thessalonica was the capital of the province of Macedonia and a large seaport. The letter to the Thessalonians is thought to have been written by Paul from Corinth a few months after founding a congregation there.
So what was First Century Palestine like? I don’t know. But we have some really good ideas from the existing written and archeological record. We’re pretty confident of a few things. This part of the world, during this time period, was Hellenized. That means that is was greatly influenced by all things Greek. Why is this? Well, I just mentioned that Thessalonica was the capital of a province on Macedonia, and Alexander the Great was from Macedonia which was a large part of northern Italy. And we should all know what Alexander the Great accomplished in his short life. He conquered the known world. And what do conquerors do? They remake the world in their own image—through the processes of Imperialism and Colonialism they cause the cultures of the areas they conquered to assimilate and become like the conqueror. In this case, Alexander made his conquered territories, Greek. By the time of Jesus, Koine Greek was the lingua franca of the known world. A lingua franca is a language that is extremely common—today we’d probably call English the lingua franca of the world because during the time the British Empire was conquering the world, it made its language, English, the language used in law and commerce and trade and eventually it became the language that everyone had to learn so they could participate in the day to day affairs of the world. Why do the people of India speak two languages? Because for a long time they were part of the British Empire? Why do we still have enclaves here in the United States where French is spoken predominately—think of parts of Louisiana—because for many years France was a ruling power on this continent. Language has a power of its own and we could spend a lifetime studying the effects of Imperialism and Colonialism on indigenous populations and never arrive at satisfactory reasons for why language assists the conquering Empire in its aims of hegemony-that is—how an Empire assimilates lesser nations, states and people and turns them into something that resembles the conqueror thereby losing the story of the conquered people..
So, Palestine had been Hellenized and I know you’re thinking: That Thessalonica is miles north of Palestine! But remember, the entire known world was mostly Hellenized—was Greek in culture. Now, let’s add the fact that we’re dealing with Jewish people in Palestine. So Paul was a Jew. We know that from his own admission in his writings. He was a Jew living in a culture and society that was heavily influence by the Greeks. In fact, while he would have spoken the languages of his family, tribe and region—Aramaic and Hebrew—he would have used Koine Greek to write to his newly formed churches because that was the language everyone used. Paul was a Jewish man living in a highly Greek-influenced society.
Now we have to add something else to our First Century Palestine mix. In 63 BCE, that is, 63 years before the Christ event, the Romans had successfully invaded this part of the world and established rule under Roman Authority and occupation. Now we’ve really complicated matters for Jesus and Paul and their lives, haven’t we? We’re in a part of the world that was not that long ago ruled by Jewish kings (who were allowed to keep their thrones as long as they obey either they Babylonian or Greek Imperial masters—we don’t have time this morning to go into the Babylonian history, but it has great effect on the region as well)—so, Jewish kings ruling as puppets of the Greek and/or Babylonian Empire are pushed aside for government by the Romans.
Jesus came to a world of great complexity and tension. Jews who were greatly influenced by Greek philosophy—think Plato and Aristotle—and Greek law and society and art were now being ruled by Rome. Now the Romans were pragmatic world conquerors. And they did believe that they were the chosen race to rule the world—think the slogan “Rome first” and you’re not far off from how imperial language survives and thrives to this day. And the Romans practiced a philosophy called syncretism. What this basically means is that, once Rome conquered a people or nation, they basically left that nation alone. They installed governors who were loyal to Rome—Herod and his family were Jewish, but obviously fiercely loyal to Rome– and as long as the region or province did two things, they were pretty much left well enough alone to run their day-to-day affairs as they saw fit. The two things were this: Money had to flow back to the treasury in Rome—money had keep filling the Roman coffers. And the conquered people couldn’t make waves. As long as a region or province did those two things, the people were mostly left alone. Pay your taxes and don’t make waves. And if you failed to do either one of those two things, there was usually as battalion of fierce Roman soldiers not too far from your town that would arrive to put down any revolt or enforce stricter attention to taxation. In fact, that’s what happens a bit later in the story in 70 CE when the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed and the Jewish people are again cast to the winds and scattered throughout the world in yet another Diaspora.
The practice of syncretism in no way should be seen as a beneficial system for those conquered—it was far better than the enslavement that some peoples endured—but it was fraught with all sorts of corruption and violence. We know the Herods were not good kings. Life in First Century Palestine was not easy. Less than 4 people out of 100 survived to adulthood, and if you made it to adulthood the expectations placed on your were pretty daunting—get married and raise lots of children (to fill the void left by the 96 who died before adulthood) and be a useful and productive citizen and don’t make waves. You can practice your traditional religion, even though you’d make if farther in Roman society if you adopted their religion—the Jewish people were having none of that polytheism—but the Romans let them continue to practice their peculiar monotheistic faith. Life was tough for the Jews. It seems that life has always been tough for the Jews. When a people resists against oppression, they are bound to face great difficulty. And the Jewish people have always fought for the right to practice their religion, because it is this practice of their religion that actually defines them. A Jew is a Jew because they practice their religion—their religion is a covenant with God—and to be in covenant with God means to do those things that are Jewish. That’s an oversimplification, but I think it serves our purposes here this morning.
So, First Century Palestine was a complicated place, wasn’t it? You were a hard-working Jew, married, trying to raise lots of children and not make waves and not offend your Roman occupiers and still trying to understand the relatively new Greek philosophies that were becoming more and more popular with the modern society. Here in just a few short weeks we’re going to really trouble these waters by introducing a radical new philosophy into the mix. An itinerant Jewish preacher by the name of Jeshua, Latinized into Jesus, is going to start preaching a new gospel, good news, a new way to live your life that circumvents all of this other stuff—Greek, Roman, Jewish even—this radical preacher is really going to mess with Palestinian society, isn’t he? But before we get to that story we’re going to spend sometime next week looking at the particularization of some Jewish practices that helped define and separate them from the general public—primarily the ritual of Jewish Baptism.
I want you to take one other thing away with you this morning—Then is not like now. We have a tendency to romanticize history and to say “they were just like us”. But a person living in First Century Palestine was not just like us. Other than our basic human needs for life—food, water, shelter and rest—there just wasn’t much the same. Familial structures were different. Society was based on different norms. Public and private worship was different. I want us to spend some time thinking about our differences, more than our similarities, because we take for granted Jesus’ arrival on the scene–the drama of his ministry and death. We forget just how radical and resistant and what a rabble-rouser and activist this man Jesus was. He was the original hippie—the outsider who came to shake things up and to wake us up and to make us look at the injustice in the world around—injustice that is overlaid upon us by all kinds of competing interests: The Ghosts of Empire—the Ghosts of Tradition—The Ghosts of Orthodoxy—the orthodoxy of the Pharisees that Jesus loved to mess with. Jesus did not come to this world to maintain the status quo. He came to trouble us. To discomfort the comfortable. To violently overturn the tables in the temple. To wake us out of our stupor and ask us the question—You think you belong? You think you are the chosen people? Really? Are you sure? And he asked those in the margins—the prostitutes—the poor—the marginalized—the “illegals” of his day: You think you don’t belong? Are you sure?
We like to think we know what’s what—we look at our bookends that nicely frame our lives—and we are comfortable saying we’re Christians. But are we really? Jesus wants us to question this—we think we’re God’s elect—but are we? Do we really belong? And when other Christian in your life want to challenge your own ideas of Christianity and say that no, you don’t belong to the family of God—then remember what Jesus is asking us—and look at them and ask them—are you sure? Because I think whatever happened between the words of 2 Chronicles defiing priests and everyone else—and the words of 1 Thessalonians where Paul is trying to define the new Christ-Followers against everyone else—somewhere in that tension and complexity remains the truth that we are all human beings—we are all created in the image of a God who loves us very much. A God who, I think, cringes whenever we create barriers for full participation in the human family. Anytime we create an us and a them we diminish God just a bit. And when we diminish another’s claim to a common humanity, we don’t just deface the other—we deface ourselves.
Lots of important things to think about this first Sunday in Lent. May God grant us all eyes to see the others in our presence, ears to hear their stories of our shared humanity, and the courage to act to create a world where walls and barriers are not only not needed or wanted, but are seen as a defilement of our God.
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