by Pastor Doug Kings
Recently I’ve been reading A Credible Jesus: Fragments of a Vision by the late Robert Funk. Funk was a Fulbright Scholar, chair of the graduate school of religion at Vanderbilt University, and founder of The Jesus Seminar, which ran from 1985-2006. The seminar gathered dozens of New Testament scholars for the task of deciding what, on an objective basis, we could be reasonably sure were the genuine deeds and sayings of Jesus.
Funk’s book is based upon the seminar’s work and takes sayings of Jesus judged to be historical and places them in the context of the world in which Jesus and his hearers lived. The results are eye opening, both individually and collectively, and can result in a feeling, to use a phrase coined by another seminar member, Marcus Borg, of “meeting Jesus again for the first time.”
One fresh interpretation that had such an effect on me was of the familiar teaching of Jesus “to turn the other cheek.” In recent times, this passage was an important source of inspiration for the practice of passive resistance promoted by Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
The full quotation from Matthew 5 reads, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” If someone punched you, a typically right-handed assailant would hit the left side of your face. Being struck on your “right cheek” means that you had instead been hit with the back of someone’s right hand. Such an act occurs, Funk says, when
a superior slaps a supposed inferior…. It is the appropriate gesture of a Roman to a Jew, a master to a slave, of husband to wife, of parent to child. It is intended to send a social message: get back in your place, remember who you are, be subservient.
The response Jesus suggests, however, would be subversive. Funk again:
By offering the other cheek you send an equally powerful message. It is an act of defiance. It is a statement that proclaims the parity of the victim: I am not your inferior. I have my rights. I am a human being…. The aggressor is now at a loss. The backhanded blow cannot be repeated on the left cheek. And to be reduced to fisticuffs would be to acknowledge the equality of the two parties.
Jesus is not advocating returning violence for violence. But in addressing the poor and downtrodden that made up much of his audience, he is showing an alternative to being meekly resigned to their fate. This simple gesture he suggests would an act of freedom and emancipation by which one asserts their basic, God-given human dignity.
Funk goes on to identify other examples where Jesus’ teaching subtly undermines the social and oppressive order of his day. This one stands out, however, because to follow it could literally get one killed. It certainly puts the popular image of the “meek and mild” Jesus in question. And it casts his own crucifixion in a new light. Was it teachings like this that put him in the empire’s cross hairs? Or was it practicing what he preached that brought his life to an early end?
Jesus’ teachings covered a wide array of topics, of course. Yet this one is typical of dozens that Funk highlights in that they show Jesus’ deep concern for the issues and challenges of people’s daily lives, especially their social relationships and interactions with one another. Yet somehow this emphasis has often been ignored during the intervening centuries.
Instead of a practical and challenging teacher of earthly living, the church’s Jesus has often been a guide to spiritual solace and salvation in another world. In making such a portrayal, church leaders have followed more the precepts of their political backers than their own theology or scriptures. Thus when a peasant revolt broke out in response to Luther’s liberating Reformation teaching, he nonetheless sided with the princes and nobility and their violent suppression of it.
The most common subject of Jesus’ teaching was the kingdom or reign of God. Yet the point he makes again and again is that God’s presence is not in some other time or space but here and now. Hence his endearing images of plants and animals and humorous and often startling stories of human behavior. The kingdom is in our midst, he says; the problem is that we don’t see it.
Or we don’t want to see it. Because what Jesus make clear is that to recognize the kingdom, and live by its values, inevitably causes change which can turn things upside down. For the last will be first, Jesus says, and to find life we must be willing to lose it.
The increasing disinterest people have in religion is often due to its hollowness and irrelevance. Reading Jesus’ ancient teachings with fresh eyes, however, certainly dispels such an understanding of him. The question is whether we have the courage to hear his words as speaking not about an imaginary or distant world but to and about our own.
Blessings in your life and ministry.