Yoder: Apolitical Jesus Unbiblical, Part 1

John Yoder, The Politics of JesusJohn Howard Yoder. 1994. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The myth of an apolitical Jesus is alive and well for several reasons, starting with the observation that political candidates have traditionally chided at being labeled anti-Christian. Jesus’ own admonishments to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39) and to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”(Matt 22:21 ESV) also give credence to this view. In spite of the widespread acceptance of this apolitical interpretation of Jesus’ ministry, it is hard to point to anyone who has seriously studied first century politics in Israel. Consequently, when I ran across a reference to John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, I quickly ordered a copy.

Introduction

Yoder starts with a provocative claim:

“that Jesus is, according to the biblical witness, a model of radical political action’ which is ‘now generally visible throughout the New Testament [NT] studies, even though he biblical scholars have not stated it in such a way that the ethicists have had to notice it. This ‘stating it’ is all the present study tried to do”(2).

Yoder goes about this task of “stating it”that proves difficult because as an academic writer he must chase down many misconceptions about Jesus’ ethics. Chief among these is the church’s traditional focus on the spiritual content of the NT and a de-emphasis on political elements. So Yoder asks whether NT authors, principally Luke, Paul, and the author of Revelation, understood and embraced the thrust of Jesus’ social ethic.

Yoder sees his own task having two distinct parts. He writes:

  1. “I will attempt to sketch an understanding of Jesus and his ministry of which it might be said that such as would be of direct significance for social ethics…
  2. I will secondly state the case for considering Jesus, when thus understood, to be not only relevant but also normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic.”(11)

In other words, Yoder sets out to understand what Jesus said and did focusing on his social ethic (author interpretation) in the context of scripture (canonical interpretation) and, then, to apply it in our postmodern environment (reader interpretation).

Background and Structure

John Yoder (1927-1997) was a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame (Catholic) who wrote from an anabaptist perspective and has written a number of other books. He writes in twelve chapters:

  1.  “The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic
  2. The Kingdom Coming
  3. The Implications of the Jubilee
  4. God Will Fight for Us
  5. The Possibility of Nonviolent Resistance
  6. Trial Balance
  7. The Disciple of Christ and the Way of Jesus
  8. Christ and Power
  9. Revolutionary Subordination
  10. Let Every Soul Be Subject: Romans 13 and the Authority of the State
  11. Justification by Grace through Faith
  12. The War of the Lamb”(v-vi)

These chapters are preceded by prefaces to the first and second editions, and a list of abbreviations and followed by indices of the names and scriptural references.

“In 1992 media reports emerged that Yoder had sexually abused women in preceding decades, with as many as over 50 complainants. The Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary acknowledged in a statement from 2014 that sexual abuse had taken place.”[1]

What Does Political Mean for Jesus?

In making the case that Jesus is a political animal, not just another rabbi, Yoder looks closely at Jesus’ introduction in the Gospel of Luke. Luke is an interesting choice here, because Luke is a gentile writer and presumably writes for a gentile audience. Yoder looks particularly at Mary’s Magnificat (1:51-53), Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (4:1-13), and Jesus’ call sermon in Nazareth (4:16-30). Yoder goes further, but I will limit myself to these three passages.

Magnificat or Call to Arms?

Yoder draws attention to these verses in Mary’s Magnificat:

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53 ESV)

How would a Roman audience hear these words? Consider the words—strength, scattered, brought down, sent away—these words suggest power today, not in the by and by. Yoder observes that in citing these words Mary sounds like a Maccabean—a Jewish revolutionary movement active from 167-160 BC,[2] not someone auditioning to front a praise band.

 Satan’s Temptations of Jesus.

Satan tries Jesus with three temptations—turn stones into bread, worship me, throw yourself off the temple. The first temptation suggests economic power; the second would make Jesus a king, albeit a vassal king under Satan; and the third would make him an instant celebrity, a kind of first century Evel Knievel—a stunt artist. In his book on these temptations, Henri Nouwen (2002) describes them as challenges typically faced by Christian leaders. Leadership is, of course, inherently political.

.Jesus’ Call Sermon in Nazareth.

In his sermon, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-3, which is a messianic passage. Yoder highlights these verses:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(Luke 4:18-19 ESV)

We normally focus on proclaiming the Good News and the recovery of sight of the blind, but setting captives free sounds like the storming of the Bastille, which set off the French Revolution. Yoder focuses on proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, which would remind a Jewish audience of:

“That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines.” (Lev. 25:11 ESV)

The Jubilee year is the occasion when all lands are returned to their original owners, irrespective of unpaid debts. Can you imagine that all the owners foreclosed on during the Great Recession suddenly being given their homes back? Or all unpaid student loans being forgiven?

Yoder makes the case that Jesus is reminding the Jews of their obligation to practice the Jubilee, which would immediately make him the target of every lender in Israel, but also account for his instant popularity among the people—a highly political act.

Assessment

In part one of this review I have given an overview of Yoder’s arguments. In part two I will look at his core argument.

John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus is an intensely interesting read for an academic work. Social activists in the church will likely find this book required reading, but even evangelicals will want to be aware of the arguments being put forth.

 References

Nouwen, Henri J.M.  2002. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Howard_Yoder.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maccabean_Revolt.

Yoder: Apolitical Jesus Unbiblical, Part 1

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Smith Models Jesus’ Lifestyle

Stephen W. Smith, The Jesus Life

Smith Models Jesus’ Lifestyle

Stephen W. Smith. 2012. The Jesus Life: Eight Ways to Recover Authentic Christianity. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most perplexing problems in postmodern American is the breakdown of healthy boundaries between public and private, church and state, between work and leisure, and even between male and female. Lacking healthy boundaries, Americans have become anxious, sleep-deprived, eating too much, using too many drugs, and suicidal, as life expectancy declines due to these self-inflicted wounds. With the decay of reasonable boundaries, young couples flinch at the idea of bringing children into the world, preferring to keep pets that are cheaper and offer unconditional love. How should Christians respond in their lifestyles to this dystopian reality facing perhaps seventy percent of the population?

Introduction

Stephen W. Smith’s book, The Jesus Life, starts with a promise: “This book will help you recover your life.” (17) Smith (30) commends these verses:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30 ESV)

He starts by asking three questions:

  1. What do you need to recover from?
  2. Has someone or something stolen the life you wanted?
  3. What’s not working for you in your life? (30)

He finds his answers not in the teachings of Jesus, but in the cadence of the sustainable life that Jesus actually led (33, 36).

Luke’s Gospel Outlines Jesus’ Lifestyle

Smith finds Luke, the Greek doctor, particularly helpful in sorting out the Jesus’ lifestyle. Unlike other New Testament writers, Luke was not Hebrew and the assumptions of a Jewish lifestyle were new to him. Only Luke, for example, writes:

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.” (Luke 4:16)

A Jewish writer would not need to say that Jesus’ custom was to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath—all good Jews do this and would not need to observe it. So Smith writes something important for our gentile ears to hear:

“As a boy, Jesus was raised in a culture of sustainable rhythm. His soul was shaped by the cadence of Sabbath keeping and seasonal festivals that were intended to help him and all people to remember God’s faithfulness, protection, and provision.” (36)

In contemporary jargon, Jesus did not grow up surrounded by people burning the candlesticks from both ends; he grew up knowing the boundaries of Sabbath, prayer, and religious festivals pointing to God (36). Here we find an outline of answers to Smith’s three questions cited above.

Rhythms of Life Remain Key

Smith advocates developing a new rhythms of life that will: “sustain and replenish our lives” (41) We start by keeping the Sabbath (44), because tired people love neither God nor neighbor, but Smith looks to us to develop our own rituals of life to remind us of God and who we are. His chapters end with suggestions on how to implement this suggestion, such as “Ask a group of life-giving friends to join you once a month for a meal.” (46)

Smith focuses attention on Luke’s insistence that we see the rhythm—engage then disengage (54)—of Jesus’ ministry. This pattern is repeated seven times in Luke—4:38-42, 5:16, 6:12-19, 9:10-12, 9:28-36, 11:1, and 21:37-38 (56-60). In this last two verses, for example, we read:

“And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.” (Luke 21:37-38)

If Jesus took time to rest and observe the Sabbath, why don’t we? Clearly, we need to do this.

Who is Stephen Smith?

Stephen Smith describes himself on his website with these words:

“Co-Founders, President and Spiritual Directors of Potter’s Inn.  Steve was educated at Lenoir Rhyne College, NC, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, KY; Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, IL. Steve has pastored churches in KY, NC and the Netherlands. As a speaker, spiritual director, author and companion, Steve offers soul care and spiritual care through many avenues.”[1]

 Smith is the author of numerous books, including The Lazarus Life, Soul Custody, and Soul Shaping. He and his wife, Gwen, live in Colorado.

Eight Ways to Recover Christianity?

What are the eight ways to recover authentic Christianity? These are outlined in separate chapters in part 3 of the book:

  1. Living the Jesus Life Every Day.
  2. Choosing Obscurity to Cultivate Life.
  3. Living the Life with Our Family and Those Closest to Us.
  4. Cultivating Friendships in Reality and Truth.
  5. Savoring a Sacred Memory.
  6. Extending Life to Others.
  7. Creating Signposts as We Journey through Life.
  8. Understanding the Role of Pain and Suffering (11-12).

Part 1 of the book defines the problem and part 2 outlines Jesus’ lifestyle. Part 4 provides an overview of the good life, building on what was previously said.

Assessment

Stephen W. Smith’s book, The Jesus Life, interprets the lifestyle of Jesus in simple English with many examples taken from daily life. Unlike many authors, Smith focuses on applying principles taken from Jesus’ example to contemporary life. Underscoring this focus on application, Smith quotes scripture primarily from Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation of the Bible, The Message.

[1] https://www.pottersinn.com/team. @pottersinn

 

Also see:

Ortberg Sharpens and Freshens Jesus

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Jesus: Lead Out of Meekness

Life_in_Tension_web“For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:17 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Meekness is an aspirational character trait and the mark of a natural leader. Tension arises within us because perfection in meekness is not within our grasp. Tension arises between us because leadership involves care and defense of the weaker among us. Tension arises with God because God pushes us to grow pushing our limits while our meekness forces us to live with the pain that growth entails.

Leadership Temptations. The unique thing about meekness is that it is invisible until tested. After his baptism, Jesus: “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1-2 ESV) The devil posed 3 tests:

1. Turn a stone into bread;

2.  Become my vassal; and

3.  Throw yourself down (Luke 4:4,7,9).

What is surprising about this story is that Jesus does not remain silent. He has been fasting and wandering the desert. Still, his answers are descriptive, not hauty. Jesus responds to the devil by citing 3 verses taken from the Book of Deuteronomy [1]. Nouwen (1989, 7-8) sees these tests as common leadership temptations. Namely, the temptation to be relevant, powerful, and spectacular [2]. He (82) observes that: “Christian leadership…is not leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the sufferign servant of Good, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.” In a word, Nouwen sees the Christian leader as meek, like the one who sent him.

Tension Within. The Apostle Paul talks about pursuing “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” (1 Tim. 6:11 ESV) He does not claim to have succeeded in obtaining them. Instead, he talks about inner tension:

“For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Rom. 7:18-19 ESV)

If Paul as an apostle of Jesus Christ cannot in his own power attain all the gifts of the spirit, including meekness, then we also must recognize that the journey of faith will have its ups and downs, and not dispair when we cannot attain perfection in Christ.

Tension With Others. A common complaint among pastors is that their job is 24-7. They are always on duty and called to be a good example. It is like living in a transparent tent in the middle of a parking lot. I always feel compelled, for example, to drive the speed limit when I am wearing a clerical collar—a heavy cross to bear living in the Washington Metro area! People are watching. Pastor, are you really meek?

A friend of mine asked: Isn’t meekness a personal attribute? How can you be meek when you are responsible for other people? One response is that Christian leadership is sacrificial. During his time in prison, for example, Bonhoeffer continued to function as a pastor being allowed to counsel other immates, even the guards (Metaxas 2010, 448). Sacrificial leadership can be painful and, yet, may never be appreciated. Several levels of meekness may be required.

Tension With God. Sacrificial leadership can also lead to suffering, which is never fun. Jesus was meek. But on the cross he also had a moment of dispair crying: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV) Yet, in this moment of dispair he cites Psalm 22 which later ends in praise: “You who fear the LORD, praise him!” (Ps. 22:23 ESV)

We can be meek in the face of suffering, in part, because we know that the future is in Christ—we know that suffering is not the end of the story. The implication of the resurrection of Christ is that we too will share in his victory. As the Apostle Paul writes: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55 ESV)

[1] “…man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deut. 8:3 ESV) “It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.” (Deut. 6:13 ESV) “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test…” (Deut. 6:16 ESV)

[2] Scazzero (2006, 75-78) phrases these temptations more personally as the temptation to perform, to possess, and to be popular.

REFERENCES

Metaxas, Eric. 2012. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1989. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Scazzero, Peter. 2006. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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Nouwen: Be Mastered by the Holy Spirit

Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Nouwen: Be Mastered by the Holy Spirit

Henri Nouwen.  2007.  The Selfless Way of Christ:  Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first ministry as an adult in the early 1980s was a summer program for high school and college age students.  As my kids began graduating and taking up life as adults, I noticed a disturbing trend.  The majority of them—those not disciplined enough to stay in school to earn a professional degree—had to leave Northern Virginia because the cost of living was simply too high. I coined the phrase, downward mobility, to describe the generational schism this dilemma caused.

Introduction

Until I heard about Henri Nouwen’s book, The Selfless Way of Christ:  Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life, I had never heard anyone else use my phrase—downward mobility.  For Nouwen, downward mobility is conscious decision to resist the idolatry of a lifestyle focused on upward mobility (27) and simply to imitate Christ (38).  Nouwen writes:  The Holy Spirit leads us on the downward way, not to cause us to suffer or to subject us to pain and humiliation, but rather to help us to see God present in the midst of our struggles (47).  The Apostle Paul summed it up this way:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13 ESV).

At one point, my church used this last sentence (I can do all things through him who strengthens me) as a tie-shirt slogan for our Vacation Bible School camp.  These words are powerful encouragement for those of us traveling the downward way.

Leadership Temptations

Satan tempts us daily to return to the path of upward mobility.  Following Luke 4, Nouwen (49) sees Satan’s three primary temptations in ministry as:

  1. The temptation to be relevant (turn stones into bread);
  2. The temptation to be spectacular (throw yourself off the temple); and
  3. The temptation to be powerful (rule as king) [1].

Relevance

This first temptation can be the source of a lot of pain.  Nouwen (50) observes:  Doctors can heal; lawyers can defend; bankers can finance; social workers can restructure; but what can you [as Christian,  minister, or pastor] do?  Our natural tendency is to fix things; not to trust in God’s transforming power.

Draw Attention to Ourselves

The second temptation is to focus on ourselves and serve our own needs for attention and acceptance.  Here we need to make space for God in our own lives so that he can use us to be present in the lives of the people around us (58).  Nouwen commends a life of intimate communion with God through the disciplines of solitude, silence, and prayer (59).  If our ministry is not about God, it will ultimately become tiresome and pointless.

Power

The third temptation is to be powerful.  Nouwen observes that:  Power can take many forms:  money, connections, fame, intellectual ability, skills (61).  We want to be in control.  To be a servant of Christ, Nouwen reminds us, is to be a [humble] friend of Christ (65).

Discipline

Nouwen observes that the tension between our vocation as Christians and these temptations is a lifelong challenge (69).  Discipline is required but:  The discipline of  the Christian disciple is not to master anything [like an athlete, student, or professional] but rather to be mastered by the Spirit (70).  Nouwen highlights these 3 disciplines:

  1. The discipline of the church;
  2. The discipline of the book; and
  3. The discipline of the heart (71).

Church

For Nouwen, a Catholic priest, the discipline of the church is to re-enact, to be, and to celebrate the Christ event.  Liturgical discipline focuses on the Christ event—God breaking into human history (73).  We must create time and space in our lives for God.  In this sense, the church is our spiritual director (74).

Scripture

The discipline of the book is for Nouwen necessarily an act not just of reading but of mediating on scripture.  The phrase, Christ is the word of God, is not just high rhetoric; Christ is the word become flesh (77-78).  We must chew the word (78).  The angel tells the Apostle John:  take and eat (Revelation 10:9).  It must become part of us.  Otherwise, the mere words of scripture will become an instrument of Satan (82).

Prayer

For Nouwen, the discipline of the heart is personal prayer (82). The discipline of prayer leads us unromantically, ceremonially to the heart of God (87). This is not about rewards, personal acclaim, helpful projects, or even inner peace (83); this not about personal revelations or sensations (89). Time with God strips all of this away. In prayer, our questions over time morph into our answers (87).

The point of each of these disciplines is, of course, to walk the path of downward mobility to preserver in resisting temptation.

Assessment

I return to Nouwen’s writing periodically as a personal reminder to make time and space for the Holy Spirit in my busy life.  Reminders are imperative for me.  The fact that Nouwen abandoned a comfortable life as a Harvard academic in 1986 to work with special needs individuals in a D’Arche community gives his advice on downward mobility unique credibility.  Spirituality is not a hobby-horse of convenience; it is a life commitment.  I commend this book to your own reading and mediation.

[1] Also see:  Henri Nouwen.  1989.  In the Name of Jesus:  Reflections on Christian Leadership.  New York:  Crossroads Book.

 

 

Also see:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

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