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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Mandela, MLK and Jesus

Mandela, MLK and Jesus

By Rev. Howard Bess
December 28, 2013

We are being reminded that Nelson Mandela was a man of protest,
a protest fueled by his horror of injustice, leading him to spend
many years in jail and to live one of the truly great lives of the
20th Century.

Mandela himself was a privileged man, an educated and
successful lawyer.

His call for justice was not as much for himself as for the millions
of his black brothers and sisters who were held in economic and
political bondage.

The very same description fits Martin Luther King Jr., who was
college and seminary educated and who had earned his PhD at
a prestigious university.

A black Baptist minister with those credentials could have been
an elite American minister recognized for his preaching skills,
if he never uttered a word of protest.

But King protested injustice and became the protest leader
who changed America.

He paid the price of assassination.

Jesus of Nazareth was the great protester of his time, and
he was crucified by Roman soldiers as a result.

The protests of Mandela and King were very public and well
documented by reporters covering the anti-apartheid and
civil rights movements, respectively.

Mandela and King had the advantage of living in an age of radio,
television, newspapers, magazines and books.

Jesus carried on his protest work with the illiterate poor of a
backwater section of Palestine called Galilee.

In Jesus’s culture women were the carriers of the oral traditions
of their clans.

Yet, these recorders of his stories and sayings were illiterate
women who listened, remembered and retold the stories (parables)
and sayings (aphorisms).

Jesus did all of his teaching in Aramaic, the common
language of his area.

His parables and aphorisms were finally written down
two generations later in Greek by literate men.

The Apostle Paul was the first writing Christian leader.

He began writing 15 to 20 years after the death of Jesus,
but he never mentions any of Jesus’s parables or aphorisms.

Paul did not understand Jesus as a man of protest but as a
theological messiah who was sent to the cross by God as a
sacrifice for sin.

For Paul, the cross was an altar of sacrifice rather than a
Roman tool of execution.

The earliest written records of Jesus’s parables, aphorisms
and other stories reflecting his concern for the poor and his
opposition to injustice also were put down in Greek, but two
and three generations after his death in a very different
political and religious context.

The Jesus, as recounted by these writers, was a theological
Jesus, too, a man with a miraculous birth whose life on Earth
ended with his resurrection from the dead.

But their inclusion of his sermons and other teachings left
behind clues of the historical Jesus.

For 2,000 years, with few exceptions, Christian churches
have pursued the theological Jesus and have said little
about his ministry of protest.

Yet, with the help of persistent Bible scholarship, we are now
able to consider the unadorned parables of Jesus and place
them in the economic, religious and political context in which
the stories were told.

When the teachings of Jesus are liberated from the theologies
of Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, a very different Jesus
appears on our screen, a master teacher whose primary tools
were the stories that he told.

His stories were discussion starters.

They were vivid and often carried a high level of exaggeration.

They were colorful.

Typically they were stories without a stated conclusion.

They were memorable.

Whenever a parable of Jesus is read, the reader rightfully
asks who might have been in his listening audiences.

They were rural, illiterate Jews who lived in Galilee in
incredible poverty and under the cruelties of Roman rule.

The crowds that listened to Jesus were the expendables.

The unadorned parables of Jesus cover a broad range of topics.

They cover worker/employer relationships, wage rates, the obscene
living style of the rich, the utter poverty of working people, the
arrogance of religious leaders, the wealth gap between the rich and
the poor, the social segregation of the rich from the poor, and the
absurdity of ritual practices demanded by the ruling hierarchy that
controlled the Jerusalem temple.

Today most every Christian minister who is a seminary graduate
will or should know these glaring facts about the life and teachings
of Jesus.

Yet people in the pews often are ignorant of the things that the
minister knows about the historical Jesus.

A typical minister hides safely behind moral niceties and comforting

If American ministers took the Jesus messages seriously, they
would be preaching about the urgent need to increase the
minimum wage to a livable wage; they would be leading a
fight to empty our prisons; they would be walking picket
lines for immigration reform so that immigrants would again
be welcomed rather than despised; they would join the call
for equal rights for all minorities including gay and lesbian
Americans; they would work for an education system that is
free and open to all; and they would be urging their congregants
to recruit and motivate people to vote for candidates who are
committed to the common good rather than special interests.

Jesus was a protester against the social, economic and religious
inequities of his day.

He showed us a better way.

Every disciple/follower of Jesus should do no less.

Christians should be protesting injustice in every form.

We should be protesting, knowing there are better ways.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister,
who lives in Palmer, Alaska.

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