Where the West is headed now, and how the Eastern Church might play a role
An Alternative History – Jesus, the Temple and Religious Authority
Some pomo’s (postmodernists) argue that the Orthodox Church is simply a different part of the same flawed church paradigm which they have rejected, and of course people are perfectly free to reject whatever they wish. And if this is the core of the matter (that what we personally reject is “truth” enough for us) then we are finished and there is really no further need to mention the issue – except perhaps to examine whether or not it is in fact the core of the matter. But, many pomo’s see themselves – like the reformers who have come a thousand times before them – as restoring or at least seeking to restore “original” Christianity. And furthermore they often see themselves as developing a church model that is much more in keeping with the mind of Christ and the early church than any of the currently existing “traditional” or “modern” models. It is within this construct that I believe we Orthodox can offer some insights and perhaps some alternative views on the mind of Christ as expressed during His earthly ministry and the spirit of the early church than what is popularly understood in the up-and-coming postmodern Christianity.
Much of what I was taught in Bible College along with a good deal of the current thoughts in postmodernist Christianity seems to model a Jesus who was bent on paradigm smashing - particularly smashing the structure of the Jewish religious institution. He is seen as radically altering or reinterpreting the Jewish Faith, much to the chagrin of the religious leaders whom Jesus intentionally marginalized. He is believed to have demonstrated his transcendence of the Temple religion by purposely distancing Himself from the physical Temple, teaching primarily out in the midst of the common people who had been ostracized by the institutional Judaism of the time.
Well, I think caution is advised, anytime we begin to think that we have “gotten” what Jesus was all about. Where are the specific teachings of Christ that affirm these many assumptions listed previously? Yes, of course Jesus often challenged and criticized the Pharisees and other religious leaders of His time, but nowhere does He criticize their office or their rightful role as leaders. In fact, on the contrary! (See Matthew 23:1-3) Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees was not that He saw them or their function as irrelevant or unnecessary, instead He criticized their hypocrisy and their abuses. (As can be seen clearly in the verse above which just about sent me to the floor when I first read it – because it seems to really contradict what I thought Jesus was “all about” in terms of religious authority) And how is this (criticizing hypocrisy and abuses amongst religious leaders) at all different from the long history of Prophets in the OT who did this very same thing to their contemporary leaders or the general whole of Israel? The fact is, Jesus has no problems with religious leaders and in fact we can even see Him granting tremendous authority to His Apostles - even to the extent of being able to forgive sins! (See Matthew 16:16-19, Matthew 18:15-18, John 20:21-23)
Obviously Jesus did a lot of preaching and teaching outside the Temple (but He also did a lot inside the Temple too!) and throughout Palestine. But, this in no way necessarily suggests that Jesus was rejecting the importance of the Temple or the forms of worship that took place therein. Jesus’ ministry form of traveling about and teaching wherever and whenever the opportunity arose was nothing new and nothing at all novel. We see such methods being used by many preachers and teachers of Christ’s time and indeed we again see it exemplified in the ministerial work of many of the OT prophets. The point being this: Jesus was not breaking religious paradigms by teaching from boats or in the wilderness, this was a living part of Judaic religious tradition and had been for as long as the faith has existed. We cannot forget that God Himself commanded the existence of the Temple and even specified to the minutest detail how it should be built and decorated. In accord with this fact, Jesus did go to Temple to participate in many Judaic traditions; He expressed an affinity for the Temple (Luke 2:46-50), and even defended it’s sacredness against abuse (Matthew 21:13). And here is a passage from Matthew 23 that is quite noteworthy and I’ll quote it fully here:
16"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, "Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.' 17Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? 18And, "Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.' 19Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? 20Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. 21He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. 22And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.
23"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. 24Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
I’m not sure that commentary is needed here, but I’ll give it anyway – being the opinionated loud-mouthed jerk that I am. Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and Scribes for being hypocrites and for missing the point in terms of where real worth lies in regards to the Temple – in other words it isn’t in the gold or the material gifts! We must note that clearly Jesus is ascribing worth and importance to the Temple and to the Altar contained therein and I think the last part of verse 23 is critical to understand. Our Lord does not decry the traditional religious practices of the Law, rather He says they should be done, but to do them and then forget the more important things (“justice, mercy, and faith”) is where the error lies, NOT in the traditional religious practices themselves! Again, this is not a new concept that Jesus is bringing into the picture here, surely we see exactly this spirit expressed in the exhortation of many OT prophets, no?
Even if we look at Christ’s specific teachings (such as the famed “You’ve heard it said…BUT I tell you..”) can we not hear Christ’s words as an echo of the teachings of the OT prophets? Can we find a Jew today who would read the beatitudes and proclaim that their religion rejects such teachings? Or that their faith has no recognition of the concepts of justice, mercy, and humility? Just like the OT prophets, Jesus is calling the people back into faithfulness, without abandoning their traditional practices – as is exemplified in the passage I quoted above. Another excellent example is the time when the Pharisees challenged Jesus about whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath (Matthew 12). Jesus upholds the sanctity of the Holy Day while at the same time showing the fallacy of the legalism that had crept into the Judaic practice.
None of this is to say that Jesus did not change things...surely He did and I will address some of these things in my next post. But we cannot make gross over zealous assumptions about what Christ had in mind about certain matters which He did not specifically address as recorded in the Scriptures. Too often we project our own image of what we WANT or HOPE Jesus would have thought or believed about certain matters and we tend to glaze very quickly over verses that show us a side of Jesus that just doesn't jive with our picture of Him. I'm often suprised at how sure some people are in their personal ability to answer the vogue question: "What would Jesus do?" I mean, seriously, who would have thought Jesus would defend the authority of the Scribes and Pharisees and tell His followers that they ought to obey them? Hmmmm...in some sense, Jesus is a smasher of paradigms but we must take care to be fully aware that our own paradigms may be made of glass and are ripe for a good smashing.
Mine got smashed and look at the mess it got me in! May it continue to be smashed everyday and thereby lead me closer to Christ and His Church.
more to come...
The Early Church, the Temple, and Religious Authority
...offered by Dn. fdj, a sinner at 10:10 AM [+]