Ted Grimsrud—April 21, 2012
In two of my classes during this just-ending semester (both classes mainly made up of first-year college students—Introduction to Theology and Ethics in the Way of Jesus), we had lengthy and helpful discussions about homosexuality. Preceding these discussions, in both classes we looked closely at Jesus as our source for theology and ethics. So, as would be expected, a good part of our discussion about homosexuality focused on how Jesus’ message might relate. What follows are some reflections, first put down on paper a number of years ago, in response to the “what about Jesus?” question.
Jesus as our model
Over the years, a popular Christian saying has been, “What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)?” This question, seemingly, serves as a personal reminder to keep the Savior in mind as one goes through life. In the end, a cynic could suggest, the Jesus of this slogan bears a strong resemblance to the young George Washington, who said, “Father, I cannot tell a lie”; he is a person with a strong focus on personal ethics.
“WWJD” does not seem to have much direct relevance to social ethics. What would Jesus do in the face of current church and societal struggles regarding homosexuality? Are we simply left with our individual preferences that we speculatively project onto a symbolic icon?
On one level, we are pretty much in the dark. We cannot speak with authority about how Jesus would respond to our debates because he said nothing about them. However, as followers of Jesus, we cannot simply ignore these questions. As I reflect on the relevance of Jesus for our social morality, I want to rephrase our slogan. Rather than speculate on “what would Jesus do?” I want to focus on something more concrete: what did Jesus do? I am hoping not so much to find a definitive resolution for today’s issues, as to find more clarity about the social ramifications of Jesus’ way—ramifications that do provide guidance for communities of Jesus-followers today.
Even though Christian creedal theology gives short shrift to what Jesus did during his life (e.g., the ancient Apostles’ Creed skips from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “crucified under Pontius Pilate” in its christological confession), historian Jaroslav Pelikan is surely accurate when he writes in Jesus Through the Centuries, “As respect for the organized church has declined, reverence for Jesus has grown. . . . There is more in him than is dreamt of in the philosophy and Christology of the theologians. Within the church, but also far beyond its walls, his person and message are, in the phrase of Augustine, a ‘beauty ever ancient, ever new’ ” (pp. 232-3).
Human beings throughout the world and across religions sense that Jesus’ life holds something special—a model of human life as God intends for it to be lived. Jesus’ life and teaching manifest a profound awareness of truth, holiness, and what matters most. Tragically, Christianity, the religion that explicitly professes its allegiance to Jesus, has not always practiced faithful stewardship of the gifts of awareness that Jesus gave the world.
In his book The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder outlines several reasons for Christianity’s failure. He mentions, among others: (1) Many Christians believe that “the nature of Jesus’ message was ahistorical by definition. He dealt with spiritual and not social matters, with the existential and not the concrete. . . . Whatever he said and did of a social and ethical character must be understood not for its own sake but as the symbolic or mythical clothing of his spiritual message.” (2) That “Jesus came, after all, to give his life for the sins of humankind” is the conviction of many Christians. The crucial aspects of his time on earth were his sacrificial death and resurrection-his life before that is basically irrelevant (pp. 5-8). In what follows in his book, Yoder attempts to construct a careful, systematic refutation of these reasons for minimizing the relevance of Jesus’ life for social ethics. He persuasively argues that Jesus’ life is of “direct significance for social ethics” and is “normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic.”
I believe it is fully appropriate for us to turn to Jesus and his way of life for guidance on an issue such as the inclusion in or restriction from full fellowship in the churches of homosexuals. Of course, as is well-known, Jesus did not directly address such issues. This silence does not mean, however, that we should turn elsewhere for our ethical guidance. Jesus serves as our model, not our specific blueprint for contemporary issues.
In other words, Jesus’ relevance for any aspect of our ethics does not lie so much in the arena of explicit directive; rather, Jesus’ relevance most directly follows from his general way of life. How might Jesus’ way of life provide guidance for today’s church in the area of inclusion versus restriction of homosexuals?
Jesus loved particular people
Almost everyone affirms that Jesus taught and practiced love. Certainly, Jesus’ portrayal of love stands at the center of his relevance. However, in order to appropriate what he teaches us about love, we need to look at what Jesus actually did. We might discover that Jesus’ love is more distinctive than we have thought.
In his famous novel The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky gives a powerful portrayal of the distinctiveness of Jesus’ way of loving. In an extended parable of the “Grand Inquisitor” in the novel, Dostoyevsky tells of Jesus’ appearance in Spain in the late Middle Ages at the height of the Great Inquisition, when the church was cracking down on “heretical” Christians and Jews, putting hundreds of the unorthodox to death.
Jesus circulates among the poor, fearful, suffering masses, offering compassion, healing, unconditional mercy, and acceptance. He does not say much, but people recognize him, and soon crowds follow him and marvel at his kindness. The Cardinal, who is the Grand Inquisitor, observes Jesus and immediately has him arrested and taken away.
The Grand Inquisitor then challenges Jesus, accusing him of not having genuinely loved humankind. The Inquisitor bases his accusation on Jesus’ resisting the three temptations of the devil in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. According to the Inquisitor, if Jesus had genuinely loved humankind, he would have taken that opportunity to make the largest possible number of people happy. He would have turned the stones into bread to feed the hungry. He would have come down from the cross in order to captivate humankind’s conscience. He would have organized humankind into a single, harmonious ant colony in order to relieve our loneliness.
The Grand Inquisitor, of course, is not truly concerned with humankind’s well-being. In actuality, he harbors a secret contempt for human nature and human possibilities. He loves humankind in general because he hates his concrete neighbor—the actual individuals he has to deal with face-to-face.
In Dostoyevsky’s parable, Jesus does not defend himself against the Inquisitor’s accusations. The silence of Jesus indicates that he represents something quite different from love for humankind in general. Jesus does not argue with the Inquisitor over what is best for all humankind. He simply acts in love in concrete ways toward actual people. He displays love for the particular neighbor.
Much of The Brothers Karamazov is a meditation on this theme of love for particular people-and how difficult such love is. One of the main characters, Ivan Karamazov, confesses, “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one cannot love, though one might love those at a distance.” A good illustration of this fact, perhaps, is the way we can so generously give money, time, and energy to support relief and development and evangelism throughout the world and yet find it so difficult to respond lovingly to the actual gay and lesbian neighbors among us.
As Dostoyevsky’s parable illustrates, one of the more radical and profound characteristics of Jesus was his openness. Jesus consistently showed deep-seated and at times costly kindness and respect to particular men, women, and children. Jesus was not so much a “general humanitarian.” He did not have big plans for large-scale projects. He was not so concerned with winning the whole world. Mostly, Jesus cared for specific people. He cared for Matthew the tax-collector. He cared for the woman at the well. Jesus modeled for us the practice of simply accepting other specific people. He treated individuals with respect. He listened to others, was interested in them, shared food with them.
The “politics of compassion”
Jesus’ love for particular people, however, most certainly had social consequences. He loved particular people in all their real-life, social aspects as a political strategy. We could call Jesus’ approach to life and his social ethics a “politics of compassion” in contrast to a “politics of holiness.” “Politics,” used in this sense, may be defined as the structuring of social relationships.
The politics of holiness had emerged in Judaism in the generations following the destruction of the ancient Jewish state in the sixth-century BCE and the exile of many Jews in Babylon. Following their return to Palestine, Jewish religious leaders sought to lead the people in a much more rigorous adherence to the holiness code in hopes of sustaining their community in a hostile world.
At the core of holiness in this context lay the principle of separation. To be holy meant to be separate from everything that would defile holiness. Polarities emerged to mark holiness: clean and unclean, purity and defilement, sacred and profane, Jew and Gentile, righteous and sinner.
Over time, the politics of holiness engendered the development of a large group of “sinners” and “outcasts.” These were people who for various reasons were unwilling—or more often, unable—strictly to adhere to the holiness code. Included among the “unclean” were shepherds, tax collectors, impoverished landless people, menstruating women—and, of course, all Samaritans and Gentiles.
Jesus challenged this politics of holiness with his politics of compassion. Jesus and his followers formed a social organization that stood in sharp contrast to the relatively rigid social boundaries of their culture. They rejected boundaries between righteous and outcast, men and women, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.Jesus’ politics of compassion was founded on a profound understanding of God’s mercy. God, as represented in Jesus’ teaching (e.g., the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32), does not discriminate but loves all people. Jesus’ God is our model-“be merciful, as God is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Jesus proposed a social life ordered around openness and inclusion rather than purity and exclusion.
(1) Jesus ate with outcasts. He practiced “table fellowship” with all kinds of different people—including those considered unclean (e.g., tax collectors, women, Gentiles, poor people). In so doing, Jesus showed that God’s kingdom is an inclusive community. Table fellowship carried tremendous symbolic weight in Jesus’ day, as it still does in ours. In contrast to the politics of holiness, which required eating only with those who are “clean,” Jesus welcomed “unclean outsiders” to his table.
(2) Jesus associated closely with women. Jesus encouraged women to be part of his movement (a powerful example is the story of the woman at the well in John 4). In doing so, he directly contradicted conventional wisdom’s relegation of women to a subordinate position.
(3) Jesus brought good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). He specifically stated that his message was intended to provide a blessing to “you who are poor” (Luke 6:20). He challenged rich people to change-the fruit of conversion to Jesus’ way included redistribution of unjustly-gained wealth (cf. the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19).
(4) Jesus spoke of peace—not as a vague, general ideal but as concrete love for neighbors (who included even long-entrenched adversaries such as Samaritans), even for enemies (Matt. 5:43-48).
(5) Jesus offered a message of hope to all kinds of people. Since true spirituality stems from the heart, anyone who wants to is capable of living a faithful, God-oriented life. That is, even those who had been labeled unclean and placed beyond the pale by official religious institutions could know God and practice authentic discipleship in following God’s will for their lives.
(6) Jesus proclaimed the presence of a new social and spiritual community, the “realm (or kingdom) of God.” Participation in this community was open to all who chose to be part of it; all they had to do was “repent” (turn toward God) and “believe the good news” (trust that God’s mercy is for them). This was Jesus’ fundamental message (Mark 1:15). In the ministry that embodied his proclamation, Jesus made unmistakably clear the openness of his community.
One clear expression of this openness may be found in Matthew’s gospel. A repeated verse in both 4:23 and 9:35 sets off a discrete section: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” This section of Matthew shows that the “good news of the kingdom” includes both Jesus’ teaching (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount, 5:1-7:29) and his healing.
A partial list of the recipients of healing shows the incredible openness of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed: demoniacs, epileptics, a leper, a centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, two Gentile demoniacs, tax collectors, sinners, and the daughter of a synagogue leader. Most of these were outsiders-people considered “unclean” or “contaminants” by the established religion. Jesus offered them mercy just as they were. He was not simply a knee-jerk radical, however. He was willing to bring healing to anyone who turned to him, including even a leader of a synagogue. Jesus’ politics of compassion included all who responded.
The Christian church in the past two thousand years has continued to be plagued by the politics of holiness. For the sake of the “distinctiveness” and “security” of the church, sharp lines of exclusion have often been drawn. Our recent controversies over sexuality, in part at least, reflect those types of concern. Jesus’ model clearly challenges us to place compassion over holiness as the core ordering principle for our social lives.
The case of table fellowship
Of these aspects of Jesus’ politics of compassion, the practice of open table fellowship perhaps most powerfully speaks across times and cultures. The metaphor of table fellowship resonates deeply in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, as it does in the story of Jesus. Sharing table fellowship has always been a powerful, concrete expression of fellowship, inclusion, and communal connection. Because of its deep symbolic significance, Jesus’ practice of table fellowship reflects perhaps most profoundly his philosophy of life.
The important role that table fellowship served in all the cultures of Jesus’ world cannot be overestimated. Meals were not simply about people meeting their physical needs. The sharing of meals had become a ceremony symbolizing friendship and close social connections. Joining for meals expressed one’s acceptance of another as an integral part of one’s community.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ time who focused the most on the politics of holiness, the Pharisees, especially considered table fellowship to be central. In their longing for Israel’s salvation, they sought a pure society unmarred by ritual uncleanness. This quest for purity began in the home. Their food was totally prepared according to the purity laws. They expected everyone who ate in their homes to be ritually pure.
Jesus’ approach stood in sharp contrast. He delighted in breaking bread with an enormous variety of people, regardless of their ritual cleanliness. He directly challenged the social and religious exclusiveness associated with table fellowship with his radical openness. In Luke 5:27-39, Jesus eats with a tax collector, Levi, and his friends. To the upholders of strict purity, tax collectors were considered intrinsically unclean, in large part due to their close collaboration with the hated Roman occupation forces. The Pharisees and their scribes strongly criticize Jesus for this breach of table fellowship purity. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked. That is, why do you defile yourself? Why do you share this deeply meaningful time of fellowship with low-lifers and scum bags?
Jesus speaks of his love for these outcasts—and of the current “at-handness” of God’s kingdom. He shows the presence of God’s kingdom by his openness, even to those whom his culture considered to be unclean.
Luke 7 contains another story of table fellowship that breaks taboos. A woman named Mary, labeled a sinner, imposes herself on Jesus while he is having dinner with a Pharisee. She comes to him crying and anoints his feet with ointment. Jesus is criticized for allowing this, but he responds by asserting that this woman had received mercy (and tellingly, though she is named a “sinner” by Luke, Jesus never tells her to “sin no more;” he simply forgives).
In a third example from the gospel of Luke, Jesus again faces criticism due to his openness and lack of concern with purity and separation: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). Jesus replies to this attack by telling three parables of lost things being found. The third of these parables is the most well known-the story of the prodigal son who, significantly, is welcomed to his father’s love-feast without having confessed his sins (he had, among other things, worked with unclean animals), and without undergoing any ritual purification acts. The picture of God in this parable is one characterized by welcome, mercy, and radical openness.
Another example of Jesus’ radical openness and its connection with table fellowship is the familiar story of the feeding of the five thousand. This is one of the few stories that appears in all four of the Gospels. In this meal, there are no questions asked about purity or if any of the people are sinners or unclean. The meal is for everyone.
Thus, Jesus chose an extraordinarily evocative and concrete way to make clear the openness, inclusiveness, and unconditionality of God’s realm. He shared food with all sorts of outsiders and did so publicly-at great cost to his reputation and, ultimately, at the cost of his life.
Consequences of Jesus’ openness
Jesus’ practice of openness fostered conflict with the religious leaders most concerned with Israel’s purity, the Pharisees. A passage from Matthew’s gospel helps to illumine this conflict. Two stories in Matthew 12:1-14 show that Jesus, in contrast to the Pharisees, stressed human well-being over Sabbath observance. On the Sabbath, Jesus’ disciples are hungry and, we are told, they pluck heads of grain with which to feed themselves. Some Pharisees notice this and criticize Jesus for his followers’ violation of the Sabbath.
Jesus replies to his critics, giving two Old Testament examples. David and his companions ate the “bread of the Presence” (see 1 Sam. 21:1-6; Lev. 24:5-9 tells of this consecrated bread), even though it was the Sabbath. The second example is that priests “work” on the Sabbath (Num. 28:9-10). This implies that the sacrificial system (and hence, the temple) is greater than the Sabbath. Sabbath regulations are subordinate to the sacrificial system. Now, Jesus has stated, something greater even than the temple is here-that is, the kingdom of God, present in Jesus (Matt. 12:6). If Jesus is greater than the temple, then of course Jesus is greater than the Sabbath.
At this point, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 for support: mercy is more important than sacrifice and Sabbath regulations. In other words, as the central characteristic of the realm of God, mercy is the highest priority. Mark’s version of this story contains Jesus’ telling words: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
The scene then shifts in Matthew 12, and Jesus goes to a synagogue and heals a man with a withered hand, still on the Sabbath. The Pharisees are trying to set Jesus up. By using the example of rescuing a sheep on the Sabbath and inferring that humans are more valuable than sheep, Jesus asserts that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:12). That is, doing good, healing human beings, is within what the law allows. Jesus is not rejecting Sabbath law out of hand. Rather, he is setting Sabbath in the context of the wider meaning of the law: mercy comes first. For Jesus, the issue is not law versus no law; the issue is how the law is interpreted. The story concludes with the ominous words: “The Pharisees went out and conspired against Jesus, how to destroy him” (Matt. 12:14).
God meant the Sabbath to enhance human life, not to shackle it. Jesus insisted that one who takes an action on the Sabbath that helps other people is within the law. Mercy supersedes the sacrificial system and Sabbath regulations, and purity has to do with the heart. What comes from the inside defiles, not what comes from the outside. Defilement has to do most of all with hurting other people.
The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees’ hostility toward Jesus continued to escalate and that others also came to oppose Jesus’ message. The Sadducees, who were the leaders charged with running the temple in Jerusalem, recognized that Jesus’ inclusiveness and provision of direct access to God directly threatened their institutionalized religion. Ultimately, the Sadducees joined with the occupational Roman political leadership (i.e., Pontius Pilate) to put an end to Jesus’ life.
The conflict with the Pharisees, though, continued even after Jesus was killed, as the early Christians continued on Jesus’ inclusive path. The Apostle Paul, writing in the second and third decades following Jesus’ death, provides helpful analysis on why this conflict over the application of the law was so volatile.
As Paul portrays it, many people no longer understood the law as Moses had presented it-as practical guidance for how to live faithfully in light of God’s mercy and saving work for Israel (cf. Exodus 20). Rather, the law had become Israel’s badge of exclusiveness. This was how the Jews knew they were uniquely special-doing “works of the law,” rituals that marked them as different from non-Jews. Three key expressions of this boundary-marking function were: (1) food laws (kosher law, ritual cleansing); (2) Sabbath observance; and (3) circumcision of males. Religious leaders had come to insist that faithfulness to these practices was absolutely necessary to Israel’s identity. They were signs of God’s special connection with the faithful people. For Jesus to challenge reliance on these practices as the center of religious life posed a huge threat to the entire system.
Jesus did not reject the law itself. Rather, he radically challenged the Pharisees’ interpretation. Jesus tried to reorient the law to its original intent: guidelines for faithful living in light of God’s mercy. Most of the Pharisees were not open to this challenge. They saw Jesus as an enormous threat to their entire culture. He undercut the culture’s identity with his openness and emphasis on direct access to God apart from strict ritualism.
In the years immediately following Jesus’ death, Pharisees led the violent opposition to Jesus’ followers. Their opposition came to be spear-headed by the zealous anti-Christian attitude of a brilliant young Pharisee known as Saul of Tarsus. A central issue was that of the law-access to God and salvation, and openness to Gentiles. But this Saul met Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus and had his life transformed. He was renamed Paul and became Jesus’ apostle.
The Apostle Paul came to see that by using “defense of the law” as the rationale for violence against the Christians, he had actually been an idolater. He had placed works of the law above God’s mercy. Jesus called Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles and to welcome them into the community of his followers without requiring strict food and Sabbath laws. That is, Jesus called Paul to imitate Jesus’ own radical openness and rejection of boundary-marker-oriented religion.
Jesus’ insistence that external works of the law did not connect people with God led to his being killed. He showed that God’s mercy is for everyone. The structures people build to show others that they are “insiders” have nothing to do with God’s favor. God’s favor is, instead, for those who know God’s unconditional mercy and share that mercy with others.
Paul does not argue that Jesus abolished all human differences; rather, Paul makes the point that Jesus abolishes the need to make these differences signs of righteousness and unrighteousness. Jesus abolishes our need to protect our own security as people who are “okay” with God. We do not need to exclude others from God’s favor on the basis of external boundary markers because the law of the Spirit is not about boundary markers. External distinctives are not bases for elevating ourselves over others. What matters is simply trusting in God’s mercy, which we all need equally.
Paul writes that God set people free from this law of sin and death. God set people free from needing to judge others and to exclude outsiders. When the law or any other cultural system is used as a basis for identity before God, then it is the law of sin and death. Then it is keeping people from understanding God as unconditionally merciful.
Jesus’ relevance for the discussion of inclusion of homosexual people in the church does not lie in direct comments he made on this issue; he made none. This does not mean that Jesus’ life and teaching are unimportant, however. The several themes in Jesus’ life that we have examined provide the needed foundation for a faithful, inclusive response.
(1) Jesus practiced a radical openness that ran contrary to the purity-oriented exclusionary practices of religious people of his time (and ours). The symbol of open table fellowship with outsiders, “sinners,” excluded ones, reveals Jesus’ approach with stark clarity. Table fellowship for Jesus meant a welcome into the kingdom of God. The love feast that Jesus welcomed people to join had no prerequisites, no initiation rites, no insistence on purification as a prerequisite. All it took was open hands-the prodigal son’s return, the five thousand accepting the bread and fish, Mary’s tears.
The lesson of Jesus’ approach for today’s church can be summarized as simply one word-welcome. The church has difficulty being unconditional in its love and in embodying the way of abundance to replace scarcity. But Jesus asks nothing less of us. For the church to truly know God as merciful, the church must live God’s mercy.
(2) Once Jesus perceived that not all the religious leaders were going to join in his radical openness, he did not hesitate to offer critiques of a boundary-marker-oriented approach to faith. His modeling of such a critique remains potent today, as do his specific critiques and alternatives.
When the Pharisees restricted access to God’s mercy to those who were ritually pure, thereby excluding most people, Jesus spoke sharply in opposition. Jesus certainly offered a message of love and compassion, but this positive message carried with it a direct confrontation to those not willing to respond to it with love and compassion of their own.
Present-day followers of Jesus are challenged to find a similar kind of balance-fostering love and compassion in our lives but also standing against forces that resist Jesus’ mercy. When churches restrict access to God’s mercy, followers of Jesus are challenged by Jesus’ example to speak out in opposition to such exclusiveness.
(3) The direct consequence of Jesus’ speaking (and living) such a critique was that he suffered, ultimately to the point of death. Significantly, Jesus taught at length and with uncomfortable clarity that his followers will also follow him on the path of the cross.
To imitate Jesus, in New Testament terms, has most of all to do with imitating his faithfulness to God’s mercy and love even to the point of suffering for such faithfulness. Those who advocate a Jesus-style openness and inclusion can expect to find similar responses to what Jesus found to his openness-anger, hostility, even violence.
Jesus himself unequivocally opposed the use of violence by his followers—under all circumstances. Yet he was utterly realistic about the likelihood of violence in his followers’ lives. Jesus’ followers are never to resort to violence, even though their acts of love and inclusion in the face of the politics of holiness will invariably elicit hostility from the protectors of the status quo.
(4) The underlying priority of Jesus’ life and teaching was mercy. Whatever conflict Jesus took part in was conflict for the sake of communicating God’s mercy intended for all people. “Be merciful as God is merciful”: the unpopularity of this message in some contexts, the violence such a message may elicit, the difficulty in living such a message out-none of these minimize the centrality of mercy as the core value of Jesus and his followers.
The Book of Revelation is full of visions of the costly consequences for those who would make merciful living central in a world all too often dominated by the power politics, large-scale and small-scale, of the Beast. Interspersed with terrible visions of persecution and conflict, however, we find consistent words of exhortation (to be victors, Christians must “follow the Lamb wherever he goes”) and visions of worship and celebration. The worship is portrayed also as a present reality, amidst the tribulation.
This juxtaposition of visions of suffering and celebration is a promise for disciples today of moments of hope, joy, and communal solidarity. That is, as we seek to follow Jesus, we can have confidence that God will provide us with sustenance along the way-in large part, the sustenance that we offer one another as co-pilgrims on this path.