“One of You Will Betray Me”

David Balch—Wednesday of Holy Week

Isaiah 50.4–9a, Psalm 70, Hebrews 12.1–3, John 13.21–32

Each of the scriptural readings for today reflects significant conflict. We in the ELCA have just been through significant conflict in the Church Wide Assembly last August (2009), where delegates voted to ordain qualified GLBT candidates for ministry. That is so stunning, so surprising, even shocking, that I needed some explanation. Reinhold Niebuhr, whom I often believe, argues that institutions do not do such things. “If conscience and reason can be insinuated into the resulting struggle, they will only qualify, never abolish, the injustice” (R. Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society [1948] xiii) My puzzlement led to seeking an explanation from one of the greatest anthropologists writing, Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think (1986; she died in 2007). She seeks a more intellectual explanation than Niebuhr would allow, appealing to Emile Durkheim: “true solidarity is only possible to the extent that individuals share the categories of their thought” (p. 8, my emphasis). If Mary Douglas is correct, how did we in the ELCA come to share enough categories of thought to change so dramatically?

Too briefly, those categories of thought are often structured in polarities, “female/male, left/right, people/king (p. 49). Institutions [like the ELCA] support those polarities and convey identity (chap. 5). Institutions must have the harnessed moral energy of their members; institutions bestow sameness, and load polarities with moral and political content (p. 63, citing Lévi-Strauss). More polarities: culture/nature, passivity/activity, permanence/change, antiquity/modernity, spiritual/physical (pp. 64–65). In the ELCA we once added the polarity straight/gay. How was it possible for us to deconstruct that polarity, remembering that mostly lay people voted in Minneapolis!

Those polarities often match individual human persons, who are male or female, straight or gay, and we are socialized from childhood to recognize those polarities in our own social experience (p. 65). The intellectual and social efforts support each other. Since I am a historian, one of Mary Douglas’ observations fascinates me: “gradualness over and over again has been pitted against sudden, discontinuous change; nature, God, and the Bible are invoked to support one or the other. The advocates of the status quo tend to find that nature is in favor of continuity; the advocates of radical reform read nature rather differently” (p. 66). “Nature” in Douglas’ statement, depending on the person, could be the Quran, Torah, the Bhagavad-Gita, the New Testament, and/or what contemporary physicists and biologists are telling us nature is, as we read in Ted Peters’ books. My conclusion is: somehow we in the ELCA changed our view of “nature,” that is, both the Bible and biology, and we then voted to change our culture, to change the ELCA. As a New Testament scholar, I want to reinforce that action. As a Christian, and as a Lutheran, and as a NT scholar, my view of “nature” is influenced by my faith in Jesus of Nazareth, and what he taught. So here I transition from R. Niebuhr and M. Douglas to Jesus the Christ.

Jesus was a Jewish social revolutionary; he brought change. Each time I go through the gospels, different parables or events jump out at me. As students in the gospels course know, this time I am amazed by Jesus associating the kingdom of God with leaven (Matt 13.33/Lk 13.20–21): “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measure of flour until all of it was leavened.” First, Jesus’ image of the kingdom of God is the activity of a woman, rare enough in that world. Second, her activity is mixing yeast and flour, exactly the stuff that was excluded at Passover (Exod 12.15, 19; 13.7; 34.25; Lev 2.11; Deut 16.4). Exod 12.17 calls Passover “the festival of unleavened bread.” Exactly stuff that was excluded from sacred time, Jesus now includes.

A second example relates the kingdom of God to table fellowship. The book of Jubilees calls for separation from Gentiles, not eating with unclean foreigners (Jub 22.16), a polarity in Mary Douglas’ sense. But when Jesus celebrates the eschatological banquet, street people are invited; Gentiles are pictured on eschatological pilgrimage to Zion (Q 13.29). As with the parable of the leaven, there is no parallel to Jesus’ repeated festive meals with the ritually unclean as an expression of the dawning kingdom of God. Not sacrificial ritual in the Jerusalem temple, but table fellowship with the ritually unclean in Galilean villages signals God’s in-breaking kingdom. Jesus deconstructed an older polarity.

After the Holocaust any Christian theologian needs to qualify what s/he says about Judaism. Every institution, every religion, every church or synagogue experiences change, whether Jewish, Christian, or Buddhist. Significant change, I would argue, is brought about by insiders, not by outsiders’ critique. I am assuming that Jesus precisely as Jewish was an insider. I give two examples of insider change, one from ancient Judaism, one from modern Judaism. First, Jeremiah (3.16) makes the astounding assertion, “the ark of the covenant of the Lord … shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; nor shall another one be made.” Stunning! Shocking! The ark, a portable shrine in the wilderness, signifying God’s divine presence (Exod 25.10–15), originally kept in the “tent of meeting” (2 Sam 6.17), which contained the two tablets of law from Sinai (Deut 10.2, 5), which David brought to Jerusalem, signifying the unity of the Northern and Southern kingdoms (2 Sam 6), and Solomon placed in the Holy of Holies in the new temple (1 Kings 8.4–7), that ark shall not be remembered! Stunning! Just as shocking, “it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘as the Lord lives who brought out and led the … house of Israel out of the land of the north’…” (Jer 23.7–8) Israel will not speak of the exodus from Egypt, but rather of a new Exodus from Babylon! Jeremiah the prophet is encouraging significant change in how to celebrate and where to experience the presence of God. Prof. Davidson tells me that these verses in Jeremiah are probably from later redactors, but in a sense, that makes them even more remarkable, a closer parallel to the ELCA’s action. Not the original, creative prophet himself, but later scribes in Israel, the later institution, is making radical adjustments, changes.

Quickly, I give a second example of change within Israel, which I am suggesting as a second analogy to change that Jesus the Jewish teacher and prophet also brought to the people of God. The founder and first leader of Hasidism in Eastern Europe was the Ba’al Shem Tov (1700–1760, “master of the good name”), who repelled some other Jews by his activity as a miracle worker. There was a bitter struggle in Lithuania, led by Elijah ben Solomon Zalman of Vilna, who opposed Hasidic “ecstasy, visions, and miracles, their dangerous lies and idolatrous worship.” In the 1770s and 1780s there were bans (harem) against Hasidism. Hasids and their opponents denounced each other to authorities, which led to arrests. (“Israel ben Eliezer Ba’al Shem Tov,” Encyclopedia Judaica 9 [1971] 1049–48 and “Hasidism,” Encyclopedia Judaica 7 [1971] 1290ff.) Hasidism, now the most important form of religious (as distinguished from secular) Judaism in Europe, North America, and Israel, was bitterly opposed when first introduced. I have spent time on these two examples to make the fairly obvious point that religious and social change produces conflict, but also to claim that the observation is not anti-Jewish, although it could be used that way. Most of us here worshipping are Lutherans; that Luther introduced change that produced conflict is not a surprising observation.

Now to our lectionary text in John 13. Change brings opposition: Jeremiah had opponents, and Jesus did, as did the Ba’al Shem Tov. I pose a question in light of our lectionary text: Who is the Judas in these conflicts, the prophet(s) introducing new forms of worship and social interaction, or those claiming to represent ancient tradition? To play with the language of John 13, was Jeremiah (or the later scribes redacting the book) a Judas for insisting on forgetting the ark of the covenant, or did his opponents in the narrative better understand the God of tradition? Was the Ba’al Shem Tov betraying traditional Judaism, as many contemporary rabbis thought, or by introducing new spiritual practices was he not reviving Judaism? Was Jesus, by celebrating eschatological banquets with many, whom the Biblical book of Leviticus had declared unclean, betraying sacred tradition, or adapting it?

And how would Jews or Christians decide how to evaluate the new? Udo Schnelle, in his Theology of the New Testament (2009), argues that Jesus himself focuses on the original will of God at creation, human life as it was created to be (Schnelle 111–13). Jesus’ Sabbath sayings are oriented to creation (Mark 3.4). The antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount point to God’s unconditional will, grounded in creation theology (Matt 5.45; Lk 6.35: “Love your enemies…, expecting nothing in return… and you will be children of the most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked”). Jesus expresses this programmatically, “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners” (Mk 2.17), as well as in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Mk 15.11–32), and of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18.23–35). All humans, not just the people of God, and not just the unclean, appear before God as debtors, with debts that cannot be repaid in a lifetime. Jesus not only proclaimed this but celebrated eschatological banquets with tax collectors, sinners, the poor, women, children, the sick, even Samaritans (Schnelle 104–05). He directly pronounced God’s forgiveness (Mk 2.1–12). Jesus not only brought change, he provided a way to evaluate it, not by all the laws of Leviticus, but by the Creator God’s love of all persons, all debtors, all sinners. Two commands of Torah are that we love God and neighbor (Deut 6.5 and Lev 19.18), and Jesus no longer tolerates any restriction on the Creator’s command to love (Schnelle 121). One lesson may be that preaching and teaching have consequences, Jesus’ teaching, as well as our own preaching and teaching over the last two decades that the ELCA has discussed ordination of GLBT persons! And mostly lay people, hearing those sermons, drew the consequences!

The ELCA has introduced change. We need not deny that. In the 1970s our predecessor bodies introduced change by ordaining women. At PLTS we recently celebrated our Foremothers, who participated in this expression of our Creator God’s love, not of one gender, but of both females and males. Again in 2009 the ELCA expanded our expression of the Creator God’s love of all humanity, this time by providing for the ordination of LGBT persons as well as of straight persons. This has again generated conflict. The Lutheran CORE webpage claims that 156 ELCA congregations have taken a first vote and won 2/3 majority to leave the ELCA.

One final caution: we might be careful whom we label Judas. A good NT scholar, William Klassen, wrote an intriguing book with the title Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? (Fortress, 1996). And there is the recently published Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic work that is not really a gospel (P. Perkins, Introduction to the Synoptic Tradition (Eerdmans, 2007, 278–81.) That is, who the historical Judas was, as well as whom in our world might be labeled Judas are both up for discussion. Very significant differences remain within the ELCA; we may share unity over ordaining women, but we do not yet share the same categories of thought (Mary Douglas’ phrase) about the straight/gay polarity. Some within the ELCA still have that straight/gay polarity in their minds and want our Lutheran culture to function in line with it, even though two-thirds of the delegates at Church Wide Assembly voted to deconstruct it, as I have argued, with good theological reasons, and good support in Jesus’ own reading of the Bible. Jesus still teaches us that we are to love all those whom God has created, including those who have now lost significant power in the ELCA. May God bless us all as we reach for unity in our understanding of human nature and Christian culture.