How Then Should We Live?
Beginning at the Exodus and moving through to the ministry of Jesus, Gavin Drew examines the biblical story looking for clues as to how the Lord intends us to live with each other on earth so that we manifest the values of the Kingdom of God.
As the biblical story unfolds we find the Israelites coming to see themselves as having a special mission to express God's character in, and to, humanity. The Exodus formed Israelite society,1 providing the context for the Israelites to learn from the Lord the standards of personal behaviour and social conduct that express God's character and freedom.2 If the Lord, the creator of heaven and earth, is to be their god and they are to be the Lord's people, then they are to act in ways that display God's "nature" or character.
With the Exodus and the entrance of the Israelites into the promised land, a rag-tag bunch of slaves - whom the Lord liberates from the oppression of Pharaoh and the god-kings of Canaan - is formed into a special people of mission. Because the Lord God is supremely free, the Lord's people are to be a free people. They are called to reflect the character of the God of justice, mercy and liberation in the way they live. Through them liberation and justice are to come to the whole world.3
The Exodus/promised land tradition is not so much a story of conquest and genocide, as it is the story of a struggle for liberation against an oppressive, hierarchical, religio-politico-economic world system, manifest in the despotic rule of the god-king pharaohs of Egypt and the various melek (kings) of Canaan. In this system, human rulers who set themselves up as gods appearing on earth manipulated the people through worship and religious ceremonies designed to perpetuate the myth that it was by their power and authority that the land remained fruitful.
In this way, these rulers claimed personal ownership of the land and appropriated its resources and the fruits of the people's labour. And so the people of the land were alienated from the wealth they produced and were reduced to tenants and slaves.
The Exodus is the story of the revolt of the 'peasant class' - people who find themselves under a divine imperative to live with each other in ways that do not perpetuate the injustices they have suffered and from which they have been delivered. No one among them may lord it over the others - no one among them may gain at the expense of others, because the Lord of heaven and earth is their king, and no one else is. As a community they are called to be an egalitarian commonwealth of free people.
They have been freed from obligation to human-god-kings and their manipulative priests. Their obligation is to the creator of heaven and earth, whose grace alone provides material, social and spiritual security.4 Reflection by the Hebrew people upon the powerful and formative story of the Exodus gave rise to the humanising tradition in the Mosaic law. A strong aspect of this tradition is the obligation on the Lord's people to provide for widows, orphans, the poor and foreigners living within their commonwealth.5 Further, it is the Lord who maintains the rights of the poor6 and gains justice for the oppressed. It is the Lord who commands "You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them . . . I will kill you with the sword".7
In contrast to the exploitative, hierarchical societies controlled by the despotic god-kings of Egypt and Canaan we read, in Leviticus 25, about the year of Jubilee. Essentially, jubilee is about the adequacy of God's grace. God, as creator, is able to provide well for people so that they should never need to be exploitative. God, as loving parent, wishes to provide. This grace is tied closely to the idea of Sabbath rest.
Jubilee was to be a recognition that the land, the means of production, belonged to God as creator. Unlike the god-kings of Egypt and Canaan, the Lord of heaven and earth doesn't need the fruits of creation. They are provided for our good.
When the Israelites entered Canaan, God apportioned the land to the tribes according to their need - tenure on the land was at God's pleasure. Leviticus 25 says the land could be used for six years, but on the seventh it was to be rested. God would provide enough in the years of use to cover the peoples' needs in the year of rest too.
The land could be leased from one family group by another. God's instructions, recorded in Leviticus 25, provided for the land to be leased for up to forty-nine years at an appropriate price, proportional to the harvest that could be gained from it.
But the fiftieth year was to be a special year of rest and re-creation. All land was to revert to those who held original tenure. All debts were to be cancelled. Any who had placed themselves in servitude to others, because of need, were to be freed and given the material means to start afresh by those whom they had served.8 Thus, jubilee was to be a radical liberation of both people and the land, a radical redistribution of wealth, and a strong corrective to any attempt by some to lord it over and oppress the rest. Perhaps the most striking aspect of God's instructions in Leviticus 25 concerns the charging of interest from the needy.
"If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them . . . . Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God."9
While the Leviticus 25 instructions refer to an ancient agrarian society with quite different economic and social dynamics from our own, it is also true that in these instructions the Israelites were being called to live in ways that were markedly different to the economic and social dynamics of the people around them.
It has been said that jubilee principles will not work in our global economic situation - the Israelite's own failure to live by jubilee principles were 'justified' by their leaders with precisely that argument. The Israelite kings,10 almost without exception, entered into religio-politico-economic alliances with the rulers of the nations around them in order to protect themselves, so they thought, from conquest. In these alliances they were obliged to participate in the religio-social structures of those with whom they joined. (An expression of this was the setting up the images of foreign gods in the Jerusalem Temple.) However, the prophets pointed out that by entering into these alliances the Israelites were rejecting God and breaking their covenant with the Lord established in the Exodus.
The theme of liberation, justice and egalitarianism, central to the Exodus narratives, is the substance of the prophets' call for faithfulness to the Lord: a faithfulness in which justice, mercy and liberation are the fruits of God's presence. Out of the inadequacy of Israel's response to the prophetic call arose the expectation of 'the day of the Lord' when the Lord will come and establish God's personal, liberating rulership of justice and peace throughout the earth.
Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God.11 To talk about the 'kingdom of God' is to talk about God's 'rulership', the state of affairs wherein God's will is done.12 This is a huge topic, too big to comment upon here, apart from noting that the year of Jubilee is key to the kingdom of God's hope. Much of Jesus' action and teaching is grounded in his understanding that God's liberation and the restoration of right relationships, central to jubilee, were taking place through him. When Jesus stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and read from Isaiah 61: 1-2 to announce the beginning and summarise the meaning of his mission, he said:
Then Jesus "rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."14 Often we "spiritualise" this proclamation, seeing only the kernel of Jesus' application - that Jesus liberates us from sin, disease and death. But that is to ignore the deep social consequences of sin. The liberation and restoration Jesus brought are not limited to the individual and her or his 'individual' relationship with God.
When Jesus announced that he brings good news to the poor, is proclaiming liberation to the oppressed, etc, he was using Isaiah's prophecy (which originally referred to the collective liberation of the exiles from captivity in Babylon), and applying it to his own immediate situation. There was a real sense that although the exiles had returned the Jews were not free in their own land - Roman oppression particularly impacted on the poor, the sick and those marginalised in other ways.
Jesus' action and teaching shows that he thought of himself as reconstituting the people of the Lord around himself. Unlike the Jewish social exclusivism and nationalism of Jesus' day this renewed people was to fulfil God's intention of inclusive, universal blessing to all people.15 Jesus chose twelve disciples to mirror the twelve tribes of the nation God had formed in the Exodus. Jesus forgave sins on his own authority, acted as master of the Sabbath, brought healing by his own creative word, presented himself (rather than the temple) as the true locus of God with people, held parties - or took over meals and turned them into parties - acting as it was thought God would act at the great eschatological celebration when the kingdom of God had come. Jesus told a story about how the poor and outcasts of society would be the ones who would come to that party.
Jesus included the marginalised of his society in his fellowship. Women, tax collectors and prostitutes figured among his associates. He touched lepers and a menstruating woman, bringing them healing and inclusion. In short, Jesus acted as God, bringing unconditional grace to any who would receive him. Thus he shocked the powers and social authorities by what was seen to be his blasphemous arrogance, his disregard for power and privilege. Jesus didn1t take sides by buying into the party politics and the social prejudices of his context. Instead he laid the foundation for his new community - one which would reflect the kingdom of God's unconditional grace, one of strange upside down values in which the last will be first, weakness is strength, the king is the servant, the dead will be raised!
But although Jesus practised inclusion as the expression of God's grace, he didn't embrace everything indiscriminately. Jesus rejected domination. When the disciples argued about being the greatest, Jesus said, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves."16
Jesus rejected inequality arising from individualistic striving for material security. He noted the difficulty the rich have with the jubilee values of the kingdom of God.17 He challenged his followers to share what they had and trust in God for the provisions of life.18 After his resurrection, the first followers of the Way that Jesus set forth took him seriously, by living from a common purse and relying upon God's jubilee provision.19 Jesus rejected rejection. A big charge levelled at Jesus by the social establishment was that he befriended social outcasts. The rigid stratification of Jesus' society was designed by the religious to distinguish between those in and those out, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean. Jesus rejected this way of thinking. For Jesus, the steadfast character of God is more clearly revealed in mercy and forgiveness than in judgement and punishment. If there is punishment, it is the result of not rejecting exclusion.
Jesus rejected ethnocentrism. Jesus didn1t just challenge the hierarchy and exclusivism of his own people. He also went to those outside his ethnic community. He healed the son of a Roman centurion, the daughter of a Syro-Phoenician woman, and a Gentile demoniac. Paul's understanding that there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free because we are all one in Christ Jesus20 is in no way a departure from the Spirit of Jesus' action and teaching.21
Jesus rejected violence. When Jesus' followers wanted to call down fire from heaven on Samaritans, Jesus corrected them sharply.22 When Jesus was arrested he put a stop to his followers' resistance, saying to them, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword."23 In our day, when world leaders justify their international agenda by going to war to bring "peace", Jesus' refusal to fight fire with fire seems extraordinarily strange. But has evil ever been defeated by evil? Jesus died on the cross rather than call on the armies of heaven to vindicate him.
Jesus rejected family ties.24 Families are a blessing, but they can be a curse. Families can be distorted by patriarchal chauvinism, producing abuse, violence, and even death. Further, the institution of family is part of the way the establishment protects itself, because some families have power and pass it on to their members, thus excluding others.
Families can be walled fortresses against other people. Often we limit our caring and generosity to our immediate families. Often we define our identity in terms of family. For Jews, genealogy meant legitimacy and blessing; those who couldn't trace their family line were without blessing. Family can be where we have our security, rather than in the Lord. Family can be an idol. Therefore, attachment to one's family can get in the way of our commitment to the inclusive reign of God. But Jesus' followers were to be a new family with new, inclusive values.
Jesus rejected that view of the Mosaic law which saw it as a badge of identity and a wall of exclusion. The law was never an end in itself. Nevertheless the law, as system of purification and defilement, permanently excluded many without hope. The growing tendency to use detailed, extra-biblical extrapolations and rationalisation of the law to prescribe all human action placed a burden on all - except the privileged few with wealth enough to afford compliance.
Jesus challenged the Sabbath, dietary and purity laws, as examples of the way the law had become a burden rather than an expression of inclusive blessing and grace. The law was used by those who could keep it as a way of excluding those who couldn't. This is not much different from the way our legal system operates to legitimate the practice of those who have appropriated power and maintain structures that criminalise the marginalised.
Jesus rejected the exclusivist practice of what we would call 'religion'. Sacrifice at the Jerusalem temple was the business of state. Religion replaces interpersonal fellowship with God with human manipulation. It attempts to market some 'solution' to the problems of life. Jesus set out to tear down religion in order to build a new thankful community of unconditional grace that would come to fill the whole world.
Jesus challenged the mean-hearted divisive nature of his social situation in all its manifestations. Jesus' self-sacrificial mission, which culminates in the cross, presents him not only as the servant of the Lord (ebed Yahweh),25 but also as the Lord who is the servant.26 Paul, in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians, puts together both the self-sacrificial, servant-heart of Jesus and our call to live out the Lord's shalom in our interpersonal and social relationships. Paul enjoins us to have the same servant-mind as Christ.27 The righteousness that is made available by Jesus' death, and the liberation that comes from his resurrection, can neither be separated from the central story of the Scriptures, nor from the Church's Spirit-empowered mission28 to bring that liberation and justice to the world.
2 By definition, it is the nature of God to be free. The Scriptures nowhere present God as under an obligation to create anything. Therefore, God's creative activity is an expression of God's complete freedom and self-giving grace.
4 Chris Marshall has commented about the paradoxical nature of Israel's conception of freedom, as "freedom experienced in subjection, a subjection to the totalitarian demands of her God. She was not free to do entirely as she pleased; she was bound to obey God's law . . . the most profound aspects of human identity are conferred upon human beings by the God who made them in his image, living in conformity with this God's will must be the highest form of freedom" (Marshall in Human Rights and the Common Good: Christian Perspectives, eds Bill Atkin and Katrine Evans, VUW Press, to be published 1999). This is a key motif in understanding Jesus' obedience to the will of God as the means by which he saw himself as bringing human liberation (see for example, Lk 4.1-44).
10 In Sam 8.4-22 the people demand a king. The Lord is displeased and notes that they have rejected God as their king and served foreign gods since the Lord brought them out of Egypt. The clear implication is that the Israelites were to be a different, egalitarian society where no human being was king. But finally the Lord relents. The ensuing Israelite kings were almost always despotic, corrupt and idolatrous.
12 In the biblical story the Lord is king by being a servant. Where God's will is done the last are first, they are led by children, the lion lies down with the lamb and the king is the servant of the people. The rulership of God is quite the opposite of patriarchal oppression; it is liberation!
Gavin is a consultant, working with Scripture. He is a member of Karori Baptist Church and a member of the Stimulus Trust.