Deuteronomy 26: 5-13

Luke 10: 25-37



“How do you read?” Jesus and the struggle for a just interpretation of the Law


Jesus spent all his adult life in Galilee. “Galilee of the nations” was a cosmopolitan region Galilee was a place of mixed race, mixed language, Greek Aramaic, Syriac, Latin. It was a place of trade and commerce. It was not particularly religious. “Can anything good come out of Galilee?” say the religious leaders from Jerusalem about Jesus. We hear of Jesus walking around Lake Genezareth into the Decapolis region, which was Greek, that is – foreign, outside the Land. We hear of him in conversation with a Syro-Phoenician woman, a Roman Centurion. He did not come from a racially pure area. His world was multi racial and multi ethnic and multi-faith.


Jerusalem with its temple, the Sanhedrin, its scholars and Royal high Priestly families was much more aware of itself as the heart of Jewish identity. Judea and Jerusalem were also more aware of Roman authority and power, which they collaborated with for the sake of peace. During Jesus life time anger grew against Rome’s power over Palestine and its growing economic influence such that racial hatred grew apace until the uprising 27 years after Jesus death when the Jews rose up against the Romans and the Romans responded by devastating Galilee and Judea with four Legions and completely destroying the Temple.


I give all this background so that we have a clearer picture of the time in which Jesus talked about love of neighbour and love of enemy. Neighbour and enemy included foreigner, stranger and oppressor, love of them was no easier then than now.


The Teaching of Jesus within the “Great” and “Little” traditions:


The Jerusalem elites, political and religious, proposed a particular reading of the scriptures. Their interpretation of the “Great Tradition defined the “world”; that is, defined the current social construction of reality. Their interpretation of the Torah was not a simple argument between schools but rather a political struggle with economic and social consequences – it is about wealth and power. To control the interpretation of the Great Tradition brought power and influence. A particular reading of the Torah suited the ruling elites as it enabled them to control social and religious behaviour and profit from the imposition of taxes and tribute for their own benefit by placating the needs of the Roman Imperial authorities with which they collaborated.



The Great Tradition focused on control through cultic purity and practice, the rule of the Priesthood and the Temple. Its emphasis is holiness through formal religious observance. But in the Scriptures the Priestly and Temple focus is paralleled by other Prophetic and Deuteronomic traditions. The scribes and the priests emphasise the payments of tithes. But the scriptures also speak of the Sabbath year’s cancellation of debt and the Jubilee year’s call to redistribute wealth and land. When this tradition is strong and coherent it can counter the limited interpretation of the Great Tradition. The heroes in Galilee were not the elite Temple Priesthood but Elijah and Elisha, through whom God called the powerful of their time to account for their apostasy.


It is in Galilee that Jesus develops rituals of reversal (the call of the 12, free healings, free forgiveness) that subverted the interpretations of the Great Tradition. E.g. the Pharisees had adapted the meals of the priests in the temple into the rhythms of everyday life. At every meal they now fulfilled the Torah’s commands, sanctifying all Israel and transforming each participant into a priest and so a holy Nation. Their particular emphases were on Sabbath observance, ritual purity and tithing.


In contrast Mark 2:15-16 tells us Jesus deliberately sits at table with toll collectors and sinners, the unholy and the marginalised who are permanently in debt to the temple. This is a deliberate challenge to the great tradition and to those who follow it, an offence to Moses. His meals establish a different type of community, that of the Kingdom of Abba, the Kingdom of the destitute and the unclean. But to his enemies this is sacrilege. Cf. Luke 7:33-35, Math 11:18-19:


It’s a rejection of the priestly model of purity and the temple table as a basis for the village’s table. Jesus rejects the purity barriers and their stigma that would make his chosen companions unclean, indebted and outside Israel’s true fellowship. His practice challenges their reading of the great tradition.


Jesus and the Torah

So at the heart of Jesus teaching and practice is a disputed reading of the Law. He stands with the prophets in their interpretation of it: “Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil it.” (Math 5:17). As he puts it “The weightier matters of the Torah are judgement, mercy and faithfulness.” (Math 23:23).


Hence Jesus two questions of the scribe: What is written in the Torah? How do you read? In other word they make sure they are dealing with the same text but then the text has to be interpreted. In Galilee the Torah was in dispute. Jesus teaching and action reveal how he read/interpreted the Torah.


Purity and Debt

In the Torah there are purity and debt codes. The codes apply to the table, the household and the sanctuary. They have different origins and emphases.


The origin of the purity code is in the creation story and the command "You shall be holy as I am holy". Just as God separates light from darkness the purity code separates incompatibles cf. Dt. 22:9-11 gives rules on planting different seeds, using different cloth for clothes, ploughing with different animals. But the process continues - clean and unclean animals, women at different times of their cycles, Israelites and Gentiles, those who follow the Torah and the amme ha-aretz (the dirt poor who have no time for the finer points of religion as they strive to survive on a daily basis). The list can extend ad infinitum at its heart is the idea that every individual should be complete and there should be no mixing of kinds. Mixing involves pollution, confusion, a curse, and ultimately death. Impurity is the beginning of the dissolution of creation back into chaos from which god drew it. The purity codes avoid this. They are about keeping order and control. A traditional role of religion.


Whereas the debt codes are linked to the exodus event and the gift of the Land. The land is Yahweh’s the people are tenants. So the land can never be finally sold (Lev. 25:23). The Debt codes extend the graciousness of the first gift to the sharing of the fruits of the land e.g. Deut. 26:12 has tithing every three years to “the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they eat their fill within your towns.” Similarly with the Sabbatical Year (Dt. 15:12-18) and the Jubilee year (Lev. 25:23-55) with their cancelling of debts, freeing of slaves, and return of land to the original families.


The debt codes aimed to avoid the violence of the exploitation of the poor by the rich. But by Jesus time as the land produced abundantly it was not simply seen as a gift but as a source of wealth and so instead of distributing the surplus, one of the original roles of the Temple and its taxes, it was hoarded for status and private excessive consumption.


The Jerusalem elites prioritise the purity codes. Poverty is the result of uncleanness. If one were pure one would be blessed i.e. not poor. Hence the way in which the Temple authorities, who based themselves on the purity codes, blamed those they exploited by portraying them as unclean amme ha-aretz. Their poverty was their own fault because they did not follow the Sabbath and purity laws.


But read from the point of view of the debt codes poverty is the result of the covetous greed of the rich and the powerful what Jesus calls Mammon, the unrestricted accumulation of wealth. And how do the rich in this society accumulate wealth? At the expense of peasant producers, through fraudulent collection of taxes and tithes, through lending to those who would have difficulty paying back and then foreclosing on their loans. All this is a violation of the will of Yahweh expressed in the non-exploitative social relations of the covenant.


            Ex. 23:9 “You shall not oppress the stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The theological principle underlying this is simple: “For I am compassionate.”” 22:27.


In the Exodus covenant the powerless stranger is under God’s protection. The identity of Israel was to be a people who offered protection of others not contempt or exclusion.


Into this reality Jesus comes bringing a message about a God who is not primarily interested in rituals of home or temple, nor of purity laws, (“The Sabbath is for humans…”) nor of racial identity. Rather this God is reminding Israel of where they come from. When Jesus says in Mark 12:28 “Love God with your whole self and your neighbour as yourself “ he is evoking ancient memories. They would have heard the echo of the prayer written on the heart of every Jew and taught to all children Deut 6: 5 Hear O Israel! The Lord is our god the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” And the second half echoes Lev 19:18 “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countryman. You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” The people of Israel were a liberated people made up of migrant workers under the Egyptians, 12 separate gangs with little in common except their slavery. God calls them out of nothingness, to be something, his people Israel. A people characterised by a unique freedom and as such they were to be a sign for others that such freedom was possible. They must create an inclusive land where there would always be a place for the widow the orphan and the stranger – the migrant worker! The people whose power was sheer gift of God (Israel =God’s People) should not threaten the powerless.


Jesus use of Abba is already in part a critique of the Temple and the Jerusalem elite’s interpretation of the Covenant message. The Mosaic title for God – Hebrew’s holiest word that still today no orthodox Jew will use is Yahweh. Given to Moses at the burning bush. “I will be who I will be, I am who I am, and I will be where I will be”. In other words God beyond our concepts and feeble imaginings, Lord of history master of creation. You can see the danger of this name. Too holy to be named God must be too holy to be near. (Opening up the danger of those who step in and control an appropriate access to the holy.) Here we have one of the classic dangers for religion the option for utter transcendence! But when the disciples say” How should we pray?” Jesus counters this and says “Our Father – Abba” - close familial, everyday. The God of domestic mess the God who is where we all are. In using this name Jesus had already subverted the power of temple and cult and potentially of those who controlled access to the God by Temple and cult. This would have immediate economic implications – forgiveness was controlled by costly temple sacrifices. In the little tradition as taught by Jesus forgiveness is a direct transaction between God and us but implying just as direct a transaction between us and those who trespass against us. And if we have direct access to Abba so does our enemy.


If the Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of Abba then all sorts of relationships change, all sorts of limits disappear. “Many will come from East and West and sit at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven, while the sons of the Reign will be thrown into outer darkness” Math 8:14 The so often forgotten and latent universalism of Jewish faith flames forth again. Israel was called to be a sign to the nations not an end in itself. (Similarly the Church as the New Israel is called to a  similar universalism, and yet how often in its history its members settle for a sect. It is noticeable that the American Founding Fathers and Mothers emphasized the Decalogue and its purity codes but paid little heed to the debt codes.)


Jesus provokes the people to rediscover the radical freedom of the rule of Abba through story and parable. Today’s parable in many ways it is the most radical of all and the most truly revelatory of Jesus own perspective. A lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to be saved, to inherit eternal life, after a conversation the lawyer sums up the law with Love God and Love neighbour. Jesus applauds him. But the lawyer in a typical rabbinic fashion says but who is my neighbour. The Rabbis typically emphasised the periphery of the circle within which love of neighbour could be practiced. Jesus subverts this by breaking open the circle.


Jesus’ answer to the lawyer is not a technical definition of the limits of the circle of neighbours.  Jesus starts from everyday life -a mugging on the Jericho road. An everyday occurrence. The listeners are immediately in sympathy with the victim, a fellow Jew, since it could be them next. Along comes a Priest on his way to the temple, avoiding ritual impurity and so the loss of his temple service and income he walks by. Similarly the Levite. The crowd’s reaction would have been noisy and vociferous – bloody clergy, more interested in their dues etc. the tradition of Jewish stories is much like our own: “An Englishman, and Irishman and a Scots man….” The third of the trio is always the hero. The crowds looking up as it were with the eyes of their mugged countrymen expect to see a good Jew, an ordinary good chap who will be the minister of God’s grace. But Jesus story explodes their expectations of where God’s grace is to be found. Looking up instead they see their hated enemy. Who anoints them with fine oil, puts them on his horse, takes them to a four star hotel, tells the manager to look after them giving him the money to do so and says he will return to settle any difference! All their national and racial prejudices are attacked; their stereotype is reversed, as this religious, racial, economic and political alien becomes the agent of God’s mercy toward them. This is the Kingdom of Abba, an alternative vision breaking in and offering to transform the world of the hearers. The crowd would have been as gob-smacked as the Lawyer who when Jesus asks who was the Neighbour? Cannot even say the name but only the one who helped him.


This is an extraordinary attack on formal religion, on the Temple and what its cult had come to stand for. It re-locates the religious centre outside of purity and ritual. It is a re-affirmation of the earliest of the Jewish traditions of the Law/Torah with its emphasis in Exodus 22: 21ff and Lev, 19:9f and Deut. 24:11ff on unconditional love and responsibility for the neighbour, the alien and the needy (Cf. Sabbath and Jubilee Years) and of the covenant as gracious election. Jesus refuses to see the covenant as moral and racial superiority. God as Father of Creation has a prior covenant with all creation. Here the Samaritan heretic is presented as God’s agent. Jesus parable locates the centre of religion beyond the margins the rabbis set. There is no definition of neighbour here but the enacting of the quality of love that Abba and his children are to offer to all.


The parable opens up unforeseen possibilities. It presents an alternative imagined world, the Kingdom, in terms so shockingly real that they can subvert the limits of the present.


This choice of the margins as a place of perspective is deliberate.


The Gospel begins on the margins: Palestine, Bethlehem, Shepherds, Old folk near death –Simeon and Anna, John the Baptist, “Glutton and drunkard, friend of sinners”, ministry among the “am ha’arets”.


Jesus has rich friends: Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Joanna. He has a place in society as a tekne – skilled worker. But his most famous collection of teachings “the Beatitudes” celebrates the marginal. He dies on the margins outside the city in an unclean unholy place, between marginal figures, criminals. And the first witnesses to his resurrection were marginal to public life – women.


The centre of religious life was Jerusalem. Most of Jesus ministry was in Galilee.

This is his chosen political and social context: the antithesis of Caesar’s Empire and Israel’s centre – the periphery.


His table fellowship breaks boundaries – and blurs margins. Who is in and who is out? Math 21: 1-13; Peter 3:13. Again and again the Kingdom is discovered among those who were thought outside it.


Jesus lifestyle kept crossing boundaries, social, sexual, ritual, religious. Open healing. Math 10:11-14; radical itinerancy Math 6: 25-33; programmatic homelessness Math 8:19-20, a fundamental egalitarianism. He died because his life and teaching crossed too many boundaries, blurred margins, and invited a new perspective. For many then as now this was threatening. They all hand him over so as to stay as they were.


Jesus stories and encounters broke open the narrow perspectives of his time and revealed the real currents that were at their heart; he disturbed his listeners and made them aware of the unsatisfied depths and the unacknowledged fears within each of them and the compromises they had settled for.


In Jesus ministry he displaces the centre of religion and the margins and the marginalized become the focus for the new unholy centre of the kingdom of God. Lk 10:30-35.


The margin is never an easy place to be, but it is often easier to be honest there.



Further reading:


Borg, M. (1998)  Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press

Horsley, R. & Hanson, J. (1985) Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the time of Jesus, New York: Winstone Press.

Herzog, W.R. (2005) Prophet and Teacher: An Introduction to the Historical Jesus, Westminster: John Knox Press.

Herzog, W.R. (2000) Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, Louisville, John Knox Press.

Herzog, W.R. (1994) Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, Louisville: John Knox Press.

Neyrey, J.H. (1991) The Social World of Luke-Acts, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers.