I got a standing ovation in church last Sunday when I spoke to over six hundred Anglicans gathered in Christ Church of Calgary, Canada, to hear me talk about Jesus.
I told them I love Jesus, and believe him to be one of the greatest sages who ever lived. I told them that Jesus was a Pharisee, as am I, and that they shouldn’t heed the propaganda of their Bible that paints us as legalists and hypocrites. We were in fact the liberals of our day, and Hillel’s branch of the movement, the branch to which Jesus may have belonged, was clearly quite progressive, defining the whole of the Torah as not doing unto others what you would not want others to do to you. Jesus’ positive restatement of Hillel’s negative expression of the Golden Rule suggests both that he sat in Hillel’s academy and my not have been all that attentive.
I shared with them how Jesus, when he said “Resist not evil,” was actually saying, “resist not evil in the old ways, but in a new way, my way;” a way of nonviolent confrontation with injustice that proclaimed and affirmed the dignity of the oppressed (in his day Jews), and made clear the immorality of the oppressor in a way that might just might trigger a change.
I told them how “if they strike you on the right cheek” reflected a Roman law allowing soldiers to backhand Jews as they might a mangy dog, and how “turning the other cheek” was an act of defiance, daring the soldier to strike you openhanded on the left cheek, a sign of anger among equals. I told them how Roman law allowed soldiers to force Jews to carry a soldier’s pack for up to one mile in an effect to reduce them to donkeys, and how “going the extra mile” asserted one’s humanity and forced the soldier into the absurd situation of having to refuse the kindness of a Jew who had now regained human status. I told them how the courts stripped people of the very clothes on their backs, and how “giving one’s tunic” was an act of standing naked before the court shaming the judges and encouraging resistance to their injustice.
I told them that while I did not believe Jesus to be the Christ, I did, following Martin Buber, believe him to be a Lamed Vavnik, one of the 36 hidden saints of every generation whose love for humanity keeps us from imploding under the weight of our own ignorance, arrogance, anger, fear, greed, and violence. I told them Jesus’ pleas to those he helped not to reveal him as a healer was his attempt to remain hidden, and that once outed he used his new status to directly confront Rome and those collaborating with Rome, a decision that he knew could only lead to death on the Roman cross.
I told them that belief in Jesus as Christ was fine, but, as Jesus had just said to them in the day’s reading from Matthew Chapter 25, it was care for the powerless that determined one’s future with God, and not belief in Jesus. I told them that true lovers of Jesus must do as he sought to do: establish the kingdom of godliness and resist the oppressors—military, political, religious, and corporate—that are today’s Rome.
And I thanked them for listening to one Jew speak with pride of another. And they gave me a standing ovation.