The Whats and the Whys

Was Jesus a marginal Jew? There is a book out called “A Marginal Jew” that suggests that Jesus may have been a bit loose with Jewish tradition, that perhaps he was on the outside liberal fringe of the faith.

Our tradition holds that the Law is honorable, that Jesus rightly divided the word of truth, and that even by the standards of his earthly day, Jesus was a perfect example of pious faith.

I think it was his society, and not Jesus himself, that was marginal. No authority held the Jewish faith together, so it had factions, and sects. The Pharisees tried to control the scripture, and the Saducees controlled the Temple. And none of this happened except that as it could be tolerated by a Roman ruling class that was itself officially pagan. Nielssen was right when he said that a point in every direction is the same as no point at all. The chaos of Palestine in Jesus’ day is a lot like what we call a secular society.

I also think that Jesus was a perfectly orthodox, kosher Jew. That is, I believe that Jesus kept himself ritually clean. I believe he was a faithful student of the scripture and a regular attender at synogog. While it may also fulfill prophecy that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, I also have no doubt that Jesus, as a product of ordinary human learning, knew full well that Zecharia said the Messiah would do that..

In that era of Roman occupation, Jesus was actually one of a handful of public figures rumored to be the Messiah. You may recall people asking if John the Baptist were the Messiah, and there were revolutionaries in that role as well.

I can just imagine that poor street vendor. “Hey! Where ya goin with my donkey?” “The Master hath need of it.” “Aye, another Master. The Messiah comes, does he? Oy Vey! Well, take the poor donkey, they’re all humble skinny lots anyway. Here, take her colt, too. The colt will cry without her mother, anyway.”

I can imagine that entering Jerusalem on a donkey might become a rowdy Passover tradition. But Jesus was surrounded by disciples and people who had heard of his miracles. John says they were in a frenzy over the resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus mounted the donkey on the Mount of Olives, which is of course where the scripture says the Messiah will come from. And as the road widens closer to the city these mobs were lining the road, casting palm branches and cloaks to carpet the path.

It is on this short journey that Jesus declares that if you silence the crowds, the rocks and stones will cry out. On this short journey, Jesus stops to weep over a mountain view of Jerusalem. Our accounts of Jesus’ life are so few and so brief that we have latched onto this journey, named it Palm Sunday, and use it to prepare for Easter, the holiest day in our faith. It has all the appeal of a fanfare to the first act of a play. We know there is dark tragedy between here and final victory, so we have this interim celebration, this Palm Sunday, to hopefully take us through the dark moments of the final act.

At the end of this road, Jesus enters the Temple and casts out the vendors and moneychangers. And the scripture tells us that he went on to teach every day in the temple for the next several days.

How could anyone without civil or religious authority enter the temple, trash the vendor mall, and still manage to teach in the Temple day after day? We know the authority of a resurrected Christ; the people in that day did not. All the authorities saw was a rowdy band of followers. No one wanted to risk a riot by upsetting that motley crew. On the other hand, Jesus was willing to die, and there is only one way to stop a man who is willing to die.

Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Our scripture from Luke on the last supper tells us how he had longed to celebrate This Passover with his disciples. I like the NIV, not usually, but on this scripture, because it tells us they reclined at the table. I looked it up — I wouldn’t know without looking it up — and I find that where King James says he sat and the Revised Standard says he took his place, the Greek word is AnaPepto, which means to recline.

By Mosaic Law, Jews would have gotten all yeast products out of their houses for a full seven days before Passover. As the eldest son, Jesus probably fasted the second day before Passover, to commemorate God’s grace on the firstborn of Israel as the angel of death took the firstborn of Egypt.

As a child, Jesus may have asked or answered something like the four Seder questions that our children went over this morning. I can almost see children in that Upper Room early in the evening, asking Jesus and his disciples questions: “Why do we eat bitter herbs this night? Why do you recline at the table this night?”

Passover is all about passing the story of deliverance from Egyptian from Generation to Generation. The Seder meal is designed to make children ask, “Why? Why?” I can almost hear someone asking Judas, “Why do we dip our foods in the bowl on this night?” Passover is for children, and since our account of the last supper includes no children, this meal may have included just some of the ancient traditions, those that held meaning for Jesus and his followers.

Four glasses of wine are poured during the Seder. They represent Freedom, Deliverance, Redemption and Release. A fifth cup is poured for Elijah. The door is left open, and some families set a place for Elijah. As I said, I envision Jesus as a Kosher Jew who ministered in a marginally Jewish world. Knowing what he knew, he might have skipped setting a place for Elijah that night.

Our account in Luke recalls two cups. Jesus took the cup — which cup? Freedom? Deliverance? Was this the cup of Redemption? Or, since he would not drink of it until he drank it new in God’s Kingdom, maybe it was the cup of Release. We don’t know.

Then, after the supper, he took the cup — maybe they just had one large cup. It was probably the same cup, and I imagine sharing a large cup to taste a fine wine was not uncommon practice. But this was the cup of the New Covenant, in his Blood, poured out for us.

I think Jesus started that night with a cup in the old tradition. Freedom, Deliverance, Redemption, Release … They all work. Pick your favorite. But he ended with a new cup, the cup of the New Covenant in his blood, poured out for us.

Why? Why is this a New Covenant? Why was his blood poured out for us? Why did he say the bread was his body? How can a person be born again? Why did he quote scripture from the cross?

In scripture, God speaks to all of humankind using broad strokes. He frees a people from Egypt and inspires their priests to record it in writing. He gives a people a set of rules and reminders, and a nation rises and falls not so much on obedience to those rules as on an ability to understand Why those rules exist.

Time and time again, old traditions are reborn into new. Passover was celebrated even while the Jews were in Babylonian Exile, and it was renewed in detail when they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Accounts of the Passover are found in 17 books of the Bible, spanning through time as the nation of Israel returns to tradition for strength in uncertain times. The nation remained a nation while it had no land at all, because each year the faithful raised their glasses to toast, “Next year, in Israel…”

Why do we draw new strength from old traditions? Should we? Are we putting new wine in old bottles?

We have a rich tradition. We have the tradition of the Gospel, and in Christ, we are grafted into the traditions of his People. Our scripture, our scrapbooks, our stories of long ago are so rich with meaning that one lifetime cannot find it all. Each generation finds new meaning in the old stories. That’s how it works with a God who’s ability to speak exceeds our ability to listen.

Tradition can be lifeless. If we stop asking why, it can lose its meaning. The Pharisees had more tradition than everyone else, and they followed tradition to the letter. But Jesus saw their faith as cold and lifeless. They were big on what, and short on why.

Why do we wash our hands so often? Why do we respect the sabbath? Why do we wear tassles on our garments? We say that the devil is in the details. I think the Word of God is in the details of the Torah, and the Talmud — and probably not in some of the other documents the Pharisees might have used. Imagine two ultra-orthodox Jews. One says, “What?” and the other says, “Why?” The one who says “What” surrounds himself with the traditions of his fathers. The one who says Why surrounds himself with reminders of God’s great love and clues to greater mysteries.

In his mercy, God might have brought us to the feet of Buddha, or to the Egyptian Sun God RA, or to the fires of Baal. But he didn’t. Look around you. The grace of God has brought you to the story of Jesus. That’s your tradition. He is the vine, and we are the branches, our God is his God, and that of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This God loves to forgive. This God created everything. This God abolished human sacrifice. This God rules in love, not in anger. This God sets the captives free. This God has always been This God.

This God is what Christ has given us. But Christ gives him to us as a Father. As a Father? As Abba Daddy? Why? Is this the God of the Pharisee, the God of the Saducee, the God of Herod? This is Yahweh! The Great I Am! All these people pointed to the same God, and they all had the same tradition of written knowledge about that God. They all celebrated the same flight from Egypt at Passover. They all knew the What. But what is the question of Passover? WHY? Why did God free us from Egypt? Why did Moses give us the Law? Why does this man have to die?

We all know, roughly, what we’re doing. We’re celebrating Palm Sunday. We’re saluting Passover. We know what Easter is, and what we will be doing for Easter. I think we all know the What. You want to really live this Easter, do something different? For every what, ask why?

Seems like long ago I sat for a first talk with our Regional Minister, Bill Morrison, to get started on licensing. He ask me what I planned to do, and I told him. Then, after he understood What I wanted to do, he just asked, “Why?”

I rattled off a bunch of whats — well, my Grampa was a preacher, and I’m a pretty good public speaker, and I can write, and I’m going to school — and Rev. Morrison just nods and smiles. Doesn’t say a word. I don’t get the feeling that he has his answer yet. I’m sitting there thinking that even as cool as I am, there’s an actual possibility that I won’t have this man’s blessing. So my heart blurts out, “I simply must! I know what Jesus has done for me, and I just have to talk about it!” Apparently, that was the “why” he was looking for.

I love the Whats of tradition. I love my Grampa, and all the years he’s been preaching. I love the old King James Bible, and the Good News Bible, and I love old country Gospel music.

But it’s the Whys of tradition that change your life. Why is Grampa still preaching after 53 years? Why do I love the old King James Bible? Why do I love old Gospel music? Because that’s how good God IS! We need the Whats to get us started, to remind us of the story, but it’s the Whys that will change your life right now!

We know the whats, and that’s good. There is a lot of love packed in all the whats. They all have meaning, and the people who gave them to us wanted us to have all that meaning, too. But we won’t find the meaning if we don’t ask, “Why?” If the Why I preach is because I love God, then I’ll learn to love God whether I’m preaching or not.

And you know, a lot of times I don’t know what’s what. If I even thought I could tell Disciples of Christ what to think, they’d toss me out on my ear. So let me just encourage you to ask, Why? Why is Jesus called the Passover Lamb? In First Corinthians 5 Paul said to that church, “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.”

Is this new wine in an old bottle? Is Paul trying to squeeze the new wine of Jesus into the old bottle of Passover? No. Rather, there is truth in the Passover story, and Paul is saying that for him Christ is a part of that truth. Passover is about Freedom, Deliverance, Redemption and Release. Passover is about new beginnings.

In Christ, we have our new beginning, our Passover. We have a path to God’s forgiveness that we can understand. We have our own story of Redemption and Release, but it is the same salvation provided by the same loving God.

And so with Paul I say, let us keep the Festival, the Passover. Let us get rid of the old yeast and become a new batch of dough. And let our Festival be something more than a collection of traditional stories. You can make Easter a personal, life-changing event if you will just look at each tradition and ask, “Why?” “Why?”

Pastor says knowing the right questions is as important as knowing the answers. So let me leave you with a question that always works: Why? We are God’s children, and God has filled our worlds with reasons to ask, “Why?” The question is not an expression of doubt, but a seeking after the Kingdom of God. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God. Begin your search by asking, “Why?” The answers may surprise you. I am certain that they will inspire you. Because I am confident that the question will be answered directly by God, and directly to your heart. And that will change everything.

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