Tag Archives: Jesus of Nazareth

One interpretation of the Easter story

Elaine Pagels gives this summary of the events leading up to Easter Sunday:

“Jesus’ passionate and powerful presence aroused enormous response, especially when he preached among the crowds of pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. As the Jewish and Roman authorities well knew, tensions were high during the religious holidays when Jewish worshipers found themselves face to face with the Roman soldiers. Jesus’ near contemporary the Jewish historian Josephus, himself a governor of Galilee, tells of a Roman soldier on guard near the Temple who contemptuously exposed himself before just such a crowd, an outrage that incited a riot in which twenty thousand died. When Jesus dared enter the Temple courtyard before a certain Passover, brandishing a whip, throwing down the tables of those changing foreign money, and quoting the words of the prophet Jeremiah to attach the Temple leaders for turning God’s house into a ‘den of robbers,’ the Gospel of Mark says, ‘he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple’ (Mark 11.16). But soon afterwards the authorities took action to prevent this firebrand village preacher from fanning the religious and nationalistic passions already smoldering among the restless crowds. The Jewish Council, eager to keep the peace, and hoping to avoid recrimination from their Roman masters, collaborated with the Roman procurator to have Jesus arrested, tried, and hastily executed on charges of having threatened to tear down the Temple single-handedly, and having conspired to rise against Rome and make himself king of the Jews (Mark 14.58-15.26).

“Jesus himself, according to the New Testament, saw himself very differently, not as a revolutionary but as a man seized by the spirit that inspired Isaiah and Jeremiah — the spirit of God — as a prophet sent to warn humankind of the approaching Kingdom of God and to offer purification to those who would listen. Repeatedly, according to the New Testament accounts, Jesus chose to risk death rather than allow himself to be silenced.” Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), pp. 6-7.

Based on this Easter reading, here are two my two Easter thoughts this year:

(1) In today’s Western culture, religio-political leaders (and politico-religious leaders) like to style themselves as successors to Jesus, and followers of prophets like Jeremiah. However, history tells us that we have seen very few such leaders who actually were successors to Jesus, and many more who were instead successors to the Jerusalem’s religious leaders who were tools of the Romans. The difference between the two? Jesus answered to moral truth and to a God of humane justice; Jerusalem’s religious leaders answered to political expediency and to their political puppet masters.

(2) After Jesus was executed on trumped-up political charges, Jesus’s message was not silenced. Maybe it got seriously transmogrified by later philosophers (Augustine and Paul come to mind), but if we listen carefully we can still hear Jesus’ basic message of righteousness and humanity. Two thousand years later, that message is still very much alive; Easter is a good holiday to remember that message, and to remind ourselves to look for the strings by which many religious leaders are controlled by their puppet masters.

How To Feed Five Thousand People

Another in a work-in-progress, stories for liberal religious kids.

Once upon a time, Jesus and his disciples (that is, his closest followers) were trying to take a day off. Jesus had become very popular, and people just wouldn’t leave him alone. Jesus and the disciples wanted a little time away from the crowds that followed them everywhere, so they rented a boat and went to a lonely place, far from any village.

But people figured out where they were going, and by the time Jesus and his friends landed the boat, there were five thousand people waiting there for them. So Jesus started to teach them, and he talked to them for hours.

It started getting late, and the disciples of Jesus pulled him aside and said, “We need to send these people to one of the nearby villages to get some food.”

“No,” said Jesus. “The villages around here are too small to feed five thousand people. You will have to get them something to eat.”

“What do you mean?” his disciples said. “We don’t have enough money to go buy enough bread for all these people, and even if we did, how would we bring it all back here?”

“No, no,” said Jesus. “I don’t want you to go buy bread. Look, how many loaves of bread have we got right here?” Continue reading

Two miracle birth stories of Jesus

This Sunday in Sunday school, I will be teaching the children about the two stories that we tell about the birth of Jesus. In popular culture, we mush these two stories together — angels and shepherds get mushed in with wise men and the star in the east — but they really are two different stories, told by two people with differing theologies.

Part of the basic Biblical literacy I want to make clear to children that there are indeed two different stories. I don’t want to go into the subtle differences in the theologies of the two stories; it is enough for me that children learn that there are two stories. This will lay the foundation for later, when they can learn that the Bible is a collection of books by different authors, with different viewpoints. I also hope that having a good knowledge of the Biblical stories of Jesus will help them begin to distinguish the other additions that our culture has made to the Jesus birth stories — additions like putting animals in the stable, determining how many wise men there were, etc.

The Miracle of the Wise Men and the Star
The Miracle of What Angels Told to Shepherds

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Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

We’ve tentatively identified four big educational goals for the religious education programs in our church, and one of those goals is to make sure children have basic religious literacy compatible with the society they’re living in. More specifically, we want children who have gone through our program to know: (a) the main Bible stories they’re likely to encounter in Western culture (in literature, film, painting, etc.); (b) stories and facts about the main world religions they will encounter both in their immediate environment and in current events; (c) a basic knowledge of the history of Western religion (primarily Western Christianity), and in particular the history that led to the formation of Unitarianism and Universalism; and (d) the main characters and stories of Unitarianism and Universalism in North America.

Yesterday I had lunch with three of the lay leaders in the children’s religious education program to talk about assessment strategies for our religious education program. I suggested that part of our assessment strategy for this educational goal of religious literacy should be a list of the specific things we want to teach our kids; i.e., which Bible stories should kids know? which famous Unitarians and Universalists should they know? etc.

Below is my first attempt at generating such a list, with material to be covered from ages 3 to 18. I would love to have your comments on, suggestions for, corrections to, and additions to this list.

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Jesus and Socrates and UU kids

I got asked to serve as the guest editor for the summer number of uu & me, the four-page insert for children that’s in each issue of UU World, the Unitarian Universalist denominational magazine. I talked the editorial board into devoting this issue to Jesus.

Jesus is a big topic, and we knew we couldn’t cover the topic comprehensively in four kid-friendly pages (and we knew that there will be future numbers of uu & me in which to cover other aspects of Jesus). So we decided to do a general introduction to Jesus, and then focus on the parables. The parables, we felt, are among the core teachings of Jesus on which we Unitarian Universalists tend to place most importance, and the parables present wonderful little moral dilemmas that can get kids thinking about Jesus’s teachings.

Jane Rzepka, the minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, is on the editorial board of uu & me. Like me, she was raised as a Unitarian Universalist, and that meant we both learned a lot about Jesus and Socrates in Sunday school. During the course of today’s editorial meetings, we both kept drawing parallels between Jesus and Socrates. For me, the parables of Jesus sound a lot like dialogues of Socrates: they raise more questions than they answer, they are ambiguous, and when you get done reading them you feel as though you’ve learned how to see the world in a new way. Which makes it hard to teach Unitarian Universalist kids about Jesus’s parables: it’s tempting to tell kids what the parables are supposed to mean, but to do so is to bypass the whole purpose of the parables.

Today’s meeting has got me thinking about the parables in a new light. Now I want to go back and re-read them all, and think about how I might present others of Jesus’s parables to school-age children.

Miracle birth of Buddha

In an old Unitarian Universalist Sunday school curriculum called From Long Ago and Many Lands, religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs wrote out three miracle birth stories for upper elementary children: the wonder stories of the birth of Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus. I like to present these stories during the worship services leading up to Christmas, during the “story for all ages” (or “children’s sermon” or whatever your church calls it). Each of these stories tells of miraculous events that happen before the birth of these three great religious teachers. Children pick up on the parallels between the stories — angels and prophecies and miraculous animals — and it helps them to better understand the wondrous aspects of the two familiar birth stories of Jesus from the books of Matthew and Luke.

Problem is that Sophia Fahs’s stories are really too long to tell in a worship service — as written, they can last a good ten minutes. Each year, I edit them down by sticking little bits of Post-It notes over the parts I don’t want to read, and then I take the bits of Post-It notes out and forget about it until next Advent season, until I have to do it all over again. This year, I got smart and decided to write out a condensed version of Fahs’s “Birth of Buddha” story and keep it in my files. Then I also took out my copy of The Story of Gotama Buddha: Jataka-nidana, and from that I pieced together a short and fairly coherent narrative of Buddha’s birth.

And as long as I had done all this work, I figured I’d post both stories here, in case someone else might find them useful. Both stories should last a little over five minutes when read aloud. You’ll find the condensed Fahs story at the very end of this post, and my own version immediately below…. Continue reading

Labor Day parable

I’m incorporating the following parable, which is attributed to Jesus by the writers of the Christian scriptures. Conventional Christianity interprets this parable something as follows: Doesn’t matter when you convert to Christianity, you will get to go to heaven after you die. But what if this conventional interpretation is wrong?

Instead, how about this interpretation: In this absurd parable, Jesus asks us to contemplate the idea of an employer who treats his workers better than we expect. This parable sounds absurd because most anyone who has worked for someone else has experienced being stiffed by an employer, but not many of us have experienced being treated better than we expected to be treated. Jesus asks us to contemplate an absurd world in which employers are more moral than they need to be; and he calls this absurd world “heaven’s imperial rule.” Could it be that Jesus is telling us that we could create heaven here on earth? You decide for yourself….


“For Heaven’s imperial rule is like a proprietor who went out the first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a silver coin a day he sent them into his vineyard.

“And coming out around 9 a.m. he saw others loitering in the marketplace and said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and I’ll pay you whatever is fair.’ So they went.

“Around noon he went out again, and at 3 p.m., and repeated the process. About 5 p.m. he went out and found othes loitering about and says to them, ‘Why do you stand around here idle the whole day?’

“They reply, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“He tells them, ‘You go into the vineyard as well.’

“When evening came the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman: ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages staring with those hired last and ending with those hired first.’

“Those hired at 5 p.m. came up and received a silver coin each. Those hired first approached thinking they would receive more. But they also got a silver coin apiece. They took it and began to grumble against the proprietor: ‘These guys hired last worked only an hour but you have made them the equal to us who did most of the work during the heat of the day.’

“In response he said to one of them, ‘Look, pal, did I wrong you? you did agree with me for a silver coin, didn’t you? Take your wage and get out! I intend to treat the one hired last the same way I treat you. Is there some law forbidding me to do with my money as I please? Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?’ ” [Mt. 20.1-14, as translated by the Jesus Seminar]

More Bible quoting for religious liberals

When someone tells you that the Bible supports family values…

…you could, if you feel exceptionally cranky, say in reply: “Oh, you mean like in Genesis 19.8 when Lot says ‘8 Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof’, thus inviting the crazed mob to rape his virgin daughters so that he could protect the angels of the Lord?”…

…and you could go on to quote Jesus in Matthew 10.35-36, when he says that he has come to disrupt and break up families: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

For, you see, the families that Jesus valued were not the nuclear families from 1950’s TV-land with one dad one mom two kids and a dog. Can you say “radical egalitarianism”?

One more Bible quote for religious liberals

Mark 12.28-29: “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one…”

…in other words, Jesus declares that the Shema Yisrael, the most basic of all Jewish prayers, is one of two greatest commandments. (Somehow Christians tend to forget the Jewish origins of this prayer.)