Discipleship in [Coming] Hard Times

And now for something really controversial.

“Late have I loved you,” lamented Augustine. At the tender age of 43 I feel as though I have been previously blind to the specific social, economic, and communal instructions of Messiah. A paradigm of faith-that-transcends-the-world made me blind to faith-that-works-to-transform-the-world. To put it more simply: having accepted the idea that the world is hopeless and more like hell than heaven, I bought into a reading of Yeshua that his calling is for faith that largely ignores the world and seeks an escape ticket to be used at the end of this life or the end of this age, whichever comes first.

I think Bonhoeffer’s musings on “religionless Christianity,” just before he died for his faith and commitment to standing for the Jewish people, were too unbalanced, but nonetheless true if taken as a corrective and not a replacement (from his Letters and Papers From Prison). He said, “It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored.” I would say, “It is with the beyond that we are concerned, but to make this world as much as possible, here and now, like the beyond while we wait.”

So, here is what I want to discuss in this post: my sense that coming days will be hard, my belief that the communities of Yeshua have something real to do and offer at all times and especially in hard times, and the more literal way of reading Yeshua’s teaching for disciples.

Coming Hard Times?
Maybe . . . I said maybe . . . things are about to get a lot harder for a lot of people. More will be out of jobs. More will find their mortgages foreclosed on. More will find themselves with little or nothing to live on. Prices . . . maybe I said . . . will rise dramatically.

If I’m wrong, well, I’m a theologian and a rabbi, not an economist.

Nor am I saying that the coming hard times are the Apocalypse. I suspect they are more “birth pains.”

I am thinking, however, that the coming hard times will cause many outside our communities to look inside and see if we have something. We are like Yeshua walking the hills of Galilee saying, “The kingdom is at hand.”

But when outsiders looked in on Yeshua, they did not see empty promises. They saw substance.

Real Discipleship is Involved
As Ched Myers says in Binding the Strongman, “Mark’s gospel was originally written to help imperial subjects learn the hard truth about their world and themselves.”

In other words, Mark carefully shows us a Yeshua who forms disciples, organizes them to go out and demonstrate the kingdom to people in the land, promises a future of wholeness and union with God, and opposes the Temple state and corruption that harms people and enriches the few.

But in most of our disciple communities today, we’ve bought into the empire:

(1) We’re in debt up to our ears so that one fourth or more of our budgets go the “paying the man” (paying debt).

(2) We say we can barely support our religious communities and have little or nothing left over to use to help other people, but if we valued frugality and freedom from debt, we would have plenty to help with.

(3) We see ourselves as individuals in society instead of as individuals in a community of power, change, and grace.

(4) We dilute the message of Yeshua to hope for a distant future, ignoring the limited but real differences we can make now.

(5) We have not formed alternative communities resisting the competition and greed of the powerful, but have copied the powerful and compete for wealth and power even as religious communities.

Resistance by Being and Being-Together
I’m not interested in who is elected to Congress or labels such as “liberal” or “conservative.” I have opinions, but I think something else is far more important.

Instead of trying to be in-the-empire-and-to-manipulate-the-empire, I think we should be an-alternative-to-the-empire.

That is, we should in our communities, love one another as Yeshua loved, forgive one another, support one another, and make this world as much like the world to come as we can in our limited power. Those on the outside looking in should see us helping one another, sharing resources, being a family that transcends biology, giving alms and selling possessions. Sound radical? Read Luke 12:33 and ask yourself, “Have we taken this kind of teaching from our Messiah seriously in our movement?”

Something like paying off debt and even mortgages could be deemed discipleship. It doesn’t sound much like the gospel we are used to. But Torah has an ideal of a community of faith where people lend to one another without interest. Debt enslaves borrowers. People who are debt-free have much more to give. And being debt-free is a kind of resistance movement: resist the man, don’t enlarge his economy of greed, but instead keep desire for new things and luxury in balance with greater needs.

I wrote an essay on frugality for Riverton Mussar yesterday (will be posted there next week). A year ago I would no have had anything substantive to say about the topic.

If times to come are going to be hard, we will all wish we started a few years ago and did not wait until now. But late is better than not starting.

And if times are going to be hard, we will be seen as either frauds or faithful. Will we have families moving in with each other in the face of foreclosure or will we continue in our what’s-mine-is-mine mentality? Will we see family based on the will of God that is deeper than the usual individualism and competition?

The people around us will be looking, especially if people are losing jobs and homes. Will those outside our communities want in?

The Jewish Value of Healing the World
How do we explain the remarkable convergence between Yeshua’s teaching and Jewish spirituality? In this matter of “bringing the kingdom now,” we find that Judaism has this value (see Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Heal a Fractured World).

I explain it two ways: (1) Yeshua and the rabbis operated from the same tradition and so the trajectory from Torah and prophets to Yeshua and rabbinic Judaism has much in common and (2) I think Yeshua has been hidden but present amongst his people for the past two thousand years and Judaism’s developed traditions have Yeshua hidden in them all over the place. If you don’t agree, no worries. I’m just saying that is what I think.

“One cannot reach the position of being able to recite the verse from the morning prayer (1 Chron 16:8) without experiencing the deep, inner love stirring one to solicitousness for all nations, to improve their material state and to promote their happiness,” said Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (cited in Sacks’ book).

We serve a vision of the world to come. Disciples of Yeshua have much to do in this world, which will be renewed by the world to come. I will post a link later today here with reference more specifically to Yeshua teachings in this matter.
……………

And here is an article in support of the thesis of this one: “Kingdom as Social, Economic, and Communal Resistance.”

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Discipleship, Gospel. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Discipleship in [Coming] Hard Times

  1. amechad1 says:

    Good stuff, Derek! Many are coming to the same place – all over at the same time.
    G-d is moving among His people to make us int more of a living community/Body and less of a weekend social club. That’s a GOOD thing and it’s about time we started to “get it”. Thank you!

  2. Thank you, amechad1. Glad at least the first comment is positive :-)

    But, that being said, I welcome polite dissent. I hope someone who disagrees will make a case that I am misreading Yeshua. Or perhaps someone who substantially agrees but has misgivings will express them and lead to some dialogue about it here.

    Is it a mistake to read Yeshua’s words as having to do with practical things like debt, sharing resources, forming alternative communities as places of resistance to competition and greed?

    Derek Leman

  3. amechad1 says:

    Absolutely NOT a mistake. I think you’re gettting what He really meant. The “pie in the sky by and by” and “for now we grit our teeth and bear it” thing is a product of the Greek spiritual/physical disconnect the church evolved with. In Jewish thought/teaching/practice – the thought is on how the present actions effect the eternal – they effect holiness in there here and now AND in the heavenlies.

    To quote one of my favorite flicks: “What we do in life echoes in Eternity” I believe it does. G-d does not want unthinking slaves/servants. He created Adam as a partner – asking him to tend the garden. We are partners with the Eternal One in the here and now. Let’s live like it.

  4. “Is it a mistake to read Yeshua’s words as having to do with practical things like debt, sharing resources, forming alternative communities as places of resistance to competition and greed?”

    Yeshua said much about sharing and giving, but I think that early “Christian communism” in Jerusalem only worked for a very brief time, partly because it built around apostles’ leadership and ongoing direct revelation from G-d. But even then the group remained relatively small and there’s hardly any later preaching to the Gentiles to encourage such a living. Communal living has failed miserably just about everywhere else it has been tried, because any communistic system (even, may be especially, religious ones) eventually progresses toward power grabs, competition, class divisions and greed. It may work in the first idealistic generation, but later generations may fail to be as excited about the original vision.

    I think Yeshua’s words about giving away one’s wealth had more to do with fully trusting G-d instead of one’s own resources. Naturally, he targeted the wealthy with his teaching because it was they who had the “problem”.

    • amechad1 says:

      Gene,

      I have lived in beliving community – it is not a total sharing of everything, but living in a generous, giving fashion with fellow believers in close proximity (others interspersed and able to observe our lives and deeds). Just living out the Good News and “one another” passages in the nitty gritty did FAR MORE to “evangelize” than ANY other “method” we could have tried. People see who we are, how we interact and how we LIVE! That says far more than a million radio/tv messages ever could. I believe that is the point of what we are to do.

    • Hi amechad1…

      Jews, for most of their history, lived in tight communities that shared their resources to a great degree – most of them would shame just about any Christian community in comparison, ancient or modern. In every Jewish community (including in the Jewish majority town where I grew up) there were many poor houses (houses for the poor), houses for the infirm, houses for the widows/elderly without families, and orphanages. In Poland, for example, families would eagerly “adopt” the poor boys in yeshivas and provide them with free meals and lodging. The poor among the Gentiles also benefited much from the tzedaka and Jewish services, to the point that many Gentiles wanted to convert to take advantage of the poor houses and interest free loans.

      • amechad1 says:

        Gene,

        And so once again, the Jewish people are FAR ahead of everyone else because they are ALREADY living according to G-d’s plan for humanity. That’s a GOOD thing and once again, the rest of us are struggling to catch up and come alongside.

        Please help us learn.

  5. Aha, my first friendly opponent (and Gene is a friend)!

    I said I am not interested in who is elected to Congress or labels like “conservative” or “liberal.” Same goes for “communism.”

    Communism, it seems to me, is the State trying to force sharing. Not at all what I am talking about.

    Maybe you simply meant a community of shared resources cannot work (and did not mean to point to Marxism as my intended meaning).

    I think it is a mistake to read Yeshua’s teaching as unrealistic idealism (not that you would do that) or to seek an interpretation of Yeshua’s teaching that avoids these features (you seem to be doing this).

    The Torah principle, reflected in Jewish ethics and halachah and rabbinic literature, is that a person should not give more than 20% of their income (giving to family does not count against this total). If we were all out of debt, we could give 20% to congregation and the needs of the community and those in need around us and in the world.

    I’ll wager you agree with me now that I have introduced this Torah principle. John Goldingay, I have read, is urging people to give 10% to the under-developed world. Is it time to bring back the second tithe while we wait on the Temple? Ched Myers (not sure where he stands in relation to communism) talks about “Sabbath economics.” Look him up on google.

    Derek Leman

    • “Maybe you simply meant a community of shared resources cannot work (and did not mean to point to Marxism as my intended meaning). ”

      Derek… see my reply to amechad1 above. Shared resources do work, although more in the model of Jewish communities where sharing is a natural part of being part of a tightly-nit community than in Christian communes (historically speaking) which often try to push a specific model of communal living (e.g. “lets live like a first church did”) or agenda (“sharing the gospel”).

  6. Pingback: Kingdom as Social, Economic, Communal Resistance | Yeshua in Context

  7. And I have now added a link to an article on the Yeshua in Context blog giving evidence of Yeshua’s strong emphasis on disciple community as alternative to “the man.” See it here: “Kingdom as Social, Economic, and Communal Resistance.”

  8. Gene:

    Yep. Not talking about communes either (though the kibbutz is a Jewish idea) :-)

    • “Yep. Not talking about communes either”

      Derek… OK, so basically you have a model that pretty much resembles historic Jewish communities (tzedaka and “interest free loans” is one clue), but one that is not bound by common ethnicity/heritage, but by faith in Messiah?

      “kibbutz is a Jewish idea”

      True, an idea by secular Russian Jewish socialists:)

      “Something like paying off debt and even mortgages could be deemed discipleship. ”

      OK, I see what you mean – I think I’ve heard of some churches who have tried it (not sure how it went). I think that the world is a bit different today. I am all for helping those who are truly needy (hungry and homeless, or about to lose their homes), not those who are just habitually irresponsible. In those cases the discipleship must first start with counseling people not to run up tens of thousands of dollars in credit card bills and devise a plan to pay back what they owe on that mcmansion. Also, everybody has a multi-decade mortgage (a normal part of life) – not sure if this analogy should be transferred to today either. Call me a cynic:)

      • amechad1 says:

        Gene,

        That is what Derek and I are BOTH talking about. The community I lived in was a concentration of people in a large apartment complex near Ohio State University. We were all part of a church that had a huge campus ministry. Students, young folks, families…all there. It was GREAT!

        Also, we can’t speak to what people have done in the past – we can only help them get out now and live in a way that glorifies G-d from today onward. We NEED to teach out young people not to repeat the mistakes of their fathers.

        And now, I have to go work…otherise, one of you might have to take me in due to unemployment! ;-)

  9. benicho says:

    “Mark’s gospel was originally written to help imperial subjects learn the hard truth about their world and themselves.”

    Did Ched Meyers mean “subjects” or “citizens”? Strictly speaking, subjects and citizens (Paul noted at least a couple times that he was a citizen in order to stay out of trouble) were very different in Imperial Rome. “Subjects” could mean slaves, or it could mean limited rights. Suggesting Mark’s gospel was directed at Imperial subjects is an interesting thought, especially in light of the communism talk.

    Last night at Barnes & Noble I nearly bought a book on Bonhoeffer, how odd to see a post on him the next morning.

  10. Those in the land of Israel were subjects, not citizens. People in the territories of Rome, like Syria (Israel was part of Syria as far as Rome was concerned), were subject to imperial taxes and had limited rights (but they were not slaves either).

    • benicho says:

      Now I’ll have to read Mark again with all this new-fangled historical hypothesis in mind.

    • amechad1 says:

      We here in the US are supposed to be citizens – but have been reduced to being subjects of the Empire…and THAT is why this is HIGHLY RELEVANT to us in this place, at this time. I bought several Bonhoeffer books just a few weeks ago. I would highly recommend we start reading his work and studying his life.

      He wasn’t perfect, by any stretch, but he walked the talk right up to the scaffolds. We NEED those kind of examples here.

      • benicho says:

        Right, in theory we are citizens. You can make the case that we still are citizens, we all have full rights, rights of representation, habeas corpus (everything the constitution includes). As we see in history these can go away in the blink of an eye.

  11. drake82dunaway says:

    Gene,

    I’m to the right of Reagan and to the left of Atilla, and I even agree with what Derek said here. Commies think they have a corner on caring and giving, and that it must necessarily be a socialist trait. In fact, pawning your morality of giving off on govt. is the polar opposite of the genuine experience of giving, and the interaction between the giver and receiver in tzedakkah.

    The late Pope John Paul railed against Socialism and Communism, while extolling the giving and genuine intent in an “authentic human community.”

    http://dev.prenhall.com/divisions/hss/app/BW_TEST/Western_History/documents/Pope_John_Paul_II_from_Centesimus_Annus.htm

    Kindness is a commandment, but using the state or forced obligation is depraved. We should be a society of givers, not takers.

  12. drake82dunaway says:

    A little addendum, I would include government itself within the labeling of institutions of greed. Not to engage in lashon lara, but when the TSA unionizes and we’re 14 trillion in debt, they are no less blameless than their scarecrows on Wall St.

    Shalom,
    Drake Wesley Dunaway

  13. jrickardj says:

    Interesting article and yes times are tough. At our congregation 3 families already have taken people in their homes.

  14. amechad1 says:

    Benicho,

    Those rights are already gone – it’s just not enforced upon most of us – yet. Every right has been taken by some law on the books somewhere. The Empire is simply picking and chosing who they want to enforce them on.

    We see this in history with gun control laws. The first real “gun control” laws were passed during or shortly after the Civil War. You can go back and read the debates before they were put in place. They were NEVER supposed to be enforced on the populace at large, but only on the “target group” – Blacks. This is the same idea. Wait and see.

  15. wordmachine says:

    I like this post, Derek.

    I can’t speak for all low-income people but I do know some of them are not looking to take anything from any congregation. All some of them want to do is participate but can’t because every way or most every way of participating has a price tag on it. And when the low-income people are asked why they can’t participate it’s sometimes looked at as a complaint when they say “I can’t afford it”. All they are really doing is explaining why they can’t participate.

    Creating ways to participate that don’t always have a price tag on them are sometimes good options for some low-income people; this will help some or most of them feel more included.

    • “When a man leaves the world, neither silver nor gold nor precious stones nor pearls accompany him, but only the Torah he has learned and the good works he has carried out…” (Mischnah Abot)

  16. Pingback: Rabbi Derek: Discipleship in the Hard Times « The Return of Benjamin

  17. Mike Gantt says:

    The kingdom of Messiah came in the 1st Century just when He promised it would. That kingdom began very small (Matt 13) but will never cease expanding (Isaiah 9). All Bible prophecy has been fulfilled. We live in a world the new Jerusalem dwells in the midst of the old Sodom. This is not a time to cling to people, it is a time to cling to the Lord (Jeremiah 17:5-8).

    Salvation is not in the people of the Lord; rather, salvation is in the Lord.

  18. Mike:

    Chill, buddy. Try framing you argument a little more politely and a little less like you are preaching to me and my readers. I appreciate what you are trying to say. I think you have missed much subtlety. I think you make the same error as conventional readings which find all kingdom talk as future. I’d be nicer in saying this to you except you came on with dogmatic statements. I hope you’ll comment again and I hope you’ll come as a person involved in the discussion and not a preacher.

    Derek Leman

    • Mike Gantt says:

      Derek, indeed there were many nuances to what you said and I did not deal with any of them. Rather, I responded in direct fashion to the foundation of your thesis. That is, I am asserting that the community or communities that the Lord wants to redeem through us are the existing communities of which we are already a part (our families, our workplaces, our cities, our country, and our world) – not subcommunities that we create in His name (churches and synagogues). The synagogues/churches we see in the New Testament were preparation sites for the kingdom that would come. Once it came, kingdom access was no longer restricted to those enclaves because the Spirit of God came on all flesh. Individually, we are either imbibing Him or resisting Him.

      What you consider as impoliteness in my comment is simply clarity born of love. I can assure you that you and your readers are more important to God than I am.

  19. Mike:

    What I would ask of you, and what would help you in future commenting on anyone’s blog, is if you frame your assertions with things like: “I would argue that…” or “in my opinion.”

    Also, when you assert something like “the kingdom is totally present and has no future aspect,” as you did, that you should briefly allude to evidence. But it is not good to be too long and so most bloggers would rather have a short comment than a 500 word one with lists of verses and so on. But you can give a sentence or two of evidence.

    I think you have picked up well on the Kingdom as Present theme. At my Yeshua in Context blog you will notice in the categories on the right I have both a Kingdom Present and a Kingdom Future category. I think your reading missed Mark 4:10, the whole theme of building a disciple community, and the whole aspect of “alternative family and community” in the gospels.

    There has been a longstanding overemphasis on kingdom future. Perhaps your reading is an over-corrective.

    Derek Leman

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