On Saturday, Laurie Goodstein wrote a story in the New York Times about a Minnesota megachurch pastor, Rev. Gregory A. Boyd, who has broken with the conservative movement. He is not the only evangelical in revolt against the GOP, and the political implications are interesting. But I was struck by something different in the article: a point of theology and biblical interpretation. According to Goodstein’s paraphrase, Rev. Boyd said that “Christians these days [are] constantly outraged about sex and perceived violations of their rights to display their faith in public. ‘Those are the two buttons to push if you want to get Christians to act,’ he said. ‘And those are the two buttons Jesus never pushed.'”
Indeed, I cannot think of an episode in which Jesus demands the right to display his faith in a public setting, nor a moment when he expresses outrage about sexual behavior. In fact, there are two Gospel passages in which he does quite the opposite.
Chapter 12 of Mark ends with Jesus teaching in the Temple (a public edifice devoted to religious ceremony). Four brief episodes within that chapter praise privacy or discreetness in matters of faith. First, some Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is permissable to pay taxes using a coin that bears a graven image of Caesar Augustus, who is portrayed blasphemously as a god. Jesus replies that a public expression contrary to his belief is of no consequence; what matters is his inward faith. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Next, a scribe “discreetly” accepts Jesus’ interpretation of Moses’ Law. The scribe confesses to Jesus that the whole Law means this: “to love [God] with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” The scribe’s discretion–as well as his rejection of public ceremony–seems to please Jesus.
Then Jesus inveighs against those who make a show of their faith:
Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts: which devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation.
And finally he singles out a woman who, I have always imagined, makes her modest contribution very discreetly, out of shame for her poverty:
And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”
While Mark 12 is about public displays of faith (and therefore relevant to debates about prayer in school), the great text for understanding Jesus’ view of sexuality is John 8:2-11, the story of the “Woman Taken in Adultery.” It’s a rich and controversial text, and I have pasted my own interpretation below the fold. (This comes from my book-in-progress about Dante.)