3 Lent B, 2021: Hillel and Jesus, Practice and Transformation…

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“We live on only one side of the world,”
Kenneth Patchen concluded his poem.

”Through the flames I can see the lowered faces
of creatures that watch us in amused love.
We live on only one side of the world.”

Whether metaphysical worlds,
as he may have been writing about,
or the historic worlds —
ours and those many worlds
that unfolded before us
in their own times and places —
we live on our side
and see those other worlds
through glasses fitted
with 21st century lenses.

Today I want to try to poke into another world
using a more antique lens, or
at least changing our usual view.
In order to do so,
this sermon or reflection
is longer than most.
Fortunately, you have a control switch
on your computer or smart phone
and you can do it in smaller bites if you wish.

One thing is for sure about Jesus
pushing people around
and turning tables upside down
in the Temple courtyard.
He could not have done it alone.

First of all,
the Temple mount was more than thirty-five acres
and big enough to accommodate
nearly thirty-five football fields.
We’re talking BIG courtyards!

Secondly, what small business owner
with even one once of chutzpah
is going to stand by
and passively watch some scrawny rabbi
ruin his business and demolish his inventory?
The minute Jesus started pushing people around
and throwing birdcages into the air
you know all those guys with vested interests
would come after him –
and if they came after Jesus
we can figure that Jesus’ boys
got into the fight too.

I like to imagine
that Jesus woke up the next morning bruised, stiff,
sore, and hung-over with regret
for letting go of his temper
and causing a riot.

But, while that is a fine cinematic story,
I want to turn toward that Exodus passage
and engage in a little rabbinical Christianity.
I promise that if we dive into the law of Moses
we will come up with a clearer view of Jesus.

It would be inconceivable
for a Jew to talk about Moses
without understanding him in the context of Torah.

Likewise, it would be ridiculous
for a Buddhist to talk about Buddha
without understanding him in the context
of the sutras and tantras.

Or imagine a Taoist trying to explain Chuang-tzu
without understanding him
in the context of the Tao-te ching?

Yet popular Christianity,
for centuries if not forever,
has assumed we could understand Jesus
outside the context of Torah and Talmud.

For example, there are 621 Laws of Torah
but Christians normally only talk about ten.
Of the Talmud we know even less.

We scratch for spiritual wisdom in Christianity
from the resurrection forward,
but that is like trying to understand
Abraham Lincoln
without knowing about the Civil War, slavery,
or his days in Illinois.
So I want to give us a lens
through which to see Jesus
by way of a Talmudic context.

The Talmud is the collection of stories
and commentary
that interpret the bible as well as add bylaws,
customs, and proverbial advice
to all that is in the Hebrew Scripture.

The Talmud began orally
and was shared by word of mouth.
Eventually it was collected and written down.
It covers a thousand year —
from 580 before the common era (BCE)
to 550 after the common era (CE).

The Talmud grew out of the principle
that ever since the time of Moses
and the written Torah,
there had always been an interpretive process
in the community of faith
that brought the Torah to life
for each generation.

The idea was that Moses
had been given Torah at Sinai,
and each generation onward
delivered that wisdom into the hearts
of the next generation
through an interpretive process.

In Jesus’ day
there was a hot debate within Judaism
over the appropriateness
of this developing Talmudic tradition.

The Sadducees, among others,
claimed that Torah was not to be interpreted
but left alone.
To them the Law as it was received in Scripture
was to be received and applied as literally as possible without modification.

The Pharisees were the primary purveyors
of the Talmudic tradition in Jesus’ day,
and insisted
that the laws and teaching of the prophets
by themselves
required interpretation
and even expansion
from one generation to the next.

If that sounds like a familiar argument, it should.
Think about our own arguments over mediating
the U.S. Constitution.

So Jesus did not stand alone
and there is almost nothing of what he taught
that was not lodged
in the dialogue and debates of his day.
The best way to see this
is with some examples.

Rabbi Hillel
is to Judaism
what Paul is to Christianity.
More than any other single person in the hundred or so years
that surround Jesus,
Hillel shaped the direction of Jewish thinking
and provided the basic principles
upon which the Talmud
eventually came to be formed.

Hillel died a dozen years before Jesus died
and it is likely that Jesus
would have had an opportunity
to hear the great teacher speak.
There is no doubt
that Jesus would have known and argued
with Hillel’s disciples.

You see, Jesus grew up at a time
that can be described as the culmination
of one of Judaism’s most vibrant and creative centuries –
in spite of civil wars and Roman occupation.

The two-hundred years between
the Book of Daniel
and the Jewish Roman Wars of 70 AD,
was rich with great Jewish thinkers,
historians, and heroes.
At the time of Jesus’ birth
Judaism whirled around
two mythic Talmudic sages
who often taught from opposite ends of the Torah:
Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai.
Both these sages
established schools in what we call Palestine,
and attracted large followings.

Shammai was what we would consider “conservative”
because of his more cautious
and limited interpretations of Torah,
while Hillel was liberal and expansive.

The subject of divorce offers us a good example.

The argument between Hillel and Shammai
hovered around Deuteronomy 24 that says, “When a man takes a wife and marries her,
if then she finds no favor in his eyes
because he has found some indecency in her,
he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and she departs out of his house…”

Now please understand that in its context,
way back in 6th Century BCE,
that biblical law was an improvement for women.
Instead of just kicking her out of the house,
writing a bill of divorce was intended to provide warning
and legal recourse for a woman.
While that does not sound like much safety to us
it was an improvement for women in that culture –
and even today in many parts of the world
it would still be an improvement.

But 600 years later,
Shammai and Hillel argued
about how to interpret that law.
Shammai said that only “adultery”
was legitimate grounds for divorce
while Hillel said that,
“She finds no favor in his eyes”
means anything
from adultery to poor housekeeping.

Then  Jesus entered the argument.

Someone asked Jesus where he stood
on the question of divorce,
and the implication we don’t hear in that Gospel is:
with whom do you side, Hillel or Shammai?

Instead of quoting Deuteronomy, Jesus says,
“From the beginning God made us male and female…
and because we were created that way,
when a man and a woman are joined in marriage they become one flesh.
What God has joined together
let no one put asunder.”

Jesus’ audience would have been astounded
at that response, shocked even.
What he is saying is that divorce
is not a problem of how to unload property,
it is a case of amputation.
A man and a woman are one,
created together in the image of God
and therefore a man cannot kick his wife out
any more than he can cut off his arm.

Jesus does not prohibit divorce
as erroneously interpreted
by Roman Catholic tradition,
he rather re-states the category of thinking.
It is not an issue of property
it is a problem and need for healing.

In other words, it is an issue of mutuality
involving both partners
and requires a healing process
more than a legal one.
We can see this in Jesus’ introductory words
when he said, “Moses enacted this law on divorce
because men have a hardness of heart.”

What he meant by that
is that not only do men and women
require mutuality,
but marriage itself needs bolstering
in the face of the male propensity
toward self-centeredness.
In short, the union by which two become one
cannot be motivated by law;
it cannot be achieved
with behavior modification;
such a union only takes place
with the transformation of both man and woman
into more than either one
is on their own.
So the challenge here, he implies,
has to do with transformation.

All of that is to say,
that Jesus stood in contrast
to Hillel and Shammai
by putting his focus,
not on property but transformation — the spiritual
side of marriage.

“We live on only one side of the world.”

Now, that is probably enough
for one sermon itself,
but I am hoping to drag you further
into this history.
It will clarify this teaching
that comes from the example of divorce.

Another example of Jesus
standing in the Talmudic tradition,
is his contrast with Hillel
on the summary of Torah.
A student once asked Rabbi Hillel
if he could teach the whole of the Law
while the student stood on one foot.
Hillel replied:
“Do not do to others what you would
not have them do to you.
All else is commentary.”

As we know, Jesus echoes Hillel
in the Sermon on the Mount when he said:
“Do to others
as you would have them do to you.”

Side by side, Hillel and Jesus,
offer their own versions of a golden rule
that was widely known and taught
throughout the ancient Near East and Roman world –
and we still have it today.
Pretty cool.

Do NOT do to others
what you would NOT have them do to you……
verses, DO to others
what you would have them DO to you.

Hillel’s is far more practical.
Do NOT do to Vladimir Putin
what you do NOT want Putin to do to you.

Insert whoever your own personal enemy is.

We can live that way
with discipline and will power.
Do NOT to do somebody else
what you do NOT want him or her to do to you,
is possible –
we need only follow the laws and guidelines
that place boundaries on our behavior.
”Wear a mask.”

But Jesus’ version is not so practical.
DO for Putin
what you would have Putin do for you!

Faced with an enemy we hate,
Hillel’s injunction
is to refrain from mistreating him or her.
But Jesus would have us actually
go and DO something
for the scoundrel.
DO something nice for an enemy
or person we hate.
No set of laws can be written
to motivate us
to cross hatred or anger
in order to serve someone
we do not like or whom we mistrust.
Laws can provide sanctions
that prohibit negative behavior
but they cannot be written
to propel us into moving beyond hatred and anger.

We can write laws against racist, homophobic,
misogynist, and xenophobic behavior
but we cannot make laws
that do away with hate.

Jesus’ golden rule
presumes a personal transformation –
it requires an internal revolution
that creates a new kind of person.
Herein lies the power and drama of Jesus: Transformation.

Laws are okay, Jesus said,
but internal revolution and born again evolution
was his teaching.
And in fact, Jesus said
he would not change one dot
or stroke of the Law.
The Law serves its purpose he said.
The purpose of Torah
is to protect people
who are un-transformed
from hurting one another and themselves.
Torah is good.

But to follow Jesus
is to open oneself to transformation – to new creation.

“Your will be done on earth
as it is in heaven”
requires a transformation of the life we live
and the world we have created.

We have to be able to see
more than our world —
we have to be able to see into heaven
in order to create the transformation on earth.

Jesus means for us to be internally transformed
and become agents of a new creation
by carrying our own internal revolution
beyond our own skins.

And the content of what Jesus had to say
was not the only thing that matters.
It is the way he said it.
With clever parables,
dramatic sayings,
and radical assertions.
Jesus threw a spear that pierced
our assumptions about God and life.

When the spear hit,
in the form of a startling new way to view
an old familiar issue,
we have one of two experiences.
Either the surprise opens us up
to a flash of insight
or it closes us down,
fogging us over
with confusion and defensiveness.
By reversing conventional wisdom
Jesus gave people
and opportunity to be broken open
and receive sudden insight.

  • Seek God in weakness not power.
  • Find God in risking your safety
    instead of the comfort of security.
  • Discover God in failure
    rather than success.
  • Don’t look for God in the face of a friend
    but find God starring back at you
    in the eyes of an enemy.
  • Hear God in the stutter of ignorance or innocence
    instead of the famous and intelligent.
  • Feel the touch of God
    in the human crush and grime of the city
    rather than the majesty
    of the sun’s evening glow.
  • Court God in the darkness of suffering
    rather than in the arms of the all-powerful.

Those are just a few examples of his reversal wisdom.

In the deliberate and courageous
exploration of the unexpected,
and by the reversal of the conventional,
we will not only see and hear and touch
the presence of God,
we will begin to be transformed by it.
Now this teaching of Jesus
will never come to us gracefully or easily,
and it is not to be attempted alone.
Those of us who would follow Jesus
need to hold hands
and enter the presence of God together –
pushing and tugging,
and holding onto one another all along the way.

All of us benefit by following
the practical and sagely wisdom of Rabbi Hillel.
But in order to follow Jesus
we simply must be transformed.
That transformation begins to happen
when we reverse the world as we have ordered it
— when we begin to look into more worlds
that the one have made.