Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Jesus is a WHAT??

I first read the following story in seminary in the ’80s.:

They don’t call Holland “the Low Countries” for nothing. Flooding is a regular problem. One year things were particulary bad. On a certain Sunday morning in Amsterdam, the police knocked on the parsonage of a Christian minister very early. “The river is rising,” they said, “And your church is directly in the path. Rouse your flock and get them to start filling sandbags to shore up the levees if you don’t want to be swept away.”

Good advice, no? Well this was a fundamentalist church which was focused on strict obedience to the LAW OF GOD as they understood it. The pastor couldn’t decide whether it was moral to break the Sabbath and do WORK even to keep the church from being swept away. So, he convened an emergency early meeting of the church council. The council had no doubts: God is Sovereign and omnipotent and can easily save the church by miracle–if that is the Divine Will. The job of the church was to hold worship as normal and either live or die to God’s glory–not sin by breaking the Sabbath.

The pastor was a little squeamish about this conclusion. He asked, “Did not even Jesus break the Sabbath laws from time to time? Did Jesus not say the Sabbath was made for humans and not humans for the Sabbath?” An old deacon immediately got up and said, “Pastor, I’m glad you mentioned that. It allows me to bring up something that has troubled me for some time. I cannot shake the feeling that our Lord Jesus is just a little bit liberal.”

Told originally by NT scholar Ernst Käsemann in Der Ruf der Freiheit (Mohr, 1968). Published in English as Jesus Means Freedom (Fortress, 1969), p. 16.


October 26, 2006 - Posted by | humor, Jesus, liberal theology


  1. Didn’t Jesus only break the sabbath to protect lives which effectively was not in fact breaking Jewish law?

    Comment by steph | October 26, 2006

  2. No, he also healed non-fatal conditions on the Sabbath which, as the Pharisees reminded him, could have waited to the next day.

    His disciples gleaned on the Sabbath. This may have only violated oral law, but, when challenged, Jesus referred to an incident (David’s use of the holy “shewbread” of the Temple–reserved for priests–for himself and his men) that clearly violated the written law. The principle: “The Sabbath was made for humans and not humans for the Sabbath,” controlled Jesus’ actions, Steph.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 26, 2006

  3. Healing did not violate written Jewish law and he didn’t violate written law of the temple because his men had kept themselves from women and therefore the priests allowed them to eat the bread because they were in a state of purity. Therefore God made the Sabbath for humans and not humans for the Sabbath.

    Comment by steph | October 26, 2006

  4. Steph, you are missing the point.

    Scholars disagree as to whether or not Jesus actually broke anything in written Torah–but oral Torah is considered as authoritative in Judaism. Jesus called David’s actions in the Temple “unlawful” which is why I used that example.

    But the point is not some technicality about whether or not we can find some lawyer’s way of declaring Jesus guiltless of any infraction of Torah (however small). The point is the contrast of the ATTITUDE of Jesus vs. that of so many Christians. Does compassion and human need guide our interpretation of Scripture? Do we seek the principles behind particular laws? Or is our morality reduced to rulekeeping–even when keeping the letter harms the spirit of the rule?

    Marcus Borg calls this Jesus’ “politics of compassion” vs. the Pharisees’ “politics of holiness or purity.” (I don’t think Jesus ignored holiness, but that he redefined it in terms of compassion and human need.)

    I thought this story from Kasemann illustrated that rather comically, and did not expect this focus on whether Jesus ever technically violated Torah or not. The entire question is lightyears away from the spirit of this posting–or of the New Testament, imo.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 26, 2006

  5. I disagree – Jesus did not call David’s actions in the temple unlawful – probably more the opposite. I just think that Jesus was able to demonstrate compassion without breaking written law but I’m sorry for my argument because I do appreciate the spirit of your post … so I’ll shut up!!!

    best wishes,

    Comment by steph | October 26, 2006

  6. Steph, I never want to shut you up. Very few of my commenting readers are as astute as you and very few as (usually) fun to read. So, please, keep stopping by. And never be afraid to disagree with me publicly–’cause I am SOOOO far from flawless that the light from flawless would take a million years to reach me!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 26, 2006

  7. Would that MORE of his followers were “Liberals Like Christ” !
    See what we mean at http://LiberalsLikeChrist.Org/Christlike .

    Comment by Rev. Ray Dubuque | June 15, 2008

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