The Emergence of the Punk Rock Jesus

When I was twelve years old, my mom and stepdad purchased me my first skateboard. From the first moments of stepping on the board, I was enamoured. I became everything skateboarding! At the time, much of the skateboard and punk rock cultures were interwoven. My music interests quickly shifted from George Strait to the likes of Bad Religion, TSOL, Youth Brigade, and Pennywise. I remember my first album was Epitaph Records’ compilation, Punk O’ Rama 2. The first song—“Coffee Mug”—by the Descendents was so hard-driving and fast that I sat there speechless, ready to jump on my board and shred. I began to memorize lyrics and sing along to the anthems. It was from these influences that I became a sceptic of anything religious…especially religious institutions. The lyrical polemics of acts like Bad Religion were compelling (and still are today!). I found church, God, and religion entirely disconnected from reality and the ground-level needs of people. Jesus was presented as a saint without a cause, a proverbial rabbit’s foot for rational deserters, and a man with a humdrum message, sure not to rattle any cages. To me, punk rock, skateboarding, and the community and comradery it garnered said more about the struggles of reality and the human condition than Jesus or the church ever did…so I thought.

At seventeen, I became a Christian through a supernatural experience (which I still remain skeptical about to this day). However, early in my experience as a Christian, I was told who to be and what NOT to do (sadly, this continued during my work in the church and even more recently in Edinburgh). My questioning and skeptical spirit was/is experienced by some as a threat rather than a gift (with the exceptions of a few sweet souls). I would be told that my past experiences that shaped my character were actually flaws needing to be fixed by Jesus rather than be used for him. In other words, there was no room for a punk rock Jesus…no room for questioning followers, no room for skeptics, and no room for rebels. Nevertheless, the punk rock Jesus started to take shape the more that I read the Bible and continued to question how the church understood, preached, and lived the words of Jesus. Luke 13:10-21 was formative in my early years of wrestling with Christian faith and my own skepticism. In these verses, I saw for the first time a Jesus who didn’t assimilate to social norms or tickle the ears of the religious institution. Instead, he usually stood opposed to their institutions, questioned their motives, and challenged their practices. He remained skeptical of the religious and social norms in his world, and was eventually murdered for that skepticism. I can hardly envision a more punk rock figure.

Jesus, The Rebel with a Cause

 Luke 13:10-21 (My Own Translation)

10 Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath 11 and behold, a woman was there who had a spirit that disabled her for eighteen years. The woman was bent over and permanently unable to stand straight. 12 After seeing her, Jesus called her and said to her, “Woman, you have been freed from your illness,” 13 and he placed his hand on her. Immediately, her body straightened up and she was glorifying God. 14 But the ruler of the Synagogue, who was visibly angry since Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, replied and said to the crowd, “There are six days on which one must work. Therefore, come to be healed on those days and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 The Lord replied to him and said, “Hypocrites! Does not every one of you, when it is Sabbath, set free his ox or donkey from its feeding stall and lead it to water? 16 So isn’t it more necessary that this woman, who is a daughter of Abraham, and who Satan had chained up for eighteen years, be freed from her chains this Sabbath day? 17 After saying these things, all those who opposed him were humiliated, and the entire crowd celebrated every extraordinary action that Jesus had done. 18 Therefore, Jesus said, “What is the kingdom of God like and to what does it compare?” 19 It is like a mustard seed that a man took and threw into his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the sky took residence in its branches. 20 And again, he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and put into three measures of wheat until the whole had been leavened.”

Luke 13:10-11

When we read the New Testament, the narrator does not plainly tell us a story, but rather invites us, the readers, to participate in the story as it unfolds. So, our job as good readers is to look closely (and usually read slowly) for key words and themes that the author intends to get across to us. So, let’s start! Verse 10 begins the story by telling us 3 important facts: (1) “(Jesus) was teaching”; (2) he is teaching in a “Synagogue”; and (3) that he’s teaching on the “Sabbath”. That Jesus is “teaching” in the “Synagogue” on the “Sabbath” should immediately flag us as readers. We might ask, “Did Jesus have permission to teach, and if so, by whom (We’ll return to this vital question a bit later)? We might also ask, “does it matter that he’s in a Synagogue?” (spatial questions are important). Or we might ask, “why is it important to know what day Jesus is teaching on?” These questions of space (Synagogue) and time (Sabbath) are extremely important, and need to be answered. The synagogue was the local centre for weekly Jewish prayer, worship, and teaching (think modern day churches). Interestingly, Luke, predicting the future persecution of the disciples one chapter earlier, says, “They will bring you before the synagogues, rulers, and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what to say…the Holy Spirit will teach you in that hour…” (Luke 12:11). For Luke’s Jesus, then, the Synagogue not only represents a location for religious activity, but also persecution. The institution created to bring God’s Shalom (“peace”) to the world becomes an epicentre of violence and hypocrisy. Luke also notes that Jesus is speaking on the “Sabbath,” a problematic day for healing (as we’ll see why shortly). In verse 11, a nameless woman emerges in the Synagogue (there is nothing particularly provocative about a woman being in the Synagogue). However, it is important to remember that women, generally, held a second-class status in the ancient world, and this woman’s lowly status will become apparent shortly. We are told three important facts about her: (1) she is disabled; (2) a “spirit” [pneuma] has caused her disability; and (3) she has been afflicted by her illness for 18 years. Verse 11 goes on to tells us the nature of the woman’s illness: she “was bent over”. The Greek word here, συγκύπτω (“bent-over”), not only describes her physical condition, but also, metaphorically her social position (i.e. She’s “bent over” …like a beggar).[1] Cicero, the ancient Roman writer, tells us how those with deformities and disfigurements were treated in the ancient world: “In deformity and physical disfigurement there is great material for making jokes…” (Cic. De Or. 2.239). Jewish tradition held that standing in the vertical position was what distinguished humanity from the animals, calling into question her very humanity.[2] Therefore, this woman would have stood-out as a social outcast in her village. Later in verse 16, we learn that her condition was the cause of demonic forces, specifically the work of “Satan”. So, religiously she would also be ostracized by her religious community. The woman’s condition, then, appears to have affected her on 3 separate levels: (1) Physiologically [she’s not able to “straighten up”]; (2) Cosmically [“chained up by Satan”]; and (3) Socially [her illness has bent her over leaving her socially status-less…]. Luke is careful to note that the length—some “18 years”—and the permanency of the woman’s condition (i.e. “permanently unable to stand straight”) explains the seriousness of the issue, but also its non-critical nature.

Luke 13:12-13

In verse 12, we are told that Jesus “saw her”, “called her”, and “said to her”. It’s important to remember what role Jesus is presently playing at verse 12, i.e. as “the [Synagogue] Teacher”. What Jesus says, does, approves, or disapproves of will influence the entire community. That Jesus is teaching assumes that the religious authorities of the Synagogue have given Jesus the approval to teach the Jewish community. We’ve already learned that the woman was of lowly social status (“bent over”) and ostracized from her community. So, Jesus’ first act towards the woman is to “see her”, i.e. to materialize her to a world/community that has been otherwise blinded to her existence (if you will, she is like the homeless man/woman that we avert our eyes from when we walk into Tesco). Jesus then offers her an invitation to be reunited to her community and his, i.e. he “calls her”. The same Greek word (προσφωνέω) is used to “call” the disciples of Jesus earlier in the narrative.[3] By these simple actions and words, Jesus releases the woman from her social illness—i.e. community exclusion. Jesus then tells her, “‘Woman, you have been freed from your illness,’ and he placed his hand on her”. The key word here being, “Freed”. We’ll read in verse 16 that this woman had been “Chained up” by Satan, and Jesus’ liberating act releases her from Satan’s grip. Jesus’ power over the demonic (i.e. cosmic) forces naturally solves the physiological problem…Luke says, “Immediately, her body straightened up”.  The scene reveals a powerful Jesus whose words decimate demonic powers and corrects physiological disabilities thought to be incurable (v.11: “permanently unable to stand straight…”). It is also an important note that Jesus “placed his hand on her” in a society that found such contact scandalous and damaging to one’s character (especially, a teacher)—if not unlawful. Jesus, however, breaks social norms, rules, and boundaries without concern….because he is so punk rock!

Luke 13:14

In verse 14, we’re introduced to the “Ruler of the Synagogue”, the chap who’s in charge of ensuring a smooth service, and the one who has given Jesus the platform to teach. He is angered by the healing that has just taken place. The problem is not so much that Jesus healed the woman, but that he healed her on the Sabbath. Sabbath adherence stretches back to Genesis 2 where God instituted and observed it;[4] and it’s listed among the 10 Commandments. Sabbath served as a weekly preview of God’s coming kingdom where perfect “peace” (Shalom) would rule; and the chaos and evil of the world would be overshadowed by God’s goodness. Breaching Sabbath was a serious penalty, punishable by either excommunication or death.[5] It was a serious charge because (1) Israel believed that their failure to observe Sabbath law had caused their nation to be overthrown by surrounding countries (Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans)[6]…any further failure would result in more destruction; also (2) many Jews believed that Sabbath observance could more quickly usher in God’s kingdom, meaning they would no longer live under Roman rule (as an oppressed people)…failure to adhere to the Sabbath meant God’s intervention would be extended. So, the anger exhibited by the Synagogue ruler is justifiable. He believes that Jesus has breached Sabbath law. Interestingly, the Synagogue Ruler refuses to direct his rebuke to Jesus face-to-face (like most religious folks!), and instead addresses “the crowd”! The Synagogue Ruler hopes to restore his place as the authority on the Law by challenging Jesus publically! So, he sloppily quotes Deuteronomy 5:13 saying, “There are six days on which one must work…”….But, we might ask, what constitutes “work”? The OT is cloudy on the issue. However, there is no biblical precedent forbidding Jesus from healing the woman (though some traditions had created their own Sabbath “lists” concerned with what is legally permissible). And this is at the heart of the problem for Jesus: religious people prefer arbitrary rule-making over mercy, judgement over grace, and in this instance, Sabbath observance over human healing.

Luke 13:15-16

In verses 15 and 16, Jesus not only calls out the Synagogue ruler, but also those religious folks who agree with him, “Hypocrites! Does not every one of you, when it is Sabbath, set free his ox or donkey from its feeding stall and lead it to water? 16 So isn’t it more necessary that this woman, who is a daughter of Abraham, and who Satan had chained up for eighteen years, be freed from her chains this Sabbath day?” As the Synagogue Ruler appealed to Deut. 5:13 (about humans working on Sabbath), so Jesus reminds him of Deut. 5:14, which also extends Sabbath observance to both “Ox and Donkey”. Jesus’ argument uncovers their hypocrisy! His challenge is simple: (1) If you can break Sabbath to “free” an animal for a drink, then how much more a “daughter of Abraham”? (2) If you can “free” your ox which has been tied up for a short time, how much more this woman who has been bound for 18 years!?! (3) If you can “free” your donkey to drink six days out of the week and also on Sabbath, then why can’t this woman be freed right now, on the Sabbath?[7] Jesus shows the Synagogue ruler to be an inadequate interpreter of Scripture, and unable to make a judgement on the case of the woman. Jesus broke the standard norms and rules of Jewish Sabbath observance, though without compromising scripture. He challenged the religious establishment, at potential cost to his own character, for the sake of a marginalised woman who needed physical, social, and cosmic healing. For Jesus, love triumphed!

Luke 13:17

Now, if you remember, the Synagogue Ruler sent out a public challenge to Jesus, hoping to shame him, but the tables have turned and the Synagogue Ruler—and those taking his side—found themselves shamed instead.

Luke 13:18-19

In my title, I wanted to show “How an Ancient Rule Breaker Started a Revolution”. Well, we’ve looked at the “Rule-Breaker” part, but now I want to briefly look at the “Revolution” bit. Verse 18, is connected to the healing story by the word “Therefore,” and demands that these sections be read together. We often read these verses in isolation, forgetting that we read left to right, i.e. what we’ve read before will always influence what comes next. In this instance, the healing of this woman on Sabbath leads Jesus to query about the nature of the Kingdom of God. It is important to understand that the Kingdom of God is not a location, but rather the manifestation of God’s politic and ideology in the world. It is God ruling and reigning. Many Jews believed that God would send a liberator who would rescue them from foreign oppressors and establish his rule on earth (i.e. the “Kingdom of God”). It is of interest that Jesus doesn’t describe the “Kingdom of God” in royal or elite terms, but draws from Palestinian farm life. For Jesus, the character of God’s kingdom appears lowly and weak like the mustard seed, but will eventually grow into a powerful movement.

Luke 13:20-21

Jesus tells a second parable: “20 And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”  Jesus now asks his listeners to step into the shoes of a lowly baker—at that, a woman! For context, leaven was the left-over dough from an old batch, and was mixed with new dough to cause the new batch to rise. The leaven would have been a tiny portion of dough, yet would have penetrated the entire new batch. Jesus says it should be put into “three measures of flour” (enough to feed 160 people).[8] The big idea: though small, the leaven can spread throughout the entirety of the flour. For Jesus, then, it is in the seemingly innocuous events—like the healing of lowly woman—that God’s kingdom becomes manifest. It is in these smallest actions that God’s people can bring the revolution Jesus initiated 2,000 years ago! And the revolution continues today when we pray for sick; when we forgive those who hurt us; when we love our neighbour; when we care for the vulnerable and marginalized; and when we break the rules for the sake of love!

My hope is to remind you that we worship a scandalous Jesus, who raised hell for heaven’s sake, and brought a new way of living to world, which contradicted the nicely established rules. May we be rule-breakers like Jesus, so that the world might benefit from the loving grace of God’s kingdom!

[1] Sir. 12:11.

[2] Bovon, Herm., 285.

[3] Lk 6:13.

[4] Gen. 2:2

[5] Ex. 31:14

[6] Neh. 13:18

[7] Green, NICNT, 523.

[8] Marshall, NIGTC, 561.