8 September 2003. Thanks to Joseph Hough.

This sermon was delivered at Riverside Church, New York, NY, on 7 September 2003.

Dr. Hough is President of the Faculty and William E. Dodge Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY.


A Sermon by Joseph C. Hough

Scripture:  Luke 4:14-21
Isaiah 3:13-15; and 10:1-4

The Hebrew Bible is full of codes.  In the book of Exodus both the Covenant Code and the Ten Commandments appear.  These codes prescribe behavior for a people in covenant with Yahweh and in community with each other. In Leviticus there are also the Priestly Code and the Holiness Code, prescribing obligations and responsibilities for priests and ordinary citizens in Israel as well as defining even further what is acceptable behavior among the people of the covenant.  Altogether there are more than 600 regulations and commands in the Hebrew Bible, a baffling array of instructions about health, food, sex, worship, and business affairs that required a priestly class to interpret them.  Not much has changed on that score.  The U. S. Tax Code or even the New York Tax Code is so baffling to most of us that these Codes require a secular priesthood of tax specialists to interpret their meaning to the rest of us and even they get it wrong sometimes.

Another kind of code is written in such a way that only a secret inner circle can understand it.  Such codes are common in war time, and there is an entire industry built on the methods for breaking the codes of the enemy.  In World War II, the Japanese were very skilled in breaking our military codes until someone hit on the idea of deploying Navajo speaking Native Americans to communicate with each other over open lines.  The Japanese were never able to break that code! 

One last comment about Codes, and this is a confession.  The idea for my sermon topic occurred to me when I read the current best seller by Dan Brown, entitled, The DaVinci Code.  It is pure fiction, but interesting because it deals with a very secret code that is incomprehensible to all but a secret society of persons through whom the key to the code has been passed down for nearly two thousand years.  Enough about codes in general.

My sermon today is about the discovery and implementation of the most important code for my life and yours—it is the Code that describes the fundamental nature of the ministry of Jesus and functions as a guide to the behavior of those who would follow him.  Jesus announced it early in his ministry. It is stunning in its simplicity but it is so revolutionary in its implications that it is seldom taken seriously. 

Before we examine the Jesus Code, it is important that we look at foundations for the Jesus Code in the Hebrew Bible.

The roots of the Jesus Code are everywhere in the Hebrew Bible. The main themes emerge in Exodus 23, Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 15, and Deuteronomy 24.   The same themes are evident throughout the Psalms—Psalm 9, Psalm 10, Psalm 72, Psalm 74 just to name a few.  The prophets, especially Isaiah and Amos, constantly reminded the people of Israel that the provisions of the code are central to their covenant with God and that if they violate the code they do so at great risk.  One almost gets the impression that nothing else matters very much to God except the central theme of this sacred code. Here is the heart of the code summarized by the writer of Proverbs.  “Those who oppress the poor insult their maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him. “ (Proverbs 14:31)  Those who oppress the poor insult their maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.

We know that Jesus was a Jew to the core of his soul.  He was carefully instructed by his parents.  He regularly visited the synagogue for the reading of the scriptures, and his speeches are full of allusions to the Bible, so much so that he seems to have committed important parts of the scriptures to memory. The leaders of the Temple were already amazed at his knowledge of the scripture by the time he was eleven years old, and all the people who heard him acknowledged that he taught as one with authority. And so the Code that Jesus is about to announce is not something that he simply created on his own.  It is at the heart of the great Jewish tradition from which he came, a tradition that was born in covenant with God, and was proclaimed by the prophets to be the key to Israel’s faithfulness to that Covenant

Just before Luke describes the announcement of the Jesus Code, he tells us a story about Jesus being led into the wilderness where he fasted for forty days and nights.  Then Luke says that Satan came to Jesus with three propositions—all suggestions for the dramatic announcement of Jesus’ ministry and all three shorthand versions of reigning ideas about the powers of the coming Messiah. The fact that all three of Satan’s propositions represent popular conceptions about the expected Messiah lends drama to Jesus’ own announcement about his ministry.

At first, Satan said, “go somewhere and publicly turn stones into bread.” The implication was that if Jesus made this a big demonstration that people would flock to this man of magic who could feed all of them as much as they needed.  Jesus rejected this ploy, saying that one does not live by bread alone, but by the word of God.  Then came Satan’s second suggestion.  Make a compromise with me, play some reasonable politics, and you can become the ruler of all of the kingdoms of the world. Again, Jesus rejected the offer saying that whatever he did, he would do it for the glory of God.  And finally, Satan asked Jesus to show that he was the Messiah of God by jumping off the top of the Temple.  If he was the Messiah, God would surely bear him up so that he would not be harmed.   That would really launch his ministry in a spectacular fashion. Jesus simply said that he would never put God to such a test.

Luke reports that having rejected Satan’s three propositions and having finished his forty days of fasting and prayer, Jesus came out of the wilderness filled with the Spirit.  He now knew what he was to do, and he began to teach in all of Galilee and the surrounding country.  Then he headed straight to Nazareth. 

By now, Jesus had already become really well known for his teaching in all the synagogues of the surrounding area, but this was the first time that he came back to his home town to teach.  In a sense his reading in the synagogue was his inaugural address, the formal announcement of his ministry, and you can imagine that the home town people were eager to hear this young rabbi who was adding glory to Nazareth’s lackluster reputation.

From the Prophet Isaiah Chapter 61 he read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to 
                         bring good news to the poor.
            He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
                         and recovery of sight to the blind,
                         to let the oppressed go free,
                         to proclaim the year of Jubilee.

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them.  Today is this scripture fulfilled in your hearing.”   I am the one, this is who I am. 

Luke, not satisfied with one presentation, keeps referring to the Jesus Code throughout his Gospel.  When John the Baptist heard the reports of Jesus’ words and his works among the people, he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was indeed the Messiah or should they expect yet another to come.  Jesus answered them with the Jesus Code.   (Luke 7: 18-23).   

The Code appears again in Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ sermon on the Plain.

“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now for you will be filled.” (Luke 6: 20ff.)

The Jesus Code is the central them of Luke’s gospel, but Luke is not alone among the New Testament writers.  Altogether in the Christian Testament, there are more than forty references to the special place of the poor in the heart of God and in the divinely initiated new Kingdom of God that is coming into the world.  The kingdom prophesied by the Jesus Code is about a divinely ordered kingdom that stands in stark contrast to the world that Jesus knew as a young Jewish boy growing up in Nazareth. 

According to John Dominic Crossan, a leading New Testament scholar, that world was oppressive.  It was a world where:

No wonder that Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world.  His was to be a kingdom impinging on this awful world of injustice.  The Jesus Code not primarily a kingdom with streets of gold and gates of pearl that is beyond any life in this world.  It not a guide to the way out of the world to a heavenly realm after we die.  It is not a form of cosmic fire insurance that simply guarantees the believing individual a place in paradise.  Literally, the kingdom of heaven is the movement of God into the world to destroy injustice and renew fairness and righteousness. As such it is the divine contradiction of the world as we know it.

The remarkable thing about this Jesus Code is that it is so obvious.  It is not even encrypted.  Jesus put his Code right out there before the crowd in the synagogue at Nazareth. A new kingdom is coming that will bring Good news to the poor!  The year of Jubilee, God’s holy year for Israel—the time for debts to be cancelled, a time for healing of the blind and the lame, a time for land to be redistributed so no one is without land.

It is simple; it is clear; and it is commanding. If you will be a follower of Jesus, you will honor the poor by working hard to release them from the bondage to the powerful and the rich.  That is the Jesus Code for life in the new kingdom of God. So today, if you have any doubts about what is the secret to being a Jesus person, let those doubts linger no more.  Jesus came to proclaim good news from God to the poor, for the marginal, for those who are downtrodden, beat down, down and out, cast aside. 

And you know, some of those who were there did not get it.  Luke reports that it was not long until people in the neighborhood were trying to throw Jesus off a cliff.  They just did not get it!  Or maybe they did get it and found it too much for them.

There are disturbing signs that even today, after more than two millennia, many of us still do not get it.  I am deeply concerned about the directions we are taking in our common life here in the United States and the world outside our borders.  I cannot remember a time in my life when I have been so despondent.  Everywhere, the Jesus Code is either being ignored or seriously misread in our country today.  Let me share with you some signs that reveal just how seriously we as a nation are in violation of the Jesus Code:

Meanwhile, it is very evident that the rich are doing well, extremely well:

So what have our political leaders been doing about it?

Hear the word of God from Proverbs 14:31, “Those who oppress the poor insult their maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.”  Those who oppress the poor sin against God!

I close with a comment and two suggestions:

First, the comment.  Last year when I preached a sermon on the End Times, a very earnest young man approached me and said, “Sir, with all due respect, that was nothing but a political sermon.”  I responded, “You are completely right.  In fact every sermon in a time of national crisis is political.”   Silence in the face of these massive contradictions of God’s coming Kingdom is itself a political statement.  This observation was burned into my soul during the struggle for civil rights in America.  Silence in these times is acquiescence in the status quo, an implicit endorsement of what is going on. 

Now for the two suggestions: 

We should consider contributing our tax rebates to the Riverside Church Jubilee Fund, or the Mobilization Against Poverty, a program of the National Council of Churches that will actively support organizations providing direct services to poor and marginalized Americans.  Let me urge you to join me in doing something like this.  In an act of individual refusal, let’s put our tax cut where it belongs—in service to the poor.

Second, I invite you to consider whether the time has come for a declaration of resistance to any public or private action or policy that increases inequality in America and fails to benefit the poor.  This idea came to me when one of our ministers, Dr. Fred Weidmann, reminded me that next May will be the 75th anniversary of one of the most important documents in the history of the churches, The Barmen Declaration.  This was a statement by Christian leaders at a meeting in the small town of Barmen, Germany in 1934.  Many of you will remember that the Barmen Declaration was a statement of refusal by church leaders in Germany.  It was a refusal to acknowledge any power but the power of God as the object of their highest loyalty.  Concretely, it was a refusal to accommodate to the Nazification of the churches by many German church leaders.  This, they protested, was leading to the distortion of the Gospel to justify Nazi policies. 

Maybe next May is the time for a New York Declaration, a refusal to be silent while public policies increase the gap between the rich and poor while driving the poor into deeper poverty.  As a result America will amass inconceivable debts to fund huge tax cuts for the rich and to fund an interminable and ill conceived war in Iraq. These debts will be borne by our children and grandchildren who have had no say in the matter.

Is it time for Christians, Jews and Muslims, the children of Abraham who share a concern for the poor , to rise up together and declare to our political leaders of both parties that in the name of God this madness must be stopped?  It is time, for soon it will be too late.

After Jesus death, a remarkable thing happened to a small band of Jesus’ followers.  It was on the day of Pentecost, the day when the Spirit descended upon them and made everything understandable in their own language.  They were the ones about whom Luke reports in Acts 3--a little faithful band who understood the Jesus Code, and adopted it.  And a radical new thing came into being. It was a community in which the poor and the needy were treated with compassion.  Those in need were given help. They got it—the full message came to them with the Spirit, and we received from them a great gift—a radical new vision of life under the Jesus Code—those who needed help got help, and “they were together and worshipped daily in the Temple.”