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May 31, 2014

The Sociologically Savvy Jesus

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Written by: Duane Covrig
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Matthew 16 shows us the heart of the sociological Jesus. By this, I mean Jesus demonstrates in this passage his deep knowledge of his sociological context and ability to reconstruct that context. He is simultaneously embedded in community–and acknowledges that–but rises above that community to explain, re-frame and guide  toward being a better community.

The preaching of Jesus shows  contemporary knowledge and understanding. He tells the social leaders they can read weather patterns but can’t interpret the signs of the times (Matthew 16:1-6). His use of “signs of the times” is code for social trends – social and political and natural events that impact social well-being. Readers of Matthew 24 will recognize the phrase used by Jesus indicates marking trends in end time events. But here, in Matthew 16, it marks his time as Galilean.

This type of ministering to the social leaders is what sociologists call “speaking truth to power”. It is also known as  a form of conflict sociology and a common activity of ancient prophets. He rebukes the religious leaders—the establishment—for being good science (weather predictions) but bad with social science (reading social trends). Every social scientist should smile about now. At least a couple of times in our careers as social scientists we need to chide our colleagues in the natural sciences for not attending to social analysis. This rebuke is classic conflict sociology: as Lionel Matthews labels it when sociologist focus on “tension, competition, and change” (p. vii).

This passage shows tension and conflict. In fact, Jesus’ whole life demonstrates a social critique of social leaders and the social system they created. The Matthew 16 rebuke is only a small prelude to steady fire of rebukes in Matthew 23.  In Mathew 23,  Jesus lays out his specific social and spiritual woe’s or critiques against the established system that was destroying relationships (that is another passage worth the analysis of Christian sociologists).

In Matthew 16, Jesus makes a tight connection between science, social science and spirituality. Jesus rebukes the spiritual leaders for poor spirituality and social science even though they have good science processes. One can feel a little modern vs postmodern debate also as an undercurrent of his concerns about the ability of leaders to do social data analysis.

He leaves the religious leaders to fume and then shuffles his little community of disciples away to another place. Finding new space is a classic way to regroup socially. Abraham leaving Ur, the Israelites leaving Egypt, or in more in modern times, the pilgrims coming to America, the Mormon’s settling in Utah, or the Amish living in the country, all illustrate the power of space to frame social change. This simple action is a miniature work where he is reconstituting social order.(We will see that by the end of this passage where he reaches the climax of his work by announcing the establishment of the church. ) The patterns between Jesus’ action and words show a deep sociological savvy.

As he is regrouping his community, he warns about the “yeast” of the scribes and Pharisees. The disciples are socially clueless. What does “yeast” have to do with  the issue on ground. I have to admit that I wouldn’t get it either if I hadn’t been able to read the rest of Jesus explanations and look back at this phrase through the lens of the cross.

Jesus rebukes his disciples for not getting it! {I feels like I am sitting in a class as a dull student and one of the brighter students ventures a response to the teacher and I think that seems like a pretty good response and then, Wham, the teacher gets frustrated. I would feel even more clueless.}

Jesus teaching is more than a sociology lecture. His works involve  more than sociological analysis or sociological deconstruction. He is confronting bad social practices and introducing new social alternatives. Deconstruction is what he is doing.

Jesus has now moved from meteorology to sociology and back to biology. Like a friend I know who speaks Spanish moves between English, Spanish and Portuguese when talking to others. It may seem like Jesus is mixing metaphors and whole subject areas. Actually, he is scrambling as a good teacher. He is looking for any mental model to help his hearers break through the social milieu that engulfs  and traps them. He wants them to see his new social reform that is occurring right before their eyes.

He now resorts to a question to get them to see that agenda. Jesus asks “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”As a sociologist with global credentials—or better yet—cosmic credentials, Jesus, as God, understands  human thinking because he created us. He now uses that to change help them change their social reality. He has them reflect through others’ thinking about who He is and by that process where they view themselves in that social perception. This complex process is unique social mirroring, the ability to look at oneself through the social view of another. This is deeply  sociologically savvy for several reasons, as we soon will see.

The response shows they get the social view of Jesus. The world thinks you are a prophet. That is the most common historical and contemporary response about Jesus. He is a good guy, even a prophet.

Then, closing the social gap, he asks “Who do you say I am?”

Then Peter—the unofficial official spokesperson for the disciples and almost all the rest of us—states are faith and makes it clear. You are the Messiah, the Son of God.

Jesus, who had rebuked both the spiritual leaders and the disciples for their lack of social savvy, now commends Peter for this response.

“This was not revealed to you by flesh and blood [read human’s or human systems] but by my Father in heaven [read divine revelation about divine community].” (Matthew 16: 17).

On this rock—this social reality—I will build a new social system called the church.

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will bebound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16: 19-20).

So, Jesus commends Peter for accepting the revelation Jesus is fully God but then tells them not to tell anyone He is the Messiah.

What? Why not?

[Jesus, you are getting harder to follow. Please help us see what you are up to.]

I can see the disciples: We finally get one of your questions right, Jesus, and then we can’t tell people the right answer, the only right answer, we have. Why?

The subtle answer may be in the whole social frame of the conversation: timing. Most of the questions were about reading the time and trends, being aware of what was happening, and social timing when truth should speak to power. Socially savvy people know that.

I think another reasons for them to be quite about the Messiah comes in the way Jesus described himself already in this passage with the phrase “the Son of MAN.”

It wasn’t really that impressive that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. These claims were growing in the world. They were made for most kings, by the kings or by those who wanted to advance the king so they could advance themselves.

While it was amazing that as a poor itinerant preacher made the Son of God claim, this wasn’t really shattering either. A lot of “crazies” would do that then and still do that now.

What was more amazing—sociologically and spiritually—was that God would claim to be a son of Man. That didn’t seem to be very impressive socially.

Here was the great twist the church was to bring to the world. God with us. God in community. God in our pains and sufferings.

What was socially amazing, was not that man was trying to elevate himself to be God—power mongers have doing that for ever, using money, fame, muscle, or spiritual mumbo-jumbo for millenniums.

What was amazing is that the true God, the real God, the the social God, the only one with original un-borrowed deity, was so eager to associate with us–forever.

Herein, was the subtle truth, the sociological sea change, that the Pharisees and the disciples were not able to get. It was no use to announce that Jesus was the Messiah while the old Messiah mindset was so strongly embedded in the minds of all. It was no use to say he was a Leader unless the view of leadership was changed.

Bad yeast was effecting everyone. It was time for a fresh start.

Jesus was scrambling to teach: using weather forecasting, social times and trends, and biological yeast processes to reframe a new social order.

After much pondering, I see the yeast as creating two types of fundamental social “foods” to feed our communities: one creates a togetherness and the other fragmentation. Good sociologists know that familes that eat together actually stay together. Making and breaking bread together with eating it together is that good yeast. It is how families become family, churches become close knit often when they eat together because then they come to “bear one another’s” burdens because they actually start hearing one another’s burdens. Jesus was trying to create a new community.

His rebukes, his life, his stories, his lectures, his questions: all about creating social change to usher in a new community.

The bad yeast group is that which fragments community, and social workers know that alcohol is a sad example of all forces that work against community. Made also with yeast, it is fermented, and leads to social disease and distortion.

So, the contrast is between yeast that grows members or social processes that destroy them. The process of bringing together or the processes of abuse, neglect, civil unrest, war, and chaos, crime and killing.

That is why the sociological Jesus was shaking his head, “watch out for the yeast of those leaders.” He decries the abusive tendencies in our hearts, homes, neighborhoods and nations to build privilege and power and abuse.

Socially abusive leaders often use spirituality in an abusive way.  Jesus rebukes all that mess several chapters later in Matthew 23.

Jesus used His sociological identity making claim not to claim to be just another great leader positioning himself as a God. No, He was fully God, positioning himself as man.

Herein is the deep sociological Jesus. He came to be with us, the full understanding of that, only days away as he humbles himself to die on the cross.

On this fundamental reality, on this rock, I will build my new community, and nothing, no nothing, can take away that reality.

This sociological and spiritual thought elevates the soul and changes the social dynamic. No longer do we need to strive to be God—to Lord it over each other. God has introduced a new social order. He that is greatest serves the most.

That is crazy sociology, but a much better social ethic than anyone was creating.

Thanks for the lecture, but more importantly, thanks for church–a new way to do our social processes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew 16 shows us the heart of the sociological Jesus. By this, I mean Jesus demonstrates in this passage his deep knowledge of his sociological context and his ability to reconstruct that context. He is simultaneously embedded in community–and acknowledges that–but rises above that community to explain it, re-frame it, and guide it toward being a better community.

Jesus gets right to work. He tells the social leaders they can read weather patterns but can’t interpret the signs of the times (Matthew 16:1-6). His use of “signs of the times” is code for social trends–social and political and natural events that impact social well-being. Readers of Matthew 24 will recognize the phrase as Jesus phrase for of marking trends in end time events. But here, in Matthew 16, it marks his time as Galilean.

Jesus is doing to social leaders what sociologists call “speaking truth to power” or a form of conflict sociology and a common activity of ancient prophets. He rebukes the religious leaders—the establishment—for being good science (weather predictions) but bad wih social science (reading social trends). Every social scientist should smile about now. At least a couple of times in our careers as social scientists we need to chide our colleagues in the natural sciences for not attending to social analysis. This rebuke is classic conflict sociology: as Lionel Matthews labels it when sociologist focus on “tension, competition, and change” (p. vii).

Tension and conflict is all through this passage. In fact, Jesus’ whole life was social critique of social leaders and the social system they had created. The Matthew 16 rebuke is only a small prelude to steady fire of rebukes in Matthew 23, where Jesus lays out his specific social and spiritual woe’s or critiques against the established system that was destroying relationships (that is another passage worth the analysis of Christian sociologists).

So, already in this passage of Matthew 16, Jesus makes a tight connection made between science, social science and spirituality. Jesus rebukes the spiritual leaders for poor spirituality and social science even though they have good science processes. One can feel a little modern v postmodern debate also as an undercurrent of his concerns about the ability of leaders to do social data analysis.

He leaves the religious leaders to fume and then shuffles his little community of disciples away to another place. Finding new space is a classic way to regroup socially. Abraham leaving Ur, the Israelites leaving Eqypt, or in more in modern times, the pilgrims coming to America, the Mormon’s settling in Utah, or the Amish living in the country, all illustrate the power of space to frame social change. This simple action is a miniature work where he is reconstituting social order.(We will see that by the end of this passage where he reaches the climax of his work by announcing the establishment of the church. ) The patterns between Jesus’ action and words show a deep sociological savvy.

As he is regrouping his community, he warns about the “yeast” of the scribes and Pharisees.

The disciples are socially clueless. What does “yeast” have to do what we are talking about.

I have to admit that I wouldn’t get it either if I hadn’t been able to read the rest of Jesus explanations and look back at this phrase through the lens of the cross.

Jesus rebukes his disciples for not getting it! {I feels like I am sitting in a class as a dull student and one of the brighter students ventures a response to the teacher and I think that seems like a pretty good response and then, Wham, the teacher gets frustrated. I would feel even more clueless.}

Jesus is doing more than a sociology lecture. He is even doing more than sociological analysis or sociological deconstruction. He is confronting bad social practice on the way to introduce a new social alternative. Deconstruction is what he is doing.

Jesus has now moved from meteorology to sociology back to yeast biology like a friend I know who speaks Spanish moves between English, Spanish and Portuguese when talking to others. It may seem like Jesus is mixing metaphors and whole subject areas. Actually, he is scrambling as a good teacher. He is looking for any mental model to help his hearers break through the social milieu that engulfs them and traps them. He wants them to see his new social reform that is occurring right before their eyes.

He now resorts to a question to get them to see that agenda.

Jesus asks “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

As a sociologist with global credentials—or better yet—cosmic credentials, Jesus, as God, understands well the social humans He has created. He now uses that to change help them change their social reality. He has them reflect through others’ thinking about who He is and by that process where they view themselves in that social perception. This complex process is unique social mirroring, the ability to look at oneself through the social view of another. This is deeply  sociologically savvy for several reasons, as we soon will see.

The response shows they get the social view of Jesus. The world thinks you are a prophet. That is the most common historical and contemporary response about Jesus. He is a good guy, even a prophet.

Then, closing the social gap, he asks “Who do you say I am?”

Then Peter—the unofficial official spokesperson for the disciples and almost all the rest of us—states are faith and makes it clear. You are the Messiah, the Son of God.

Jesus, who had rebuked both the spiritual leaders and the disciples for their lack of social savvy, now commends Peter for this response.

“This was not revealed to you by flesh and blood [read human’s or human systems] but by my Father in heaven [read divine revelation about divine community].” (Matthew 16: 17).

On this rock—this social reality—I will build a new social system called the church.

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will bebound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16: 19-20).

So, Jesus commends Peter for accepting the revelation Jesus is fully God but then tells them not to tell anyone He is the Messiah.

What? Why not?

[Jesus, you are getting harder to follow. Please help us see what you are up to.]

I can see the disciples: We finally get one of your questions right, Jesus, and then we can’t tell people the right answer, the only right answer, we have. Why?

The subtle answer may be in the whole social frame of the conversation: timing. Most of the questions were about reading the time and trends, being aware of what was happening, and social timing when truth should speak to power. Socially savvy people know that.

I think another reasons for them to be quite about the Messiah comes in the way Jesus described himself already in this passage with the phrase “the Son of MAN.”

It wasn’t really that impressive that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. These claims were growing in the world. They were made for most kings, by the kings or by those who wanted to advance the king so they could advance themselves.

While it was amazing that as a poor itinerant preacher made the Son of God claim, this wasn’t really shattering either. A lot of “crazies” would do that then and still do that now.

What was more amazing—sociologically and spiritually—was that God would claim to be a son of Man. That didn’t seem to be very impressive socially.

Here was the great twist the church was to bring to the world. God with us. God in community. God in our pains and sufferings.

What was socially amazing, was not that man was trying to elevate himself to be God—power mongers have doing that for ever, using money, fame, muscle, or spiritual mumbo-jumbo for millenniums.

What was amazing is that the true God, the real God, the the social God, the only one with original un-borrowed deity, was so eager to associate with us–forever.

Herein, was the subtle truth, the sociological sea change, that the Pharisees and the disciples were not able to get. It was no use to announce that Jesus was the Messiah while the old Messiah mindset was so strongly embedded in the minds of all. It was no use to say he was a Leader unless the view of leadership was changed.

Bad yeast was effecting everyone. It was time for a fresh start.

Jesus was scrambling to teach: using weather forecasting, social times and trends, and biological yeast processes to reframe a new social order.

After much pondering, I see the yeast as creating two types of fundamental social “foods” to feed our communities: one creates a togetherness and the other fragmentation. Good sociologists know that familes that eat together actually stay together. Making and breaking bread together with eating it together is that good yeast. It is how families become family, churches become close knit often when they eat together because then they come to “bear one another’s” burdens because they actually start hearing one another’s burdens. Jesus was trying to create a new community.

His rebukes, his life, his stories, his lectures, his questions: all about creating social change to usher in a new community.

The bad yeast group is that which fragments community, and social workers know that alcohol is a sad example of all forces that work against community. Made also with yeast, it is fermented, and leads to social disease and distortion.

So, the contrast is between yeast that grows members or social processes that destroy them. The process of bringing together or the processes of abuse, neglect, civil unrest, war, and chaos, crime and killing.

That is why the sociological Jesus was shaking his head, “watch out for the yeast of those leaders.” He decries the abusive tendencies in our hearts, homes, neighborhoods and nations to build privilege and power and abuse.

Socially abusive leaders often use spirituality in an abusive way.  Jesus rebukes all that mess several chapters later in Matthew 23.

Jesus used His sociological identity making claim not to claim to be just another great leader positioning himself as a God. No, He was fully God, positioning himself as man.

Herein is the deep sociological Jesus. He came to be with us, the full understanding of that, only days away as he humbles himself to die on the cross.

On this fundamental reality, on this rock, I will build my new community, and nothing, no nothing, can take away that reality.

This sociological and spiritual thought elevates the soul and changes the social dynamic. No longer do we need to strive to be God—to Lord it over each other. God has introduced a new social order. He that is greatest serves the most.

That is crazy sociology, but a much better social ethic than anyone was creating.

Thanks for the lecture, but more importantly, thanks for church–a new way to do our social processes.



About the Author

Duane Covrig
I teach leadership and ethics at Andrews University. I am a Seventh-day Adventist eager for the Second Coming of Christ and positive about His judgment hour work (Rev 14:6-12). I use that reality to understand morality and ethics.




One Comment


  1. Rhonda Whitney

    Thank you, Dr. Covrig, for highlighting the amazing contrasts that Jesus brought in His teachings. These seeming impossibilities bring angst to our journey as we struggle to live out His love in and around us. And yet, embracing that dissonance brings perfect personal peace and community healing through His gift on the cross. You have captured the essence of the role of a Christian here on earth.



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