Howard Bess

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister who lives in Palmer.

A very good friend, the Rev. Dr. William Herzog II, died on August 4, 2019, Bill was a Bible scholar of first note. His academic credentials were impressive. Harvard, Claremont, American Baptist Seminary of the West. His special area of interest was New Testament and the parables of Jesus in particular. He published three books of great importance on the life of Jesus and the parables that he told. I suspect that he will be recognized as the finest New Testament scholar ever produced among American Baptists. He was a very popular conference and workshop speaker.

It was in that role of conference leader that I first met Bill. About 45 years ago, I attended a weeklong continuing education event at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. The key class at the gathering was a course on the parables of Jesus taught by William Herzog. I have never again read the parables ascribed to Jesus the same way.

While in graduate school at Garrett Theological Seminary, I was taught that the interpretation of the Bible writings had to start by asking certain questions. Who was the author? To whom was the writer writing (who was his audience?)? When was the material written? Where was it written? Why was it written? What was going on at the time of the writing? In other words, context was of first importance. Bill Herzog took the issue of context much further than my seminary professors. Bill took context specifically to Jesus and to the parables that the teacher from Nazareth used in his teaching.

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The title and sub-title of Herzog’s earliest book tells a story. The title of the book is Parables as Subversive Speech. The sub-title is “Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.” Jesus was probably born in Nazareth (not in Bethlehem) in the province of Galilee in northern Palestine. The area was rural and Nazareth was a small village of a couple hundred people. Everyone in Nazareth and the rural area of Galilee lived in perpetual poverty. Sociologically and economically the area is properly identified as “advanced agrarian.” Everyone was poor. Ownership of land had passed to the super rich, who lived in larger cities to the north and northwest of Nazareth. Life had passed Nazareth by and reduced men to day laborers. Life was bleak. Joseph, the father of Jesus, was the community handyman, who eked out a living.

In Nazareth, there was no synagogue. There was no priest or trained rabbi. There were regular gatherings of the male residents of Nazareth. The gatherings were called synagogue. Apparently Jesus became a regular participant. He became recognized as a community leader. He was not a trained teacher or rabbi. He was a teacher by reputation. His teaching tool was parables or riddles. His parables have to be understood as discussion starters. The subject of his parables were about poverty, justice and oppression. Jesus became a political and social radical. Eventually Jesus was killed by Roman soldiers for being an insurrectionist.

It was under the influence of Bill Herzog that I changed my understanding of Jesus from Nazareth. Jesus was not a zealot who advocated violent rebellion. He was not simply a theological phenomenon that was dropped into the world to die as a sacrificial Lamb of God for the sins of the world. Jesus was a kind, loving, compassionate servant of God, who was totally given to the poor of his own generation. His parables were subversive speech and he became the pedagogue of the oppressed.

The distortions of Jesus’ life and teachings are monumental. Under the tutelage of a brilliant scholar named William Herzog II, I chose a different path for my career as a Christian minister. I have tried as an ordained Baptist minister to emulate the social and political commitments of the humble reputational rabbi from the poverty stricken village of Nazareth in Galilee.

Thanks to Bill Herzog, here are some things I have done.

I was reprimanded by ministerial colleagues, when I advocated full equality for women in the life of the church. Women in the congregations I pastored have always served equally on all boards and committees. In Christ there is no male and female.

I successfully organized and led an effort to build housing for low-income people, mostly illegal Mexican immigrants. Some community leaders never spoke to me again. I have been involved in the building of housing for seniors, for people who deal with mental illnesses, for people returning from imprisonment, and for people with low incomes.

When I became aware of gay people in my congregation, I welcomed them. I fostered the ordination of a lesbian minister, and she served as my associate. I wrote a book about my experiences in welcoming gay people into the life of the church. My life had intersected often with Bill Herzog. I decided to ask Bill to write a forward to the book, which I had entitled “Pastor, I Am Gay.” He quickly agreed to the task. The importance of his willingness to write the forward was huge.

I am writing this column to acknowledge my debt and gratitude for the life work of Bill Herzog. He was a great scholar, a great friend, and a marvelous servant of our Lord Christ from Nazareth.

The End

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net. He is pastor emeritus of Church of the Covenant, an American Baptist church in Palmer.

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