On Being Lifted up for Us

crosswButterfliesAs we draw near to Holy Week, the lections focus on Jesus’ anticipation of his Passion. Jesus’ famous response to the Greeks about the grain dying in the ground in order to bear fruit suggests a good deal of serenity on Jesus’ part. But one can imagine personifying a grain suddenly experiencing the pain of being ripped apart from within and panicking that it is dying before blossoming out into a new life beyond imagining. If somebody had quoted Jesus’ words to the grain before it happened, would the grain have been serene about what was to come? A brief reflection on our own nervous state about such an occurrence probably gives us the answer to that question.

Jesus seems less serene when he says that his soul is troubled and raises the question if he should ask his Father to save him from this hour. But Jesus’ resolution returns in the very next verse: “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. “ (Jn. 12: 27) The clear echo of Jesus’ anguished prayer at Gethsemane in the synoptic Gospels comes to mind here. Luke is particularly dramatic with the drops of blood dropping to the ground. The Epistle to the Hebrews stresses Jesus’ anxiety more than the Gospels: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Heb. 5: 7) It is significant that, although Jesus was not saved from death, his prayer was heard. Or was Jesus saved from death?

After his Gethsemane-like words in John, Jesus says: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John goes on to say: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (Jn. 12: 32-33) I agree with the many scholars who take this verse and similar ones in John as conflating the cross and resurrection. John abounds in word plays and here John gives us a double meaning to “lifted up.” Jesus was lifted up on the cross and he was lifted up in the resurrection. This conflation has the danger of minimizing the reality of Jesus’ death, making it a quick and easy passage to the resurrected life. However, I see a strong tension in the way that John makes the expression “lifted up” do double duty. After being lifted up on the cross, the crucifixion remains an enduring reality even after Jesus is lifted in the resurrection. That is, it is not only the Resurrection but the crucifixion that draws people to Jesus. John gives a powerful stress on the victimization of Jesus as the focal point when Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (Jn. 12: 31) The crucifixion judges the persecutors and the resurrection drives out the persecutory mechanism that has ruled the world. It is because, as the author of Hebrews said, Jesus ‘learned obedience through what he suffered,” (Heb. 5: 8) that he has the power to draw us to him. That is the say, the conflation can work both ways. It seems to dilute the experience of Jesus’ death but it also retains the painful death in the glory of the resurrection. This conflation shows how vital both elements are. Jesus was raised up on the cross as a victim of grave social injustice. God raised Jesus to vindicate Jesus and to demonstrate that the crucifixion, a disgrace in the eyes of the persecutors, was in truth the glory of God. (The Greek word doxa is another double entendre as it means both disgrace and honor.)

We can speculate on how Jesus himself actually experienced his approaching death but can arrive at no definitive answers. Even the New Testament writers who dealt with it give us varying portrayals. It stands to reason that Jesus’ own emotions were at least as complex as the sum of depictions in the New Testament. But, as the author of Hebrews said many times, Jesus is the forerunner into persecution and death to give us the courage to face both ourselves.


How Jesus Was Tempted as We Are

field1Mark tells us that immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness where he was tempted, or tested, by Satan.

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark tells us nothing else about the testing so we do not get a set of three drawn-out temptations to analyze. We are left with the bare fact of testing. What night the testing have consisted of in addition to, or underlying, the longer accounts?

René Girard has given us a new and profound way to understand “Satan” in scripture by noting that the word skandalon (the Satan) literally means a stumbling block. Girard has demonstrated the ways humans become stumbling blocks to one another when they become conflicted. (Satan is well known to be a sower of discord.) In this model, it takes at least two to have a stumbling block, so how could Jesus, alone in the wilderness, have dealt with conflict unless he was fighting a supernatural creature? I, for one, know that when I am alone, many other people are still with me, particularly anybody with whom I happen to have a conflictual relationship. In fact, being alone during a time of conflict is a great way to become obsessed with a rival—OR—to let go and listen to a deeper voice free of scandal, such as Jesus’ heavenly Abba.

As soon as Jesus began his public ministry, it was immediately clear that he knew scripture and the tradition of his people very deeply. Many biblical scholars suggest that Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness recapitulates the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Surely Jesus would have been deeply mindful of that journey: his people’s gratitude for the escape from slavery, their hopes for the future, but also their violent social conflicts and rebellions. These events in the journey would have given him much to reflect on as to how humans make themselves stumbling blocks to others.

Jesus also demonstrated from the start an acute awareness of what many of the Jewish leaders were like, surely enough to give him strong premonitions of how they might react to the religious vision inspired by the heavenly voice at his baptism and strengthened in the silence of the wilderness. He was most likely tempted to rehearse his arguments with the elders and think of ways to get the better of them. To overcome this challenge, he would need to find a way to interact with these leaders in a non-rivalrous way so as to embody the non-rivalrous character of his heavenly Abba. More important, he would have to begin facing possible outcomes of his ministry in the face of the Jewish and Roman leadership in Palestine. Since all of us have to deal with the small and great conflicts that tempt us to become stumbling blocks to others, Jesus was himself, as the author of Hebrews said, tempted in every way as we are. The uncanny way Jesus managed to deflect conflicts with the Jewish leaders away from escalations and, at the end, his willingness to die rather than use violence to save himself, show us that the Spirit, after driving Jesus into the wilderness, had indeed strengthened him to absorb the nonviolent ways of his heavenly Abba for the sake of our salvation.

For an introduction to René Girard, see my essay Violence and the Kingdom of God.

A Sign of our Mortality

CrossofashesThe custom of imposing ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, has the potential to encourage us to think that mortality is something we should repent of. The opposite is the case. We are not asked to repent of our mortality, we are asked to remember our mortality. Remembering our mortality is an important way to repent and to amend our lives. Since God made us mortal, mortality is not the problem. The problem, a huge problem, is the tendency to deny our mortality, to think that death should not apply to us. Clinical studies inspired by Ernest Becker show that denial of mortality leads to violent and insensitive behavior while some measure of acceptance leads to a much more humane way of relating to others, of connecting to others. I can’t help but reflect that in a great many fantasy novels, the villain tries to gain immortality which can only be achieved by stealing the life substance of others; an extreme example of how denial of mortality inevitably leads to victimization of other people. Such villains are always so deeply isolated as to be living deaths, no matter how many years they survive in this world. But if we accept our mortality, we put our trust in the crucified and Risen Lord, the true giver of life. When we accept our mortality, the time we have to repent becomes precious and we are ready to spend this precious gift wisely in the way we live so that others, too, may live.


What Kind of Spirit was Jesus Casting Out?

wreckedTrees1When Jesus opened his teaching ministry, Mark says that the people were “astounded” because he taught them“as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mk. 1: 22) Oddly, Mark doesn’t include anything of what Jesus said. The Greek work exousia is much stronger than the English word that translates it. “Powerful authority” would bring us closer to the meaning. That Jesus’ teaching was not like that of the scribes doesn’t give us much more to go on as to the content, but it indicates that this authoritative teaching was distinct from those who were normally considered the teaching authorities.

However, Jesus did something. Dramatically. He cast out an unclean spirit. In our time, we have trouble understanding what this is about and how we might draw any practical teaching from it. We tend to dismiss unclean spirits as coming from a primitive mindset and bring the affliction up to date by considering it a psychological problem which sends the poor man to a treatment facility far way from us.

I suggest that René Girard’s teaching on what he called “mimetic desire” gives us a richer approach. Basically, Girard’s insight is that our desires do not originate from within ourselves but are derived from other people; we all resonate deeply with each others’s desires. This resonance is fruitful if one person’s enthusiasm for a song inspires me to like the song so that we both enjoy the song. This resonance is more threatening if all of my friends hate a song I like so that I begin to doubt that I liked the song after all. This resonance with the desires of another becomes more dangerous if it becomes rivalrous as it does if two people desire to write and sing the best song. Some rivalrous relationships are more or less a fair fight but many times it is not. A strong-willed person, especially one with social power, can impose his or her desire on another in destructive ways. This is what happens in childhood trauma. Girard also teaches that a whole society can unite in a desire to destroy a person which is not a fight at all but a demolition.

However we understand the possession of this man, it is the imposition of something alien and oppressive. This is what a supernatural spirit would have done and maybe that was the case. But Girard’s teaching of mimetic desire shows us how an alien invasion could have afflicted this man and created a state of bondage through human agency. We get an important clue as to the nature of this alien invasion when the unclean spirit says: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mk. 1: 24) We often think that Jesus told the unclean spirit to be silent because the spirit was correct and Jesus didn’t want people to know that yet. But Robert Hamerton-Kelly points out that the term “Holy One of God” refers to Israel’s priesthood. One of the main jobs of the priest was to expel anybody who was “unclean.” Jesus’ silences the unclean spirit, then, because the spirit is wrong. Jesus does not represent a priesthood who expels the “unclean.” Quite the opposite. Jesus is expelling the collective attitude that the man is unclean when it is the crowd’s spirit that has invaded the man and declared him unclean. By casting out this spirit, Jesus makes the man clean and so that he can rejoin the community. If the community accepts what Jesus has done.

The crowd confirms that casting out the unclean spirit is Jesus’ teaching when it asks: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mk. 1: 27) Jesus is not healing an individual; he is healing a community. Or, Jesus is giving the community the opportunity to be healed. For healing to take place, the community must renounce the rivalry that had been imposed on one vulnerable person. In his stimulating book The Desire of the Nations, Oliver O’Donovan confirms the conflation of teaching and power in Jesus. (O’Donovan, 89) Picking up on the political aspect of exousia. O’Donovan goes on suggest that Jesus is using his authority to liberate Israel while treating “the fact of Roman occupation casually, with little respect and less urgency.” (O’Donovan, 93) That is, Jesus was focused on strengthening Israel rather than attacking the Roman Empire. Mark shows that Jesus’ liberation of Israel includes judging the leadership both of the teachers (the scribes) and the priests. Jesus’ action/teaching caused quite a sensation as word “spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee..” (Mk. 1: 28) A sensation is not the same as a healing. The excitement could easily be mistaken for a communal healing when it only reproduces the scapegoating process. We are left with the question of whether or not our communities accept the healing of Jesus where the unclean spirits of human persecution are cast out or if we will be swept away on the excitement of the crowd.

For an introduction to René Girard see: Violence and the Kingdom of God.


The Meaning of Jesus’ Name

creche1-copyWhen the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that the child she was about to conceive in her womb would be the heir of the House of David, making him a second David, one might have thought that the child would be named David after his forebear. But the angel said the child should be named “Jesus” and he was given that name when he was circumcised on the eighth day.

This name tells us that not only was this child another David, a fulfillment of what royalty means in the eyes of Jesus’ heavenly Abba, but another savior. How so? In the many times that Israel’s God Yahweh was called a “savior,” there was usually an act of violence. That is, God “saved” God’s people by defeating the enemies who were oppressing Israel. In some cases, as in the Psalms, an individual was delivered from a violent mob. More often than not, the delivered victim called on God to commit violence on the oppressors. But saving God’s people in that way didn’t change the violent structure of human culture.

The name Joshua, Jesus’ earlier namesake, means”Yahweh saves.” Joshua “saved” Israel by violently destroying the peoples of Canaan. But just as Jesus was to prove to be a different, even contrary king than David, Jesus was to be a different, even more contrary savior. To the disappointment of many, Jesus did not “save” Israel by scattering the Roman armies and ruling in Caesar’s stead. (See The Naming of Jesus.)

Come Easter, we will see that Jesus saves by dying on a cross. That’s an odd way to save anybody. Perhaps it is that oddity that led to the notion that God saved us by suffering our punishment. But God was not suffering our punishment, Jesus was suffering from human violence in order to save us from our violence. It isn’t the crucifixion in itself that saves us from our violence but the Resurrection and, crucially, Jesus’ forgiveness that saves us from our violence.

If it is by forgiveness and not violence that Jesus saves us, then we cannot participate in Jesus’ gift of salvation though violence but only through forgiveness. By forgiveness, Jesus has given us an escape route from our own vengeful rage if we are willing to take it. We are inclined to shrink from this challenge when we think about how vulnerable that makes us. We would rather use our rage to seek out the vulnerability of others. Can we, instead, take heart and take the risk by recalling how vulnerable Jesus was as a baby born into a violent and vengeful world?


The Throne of David: Part Two

crecheThe celebration of the birth of Jesus is a time to put all political differences aside in glad agreement that this child is born. I wish! I have pointed out many times over the years when preaching on Luke’s nativity story that it puts political issues front and center, forcing us to confront our political realities if we are to confront the Gospel.

The key political words uttered by the angel who appeared to the shepherds are: “good news,” “savior,” and “peace.” These words sound innocuous to most of us but they aren’t. In Luke “Good News” is not a cheery feel-good article in the newspaper or on the Internet. “Savior” isn’t a cartoon super hero who knocks out the bad guys for us. “Peace” has to be understood rightly or it isn’t peace.

“Good News” or “Good Tidings” are the usual translations of the word euangelion. It also provides the title of Luke’s book. In Roman times, euangelion was the technical word for tidings sent out from Rome by the Emperor who was the only one who had the right to send out “good News” or “Good Tidings.” Caesar Augustus had recently sent out the Good News that he had won the long civil war triggered by the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive father Julius. This “Good News” made Augustus the “Savior” of the Roman Empire. Again, only the Emperor was allowed to be the “savior.” By winning the war, Augustus had brought “peace” to the Empire. Nobody else had the right to be the “peace” maker. But Augustus had brought and preserved “peace” through violence. Although many biblical historians have cast doubt on the likelihood that the registration ordered by Caesar Augustus happened right at the time of Jesus’ birth, it puts the whole nativity story under the shadow of the Emperor’s controlling power that enforced “peace” by keeping track of his subjects and pushing them from place to place if “necessary.”

At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel promised Mary that Jesus would inherit he throne from David from his heavenly Abba and reign forever, He would, however, be a very different king than his forbear. Another angel is now telling the shepherds that the true Good News is that this child has now been born and this child is the one who can truly save us from our own violence and establish true peace. Jesus’ rulership has been expanded beyond the House of David to the whole Empire, which is to say, the entire world. Caesar Augustus is the one who has usurped God’s role of savior and bringer of peace.

This neat contrast between Jesus and Caesar, however, looks like a political campaign between the competing leaders of two political parties. This is our human way of looking at it. The mystery is that Jesus did not come into the world to compete with Caesar Augustus the way he competed against Brutus and Mark Antony or David competed with Saul. Jesus came to preach and live a totally different way of living than the way of Empire, a way not based on violent competition but on mutual support. Rather than inflict violence in humanity’s never-ending civil war, Jesus took the whole violence of all empires in all times on himself in the place of all those who have been and ever will be victims of Empire. That shepherds, social outcasts in their time, heard the voice of the angel and the song of the heavenly host but the ruling elite saw and heard nothing should serve as a warning to those of us who are relatively well-off in our own time.

I suppose I shouldn’t spoil our Christmas party by bringing up Jesus’ death, but it is Jesus’ death that we will shortly commemorate at the altar. Closer to holiday cheer: we also celebrate at the altar the risen, forgiving resurrected life of Jesus that opens us up to a new birth, a new life, based on the forgiving risen life of the child whose birth we celebrate tonight.

See also The Throne of David: Part One


The Throne of David – Part One

MaryWhen the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to conceive and bear a son, the angel said that her son “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Lk. 32–33) However, the prophet Nathan made this same promise to King David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Sam. 7: 16) Likewise, Psalm 89 say that David’s “line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun. It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies.” (Ps. 89: 36–37)

But the throne of David’s house came to an abrupt end with the Babylonian conquest and exile. Right after echoing the promise to David, Psalm 89 went on to declare its falsity: “But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.” (Ps. 89: 38–39) According to the genealogy that opens Matthew’s Gospel, the line of David continued after the deportation to Babylon, but we know nothing about Salathiel and his descendants until we reach Joseph, the husband of Mary. Joseph was a carpenter, a worthwhile means of making a living, but carpenters are not usually considered royalty. The idea of a carpenter’s son ruling over the House of David forever was absurd. But that was hardly as absurd as God impregnating a young woman who was still a virgin.

From the moment of Jesus’ conception, then, we have the premonition that if the boy is going to grow up to become a king who rules forever, he is going to be a very different king than his ancestor David. He will be raised in a backwater of Galilee rather than in a palace. He will not have glossy magazines printing feature stories about him. His retinue will be a small group of men of humble origins, many of them fishers. The biggest and most crucial difference will be that David replaced Saul as king because he slew tens of thousands to Saul’s thousands, (1 Sam: 18: 7) but Jesus would not wield a sword. Neither did he compete for the kingship with anybody, whether within or without Israel while David competed both against the Philistines and his own king. Rather than running a military operation, he let the Roman military operation run him up against the cross. But this slain king still reigns forever. How can this be? The angel also told Mary that her son would be holy and “be called the son of God.” (Lk. 1: 35) Whereas David, descended from the house of Jesse in Bethlehem, rose up in the world, Jesus came down from heaven to a totally washed up royal house. That’s quite a come down! But after dying on the cross, Jesus was raised from the dead where he does rule forever. And yet we still fight with each other, trying to kill tens of thousands over/against the thousands killed by our competitors. We fight those in our defined out-groups while we struggle against those within our in-groups whose authority we resent. But Jesus reigns without competing and without resentment. As one who became one of us among humans, Jesus is with us, within our hearts just as much as he is at the right hand of his heavenly Abba. Are we willing to be subject to a king as low as this?


See also The Throne of David: Part Two