Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This final Beatitude returns to the theme of righteousness that opened with the sixth Beatitude: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Both blessings invoke righteousness in their legal application in inheritance law: seeing to it that, as executor of a will, the inheritance is properly distributed so that no one is left without means of support. Jesus is the executor of the will, the guarantor of God’s promise of the Jubilee—release from debt, relief from poverty, return to your family’s portion.

The earlier Beatitude promised the poor that they would finally see righteousness done. This Beatitude promises the redeemers and the redeeming community that by helping the poor you build up treasure in heaven. Here the story of the rich young man illustrates exactly what Jesus has in mind in this Beatitude (Matthew 19:16-29; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18:18-30):

One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.

We see how Jesus set up the community to do this in Acts 4:32–37: “those who had lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need (vv 34-35).”

I confess that I’m not sure where the persecution comes in. Certainly the community is persecuted in the first weeks after Jesus’ death: the apostles are flogged and jailed several times for “speaking in the name of Jesus”. This is a possible clue. The Bible uses “name” in connection with land as inheritance, because a man’s landed estate gave him his ‘name’: Boaz marries Ruth “to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead shall not be cut off from among his brethren and from the gate of his place.” (Ruth 4:10) Ezekiel opens his prescription for land allotments by saying “Now these are the names of the tribes . . . (48:1) The daughters of Zelophehad claim an inheritance using the same language: “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.” (Numbers 27:4)

These examples all have one thing in common: someone receives an inheritance that they have lost, in the face of at least potential resistance against their claim. In at least two of these cases, the claimants have lost their portion because the father had no son. But “our Father who art in heaven” does have a son, who guarantees a righteous distribution of his inheritance.

Thus the persecution that Jesus is referring to in our last Beatitude may refer to the legal denial of the poor’s inheritance claims in the assemblies of elders in the various villages he’s been visiting. By declaring the Jubilee, bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:18), as he did in Nazareth in Luke 4:18, he is asserting the claim of the poor with divine authority and seeking to overturn that resistance. If the poor can find no redress in the courts, he promises they will receive righteousness (that is, their just portion) anyway. This claim was so incendiary in Jesus’ own home town that the people tried to kill him (Luke 4:28-29).

Though the gospels don’t really spell out just what form the persecution Jesus is referring to takes, it may refer to the more general persecution that the community faced for preaching this good news of debt relief for the poor and, more to the point, condemning those who deny their claims to justice. On the other hand, those who use their wealth to help the poor will have treasure in heaven.

Advertisements

After my series on the Politics of Passion Week, I am returning to finish the series on the Beatitudes and Bankruptcy, begun some time ago.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Like a couple of other Beatitudes, these two seem on the surface to have no direct bearing on bankruptcy and inheritance law. This is especially true of the blessing of the “pure in heart”. When taken together, however, a parallelism emerges that suggests an indirect connection to justice, debt and debt relief. ‘Parallelism’ is a poetic device much used in Hebrew scripture and in the words of Jesus in which the second of two consecutive elements repeats and restates the first, often by developing the idea further or by giving a more specific or a more general case.

The clue to the parallelism is the echo of “they will see God” in “they will be called the sons of God.” The New Revised Standard Version quoted at the top is striving for gender neutrality with its “children of God,” but the Greek (and the Hebrew) reads “sons.” “The sons of God” is what the Bible calls angels. We know from Jesus’ dispute with the Sadducees in the temple about levirate marriage (Matthew 22:30) that Jesus believed the righteous do not have physical bodies after death but become “like the angels in heaven.” Where, as angels, they will “see God.”

So, if the second halves of these two Beatitudes express the same idea—that of a heavenly reward among the angelic host—the first halves do, as well. That is, being “peacemakers” explains what being “pure in heart” means.

Furthermore, all this echoes Psalm 24 (verses 3 & 4):

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.

‘Clean hands’ means those whose actions are free of guilt; ‘pure hearts’ means those with righteous motives and intentions. For the ‘heart’ in ancient Semitic anthropology is the seat of the will, not of the emotions or sentiments, as in Greek anthropology, which we have inherited. To be pure in heart means to dedicate yourself solely to the law (Torah) and its justice. And, according to Psalm 24, that means not worshipping idols and not giving false testimony in court or trying to swindle others with false oaths.

Finally, “peacemakers” are people who work to reconcile enemies. This is a quasi-legal term, in that it refers to those who seek to reconcile parties in legal dispute. We would call them arbitrators.

While most of the Beatitudes are addressed to those who are being oppressed economically—the debtors in cases of bankruptcy—these two address third parties in such cases, people who are in a position to help the debtor find justice. This could also be the plaintiffs, those who hold the debtor’s note, who, because they are pure of heart, decide to make peace by withdrawing their claim on the debtor’s property. This is what the previous Beatitude speaks to: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy, which restates the line from the Lord’s prayer: forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Thus the first four Beatitudes speak to the debtors in cases of bankruptcy. The fifth (blessed are the merciful) speaks to the creditor. And the sixth and seventh promise a place in heaven to those third parties who help protect the debtor from foreclosure. You could do this in one of two ways: you could convince the creditor to be merciful, or you could assume the debtor’s debt yourself as a redeemer. This latter is probably what Jesus had in mind, with an act that will be rewarded with a place among the angels.

In the next posting , we shall see that Jesus widens his focus in the final Beatitude to address the community that seeks to ensure debt-righteousness as he is defining it, and that faces persecution because of its radical reconstruction of its economics.

Jesus appeared to his friends and followers ten different times, if you count all the accounts in all four gospels and then adjust for duplicates (both Mark and Luke recount an appearance to two men walking on the road; both Mark and John recount an appearance to Mary Magdalene alone at the tomb). Mark 16:14, Luke 24:36, and John 20:19-23 might all be the same event, as well, since Jesus appears to the disciples in each story while they are eating and they all include references to doubting the resurrection; but I’m treating them as separate events. All of the accounts in Mark are somewhat suspect because the original gospel breaks off abruptly before any resurrection accounts; all of chapter 16 was added later and most manuscripts don’t have verses nine to the end, which includes all the actual appearances. In fact, doubt, ambivalence, and ambiguity color most of the stories of resurrection appearances.

In three of the ten, the people to whom Jesus appears do not recognize him until something happens to open their eyes. These include the two men on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-32); the disciples, right after being told by these same fellows from Emmaus about their encounter (and they are apparently actually still there in the room; Lk 24:36-49); and several disciples while fishing on the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21:1-14).

One of these appearances—to Mary Magdalene at the tomb—receives conflicting accounts. In Mark (16:9), Mary recognizes Jesus. In John (20:14), she doesn’t, at least not right away.

Four of the accounts include some reference to a problem with recognizing Jesus or believing in his resurrection. In Matthew 28:16ff, Jesus appears to the Eleven on a mountain in Galilee, “but some doubted.” In Mark 16:14, Jesus appears to the Eleven and rebukes them “for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe.” In the two appearances to the disciples with and without doubting Thomas in John 20:19-29, the people present at the moment do not doubt, but the stories are all about the doubter Thomas. Also, weirdly, seven of these men, including Simon and Thomas, fail to recognize Jesus again in the story of the appearance to the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, in the passage that follows directly after the story of Thomas feeling Jesus’ wounds and believing; Thomas and the others have already somehow again lost their ability to recognize/believe after having just regained it.

In only two of the accounts do Jesus’ followers recognize him right away, with no reservations or complications, when he appears to them: the women at the tomb in Matthew 28:1-10, and Simon in a very brief, offhand notice with no elaboration in Luke 24:34.

The point is that Jesus’ followers needed to be coaxed into believing that the vision Jesus had given them of a reign of God that would transform their outer and inner lives was still alive and viable, even though Jesus himself wasn’t anymore. For this, they needed time. And they needed repetition. Even people who were intimates of Jesus himself had to be coached—they had to be taught, all over again, over and over again, what the kingdom of God meant, now that the Teacher was no longer with them in the flesh.

The story of the two men on the road to Emmaus is instructive in this regard. They recognize Jesus, after hours of conversation, only after he has broken bread with them. That is, after they have shared the common meal that the Last Supper epitomized and which was apparently the central daily-bread event in Jesus’ movement. The teaching dimension of this meal comes clear in its description in Acts (2:42-47):

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

The apostles taught; they distributed food and money to the poor; they ate; and they prayed. Apparently doing these things when gathered together for the common meal. Food and teaching and religious experience and radical economics were all almost literally the same thing. They ate and studied together, they shared all they had, and they had profound religious experiences, all of which were so attractive that more and more people joined them. And they all involved eating—as in the Last Supper.

Give us this day our daily bread. Feed my sheep. You shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him? This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.

At some point in the future, I want to start a series on spiritual food—on the way Christian scripture conflates feeding and teaching, eating and learning, sharing and understanding. For now, I close this series on the Politics of Passion Week with this conclusion about the politics of resurrection:

When Jesus’ followers were finally convinced that he continued to live and work among them and within them, his presence inspired them to radically remake the social and economic structures of their community along egalitarian and communitarian lines. This took discipline. It took study, practice, repetition, example. Folks lost the message, and then were brought back again. It was hard work. But it filled them with awe and joy.

In the post for Friday, the day of the arrest, I asked the question: what was Jesus really praying for in the garden of Gethsemane? On the surface, it looks like he was just praying to be delivered from the terrible fate he saw coming, a reasonable—and quite human—hope.  But suppose God had answered his prayer with a ‘yes’? What would have happened then? What alternative outcome was Jesus praying for?

It was the week of Passover, the festival dedicated to remembering when God delivered his people from slavery under an imperial oppressor with the right arm of his military power. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of pilgrims were in Jerusalem for the festival. Riots, and even the occasional popular uprising, occurred so often during the Passover festival, that every year Rome moved its Syrian legion into bivouac outside the city to help the legion that was permanently posted in the city itself in order to help with crowd control.

Jesus started the week declaring God’s kingship over his people and he’s focused on the radical inbreaking of divine sovereignty through the ensuing days. He’s prophesied the destruction of the temple. And if we accept the structure of the gospels as representing more or less the real chronology of events, Jesus has delivered a long sermon prophesying the last days.

It looks like Jesus was expecting the fulfillment of the kingdom he has been preaching in some kind of visitation from the Father and a cataclysmic overthrow of the existing order. Perhaps he looked forward to the fulfillment of the prophecy from Zechariah that he had enacted at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:

See, our king comes riding to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. . . I will rouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword. Then the Lord will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning . . . The Lord their God will save them on that day as the flock of his people. (Zech 9:9-17)

Perhaps he was also expecting the fulfillment of other prophecies, as well. That he was praying on the slopes of the Mount of Olives tends to reinforce this idea. We’ll talk more about Jesus’ land-based spirituality in a series timed for Earth Day later this month. In that series on the prospects for a religious culture of place, we will look at what I call ‘spiritual ecology’; we’ll ask the questions: where did Jesus go, to do what, and why? The Mount of Olives figures prominently in this series because it figures so prominently in Jesus’ own land-based spirituality.  But we need to preview some of this now.

The Mount of Olives had been named by the prophets Zechariah and Ezekiel as a place associated with the Father’s triumphant return to Jerusalem to save his people.

The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. (Ezekiel 11:23; part of the famous vision of the ‘wheel within a wheel’, in which the presence of God leaves the temple in Jerusalem and comes to dwell with the exiles in Babylon, stopping at the Mount of Olives on the way.)

Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east. . . And the Lord shall become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one. . . And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord on that day. (Zechariah 14:3-9, 21)

Jesus may have been praying on the Mount of Olives because that’s the last place God visited in Israel before leaving the temple, and because Mount Olivet was the place to which he had promised to return. Perhaps Jesus also believed, as the Essenes did, that God had never actually returned to the temple since the Exile, because the temple had never been properly cleansed.

Only . .  the Father didn’t return that night. Jesus was left bereft. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he would cry from the cross.

The most radical thing about the scene at the empty tomb and the two resurrection appearances that took place there (in Matthew and John) is that the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. This in a society in which women could not appear in court as witnesses. Typically, the men in the story don’t believe their testimony.

For a most thorough and enlightening discussion of women’s place among the earliest followers of Jesus, I highly recommend Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins.

In regard to gender relations, Jesus seems to have gone quite far in placing the last first. Over and over again, it is women who seem to really know who Jesus is, while the male disciples are consistently obtuse. One thinks of Martha’s anointing in John 12, the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair in Luke 7, and the little group who traveled with him and the twelve in the very early days, who provided them all with financial support (Luke 8:1-4).

In many cases, these women were doubly marginalized by some other condition, either poverty or spirit possession. Luke says these female ‘angel investors’ were “women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases.” See Stevan L. Davies’s Jesus the Healer for a fascinating discussion, building on the work of Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), of spirit possession as a strategy of survival for women in abusive family situations and how Jesus may have rescued Mary Magdalene and the others from such relationships.

The other significant political aspect of the crucifixion and resurrection is the collapse of whatever overtly political expectations Jesus may have had for the kingdom of God. We tend to take the subsequent spiritualization of the kingdom of God for granted, but it’s not clear that Jesus had no overtly political ambitions at all. The evangelists are at pains to put a spiritualizing spin on Jesus’ claims for the kingdom during the trial, but the gospels were written a generation later, after a disastrous war with Rome, under active if sporadic imperial and local persecution. You were simply conforming to reality when you were yourself put on trial if you claimed that you only sought a spiritual kingdom.

But if Jesus was not concerned with the actual overthrow of Roman rule and the replacement of the empire’s puppets in Jerusalem, and with making the first last and the last first, what was the little apocalyptic sermon in Mark 13 and the other gospels all about? Why stage these provocative demonstrations at the city gate and inside the temple precincts? Why prophecy the utter destruction of the temple? Why buy two swords?

I believe it all hinges on what Jesus was praying for in Gethsemane. When we read “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me”, we tend to think Jesus saw the torture and death that awaited him and felt fear; but what if the Father had answered with a ‘yes’? So Jesus isn’t tortured and crucified. But what happens instead? What was Jesus really praying for?

We’ll return to this question in some afterthoughts later this week. The fact is that the answer was no. And with Jesus’ death, his hopes for some other outcome died, as well. Whatever political dimension that outcome might have had foundered and the disciples were left to figure out: what now? That took them awhile.

They did not even recognize right away that the dream they had been pursuing and the figure who had led them were still alive. Several of the first witnesses of the resurrection do not even recognize Jesus when they see him. People like Mary, who had been his intimate for years, look straight at him and do not recognize him. Two fellows travel on the road to Emmaus for hours discussing the fateful events that have just taken place with the very man himself and don’t recognize him until they sit down to eat. What’s with that? Another thing we’ll discuss in the afterthoughts.

Jesus is arguably the most famous person to be tortured to death as an insurrectionist by an occupying imperial army.

Crucifixion is execution by what we call today a stress position. Though the victim was often nailed to the cross, as Jesus was, you did not normally die of these wounds, and the victim often was only hung on the cross with rope. You died gradually of asphyxiation from the position in which you hung, sometimes complicated by shock and dehydration, depending on how badly you had been treated while in custody.

Why did the Romans torture Jesus? Why did George W. Bush and Dick Cheney torture insurrectionists at Abu Ghraib?

Aside from the dehumanization of the enemy, which is the sine qua non for all warfare. Aside from ideology, which inevitably claims that a little evil is justified in order to protect a greater good. Aside from the naked rush that the powerful feel when exercising their power over others. Aside from the lesson that terror teaches other enemies of the state. Aside from the breakdowns of morality, reason, character, and political justice that make torture possible . .  empires torture dissidents to get information.

“Hail, King of the Jews,” mocked the soldiers as they stripped Jesus, crowned him with thorns and beat him with a staff (the symbol of royal military authority in ancient Israel—“thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me”). “He saved others but he can’t save himself!” Go ahead, save yourself. TELL US WHO YOUR FRIENDS ARE. Especially that fellow with the sword.

George W. Bush believes that the torture of Jesus was necessary to save his (George’s) immortal soul. George W. Bush believes that torturing insurrectionists in Iraq was necessary to save American lives. For George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Jack Bauer, and many Americans, torture has legitimate salvific power. Never mind that the torturer assumes the place of the Romans who murdered their God.

Meanwhile, the fellow with the sword is skulking around in their very midst. Peter, wanted by the police for insurrection, assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, and associating with a known terrorist, has infiltrated the police compound and hides under their very noses. Thrice, people think they recognize him, and yet he does not run away. Instead he denies their accusations and stays.

Why? What is he doing there? The only answer that makes any sense is that he’s looking for a way to spring his leader from jail, to save him from a terrible death. Does that not sound like the Peter who launched himself into the water without thinking? Is that not about the bravest thing you can imagine him doing? Is it not a miracle that he escaped alive?

A generation later, when confession of faith and martyrdom were becoming idealized and even fetishized, Peter looks like a coward. But in the moment, he was a hero with extraordinary courage, resourcefulness, and loyalty.

He couldn’t save Jesus, but Jesus did save him. Jesus never cracked. He never told his torturers who his confederates were. He took the rap for them all. “Greater love hath no one than to give up his life for his friends”.

His followers did, apparently, try one mass demonstration aimed at getting Jesus released. At least that’s how I read the weird and impossible account of Pilate and Barabbas (informed again by the work of Hyam Maccoby). First, the Pilate of Christian Scripture is a wimp, a pathetic if not quite sympathetic character. But the real Pontius Pilate was so vicious and oppressive that the emperor had him removed from office! And we have no record of any tradition of releasing prisoners (especially one like Barabbas, convicted also, of insurrection) on Passover (a holiday dedicated to revolution against empire), a practice that is unthinkable as official Roman imperial policy. So a crowd may have demanded that he release Barabbas, but we can be pretty sure it never happened.

But who was Barabbas? Let’s look at his name: in Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue and the universal Semitic language of the time, bar Abbas means “son of the father.” Father—as in “Our Abbas who art in heaven.”

“Son of the Father” is rather redundant and meaningless on its own. But it is the obvious appellation of the man whose Father said at his baptism, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” Who taught the Lord’s Prayer.

And it is perfectly reasonable to think that a crowd might gather to demand Jesus’ release, calling out the epithet by which he had become known: “Give us bar Abbas!” Well, it didn’t work. They crucify insurrectionists, don’t they.

Jesus is arguably the most famous person to be tortured to death as an insurrectionist by an occupying imperial army.

Crucifixion is execution by stress position. Though the victim was often nailed to the cross, as Jesus was, you did not normally die of these wounds, and the victim often was only hung on the cross with rope. You died gradually of asphyxiation from the position in which you hung, sometimes complicated by shock and dehydration, depending on how badly you had been treated while in custody.

Why did the Romans torture Jesus? Why did George W. Bush and Dick Cheney torture insurrectionists at Abu Ghraib and in the CIA’s secret ‘black sites’?

Aside, that is, from the dehumanization of the enemy that is the sine qua non for all warfare. Aside from ideology, which inevitably claims that a little evil is justified in order to protect a greater good. Aside from the naked rush that the powerful feel when exercising their power over others. Aside from the lesson that terror teaches other enemies of the state. Aside from these breakdowns of morality, reason, character and political justice that make torture possible—empires torture dissidents to get information.

“Hail, King of the Jews,” mocked the soldiers as they stripped Jesus, crowned him with thorns and beat him with a staff (the symbol of royal military authority in ancient Israel—“thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me”). “He saved others but he can’t save himself!” Go ahead, save yourself. TELL US WHO YOUR FRIENDS ARE. Especially that fellow with the sword.

George W. Bush believes that the torture of Jesus was necessary to save his immortal soul. George W. Bush believes that torturing insurrectionists in Iraq was necessary to save American lives. For George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Jack Bauer, and many Americans, torture has legitimate salvific power. Never mind that the torturer assumes the place of the Romans who murdered their God.

Meanwhile, while the torturers are playing with Jesus, the fellow with the sword is skulking around in their very midst. Peter, wanted by the police for insurrection, assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, and associating with a known terrorist, has infiltrated the police compound and hides under their very noses. Thrice, people think they recognize him, and yet he does not run away. Instead he denies their accusations and stays.

Why? What is he doing there? The only answer that makes any sense is that he’s looking for a way to spring his leader from jail, to save him from a terrible death. Does that not sound like the Peter who launched himself into the water without thinking? Is that not about the bravest thing you can imagine him doing? Is it not a miracle that he escaped alive?

A generation later, when confession of faith and martyrdom were becoming idealized and even fetishized, Peter looks like a coward. But in the moment, he was a hero with extraordinary courage, resourcefulness and loyalty.

He couldn’t save Jesus, but Jesus did save him. Jesus never cracked. He never told his torturers who his confederates were. He took the rap for them all.

His followers did, apparently, try one mass demonstration aimed at getting Jesus released. At least that’s how I read the weird and impossible account of Pilate and Barabbas (informed again by the work of Hyam Maccoby). First, the Pilate of Christian Scripture is a wimp, a pathetic if not quite sympathetic character. But the real Pontius Pilate was so vicious and oppressive that the emperor had him removed from office! And we have no record of any tradition of releasing prisoners (especially one like Barabbas, convicted also, of insurrection) on Passover (a holiday dedicated to revolution against empire), a practice that is unthinkable as official Roman imperial policy. So a crowd may have demanded that the authorities release Barabbas, but we can be pretty sure it never happened.

But who was Barabbas? Let’s look at his name: in Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue and the universal Semitic language of the time: “bar Abbas” means “son of the father.” Father—as in “Our Abbas who art in heaven.”

“Son of the Father” is redundant and meaningless on its own. But it is the obvious appellation for the man whose Father said at his baptism, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” For the man who taught the Lord’s Prayer.

And it is perfectly reasonable to think that a crowd might gather to demand Jesus’ release, calling out the epithet by which he had become known: “Give us bar Abbas!” Well, it didn’t work. They crucify insurrectionists, don’t they.

For years in Galilee, Jesus has been building a movement on the margins of the Judean temple state. Now he’s come to the center of religious, economic and political life for his people. For days in Jerusalem, he has been openly confronting the Powers that be, not just preaching and teaching the kingdom of God, but inaugurating and demonstrating it with bold actions and in-their-face argument. He has

  • conducted an inaugural procession into Jerusalem, declaring a new government under God;
  • cast out the money changers from the temple and stolen their money, an act of exorcism;
  • cursed the fig tree (representing these corrupt Powers), a declaration dissolving the current government;
  • argued that his authority comes from the same source as the popular prophet John the Baptizer, that the Roman tax is illegitimate, and reasserted God’s comprehensive claim over his people with the commandment of love;
  • denounced the Powers with parables and formal curses (Matthew’s seven woes);
  • prophesied the temple’s utter destruction; and
  • prophesied the final in-breaking of God’s reign accompanied by apocalyptic convulsions.

The authorities are not happy. For days, they have been trying to discredit him in public and, at every turn, Jesus has turned their arguments against them. For days, they have been plotting to lay hands on him, but he is too visible and popular to seize openly. For days they have been hunting for his secret nighttime hideout, without success. Now, at last, they have an informant. I would burst the already constrictive bounds of this blog to get into who Judas was and why he did what he did. Another time. Meanwhile, I cannot recommend more highly a book (all the books, really) by Hyam Maccoby: Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil.

So also, the meaning of the agony in Gethsemane lies outside the scope of this series, which I’m trying to keep focused on politics. In fact, I believe Jesus’ despair in the garden is political to its core and that it was no accident that brought the secret police to his hiding place on this night of all nights. Something was supposed to happen that night, and it didn’t. But I’m going to defer discussion of what that was until another time.

For now, the arrest. Besides Judas, the arresting party includes representatives from three political interest groups: the chief priests, who wielded political power as heads of state; the teachers of the law, their lawyers; and the elders, the judicial establishment.

“Am I leading a rebellion, that you come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” demands Jesus. And the answer, obviously, is yes. At least, the authorities think so. And how could they not, after the list of provocations that I’ve just cited? Jesus’ party is armed, for God’s sake, and one of them actually assaults an officer.

The charges against him, posted on his cross at his execution, read “The King of the Jews”, sarcastically indicting him for insurrection. So, also, they had been taunting him when they crowned him with a circlet of thorns. And they crucified him with two other ‘bandits’, meaning (many scholars believe), insurrectionists. Or perhaps members of the kind of Robin Hood-style gangs comprised of disenfranchised peasants that continually plagued the roads of Palestine in Jesus’ day. The kind of people that break into the temple’s currency exchange and make off with the treasury. The kind of people who actually started a war against Roman occupation a generation later.

Jesus was arrested, tried and executed as an insurrectionist, a threat to the stability of Rome’s puppet government in Judea. His execution was a judicial assassination of a political threat to the state.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about imperial torture of insurrectionists, we’ll rehabilitate Peter the denier, and we’ll take a close look at Barabbas.

Jesus’ instructions for preparing the Passover meal read like a spy novel: follow a man carrying water; he will take you to our secret safehouse. Give the homeowner a password and he will show you to an upper room. Besides the secrecy, five other elements of the Last Supper story indicate the revolutionary character of this gathering:

  • Jesus inaugurates a new covenant with the messianic banquet/common meal as the celebration of God’s newly established reign.
  • Jesus demonstrates for whom he has established his new ‘interim government’ in the way the meal is shared: this is, of course, for the poor.
  • Jesus reclaims the cultic authority of the temple and its officiating priests, instituting his own replacement—the Eucharist—for the central daily offerings to God in the temple.
  • Jesus takes a Nazirite vow, dedicating himself to wholehearted service as a consecrated ‘warrior’ to God’s deliverance of God’s people.
  • Jesus purchases weapons—why?

New covenant. As celebretory signs of the new covenant, Jesus uses bread and wine, which do not have such a central role in the Passover meal. I agree with Bruce Chilton that the bread and wine are meant to replace the show-bread and wine libation placed daily on the altar in the temple as the symbol/reality of Yahweh’s continuing presence among his (sic) people, his “supping with them”. With the words of the Eucharist, Jesus declares the government of the temple-state and its cultic foundation no longer constitutional and declares his own community the provisional government of Israel—provisional until God comes Godself to rule in the land.

Solidarity with the poor. Jesus’ treatment of the wine and the bread express the revolutionary character of his provisional government, also. Of the bread, the evangelists say, “While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it, he broke it and gave it to them and said . . .” In the ancient Near East, everyone at the table was provided his (sic) own loaf of bread. The host served the meal in serving dishes set in the middle of the table and individual diners broke pieces of their loaf off and used them as ‘tools’ with which to pick pieces of food from the common bowl. There were no forks, so bread was used to prevent touching the common food with your hands. (See Luke 11:5-6)

When Jesus breaks a single loaf and distributes the pieces to all the diners, he is doing two radical things at once. First, and most audacious, there is one loaf because only one loaf is placed on Yahweh’s altar in the temple—Jesus is distributing God’s own personal loaf of bread. The act symbolizes that God dines with them; this is the messianic banquet which Jesus described in his parable of the great banquet (Mt 22:2-14).

At the same time, using only one loaf expresses radical solidarity with the poor, with people who are too poor to provide a loaf for every person at the table. It also demonstrates how Jesus’ interim government in God solves the problem of poverty: by sharing, and by trusting in God to provide. We’ve already seen this sharing demonstrated several times in the feeding of the 5,o00 and of the 4,000.

The eucharist. The first covenant was sealed—and thereafter renewed—by pouring sacrificed oxen blood upon the altar by the priests. Jesus seals his new covenant, not with oxen blood, not with a cultic act at the altar, but with wine and a ‘cultic’ act at the table. He is saying, “That is their blood of the covenant, which they sprinkle on their altar; this is my blood of the covenant, that we share together as the cup of God’s fullness at God’s table.

This is not the traditional interpretation of the eucharist, of course—that Jesus really meant his own blood. But it is unthinkable that Jesus meant the wine to represent somehow his own blood. The law strictly forbad eating blood, even for Gentiles living among Jews (Lev 17:10-12). This prohibition is one of the few instructions from the law that the Council of Jerusalem chose to apply to Gentiles as part of its accommodation of Paul’s Gentile mission (Acts 15:19-20).

Equally unthinkable to Jesus and his first Jewish followers would have been the idea that Jesus himself would have served as either a human sacrifice or a divine sacrifice whose blood could atone for Israel. Yahweh had categorically rejected human sacrifice almost two thousand years earlier when God released Abraham from the necessity of sacrificing his son Isaac, a common cultic act when founding a nation (witness Agamemnon and Iphegenia for Hellenic Greece, Romulus and Remus for Rome, Cain and Abel for the Kenites). Likewise, the sacrifice of a god, on the model of Dionysus or Mithra in their respective mystery cults, and the associated salvific function of their blood, was so foreign to Jesus’ religion that Hebrew scriptures never even mention such a thing so as to condemn it. Drinking a dying god’s blood was the most extreme form of idolatrous paganism.

Instead, Jesus sealed the new covenant with a messianic banquet, at which God and the New Israel supped together in a celebration that anticipated the immanent arrival, judgment, and salvation of God Godself, as Israel’s true sovereign father.

The Nazirite vow. That Jesus expected the direct rule of God very soon is indicated by his Nazirite vow just after inaugurating the covenant: “For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). With this vow, Jesus dedicated himself to the climactic final work of his ministry.

The Nazirite vow was a warrior vow (see Numbers 6:1-8 for the instructions concerning Nazirite vows). Not exclusively a warrior vow, though; the example of Samuel, the Nazirite prophet, seems to fit Jesus’ case more aptly than the example of Samson, the Bible’s most famous Nazirite warrior.

For Luke, the correspondences between Jesus and both Samuel and Samson were strong enough to help shape his birth narrative. They have in common:

  • annunciation of the birth to the mother by an angel,
  • a miraculous dimension to the birth itself,
  • resistance or lack of understanding on the part of the father,
  • dedication of the infant to God,
  • a hymn sung by the mother of the child,
  • anointing of the man by God’s holy spirit, and
  • a career of service to God for the salvation of his people.

In particular, the Magnificat resembles the canticle of Hannah, Samuel’s mother. In both poems, Yahweh reverses the fortunes of the people according to his (sic) justice: “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)

Jesus vows only to “never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. (Mark 14:25)” He does not mention the prohibitions against cutting the hair or contact with corpses or sex, the rest of the Nazirite proscriptions. So perhaps he means something else here. Yet he has certainly assumed the stance of the warrior. He has focused his mission over the past several days quite intensely on revolution, on fulfilling the Magnificat’s promise of liberation. He clearly expects a climax, and soon; nor does he seem to expect the denouement to take very long. And finally, he orders—or at least sanctions—the disciples to acquire weapons. This is, perhaps, the most incongruous action in all of Jesus’ career.

The swords. This passage implies something deeper and more disturbing, actually, than the obvious possibility that the disciples were preparing for a fight. Jesus seems to be abandoning his Jubilee commitment to radical dependence on God. He reverses the commandment he had given earlier to “take nothing for your journey, no staff (defense), nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. (Luke 9:3)” He seems to be saying, things have changed; it’s time we took matters into our own hands. And also that the moment of fulfillment is so close that you will not even need the shelter of your cloak tonight; you will need a sword more.

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’ (Isaiah 53:12); and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”

Luke 22:35-38

As rationale, Jesus quotes Isaiah 53, one of the Servant Songs, a poem that prefigures in many of its details the hours that will follow: the arrest, Jesus’ taunting and death and burial. The “lawless” here (Hebrew, pasha) means to break away from just authority; to rebel or revolt; it also could mean ‘bandit’.

With the line that Jesus quotes, he implies that bringing the sword will ensure that he will be “numbered among the transgressors,” and this will ensure that he dies. Immediately upon his arrest, he says as much, clarifying what he means by transgressors: “Have you come with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit?” Yes is the answer; they do “number” him a bandit, and the sword Peter uses against the high priest’s servant proves it. They “number” him among the transgressors when they crucify him among bandits, too. The authorities consider Jesus the leader of a bandit gang. At the arrest, Jesus ensures that only he is taken into custody, that he takes the rap for his followers, “the many”.

We’ll look at the Son of Man as bandit in more detail tomorrow when we discuss the arrest. In the meantime, we are left to ponder the mystery of the swords.