August 4, 2010
No one can enter a strongman’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first binds the strongman. Then he can rob his house. (Mark 3:27)
Jesus did not just rail against the rich with curses, prophetic oracles and forceful teachings about the dangers of going in through the wide gate of wealth. And he did not just promise the poor—with blessings, prophetic oracles and hopeful teachings about what lay beyond the narrow gate—that their fortunes would be reversed, that he had “good news” for them: he would cancel their debts, relieve their suffering and provide for their needs. He actually put cash in their hands—cash he had stolen from their rich and powerful oppressors. In at least one instance, Jesus stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The Son of Man was a thief.
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. so you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:42-44)
Jesus had already demonstrated in concrete terms what he meant by this cryptic warning about judgment. In this concrete instance, as in the more eschatological sayings about the ‘Son of Man’, the “strongman” was Satan, and also his minions—the priests, scribes and lawyers who ruled Judea as collaborators with Caesar. The “house” was the temple. The “theft” was the so-called ‘cleansing of the temple.’
After the triumphal royal procession into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passion Week, Jesus’ first royal act was to enter the temple complex, go to the foreign exchange office of the treasury, and stage a raid.
Going into the temple, he began to throw out those who were selling and buying in the temple; and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and he did not allow anyone to carry a container through the temple. And he was teaching and saying to them, “Has it not been written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of brigands.” (Mark 11:15-17)
Imagine the scene: The tables topple, the jars of coins crash to the pavement, the money spills in piles and rolls out into the court, some officials desperately seize what jars of money they can save and try to make it out of the court, but Jesus and his followers intercept them, people are scooping the money up from the floor into sacks, hauling off the jars they have captured. All the while Jesus is shouting above the cries, the bellows of the cattle, the mewing of the sheep, the flutter of wings, the laughing of his followers: you have made this a den of thieves! Ever the master of prophetic irony and sarcasm.
It is a small victory. The poor are very many and even this Robin Hood raid will not see to all their needs. But it is real money, after all. And its symbolic power is tremendous. The Son of Man delivers.
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. (Mark 11:18)
July 6, 2010
This is the third in a series of entries on Jesus’ attitude toward riches and the rich, prompted by a June 13 article in Huffington Post by Les Leopold entitled “Is there a Global War Between Financial Theocracy and Democracy?”
Although he famously included women, the poor, lepers and other marginalized people in his community and explicitly forbade hierarchical forms of governance (see Mark 10:35-45), Jesus’ kingdom of God was no democracy. It was in fact a theocracy, a covenant under God’s direct rulership whose primary mission was to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). It also brought bad news to the rich. No story illustrates this central focus of the gospel message better than that of the rich young man who asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, told in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 10:17-31; Matthew 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30).
The first thing to note right away in the man’s question is the economic language the man uses to describe how he will achieve his goal of eternal life: he hopes to inherit it. Jesus himself uses ‘inherit’ this way quite frequently (see my posts on the Beatitudes). The man is posing a question about the law (and Jesus answers him with the law) and he knows that it is inheritance law that applies to his query: he will inherit eternal life from his Father in heaven as his portion—as a son of God—if he follows the law faithfully. In essence, he is asking Jesus, how can I become a son of God under your interpretation of the law. It’s worth noting that the “sons of God” was the term used in Jesus’ time for angels and that Jesus expected the saints to rise from the dead to become “like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25).
Jesus asks him if he has followed the law, citing several of the Ten Commandments, all of them economic crimes: theft, false witness, swindling (coveting, wrongly understood as wishing you had what your neighbor has), care of your aged father and mother, and adultery. (Adultery directly violated inheritance law because conceiving a child outside the marriage disrupted the inheritance of the woman’s family.) The rich young man replies that he has
“kept all these since my youth. Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell what you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. . . . It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 10:20-24,
Some scholars have proposed, on only a little evidence, that there was a postern gate (that is, a small gate for people only, rather than for commercial traffic) in the city wall of Jerusalem called the Needle Gate. If this were true, the image would be of a rich merchant forced to unload his camel’s saddlebags of all their cargo so that the camel could fit through the gate. This is a perfect image for what Jesus has in mind, whether there was a Needle Gate or not. In any event, the literal image of a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle is hyperbolic and dramatic, capturing the intensity of Jesus’ message: the only way rich people will inherit the kingdom of God is for them to give their surplus wealth to the poor.
Most of us will walk away grieving, just like the man in the story.
June 16, 2010
This is the second in a short series of entries on Jesus’ attitude toward riches and the rich, prompted by a June 13 article in Huffington Post by Les Leopold entitled “Is there a Global War Between Financial Theocracy and Democracy?”, in which he describes the culture surrounding the financial sector of our economy and its governmental proxies as one of quasi-religious faith in markets, a worldview generally embraced by conservatives of all stripes, including the Christian right. Jesus would call this culture idolatry.
The gospels abound with eschatological sayings, curses and judgment oracles in which Jesus consigns the rich to a harsh judgment and condemns the amassment of wealth as a morally mortal folly. He often combines these utterances with blessings of the poor and oppressed (the Hebrew word ani can be translated either way), saying in effect, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The most striking of these combinations is Luke’s presentation of the Beatitudes with a corresponding list of ‘anti-Beatitudes’:
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24-25):
There are several other passages that single out the rich in this way (many of these have parallels in other gospels):
Mark 10:17-30 The story of the rich young man: “how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Luke 12:13-21 The parable of the rich fool: “God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Luke 16:19-31 The rich man and Lazarus: “now he is comforted here and you are in agony”
We will look at some of these in more detail in the next post, and later we will see that it’s not all doom and gloom for the rich: all they need do is sell everything they own and give it to the poor. And we’ll look at two matching case studies of people who did just that—and those who didn’t.
June 13, 2010
The June 13 Huffington Post features an article by Les Leopold entitled “Is there a Global War Between Financial Theocracy and Democracy?” Leopold writes that, after gains on behalf of working people against financial interests during the New Deal, those interests went on the counter-offensive beginning in the 1970s:
The Deregulatory Counter-Offensive: By the late 1970s, bankers regained the advantage through the spread of a new faith in self-regulated markets. The economic apostles of unfettered markets lobbied against progressive taxes, unions, and social welfare programs. The new orthodoxy was: Let the elites collect the money—they’ll invest wisely (instead of consuming), and all boats will rise. This near-religious revolution rapidly spread through the economic and policy establishment. Regulations were dismantled right and left, and the revolving door between government and Wall Street started spinning. The American financial catechism ruled the world. And on Wall Street, the money tap was open. It did not trickle down.
Then, suddenly, in 2008, the market gods destroyed themselves as the unregulated financial casinos crashed and burned, just like they did in 1929. . . This was the perfect moment for democracy to reassert democratic control on financial markets, just as we did during the New Deal. We blew it.
The article made me think right away of Walter Wink’s analysis of the Powers in his brilliant series of books on the Powers, the spiritual reality behind the various structures and institutions of oppression in modern civilization, as seen through the lens of Christian scripture’s ‘angelology’—the ways that Christian scripture names and describes the Principalities, Powers and other angelic entities in its worldview and how we might understand them in our own social science worldview.
Jesus focused a great deal of attention on the specific Power at work in the current financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession. He even game him a name: Mammon.
The parable of the dishonest manager in Luke (16:1-14) speaks directly to the situation Leopold describes, of financial theocracy, of making a god of the market and trusting the priest-managers who benefit from and manage it. Here’s how it ends:
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth (mammon), who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.
This calls for a brief series on the considerable number of passages in the gospels in which Jesus warns—or curses—the rich and the lust for wealth. The various forces that fetishize deregulation, the hypocrites who pretend to be populists while punishing the poor, who claim to love Christ and actually love the ‘free market’—beware! Your Jesus envisions some gnashing of teeth.
June 8, 2010
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Matthew 6:12.
When asked once what the most powerful force in the universe was, Albert Einstein is said to have answered: compound interest. Certainly, a modern, capitalist financial system could not exist without lending at interest. No interest, no credit. No credit, no productive economic activity.
The laws of ancient Greece, Rome and Israel, however, prohibited usury, or lending at interest, and so did those of medieval Europe. Eventually, though, the potential for creating wealth through investment rather than through land-based agriculture demanded the legalization of lending at interest, and capitalism and modernity itself were born. Nevertheless, throughout most of modern history, laws have set limits on the rates that could be charged.
The inflationary recession of the 1970s, however, began squeezing lenders (especially credit card lenders) against these limits, and they challenged these laws in court. Eventually, a 1978 Supreme Court decision pegged usury rates to the laws of a lender’s home state and states began competing for these companies; Delaware and South Dakota won. (See the excellent review article by Steven Mercatante in South Dakota Law Review for a history: “The deregulation of usury ceilings, rise of easy credit, and increasing consumer debt”.) The United States has been steadily deregulating the financial services industry ever since. There now exist virtually no limits on the interest rates a lender can charge, beyond those set by the market. The result of deregulation and of easy credit has been two banking crises (remember the savings and loans in the 1980s?), the last—well, you know.
Of course, high interest rates hurt the poor the most, and perversely, the people who most need the loan are those who pay the highest rates and are least able to pay them. A constellation of businesses exists to make money off of the poor’s desperate need for short-term cash—to keep the lights on, meet a rent payment, hold onto their car, keep their cable or phone. On Monday’s show (June 7, 2010), Terry Gross, host of NPR’s fine show Fresh Air, interviewed Gary Rivlin, author of Broke, USA, about these financial industries that make their profit from lending to the poor at very high interest rates. Oy.
I said above that the Bible prohibits usury (see this website for a list of the passages concerning interest rates on loans). The lending envisioned in the Bible differs from investment lending, but is exactly the kind of lending discussed by Rivlin: it is lending to the poor. Usually, that meant a free peasant subsistence farmer who’s experienced a productivity shortfall or some disaster (his ox dies) and needs either food to tide his family over or seed to plant next year’s crops, or both. The Bible defines who bears the responsibility for making such loans (family) and sets the terms, but predatory lending by bankers in the cities was a problem in ancient Israel as it is now. (See Isaiah 5:8)
As Congress revisits financial regulation in the aftermath of the catastrophes that deregulation have brought, we can expect ‘Christian’ Republicans (and Democrats, for that matter) to fight it on behalf of the banks. They should remember that Jesus literally defined his mission as the Christ in terms of relief for the poor:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because he has anointed me (Christed me, messiah-ed me) to bring good news to the poor. Luke 4:18.
They should set very strict limits on the interest rates that these institutions can charge the poor. It would be better to eliminate the interest rates altogether, but that would probably eliminate the lending itself, the last option available to the poor to meet these pressing short-term needs. Instead, churches should get into the short-term loan business and use the very modest profits they might make from low interest rates to help fund other relief efforts, like soup kitchens, and put these predatory lenders out of business with competition.
May 1, 2010
Thank God we finally have healthcare reform in America. One had to wonder how the Republican party could have resisted this effort with so much hostility when, for decades, and certainly during the second Bush administration, it was close to being a party of Christian theocracy. Do the social conservatives in the conservative movement read their Bible? Have they thought at all about what Jesus’ healthcare policy was? For he certainly had one.
In his own time, Jesus was most known for his ability to heal. This isn’t true in our time; in fact, it’s often a source of embarrassment. This is because true spiritual healing and other ‘supernatural miracles’ are so rare in our time that we now doubt them. Charlatans and the theater of televangelism on the one hand, and the superficiality of New Age self-help culture, on the other, have so tainted the topic that we no longer really know how to talk about spiritual healing. And, by contrast, medical science is so good at healing that there doesn’t seem much point in braving the swamps of Jesus’ healing ‘miracles’, except maybe to present some scientific explanation for how they could have happened.
Whether these healings happened as described and how they might have happened are interesting questions and I intend to explore them at some point. There is much more to say about how Jesus healed than the usual discussion of psychosomatic medicine. But there are other questions to ask that speak more directly to our own concerns about healthcare and healthcare policy. For instance, why did Jesus heal? Preeminent among these questions, though, is: whom did Jesus heal?
Jesus healed the poor.
Jesus healed 27 times in the gospels, if you include the exorcisms. Statistically, the spirit-possessed top the list with six instances. Next come the blind, at 5, and the paralyzed or crippled, at 4. Then, at three, the deaf and/or mute and people with fevers. Two instances of lepers and one each of dropsy, epilepsy (assigned to spirit possession in the gospels), menstrual bleeding, and a sword wound. Putting aside the exorcisms, which deserve their own treatment, 43% of Jesus’ healings were people whom the Bible formally categorized among the poor—that is, the blind and the lame.
There are six formal categories or kinds of poverty in the Bible, which are often grouped together, especially in the instructions of Torah: the blind and the lame, the widow and the orphan, the resident alien and the Levite. All were poor because they had no way to support themselves, either because they could not work or because they could not own land.
Jesus added a seventh to the classic list: lepers. These were not people with Hanson’s disease, of Ben Hur fame. They were people with chronic skin diseases, like psoriasis, hives and shingles. These ‘lepers’ were barred by law from meaningful economic contact with others: they couldn’t work at normal trades, handle food, or even come close to people who cared about ritual purity, most notably, priests, Pharisees and other religious conservatives.
The most important breakthrough from the recently passed healthcare insurance reform is that now, for the first time, poor people will be able to get healthcare insurance they can afford.
Trying to block this legislation was (speaking in the religious conservatives’ own language) the devil’s work; that is, fighting this legislation was tantamount to thwarting the primary mission of the Christ, as Jesus defined it in Luke 4:18 (“good news for the poor”): relieving the poor of the burdens of debt and offering them wholeness in the kingdom of God.
Christian conservatives who take their Bible seriously should have tried to make this legislation as strong and as protective of the poor as possible, just as their Lord did, instead of opposing it. Following Jesus’ model, they should have supported a single-payer system, because all the evidence indicates that such a system would have been more efficient and effective, and because ‘socializing’ medicine in this way is exactly what a theocratic state following the teachings of Jesus would look like; see Acts 2 and 4. On the other hand, Christian conservatives who support the lawsuits against this legislation stand in for Satan, who would like nothing better than to see the priorities of the Messiah undermined by his own followers.
Finally, a note about schedule: I am going away for a week and will have no access to the Internet, so I won’t be posting on BibleMonster until the week of May 9.
April 26, 2010
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.
April 17, 2010
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.
April 13, 2010
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.
April 1, 2010
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.”
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.