Woe to you who are rich

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.


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.

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.

Species extinction

May 16, 2010

How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the beasts and the birds are swept away, and because the people said, “He is blind to our ways.”  (Jeremiah 12:4)

On May 10 the United Nations Secretariat on the Convention of Biological Diversity released its third Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3). The situation is dire. Here’s just one excerpt from the section on Species populations and extinction risks:

“Species in all groups with known trends are, on average, being driven closer to extinction, with amphibians facing the greatest risk and warm water reef-building corals showing the most rapid deterioration in status. Among selected vertebrate, invertebrate and plant groups, between 12% and 55% of species are currently threatened with extinction. Species of birds and mammals used for food and medicine are on average facing a greater extinction risk than those not used for such purposes. Preliminary assessments suggest that 23% of plant species are threatened.”

At this rate, we humans in the not too distant future will have brought a close to a geological epoch—not just the Holocene, which began 14,000 years ago with the retreat of the Wisconsin ice sheets, but the Cenozoic, one of the three classic geological eras, which began with the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65.5 million years ago. ‘Cenozoic’ means ‘new life.’ The new age we are ushering in will be called the Kenozoic: NO life.

Mass extinction at human hands poses two literally earth-shattering challenges to biblically grounded Christian eco-prophets and eco-ministers. The first challenge questions the basic premise of Christian earth stewardship; the second alerts us to the threat of Christian apocalypticism.

If we are stewards of the earth—that is, if God has given into our hands the care of God’s world as stewards, rather than as sovereign owners, which is what the secular world and even most Christians assume—we must ask ourselves at what point in our management are we obliged by our status as stewards to ask the Owner for permission before we proceed?

Take the passenger pigeon, once one of the most populous bird species in North America. This glorious bird had been glorifying its Creator for 65 million years when we wiped it off the face of creation. (“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Psalm 19:1, the passage most often quoted by earth stewardship writers to illustrate the principle that creation glorifies God, and therefore so should we, in our stewardship.) Surely, we owed it to creation’s sovereign owner to ask permission before we destroyed this creature’s worship. For destroying worship is Satan’s work, as Tony Campolo has pointed out in How to Rescue the Earth without Worshipping Nature. Can you imagine God saying, sure, go ahead; wipe ‘em out. I was tired of that bird’s worship, anyway.

So maybe we already know the answer to that question. But let’s keep looking at the practicality of stewardship process. Because the question of asking permission only raises new questions: How would we ask God for permission? How would we receive an answer? And how would we know that the answer we got is from God?

Only two Christian communities even have institutions and processes in place to deal with these questions of stewardship practice: the Roman Catholic Church and the Quakers. If the Pope got it, then that’s that. For Quakers (I am one), the problem is a little more complicated, but theoretically, some Quaker could be led by the spirit of Christ to take up the cause of species extinction and could, theoretically, eventually, convince the entire community that something must be done, as happened in the 18th century with human slavery.

The second great challenge is the threat of Christian apocalypticism. This is a big topic, too big to continue here.  So I’ll take it up in subsequent postings. But it boils down to this: what happens when the pace of eco-collapse really ramps up and the locations of eco-collapses move from distant regions like the coral reefs off northern Australia to the heartland of conservative Christianity. That is, what happens when the Apocalypse actually does look immanent? What can we expect from communities that believe that God has promised to destroy the earth as one of God’s last saving acts? What happens when the violent psycho-drama of Left Behind comes to our own back yard?

The disastrous ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has dominated the news for days (is it weeks?). Energy is one of those areas that lie at the very center of our lives today on which the Bible is virtually silent. Pollution is another one. I’ve been reading biblical analysis and commentary for two decades—dozens of books and articles. Not once have I read a description of energy sources or human waste management in ancient Israel or Judea. Not once.

Books on the Dead Sea scrolls sometimes mention this because the Essenes were obsessed with ritual purity and went to extreme measures to manage their waste. Thus, we know that Gehenna, the word that the Bible usually translates as “hell” in the sayings of Jesus, was Jerusalem’s municipal landfill, where human waste was dumped (including unclaimed bodies). It was a deep, narrow ravine just outside the city that was once the site of Canaanite human sacrifice. It was always kept burning. The Essenes had their own gate in the city wall near Gehenna, just outside of which they had built a complex of latrines and baths. You couldn’t do that stuff inside the walls of the sacred city.

Thus, people concerned about the health and restoration of our landbases who look to the Bible for support, maybe even for guidance, are forced to abstract principles from scattered passages that sort of apply and that, when you look just below the surface, often have meanings and associations that compromise the positive message you were digging for in the first place. The Bible just has very little to say, and almost nothing comprehensive or coherent to say, about land use. (On the other hand, it has a lot to say about land tenure; but that’s another post.)

Jesus has nothing at all to say about land use (but is deeply preoccupied with land tenure). Earth stewardship writers often mention how full of agricultural metaphors his parables are and quote his stewardship parables: the parable of the tenants, Mt 21:33-44; the faithful servant, Mt 24:45-51; the shrewd manager, Lk 16:1-8; the master and his servant, Lk 17:7-10. But these parables aren’t about land use, they’re about economics (secondarily) and about judgment, primarily. The message is that bad stewards will pay. When? At the final judgment.

This is one of the deepest flaws in Christian earth stewardship thinking so far. This theology has grown up inside the sin-salvation paradigm of traditional Christian thinking, in which consequences for sin are deferred to after death (for the individual) and to the endtimes, for civilization. Having thrown out Torah under Paul’s misguidance (at least from the ecologist’s perspective), Christians have abandoned any meaningful covenantal framework for holding each other accountable in real time. As a result, Christian environmentalists have nothing concrete to offer when it comes to accountability—on virtually any topic, let alone environmental policy. So they leave it to the state.

Presumably, some of the executives responsible in the various companies involved in the current oil spill crisis attend church, love God, and even fear judgment. But how can their congregations hold them accountable for their lapses given their community’s eschatology, the belief that God is in charge of all consequences, and that that will all happen—later. Much later.

I have read lots of books on Christian earth stewardship and these writers very consistently try to recover the language of covenant in their work. But they have done very little to develop practical models for accountability at any level—the congregation, the regional synod or diocese, the denomination, or the macro-ecumenical organizations. With no models, no meaningful institution building has been done, either.

The one exception I’ve read about is a movement in Africa, which has green prophets who guide the development of land use and actually police family practice. This is mostly about soil erosion and deforestation, if I remember correctly. I also seem to remember that some aspects of this movement made me very uncomfortable. But it’s worth looking at, I think. Maybe I’ll have to find that reference and read it again.

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.

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.

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.