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the death of Jesus

Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
—Luke 14:25–27

 

the cost of discipleship

To further his movement for social and economic justice, Jesus had gathered a core team of 82 disciples, with twelve in a leadership role. He had sent the remaining 70 out in pairs to the villages of Galilee to share meals, heal, and proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God.[1]

Jesus told his disciples that following him was going to be extremely difficult, even dangerous. His words about hating family are strange—words we would rather not hear, words we would like to go away. They are difficult to comprehend from a man who consistently preached love over hate.

In joining the Jesus movement, the disciples had entered what is known as a “fictive family,” not related by blood but through bonds of love for one another as sisters and brothers. In the traditional culture of ancient Israel, individuals had no real existence apart from their ties to blood relatives, particularly their parents. Jesus prioritized the creation of the kingdom of God over the pulls of family responsibility, commending his disciples for cutting their ties—leaving home, livelihood, and family behind. He knew this would be a difficult decision and a challenging test. These were strong words meant to open people’s eyes to the reality of what Jesus was about, what he was proposing, and where he was going.

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.[2]

Jesus clearly understood that imprisonment, torture, and death are always potential and likely consequences of the pursuit of justice in an unjust society. He cautioned his followers that in order to follow him, they must be willing to risk public execution on a cross—the penalty for civil disobedience and insurrection by common people under Roman rule. It was a time of decision. Jesus was heading towards a confrontation with power that risked his life and the lives of his followers.

the march to Jerusalem

According to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), sometime in his third year of healing and teaching in Galilee, after building the core of his movement, Jesus set his sights on the city of Jerusalem in Judea. The gospel writers each devoted one-quarter to one-third of their tales to the final week in the life of Jesus.

Jesus decided to go to Jerusalem to confront the Sadducees—the rich elites and powerful rulers of the people—at their symbolic seat of power. Jesus intended to interrupt the operations of the Jerusalem Temple with a vehement demonstration for economic justice, calling out the Sadducees for their complicity with the loss of peasant land and the downward spiral of poverty.

The Sadducees were a small group of affluent aristocratic families that formed the ruling upper class in Judea. They were enormously wealthy and lived in great luxury and splendor. Included in their ranks were the high priests of the Jerusalem Temple and a few families of great political influence. The chief priests lived off a Temple tax and the tithes collected from the peasants. By the first century, the lay nobility in Jerusalem had gained ownership of much of the arable land in Judea and other regions—the key to wealth in that agrarian economy.[3] Together with the chief priests, they were in charge of the Temple treasury—essentially the national bank. Thus, they controlled the entire economy. Members of the elite Sadducee party also formed the Sanhedrin (san-HEE-drin), the high court and legislative body of the Jewish people.

The Sadducees were given a free hand to rule the local population as long as they were loyal to Rome, maintained order, and collected the tribute due to the emperor. They cooperated closely with the Roman procurator and kept a tight lid on any potential liberation movements in the country that might threaten the status quo and their own privileged positions. There is no question that the Temple was an instrument of the state as was the case in any other ancient temple-state where priest and king are allied.

passion Sunday

On a Sunday morning—likely in the last week of March in 33 CE—Jesus descended the Mount of Olives and entered the city of Jerusalem in a noisy nonviolent demonstration that attracted much attention among the thousands of pilgrims who had gathered there for Passover.

Coming down the mountain ridge, Jesus rode a donkey as a contrast to the image of a conquering king riding on a charger. The crowds clearly recalled a passage from the prophet Zechariah:

Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations.[4]

Jesus had timed his entry for the festival of Passover, a celebration that was rich in imagery of freedom from slavery, of resistance to empire and armies. To nervous Roman and Sadducee authorities, it was difficult to tell if Jesus was a peaceful prophet or a potential rebel leader. Passover was often the occasion of protests against Rome that could lead to potential violent revolution. The Festival of Unleavened Bread could be a tinderbox and authorities were watching events closely.

As Jesus entered the city from the east, the procurator of Judea—Pontius Pilate—entered the city from the west mounted on a warhorse at the head of imperial troops. Coming from his seat of power in Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast, Pilate was bringing additional reinforcements to the Antonio Fortress that rose high over the walls of the expansive Temple complex.

According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus was hailed by the crowd as a messianic king using leafy branches cut from date palm trees and strewn in his path.

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!”[5]

Hosanna was originally a Hebrew cry for help meaning “save us now!” As an exclamation of adoration it became more of an expression of thanks—“our salvation has arrived!”

According to Luke, the disciples reinforced the kingly image by loudly singing a refrain based on Psalm 118:

Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!

Jesus spent the day walking the Temple grounds and then retreated to the Mount of Olives until the following morning.

Monday

On Monday morning, Jesus re-entered Jerusalem and headed straight for the Temple, creating a public disturbance in the outermost Court of the Gentiles in full view of the Sadducees and the Roman garrison in the Antonia Fortress. Mark’s gospel recounts the episode this way:

And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”[6]

On the surface, Jesus seems angered about commerce in the Temple precincts. Some interpreters think that Jesus disapproved of the Temple’s use of animal sacrifice. Still others believe that his demonstration was against the Temple as a symbol of the Jewish religion itself, as if Jesus was rejecting the religion he was raised in and was replacing it with a new one based on himself as the center of devotion. But most likely, this demonstration at the Temple was a demonstration against the people who managed it and benefited from it—the Sadducees,

In his inaugural statement in Nazareth, Jesus had quoted the prophet Isaiah who proclaimed a call for Jubilee—the forgiveness of peasant debt, release of indentured debt-prisoners, and the restoration of land that had been lost by peasant debtors during the past 50 years. Peasant indebtedness was the tool by which the wealthy acquired land for their large estates. Small farmers needed money, not crops, to pay the taxes collected by both temple and state. During times of drought or poor harvests, they were often forced to borrow from the wealthy elites who loaned money to them at interest, which in itself was a clear violation of the traditional Hebraic laws.[7] Their patrimonial land was often given as collateral on these loans. When the farmers could not pay their debts, their property was taken from them. The debt records for all of these transactions were kept by the elites in the Jerusalem Temple, providing us with a clue to Jesus’ angry criticism of those who controlled the temple precincts when he entered it.

All of the objects of Jesus’ anger in his demonstration were legitimate operations in the huge Court of the Gentiles that surrounded the inner areas reserved for Israelite women, men, and priests alone. The Temple required bird and animal sellers on site so that pilgrims would be able to offer sacrifices that were ritually acceptable. Money changers were required to change foreign currencies into the approved coinage for payment of the temple tax. Jesus upset these operations by driving out those who were selling and buying and not allowing “anyone to carry anything through the temple.” But the real objects of his protest were not low level functionaries.

We are told that Jesus addressed the crowds in the Temple with these words:

Don’t the scriptures say, “My house is to be regarded as a house of prayer for all peoples”? But you have turned it into a hideout for crooks.[8]

Jesus was not condemning the Temple as a place of robbery, but as a hideout or refuge for the thieves. A den of robbers is not where the robbers rob, it is the place where they count their ill-gotten gains. It was not a few money-changers or dove-sellers who were the target of Jesus anger, but the thieves, robbers, and brigands at the top levels of society who perpetuated a system of economic injustice, who robbed people of their land, their wealth, and their livelihoods. The governing Sadducees understood his message clearly.

The Sadducees had decided that they needed to shut Jesus up before he instigated a rebellion, either violent or nonviolent.

So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” . . . So from that day on they planned to put him to death.[9]

Tuesday and Wednesday

On the following days, Jesus continued to teach in the Temple, probably in the shade of the extensive porticos that surrounded the complex. The Sadducees approached him on several occasions, first trying to catch him on a charge of sedition over the payment of taxes to Caesar, and then challenging him on the Pharisaic idea of the resurrection which the Sadducees disputed.

Jesus then commented on the scribes who worked in the Temple and throughout the villages of Judea and Galilee. Scribes had knowledge of the law and could draft legal documents—contracts for marriage, divorce, inheritance, mortgages, loans, the sale of land, and the like. Within earshot of the people, Jesus said to the disciples:

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.[10]

Thursday

According to Luke’s gospel, as Passover approached, Jesus gathered with his disciples in an upstairs room in Jerusalem.[11]

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’

The dinner now followed. After dinner, a cup of wine is shared.

And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.[12]

After the dinner, Jesus and the disciples left Jerusalem and returned to the Mount of Olives.

Late Thursday night, Jesus was arrested in darkness and was brought to the house of the high priest. The gospels generally agree that Peter followed from a distance and waited to see what would happen. He sat down with people who had started a campfire outside of the chief priest’s residence. Accused of being a follower of Jesus, Peter denied it on three occasions.

Friday morning

When Jesus was brought before the chief priest on Friday morning, the Sadducees sought evidence for a capital crime. He was severely beaten, and summarily tried. The chief priest asked Jesus if he was the messiah—a long-foretold peasant warrior who would challenge imperial rule, foment a violent revolution, overthrow the established order, and proclaim a new kingdom. When brought before Pilate, Jesus was asked if he claimed to be king of the Jews. In both cases, Jesus turned the accusations back on the accusers and never answered directly. He was charged by the Sadducees with blasphemy, but Rome executed him for sedition. On the cross was a sign that listed his anti-government crime—king of the Jews. He was quickly taken to a place of execution.

It wasn’t the “Jews” who killed Jesus (although John’s gospel would lead you to believe this). He was murdered by a repressive government of religious and political conservatives backed by the most powerful military force in the world. The wealthy and powerful Sadducees knew that his teachings and his movement were a direct threat to their privileged way of life. So they eliminated him.

Friday afternoon

Jesus was crucified as a peasant insurrectionist alongside two violent revolutionaries. The cruelty of his execution—a slow asphyxiation—revealed what imperial authorities do to one who attempts to subvert the domination system. For those who witnessed this event, the cross was not a symbol of divine sacrifice or the taking on of unmerited suffering—it was the price of resistance to the social and economic devastation of empire.

The male disciples had deserted Jesus in fear that they might suffer a similar fate, and hid behind closed doors. Only a few women remained near the cross to witness his death. Six agonizing hours after his crucifixion began, on a spring afternoon in the year 33 CE, Jesus died. His heart stopped beating and his brainwave activity ceased. The spirit of life that had animated his body at birth, departed.

The biblical tradition says that the body was then removed from the cross and placed in a tomb, sealed with a large stone. But, the Roman practice of crucifixion did not usually allow for burial. The corpses of lower class criminals or revolutionaries were not buried. Instead, the naked bodies of crucified victims were left hanging on the cross, to rot as they were exposed to the elements, and be eaten by carrion—a meal for crows and hungry dogs. In any event—whether he was left on the cross or buried in a tomb—we simply do not know what eventually became of Jesus’ corpse.

Sunday morning

In the gospel accounts, the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning to anoint his body were unable to find it. It was never seen again. The earthly Jesus, the pre-Easter Jesus, was gone from history. But he was not to be forgotten.

The resurrection accounts of Jesus in the New Testament are not stories about a resuscitated corpse. What the first disciples of Jesus experienced was far more than an earthly body that was revived. What they experienced was something completely new and different. The resurrection was a mystical experience of the living presence of Jesus among those who knew him, loved him, and followed him.

The wealthy and powerful thought that the execution of Jesus would eliminate the threat he posed. But the movement he created did not end with his death. In a very real sense, Jesus was resurrected in the people who believed in his message of hope and justice and who followed his example. They felt his presence among them, and this presence gave them the courage to transform their lives with passion, zeal, and courage for the sake of the world. They began a small but passionate uprising in the confident hope that they could create a better world.

Clarence Jordan (1912–1969), a New Testament scholar and translator of the “Cotton Patch Gospels” once wrote:

The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship; not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.[13]

 

 

[1] Luke 10:1–9

[2] Luke 14:25–33

[3] Nolan, Jesus Before Christianity, 27. Also, Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 147–232.

[4] Zechariah 9:9–10

[5] Mark 11:9

[6] Mark 11:15–17

[7] Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:37, Deuteronomy 23:19–20

[8] Mark 11:17 (Scholars Version)

[9] John 11:47–53

[10] Luke 20: 46–47

[11] The gospels disagree about what happened this evening. Only in Luke’s gospel is the Passover meal mentioned. John’s gospel focuses on Jesus washing the feet of his disciples instead.

[12] Luke 22: 14–20

[13] Jordan and Lee, The Substance of Faith, 29.

Jesus, Justice, and the Law

 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.
Deuteronomy 16:20 (the Law)

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?
— Micah 6:8 (the Prophets)

Strive first for the reign of God and God’s justice.
— Matthew 6:33 (the Gospels)

Was Jesus a law-abiding citizen? Or did he teach us to step outside the law when needed in the name of compassion and justice? Traditional orthodox Christianity claims that Jesus was perfect and sinless, fulfilling the Law of Moses and the Prophets of ancient Israel. Therefore, he obeyed the Hebrew Law completely. But the truth is more complex, illustrating the tension between written and oral laws and the biblical call to justice.

During his life, Jesus experienced three despotic structures of government organized for a privileged few at the expense of the common good of the majority. Upon the death of Herod the Great (73–4 BCE), his kingdom was divided among his three sons. Galilee was a monarchy ruled by his son Herod Antipas (born before 20 BCE – 39 CE). After the removal of his brother Herod Archelaus (23 BCE – 18 CE) by Rome in 6 CE, Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator who reported to the governor of Syria. However, the day-to-day operations were entrusted to a wealthy oligarchy (meaning the ruling few) of the Sadducees, sometimes referred to in the gospels as “the leaders of the people,” or “the chief priests and the elders.” In conquered territories, it was always Rome’s practice to find indigenous collaborators to rule on their behalf. And they always chose people from the wealthy class who saw it in their personal interest to support power when it advantaged them. On top of these structures was an emperor in Rome—first Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE), and then Tiberius (42 BCE – 37 CE)—who was essentially a self-appointed dictator. So Jesus was confronted by a monarchy in Galilee, an oligarchy in Jerusalem, and a dictatorship in Rome.

There were obviously overlapping legal systems in place in this conquered nation, but the one that is usually discussed in regards to Jesus is the Hebrew Law found in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. At the time of Jesus, there were three levels of Hebrew Law. At the core were the Ten Commandments, which we are told were given on stone tablets to Moses by Yahweh.[1] Surrounding these were 316 laws (mitzvot) found in the Covenant Code[2] of Exodus, the Holiness Code[3] of Leviticus, and the Deuteronomic Code[4] of Deuteronomy that were written over hundreds of years. The three codes are significantly different in the range of social and religious issues they cover, the style in which they are written, and the fundamental rules they establish. They can broadly be conceived of as the law of the tribes, the law of the Temple, and the law of the royal court. They show a progression from a primitive tribal confederacy to a sophisticated temple-state ruled by a king. Debating specific interpretations of the Law was an ongoing activity, resulting in an oral law developed by the Rabbis and Pharisees. They viewed it as creating a ‘fence’ around the Law to keep its precepts from being violated.

Continue reading

the weakness of God

[God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is the way, the only way, in which [God] can be with us and help us.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945)

As we enter the postmodern world, the age-old omnipotent God is slowly dying in the human imagination. For many, this supernatural being is already dead. The image of a God who acts with power and might in the natural world and in human society is becoming increasingly incredible.

Yet, there is another image of God, an alternative way of envisioning God, in the Bible. We have no idea who wrote the treatise that we now refer to as the first epistle or first letter of John in the New Testament. Some authorities claim that this writer is the same author who wrote the gospel of John, but without much evidence other than tradition to back that up. Although the writing style is different, the author of “First John” seems to have some familiarity with ideas expressed in the gospel of John and may have come from the same community as the gospel writer. Whoever he was, the author of this letter developed an extraordinary theology sometime around the end of the first century.

Here is what he wrote:

God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:16)

To think of God as love is radically different than the ancient image of an all-powerful being dwelling on a throne in the heavens. In regards to power, the chief characteristic of God as love is weakness. Love can only act in the world through the relative weakness of human beings. Continue reading

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