Liberation through Sacrifice

An African Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey to the enthusiasm of the crowdI wonder what really happened when Jesus entered Jerusalem. He can’t have had that many followers traveling with him from Galilee. He might have had some followers in Jerusalem but I’d expect their numbers to be small as he wasn’t a regular visitor or teacher there. For him to stage an impressive entrance into Jerusalem with big crowds of people seems unlikely.

There may have been a large crowd of people there for Passover. That crowd may have been drawn to the spectacle. I wonder if maybe a crowd had gathered to honor another dignitary.  Maybe Jesus got there first riding on his borrowed donkey.  If so, he might have excited the people near the gates with his parody of a triumphal entrance into Jerusalem of a warrior-king on a magnificent steed.  Whatever happened, it makes for a good story with a meaningful message.

What the gospels agree about is Jesus appeared in Jerusalem to criticize the powerful. Clearly, Jesus wanted to announce his presence to the authorities. What scholars tell us is Jesus’ behavior is modeled on the tradition of Jewish Prophets. He most likely came to Jerusalem to announce the coming Kingdom or Realm of God on earth. In the tradition of the Jewish Prophets, Jesus was painfully aware of the betrayal of the Jewish people, especially the poor, by the Jewish leaders and by the Roman overlords. In Jesus’ eyes, they had broken their covenant with God.  They needed to be called back to restore that Covenant.  The center of the Jewish universe was the Temple in Jerusalem.  The holy days of Passover were a time when the many Jews would be there.  It would have been an excellent time to be in Jerusalem to speak prophetically to the powerful.

So what was Jesus’ Prophetic message? We find it stated right at the beginning of Luke as Jesus worships in his home town of Nazareth and reads from Isaiah 61:1-2:

The spirit of the Lord is on me,
And anointed me
to bring good news to the afflicted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim a year of jubilee.

These words describe the mission to which Jesus was called, called to announce the Realm of God to be established on Earth.  Jesus announced this message not just to recommend this way of being as a hypothetical. He was right there saying it was going to happen very, very soon; within the lifetimes of those hearing his voice. God was sick and tired of the way things were and was going to do something about it.  Jesus was, in effect, saying, “Get ready for some big changes folks!”

Jesus knew who was hungry to hear this message. Jesus had been meeting and healing those who were excluded from the Temple by their illnesses that made them unclean. Roman oppression meant that people were being unfairly imprisoned. Jesus knew people who had lost their inherited family land due to being unable to pay heavy Roman and Temple taxes. Farmers couldn’t support themselves or their families without any land to grow food.  They didn’t have progressive income tax nor did they have earned income credit. Pay your taxes … or perish. A year of Jubilee would forgive all these debts and burdens, allowing people to have a second chance.

So Jesus was on a prophetic mission from God proclaiming an immanent reversal.  The high and mighty will brought low and the low shall be lifted up.  This reversal will be a blessing to the poor in spirit, to the meek and gentle, to those who mourn, those who are persecuted and those who hunger and thirst for uprightness and righteousness.  The merciful, the pure of heart, and the peacemakers will get the recognition they deserve.

And sooner or later, Jesus was going to have to go to Jerusalem to speak this truth to power, maybe even triggering the reversal itself.  Yes, he taught and healed as he traveled from town to town, but his primary mission was to proclaim this good news.

So, given his passion for this mission, the question arises, did Jesus go to Jerusalem to do his prophetic duty for the benefit of the suffering Jewish people or did he go anticipating he would be killed then rise again and sit on the right hand of God ready for the last judgement after the apocalypse?

Two of my favorite Biblical scholars think he had hoped to continue his ministry and mission. They think he probably wanted a triumphant exit as well as an entrance from Jerusalem after Passover was complete. Sure, he must have known he was taking great risks by what he was doing, especially turning over the tables of the money changers. Maybe he hoped for and expected a change of heart by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders, as happened when Jonah went to confront Nineveh and all the people repented.

Liberal Catholic scholar John Dominic Crossan notes that Jesus was protected by a crowd who came with him from Galilee but also by “others who had invited him to bring his message of God’s Kingdom-on-Earth to Jerusalem for maximum publicity precisely at Passover.” Every night Jesus would withdraw out of Jerusalem to the relative safety of an area of supporters on the Mount of Olives and Bethany.  Crossan sees in these precautions that:

Jesus was planning, despite those dangerous demonstrations, to leave Jerusalem without getting himself killed. And he almost made it — until Thursday. (source: link)

Scholar Bart Erhman agrees with Crossan, not expecting that Jesus came to Jerusalem to get killed. The problem was, Jesus wasn’t just criticizing the Roman rule.  He had some harsh words for:

the Jewish aristocracy and the priests running the Temple cult in Jerusalem. Jesus saw them not as the representatives of God on earth, but as God’s enemies. When he arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed that God would destroy the Temple and wipe out those who were in control of it (the power players in Jerusalem: the high priest, the chief priests, the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees) (source: link)

I think we can be confident that this didn’t make the Jewish authorities friendly to him.  They would be happy to hand him over to the Roman authorities for execution if they got the chance. Pilate would have surely seen him as a problem and it takes no stretch of imagination to expect him to crucify Jesus “as a public example of what happens to those who stir up animosity to the ruling authorities.”

At some point during Jesus’ week in Jerusalem, he must have realized the authorities were planning to capture and kill him. What we have is a story of him in the Garden of Gethsemane, agonizing over the cup of poison that was being handed to him. He could have gone back to Galilee and escaped. He didn’t. Whether or not he came to Jerusalem expecting to die, at the moment he allows Judas to kiss him and betray him, he chooses to sacrifice himself for his hoped for liberation of the Jewish people.

Jesus is hardly unique during this period of time putting his life on the line. There were a number of other prophets who appeared and were killed or banished. Jesus was different. Jesus either survived the ordeal (which is highly unlikely), or somehow his spirit or presence or message was able to survive his death that led to the reconstituting of his community that preserved and carried on his mission.  Whether or not he physically returns from the dead after three days, his prophecy does not die with his body.

While most Unitarian Universalists embrace the ethical teachings of Jesus, we are suspicious of the idea that Jesus sacrificed his life, the way Jews slaughtered animals in the Temple during those days, to atone for sins. We resist the idea that God can only be reconciled with sinful humanity if Jesus offers his own life up as an atoning sacrifice. Some of us find that kind of an ancient God appeased by the shedding of human blood repugnant.

Here is another way to hear the story of Jesus’ sacrifice in the context of the sacrifice of his life for his prophetic mission rather than our personal redemption. Jesus puts his life on the line to show his commitment to that mission. It is a mission that can only go so far during his lifetime, given the Roman occupation of Palestine. But, if his mission outlives him and is taken up again by his disciples and followers, then his death will not be in vain. His hope for the liberation of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, continues.

So when we recognize and honor Jesus’ sacrifice, when we align with Jesus’ prophetic mission, he can live again in us and in our actions. We become part of his sacrifice for the liberation of humanity, work far from complete.

That work of liberation remains undone partly because Jesus was wrong.  He expected the Realm of God would be established during the lifetime of his disciples. That part of his prophecy is clearly wrong, even disastrously wrong. In the lifetimes of his disciples, things go from bad to worse with the eventual destruction of the Temple by the Romans.  God doesn’t reverse anything and the Jews suffer even more not less afterwards. Jesus’ message probably would have disappeared too, except for Saul from Tarsus who stopped persecuting Christians after having Jesus appear to him and question him about that persecution. So much of the Christianity we have today is colored by St. Paul’s Romanizing influences to make Christianity attractive to them. (Especially removing the requirement for circumcision)

But his followers didn’t give up on the idea that the Realm of God was coming. Christians have been expecting the second coming to be imminent for the last two thousand years.  Thanks to Wikipedia, here are some of the more entertaining predictions that haven’t come to pass:

  • Irenaeus believed Jesus would return in the year 500. One prediction was based on the dimensions of Noah’s ark.
  • Pope Sylvester II expected the Millennium Apocalypse at the end of the Christian Millennium, January 1, 1000. Various Christian clerics predicted the end of the world on this date.
  • Mathematician Michael Stifel calculated the Judgement Day to arrive on October 19, 1533 at 8am.
  • Emanuel Swedenborg thought it had actually happened during his lifetime in 1757 except that it had happened in the spiritual world. He also believed he had daily visions of Jesus over the course of 30 years.  Jesus’ return was not in the flesh, but in His Holy Spirit.
  • The most recent failed expectation was September 28, 2015 by Mark Biltz when there was a lunar eclipse. This comes from the Blood Moon Prophecy of John Hagee.

If you’d like to mark your calendar for the next prediction, psychic Jeane Dixon thinks it could happen as early as 2020.

I say, don’t bother. Jesus was wrong about predicting the coming Realm of God as a moment in time. What Jesus might not be wrong about is he participated in initiating a change in consciousness about how people should treat each other that is gradually changing the world.

Unitarian Universalist values as written into our Principles align well with the essentials of Jesus’ vision of the Realm of God.  Jesus’ radical and uncompromising love we express in our first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Jesus’ demand for justice we express in our call for justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Jesus’ vision of world transformation we show through our goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

These values are not just found in Unitarian Universalism but also today in contemporary Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other world religions as well as earth centered traditions.

And still the work of liberation initiated by Jesus’ sacrifice isn’t done.

So as this holy week begins, may we reflect on how Jesus’ prophetic mission has touched our lives and moved us. If we are so moved by him, may we align with the good news he claimed from fellow prophet Isaiah. I’ll close by repeating the verses:

The spirit of the Lord is on me,
And anointed me
to bring good news to the afflicted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim a year of jubilee.

Benediction

Go out with these words by Dag Hammarskjöld,

“Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who ‘forgives’ you–out of love–takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.

The price you must pay for your own liberation through another’s sacrifice is that you, in turn, must be willing to liberate in the same way, irrespective of the consequences to yourself.”

Jesus … A Zealot?

On July 26 last year, Fox New’s Lauren Green did an interview of Reza Aslan, author of Zealot, that many people found offensive. She questioned his ability as a Muslim to write a book about Jesus. Aslan pointed out that he is a scholar of religions. He wondered why she questioned that a scholar of whatever faith could research and write such a book. The interview went viral on the Internet and did a great deal to stimulate the sales of the book. (Makes me hunger for a similar interview for the book the Rev. Wayne Arnason and I edited titled Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism. I’d enjoy being indigent as I’m asked how can two Unitarian Universalist ministers say anything about Buddhism.)

Still, Aslan waded into a stormy sea of research, speculation and controversy that has been navigated for the last several hundred years by many Biblical scholars of impressive credentials and accomplishments. Yes, Aslan has three graduate degrees but not focused on Biblical research.

One is from the University of Iowa where he studied creative writing (the subject he actually teaches at the University of California, Riverside); the second was a two-year masters degree at the Harvard Divinity School, where he concentrated on Islam; and his doctorate was not, as he indignantly told the hapless Green, in “the history of religions.” Rather, he wrote an exceedingly brief sociological study of “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Movement,” at UC Santa Barbara. (From excellent review in Jewish Review of Books by Allan Nadler)

Still, I’ll give him credit for the research he has done which is a lot more than I have. I bought the book before that interview because I knew Alsan is an engaging writer. After the interview I felt much more motivated to open it and read it which I have now done.

I’ve also read some more scholarly critiques of the book. While reading them pick it apart and huff and puff about this or that book he didn’t reference, I remembered what he wrote in his introduction:

Granted, writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth … is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the completed image should look like…Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed.

That is true of Aslan as well I’ll say. He also notes in his author’s preface that every argument he makes will likely be both supported and refuted by an array of scholars.

The basic problem here is the very scant first person evidence scholars use for their work. Much of what we know about the flesh and blood Jesus (and some even doubt that he existed at all) comes from suspect sources. None of the Gospel writers knew Jesus personally, saw him perform miracles or die on the cross, let alone come back from the dead. The letters of Paul are some of our earliest sources and he is utterly uninterested in Jesus-in-the-flesh. He is only interested in the Risen Christ he has directly encountered and whose message he preached to Hellenized Jewish followers of Jesus scattered around the Roman Empire.

The literate people who recorded the events of the day that have been preserved didn’t write much about the territory then called Judah. It was a backwater of the Roman Empire, more of a distraction than a focus for the emperor. The first non-Chrisian independent source is the Roman historian Josephus writing about the Jewish Wars. We can learn a lot about the Jewish rebellion from Rome in this book but precious little about Jesus or the Jesus movement. Almost all the sources we have come from the Christian tradition and not so friendly Rabbinical commentary in the Talmud.

Most of what we have is not from impartial observers just looking for the facts. They had a different idea about telling a story. The documentation of the life of Jesus had the purpose of proclaiming him as a savior. The stories and quotes were selected to serve that purpose. If any counter narratives were quoted, they were edited and corrected to support their purpose. The Gospel writers purpose is to support the hearer’s faith in Jesus the Christ not to let you make up your own mind based on the evidence presented.

But scholars are very clever at teasing what they think was closer to the truth out of the edited and embellished texts the Church decided to preserve. We also have later discoveries of texts not preserved by the church like the Gospel of Thomas that is a collection of sayings of Jesus, some familiar and others not. What Aslan has done is taken this material and the interpretations of it by eminent scholars then distilled it down into the creative narrative of what he thinks actually happened. And he tells a good story. That story is what I’d like to consider now.

First we need to understand what a ‘zealot’ was. Zealots were individuals who strove to live a life of zeal, dedicated to preserving and practicing their faith and traditions. Zealous Jews were protecting the identity of their faith from syncretism with Greek and Roman beliefs and practices. This is an age old struggle for Jews living along side people who practice different religions. The Torah is full of railing against people worshiping Baal and the golden calf. This drove Moses nuts and provided the fodder for countless prophets. In that way, Jesus was clearly a zealot for Judaism as opposed to Pagan, Greek and Roman religion.

There was however overlap between those who claimed to be a messiah and those who had zeal for their tradition. Jesus was not the only person who claimed the mantle of messiah that the prophetic Jewish texts predicted would arise, overthrow foreign occupation and restore the glory days when King David ruled Israel. Aslan tells the stories of these messianic claimants before Jesus and after him who were all crucified by the Romans and their followers exterminated or dispersed. The culmination of that messianic rebellion led to the destruction of the temple by Rome in 70 CE, forty some years after Jesus’ execution.

The question is, was Jesus a militant revolutionary messiah like the others we know about from history, or was he a different kind of messiah altogether. The evidence we have from the gospels Aslan presents begin with the fact of his crucifixion. Crucifixion was reserved for rebels as a tool of terrorizing and controlling the population. Those crucified were not taken down from crosses. They were left hanging to rot, be eaten by birds, until their bones fell down on the ground.

Why would the Romans crucify Jesus? Aslan claims he must have been seen as a threat to Rome. Clearly the story of his disruptive behavior in the Temple overturning the tables of the money changers would be all the needed evidence. Aslan argues Pilate would have ordered his execution without a second thought as he had done with many before and after him that littered Golgatha with bones.

After his crucifixion, the Jesus Movement took root first in Jerusalem, then in smaller groups of Hellenized Jews who spoke Greek and lived in non-Jewish cities like Corinth, Thessalonica, and Galatia. Jesus’ brother James was the Bishop of Jerusalem for some 30 years after Jesus’ death, establishing it firmly as the mother church.

Into this world came a persecutor of the followers of Jesus named Saul of Tarsus. Here is how Aslan tells his conversion story:

As he approached the city gates [of Damascus] with his traveling companions, he was suddenly struck by a light from heaven flashing all around him. He fell to the ground in a heap. A voice said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. The reply broke through the blinding white light, “I am Jesus.”

Saul took the name of Paul and started to follow Jesus. But he didn’t do it the same way James, Peter and John, the original disciples of Jesus followed him. Paul felt he had received direct guidance from the Risen Christ rather than the teachings of the Historical Jesus. He didn’t need to know anything about the flesh and blood Jesus because he received guidance directly from Jesus the Christ.

The record we have in Paul’s letters and in the Book of Acts outlines the conflict between the Jerusalem church and the church Paul envisions. As the temple was being destroyed, the Jerusalem church waited expectantly for Jesus to return and establish the Kingdom of God. Sadly for them, that isn’t what happened. They were all killed or scattered. Any texts they had created were destroyed. All that was left were the letters of Paul to propagate his vision of Christianity. Scholars believe the four gospels were likely written very close to or after the temple destruction. Certainly stories and Jesus sayings were known to the Christian diaspora but Paul’s organization of the meaning of it all shapes, dare I say infects, all of them, especially Luke and John.

There is much more in the book to examine and discuss than this quick overview of Alsan’s argument. I’ll be opening that up in three classes using his book starting March 3. Admitting that I am not a Biblical scholar, I’d now like to respond with my thoughts about the historical Jesus from my many years of reading about him, studying sections of the gospels and doing my own little bit of research. I expect I’m likely to guilty of creating Jesus in my own image, but maybe that is okay if I’m willing to own it up front. With Lent beginning in March in a little over a week, this is a good time to return to the story of Jesus and use it to find meaning for our lives. The truth of who he was, his purpose, and his after death transformation shall forever likely be a mystery. But by engaging his story, we can find meaning for our own lives. And we do have a story of the life of Jesus to work with.

There is fairly scant evidence of Jesus as a leader of a revolutionary movement that a traditional messiah would have mounted. What I read lines up more with the traditional actions of a prophet who goes before the king and tells him that he has deviated from the covenant with Moses and should come back to it or suffer God’s wrath. Jesus’ actions in the temple speak of symbolic protest more than an attempt to takeover the Temple or stage a rebellion. I don’t think such a rebel leader would be in the Garden of Gethsemane praying for the bitter cup to pass from him rather than manning the barricades with sword in hand.

Rather than a violent militant, the record we have of Jesus is one of a healer who worked without charging people for his services. That was one of the reasons for his enormous popularity. A doctor that fixed hips, knees, cured heart disease and infections for free would be very popular today too.

My hunch is that he was gravely offended by the execution of his own teacher, John the Baptist by Herod. The movement from Galilee to Jerusalem happened after John’s death. I wonder if his love of his teacher drove him to Jerusalem to protest the corruption of the Temple.

The value I think we get from Jesus will not be found in the magic of whether he came back to life in three days or if he will come back someday to save humanity. These all sit in the realm of speculative theology that most Unitarian Universalists don’t find useful.

What we do have of great value can be found in the Beatitudes; the congratulations to those who suffer for they will not suffer forever; the day will come when the poor will find the domain of heaven. Those who grieve will be consoled. The gentle will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for justice will feast. And those who work for peace will be recognized as holy. Of great value is Jesus’ vision of creating a good society organized around our highest and most precious values rather than the baser drives of individual profit and mutual mistrust.

As the Letter of James puts it: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the [Realm of God]

The most valuable part of Aslan’s book for me was the direction to look to Jesus’ brother James as the source of what Jesus might have taught. And we do indeed have a letter from James preserved in the Biblical canon. What if this book closely parallels what Jesus might have taught?

We’ll have a look at the letter of James with that in mind in the class. As I read it, I hear echos of teachings in the gospels as well as teachings found in Buddhism. And I find core values that resonate with Unitarian Universalism.

The dilemma of the status of the poor and the rich is every bit as difficult today as it was in the time of Jesus. I can imagine both Jesus and James joining the occupy movement to rail against the 1%. I also see resonance with the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka proclaiming their goal of no poverty and no affluence.

The vision we inherit from the historical Jesus is a vision of what the world would be like if God was in charge. That world vision would definitely reject exploitative empire as a way to govern people, whether emperor, king, colonial power, dictator or corporation. That is also a core principle of Unitarian Universalism that promotes democracy as well as peace, liberty and justice for all people.

If Jesus does decide to come back, I hope he would consider using our principles and our ministry as a way to finish his earthly work cut short by his execution.

Some Unitarian Universalists do see our collective work to embody those values Jesus preached and help usher in that good society he called the Kingdom of God, we sometimes call the Beloved Community.

Whether we embrace the vision of Kingdom of God or the Beloved Community, may we be guided by Jesus’ inspired values as we work to build world community and work to restore the health of our planet.

Benediction

James, brother of Jesus, likely said:

Be doers of the word, not merely hearers.

We have heard much today about Jesus. In those words, powerful truth rides on the breath. It is our challenge to bring that truth to life. When we find ways to bring truth to life as a community, the Realm of God Jesus taught becomes real.

Readings

Matthew 10:34-39

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ” ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law– a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 21:10-13

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, ” ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”

Matthew 5:3-9

Congratulations to the poor in spirit!
Heaven’s domain belongs to them.
Congratulations to those who grieve!
They will be consoled.
Congratulations to the gentle
They will inherit the earth.
Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice!
They will have a feast.
Congratulations to the merciful
They will receive mercy.
Congratulations to those with undefiled hearts!
They will see God.
Congratulations to those who work for peace!
They will be known as God’s children.

James 2:2-5

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the [Realm of God]?