Was Jesus guilty?

by Gordon C. Stewart (copyright)

Was Jesus of Nazareth guilty as charged?

The charge against Jesus of Nazareth was that he “refused to pay tribute to Caesar” and that “he stirred up the people.” One translation called him a “seditionist” or, in a congressman’s language, a subversive, an enemy of the state. The late lay theologian and lawyer William Stringfellow argued that Jesus was a revolutionary. Not a rhetorical revolutionary, but one whose very existence threatened his world in a revolutionary way.

Years of pouring over the Gospel texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls for clues as to the nature of the time of Jesus of Nazareth have not quite brought me to the stark nakedness of Bishop James Pike, but I’m close.

The Bishop was in Washington, D.C. for a meeting of some sort. His friend Anthony Towne went to his hotel room to take him to breakfast. When Anthony knocked on the door, the Bishop shouted out, “Come on in, Tony, the door’s open.” He opened the door to find the Bishop sitting in an arm chair, Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts scattered around the floor surrounding the chair, sitting there in the altogether. The Bishop was so entranced with the Scrolls and the Scriptures that he had forgotten to dress; he was unaware of his nakedness. Bishop Pike later died alone in the Judean wilderness searching for the historical Jesus.

I’m not as obsessed with the question as James Pike was, but I am nonetheless intrigued, fascinated, confused, and excited by Jesus of Nazareth and the New Testament witness to him precisely because of the new information that invites us to ask again who Jesus was.

Christians often see the cross as something that God intended for Jesus as the Son of God, as if God sent his son into the world that we might kill him and that Jesus was surely innocent of the charges brought before Pilate. Rarely do we consider the possibility that Jesus was guilty as charged. Likewise, what we in the church call Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday is often observed in a way that paints Jesus as the non-political spiritual man whose kingdom is not of this world, contrary to the people on the street who mistakenly hailed him as the warrior king whose aim was to throw Rome out of Palestine.

Palm Sunday provides a window into the question of whether Jesus was guilty as charged. Go beneath all theological assumptions to step onto the road with the people who waved the branches and ask what they were doing there and why Jesus did what he did. But before we look at the parade into Jerusalem we remember that the death we observe on “Good Friday” was a political execution, the Roman equivalent of the electric chair, the firing squad, and the gas chamber. The charges against him at the trial are clearly political. “We found this man inciting our people to revolt, opposing payment of the tribute to Caesar, and claiming to be Christ, a King” (Luke 23:2, Jerusalem Bible). Jesus was executed as a revolutionary against the Roman Empire.

Behind the New Testament texts lie the familiar strains of the older texts from Zachariah and II Maccabees.

The background of Palm Sunday in the Book of Zachariah

One of the first things to notice about the Palm Sunday episode, the “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, is that the demonstration is not spontaneous. “The master has need of it” – the words the disciples have been instructed to speak to a man in town who owns a donkey – is code language, arranged in advance. Furthermore, Christ rides on the donkey, not a horse. Traditionally this has been taken to mean that he refuses the title of king and prefers to come instead in humility, riding on a donkey. But look more closely at the setting for the donkey passage in the literature of Zachariah and you will find an oracle against a foreign occupier. It is in the context of his oracle against oppression that Jesus chooses to ride on a donkey (or two donkeys!). Here’s the Zachariah passage:

“Near my house I will take my stand like a watchman on guard against prowlers; the tyrant shall pass their way no more, because I have now taken notice of its distress. Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem! See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem; the bow of war will be banished. he will proclaim peace for the nations. His empire shall stretch from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of your covenant, I sending back your prisoners from the pit (in which there is no water?” – Zachariah 9:8-11, Jerusalem Bible.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is rooted in the hope of Zachariah. Riding the colt identifies Jesus with the long-held hopes of Jesus’ people for an end to their bondage – economic, political, financial, cultural, spiritual, imperial bondage. The Zachariah text occurs in a section of curses against oppressors. To cherry pick humility from the text while ignoring the context and symbolism of the donkey fails to do justice to the sweeping hope of an altogether new and totally revolutionary transformation.

The background of Palm Sunday in Second Maccabees

The people lining the streets are waving branches hailing Jesus as the Messiah, the liberator of the nation from foreign occupation. The palm was a symbol of Jewish resistance. At an earlier time in the Second Century BCE Simon Maccabaeus was hailed with palm branches after a successful Jewish warfare that had regained the nation’s freedom and reclaimed the integrity of the Temple. Here’s the text:

“Maccabaeus and his companions, under the LORD’s guidance, restored the Temple and the city, and pulled down the altars erected by the foreigners in the market place, as well as the sacred enclosures. They purified the sanctuary and built another altar; then striking fire from flints and using this fire, they offered the first sacrifice for two years, burning incense, lighting the lamps and setting out the loaves. When they had done this they threw themselves flat on the ground and implored the LORD never again to let them fall into such adversity, but if they should ever sin, to correct them with moderation and not to deliver them over to blasphemous and barbarous nations. This day of the purification of the Temple fell on the very day on which the Temple had been profaned by the foreigners, the twenty-fifth of the same month, Chislev. They kept eight festal days with rejoining, in the manner of the Feast of Tabernacles, remembering how, not long before at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, they had been living in the mountains and caverns like wild beasts. Then, carrying branches, leafy boughs and palms, they offered hymns to him who had brought the cleansing of his own Holy Place to a happy outcome. They also decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate the same every year.” (II Maccabees 10:1-8)

In times such as this I join Bishop Pike in asking who he was and find myself quite naked and often alone in the search. But one thing I think I know. Bill Stringfellow nailed it. Jesus was a revolutionary of the most profound sort. His very existence – his being – was enough to bring charges from a world that refused to be disturbed by him. “See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem; the bow of war will be banished. he will proclaim peace for the nations. His empire shall stretch from sea to sea….”

Will we shrink Jesus of Nazareth to our own small size and purposes, or will we line the streets with festal branches for the humble man on the colt whose kingdom of justice, peace, and love is always being crucified but can never be extinguished?

NOTE

This sermon was preached March 19, 1978 in McGaw Chapel at The College of Wooster, Wooster, OH.

The Jesus Beyond Our Categories

Steve Shoemaker, host of “Keepin the Faith” (WILL/AM, Illinois Public Media) emailed this morning asking for thoughts about a post on “Protestants for the Common Good: ‘People of Faith Advancing Justice in Public Life'”: Can Christians Be Conservative? – an insiders’ academic debate among contemporary Christian theologian-ethicists. It’s worth a read. Tell me what you think.

Here’s what I wrote:

I’m not sure quite how to respond to the piece or the discussion. Off the top, I would say that Jesus himself didn’t neatly fit any of the four polar categories: conservative/liberal; reactionary/revolutionary. Even more, if the question whether the “authentic Christian” can be a conservative is more than a rhetorical question, it should be immediately dismissed – the question itself means that the answer has already been decided in the negative. Sort of like the question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?!”

Greenfield’s take on Mark 1 is interesting, but, on first reading, it seems to me to miss the point that John the Baptist’s wilderness movement involved all four dimensions. It was conservative, liberal, reactionary, and revolutionary all at the same time. The trek to the Jordean wilderness was a reaction to the collusion between the local religious and political authorities (e.g. Vichy France?) and their Roman (e.g. Third Reich) occupiers. It was also a revolutionary call for a new social order, “the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.” The grounds for that claim sprang out of the tradition that John and Jesus were conserving, while liberating it from captivity to the spirit of self-serving gains, idolatrous collaboration, self-righteousness and ethnocentrism. In short, the John-Jesus movement doesn’t fit nicely in any one or two categories.

Everywhere I look in the Gospels, I see a Jesus who doesn’t fit our categories. I still don’t know what to do with him.  “Can a Christian be conservative?” assumes from that outset that to be conservative is to be an “inauthentic” Christian. But even if one believes that conservative views and practices are inimical to the way of Jesus, there is the deeper question that puts that question in proper perspective: “Can a sinner be a Christian?” Only a sinner can be a disciple of Jesus. Some of the sinners and sins are primarily conservative, some liberal, some reactionary, and some revolutionary by disposition and by political persuasion. Most of us are some strange mixture of the four. So I would answer Larry’s question “Can Christian be conservative?” with “You betcha!”  How do I know?  Because it’s the wrong question. I don’t get to choose who is “authentically” Christian anymore than Jesus let his detractors decide.  Moreover, I know conservatives who call themselves Christian who put my stewardship and hands-on work with the poorest of the poor to shame. While I’m calling for the revolution, the conservatives I have in mind spend every Saturday preparing and serving meals at the homeless shelter and every Sunday afternoon after putting up with my sermons visiting people they know in town who are down and out – slipping them $100 bills so the utilities don’t get turned off – while I, having preached the revolution, go out for lunch and then go home for a nap.

William Stringfellow stops us all cold in our tracks with his criticism of the church:

Christ’s is a ministry of great extravagance – of a reckless, scandalous expenditure of his life for the sake of the world’s life. Christ gives away his life. The world finds new life in His life and in His gift of His life to the world. His is not a very prudential life, not a very conservative life, not a very cautious life, not – by ordinary standards – a very successful life. He shunned no one, not even adulterers, not even tax collectors, not even neurotics and psychotics…not even poor people, not even beggars, not even lepers, not even those who ridiculed him, not even those who betrayed him, not even his own enemies. He shunned no one. The words that [describe] the ministry of Christ are…sorrow, poverty, rejection, radical, unpopularity. They are the words of agony. It seems ridiculous to apply such words to the ministry of churches nowadays. Yet where these words cannot be truthfully applied to the ministry of churches today they must then be spoken against the churches to show how far the churches are from being the body of Christ engaged in the ministry of Christ in the world.

For Stringfellow the gospel was the vitality of the Word-made-flesh among the principalities and powers of death in this world. None of us has a corner on that Word. One might say that for Stringfellow there is a fifth category that describes the authentic following of Jesus: the life of ‘resistance’ as articulated in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land and The Politics of Spirituality, books uniquely addressed to the church in the American situation.

The question, it seems to me, is beyond ethics, and it is certainly beyond the false choice between the polar opposites: conservative/liberal; reactionary/revolutionary: Can or should a Christian be conservative, liberal, a reactionary, or a revolutionary? The ethics question rises from the theological-faith question: “Where today do we encounter the vitality of th e Word Made Flesh,and, in that encounter, who and how does God call us to be among the principalities and powers as the sinful, timid, confused, forgiven and redeemed disciples of Jesus

In terms of Christian ethics, as I see it, the answer, depending on the situation, involves all four dimensions supplemented by Stringfellow’s fifth descriptor.

I see elements of all five, for example, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who boldly conserved the tradition against the false interpretation of the German Third Reich and its ecclesiastical collaborators and paid the price with bodily resistance. Yes?  No? Maybe?

Look forward to hearing your comments.