A Sign of Contradiction

Monday, April 12, 2004


A Sign of Contradiction

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Return to Part II: Is God the Father Bloodthirsty?

Part Three of Seven on the Cross

Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself [Mary] a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35)
On Sunday, we meditated on the absurdity of the cross, particularly for Jesus in his humanity. We speculated that the last temptation of Christ was to despair that his Father had abandoned him before his mission of restoring the new Israel and ushering in the reign of God was completed. We speculated that Satan was trying to drive Jesus into despair by confronting him with what appeared to be senseless suffering and death before his time. Yet, Jesus trusted that he would be vindicated even to his last breath, despite no more certainty of resurrection than is humanly possible, and despite the apparent absurdity of his situation.

Yesterday, we meditated on how Paul transformed the meaning of the absurdity of the cross into a theology of atonement. After his encounter with the Risen One, Paul remained confused about how and why a righteous man could bear a curse. He came to the conclusion that the best explanation is that the righteous man bore a curse for the unrighteous.

We then speculated that it is Satan who desires blood sacrifice, and the legalistic interpretation of atonement is meant to silence the Accuser rather than to please God. God does not desire human blood! Though this atonement theology was not likely explicitly taught by Jesus, Paul's theology conveyed the same merciful love of God that Jesus sought to convey.

Today, I wish to meditate on how the cross reveals sin. Our prior meditations feed this one.

In his humanity, Jesus did not go to the cross with a pre-conceived notion that offering his own life paid a ransom for the sin of all humanity. Rather, when he prayed that "This cup may pass", he expressed a real human desire to live, and held out some hope that the same divine power that had worked so many signs through him would now vindicate him as he stood the test imposed by the power of darkness.

Simply put, for Jesus, the Gospel is that God is good and God's sovereign reign is breaking into our reality through Jesus' own words and deeds. There is a deep and dynamic humanism in the message of Jesus. Unlike John the Baptist and some of the prophets of doom before him, Jesus breaks on the scene proclaiming forgiveness and glad tidings. The first "homily" or "sermon" Jesus preaches according to Luke is as follows:
He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord." Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, "Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:16-21)
In Mark's Gospel, which may be earlier, the first words Jesus preaches are:
"This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15)
Jesus comes to preach "gospel" - good news!

In modern times, the notion of "repentance" tends to have an ascetic connotation, but in the Greek, the concept is simply to change directions - to convert or change.

In Mark's Gospel, Jesus immediately begins to work miracles or signs that the time of fulfillment is at hand through him. Before chapter 1 ends, he will exorcise a demon, cure Simon's mother-in-law, cure a leper, and begin to gather large crowds seeking cures and solace. In chapter 2, Mark will narrate that Jesus' healings demonstrate his power to declare sins forgiven. In other words, the change Jesus speaks of is not self denial - but real fulfillment of all life-giving and healthy human desires among the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and despairing.
"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened." (Matt 7:7-8)
Jesus' moral lessons are sometimes demanding, but at the center of every moral lesson is an obvious connection between the love of God and the love of neighbor. Our love for God is expressed by the way we treat others. According to the Gospels, Jesus preached that the entire law and prophets can be summed up in the two great commandments and the golden rule:
"Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets. (Mt 7:12 and Lk 6:31)
"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments." (Matt 22:37-40)
If anyone says, "I love God," but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 Jn 4:20)
In the Gospel narratives, Jesus calls his burden light, and says that he came that we might have life abundantly.

Yet, Jesus is critical of a certain group of people, and they are the only people he ever addresses with sharp rebuke. Those whom Jesus treats harshly are religiously pious people who "lays up heavy burdens on others" and who "strain at gnats while letting camels go by" (see the entire chapter 23 of Matt). Jesus teaches us not to judge, lest we might be judged. He warns that the standard by which we judge others will be measured against us.

About mid-way through each Gospel, the teaching of Jesus continues to proclaim the love and mercy of God, but also takes a darker tone.

The narrators tell us that pious laymen known as Pharisees, and other religious leaders such as the Herodians, who hold the seat of Moses, are plotting against him. They are constantly trying to trap him in some heresy or blasphemy. As their assault grows more intense, the story tellers relate that Jesus begins to predict his passion, and he begins to advise his disciples that they will need to pick up their cross, cut family ties, and face persecution and insult if they are to be his followers.

While I do not think that the Jesus of history taught any clear doctrine of vicarious suffering and atonement, and I do not think he saw his own impending death as the purpose and culmination of his mission, I do think he likely had an intuition that he was headed toward being made a martyr. Martyrs die for a cause they perceive as greater than themselves.

I don't recall where I heard this quote, but I once heard it said that life is not worth living until you find something worth dying for.

Some scholars suggest that some of the language of picking up our cross or turning our backs on our families were post-resurrection interpolations by the early Church to give encouragement to persecuted faithful after the destruction of Jerusalem and the persecutions under Nero. Others argue that some of the words are so jolting that they must go back to the historical Jesus, or they would not have found their way into the Gospel. If Jesus truly said things like "pick up your cross" and if he truly asked us to turn our backs on our families, I believe he was calling us to make sacrifices for higher goods - and promising us greater happiness in this life for doing so.

Afterall, he did not simply say, "Lose your life". Rather, he said "lose your life in order to find it". He did not simply invite his disciples to give up family. Rather, he promised that if they gave up family, God would grant them a hundred times more siblings. There is a clear sense that Jesus is starting a movement and that the movement will carry out his mission to the ends of the earth. That mission is worth dying for.

What was the cause for which Jesus was willing to be martyred? What did he see his mission to be? As a human being, what was Jesus fighting for?

In last Sunday's Gospel, the accusations made against Jesus before Pilate were that he opposed the tax to Caesar and stirred up the people with notions that he was a king. Through his enemies, we know that there was a political dimension to what Jesus was doing, whether he intended it or not.

Jesus attracted tax collectors. One of them even gave up collecting taxes and joined his inner circle of the Twelve. Yet, Jesus never clearly told anyone not to pay taxes. Indeed, he is remembered by the community of faith saying that we should render to Caesar what is Caesar's. Some of the tax collectors appeared to stop collecting taxes for the oppressive Roman state, and whether Jesus directly intended it or not, he was cutting off revenue to the state.

Jesus gathered large crowds and associated with the poor and lowly, telling them God loved them, and they are blessed. Jesus did speak of the reign of God breaking into this world through his words and deeds, and anyone who rejoiced to hear the good news found favor with Christ. He may not have proclaimed himself a king, but as he rode triumphally into Jerusalem, those in authority took notice.

Jesus actions had political, cultural and spiritual consequences. And all he was doing at every moment was trying to do good for others.

The only people Jesus criticized were those who attributed his power to exorcise and heal to Satan, or those who tried to trip him up by constantly seeking a slip of the tongue, and so forth.

The cause of Jesus appears to be to affirm human dignity against those who are judgmental and against anyone who might deny human dignity.

Jesus died for the sake of humanism!

Jesus did not die for secular humanism. Rather, he died for a humanism that is rooted in the faith that God the Father loves all people equally, and God the Father wishes good things for all his children. In the words and deeds of Jesus, bad things happen because Satan still has control of the world - not in some abstract sense of the hearts of sinners, but in the concrete sh*t that happens to us that causes us suffering. Suffering is a sign of demonic activity in the world, and all that causes real and abiding joy is a sign of the reign of God breaking through.

In order to grasp what is occurring in the Gospel, it may be helpful to look at events that have taken place in our own life-times. I recall a Jesuit priest trying to explain the concept of liberation theology to me. He explained that in certain areas of Latin America, the wealthy land owners were so bent on keeping control of the poor that they would kill anyone who taught a peasant to read. For the Jesuit, liberation theology is realizing that when we do good and avoid evil, it has political consequences, even when we do not consciously intend those consequences. The theology of liberation simply is the way believers speak of this reality. When we share the joy of reading, it has political consequences. Suffering and evil will fight against joy, liberation and goodness.

Even a conservative Republican Catholic in America can grasp this through the issue of abortion. The Gospel has political consequences. When we stand up for the voiceless, the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the public sinner, the weak, and the sick, the very act of doing so will have physical and political consequences.

The rich and powerful, and those in religious authority, and all who keep "order" in society, and those who are self-righteously judgmental are tempted by the greatest sin, and the crucifixion of Jesus reveals this sin. There are people in the world who will kill a man who never did wrong and who did nothing but good in order to keep control of the masses, whom they deem "sinners" incapable of guiding themselves.

If you watched Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the scene of the scourging of Jesus hopefully sickened you a bit. In the scene, Roman soldiers giggle gleefully as the blood of Christ splatters on their face. Some critics of the film believe it is too violent in scenes like this. I do not think it is violent enough.

I am five foot six inches tall and 135 pounds at the age of 38. One can imagine how small I was as a child. Furthermore, I was not gifted with extraordinary athletic ability. I was not a faster runner than the other kids, and my eye-hand coordination may have been below average for a boy my age. I was a victim of being bullied just about everyday from first through eighth grade.

What do I mean by being a victim of being bullied? Could I be more specific?

Once, I was pushed to the ground by a larger kid who then sat on my back and pushed my face in the grass yelling that I could not get up until I ate the grass. Another time, I had a pocket-knife held to my throat by one boy, while another continually punched me in the stomach. I had rocks thrown at me. People punched me for no apparent reason.

I became shy and introverted, and avoided getting near any boy on the play-ground for fear that I would be beat up. I would wonder around the outer edge of the playground avoiding boys because they might bully me, and avoiding the girls lest the boys have further reason to call me a sissy. I may have been the only kid in my class who hated recess. I saw in the images of Gibson's movie exactly what I saw on the playground.

I'm not claiming some sort of innocent victim status either. As many psychologist might predict, I turned right around and did to others what was done to me. I was the oldest in a large family, and I came home and do to my younger siblings exactly what was done to me. And I enjoyed the feeling of power it gave me!

So I understand bullying from both points of view, as victim and perpetrator.

What we often overlook in the spiritualizing of the crucifixion by a focus on atonement theology of Jesus dying for us is that if Jesus died for us, we killed him. We stand as that soldier each time we participate in sin. And behind that soldier, giving him the authority and power to act out his sadistic tendencies is everyone who seeks to control others.

As I've grown older, I still pray for the grade school bullies. Christ commands us to pray for our enemies. I live hundreds of miles for any of them these days, and I have no idea how most of them turned out as adults. Looking at my own experience of being and becoming a bully, I ask myself if it is possible that perhaps the bullies at school were themselves victims of some sort of bullying. Maybe an older sibling or neighbor bullied them. Maybe their parents were abusive. Yet, ultimately, the bullying starts with someone, and maybe bullying is part of the fallen nature of a race effected by original sin.

Most of us know some forms of evil intuitively. Most Christians believe the actions of Hitler were evil. We Americans hear the stories of Saddam Hussein's mass graves and torture chambers, and we call that evil.

At the crucifixion, there were people acting with the same gruesome evil, and Gibson's film captures this.

And what we see in the way the entire events unfolded in first century Palestine is that Jesus was executed by proper state authority trying to keep legitimate order in a troubled region, and he was handed over for crucifixion by religious leaders and pious laymen, who believed him guilty of crimes against the state and blasphemy and heresy!

At the grossest level - it's most evil and despicable level - bullying is an act of power over another in the physical realm. A larger kid punches, kicks, pushes and beats the pulp out of a smaller kid for no apparent reason other than to prove he can. A man who rapes a woman or a child, or beats his spouse is a bully. The Roman soldiers who beat the tar out of Jesus were bullies.

The bully seeks to exercise power over another by using force to provoke emotions the bully controls. The bully is thrilled that she or he can make another feel fear, powerlessness, pain, sadness, and so forth. The control of another person is the sin embraced by the bully.

But there are those who bully by proxy, and who only resort to physical force when all else fails. When we try to provoke fear and a sense of powerlessness in others in the intellectual, emotional or spiritual realm, we are acting as bullies. All who use the power of the state and the power of religious authority or religious teaching to control others are bullies.

Religion and spirituality are given to us to effect our own inner conversion, not to maintain the status quo, nor to maintain social order, nor mitigate the threat of another person against me if the other got what they truly desire.

Bullies eventually wind up very lonely and sad people, because when we control everyone, we are not intimate with anyone. The bully will eventually be lead into presumption and despair, and even blasphemy of the Spirit.

God invites us to love others. Love conquers loneliness by taking us out of our ourselves. Love leads to greater happiness. Love is relational, and seeks mutual interdependence, mutual respect, forgiveness and commitment to one another. Love conquers the bullying tendency, and requires humility to see the other as your equal. Love sees ourselves in others and approaches the other with an open mind and open heart and a commitment to do good to the other and to stay in relationship with the other, no matter how difficult. Love is not simply a feeling. It is an action that eventually leads to a feeling of joy that will face death for the cause of humanity!

We are to love our enemies. If we are to be like Jesus, we will even love those whom we deem most undeserving. We are to love Saddam Hussein and Slobodon Milosevich. We are to love pedophile priests and murderers. We are to love homosexual activists and pro-abortionists. We are to love liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and all people.

And in making moral decisions, unless we can point to how another is hurting someone else, we need to beware that when we admonish another in charity we are not really acting as spiritual bullies, rather than witnesses to the Gospel. According to Jesus, the entire law and prophets is rooted in the golden rule. If your admonishment of another cannot point to the harm she or he causes another, the fault is likely your own tendency to spiritual bullying.

The sign of contradiction is that even those who appear most righteous are often the most wrong.

Part VI: The Way of the Cross

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Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net
posted by Jcecil3 3:41 PM

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