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The Best of Will Willimon
Acting Up in Jesus' Name
By Will Willimon
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Though Jesus did not, at first, impress us as the Messiah (by refusing to live up to our expectations of what a messiah is), eventually, some got the point and worshiped him. They adored him, not necessarily as the means to a better world, not as an effective catalyst for social change, but rather as the way God really is, all the way down. He is reality, and in him, we see that reality is peace. True, it is a peace "that passes all understanding." It is not peace that one achieves by studying the course of world history or by meditating upon the human condition. His peace comes as a gift from the one who is known, paradoxically, as the Prince of Peace, the clue to what's really going on in the world, the revelation of who God really is.
So Jesus hangs upon a bloody cross, humiliated before the whole world. The mob taunts, "If you are really tight with God, command your legions of angels to take charge, to come down and defeat your enemies and deliver you."
But Jesus just hanged there. He breathed his last, and he died. This is the way God's kingdom comes? This is the way God wins victory? A stupendous claim, not made before or since by any religion: God not only takes the side of the innocent victim of violence and injustice but becomes one of them.
Jesus advocated no systematic program of human reform, never recommended any collective social adjustments, no matter how badly needed or enlightened. Jesus was not big on ethical codes, had no ideology, did no interesting work in political science or social ethics, and never put forth a plan of action, other than the (seemingly) wildly impractical notions that the first will be last, that we must turn the other cheek to those who strike us, and that we should become like little children.
Likewise, Jesus appears to have had no interest in one of the world's great, abiding illusions—justice. At various times, Jesus was dragged before the agents of justice—Caiaphas (the high priest), the Sanhedrin, Pontius Pilate (Jesus made little distinction between religious power brokers and secular ones). One of the most noble systems of justice ever devised responded to Jesus by torturing him to death. Worldly attempts at justice always involve the strong imposing their wills upon the weak. In crying for justice, the weak are usually demanding power to work their wills upon the strong. Perhaps that's why, in world history, Jesus is usually on the losing side. After the world's revolutions, it's often difficult to tell the vanquished from the victors, morally speaking. People in power tend to act the same, despite why they got there. All of which explains why Jesus never got along well with potentates, religious or otherwise.
Having spoken to his heavenly father, "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they are doing," Jesus now speaks to a criminal. He bypasses us and turns to the thief. He, who was forever instructing his followers, he who was always in prayer to his Father, now converses with a crook—in the disarmingly present tense. Now He, who got into much trouble with us righteous ones because he dared to eat and drink with sinners, now talks and dies with sinners. As Jesus hung in agony upon the cross, there was no one beside him but a thief. Well, not so much a "thief" as probably a "troublemaker," a "rabble-rouser," perhaps an "insurrectionist," maybe more accurately, a "terrorist."
And the criminal said to him, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." The wretched man was surely thinking of tomorrow. For there, today with Jesus on a cross and a howling mob in front of him, in horrible agony from the worst form of punishment ever devised by wicked humanity, mocked before the world, any "kingdom" promised by Jesus must be in some distant future.
Jesus surprised him. "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Today. What was conceived only as future became present in this promise of Jesus. You might have expected Jesus to say, "Someday, after I'm gone, when God finally gets things together and sets things right, when this horrible miscarriage of justice has been rectified, then you will be with me in my promised kingdom. Just wait until tomorrow."
No, Jesus said, "today you will be with me in Paradise." What a promise to speak to such a person in such horrible hell of crucifixion. Today, paradise.
Now one could say, "today you will be with me in Paradise" because Jesus and the thief were about to die, so that very evening they would be in the paradise of the afterlife. Both Jesus and the thief were on their way to death and therefore on their way to whatever life happens after death. It sure didn't look like paradise from where they were hanging. But I don't think that gets at the shock of what Jesus says here.
I believe that if Jesus had been walking along some Galilean road in the bright sunshine, rather than hanging here on the cross before a darkening sky, and if Jesus and the thief had had many years of life on this earth still ahead of them, I believe that this conversation would have gone exactly the same way.
For when Jesus speaks of "Paradise," he is not talking so much of a place where they may go someday, as a relationship that they entered today.
* * *
Most people met Jesus on the road. When John the Baptizer introduced Jesus to the world, he quoted the prophet Isaiah, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low... and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." In Jesus, God worked a highway construction project, making a road straight through the desert to enslaved humanity. Just as in the exodus, when God made a "way" out of Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land, so Jesus is the "way" to God. How ironic that while we clamored up to God through our intellect, our morality, our architecture, our art, and our institutions (both secular and religious), in Jesus Christ, God slipped in among us. The first name for the church was simply "The Way," not only our way to God but rather God's way to us.
All the gospels present Jesus on a continual road trip—God in motion, urgently making a way to us in defeat of the desert in which we wander. Euthys, the Greek word for "immediately" occurs forty-two times in Mark's Gospel. No sooner does Jesus do something than "immediately" he hits the road to elsewhere. Some of Jesus' best words were spoken on the run. Many have wanted to know more about the early childhood and adolescence of Jesus. Matthew and Luke tell us a little about the circumstances of Jesus' birth, and Luke has one story about his going to the Temple in Jerusalem when he was twelve. In Mark, probably the earliest of the gospels, Jesus just shows up out of nowhere, gets baptized by John, and then the Spirit shoos him out into the wilderness. It is as if the gospels want to say that the action only really gets going when Jesus hits the road.
Jesus cannot be explained simply as the next chapter in the long, gradual, forward advance of humanity; his birth to a virgin named Mary signifies that Jesus is present as the miraculous gift of a gracious God, the God-given goal of all human history. The gospels tell us that knowing where this gift came from, who his people were, isn't going to help us much. If you want to know about Jesus, if you want to know him, you've got to meet him on the road.
* * *
Sorry if you prefer your God to be with you as a remarkably effective moral teacher or wise sage. In Jesus, humanity and divinity meet. A domesticated Jesus, whose strange, inexplicable mix of humanity and divinity has somehow been made simpler—either human or divine, one or the other, and hence easier for us to understand and to handle—is no Jesus at all. Intellectual humility is required, a willingness to let God be complicatedly incarnate, close to us, rather than the simpler God we thought up on our own. Sometimes the strange, rational impossibility just happens to be true—God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.
Sorry if you prefer your God to come at you in an exclusively spiritual, inflated, pale blue and fuzzy vagueness, hermetically sealed from where you actually live. In Jesus, divinity and humanity embrace.
Sometimes people ask, "Can I really trust the Bible, seeing that it is a thoroughly human product, full of all the errors and contradictions that characterize any human endeavor?" The implication is that if Scripture has any human taint, shows any creaturely weakness, the Bible can't be trusted to talk about God. But what if Jesus is true? What if we don't know anything for sure about God, except that which is shown to us by the God-and-human Jesus? What if Jesus really is fully human and fully divine? Then where on earth would we expect to know anything about God, except through a medium that is human? God came to us as we are, met us where we live, in the human words of Scripture that become the very voice of God, in the man Jesus who becomes the very presence of God.
* * *
Once there was One who came to us, who touched the untouchables, turned his back upon the world's bright baubles, loved even unto death, and never turned his eyes away from God. And we hated him for it. He came to us with wide-open hands in gracious invitation, seeking us, both patient with us and hotly pursuing us. And thereby he brought out the very worst in us.
We figured that things between us and God were not all that bad, but when he spoke to us of God, and ourselves, and rubbed our noses in the filthy rags of our presumed righteousness, well, we thought we were good until we met him. He called upon us to attempt great moral feats, then watched as we fell flat on our faces. He invited us to join up with his Kingdom, then set that Kingdom's demands so high that when it came time for us to stand up and show what we were made of, we fled, slithering into the darkness. He said, "Come to me. Take on my yoke." And we with one voice cried, "Crucify him!"
* * *
Is this Jesus at his most offensive, in his talk of preemptive forgiveness? Is this why we nailed him to the cross, in his forgiving us even before we asked and, what is more, asking us to forgive others? In a sermon on forgiveness, Augustine (Sermon 49.8) said that sometimes people in his church omitted the phrase from the Lord's Prayer that says, "and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Just passed right over that phrase silently because they knew it would be lying for them to say that aloud. They knew, says Augustine, that they were making a kind of covenant with God in this "forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others." In some of the earliest versions of Luke's Gospel, these words are omitted from the Lord's Prayer. Forgiveness is hard.
A rabbi once said to me that, while he admired most of what Jesus said and did, as a Jew, he found these first words from the cross among the most offensive, lamentable, and reprehensible. Why?
"We've had enough Jews crucified by gentiles. We don't need any more Jews forgiving gentiles for killing Jews."
I could see his point. When in my former congregation, a woman, being abused by her boyfriend, said to me, "I've prayed to God for the strength to be able to forgive him," I said to her, "No. First you tell him that he is wrong, that if he abuses you again, you are going to call the cops, have him thrown in jail, and then, and only then, if he stops, then we'll talk forgiveness."
With Jesus, on the cross, the sequence was different. First, he prayed to God to forgive. If we are meant to listen and to learn from the words of Jesus on the cross, this must be among the most distinctive, difficult lessons to learn, this first one.
"Who is this who forgives sin?" his critics asked. This day we, his would-be followers ask, "Who is this who first forgives sins—even before anybody has acknowledged the sin?"
* * *
"Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus' disciples asked after his resurrection. That is, "Lord, will you at this time finally act like a Messiah, mount your war horse, raise a royal army, rout our Roman occupiers, and set up Israel as the nation we are meant to be?"
Christ meant "Messiah," which means the Anointed, the king, the political/military hero. Politics is power, our only means of transcending the problems of this world. "Jesus, when are you at last going to move from spiritual blather to something important—like politics?" Jesus responded by telling his followers that it was not for them to know the times for such things. Jesus seems somewhat evasive, reluctant to come right out and say, "I'm the Messiah you have been expecting," probably because he knew that their messianic expectations were not for someone like him.
At this point, honesty compels me to say that, if you are one of those people with great love for the government or reverent respect for the military that props up government, you will find Jesus a jolt to your sensibilities. The modern state—with its flags, pronouncements, parades, propaganda, public works projects, and assorted patriotic paraphernalia—does not mesh well with Jesus. Patriotism, while perhaps a virtue, has never been regarded as a specifically Christian virtue.
In truth, Jesus was very "political," but not as we expected. After his arrest—by functionaries of the state—Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, who was seated upon the judgment seat to render a verdict on Jesus.
"So, are you king?" asked Pilate, sarcasm dripping from his urbane Roman lips. Jesus responded, "You have said so," implying that much of this concern about royalty and authority was Pilate's preoccupation, not his. Then Jesus pronounced, "My kingdom is not of this world," or at least, that's how his words are sometimes translated. Closer to the Greek: "My kingdom is not from here." It's a mistake to interpret Jesus as having said, "My kingdom is out of this world, something otherworldly, spiritual even." Rather, Jesus is saying, "My kingdom is not from here, here with all these royal trappings and raw power, here propped up with swords and acting as if it were from God. My reign is not secured by the swords of Caesar's finest. My authority derives from elsewhere."
* * *
The Gospels, and indeed all of Scripture, were born in a culture in which people passed information along orally, were careful to repeat things often, told only what was important, and looked for help from eyewitnesses to verify accuracy. The writers of the gospels collected the stories about Jesus that had been circulated orally and wove them into careful and distinctive accounts of what he said and did—and why that matters. Generations of Christians have found these writings to truly reveal God in singular and life-changing ways. Besides, we're justified in giving particular weight to the testimony of those who paid for their friendship with Jesus by their blood.
But Jesus is more than his words remembered; he is interesting not only because of what he said but for who he is. We should therefore also talk about Jesus through the medium of his friends. Paul (whose writings are older than the gospels) never met Jesus until the risen Christ accosted him on the Damascus Road. Yet Paul may know as much about Jesus as those who walked next to him down the Jerusalem Road. Paul seems neither to know nor to care about most of the teachings of Jesus or details of his life before the cross and resurrection, yet Paul's wildly adventurous life after meeting Jesus shows that Paul really knows Jesus. We are right to trust descriptions of Jesus given by those most disrupted by Jesus. Some people around Jesus looked at him and wanted to follow him, pattern their lives after his, and tell everybody about him. The majority of people who met Jesus apparently thought he was nuts and wanted him dead. Sometimes, the burning sun is best viewed by watching those upon whom it shines.
* * *
You and I tell stories in order to figure out what sort of world we've got. Stories are fiction that is meant to uncover the deep, real truth about the world. Nobody can live without a story that makes sense of the world and gives us a beginning, a middle, and an end to what could otherwise be a really random world.
And yet, Jesus' parables tend not to explain. They just begin, as if out of nowhere, without context, often in the middle. They are, at times, exasperatingly devoid of important details. As we have noted, few of the parables have well-wrought conclusions. They seem more intent on confusion than clarification. Surely, Jesus could have found a more effective mode of explaining his message—unless explaining of his message was not his chief goal.
Jesus' first hearers share our frustration. "Why do you talk in parables?" his disciples asked. Why, Jesus? Matthew remembers Jesus replying: "To you has been given the gift to understand the great secrets of the kingdom of heaven, even though few of you are the brightest candles in the box. But to the rest of them everything's a riddle. I tell these stories so they can hear things they wouldn't otherwise hear."
First insight: understanding of Jesus, faith in Jesus, the ability to figure out what he's talking about and what he's up to, is a gift of God. It's God's revelation, not some personal intellectual achievement, "I throw out so many of these parables because, listening, they don't hear and, looking, they don't see," says Jesus.
Second insight: mere understanding of Jesus may not be the point. Parables take you deeper. They are a complex, deep way of thinking about the world. It is possible to think too quickly or superficially that you know Jesus. Then, you can pigeonhole Jesus and forget about him, thinking about Jesus in about the same way you think about everything else. You walk away murmuring, "I got it." Maybe the parables want to expose you to the adventure that comes with, "Jesus got me." Maybe Jesus tells these stories in order to make you a character in the story, in order to put your life in the grand narrative of God's salvation of the world.
Excerpted from The Best of Will Willimon by Will Willimon. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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