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Christ’s Prophetic Dimension

26 November 2007

Following Brueggemann’s description of prophetic ministry (see November 19’s entry), it’s definitely worth it to spend some time pondering the prophetic dimension of Jesus. I had often read, for example, that Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness was “subversive” (a necessary quality of prophetic ministry), but I had never really stopped long enough to figure out why people would say such a thing; it sounded cool and hip, but the logic was lost on me.  Fortunately, Brueggemann explains it. 

Withholding forgiveness can be a powerful means of controlling others and manipulating them into doing what you want them to do.  In the hands of the religious aristocrat, it can be used to keep the peasants down where they belong. Witness, for example, the (apocryphal?) story in John 8 concerning the woman caught in adultery.  We find Jesus in the temple, where he went routinely to teach, and we find that “all the people” were joining him there in the courtyard. 

Here come the Temple officials, the privileged class, the beneficiaries of a stratified society in which accommodating Rome is the ticket to power and prestige (and cash?), dragging with them a pitiful woman caught doing what some of the peasant onlookers had at least thought of doing, if not already done themselves without getting caught. If we take John at his word, we imagine that there are among the onlookers at least a few people with related skeletons in their own closets. She was one of them, and only fate keeps each of them from being in her place.  Her fate could be theirs; they hold their breath.

Jesus refuses to condemn her.  

Ho, hum.  To those of us with the luxury of retrospect, his forgiveness is ordinary, standard fare for the believing, God-fearing community.  How easily we forget that John is not primarily addressing us; he is addressing his own community, a first-century, freshly post-revolutionary community forged in the crucible of Rome’s practical, militaristic imperialism under the thumb and the nose of Herod, the Idumean – which is to say, a not-Hebrew king.  The Hebrews are nobodies whose only prayer of keeping any shred of national identity is a prayer to Caesar, vocalized on demand and offered with generous tribute.

Clearly, the primary effect of Jesus’ verdict is superficial (though no less significant for that reason): her real, observed-by-eyewitnesses sin is forgiven, and the stones are dropped to the ground. She – who has a name, incidentally – will not lose her life here, not today, not for that transgression. But if “the law is the law” in an orderly empire, Jesus has just taken away one of the elite’s most effective tools of fear and intimidation: the threat of retributive justice. The scribes and Pharisees have taken a frontal assault on their delegated authority over moral conduct – the very foundation that, through fear and intimidation, undergirds their political and financial privilege, their lofty social status.

Meanwhile: instead of swallowing hard and covering their eyes at the spectacle of a public stoning-to-death, the guilty peasants silently exhale. If this remarkable, new rabbi carries the day, maybe they no longer have to keep their mouths shut. He is not giving the peasants license to flout the essential truths of the law: “Go, and sin no more” echoes the ironic, Matthean formulation, “the scribes sit in the seat of Moses…therefore do all that they say” (Matthew 23:2?). But the elites no longer hold a mortal stroke over the peasants’ heads. Jesus is setting their subjects free from the whole, incestuous system, their good-ol’-boy network of patronage, oppression and fear.

How are we going to keep them down now? Caesar expects us to keep the peace, and if we can’t use our religious law to do it, what tool remains? 

What’s interesting to me is how this lens brings out the seditious texture of Jesus’ life and teaching. When Jesus inaugurates a new “kingdom,” he really means it! In practical terms, he is uprooting an unholy order, an order maintained and supported by all of the compromises and back-room arrangements and accommodations that the power brokers are constantly making with Rome. They wink and nudge; Herod builds them a temple. They trump up some charges against a Galilean troublemaker; Pontius Pilate washes his hands and turns his head. It’s all very convenient, very tidy, very effective.

Maybe some more on this, later. But this is not the mild-mannered, apolitical Jesus I learned in grade school. This is a thoroughly political, subversive, ironic Jesus. Where has he been all my life?

qb

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