Mariam Zahar with a special editorial Report to the Place of Meeting Gazette in Jerusalem:
According to our sources in the Galilean region, it has become clear that Jesus of Nazareth, lately from Capernaum, is determined to make his way to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover.
Folks in Jerusalem have planned for and prepared their normal security measures for the Festival of the Passover. The streets are crawling with Roman soldiers. Herod’s men are listening and watching carefully for anything out of the ordinary. You never know when an ox cart full of tools could be turned into weapons or projectiles. The Festival has always been a time for potential unrest in the city of Jerusalem. The masses of faithful Jews, with their travel gear, their families and their animals for the sacrifice at the temple, crowd the city streets and bazaars. These noisy and sometimes chaotic streets are the perfect recipe for ripples of violent unrest and protest to get out of hand.
The protests are about the usual things. People are uncomfortable with and tired of the Roman presence and with Herod’s tyrannical ways. Taxation is more than most can bear. Inequities in power and wealth become more visible at the time of the festival when there are only a few who can afford to feast when they get to the city and many who spend most of what they have just to get to the city and then give the very last of what they have to the temple treasury. In the midst of these difficulties, difficulties which are usually understood to be so entrenched as to be immovable, occasionally a few souls try to crack open the walls of injustice by openly protesting and inciting the masses to revolt. Generally the leaders of these insurrections are dispatched expeditiously through Rome’s use of its favorite weapon for keeping the peace and security – crucifixion. Those deemed by the state to be criminals for inciting riots, protests or insurrection are dispatched with one of the cruelest methods of capital punishment ever devised - the slow tortuous death by exposure and asphyxiation on a wooden cross.
And Jesus, whose simple presence draws huge and unwieldy crowds, according to reports I heard this morning, is heading directly into this hotbed of potential unrest. Surprisingly I also heard he will not be going by way of the Transjordan, around Samaria, the route most Jews from the Galilean region will take. Instead he plans to go directly through Samaria. Even this morning he sent messengers ahead of himself into one of the villages of Samaria so they could make preparations for him to stop and rest there, but he was rejected when they heard his destination was Jerusalem. The history of conflict between Jews and Samaritans is long and complex and I won’t get into that now. Suffice to say that the divisions between Jews and Samaritans are deep and sometimes hostile. When Jesus was rejected by this town, his disciples James and John reportedly asked him if he wanted them to call down fire from heaven and destroy them – reminiscent of the time that the prophet Elijah called down fire from heaven to destroy the representatives of King Ahaziah of Samaria.
We know that there has been much confusion lately about the true identity of this Jesus – known only as Jesus of Nazareth. He’s not even referred to as “son of Joseph”, which would be common in these parts. I suppose if he had given evidence that he could wield violent heavenly power in the way his disciples wanted, the ones who think he is a resurrected version of Elijah or John the Baptist might have been justified. But Jesus rebuked his disciples and simply went on to another town. What has prompted me to write this editorial is Jesus’ apparent complete disregard for even normal attention to matters of basic security.
It has been known for a while that Jesus doesn’t really have a home address, though his primary village of residence has been Capernaum where he most often stays with Simon Peter the fisherman’s family. Other than that, Jesus is itinerant, staying with those who will take him in. He has been heard to say somewhat cryptically about himself that “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the “Son of Man” has no place to lay his head." However it is also known that several of the women who follow him, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza; Suzanna and many others contribute to his support with their own funds.
He teaches his followers to live like this as well. He has already sent two delegations on missions similar to his own – first twelve and then seventy-two others. Generally they go in pairs and he asks them to take nothing for the journey, neither walking staff, nor travelling bag, nor bread, nor money. “Don’t even take a change of clothes,” he tells them. They are to stay at houses they enter along the way and if they are rejected they are instructed to shake the dust off their feet and move along. The purpose of these missions is to spread the Good News or the Victory news of God’s Kingdom – God’s Kingdom. These are revolutionary words. Do we truly understand what this man asks of his followers? He asks them to carry a revolutionary message that is dangerous. He asks them to exist without worry or concern about food, clothes, shelter, and money. Food, clothes, shelter and money and safety are all basic human needs and basic resources for having a sense of security. When we have these things we rest in these things. These basic human needs for security are powerful forces and provide powerful motivation in persons’ lives.
There are many who think that security in any area: security of one’s physical body or safety, security of employment, resources, health, property, family or morality is obtained by defensive mechanisms, or the use of force or violence. People who think like this exist on both sides of most divides. There are the powerful elite who can use armies to provide themselves with security. Walls are built around cities and palaces and even temples so that access can be controlled and vulnerability can be protected. In these cases the vulnerability that is protected is often the perceived vulnerability of the powerful and not the vulnerability of those who most need the security of basic needs. The ones who need protection most are those who lack adequate food, shelter,clothing and safety. The ones whose vulnerability receives the most protection are the ones who don’t want to lose what they already have. The violence on the other side comes from those who rise up with the strength that they have and throw stones or worse at those walls of the powerful in futile efforts to get attention. It’s these violent ones who usually end up dead.
As I’ve covered the stories surrounding Jesus for some months now, I’ve pondered the things that he says. I’ve wondered, “Where does he get his radical ideas that for some reason make it possible for him to suspend any striving to obtain the things that provide basic human security?”
As I’ve watched him, I’ve noticed a few things. First he’s clearly the epitome of a Jewish Rabbi, steeped in the traditions of his ancestors. He also spends a lot of time in prayer sometimes alone and sometimes with his disciples. They regularly pray and worship in the local synagogues. One of their corporate prayers, a miktam of David goes something like this: As I read it, listen for the sense of security conveyed when they Bless the God who guards them – the one who “holds their lot, makes the boundaries to fall in pleasant places for them, the one who is their right hand, so they will not be shaken, indeed the one who keeps even their bodies safe and will not abandon them to Sheol or death:
Guard me, protect me, keep me safe O God
For in you I take refuge,
I say to the Lord, You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.
As for the holy ones in the land,
They are the noble,
In whom is all my delight
Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows
Their drink offering of blood I will not pour out
Or take their names upon my lips
YHWH is my chosen portion and my cup:
You hold my lot (keep me secure)
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.
I bless YHWH who gives me counsel,
In the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me:
Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
My body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
Or let your faithful one see the PIT
You show me the path of life
In your presence there is fullness of joy
In your right hand are pleasures
Jesus, like the Shepherd/King David before him, rests secure in God. However the legacy of King David is ambiguous on this point because King David also had armies - armies that he used to defend himself from his enemies. If David composed this Psalm while he was a shepherd, however, or when he was running from King Saul then we could imagine that he was expressing a deep gratitude to the God who did not abandon him to Sheol (or death) at a time when he was vulnerable. At those earlier times in his life he depended on God and his own wits to keep his life safe – not in fact his army.
Be that as it may, Jesus is determined to go to Jerusalem where surely his life will be in danger and he is going to go there as a vulnerable human being. If his rebuke of his disciples when they wanted to call down fire from heaven is any indication, he isn’t planning to draw on heavenly power to preserve even his own life and he doesn’t have any human army in the fishermen, tax collectors, women, children and poor people who follow him. The other day I heard him say, “You who wish to be my followers must deny your very self, take up your cross – the instrument of your own death – every day, and follow in my steps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it, and if you would lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it. What profit is there in gaining the whole world if you lose or forfeit yourselves in the process?
What is his agenda? Is his agenda aimed against the religious authorities? Actually, from what I’ve witnessed I think not entirely because he dines at the homes of Pharisees and seems to enjoy his debate with them in the synagogues. Is his agenda aimed against the Roman oppression of the Jewish people? The Zealots among his followers hope this is the case, but also I think not entirely, or not in the way we would imagine, for he rejects violence at every turn, talks of loving enemies and strolls among Samaritans, Roman centurions and Syrophonecians with compassion for every person he encounters.
The revolution that Jesus represents is a deep revolution that is directed at the evil and violence of everything that separates and deceives, the violence that builds walls of oppression and exclusion and the violence that refuses to respect and listen to the other. This kind of violence can work its way into all realms of society; political, religious, grassroots communal and familial and can exist on all sides of divides. People and systems in all of these areas can become pawns for the powers and principalities that promote death instead of life.
The revolution that this man Jesus leads is one that will likely, in my opinion, lead to his own death even while he proclaims that the Good news of the Kingdom of God has arrived. He has been heard to say this himself. He predicts his own demise in Jerusalem and yet he has set his face firmly in that direction. His only security is his profound and intimate relationship with God whom he calls Abba or Father. It remains to be seen if the God of his ancestors will abandon him to Sheol or if some power greater than any we currently know will intervene. If God intervenes in the life and death of this man Jesus then the power of his revolution will undoubtedly reverberate for millennia to come.
This is Mariam Zahar reporting for the Place of Meeting Gazette in Jerusalem.
And now this is Marilyn Zehr speaking to you as pastor of this congregation on the day after we witnessed the violent clashes between some protesters and police on the streets of our city outside the G20 Summit downtown. I watched the events unfold with some discouragement, dismay and anger as I’m sure many of the rest of you did. I know that talk of “security” in the last couple of weeks has in fact become quite tiresome and yet, if our theme for the summer is Holy Headlines, news and Good news, I hoped in my editorial to begin to flesh out Jesus’ message of his radical dependence on the security of his relationship with God over all other forms of security and the radical nature of his revolution. This radical dependence on God and his revolutionary stance did not save his physical life. The powers of evil and violence and death did have their say for a moment. But Jesus’ complete self-emptying in the hands of the Power of God through his resurrection from death provided salvation not only for him but for the life of the world. This is the revolution of love, peace, reconciliation and “justice for all” that provide me with the lens that saw violence at all levels and on all sides of what happened yesterday. I felt compassion for the police and protesters alike whose script yesterday was so predictable. A “security” fence gets built and must be protected by men and women police officers who probably have their own concerns about global problems and issues. Violent anarchists come intending to wreak havoc without really making it clear what they want to say or why they do what they do. The leaders who meet have no intention of listening to the peaceful folks who gather in protest. The peaceful protesters hope that their concerns will be respected and that their voices will be heard.
The real violence exists in the refusal of everyone to imagine a different script.
Jesus lived a different script and taught and called his followers to live a different script. True security is comprised of a grounded dependence on the power of God’s love, a commitment to listening deeply and carefully to the other, true compassion for one’s brothers and sisters and sacrificial love. What the leaders of these summits hope to achieve must begin at the venues of the meetings themselves, if they ever seek to carry out their aspirations afterward. May we as Mennonite Christians in this city, by the grace and love and power of God, take up our own crosses and do what we can to speak to and implement a different script. Amen.