Excerpt-Jesus and the Powers

“Jesus and the Powers”

An Excerpt from Chapter 5 of The Cross in the Midst of Creation

Central to Jesus’s ministry was the practice of open table fellowship, symbolized today in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Jesus told stories about throwing a banquet to which the people invited did not come, so the host told his servants, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14:15– 23). At one dinner, a woman bathed Jesus’s feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them, although people judged her as a sinner (Luke 7:36– 50). At another meal, people complained that a woman who had anointed him with costly nard was too extravagant (Mark 14:3– 9). In both instances, Jesus held these women up as models of faithfulness and love. When Jesus was eating in the home of a tax collector named Levi, the scribes and Pharisees asked why he ate with tax collectors and sinners. Although tax collectors worked for the temple establishment, collecting temple taxes and tribute for Rome, not only were they resented by the people, but evidently the religious leaders who employed them also treated them with contempt. Jesus responded to their challenge by saying, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:15– 17).

Similar stories of the religious leaders criticizing Jesus’s actions and putting him to the test continue throughout all four Gospels. They not only took Jesus’s actions as a personal affront to their privilege but also believed that they were in the right and were carrying out God’s Law. Not all members of the religious establishment were against Jesus, but as a ruling council, they opposed him because they felt responsible to keep the peace during the occupation.

These conflicts between Jesus and the authorities illustrate the direct challenge he posed to the domination system by revealing the compassionate nature of God and by creating a popular alternative community that was inclusive, equitable, and noncoercive. By doing so, Jesus challenged the religious hierarchy, the reign of Herod, and the overarching rule of Caesar. These conflicts continued and intensified throughout his ministry, leading to the final confrontation between Jesus and the powers. As the story progresses, the tension builds and the plot thickens as Jesus heads for Jerusalem, deliberately planning his time there to coincide with the observation of Passover.

When considering what to do about Jesus, the chief priests and Pharisees held a meeting of the ruling council. They said, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our holy place and our nation.” Then Caiaphas, the high priest, said, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). They used their religious power and privilege to justify turning Jesus over to be crucified for the sake of national security.

Although the religious leaders were already looking for a way to kill Jesus, they were enraged when Jesus carried out two back- to- back demonstrations in the days leading up to Passover. The first has been called the “triumphal entry into Jerusalem.” He entered the city on a donkey’s colt, where crowds of people joyfully welcomed him, shouting “Hosanna,” waving palm branches, calling him the “son of David,” and throwing their cloaks on the ground in front of him. While this humble procession demonstrated the form of “kingship” that Jesus embraced, it can also be understood as a parody of the annual Roman procession that would soon be entering Jerusalem to keep the peace during Passover, with its elaborate display of chariots, banners, and other symbols of empire. Jesus’s Palm Sunday procession was a highly symbolic demonstration that highlighted the contrast between these two conflicting kingdoms: the kingdom (or empire) of Caesar and the kingdom of God.

Then, in Jerusalem, Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple and drove out those who were conducting business there. This action by Jesus has been called the “cleansing of the temple,” but it was actually a symbolic action directed against the idolatrous and unjust economic system through which the religious establishment upheld the Roman occupation. This action challenged the legitimacy of the religious establishment’s collaboration with Roman rule and further solidified the plans of the religious leaders to have Jesus killed. Some have called this temple action an exorcism. According to Walter Wink,

The paradigmatic collective exorcism in the New Testament is Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. . . . This act is depicted by the Synoptic Gospels as the climax of his ministry, the central focus of his journey to Jerusalem, and the final provocation of his arrest and execution. . . . Each account, even John’s, uses the formulaic term for exorcism, ekballo, to describe his act of “driving out” those who did commerce in the temple.[i]

This act of “exorcism” at the temple does not contradict the claim that Jesus practiced active nonviolence. In fact, it is an example of what today might be called nonviolent direct action. This contemporary term refers to a symbolic or strategic action undertaken directly by individuals or groups to bring about social change through nonviolent means. Both Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. pointed to Jesus as the inspiration for their campaigns of nonviolent action.

In his action at the temple, Jesus drove out both people and animals and created disarray, but he did not harm or intend to harm anyone. In fact, according to John, after the confrontation, Jesus stayed and cured people who came to him there in the temple, including some who had been blind or unable to walk. According to Matthew, what seems to have enraged the religious leaders most was that children in the temple area continued calling out, “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matt 21:14– 16). Because large and enthusiastic crowds responded to Jesus’s message, the authorities believed that the growing popularity of this movement presented a dire threat to the stability of the whole interlocking network of institutional powers. The authorities clearly felt increasingly threatened as the movement grew, and they became more determined than ever to do away with Jesus, just as oppressive governments do today by targeting movement leaders when “people power” threatens the stability of the status quo.

Following this pivotal nonviolent direct action,[ii] Jesus and his disciples occupied the temple area each day, like activists today who “occupy” a center of power. “Every day he was teaching in the temple” (Luke 19:47), to the dismay of the chief priests and scribes, who did not want to arrest him during Passover because they feared that “there may be a riot among the people” (Mark 14:1– 2). Every night Jesus would go out to the Mount of Olives, but “all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple” (Luke 21:37– 38). By then, the power of the people had become evident. The authorities were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, “but they feared the people” (Luke 20:19; 22:2); they could not get near Jesus to arrest him, “because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (Mark 11:18).

The Garden of Gethsemane and the Will of God

The terrible silence of God in response to Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane was more than a deathly stillness. Mystics have felt it too, in the dark night of the soul in which everything that makes life worth living dries up, and hope disappears from life. Martin Buber called it “the eclipse of God.” — Jürgen Moltmann

Jesus went on publicly teaching, healing, and denouncing the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees in the temple for several more days, in the presence of the crowds who supported him. On the evening of Passover, he gathered privately with his disciples in a small room. The Synoptic Gospels vary in reporting the words of Jesus as he shares “the last supper” with his disciples. According to Matthew, Jesus blessed a loaf of bread and gave it to them, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he offered thanks over a cup of wine, and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:26– 28). Jesus’s words are repeated by Christians around the world and resound through the ages as the words of institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion.

John’s Gospel does not indicate that it was a Passover meal or mention Jesus offering bread or wine to his disciples but speaks of Jesus using this private occasion to explain to them what it means to follow him: to recognize that God is love and that God is present among them, to love one another as he has loved them, and to follow his example by being servants of one another. To demonstrate this form of servant ministry, Jesus washed their feet (John 13:1– 17). Foot- washing rituals are still carried out during Holy Week in Maundy Thursday services that commemorate this symbolic act.

After the meal, Jesus went out with his disciples to the Mount of Olives and the garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed about how events in Jerusalem would unfold. He told his disciples to stay and keep watch with him, but they kept falling asleep. Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39 NIV), and again, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matt 26:42).

This story of Jesus praying in Gethsemane, “Your will be done,” is sometimes used to back up the claim that Jesus’s sacrificial death was God’s will, perhaps even God’s primary purpose for Jesus. In other words, God’s preordained plan was for Jesus to die by crucifixion, and Jesus’s designated role of self- sacrifice and obedience to this plan was already set. This view supports satisfaction or substitutionary “payment” theories of the atonement, which do not make sense if the whole story of Jesus is considered. Such theories assign to Jesus only a passive role, ignore his freedom of choice and self- determination, and dismiss his passion for the coming of the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven,” which was so central to his message.

A friend told me that one of her most striking experiences when visiting the Holy Land was at the Mount of Olives. As she stood there looking out over Jerusalem, she thought about Jesus on that final night before his crucifixion, praying through his decision to stay the course, which would take him into the city and to the certain death that awaited him there. Then she looked out in the other direction, realizing how easy it would have been for Jesus to take off in that direction, away from Jerusalem, to anonymity and freedom. His choice was real, just as our choices are real for us.

Jesus prayed there in agony, knowing he had a choice. According to Luke, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44). He could foresee the likelihood of his death, considering the ways he had challenged the ruling authorities. He wanted the cup of suffering and violent death to pass from him. Still, he chose to be true to himself, to his followers, and to God by facing what awaited him in Jerusalem. Jesus must have understood faithfulness to God’s will in this set of circumstances to mean facing likely arrest and execution by the authorities, but this does not imply that this was God’s ultimate will or primary purpose for his life. Rather, Jesus had too much integrity to back down; he cared too much about others to run away. He trusted that God would be glorified, whether in his life or in his death. He stayed faithful to his calling, despite the personal cost, and entrusted the outcome to God.

Jesus waited and prayed in the garden until he was arrested and taken into the city and ultimately to his death. Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, and his disciples, except for the women who “stood at a distance, watching” (Luke 23:49), abandoned him. Herod questioned him and turned him over to Pilate, who in turn questioned him and then, as the crowd that had gathered to demand the release of Barabbas called for Jesus to be crucified, sentenced him to death. The Roman soldiers stripped him, whipped him, and put a crown of thorns on his head. Passersby ridiculed him with the same words the devil had used to tempt him in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt 27:40). Pilate had an inscription put on the cross that mocked him and the entire Jewish nation: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). Near the end, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then he “gave a loud cry and breathed his last” (Mark 15:34–37).

None of the Gospel accounts claim that Jesus was crucified because God required a human sacrifice to save sinners. None of them portray God planning or directing the execution of Jesus to punish him in place of sinful humanity or to uphold God’s honor. God sent Jesus (as God in turn sends us) to heal, teach, proclaim, and demonstrate the good news of God’s all- inclusive love. Clearly, such a life was (and is) a threat to the powers. Jesus’s proclamation of the coming reign of God threatened the domination system of his age, as it threatens all systems of domination. The powers that rule the world must set conditions on love to enforce obedience. They pretend that God is at the top of systems of domination, but this lie is exposed in the crucifixion of Jesus as a subversive. God is not at the top of such systems but at the bottom, in solidarity with those who suffer the systems’ harmful effects.

Jesus had settled for himself long before that being a beloved child of God meant being at odds with the world’s power structures. He had been tempted early on to seek status, wealth, and worldly power. Instead, he chose the foolishness and weakness of Love. He chose “the wisdom of God in a mystery,” which the rulers of his age did not understand. “If they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” That is why Jesus died— because the ruling Powers killed him. They could see no other way.

[i] Wink, Unmasking the Powers, 65.

[ii] Nonviolent direct action is a contemporary term that refers to actions taken by individuals or