Sunday, January 18, 2015


This is a very abbreviated history of the last hundred years or so, with a concentration on the last fifty.  It attempts to unpack several seemingly arcane and related topics that have overwhelming significance on our lives and the lives of everyone in the world, even though we often know little about them.

In a recent Facebook conversation, these topics came up, and it occurred to me that Christians have a particular need to discern these issues, because while we are called to direct our actions toward friendship, compassion, and peacemaking, these kinds of actions are often difficult to determine how to take without understanding the context.  This lecture began as a research article I was doing for a publication that went belly-up in 2006, and I updated the piece when I was invited to Penn State to talk about Finance, Food, and Force, the F-words to which the post title refers.  In this post, I will add a few bracketed remarks that further update or clarify the history and the issues.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

RCIA Class - Who is Jesus Christ?

Opening Prayer:

Lord, open our minds and hearts to receive your truth and grace, make us grateful for your abundance and for each other, and govern us with your Holy Spirit.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen

Let’s talk about context.

“Get down on your knees.”

When you hear that phrase all by itself, what does it mean?  It is a command to kneel, but who is saying it?  Why is he or she saying it?  Where and among whom is this person saying it?  These are questions that provide the context, or the circumstances that give some kind of meaning to this command.  It means something altogether different when it is said by a priest during the liturgy than when it is said by an executioner, or when you are removing bubble gum from your child’s hair.  In each case, there is someone saying, “Get down on your knees,” but the context is different.

When we study the Bible, we need the context.  When we try to glean from the Gospels who is Jesus, we can’t just take what we read at face value, because when these Gospels were written, they were the written form of an oral story that was being passed from person to person, and they were addressed to a specific audience during the first century AD.  Mark was the first Gospel written, and it was addressed to both Jews and Romans at a time when they were at war with one another.  Scholars note that there is some Latin in Mark, indicating contact with Romans.  Matthew was addressed to primarily a Jewish audience as far as scholars can tell.  Luke was addressed to Greek speaking people, many of them Gentiles, because scholars note how he has to explain several Jewish customs.  John was probably addressed to Gentiles who were familiar with both Greek and Aramaic.  In Matthew, Jesus is described most forcefully as the King of the Jews.  In Mark, he is described most forcefully as the Great Servant of God.  In Luke, he is described most forcefully as the Savior of Humanity.  In John, the emphasis is on his status as Son of God.

In our Creed, we say:

For us men and for our salvation
he [God] came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man [Jesus].
For our sake [Jesus] was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.

In this overview in the Creed, between “he was born” and “he was killed and resurrected,” there is a big gap.

What happened in between?  Who was this Jesus of Nazareth, who would be called the Christ, which means the anointed of God, God’s appointed king?  Context:  crucifixion was the Roman punishment for political insurrection, capital punishment for rebels. Why was this man who never carried a weapon, never killed anyone, never called people to armed rebellion, crucified?

Let’s go back now and see who this guy was.  Father Shaun, in his most recent homily, quoted the Jesuit priest James Martin from an article entitled, “Ten things I wish everyone knew about Jesus.”  I’m going to hit his main points, and we’ll look at the a few Bible passages along the way, but look at them in their context as first century Palestine.

1. Jesus was poor.

Poverty does not simply mean without money.  Many people, before money was the main means of exchange, were able to flourish through subsistence activities, hunting, gathering, and growing food for themselves.  Poverty is created when money becomes necessary to live, but money is made scarce to some people.

In first century Palestine, Jewish people had to have money for three things:  Roman taxes, Temple taxes, and debt.  They might have needed money for other things, but many people grew food and traded locally for other goods without using money.  But for these three things, they had to have money.

The Romans demanded money in the form of taxes that were fees for various activities.  To fish in the Sea of Galilee, for example, fishermen had to pay a tax for something like a license to harvest fish.  The Romans used Jewish collaborators to collect these taxes, which were very burdensome.  To be a tax-collector was to be a Jew despised by other Jews.

Temple taxes were paid annually to the Jewish Temple authorities, who were organized as a governing body of judges from two factions – Sadducees and Pharisees – who were like the rich party and the working-class party, and that governing body was called the Sanhedrin.  The taxes they demanded from every Jewish household in Palestine were also very burdensome, and like Roman taxes, they forced people who were farmers, or peasants, to find money which they didn’t make from subsistence farming.  In other words, they had to grow extra to sell or work for someone else to get the money for the taxes.  Finally, there were rich Jewish households who loaned money to poorer households at interest.  Over time, the rich took land from peasants who couldn’t pay their loans and became big landowners.  Then the estates of the rich grew, and landless peasants were forced to work the same land as laborers, or even to live on the land as unpaid slaves.  Some landless peasant families took work in the towns to get the money to pay for food and for taxes.  They became wage laborers.

Jesus’ family were landless peasants in Nazareth, a very small town – perhaps 300-400 people – and it is likely that Jesus and Joseph were wage laborers.  They were described as tektons, a Greek word for day laborers or construction workers, which was somewhat inaccurately translated for some time as “carpenters.”  King Herod was building a Pharaoh-like project, an elaborate ego-driven city, called Sepphoris, which was around four miles from Nazareth, over a mountain.  This was a city of around 30,000, huge by the standards of that day.  In all likelihood, Joseph and Jesus and other men from Nazareth, peasant families who had lost their land and had to work for very low wages, hiked over that mountain six days a week, where they worked in Sepphoris all day, then walked back over the mountain to eat and go to bed.  Men started working when they were twelve, so Jesus probably did something like this for around eighteen years before he finally went to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist.

Here are two passages, from Mark and Matthew (Matthew was based a lot on Mark) where Jesus is called a tekton – a day laborer who did construction.

Matthew 13:53-57

53 When Jesus had finished these parables, He departed from there. 54 He came to His hometown and began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s [tekton] son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.”

Mark 6:1-3

Jesus went out from there and came into His hometown; and His disciples followed Him. When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands?Is not this the carpenter [tekton], the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him.

They took offense!  Who was this dirt poor day laborer presuming to teach in the synagogue!?  Why is he given this power?  We know this guy, and his low-ranking family, too.  He does grunt labor over in Sepphoris.  He’s nobody.


Jesus was probably skinny and strong, and he probably had heavily calloused hands.  Palestinian Jews kept their hair relatively short to manage lice, so he likely had fairly short hair, and men typically wore their beards quite long.  Their complexions were generally olive-brown, like those we see on modern Arabs and some North Africans, and their faces and hands were very dark from sun exposure if they worked outdoors.  It’s very unlikely that Jesus looked like the blue-eyed actors that have played him in the movies.  The average height of men of that time and place was just above five feet.


Men and women wore a similar undergarment, a tunic called a chiton, basically a pullover shirt that hung down to about knee-high for men, ankle-length for women, and made of wool for poor people, linen for people of greater means.  Over that tunic, men wore a mantle (himation), a kind of poncho-cloak that reached almost to the ground, which had notches along the “hoodie” edge that were pulled onto the head during prayer.  People who might be caught out after dark, when it got cold, also sometimes had a chlamys, or a coat, that was also poncho-like, and which was sometimes pinned at one shoulder to make walking easier.  We know very little about the colors of clothes then.  Leather sandals were standard footwear.

So Jesus was a poor man from a poor family, who wore simple wool clothes, and who marched around eight miles a day, twice over a mountain, to do strenuous manual labor in a cosmopolitan town, where the inequality between rich and poor was on obvious display.  He probably did this for around eighteen years.

Luke 6:27-29

27 “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat [chlamys], do not withhold your shirt [mantle-himation] from him either.

Now you are walking around in your underwear, your chiton.  With the context, you can see how outrageous the things Jesus sometimes said were to his own contemporaries.  Jesus said and did things that provoked reactions.

2. Jesus saw income disparities firsthand, and he condemned them.

Jesus is compassionate and forgiving, but he can get angry.  His anger never translates into killing people, but he offers stern rebukes, and in the cleansing of the Temple, he actually runs around flipping tables over and stampeding livestock.  He called the moneychangers, who were a major revenue stream for the Temple, a den of thieves.

One subject that comes up again and again with him is money and poverty, and he is at his harshest on this account.

James 5

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabbath. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.

Whoa!  Pretty tough language, no?  Listen to this from Matthew 19:24, when Jesus himself speaks:

"Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Jesus said that.  When Pope Francis said, just after becoming Pope, “I want us to become a poor church,” he was talking about our salvation as a community.  We see this all through the Jewish prophetic tradition, with which Jesus is identified.  A very important point about who Jesus was when he was embodied as a human being is that he was Jewish.  Here are passages from the Prophets Amos and Isaiah:

Amos 5:11-13, 21-24

11 You levy a straw tax on the poor

and impose a tax on their grain.

Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,

you will not live in them;

though you have planted lush vineyards,

you will not drink their wine.

12 For I know how many are your offenses

and how great your sins.

There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes

and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.

13 Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,

for the times are evil.

… …

21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

your assemblies are a stench to me.

22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,

I will have no regard for them.

23 Away with the noise of your songs!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

24 But let justice roll on like a river,

righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Then there is Isaiah 1:11-17

11 “The multitude of your sacrifices—

what are they to me?” says the Lord.

“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,

of rams and the fat of fattened animals;

I have no pleasure

in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.

12 When you come to appear before me,

who has asked this of you,

this trampling of my courts?

13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

Your incense is detestable to me.

New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—

I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.

14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals

I hate with all my being.

They have become a burden to me;

I am weary of bearing them.

15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,

I hide my eyes from you;

even when you offer many prayers,

I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

16 Wash and make yourselves clean.

Take your evil deeds out of my sight;

stop doing wrong.

17 Learn to do right; seek justice.

Defend the oppressed.

Take up the cause of the fatherless;

plead the case of the widow.

When Jesus says, in Luke 4:19-20, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” he is reading from the Prophet Isaiah (61:1-2):

1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because God hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;

2 to proclaim the year of God's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn…

The “day of the Lord’s favor” is a reference to the Jubilee, a Jewish law that was no longer observed, which required that every seven years all debt would be forgiven, and every 50 years (the year of the Lord’s favor, or Jubilee) all land that was acquired in payment of debts be returned to its original families.

Leviticus 25:8-10

“You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. 10 And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan.

When Jesus calls for the reinstatement of Jubilee, he is calling for an economic leveling, a correction of wealth inequality.  Property is used by people, but it belongs only to God.

Here is Luke 16:19-31, The Parable of Lazarus:

19 “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen [there is that linen instead of wool], joyously living in splendor every day. 20 And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 22 Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Moses and the Prophets.  Context.

We will learn about Jesus transfiguration during Lent, but during this episode, Jesus take three disciples up a mountain, where they witness a miracle in which Moses and Elijah appear.  When Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries heard these two together, Moses and Prophets, or Moses and Elijah, they knew exactly what it meant.  Moses is associated with the Law; and Elijah with the Prophets.  The Law included the forgiveness of debts, and it was a Law that was abandoned.  The Prophets were those who warned Israel, God’s People, that the Law had both a letter and a spirit, and the spirit of the Law was not blind obedience, but justice.  The Law and the Prophets, that is, the letter and the spirit of the law needed each other to be meaningful.  We’ll see Jesus revisit this theme more than once.

3. Jesus had close friends.

For this one, we’ll just leave what Father Martin said:

“We tend to think of Jesus as interacting with his apostles, disciples, and followers. But he also had friends. The Gospels describe, for example, Jesus’ relaxing at the house of his good friends Mary and Martha, who lived in Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. The Gospel of John says, quite plainly, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister.” And when their brother Lazarus is found to be sick and dying (this is the man whom Jesus will raise from the dead), the news is relayed to Jesus with a telling phrase. The message from the sisters does not say, “Our brother Lazarus is ill,” or “Your friend Lazarus is ill,” or even “Lazarus of Bethany is ill.” Rather, in the Greek, Jesus is told that hon phileis is ill: “he whom you love.”

“It’s a window into the deep relationships and intimate friendships that Jesus enjoyed. He was not simply Messiah; he was a good friend.”

4. Jesus instructed his disciples not to judge.

Here is a tough one, but Jesus said this without any equivocation.  Everything in our surrounding culture says we have to judge others.  It’s very difficult not to do it.  Try it for one day this week.  Stay conscious of it all day.  Every time you think of someone else, ask yourself, am I judging him?  Am I judging her?  Father Martin writes:

“Something in us feels not only inclined to, but obliged to, judge. “Well, but that means anything goes, doesn’t it?” is a common response. “Of course we have to judge other people,” say others. No, Jesus says, we do not.

“We are called to live moral lives, and invite others to lead moral lives, but we do so primarily through our own example and by gentle persuasion — not by judging and condemning them. Judgment is left, as Jesus reminds us, to God.”

Are we beginning to see how different Jesus is from our own culture, and even from his own?  In the Pater Noster, or “Our Father,” or the Lord’s Prayer, we recite the following:

…forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Trespasses means “wrongs,” but even more importantly, in the original Greek, the word here means “debts.”  Forgive us our debts as we forgive those who owe us.  Wrongs and righting wrongs were seen as debts owed, and debt was also seen as a wrong.  Revenge is even understood as a kind of debt.  But the main point here is, this doesn’t “say forgive us AND we’ll forgive others.”  It says, “forgive us AS we forgive.”  In other words, I will be forgiven by God to the exact extent that I am willing to forgive other human beings who have wronged me.  Think on that… and monitor how many times you catch yourself judging others.  That is not to say you cannot recognize wrongs; but it is to say you aren’t the one with the gavel who knows the appropriate sentence.  Prophets called out wrongdoing by power all the time.  But God was left to pass judgment.

5. Jesus didn’t say anything about gays and lesbians.

From Father Martin’s pen to your ears:

“In all his many utterances about many social situations and human conditions, Jesus never said one word about homosexual persons. Admittedly, St. Paul speaks about that topic, but many contemporary scholars believe that Paul was probably speaking not about homosexuality per se (the word itself is of relatively recent vintage) but about the evils of male prostitution. [and sexual slavery]

“In any event, Jesus himself spoke a great deal about helping the poor, forgiving one’s enemies, and even divorce (which he condemned [in its first century form]), but nothing about, and certainly nothing against, gay and lesbian men and women.”

6. Jesus always reached out to those on the margins.

Father Martin:

If a Gospel narrative introduces a marginalized person, it is a sure bet that Jesus will reach out to him or her. The examples are too numerous to mention. He meets a Roman centurion, and rather than forcing him to convert to Judaism, he heals the man’s servant. He meets a Samaritan woman (someone viewed as a foreigner or even an enemy for Jews of Judea and Galilee), and rather than condemning her, engages in a friendly conversation. He meets Zacchaeus, the “chief tax collector” in Jericho and therefore the “chief sinner” of the area, and even before Zacchaeus offers to repent, Jesus offers to dine with him, a sign of acceptance.

This business about the margins has both real and symbolic significance in figuring out who Jesus was and is.  He is baptized in the Jordan River, which is where the Israelites crossed into their promised homeland.  From there, they established a kingdom that was centered in Jerusalem.  After the Temple was established, observant Jews were expected to go from the margins throughout Jewish Palestine to the center, where payment to the Temple and homage to God in the Temple fulfilled the requirements of their faith tradition.

The Jesus was baptized, in the Jordan River, then he went not to Jerusalem, but to the wilderness – way out in the margins – where he was tempted by power in three forms:  the ability to turn stones to bread (Romans gave their own citizens in the capital free bread to keep them compliant), the ability to jump from high walls and survive, in other words, the ability to dazzle the population with a spectacle, and the physical means of political power, which then meant having great armies.  The devil offered him all three forms of power, and Jesus refused.  Then he began his mission, but he did not go to Jerusalem first, but everywhere else, then back to Jerusalem, then back to the margins, then back to Jerusalem again.  He went out to the geographic margins, and he went to the most marginal of people.  Only when he had finished his mission among the marginal did he make his final trip to Jerusalem, where he would first be cheered then later killed.

When John was baptizing, he used the word “repent.”  In Greek, this word means, “turn around.”  Don’t go from the margins to the center.  Don’t face toward power.  Go from the center to the margins.  Face toward “the least of these.”

7. Jesus can’t be tamed.

One of my favorite theologians once said, “We don’t often appreciate the wildness of the God we worship.”  What does Father Martin mean when he says “Jesus can’t be tamed?”  What is it we do when we domesticate an animal?  We try to make it stay inside our own fence.  We might want to teach a pet to speak and sit and fetch on our command.  Sometimes, people want to domesticate Jesus.  Since Jesus will not be domesticated, they will tell stories of a kind of pet-Jesus, one that stays inside our fences, speaks, sits, and fetches on our command.  A common way we try to do that is by trying to tone down his most difficult examples and teachings; and that can be a problem.  I think one of the most insidious ways we try to domesticate Jesus is by pretending that being a good Christian is synonymous with being conformist and respectable.  When we learn about Jesus, he was not a conformist, and he was definitely not respectable by the standards of his place and time.  That’s not saying to be non-conformist for the sake of non-conformity, nor am I saying to be unrespectable just to be shocking, and I’m definitely not saying to be dis-respectful.  But when following Jesus goes against the cultural standards of conformity and respectability, then we might be called to break with conformity and defy the rules of respectability.  I am thinking now of the civil rights movement in this country in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  People followed Jesus right into jail cells.

8. Jesus really did perform miracles.

Father Martin:

“Many people are uncomfortable with Jesus’s supernatural power and other signs of his divinity. But an immense part of the Gospels is taken up with what are called “works of power” and “signs” — that is, miracles. In fact, some of the sayings that people take for granted and quote approvingly — even by those who do not accept Jesus’s divinity — occur within the context of the miracle stories. Remove the miracles and there is no context for many of Jesus’ most familiar sayings.

“Jesus’ ability to perform miracles was never in doubt in the Gospels. Even his detractors take note of his miracles, as when they critique him for healing on the Sabbath. [There is that disconnect between the spirit and the letter of the law.]  The question posed by people of his time is not whether Jesus can do miracles, but rather the source of his power. The statement that Jesus was seen as a miracle worker in his time has as much reliability as almost any other statement we can make about him.”

9. Jesus struggled, even in prayer.

Again from Father Martin:

Jesus was fully divine. But he was also fully human. That’s a basic Christian belief. It’s also a mystery, that is, something not to be fully understood, but pondered. And one of the most telling windows into his humanity comes in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he is confronted with his impending crucifixion. Jesus asks God the Father to “remove this cup.” He is saying, in essence: “If it’s possible, I don’t want to die.”

Eventually, Jesus accepts that his coming death is his Father’s will — but not before struggle and prayer. Later, when hanging on the cross, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” [Again, he falls back on his Jewish roots, and repeats a prayer of lamentation from the Psalms]  This is not a person who does not struggle: Christians do not relate to a person who cannot understand our own human struggles.

Psalm 22:1

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?  Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?

10. Jesus rose from the dead.

Here is a story about Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic writer who lived in Georgia:

As a very young and unknown writer, she was visiting New York and was taken to a party at the home of Mary McCarthy, ex-Catholic and ex-believer, a sophisticated and accomplished novelist, essayist and critic. What follows is O’Connor’s description of the encounter:

We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing in such company for me to say.... Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward the morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most “portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of.

In 2005, two sociologists did a survey of young people in the United States with regard to religion.  Their results showed that most young people had not undergone any form of catechesis, and that they shared some vague beliefs which the researchers summed up as “moralistic therapeutic deism.”  That is, they believe (1) that there is a God of some kind who wants us to be nice to each other, and (2) that our religion is supposed to make us feel good about ourselves – which is the goal of life, and (3) that nice people go to a nice place called heaven after they die.  Nice, of course, meant that people were polite and followed most of the rules around them; and there is no disconnect between what the general culture teaches us and what religion teaches.

There are many people today, even some clergy, who want to domesticate Jesus into a therapist, and who also want to fit in with secular society. They don’t want to seem crazy or weird, and they say things like, of course the miracle stories and the story of the resurrection are just symbolic.  They didn’t happen really, and they didn’t have to happen.  This is not a Christian belief, it is a quasi-Christian belief.  Paraphrasing Flannery O’Connor, if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, what the hell is the point?

The resurrection is the most pivotal event in our story.  The Catholic scholar Rene Girard explained that Jesus was the scapegoat, the innocent one who was sacrificed by his society as a way of relieving the build-up of conflict within that society.  And Jesus, who could have commanded legions of angels to save him from this violence, went without a fight to the cross.  Jesus had the faith, the radical trust in God to let God determine the outcome.  The Romans and the Temple authorities won, and the men among the disciples scattered in fear.  Their leader was dead.  It was over.  Jesus’ broken body was in the tomb. The devil, who is associated with earthly powers, represented by Pilate here, had won.

But then, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb on Sunday morning, after the Sabbath has passed, and the tomb is empty.  Jesus is standing in the garden, and she cries out, “Rabbouni!” – my sweet teacher.

In this moment, the first person among his followers sees that Satan, Prince among the Powers, has been defeated, and the world has turned.  A new realm is established, one that is based on this radical trust in God, called the Kingdom of Heaven, and its citizens – that would be us – no longer side with the powers, they side with the scapegoats, the despised, the broken, the meek.  Satan is defeated, not by violence and death, but in the resurrection of life.  Pastor Barrett Lee writes:

Jesus is still “sacrificed for our sins” but the wrath he is appeasing is not the wrath of God, but the rage of sinful, selfish humans.  He substitutes himself in the place of all other scapegoats who endure the unjust violence of society.

In the resurrection, God intervenes to vindicate the scapegoat, unmasking and disarming the patterns of mimetic violence.  Christians, as followers of Jesus the willing and vindicated scapegoat, are called to side with all future scapegoats and end the cycles of violence and exclusion, even if it means being crucified ourselves.

This is the meaning of the resurrection, and if it hadn’t actually happened, as Flannery O’Connor would say, “What is the point?”

When Jesus foresees this event during the commissioning of seventy new disciples in Luke 10, he falls back on an image of Isaiah about the devil being defeated.  He says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning.”  As Jesus came back to life, the devil was unmasked and his power came crashing down.