Sunday, 14 October 2012

Good is bad is good

Continuing my earlier thoughts about why the gospel isn't all good news, and staying in Mark 10, is the story of the rich young man. It's a terrible story. The man has worked hard and been faithful to the Torah. He's tithed and maintained a personal holiness code ever since he was young1 and has become rich. He has every right to feel entitled to his possessions. He's blessed! Yahweh has fulfilled his promises and rewarded the righteous with good things.

And Jesus buys into this line of argument only for as long as it takes to expose it. I like to read Jesus' initial response with a sarcastic voice, perhaps with a "yadda yadda yadda" missing at the end. It's Jesus' second response that gets our attention. "Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said..." For the man, the covenant of reward-for-obedience is under suspicion and Jesus brings the challenge, not becauses he's up for another rabbinic debate, but becauses he loves him.

That challenge is famous. And again this is where Jesus turns things upside down. Having wealth is not an end, it's a burden and an obligation. Wealth is not to be accumulated, it is to be used to help people. The man saw wealth as the proof of his favour from God, but Jesus saw it as the obstacle to real favour from God; an obstacle that could become the its own solution. Accumulated, it's a burden; distributed, it's a blessing.

The whole story is another example of how Jesus clashes with the Torah while at the same time infusing some of the ideas of Torah with the command to love. Although its better to say, again, that the command to love supersedes the Mosaic covenant. If the rich young man loved, he would already know how to inherit eternal life.

The gospel is bad news for us because it breaks our illusion of the lure of wealth2 and substitutes it with the responsibility of wealth. In the basilea theou resources are not yours or mine, they're ours. And in a world where we congratulate people for material success (whether through luck, hard work or so-called divine favour), Jesus turns the congratulations over and demands further action. What's good is actually bad, but can be turned for good when subordinated to Christ. So the gospel is called the good news, is bad news for hoarders, but becomes good news for hoarders when they are freed from the burden of that accumulation.

1. Since that probably meant from early teenage years, this guy is extraordinary. Imagine a What Would Moses Do bracelet on him and you get the idea.
2. "Everybody wants to be a fat tycoon. Everybody wants to be on a tropic honeymoon." - Michael Franti

Monday, 8 October 2012

Demonic Embarrassment

Over the years I've heard lots of great claims that the kingdom of God is advancing and that our greatest enemy is the devil. Apparently, it's the devil that stops us from... well, stops us from whatever it is that "advancing" means. I guess that's part of the problem of having a mindset that equates the new creation with an earthly structure like a kingdom.

If we take the grandeur away from these kinds of metaphors and just look at the every day experience of Christians, I think we get a different picture. What's the real obstacle for western Christians today, in their quest to embody Christ to the world? I daresay that it's probably nothing other than embarrassment. We're hesitant to take a step and proclaim our faith, but only for something to do with what other people will think about us or say about us.

This is a strange perversion of Christianity, though. It's a faith that centres around the crucified and risen Christ, and crucifixion was a horrible and humiliating way to die. It was public execution, with the dying victim put on display as an example to others not to try the same thing. Jesus' death was humiliating, from the Romans, from the Jewish leaders, from his own disciples, from his own Father who abandoned him.

Doesn't it seem perverse, then, that the Christians who follow Jesus are embarrassed to proclaim his message to the world? Jesus told his followers to take up their crosses; a direct allusion to the humiliation of crucifixion. We are commanded to expose ourselves to ridicule for the sake of the gospel and to welcome that ridicule when it comes.

The real demonic power - the power that is illegitimate - is the embarrassment that stops Christians from proclaiming the gospel in word and deed. It's bizarre that the obstacle is not a bigger version of the humiliation that Christ experienced, but a smaller one. For the sake of social embarrassment we are held back, and that's what we should be most embarrassed about.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Turning it all over

One of the most reassuring and difficult messages of the basilea theou is the constant levelling that it brings. The notion that euangelion should be translated as "good news" is only good insofar as chemotherapy is good news. It hurts but is meant to end up with a good result. For me it's more natural to call it the message1. That's my own preference, though, and even thinking about this translation is a reminder that if Jesus' message is for me alone it's not good news, but if it's for everybody it's very good news.

We see glimpses of this in Mark 10. Even just looking at vv2-16 is enough to see an example. In the first part Jesus deals with the Pharisees' question of divorce. At first glance we could see this as little more than a response to an ethical question, or as Jesus' final pronouncement about marriage and divorce. But notice his response, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you." In other words, "If you had softer hearts you wouldn't need this commandment." I like to think that softer hearts would eliminate the need for divorce altogether, never mind just limiting it to the Mosaic commandment2.

After the vignette on divorce Mark includes a story about Jesus and children. Again we can take this to be about how even adults should be like children with regard to the basilea theou but in light of the divorce debate we can see even more than this. Jesus has castigated his audience for having hard hearts, but just in case the reader thinks that only other people have hard hearts Mark points out that even the disciples are prone to this. They turn people away "sternly" for what? For daring to bring children to Jesus. The disciples show that there is still hardness even in their own hearts, unwilling to admit people who are lower on the social ladder.

These are just a couple of examples of how Jesus turns the established order over. The established order permits divorce rather than insisting on soft hearts. The established order includes a social hierarchy in which women and children are lower than men. Jesus' message opposes this kind of thinking. That's good news for people oppressed by the established order, and woeful news for the rest.

For those of us in the privileged world we need to pay attention to this carefully. Jesus' message of the basilea theou is a warning to us about accepting the benefits of that order at the cost of others. Jesus has come to turn that over for the sake of the common good.

1. I wish Peterson's translation was better. It's so full of ideological translation choices that I can barely read anything in it without my stomach turning. Sorry Eugene, I guess you didn't publish it with me in mind.
2. See Matthew 22:40. Love comes from a soft heart and is more than all laws can prescribe and proscribe.