Lose the empire, Mate!
Week of Sunday 31 August - Pentecost 12
Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’
The traditions of Israel expected that the Messiah would go up to Jerusalem and receive great acclamation from the elders and chief priests and scribes. He would be the one to redeem Israel and his kingdom would never end.
But rather than being the one who would unite Israel in this way, Jesus told his disciples "he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. " (Matt 16:21) No wonder that Peter rebuked him!
This is a key point in the Gospel. Jesus sees he must go. Peter is convinced it must not happen. So important is this point that Jesus addresses Peter in almost the same words as he addresses Satan himself in chapter 4: Get behind me!
It is true that Jesus is standing against Empire. The oppression of the Empire of Rome, and its collaborators in Jerusalem, embodies all that is wrong with humanity. But Jesus is not seeking a political victory. Being Messiah, and being human is not about defeating Rome and establishing yet another empire. Jesus is calling us to an utterly different way of living. He has a different understanding of what it means to be human.
To avoid the cross is to "set the mind not on 'of God' things but human things".
I will translate anthoropon (literally: men) as Homo sapiens, and will leave how Homo sapiens is human until later. The word "things" is not in the Greek which says "the of the God[,] but the of the Homo sapiens." "Things" is understood. Therefore we may understand Jesus to be saying to Peter "for you are setting you mind not on the way of God but the way of Homo sapiens."
The way Homo sapiens becomes fully human, or reaches its full potential as human, is " to become my followers, [and] to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." This is a statement within the Christian paradigm; an equivalent path of denial can be expressed in the language of other traditions.
What is denial?
I have taken an excellent sentence from Bill Loader and expanded it within the square brackets:
The call [to the way of God] is not to lose self identity and so abandon one's responsibility, but to abandon the agenda [of Empire, which is setting our minds upon a way of living] … which pits self against the others.
Empire is more than wrong because it exploits and therefore dehumanises people into material resources to maintain its power. Empire is a category mistake (comparing apples and oranges) in our understanding of being human. It assumes that being human has something to do with accumulating power.
In the early days of tribal football, a whitefella saw an anangu making a drive for goal, running, taking several bounces, and then sending a long glorious punt between the posts. The whitefella could not understand why the opposing player at centre half back ran alongside, instead of tackling him. There was a joy of simply being to which he was blind. He could not conceive of life without competition.
So, using the words of Bill Loader and Eugene Boring:
The call is not to lose self identity and so abandon one's responsibility, but to abandon the agenda for living which pits self against the others….. Denying oneself and taking up the cross is abandoning the project of the constructed self and allowing oneself to be real and vulnerable, to be loved and loving, also to the point of suffering and death. These texts are not calling us away from what it means to be a human being, but calling us to be truly human, to find our true selves in God, but abandoning our false selves. (Loader)
Nor is the self-denial to which Jesus calls the opposite of self-fulfillment. Just giving up things will not make one Christian; it will only make one empty. What is difficult for our culture to understand, indeed what it cannot understand on its own terms, is an orientation to one's life that is not focused on self at all, either as self-esteem or self-abasement, as self-fulfillment or self-emptying. [Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) p. 352 Quoted by Brian Stoffregen]
Why must Jesus go and suffer?
I begin with an extended quotation from James Allison, writing from a Girardian perspective.
All four Gospels show a clear understanding that Jesus must suffer (Matt. 16:21; 26:54; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7; 26:44; John 3:14;12:34). We see two reasons behind this "must": so that the scriptures be fulfilled, (the "theological" reason), and because of the nature of the human order (the "anthropological" reason).
Where it might be possible to read the necessity of fulfilling the scriptures as suggesting that there is some divine plan to kill Jesus, the tendency of Jesus' own interpretations of this "must" is always towards the anthropological subversion of this understanding.
The Gospels do not attempt to attribute this "necessity" to anything in God: when Jesus in his apocalyptic discourses indicates that "all these things must come about," he is referring to the cataclysmic convulsions of the human order which must not distract the disciples from their attention to the coming of the son of man precisely as crucified-and-risen victim.
The word dei in these contexts has a quite specific meaning: it refers to the necessity to which the human order, based on death, is in thrall. What enables Jesus to point this out is the willingness of divine gratuity to allow itself to suffer the consequences of this human order precisely so as to free it from the realm of the necessity of death. (James Allison The Joy of Being Wrongpp. 171-172 quoted by Paul Nuechterlein)
The different orientation, or different way of being we must "discover" to move towards being human, is about not owning and controlling, but about be-ing together. This is the Kingdom of Heaven! It is a way of be-ing where all folk have a place, where justice, and mercy-full-compassion are what make us human rather than the fact that we are Homo sapiens. More money, or more success, or more power than the next person are only relevant in this understanding as potentially very dangerous stumbling blocks to our being human.
Going to the cross (for Jesus, and for us,) is a refusal to play the game of the Empire. For to win by not going to the cross is to send someone else, either literally or metaphorically, by lessening their humanity, by moving them towards being an object. We are only truly human when we refuse to be advantaged at the expense of someone else's humanity. If we build ourselves up, enlighten ourselves, or improve ourselves by diminishing others we are not fully human. To the extent that we amass more goods than we need for the day (one lesson of the manna (Exodus 16:15ff) in the way of the rich, we risk being less than animals who fight and kill only for the moment.
The Prime Minister's latest "Flag-waving foolishness that divides" is not only foolishness and divisive. At its root it is inhuman. Even if we ascribe him the best motives, he has misunderstood the meaning of being human, and the civility which is the Kingdom of Heaven come near. There is no Team Australia, and there is no winning. There is only being human together.
What do we make of judgement?
We learn from our exploration of grace the almost unbelievable lesson that God will not condemn anyone. That is the final implication of the love of God which forgives me and you. If we are loved and forgiven, who could not be loved and forgiven!? I love the (apocryphal?) story of Origen who, when asked about when the world would end, said it would not be until Satan himself repented because then all things would be complete!
Matthew has not seen this. But his judgement statements are an important way for us to think about how closely we have come to living as the fully human folk of the Kingdom of Heaven. As in Matthew 25, the last parable of the gospel, Jesus' words "repay everyone for what has been done" make it clear it is not what we say that counts. It is what we do. Have we lived, and are we living, in the new way of being human or merely giving it lip service?
Saving and Losing
25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
I could be a martyr for the faith, and yet lose my life! We know the stereotype of the person who plays at "being a martyr" but appears really to be using their "selfless" service to place themselves front and centre. This is a tiny and local outworking of empire'd understanding of what it means to be human.
My challenge is to walk with Jesus who was not a "martyr." He ate and drank and enjoyed life enough that those afraid of him said he was "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!" (Matthew 11:19) He ate and drank, and taught and healed, and led the way into the Kingdom of Heaven by dethroning himself from the centre of his circle and living for others.
This is a far more profound loss of life than merely being killed. It is the path to true humanity, and it is terrifying because it costs us the whole culture of empire into which we are born. We have to lose the empire to gain our lives.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
There is more on this text in last week's post, http://onemansweb.org/cry-out-at-the-gates-matthew-16-13-20-pentecost-11.html. I have also written on this text at Matthew 16:21-28 - Take up the cross and Matthew 16:21-28 - Life. Since I don't refer back to previous years, you may even discover I disagree with myself!
Origen: Peri Archon 3.6.5 (trans. Marguerite Harl, Gilles Dorival, and Alain Le Boulluec. Paris, 1976, p.67) wrote:For the destruction of the last enemy must be understood in this way, not that its substance which was made by God shall perish, but that the hostile purpose and will which proceeded, not from God but from itself, will come to an end. It will be destroyed, therefore, not in the sense of ceasing to exist, but of being no longer an enemy and no longer death. For to the Almighty nothing is impossible, nor is anything beyond the reach of cure by its maker. Quoted here Go back >>>