Scripture for this Sunday:
Genesis 15.1–12, 17–18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17—4.1; Luke 13.31–35
Why did Jesus attract such hostility from powerful leaders? Why would a powerful ruler within the stable structure of the military Roman empire want to eradicate an itinerant rabbi from the back end of Galilean Palestine?
As we journey through Lent, in solidarity with the time that Jesus spent focusing on his identity, mission and destiny, perhaps we can try to understand why he was a threat.
Thinking about our identity, striving to be the body of Christ in a turbulent, dwindling world, how does his teaching relate to us? How do we relate to those who are different? The Archdeacon of France wrote this week that, “In the minds of many, home and a sense of belonging is not so much a gift to be cherished, celebrated and shared but a silo to be defended against others with different identities.”
But that isn’t what our scripture teaches. The story of Abram and Sara, for example, is about a journey of reckless faith and a promise from God that tested them. Abram’s inquiry of God about his destiny resulted in an encounter with the divine so awe-filled that it could only be described in terms of floating, smoking firepots and flaming torches. Abram’s journey was to foreshadow the travels of the people of Israel, called to be the basis of an outwardly focused people of faith, not to be a righteously dwindling bunch of purists secluded in a diminishing gated community!
Shift forward several centuries, if not a millennium or so, and we find where the gated-community thinking leads. In first century Palestine, Jesus anticipated his fate in Jerusalem and pondered with sadness on the city that had failed in its role as an inclusive place of welcome where God’s welcoming presence was meant to be prevalent. Instead of an inclusive home for God’s chosen way, it had become an arena of injustice and self-interest, a city of exclusion and corruption.
Yesterday I sat with the children from Ciutadella who come to our monthly worship there and we re-enacted the story of the good Samaritan. I was reminded as I sat there that Jesus was deliberately provocative in choosing the Samaritan to be the hero of the story. If we look around our culture today, who would Jesus choose? Perhaps, for Christians, he would choose a Jew to be the hero – there is still a lot of anti-semitism in our world. More likely, he would have chosen someone from outside the Judaeo-Christian fold – perhaps even a Sikh or a Moslem. Because that’s the radical thinking that’s imbedded in the parable. And remember that the parable was an answer to a question: “Who is my neighbour?” Then, as now, the answer may have been too radical for some.
When Jesus was warned about Herod going after him, he responded by simply stating what he had been doing. And sent a message directed at the powerful leader in which he described him as “that fox.” Because what he was doing had plenty going on beneath the surface. The miracles were not just moments of individual restoration, but the stitching back together of fragmented communities with radical, indiscriminate inclusion. Jesus’ healing was – and is – available to all: a synagogue leader’s child, a Roman centurion’s servant, and of course the poor and dispossessed.
This is what threatened Herod and his successors: Jesus moves the seat of power away from a privileged minority and shifts it to marginalised people: the hurting, the downtrodden, the sick. He’s just too inclusive! Think of the Good Samaritan, a parable that breaks boundaries of prejudice. For a Lenten read, go to Dostoevsky’s encounter between Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor – which I heard mentioned this week (or watch John Gielgud perform the role of the Grand Inquisitor).
It is a scene from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – a poem, in the overall story, in which Jesus returns to earth, to Sevilla during the inquisition, and after doing his miracles and speaking, is arrested and sentenced to be executed by burning. Before the sentence is carried out, Jesus is confronted, challenged and accused by the Grand Inquisitor. Basically, what he says is that Jesus gave the world too much freedom, freedom that is too great for almost everyone to cope with – and as a result we are doomed to fail.
The Church, says the Grand Inquisitor, has been having to undo the damage done by Jesus for centuries, making sure that freedom is restricted to a few who have the capacity to bear it, while the rest are not. The Grand Inquisitor is channelling Herod, in a way. Jesus gives people too much – placing responsibility in the hands of people unable to cope with it – who need to be protected from inevitable failure.
At the end, Jesus says nothing, but kisses the Grand Inquisitor on the lips.
“Go away,” says the Grand Inquisitor, and so Jesus leaves.
All of this has some basis in the challenge of being a follower of Christ.
But Dostoevsky, in his Grand Inquisitor, overlooked one important part that is intrinsic to Lent: the business of repentance and forgiveness. We are given the freedom – and the responsibility – and the probability of failure – together with the promise of God’s forgiveness if we truly try to do better each time. This liberates us to keep trying!
So tread carefully and slowly through this Lenten journey. Wear the crown of freedom carefully. It was bought at the cost of a crown of thorns, when Herod thought he was having the last word.