If there is one thing that every scholar agrees on about Jesus it is this: he was no king, had no pretensions to kingship, and would have been absolutely dumbfounded and dismayed by the Church’s regal elevation of him in the centuries after his death.
‘Christ the King’ is stirring stuff in Handel’s Alleluia Chorus, but it hardly fits with the earliest New Testament data about Jesus: the man who wouldn’t be king. Instead of singing “King of Kings, Lord of Lords”, it would be much more accurate to sing ‘commoner of commoners, misfit of misfits’.
In the decades after his death Jesus’ followers began to attach a number of honorifics to his name and then weaved those titles into the gospels. Jesus became ‘Son of God’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘Prince of Peace’, ‘Lord’, ‘Light of the World’, and ‘Word of God’ to name just a few. None of these names were used by Jesus or about him during his lifetime. They are attempts to translate the meaning of his life into the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, to confront the prevailing imperial theology, and to address theological issues in the late 1st and early to mid-2nd centuries.
Jesus didn’t do ‘power and might’, he did ‘vulnerability and mutuality’. Of all those titles ‘Son of Man’, or more accurately ‘the Human One’, is the only one that points to vulnerability and mutuality. It has a sense of both ‘the commoner’ and ‘an advocate for the commoner’ about it. It is not an honorific that elevates Jesus above humanity but rather immerses him in it.
There are two things about the historical Jesus which undermined his status in the eyes of those who mattered. Firstly, he ate with undesirables. He ate with the impure. And this mattered a lot. What food you ate, who you touched or were in close proximity with, who you spoke to, affected not just your health and social standing but also your relationship with God. By eating with the impure, he became impure. By eating with the vulnerable he made himself vulnerable. And by continuing to and encouraging others to eat with the impure and vulnerable, he was challenging the boundaries of his religion and culture.
And secondly, he moved around too much. Normally a religious leader would establish a base of operations and be the patron to those who sought assistance from him. The disciples would be the brokers of such assistance. As a king is located in a palace and has a number of minions whom normal people have to go through in order to have an audience, so it was with a first century patron. This system made sure the patron’s power and influence, and the minions’ power and influence, would grow and the clientele would always be dependent.
Instead Jesus was deliberately itinerant. He kept moving so his power and others’ dependency did not grow. His vision was that people did not need a brokered relationship in order to relate to God or to each other. He had no desire to accumulate power to himself, and would have been aghast that later followers not only elevated him to regal status but believed they should pray to him. Instead Jesus practiced and encouraged mutuality among his followers. It was after his death that the late first century Church made 12 men his chosen disciples, and in the process endorsed the emerging male hierarchy of ecclesial power.
This historical Jesus who was impure, who ate with undesirables, who sought to thwart hierarchies and the accumulation of status… this Jesus was mothballed and put in the attic by the later Church. Christianity, even by the time the canonical gospels were being written (from the 70s on), was being refashioned to be supportive of ruling classes, class structure, and male heads. Women and children, who had been valued as co-equals and in the early days, were relegated to subservient status.
The reading today from Matthew 25 is part of this refashioning of the historical Jesus. The story, sometimes called the ‘Sheep and Goats Judgement’, is not a parable but a portrayal of the last judgement – with Jesus coming in glory to sit on his throne and judge the world [v31]. Unlike popular interpretations, the ‘least of these my brothers and sisters’, does not refer to the needy and dispossessed, but to those who hear and follow the teachings of Jesus. [i] It is not a story that says that those who visit prisoners or clothe the needy are going to heaven. Rather it’s a story that says those who visited Christians in prison or clothed Christians in need are going to heaven.
There are a number of judgement scenarios in the Bible, most of which promote the virtue of obedience and faithfulness to God. They are mostly a way of saying to followers: ‘Look, it might be tough right now, but you will get your reward. Your faith is not going unnoticed by God.’ They are also a way of saying, ‘Those who have treated you poorly are going to get their comeuppance!’ The judgement scenarios of the New Testament usually, like Matthew 25, include Jesus in a judgement role.
It is tempting to put Jesus in the role of judge. It is also tempting, as our views about what Christians consider as ‘obedience and faithfulness’ change, to make a revised list of dastardly deeds that have eternal consequences. So, preachers have interpreted Matthew 25 to say that those who badly treat the poor will be shown the error of their ways. Today we might want to include, along with those who pick on the poor, any who are violent, terrorists, or warmongers, as well as those who knowingly pollute our planet and destroy marginal communities.
My problem with all this judging is not that I think destructive deeds don’t have consequences. They have consequences in the here and now, and often for future generations. It’s not that I think Christians should be concerned about spiritual heavenly salvation while the planet earth goes to ‘hell in a handcart’. The Christian theology that has shaped me has long said heaven is where God is, and God is here. There is no material/spiritual divide. This is your heaven, or your hell. And it’s not that I think destructive deeds shouldn’t be confronted and real time corrective behaviours implemented. We need to find ways to stop the continuing destruction of human lives, the desecration of the planet, and the ideologies that drive that destruction and desecration.
Rather my problem with the judging stuff is the role it assigns to Jesus and to God. As you will have discerned over the last couple of years, I’m attracted to those writers like Anthony De Mello and Pete Rollins who tell stories that turn judgement scenarios on their heads. In these stories those who want to label some as good and others as bad are confronted by a God who wants to include everyone, or who wants to be among those others consider bad. They are not stories that are trying to encourage mistreatment of the poor, or violence, or warmongering, or ecological destruction, rather they want to remove God [and Jesus] from the role of judge, and remove us from a judgemental mindset.
Maybe their primary reason is that the historical Jesus, as evidenced in his non-theistic parables, wanted people to work out for themselves what was good or bad, rather than have an external power brought in as the enforcer. Maybe Jesus knew that psychological and physical cooperation is a far more powerful force than psychological and physical coercion. Maybe Jesus knew that willing participation for the sake of re-imagining and changing the world is far more effective than imposing a vision, strategy, and roles on a subservient and obedient clientele. Maybe Jesus by his methods of teaching and leading wanted to enact his vision of mutual care, responsibility, and empowerment.
These understandings of Jesus also make me wonder what sort of ‘brand’ a Christian should support. For shortly we are to participate in deciding what flag we would like as a nation. Do any of the flags on offer, including our current one, resonate with the values we Christians hold dear? As I read through the designer’s descriptions of each I was as unimpressed as I am with our current flag. A star constellation, a fern, a peak, a koru, and a union jack communicate location, unique flora, geography, and some history. Only the koru hints at anything aspirational. Where is the flag that says we believe in justice and mutuality? Where is the flag that says we are part of a global community and want to care for others less fortunate than ourselves? Where is the flag that symbolizes hospitality? Where is the flag that says we believe in peace?
Paris 9 days ago was the scene of death, pain, and fear. 132 died. The day before Paris, Beirut suffered similarly with 43 dead. Also on Friday 13th a suicide bomber in Baghdad killed 21 people. In all these places the victims were non-combatants. They were people of a variety of cultures and faiths. Islamic State/ISIL - which aligns with Islam like a David Koresh of Waco fame aligned with Christianity - claimed responsibility. Already the French Government is dropping retaliatory bombs in the Middle East and promising more – expressing its anger and the political desire to be seen to be ‘doing something’. What they are doing is imitating the age-old pattern of violence, just like the American leaders did in 2003 when Iraq was invaded, and in the process sowing the seeds of yet more violence.[ii] There are many good articles to read on the ISIL phenomena and suggestions of ways to mitigate it.[iii]
The theology ISIL’s leaders proclaim is riddled with a judgement scenario. It says ‘God will judge you and punish you, and we – the bearers of God’s truth – will judge you, and mete out to you your punishment now.’ This theology is premised on a pyramidal structure with God and God’s truth at the top, and a hierarchical succession of male leaders as promoters and enforcers of God’s truth.
Christians understand Jesus as reflective of God’s truth. For me Jesus was a commoner, immersed in the lives of those on the bottom of the pyramidal structure of his time. It was a vulnerable place to be. And as he taught and touched and loved he acquired influence. Yet he was very wary of the power of that influence and the way influence creates power-over relationships; so he tried to shed power. He tried not to be the boss. His two main strategies in trying not to boss was firstly deliberately moving around so people couldn’t find him, rely on him, imitate him, and worship him – he didn’t want to be God’s broker for them. And secondly he tried not to be the boss by building relationships/friendships of mutuality and trust; and sharing power. Jesus was the very opposite of hierarchies’ kings and judges.
[i] Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A socio-political and religious reading, Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000, p.492.
[ii] http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/no-piers-morgan-how-destroy-islamic... for a different and not altogether contrary view see http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wan...
[iii] See also Loretto Napoleoni, The Islamist Phoenix.