The Throne of David: Part Two

crecheThe celebration of the birth of Jesus is a time to put all political differences aside in glad agreement that this child is born. I wish! I have pointed out many times over the years when preaching on Luke’s nativity story that it puts political issues front and center, forcing us to confront our political realities if we are to confront the Gospel.

The key political words uttered by the angel who appeared to the shepherds are: “good news,” “savior,” and “peace.” These words sound innocuous to most of us but they aren’t. In Luke “Good News” is not a cheery feel-good article in the newspaper or on the Internet. “Savior” isn’t a cartoon super hero who knocks out the bad guys for us. “Peace” has to be understood rightly or it isn’t peace.

“Good News” or “Good Tidings” are the usual translations of the word euangelion. It also provides the title of Luke’s book. In Roman times, euangelion was the technical word for tidings sent out from Rome by the Emperor who was the only one who had the right to send out “good News” or “Good Tidings.” Caesar Augustus had recently sent out the Good News that he had won the long civil war triggered by the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive father Julius. This “Good News” made Augustus the “Savior” of the Roman Empire. Again, only the Emperor was allowed to be the “savior.” By winning the war, Augustus had brought “peace” to the Empire. Nobody else had the right to be the “peace” maker. But Augustus had brought and preserved “peace” through violence. Although many biblical historians have cast doubt on the likelihood that the registration ordered by Caesar Augustus happened right at the time of Jesus’ birth, it puts the whole nativity story under the shadow of the Emperor’s controlling power that enforced “peace” by keeping track of his subjects and pushing them from place to place if “necessary.”

At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel promised Mary that Jesus would inherit he throne from David from his heavenly Abba and reign forever, He would, however, be a very different king than his forbear. Another angel is now telling the shepherds that the true Good News is that this child has now been born and this child is the one who can truly save us from our own violence and establish true peace. Jesus’ rulership has been expanded beyond the House of David to the whole Empire, which is to say, the entire world. Caesar Augustus is the one who has usurped God’s role of savior and bringer of peace.

This neat contrast between Jesus and Caesar, however, looks like a political campaign between the competing leaders of two political parties. This is our human way of looking at it. The mystery is that Jesus did not come into the world to compete with Caesar Augustus the way he competed against Brutus and Mark Antony or David competed with Saul. Jesus came to preach and live a totally different way of living than the way of Empire, a way not based on violent competition but on mutual support. Rather than inflict violence in humanity’s never-ending civil war, Jesus took the whole violence of all empires in all times on himself in the place of all those who have been and ever will be victims of Empire. That shepherds, social outcasts in their time, heard the voice of the angel and the song of the heavenly host but the ruling elite saw and heard nothing should serve as a warning to those of us who are relatively well-off in our own time.

I suppose I shouldn’t spoil our Christmas party by bringing up Jesus’ death, but it is Jesus’ death that we will shortly commemorate at the altar. Closer to holiday cheer: we also celebrate at the altar the risen, forgiving resurrected life of Jesus that opens us up to a new birth, a new life, based on the forgiving risen life of the child whose birth we celebrate tonight.

See also The Throne of David: Part One

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AndrewPalmSunday2I am becoming more and more convinced that we have to pay close attention to the historical fact that Christianity began in the shadow of an empire. Not just any empire but the Roman Empire, the biggest Empire in world history up to that point. This is also true of the Jews. Although they had a brief period of some independence under David and Solomon, the rest of the time, Juda was under the thumb of one empire or another at best and squashed by the boots tramped in battle at worst.

Of the Gospel writers, Luke in particular takes pains to locate the life of Jesus in history. He says that Jesus was born under the reign of the Emperor Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Some scholars have doubted the historicity of this particular census, but it is the sort of thing Empires do for the sake of social control and it sets the stage for the story. Later, Luke says that the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” (Luke 3: 1) Here we have a list of the very people who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. These were the builders who rejected the cornerstone, the body of a man who is the Body of Christ.

Most people don’t like to think of cold hard politics at Christmas time, but the angels’ song to the shepherds was a political statement. Augustus Caesar claimed to be the peace broker for the Empire. Luke claims that the new-born Christ is the real peace broker. Thirty-three years later, it becomes clear that the Roman peace is kept through tactics such as crucifixion. Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew’s version helps us draw the contrast between Church and Empire.

Jesus also draws the distinction between Church and empire in his reply to the question designed to entrap him: Must we pay taxes to the emperor or not? The most important element of this little story is that Jesus asks his questioners to bring a coin because he does not have one. He has withdrawn from the economical system. This reminds us that Empire isn’t necessarily about politics; it is also about economics. Jesus’ lack of a coin suggests that the Parable of the Talents, in Luke’s version that portrays the master as violent, the servant who buried his talent might be the figure of Christ who dropped out of the economic order and was cast out. (I believe we should make the most of the talents given us by God; I’m just not so sure any more that this parable, at least in Luke’s version, teaches us that Jesus does not teach that God demands that his enemies be torn to pieces—a sacrificial act.)

What Empire is about fundamentally is power that must be sustained by sacrifice. This brings us back to the first post in this series where I discussed the contrast between Jesus’ way of gathering people and the Empire’s. Empire isn’t just about size. We all know of little fiefdoms all over the places, including (especially!) religious institutions. Since Empire is all over the place in all sizes, we need Church (not limited here to a single faith tradition) of all sizes in all places.

Being Church is not about dropping out of an imperial society. Jesus was living in the Roman Empire whether he liked it or not (and he probably didn’t) and we live in empires whether we like it or not, which I hope we don’t like. The fundamental thing to do is live and act grounded in the love and forgiveness of Jesus, the Risen Forgiving Victim. Virgil Michel, a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Collegeville during the Depression years was a strong advocate of creating parallel economic structures that would be nurturing for everybody involved. If I remember a lecture I heard about him some years ago rightly, Michel invented, or helped invent the credit union. As a leading member of the Roman Catholic Liturgical Movement, he envisioned liturgy as a springboard to social action.

Most fundamentally, Empire cannot be resisted in the Empire’s terms, which is the use of violence of any kind. This is what Jesus showed us in his silence before Pilate. If Jesus really is the wedding guest thrown out into the outer darkness and the penniless servant thrown out in the same way, then we can all join him in the outer darkness which will then lighten up with some help from the Light of the World.

See also: Stupid Galatians, Stupid Us

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