There’s a story in the Hebrew scriptures about a king named Hezekiah, who ruled over the southern kingdom of Judah in parts of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. Hezekiah was one of the rare kings of whom this could be said: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done.”
The story, from 2 Kings 20, goes like this: Hezekiah had been ill–gravely ill–and was at the point of death. A prophet, Isaiah, comes to him with these grim words, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.” Pretty matter of fact, huh? No room for a Lloyd Christmas, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.” Just the stark reality that Hezekiah’s time is waning.
In response to this news Hezekiah did what most people would do: he wept and he prayed. In response, God reversed course. Not only would Hezekiah not die, but God would add fifteen years to his life, and protect his kingdom from the Assyrian empire, the dominant force in the region. How could he be assured of this, Hezekiah asked. A fair question. The sun would retreat ten intervals in the sky (I know what you’re thinking, and while it isn’t the point of this post, we should give the writer a break here. It’s not been that long since we assumed we lived in a geo-centric universe).
It’s an interesting story, but I tell you this story because I really want to tell you the story that follows it. After Hezekiah’s miraculous recovery, envoys from the burgeoning Babylonian empire arrive with a gift. Hezekiah welcomes them enthusiastically, and gives them the grand tour. He shows them everything: “…all his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his armory, all that was found in his storehouses; there was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them.”
When they leave Isaiah shows up and inquires about the envoy.
Who are they? Where are they from? What did Hezekiah show them?
Hezekiah’s responded, ““They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.”
A flabbergasted Isaiah responded with bitter news: “Hear the word of the Lord: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”
Clearly, this is bad news. The Davidic dynasty–that was supposed to last forever–is on borrowed time. Hezekiah’s hubris, his need to flaunt his wealth to impress the Babylonians, would only inspire them to conquer. The royal heirs, i.e. Hezekiah’s own descendants, would be exiled to the courts of Babylon.
How would you respond to such news? Rend your garments? Sit in sackcloth and covered in ashes? Beg God for a do over?
“Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.”
Wait. Hezekiah says this is “good”? How can he say that? How can he even begin to frame this as “good”?
The text continues…
“For he thought, ‘Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?’”
The first time I read those words, I was stunned. Here is Hezekiah, after just hearing the news that his own children will pay the price for his hubris, and he’s totally fine with it. His life won’t be interrupted. His experience will be good, so he’s okay with kicking the can of consequence down the road to his kids and grandkids.
And that’s exactly what happened. Around a hundred years after Hezekiah’s death his descendant Zedekiah, the final Davidic king, was captured by the Babylonians. He was bound and his eyes were gouged out. The final scene he witnessed before losing sight was the slaughter of his sons, i.e. the future of the Davidic dynasty. He was then taken into exile in Babylon.
What a story, right? I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. How can someone be so egotistic, so self absorbed that they are willing to leverage the well being of future generations to have ease in their own time.
But this isn’t just a story about there and then, is it? This is about here and now. We are currently making decisions–or failing to make decisions–that are directly impacting the future of our children and grandchildren.
We are failing to act on climate change, while the effects of a warming planet are becoming rapidly obvious. Why–when the overwhelming, vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is 1) definitely happening and 2) that humans play a significant role in it–aren’t we sounding the alarm and acting decisively? Because the same politicians who question the science and deny climate change are being funded by special interest groups who depend on the economy staying the way it is. We are placing the consequences of our actions onto our children to maintain our wealth and power. For more on climate change visit: NASA
We are failing to act on commonsense gun reform. From January to April of this year there were more than one hundred mass shootings in ninety days. It is such a common occurrence that we no longer feel the shock of such a tragedy. Hearing about another shooting is just part of the news cycle. While we are quick to give thoughts and prayers, we are sloth-like when it comes to actually doing something to change this culture of violence in our country. We are not helpless. There are things that can actually be done. So, why aren’t we doing them? For the same reason we won’t act on climate change. Special interests (looking at you NRA) are funding politicians, who would rather be reelected than actually do something courageous. And we keep reelecting them. Our children are not safe. Not at school, not at the mall, not at the movies, not in a house of worship. We don’t have to accept that reality. We can change it.
We are failing to act forcefully in our condemnation of white supremacy and racism. Nazis marching in American streets. White supremacists emboldened by a lack of clear leadership. Friends, there are not good people on both sides. Period. White supremacy is America’s original sin, and we must repent. By repent I don’t mean ‘feel bad about it’, I mean dismantling the structures in our society that still perpetuate inequality. We can do this. We can make the world a more just and equitable place.
There are more areas that need attention (LGBTQ+ equality, the growing gap between rich and poor, health care, etc.) but the point is that we must muster the courage to set our house in order. These are our issues to sort, not our children’s. We must respond to these situations and issues in ways that create a world that is a just, generous, and equitable place for future generations.
We must stop passing the buck. We must learn to be grownups and talk to and with one another, not at one another. We must engage those who see things differently and seek, together, to do the hard work that will leave the world our children inherit better than we found it.
Otherwise, we will fail to learn the lesson of Hezekiah, and our children will pay the price.
One of the things I love most about the Bible is that after almost thirty-eight years it continues to surprise me. Over the years my understanding of what the Bible is, it’s role in the community of faith, and my interpretations of many texts has been transformed. I was reminded yesterday, however, that the journey of transformation continues.
Faith and Reason recently released a podcast (which is definitely worth the $15) based on a fantastic book called The Last Week by the late Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The book walks through the Gospel of Mark’s telling of Holy Week, the final week of Jesus’s life. In the course of the discussion on episode three, Crossan interprets a parable from Mark 12. It’s often called The Parable of the Wicked Tenants. It’s about a vineyard and the tenant farmers who are responsible for cultivating and caring for the land. The landlord goes on a trip, and later sends a servant to request his share of the produce.
The response of the tenant farmers was to beat the servant and send him away empty-handed. This is followed by a succession of servants, some beaten, some killed, culminating in the landlord’s own son. The farmers kill the son, and the landlord retaliates by destroying the tenant farmers and giving the vineyard to others. Those who heard Jesus tell this parable were incensed; they wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd.
Who are we supposed to see in the role of the landlord?
I know what you’re thinking. It’s God, duh! We tend to interpret the roles of powerful and absent rulers in Jesus’s parables as being symbolic of God. Which is a good reminder that we tend to read the Bible as we are, not as it is. Like a Rorschach Test, our interpretations of scripture often tell us much more about ourselves than they do about God.
This is true because we have a worldview. Everyone does. It exists in the way a contact lens does. It’s there, shaping what you see and how you see, even though you are unaware of it. People like me, who have lived lives of privilege (I’m a straight, white, heterosexual, cisgendered male, so pick your privilege) as a citizen of the most powerful military and economic superpower the world has ever known, tend to see the world through that lens. We gravitate toward power. We think about God in terms of power and control. God is the powerful and absent landlord of our lives, who puts us in charge of the world. We see God as we are, or long to be.
This interpretation, however, misses a crucial element of all interpretation: it ignores the context. Jesus lived his life in the matrix of Roman occupation. Rome was, then, the greatest economic and military superpower the world had known, and first century Judea/Palestine became part of the empire roughly sixty years before Jesus’s birth. All he and his contemporaries had ever known was centurions in the streets, and hillsides riddled with crosses, a public warning of what happens when you cross the empire.
A central feature of empire is the spread of culture and values. The Romanization of Palestine meant that the rich would become richer, and the poor would become poorer. This reality is present in the parable of Mark 12. There is a wealthy, absent landowner, and tenant farmers. Tenant, meaning that they owned no land of their own. Why? Because the process of Romanization, and the taxes that came with it, caused them to amass debt, and eventually lose their land.
So, in Jesus’s day there was a lot of discussion about when and how God would act to liberate the people from their oppressive overlords. When will the land be ours again? When will we live under God, and not some Roman Caesar who thinks he’s a God? You can imagine the tension that began to build, specifically in the week we call Holy Week. The marking of Passover, the retelling of the Exodus story, in which God delivers the people from slavery in Egypt, combined with the presence of Roman soldiers everywhere, meant they were living in a powder keg and giving off sparks (you’re welcome).
There were multiple opinions about how this liberation would occur. Will God just rend the heavens and rain-down wrath against the Romans? Some hoped so. Others focused on practicing their faith more deeply and piously. Still others tried to withdraw from society; they went off the grid to avoid the whole mess. Yet, others decided they must act in some way. One approach, seen in the life of Jesus, but also in others we are perhaps less familiar with, was that of non-violent resistance. This isn’t pacifism, but a form of resistance that asserts one’s dignity, while refusing to descend to the level of returning violence for violence. Another option present in Jesus’s day was that of violent resistance. How will we rid ourselves of the oppressors? We’ll kill them. This is the option that won out in the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 CE. Rome responded to the uprising, retaliating by razing the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. This is a fresh wound when the gospel we call Mark was written, likely in 71-73. It hangs ominously, like a fog over much of the conversation and tension, especially during Holy Week.
Back to our parable. What if we see the landlord, not as God, but as the Romans. Rome owned the vineyard (i.e. Palestine). The tenant farmers, then, would be the people who chose to resist the empire by violent force. The result? Rome came a decimated the tenant farmers, giving the land to others.
What if this parable is a warning?
A warning against playing the game by the rules of empire.
A warning against believing we can kill our way to peace and security.
A warning against choosing the path of violence, because revenge and retaliation are the song that never ends.
So, all that to say this: how much of the Bible do we just miss? Not because we aren’t taking it seriously or are actively trying to read it in ways that prop up our cultural values, but because we live with a worldview that is rooted in empire?
Perhaps one of the best questions to ask when we’re engaged with scripture is, “How might someone who is marginalized, oppressed, and on the underside of power hear this text?
It’s not a sin to live in an empire. Most everyone does. Some empires do a better job than others, but empire is still empire. It succeeds at the expense of someone, and the responsible, Jesus-y thing to do is ask who those someones are, and how we can hear their voices challenging what we assume is reality.
The truth is, for people like me, the story that reflects my reality isn’t reflected in the Jesus story, but in the Roman story. My hope for myself, and all of us who find ourselves in a similar spot, is that we will have ears to really hear the challenge of the Jesus story, especially as we move toward Holy Week.
And, if this interpretation angers us, if the idea that we are somehow missing things in the scriptures because of our privilege and worldview causes our blood pressure to elevate, then we actually have something in common with those who heard Jesus share this parable in Mark’s story. If that’s so, perhaps we should spend some time wrestling with why.
Grace and peace for the rest of Lenten journey, friends.
This past Sunday I gave a “farewell” sermon at Morgantown Community Church. That being the case, since I didn’t give a Palm Sunday sermon, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the blog. I’m grounding my thoughts here in Mark’s telling of the story. Mark is the earliest Gospel (written in the early 70’s CE), and is the first account of what has become known as Palm Sunday. If you haven’t read it, or need to be refreshed on Mark’s account, click here.
First, we have to begin with the basic context of Mark’s story. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem for Passover. Up to this point in Mark, Jesus’s ministry has been generally based in a rural context–specifically in the Galilee region. Now, at the beginning of what we call Holy Week, Jesus expands his movement to the capital city. Moving deeper into the story, this demonstration takes place on the cusp of the celebration of Passover, the yearly remembrance of the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt.
To say there would have been tension in the air is a massive understatement. The Jewish pilgrims streaming into Jerusalem to celebrate freedom from their oppressors while Roman centurions patrolled the streets must have created a deeply unsettling cognitive dissonance. How can we celebrate freedom with the boot of the Romans on our necks?
Jesus rides into this tension, not quietly, but loudly.
I’ve always loved the part of the story when Jesus tells his disciples, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”
And that’s exactly what happens. They enter the village, find the colt, and start to leave. Someone asks what they are doing, they reply exactly as Jesus told them, and they are home free with a donkey.
I used to think this was odd. Is Jesus using some sort of Jedi mind trick? Would this work at a car dealership? You just go, get in a car, and prepare to drive off. The salesman asks what you’re doing, and you just reply, “The Lord needs it?”
Actually, what’s really being conveyed here is that Jesus has a plan. This isn’t a spontaneous “Go steal me a donkey,” but a planned prophetic action. It’s not a “Triumphal Entry.” Instead, it’s mocking–lampooning–the kind of triumphal entry a Roman official, like Pilate, would have. Jesus rides, not on a warhorse, but on a donkey. He is surrounded by the crowds, mostly (if not totally) peasants who were energized by his message, not Roman centurions in full armor. Jesus is calling the military parade of Rome a farce, and offering an alternative to the way of empire.
About the crowd. They join Jesus’ procession, in front and behind him, with shouts of Hosanna, literally, “Save us!” They see in Jesus a deliverer–like Moses–who will lead them on a new Exodus. The crowds also invoke the name of David, which is loaded with messianic connotations. Suffice it to say, this isn’t subtle.
There’s a statement that I’ve heard countless times over the years. I saw it quite a bit on Facebook this past week. I even had it on a t-shirt when I was in high school. It goes something like, “The week began with palms in the crowd’s hands, and ended with nails in Jesus’s.” Why would this crowd–enthusiastically announcing Jesus’s entry into the city turn on him so sharply and suddenly? What happened between Sunday and Friday?
This is a great moment to pause, and recognize that readings of the Bible, like this one, are the basis for a lot of the horrors of Christian history, specially against the Jewish community. The depiction of the crowd as being the cause of Jesus’s death grows in the Gospel tradition, crescendoing in Matthew’s account of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’s blood, and the crowd responding, “Let his blood be on us and our children.” [Matthew 27:25]
It’s important, especially in our current context of growing anti-semitism and white supremacy, to clearly and forcefully reject the kinds of readings that lead us to believe that the Jewish people, then or now, were responsible for the death of Jesus.
Jesus died on a Roman cross, not a Jewish one.
Rome executed Jesus. Yes, there was a collaboration between Rome and the Temple aristocracy. But Rome, and only Rome, could pull the trigger. The crowds of Palm Sunday never turned on Jesus. His popularity with the crowd was so great that the authorities were afraid to arrest him. They were afraid the crowd might riot! Which is why Jesus wasn’t arrested in broad daylight in the Temple courts, but in the cover of night in a garden outside the city.
Palm Sunday is a day, then, to remember that Jesus was on a collision course with the empire. The empire of Rome was being challenged by the Kingdom of God.
Palm Sunday is about a different vision for the world, marked by justice, compassion, and peace, instead of injustice, oppression, and violence.
Holy Week begins by asking us to choose which world we will live in.
I had such a blast recording this week’s episode! Melissa is doing amazing work at Imaginarium and I think this interview will strike a chord with anyone who grew up in an Evagelicalish church and has been on a journey of deconstruction and reforming a new faith. For more about Melissa’s work click here.