16 June 2003

there is another king: vii

(and you thought i was channelling n.t. wright already...)

First, let us consider the variegated politics of Second Temple Judaism. The landscape here is likely familiar: while some Jews colluded with the Romans and others retreated into the wilderness, the hopes of many were lodged in political and religious liberation from Roman dominance through the leadership of a revolutionary messiah. Within this matrix of revolutionary hope, rituals and sites such as Torah observance, ancestral traditions, the national homeland, and the Temple itself could serve as powerful symbols of that hope and catalysts for action.

It was just such politicized symbols that Jesus drew upon as part of the Good News of God’s reign, rejecting, relativizing, and redefining those symbols around himself, thereby calling into question dominant Jewish notions of identity and ambition, proposing a different “way” of being the people of God. In doing this, however, Jesus was proposing another kind of politics, one which the Gospel-writers present as the politics of the true messiah and, therefore, of Israel’s God, restoring his people and establishing his justice. Indeed, the “way” which Jesus followed is the very “way of Yahweh,” which is, paradoxically, the way of the cross.

This was a reversal of all expectations. Rather than overthrowing the Romans and restoring Israel’s power and symbols in the way expected, this messiah would “be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him…” (Mk 10:33-34; cf. 8:31; 9:31). In his words to his disciples, Jesus made the politics of this reversal explicit, You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; rather, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all. For even the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mk 10:42-45).It is precisely in the apparent shame and defeat of the cross that Jesus, in fact, had victory over the principalities and powers, putting them to open shame on the way to reconciling all things to himself (Col 2:13-15).

Jesus, thereby, revealed the way of service—service unto death—as the true way of being the messianic king. And, insofar as the messiah was the summation and representative of Israel, Jesus lived out in his own life what Israel had been called to do and be for the world—called to service among the nations as a light and witness to the God who was the creator of the whole world, a God revealed supremely in Jesus. The way of the messiah and of Israel, then, was not to be the way of ethnic pride or nationalistic fervor, of pharisaic zeal or violent revolution.

Nonetheless, in this reversal of expectations, all Israel’s hopes were strangely fulfilled, her restoration found in the new community of believers in Jesus, and, as Israel’s messiah, through his death and resurrection, Jesus became Lord and savior of the world, including Rome. Israel, after all, was called by God to bear his purposes for the whole human race in Adam, so that when Israel’s true son and king is made Lord, his rule is not merely that of a Jewish monarch, but moreover, as the true human, embodies the eschatological dominion that the race of Adam was always intended by God to receive. Where Eden’s guardian, Adam, failed to lay down his life for his bride in the face of a bestial serpent, Jesus was faithful unto death, as a servant, and thus became Lord of all, from Israel to the “farthest corners” of the world.

This trajectory is clear not only in the overall shape of Paul’s Gospel of the Jewish messiah who is Lord, but also, for instance, in the unfolding narrative of Luke-Acts, with the ascension of the messiah as divine ruler at its thematic center (functioning against the backdrop of Daniel 7). As the royal proclamation of this messiah goes out to Israel in Acts 1-12, it culminates in the sudden death of Herod, Israel’s false king (and local agent of Rome) who arrogates to himself royal and divine titles that rightly belong to Jesus. Acts 13-28 narrate this same royal proclamation as it makes its way to Rome, to another throne where there sits another ruler who makes similar royal pretenses to divinity. Thus Jesus reveals the nature of all truly human rule to be, in the first instance, that of cruciform service—not of Roman identity or divine aspirations, of imperial power or military violence.