Chapter 9: Jesus Revisited
Our preliminary examination of Jesus’ actions and teachings in chapters 1 and 2 led to these questions: How could Jesus be a peacemaker when he was raised on the Old Testament and when he accepted its authority? Did he have a way of reading it that permitted him or even demanded of him that he be a peacemaker, even at the cost of his life? We need to revisit Jesus at this point to see what light our explorations in the Old Testament have shed on this central riddle.
The Way of the Prophets
Jesus did not, it seems to me, reconcile the ambiguity of the Old Testament. He did not, like a good Hegelian, move from the thesis of a Warrior God through the antithesis of a Giver of Peace to some shining synthesis of the two. He made a choice. From the great diversity of the Old Testament, he chose the prophetic strain as that which is closest to the truth, as that in the light of which all the rest must be interpreted.
He did not hesitate to identi1~, himself as belonging to that strain, It was of himself he spoke when he said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6:4; cf, Matt. 13:57; Luke 4:24; John 4:44). It was of himself he spoke when he said: “It is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33).
His words and actions were such that he was widely recognized by his contemporaries as belonging to the prophetic line. The Samaritan woman at the well said, “Sir, I see you are a prophet (John 4:19). When Jesus raised the son of the widow of Nain, the people said, “A great prophet has risen among us!” (Luke 7:16). Simon the Pharisee had heard the report, for he said, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him” (Luke 7:39). The five thousand who were fed said, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14; cf. 7:40). When the Pharisees asked the man born blind what he had to say about Jesus, he replied, “He is a prophet” (John 9:17). There was widespread discussion as to who Jesus really was, and some said, “A prophet, like one of the prophets of old” or “one of the ancient prophets” who had risen from the dead (Mark 6:15; Luke 9:8). This was reported to Jesus by the disciples when he asked, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27-28; Mall. 16:13-14; Luke 9:18-19). At the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he was hailed as “the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matt. 21:11). When the Jerusalem authorities wanted to arrest him, they hesitated because the crowds regarded him as a prophet (Matt. 21:46). The popular belief that he was a prophet was known to the temple guards, who after his arrest mocked him and beat him and said, “Prophesy!” (Matt. 26:68; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:64). The two disciples on the way to Emmaus on Easter evening described him as “Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (Luke 24:19).
Jesus’ approach to shalom was in many respects quite similar to that of the prophets. He carried matters further, but along lines that he found in their actions and writings.
The Defense of Shalom
The prophets, we remember, defended the Torah principles on which shalom rests, against rulers who sought to take advantage of the poor. Jesus chose to stand in that line, criticizing the scribes who “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47; cf. Isa. 1:10-17). He condemned the temple authorities for making it “a den of robbers,” robbing the poor by the rate of exchange on money and the cost of sacrificial animals (Mark 11:17; Matt. 21:13; Luke 19:46; cf. Jer. 7:11). He defended the ancient right of gleaning, even on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-6; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5; cf. Lev. 19:9-10). He emphasized that justice and mercy and faith were the weightier matters of the law (Matt. 23:23; cf. Micah 6:8).
Was the revival of the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee a feature of Jesus’ prophetic ministry? André Trocmé pastor at Le Chambon1 and later a secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, has developed an interesting argument. Jesus, we remember, launched his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth by reading Isaiah 61:1-2 (see Luke 4:16-19). The last phrase that he read was, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” That was, says Trocmé, the sabbatical year, the year for freeing slaves (Ex. 21:1-3; Deut. 15:12-18) and forgiving debts (Deut. 15:1-10) and letting land lie fallow (Lev. 25:1-7). It may also have been the fiftieth year, the year of jubilee, after seven sevens, when all land was to be returned to the original owners (Lev. 25:18-24). Trocmé relates Jesus’ teaching about debts in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:42; cf. Luke 6:30), in the Lord’s Prayer, in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mall. 18:23-35), in the parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-9) to his proclamation of the sabbatical year. He relates Jesus’ teaching about being fed and clothed by God (Matt. 6:25-33; cf. Luke 12:22-31) to the fields lying fallow. This was especially disturbing to the Roman authorities who relied on steady production and the resultant taxes to support their regime.2 If this is correct, it is a striking example of Jesus’ concern for the foundational principles of shalom.
Like the prophets, Jesus took the side of the marginal, the excluded, the powerless: lepers (Luke 5:12-15; 7:22; 17:11-19); tax collectors (5:27-32; 15:1; 18:9-14; 19:1-9); the disabled (6:6-11; 7:22; 13:10-17; 18:35-42); the poor (6:20; 7:22; 14:21; 16:19-22; 18:22); the hungry (6:21; 9:12-17); the grief-stricken (6:21; 7:13); the reviled and defamed (7:22); slaves (7:1-10); widows (7:11-17; 18:1-8; 21:1-2); prostitutes (7:36-50); women (8:1-3, 43-48; 10:38-42; 13:10-17); children (8:49-56; 9:46-48; 17:2; 18:15-17). We have not cited all the instances here; there axe additional stories in the other Gospels, as well as parallels to the Lukan accounts. Not to be omitted is Jesus’ complete identification with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner in Matt. 25:31-46.
The powerful among the Jews of Jesus’ day were not ultimately powerful, because they were subject to Rome. Nevertheless, Jesus words to them are severe. In this, too, Jesus stood in the line of the prophets:
Woe to you who are rich…
Woe to you who are full now . . .
Woe to you who are laughing now . . .
Woe to you when all speak well of you.
Woe to you Pharisees!
you tithe, but you neglect justice and the love of God
you love seats of honor.
you are like unmarked graves.
Woe to you lawyers! . . .
you load people with burdens hard to bear. . .
you build the tombs of the prophets . . .
you have taken away the key of knowledge.
Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven
you make the new convert twice as much as a child of hell you are blind guides . . .
you clean the outside, but inside are full of greed you are like whitewashed tombs . . .
you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.
This is prophetic rhetoric in defense of the underlying foundations of shalom. We have only to compare it with Isaiah 5:8-23; 10:1-4; or Habakkuk 2:6-20.
A lawyer asked Jesus which commandment in the Torah is the greatest. Jesus replied, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Torah and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). You cannot stop with one commandment, said Jesus. The second must always immediately follow. And the second is drawn from the heart of those provisions which concern the maintenance and management of shalom (Lev. 19:18).
The Extension of Shalom
The lawyer could not let it go. “Who is my neighbor?” he asked (Luke 10:29). How widely do the foundational principles of shalom apply? It is our long tradition that they do not apply to those who are not part of the people of Israel. We even wonder if they apply to the accursed crowd within Israel which does not know the law (John 7:46).
In reply, Jesus told the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), where the neighbor who must be loved is clearly one whom strict Jews would regard as a half-breed and a heretic. John records a tradition that Jesus had a ministry among the Samaritans (John 4:4-42), and that his enemies as a result accused him of being a Samaritan himself (8:48).
Jesus visited the Greek region of Decapolis and performed healings there (Mark 5:1-20; 7:31-37). He visited the Phoenician region of Tyre and Sidon, and though he expressed there a typical Jewish attitude of exclusion,3 a Gentile woman’s salty reply won him over and he extended shalom, healing, to her daughter (7:24-30).
Jesus praised a Roman centurion for faith such as he had not found in Israel (Mall. 8:5-10; Luke 7:1-10). It was in this connection that he spoke of many from east and west who would eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 8:11; cf. Luke 13:29).
In the sermon at Nazareth which Luke sets forth as the grand opening of Jesus’ ministry, he reminded his hearers of how the prophets of old extended shalom to Phoenicians and Syrians, and was nearly killed for what he said (Luke 4:16-30; cf. 1 Kings 17:8-24; 2 Kings 5). And at the end of his ministry he quoted the prophetic word that the temple should be a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17; cf. Isa. 56:6-7), and was killed soon afterward.
The prophets, we remember, stood for the extension of shalom beyond the boundaries of Israel, even to Israel’s worst enemies. Here, too, Jesus stands with the prophets.
Predictions of Antagonistic Warfare
Jesus’ predictions of wars have been troublesome to those who wish to claim him for the peace movement. In this he stands squarely in the prophetic line; we remember their constant predictions of wars in which Yahweh would fight against Israel, or against the nations, as a punishment for their breaches of shalom.
Jesus seems to have foreseen that the Romans would continue to use military force against the Jews, and that this would be God’s punishment for their sins. When asked about Pilate’s brutal slaughter of some Galileans who were offering their sacrifices as a part of their worship, Jesus warned, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did” (Luke 13:3).
Jesus went on to predict the destruction of Jerusalem because it did not know or practice the things that belong to peace. “Your house,” he said, “is left to you, desolate” (Mall. 23:38; Luke 13:35). He describes the siege of the city:
Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God. (Luke 19:43-44)
When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. . . . They will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:20, 24)4
The temple itself will be destroyed, says Jesus. It will be polluted by a terrible sacrilege (Mall. 24:15; Mark 13:14). Then, “Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mall. 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6).5
God’s hand will be in all this, punishing Israel for its sins. This seems to be the point of the parable of the vineyard and its wicked tenants (Mall. 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19; cf. Isa. 5:1-7; Ps. 80:6-13).6 The prediction of God’s punishment of Israel by warfare is quite clear in the saying that upon this generation will come “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar” (Matt. 23:35-36; Luke 11:50-51).
We have seen how in the Old Testament, prophecy flowed into apocalyptic, with its predictions of universal war, of universal peace, of divine intervention at the end of time. This same movement occurs in the sayings attributed to Jesus.7 In Mark 13, often called the little Apocalypse (cf. Matt. 24; Luke 21), the prediction of the destruction of the temple flows easily into an apocalyptic scenario. There will be wars and rumors of war, nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, but that will not be the end (Mark 13:6-7). This reminds us of the long description in Daniel of centuries of warfare that will precede the final conflict that brings history to a close. There will be false messiahs and prophets, earthquakes, famines, persecutions, trials, the proclamation of the gospel to all nations. It is after all this that the heavenly bodies will be in commotion and the Human One will come in clouds with great power and glory (cf. Dan. 7:13-14).8
It is to this apocalyptic view of God’s final victory and judgment that the following sayings belong:
Woe to you, chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on that day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.
(Matt. 11:21-24;cf. Luke 10:13-15)
There are striking similarities here to Isaiah’s taunt song regarding the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14, esp. vs. 13-15).
The apocalyptic bent of Jesus becomes more evident when we look among his teachings for promises of peace. We find few if any predictions of peace within history. Jesus concentrates on a final and universal peace which he calls “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew) or “the kingdom of God” (Mark and Luke).
The “kingdom of God” is recognized as a central idea in Jesus teaching. Indeed, it is central in the whole Bible.9 God was proclaimed as king of Israel in the great hymn about the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex. 15:18). As the sole victor over the Egyptian army, Yahweh was to be the sole ruler in Israel.10 When Israel was settled in the land that had been promised, there were those who hoped that the kingdom of God was now present reality. The tribal confederacy, with no human king, was to be the form of that kingdom. But, alas, it was often more anarchy than kingdom. “There was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). When the Davidic monarchy was established, there were those who were sure that the kingdom of God had arrived in history. Solomon declared, “To David, and to his descendants, and to his house, and to his throne, there shall be shalom from the LORD forevermore (1 Kings 2:33). But the reality was better predicted by Nathan, “The sword shall never depart from your house” (2 Sam. 12:10). When the Davidic kingdom fell and Judah went into exile, some began to dream of a restoration of the kingdom of God. In Ezekiel 34, Yahweh condemns the shepherds (kings) of Israel who have been feeding themselves at the expense of the flock. I myself will now become the Shepherd (king) of Israel, says Yahweh.11 But the restoration community in Jerusalem was no kingdom of God. It was a tiny corner of the vast Persian Empire, hated by its neighbors and torn by internal dissension.
It was in this time of utter hopelessness that Israel ceased to dream of a realization of the kingdom of God within history. The dawn of apocalyptic came, with its hopes for an action by God which human beings could neither delay nor hasten, an action that would end history and bring in an entirely new age, the age of the kingdom of God. In the mature apocalyptic of Daniel, the kingdom of God is that stone, not cut by human hands, that falls on all earthly kingdoms and demolishes them, supplanting them by an everlasting kingdom (Dan. 2:44-45). It is the human and humane kingdom that replaces all the bestial kingdoms of history and is given beyond history by the Ancient One to the Human One, to be his forever (7:9-14).
Jesus, as we said, stood in the apocalyptic tradition and devoted a great portion of his teaching to “the kingdom of God,” the kingdom that God would bring in; “the kingdom of heaven,” qualitatively different from all earthly kingdoms. This would clearly not be the Zealots’ dream of a Jewish kingdom restored by a military coup against Roman power. It would be characterized by many of the marks of shalom with which we are familiar:
Abundance. Having enough: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things [food, drink, clothing] will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30; cf. Matt. 19:29; Luke 18:29-30). One of Jesus’ favorite pictures of the kingdom is a feast: “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29; cf. Matt. 8:11; 22:2; Luke 22:28-30; Isa. 25:6).
Healing. “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness” (Matt. 9:35). To his disciples he said: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matt. 10:7-8).
Security. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. . . Do not worry about tomorrow. . . . Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt. 6:25, 34; 7:7). “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
The Great Reversal. In the prophetic promises of shalom there was usually the element of the reversal of the present situation: plenty instead of want, healing instead of disease, security instead of constant danger, return to the land instead of being scattered over the earth, plowshares instead of swords. In Jesus vision of the kingdom of Cod, the reversal is dramatic. The kingdom will belong to the poor instead of to the rich (Luke 6:20, 24; Matt. 19:23-26; Mark 10:23-27; Luke 18:24-27); to little children instead of to adults (Matt. 19:14; Mark 10:14-15; Luke 18:16-17); to infants instead of to the wise and intelligent (Matt. 11:25; Luke 10:21). The last will be first and the first will be last (Matt. 19:30; 20:6; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30). The great ones in the kingdom will be humble as a little child instead of ambitious and proud (Matt. 18:1-4); they will be servants and slaves instead of lords and tyrants (Matt. 20:25-27; 23:11; Mark 10:43-44). Tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom ahead of proper religious people (Matt. 21:31). Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Matt. 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14). All this is very disturbing; can it be a vision of shalom? Upon reflection, without such reversals there can be no shalom.
We are clearly in the realm of apocalyptic here-a new age beyond history as we know it, when the abundance, the healing, the security, the astounding reversals of the kingdom will finally come. Jesus does something no prophet or apocalyptic visionary had ever done. He announces that the kingdom is already present. It is obviously not fully and publicly present, for we are bidden to pray for it (Matt. 6:10; Luke 11:2), to watch for it (Matt. 24:36-25:13; Mark 13:32-37; Luke 12:35-40); but in the person of Jesus and in his ministry and the ministry of his followers, the kingdom is at hand (Matt. 4:17; 10:7; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 10:9, 11). It has in some sense already come (Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:20; 17:20-21). It is present in a hidden and dynamic way, like seed sown in the soil or yeast mixed in the dough (Matt. 13:31-33; Mark 4:26-32; Luke 13:18-21). The seed will sprout, the dough will rise. Even so, the kingdom of God, the promised time of shalom, is already at work in the world and will surely come!
Another evidence that Jesus chose the prophetic way is his performance of prophetic actions. The prophets sometimes did bizarre and attention-arousing things, acted out parables as it were, to get their message across, to demand decisions from their hearers. Thus Isaiah walked naked and barefoot, like a captive of war, for three years, as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, rebuking the party in court that advised trust in them against the Assyrian threat (Isaiah 20). Jeremiah buried a linen loincloth in a cleft of rock near the Euphrates and took it out ruined as a symbol of the impending ruin of the pride of Judah (Jer. 13:1-11). He broke a potter’s earthenware jug as a sign that God would break the people and city of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 19). He wore a yoke as a sign that Judah should accept the overlordship of Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 27). Ezekiel lay on his side to portray the coming siege of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4). He shaved himself with a sword and used the hair to portray how the people would die of pestilence or famine, be slaughtered by the sword, or be scattered in exile (Ezekiel 5). He carried baggage out through a hole in the wall to portray going into exile (Ezekiel 12).
Jesus did several things that may be interpreted as prophetic actions: the feeding of the five thousand, the cleansing of the temple, the washing of the disciples’ feet. The one that rivets our attention and speaks volumes about shalom is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-19). In all four accounts, Jesus deliberately enacts the coming of the peaceful, disarmed king promised in Zech. 9:9-10.12 According to Matthew and Mark, the crowd does not understand and hails him as Son of David, the king who will establish shalom by military might. According to Luke, ‘the multitude of the disciples” do understand and sing a song of shalom:
Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!
According to John, the crowd was already bailing him as king and Jesus enacted the Zechariah prophecy in response. It was only later, after the resurrection, that the disciples understood the meaning of his action (John 12:16). This may be one of those mystifying instances where the Fourth Gospel is the most accurate one. In any event, Jesus intention in this prophetic action is quite clear. For him, the choice of the prophetic way was the choice of the way of shalom.
The Servant of the Lord
The suffering and death of Jesus seemed to Peter an absurdity. “God forbid it, Lord!” he said. “This must never happen to you (Matt. 16:22; Mark 8:32). To Jesus this was a suggestion of Satan. He moved persistently toward Jerusalem, repeatedly predicting his death to his uncomprehending disciples (Matt. 17:12, 22-23; 20~28; Mark 9:12, 31-32; 10:32-434; Luke 9:22, 44-45, 51; 13:33; 18:31-34). He said that all this was necessary to fulfill what was written in the prophets. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the [Human One] by the prophets will be accomplished” (Luke 18:31).
Where is it written by the prophets that the Human One will suffer and die? This is what is predicted of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 40-55. There are at least hints that Jesus identified the Human One (himself) with the Servant of the Lord. In Mark 9:12 he says, “How then is it written about the [Human One], that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt?” (cf. Isa. 50:6; 53:3). In Mark 10:45Ma~thew 20:28 he says, “For the [Human One] came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (cf. Isa. 53:11-12). Jesus’ decision to engage in “reverse fighting,” to win by enduring suffering rather than by imposing suffering on others, seems to have been profoundly influenced by the Servant songs in Isaiah 40-55.13
Jesus’ choice of the prophetic way ultimately led to the way of the cross.
The Son of David?
Even within the prophetic way, Jesus seems to have made a narrower choice. We saw in chapter 8 that there is a considerable body of prophetic promises where shalom will be won and managed by a true and just king in David’s line. By Jesus’ time these promises had coalesced into the messianic hope, the hope for an Anointed One (Hebrew: Messiah; Greek: Christ). Did Jesus come to see himself as the fulfillment of that hope? This is a very difficult question.
Jesus’ preferred title for himself was “the Human One” (lit. Greek: Son of Man). He preferred to see himself as the apocalyptic figure of Daniel 7, whose coming would spell the end of the bestial earthly kingdoms, and to whom the Ancient of Days would give the kingdom of God, rather than seeing himself a king in David’s line, even an apocalyptic one. The danger was the popular understanding that the Messiah would free Israel and usher in the age of peace by Davidic methods, that is, by a victorious military campaign.
Peter’s confession, “the turning point of the Synoptic Gospels,” was that Jesus is the Messiah (Matt. 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20). In Matthew’s account, Peter is praised for this, but in Mark and Luke there are only stern orders not to tell this to anybody. In all three there is an immediate emphasis on the Suffering Servant, on Jesus’ suffering and death.
The matter came up again at Jesus’ trial. In all three Synoptic Gospels he is asked point-blank: Are you the Messiah? (Matt. 26:63; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:67). In Mark, Jesus replies, “I am.” In Matthew and Luke his answer is evasive. In all three he immediately moves to the vision of the Human One coming on the clouds of heaven. And in all three he is judged guilty of blasphemy. This charge is related to Pilate (Luke 23:2), who later uses the title in his shouting match with the mob (Matt. 27:17, 22).
The question of Jesus’ self-understanding is further complicated by his difficult argument that the Messiah is not David’s son, but David’s Lord (Matt. 22:41-46; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44). While this may well reflect christological controversies in the early church, it may also indicate Jesus’ resistance to the title often given him and to the interpretation of the Messiah as military leader that was implicit in it.
To add to the ambiguity, there are scattered sayings in the Gospels where without argument Jesus refers to himself as the Messiah: Matt. 23:8, 10; and Mark 9:41.
On balance we can say that in choosing the way of the prophets Jesus was more comfortable with visions of the future that pictured the direct rule of God (the kingdom of God), or the gift of that rule to an apocalyptic Human One, than with the vision of a kingdom ruled by an earthly king of David’s line.
The Divine Warrior?
Finally we need to ask whether, in choosing the way of the prophets, Jesus totally laid aside the idea of the Divine Warrior which is so strong in the Hebrew scriptures. We have seen that the prophetic idea of God’s antagonistic warfare against God’s own sinful and rebellious people and the apocalyptic idea of final, universal victory survive in Jesus’ teaching. Is there anything else? Did Jesus himself engage in anything we could call warfare?
The Struggle with the Demons
Jesus’ most obvious “warfare” was his struggle with the demons or unclean spirits that he encountered again and again in his ministry.14 Ulrich Mauser sees Jesus’ statement “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34) as belonging to this struggle.15
Jesus’ very presence provoked the unclean spirits into hostile action. The man in the synagogue at Capernaum cried out, “Let us alone! . Have you come to destroy us?” (Luke 4:34; cf. Mark 1:24). The Gadarene demoniac came running out of the tombs to confront him, dying, “I adjure you by God, do not torment me (Mark 5:1-7; cf. Matt. 8:28-29; Luke 8:26-28). They recognized Jesus as their enemy. He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (Mark 1:34). “He sternly ordered them not to make him known” (3:12).
Jesus did not deal gently with the demons. He rebuked them (Mark 1:25; 5:8; 9:25). He cast them out (an active, forceful word; 1:34, 39). Their departure was often violent. “The unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him” (1:26). “After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead’” (9:26). In the case of the Gadarene demoniac the egress of the demons destroyed a valuable herd of swine (5:13),
This continuous battle with hostile, demonic powers was one of the strongest signs of the kingdom’s presence. ‘If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20; cf. Matt. 12:28).
Jesus’ enemies said that it was by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that he cast out demons. To which Jesus replied that such an explanation meant that the demonic kingdom was divided and would fall (Matt. 12:24-26; Mark3:22-26; Luke 11:15-18). He went on with this parable:
When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his plunder. (Luke 11:21-22; cf. Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27)
The true explanation of the exorcisms is that he, Jesus, is the stronger One who enters the castle of Satan, the strong one, overpowers him, takes away his armor, ties him up, and plunders his property, that is, sets free the human victims whom he “owns.”
Jesus sent his disciples out to engage in the same battle. He gave them authority to cast out demons (Matt. 10:8; Mark 3:15; 6:7, 13; Luke 9:1). When seventy of them returned with accounts of their success, Jesus was ecstatic. “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning,” he said (Luke 10:18).
All this is passing strange to modem people who do not think in terms of a kingdom of Beelzebul or Satan, whose minions are myriads of demons or unclean spirits who “possess” and torment helpless human beings.
Two explanations are often given for the phenomena attributed to demons in these stories. Many writers treat them as symptoms of physical diseases like epilepsy or mental diseases like schizophrenia. On the other hand, liberation theologians treat them as reactions to oppressive, demeaning, unbearable social situations16
Do we really need to explain them away? Anyone who has witnessed a mob in action has a sense of some kind of inhuman power that does indeed “possess” people and lead them to do things they would never do on their own. Mass psychosis is an inadequate description for the raw evil that one feels in such a situation. Anyone who looks with sensitivity at the suffering of the poor and powerless, suffering that most of us do not deliberately intend, has a sense that some kind of cunning evil that is too strong for us and dehumanizes us has captured and controls the systems and structures in which we live.
The Struggle with the Establishment
There may be another “war.” In chapter 1 we noted briefly that Jesus was in continuing conflict with the religious leaders of his own people, a conflict that burst into action with the cleansing of the temple. Earlier in this chapter we cited some of Jesus’ prophetic rhetoric in condemning the rich, the Pharisees, the lawyers. Is this a transformation of the holy war motif, with Jesus as the Divine Warrior, doing battle for God’s little people, the marginalized whom we also described earlier?
Ched Myers has written a massive socioliterary commentary on Mark,17 in which Jesus’ struggle against the “establishment” is the central theme of the Gospel from beginning to end. There is a Jerusalem establishment, the priestly families who control the temple, and a Galilean establishment, the Pharisees who are seeking a power base among the populace. Neither is for a radical change in the status quo. Both the way of the Essenes (withdrawal) and the way of the Zealots (violence) are reformist, seeking to purify the system, not to replace it. The real radical is Jesus. In his nonviolent way, he challenges the very foundations of the system. The system understands this and declares war on him.18
There is, then, in the Gospel accounts a transformation of holy war. Jesus is not a passive victim. He is a warrior, constantly on the attack. But he fights by “reverse fighting,” accepting the punishment and death that the establishment dishes out.
John Howard Yoder pictures Jesus as seriously tempted to follow the holy war pattern, to exercise “the Zealot option.” He confronted it in the wilderness, when he was tempted to make league with “the strong one” and conquer the world (Matt. 4:8-9; Luke 4:6-7). He confronted it again when the five thousand were fed (John 6:15); again at the triumphal entry (Mark 11:1-10 and par.); finally when Peter drew his sword in the garden and Jesus spoke his strange words about the possibility of the heavenly hosts fighting in his defense (Mad. 26:53).19 Jesus made an ethical, political decision for the way of the cross, a way that avoided the violence of the Zealots and the withdrawal of the Essenes and the compromise of the Sadducees and Pharisees. In choosing the way of the cross, Jesus followed his own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. “Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who, being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who despitefully use him.”20
The ambiguity of Jesus’ teaching regarding war and peace remains. Although he made a clear choice, choosing the way of the prophets over the royal pursuit of empire, the ambiguity which is heavy in the prophets remains in him. On the one hand, he teaches as they taught that God uses war as an instrument to punish and correct God’s wayward, rebellious people who have breached the shalom that God intends. On the other hand, he teaches that God forgives God’s enemies and makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. The ambiguity between the wrath and the love of God remains. Perhaps it always will. Perhaps it is part of the divine mystery, the divine abyss which human intelligence cannot plumb. The God of the Bible is free and dangerous, offending our human sense of propriety and our human ideas of justice both negatively and positively.
Nevertheless, Jesus is very clear about how his followers are to behave. He does not encourage them to participate in the divine wrath. There is no “arise and thresh, O daughter Zion . . . beat in pieces many peoples,” as in the prophets (Micah 4:13); no “let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations,” as in the Psalms (Ps. 149:6-7). It is the other side of the divine ambiguity which they are to imitate. If they wish to be children of God, they are to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matt. 6:44-45). If they wish to be children of God, they are to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9).
The war that is open to Jesus’ followers is not war against other nations, but war against hypocrisy and greed and cruelty and injustice, war against all the demonic systems and powers that cripple and cramp and pervert the humanity of human beings. The method of that warfare is reverse fighting,” the acceptance of injustice done to oneself, of pain and suffering and even death.
1. Le Chambon is the little village that sheltered Jews in Vichy France during World War II. See the account of this amazing example of nonviolent resistance in Philip P. Halle, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).
2. See André Trocmé, Jesus-Christ et la revolution non-violente (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1961). (E.T., Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution, trans. Michel Shenk; Scottdale, Pa,: Herald Press, 1974.) This is summarized in John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), pp. 36-38, 64.
3. Compare the even more exclusive remark in Matthew 10:5-6.
4. Many scholars regard these detailed predictions in Luke as “prophecies after the fact.”
5. Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple may be indirectly reflected in Matthew 26:60; Mark 14:58; and John 2:19.
6. This parable has obviously been reworked by the early church into an allegory. This is most evident in Matthew 21:43, where, following the crucifixion, the kingdom of God will be taken away from “you” (= the Jewish religious leaders) and given to “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (= the church). The sending of the “beloved son” fits church theology more easily than other sayings of Jesus about himself. In its original form, this parable possibly predicted God’s punishment of Israel for their persecution of the prophets (cf. Matt. 5:12; 23:29-34, 37; Luke 6.23,11:47-49; 13:33-34). The instrument of this punishment would be a disastrous war.
7. Ever since the publication of Johannes Weiss’s Die Predigt Jesu corn Reich Gottes in 1892, a growing number of New Testament scholars have seen Jesus as a “thorough-going eschatologist” (Albert Schweitzer’s term), deeply influenced by Jewish apocalyptic writings.
8. Did Jesus expect the final conflict and the final end within the generation then living? Mark 13:30 would indicate that he did, and most New Testament scholars take that view. But Mark 13:32 is a disavowal of any knowledge of a timetable, and the extensive scenario would have to be exceedingly compressed to fit into a single generation. What did happen within that generation was the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
9. See John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953), for a powerful development of the centrality of the kingdom.
10. This is a major emphasis in Millard Lind, Yahweh Is a Warrior (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1980). See pp. 31-32. 51-53. 64, 89, 108, 167-168, 170.
11. The presence of vs. 23-24 in Ezekiel 34 shows that the idea of a restored Davidic kingdom just would not die. According to commentators, e.g., G. Herbert May in The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 6, (ed. George A. Buttrick et al.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956), this is an insertion by a later editor.
12. See the discussion of Zechariah 9:9-10 in chapter 8.
13. I still find the arguments of John Wick Bowman in The Intention of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1943) very convincing. He states his thesis on pp. 1 and 2.
14. See Walter Wink’s discussion of demons in Unmasking the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), pp. 41-68.
15. Ulrich Mauser sees the saying as one of a series of “I have come” statements and believes that the context of strife and division aroused by the Christian mission (Matt. 10:35f.) was added later. See The Gospel of Peace (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), pp. 38-42.
16. Wink, Unmasking the Powers, pp. 41-42.
17. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988). The title is drawn, of course, from Jesus’ parable cited earlier in this chapter. The Markan version speaks specifically of “tying up” the strong man.
18. Ched Myers makes the interesting but complicated suggestion that the war against the establishment and the war against the demons are two aspects of a single war. He sees the demons as somehow representatives of the establishment. Thus in the first exorcism (Mark 1:21-28) Myers stresses that Jesus has invaded the space (synagogue) and time (Sabbath) of the scribes. His teaching is declared by the people to have more authority (exousia) than that of the scribes. At this point the man with the unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The “us,” says Myers, indicates that the demoniac is pleading on behalf of the scribal aristocracy, which Jesus is threatening. Binding the Strong Man, pp. 141-142.
19. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, p. 57.
20. Ibid., p. 61.