16 November 2007

Empire? Part Three: Your own political Jesus

Judaism, as a belief system, has more in common with what we would call Eastern religions, the more spiritual, or mystic, belief structures common in Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Taoism and the like. To some scholars, Judaism is actually considered an "Eastern" religion. One of the similarities is the fact that knowledge is more holistic in those traditions than in our Western tradition.

We in the western world have "stovepiped" our educational system. We have divided it into different studies, different disciplines. It is entirely possible for a person to know absolutely everything there is to know about economics, and yet fail to understand even the most basic political science ideas. It is possible for a person to be an absolute genius in mathematics, and yet not have any idea why humans think the way they do.

In Judaism, there was an understanding that education was the end-all, be-all way to a better life. The way they approached their religion was the same thing. It wasn't simply something they did on the Sabbath, or just one area of the education that they needed to fulfill the degree requirements. It was their life. There couldn't be any divisions, or "stovepipes" in between the various educational disciplines. Everything affected and influenced everything else. Josephus, a Jewish historian, is quoted as saying that Jews treasured their education "above all else".
There is a sense, in the Jewish tradition, that one could not fully understand the world, could not get fully educated, unless one learned about God. God was the reason for the world, and in order to be fully equipped to understand the world, one must attempt to understand God. The understanding of God is the beginning of wisdom. Sounds familiar, right?
Thus, in Proverbs, it is mentioned three times( 1:7, 9:10, and 15:33), once in Psalms (111:10), once in Ecclesiastes (12:13), and once in Job (28:28).

So in the Christian faith, with Jesus as our Ultimate Teacher, we can view Him as a political teacher, an environmentalist, a social activist, and an economics professor. Not because he put on those different hats, so to speak, but because his message is meant to be holistic in nature. Jesus is teaching us how to be fully human, how to live the way God intended His creation to live. Of course that message will have bearing on politics. Of course that message will have environmental concerns. Of course that message will be a social message.

The political Jesus faces off squarely with the system of Roman oppression of the day, and for the trouble, Jesus gives the ultimate sacrifice. Imagine a world where you were under someone else's control. This person allowed you to worship the way you wanted to, but collected ridiculous taxes for it. There was always the threat of violence. People were imprisoned for the most minor offenses. There were soldiers on every street corner, and they could make you carry their stuff for them. They had nothing to hold them back from their actions. They were free to do what they wanted, take what they wanted, make you do what they wanted. Even though they allowed you to have your temple, they made sure that it never got out of hand. That meant soldiers right down the road, and military parades, and many arrests and beatings, especially during a festival time.

First century Palestine was like this. Indeed, it probably bore more similarities to the Soviet Union, or Iraq under Saddam than to anything else.

This is the world into which Jesus was born. He was intimately familiar with Jewish religion, practice, and education. He was also intimately familiar with the oppression of the Roman Empire. His teachings were not all new, but he taught "like someone with authority", not like the other rabbis of the day.

His teachings served to upset nearly everyone within the establishment. The Temple "mafia", those that controlled and profited from Temple worship, did not like the fact that Jesus said that the Temple was not the point of worshipping God. The affluent citizens of Jerusalem (and Israel as a whole) did not like the fact that their comfortable way of life was characterized as blasphemous. The Roman government overseeing Palestine did not like Jesus because the people kept claiming that He was the true King. Obviously, when you're in charge, and everyone under you keeps saying that this other guy is really in charge, and has more power than you, you don't like it.

It was important to display the power and might of the Roman Empire in the various provinces. When an area was subjected, and after that on roman Festival dates and other important days, the Romans would stage a demonstration. Throughout history, this has been a fairly effective pacification tool for all empires and hegemons. The Roman legion would gather up its best looking uniforms, decorate and shine it's armor, and fly all sorts of various flags. Think of Nuremberg during Nazi Germany, or Soviet Moscow. The power and might of the military was demonstrated for all to see, with the obvious message: We're in charge now, and look at our massive horses and swords.

In Palestine, the important major city was Jerusalem. So the Roman legion would approach Jerusalem from the west, in order to go through the main gate of the city. Along the route that the parade would take, the local citizens were made to come out and line the streets and dance and sing and celebrate. At the head of this procession, the general or leader in charge of the area would be mounted, in all his military glory, on the best looking, strongest warhorse that could be found. As the leader of the parade passed, the crowd was sometimes forced to wave palm branches, or place them in the street so that the Roman Army would not get their sandals dirty. It was also a sign of subjection to the army. Even the trees would bow before the Roman conquerors. Sometimes they would put their cloaks in the road instead of palm branches. After the parade had passed, the citizens were made to follow the procession into the city, in preparation for the victory "celebration". The procession would wind through the city, finally ending up at the seat of provincial power, Fortress Antonia.

Jesus, during his final week of earthly teaching, was making his way back to Jerusalem. In Luke's Gospel especially, it is mentioned many times that Jesus was "on his way to Jerusalem". In Luke's mind, the climax of Jesus' teaching was to happen in Jerusalem, and there was some urgency written into the account. Jesus was compelled to travel to Jerusalem.

He finally makes it. As the stage is set for His last week of teaching, He and his disciples are near the Mount of Olives. Now the main roads leading to Jerusalem entered the city from the west. This was where the main gate was, and the main roads connecting Jerusalem with the other major cities in the area. These main roads and the main gate were the reasons that the Romans entered the city from the west. They wanted the whole city to understand that they were in charge.

Now the Mount of Olives was a favorite spot for Jesus to teach from. We find Him there quite frequently, teaching to the crowds that would gather. So it is no suprise that as Jesus comes back to Jerusalem, He would stop there. If we look on a map of the Jerusalem area, we can see the Mount of Olives, the Valley of Hinnom, and other locations that the Jews of Jesus' day would be familiar with. The Mount of Olives is directly east of Jerusalem. So, in the Triumphal Entry, Jesus' "homecoming" into Jerusalem, and the climax of His earthly ministry, we find Him entering Jerusalem from the east, directly opposite the direction of the imperial power of Rome.

But that did not stop His followers from snapping off palm branches and waving them around as they followed Him into town, or throwing their cloaks on the ground in front of Him.
Another interesting thing is what Jesus rode into town. Instead of a beautiful powerful warhorse, with all the muscles and armor and decoration that went along with it, Jesus rode a donkey. Furthermore, a donkey that had not been ridden before. Ever watched someone try to ride an animal that's never been ridden before? It's not the most glorious experience.

Once Jesus enters the city, with all the commotion and cheering and singing, Roman tradition would indicate that He would enter into the building that held the seat of power. And He does. But it's not Fortress Antonia. It's the Temple.

If Pilate, who was the Roman governor at the time, did not actually witness this triumphal entry, he no doubt had informants that let him know what was going on. And no doubt the full significance of the way Jesus entered the city was apparent to Pilate. Jesus was intentionally demonstrating, by His teaching, and His actions, that the way to live a full life, the true way to be fully and truly human, was anti-imperial. Jesus was forcing, and still today forces, people to choose their way of life.

So what will it be? Will you enter from the west, or the east?


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