1 “Hosanna in the highest! Our eager hearts acclaim the prophet of the kingdom who bears Messiah’s name. O bold, O foolish peasants, to deem that he should reign! The temple and the palace look down in high disdain.” Hymn 262 – Hosanna in the Highest
Jesus Justice Delivered at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood By Carlos R. Martinez March 23, 2014
We have made it across the threshold of Winter, barely. Our expectation is the trees and flowers will bloom and soon the portends of Spring will be all about us. Another season of our lives has come and gone and we will look around at the once spare limbs and branches and expect they will again be resplendent, full and green. The lonely vigil of the trees against the harsh winter will seem like a distant memory amid the buds and the sprouts of its leaves. To come to know a tree is to marvel at its stature, its branches and the wavy leaves which will give us cool refreshing shade in the heat of summer. To know a tree one must marvel at its trunk and root system for without these there would be no leaves at all. Recently I learned that there are over 43,000 Christian denominations. By contrast, in Judaism there are five and in Islam there are primarily two. If denominations are thought to be leaves one might believe that the Christian denominational tree is full. I believe as Unitarian Universalists we need to be reminded that we are of that Judeo-Christian tree. Think of us as a leaf that has fallen BUT NOT too far from that tree. Whatever we may think or consider ourselves our Unitarian Universalist history tells us that we too are descendants of the children and the book of Abraham. In truth both Unitarians and Universalists once upheld the Bible as its single source of Scriptural truth. Over time our exuberance for embracing the whole of Creation opened up new vistas of how we could take the experience of humanity and learn from it. Our origins are unmistakenly Christian but in truth we have more in common with our Jewish brethren and we are something of an Old Testament religion more than a New Testament one. The difference is—like our Jewish bretheren—we hold that that Jesus was a human being, a rabbi, a teacher and a prophet not a God or the messiah or savior. We hold that there is one unitary loving God, call it the Spirit of Life, God of many names or life force of all Creation. Whatever we call it, it is indivisible and not readily made into disparate parts. We believe that we have a responsibility to tease out the truth from creation through our experience and dialogue with the mysteries of the Divine and to ponder and interrogate the phenomenon of Life. In a larger sense we are better able to hew ourselves to a lifetime of questioning and challenge with the intention of leading righteous and just lives. To be just, resonates and echoes loudly in the experience of Jewish and Christian traditions as it does in the greater wellspring of humanity. To be just is found in the books of the world’s great religions. It is to be found innately woven into the fabric of ourselves because so often we react viscerally to unjust acts perpetrated against those who cannot otherwise protect themselves.
2 Today marks the 3rd Sunday of the Lenten season. The season of Lent—which begins with Ash Wednesday and covers the period up to Easter—is a time of preparation for Holy Week. Holy Week is the last week of Lent and the week before Easter. In this time Christians are asked to prepare for and call to memory the meaning and life of Jesus. In Holy Week we are called to remember Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper with his Disciples and his condemnation, crucifixion and resurrection. Among the many vivid events of that week, in the New Testament the Gospel According to John 12:12-19 (NRSV) we are told: “The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna1! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!’ Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” The world had indeed gone after him. On Palm Sunday the crowds were said to have laid palm fronds at his feet. The palms were symbolic of national pride and military victory. And the days which followed and as they are related to us in the Bible, are filled with promise, expectation, hypocrisy, treachery, betrayal and death. It was a week unlike any other. The festival which is spoken of in the Gospel of John is Passover. Passover as it is celebrated presently begins at sundown on April 15th and ends on April 22nd. It is an important feast commemorating the Israelites flight to freedom from Egyptian slavery. In Exodus 12, the Bible speaks of when the angel of death “passed over” the Israelites homes, sparing their first born. Passover is celebrated during the first month of the Hebrew year. The Jewish General and later historian, Flavius Josephus, a Judean, born in the year 37 of the Common Era, attests that as many as three million Jews from all parts of the world poured into Jerusalem to participate in the Passover feast. It is conceivable that Jerusalem was brimming with devout Jews the day Jesus entered the Holy City. The world the Jews inhabited, of which Jesus spoke, was one of crushing poverty in which over ninety percent of the population lived at a subsistence level. The oppression the Israelites felt in Egypt was present again in Palestine as the cultured Hellenistic world of Alexander the Great had given way to the ascendant Imperial Pax Romana. The Roman Empire was governed with violence and brutality and the crushing obligation of tribute and taxes to be paid to sustain Rome and the outsized projects of the Emperor. Roman coinage, architecture and symbols are filled with recurrent themes of suffering.2
Various meanings, e.g., “Save us we beseech you.!” pp. 886, The Oxford Bible Commentary.
3 Governing the Empire depended upon the Romans subjugating the people they ruled not only by military force but by subjugating the gods to which they prayed. Under the Roman pantheistic system all local gods were permitted so long as Augustus Caesar, imperator, emperor, reigned above them as the Supreme god. This practice of the Roman Imperial cult was begun by Julius Caesar and expanded under Augustus. It had its antecedents in Egypt, Persia and Greece and underwent an expansion.3 The origins of the cult are also thought to have roots in the early religious practices of the Italian tribes which were considered to be in a rudimentary state of development in which the “genius” of each individual man was deeply rooted.4 “The fundamental source of emperor-worship is to be found in one of the primitive tendencies in Roman thought, viz. [namely], the veneration of the individual human spirit, the worship of Genius.” As one historian of the period states: “The emperors regularly became divi, their genius an object of worship. From the dizzying mixture of all kinds of religion—native Italian, Greek, and Oriental—the worship of Caesar rises, and overtops them all. The old Italian belief in the genius was thus impressed into the service of political and imperial ends.”5 The cult of the emperor took on different attributes from emperor to emperor. Generally speaking it equated him as being divine and the recognized head of a system of social, political and religious control and leadership under which the Jews, but not the Christians, had negotiated an exemption from participation. The emperor mightily held the title of high priest and supreme bridge builder between heaven and earth or “pontifex maximus.” Thusly, the proliferation of the imperial cults became “the ideological and theological glue that held the cities of the Roman Empire together.”6 As a theologian [Henry Burton] noted, power was divinity and divinity was power and that power wielded by an absolute ruler over a world empire made that person inconceivably great in the mind of the common man.7 Conversely, the Christians honored the Emperor as ruler but didn’t recognize him as a god which was considered to be an act of supreme disloyalty. “Hence the mere profession of Christianity was regarded as a [high] crime against the state.”8 The accounts related to us in the Gospels of Jesus during Holy Week is similar yet different from the Jewish ones of the Hebrew Bible9 [Gen. 37, 39-41; Esther (Mordecai); Daniel 3 and 6, Susanna, 2 Macc 7, Wisdom 2, 4, and 5]. “These stories originate as court tales about a wise man who, as the object of a conspiracy is persecuted, consigned to death, rescued, vindicated, and
Anchor Bible Dictionary, electronic version. Jevons, Frank Byrons. Hellenism and Christianity. Harvard Theological Review, vol. 1, No. 2 (Apr. 1908) pp. 179. 5 Jevons, pp. 180. 6 Reed, Jonathon L. The Harpercollins Visual Guide to the New Testament. (2007, HarperBooks, NY). Pp. 103 7 Burton, pp. 87 8 Burton, pp. 90 9 Genesis: Joseph sold into bondage; Esther: The story of Mordecai; Daniel: Nebuchadnezzar condemns Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; Susanna: Falsely accused of adultery and acquitted; 2 Maccabbess: The martyrdom of the seven brothers; Wisdom of Solomon: The story of the righteous man. 4
4 exalted in the royal court.”10 Interestingly, there are “three factors distinguish[ing] the gospel narratives from their Jewish prototypes. The protagonist is a historical figure of the recent past. Unique status is ascribed to him, as Messiah, Son of Man, and Son of God. His Divinity gives the narratives a special nuance: a genre that originally described the suffering of a righteous man now recounts the death of a divine being.”11 The element of justice within this narrative is the elevation of Jesus to a divine being puts him on par with the Emperor and as such makes our reading of the Bible one of a manifesto of liberation and justice for an oppressed and brutalized people. The Gospel of Matthew legitimates Jesus’ divine and human origins by claiming him as a descendant of King David and a rightful heir to the Kingship of Israel. Thus Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week were a high stakes political theater in which the foundation and legitimacy of Roman authority was challenged. Jesus and his followers enter the city mocking the established order. Caesar is divine so too is Jesus. Also, emperors were understood to be descended from God, the sons of god. So too did Jesus claim to be. His entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey mimicked the entry of victorious Caesars, who, as was the custom, came to receive Triumphs from a tumultuous and welcoming populace. In the eyes of the temple and the palace Jesus was a threat for it was the peasants who deemed that he, Jesus, should reign. The followers of Jesus were seeking freedom and justice. They were seeking liberation from the oppressive rule of Rome and the pervasive authority of the Emperor. Simply they were imagining for themselves a new life. Among the lessons to contemplate during this Lenten season and the approach of Palm Sunday and of Holy Week is that we are often bound to live lives that we don’t want or intend to lead. The people of Judea were oppressed into bone wrenching submission by the Roman form of government. The choices were to submit or rebel. It was Jesus who led the rebellion. He was the Messiah, in Hebrew, the Mashiach, in Greek, Christos, the “anointed one”, who would lead them out from under Roman domination. Mashiach is a term used in the Hebrew Bible to describe priests and kings who were traditionally anointed with holy anointing oil as described in Exodus (30:22-25) as God’s anointment of Moses, Aaron and the sons of Aaron who served God as priests. His message to his followers was simply if you want a new way of life you must imagine a new way of being. It was not enough to take the way of life imposed upon them by the Romans and improve upon it. What was needed was a transformative way of being. It was a message that we too can be the “anointed one.” We too can be the deliverer, liberator and server of justice if only you can imagine a new way of being. There are lessons here that can help us in our daily lives. So often we find ourselves not leading the life we expect or want for ourselves. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the Swiss born psychiatrist and physician, said that “our goal is to lead our life and not the life that others want us to lead.” “Too often,” she said, “it is only at the end of our lives that we learn this lesson and by then it is too late to change as much for our life is already behind us.” 10 11
Anchor Bible Dictionary, pp. 175, vol. V Ibid. pp. 175, vol. V
The lesson of Jesus Justice is in beseeching his followers to rethink their way of living as a first step toward creating a new and just world. In a world of forced labor and servitude Jesus’ words were difficult to hear. Jesus was telling his followers to consider, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and who wishes to be first among you must be slave to all.” Jesus had something else in mind. He spoke these words as a reimagining. A reimagining of what life under Roman rule could be for his disciples. Jesus asked them to transform themselves and to stop being like the oppressive Romans. Jesus was pointing to a new way, to a better life than the one they had. To do so meant thinking differently, and breaking the bonds of hierarchy. Jesus’ followers wanted to be like the Romans because that is all they knew. As Jesus tells it, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…” As we step forward into the coming of Spring, the lessons of the Lenten season and of the coming Holy Week reminds us that our lives are finite and we must live in such a way that our life well lived is indeed a life worth dying for. We must continually remind ourselves that life is impermanent, what succeeds us are the consequences of our actions. Many blessings to you for this season of Lent. So be it. Amen. Let it be so.