Friday, April 22, 2011

Two Swords for Jesus

Like Doug TenNapel's brilliantly surreal character Ratfist (or, rather, his tail), I too find the Christ story compelling.  In addition to its theological and spiritual components, it also works as an emotional drama, a study in group dynamics, or even occasionally as a political thriller.

I recently asked our minister, James, why Jesus would tell his supporters to buy swords just prior to his arrest.  Was it because of banditry?   Because, say what you will about the Romans, they were pretty big on highway safety, so that seems like a bit of a stretch.

"That may have been a part of it," said James, "but there is some conjecture, in some circles, that he may have been considering beginning that revolt against the Romans that so many were expecting."

Now, that's interesting.

The Romans of the first century A.D. were pretty close to the height of their powers and the Empire's economy had gone quite a ways with their "Expand/Subdue/Tax & Tribute/Repeat" model, so they were about as oppressive as it gets, really.  Their puppet ruler, Herod, was a bit of a turd, so if the populace turned against the Romans, there was not likely to be a Popular Monarchist Front holding anyone back afterwards.  Between a repressive occupation force, a distant ruling caste, and religious leaders dripping with power and entitlement, the racial, social and economic tension was so thick, that to describe Jerusalem at this time as a powder keg is to be guilty of woeful understatement.

Jesus is already getting the stinkeye from the Romans, who probably dislike the idea of poor people gathering in groups greater than five, and from the Pharisees, who keep getting chumped by Jesus whilst trying to do the same to him, so entering the city of Jerusalem armed in any way is simply begging for trouble.  And yet, Jesus tells his followers to 'sword up'.  And he is not subtle about it either:
Then said he to them, But now, he that has a purse, let him take it, and likewise his money: and he that has no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. Luke 22:36
Pretty incongruous for a man of peace, right?  Now, the following verse gives some indication that Jesus is, in effect, playing a role:
It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment."  Luke 22:37
I would say, yes, walking into a major urban centre, governed by the world's mightiest military power, at the head of a crowd shouting your name and waving some swords around is very likely to earn you that 'transgressor' label in a very short period of time.  Hence in the next verse, when two followers tell Jesus "Hey, look, we got swords!", he says it is enough.  The common interpretation is that Jesus is fully aware how things are going to shake down in Jerusalem, and that it is going to be a one-way trip for him.  He asks his followers to get swords so he can essentially play out his role as a villain in order to completely fulfill the prophecy he is referring to in verse 37.  And that seems like a very moderate and reasonable interpretation.

But I think one of the best things about the Gospels is that there are four of 'em, all told from slightly differing perspectives.  I sometimes think this is a convenient way of encouraging speculation; after all, if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John can't fully agree on the relative importance of things, it is pretty hard to be definitive, isn't it?

Just prior to his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus goes away to pray, and asks his Father to be spared what is to be asked of him, but ultimately submits to His will:
And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”  Mark 14:36
(And, for the record, no one presents this anguish better than Ted Neely in Jesus Christ Superstar.)

I've always taken this to mean that Jesus' mortal side is having a hard time dealing with his imminent torture and death; like many oppressive powers, the Romans had made torture and execution into a comprehensive interdisciplinary study, incorporating psychology, anatomy, sociology, communications and iconography within it.  It's one thing to know that you are risking death, but a whole other thing to realize that your final hours will be spent in excruciating agony while on public display, as much for the entertainment of the mob as for its edification .

But from a strictly dramatic viewpoint, what if that wasn't it?  What if Jesus' anguish is because he had decided that if he is indeed going to die in Jerusalem, as has been foretold, then his sacrifice should be in starting the uprising that will push the Romans out of Jerusalem, and perhaps all of Judea?  It's what so many people wanted, and surely God did not want His people to suffer under Rome forever, right?  As an accomplished speaker and respected teacher, Jesus could be the spark to catch the tinder, and ignite Jerusalem in a righteous conflagration.  If he were to die doing that, no one would question the value of his sacrifice, least of all himself.

An article on an Anabaptist webpage describes it far better than I can:
Luke depicts Jesus’ struggle in the unnamed place near the Mount of Olives (22:39-46) in terms of his reluctance to go through with the ‘cup’ of suffering. But what alternative was there by which he might accomplish his Messianic task? – it was a choice between the way of suffering or a campaign of violence. Perhaps the thought came to Jesus that those two swords could be wielded in a dramatic break-out, and that, having once resorted to violence, he could subsequently lead a peasant army to victory over the hated Roman occupying forces. If we try to read the account as a genuine struggle – without a pre-determined view of its outcome – then we may imagine that Jesus had no exact blueprint in his mind as to what would transpire. Of course, he had the outline of betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection (9:22; 9:44; 18:32f.), but his preoccupation with scriptural fulfilment indicates that this could be filled out only in limited ways.
Imagine Jesus returning to his disciples having decided that the time had come for the Romans to learn the old proverb about what happens to those who live by the sword, when, suddenly, Judas returns, leading a crowd with some soldiers in it.  You probably don't need to be the Son of God at this point to know this guy is a fink, but Jesus is, so there is no doubt. Now, it's not like the high priest has a photo or even a composite sketch of this guy Jesus, but Judas has arranged to kiss him in greeting so they know which one to grab, which makes the whole affair feel even more duplicitous and is pretty bad behaviour even for a traitor.

And then things go off the rails.

One of Jesus' followers, Peter maybe, realizes, "Hey!  I don't have to stand for this crap; I've got a sword!"

It's not a big sword, nor terribly well made, nor awfully sharp, really, but it makes a very satisfying sound coming out of the scabbard, and look at their faces now, they're scared; they weren't expecting this!

The sword raises up and then flashes down; one of the high priest's slaves cries out in pain and clutches the right side of his head where the disciple's sword has taken his ear clean off.

For the briefest of moments, everything stops.

This could be it.  If there is going to be a revolution, it could start right now, in this garden, out of sight of most of the Romans.

Blood, dripping from between the slave's fingers as he clutches the side of his head, falls towards the dusty ground, catching the eye of Jesus.  Perhaps he thinks, This is just the beginning.  If the Romans are to be defeated in war, it will be years upon years of brutal, bloody, struggle, pitting our numbers against the armour and discipline of the legions.  How many fighters will die?  How many innocents?  How many children?  And suddenly, his Father's plan, all the prophecies, and his wishes for his countrymen all coalesce, and he knows what he has to do.

Jesus shouts, "No more of this!" and tells his followers to put away their swords (both of them).  And he tends to the slave, healing him.  Afterwards, he allows himself to be taken, but not before chiding the chief priests for bringing a mob into a garden to arrest him, when they could have taken him from the temple without incident on so many previous occasions.  He is taken to Jerusalem, where he is tried, whipped, humiliated, and finally killed by crucifixion.

And wins.

As fascinating as it is to speculate what a Jesus-led insurrection might have looked like, and what such a defeat for Rome might have meant for the world we live in today, it really doesn't seem very likely.  It is terribly inconsistent with Jesus' message of loving one's enemies, which historically at least, seems to be a key component to lasting peace, even though examples are rare.  And my fanciful and overdramatized depiction of Jesus' arrest owes much more to my love of cinema than any sort of theological insight.  I do find it interesting that all four Gospels talk about the ear incident, John even naming the slave as Malchus, but only Luke describes Jesus healing the injury.

We can never be privy to the thoughts of someone as influential and controversial as Jesus, and attempting to replicate his mindset two millennia later from a comfortable basement almost an entire planet away from Jerusalem is probably the acme of foolishness, in addition to being remarkably pretentious and potentially heretical.  In the end, the story of Jesus is compelling not because of his motivations, but because of his words and actions, and how they represent the capital-T Truth: Love always wins.

Whatever your beliefs, I hope you have a Happy Easter, and perhaps take a moment to consider the story behind the holiday, and be grateful for the truth in it, and for all the other blessings in your life.

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