A Revolutionary Revolution

I have been reading NT Wrigth’s THE CHALLENGE OF JESUS, and it has been both exciting and a little scary. Exciting because he affirms much of the world-view that I grew up with in the Mennonite tradition of Christian faith (a tradition that says the warfare we wage is not earthly or militaristic, but rather spiritual and won through love).  It has been scary because, based on his study of the first-century world of Jesus, Wright challenges our basic understandings of the Gospels.

Here are a few examples:

“Jesus attitude toward the Temple was not ‘this institution needs reforming,’ nor ‘the wrong people are running this place,’ nor yet ‘piety can function elsewhere too.’ His deepest belief regarding the Temple was eschatological: the time had come for God to judge the entire institution” (p. 64).

“During his Galilean ministry, Jesus acted and spoke as if he was in some sense called to do and be what the Temple was and did” (p. 65).

“Jesus healings, which formed a central and vital part of his whole symbolic praxis, are not to be seen, as some of the early fathers supposed, as ‘evidence of his divinity.’ Nor were his healings simply evidence of his compassion for those in physical need, though of course they were that as well. No: the healings were the symbolic expression of Jesus’ reconstitution of Israel” (p. 68).

“Whereas Josephus was opposed to armed revolution because he was an aristocrat with a nest to feather, Jesus was opposed to it because he saw it as, paradoxically, a way of being deeply disloyal to Israel’s God and to his purpose for Israel to be the light of the world… Jesus was offering as a counter-agenda an utterly risky way of being Israel, the way of turning the other cheek and going the second mile, the way of losing your life to gain it. This was the kingdom-invitation he was issuing” (p. 44).

Wright goes on to contend that Jesus’ parables and his symbolic actions (in the upper room, with the fig tree, etc.) were all centered around this judgment of the Temple system and Israel’s failure to fulfill her calling to be a light to the world.  The prodigal son is Israel– Jesus is re-telling the old, old stories in a revolutionary way… in a way no one could have guessed they would be retold.

In another work, Wright says, “Jesus is retelling the Israel-story in order to undermine the present way of understanding the nation’s identity. It is as though someone were to tell the story of the development of America, or of the British Empire, not as the Americans and British normally tell them, as the stories of freedom and cvilization and how they were achieved, but as stories of Promethean ambition achieving deeply ambiguous power, handling it with irresponsible self-righteousness, and facing imminent disaster as a result” (p. 179, The Praxis of a Prophet).

Why is this a little scary for me, even though my spirit resonates with much of this perspective? Because in a way, this means the Gospels weren’t meant for me… The parables weren’t told for me, the symbols weren’t given for me. I’m not the audience. Granted, they were meant for me in the sense that they say now I get to be part of the people of God (the reconstituted Israel).  However, I feel like I’ve lost something, too, if I buy into Wright’s perspective. I lose the very personal nature of the parables and the Last Supper. I lose the Pauline reading… the justification-by-faith reading.  And it saddens me, even though I do think Wright is correct.

I suppose it’s possible that the parables have two readings… the first-century reading and the Pauline reading.  I’m also beginning to believe there is another reading. May I call it the “revolutionary reading?”  If we have chosen to follow Jesus and proclaim him our Lord and King, and if he has shown us and told us how to be God’s people, how to be the light of the world– then we must live as He lived!  His revolution is one of the cross, of redemption through suffering, of victory through love and forgiveness.  His revolution calls into question the usefulness of any earthly power.  He rejected political power whenever it was offered to him.  And He won the victory through dying on the cross. American Christianity could learn a lot from a revolutionary reading of the Gospels (whether we’re Republicans, Democrats or Independents).

One more Wright quote in closing: “We do not– we dare not– simply treat the cross as the thing that saves us ‘personally,’ but which can be left behind when we get on with the job. The task of shaping our world is best understood as the redemptive task of bringing the achievement of the cross to bear on the world, and in that task the METHODS, as well as the MESSAGE, must be cross-shaped through and through” (p. 95).

May our lives be cross-shaped! May we undertake an utterly revolutionary revolution and not buy into our western notions of what a revolution is!


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Mike
    Sep 19, 2008 @ 09:39:15

    Finally had the brain power for this one…maybe. Wow you’re reading some challenging and exciting stuff for school—makes me remember why I stayed in school so long, no matter how disillusioned I get with academics sometimes.

    I think it is possible to understand much of what you’re quoting Wright as saying here as directly opposed to our traditional human understanding of revolution. We tend to equate revolution with major change and upheaval in the social structure, bringing the rich and powerful low and raising the poor and lowly up. While this second goal is laudable, must the first necessarily be part of it? The critique of the rich and powerful is certainly also present in Wright’s work (the reference to Josephus), but only in their (humanly understandable) opposition to the radical rethinking.

    Jesus offers us a both/and proposition for revolution, it seems to me. Those who have had the benefit of being “God’s people” for a long time (Israel), and who have stewarded that gift poorly over the centuries, hoarding it rather than sharing it as the “light of the world” are not cut off in Jesus’s vision/mission/revolution. Instead, they are offered a new path of stewardship and service. And those who have had less access to God’s love and grace are offered full access in addition.

    Jesus’s revolution doesn’t ask, it seems to me, that Israel give up anything, except perhaps their perception that they have God in a box based not only on religion but on ethnicity, too. That and their sense of entitlement to God’s grace, love, favor, and protection, based, again, not on faith but on their essential Jewishness.

    But Jesus adds the entire non-Jewish world to the covenants of Noah, Abraham, and Moses. He says, “God is big enough for everyone.” (The Pauline story that you love so much, KA!) He also says, however, that this revolution, this radical change, does not subvert those earlier covenants but enhances them. The children of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel are not removed from their place of privilege in the eyes of God, no matter how much they’ve buried their Master’s money in the ground, hoarding it away. Israel is not brought low by Jesus, and much more actively Paul, taking God’s love to non-Jewish people.

    To me that’s the revolutionary nature of Jesus’s revolution. It raises some without the “necessary” implication of first bringing someone else down. There is no guillotine in Jesus’s revolution, no pogroms, no Auschwitz—not even a Runnymede or Concord Common. There is only the cross, and that death is both freely chosen and swallowed up in victory.

    Jesus tells us, “I will raise up those whom I love through my own life and death and life, not through the death and senseless slaughter of those who have been ‘before’ or ‘above’ them.” The proletariat, here, need not overthrow the aristocracy or fear the bourgeoisie…. God is big enough for all, to raise everyone, to make the distinctions unimportant.

    But most of all to say that nothing must be torn down in order to raise something else up around it, and including it.

    That, to me, is truly revolutionary!


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