Monday, April 10, 2006

The Disappointing Messiah

There's a difference of opinion these days whether it's better to commemorate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem as Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday -- if the day's lessons and sermons should emphasize Jesus' Messiahship or Jesus' spiraling descent into his ultimate humiliation and suffering.

When I was growing up, it seems that our Palm Sunday sermons emphasized both these things, and in fact juxtaposed them to highlight the irony of the Palm Sunday texts -- the cheering people laying branches at the feet of the "Son of David" becoming the jeering crowd of Good Friday, when it had become clear that Jesus wasn't the Messiah they'd expected.

Jesus was indeed a disappointing Messiah. And he still is.

The Gnostics found Jesus a disappointing Messiah because he was too human; not ethereal enough for a Son of God; too accessible and down-to-earth. So they recreated him in the image of an otherworldly figure simply playing at being human, whose esoteric teachings were the rightful province of the spiritually adept. And even in mainstream Christianity there came a point in history when Jesus' humanity was diminished to the point where many Christians were afraid to engage him directly; who found his mother or other saints less intimidating intermediaries between themselves and this distant, frighteningly holy Lord and Judge.

Ironically, later in history the thinking classes found Jesus a disappointing Messiah because he was, as described in the Gospels, too divine. All that whoo-hoo stuff about curing the sick and raising the dead and otherwise manifesting God's saving power -- and let's not even talk about the Resurrection; it was all just too embarrassing for intelligent folk to embrace such stories. So Jesus was deconstructed into a unique (but not really all that unique) moral teacher and forward-thinking rabbi/romantic revolutionary.

Some Christians, throughout the years, have found Jesus a disappointing Messiah because he wasn't angry enough. They want a Messiah who kicks ass and takes names, who gives his benediction upon his human agents to kill assorted species of unbelievers and evildoers in his name, whose goal is to establish a "righteous empire" on earth for people who think the right things about God. The Christian Reconstructionist movement is just the latest incarnation of this mindset. (I once had an interesting online conversation with a fundamentalist -- someone who takes great public stock in his own unquestioning acceptance of every word of Scripture as "God-breathed," literal truth -- who in an unguarded moment dismissed Jesus' Sermon on the Mount as "all that love crap.")

Some people just don't think that the Jesus of the Gospels is compelling enough a figure without sexing up his story -- turning him into a Jesus Christ Superstar worthy of Entertainment Tonight. The Messiah is much more titillating a figure if he has a secret girlfriend and children...if he and Judas are in on a revolutionary conspiracy...if the institutional Church has been engaged in a nefarious coverup of "the truth" for almost 2,000 years. (If I were a betting woman I'd lay odds that a majority of people snapping up The DaVinci Code, The Gospel of Judas et al and treating these books like amazing revelations fallen from heaven have never actually read the Gospels beginning to end, nor have they ever cracked open a book of serious biblical scholarship by someone like Raymond Brown or N.T. Wright or Marcus Borg. Just a hunch.)

The Messiah we meet in the Gospels is a Messiah whose person and message makes us uncomfortable. He's a Messiah who rejects the idea of religion which validates itself by worldly success or power. He's a Messiah who rejects the premise that only adepts and "insiders," people who do the right things or think the right things about God, are worthy of God's love and grace and imminent presence. He's a Messiah who refuses to give his stamp of approval to the societal status quo. He's a Messiah who will not endulge prejudices or revenge fantasies. He's a Messiah who can and does speak truth to power, but who does not use his power to dominate in a way that the world understands or respects. He's a Messiah whose earthly career as an itinerant preacher and teacher was limited and largely unsuccessful -- actually spectacularly unsuccessful, as we see on Good Friday. He's a Messiah who submits his will to that of God; who allows himself to become weak and vulnerable; who trusts God implicitly, even at the moment when God seems farthest removed from him; who, worst of all, calls us to follow in his footsteps -- these difficult, lonely, loser's footsteps.

He's a disappointment, this Jesus. Not the Messiah we want or expect.

But he's inviting us to come join him anyway. "I'm leading the way into God's Reign," he says. "It may not always look like it or feel like it, but that's where we're going. So come with me."

And -- thanks be to God -- we find ourselves saying, "Yes."


P.S. (an after-thought) said...

I ran across a listing of the positions of the various denominations regarding the war in Iraq. The only one on the list not against the war were the S. Baptists.

Last week I heard a discussion regarding the war. The Baptist leader said something about If you have a better idea as to accomplish what we are doing there, put it forward.

Your post about the dissappointing Messiah reminded me of this because we Christians say we believe in and follow Jesus, but, quite frankly, I think that if HE stepped forward now with one of His radical ideas regarding peace and war, we would again be disappointed.

They say radical and new ideas take awhile to catch on. But we still don't really follow His was after 2000 years when it comes to working with other countries.

Or maybe I'm the one who doesn't get it???

Jim said...

Oh, thank you for that! If I were a good enough writer, I would have written it -- because I have surely thought that way, and more and more frequently as I mature.

How I wish we could have more leaders who are as "disappointing" as He was.

Questing Parson said...

What a wonderful writing. This is outstanding. I don't know whether to cry out "Amen, sister, Amen" or to give you a standing ovation. So...I'm standing and crying out "Amen, sister, Amen!"

LutheranChik said...

[Blush] It ain't that good -- I see a syntactical error in it even now.;-)

Anyway...for another exploration of the ways in which we tend to remake Christ in our own image, check out my friend bls' post on Christ Among Partisans .

RuthRE said...

You good-writer-lady.

I'm leading our midweek service next week...wanna write my "term paper" for me? ;)

Nicodemia said...

LC - that is brilliant! You have a real gift for comprehensible, down-to-earth, challenging theological writing. I'm printing this out to study more closely.

Thank you

Inheritor of Heaven said...

I very much enjoyed this and will also be one who reads it again, much more slowly this time.

Evelyn said...

This posting really gives me some food for thought. All I can add is a resounding A-M-E-N!

Verdugo said...

well said, as always, LC.

The disappointing messiah made me think of the theory re: Judas (no, not that theory, the other theory) that he was a frustrated zealot who wanted Jesus to be a political messiah to free the Jews from Roman oppression. The theory goes (as you know) that Judas was not trying to get Jesus killed, but rather to force Jesus' hand so he would become the kind of messiah Judas wanted him to be.

Which gets me thinking (again) how much like Judas we are (well, I am anyway). While I may say I like the Jesus who frees me from my sins, in reality what I really want is Judas' version. Judas' messiah frees me from my oppressors-- all those obstacles and problems that hold me back, my enemies. But Jesus' messiah doesn't spend a whole lot of time talking about my enemies. Instead, he calls me to look inside myself, to find the broken and messed up parts of myself that are keeping me enslaved. The freedom he wants me to find is not from those darn external oppressors, but from my own internal obsessions. From my own anger and bitterness and hurt and pain.

I'd really rather talk about the Romans.