THE ARMS OF CHRIST
For those of us living in New Zealand this season of Lent will be now be remembered as a time when we were brought back to Earth with an unpleasant jolt. Prior to Friday the 15th of March we appeared to have a perhaps overstated reputation for a reasonable level of tolerance. Certainly at the very least we might have assumed we were living in a country more or less at peace. While our reputation for accepting refugees seem low compared with many other nations, at least the place we offered for refugees seemed safe and care was taken to prepare the refugees for life in New Zealand.
I think prior to last Friday we might also say with some pride that terrorism was virtually unknown here, and that even if some faiths had been made aware of some intolerance, there had been virtually none of the interfaith violence seen in many countries. Interfaith relationships were good and even if there was misunderstanding of some of the newer religions, perhaps it might even be argued that since only 11% of the population goes to Church, most in the population are able to adopt an attitude of live and let live. Why then should there be some who reject the good and set out to declare war on a Muslim mosque and a Muslim centre in a peaceful city like Christchurch? Who could possibly take offence at a Muslim community which in this case had something of a reputation for a group of people characterised by charity and peaceful living?
Well someone did – and perhaps more worrying, even if the apparently deranged right wing Nationalists who did the damage were few in number, even more worrying was that several hundred supporters, including some New Zealanders, were cheering the shooter on via the social media sites even as the news of the massacre started to spread. No doubt many would have seen the news that even one Australian senator is on record as putting the blame not on those doing the shooting, but on those letting the refugees into our country.
You would think that everyone – not just those in New Zealand – would welcome an island of relative peace, and a set of values that taught that everyone should be valued and respected. Yet the very ones who promote peace, harmony and helpful values themselves become targets of anger and derision.
The season of Lent presents us with a similar puzzle. Here we have the living example of wisdom and kindness, Jesus, going around helping the poor and the rejected and sick and the lame and the blind. Why should this annoy the establishment of the day? Despite his good deeds, we are being in effect told that, far from being impressed, Herod and the Religious establishment of the day and even the Romans don’t want him around.
Surely Jesus has done nothing wrong. He draws attention to eternal truths and helps people sort out their values. His parables awaken people’s consciences and towards the end of his ministry, an increasing number of those who meet him are even starting to see him as the promised one, the Messiah. He is making his way gradually towards Jerusalem, the Holy City, the home of the Temple, the home of the Chief Priests and those wise Religious leaders who know their scriptures so well that they will know the right signs to look for in the Messiah, whoever he may be. Where better or more appropriate for the Messiah to go?
Being honest with our faith actually matters. To assume all or even any of the above mentioned factors would give Jesus good prospects in Jerusalem turns out to be mistaken and by the same token, I fear, it is unlikely to have an immediate payoff for us if we are active supporters of his message even today. A concern for justice, forgiveness and peace-making has never found universal favour no matter how helpful these characteristics might be to the community as a whole – and even the demonstration of sheer goodness and compassion is sometimes uncomfortable to those motivated by baser instincts.
It is almost as if the light of goodness in others breaks through to reveal characteristics we might prefer remain in the shadows. Think for a moment how a company will discourage whistle-blowers, how a nation at war will treat its pacifists and just how many wills are contested when the targeted generosity of a benefactor is disputed.
At the same time, in Jesus’ case it would be unwise to gloss over the threat that his teaching brought either to some of those wanting to preserve traditional Judaic teaching or those with more selfish ambitions. Nor for that matter is it likely to appeal to any who wanted to rule by force or to those who were seeking to keep in with the Roman invaders. To someone trying to support rule by force, notions of the need for forgiveness would not have been welcome.
In any event for the financial barons of the time, the thought of not storing up treasures on Earth would be incomprehensible. To those who were proud of their status – which I guess would include Herod as well as some of the scribes and the Pharisees and leaders at the Temple, the notion of becoming a servant to all would be anathema, and to a large number who would have been proud of their status as God’s chosen people, and even fierce in their nationalism, the thought of treating neighbours from other cultures or religions as oneself would probably have been angrily dismissed out of hand.
I suspect that Jesus was seen as a danger to the Romans, who for the most part were remarkably accommodating of those with other religions, but had a bottom line the for any religion which did not allow its members to swear their first allegiance to the Emperor. Jesus, in teaching that only God is worthy of praise, would have been seen to be passing on a dangerous message incompatible with the Roman edict that before any other worship was given, praise first be offered to the Emperor.
The Roman Empire at its best offered peace to those who accepted their authority, yet it was a peace enforced by totally ruthless suppression of the slightest sign of rebellion. Shortly before Jesus was born, the Romans had crucified some 2000 Palestinian Jews who had risen in revolt. Having read the arguments put forward by John Dominic Crossan, I can at least see why a number of modern Bible scholars are agreed that Jesus’ eventual crucifixion was because his words and actions were seen as a form of potential political rebellion by the Romans.
The intriguing imagery used by Jesus to describe Herod (Herod Antipas, that is) as the fox and himself as a mother hen wanting to gather chicks under his wings for their protection probably meant more to his hearers than it would to today’s urban dwellers. In terms of the helpless chicks the image of Herod as the fox, a sly, devious killer, certainly fits with the comments from contemporary historians of the day.
Like his father Herod the Great, before him, Herod known by his nickname Antipas had a reputation for being obsessed with power and his treatment of John the Baptist and others who crossed him make it easy to understand why the Romans would find in Herod a useful, bullying, front man.
Herod Antipas the Tetrarch of Galilee divorced his first wife and instead took his brother’s wife Herodias. You may remember that it was this act which was said to have caused John the Baptist to incur Herod’s wrath by telling him marrying his brother’s wife was wrong.
Because Herod Antipas only makes brief appearances in the New Testament we cannot be sure of his exact role in the plotting against Jesus, but certainly Jesus is portrayed as having him summed up rather well by calling him –“ that fox”.
Jesus likening himself to a mother hen may seem a little more obscure. To those brought up in cities it may seem curious that such an apparently feminine and soft image be chosen. Certainly hens don’t strike most people as strongly protective birds. For those who have had something to do with hens in a rural setting, the image would have more meaning. In earlier years when fire was more common as a disaster a number of commentators have recounted how a mother hen in a burning hen house would spread her wings over her chicks and literally die protecting them.
Presumably in retrospect, the continuing disasters that have since befallen Jerusalem – and for that matter, disasters that show every signs of being likely to happen again, Jesus’ words fore-tell something of the approaching dangers. For example, for Luke’s first readers, it must have seen that Jesus was speaking of the fall of Jerusalem when the unsuccessful revolution against the Romans finished with the destruction of the Temple, wholesale torture and killing of many of the citizens and the driving out of the remaining population.
While the critics can reasonably ask how far with the advantage of hindsight Luke had edited his story, what we might also note is that although Jesus has been recorded as wanting to take the vulnerable under his wings to protect them, from what happened, we know that he was unable to do so. Nor do we have to look too far before we encounter other disasters in the making where somebody – many some-bodies – are going to be called upon once more to take the chicks under their wings.
Many Western nations are encountering a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. On an international scale the contrasts are even more painfully obvious. New Zealand has one of the highest per capita ratios of natural resources in the world. Others less fortunate can only look forward to despair.
If however we do accept the thrust of Jesus’ teaching, the vulnerable should hopefully find his face in the faces of his followers. I wonder if that would include us? How often do we hear Christians insisting on the rights of refugees? And how popular does that make us? Just as Jesus in his day had Herod and other jealous or even fearful enemies with which to contend, there will be no guarantees that those engaged in Jesus’ continued mission will find universal support or popularity.
That Jesus himself was unable to protect all whose problems were ahead for them in Jerusalem we should not be too discouraged that there are many we are likely to fail to protect. But the question should really be, if Jesus wanted to act as a protector, should we who claim to follow his way, ignore those whose problems are directly in front of us if we will but look.
Remember it is more than just Jerusalem that is the focus of Jesus’ lament, it is the human condition. But who should address the problems of the threatened, the abused, the rejected and the powerless?
There is a statue in Rome of Jesus, which has a curious feature. The statue has no arms. If you ask you will be told that Jesus now has no arms to reach out to help others. He is now dependent on the arms, the hands, the eyes and ears and voice of his present followers. If not us – who will be there as a living presence to achieve the tasks set before us?