We USAmericans have formed an extremely sanitized picture of Jesus’ world. We’ve been duped by historically inaccurate Christmas card images of his manger birth (cows?). We imagine Jesus leisurely strolling through meadows with The Twelve and happily hugging children seated on his lap. Jesus lived in “the holy land” after all. We carry mental images of a somewhat pastoral, serene and safe world.
The “holy land” of Jesus’ day was anything but serene. It was a giant gun-powder keg and lots of people were running around wildly with blazing torches eager to light the fuse. The last thing the holy land was, was safe. “Robbers” or “bandits” or, even better, “terrorists” was a word on Jesus’ lips. Galilee and Judea were regions of turbulent change and cultural clashes. Judaism, Jesus’ heritage and faith, seethed with entrenched schisms and fiercely divided loyalties. Rome pressed its massive iron boot on the neck of a religiously proud nation. Herod the Great and his sons (especially Antipas) sold out the nation as they jockeyed for more personal power and Roman approval. Sephorris, near Nazareth, is a city and case in point. Centuries before, Alexander the Great (the Greek warrior) went about to conquer the world. His dream? A new world order.
Hellenization meant make all things Greek. Greek forms of politics, education, arts and theatre, commerce, architecture and religion were pressed into conquered peoples’ lives. World domination by Greece came to an end with the rise of Rome, but Rome liked the Hellenization of the world and continued it with the force of its unparalleled military might. The territories of Galilee, Samaria and Judea did not escape this global change in world-view. Using massive buildings of stone and frecoes painted on huge marble slabs (their tool like our Internet), the Romans set out to change (conquer?) the world. In Galilee and Judea the concrete, Hebrew action-oriented world was being absorbed and changed into the Hellenistic world of ideas and ideals. Ways of “processing reality” were changing and the changes were everywhere. For example, the Greek idea of dualism crept into the aberrant forms of the Christian faith. Power was viewed as might. Might made things “right” (that is, made things Hellenistic). Do we believe might makes things a democracy?
Herod the Great and Herod Antipas compromised the distinctiveness of Israel in their quest to Hellenize their own nation. They and their allies agreed that Rome was to be reckoned with and the best reckoning was Jewish compromise (appeasement) and surrender. “Peace in our time” would not come by a wild-eyed Messiah, but by managing empirial power. Wild-eyed Messiahs were a dime a dozen and they usually ended up committing suicide or suffocating on a Roman cross.
Of course, some loyal Jews fought back. Some fought back violently–the Zealots. Others resisted religiously–the Pharisees. Others adjusted politically–the Sadducees and Herodians. Still others acted dramatically–the Essenes fled to the desert of Qumran and lived a ghettoed life. You know, Essene pre-schools, home schools, grade schools, colleges. Essene businesses so their money will only be used by Essene people. Essene Bibles. All things Essene in their tight little exiled community…waiting for Messiah to come. Our own USAmerican Christianity reflects every one of these “ways” to deal with the empirial globalization of Money as god. In Jesus’ day within all the turmoil and bloodshed, the first and great Jewish question was: “How does ‘the kingdom of God’ come?”
Into this boiling caldron of competing views Jesus was born, raised and served his people. It was not, as it is today, a question of “modern” or “postmodern” world. It was a question of being Hebraic or Hellenistic. And it came down to practical decisions. What’s wrong with a little incense sprinkled on an emblem to Rome (with its god) if it will keep you alive? A lot of Jewish political lobbying took place with Roman authorities. Picture Right Wing Jews founding a coalition “to take back Palestine for God.” Others compromised: Jews do not have to worship Caesar, but they must pray for Caesar. Do you see the fine distinction: pray for, not pray to. That gets the Jews off the cross.
The ancient (biblcial) promises of freedom, the mighty acts of God’s liberation, the compelling vision of being a free people in their own land–all this became like fairy tales to Jews under the cold, hard oppression of Rome. Adjust Israel: Caesar is Lord.Emerging from the almost total 30 year silence came a carpenter from Nazareth to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. Riding the wave of his cousin John’s nation-cleansing ministry, Jesus walked into Galilean and Judean villages with a message echoing that of his cousin John, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
“Kingdom of God.” Those were the adrenaline-pumping dream words to an oppressed people. That same phrase was fighting words to Rome. And as Jesus lived and taught and acted, he was misunderstood by both Jewish and Roman authorities; by both religious and political factions. Sound familiar? Today, if your lean emergent, you are viewed as politically Left. Worn out, hackneyed terms are used to categorize everyone. Jesus refused to be categorized: “What kind of man is this?” was asked continually about Jesus.
The emergent conversation today is also taking place in a time of massive global change. (”The world is flat”). Christians, like their Jewish forebears, are divided. Can you believe the “tempest in a teapot” over something like the TNIV? Our faith is apparently so shaky that Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code created quite a stir. And I won’t even mention Harry Potter. But what about A.I.D.S. and children dying of starvation and thousands of deaths of innocent women and children who are unfortunately “collateral damage”? USAmerican politics is filled with posturing and lies (on both sides of the aisle) and Christians get “sucker punched” every election season. Rome used its military to prop up its own version of a “free world living in peace.” Things don’t change that much, do they? Soon we will hear, “We just love Coca-Cola and McDonalds in Iraq.”Some Christians, like the Essenes, choose to flee… to Arkansas and stock canned goods and weapons. Some flee to the sanctuary, to their brick and mortar ghettoes and sing “Safe am I.” Some sell out and absorb the “consumerization” of the world, which, in a word, is greed. Stuff. China makes stuff really cheap and Wal-Mart sells it sort of cheap and we all go home happy. “In Stuff We Trust.” Bottom lines are so much more important than Bibles.
Here comes Jesus with the song of the kingdom in his soul. It’s a vision of the kingdom unsullied by commercial exploitation or military power or religious rule. The last thing the kingdom of God can be turned into is a synagogue or denomination or barracks.
As I understand it, the “emergent conversation” was what Jesus was born into and born for. In a time of massive ‘worldview’ changes, “How does the ‘kingdom of God’ come today?” is still the emergent question.
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