Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for progressives is what to do about, what to think about, what to say about, the cross. As I get ready to go on holiday, I can’t say I’m ecstatic to be confronted by the question in today’s Gospel, but there is no escaping it. It is at the core of the conversation Mark shares between Jesus and his disciples. Who we say Jesus is and the cross he challenges us to pick up are inextricably linked.
First, a little about this conversation: I am certain it never happened - at least Jesus was never part of the conversation. After Jesus’ death on the cross, which would’ve been a huge embarrassment to the Jews. They, like progressives today, had to make sense of it. Deuteronomy 21:23 declared, “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
Last week I was at a symposium with John Dominic Crossan, a biblical scholar and historian. He was speaking mostly about the power of parable and how fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus. While all his arguments are beyond the scope of this sermon, a little background is essential. He would remind us that Jesus was illiterate. He could neither read nor write and that was true for most of the peasants who followed him. When his oral stories finally got written down they were highly abridged and edited to sharpen the theological axe of whoever was doing the writing. What would actually happen is that it would be a story told with lots of interruptions and debates, like someone saying what do you mean a “Good Samaritan? No such thing exists.” So what might take only five minutes to read on Sunday morning would have been more like an extended Facebook conversation that took place all afternoon.
Then there is the question as to what is a parable? They are clearly stories told with a purpose. Often they were told as riddles, where having the right answer was a matter of life or death. Think Oedipus and the Sphinx. Often Jesus’ parables are declared to be riddle parables that he would only explain to the insiders. Mark was of this persuasion. He thought they were intended to be incomprehensible to outsiders. Mark saw Jesus using stories they couldn’t understand to reject those who rejected him. Crossan refutes this position with Mark’s own words that Jesus came to teach the people. While sometimes a teacher is incomprehensible, it is never his or her intention. Teachers teach to teach understanding. Jesus did not give riddle parables to punish. So was his purpose a second use of parables, to give examples for living an ethical life?
Crossan says, “Once upon a time, long, long ago, theologians used to debate whether God was all-present, all-knowing, and all-powerful. That, of course, is not God, but Google.” [i] He then looks up parable in Wikipedia, which defines it only as “a brief, succinct story, in prose or verse, that illustrates a moral or religious lesson.” Crossan disagrees that example parables are the only kind of parable, but he does argue that Luke understood Jesus’ parables in that way. He uses the story of Nathan challenging David over his seduction of Bathsheba and then arranging for the murder of her husband as an instance of an example parable. [ii] Luke has several such parables including the Prodigal Son. This is an example of the prodigal’s father exemplifying God.
Crossan argues that Luke got it wrong or at least incomplete; that Jesus’ parables were much more than examples of proper behaviour. He argues that there is a third typology for parables that better explains Jesus’ use of them. He argues they are challenge parables. They challenged biblical tradition, cultural norms, and call us to turn our world and assumptions upside down. He called this world God’s divine kingdom and for Crossan, Jesus was both the message and the medium.
He gives three examples of challenge parables from Hebrew Scriptures: Ruth, Jonah and Job. All three tales create unlikely heroes of people despised by the Jews. Ruth was a Moabite that no Jew was to marry and makes her the great-grandmother of David. Jonah, transported to Nineveh by means of a large fish is told to tell Ninevites, who have oppressed the Jews by destroying the northern kingdom, to repent. They do and Jonah has a major sulk. Job, an Edomite, equally hated by the Jews is shown to be the most faithful man on the planet. All three stories challenge scripture, cultural bigotry and the Jewish leaders at the time who were anxious to preserve Jewish culture from being assimilated by their conquerors.
Skipping lots of his arguments to get to this point, Crossan understands Jesus as a historical version of these three fictional characters. His whole life and ministry and death were a challenge parable, and as a result he was not readily understood. Which brings us to the conversation we heard in the Gospel today. After his death his disciples spent a lot of time trying to understand what he was all about. Who the hell was he anyway?
He sounded like the prophets. Was he Elijah who was taken to heaven in a whirlwind and had now returned? Yet that didn’t quite fit. He was more than a prophet. Prophets spoke for God; Jesus lived like God. It was like God talking directly to them, not through a mouthpiece.
Well, was he John the Baptist returned from the dead? He certainly was influenced by John, even if he was not a card-carrying follower. But John believed that the reason the Jews were oppressed by the Romans was because they had sinned before God. The only way God was going to save them was if the whole nation repented and relived the experience of passing through the Red Sea where Pharaoh was defeated. They needed to return to the wilderness and pass through the Jordan waters to be made pure. John’s view was one where God would save through violence, just as God helped the Hebrew people conquer the Promised Land and slay the Canaanites. John was the leader of a rebellion and paid the price. Jesus never preached that message and even reached out to the Gentiles, curing the daughters of a Centurion and a Canaanite woman.
Then was he the Messiah? This was a loaded term for his followers complicated by the fact that he never said he was. It simply meant to be anointed. In Greek the word was Christ. David, not exactly the finest example of faithfulness, was generally seen as the first Jewish Messiah and what was anticipated, as his successor, was also a warrior king. Jesus’ refusal to advocate violence put a kink into giving him this label. Think of Emperors leading armies on a stallion and Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey (another parable). Jesus not only preached God’s reign, he embodied it. He was not John, Elijah, or the Messiah. He was a parable that demonstrated that violence and hatred are not God’s way. Loving enemy and neighbour alike were tantamount to the just world God envisioned.
Crossan argues that the only purpose of any parable is to take us somewhere else. They are intended to be participatory. A wise man was once asked where he was going? His answer, “Not here.” Jesus was calling us on such a participatory journey. Where are we going? Not here: a place where the poor are ignored, the hungry are unfed, the innocent are persecuted, war is acceptable, injustice is justified - even in Scripture. Jesus as parable reminds us that God’s kingdom is not an act of unilateral intervention by divinity, but an act of bilateral cooperation between divinity and humanity. In Desmond Tutu’s words, “God, without us, will not; as we without God cannot.”
I would like to end the sermon here, but there is still the matter of the cross. While Jesus was a challenge parable, challenge parables can be morphed into attack parables, from nonviolent teachings into ones that sanction violence. Jesus as a challenge parable opposed violence without joining it. Crossan makes the case that John’s Gospel was an attack parable on Mark, Matthew and Luke. John morphs a very human Jesus into a mostly divine one. He takes aim not only in attacking the Pharisaic Jews like Matthew and Luke, but Jews as a group. John attacks the Roman Empire as well, and he does this by turning Jesus into an attack parable.
The cross is now not just a cruel form of execution. It becomes, as with the Emperor Constantine, a symbol of divine violence. His motto for the empire became, “in this sign conquer.” Thanks to John and the Book of Revelation (the most violent book of the Bible), the cross was transformed into an emblem of Christian triumphalism, forged, according to Robert Funk, “in the fires of the late Roman empire, in the process of a military victory.” [iii] Amongst those fires were the Crusades, the Inquisition and Auschwitz. It came to symbolise the dehumanization of indigenous peoples, the permission of slavery, the depowering of women, and today, the ostracising gays and lesbians. It gave us “Onward Christian Soldiers” “and shaped a creedal Christianity that left a human Jesus completely out of the picture.” [iv]
So, if we pick up a cross, let it not be the one of an attacking parable, but of a challenging one. The one a nonviolent Jesus did not shy away from so he could rob a violent, unjust kingdom of its power. Let us pick up the one he accepted fearlessly in the name of love, in order that the kingdom may live in us and we in it.
[i] Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable. HarperOne: 2012 p 29
[ii] Ibid. p 34
[iii] Funk, R. W. 2002 A credible Jesus. Fragmeents of a vision. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press