A Provocation: Ascension: Luke 24:44-53

The messiah suffers.  Luke 24:46

A question:

Well, not a question this time, at least not at first.

A simple statement: No, the messiah does not suffer.

The messiah turns the world right-side-up.  The messiah calms and restores a broken world.  The messiah teaches Torah to the whole human race, which is to say that the messiah gives lessons in how to live as a proper human being, with special advanced courses in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  (Yes, I do think that is perhaps the most important statement in the Bible.)

But the messiah does not suffer, does not die, and so any word about rising from death is beside the point.

And now the question:

What does it mean for our understanding of hope and life, now that the messiah DOES suffer?

Some Longer Reflections:

Christians have long ago made peace with a suffering messiah.  And now that crucifixion is not common, and is not associated with the maintenance of Roman power, the idea of a crucified messiah sounds unexceptional, quite normal, in fact.

But in the ancient world out of which Luke’s story comes to us, crucifixion was a tool Rome used to inflict suffering and maintain its dominance.  Torture is the tool that keeps brutal power in place.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians, offers a glimpse of what a crucified messiah sounds like, what an Incarnation of God who is tortured to death would imply to any conceivable ancient audience.

  • If the audience were Jewish, such notions are a skandalon, a scandal, since it would indeed be scandalous to waste the hope of tikkun olam, healing the world, on a messiah who could not even defend himself.
  • If the audience were Gentile (and thus had no notions of a messiah, but did surely share the generalized human hope for a world made more safe, more stable), the idea of a crucified messiah was moria, the very embodied definition of the word, moronic.

There are no other options.

But Luke’s storyteller makes it clear: the messiah suffers.

How do we think about this productively?

A suggestion, which comes to me as a gift from my sister.

My sister practiced yoga, and found it very helpful, particularly as she lived with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  The sharpened awareness of her actual physical body helped her as her muscles went missing, one by one.  She was also a deep respecter of the Noble Truths of Buddhism.  In the midst of her learning how to cope with fingers, then feet, then legs, arms, and lungs that no longer functioned, the First Noble Truth was especially important: There is Suffering.

There is, indeed.

Luke’s storyteller is no Buddhist.  But Luke, like all Jewish apocalyptic thinkers, expects that all of Creation will finally be brought together when God restores all things.  This restoration, for Christians at least, is the central task of the messiah.

I would like to suggest, by way of a Provocation, that “The Messiah Suffers” is a Noble Truth, one that Christians would do well to learn deeply, the way my sister learned the Truths of Buddhism.

There is Suffering.

  • If messiah suffers, then messiah joins us in life the way it really is.
  • If messiah suffers, to take things further, then God also learns the Truth that life taught my sister, the Truth that Creation has also learned from Buddhism.
  • There is suffering.  There simply is.

While this will surprise (and surely annoy) religious partisans who imagine that truth is so simple a thing that one single faith could contain it all, it ought not surprise anyone who has listened to Luke’s storyteller , or to the Jewish faith in general.  God is the God of all Creation, and if “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” then all of Creation also tells the same truth.  This means that the first Noble Truth of Buddhism can teach Christians (and God) something about real life.

Any real healing or hope of restoration (not to mention resurrection) must begin with a vivid awareness of how this Truth affects the Creation that is our home, our neighborhood, and our world.

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