A Provocation: Reign of Christ, Luke 23:33-43, November 20, 2016

Luke 23:33-43
23:33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

23:34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

23:35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”

23:36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,

23:37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

23:38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

23:39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

23:40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?

23:41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

23:42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

23:43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

A Question or Two:

  • How does Jesus manage to find so many faithful Jews in such odd places?
  • Why does Luke nail the coronation of the King of the Jews to a scene of torture?

Some Longer Reflections:

One small thing.  It is the task of a messiah to act as the agent of God in turning the world right-side-up.  The publicly approved anger of this last election cycle makes it clear that the world is in no proper sense right-side-up.  I am not commenting on the election or who won it.  I am, however, commenting on the way people in convenience stores or on Facebook have been encouraged to believe that it is time to let loose the hate.  This is not the world as any God worthy of the name could have intended it.

So if Jesus is messiah, he seems not to have managed to right the world.

This notion is generally upsetting to Christians, who have invested centuries in cobbling together ways that Jesus succeeded perfectly well at being the messiah, at righting the world.  We have made it a spiritual accomplishment, operative only in the heavens or the hereafter.  Eusebius made it a Constantinian reality, evident in the glorious marriage of the Christian church with the Roman Empire.  We have made it an accomplishment only visible to recluses of various sorts, from members of monastic orders to heavily armed ideologues living in isolated fenced compounds.

None of this works for anyone who actually believes that God is the Creator of heaven and earth.  All of it.  None of this works for anyone who cannot imagine a God who would treat starving children or dread diseases as distractions from real heavenliness.

But that leaves us with a messiah and a world decisively unaffected by that messiah.

This will be a problem.

Nils Dahl talked about this problem in terms of how a non-messianic messiah endangered God’s promises.  It is a good time to revisit that little essay.

I was thinking with a group of students the other day.  We had been reading both the gospel of Luke and Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev together.  Both stories focus on the depiction of crucifixion.  Both know how disruptive, how destructive, how deadly it is that human beings have to think that hard about torture.

My students had noticed that Jacob Kahn, a character in Asher Lev, believed that true art emerged from a human shriek of pain, not from a sigh of contentment.  We were wondering together if we believed that.  Or if feared it and believed it.   In our exploration, one student asked about the relationship between art and life, which led to an exploration of what art might be in the first place.

What makes art art?

That is a good question.

A student suggested that, while anyone can splash paint, true art is marked by mastery, by control, by intention that can be perfectly carried out.

That started something.

We wondered about les fauves, the French painters who claimed the titles of wild beasts and painted flat paintings on flat canvases, full of vibrant color.  They rejected, even ridiculed, earlier attempts at mastering the depth and movement of life.  It is hard to deny Matisse the title of “artist,” but is fauvism mastery?  What it mastered was the art of the rejection of mastery.  Is this art?

From there, I remembered the analysis advanced by Emmanuel Levinas: in the midst of a world full of freedom and variables, human beings follow one of two paths: either we seek to impose our will on the Universe (a totalizing enterprise), or we honor the infinite freedom of each being in the Universe.  Attempts at Totality lead to warfare, to bloodshed, to murder.  Honoring of Infinity leads to life.

That would suggest that when mastery becomes a fetish, it becomes destructive of life.

Matisse would largely agree.

We had fun with this exploration.  Some of my students had studied art history and led us deeper inside the questions.

Then someone asked how this related to stories about the messiah.

I remembered that Maurice Blanchot had argued that it is essential for Jewish faith that messiah always be coming.  But it is crucial, said Blanchot, that messiah never arrive.

I had thought about his words for some years.  I had found them intriguing.

My students opened them up for me.

Messianic projects, they suggested, are too often attempts at ultimate mastery, at turning the world perfectly and completely right-side-up.  That is why revolutions that succeed are often so deadly.  Heads roll.  Inconvenient people are “disappeared.”  And women get called vile names in convenience stores by people who are convinced that it is time they were allowed just to say what they think.

Perhaps that is the genius of Luke’s story of the King of the Jews, of the messiah, of God’s promise to turn the world right-side-up: Jesus does not accomplish this task.  To be plain about things, Jesus fails.  As a result, God’s promises are endangered, and since God functions in the world essential as a promise (of life, of wholeness, of forgiveness, of being a very present help in time of trouble, this endangers God as well.  Luke tells a masterful story of a messiah who does not achieve mastery.

I am attracted to this reading of the crucifixion/coronation scene in Luke’s story.  I also fear it.

Such readings are tempted to make peace with a world in which swastikas are spray-painted on synagogues, and mosques, and churches as announcements of a successful revolution.  Such readings find a way to ruefully accept calls to kill cops.  Such readings go into convenience stores, see men rip hijabs off young Muslim women, and decide that this is a good time to inspect the potato chips even more closely, and in silence.  Regardless of your political inclinations and decisions, we are likely to agree that such things are simply wrong.

Perhaps that is the function of stories of messiah, Luke’s included: we are given a glimpse of the “acceptable year of the Lord,” a vision of a world in which no child starves, a “hard, aching love for what the world could be and always should be, but now is not” (to quote Tim O’Brien).  But proper stories of messiah leave us, if we are honest, without the means to establish mastery, to attempt total control.

But we are stirred to discontent.  And out of discontent come people who are not silent in the convenience store.  Or if it is not a convenience store, then it is a political caucus.  Or if it is not a political caucus, then it is a kindergarten classroom, or an emergency room, or a boardroom, or a job site.  Such people change the world.

That might be what is meant by the Body of Christ, the physical, and very real, presence of messiah in the world.

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