There are different kinds of fear. There is the fear of having once committed an act of murder and now afraid of being caught by one’s conscience or the authorities. That’s the fear Moses had. He was hiding out in Midian. Shutting off his former life and trying to make a new one.
But the call, the conscience, the burn of god, confronted Moses. Another way to frame this call is the ‘I am’ of one’s authentic being grating or rubbing against the ‘I’m not’ of one’s inauthentic reality creating a friction burn.
To digress for a moment: I watched “The Truman Show” the other night, an old clever movie that asks questions about what is authentic, and how does one leave the inauthentic. In the main character Truman Burbank’s case the catalyst was a glimmer of love, not manufactured or manipulated (like everything else in his life), but something that way down inside his soul he knew was real. And that glimmer was then his guide on the journey out to authenticity.
I wonder if Moses, supposedly happily married, supposedly embarked on his farming career, supposed safe from Pharaoh, was struggling with the inauthenticity of detachment from the suffering of his family/tribe of origin, the Hebrew people.
It’s no surprise that Moses protested and argued with this call/burn/conscience. To follow that demand would lead him back to where he murdered and where Pharaoh’s justice awaited. To follow that call wasn’t a simple messenger job, telling Pharaoh to let his people go.
The story of James and John Zebedee was also one about fear. Not the type that Moses had. Theirs was more the insecurity of not having – not having things, income, influence. Usually disciples could expect some ‘brokerage fees’, some pennies and privilege, as they control access to the great teacher. But being on the move, those perks weren’t happening. So they sought to rectify this by asking for a promotion (or according to Matthew’s gospel, got their mother to ask on their behalf). They wanted to have the security of somewhere to sit, a place at the top table, on the left and right of Jesus, status, influence, power and authority.
To use the frame of authenticity again, James and John had begun a journey following this itinerant rabbi. The call had come to leave the inauthenticity of their Galilean life, and they had followed. But they didn’t know what they had signed up for. None of the disciples did. There was just something about this day labourer from Nazareth, a glimmer of something, a glimmer of more, a glimmer of Oh-My-God.
But it’s hard to follow a glimmer when you’ve left a lot. Authenticity is hard to get a handle on. And sometimes when you grab it you get splinters. They wanted some surety, like their old life had. They wanted to know they would be rewarded for their commitment. Fair enough. Fair enough if the queer domain of Jesus was the right way up. But it wasn’t.
In both of these stories the fears are never really addressed. The invisible God said to Moses, ‘I was the God of your ancestors (way back) and I will be with you too’. A sort of comforting statement? There was no army to back it up. And those ancestors didn’t exactly have it great! Moses, being a practical guy, thought if he knew this God’s name (handle) it might give him some leverage with Pharaoh. He wanted a God of power and authority to go up against the power and authority of the deity Pharaoh.
In the James and John story I imagine Jesus tries not to cry or laugh as he listens to these his friends (or to their mother). Crying in his empathy with them, for he too knew insecurity and its fear; and laughing at the whole notion of top tables, thrones, and power. For James and John, like Moses, wanted God, and his agent Jesus, to have power and authority: big power; ruling power; with delegated power to princes (them), and all that and all that.
What Moses got was some temporary fire, , a set of demands, and an unpronounceable name – YHWH. Scholars ever since have pondered that ‘God-who-should-not-be-named’ name. It seems its root is in the verb ‘to be’. So, in the NRSV translation it reads ‘I am who I am’, or the shortened version, ‘I am’.
The late Gabriel Vahanian, who was a pretty serious big-time, big-words theologian, gives an intriguing, vernacular translation of YHWH: ‘F*** off Pharaoh’. So, for Vahanian this name is about power, or rather the antithesis of power. It is a snub to human grandiosity (Pharaoh was a God). More than a snub, it is a challenge. But the challenge wasn’t from another big human/divine ego, with power and might, cloaking themselves in supernaturalism, but from an active verb at the heart of authenticity, from a weak power in the Pharaoh playbook.
Imagine for a moment looking into a mirror and saying to yourself, “I am”. Full stop. There are no other words necessary after the ‘am’. You don’t have to add relational words like ‘father, mother, brother, etc’. Vocational words (king, farmer, minister) aren’t necessary either. Neither are other descriptors about looks, position, or possessions. It is just ‘I am me’, the authentic me, who is accepted and loved firstly and most importantly by me, by the inseparable divine in me, and together we say ‘I am’. No other business card is necessary. Authenticity.
So I’m suggesting this YHWH is an active verb pointing to our journey into authenticity, and a kind of anti-God of the power and might variety (both against that type of God and an antidote to that type of God).
To briefly expand on Vahanian just for a minute, he also pointed out things like ‘there is no temple in the new Jerusalem’ (Book of Revelations), or for that matter ‘no sacred space in the Garden of Eden’ (Book of Genesis). Which I take as a way of saying that the Jesus vision was not about creating a religious institution, or elevating the sacred over the profane, or even necessarily having a language for God. For god (small ‘g’), the active verb, doesn’t need dress ups, press statements, or power levers (that’s what idols need); the small ‘g’ god is the active component in authentic life-giving, suffering-relieving, human being-among.
Or to put a Pauline spin on it: we need to get over our love affair with power and authority, our desire for power and authority, and the power and authority of big ‘G’ deities, and instead embrace the weakness of the small ‘g’ – the one who is known by and in the historical Jesus as lover, sufferer, child, and slave.
Both slave and child are words/metaphors used by the historical Jesus to invite us into the upside-down-ness (to use Allan’s word from last week) of Jesus’ understanding of g/God, which is the anti-Pharaoh type of god, the weak one.
The extraordinary part of the Jesus response to the fears and anxieties of James and John is telling them truthfully what was ahead (choosing to suffer, or run away) – which wasn’t prophetic foresight but post-Easter reality written back into the story – and telling them what the nature of Jesus’ anti-kingdom was (choosing to be a slave, or a child).
James and John believed Jesus was the Messiah and triumph and glory and payback were going to happen in this life. Remember chapter 1 of Acts when the disciples ask, “When is the kingdom going to be restored to Israel?” It’s the same sort of question.
Jesus uses this request - a request that seemingly all the disciples would have liked to ask - to talk about the nature of kings and kingdoms. Provocatively, he says, ‘Aspire to be a slave’. ‘Number one is slave’. Which frankly doesn’t make sense.
Nowadays I hear a phrase like ‘servant ministry’ and cringe. Apologists have taken the word ‘slave’, reconfigured it as ‘servant’; then subtracted any class analysis from ‘servant’ and translated it as ‘one who serves others’; and then applied it to any Christian, no matter how much power or wealth they have, who has an ethic of service to others. Boy Scouts and Girl Guides qualify too. It’s nice; it’s commendable; but it’s a long way from Jesus of Nazareth.
What did he mean by aspire to be a slave? Did he want James and John to be his slaves? The text infers that he wanted them to be slaves to each other. Huh?? The primary thing about a slave is that they have no will, no rights of their own. They are owned by someone else. So, if the disciples are to be slaves to each other then who owns who?? It doesn’t make sense.
Slave, like child in the ancient world, is a word that says powerless and weak. It is the very opposite of powerful and strong. No one back then aspired to be a slave or child. You aspire upwards, not downwards.
Imagine a pyramid shape that reflects the structuring of society. Big ‘G’ God is at the top, with the Emperor (the son of God) there too, then the powerful and wealthy underlings, and then down and down to the bottom of the pyramid where the bottom feeders are: those without rights or power – most children and slaves, the poor, the sick. Aspiration in society – as much as your class and gender would allow – was about going up the pyramid.
Jesus flips the pyramid, and flips aspiration. The big ‘G’ has been relegated to the bottom, as has his right-hand G-man, Caesar. So, this vision is seditious. And if slaves are what we aspire to be, then what might god be, the god with the small ‘g’, the weak god who hangs out with slaves, children, the sick and other expendables.
I would suggest that in translating these texts today we think of an anti-God and anti-Kingdom vision. These texts are deconstructions. YHWH, following Vahanian, was a deconstruction of the king God in the Pharaoh mode, and ‘slave’, following Jesus, was a deconstruction of the kingdom in the Caesar mode. This is to say deconstructions of most theological constructions, then and since, namely a big powerful God who delegates to big powerful men the authority to get things done (under the name of God). These men then run kingdoms, or companies, or churches.
The Matthew text takes the ‘king’ out of kingdom, and we are left with a dom-ain of children, slaves, and others running free. Not a king in sight. And the Moses text takes the big ‘G’ God out of God, and we are left with the ‘I am’ of our own beings seeking authenticity, the authenticity of real love and real connection that feeds and frees the hungry and feeds and frees our own souls.