Today we remember an old story. It’s a story about Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem – the city that was centre of religious, political and economic power in Israel – riding on a donkey, and being greeted by crowds of people waving palms and putting cloaks on the ground for the donkey to walk on. [Slide 1 & 2]
It’s a story that was created by storytellers. They took two texts from their Bible and made a story up about Jesus. One text was “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” [Psalm 118:26]. The other was “Rejoice greatly… your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” [Zechariah 9:9-12]. This second text goes on to describe how this king as a peacemaker.
Now the interesting thing about this text by Zechariah is that it was written when the Jewish people were in captivity in Babylon. And Zechariah took an older text and created a new story [prophecy] with it. What that older text[s] was about was a Divine Warrior who would come to vanquish Israel’s enemies.
Zechariah is a bit sceptical of this movie-like scenario. Maybe his experience of war and captivity has made him wary of military solutions. Maybe war didn’t work. Indeed for Jews living under Persian or Hellenistic control [the empires of that time] the expectation that God would come as a big strong avenger was like a mental prison[i] – a way of thinking that just led to more grief and suffering.
So Zechariah’s coming king is not the agent of salvation/deliverance but one who has himself been humbled/saved/delivered– and this is symbolized by the donkey. Donkeys don’t go to war, warhorses do. Donkeys are slow, warhorses aren’t. This coming king is secure but not by military power.
Now, the Jesus movement storytellers took the words Zechariah and applied them to Jesus. Jesus was to be the coming king. He was not militarily powerful. He was not a Divine warrior. Rather he was secure in himself. He had a different type of power. A power that produced love and mercy – even towards one’s enemies – despite, regardless of, what anyone else thought.
By the time of Jesus there was a new empire in town – Rome. And like other empires in the past they did triumphal parades. Here is a picture [slide 3] of the parade of General Paulus after he had conquered the King of Macedonia, Perseus, in 168 BCE. Note the big horses. The parade of Paulus, led by trumpeters, lasted 3 days and involved showing off all the spoils of war – like plunder [2400 wagons laden with shields and 300 wagons laden with lances, bows and javelins; 3000 slaves carrying 750 large vessels filled with silver coin, 500 wagons containing artistic treasures... You get the picture!] In the slide Paulus rides in triumph followed by prisoners among whom is Perseus and his family.
This is a very different parade than the one the Jesus storytellers constructed. Like Zechariah they dreamed of Jesus being a different type of king. In fact so different ‘king’ seemed the wrong word. Their Jesus had no plunder, no slaves or silver, wasn’t heralded by trumpeters, didn’t have prisoners, no chariot or horses. He had no power and might. He just had a borrowed donkey. And a motley bunch of followers, most of whom would later desert him.
Yet if you were sick and tired of suffering and death maybe this was the face of the future.
Here are two more slides of marches [slides 4 & 5]. But peace marches. The first by soldiers sick and tired of gun violence, and the lack of controls around guns in the USA. The second is from the 1970s showing guns verses flowers – two different types of power!
Today we begin the journey of Holy Week. It is a week where the big questions of suffering, hope, God, and meaning collide. It is a week where there are no easy answers – and where, if an easy answer is offered, it can quickly dissolve.
On the one hand we can confidently point to the causes of suffering and give examples of how suffering has been relieved. On the other hand, suffering remains a searing enigma, and its alleviation is often elusive.
On the one hand we can confidently talk about hope, what builds hope, and how to be a community of hope. On the other hand, hope is often like, to quote Paul, ‘seeing through a glass darkly’[ii]. It is like a shooting star on a rain swept night – gone before we can possibly see it.
As for God, that overarching frame that gives meaning to existence, God is suffering from the earthquakes of our experience. Our theological frames seem brittle, need strengthening, or maybe need to be pulled down so that something new can be constructed.
At Easter the different Christian explanations – or attempts at explanation – of the big theological questions chafe against each other. Questions like:
Why did Jesus – a wise man of love and compassion - have to suffer? Couldn’t God rescue him? If God could rescue him, why didn’t God? Why doesn’t God rescue us?
Did Jesus’ death have a meaning? If so, what was it? Does our death have meaning?
Did Jesus defeat death? And if so, what does ‘defeat death’ mean? Can we ‘defeat death’?
If, as one explanation is bold to proclaim: ‘Jesus died to save us from our sin’ & ‘His blood washes our sins away’, what does that mean? And what does that tell us about God and the needs of such a God?
These questions about suffering, hope, God, and meaning, have been with us Christians from the beginning, and will remain with us. They are questions, by and large, that we live with rather than solve.
Our early forebears turned to the scriptures – their Jewish Scriptures – for help. They took the words of Isaiah about a’ suffering servant’ and used it as frame of meaning to try to understand Jesus. They took the words about ‘scapegoat’ and ‘sin’ and used them to try to understand Jesus. They took, like I said the children this morning, the words of Zechariah, to reframe the dominant messianic warrior mythology.
Regrettably Christians, since at least the time of Marcion [mid-2nd century], have belittled the wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures. There is the simplistic and erroneous thought that the Hebrew Scriptures portray a God of wrath and the Christian Scriptures a God of love. The truth is more complex, and more intriguing.
A helpful metaphor might be streams flowing into other streams, flowing into tributaries, flowing into a great river, and then a number of great rivers flowing into the sea. For God-thoughts [the streams] flow into one another, and in time are written down, then edited, and re-edited, then merged with other writings… creating eventually a great river. And there is more than one great river. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, is a braiding of four great rivers.
The intriguing thing is that each of those four distinct theological rivers is easily recognisable in the Pentateuch. One dominant body of thought has not expunged the others. Four versions of God, and what each version asks of us, sit alongside one another. It’s as if the wise Jewish editors are saying, ‘God is too big for our minds, you work out who is right!’ It’s not so different from the thinking that kept four different and frequently contradictory gospels in the Christian canon of scripture.
A little bit of history about these four theological rivers in the Pentateuch:
After the death of King Solomon around 922 BCE the Kingdom of Judah [in the south] with its capital Jerusalem, and Kingdom of Israel [in the north] with its capital at Shechem, split. These kingdoms had similar, but different, religious traditions. The southerners called the divine Yahweh, and scholars would later call this source J. The northerners called the divine Elohim, and scholars would later call this source E. J and E have different emphases, style, and vocabulary.
In 722 Assyria conquered the northern kingdom. Some of the conquered were taken into captivity. Some escaped south into Judah. The escapees brought E with them. So now there were two versions of ‘history’, God and meaning in Judah. To discard either would cause unrest, so in the best of realpolitik, these traditions were merged together into a document called, by scholars, JE. This is why you will often find two versions of the same event in the Bible.[iii] This merger, honouring both traditions rather than eliminating contradictions, set an important precedent that the Church needs to keep in its memory.
One thing J and E agreed upon was that the essential nature of God is mercy and forgiveness. But there was another river of theological thought that disagreed. Some priests in the southern kingdom of Judah wanted to challenge JE’s understanding of God. From them came the document later called P [as in ‘Priestly’]. P had a God of strict justice who required blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin; and those sacrifices could only be performed by priests. So P reflects the claim by a specific group of priests to continue what had been their monopoly over the Jerusalem Temple.
This view of sacrifice to satisfy a God of strict justice was a huge break with the much older JE theology. Sacrifice in JE is never to atone for sin. In JE God is so faithful and merciful that such a thing is not even to be conceived. Rather sacrifice is always an offering to demonstrate gratitude or faithfulness to God.
The P group beavered away and crafted their documents as a replacement for JE. But then something ironic happened. Instead of letting P stand alone, reflecting the ‘One True God’, the wisdom of honouring plurality rather than eliminating contradictions came to the fore again, and P was combined with JE. The result is the first four books of the Bible.
Later the stream of thought called D [from the Deuteronomy author] was added. D was in part written to protest against P. D, like JE, sees God as mercy. Although Deuteronomy gives rules for sacrifice, there is no mention at all of a sacrifice for sin. Instead all sacrifices are in the nature of donations [not the killing of animals!] in grateful response to blessings received.
My point in telling this tale of rivers, and particularly the tale of differences around sacrifice, sin and atonement, is to give some background to the frames of meaning that the early Jesus followers and authors could draw upon. They could choose between two very different understandings of how to obtain God’s forgiveness. Some took the position of P and viewed God as a deity of strict justice for whom blood sacrifice is essential, and created a scenario whereby Jesus would be that sacrifice. Others took a contrary view.
Last week I talked about the sin/salvation schema and contrasted it with a loving/life schema. I believe that Jesus proclaimed a God of such great love and mercy that the need for the atoning death of an animal, let alone a person, would have been unthinkable.
But in arguing for a loving/life theology I am still wary of simple explanations and formulas about the big questions of suffering, hope, meaning, and God. None of the great rivers seem to hold all the answers, but to stay on the bank and not engage is not an option. Wisdom doesn’t come without engagement; theology cannot be separated from acts of love and mercy. So let’s get in and paddle.
I might have chosen a river to journey down, but that doesn’t mean the journey will be easy, or there won’t be major rapids to navigate. It also doesn’t mean that when, or if, I reach the ocean I won’t find fellow paddlers who have gone down other rivers. For the longer I journey with these questions the more certain I become about the paucity of my knowledge, the subjectivity of my experience, and the likelihood that I could be wrong.
Holy Week holds all this for me – suffering, hope, God and meaning. There is little certainty.
[i] This is what scholars think is meant by the phrase ‘prisoners of hope’ in Zechariah 9:11-12.
[ii] I Corinthians 13:12.
[iii] Like Moses encounter with God on Mt Sinai. Exodus 33:12-23 reflects E, and Exodus 34:1-10 reflects J.