from Easter Horror Stories- Rescuing Jesus’ Good News
The web version of a book draft exploring the dark side of the salvation stories in the lectionary. Print book slated for 2024 based on comments from readers.
Spiritual Communism: Jeremiah and Jesus
Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16
We now hear from Jeremiah, who predicted the fall of Jerusalem and exile into Babylon, and writes to the Jewish middle and upper classes who have been deported,
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD… when people shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new Covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the Covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a Covenant that they broke.
But this is the Covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
The day is surely coming, says the LORD, when Jerusalem shall be rebuilt… It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.” (Jeremiah 31).
Over two thousand years later, this all sounds so sweet when we read it in church, and of course we assume that Jeremiah is talking about us, the spirit filled Christians who know God.
But this isn’t a sweet passage. It’s “I told you so.” And not only that, Jeremiah is saying, in a nutshell, “all you priests and rulers who didn’t listen to me should know that God is going to take us back to Jerusalem one day, and this time you won’t be in charge: you will be obsolete, because we will all know God without your help, thank you very much!”
This is spiritual communism.
I suggested in the last chapter that Jesus rejected the old Covenants, which saw God building a Kingdom through violence and exclusion. Apparently, centuries before Jesus, the old Covenants were already being rejected by Jeremiah and others. The books of Ruth and Jonah, for example, reject the nationalistic impulse in the dominant stories of salvation.
Around the same time that Jeremiah is writing, the priests he confronts are busy compiling all of the oral traditions into the written stories we now have from Genesis through to the Exodus. All the stories of salvation (Noah, Abram, Exodus) were refashioned into one big story in Babylon.
The priests are shoring up the faith of a depressed people in exile, and probably shoring up their own position amongst the people, in the absence of access to the Temple. The books they compile in exile entrench the Law, make the Temple the centre point of the religion, along with its sacrificial system, and entrench their leadership of it.
So who do we listen to? Who convinces you? The priests with the written Law and Covenant based on ethnic purity, violence and obedience enforced by divinely appointed hierarchy? Or Jeremiah with his alternative Covenant, where people relate directly to God and have no need of priests?
If you aren’t an ordained minister like me, you might be less compromised in your answer!
Are you convinced by the system or the rebel? The reformers or the revolutionaries?
Jeremiah’s vision of divine rebellion against the priests’ status quo was spectacular. It was also spectacularly incorrect.
After the return to Jerusalem the religious teachers remained. The Law was written on paper, not hearts, and the priests and teachers of the law remained until Jesus’ day. Jewish Rabbis remain today, and Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox priests have replaced Jewish ones.
The restored Temple was not “everlasting,” but was obliterated by Rome shortly after Jesus’ death. Contrary to Jeremiah’s proclamation, it was both uprooted and overthrown.
Let us go back to Mark’s story of Jesus, who continues Jeremiah’s tendency to turn things on their head. Those who are last will be first. Those who lead must serve. If Jesus had a hierarchy, it was upside down. He offers salvation which involves humbling and demotion, not glory and power.
After catching the disciples arguing,
“Jesus asked them what they were arguing about. But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”” (Mark 9:33-35)
Jesus went head-to-head against those who were not willing to be humbled, with those who were quite happy to be at the top of the hierarchy. Here again he followed Jeremiah against the prevailing Temple system. The kings, the religious leaders, the bosses of the Temple cannot be trusted and need to be thrown out, as do the profiteers they allow to fill the Temple court,
“Jesus and the disciples came to Jerusalem. And Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers.
He said, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:15ff)
Then Jesus gets into several arguments with the religious leaders, telling the parable of the vineyard, which was a metaphor for Israel in his day. In the story, the true owner (God) sends messenger after messenger (the prophets) to the tenants (chief priests) to ask them to pay the rent they owe. But the tenants kill them all. Jesus continues,
“Finally, the owner sent his beloved son. They seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When the chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.” (Mark 12:1ff)
You don’t call the elite murderous robbers without inviting retribution.
Jeremiah said that God would put the Law within people, so they wouldn’t need the religious leaders to teach it to them. It didn’t make him popular. Jesus said in the parable of the vineyard that the priests and scribes were to be replaced by others, since they kept killing the prophets like Jeremiah rather than listening to them. We all know how popular that was!
So, it seems that as Mark tells it, Jesus is following Jeremiah in repudiating the old covenants, the old promises, the old ways of understanding salvation. He is rejecting hierarchies, new and old.
And we have, in Mark at least, a clear understanding that Jesus died because the people he railed against had more political clout than he did.
Yet many Christians at this time of year will sing songs about how Jesus died because God wanted him to. They will say this coming Friday is Good Friday because it was the day God killed Jesus instead of killing us. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice that replaced all the millions of imperfect sacrifices which Jews had long made to God. Jesus took the final punishment which we all deserved.
Rather than killing all of us, as God should have, and as he did in the days of Noah, God killed Jesus the God-man.
Yet let us turn to the Synoptic gospels. That is, Mark, and Luke and Matthew, who both adapt Mark’s stories and add some of their own. Jesus says nothing about being a new sacrifice, or a new high priest, or any kind of channel for our forgiveness.
Even Matthew, who was keen to affirm the validity of the old Covenants, records Jesus placing himself in the tradition of Jeremiah, Amos and Micah, who claimed that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. (Matthew alone does add to Jesus’ words concerning the wine of the last supper, “poured out for many (not all) for the forgiveness of sins”)
Since Jesus thought that God desired mercy, not sacrifice, why do so many Christians think he was a sacrifice?
Because it’s biblical. It’s very much in the epistle to the Hebrews, and very much in Paul. There is even a hint of it in John’s gospel.
In John, however, written much later than the other gospels, we are reading theology about Jesus, put on his lips, rarely if ever his actual words or deeds.
This idea of Jesus’ sacrificial atoning death is biblical. It is also unbiblical. It is not in Mark, Matthew or Luke. Luke also wrote Acts, which does say that God had Jesus’ death planned all along, but not that it was a sacrificial death.
Who is right?
We either admit the two points of view and choose one, or pretend that there is only one point of view and gloss over the other.
It is overwhelmingly more likely that the synoptic gospels hold the more accurate picture of what Jesus thought his life was all about, and how he thought we were made right with God, than John or Paul do.
If so, Jesus did not see himself as a divinely appointed sacrifice for our sins on our behalf. As a Christian, or maybe a Jesusian, I’m going to go with his vision of God and the Kingdom.
So at least half of the Easter songs we sing are completely wrong. Which is a shame because some of their tunes are so great, even for a generation Xer like me! The first one off the top of my head is How Great Thou Art, which opens with magnificent poetry about God’s awesomeness and presence throughout the universe and our Earth, but then sums up the whole significance of Jesus life, not by recalling his teaching or actions like the gospel writers would have, but by going with Paul and saying that it is all about God killing Jesus instead of me,
“And when I think that God,
His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die,
I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross,
My burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died
To take away my sin.”
(How Great Thou Art, verse 3)
I am as sure as I can be that this is not how Jesus understood salvation.
Not because I’m a squeamish liberal who doesn’t like the idea of being, “washed in the blood of the lamb,” or the thought of God torturing my unbelieving family and friends for eternity.
I don’t think Jesus would sing verse three of How Great thou Art, because of what he said two thousand years ago, at least according to the Synoptic writers.
 For one thing, contrast his long, third person monologues in John with the content of the Synoptic gospels.
This book uses the ‘New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.’ In all cases where there are italics, they have been added by myself