The Cross and Oppression

Luke 19:29-38, Luke 23:1-11

Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth United Church of Christ

Grand Rapids, Michigan

February 25, 2018



They called him King of Kings, Lord of Lords.

They called him Prince of Peace.

They called him Son of God, by adoption but also by birth - his mortal mother impregnated by the most high god.

Of whom were they speaking? It was Augustus Caesar.

Octavian became Augustus Caesar after ending the devastating civil wars that raged from 50 - 30 BCE. The final battle was Octavian's defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium. This brought peace to the land - peace, that is, for the wealthy class, that upper few percent, as they could now go on with their trade, exploitation of the peasants, and increasing their wealth. Thus he was hailed as the Prince of Peace, a peace gained by war and maintained by force. He avenges the Roman sin of fratricide (civil war) by military victory.

Octavian cum Augustus was called Son of God, because he was adopted by Julius Caesar, whom the Senate had declared divine after his death, and because he was of immaculate birth - his mother Attia being impregnated by Apollo. Thus, the Golden age of Rome was seen to be inaugurated - the Reign of God, Saturn had begun.

Rome saw itself ruling by political and divine right.

As you are well aware, Rome is not the only one who makes such claims. Written into the beginning of the story of Jesus, are all these claims upon Jesus. These are political claims. God, not Caesar, is the true ruler. Rome and its kingdom of death are not divinely ordained. Their rule built upon the backs of the poor, enforced by the tactics of violence and terror, was totally opposite the will of the One True God.

God's intention, inaugurated in Jesus, was not simply to win the hearts and minds of people. It was not simply to get them into heaven, but to transform earth, for "the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it." This is reinforced when the Pharisees show Jesus a coin, trying to trap him into either supporting Rome or a tax revolt. "Whose image is on the coin? Caesars. So give him his coin. Whose image is on the people - God's." The people and all the rest belong to God, not to Caesar!

This Lent, in a series of sermons, we are looking at the various meanings of the Cross. This morning we are looking at the Cross and Oppression, in which I will rehearse Jesus' opposition to Rome. We won't, however, be able to bring this to conclusion until we look at "The Cross Today" in a few weeks.

That Jesus was executed by the State is totally obvious, but for centuries the church has seemed to play this down. This, however, is the place we must begin. Indeed the meaning of the Cross is more than legal execution by the State, but it is not less. The Church, however, has often made it less by totally spiritualizing it, or by making Jesus' death solely a conflict within Judaism, or by a narrow understanding of "Sin."

Because the cross has been so closely related to the language of sin and salvation, we need to say a word about sin. (I am sure many of you would say, "a word" hardly does sin justice!)

Regardless of how you interpret Jesus' death, the language embedded in most everyone who grew up Christian or simply in a predominantly Christian society is, "Jesus died for our sins." Sin has many meanings and nuances in the Scriptures, but most people see it as disobedience. It is not simply making a mistake, but rather willful disobedience - doing that which we know we ought not do, and not doing that which we know we ought to do. (Sins of commission and sins of omission.) Sin is defined a little more broadly by Niebuhr as self-centeredness, or by Tillich as separation or estrangement. Still it is personal and under our will. If sin is seen to be personal flaws, disobedience or estrangement, then forgiveness is the solution.

Now the Bible is indeed clear that there is "Something wrong in River City." As Fredrick Buechner put it, "I think it is possible to say that despite all its extraordinary variety, the Bible is held together by having a single plot. It is one that can be simply stated: God creates the world; the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which God created it." For this restoration, Jesus comes.

As the brilliant Biblical Scholar Marcus Borg asks, is "sin" the best word for that "something wrong", that "getting lost." He thinks not, and I agree. The Bible has many rich images for "what is wrong." Sin, as we tend to narrowly define it, is only one. Some of those other images are: not being able to see (meant figuratively), being in exile (literally), in bondage (literally), being hungry, thirsty (literally and figuratively), being in darkness (figuratively). Each of these causes implies a remedy. The remedy is restoration of sight, if you cannot see; if exile, return; if bondage, liberation; if hunger and thirst, food and drink; if darkness, light. Certainly, some of these can be a result of our own doing, but some of them are beyond us.

If the issue is bondage (oppression), what we need is not forgiveness, but liberation. Look at the central narrative in the Hebrew Scripture: enslavement in Egypt. There is no hint in that story that the Hebrews' enslavement was their fault. What they needed, and what they got at God's hands, was not forgiveness, but liberation. "Go down, Moses, and tell ol' Pharaoh to 'let my people go.'" If we define the problem strictly as "sin" with our narrow definition, what does that say to victims: victims of domestic abuse, or gun violence, social terrorism like racism and homophobia, or state terror? Is it their fault? Is God there for them, in solidarity, confronting and denying the legitimacy of systems that caused their situation? The cross says "YES."

Remember Jesus' first public statement in Luke from the scroll of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" - that is, the reign of God begun.

The meaning of the Cross of Oppression is rooted in this understanding of what is wrong. No, it is not the only thing wrong, but it is really wrong. People were in bondage, in severe oppression under the occupying Romans. This is not only a physical assault, but a religious one. Not only were the people under a huge burden, but their holy places were often desecrated by Roman authority.

Crucifixion was the standard means of imperial control. Like all empires, Rome ruled by "Shock and Awe." In reality, Rome only had about 400,000 soldiers to keep order in the entire Empire. This included the core of engineers. Only 5,000 or so, were in Syria, which contained Palestine, one of the more rebellious provinces. Rome needed to show that the price of rebellion was too high to pay. I became all too familiar with these tactics when sitting with the Mothers of the Disappeared in San Salvador at the height of the Death Squads. The Comadres documented the terror. They confronted it. They are the bravest people I have ever met.

Rome needed a deterrent, and crucifixion was it. It was prolonged torture and public humiliation. The victim was stripped, publicly beaten, stretched out on a cross, elevated so all could see, and left to die which could take several days. Then often, the bodies were left on the cross, sometimes scores of them if there had been a rebellion, to rot and be eaten by carrion, denied even a proper burial.

But this fate was only for those who were a threat to Roman domination, only those who defied Roman rule. Capital offenses for Romans were carried out by beheading, Jews used stoning, others who ran afoul of the law were put into slavery. Only those who rebelled against Rome were crucified. So clearly, Jesus was someone who openly defied Roman authority. Often they were called bandits (unfortunately translated "thieves" in one part of the crucifixion story) because they ambushed Roman Soldiers on the roads.

There were all kinds of resistance and outright rebellion against Rome. Some of it was militant - like the bandits, the Zealots. Much of it, however, was non-violent. Jesus Scholar, Dominic Crossan is quite clear that Jesus' opposition was non-violent. That is because it was Rome's practice to round up and crucify the followers of violent resistors, whereas for non-violent ones, they were content to kill the leader, expecting the followers would scatter. There was no attempt to round up Jesus' followers.

It is true that the Gospels try to soften outright rebellion as the cause of the crucifixion, especially Matthew and Luke. This is likely code language. In the time of the writing of the Gospels, followers of Jesus were clearly under threat of being accused of sedition. So they likely tried to downplay that in Jesus. This was also a time of conflict with Jews in the synagogues. Unfortunately, appearing to blame the Jews, as if they could push Rome into killing Jesus, has been a major cause of anti-Semitism through the centuries. It has also allowed the church to downplay Jesus' denunciation of the tactics of Empire. This denunciation almost completely ended when Christianity became the religion of the Empire in the fourth century CE.

So what was Jesus doing? Through preaching, acts of power, and guerilla theater he was saying that Rome's reign, Rome's god, Rome's emperor were totally illegitimate. It was not a matter of changing who was in charge, but changing the whole system from a rule of might and terror to a rule of love, justice, mercy.

Jesus' anti-imperial movement is clear in many places; let's look at just a few.

One is the treatment of the Geresene demoniac in Mark. This is a complex story, but what is unmistakable is the naming of, and destruction of the demons. They are called Legion, which was the name of the occupying army. The demons beg Jesus not to send them out of the country - interesting language - it doesn't seem to apply to spirits. Remember what happens? The demons go into the swine, and these pigs are cast into the sea and drowned, cleansing the whole territory of the occupying forces.

Another that you may not have seen this way before is the feeding of the 5,000. Ted Jennings notes that the 5,000 men are divided into companies of 50 and 100 like the occupying forces (a centurion was a ruler over a division of 100). "What brings it into the political sphere is Jesus' remark that the people are like sheep without a shepherd which is a prophetic description of the people of Israel when their ruler and the aristocracy are corrupt. Though Jesus divides the males into companies of 50 and 100 he doesn't do this in order to assume military command. Rather, he does what leaders in the new order should do: he feeds the people rather than taxing them to death, he brings plenty rather than starvation." (Jennings) It is a parable of the new age, the true age.

Jesus' march on Jerusalem, told in the Palm Sunday texts is another unmistakable example. At about the same time as Pilate was entering Jerusalem from the west, with all the pomp and power of empire, leading a squadron of Roman cavalry in a full military parade, Jesus was entering from the east. (Borg) Jesus' entry and welcome by the crowds is not a spontaneous act. It is a planned, symbolic act carried out by Jesus and the mobs that come with Jesus from Galilee. They, not a squadron of Soldiers, were his entourage. Mark and the other gospels link this entry with the great king, David. There is another clue to the political statement being made in the spreading of the garments on the road? That was not a practice in Jesus' day for a parade or to welcome a ruler. The only place it happens is in 2 Kings 9, where a coup takes place under the direction of the prophet Elisha to replace the tyrant Ahab with a new king, Jehu. (Jennings) When Jehu comes back and tells those he was with what the prophet had done, the text reads like this: "This is what he said to me, 'Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel.' Then hurriedly they all took off their cloaks and spread them before him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet and proclaimed, 'Jehu is king.'" Jehu, anointed of God is the King, not corrupt Ahab. (Jesus, not Caesar.)

Jesus is executed because he dared to believe, he dared to declare, that Rome's way was wrong because it was against the people - who are God's people. A new reign was called for, the way of the true God, a way that Jesus showed - a way that cared for the high and the lowly, the great and small, the male and female, the Jew and Gentile, the slave and the free, for all are children of God.

The empire showed its weakness in that all it had was the power of death - whereas Jesus' way has the power of life.

We will pull this together in a couple weeks, but for now all I can say is: Praise and thanks be to God.

(For this sermon I am indebted to various writings by Ted Jennings, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan.)