The Choice for Progressives II: Jesus – Magician or Liberator?
The first part of this section of Luke’s Gospel deals with Luke’s version of the Feeding of the 5,000. These particular verses from Luke are never read in any of the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. Mark’s original story of the Feeding of the 5,000 is also never read; the developers of the RCL prefer Matthew’s version. But neither Matthew nor Luke (and certainly not John – whose version is substituted for Mark’s in Year B) lay out the sequence like Mark does (see: Losing the Way Parts I-III and Bread of Life Parts I-IV).
Mark’s story (6:34-8:21) is an extended parable about the fair distribution of food, interspersed with hints from an increasingly exasperated Jesus about who he is and what he is trying to do. While the idea that this was a demonstration of radical sharing is there in Luke’s short vignette, Luke’s emphasis is on Jesus as the Anointed one, “the son of Adam [who] is destined to suffer a great deal, be rejected by the elders and ranking priests and scholars, and be killed and, on the third day, be raised.” The Transfiguration scene is of course read on the last Sunday of Epiphany and the second Sunday of Lent in Year C. Luke does not include Jesus walking on the water, or the discussion about food purity laws that Mark presents and Matthew copies into his gospel. Instead, Luke concentrates on what Jesus’s followers will, should, and must do after Jesus’s death.
What is Luke suggesting?
1. Deny yourselves, take up your cross EVERY DAY and follow me.
2. Lose your life FOR MY SAKE and find it
3. Whoever is ashamed of ME AND MY MESSAGE the Son of Adam will be ashamed of in return
4. Anyone who looks back from the plow is not qualified for God’s imperial rule.
None of these phrases is considered to be traceable to the historical Jesus. Instead, they are aphorisms for the community for which Luke was writing, 50 to 75 years after Jesus’s death. The Jesus Seminar scholars suggest that these admonitions are softened, or “domesticated.” They do not reflect Jesus’s original radical abandonment of self-interest in the service of distributive justice-compassion. Instead, the Scholars argue, Luke has turned the cross into an “everyday,” ordinary piety. The sayings encourage belief about Jesus himself, not participation in the way of life that he taught. The idea that “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (NRSV) reflects the story of Lot’s wife, who looked back at Sodom and Gomorrah and turned into a pillar of salt. Once you have accepted the Kingdom of God, Luke seems to be saying, you can’t have second thoughts. To follow the agricultural metaphor (which the JS Scholars do not pursue in their notes) anyone who looks back at the row he’s been plowing will veer off and the row will not be straight. Christian piety abounds.
The JS scholars argue that Luke made Christianity safe for Roman society, and Luke may well have succeeded in describing the message so that only insiders would realize what it meant. But I would suggest that Luke’s list can be read as radically as anything Jesus may have actually taught. Let’s consider Luke’s sequence in 9:7-62 in the light of the April 5, 2010 Massey Energy Company mining disaster in Montcoal, West Virginia.
Interestingly, the story begins with Herod, the oppressor and representative of imperial Rome, who wonders who this Jesus is. “He was curious to see him,” Luke reports. Then Luke briefly sketches the legend of the feeding of the 5,000. We might think this has only to do with food. But what Mark (and Luke) emphasize is the necessity for the followers of Jesus to trust the way of life in the realm of God and share what they have. This sharing does not begin and end with food, nor – applied to the 21st century – does this sharing end with comfort or charity provided to the survivors of preventable accidents. This sharing is in stark contrast to the greed represented by the deliberate decision to enjoy profit and productivity at the expense of the health and safety of workers. The disciples missed the point in all the gospel accounts. It’s not about magic and miracle. It’s about transforming the world from greed to giving.
Next, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah (God’s anointed one). Jesus warns his followers that the anointed one will suffer, be rejected by the elders and ranking priests and scholars, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Here the consequences of kenosis the radical abandonment of self-interest, and the intention to create a share-world instead of a greed-world are clear: rejection by the authorities and death. Vindication or resurrection are a hope, not a certainty. Luke’s Jesus says, “Those who want to come after me should deny themselves, pick up their cross every day, and follow me.”
This does not mean follow Jesus like sheep into the mines to be sacrificed to the god of greed and international commerce, in the vain hope that a miracle will bring us out safely. Nor does it mean that once dead, we will live again in some heavenly realm beyond Antares. It means somehow finding the courage to blow the whistle on the safety violations; to refuse to work in illegal conditions; to organize collective bargaining associations in the face of company rules prohibiting unions. These are the crosses mineworkers are asked to bear. The consequences can be dire: losing jobs through firing or because the mine is at last shut down; falling into poverty; and death. Death can come at the hands of corporate collaborators, or friends who – like Judas – see no other way to survive than to sell out. If the mines can be shut down because of safety violations, the temptation is high for inspectors to ignore unsafe conditions, and for miners themselves to decline to complain.
Luke’s Jesus asks, “what good does it do a person to acquire the whole world and lose or forfeit oneself?” The writer of Mark’s Gospel adds a correlative: “Or what would a person give in exchange for life?” These are disturbing and dangerous questions to ask, especially if those questions are asked about the victims who died, and put to their surviving families. The point is not to blame the victims. The point is that the people West Virginia coal country (and throughout Appalachia) have no choice about where and how they earn a living. If they are to have the level of wealth that middle class white collar or unionized blue collar workers have elsewhere, then they have to work in the mines.
However, in the context of 21st Century corporate malfeasance, these are very valid questions with which to confront the boss. What would the corporation give in exchange for the lives of the mine workers? $70,000 a year, including required overtime pay? $4.2 million in corporate penalties and fines in one year, which amount to one hour of profit? Luke’s Jesus suggests a judgment against those who are “ashamed of me and my message.” Jesus’s message is, “deny yourself, pick up your cross every day, and follow me.” In 21st Century words, Jesus demands the radical abandonment of self-interest in the service of distributive justice-compassion here and now. Otherwise, “when the Son of Adam comes again to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, he will in turn be ashamed of that person.” Again, in 21st Century language, the judgment is not some time in the future when the world ends. The judgment is now in the consequences that result in death.
About a week after delivering these sayings, Luke says, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray. Jesus is transfigured to a being of dazzling white light. Moses and Elijah – the greatest of prophets up to that point in Jewish spiritual history – appear to walk beside him. Then a cloud moves in, and God says, “This is my son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” But the disciples apparently don’t listen. The following day a man brings his son to Jesus because the disciples are unable to exorcise the evil spirit that is possessing the child. Jesus has had enough. “You distrustful and perverted lot,” he yells, “How long must I associate with you and put up with you?” And he heals the boy himself. Luke follows this with another warning from Jesus about his impending death, but the disciples not only don’t understand. “They always dreaded to ask him about this remark.” Worse, Luke chooses this point to talk about the argument that broke out among them about who is the greatest.
Who is listening today? Corporations that are now considered to be people by the U.S. Supreme Court are certainly not listening. They are too busy determining who will be the greatest, the richest, the most politically powerful. The workers are not listening either, but at ths point cannot be blamed for choosing what appears to be the only path. They are oppressed and victimized by corporations that win awards for stated policies regarding safety, but whose daily behavior nullifies what’s on paper. Neither the political parties on the right who claim Jesus as their Lord, nor the political parties on the left who claim justice and equity for all, are listening.
Nor is the Church, the purported “body of Christ,” listening.
Jesus said, “Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the son of Adam has nowhere to rest his head.” Scholars argue that this may have actually been a call to the earliest of Jesus’s followers to live a life of itinerancy. But the literal meaning of those words is evident today: The Son of Adam is nowhere to be found in the economics of mining nor in other economic systems on the planet. Further, if the government of the State of West Virginia continues its policy that assures that mining trumps everything, then the foxes and the birds will soon join Jesus in the homeless population.
Jesus also said, “Leave it to the dead to bury their own dead; but you go out and announce God’s imperial rule.” These are shocking words. Luke tries to soften and explain them when he has Jesus say, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is qualified for God’s imperial rule.” We cannot know the context that produced Jesus’s original words, handed down by oral tradition, and captured in this sequence by the writer of Luke’s gospel. But in terms of justice-compassion, and applied specifically to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, Luke’s qualifier is just as radical as Jesus’s seemingly heartless demand.
So far, what the coal companies have done is assure that regulations and changes are only brought about with the blood of the people in the mines. Let those who are dead to the possibility of justice-compassion bury the dead. For those who would assure the future health, safety, and justice for the mining industry, don’t look back. The workers must organize and stand together for fair wages and working conditions; the regulators must ignore threats from corporations and close down unsafe operations; state legislators must stop worrying about being elected, and start passing laws that assure federal regulations will be enforced; and the rest of the people in West Virginia must demand world-class education, retraining, health care, sustainable, meaningful work, and affordable housing for everyone. Higher taxes and lower profits are far less expensive than 29 lives.
Luke’s sequence begins with Herod, the oppressor and representative of imperial Rome, who wondered who this Jesus was, and wanted to meet him. Perhaps, as the story of the Upper Big Branch Mine continues to unfold, the supporters of business as usual in West Virginia will have that chance.