Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Blogging Sacrilege, chapter 1: Jesus and Joe the Plumber

Do you remember Joe the Plumber? Picture yourself back in the 2008 US presidential campaigns. Some guy from Ohio happens into a conversation with Obama, and briefly thereafter he’s the media flavor of the minute. One day he’s a small business owner in Holland, Ohio; the next, he’s the symbol of everyman, symbol of the common folk who are going to help this country get back on its feet. He’s the mascot of Candidate X’s ambitions for office.
Jesus often gets the same treatment.

Twice in chapter 1 of Hugh Halter’s Sacrilege Jesus shows up in a subtitle. First we meet “Jesus the Iconoclast.” It’s Jesus who fights and overcomes the hold of popular piety, of social taboos, of skin-deep legalism and false shows of godliness. Hugh writes, “Jesus went against almost every religious norm and won the hearts of the heathen. His ability to de-sacredize the sacred (when doing so was important to the purpose of God) magnetized people to him, and his followers were expected and empowered to do the same.”
As Hugh explains, iconoclast means image or idol breaker. I agree that Jesus disrupts all our pictures of the way things should work, all our self-serving imaginations of God and life and love and why.
But I wonder if introducing Jesus first as iconoclast, a de-sacredizer strays from the stories we’ve heard. See, the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible is full of iconoclasts. Israel had plenty of idol-smashers, from Moses when he comes down from Sinai to find a golden calf replacing the imageless Yahweh to Gideon chopping down the Asherah pole by night to the words of latter prophets filling the back third of our Hebrew Bibles. But Jesus, even with all this material to draw on, doesn’t style himself an idol-smasher.

Does he disrupt enshrined traditions and revolt against the temple-turned-market? Yes. But he does so not in the name of taking out the trash but of welcoming a new kingdom, a new order, a new, true, and living way. He flips tables, and then explains, “Is it not written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’?” He holds up a coin of the empire and says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Remember when Jesus is in synagogue on the sabbath and chooses to heal the man with the crippled hand? He sure looks like an iconoclast here. He flouts those looking for a reason to accuse him of living with disregard to Torah and brings the man new life by healing his hand. But listen to Jesus’ question: “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”
Jesus breaks with tradition, but in the name of a higher, better tradition. Jesus breaks the law to keep the law. And I think many people (say, Nicodemus) could affirm that. 
First century Judaism gets a pretty bad rap in chapter one. Hugh writes, “The Jews had not heard from God through any prophets for more than three hundred years. In despair, they had settled back into systems of religion, the legalistic faith of the Old Testament law given to Moses.” Things are so bad that the incarnation “was God’s only way to cut through the bull of religion and nebulous spirituality so that we could get a handle on a truer image of God.”
But I believe God’s law, the Torah, is good. God’s good instruction on how to live as God’s special people in God’s way. I believe Jesus believed this--check his words to the rich young ruler--“You know the commandments.” Jesus doesn’t come to abolish the Torah but to fulfil it, to bring it to its ultimate expression, to re-form the worship and way of Yahweh.
Hugh guides us to meet behind the blockages of religion “Jesus the Likable.” He basis this on the fact that “common people loved Jesus!” To an extent this is true--the crowds are always flocking to Jesus. But Jn 6 and Mk 11 remind us that the crowds were also frequently falling away, going home disappointed, and, above all, misunderstanding.
I get that we want to present a Jesus friendly to all our neighbors. But I think we might be picking and choosing only the parts of the story that bolster our campaign. We take Jesus and turn him into a mascot for our cause. The real question is, What is Jesus’ cause?
Hugh sums up the chapter this way: “Jesus’s ability to influence the hearts of man and woman, child and king, prostitute, peasant, and priest was greatly due to his sacrilegious ways of behaving, speaking, listening, loving, and living.” The word I get stuck on is “influence.” We might feel Jesus’ influence most today in his ways of breaking with the things we want to break with--out-of-date religious taboos and moral guidelines. But the Gospels don’t picture Jesus as drawing the masses to see him go head-to-head with the arbiters of popular piety. They come for healings and exorcisms, teaching and bread and the hope political revolution. They come to see the kingdom come.
God knows we need the same today. Will it look different from the powers that be today, from our church services, political elections, social networking sites, and retail jobs? Let’s hope so. But its negations, the ways Jesus’ kingdom breaks with the status quo, certainly do not exhaust what Jesus has to say about it, how Jesus performs it. The antitheses of Jesus’ sermon on the mountainside in Mt 5-7 negate with one hand and give a renewed and better way with the other. Jesus is far more than an idol-smasher, he’s the firstborn from the dead, the firstfruits of the new creation.

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