Suffering Servant, Messiah, King
In the previous chapter, we looked at the most common way of framing Christian social ethics—the “mainstream view”—and considered Yoder’s proposal of a radical alternative. This alternative would be founded not on the demands and constrictions of reality, but in the words and example of Jesus himself. For example:
I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
This principle of non-retaliation—do not even resist an evildoer!–seems, well, unrealistic. So, we’re supposed to just let people hurt us? Kill us? The principle of uncompromising generosity seems equally unattainable. Every beggar? Everyone who asks? Impossible!
Yet these are the ethics of the Kingdom Come. And as we shall see, Jesus was every bit as tempted towards a different, more realistic kind of Kingdom as we are today. Yoder goes through a whole litany of stories from the gospel of Luke to demonstrate this; I’ll summarize only two of them.
Luke 4:1-13: The Temptation in the Wilderness
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
The devil, of course, is the tempter–this is a story of temptation. But temptation to what? A closer look at the episode reveals the answer.
It is important to note that this episode is immediately preceded by the story of Jesus’ baptism, in which a voice from heaven (presumably, God the Father’s) declares:
You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
This language, Yoder notes, is not about abstract trinitarian arguments, but about kingship. In the Old Testament, divine sonship is a way of describing the King of Israel, the heir of the Davidic line. Take, for example, Psalm 2:
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’
It is no surprise, then, that the Devil uses this title—the Son of God—against Jesus only a few verses later. If you are the Son of God, he says, prove it! The people expect their Messiah to be a conqueror (see the bold final verse above), a king, a revolutionary! Give them what they want!
Jesus’ confrontation with Satan, then, is about the nature of Jesus’ kingship. The three temptations are to economic, political, and religious rule respectively, yet at every turn, Jesus’ rejects these options. His kingdom will be like no other.
Luke 22:35-53: The Garden of Gethsemane
He said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed,‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’
While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?’ When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!’
There are lots of perplexing things about this passage, and I actually had to call my friend Ben and talk it over with him before I felt I had a good grasp of it. From what I can tell (this is my interpretation, not Yoder’s, but I’ll make a related point), Jesus here is intentionally deceiving both his disciples and “the crowd” that comes to arrest him. He allows them to believe that he is a violent revolutionary (“bandit” is a most unfortunate translation), a Messiah after the traditional fashion, come to liberate the Jews from their foreign oppressor, the Romans. That’s why he tells the disciples to procure two swords—so that they think that the revolution is about to begin, and so that he, in effect, frames himself as a threat.
In Jesus’ prayer in the garden, Yoder discerns something more than just a prayer for strength in his time of trial, however. He asks a deeper question: with what other option, exactly, is Jesus struggling? In Yoder’s eyes, this is Jesus’ last chance to attempt a violent overthrow of the Roman regime:
Jesus was drawn, at this very last moment of temptation, to think once again of the messianic violence with which he had been tempted since the beginning. Now finally is the time for holy war.
Did Jesus really imagine that he could take on the Jewish and Roman authorities with a handful of followers, popular support, and a couple of swords? Yoder looks to the parallel passage in Matthew 26 for help. When one of his disciples tries to start a fight, Jesus cries, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?“
The obvious answer to this rhetorical question—“Do you think that I cannot—?”—is “Yes.” Jesus can in fact, appeal to his Father for help, and (as Jesus says repeatedly) whatever he asks for, he can assume will be given. Yet Jesus intentionally chooses the way of the cross instead. It is not an unfortunate accident that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, and was buried. It is entirely on purpose, by Jesus’ own choice.
The Cross and the Kingdom Come
Isenheim Altarpiece, Grunewald, 16th century
Recall that one of the primary theses that Yoder is arguing against is that Jesus’ ministry was apolitical–that it did not constitute a threat to the established political order. Jesus’ crucifixion was, by this understanding, a tragic miscommunication, a misunderstanding. The Romans thought that Jesus was a threat to their rulership over the region, but he wasn’t. His teachings were about “spiritual”, not political matters, and addressed primarily to the individual, and not to society as a whole.
But why, counters Yoder, would Jesus not work to protect everyone against this mistaken conception of his ministry? Why would he come riding in on a donkey, then, or go out of his way to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah? All of the biblical evidence we have suggests that even if Jesus never presented himself as an insurrectionary, as the leader of an armed revolt against the powers-that-be, he did present himself as a Messiah-figure who would overturn the established political order. There was certainly some ambiguity or confusion as to what his methods for doing so might be. But:
Both Jewish and Roman authorities were defending themselves against a real threat. That the threat was not one of an armed, violent revolt, and that it nonetheless bothered them to the point of their resorting to illegal procedures to counter it, is a proof of the political relevance of nonviolent tactics, not a proof that Pilate and Caiaphas were exceptionally dull or dishonorable men.
The problem with the Jewish leaders, the Roman authorities, and even the disciples was not that they misinterpreted Jesus to be a political figure, when he wasn’t. It was that they failed to understand the nature of God’s Kingdom which Jesus came to inaugurate. Yoder, again:
Their fault is that [ . . . ] they were failing to see that the suffering of the Messiah is the inauguration of the kingdom. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” “Glory” here cannot mean the ascension, which has not been recounted yet, and in fact is not clearly described in Luke’s gospel at all. Might it not mean then [ . . . ] that the cross itself is seen as fulfilling the kingdom promise? Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who despitefully use him. The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.
Jesus’ choice of the cross, then, is the proper culmination of a way of life, a way of kingship, even, that we too, as his disciples, are called to share.
So, what does this look like on the ground? That’s what I’m itching to understand better. I think Yoder has me convinced as far as his work with Scripture and such goes, but so far his work has mainly been negative or destructive: he’s clearing the ground of traditional, mistaken ideas in order to lay the foundations for something new. The cross, it seems, is the foundation of the Christian life for Yoder. What else can we say? What are the implications of that? I’m hoping that in the next few chapters, Yoder will begin to spell some of that out.
And a couple more questions, while I’m at it. So far, there has been little to no discussion of the Resurrection or the Ascension. Yoder’s work centers on the Cross, which makes sense and has a certain kind of appeal to it. But what does the Resurrection mean for all of this: that after Jesus suffered, He was raised from the dead and glorified by God the Father? I’m looking for a way to plug Yoder’s work with the Crucifixion into the larger narrative of the Christian story: one that stretches from Genesis to Revelation.