Thursday, April 22, 2010
The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (Part 5)
In agreement with Marcus Borg, Jesus was an inspired wisdom teacher and social prophet, and not all he said and did should be discounted as apocalyptic angst. He was a compassionate friend of the poor and outcast, a moral genius, as well as a subversive enemy of empire. He insisted that the kingdom was now partially present in his ministry – but he was not intent on establishing a utopian society. He believed that only God could truly bend the world back to justice. To prepare for the coming fullness of the future kingdom, Jesus was not only calling for repentance, but he was teaching subversive strategies to his community for resisting exploitative economics and Roman imperialism through nonviolent means that would avoid needlessly bringing down Rome's wrath. His motivation was the coming kingdom of God, and he hoped that by promoting subversive survival tactics his community could get the word out more effectively in the short time they had left. Unfortunately, things do not always work out the way one hopes.
If taken to be historical, Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” may have been a real cry of anguish that came when he realized that the imminent arrival of the kingdom would not come before his death. He died in confusion, and the disciples were left to figure out what to do next. After Jesus’ followers came to believe that God had raised him from the dead ahead of the general resurrection, they reinterpreted the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus. Jesus, having been raised from the dead as the first fruits of the eschaton’s general resurrection, must be much more than the future Messiah of the age to come – he must also be the angelic Son of Man. Jesus was now up in heaven, seated at the right hand of God, preparing to return within a generation to usher in the kingdom and judge the world. The end had already begun, and the disciples believed they were entrusted with the job of spreading Jesus’ message in the last days before he returned on the clouds of heaven.
In the end, the mystical Jesus is the apocalyptic Jesus. His proclamation that the end was not only near, but that it would come within a generation was obviously off by at least two thousand years. Even so, his apocalypticism was a powerful framework provided by his religion at the time to express a legitimate dissatisfaction with the cruel injustices of human life. If read mythologically like Genesis 1-3, the eschatology of Jesus still has transcendent power. It forces many of us to hope, along with Jesus, that his intuitions were basically right: there is something more beyond ordinary existence, and that it ultimately bends toward justice. To affirm the resurrection is to affirm that Jesus was ultimately right about the justice of God, even if his timeframe was off and his vision of how justice would be enacted required ancient Jewish mythology to express. To affirm the incarnation is (at minimum) to affirm that Jesus is the ultimate moral exemplar, the ultimate revelation of God in a human life. To affirm ourselves as followers of this 1st century Jewish man is to align ourselves with his cause, adopt his hope, and live out the radically subversive kingdom of God in the present. Jesus passionately protested against the evil he saw in the world and proclaimed that liberation was at hand from the evil of empire and death itself – the ultimate injustice that the resurrection dealt a devastating blow to. Like many before and many since, Jesus responded to the problem of evil in the best way he knew how, and his deep longing for radical justice is something we all should deeply resonate with. Dale Allison affirms the hope of cosmic liberation as he writes, “…Jesus had it right: he so thirsted for justice on such a grand scale that he had to embrace his tradition’s belief in the transcendence of history and death. He may have been mistaken, but he wasn’t wrong.”