Having the squirrelly tendencies I have, I wonder how American preachers who preach the lectionary will handle this particular text on July 4. After all, this is the text that got the crowds so mad at Jesus in Luke 4 when Jesus read it in conjunction with a passage about the year of Jubilee. But that’s not the most interesting thing happening here.
More interesting than the overt challenge to Israelite nationalism, the interaction here between prophetic utterance, priestly ritual, and royal permission remind me that the category Messiah does not suddenly appear on the scene in the New Testament or even in the Dead Sea Scrolls; with texts like 2 Kings 5 filling the people’s imaginations, apocalyptic and Jewish nationalism are hardly unexpected developments. These roles are the marks of a spiritual life that the Greek-flavored imperial imagination no doubt considered somewhat underdeveloped intellectually. Here, centuries after Socrates and in a world that knew Cicero’s skepticism, a violently tribalistic tradition in the provinces insisted that there still might be a man who could utter in behalf of the divine, who could set the world right through ritual bloodshed, who could count as his own strength the intervention of a god worshiped from the days of the father-of-many-nations and still, though silent for some generations, poised to return in glory.
So when Paul, no doubt educated in the texts of Plato and familiar with Athenian skepticism (at the very least familiar with it after he runs into it in Acts 17), subjugates the Romanizing moves of Josephus and the Neoplatonic interpretations of Philo to an apocalyptic vision that holds fast to history, he lays some of the foundations both for the educated critics’ most famous accusations against the Jesus-Jews and for the particular way of life that would become the tradition that claims us. Certainly Paul calls those early Christians away from the “way of the flesh” in favor of the “way of the Spirit,” but anyone who can read past those phrases quickly discovers that those two phrases name not an embrace and a rejection of human bodies but two radically different ways to live embodied lives together. As Augustine later writes, expanding on Paul, the life that seeks glory and the life that seeks harmony both necessarily involve bodies, but the difference between power-grabbing bodies and peace-loving bodies is all the difference that human existence can possibly sustain.
Such plays out, of course, in next Sunday’s gospel reading. Where the glory-seeking Pharisee movement and its Zealot allies expected Messiah to raise up an army as David did, Jesus instead sends out disciples, two by two, without any possessions that an army or even a sensible traveler would need, preferring instead to depend upon those in Israel who can see, by faith, that Messiah brings something quite different from what Rome does, not merely a new boss who’s the same as the old boss. The God who motivates such things, the ancient God of Abraham and of Elisha, does not fear to bless those who persecute the chosen, to send rain upon the righteous and the wicked alike, knowing because of God’s own might that no force on the earth, not even Death, can hinder Messiah.
May the faithful give thanks for the Kingdom of God and live as the messengers of its gospel.