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King of the Rubik’s Cube

Australian Country Landscape

Week of Sunday 25 November - Christ the King:
Gospel: John 18:33-37

 33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’        

One of my colleagues, looking forward to the year of Luke, writes

"This concluding liturgical year was supposed to be the Year of Mark, but the number of occasions when Mark was used and the sequence of the readings made this a bit of a joke."

The switch from Mark 13 to John 18 for this last Sunday of the year is perhaps the most startling of that stepping out of Mark into John, which plagues year B. At the crescendo of Mark, almost at the highest point— also the lowest point! — we abandon the drama, and drop into another genre of literature, and another author.

In Mark I have been studying a gospel which is bluntly political. I cannot read Mark and take his portrait of Jesus seriously without putting myself at odds with the political powers that be of my country. Yet in this reading from John, Jesus says, “My Kingdom is not from this world.”

We have been talking in our congregation about the abandoned Jesus of Mark who loses everything, even his faith, (15:34) and suddenly, in John, he is King, the one who instead of being abandoned, will announce “It is finished.”

It is not that the gospels are in opposition, but that the Johannine triumph, and the comfort and assurance which may follow from it, has a completely different accent and flavour from the good news in Mark. It works differently. To flip from one to the other so easily seems to me to do violence to the text of both gospels.

The way I might “rescue” the situation is to suggest to folk that each gospel takes a different angle on the paradox of Jesus’ death. The paradox is that Jesus, Son of God, is killed by the people who longed for his arrival. Yet he rose from the dead. This is nonsense. Who does this to their King? And who rises from the dead— no one! The man who dies the traitor’s death is indeed the Messiah at the right hand of God!? We forget how absurd we sound to the outsiders!

 And yet if we will play with the paradox, and its apparent absurdities, if we will turn it over in our hands like a Rubik’s Cube, and spin the various planes, and try out the options, and struggle with the apparent impossibility of finding an answer we will come to an answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”

Faith is not so much that we “believe,” able to make a doctrinal and propositional statement, but that we will honour the paradox and struggle with it... and then live out the conclusions that are revealed to us.

I have begun fiddling with the cube. I have no clue, yet, what I will say on Sunday!

In Mark Jesus has been coming to Jerusalem, all the while warning that he will be killed. Mark prefigures the inevitable death of Jesus with the destruction of Jerusalem, perhaps even inviting us to let all our religious hopes and presuppositions to be utterly shattered, as were those of Israel. Shattered they will be, for Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem rapidly turns into total disaster. As I wrote last week,

What happens is a disaster.

    • He is betrayed.
    • He is deserted.
    • He is tried in a kangaroo court.
    • He is executed alone.
    • There is no resurrection to be seen, only an empty tomb.
    • The disciples are so afraid or stunned they don’t even go to the tomb, so
    • “Tell the disciples to go to Galilee,” says the young man in the tomb.
    • But the women are too frightened to tell anyone.
    • And the gospel ends... hanging

 

Perhaps worse than all this, he loses faith himself. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Somewhere, in this laying before us of the paradox, life is only to be found when everything is lost. When there is total loss, there is the hope of resurrection. When we “go back to Galilee,”: with what little dignity and energy we have left after our failure and humiliation, and begin life again; when we live with compassion and in service and love to others, we will find Jesus there. We will find resurrection; we will find that like Peter’s mother in law, and the dead girl, we are being lifted up. We will find, like the blind men that we can see clearly.

The truth will be clear to us. This “Jesus way” of living will constantly raise us up in the defeats and humiliations of life. When we come to our last dying, perhaps the discipline of a life spent living the Jesus way will free us from being a weak, manipulated Pilate who bleats out “What is truth?” as his own condemnation. We will know, because, as John might put it, we have been living the truth.

Before looking at the reading in John, we need to repent.

John, like all the gospels, tries to deflect Roman persecution of the Christians, by blaming people  he calls “the Jews” for the death of Jesus, and excusing the Romans.  At best we have misunderstood this. At worst we have used it to justify a cruel and longstanding anti-Semitism, which is nothing other than prejudice which Our Lord would condemn.

John is the worst of this New Testament scape-goating of Jewish people, with all its unintended later consequences. We need to separate his insights into Jesus from his anger and political expediency. We need to understand that the infant church was not initially anti-Jewish, but deeply opposed to and resentful of a political group within the Jewish nation. We need to repent where we have misinterpreted the gospels.  

I quote (loosely) some details from John Shelby Spong’s Exploring the Story of the Cross series of articles.  Remember that Judas is the Greek rendition of Judah. Judas is a symbol of Judah, one of the founders of Jesus’ people, and a name by which Israel named itself.

Lining up the gospels in the order in which they were written and focusing only on what each gospel says about Judas, we discover that between Mark, dated in the early 70’s, and John dated in the late 90’s, the figure of Judas grows more and more evil....

... while Judas, the symbol of the Jewish nation, grows darker and more sinister as each successive gospel is composed, Pontius Pilate, the symbol of the Roman authorities, grows more and more benevolent.... 

Why is this? Spong suggests this answer:

... the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and in the year 70 CE, breached the walls, cracked the defense perimeter and moved into the Jewish capital city. The Romans went through Jerusalem in that year like the Russians went through Berlin in 1945. Not one stone was left on another. When the smoke of battle cleared, the nation of Judea no longer existed, the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Temple had been razed to the ground as all Jewish resistance was crushed.

This war unleashed enormous hostility on the part of the Romans toward all Jews for having brought this war upon themselves and upon Rome. Within the Jewish community the members of the Orthodox party, who controlled the worship of the Temple and who had in fact supported the guerrilla fighters, were held particularly responsible for bringing this disaster upon the Jewish nation.

The Roman authorities, however, did not distinguish one Jew from another.

Revisionist Jews, a category that at that time included the disciples of Jesus who were called not Christians but the "Followers of the Way," sought to find a way to separate themselves from the Orthodox Party for the sake of their own survival, lest they be tarred with the same brush with which all Jews were being tarred by the Romans.

[The “Followers of the Way” did that by making] the villain of the Jesus story someone who bore the name of the Jewish nation, [Judas=Judah] and by shifting the responsibility for the death of Jesus away from the Roman officials, who alone had the power to execute, and portray[ing] the Romans as crucifying Jesus, but only under pressure from the Orthodox Party of the High Priest and Sadducees. ...

This meant that the same people who had been responsible for the war against Rome were now said to have been also responsible for the death of the founder of their own movement.

They would thus portray Jesus not as a revolutionary – "My kingdom is not of this world," – and at the same time portray Pilate, the Roman governor, in increasingly benevolent terms seeking to set Jesus free. The principle these "Followers of the Way" were trying to establish was that "if your enemy is also my enemy then we should be friends." To frame the Jesus story as an act of betrayal by the Orthodox party of the Jews accomplished these goals.

So John’s gospel is a multi layered political and religious document. As always, there is the message for the insiders. It is not an attempt to convince them so much as to remind them of who they are.  Raymond Brown says

Jesus' statement, "Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice" is a test of Pilate; the judge is being judged. Pilate's response, "What is truth?" is not to be understood as a profound philosophical question. It does echo the imperiousness of the Roman when challenged (see also 19:22); but ironically it is a self-condemnation: His failure to recognize truth and hear Jesus' voice shows that he does not belong to God. This is the last time in John that Jesus shall speak of truth, and his voice has not been heard. [pp. 752-3 The Death of the Messiah]

Brian Stoffregen (who quoted Brown) comments upon the conversation between Pilate and Jesus. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is King of the Jews

Jesus responds with a question: [literally translated] "From yourself are you asking this or have others told you about me?"

Three times in Jesus' question he emphasizes a form of "you" (singular). Jesus puts Pilate on trial. "What do you say about me?"

Stoffregen shows us that Jesus asks Pilate the same question he asked the disciples in Mark 8:29.

Pilate does not understand that he is not interviewing Jesus to save him (the political spin for the Romans to see) but that he is being interviewed by Jesus. Jesus is actually asking him, “What is truth?” and by asking the question himself, Pilate shows he has no idea.

Jesus is the King. He controls the situation. But the paradox remains. For the King will still die. The death is not glorious. For all his dignity in John’s retelling, he still dies the death of the traitor. Paradox and absurdity drips from the story.

Jesus was not ‘the king of the Jews’; the charge was false; and yes, he is ‘the king of the Jews’; the charge is unwittingly true. He is a mad king: weak, crucified, crowned with thorns, pathetic, defeated. Mark has been telling us about love and self-giving, a path that led him to this. John retains the stark melody. As Jesus’ life is subversive, so also is his death. It depicts in deed what Jesus taught in word: greatness is lowliness and compassion, the last is first, loving matters most. (Loader)

John is talking about Mark’s resurrection in different words. The king, in Jesus’ time, was the one responsible for the good and the prosperity of the country. The economy did not depend on government policy and the central banks and terms of trade. The King, for good or bad, was seen as the one whose actions meant life was good or bad.

Mark says that if we live compassionately, serving others and not ourselves, then in all the bad of life, we will be raised up to discover a good king. John shows us that the Good King, the one we call Truth, is the one who lives out greatness through lowliness and compassion. When we live in the Truth, we will discover he is with us. Truly, his kingdom is not of this world!

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

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