Luke 4 and “Postcards from Babylon”

(The following can also be found as the opening essay for Epiphany 3C, at “Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.”)

Luke launches the mission of Jesus with an inaugural sermon in his hometown Nazareth. Jesus reads the quintessential Jubilee text (Isa. 61), announcing good news to the poor, and makes it clear that this is what his mission is all about. The good news of going to heaven when you die if you believe in Jesus is nowhere to be even glimpsed. Rather, believing in Jesus implies believing in a political mission that couldn’t be more different than the politics of capitalist America. Orienting your economics for the poor and marginalized instead of the rich and powerful? Advocating debt relief rather than practicing debt predation? That’s not capitalism. So it’s a good thing American Christianity has claimed a different, otherworldly Good News.

So what do Americans do with such a central text launching Jesus’ mission? Preach the Second Reading as a nice, safe sermon about caring for one another in the body of Christ (though reading it in light of the Gospel makes clear its emphasis on the marginalized in the body politic). Or convert. Be open to a New Reformation, one where this text is taken seriously as the anti-imperialist, liberationist text that it is.

zahnd - postcards from babylonIf a significant portion of the American church were to actually make such a conversion to the Good News of Jesus, what would that look like? Brian Zahnd‘s latest book, Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile, explores this question, recounting his own conversion in the process. Chapter 7, “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” gives a brilliant Girardian reading of Satan as something very real but not personal. And since it’s not personal, it cannot be defeated by violence against persons. Zahnd asks,

Why doesn’t God just destroy the (d)evil? Because the satanic phenomenon is inextricably connected with who we are. God cannot simply destroy the devil in one fell blow without destroying us too. Jesus came to destroy the devil, but the devil will not be destroyed like Osama Bin Laden was destroyed by Seal Team Six. It takes more than a bullet to the head to kill the devil. Jesus destroys the devil by calling us out of rivalry, accusation, violence, domination, and empire, into heaven’s alternative of love, advocacy, peace, and liberation — this is what the Bible calls the kingdom of God.

So, yes, I believe the devil is real. Not in the way I believed as a child when I was afraid I might find the devil leaping out of my closet with pitchfork and pointed tail — no, I believe the devil is much more real than that. The devil is the all too real dark spiritual phenomenon of accusation and empire that lies behind humanity’s greatest crimes — the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the medieval crusades conducted in his name, the lynching of black men in the Jim Crow South, and the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust. The devil is also very real in a million smaller, yet still diabolical, acts of rivalry, accusation, violence, and domination that take place every day. Ultimately the Satan reaches its fullest form in the evils of empire. But the good news is that Christ has overthrown the kingdom of Satan with the establishment of his own empire — an Easter Empire. (115-16)

Earlier in this chapter, Zahnd cites today’s Gospel Reading in hailing the importance of each Gospel’s opening to Jesus’ ministry:

In keeping with their distinctiveness, each of the four Gospels has its own way of introducing Jesus as a public figure.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ public ministry begins with the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is the prophet like unto Moses reissuing the Torah from a mountaintop. The message is that it is time for a renewed Torah and a renewed Israel.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ public ministry is first described as he announced the arrival of Jubilee and the day of divine favor at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The message is that it is time for God’s favor to fall upon all people.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. The message is that it is time for the long-awaited feast of God to begin.

In Mark’s Gospel, the first of the four Gospels to be written, Jesus begins his public ministry by casting out a demon at the synagogue in Capernaum. The message is that it is time for the overthrow of Satan’s kingdom. Satan, your kingdom must come down. (111-12)

Zahnd elaborates on Mark’s Gospel because it is the most oriented to the theme of overthrowing Satan, but each of the Gospels’ opening salvos are clear about what Jesus came to overthrow, the evil of imperialism, even if they don’t pose it as overthrowing Satan like Mark does. John’s opening sign of water into wine is followed immediately by his different placement of the so-called “cleansing of the temple” — the epitome of Jesus’ prophetic resistance to the institutions of empire. Matthew’s Beatitudes (5:1-12) and series of antitheses (5:21-48) map out a revolution of values that are upside-down and inside-out to those of Empire. Both Matthew and Luke do presume the battle with Satan by placing their inaugurations of Jesus’ ministry after their prolonged stories of Jesus battling Satan in the wilderness.

Jesus’ inaugural address of proclaiming Jubilee fulfilled is placed by Luke only a few verses after:

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.'” (Luke 4:5-8)

Jesus’ response to the devil brings up one other crucial feature of this text: if human empire actually worships a satanic god of accusation and violent militarism, then who is the true God that Jesus is calling us to worship? In recent years, many are promoting Luke 4 to the head of the class in showing us how Jesus read his own scriptures to reveal a nonviolent God. When reading Isaiah 61 as the arrival of God’s Jubilee — good news to the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed — Jesus also leaves something out: “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2).

zahnd - sinners in the hands of a loving godOnce again, we can feature Brian Zahnd, who wrote this essay when this text came up in the lectionary in 2016, “Closing The Book On Vengeance.” He followed that up with an entire book arguing for a nonviolent God of love in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, with this passage once again featured in a chapter based on the 2016 essay (Chapter 2, “Closing the Book on Vengeance”). He brings out not only Jesus’ editing of Isaiah 61 but also his citing (in next week’s portion of this passage) of two stories from the Hebrew scriptures in which God reaches out to enemies through the prophets: Elijah and the widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17) and Elisha and Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5). The fact that Jesus brings up these two stories as follow-ups to his reading of Isaiah 61 seems somewhat of a non sequitur, but they actually fit beautifully with what he has edited out, a God of vengeance on enemies. The follow-up are stories of a God who reaches out in love to enemies.

The chapter on vengeance had begun by considering the God-commanded genocides in the Book of Joshua (typical of imperialist gods) and then closes with Luke 4, the new Joshua (Jesus). Zahnd concludes:

When we read the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath or the story of Elisha and Naaman the leper, whom do we identify with? Are we Elijah? Are we Elisha? Probably not. More likely we’re a starving widow or a suffering leper. We are the outsiders in need of God’s mercy. More provocatively, whom do we identify with in the conquest narratives of Joshua? Why do we imagine ourselves as the conquering Israelites when we have more reason to imagine ourselves as the conquered Canaanites? To be blunt: If you are going to imagine divinely endorsed genocide, you should not imagine yourself as Joshua but as the unfortunate Canaanite whose entire family and village have just been murdered. Instead of always seeing yourself as the cowboy, try being the Indian sometime. Imagine yourself as a Pequot Indian instead of an English colonist. Try being the Lakota Sioux instead of the American cowboy. Do that and then ask yourself how you feel about justifying genocide in the name of God.

We must constantly resist the temptation to cast ourselves in the role of those who deserve mercy while casting those outside our circle in the role of those who deserve vengeance. Jesus will have no part of that kind of ugly tribalism and triumphalism. Clinging to our lust for vengeance, we lose Jesus. But if we can say amen to Jesus closing the book on vengeance, then Jesus will remain with us to teach us the more excellent way of love. (44-45)

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