Reinterpreting the Easter Story

spring sunrise

Herb Montgomery | March 19, 2021


“The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the harmful message that suffering is redemptive. So what do we do with the passage from John’s gospel?”


This week’s reading is from John’s gospel:

“Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” (John 12.20-33)

The statement that jumps out at me each time I read this passage are these words from Jesus: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Statements like these seem to be more prevalent in John’s version of the Jesus story, and they trouble me. They bring to mind the writings and critiques of both womanist and feminist Christians who recount these passages’ destructive and even death-dealing fruit in their communities.

For example, womanist scholar Delores Williams, writing of how destructive holding up Jesus’ death as an example for Black women has been, states, “African-American Christian women can, through their religion and its leaders, be led passively to accept their own oppression and suffering— if the women are taught that suffering is redemptive” (Sisters in the Wilderness, p. 161).

She also writes, “As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred” (p. 132).

Two pages earlier, Williams explains, “The resurrection does not depend upon the cross for life, for the cross only represents historical evil trying to defeat good. The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it. Thus, to respond meaningfully to black women’s historic experience of surrogacy oppression, the womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/or evil.”

Similar reflections come from Christian feminist scholars like Elizabeth Bettenhausen, who writes, “Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice base on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all- powerful paternal deity, women’s well being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. xii)

In the same book, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker wirte in their ground breaking essay For God So Loved the World?—“Women are acculturated to accept abuse. We come to believe that it is our place to suffer . . . Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive.” (For God So Loved the World?, p. 1)

And in the book Beyond God the Father, Mary Daly writes, “The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of a victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus ‘who died for our sins,’ his functioning as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women” (p. 77).

So what do we do with the passage from John’s gospel? First, I understand how desperately some people in the early Jesus community needed to make sense of Jesus’ unjust execution. So many had placed their hopes for change and liberation in his teachings, and he had been executed by the very status quo he had spoken out against. I can imagine early followers grappling with what this all meant for them and their decision to follow Jesus. I understand why, especially with Paul’s popularity among Gentile Christians, so many would come to see Jesus’ death as salvific and redemptive.

Today, I find much more positive fruit in life-affirming interpretations of the Jesus narrative, like those from womanist theologian, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, who in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, writes, “God’s power . . . is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of life. This is resurrecting power” (p.178). In other words, God doesn’t overcome death and death-dealing through more death, but by giving life, resurrecting life—life that overcomes, reverses, and undoes everything accomplished in the killing of Jesus.

Also, science has something to teach us about this passage. Seeds that germinate haven’t died! Germination is not death, but transformation. When seeds die, they don’t germinate. They actually “abide alone” when they die. But if they germinate rather than die, they transform or “sprout” into a new form: a beautiful plant with the potential to propagate and create more potentially germinating seeds that continue to give life. Life on top of life on top of life on top of life.

As we shared a couple of weeks ago, in other versions of the Jesus story, Jesus died because he refused to keep silent in the face of injustice. The cross was not his silent bearing of injustice, but an unjust penalty imposed on him by unjust people in power who felt threatened by him and his public critique of their unjust system. In other words, Jesus doesn’t model the passive bearing of wrong. He models how to speak out against injustice even if you’re threatened with a cross for doing so.

I didn’t always teach this and I’m thankful for womanist and feminist scholars like those mentioned above who have brought these ideas to our attention. The way I used to interpret and teach the story of Jesus death’ has had devastating effects on the lives of abuse survivors and victims. Suffering is never redemptive. Standing up, speaking out, and saying “no” is redemptive, and glorifying people’s victimization can extend their bodily, emotional, and psychological pain. Victimization destroys a person’s self-worth, self-image, and dignity, robbing them of their sense of self-determining power, and theology that glorifies victimization rather than condemning or resisting it can also lead to death.

Life-giving interpretations of the Jesus story tell of a Jesus who doesn’t ask us if we are willing to suffer, but asks if we desire to fully live, to not let go of life, to not lay down, to not be passively silent when threatened for speaking out. Jesus did not come to die, nor did he choose the cross. He rather chose to live a life opposing unjust, oppressive and exploitative ways of organizing life in this world. Jesus chose not to remain silent; he chose to stand up in faithfulness to his life-giving God, and he refused to change course because of threat.

Jesus knew where his speaking out would lead. He knew what his solidarity with the excluded and exploited would cost him. And he chose to do it nonetheless. He refused to let go of life. He rejected the way of death, even while being threatened with death himself. In the words of Brown and Parker, choosing this interpretation, “is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 18)

Indeed, it makes all the difference in the world.

This week, let’s not ask ourselves how we can die. Jesus doesn’t call a person do die, but to live.

So what is it going to take for us to germinate?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share with your group examples of how you have witnessed the message of redemptive suffering bearing harmful fruit. How do you interpret the story of Jesus death and resurrection in life-giving, life-affirming ways?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The  Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 4 of 9

Part 4 of 9

You Will Be with Me in Paradise

Wooden Rosaryby Herb Montgomery

 

He replied, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43

Today, much is lost when one reads these words in Luke’s gospel. Partly because we read them from our context, or in the way a Greek would have read them, rather than the way a first century, Second Temple, Jew would have heard this statement.

Paradise, within the cultural context of Luke’s Gospel, did not mean some far-distant “heaven” (Christians today). It did not refer to a place of post-mortem bliss (Greek-Hellenists of the first century). To a first century Jew, living in the wake of the Maccabees, and longing for a deliverance from Roman oppression, Paradise was a restored earth, where injustice, oppression, and violence were no more. Remember, the great hope of the Hebrew people was in a Messiah who would come and set the world right.

The Greek word used in Luke’s gospel for “Paradise” is paradeisos. A brief look at the way paradiesos was used in the Septuagint will pull back the veil for us. Paradeisos was the world used to refer to Eden, both past and future.

You were in Eden, the paradise [paradeisos] of God. (Ezekiel 28:13, LXX) And God planted a garden [paradeisos] eastward in Eden. (Genesis 2:8)

Paradeisos, in the Septuagint, referred not only to the Eden of the past, but it also came to be associated, in Jewish thinking, with the restoration of Israel in the future.

For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden [paradeisos] of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:3)

The Orthodox Jewish Bible translates Luke 23:43 as “I say to you, hayom (today) with me you will be in Gan Eden.”

However, the Hebrew prophets must also be held in tension with Jesus. The prophets are filled with depictions of God as a warrior who would liberate Israel through slaughtering Israel’s enemies, unlike Jesus’ nonviolent direct action, which would seek to win over one’s enemies. [1] The prophets speak of a restoration of the monarchy (albeit a monarchy built on justice). Jesus sought to redefine the Kingdom (the Monarchy) away from hierarchical authority to a social order built upon mutual love, mutual submission, and mutual respect. [2] The prophets also contain, at times, national exceptionalism, which is the dangerous idea that one group of people or one nation was or is more favored by a Divine being than others. Jesus would challenge this idea, too, putting forth that his liberation was not only for Israel but for the whole world, including those whom Israel hated. [3] What the prophets got right was that there was coming a time when injustice, oppression, and violence would be made right. Jesus simply enlarged this vision to include all types of oppression, injustice, and violence, not simply that which affected the privileged class within Israel.

The evidence shows that the early Jesus community did not interpret paradeisos as post- mortem bliss either. They, in following Jesus, enlarged this word to refer to the liberation and restoration of all things here, now! Growing out of their own cultural context, discovering over time how Jesus’ liberation impacted their own social constructs of oppression, we are to do the same today. The early Jesus community believed that the work of liberating the world from injustice had been initiated by their Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. They were discovering how this liberation would eventually permeate all forms of oppression, privilege, and marginalization. That process is not finished. It was not completed in the days of the Apostles. Nor in the generation that followed them. The history of Christianity reveals that Christianity as a whole (although there have been and are exceptions) has taken a long detour away from this work of restoring paradise. The work of justice and liberation from all oppression has gone on, for many, outside of and in many cases, in spite of, what is today referred to as Christianity. But as many have shown throughout history, the ethical teachings of the Jesus of the very early Jesus community still possess value today in approaching paradise. [4]

What makes Jesus’ statement in Luke’s gospel even more astounding is the realization of to whom it is addressed. This was one of the kakourgos [criminals] crucified with him. Remember, this is not a kleptes [thief] but a kakourgos. A kakourgos in Roman times was an enemy of the state. Crucifixion was not a capital punishment for just any crime. This was a punishment reserved for those Rome deemed a threat to the “national interests” of the Roman Empire. This was a Jewish zealot who had sought to overthrow Rome’s presence in Jerusalem through violent, terrorist-like methods. What this political criminal is discovering is that Jesus’ way is the better way. His own violent way had failed. Many times an oppressed group simply does not have the force of arms or numbers to overthrow their oppressors through violent means. This option is simply not at their disposal. Jesus was offering the long, and difficult path of defeating injustice through the nonviolent, direct action of enemy-confrontation and love. [5] And this zealot was discovering, much like many in India did through Gandhi and others here in the U.S. did through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that there was hope to be found in the methods of this Jesus who was being lynched beside him. For this political criminal, this was the end of his endeavors. For Jesus, this was only the beginning! This was the beginning of a whole new world. What this criminal is verbalizing is an admission that his way had not worked. He is stating a newly realized discovery that Jesus’ way did offer hope. He is admitting that Jesus’ way would work in the end, and he simply wanted Jesus, when Jesus’ “Kingdom” was eventually established, in some far-distant future, he wanted Jesus to simply remember him. Jesus turns and whispers to this last-minute, new disciple “Today, you will be with me in the liberated and restored world. Today, you will be with me in the paradeisos.”

This is what many scholars refer to when they use the phrase “already, but not yet.” As followers of Jesus, the disciples were to go forth proclaiming that Jesus’ new social order had arrived. It was already here! [6] And although its presence was obstructed, it would continue to subversively grow, like the mustard seed, until it had permeated the entire “garden.” What Jesus is whispering to this one beside him is that Paradise has arrived, here, now! And that he was privileged to see it beginning. With the overthrow and undoing of the crucifixion of Jesus (at the hands of the domination system of his day) through the resurrection the new world had begun!

There is debate over whether Jesus was “telling” the political criminal beside him “today” or whether Jesus was saying they would be together in Paradise “today.” [7] In Acts 20:26, Luke does place in the mouth of Paul these words, “Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you.” Yet, I favor Luke’s theme of Jesus’ continuous use of the present tense of “Today” such as in Luke 4:18–21:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Where does this leave us right now?

Jesus’ words were not telling the one beside him that he and Jesus would spend the afternoon in some far-distant, post-mortem bliss. This was one last and final announcement by Luke’s Jesus that in Jesus’ Kingdom, the hope of the Hebrew people, the long-awaited “paradeisos” had come. The Jewish hope of a restored world, a restored Paradise, where all injustice, oppression, and violence are made right, had come. And what that fellow, also crucified, would look back on at some point in the future and see is that he was given the privilege of being at Jesus’ side to witness its beginning.

HeartGroup Application

  • Very rarely do I recommend books to HeartGroups. This week I want to recommend Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker. James H. Cone said of this volume, “Every Christian theologian and preacher should read this book and be profoundly challenged.” Even if you can’t afford to purchase it, you can read the prologue and the first chapter here and here. This week, I simply would like you to read the prologue and Chapter 1.
  • Journal your thoughts as you contemplatively read.
  • Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

In the beginning period of Christian history, Paradise was the dominant image of early Christian art. Christian art was saturated with a living Jesus, as a living presence in a vibrant world pictured as a restored “paradise.” Christianity over time has turned from the teachings of this Jesus of the early Jesus community to such things as escapism, redemptive violence, conquest, and colonization, holy war, support of oppressive Empires and their national interests, and support of countless other socially oppressive ideologies. Yes there are exceptions, but to a large degree, Christianity made a departure from the early Jesus-movements’ definitions of and ethics of Jesus’ “paradise.” It’s time for a return to the way of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It’s time to pick back up the work of liberation he began, and to flesh it out even further in our day.

Again, the early church was a group of people endeavoring to follow the teachings of Jesus into this new world, this new social order. The old order of things [8] was passing away. They were embarking on a journey of following Jesus and discovering what social constructs of their present world were old order things that must give way to new order things, and which parts were not. (One such example is the transition from the national exceptionalism of Judaism to including the uncircumcised Gentiles. This was the earliest, and most difficult transition for Jesus followers coming out of Judaism.) The Apostles and early Jesus followers did not finish this journey. They didn’t always get it right. They went as far as they could, given their own context. It’s up to us, standing in their lineage, to continue the work of liberation that Jesus began. [9] It’s up to us to continue the work of liberation from domination systems in our day. Whether it’s systemic racial superiority, national superiority, religious superiority, gender superiority, cisgender superiority, superiority of a particular sexual orientation, educational superiority, or economic superiority, as a Jesus follower, we are called to carry forward the work that Jesus began. Every time our stories align with the Jesus story, it can be said, “today,” we are with Jesus . . . “in paradise.”

Jesus is still out there recruiting.

Some know him by name, others only by spirit.

I close this week with my own modern adaptation of the words of third Isaiah:

Do you think that is the way I want you to fast?
Is it only a time for people to make themselves suffer?
Is it only for people to bow their heads like tall grass bent by the wind?
Is it only for people to lie down in ashes and clothes of mourning? Is that what you call a fast?
Do you think I can accept that?
Here is the way I want you to fast.
Set free those who are held by chains of injustice. Untie the ropes that hold people in subordination. Set free those who are oppressed.
Break every evil chain.
Give away your privilege to the disadvantaged.
Provide the marginalized with a world that is safe.
When you see someone denied what is right, give what you have to them, that there may be equality.
Do not turn away from others who are in all actuality “your own flesh” for they too are “the image of God.”
Then light will break forth like the dawn, and YOUR healing will spring up quickly.

(Adapted from Isaiah 58 by Herb Montgomery)

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Many voices, one new world. I love each of you; I’ll see you next week.


 

1 Luke 6:27–36—But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

2 Luke 22:24–27—But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

3 Luke 4.25–29—“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

4 For an excellent, and more detailed discussion on this topic, please see Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker.

5 See last week’s eSight here.

6 Luke 10:9—Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Luke 10:11—Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in

protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near. Luke 11:20—But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.

7 The Curetonian Gospels read “Today I tell you that you will be with me in paradise.” By

contrast, the Sinaitic Palimpsest reads “I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

8 Revelation 21:4—“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the old order of things has passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

9 Luke 4.18–21—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”