Back in the years when this part of Ohio was Western Frontier, a certain Methodist preacher was having issues with his neighbor over a property boundary issue, and the neighbor no longer attended church. The Methodist bishop wrote a stern admonishing letter to the preacher. The neighbor was showing disrespect for the preacher’s authority, said the good bishop, and the preacher was at fault for not showing enough backbone to march over to that neighbor and give his ass a good whoopin’. The problem, the bishop perceived, is that religion was getting too soft and feminized out there on the frontier. I’m not making this up. This story reached out and grabbed my picture thinking brain from the pages of the Ohio Historical Society’s Mosaic magazine. The image of that parson marching over to the neighbor and roundhousing him takes my attention by the throat, not the least because I can hardly imagine being expected to do that myself (no matter how much I may occasionally fantasize….)
The problem on the frontier, according to the bishop, was with the civilizing presence of the ladies in the rapidly vanishing frontier, the men–and religion–were getting soft. If that bishop were around today, he might wag a long bony finger in our direction and say, “See? See? Didn’t I tell you?” Get soft, and you soon become irrelevant and impotent. People can safely ignore you.
Jesus, however, was by no means safely ignored. I’ve read through the Gospels word by word, and even did it in Greek, and in no place does Jesus add “Thou Shalt Be Nice” as the Eleventh Commandment. The lectionary readings for the next several weeks show us a Jesus who is growing in deliberate conflict against the religious authorities. He speaks with growing personal authority–and it offends greatly. Greatly enough to kill him for it. People in the pews, I need to give you fair warning. Your preacher might offend you in the coming weeks, if she or he fully resists the temptation to add the Eleventh Commandment. The religious authorities felt great danger in the positions Jesus took with them. It was clearly not safe to ignore him, for the sake of the people.
Jesus didn’t roundhouse his opponents, unless that’s how you read the clearing out of the moneychangers in the Temple outer courts. No one leaves Jesus’ banter with the religious authorities holding a steak on his eye.
There is a minority backlash in a little corner of Christendom these days. Facebook and social media distorts how big or small societal upheavals and backlashes really are, so it’s hard to tell about this one. Like that good bishop on the Ohio western frontier, these folks believe that we’ve gone soft. We have read so much sweetness and pacifism into Jesus, he is ineffectual and irrelevant. What we need is a Kick Ass Jesus. I apologize. I probably just offended you. Their words. Not mine.
A Kick Ass Jesus toting an AK47, ready to go whoop the opposition. My blood runs cold just thinking about it.
I was an obedient child. “Conscientious” wrote my 4th grade teacher, of whom I was quite afraid. I was also a frequently frustrated child, and this would erupt into volcanic meltdowns. The pediatric surgeon who saved my life told my mother that I would make it if for nothing more than having a good Irish temper and red hair (like his, so I assume he spoke with personal authority.) Still, I was not a rule-breaker. Usually. I had to learn audacity. It wasn’t something generally encouraged in GGRITS: Good Girls Raised in the South. (which means, I was also raised by good girls raised in the South!)
It came as quite a surprise when my beloved colleague challenged me, saying I had authority issues. He didn’t say it in a heavy confrontation. In fact, his eyes were twinkling as he gestured to me with his pipe. I denied it vehemently. Thirty years later, I can proudly say he was right and he made me do it. I needed to have more authority issues than I did in fact. I needed to question it far more seriously than I thought safe to do. I slapped myself on my forehead when I realized that my volcanic meltdowns were my childish way of resisting the fences, the brick on top of my head, the expectations of obedient girl children. In a strange way, my meltdowns saved my sanity. Now I tend to channel those energies in more acceptable ways. You too can be a sermon illustration….or a character in my novel.
Now, I’m telling you that when we are comforted by an AK47 gun toting Jesus, we’ve got some serious authority issues and I don’t think they are the same authority issues Jesus had. Authority that is gained through fear and coercion begs for resistance.
“You’re not the boss of me! Who made you the boss? ” I remember resisting my brother’s dictatorship as a child, once even with a swift kick with a stern orthopaedic shoe. (Only once. It was a capital offense.)
Jesus provoked authority. In a day when Authority was exercised under the heel of Rome’s boot, when provoking authority could result in the march of boots on the ground and the utter destruction of all one holds sacred, Jesus provoked authority. It was a day when people rightfully questioned who was the boss and God of us. The Christians who populated Matthew’s audience wondered whose authority meant anything, who could speak for God, and who could rightly interpret Scripture (Torah.) Matthew the Gospel Writer dares to say that Jesus’ authority was real authority, that Jesus spoke for God and rightly interpreted and embodied in his flesh the truth of Torah. The truths and verities of their parents and grandparents’ generations were in ruins if you were among the 2 million Jews living in Palestine. If you were among the 5 million faithful Jews who lived outside of Palestine, it was even more difficult. Surrounded by many authorities who all claimed divine right and purpose, how does one (safely) sort out all the competing claims for truth? One religion is as good as any, thank you Alexander the Great. Believe what you want, it doesn’t matter anyway as long as you keep the peace and make the powerful feel secure on their thrones.
Is this world so different from our own? Social media has poured gasoline on the bonfires where we have tossed our trust in authority. Government? Stalemated across the aisle. Medicine? They are all in it to make money. Better trust snake oil.
Religion? Paedophiles, homosexuals, scandals, money stealing and irrelevance. Don’t let them tell you what to believe. Teachers? MOney grubbing liberals who get the summer off and don’t teach like they are supposed to. Higher education? Too expensive and not accountable. Scientists? Might as well be witch doctors, trying to tell us the climate is changing in order to push their political agenda. Conspiracies everywhere. Who can we trust? In fact, maybe it’s a bad idea to trust anything anymore. I’m better off trusting my self, and sticking with people like myself. The end result is compounded ignorance, defended and verified by more ignorance. A God Almighty with a Kick Ass Jesus at his side begins to sound more and more attractive, in a warped kind of way. I want someone to come in and whoop some sense into these people.
What do we do? What do we do? We plaintively cry with much hand wringing. I am reminded of a Far Side cartoon of sheep at a party milling about as the door is opened, revealing a sheep dog standing there saying, “What this party needs is a sheep dog.” Yup. This party needs a sheep dog. Some think that the sheep dog should show up with an AK47 slung over his shoulder. Some think *someone* needs to do something, but are not sure who that might be or what they might do. Yup. Same thing in Jesus’ time. The Zealots were looking for the AK47 toting savior. The Sadducees were looking for someone who would keep peace with the Romans and preserve the Temple and the priesthood, but not anyone who claimed to speak for God. The Pharisees grounded their authority in the proper interpretation of Torah and the rest of Scripture, and resisted embodying that interpretation in any one individual apart from the deliberations of the many. In the Diaspora, the best advice was to keep your nose clean, live and let live. What was a good Torah-abiding Jew to do?
The phrase to describe this collapse of authority has become “Post-Enlightenment.” “Post-Christendom.” “Post- Fill in the Blank.” It is clear we are not where we were, we have inklings in the dark about where we are, and it’s anyone’s wild guess about where we are going. Even the old reliable rationality of scientific method has fallen on hard times in this environment. A cat has to walk circumspectly among the junkyard dogs in this post-diluvian world. (“Diluvian” being the world after the flood, after God gets fed up with the whole mess of us, and we’re left bare on an outcropping of rock waiting for a bird, or a plane, or anything that gives us a sign of life and hope still left in the world beyond what we can see.)
Now I’ve gone and done it. I’ve been depressing, and now I’ve made you depressed too. I’m not very happy about this state of affairs either. I’m still that GGRIT who likes to follow the rules obediently, with some underlying authority issues. If my pediatric surgeon didn’t question what was known in the world at the time and have the courage to buck authority, I would have been a dead girl. If I had gone along with the principal at my Junior High, I would never have gone to college but have been a terrific typist. If I had gone along with “The Brotherhood” of the ministerium in my deaconess internship setting, I would have never spoken a word without another member of the brotherhood giving me the floor and his permission. I still struggle to claim my own voice and authority, and I can become paralyzed by self-doubt. I keep waiting for that sheep dog to knock on the door, and then I realize I am the sheepdog.
I’m not the sheepdog because I have teeth and ferocity and “good eye” for intimidation. Any authority I have is only any good because the shepherd is good and stands out there with me. Jesus challenges the nature and source of authority as he engages the religious authorities in what is still cloaked as good natured banter. In the Gospel of MAtthew, Jesus becomes the personified embodiment of Torah He is God with Us. Torah was written and grew in authority during and after the exile, when all had been lost of the glory that was Israel and the Solomonic temple. Torah was God on wheels, portable, traveling with the people into exile and back again. With the destruction of Herod’s temple and glory that was Israel in Jesus’ day, Jesus claims make him into portable Torah, going with God’s people into Diaspora, as close as the words on his lips, bread and wine on our lips. He teaches with this kind of authority. The kind of authority that results in people getting healed, demons get sent packing, sins get forgiven, food gets shared, lives get restored from the dead. No AK47s here, but my friends, this IS a Kick Ass JEsus. You just have to ask whose ass gets kicked. And once you get that picture clear in your mind, it’s hard to avoid feeling the press and the nudge on your own …..ass. That’s the kind of authority I’m talking about. Call the sheepdog. It’s time for this party to get going.
And if you want a little injection of Kick-Ass authority in your day, you owe it yourself to watch this. It’s a terrific alternative view of the Good Shepherd. It will make you laugh in wonder. I hope it makes you think too.