Scattering the Proud – Chapter III

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The Impossible Journey

All of the heroes of the ancient world, real or mythical, embarked upon the upward journey. Theseus’ journey was from Troezen to Athens to win the recognition of his father Aegeus. On the way he slew three monsters who waylaid travellers. This sequence is important: first the hero must achieve glory through heroic violence, then he is recognised. Aegeus’ recognition is followed by that of Athens itself when Theseus slays the Minotaur on Crete. He inherits the kingdom.

So the journey to Athens is also an upward journey to recognition and glory, ultimately the recognition of the Gods themselves. It is axiomatic that this recognition is denied until the upward journey is accomplished. It follows that those who make no heroic journey remain unrecognised by men or Gods, and lead lives of no importance.

This was the Greek tradition, but the Roman was based upon it, and identical in this respect. So, gifted individuals whose historical existence is certain embarked upon the same journey. Alexander’s military campaigns in Asia, the most extraordinary of the ancient world, brought him unparalleled adulation, so much so that Julius Caesar later wept at the thought that he could never excel them. Yet Caesar set out anyway on the upward journey that led him to conquest in Gaul, assassination in Rome and then recognition as a God by his protégé Octavian, later Augustus. These upward journeys, among others, transformed Rome from a republic into the most expansive empire the world had yet seen.

King David of Israel

Even Jewish culture extolled the upward journey. Its greatest hero, David, sprang to prominence by challenging and slaying the giant philistine, Goliath. Yet Jewish culture also had a strange addiction to the truth, expressed through the prophets. Nathan the prophet did not scruple to broadcast the truth of how David acquired Bathsheba, by using his royal prerogative to have her husband Uriah placed in the thick of battle where he would be certain to die. David, to his credit, did not deny Nathan’s accusation or punish his temerity — but most of the prophets were not so lucky. The Jewish people were unique in this tradition of prophetic criticism of their own flaws — another mysterious phenomenon. What was the satisfaction in being a prophet if you normally got killed for it? Yet the prophetic tradition survived, Israel’s real glory.

David is important, because the expected Messiah was modelled on David in the Jewish imagination. It followed that the Messiah must emerge as a military hero and recover exclusive possession of Israel, expelling the power of Rome. It did not occur to them that a journey that was to excel that of David might be also a prophetic journey, downward to tragedy.

The Journey Begins

From the start of the narrative in Luke we are warned that Jesus is set upon an unprecedented and contradictory journey. The Magnificat tells us that in the incarnation God has ‘used the power of his arm’ and ‘routed the arrogant of heart’. ‘He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.’ (Lk 1:51, 52)

Straightaway it is clear that Jesus is not to be another David, for princes as such are to be pulled down, and the lowly raised. The world — the pyramid of esteem, envy and abuse of power — is to be challenged, and a completely new order set in train.

His journey begins at the river Jordan, with John the Baptist. John’s baptism in these waters, symbolic of freedom and renewal, implies that God’s favour can be won by simple repentance – a radical change of heart and mind – and is therefore a challenge to the Temple system, the summit of the religious upward journey. Thus it is the best place for Jesus to begin the downward journey.

From where did he get the psychological and spiritual strength for this journey, which will end in hell itself? The gospel record suggests that it came directly from the Father.

‘As he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit like a dove descending on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my son, the beloved; my favour rests on you’
.’ (Mk 1: 10, 11)

This episode reverses the normal sequence of events on the upward journey: first we achieve, then we are recognised and affirmed. Jesus has received a most extraordinary recognition – the love and respect of the Creator – even before he begins his mission. Whether or not this recognition was noticed by anyone else is not important. Jesus experiences the overwhelming love of Jahweh. As this world has nothing greater to offer, he can resist the temptations to follow.

Jesus’ sojourn in the desert

The desert is a place of profound isolation, peace and silence. It is therefore the place to go to commune with the discovered God, who is so utterly different from the world. It is the place in which Jesus, in communion with the Father, comes to an understanding of that world, and of the upward journey to human acclaim which tempts all of us, and which would separate him from the Father. We are told that here he faced three temptations. (Mt 4:1-11) The first is to turn stone into bread, using the divine favour he has received to resolve his immediate physical need. He rejects it because he is at the same time hearing still the words he heard at the Jordan, ‘You are my son, the beloved’ – words from the mouth of God. As this hunger for divine recognition is greater than any physical hunger, he is satisfied in his own deepest being, and finds the physical hunger secondary and trivial. The primacy of the spiritual life, in communion with the Father, is thus affirmed. Frequently thereafter he walks apart in communion with the Father.

The second temptation is to amaze the religious elite who control the Temple system, by throwing himself from its parapet into the arms of God. If he is raised up by God in the eyes of all who dominate the system, is this not the quickest route to spiritual glory? This temptation is greater than the first, but this too he rejects. Since he has the Father’s favour, the acclaim of the spiritual leadership of Israel is not compelling — he does not need to climb that pyramid either, even by the fastest route.

The third is the temptation to political power, most tempting of all to a Jew who resented the captivity of his people by the blasphemous Romans and their Herodian collaborators. Yet this too he rejects. Somehow he has grown so close to the Father that the temptation of worldly power has no irresistible force. The political pyramid is not for scaling either. He is to be heroic in a sense that David and Alexander could not have understood.

The Journey of Recognition of an Underclass

Grounded in the love of the Father, Jesus does not need to ascend either the religious or the political pyramids. And, loving the Father, he learns of the Father’s overwhelming concern for those who cannot ascend, those at the base of both pyramids. He has discovered that no-one is unloved, and that there is nothing we have still to do to merit that love, and this discovery he must share with those who will be most joyful on learning it. Those to whom that truth can be communicated will experience the kingdom of God.

Thus Jesus seeks the company of the rejected. He declares that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor, or the poor in spirit. He freely breaches the minutiae of the law. He heals the sick and the demonically possessed. He assaults the dignity of the religious elites. In this phase of his mission he sets out to include in God’s love all those who saw themselves as undeserving of it — even the Gentiles who came in faith. Far from seeking recognition from the elites, he is himself embarked on a journey through which the excluded are recognised and loved.

It is a measure of the success of the churches so far that we today do not identify God’s favour with the favour of the world, that we recognise that God loves the poor. The apostles did not know that initially. ‘How then can anyone be saved?’ they ask Jesus, when the latter has lamented the difficulty the rich will have in entering the kingdom of heaven. (Lk 18:26) It is import ant to pause a moment to explain this.

For most Jews of Jesus’ time, poverty, mental illness and physical diseases of all kinds were associated with God’s disfavour. Tragic accidents were also believed to be evidence of sin. The 613 laws of Leviticus placed a minutely complicated barrier between the individual and God’s forgiveness, and negotiating this required the services of the scribes, religious lawyers. Only the purchase of these services – impossible for the poor – allowed the Temple expiation – another expense – which supposedly completed the process of winning divine favour. It followed that, for Peter, the well-to-do alone seemed blessed with divine favour.

This was the deepest source of the antagonism that Jesus encountered from most of the religious elite. He travelled about far from the Temple (mostly), proclaiming the forgiveness of sins to those who showed faith in him, undermining the Temple-centred religious system and the clerical apparatus that depended upon it. This was essentially a subversion of the influence of the religious elites. It follows that in teaching the unmerited love of God, Jesus was on a collision course with those who believed in and relied upon the Temple system.

The End of Exclusion

It is not just individuals who form hierarchies and who embark upon upward journeys. Kinship groups or tribes, cities and nations may do so also. Judaism saw itself as embarked upon an upward journey with Jahweh as guide and protector. In this sense, God belonged to the Jews, and would vindicate them in the end. There was a hierarchy of nations, and it was the destiny of the chosen people to climb this pyramid. The Messiah was to be the one who would lead them in this journey.

Even John has evidently learned that the Father’s love extends beyond the Jews, and so tells them that God does not belong to them, and could raise a people ‘from these stones’. (Lk 3:8) Israel’s glory was the fidelity of Jahweh, but now it is time to declare his love for all of humankind, without exclusion.

Jesus himself does not belong to his own kin either: ‘whoever does the will of God is my brother and mother and sister’ (Mk 3:35). To all who approach, whether prostitute, Jewish official, Roman officer or Syro-Phoenician woman, there is just one condition for his help — faith. But this inclusiveness too is a source of scandal and opposition.

Jesus Accuses the Accusers

Typically the elites who dominate the religious pyramid are armed with rules. Mastery of such rules gives them the power they need to assert their own rank, and to bar the ascent of rivals. So it is with the scribes and Pharisees who challenge Jesus on such vital lapses as failure to wash hands and forearms before meals, chewing grain on the Sabbath, and sitting down with tax sharks. Such elites are usually blind to the truth that, by making so much of these things, they are declaring their God to be an elitist also. The Old Testament itself bore witness to the foolishness of this belief.

Jesus’s response breaks all the rules of the normal ascending journey. Instead of flattering his accusers in the hope of their patronage, he is consistently critical. ‘Hypocrites’, ‘vipers’, ‘whitewashed tombs’, ‘murderers of the prophets’, ‘worthy of hell’ — his opponents are all of these things. (Mt 23)

It is clear that he is attacking, not individuals, but whole classes. It is the pyramid of exclusion itself that he is set upon toppling. This again is deadly dangerous, for such pyramids are always self- protective, to the point of violence.

The Kingdom of God

Jesus’s rejection of the hierarchical tyrannies of the ancient world begs an obvious question: what should replace them? His answer is ‘the kingdom of God’, which will belong to the poor and poor in spirit, the just, the infirm, those innocent as children and those who make sacrifices for Jesus’s sake. Only the proud, and those who think they already belong, are in danger of being excluded from it. It is clearly a no-go zone for elites, because in it everyone is aware of being loved infinitely and equally.

Jesus’ driving compassion for the excluded is most closely expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. (Mt 5, 6) He embodies the divine compassion, which is why he is loved by everyday people to whom life has taught humility. God’s purpose is anti-hierarchical precisely because it is the hierarchies who have most economic and political power. Yet those who have acquired wealth and position will be the least generous and least flexible, because their self-respect is dependent upon what they already own, and what the world envies. The problem of the young man who could not abandon his fortune is the problem of elites everywhere and always, and of the West today: we have convinced ourselves that only in what we own lies our importance and our fulfilment. The kingdom of God is the opposite of this world.

Blessed are the poor. Again we need to remind ourselves how revolutionary this was for people who supposed their poverty to be the result of divine disfavour. Jesus is sharing the divine recognition he has received with people who supposed themselves hated by God. This news has always been remembered, through an oral rather than written tradition, wherever Christianity has travelled – a constant scourge to elites down the centuries.

The Challenge

Yet there is more than recognition of the poor in the Sermon on the Mount. There is also the challenge, particularly the challenge to forgiveness and love of the enemy. We resent that such a hard law should be imposed, but need to understand that, since it is presented from a position of powerlessness, challenge, not law, is in question. This ‘word’ is not an impossible burden imposed by a remote and intolerant deity, but an invitation to a new kind of heroism, from a vulnerable person who is prepared to live and die by the same values.      

The Education of the Apostles

His chosen twelve disciples he meanwhile seeks to educate in the nature of the new order, the kingdom of God. He found it hard going.

Jesus noticed how some of the guests were choosing the best places, so he told this parable to all of them:

When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place. It could happen that someone more important than you has been invited, and your host, who invited both of you, would have to come and say to you, “Let him have this place.” Then you would be embarrassed and have to sit in the lowest place. Instead, when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that your host will come to you and say, “Come on up, my friend, to a better place.” This will bring you honour in the presence of all the other guests. For everyone who makes himself great will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be made great.(Luke 14:7-11)

But he is battling against millennia of social hierarchy.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, asking, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ So Jesus called a child, made him stand in front of them, and said, ‘I assure you that unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven. The greatest in the kingdom is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this child. And whoever welcomes in my name one such child as this, welcomes me.’(Mt 18:1-4)

Who is the greatest?’ Adult man at his most childish, and most envious. The child has not yet set out upon the upward journey, and is content with what respect he already enjoys. He (or she) is closer to the kingdom, closer to his real self, not yet rejecting himself in favour of a chosen, superior model.

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’(Mk 10:35, 36)

When they hear of it the other ten are annoyed, but on their own behalf. So Jesus needs to say:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.(Mk 10:42-45)

In Luke’s gospel the same thing happens at the last supper.

A dispute arose also between them about which should be reckoned the greatest, but he said to them, ‘Among pagans it is the king who lords it over them, and those who have authority over them are given the title Benefactor. This must not happen with you. No, the greatest among you must behave as though he were the youngest, the leader as though he were the one who serves. For who is the greater: the one at table or the one who serves? The one at table, surely, yet here am I among you as the one who serves!’(Lk 22:24-27)

Easily missed in these passages is a profoundly important truth: Jesus has not created among his followers a hierarchy of esteem. Had he done so, there would have been no dispute or doubt as to who was the greatest. His egalitarianism throws them into an anxious quarrel aimed at re-establishing hierarchy. This is the besetting sin of all elites. The sons of Zebedee still have in mind an upward journey and a pyramid of esteem.

It is in St John’s gospel that we find the most pointed and moving lessons in the egalitarianism of the new order. First of all, in his altercation with his enemies, Jesus directly challenges the ancient world’s conception of heroism:

‘Human glory means nothing to me … How can you believe, since you look to each other for glory and are not concerned with the glory that comes from the one God.’ (Jn 5:41, 44)

You look to each other for glory.’ This simple diagnosis of what is wrong with society in Jesus’ time stands also as a valid criticism of, and for, all time. We compete with one another for the adulation of the world, as though that world consisted of beings who were not themselves involved in the same competition, as unsure as ourselves of what makes a human action ‘glorious’. In Jesus time ‘glory’ was associated strongly with military prowess. With us it is associated mostly with an ability to make money, or with a flair for attracting publicity. In all cases, throughout history, we award it for arbitrary and ridiculous reasons. We want both to rise above our peers, and possess their esteem – an entirely irrational enterprise, since their resentment will fight against their admiration. This kind of glory is fickle and treacherous, but we seek it nevertheless.

Jesus’ values are centred elsewhere, as we see in the following passage from the narrative of the last supper:

Jesus knew that the father had given him complete power; he knew that he had come from God and was going to God. So he rose from the table, took off his outer garment, and tied a towel round his waist. Then he poured some water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel round his waist. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Are you going to wash my feet, Lord?’ Jesus said ‘You do not understand now what I am doing, but you will understand later.’ Peter declared, ‘Never at any time will you wash my feet!’ ‘If I do not wash your feet,’ Jesus answered, ‘you will no longer be my disciple.’ (Jn 13:3-8)

Two things should be noted in this passage. First, the apparent contradiction between the gift of complete power, and the action that follows. Jesus does not do what the upward journey requires at this point – outline a strategy for Jewish emancipation from Roman power – but something entirely baffling to his followers, the performance of a menial task. The power of God is expressed in service, not domination. There is no more extraordinary passage in the gospels.

Secondly, why is this lesson acted out? Because of the potency of lived example. Since Jesus is the model of the new order, his followers must witness service and self-abasement in him. This passage is a summary of the downward journey that Jesus is embarked upon. It also emphasises the difficulty of convincing the leaders of his community of the need for a downward journey within themselves. It is therefore a premonition also of the possibility that in the absence of the model even Jesus’ closest followers will revert to type. The ambivalent history of the Christian clergy, including the papacy — verbose witnesses to a downward journey they themselves would often reverse and contradict — is thus prefigured, in particular the ambivalence of Peter.

Peter Doesn’t Get It

It is striking that Peter, throughout the story, expects to see Jesus emerge as another David, recreating the normal hierarchy, and assuming leadership of it. When Jesus first broaches the prospect of death for himself in Jerusalem, Peter takes him aside and remonstrates. (Mt 16:21-23) The removal of Jesus from the group for this purpose is Peter’s way of establishing the conventional hierarchy. Jesus must not be rebutted publicly, for this would diminish him. He must be taken aside and reproached by his first officer. Peter’s objective is to persuade Jesus that he can succeed as David did, emerge as the hero of his people — and then reward his closest supporters, Peter uppermost.

Jesus, however, sees Peter’s appeal as Satanic, because it tempts him again to the upward journey, the temptation last offered by Satan in the desert.

Peter’s opposition to the foot-washing shows he has still not understood. If Jesus washes his feet, how can he, Peter, expect deference from those who will become his subordinates in the new order? Will he be expected to wash their feet? This would turn the world upside down!

But this is exactly what Jesus is about. ‘You do not understand now what I am doing, but you will understand later.’ (Jn 13:7) Two millennia later Peter still doesn’t quite get it1True in 1999 but not in 2024. Now Peter does get it, but also gets pushback from others in the Catholic hierarchy who don’t. Hierarchy is extraordinarily tenacious.

Where does this power come from? Probably simply from the fact that each of us grows within a hierarchical system which precedes us. We observe the pyramids of esteem within which we find ourselves, and school ourselves to find a position within the hierarchy from which we can begin our own ascent. Our self-evaluation depends upon others’ evaluation of ourselves. The question from above that we dread is ‘Just who the hell do you think you are?’ The invitation we hope for is one that comes also from above. ‘We are delighted to tell you that you have received promotion to branch manager!’ The lives of billions are now lived stressfully between this fear and this hope, with most unsure of whether they should be unmasked or promoted. This is the penalty we all pay for the upward journey, the search for recognition in other humans who are also mostly on the same search, and therefore fundamentally indifferent to us, or even hostile and unpredictable.

For Peter before the Resurrection, the fear of rejection by the world was greater than the love of Christ. His final gesture to prevent disaster – the use of a sword at Gethsemane – was designed to rescue Jesus from total failure, as David had rescued Saul from Goliath. Frustrated, he then watched the process by which Jesus was finally brought to account, and could not find the strength to identify and stand with him.

Before Pilate, Jesus does not claim the sovereignty that Pilate uses to condemn him, saying only that his kingdom ‘is not of this world’. (Jn 18: 36)  Pilate does not see this as a threat to Roman power, but bows to the pressure of the moment, the demand for crucifixion. Jesus accepts this without reproach, and asks for forgiveness for those who now crucify him.

Two questions are raised by this unique and terrible journey. First, what exactly could be its purpose? Second, from where came the inspiration and strength needed to conceive and carry through such a life, to such a bitter end – the antithesis of glory?