I recently attended a gathering of the Bartimaeus Institute in California’s Ojai Valley, at which Ched Myers thoroughly outlined the overarching theme of economic justice that saturates the Gospel of Luke. The experience has inspired me to relaunch my blog as a semi-regular practice.
I’ll address Jesus’ teachings and exploits (according to Luke) more deeply as the relevant passages appear in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) over the rest of the year.
For now, I want to focus on the seriousness of the challenge that Jesus was mounting against the entrenched powers, as illustrated in a story from the march to Jerusalem in which Jesus confronted rumors of the dangers that lay ahead.
But first some context:
Whatever else Jesus did, he was a highly effective leader of a movement that confronted a corrupt economy of concentrated wealth, in which religious elites had sold out to Empire – a situation that should be uncomfortably familiar to modern Christians in the United States.
Luke’s so-called “special section” (9:51-18:14) foreshadowed the showdown that awaited Jesus in Jerusalem. This account was concerned with Jesus’ ministry on the road after he left the relative safety of his home turf in Galilee for the capital city, where the center of the Jewish world was also a regional hub of the Roman Empire.
To the extent that we recognize the economic centering of Jesus’ teachings, Western Christians tend to focus on changing our individual behavior – perhaps by tithing or engaging in charity work. Such acts are worthwhile but inadequate in a world of increasing wealth concentration, poverty and instability.
The Gospel of Luke makes clear the political ramifications of Jesus’ organizing efforts. The midsection of Luke’s Gospel, in which his account diverges from that of Mark, paints a dramatic picture of an intense organizing drive on a collision course with the worldly powers that held Jerusalem hostage.
This march, in which Jesus led growing crowds toward Jerusalem, was no simple pilgrimage. Rather, it was a campaign of gathering momentum for a clash with the elites of the day:
Jesus’ trip began “resolutely” (9:51) and ended with his spectacular arrival in Jerusalem, whereupon he engaged in confrontational street theatre mocking the Romans (19:28-40), foretold the city’s fall (19:41-44) and then cleared the temple of commercial intruders (19:45-46). Almost immediately, the religious and political elites began scheming his death (19:47).
The key text was the focus of last week’s RCL Gospel passage, which began immediately after Jesus warns that he is bringing strife and division that will tear families apart (12:49-53) and compares “this present time” to a debtor’s day in court (12:54-59).
Jesus soon learned of the specific hazards ahead as nervous rumors circulated among his followers: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.” (13:1)
Pilate had these pilgrims killed while in the very act of making their sacrifices to God, presumably in the Temple itself. But Jesus’ response to this atrocity this seems callous and dismissive at first:
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (13:2-5)
Although he was following in the footsteps of these dead Galileans, Jesus minimized their death. And then he launched into a story about a fig tree.
“A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (13:6-9)
This confusing parable ends without resolution. Is the gardener vindicated? Is the additional year and effort wasted? We never find out, which suggests that it is about a story in which the end is not yet known.
Jesus often used parables to illustrate points where literal speech would be too disturbing or dangerous, and so it is reasonable to conclude that this parable refers to the movement he was cultivating.
Jesus’ ministry in Galilee is thought to have lasted a few years – perhaps three. So what if we look at this parable through the lens of his realization that there was only so much that could be done in the backwater of Galilee, and after three years it was time to move on? Jesus had been hard at work in his homeland, but Jerusalem was still untouched.
Jesus knew he was up against powerful forces, and that the Jerusalem adventure would not end well for him. But this parable suggests he also knew that staying in the comfortable agrarian backwater of Galilee, where he had previously been gardening, would yield more of the same. The root of the problem of economic injustice was planted in Jerusalem, and it was there that he would have to “dig around” and “fertilize.”
In order to make real change, Jesus and his followers would have to come out of their comfort zones and take some risks.
So it seems that in telling the parable of the fig tree, Jesus was issuing a challenge to himself (and his followers) that in a single year in Jerusalem, they would be able to make an impact that was built on the foundation of his previous three years of local organizing.
So what does this text tell us today?
On the one hand, following Jesus necessarily involves some sort of confrontation. Capitalism is too pervasive and deeply entrenched for us to simply work around the margins. Separatist efforts to build the “Kingdom of God” on the frontier – attempted most dramatically by the Mormons but also by dozens of other groups – no longer seem viable, as even rural areas have seen their local economies devastated by the invasion of big box stores and globally-oriented banks.
In the words of Jesus, “unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Even though there is danger ahead for the individual, failure to proceed threatens the survival of what makes us who we are. We might keep our heads down and thereby survive as mortal beings, but not as followers of Jesus.
Instead, we have to resolutely make our own confrontation with Jerusalem (best symbolized today by Wall Street) and we have to expect anything but a warm welcome.
The Occupy movement is an interesting precursor of the confrontation that must happen. But while Occupy sprang up more or less spontaneously, Jesus spent three years (or so) hard at work, building a movement to back his march to the center of power.
His success is clear in the response to his occupation of the Temple, after which the elites tried to figure out how to kill him. “Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.” (19:48)
If Jesus hadn’t spent years slowly building his ministry and organizing his followers, he probably would have just been another nuisance prophet on the Temple steps. Although Jesus had plenty of charisma, he also understood the value of groundwork. And this organizing – resulting in these crowds that attracted larger crowds – complicated the elite’s efforts to eliminate him, postponing his martyrdom until after he made a significant and lasting impact.
So taking a page out of Jesus’ playbook, we need to get organized and present a compelling alternative to the dominant system. Luckily, as we’ll see, Jesus left us a clear example that will be called to the attention of most English-speaking Christians this year.
The capitalist misreading of Luke is deeply entrenched, but with careful organizing we have a chance to bring the focus back where it belongs – to the collective challenge Jesus led against institutionalized injustice.