Somehow this advent season has felt different, which I suspect is a result of the journey I have been on in terms of interrogating my own theology. When we put up our Christmas tree recently, as Nathan hung ornaments on every available space on the tree and sang carols loudly, adopting a liberal creativity with the lyrics, I felt a deep sense of joy that I have not felt in a while. I have a new understanding of Christmas now and with it has come a new sense of hope. It is the kind of hope I wish I could share with everyone. At this time of year my social media platform is filled with exhortations to ‘put Jesus back into Christmas’. I don’t think the majority of people who post those nuggets have a clue what that actually means, though (and I don’t say that in a condemnatory way ; they are products – victims, even – of an Evangelical culture that has failed to grasp the enormity of the gospels, and I experience that as tragic). How could they? Nobody has taught them.
And my wish for them – for all people, really – is that they too could experience the wonder I feel at this revelation of a God who shows us that the ultimate expression of power is to give it up, who does not come to invade and conquer and compel us to obedience with threats of punishment, but who shows us, by exposing through his own death the brutality of our justice systems, that the way of peace and forgiveness is better. I have begun to understand the significance of Christmas better, and it is beautiful. It is also terrifying. Perhaps, as Rowan Williams (the current Archbishop of Canterbury, and one of my favourite theologians) states, that is why the advent story is dotted with angelic visitations where Joseph and Mary and the shepherds are all exhorted to “Fear not!” In his Christmas address of 2003, Williams stated that these words, “Fear not!”, serve as a “significant reminder that the overwhelming news of God the Saviour’s coming is both all that the human heart could hope for and also something that powerfully disrupts the way the world goes and the way our lives go. There is something to be afraid of in the renewal of a world. I may not welcome being reconstructed or interrupted”.
I have really enjoyed Williams’ Christmas messages. In so many ways he speaks to my journey. My heart has longed for a gospel message that brings real hope (not the false relief preached by the majority of churches that is supposed to come from knowing that Jesus has rescued us from eternal damnation; I say “false” because it is really hard to find genuine joy in a faith that teaches that anyone who does not have a personal relationship with an invisible, largely unresponsive Being is condemned to eternal suffering, yet we are supposed to regard said Being as both loving and just), and I have found that now in Jesus. But Jesus is also – to put it mildly – challenging. We would do well, Williams cautions, to remember that when Jesus came, as the writer of John notes, to “his own” – that is the religious leaders of the day – they did not recognise him. Their theologies blinded them, just as ours do us, to God.
The “Kingdom of God” to which Jesus calls us is not some far off dream of a place where there is beer in the taps and pizza on demand, and where reality TV is but a troubling memory. Remember what I said in my last post? The Hebrew term that translates as “Kingdom of God”, Malchut, is not a place: it is a way of being in the world. As such, the coming of the Kingdom requires our direct and immediate participation, not a wistful yearning. “To follow the Word made flesh”, therefore, Williams argues in his 2008 Christmas message, “is to embark, with a fair bit of fear and trembling, it may be, on making history, not waiting for it to stop”.
Faith then, Williams argues in his 2012 address, “begins in the moment of stopping…the moment when you can’t just walk on as you did before. But even more challengingly, it is something where claims involve change and even loss”. This kind of faith, he goes on to say, is only possible when we begin “seeing ourselves differently, seeing the world differently”. And boy, have I begun seeing things differently. And the change and the loss implicit in seeing things differently are what I am currently wrestling with. It’s no easy task, this reconstructing of a world.
Talking of seeing things differently, you will surely be as surprised as I was to learn how terribly we have translated one of the lines in the Lord’s Prayer. It is so familiar to us, and so in keeping with our largely consumerist theology, that we barely pay attention to it: “Give us this day our daily bread”. I discovered, to my delight, after doing a bit of reading from scholars I trust, that epiousios does not translate as “daily”. One can forgive the translators because it is such a rare word that it only appears twice in the Bible – in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the Lord’s Prayer. Bearing in mind, of course, that Jesus was unlikely to have delivered the prayer to his disciples in Greek, one must assume that even epiousios is a translation that required the gospel writer to find a very unusual word – not something as mundane as “daily” – to adequately convey Jesus’s meaning. A better translation than “Give us today our daily bread” would be “Give us today the bread of tomorrow”.
Since the context of its use within the prayer situates this line within a theology of the Kingdom, it is fair to interpret this as an extension of that thought. A common Jewish belief was that at the coming of the Kingdom, there would be a great Messianic banquet. The righteous, it was believed, would be invited to a Feast to inaugurate the new dispensation. Jesus, as is his custom, challenges his contemporaries’ thinking on the matter. For one thing, notice in the parable about the Feast that all are invited – “both bad and good” (to quote Matthew’s version) – not just the righteous. Because the Kingdom – God’s vision for how we structure human community with God living among us – is not a matter of gaining membership to an exclusive club. There is, Jesus teaches, a better way to be in the world: the Kingdom is not won through violent rebellion, but in a revolution that overcomes the world’s powers – established through violence, exclusivity and exploitation – by a commitment to extravagant enemy love and forgiveness, by inclusivity rather than enforcing arbitrary social distinctions. Nor is the Kingdom a future event; instead, it is a challenge to live differently in the present so as to bring about a different future. “Give us today the bread of tomorrow” is a way of saying that we need to start being in the world in a Kingdom way now, not to wait for some distant apocalypse. Change the world, Jesus argues, don’t wait for it to be changed.
I debated the wisdom of this next illustration, but I will use it anyway. I want to look at where else Luke mentions Jesus talking about the Banquet (Luke 14:7-24). My reluctance is due to the fact that people have a tendency to completely misunderstand Parables, which often results in our drawing erroneous conclusions. I will be happy to discuss this issue further if necessary, but for now I will simply say that we need to resist reading this parable as Jesus trying to tell us what the afterlife is like. He is responding to a very specific prompt and not defining the parameters for a theology of the afterlife. Here is Luke’s description of the occasion:
“Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he marked how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by anyone to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
15 When one of those who sat at table with him heard this, he said to him, “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet, and invited many; 17 and at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for all is now ready.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it; I pray you, have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them; I pray you, have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the servant came and reported this to his master. Then the householder in anger said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’”
What has driven Jesus to tell this story is not a desire to illustrate by what criteria people are invited to the Feast. Jesus is challenging the way in which religious piety has been used as a tool for establishing social hierarchy and marginalising the poor (it is the same reason he tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus – the other parable apologists use to argue that Jesus believed in Hell). Jesus’ intention in telling the story is not to frame a theology of the afterlife; he is trying to get them to see how worldly wealth prevents them from seeing what really matters; they value the wrong things, and their pursuit of wealth and comfort and status means that they never question that these things are won at a high cost to others. A right way of being in the world needs to see value in those that our religious, political and social systems have rendered invisible and give a voice to those that have been silenced. So when one of the rich men eating with Jesus throws out some trite religious platitude about how blessed it is to be part of the Kingdom (no doubt including himself among the invited guests), Jesus challenges him to reconsider how he understands what it means to be a part of the Kingdom. Does this man really think, Jesus is asking indirectly, that a society that marginalises the needy and the outcast in the quest to protect their comfort can be considered “righteous”?
When I hear Christians talking about how “blessed” they are, or making “declarations” “in the name of Jesus” so that they can feel a little more in control of their lives, when good and sincere Christians sing worship songs that are beautiful but ultimately promote a narcissistic spirituality, or when they pray for “the blood of Jesus” to cover one another (?!), I can well imagine that Jesus would respond with a variation on this same story. Because “religious faith”, Rowan Williams observes “has too often been the language of the powerful, the excuse for oppression, the alibi for atrocity”. And those atrocities are not only the headline-grabbing bloodbaths of Rwanda or the Congo; the atrocities that are birthed by our self-absorbed theologies are far more insidious, so much so that we don’t see them anymore. They manifest in the way we neglect the elderly, in the way we abuse our children, in our toxic rape culture, in our silent condonation of poverty by refusing to interrogate the darker side of global capitalism, because doing so might threaten our comfort. But we are not called to live that way. We are to seek the bread of tomorrow today, not to wait idly by, comfortable in our own personal holiness, for God to put things right. They will not be made right without our willing participation, without our commitment to peace and reconciliation. The Kingdom can never be fully realised in us so long as our faith serves our own ends, whatever those may be, but denies justice to the poor and the marginalised, the neglected and the oppressed. Give us today the bread of tomorrow. That is something to chew on.