Thursday, March 3, 2016

Misunderstanding


On the car ride to school this morning, Mercy Me's "You Are I Am" came on the radio. During the song Cava suddenly declares, "Eeeewwww! That's gross!"

Confused as to what he's referring to I ask, "What is?"

"Why does he want to take the orphan's hand?  That's gross!" Cava replied. Once more, his literal take on language comes to the front. In his mind, Jesus is literally taking the orphan's hand off. I laughed and then explained, "No, buddy, that's not what that line means. It's like when we are walking in a parking lot and I go and hold your hand. The song is saying that Jesus is holding the hand of the orphan."

"Oh. Okay," he said, relieved and went back to working in his word search book.

After I dropped Cava off at school and I spent some time in the zombie-slow movement of commuter traffic, I began to think about how often the disciples misunderstood Jesus and his teachings. Repeatedly he has to explain everything to them again and again and again and again. No matter how many parables he taught about the kingdom, they could not get their mind off of their concept of "mashiach" or "messiah." Certainly they had grown up with the Jewish teachings of the coming of a messiah, as it was one of the fundamental requirements for belief in Judaism as written in Rambam's Thirteen Principles of Faith. Also they would have prayed the Shemoneh Esrei prayer (also known as the Amidah or Tefilah) three times a day. In this prayer, they would have prayed for all of the necessary elements to come together for the messiah to appear (ingathering of the exiles, restoration of the religious courts of justice, the end of wickedness and and sin, the reward of the righteous, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, restoration of the Temple, and the restoration of the line of King David). To their minds, the messiah was one who would set right the place of Israel, free it from its bonds to Rome, bring about righteousness, and that he would rule the earth in what they called the Messianiac Age.

Mashiach or messiah means "anointed one" (just as they anointed kings with oil) and not a "moshiah" or "savior" from their sins. No, messiah was a great political leader. When the disciples fight about where they stand in the "kingdom" their thoughts are on power and glory and privilege. This is why Jesus' notions of the kingdom don't register with them. Messiah is not a servant but a mighty king (think a spiritual King Arthur) who has earthly authority. Messiah doesn't die on a cross. He overcomes Rome. They wanted someone who was charismatic, brilliant, and strong. One who they would have seen more in line with this image of messiah was Shimeon ben Kosiba (also known as Simon bar Kohhba). He was a great Jewish scholar who led what became known as the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome. Successful, he established an independent Jewish state where he ruled for three years as Nasi or "prince." He was later defeated by Rome in 135 after a war that lasted two and a half years.

This was the sort of messiah Judas longed for. How many times had he been disappointed by the messiah that Jesus presented? Judas started out loving Jesus, as one cannot betray what one once did not love, but his love was usurped by disillusionment. Jesus wasn't the messiah Judas wanted him to be. How baffled Judas must have been when his messiah was talking about loving one's enemies instead of defeating them. Did the Sermon on the Mount stir anger within him because this praised what he saw as weakness? Why wasn't this messiah issuing a call to arms? He wanted an authoritarian leader.

The messiah people sought in men like Shimeon ben Kosiba was not the messiah found in Christ who told Peter to put away his sword and added, "Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword." (Matthew 26:52) Even today we still long for a leader more like ben Kosiba than Christ. We want a great nation that rules over all others. We keep misunderstanding that the kingdom of love, compassion, and service is the one that Jesus calls us to seek after.

Even today, Jesus is often not the messiah we long for because he contradicts the way we think life should be lived. Certainly that whole Sermon on the Mount doesn't set well with our modern sensibilities. We bristle at his statements that those who are blessed are: poor in spirit, mourn, meek, merciful, peacemakers and persecuted.  Many of us are like Judas and begin to question, "Just who is this I'm following? Can he really expect me to not only believe all this but to also do all that?  It's not realistic."

Certainly Jesus would never, ever get elected to high office. Many would call him "weak" and not think him a very powerful military leader. They would balk at his policy suggestions about giving to the needy and about loving and praying for those who are against us, of embracing the refugee. He would go against our desires for possessing more and more stuff. What's with all that lay up treasures in heaven nonsense?

And he would really step on some toes and make people irate by telling them they needed to look more closely at what issues underlie their hearts and cut to the very root of the matter (such as lust and anger). These are not popular sentiments, but Jesus was never concerned about being popular or powerful (which is why he did not give in to Satan's temptations to rule this earth or to become well-known).

No one would like a candidate to get up and tell them, "Be last. Serve others. Give what you have to the poor. Love your enemies. Repent of your sins."

Can you imagine the reaction he'd get to washing another candidate's feet during a debate? Then, after he's done, telling those watching, "This is what a true leader does"?

How low would his poll ratings be?

I can only imagine what political pundits would say about him. Or late night TV comedians.

Yet I can't help but think that Jesus looks at his disciples of today and sadly asks us, as he did the twelve, "Are you still lacking in understanding also?"

Over the course of his ministry, many of his followers walked away. They could not embrace this messiah and the kingdom he preached. They did not understand because what they heard did not connect to what they were taught and understood to be the "mashiach." It's no different now. We want a messiah who's more like us instead of one that's calling us to be more like him.

Is it any wonder then that we are where we are today?




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