Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Disappointment with Jesus (I)

Around about six years ago I decided to read the New Testament as little as possible, focussing all my attention and energy on the Old. The aim was (and is!) to be able to see the witness of the New in all its particularity and difference. Christians tend to work in the other direction: we are thoroughly acquainted with the New and thus complain when the Old Testament doesn't seem to fit the paradigm. "Is the God of the Old Testament really Jesus' father?" Doing things the other way round raises a different question: "Is Jesus really the Son of the God of Israel?"

I've found the experience very instructive. For one thing, reading nothing but the Old has made me thirst for the New, not so much because the Old is inadequate but because it is so Israel-centered and I'm not a Jew. God has got some great things in store for his people, but who am I - a Gentile - to but in on the relationship?

Turning to the New, however, doesn't solve things quite so simply. One thing that haunts me is me is a constant feeling of disappointment. Here we have Jesus coming to fulfil God's promises to Israel, indeed the LORD himself has come to Zion, and yet ... where's the great harvest? I don't see the renewal of creation and the human heart that got Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses - and yes, myself - so excited. Christmas is a particularly odd time for me. Here we have traditional readings (e.g. Isa 9:2–7; 62:1–5; 62:11–12; 52:7–10; Micah 5:2–5a) , praising the final coming of the King of Israel, but where is he now (up in Heaven waiting to come back again)?

C. Bartholomew and M. Goheen address this in their helpful book The Drama of Scripture: Finding our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004). Today I'll post their comments on the disappointment that Jesus caused (and perhaps still ought to cause ...), tomorrow I'll post their answer to this.
Jesus announces the arrival of the kingdom of God, demonstrates it in his actions, and gathers a kingdom community. However, this kingdom does not look at all like what the Jews expected. Jesus himself does not look like the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy as popularly understood. The world itself does not seem much changed by what this prophet from Galilee is doing and saying. Jewish expectations seem doomed to disappointment yet again. For anyone in first-century Israel who takes the claims of Jesus seriously, perplexity and bewilderment reign.
We glimpse this confusion in John the Baptizer when he is in Herod’s jail. John has preached that the kingdom of God is near, the final judgment about to fall. The ax is already in the hand of the Messiah, John says, and he is about to chop down any tree that does not produce good fruit (Luke 3:9). John fully expects this prophetic message to be fulfilled. He explicitly identifies Jesus as the one sent by God to set these things in motion (John 1:29–34). Then Jesus announces the arrival of the kingdom—and apparently nothing major happens. John expects the Messiah to bring down the wicked rulers of the earth and to release their righteous prisoners (Isaiah 40:23; 61:1). Yet John himself remains rotting in prison while Herod continues his unjust rule and immoral lifestyle. Pagan Roman soldiers infest the holy streets of Jerusalem. Idolatrous Rome rules the world with impunity; oppression, injustice, and unrighteousness reign. Have not the prophets promised that the kingdom of God will come with justice, peace, and the knowledge of God? John wonders if he misunderstood everything. He calls his disciples and sends them to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:19). Jesus answers by pointing to his miracles and his message of good news for the poor as signs that God’s redeeming power is present. Then he sends John’s disciples back with a promise: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Luke 7:23). No doubt John holds on to his belief that Jesus is the Messiah. But until Salome30 has his head cut off for her mother’s sake, John is probably p 146 still confused about the kingdom and about his own role in announcing its coming (Matthew 14:1–12; Mark 6:16–29).
It is just this kind of confusion that Jesus addresses in the parables. His disciples struggle to understand how the promises of the prophets are being fulfilled in Jesus. It certainly doesn’t look like what they expect. Throughout the Gospels it is clear that the disciples just “don’t get it.” Jesus’ parables are told to explain the “secret” of this kingdom that has appeared among them in such an utterly unexpected way (Matthew 13:11). The parables help those who receive Jesus’ word in faith to understand the nature of the kingdom as it appears in Jesus. At the same time the parables veil the truth from those who refuse to believe (13:12–17; cf. Isaiah 6:9–10; Acts 28:26–27).
Mark 4 and Matthew 13 offer an important selection of these stories. They are introduced with Mark’s phrase “The kingdom of God is like …” and Matthew’s “The kingdom of heaven is like …” (meaning the same; Matthew, writing to Jews reticent about using the name Yahweh, refers to God indirectly by naming the place from which he rules). In this series of parables, we learn the secret of the kingdom (pp. 145-146).
Tomorrow I look at his parables as a response to this odd situation.


Bob MacDonald said...

Hi Phil - thanks for this perspective. Our study group has been concentrating on the OT to their unexpected delight. Christians tend to have little knowledge of the meaning of the election of Israel in a wider context. We did Naaman last week and it is clear that children, perhaps fear of disease, and Gentiles are also the locus of the work of Hashem before the time of Jesus. These are universals - "except ye become as a child...", "fear not little flock...", and "it is too little a thing that you should be a light to Israel" ("whom I love" by the way)... "I will make you a light to lighten the Gentiles". Gentiles can be and are as parochial in their application of election as anyone. And everyone can misunderstand the self-criticism of the the prophets of the Old Testament (early or later). This week in the Bible study I am leading a discussion on psalms 90-91. Disappointment in Hashem is solidly expressed in psalm 89. I don't have any takers on helpful comments yet here - I hope someone notices my questions. Feel free to comment or post on these if you have time. It is sort of related to your topic and experience.

Unknown said...

The bit that simply gets me, or haunts me, is when Christ says that greater things will you do (than me), when i go away (Ascension). Then i wonder why we don't mark out these greater things done in the name of Jesus, for i would like to hear more about them. Or am i just deaf?

Phil Sumpter said...

Hello Bob,

thanks for your thoughts. I think the question of the election of Israel is still a question that Christians have to grapple with (as I've been learning in a seminar here in Bonn, it's a hot topic in the German Lutheran church). I certainly don't think the claim to election is parochial, it's a fact of the OT. The question is what does that mean for those outside the covenant of Sinai? My next post will hopefully clarify this somehow. As for your post, thanks for the link. I do feel kind of guilty not having time to answer the questions, but I'm triying to reduce my time on the Internet as much as possible. Please forgive me!


I haven't really got a worked out answer but here are some spontaneous thoughts, made in relation to the post: the eschatological renewal of creation of which the OT speaks and for which I (along with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Moses) yearn was revealed proleptically in Jesus' life. Note his answer to John the Baptist's question about who he was ("the blind can see etc."). The miracles have symbolic power for pointing like signposts to what God has promised to do. However, Christians believe we are living in an interim period, the time of the "already-and-not-yet," where the fullness of new creation will be experienced for all. Tomorrow I will post why this "retardation" is necessary (according to Jesus, according to Bartholomew and Goheen).

As for our capacity to do what Jesus did, I guess that's still an issue of debate between Charismatics and non-Charismatics as to whether miraculous gifts continued after the early church or not, and to what extent. The early church as presented in Acts seems to have fulfilled what Jesus was talking about, doesn't it? I guess it's just a question of whether these things continue or not. I'm not a good enough NT person to say (I can't even find the quote passage you refer to!). Feel free to correct my thoughts.

P.S. Seeing as I own the book in digital format, here's the section where they talk about the symbolic dimension of Jesus' works:

"All of Jesus’ "deeds of power" (Mark 6:2, 5 NRSV) indeed are unmistakable evidences of God’s liberating power at work through him. When Jesus heals the blind (Luke 18:35–43), the lame (Mark 2:1–12), the mute and deaf (7:31–36), and the leper (with some skin disorder; Luke 17:11–19), people see God’s healing and renewing power flowing into human history to end the reign of sickness and pain. When Jesus calms the sea (Mark 4:35–41), feeds the hungry (8:1–10), and prepares p 138 an extraordinary catch of fish for weary fishermen (Luke 5:1–11), he demonstrates the power of God to renew and restore a cursed creation. When Jesus raises Lazarus (John 11), the widow’s son (Luke 7:11–17), and Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:21–43), people see the power of God conquering even death. Not only does Jesus display God’s power to liberate humankind from the ravages of evil, suffering, and death; he also shows God at work to heal the entire creation. These miracles are like windows through which we catch glimpses of a renewed cosmos, from which Satan and his demons have been cast out. Sickness and pain are to be no more, death itself gone forever, and the creation restored to its original beauty and harmony. No trace of sin or sin’s effects will deface or defile God’s new creation" (p. 137).

Anonymous said...

You did invite contrary views.

Please check out this Illuminated Understanding of the life and teaching of Saint Jesus of Galilee.

Plus in Truth & Reality we have no idea whatsoever about what happened 2000 years ago, and what anybody who may or may not have been alive then, said or did---it is ALL conjecture.

The entire tradition was invented by people who never spoke to Jesus, up close and personal

Phil Sumpter said...


contrary in relation to the content of my post, which you ignore.

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