Posts Tagged ‘compassion’

MARK 10:35-45

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

James and John were brothers by Zebedee, and are elsewhere named the “sons of thunder,” suggesting they were of the type that bring down storms. At least it is fair to say that these boys were not quiet and withdrawn; when the spirit moved them, they spoke up and acted out. Firebrands might be another name for such personalities. These are the movers and the shakers of the world, and no doubt the early Christian movement benefited from their aggressive involvement.

Another word that can apply to such extroverted and energetic individuals, however, is impulsive, which names their tendency to act on impulses coming up from the place in our human psychology below rational reflection or careful consideration. When James and John cornered Jesus for his promise of their superior positions in the coming kingdom, they were clearly not speaking out of a balanced and accurate understanding of his teaching.

It is as if, after Jesus has just revealed the Diamond Truth of his gospel, about the way of authentic life through the voluntary “death” of self-interest for the sake of another person’s wellbeing, these two then take Jesus aside and demand, “Uh-huh, but we’d like to be on top when everything shakes out.” If they had grasped his Truth they would have understood that as long as such ego concerns as status, power, recognition, and superiority are preoccupations, the call to go past the self in compassionate service, redemptive justice, and sacrificial love will not be heard.

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MARK 9:38-50

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

The “stumbling block” that Jesus has in mind here comes in three varieties: the hand kind, the foot kind, and the eye kind. We might interpret these as referring to differences within the human community that tend to foster dogmatism, bigotry, and violence between groups.

The hand is the instrument of human work and achievement. With our hands we build the monuments that carry our ideals, the homes that shelter our families, and the institutions that embody our values. We work for what reflects real worth, or at least for what can buy what we feel is worthy in life. What I “put my hand to” may be very different from what you “put your hand to,” which is to say that your appetites and aspirations may be significantly different from my own. Look at the difference between what North Americans “put their hands to” and what Arabians or Africans “put their hands to.” It would be very easy to look across the ocean and decide that our way is better, our values superior, our ideals more noble.

The foot is our natural mode of transportation, taking us down the paths of our lives. Here we are placing the accent on differences in where people see their lives going, on the various and competing life curriculums they live by. Your path or aim in life may be very different from mine, but does that make it wrong or less true?

Finally, there are differences in perspective – in how we see the world and represent reality in our minds. Tantric Buddhists see things differently from Evangelical Christians, and European capitalists see a different world from Cuban refugees. Is it right for us to claim exclusive truth for one perspective or worldview over the others?

Jesus said that if our hand causes us to stumble, we must cut if off; if our foot causes us to stumble, we must cut it off; and if our eye causes us to stumble, we must tear it out. What he means is, if your differences are getting in the way of regarding the humanity of other people and treating them with compassion as children of God, then nothing short of surgery is required!

MARK 9:38-50

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Jesus was drawn to others no matter their nationality, social class standing, religious affiliation, or moral character because his awareness was open to the level of his personal identification with them, sharing a common ground as living creatures and fellow human beings. For him, these cultural distinctions were little more than lines in the sand separating one part of the beach from another.

Beneath the divisions and surface distinctions, all sand is essentially the same. In the same way, whether one was Phoenician or Galilean, a Samaritan or a Jew, a man or a woman, an adult or a child, of “this” circle or “that” circle, did not finally  matter to Jesus – and was certainly, in his mind, nothing to build privilege upon. When he looked at another person of whatever color, creed, size, or disposition, he saw through all the attributes and accidents of birth and station, to the core humanity manifested there. That’s where compassion begins, and where it can lead us, if we are courageous enough to follow its inspiration.

When the disciples complained to Jesus that someone not of their circle was performing deeds of power in Jesus’ name, his reply brought judgment upon all our faith and fanaticism regarding group privilege and “true religion.” It’s not necessary to hold a confessing membership in some particular group in order to be living on the path of spiritual freedom and purpose. In fact – and here’s the rub – insisting otherwise can put a stumbling block before another who is living honestly and earnestly for God’s true cause in the world. All our concern over orthodoxy and exclusive truth will at most guarantee that we ourselves are far, far from it.

MARK 9:38-50

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

As certain as the sun rising tomorrow is the habit of human communities who think of themselves as holding exclusive property rights to legitimate authority and absolute truth. Despite the fact that Jesus himself cast his net of compassion so wide as to include all the world, it wasn’t long after his departure that his followers began to shorten their throw and worry more about who was right and who was wrong. Alas, if this story is more than the author’s criticism of his own community and reports back to an actual episode from the life of Jesus, then this habit of exclusionary thinking was present already then.

In our attempt to make sense of this tendency within human groups (of whatever brand or type), we can bring forward some recent reflections on the inner power of intercessory prayer. We said there that, rather than assuming a separately existing deity, ‘out there’ and removed from the dynamic urgencies of human life in the world, intercession can mean something of great relevance to our day if we interpret it as somehow a function of our personal participation in the universal Spirit or life of God, present in and throughout all things.

From this perspective the common ground and interdependence of everything with everything else is the Fact of facts that we ignore to our own peril. Compassion, then, would be the natural outflow of this deeper identification: you experience the suffering of another because you and the other are deeply and essentially one.

 PROVERBS 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
    and favor is better than silver or gold.
The rich and the poor have this in common:
    the Lord is the maker of them all.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
    and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
    for they share their bread with the poor.

22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
    and despoils of life those who despoil them.

Deep in the spirituality of the Bible is a moral insight, that one’s choices and way of life are productive in bringing forth a future harvest of consequences. It’s not simply the fact that every action produces a consequence of some sort, but that one’s quality of life tomorrow, along with one’s moral destiny in the longer term, are determined by the faith and responsibility by which one lives today.

The religion of the Bible is not alone in this belief. Indeed, all of the religions teach that personal destiny is in large part a function of moral character and whether one’s choices and commitments are inherently self-interested or rather performed with a higher good in mind.

The Bible went still further, however, in its unique and revolutionary concern for “the poor of the land.” Beyond just being a “good person,” it was imperative that a believer in God actually share in the divine compassion for those who suffer and who are outside the social circles of power and privilege. With a beginning recognition of equality before God between the rich and the poor, the Bible’s compassion-driven morality went on to predict that neglect of the poor would result in one’s own calamity.

This wasn’t a you’d-better-or-else motivational stick, but instead reflected a deep understanding of the plain fact – and you really have to work hard not to see it – that we are all, the rich and the poor, connected in an interdependent web of relationships. In other words, we’re all in this together and it does no good to drill a hole in your neighbor’s side of the boat!

MARK 6:30-34, 53-56

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Jesus knew that stress and exhaustion can wear down both our tolerance and our charity in the adventure of life. Getting away once in a while to just be by yourself and recuperate your energy and perspective may not sound very ‘religious’, but is in fact one of the most important disciplines of the spiritual life. When we are tired and distracted by daily concerns, we are less resourceful, less focused, and less able to bring to life the vision to see our way through.

After all, our bodies are not merely the containers we ride in; they are the outward manifestation and physical support of who and what we are. Neglect or abuse the body, and the soul-life suffers. Take it for granted or ignore the communication of its symptoms, and you soon lose touch with your deeper life as well.

On this occasion Jesus and his disciples were seen by the crowd in their attempted get-away, and found the throng waiting for them on the farther shore. There were men, women, and children who had been on the outside of the wall, not permitted to enter the sacred space of the temple because they weren’t  righteous enough, or healthy enough, of the right complexion. They saw in Jesus the hope of their salvation because he walked on their side of the wall, with a vision big enough to include even such as themselves, and with a love bold enough to reach through to the crying need in every human heart.

2 CORINTHIANS 8:7-15

Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.

I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15 As it is written,

“The one who had much did not have too much,
    and the one who had little did not have too little.”

Besides his missionary task of planting Christian communities (churches) throughout the Greek-speaking regions of the Mediterranean world, the apostle Paul also worked diligently to bring a collection from his start-up congregations to the mother church in Jerusalem. As Christianity’s first real inner-city mission, the financial needs of the Jerusalem church were constantly overwhelming the resources of church members. The first mission to the poor and sick, the precursor to our shelters and hospitals, was here in Jerusalem, and Paul sought to enlist the worldwide Christian community in its support.

We can hear a bit of impatience in Paul’s appeal to the Corinthian Christians. The later proverb which states that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” carries his caution nicely. “What you talked about doing last year needs to be completed now,” he advises, “because talk is cheap and safe and easy. Now is the time to act and make a real difference for the kingdom.” 

It seems these Christians were suffering from an ailment that frequently hampers the purpose of God still today: complacency. When we lose the compassion that is the underlying drive of all redemptive justice and social concern, we render ourselves effectively useless to the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

1 John 1:1-2:2

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that ourjoy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

What later became the really good news (gospel) in the proclamation of Jesus was already good news in the First Testament period, which as that God’s fidelity to us not only exceeds ours to Him, but is fundamentally independent of our performance altogether. “If anyone does sin,” our writer assures us that there is with God an advocate who urges the divine compassion on our behalf, accomplishing our forgiveness and calling us back. This element of compassion is the third component in the dynamics of healthy community.

God’s compassion for the world, for the multitude stumbling in the dark for their true belonging, had moved God to act for the sake of their hope and salvation. Compassion is literally the capacity for sharing in the suffering or experience of another. More than merely an act of sympathetic imagination, compassion is itself a symptom of a deeper identity beneath the duality of ego and other – a kind of resonance-effect from far below the surface differences. God’s compassion for humanity is therefore a function of the divine image inherent in all of us.

And human beings share this capacity, too, for one another. When you feel an urgency to act mercifully on behalf of someone in pain or need, the depth and intensity of your experience reveals a place where you and the other are one.

PSALM 68:1-10,

Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered;
    let those who hate him flee before him.
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
    as wax melts before the fire,
    let the wicked perish before God.
But let the righteous be joyful;
    let them exult before God;
    let them be jubilant with joy.

Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
    lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds—
his name is the Lord
    be exultant before him.

Father of orphans and protector of widows
    is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
    he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
    but the rebellious live in a parched land.

O God, when you went out before your people,
    when you marched through the wilderness,
the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain
    at the presence of God, the God of Sinai,
    at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad;
    you restored your heritage when it languished;
10 your flock found a dwelling in it;
    in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.

32 Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;
    sing praises to the Lord,
33 O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
    listen, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
34 Ascribe power to God,
    whose majesty is over Israel;
    and whose power is in the skies.
35 Awesome is God in his sanctuary,
    the God of Israel;
    he gives power and strength to his people.

Blessed be God!

If you were to spread the writings of the Bible along a line according to the chronological sequence in which they were likely produced, you would come to see how the concept and representation of God evolved through the centuries. A strict biblical literalism would then be forced to conclude that God has changed over time, which obviously conflicts with the Bible’s own claim that with God there is “no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

A better explanation is that something has indeed changed (or evolved); however it’s not the reality of God but the mythological imagination of humans contemplating that reality. As human beings have evolved – from hominids to homo sapiens, and through the numerous stages of cultural development – the notion of a hidden agency and supreme intelligence behind things has steadily advanced. What becomes evident to us, then, is the fascinating way in which a regional population of human beings became increasingly rational, ethical, and inclusive in their orientation and behavior.

Before we file our exceptions to this statement, let’s quickly review how the Bible’s representation of God progressed over time. In the earliest traditions, god* is the jealous warrior deity of nomadic tribes that originally settled the region of Sinai. Yahweh’s idol may have been a war box that announced his arrival to towns and villages under invasion. At this stage, god’s love was a subordinate quality to his aggression, violence, and conquest.

A while later we find Yahweh inviting select individuals and their families into a formal ritual of agreement called a covenant. By obeying his will and worshiping no other god but him, the people are given assurance of Yahweh’s protection, blessing, and future prosperity. This use of the covenant metaphor is a strong indication that humans were progressing into a more stable, rational, and cooperative way of life. God’s love is coming more to the forefront of his personality, as one who cares for his people.

                                                                                                      

In the time of the prophets, the complexities of urban life advanced new concerns for marginalized members (orphans, widows, and other poor). Even outsiders coming to the gates as strangers were to be looked after and offered hospitality. In the prophetic consciousness, this ethical concern of god’s for those who suffer forced frequent confrontations with kings and political administrations that oppressed or neglected them. The love of god was opening out into a wide compassion, not only for insiders but outsiders as well.

Finally, with Jesus – who stood in the tradition of the prophets but took their challenge to another level – we hear that god’s love extends all the way to his “enemies.” These may be outsiders or insiders; their defining characteristic is an utter disregard for god’s will, even an outright antagonism to his way. In short, they are “sinners.” Jesus declared that all sinners are forgiven, that humanity’s debt to god has been released. His message of unconditional forgiveness was so revolutionary in its implications and so radical in its reach, that Christianity itself was unable (or unwilling) to carry it forward for long.

In all these various evolutionary frames, the representation of God is just out in front of human development. The depiction of god’s love in art, story and theology is an idealized projection at first, praised and glorified as an exceptional virtue of the deity. And because worship of god is also the aspiration of devotees to be like god – to love as god loves – this virtue is increasingly activated and gradually takes its place in the human moral repertoire.

*In order to distinguish a representation of God from the reality of God, we use the convention of a lowercase ‘g’ when speaking of the concept of God in art, story and theology. The reality of God is a mystery beyond words.

MATTHEW 27:11-54

11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him,29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

32 As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” 44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

“Truly this man was a son of God” is the more literal translation of Matthew’s Greek text. While “God’s Son” provides a handy scriptural foothold for the later orthodox doctrine of Jesus’ exclusive identity as “God the Son,” in the mytho-religious context of Matthew’s day (circa 80-85 CE), “son of God” was a common designation for kings, saviors, saints, and wonder-workers. It was used as a way of acknowledging the special proximity to God (or the gods) that such individuals were believed to enjoy.

This declaration by the army commander is positioned in the story as an ironic counterpart to the earlier episode involving the “notorious prisoner” named Jesus Barabbas. Now the purported practice of releasing a dangerous prisoner on a festival day has no basis in actual history, but that is not where the real meaning of this episode is found anyway. We are painted the picture of two notorious troublemakers under Roman guard: Jesus Barabbas (literally Jesus son of the father) and our Jesus – the central figure of Matthew’s Gospel.

The irony, of course, is that our Jesus really is son of the father. There is interesting textual evidence to suggest that Jesus (of Nazareth) may have used the designation “father” (Abba) as a proper name in reference to God, similar to Zeus or Yahweh in that regard. His own self-understanding may have been inspired out of an experience of such intimacy that he came to see himself – and all people, for that was the scope of his vision – as directly descended from God.

This metaphorical model of family relationships – I am a son of God, you are a daughter of God; we are siblings and children of the same God – has far-reaching implications. Suddenly there are no outsiders; all are included. Jesus’ message of compassion for those who suffer, justice on behalf of the poor, and unconditional forgiveness for the enemy makes better sense when interpreted in the context of this familial model.

So there we see them, the two Jesuses, both truly sons of God (in the sense just explained) but only one – our Jesus – in trouble for living out its truth in faith and courage. The other, Barabbas, was likely a zealot or what might today be classified a militant fundamentalist.

Pilate calls out to the assembled mob, “Which one shall I release to you?”

“Barabbas!” they cry.

“And what about this other Jesus, the messiah?” Pilate inquires.

“Crucify him!” 

In a sense, the mob made the right choice. Between the one who provokes violence and the one who professes a boundless and unfailing love, the terrorist can be managed. Love – a radical love such as Jesus taught and demonstrated – changes things. It doesn’t advance by violence and murder, but transforms the heart from deep within.

If Empire can’t shut it down early, love will become an unstoppable force.