Saturday Night Theologian
4 April 2010

In keeping with past tradition, I want to use the arts this week to illuminate the Easter story. I do this in order to throw new light, or at least a little bit different light, on the story that lies at the center of the Christian faith and at the heart of our experience as Christians. This year I want to draw on works of literature to see how they deal with themes common to the Easter story. The lectionary contains readings from many different passages of scripture, all of which are valuable and reflect on the themes of death and resurrection, but I will select four for special treatment.

Zephaniah 3:14-20

This passage from Zephaniah speaks of God removing judgment, disaster, and reproach from the nation. As we travel through life, we sometimes make mistakes--sometimes big, sometimes small--which weigh us down, affecting how we interact with other people, and sometimes preventing us from living fully realized lives. I'm reminded of Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, who trudged along the road of life weighted down by a burden that he carried on his back:

Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back. He ran thus till he came to a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
A somewhat similar story can be found in the medieval story of Perceval, one of the knights of King Arthur' Round Table. In his youth Perceval was brave but foolish, because he had not been taught the ways of knighthood. When he happened to encounter the Fisher King, he noticed that the king was wounded, and he actually saw the Holy Grail, but because he misunderstood some advice that he had been given, he failed to ask an important question at the proper time, and the Fisher King continued to suffer, and the Grail was taken from his presence. Perceval spent the next several years of his life in a futile search for the King and the Grail, learning much along the way, but forever haunted by his foolish behavior (not just concerning the Fisher King) that caused so much suffering. Chrétien de Troyes was the first to write the story of Perceval, but he died before completing it. It fell upon other to try their hands at completing the tale. By far the best completed version of the Perceval's story was that of Wolfram von Eschenbach. Eschenbach fleshes out his titular character beyond a simple caricature, and in a rousing tale full of humor and adventure, he represents Parzival (Perceval) as a knight who is able to overcome deficiencies of upbringing and character to accomplish great things for his king (Arthur) and for the world. The message of Eschenbach's Parzival is that our earlier failures may affect us in later life, but they don't have to define us. (The story of Parzival could equally well illuminate today's reading from Proverbs 8 and 9, which ends, "Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.")

Isaiah 55:1-11

"My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord." In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the evil sorcerer Sauron has grown great in power, and a small band of "people," representing the various races of Middle Earth, gather together in Rivendell to plot their strategy. Sauron's power has grown great, and it will take people of great strength and courage to accomplish their task. Fortunately, some of the greatest and bravest are part of the group. Aragorn, king of men, and Boromir, representing the steward of the greatest human city, Gondor, are present. Both are great warriors. Legolas, the elf, represents the oldest and wisest race on earth. Gimli the drawf represents those who brawn and skill have allowed them to tunnel beneath the earth to recover untold riches. Leading the group is Gandalf, a wizard unmatched in wisdom and power. And, oh yes, there are four hobbits. Hobbits, or halflings as they are sometimes derisively called, are a small, peaceful race of people who generally want nothing more than to be left alone in the Shire, their homeland. Which of the great warriors will be chosen to drive a stake into Sauron's plans of world domination? The hobbit Frodo. Frodo, it turns out, has courage that far surpasses his size, and what he lacks in strength he more than makes up for in loyalty and commitment to the task. As the wars of Middle Earth swirl around Frodo and his companion Sam, as they encounter one hardship after another, and as the armies of men and elves confront Sauron's orcs, Frodo quietly, surreptitiously, and with bravery unsurpassed by any warrior, fulfills his destiny and dissipates Sauron's power with a single act of self-sacrifice. As the prophet says, the ways of God are different and more profound than the ways of human beings. Why, then, do we persist in relying on weapons, armies, and strategies that have the outward appearance of strength but are ultimately ineffectual, because they stand opposed to the wisdom of God? Before the resurrection, who would have thought that the cross was a good idea?

Ezekiel 36:24-28

"I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. . . . A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances." One of the overarching motifs of the Bible is the transformation that takes place when people encounter the living God. The strong are humbled and the weak are exalted. Human power is useless to confront the evils of the world, but God's power is not. God's power, however, often doesn't look powerful at first. The rabble who escaped from Egypt overcame the greatest army in the world. The followers of Gideon, few in number, overcame the more numerous Midianites. The first Christians, armed with nothing more than their experience of the risen Lord, overcame opposition and persecution to take their message to the heart of imperial Rome.

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is a story about a poor family that leaves the poverty of Oklahoma to seek a new life in the promised land of California. It turns out, of course, that though the land of California is rich, their access to those riches is denied by the rich and powerful who control the land. The right of the Joads and others like them to access the blessings of God will not be denied, however, because the judgment of God is coming, as surely as the flood waters at the end of the book wreak devastation on all in their path. The ways of power and exploitation are not the ways of God, who calls on people to stand with the poor. As Tom Joad gets ready to light out on the road, he tells his Ma,

Then it don' matter. Then I'll be all aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where--wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can ear, I'll be there. Wherever they's a copy beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I'll be in the way guys yell when they're made ad'--I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry ad' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build--why, I'll be there. See? God, I'm talking like Casy. Comes of thinkin' about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.
Casy, the Christ figure in the story, was killed because of the message of justice that he preached, but Tom and others like him will continue to proclaim the necessity of God's justice in the world. When we read a story like this, which describes the plight of the poor during the Great Depression, what are the applications for those of us today living through the Great Recession? Or for the two-thirds of the world's population that never benefits from so-called economic recoveries but lives in constant poverty?

Luke 24:1-12

If a theologian from today had been transported back to first century Jerusalem to witness the execution of three nondescript prisoners on a hill outside the city, what conclusions would he draw? Based on the way we treat prisoners today, he would probably say, "They got what they deserved. After all, if they hadn't committed a crime, they never would have gotten themselves into trouble. God teaches us to respect government authorities. The death penalty is reserved for only the worst offenders, so if these men were executed, they must have been the worst of the worst." That's they message we often hear in our society, and even in our churches. Law and order trumps the message of Christ. The governor of Texas and his predecessor both brag about the number of people executed in the state. They can't be innocent, by definition, because a court of law has convicted them. And if they're guilty, they deserve everything we can do to them.

Thornton Wilder's book The Bridge of San Luis Rey tells the stories of five people who plunged to their deaths when a bridge over a deep canyon in Peru collapsed. The event was witnessed by Brother Juniper, a monk and erstwhile theologian, who, after a thorough investigation, interpreted the event in a report to his superiors. These five were especially worthy of God's punishment, he concluded, because of the hundreds of people who crossed the bridge every day, God singled out these five for special punishment. Brother Juniper was an astute observer of the ways of God in the world. He was a skilled investigator. He was a knowledgeable student of the Bible and Christian theology. And he was dead wrong. The five who plummeted to their deaths were no more deserving of death than any others who traversed the bridge that day. Brother Juniper was right about one thing: Christians are obligated to exegete the world around them in light of their understanding of God in order to understand what God is up to in the world and in order to learn how to live the lives God wants us to live. He was just wrong in his application of what he'd learned. He was wrong because he made assumptions about the way God works in the world, namely, that God favors the rich and fortunate, and those who suffer do so because of God's displeasure. Brother Juniper forgot the message of the cross, that sometimes those who are most at the center of God's will suffer the most. A proper exegesis of the world around us, in the light of the Bible and theology, reveals that most suffering in the world is indeed the result of sin, but the sin was often committed by someone other than the person suffering. Indeed, sometimes the sin isn't committed by an individual or individuals but inheres in the structure of society itself. The way the world is set up is sinful (i.e., unjust) in many ways. When people are hungry in a land of plenty, there is structural injustice that inhibits the distribution of food to those who need it. When people die of preventable illnesses, there is structural injustice. When innocent people are executed because they can't access the DNA evidence that would clear them, there is structural injustice. In fact, the execution of any prisoner, innocent or guilty, is a structural injustice and contrary to the teachings of Jesus. War is the greatest of all structural sins. The story of Jesus' resurrection teaches us that sin and injustice can be overcome and that God cares for all the people of the world, particularly those who are the weakest.