Who is the Strong Man?

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When I was ten years old, in 1950, I was required to take a sewing class and a cooking class in junior high school in L.A. Only for girls. The boys got shop. I complained. I knew how to sew. My mother taught me. I knew how to cook. My grandmother taught me. I wanted shop. I was ordered into the Girl’s Vice Principal’s Office. Blind with shock I heard her tell me, repeatedly, that she would rather have juvenile delinquents than one like me. I was dangerous. I didn’t understand, but years later I did. I was a rebel. I was trying to change the system.  I didn’t win that battle. It wasn’t my first, or my last, and I’ve lost a lot of them

Jesus was a rebel. That is that lens through which much modern theology has been based, especially the Liberation Theology that came out of Central America, and geo-political theology which situates the Gospels in their own time and society. Today’s Gospel reading for Daily Prayer is Luke 11:14-26, a narrative which is also found in Mark and Matthew. It begins with that confusing syllogistic debate about Beelzebub. Jesus is accused on casting out demons, in this case from a deaf man, by the power of Beelzebub. Jesus is already targeted by the Temple elite, the literary class of Pharisees and the priestly cast and their scribes. He breaks the Law, and advocates others to do so, although he insists he does not. One could look at Jesus as a Jewish reformer, a 1st century Judean Luther or Calvin. The land was full of rebels, but most of them were focused on raising an army from the peasant class to be rid of Roman rule, but also to be rid of the  Jewish taxes, spelled out in the complexity of the Mosaic Law. That was a familiar scenario, one which the Temple knew how to deal with. Sooner or later the rebels, with their knives and pitchforks, could be quieted with a few executions and a counter campaign that God would be pacified and lead the Jews to power and independence through obedience to the Law. Jesus was advocating reform. He was also bringing a new covenant to the world. And so when slandered, accused of having power through a demon, his defense is to suggest that Satan is not likely to cast out one of his own minions, although Satan is a trickster (see the three tests in the wilderness), so this is not a very strong argument.

So far we have a he-said/he-said standoff. But Jesus invokes the phrase “finger of God,” which has power, invocational power. Now Jesus is scaring them. Jesus then uses the imagery of a takeover. If a strong man guards his house, he is safe, until a stronger man comes along and defeats him. Who is the first strong man? Satan? The Roman powers? Drawing on Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man, a geopolitical reading of Mark, the goods being plundered may refer to the Temple goods, the vessels used in ritual. By shifting the meaning from a demon to the Temple, Jesus is saying that he is stronger and can throw out the demon from a person, or cleanse the Temple. Jesus is the Temple who will rise in three days after himself being overthrown. Jesus is now the greater strong man. Reading this politically or theologically, it is the same. Jesus will drive out Satan and the elite’s power over the poor. Now the elite are put on notice. The elite hold all the cards, and Jesus will face the Cross and Death, but win.  

The final part is a lesson about an empty house. If I have a demon driven out of me, and my house is nice and clean – and empty, this demon, which is looking for a new home, will come back with all his friends. Without being filled again, the house, or person, is vulnerable. In the fullness of Salvation history the Holy Spirit fills us, but in terms of Judaic faith, humble obedience to the One God will do. I wish the next two verses had been included, because they nail this down. A woman cries out blessing Jesus’ mother for having borne and suckled him, and he replies, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Poor Mary.) The point is that this teaching and this Teacher are not of this world but of the world above, where only God is ruler. While that is not a theological sentiment that the Temple party can deny, in fact, they are threatened and insulted by it. They are the mediators of God’s Law, are they not?  Who is this troublemaker? Jesus has dropped the gauntlet, and the Temple has picked up the challenge.

The only question for us in this post-Enlightenment/post-Modern world is where we are in this story? Do we trust in God, knowing that we will be sustained against the inevitable parade of strong men? Do we protest, claiming the Gospel, even unto martyrdom? Do we arm and fight, as they did in WWII? How much are the Gospels social myth and how much are the Gospels the word of God? And this brings us back to the whole notion of justice and peace. Without question Jesus is as deeply involved in today’s geopolitics as he was then.  And we see a new rise of injustice and division amongst nationalities, races, genders, even dietary choices. The demons are well housed and fed.

Jesus used politics, but I don’t think he was political. If he had raised an army, he would have been political.  He would have swept the house clean and left it empty. But he was God incarnate, and his rebellion was larger than politics. He did demolish the dietary laws and overturn kinship rules. But primarily he was on an insane mission to witness to the power of the Mighty One of Israel, and claim power over death and sin for us all. Yes, we hear Jesus’ call to care for the downtrodden. How we respond to that call as his disciples depends on each of us, our callings, our skills, how clean our hearts are and how fulsome our faith in the indwelling of the Spirit. In some times and places it will be Oscar Romero dying at the altar for being a troublemaker in the name of justice. In some times and places it will be the call to the radical reconciliation of Bishop Tutu. For others, radical poverty and quietly serving the poor. For still others, prayer, begging God to have mercy on us sinners. Or spreading the Gospel in our parish or hometown. But whatever our theological path, there is only one Way and that is through the heart of Jesus the Christ, in faith and humble obedience. It takes a diverse and loving Body to bring the Kingdom of God. Let us be patient with one another, for Jesus’ sake.

Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

 

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The Rev. Richard Belshaw
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The Rev. Richard Belshaw

Dear Dr. Kramer-Rolls - Thank you for your thoughts. I agree that Jesus was a rebel (though not so extreme as a Zealot, who sought overthrow of occupying oppression by force) but it doesn't make any sense that Jesus "wasn't political." Of course Jesus was political - the gospel (and supportive historical) evidence is clear that he was directly changing the corrupt, given order of his day: culturally, socially, spiritually, and politically. Consider, for instance, that his entrance into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday was political theater, Jesus choosing a day to do so when Pontius Pilate and his show of Roman might was doing the same across town in order to present a show of force during the Jewish Passover holiday, a time of heightened political tensions in Jerusalem annually. Jesus then caused chaos and challenged the Jerusalem Temple money-changing operations by overturning tables. He was seized and murdered in less than a week. How is this NOT political?

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The Rev. Richard Belshaw
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The Rev. Richard Belshaw

...a typo in the 2nd sentence - "changing" should be "challenging" Ooops!

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