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The Subversion of Jesus by the Rich and Powerful: Part Four, Finale

 
We don’t know how it happened. A small band that practiced justice and equality for all became an institution that demanded slaves obey their owners, women obey their husbands, and everyone obey the wealthy elite. The suspicion, as we saw in part one, is that the rich and powerful infiltrated the nascent community and commandeered the thought processes. Part two showed how the execution of Jesus by the wealthy was transformed into a sacrifice to appease an angry god, thereby relieving the elite of any responsibility for the death of Jesus inasmuch as they were simply “doing God’s work”. Part three showed how the revolution of the mind and spirit inaugurated by Jesus that continued in the disciples even after the crucifixion, was demoted, diminished and devalued into the resuscitation of a dead body. Revolution was replaced by resuscitation and, once again, the rich and powerful destroyed the momentum for change initiated by Jesus.

And there are other dimensions of the takeover.

1. Perhaps most fundamental and detrimental to the life of the early church was the shift from change in the present to future judgment. Instead of seeking and living justice and love in the moment, attention was displaced to the future when God would come and execute his wrath and his mercy. Most pronounced in the book of Revelation, this type of apocalyptic imagery has captivated the minds of people everywhere. It is easier (and cheaper) to prepare for the end of time than to feed the hungry and house the homeless. The rich and powerful win again. It’s that familiar Marxian understanding about keeping the poor focused on heaven while you work them to death.

2. The early church was no church at all. It was a small movement, with leaders emerging as the need arose. They did not all agree with one another, as is plain from the letters that Paul wrote to small groups that he had gathered. Competitors tried to influence congregations with theologies that differed from Paul. That all changed soon enough, with a push for centralized authority and a common creedal belief system.

As long as a movement is under control, it seems the power structure would prefer they have a centralized rather than a diffuse organization. This is clear from the church council in Nicaea in 325, called by Emperor Constantine, that forced the ecclesiastical organization to unify in doctrine. Lack of unity was shaking the empire, and Constantine did not like that. But this tendency toward centralization is also apparent in writings right in the New Testament itself, most glaringly in Timothy. The disparate nature of the early movement gave way to a strict organization of priests and bishops who shaped the belief and activity of the community. And key to that priestly organization was obedience to the “ruling authorities”, another moniker for the rich and powerful.

3. There were no Christian writings when Jesus lived and died, but people did remember some of the words he spoke and actions he performed. Those oral memories were soon gathered in various locales and eventually written down. Different communities had different collections and interpreted matters differently. Concomitant with the rise of the clergy was the formation of gathered written texts that soon came to be identified and interpreted by that very same clergy. Open and varied witness to the new life inaugurated by Jesus gave way to a centralized, written witness, essentially controlled by the clergy, who, in turn, espoused obedience to the authorities. Second and third generation Christians had no idea about the Jesus revolution, inasmuch as experience of the new life together had succumbed to the demand for proper conformed belief.

4. Although it is common and customary to refer to Jesus as “the Messiah”, it is a title that he never applied to himself. There was a hope if not also an expectation in Judaism that God would send a heavenly figure who would create for Israel a time of peace and plenty. This person might be peaceful, but most of the expectation focused on a deliverer who would take up the sword against the Romans and drive them out of Israel. This was a concept that had many twists and turns, but every time someone did take up the sword the Jews were killed mercilessly. Not only did Jesus not espouse violence, his revolution was of a different sort, of the mind and spirit in a context of love and justice. Why, then, was he associated with the role of messiah?

Here again the hermeneutic of suspicion enters the discussion. Is there any way in which casting Jesus as messiah benefits the wealthy? I think the answer brings us back to our original point: the undermining of the community involved transferring hope for change in the present to change to the future. Instead of living now in love for one another, await the apocalyptic future when the messiah will arrive and save the day.

5. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, Greece, was written in the mid 50s, about 25 years after the crucifixion. In that letter Paul refers to both a common meal shared by those gathered as well as a more formal commemoration of Jesus’ last Passover with his followers, men and women. In Corinth, rowdy city that it was, the common meal had degenerated to the point where the wealthy refused to share and apparently became intoxicated, while the poor went hungry. Quite a “love feast”. Interestingly, by the end of the first century, the common meal had pretty much had its day, while the sacramental meal became more essential to the gatherings.

Why, we may ask, did ritual replace actual sharing of food, supplied by those with bounty, but shared with all? Forgive me, but once again the hermeneutic of suspicion suggests that the wealthy were threatened by the notion of redistributing their wealth in the most basic form of food and drink, preferring instead to focus on the sacramental act, which, by the way, was increasingly controlled by the clergy.

*******

From:

“neither free nor slave, neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female”

To:

“slave, obey your master, woman, obey your husband, and everyone obey the authorities”.

The journey in the early church is shocking and disheartening. Once we understand the cause, it sheds light on what is happening today in our own society. And the cause, quite simply, was and is the unbridled greed of the rich and powerful to have it all, regardless of how that destroys the common good. That was not what Jesus had in mind.

Read Part One Here

Read Part Two Here

Read Part Three Here

Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith, and The Void and the Vision. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife, Margaret, in Norwich, VT.

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