We were standing in the shade of an olive tree. Jesus was teaching the crowd of people gathered around us, announcing the coming of God’s kingdom, an event that was turning our world upside down. “Some of the people who are last now will be first in God’s attention,” he said, “and some of those who are used to being first will come last.” There was a collective gasp from the assembled.
But before anything else could be said, some Pharisees (!) came running up to Jesus with an urgent message: “You’d better get out of here, because Herod’s planning to kill you.”
Oh, no! I hurriedly began to gather my things. Where would we go? Maybe Bethsaida, over on the northeast shore. Or, God help us, back across the lake to Gadar where we had met that fellow Legion and had been among all those Gentiles. That was uncomfortable. Whatever we did, we needed to get going if we wanted to be safe. “C’mon!,” I shouted to the others. But they were all looking at Jesus, who hadn’t moved.
I’m getting head of myself. Ever since Jesus had come down from the mountaintop we had been pointed toward Jerusalem. Something climactic was going to happen there, and there was a time early on when we would have yearned for that. But everything about this journey was different than we had imagined; our conquering messiah was instead the lord of love and courageous tenderness.
This realm he proclaimed was taking shape day-by-day. I remember being in a house of worship in one of the towns along the way. It was the sabbath; the preacher had offered the pulpit to Jesus. He was at the center of the sanctuary, and we had joined with the other men gathered around him. Spouses and children were in their appointed places; a group of beggars was just beyond the door. We were awaiting the word for us, but Jesus’ eyes searched a horizon over our shoulders. He called out and beckoned someone forward. There was rustling, followed by a lot of murmuring, and the crowd began to part like the Red Sea. A woman who was bent over–almost in half, as though there was a huge weight on her back–struggled forward to the very heart of the worship space. I remembered having seen her outside when we were coming in, and thinking that Jesus’ compassion must be having an effect on me. Instead of assuming that her condition was punishment for sin, I had thought, “Look at that poor soul!,” and reached into my pocket for a coin. I whispered to myself, “Why does God let things like that happen, anyway?” Then I promptly forgot about her; that is, until Jesus recognized her and made her first in his attention.
People around me were upset for having to move, and made their feelings known. But Jesus’ focus on her never wavered, and he declared, “Woman, you are set free from the crushing burden that has bound you!” He laid his hands on her carefully, and immediately she stood up straight, able to look Jesus right in the eye! Her voice filled the room:“When Israel was in Egypt’s land, Let my people go; oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let my people go. Go down, go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land; tell old Pharaoh: Let my people go!”
The pastor shook his head in disapproval, and the Council President began shouting at Jesus: “What do you think you’re doing, disrupting the worship service with your ‘freedom?’ We didn’t approve that! “ A congregation member mercifully interceded, saying, “She’s been bent over for eighteen years!;” but the red-faced man bellowed back, “So why couldn’t she have waited one more day?”
Jesus said firmly, “You hypocrites!,” and it was clear that he wasn’t just talking to the Council President. “You care more for your possessions than you care for her. She has been bound by that pointed finger for eighteen long years! And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, this child of God, be set free on God’s holy day?’ Initially, people in the sanctuary stood as if dumbfounded. First one, then another, began to clap, and joined their sister: “They journeyed on at his command, “Let my people go . . .” I realized at that moment that we were standing in the kingdom of God, and I began to rejoice, too! Nevertheless, there were more than few glares cast our way as folks left the sanctuary.
I was kinda glad when we hit the road to the next town. That’s where we were when those Pharisees came running up to warn us about Herod and deadly plans. It was a power we all understood. The Pharisees had never seemed to like us, so I thought to myself, “Boy, if we have to rely on the Pharisees as our friends, we’re in real trouble.” I was trying to get everyone to run in the opposite direction, but Jesus didn’t move. I had seen that same look on his face many times before, most recently in that sanctuary as he had stood with the woman. Is it possible that your heart can dance even as you wince? Jesus said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me: Listen! I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” Moses was the Pharisees’ hero. Now they were being sent to this day’s Pharaoh to declare the deliverance of God’s people. Instead of being intimidated by their message, Jesus was turning them into missionaries! God’s realm is amazing!
Although we didn’t realize it right away, Jesus was saying that he would go to the darkness of midnight to face death’s power and to draw close to all those beholden to it. Demonizing would be exorcised; we would be cured of the “original” violence distorting our spirits and wounding us all; the stone blocking God’s new way of being would be rolled away! Jesus would enter into death so that, by God, death’s power would be disarmed and we would all be set free! There was a lump in my throat.
When Jesus had first said those strong words, “Go and tell that fox,” I saw Peter flexing his muscles. He liked that kind of talk. The truth is, he was tough. When you were facing something difficult or scary, Peter was the kind of guy you wanted next to you. His presence encouraged you. On the evening of Jesus’ arrest, he was the only one among us who followed Jesus all the way to the high priest’s house. But, under questioning in the courtyard, Peter encountered the limits of his own substantial courage.
Jesus’ kind of courage meant trusting in God’s power, the loving power already flowing deep within. There was still good news to be shared and people to be liberated; a creation waited with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. Me, I said: “Let’s go to Bethsaida, Gadar, anywhere, so that we can live (anxiously) another day.” Jesus said: ” I’m living for today, as well as for tomorrow. I’m living for God and every one of God’s beloved. The kingdom is coming right now.” He wasn’t going to abandon people like the woman. He wasn’t going to flee . . . He wasn’t going to leave me either.
Then he did something that caused all of us to shift uncomfortably, but, truth be told, was reason for all of us to rejoice. He talked about himself being like a mother hen gathering all the wayward children of God under her wings. And a tear ran down his cheek. It was like he wasn’t going to accept no for an answer. Spreading his wings and exposing his heart, he would love even those who rejected him. At the time, we thought that the “unwilling” were all the other people. Until that night in the Upper Room and in Gethsemane. Maybe it is only when we have plumbed the depths of our own limitations and failures to live as his disciples, that we can know and are free to accept the new life God offers us. He really does complete his work on the third day!
When the Pharisees had left, and we were standing under the tree, Jesus sighed, smiled, and turned to all of us. “C’mon,” he said, meaning something far different than I had.