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04 April 2004

The Death of Christendom - part V

Today I again attended the services at The Great Meeting - the Unitarian Chapel in Hinckley. Today is, in case you don't know these things, Palm Sunday. For some reason, we sang the hymns from the older hymnal. I have a really bad habit in my church attendances: I cannot tear myself away from reading the lyrics of hymnals, looking for old favourites and discovering new gems, whether gems of beauty or of sheer horrible naffness. So my attention kept wandering during the sermon, and instead of following the thread of it, I wondered why all preachers, vicars and priests in this country preach with that peculiar sing-song intonation. (Another thing that drives DH crazy and keeps him out of churches, although I doubt that alone would be enough.) So I had another little talk with "Jim" afterwards in the coffee time. (His real name is not Jim, but I could have called him J, I suppose.) I told him about the Death of Christendom series, and I was a little nervous to bring it up, being in a church and all, and not knowing him that well. But to my slight surprise he quite enthusiastically agreed with me. The church as we know it is going to wither away, probably in a matter of mere decades, he said, and it must in order for something better to take its place. I have to say that this was a serendipitous thing for me to hear and gave me heart to carry on the series to the end.

Another serendipitous thing was that the sermon, the one I couldn't really focus my attention on, did mention the colt of an ass that Jesus rode. The scripture was even cited (and Unitarian sermons do not consistently relate to a Bible passage the way Methodist sermons do.) The passage is, so I learned, in Mark 11:1-7. The preacher interpreted the meaning of this choice of a mount as being Jesus's way of saying that he was lowly and not the militant, mighty Messiah-King that people were waiting for, although he was deliberately fulfilling prophecy that the Messiah would not only be of the royal house of David, which Jesus was, but also would ride an ass into Jerusalem. My interpretation is different. It has to do with a radical message of love, forgiveness and freedom. I believe this was Jesus's core message, and that it represents a quantum leap from the message of Micah, of caring, fairness and humility. Also, Micah and other late post-exilic prophets said God does not require sacrifices of animals (or humans, obviously). Jesus was saying "the only sacrifice acceptable to God is of yourself, and freely given". Viewed in this light, so many of the slightly mysterious actions and words of Jesus make perfect sense.
Here is the Bible text of the story of the unbroken colt:
'When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'" They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt? They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.'
Ask yourself: what are the two unusual things about this story? The first is that Jesus knew where this colt was to be found. The second is that the colt allowed Jesus to ride upon him even though he was not "broken", and possibly not even old enough to be ridden. To my mind, the first one is not that remarkable. Jesus could have had a follower (he had thousands at this time) offer him the colt, or he could have sent someone ahead to find it. It was possibly tied outside the house specifically in waiting for Jesus's disciples to come for it. Yet like a magician setting up a scene, using a little mis-direction, the gospel's author lets this little mystery overshadow the true mystery following it. And yet maybe that is not so mysterious either. There are folk-tales of Jesus and his way with animals, how birds would alight in his hands and fish would leap into the boat with him. But to me the important thing, and this was an insight given to me in my meditations on ahimsa, is that a broken animal is a slave, which has no choice of whether to be ridden. The only way Jesus could ride any animal into Jerusalem, and not violate his own powerful message of non-harming, his message not merely of caring, justice and humility, but of love, forgiveness and freedom was to have a freely offered ride.

The 11th chapter of Mark goes on to relate the story of the clearing of the temple. It is widely accepted that the thing Jesus objected to was the "changing of money" in the temple. Yet I believe this too was a mis-direction. In the forecourt of the temple, small animals were sold to worshippers so they could sacrifice them inside. The animals had to be paid for with a special sacred temple currency, so the Jews would change their Roman coins for temple coins, buy the animals, and take them in to a priest. The priest would kill them, burn part, keep part, and give the rest back to the family to eat. Supposedly, Jesus overturned the tables and drove all of these businessmen out of the temple yard, either because he disapproved of filthy money in the vicinity of the temple, or because they were dealing dishonestly. But if the theologians of the vegetarian, pacifist, Essene-trained, hereditarily Nazorean Jesus are right, his more likely objection is to the sacrifice itself. The website Humane Religion has this to say:"It was the cult of sacrifice that Jesus tried to dismantle, not the system of monetary exchange. In all three gospel accounts of the event, those who provided the animals for sacrifice are mentioned first: they were the primary focus of Christ's outrage." And further: "It is ridiculous to claim that the religious leaders of Christ's time would have plotted his death because he undermined the function of the moneychangers. Nor would the crowd have been "amazed at his teachings" if Jesus was simply telling them to make sure they were not short-changed when they purchased Temple coins. What the people were amazed at was his condemnation of animal sacrifice; it had been hundreds of years since that kind of condemnation had been heard in Jerusalem."

Isaiah is often said to be the prophet who most foreshadowed Christ's coming and his message. It is in Isaiah that we read these challenging words, calling us to a much deeper understanding of love, forgiveness and freedom than we are able to comprehend, any more than the ancients in the Bible or the Jews of Jesus's time:

"They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain
For all the earth shall be in full knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea."

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