Friday, July 22, 2011

Jesus, True Servanthood and Alternative forms of Self-Exaltation

This morning I was translating Matthew 12:15-21. Two things struck me. (1) Jesus' ordering people to not to make him known; (2) the fulfillment of Isaiah as "he will not quarrel or cry aloud." 

This ordering of Jesus not to make him know is a theme in Mark, sometimes called the Messianic Secret. (Of course, William Wrede who proposed the concept did so because he believed that Jesus' own ministry was non-Messianic, and later gospel writers & the early church wanted to make it Messianic so they explained away Jesus' alleged silence of the matter with a 'keep it secret motif'.)

However, the silence itself seems to be a Messianic fulfillment, or at least as Matthew portrays it. The Servant of God is largely silent and does not come merely to stir up trouble--although trouble will follow. As the Messianic Servant, Jesus is humble and therefore not self-exalting. If people were to find out who he is, they would want to raise him up as the wrong kind of Messiah, as opposed to the Messiah who gives his life as a ransom for many. 

Thus, Jesus' tact in turning from the Pharisees in the synagogue to the crowds and healing them, is not an abandonment of the powerful and a turning towards the proletariat--as if when you can't seize power structures take yourself directly to the masses. This is precisely how most power structures work and how many would be Messiahs seize their power.

Consider one contemporary example: the MSM and the rise of new media. The MSM largely locked up a monolithic viewpoint and appointed itself as gate keepers to news and information. However, the rise of the internet, blogs and alternative media, has given rise to a wealth of so-called "citizen journalists" who police themselves and send their appeals right to the people for the people to weigh in and judge the effectiveness of their methods, content and analysis. When a large group of people saw their conservative perspective largely locked out of the halls of power in the media, they took themselves to the masses and have had some success.  I'm not judging this as good or bad--although it certainly has elements of both. It just is what it is.

Jesus' withdrawal is not a convert attempt to seize power or appeal to masses and win crowd support when he couldn't win the power brokers. It is Jesus serving. It is about the utter demonstration of humility under God and before the people by the servant of the Lord. (Thus it is fulfillment of the Davidic office and true humanity).

Jesus' refusal to quarrel and cry out is not a passive aggressive tactic. Rather it is the exemplification of servanthood. This servanthood will be fulfilled in the ultimate event of the cross where he fulfills Isaiah 53:7 "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth." (see Matthew 26:63 and Acts 8:32).

Jesus refused to use his healing as anything other than as the Servant of the Lord who comforts and heals the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. While his acts were inditements upon the Pharisees who rejected the Kingdom of God because the activity of the Spirit in healing and especially casting out demons is itself a proclamation that the Kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus does not engage in healing for self-exaltation. Therefore, he is not crying out, quarreling, or allowing people to 'hear his voice in the streets.'

While his activity, particularly as Lord of the Sabbath, leads to a natural confrontation, Jesus engages in such as a servant and therefore finds it appropriate to withdraw and humbly serve and heal forbidding others to draw attention to who he is and thereby cause mistakes about the nature of his Messiahship. Thus, when confronted by the power brokers of the Pharisees, his act of retreat is not to play the victim card to the masses but to humbly, and ever more quietly serve and be about his Father's business. It is not a dodge, because he will go the cross. The conflict is inevitable but unlike those who seek conflict for self-exaltation and play the victim to the crowds, Jesus remains resolute to the true nature of the task and his true servanthood.

Victimization, silence and doing good for the larger people in confrontation to power can be just as much an act of self-exalation. It can be a bold pride: if I can't become "the man" then I'll "stick it to the man." If I can grasp the power, I'll subvert the power and get what I wanted anyways. It is a cruelest form of sour-grapes. But a careful observer will see if for what it is: when confronted with an inability to exalt oneself one merely changes the tact. Serving and mass appeal in bypassing the halls of power becomes a new road to fame and glory. There is a kind of serving that secretly reveals in the the attention it attracts to itself. This is just a new form of self-exaltation.

There is a vast differences between true humility, resigning ourselves to God and in due time trusting that he will exalt us (since God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble) and using humility with a sort of lowly "I'm everyman" as a backhand form of rising above everyman in self-exalting triumph and glory. True humility is unconcerned if and when the exaltation will come because one has resolved simply to the servant. True humility finds no threat from being silent, it can toil away and draw no attention to itself. Proclaiming and reveling in the humility that you have or the service you offer and being sure that it is recognized because "it serves a greater good" can be just another backwoods path to the same mountaintop of glory we once sought by other means. In this respect how different is the Lord's servanthood different from the shadowy images we often find today.

Christians could learn a thing or two from the Lord is this respect. In our culture "victimization" can be a form of seeking masse appeal and exaltation when we are ground down by those we oppose. It is the antithesis of Jesus, especially in passages like Matthew 12:15-21 Consider the words of Os Guinness from his The Case for Civility:
As one who believes that the call of Jesus is to a path of suffering that shuts the door to every form of victim-playing, I am angered by organizers of the Religious Right who play the victim card and appeal openly to Christian resentment. . . . 
Do they not know that those who portray themselves as victims come to perceive themselves as victims and then to paralyze themselves as victims? . . . 
But whether "victimization" then or a "war on Christians" now, such tactics of the Religious Right are foolish, ineffective, and downright anti-Christian. The problem is not that these people are theocrats, but that they are sub-Christian. They do not violate the separation of church and state so much as they violate Christian integrity. Factually, it is dead wrong for Christians to portray themselves as a minority, let alone as persecuted. Christians are as close to a majority community as any group in America; what their fellow Christians are facing today in China, North Korea, Burma, and Sudan is real persecution. 
Psychologically, victim-playing is dangerous because it represents what Nietzsche called "the politics of the tarantula," a base appeal to resentment. But worst of all, it is spiritually hypocritical, for nothing so contradicts their claim to represent "Christian values" as their refusal to follow the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth by playing the victim card and finding an excuse not to love their enemies. Shame, shame, shame on such people; and woe, woe, woe to such tactics. (qtd here)

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