NJPN Conference: Unearthing the buried Jesus

27th July 2017 - by Fr Tom O’Reilly

TomO'Reilly
Fr. Tom O'Reilly SSC
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In a workshop at the NJPN Conference last weekend, David Rhodes, Anglican minister and author, spoke of how the Church over time buried Jesus under heaps of dogmas, rituals and institutional structures.

Traditional theology put the emphasis on the beginning (Incarnation) and end (Death and Resurrection) of Jesus’ life, with relatively little attention to what happened in between. We need to rediscover Jesus and his ministry in the context of the political, economic and social structures of first-century Palestine. It was a world where power, wealth and status belonged to the ruling elite, aristocrats, merchants and priests, all of whom made up a very small percentage of the total population. The vast majority of people were very poor artisans and peasants with no power or status, of whom 15% were completely destitute and expendable.

Praying for the coming of God’s kingdom

In treating Jesus’ ministry in such a situation, David spoke of the subversive nature of the prayer Jesus taught (Luke 11:2-4). Addressing God intimately as ‘Abba’ challenged the way the ruling elite confined God to their elevated status and told the ‘impure’ masses that they were unfit to enter God’s presence. Praying for the coming of God’s kingdom would have disturbed those wanting to maintain the status quo which favoured them. Asking for daily bread meant a lot to the vast number of poor on the breadline. These same people, trapped in increasing debt by the system, could easily make their own a prayer for release from debts.

 protest against an economic system

Many of the parables of Jesus take on new meaning when read in the economic context of Jesus’ day. It has been suggested, for instance, that the parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is a protest against an economic system which enabled those with money to amass more and more wealth with little care for the destitute of the land. The master in the parable is using his servants to make more money for him. In this scenario, perhaps the real hero of the story is the servant who buries the one talent he receives, refusing to collude with an oppressive and unjust system.

Restoring Dignity to the Outcast

The healing acts of Jesus, particularly the exorcisms, can be seen as occasions when power of Jesus released people from the mental anguish, depression, dejection and anger brought on by the oppressive system in which they lived. The Gerasene demoniac (Mark 1:1-20), for instance, uses the military term ‘legion’ to name the evil spirits that assail him. Could this be an allusion to the occupying Roman legions which maintained a system of oppression? Jesus gives back to this dehumanized outcast his sense of dignity and worth and restores him to community.

A crying need of ‘A Sabbath for the Earth

We live and minister as disciples of Jesus in a world not dissimilar to the world of Jesus’ day. Political, economic, social and even religious forces often leave the poor and vulnerable of our world in dire need. Status and worth are derived from abundance of wealth. The earth is exploited to feed consumerism and provide a way of life for the privileged that cannot be sustained. There is a crying need of ‘A Sabbath for the Earth and the Poor,’ which was the theme of this year’s NJPN Conference. In addressing this theme, the speakers in one way or another spoke of the transformative vision of Pope Francis, which ultimately is the vision of Jesus. We need to return, time and time again, to that vision and praxis of Jesus, where we find inspiration and energy to continue listening and responding to the cries of the poor and the exploited Earth.