Activism · Bible · Following Jesus · Political

Let’s Catch Some Big Fish

This is a post about why Christ died. Just thought I would say that at the start. It will be followed by a post on Christ’s resurrection, as told by Mark in his gospel.

N.B. (Note carefully) What follows is not the whole story, but it is definitely an important part of the story that we have not taken seriously.

I must acknowledge the work of Ched Myers here as the inspiration for this post. I have heard him speak a few times, and most recently on the Nomad podcast just before Easter 2023, when he was asked the question – Why did Christ die ?

His answer comes at a time when I have been reading about the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, the Occupation of Palestinian land by Israeli settlers, and the misappropriation of water resources in the Land of The Holy One. The reason why Christ died turns out to be the same as the reason why any activist gets into trouble. They disturb the status quo.

We start by the sea of Galilee, as Mark recounts the calling of Jesus’ disciples. It’s told in typical Markan style, conveying urgency in a fast moving narrative. The disciples were fishermen. They worked in what might originally have been a self supporting economy, but an economy that had changed under Roman occupation. Fish was becoming big business, taking it away from the local to make big bucks – for example through the exporting of salted fish products. The beneficiaries of this would likely be the already rich and powerful, and not the fishing families.

So, when Jesus calls his first followers, saying ‘I will make you fish for people.’ It might not mean what I was taught as a child with the chorus – I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me, That understanding was to do with calling others to come and follow Jesus, and translated in my childhood mind to witnessing to others about Jesus. But that reading might be failing to take into account the economic and social environment of first century Galilee.

One reading of the Gospels is to see Jesus as a community organiser, kicking against a system of military, religious and economic power. Jesus consistently reaches out to the poor, and the sick, and those excluded from society for one reason or another.

So when he calls the disciples, he is saying – Come with me, and let’s catch some ‘big fish.’ Let’s take on the powers that are pressing you down and keeping you poor.

Does that resonate with you ? The idea that people with power will hold on to that power by controlling resources. In first century Galilee it was the fishing industry, while today, it’s likely to be oil or water.

How Israel uses water to control the West Bank.

The call of the disciples is just an example to remind us that Jesus is about neutralising the power of the elites for the benefit of the poor.

So, to cut a long story short (That long story is the Nomad podcast where Ched Myers outlines this much more fully), when we ask why Jesus died, the answer must be understood within the setting of the whole of the gospel account.

That account shows us a Jesus who is consistently a thorn in the side of the authorities, both religious leaders and Roman Imperial power. The conflict with the religious leaders is clear in the many encounters that Jesus has with the ‘Scribes and Pharisees.’ How Jesus relates to Roman Imperial power is less clear, but several important signs show us this thread running through the gospel.

When Jesus talk about the ‘Kingdom of God,’ or the ‘Kingdom of heaven,’ it is set against the Empire of Rome
When Jesus talks about peace, it can be seen in contrast to the ‘Pax Romana,’
The word for gospel in Greek – euangeliuon, was used by both Greece and Rome to announce history making victories.
When Jesus is called ‘Lord’ it is in contrast to saying ‘Caesar is Lord.’ All of these phrases, used in the Gospels, are like slogans on banners in a protest march.

So there’s this background in the gospel account of Jesus calling people to a new way of living that would challenge the economic, religious and military powers of the day.

No wonder then that he was crucified. This is what happens when people challenge the powers enough to make them afraid.

And who is responsible for the death of Jesus ? Is it the Jewish authorities, or Rome. There’s certainly a case for the Jewish leaders to be the prime suspects, but Rome is also in the frame.

There’s a complicated mix of power with Rome the absolute authority, and Jewish leaders essentially collaborating with Rome to keep their influence. It was convenient for the Roman powers that the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus out of the way, and in the end it was a Roman execution by crucifixion to warn other would be activists that you took on Rome at your peril.

Sadly, over the centuries, the church has ignored this political aspect of the death of Jesus, and largely understood it in the context of a personal salvation from sin.

In his little book – ‘Meeting God in Mark’ (page 62), Rowan Williams writes this – thinking about the words of Jesus to his disciples when they are talking about who is the greatest of them – ‘Jesus is saying that his execution is the price that is paid to free us all from the fantasy that God’s power is just like ours, only a hugely inflated version … it uproots the notion that whatever power we attain must be valued and clung to at all costs … … in this lethal error lies all the roots of our sin and self inflicted misery … the death of Jesus delivers us, dismantling the myth of power that hold us prisoner.’

Unfortunately, over the centuries, and particularly in the last 80 years or so, the loudest voices have told us that the death of Jesus is about God dealing with the sin of the world by sending Jesus to die on our behalf, and take the punishment that should have been ours.

There is language like that in the New Testament, but there are many other images that try to ‘explain’ the cross. It is important to grapple with those ways of understanding the cross, because it is not just about someone being martyred for opposing the powers. The New Testament is clear – something to do with the story of God and humanity is being played out here. There is a deeper message to hear, (More of that another time).

The trouble is that what we call Theories of The Atonement are not the same as simply telling the story of what happened as a human story of what happens when power is threatened by someone who shows us a different way to live.

This way of seeing the Jesus story is important for the church in the world today. This reading of the Gospel leads us to think about the call to challenge power when we see it being used to corrupt and oppress. In that way, maybe the world will see one of the ways that the message of Jesus can speak powerfully today.

Grace and Peace

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s