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Station 9 – Jesus falls the third time

At the ninth station before the cross we again see Jesus’ knees buckle beneath him as he falls to the ground to a chorus of weeping and cheering. As he falls for the third time, we are painfully aware that Jesus could have chosen an easier path with far less resistance. We are drawn toward the path of least resistance–the path with the least levels of friction and discomfort. Jesus willingly chose the hard way. In Matthew 7, Jesus tells the crowd that has gathered to listen to him:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Jesus never invited masses of people into his orbit by promising them comfort in life and bright days ahead. Instead, he talked about difficulties, narrow roads and opposition from friends and family as what was ahead for those who were crazy enough to take him seriously and live like he lived. AJ Swoboda writes about this difficulty of deciding to live in a way that takes Jesus seriously:

If they say yes, we look at them with a sense of genuine compassion, and then with all of our strength, we should punch them square in the face. Then we should say, “Welcome to the kingdom of pain. This thing sucks. Hope you’re ready.” And we should do that because following Jesus is hard.[1]

The third temptation of Jesus in the desert contrasts this third time that he falls to the ground in exhaustion on his way to Golgotha. In the desert, Jesus has been drawn out into the wilderness and is left in deep vulnerability, humanity and weakness. The Gospel of Matthew chronicles this experience with three temptations. The third temptation of Jesus is as follows:

Again the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Power and weakness are in stark juxtaposition here. In the desert, Jesus reorients our understanding of power and the political realm by resisting Satan’s offer. Jacques Ellul is worth reading here at length:

Jesus does not represent a-politicism or spiritualism. His is a fundamental attack on political authority. It is not indifference concerning what politics can be or can do. It is a refusal of politics. Jesus is not a tender dreamer gliding in the sky “above politics.” He challenges every attempt to validate the political realm, and rejects its authority because it does not conform to the will of God. Indeed, this is given precise confirmation by the account of the Temptations. The third temptation in Matthew’s account is the one in which the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and tells him, “I will give you all these things if you prostrate yourself and adore me.” Jesus responds with a refusal to adore him.

He does not refute what Satan says. He does not tell him that these kingdoms and political authorities are not Satan’s. No. On the contrary, he is in implicit agreement. Satan can give political authority but the condition for exercising political authority is adoration of the power of evil. That is the consistent and unique teaching of the Gospels.[2]

Jesus’ life ends in such hands of political power and evil. How much easier Jesus’ life would have been had he simply given in while in the desert. One’s life gets increasingly difficult in correlation to the extent that one resists empire. Jesus makes it clear that his life is one of resistance to empire. His calls for non-violence, his actions in direct opposition to the religious establishment and his questioning of and non-compliance with authority would ultimately earn him an execution by the state in the ultimate denial of self. But Jesus did not do all these things as an end in themselves. His resistance was others-oriented. He resisted oppressive structures that he could have comfortably lived his life in spite of or in ignorance of.

As Jesus approaches closer and closer to the cross, we must ask ourselves what is really going on here? What, if any, are the connections between the move to deny ourselves and pick up our crosses and participation with empire and systems that hurt and dehumanize people, making them secondary to our pursuit of luxury.

Prayer: God, may I be aware of the systems of oppression or injustice which I am a part of or gain privilege from. May this awareness move me to action that is oriented toward a more just and equal earth community.

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1. A.J. Swoboda, Messy: God Likes it That Way (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012), page 39.
2. Jacque Ellul, “Anarchism and Christianity,” Katallagete 7, no.3 (Fall 1980), page 20.

Toward a theology of freedom

This afternoon I led an hour of a church history and theology class and I directed our attention toward the concept of freedom. Some of the content I’ve generated here on the blog in the past month has come out of my readings and research on this subject. I’ll share a little more of that in this space because I think it is worthwhile. I don’t really have any answers or firm ideas, so this is just me trying to process through these things with the help of some old white dudes. Help me do this.

In my context of white and middle-class America, my understanding of freedom is going to be completely different than that of, say, my Latino neighbors. Freedom is one of the (if not THE) dominant narratives of American culture, but I think the way it’s been appropriated is twisted. Freedom is understood as both freedom from and freedom to. Generally, freedom-talk is dominated by our autonomy and liberty to do whatever we want. What smart-ass kid has not retorted, “It’s a free country!” to another when told, “You can’t do that”? I think Luther is instructive on a fuller understanding of how our freedom is used.

Although we Christians are free from all works, we ought to use this liberty to empty ourselves, take on the form of servants, take on human form, and become human in order to serve and help our neighbors in every possible way. This is the very manner in which God in Christ acted and continues to act toward us. And this service ought to be done freely, having regard for nothing except the approval of God.”[1]

Drawing his concept of freedom from Philippians 2, this kenotic understanding of freedom challenges our traditional understanding freedom to and directs our freedom toward the love and service of neighbor. For Luther, the purpose of freedom is so that we can invite others into freedom. Jacques Ellul says this along similar lines:

The Gospels clearly show that Christ is the only free man. Free, he chose to keep the law. Free, he chose to live out the will of God. Free, he chose incarnation. Free, he chose to die. Note the emphasis on choice. Choice is the most tangible expression of freedom.[2]

The problem though is becoming free ourselves. Peter C. Hodgson writes in New Birth of Freedom: A Theology of Bondage and Liberation:

Freedom is one of those root words of human experiences––like ‘being,’ ‘truth,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘goodness’––for which a finally and satisfying and universally accepted definition can never be found.[3]

So how is it that I come to define freedom? What does freedom mean for me? How does my freedom differ from my neighbor’s freedom, and how do I invite others into something so nebulous and subjective as a freedom which I may not understand? Our starting point is the neighbor, and learning to understand what freedom is for those around us. Jurgen Moltmann writes:

I become free when I open my life for others and appreciate them in their differentness and am gladly together with them. Human freedom is realized by
means of mutual appreciation and acceptance, that is, in personal communion. Then the other person is no longer a limit to my freedom. The other enlarges my limited life.[4]

Freedom involves both risk and responsibility. Currently, my participation in Christ does not lead me into risk and responsibility. I do not feel as if I am living in freedom. I still feel deeply bound to myself, to possessions, to security and to comfort. Hopefully I find the courage to enter into the risk and responsibility of freedom and the interdependence that comes along with it.

What insights, thoughts or experiences do you have on this journey?

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1. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

2. Jacques Ellul, The Ethics of Freedom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1976, 51.

3. Peter C. Hodgson, New Birth of Freedom: A Theology of Bondage and Liberation (Philadelphia: Fortress), 1976, 43.

4. Jurgen Moltmann in On Freedom, edited by Leroy S. Rouner (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press), 1989, 44.