There is no violent solution.
I drive past the words most weekday mornings. They’re on the side of a garage along Lake Mendota Drive, near my son’s school. There’s an image of a dove -and these words, neatly painted: There is no violent solution.
In our text from the Gospel of John today, Jesus is in the Great Temple in Jerusalem. In the other Gospels he comes there only in the days before his execution, but in John he visits the great city several times. It’s winter, and it’s the feast of the Dedication – you know it better as Hanukkah. And as Jesus walks through the temple, some of his adversaries circle around him – religious leaders who are suspicious of his message and mission – and they ask him: How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly!
If you know a Hanukkah story, it’s probably the story of the oil. The Great Temple had been desecrated, its holiness violated, by Judea’s enemies. When they reclaimed the Temple, cleansed it, and dedicated it once again to the God of Israel, they found that nearly all the olive oil for the lamps in the holy place had been defiled – made profane. Only one container remained sealed – enough for one day. They lit the holy lamps – and by the miraculous faithfulness of God, that oil lasted for eight whole days, long enough to press and prepare new oil.
It’s a nice manageable miracle, inspiring and not too hard to believe. But it’s not the Hanukkah story that Jesus and his adversaries would have known. The miracle of the oil first appears in print perhaps 400 years later, though it’s likely somewhat older than that. But it doesn’t appear in the books of the Maccabees, which tell the history behind Hanukkah. And the historian Josephus, writing several decades after Jesus, says this about Hanukkah: “So we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.” He’s clearly unfamiliar with the magic oil story!
In Jesus’ time, and Josephus’ time, Hanukkah was pretty new – less than 200 years old. Think Fourth of July, not Christmas. And Hanukkah wasn’t a festival of divine generosity. It was a festival of freedom, purification, and vengeance. And its core story is a little more complicated than miraculous oil.
Two hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Judea was under the control of the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucids were a dynasty, a lineage of leaders; their dominance basically took over the great empire established by the conquests of the Greek general Alexander the Great, and lasted in some form until the year 63 before the common era, when Rome became the ruling empire of the known world. The Seleucids were culturally Greek, or Hellenistic, and for much of their season of rule, they followed the Greek pattern of tolerating a lot of cultural and religious diversity within the empire. People put up with foreign rule a lot better if you let them keep doing their thing, you know?
But then things changed, under Antiochus Epiphanes, who became emperor in the year 175 BCE. Unlike previous Seleucid rulers, Epiphanes declared himself a god – Epiphanes means, “The One who has been Revealed.” And when there were murmurs of discontent in Judea, he cracked down, outlawing Jewish religious practices and ordering that the Greek god Zeus be worshiped as the supreme god. He had his army desecrate the Great Temple – even killing a pig, an unclean animal, on the altar of the holiest place in the world. I don’t think we can even imagine how horrific this would have been for the observant Jews of Judea.
But just in time, a hero rose up – you might even call him a savior. His name was Judas Maccabeus. There are different interpretations of his second name: It might mean “The Hammer,” because of his ferocity in battle; it might be an acronym for his Hebrew battle cry, a verse from Exodus that translates to, “Who among the gods is like you, O Adonai?” Judas Maccabeus wanted the filthy Seleucids out of his country, and he wanted the Judeans to abandon foreign habits, especially the worship of other gods, and return to the religion of their ancestors.
The Hammer’s forces were outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, but not outplanned – think Fourth of July again: like scruffy militias defending their homeland everywhere, the Maccabean rebels used guerrilla warfare against the Seleucid armies, and won some key victories. Go to Wikipedia for all the details! The upshot is: Judas the Hammer freed Jerusalem and the Temple from the Seleucids. The Temple was cleansed and re-dedicated to God, on the 25th day of the month Kislev – the first day of Hanukkah, even today.
Judas Maccabeus is exactly the kind of savior, the kind of Messiah, that the people of Judea and Galilee were looking for, in Jesus’ time. The freedom won by the Maccabees had not lasted long. Now Rome was the big dog in town, demanding high taxes, bossing around their kings and priests. Rome hadn’t messed with the Temple yet but it could happen; the current emperor doesn’t want to be worshiped as a god, but what about the next guy? What we need is another Hammer, to restore the kingdom to Israel – to give us back our land, our freedom, our sovereignty. Our purity from the pollution of foreign gods, foreign ways. What we need is a Messiah, the Savior so long promised, to bring us back to the way things were under David, Israel united and free and holy under the rule of a holy king, this time forever and ever, world without end.
Only Jesus isn’t the Hammer. Because there is no violent solution.
We love a good story of revolt against unjust rule. It’s in our cultural DNA as Americans. But Judas Maccabeus and his forces also killed a lot of other Jews. In fact, some modern scholarship now sees the violence of that time as primarily a civil war between Judeans who had adapted to Hellenistic culture – taken on Greek names, Greek clothing, Greek attitudes – and those Judeans who saw all of that as corruption, and wanted to burn it out of their land. There were likely rural/urban divides and class divisions entangled with those cultural differences, as well.
And lest we be too inclined to root for the anti-colonialists, the defenders of traditional culture: We’re Team Hellenism, friends. The Hellenists believed in things like pluralism and progress and democracy. They thought the Maccabeans’ approach was primitive – provincial – fundamentalist. A retrenchment in an outworn way of thinking and living. One historian of this period writes that Hellenistic Jewish leaders wanted to preserve aspects of Judaism that fit within Greek thinking, like a universal God, but to remove practices that set Jews apart, like dietary laws and Sabbath observance. How… Episcopalian.
You can see why the story of miraculous oil took hold – to tidy up the Hanukkah story. Because the real history behind the feast is decidedly messy. There were no pure motives and no clear heroes. The Temple was restored, the nation freed – for a while – but at what cost? There is no violent solution.
And now it’s Hanukkah and people want Jesus to speak plainly – something he’s disinclined to do, especially in John’s Gospel. Are you the Messiah? It’s hard to tell from this short passage, but it’s pretty clear in context that this is a bad-faith question. The religious leaders circling Jesus like wolves, in this scene, aren’t seekers who want to believe; their goal is to get him on record as a blasphemer, one who makes claims to holiness or divinity. Later they’ll tell the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, that by their law Jesus should die because he claimed to be the Son of God.
The question is a trap – but there may be truth in it as well. On this festival day of freedom, purification, and vengeance, there’s a challenge here, maybe even a plea: If you are the Messiah, man up and prove it. Drive out Rome. Restore our nation. Show us some results.
And Jesus… avoids the question.
In all the Gospels, people talk constantly about whether Jesus is or is not the Messiah, the long-expected Savior sent by God. But he appears ambivalent about that term. He knows how laden it is with people’s expectations. He strives to invent his own vocabulary for who and what he is, in the arc of God’s plan for the cosmos. And here, now, he says: What I am is a shepherd.
He deflates those ballooning expectations with a word. A shepherd isn’t fierce. He might carry a club, a slingshot, like David, to fend off predators. But shepherds are not soldiers. A shepherd and his wooly army are not going to overthrow the lethally organized forces of Rome.
Today’s text from Revelation goes one better, or worse: Jesus isn’t even a shepherd; he’s a sheep – and not even a full-grown sheep, a nice burly ram that might butt the Romans right of Judea; but a lamb. A lamb that has been slaughtered – evoking the ancient story of Passover, when the people of Israel marked their door posts with a lamb’s blood to protect them from the Angel of Death; evoking, too, the ritual practices described in the Torah, the Book of the Law, in which an unblemished lamb is sacrificed to cleanse people from their sins, its blood dashed upon the altar. A dead lamb – what could be more helpless, more pathetic? Yet this is one of the early church’s core images of Jesus. Jesus is the Lamb seated on the throne of Heaven – the Lamb who is also a shepherd, who guides his flock to the water of life.
It’s beautiful imagery, tender and gentle. I guess what I’m noticing this year is that it’s also profoundly disappointing. Jesus isn’t the Hammer of Judea; he’s practically the Anti-Hammer. What kind of messiah lets himself be arrested? Beaten? Killed?
It’s clear throughout the Gospels that Jesus’ friends and enemies alike were confounded and frustrated by his refusal to be a man of force. Deep down, on our dark days, maybe we are too. Maybe we long for a hero, a Hammer, a God who’ll kick ass and bash heads – whether for the cause of pluralism and progress, or for purity and tradition.
But Jesus tells the wolves circling him in Solomon’s portico: There is no violent solution. I’m not going to fight Rome; and I’m not going to fight you. I’m just going to call my sheep – and at least some of them will hear me, and follow. That’s what I’m here to do. And it’s enough.
I don’t always know what it means, to walk the way of peace in the face of pervasive violence. To arm ourselves with justice, mercy, and love of enemy, against the many death-dealing forces of our times. Jesus confounds and perplexes me, too.
But I hear that voice – a voice I recognize, that calls me to paths of righteousness. So I try to trust and to follow the One who is Shepherd. Who is Lamb. Who is Life.
More on Jesus and Hanukkah here:
More on Hellenism and the ambiguity of the Maccabees: