Jesus, Violence and Power
Isaiah 42:1–9; 53
. . . a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.
Matthew 16:13 – 17:9
Once Jesus took his disciples on a field trip. There was something he wanted them to learn, and there was a perfect place for them to learn it. So he led them on a twenty-fivemile trek north from their base in Galilee to a city called Caesarea Philippi, a regional centre of the Roman Empire.
The city was built beside a dramatic escarpment or cliff face. A famous spring emerged from the base of the cliff. Before Roman occupation, the spring had been known as Panias, because it was a centre for worship of the Canaanite god Baal, and later for the Greek god Pan. Worshippers carved elaborate niches, still visible today, into the cliff face. There they placed statues of Pan and other Greek deities. Panias also had a reputation as the site of a devastating military defeat. At Panias, invading armies affiliated with Alexander the Great took the whole region for the Greek Empire.
Eventually the Romans replaced the Greeks, and when their regional ruler Herod the Great died, his son Herod Philip was given control of the region around Panias. He changed the name to Caesarea Philippi. By the first name he honoured Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor. By the second name, he honoured himself and distinguished the city from another city named Caesarea Maritima – on the coast. The city was, in effect, Philip’s Caesar-ville.
Imagine what it would be like to enter Caesar-ville with Jesus and his team. Today we might imagine a Jewish leader bringing his followers to Auschwitz, a Japanese leader to Hiroshima, a Native American leader to Wounded Knee, or a Palestinian leader to the wall of separation. There, in the shadow of the cliff face with its idols set into their finely carved niches, in the presence of all these terrible associations, Jesus asks his disciples a carefully crafted question: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’
We can imagine that an awkward silence might follow this rather strange and selfconscious question. But soon the answers flow. ‘Some people say you’re John the Baptist raised from the dead; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’
Jesus sharpens the question: ‘What about you? Who do you say I am?’ Another silence, and then Peter, a leader among them, speaks: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
It may sound like Peter is making a theological claim with these words. But in this setting, they’re as much a political statement as a theological one. Christ is the Greek translation for the Hebrew term Messiah, which means ‘the one anointed as liberating king’. To say ‘liberating king’ anywhere in the Roman Empire is dangerous, even more so in a city bearing Caesar’s name. By evoking the term Christ, Peter is saying, ‘You are the liberator promised by God long ago, the one for whom we have long waited. You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from King Caesar.’
Similarly, Son of the living God takes on an incandescent glow in this setting. Caesars called themselves ‘sons of the gods’, but Peter’s confession asserts that their false, idolatrous claim is now trumped by Jesus’ true identity as one with authority from the true and living God. The Greek and Roman gods in their little niches in the cliff face may be called on to support the dominating rule of the Caesars. But the true and living God stands behind the liberating authority of Jesus.
Jesus says that God has blessed Peter with this revelation. He speaks in dazzling terms of Peter’s foundational role in Jesus’ mission. ‘The gates of hell’ will not prevail against their joint project, Jesus says, using a phrase that could aptly be paraphrased ‘the authority structures and control centres of evil’. Again, imagine the impact of those words in this politically charged setting.
Surely this Caesar-ville field trip has raised the disciples’ hopes and expectations about Jesus to sky-high levels. But Jesus quickly brings them back down to Earth. Soon, he says, he will travel south to Jerusalem. There he will be captured, imprisoned, tortured and killed by the religious and political establishment of their nation, after which he will be raised. Peter appears not to hear the happy ending, only the horrible middle. So he responds just as we would have, with shock and denial: ‘Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!’ (Matt. 16:22, NIV).
Do you feel Peter’s confusion? Jesus just said that Peter ‘gets it’ – that Jesus is indeed the liberating king, the revolutionary leader anointed and authorised by the living God to set oppressed people free. If that’s true, then the one thing Jesus cannot do is be defeated. He must conquer and capture, not be conquered and captured. He must torture and kill his enemies, not be tortured and killed by them. So Peter corrects Jesus: ‘Stop talking this nonsense! This could never happen!’
At that moment, Jesus turns to Peter in one of the most dramatic cases of conceptual whiplash ever recorded in literature anywhere. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Jesus says. It’s a stunning reversal. Jesus has just identified Peter as the blessed recipient of divine revelation. Now he identifies Peter as a mouthpiece of the dark side. Jesus has just named Peter as a foundational leader in a movement that will defeat the gates of hell. Now he claims Peter is working on the side of hell. Do you feel the agony of this moment?
Like most of his countrymen, Peter knows with unquestioned certainty that God will send a Messiah to lead an armed uprising to defeat and expel the occupying Roman regime and all who collaborate with it. But no, Jesus says. That way of thinking is human, satanic, the opposite of God’s plan. Since the beginning, Jesus has taught that the non-violent will inherit the Earth. Violence cannot defeat violence. Hate cannot defeat hate. Fear cannot defeat fear. Domination cannot defeat domination. God’s way is different. God must achieve victory through defeat, glory through shame, strength through weakness, leadership through servanthood, and life through death. The finely constructed mental architecture in which Peter has lived his whole adult life is threatened by this paradoxical message. It’s not the kind of change of perspective that happens quickly or easily.
But isn’t that why a master-teacher takes students on a field trip? By removing students from familiar surroundings, the teacher can dislodge them from conventional thinking. By taking them to a new place, the teacher can help them see from a new vantage point, a new perspective.
It was less than a week later that Jesus took three of his disciples on another field trip, this time to the top of a mountain. There they had a vision of Jesus, shining in glory, conversing with two of the greatest leaders in Jewish history. Again, Peter was bold to speak up, offering to make three shrines to the three great men, elevating Jesus to the same elite level as the great liberator Moses and the great prophet Elijah. This time, God’s own voice rebuked Peter, as if to say, ‘Moses and Elijah were fine for their time, but my beloved Son Jesus is on another level entirely, revealing my true heart in a unique and unprecedented way. Listen to him!’
Moses the law-giver and Elijah the prophet, great as they were, differed from Jesus in one important way: they had both engaged in violence in God’s name. But in God’s name Jesus will undergo violence, and in so doing he will overcome it. And that was why, as they came down the mountain, Jesus once again spoke of suffering, death and resurrection – a different kind of strategy for a different kind of victory.
In many ways, we’re all like Peter. We speak with great insight one minute and we make complete fools of ourselves the next. We’re clueless about how many of our pious and popular assumptions are actually illusions. We don’t know how little we know, and we have no idea how many of our ideas are wrong. Like Peter, we may use the right words to describe Jesus – Christ, Son of the living God. But we still don’t understand his heart, his wisdom, his way. But that’s OK. Peter was still learning, and so are we.
After all, life with Jesus is one big field trip that we’re taking together. So let’s keep walking.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when you were completely certain about something, and then you realised you were completely (or at least partly) wrong.
3. How do you respond to this interpretation of the Caesar-ville field trip?
4. For children: What’s one of the nicest compliments you have ever received? Why did that mean a lot to you?
5. Activate: Look for situations this week when your initial reaction should be questioned, especially in relation to power dynamics.
6. Meditate: Imagine you are Peter after he hears the words, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ In silence, listen for ways your thinking is out of sync with God’s ways. Imagine what you would want to say to Jesus in reply.