The Troublemaker [Jesus story #8]

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2021

I suspect there is a very fine line between growing up to be a sociopath and growing up to be a prophet. I know of a story from about sixty years ago. There’s this little first grader, let’s call him Teddy. His teacher thinks he has done something severely wrong and confronts him. He denies everything, vociferously. You did too!, she snaps. No, I didn’t! Then the teacher pulls the trump card available to teachers in that time and place—she hits him. What’s interesting is how Teddy reacts. It makes him mad, and he never imagines that he was in the wrong. It certainly didn’t scare him to get into trouble—at least not when he was mad. This could be a sign that he would grow up to be a sociopath, or, maybe a prophet. Or maybe a little of both.

Now the story we have from Jesus’ youth is a little different. But we do see that when he was twelve already he showed a lack of fear about getting in trouble. To his parents’ chagrin and without their permission, he stays behind to visit with the teachers in the temple. Maybe one way to see this story is as part of his training in becoming a troublemaker.

Jesus as troublemaker

Several years ago, I came across the idea that, in trying to figure out what Jesus was about, we have one clear historical fact. He was killed as a troublemaker, executed by the Roman state as a rebel. So, whatever else we might want to say about Jesus, if we are to take his life seriously, we must account for that event. What did (and what does) it mean that in such a fundamental way, Jesus was a troublemaker?

Let’s note several biblical passages that seem to speak to the troublemaking theme in the broader biblical story.

The word of the Lord came to me saying, “I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “you shall go to all to whom I send you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you. Out of the north disaster shall break out. I will utter my judgments against my people, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have worshiped the works of their own hands. But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. They will fight against you; but I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.” Jeremiah 1:4-8, 14-19

You, O Lord, are my refuge; you have redeemed me, faithful God. I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversities and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place. I am the scorn of my adversaries, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I hear the whispering of many—terror all around!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life. But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” Psalm 31

The high priest arrested the apostles. During the night an angel opened the prison doors and said, “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” The next day, they were arrested again. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things.” Acts 5:17-32

Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or an ancient prophet arisen.” He asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” Jesus sternly stated, “I must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the leaders of our people, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he said, “If any of you want to be one of my followers, you must deny yourselves and take up your cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:18-25

The ninth chapter of Luke is one of the richest chapters in all of the gospels. One way to read it is in light of the big question that Herod, ruler of Galilee, asks in 9:9: “Who is this about whom I hear such things?” This is actually the question Luke’s gospel as a whole tries to answer. Here in Luke 9, we get several answers. First, we get the answer of the crowds. Jesus asks his disciples, who do the crowds say I am? John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the other great prophets arisen. So, answer number one is that Jesus is a great prophet. Clearly, he is this, but is there more to it?

Well, then we get Peter’s answer. “You are the Messiah of God.” Clearly, the gospel as a whole tells us, he is this. But as with “prophet,” the term “Messiah” is also not entirely clear. It becomes apparent that Peter has something in mind like great king, big boss. Several times in Luke, including not long after this encounter, Peter calls Jesus “Master,” which in Luke seems like kind of a code word for “big boss”—a view of Jesus that is inadequate, in fact deeply problematic.

Jesus has a different answer. He calls himself “Son of Man” twice here in Luke nine. In both cases, he speaks at the same time of his suffering, even death. So, Jesus’s answer evokes the suffering servant of Isaiah. Then, Luke takes us upstairs to hear God’s answer. Right after the passage about Peter’s confession and Jesus’s response, we read of the transfiguration, Jesus in the presence of Moses and Elijah. And these words come straight from God: “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” (9:35).

I think we are meant to hold all of these answers together. Let them define each other: prophet, Messiah, suffering servant, son of God. The key point here is one that the disciples actually miss for longest time: Jesus’ exalted identity is tied inextricably with his being persecuted, arrested, getting in trouble.

Jesus’s way of being exalted: Making trouble

Yes, getting in trouble. Jesus as troublemaker is essential to his identity. Failing to see that meant that his disciples profoundly misunderstood him. Throughout the gospels, we are shown repeatedly that the disciples just couldn’t figure Jesus out. Here, they doubt, they fail when called upon to heal, and they argue about who is the greatest.

However, remember our passage from Acts 5. In time, the disciples do figure Jesus’s identity out. They follow his path as suffering troublemakers. They do recognize that his vocation as God’s Son actually is what led him to be a troublemaker—and that they, as his followers, shared that same vocation. “We must obey God rather than human authority” indeed.

This, of course, is precisely what Jesus had in mind in his direct response to Peter’s confession of him as Messiah. He says, “if any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (9:23). The cross here, in a powerful, almost overwhelming way—it was, remember, the way Rome executed troublemakers—symbolizes the link between Jesus’s ministry and its consequences. Jesus holds up the cross as a model, his path shared with his followers.

So, if in some sense Jesus asks his followers here to imitate his troublemaking, we must ask what was that got him in trouble? Jesus clearly heads for serious trouble. We can tell from the appearance of Herod, the ruler of Jesus’s home territory of Galilee. Herod wonders about Jesus—he has heard about Jesus stirring things up, and he wants to see Jesus. He likely knows about Jesus’s connection with John the Baptist. Luke informs us here for the first time in his gospel that Herod had beheaded John. Perhaps he has the same thing in mind for Jesus.

Near the end of Luke’s gospel, Herod does finally get to see Jesus when Jesus is arrested. “He had been wanting to see Jesus for a long time” (23:8). After Herod sees Jesus, we learn that Herod and the Roman governor of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, become fast friends—and Jesus, like John, is executed. Why would Herod, the ruler, have seen Jesus as a troublemaker? And why would the religious leaders, who in the end cooperate with Pilate in doing Jesus in, have seen him as a troublemaker? Well, let’s just look at some of the things Jesus did that are mentioned in Luke nine.

Jesus’s unseemly behavior

First, we read of his sending his twelve closest disciples out “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (9:2). Here’s a kind of double jeopardy. The “kingdom of God” as over against the kingdom of Herod, or the kingdom of Caesar. Trouble for the political leaders. “Healing” through direct ministry, not through the rituals of the temple. Trouble for the religious leaders. We may see these twelve disciples, soon to be followed by a group of seventy, as social change agents. They directly challenged Herod and the temple leaders. They offered access to God and to social power for those excluded and beaten down masses whose passivity allows the rulers to prosper.

We are also reminded that Jesus himself taught and healed. The unsettling message that the twelve spread originated with Jesus. It’s an upside-down kingdom that, in Mary’s words from Luke one, overturns the powerful and lifts up the lowly.

Then, we read of Jesus’s direct action itself that powerfully subverts and challenges. He gathers thousands together to hear his words. When you look at revolutionary moments throughout history, one of the main ways the powers that be have tried to keep the lid on is by limiting unauthorized gatherings. In both South Africa during the anti-apartheid movement and in the American South during the Civil Rights Movement, public gatherings were limited. Funerals, church services, these were about it for people getting together in groups. Getting people together is a threat to authoritarian regimes.

So, Jesus establishes himself as one who could be a catalyst for mass resistance to Herod’s rule. Then, to make it worse, when these 5,000 folks gather, Jesus shares table fellowship with all of them. The religious leaders would have been horrified. Jesus broke bread with these unwashed masses, many of whom surely fell short of the purity requirements that controlled access to full status in the community. Thus, Jesus embodied his message of welcome—again an utterly subversive message, the message of a troublemaker.

After the picnic comes the amazing account of Jesus seen by his core disciples chatting up Moses and Elijah—validated by the voice of God. Note the identity of Jesus’s conversation partners. Moses was the revolutionary leader who led his people in rebellion against Pharaoh’s Egyptian authoritarian regime. Elijah was Israel King Ahab’s arch enemy, the so-called “disturber of Israel.” Then God says of Jesus, this agitator is “my son.” Son of God—another term for king. One who proclaims a kingdom. One whose rule does indeed directly threaten the rule of Herod and the rule of the religious leaders.

The focus turns to Jesus with his closest followers, and we get clarity about what kind of rule and what kind of threat Jesus actually stands for. “An argument arose among the disciples as to which one of them was the greatest. [Jesus said, you’ve got it backwards.] When you welcome a child, you are welcoming me. The least among all of you is the greatest” (9:46-48). It’s a challenge from below, a challenge with a whole different kind of understanding of power and status. What actually could be more troublesome?

Finally, as chapter nine draws to a close we come to one of the major shifting points in Luke’s gospel. Up to now, we’ve been in Jesus’s home area of Galilee. A change in venue is coming. Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). If Jesus finds himself in trouble in Galilee, wait until he gets to the seat of power, the home of the Temple, the center of Rome’s occupation forces.

The disruption of generosity and openness

Jesus was indeed a troublemaker because of his generosity, his openness, and his willingness to confront injustice and oppression. His was a “holy troublemaking” like we have seen in more recent cases. There was Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Camara (who said, “if I feed the hungry, they call me a saint; if I ask why are they hungry, they call me a troublemaker”); and civil rights leader Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat and submit to discrimination loosed a nonviolent revolution in the American South; and West Coast Mennonite pastors Weldon Nisley and Sherri Hostetler whose willingness to minister to same-sex couples led to church conference “discipline.”

What do we think about Jesus as troublemaker? Do we find him worthy of our attention because he was a troublemaker? And what kind of attention is he worthy of? We could say it’s great to watch Jesus go at it, maybe from a distance—and maybe watch a few special present-day saints who might stand in for the rest of us. Like 1960s protest singer Phil Ochs’s song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” portrayed it: “I vote for the democratic party; they want the U.N. to be strong; I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts; he sure gets me singing those songs; I’ll send all the money you ask for; but don’t ask me to come on along.” Or maybe like some people I have known over the years who admire holy troublemakers and say, wait until I retire, and I’ll get down in the trenches with them. But the time rarely is exactly right.

Little Teddy’s anger at his first-grade teacher may have been preparing him to accept that getting in trouble isn’t necessarily so bad. His teacher’s wrath didn’t actually hurt him that much. There is a sense for all of us that we continually face opportunities for training in the art of holy troublemaking. These opportunities bring with them a call for discernment—When do we resist? When do we hold our peace? When do we back down? When do we rethink?

The key term in Luke nine is “daily.” “If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross daily and follow me” (9:23). This “daily” both weakens and strengthens the image of the cross. Jesus seems here not to be saying, if you follow me, you literally will be crucified (though surely, he meant to say that actual crucifixion could be possible). So, “the cross” may not literally mean death. In that sense, the image is weakened.

At the same time, every day the follower may be called to resist the forces of domination, to challenge misuses of power, even to make trouble. The image is not about just a one-time event but is a continual call. That could be seen as a strengthening of the image. In any case, the kind of trouble Jesus modeled that led to his cross was not caused by his own violence. It was caused by his love, compassion, and empathy.

I think of the story of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker. She was one of the great holy troublemakers of the twentieth century. She spent many hours in jail for her actions—grounded in love and compassion—of getting in the way of the oppressors and warriors. She spoke often of God’s call to practice a kind of “harsh and dreadful love.” Actually, a beautiful love, a love that unites us with Jesus—but as such, also a love that sets us against the all too real forces in our world that harm and dehumanize. “Take up the cross daily.”

More posts in the series “Jesus story” plus others related to Jesus

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