Ted Grimsrud—May 13, 2021
A number of years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Straddling self-help and theological reflection, this book brought to popular consciousness the perennial question: What kind of world is this where young children die of terrible diseases (like Kushner’s own son) or where great tsunamis and earthquakes and volcanoes bring massive death and destruction? This question, of course, remains. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It points to a large uncertainty about the predictability of life. We may think of variations, too. Such as, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Or, as a friend of mine suggested were he to write a book about his life, “Why do good people do bad things?”
Good news is not always good
I have another variation in mind in this post. Kushner’s concern was with kind of random bad things that strike, the kind of things that show that God, if God is good, cannot be all-powerful. And his reflections are helpful, I think. But this is my concern in this post, based on the story of Jesus: What about when bad things happen to good people not in a random way but precisely because the good people do good things?
To some degree this seems to be Jesus’s focus. Good news is here. Turn to God, trust in this good news, be transformed by this good news. Let this good news shape how you live. Then, expect trouble. Jesus’s message clearly contradicts a lot of feelgood religion. His is not a prosperity gospel. Believe, become a good person—and then bad things will happen. And they will happen precisely because you live as a good person. Is that not a bit unsettling—perhaps even more so than Harold Kushner’s question?
Let’s start thinking about these questions by focusing first on the “good news.” What do we think the Bible means by “good news”? Here are four places in the Bible that speak about good news.
Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time on and forevermore. Who is like the Lord our God, who raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes. God gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. When Israel went out from Egypt, they became God’s sanctuary. The sea looked and fled. Why is it, O sea, that you flee? Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water. Psalms 113-14
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of wellbeing of your fatted animals, I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:21-24
While we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die even for a righteous person. But God proves God’s love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Surely then, now that we have found wholeness through Jesus’s self-sacrifice, we will be freed through him from bondage to sin. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of God’s Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we find wholeness as we imitate his life in ours. Romans 5:6-11
Now the festival of Passover was near. The chief priests looked for a way to kill Jesus. When the hour for the meal came, Jesus took his place at the table with the apostles. He took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Then the disciples argued about which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. Jesus challenged them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”Luke 22:1-27
Let me suggest a few things I think these texts tell us about “good news.” In Psalms 113 and 114, we hear of God’s involvement in caring for vulnerable people—good news as in raising the poor from the dust, giving the barren woman a home, and bringing slaves out from their place of enslavement. In Amos 5, we hear that the “good news” has to do with practicing justice, not with practicing correct rituals. Romans 5 tells us that God is committed to bringing good news to unexpected people—to the “weak,” to “sinners,” even to those who are God’s “enemies,” and that God’s means of doing this is through Jesus’s self-giving.
This self-giving dynamic is central to the story about Jesus in Luke 22. He gives his body and blood to make a “new covenant” possible. The sign of this new covenant is that true power is seen in servanthood. The greatest are the least—here, specifically, “the youngest.” Again, our big question: What about when this “good news” is bad news? How can this be?
Jesus’s “new covenant” and the Passover
One way to begin to understand what is going on with Jesus in our story is to pay close attention to the framework Luke provides for the meal. “The festival of Passover was at hand.” Jesus and his friends shared a Passover meal. Passover. The celebration of when God delivered the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, the founding moment of their community. The exodus. The memory they kept alive over the generations, down to the present day. The holiday. The celebration of God’s good news.
So, how does what is going on with Jesus compare with the Passover? Why is it so important that this meal Jesus shares with his friends be a Passover meal? Well, there are important parallels here. What we see and hear from Jesus throughout his life echoes key elements of the exodus. First, both of these biblical stories of salvation—the exodus and the ministry of Jesus—take place in the midst of terrible need. The Hebrews in Egypt were slaves, oppressed, treated as less than human. Most of the people around Jesus, if not overtly enslaved, nonetheless were in need, were vulnerable, were treated unjustly, were bound by social injustice, and were oppressed by religious elitism.
Second, in both stories, God enters directly into the fray, takes the side of the needy, challenges the status quo, and brings good news. We see throughout Luke’s gospel that Jesus turned social hierarchies upside-down, brought empowerment to the disempowered, and challenged the wealthy and powerful on behalf of the vulnerable. That is, just as in the day of Moses and the exodus, Jesus brought good news into places of need. Third, in both cases the “good news” of God’s love and commitment and empowerment was met with the “bad news” of terrible violence and resistance. People in power do not welcome the good news but in fact fight against it with deadly force.
Probably this is how it has always been. Many people benefit, or at least think they benefit, from the dehumanizing of other people. This is the case, maybe especially the case, when the dehumanizing is deeply embedded into what seems simply to be the “nature of things.” Pharaoh and his minions surely simply assumed that it was the order the gods had established that they benefit from the slave labor of the Hebrews and other subject peoples. The religious and political leaders of Jesus’s day surely simply assumed that the tax burdens, the social hierarchies, the limited access to God, the dynamics of their time that kept the poor masses in place were simply the way things were supposed to be. So, when these things are challenged, when a Moses or a Jesus comes along and tells the vulnerable ones that they are human, that God desires their wholeness, that things can change, right now, many seek to stamp such a message out.
As I have studied the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, that reached its pinnacle early in my lifetime, I have been stunned, really, to learn of just how violently those who believed in the status quo reacted. Of course, we all know of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder, but that was only the tip of the iceberg of shocking and generally imperious violence—and not only in the Deep South. The good news of liberation becomes the bad news of increased repression.
The fourth, and most crucial, point of connection between the story of the exodus and the story of Jesus is that the bad news does not have the last word. The Egyptian Empire kills many Hebrews when it responds to Moses’s plea for freedom. The Roman Empire responds to Jesus’s good news and executes him as a political criminal. But in neither case is the violence of empire the last word. God enters the fray and God brings the Hebrew people through the waters of the Red Sea to freedom. God brings Jesus back from the dead and re-gathers the community of his followers.
Jesus’s good news: No violence
Putting Jesus’s last supper with his friends into an exodus context helps us understand Jesus’s message. We have the same basic dynamic in both cases—oppression met with good news, then good news met with bad news, then bad news met with vindication and liberation. When we read Luke’s last supper story in light of the exodus, we can make sense of his surprising inclusion of the disciples’ debate about who is the greatest. The last supper stories in the other gospels don’t include this debate. The other gospels tell this debate elsewhere. When we think of the Hebrews in Egypt, though, it makes sense why Jesus warns the disciples about striving to be like the “kings of the Gentiles.” In doing so, they actually seek to be like Pharaoh, the “Gentile king” of the Bible. Kings dehumanize, disrespect, and exploit. “Not so with you!” If you are to lead, you must do it in ways that empower and serve others—not in ways that dominate.
I want to emphasize one absolutely crucial point of discontinuity, though, between the exodus and the Jesus stories. The exodus story, powerful and redemptive as it certainly is, still causes problems. It reinforces what we could call the myth of redemptive violence. The myth that to find salvation and victory, we must use violence. There is indeed violence, terrible violence, in the exodus story against the opponents of God’s people.
Now, I believe the exodus story does make some important moves away from the standard account of victorious violence. Pharaoh’s violence is condemned. Empires wound and kill—and from this story we learn that we should never trust empires. We should never join their violence. As well, the violence against the Egyptians that frees the Hebrews comes through nature, not at the hand of the Hebrews. This story does not underwrite God’s people taking it upon themselves to kill for liberation. In fact, the stereotypical weapons of war (horses and chariots) are destroyed. There are no human warriors or kings who lead the Hebrews to victory.
However, in our memory of this story, we rarely notice these moves away from the valorizing of warfare. The key memory often is the killing of the enemy, killing even enemy children. The Bible itself reinforces this memory—take Psalm 136:10: “[Give thanks to the Lord,] who struck Egypt through their firstborn.” One contemporary writer echoes this and suggests the exodus victory was won by Hebrew guerilla warriors who in the dead of night stole into Egyptian homes to kill the children.
However, already in the Old Testament we have a different direction. In Isaiah 53 we read about God’s work to bring salvation. But this time, the dynamic is quite different from the exodus. Instead of God delivering violence upon God’s enemies, here God’s servant receives the violence. Instead of retaliating, God breaks the cycle of violence through self-giving love.
When we get to Jesus, this change in the role of violence becomes absolutely central. Instead of killing in response to the bad news of the empire’s violence, Jesus gives his own life. Jesus’s faithfulness to God is seen precisely when Jesus directly rejects violent revolution. And with Jesus, unlike with the exodus, the alternative is not God dealing out the violence instead. Rather, the alternative is that God absorbs the violence. The alternative is non-retaliation. Victory comes through persevering love and mercy—mercy all the way down. Paul says this too in Romans 5. God does not respond to God’s enemies with violence but with mercy.
The actual message of the Last Supper
So, the message of the Last Supper is something different, actually, than many Christians commonly think. The message here is not one of Jesus as a unique sacrifice whose violent death is required to appease God’s anger or satisfy God’s holiness. The message here is not one of Jesus substituting for us, dying so that we don’t have to. To the contrary, the message of the Last Supper is that Jesus serves as a model of self-giving love that he calls us to imitate. The message is not, Jesus faces the bad news and suffers so we don’t have to. Rather, the message is this: Jesus shows us how to face the bad news. He shows us how to give of our selves.
When Jesus commands his friends here: “Do this in remembrance of me,” he means when you share in this meal remember my life. Remember how the good news leads to bad news. Remember how faithfulness in face of bad news leads to vindication of the good news. “Do this in remembrance of me” does not point to something utterly unique about Jesus’s life—no, it calls us to imitate, to follow the same path. Jesus makes this clear, with his response to the disciples’ dispute about their “greatness.” The great ones among the world’s nations respond with violence to God’s good news of mercy all the way down. “Not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the most vulnerable, and the leader like the one who serves.”
This message troubles, and it inspires. In this world, we cannot hope for genuinely good news to be unchallenged. Truly, it seems, good deeds rarely go unpunished. The story of Jesus is not a story about avoiding the bad news that so often responds to good news. Rather, it’s a story about persevering, about remaining committed to the good news even when the bad news comes.
In my study of World War II, I felt overwhelmed by the victory of violence—conquering all sides of the great conflict, leaving no society unaffected. But there are glimmers of something else. A witness to the way of mercy that seemed, perhaps, scarcely effective at the time—but that provided enough light to guide those of us in the years since who do seek peace. The handful of American, Canadian, and British conscientious objectors. A lone Austrian conscientious objector, Franz Jagerstatter, who died for his solitary witness. A pacifist French rescuer, Daniel Trocmé, captured and executed by the Nazis. And a young German woman, Sophie Sholl, whose nonviolent witness let to her death. There was good news that preserved amidst the bad news—the light flickered on.
To conclude, these are questions that continue to challenge us: Do we hear the good news? Do we hear the message of mercy all the way down? Do we believe this message? Are we going to try to embrace it and seek to embody it? Will we still believe it when we embody it in ways that bring resistance and conflict? Will we believe in it enough to trust that the way of mercy all the way down remains the way of the universe?