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Politics of Scripture

Speaking the Justice of God

Luke states with exquisite and unmistakable clarity that God will not hesitate to silence those with power, and give a bullhorn to those without power, even ensuring that—if need be—the creation itself will speak justice into the world.

28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ 34They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,
‘Blessed is the king
   who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
   and glory in the highest heaven!’
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ 40He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

Luke 19:28–40

“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” In Luke 19:40, Jesus declares God’s absolute authority to grant the rights of communication to whomever God desires. In a passage redolent with the exuberance of human delight in God’s presence, Jesus insists that the praises expressed by humans are actually worship expressed by the entirety of the creation, and as such, are impossible for any human to silence. In this way, Luke is simply continuing a theme which undergirds the entire book: God wills liberation for all of creation from unjust structures of power; in this case, upending unjust structures of silence. Luke states with exquisite and unmistakable clarity that God will not hesitate to silence those with power, and give a bullhorn to those without power, even ensuring that—if need be—the creation itself will speak justice into the world.

While the Gospel of John makes the most explicit link between Jesus and the Holy Word (Logos) of God, speaking into existence the entirety of the creation as one with God, I’d wager that Luke demonstrates with greater clarity and power how the Divine consistently upends human expectations of speech and power. Where John places the implications of speech at the center of the cosmos—Jesus as God’s “speech” to the creation—Luke instead demonstrates the power inherent in the seemingly prosaic act of human speech. Throughout the book, Luke asks fundamental questions about what it means to be human: can we communicate; how do we communicate; and—perhaps most importantly—when we communicate, will anyone actually comprehend what we say? The answers Luke provides are not only unsettling, they are also destabilising – not only for our individual expectations, but also for the structures of power which dictate nearly every aspect of our lives.

This is demonstrated powerfully in Luke 1, when two humans at vastly different poles on the power structure encounter the angel Gabriel delivering the message that God will upend their lives in order to bring about God’s will. The first person Gabriel speaks with is Zechariah, a priest at the temple, with the responsibility and privilege to serve the people as their “voice” to God through his performance of the sacrificial rites on behalf of the community. Instead of speaking awe at the miracle of his wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy, thus answering Zechariah’s own prayer, Zechariah uses his voice to express doubt about God’s ability to bring new life into the world in 1:18. It’s little wonder that Gabriel then silences Zechariah in order to teach him to trust God. Zechariah is thus stripped not only of his ability to communicate, but also of his ability to use the power inherent in his social position.

When Gabriel delivers far more devastating news to Mary—an unwed teenage woman with little to no social power, for whom a surprise pregnancy could be a death sentence—she instead chooses to lay down what very little power she held, and place all of her faith in God (Luke 1:38). Mary then uses her voice in 1:46–55, and what a voice she has! Mary’s speech, also known as the Magnificat, presents a vision of the justice of God—demanding the upending of unjust structures of power—which is shockingly radical and bracing in its sweeping implications.

This pattern continues throughout the book: angels speak the news of Jesus’ birth to shepherds—people whose work was vital to the survival of society, yet which rendered shepherds effectively outcasts (2:8–20); as a child, Jesus upends the rules of permissible speech by teaching with authority in the temple (2:41–52); as a man, Jesus upends the rules of permissible speech by speaking with authority in the synagogue about his own fulfillment of the messianic prophecies in Isaiah (Luke 4:14–30); Jesus upends the rules of permissible Sabbath conduct through both the words of his teaching, and the speech-act of declaring healing (6:1–11); Jesus upends structures of power by speaking blessing for those who are starving, disconsolate, and poor, and cursing those with comfort, power, and wealth (6:20–47); and so on, throughout the remainder of the book.

Luke 19:28–40 is an encapsulation of sorts for the themes present throughout the entire text. Notably, while this passage is one of the texts traditionally read in Christian churches on what is termed “Palm Sunday,” Luke is actually silent on whether palms were spread on the ground. The absence of this detail in Luke, when it is present in the recounting of Jesus’ procession in both Mark and Matthew, is certainly an intriguing curiosity, whose main import might be that it simply serves as a reminder that these three Gospels are not just copies of each other, but actually exist to give voice to the wide array of communities for whom these stories were precious records of their experience of the incarnate Divine.

Contrary to a popular tendency, often seen in movies, to squash the Gospels together into one coherent narrative, silencing the points of discontinuity as inconveniences, the diversity of voice across the four canonical Gospels was actually the point. Both the Jewish and Christian Bibles demand that its readers have a comfort with multiplicity: of voice, of interpretation, and—most especially—of the lessons we are to draw from these records of Jesus’s life and teachings. Demanding that the Bible be viewed as the one inerrant truth, in the misguided effort to preserve the power of the biblical voice, actually serves to silence its power to speak truth to continuous generations of humans who are eager to communicate with the Divine in new languages and new contexts.

Returning to Luke 19:28–40, Jesus “speaks” in numerous ways in the passage, through both his words and his actions. The passage is itself framed by speech, as it begins after he had finished teaching (19:28), and ends with him declaring that the entire creation would itself “speak” praise for God (19:40). Further, the passage is a continuation of the Lukan theme of Jesus speaking prophecies into fruition, where, by both action and word, he “speaks” his presence into the entire sweep of the prophetic witness. He does this here through his actions, where he engages with the prophetic literature, seeking to enact several elements which surround the royal symbolism of entering Jerusalem.

Jesus first asks his disciples to speak into being the command, on the Mount of Olives, that the Lord requires the use of an unridden colt. This reflects two elements: 1) a royal prerogative spoken of in Zechariah 9:9 that the king would come riding on a colt, “the foal of a donkey”, and 2) a prophesy in Zechariah 14:4–9 that the Lord God would stand on the Mount of Olives, on the day of the Lord, and become king over all the earth. In this way, Jesus makes his disciples into advance agents preparing the way for a royal procession (19:29–34).

Of course, the echoes of 1 Kings 1:33-35, where Solomon (decreed by King David to be crowned as co-regent) enters the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey at the head of a royal procession, would have also been obvious, with the result that the act would have spoken into being numerous implications. The crowd’s response—throwing their coats on the ground before the procession (19:36)—reflects this royal context, speaking into being the memory of 2 Kings 9:13: when cloaks were thrown down, and Jehu was declared king. Jesus’s followers finish this entire enactment by loudly proclaiming their praise for God, using a greeting for Passover pilgrims found in Psalm 118:26 (Luke 19:38).

It must be noted, of course, that as these are not symbolic callbacks with only one specific meaning or interpretation, they don’t “complete” the prophetic witness so much as acknowledge its symbolic value. Much of the power of these actions would rest with the emotional resonance that those who understand this value would feel upon seeing these elements enacted.

It is at this point that Pharisees, present for the event, finally beg Jesus to silence the disciples (19:39). There isn’t much specific evidence in the text to indicate what, exactly, compelled the Pharisees to jump in at this point, as opposed to any other point along this entire cornucopia of symbolic significance where they could have raised the alarm. Yet, it must be noted that they do have rather good reason to be cautious, for Jesus had already alienated and annoyed religious leaders with both the power and influence necessary to harm him.

This animosity would spill over, however, as the culmination of a series of three events which the text appears to state happen in quick succession: the royal procession (19:28–40); Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem, reflecting the numerous moments where the prophets have offered oracles of destruction as the consequence of failing to heed the voice of God (19:41–44); and finally, to cap off his rather eventful day, Jesus’s extraordinarily disruptive act of cleansing the temple of moneychangers (19:45–48).

Each of these events alone is inextricably political, and hits directly at both the imperial power of Rome and its Jewish client kings, and the religious power of the temple authorities. Taken together, as a trifecta, especially in the context of a Jerusalem filled to the brim with pilgrims present for the impending Passover feast – a challenging security situation on its own before taking into consideration the history of popular rebellions against Roman rule—Jesus’s “speech” served as a direct political challenge to both the political and religious authorities, declaring Jesus to be the true center of power for the Jewish people. Jesus effectively spoke his own death warrant into existence.

Jesus’s words in verse 40 (“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out”) take on new meaning now. This isn’t simply a declaration of the overwhelming power of God’s voice, which will never be silenced when it desires to speak, although it most certainly is that. At this point, Jesus’s subsequent actions, and the response of the political and religious authorities, acquire a sense of inevitability. Jesus can do no other than what he has done throughout the entirety of Luke: speak into being a new politics, rooted in the justice of God, which demands an upending of the structures of power which silence the voices of the oppressed, the poor, the ill, the marginalized—in a sense, demonstrating that he was most certainly Mary’s son. The religious and political authorities can do no other than to respond negatively to Jesus’s voice, seeking to silence it forever. In this way, the means of Jesus’s death is the logical culmination of the path of his entire life: when one speaks God’s authority into the world, the world will inevitably try to silence all those who speak it.

From our very first cries as a newborn baby to our last breaths and words, we constantly feel this core need to express our needs and desires, connecting with others. Yet, many human cultures and societies teach us quite early what expressions are acceptable, who is permitted to speak, and even to whom we are required to listen—and whom we must ignore. These rules, proscriptions, and taboos embed themselves so firmly in human psyches that they eventually can be felt bodily, when our bodies become the enforcers of these boundaries through the emotions that we feel when we bump up against “the rules” of our cultures: shame at speaking the unspeakable, anger at being silenced unjustly, fear when we speak a forbidden love.

In this way, we often do the unjust work of the structures of power ourselves, by choosing to be silent, whether that be in the sight of injustice, oppression, and violence, or even when we choose to accept the ill-fitting and untrue limitations that others demand of us. I am actually strangely heartened when I see oppressive governments passing legislation demanding that we not speak truth, whether that be speaking the truth about the shocking evil of a war of conquest imposed by a dictator, or speaking the truth of the beauty present within the shocking rainbow of expressions of love and gender inherent within God’s good creation. These laws mean that we’re not participating in our own oppression. Instead, we’re not allowing the authorities to claim that their voice is the only voice that exists. These laws inherently force the authorities to acknowledge the existence of other voices: you don’t make an effort to silence voices that don’t exist.

It is in these moments that I remember that God chose to silence those with power, and instead give voice to the most unexpected of prophets: a young girl with no power, living in a society designed to ensure her oppression, who used her voice to proclaim across the ages that God will bring down the powerful from their thrones, will lift up the lowly, will fill the hungry with good things, and will send the rich away empty. Mary’s voice will always speak the same truth spoken by the stones: God’s justice for the world cannot be silenced.

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