This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently, I saw on facebook a political post claiming that gas prices have climbed more with the Obama administration than they did under Carter. Almost immediately following this post, appeared a dozen more respectively denying the claim outright, accepting it but blaming the rise of gas prices on political and economic forces set into motion during the Bush administration, or running Obama further into the ground for reaching this latest benchmark. With a quick check at the Chicago Tribune, I discovered that the numbers are accurate. Now, of course, what one chooses to do with these numbers— how they choose to represent them and who they choose to blame (if blame is to be assigned at all)—that is all a matter of politics.
The early church didn’t have facebook or online news sources, but they definitely had politics, and they knew how to spin the facts. This, I believe, is what is happening in Peter’s speech to the Israelites in Acts 3:12-19. What are the politics involved?
First, Peter is an insider. This is an Israelite speaking to fellow Israelites about another Israelite. It’d be like a democrat speaking to other democrats about our democratic president. The NRSV translates the Greek of verse 12 (andres Israelitae) as “You Israelites,” implying a more distanced relationship, while the NIV renders it, “Fellow Israelites,” implying the opposite. The Greek itself is more neutral—simply, “Israelite people”—but, given Peter’s interactions with the Israelites throughout the rest of Acts, the NIV “fellow Israelites” does better justice to the relationship. Indeed, the speech itself is taking place in the temple complex, where Peter and his friends have just come from worship and where they frequently gather to read the Israelite scriptures and teach about Jesus (cf. Acts 5:42). This, of course, makes his message quite different from if it were spoken by a religious outsider about a foreign God. His is a politics of mutuality, not of distancing and blame.
Yet, there is blame.
“13The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” (emphases added)
And, as is often the case, where there is blame being laid, there are politics at play. Pilate, of course, would have been the most likely candidate to blame for Jesus’ execution. He was the executioner, after all. Israelites under Roman occupation would not have been permitted to enact such a punishment. However, the author of Luke-Acts, along with the synoptic counterpart responsible for Matthew ascribes the guilt to Jesus’ fellow Israelites (Jews) on this and several other occasions.
In The Misunderstood Jew, Amy-Jill Levine suggests, “From the perspective of history, the entire scene depicted in Matthew 27 is suspect. First, the tradition of this festival amnesty is not recorded anywhere except the Gospels. Although Rome was ruthless, it was not stupid. Releasing a political insurrectionary, especially during the Passover holiday celebrating the Jews’ release from an oppressive, enslaving government of Egypt, would have been political folly. Second, Matthew presents Pilate more as a weak pawn, manipulated by the high priest and the crowd, than as the decisive ruler known from other ancient sources for deliberately provoking the sensibilities of his Jewish subjects” (99).
Historically, it would make more sense to pin the blame on Pilate. In the narrative, it would have fit the story line better for the blame to stop with him. Contextually, one would expect Peter as a character to put the blame on an “outsider”—not one of his own. So why does he do it? Better, why do the authors of Matthew and Luke-Acts pin the blame for the murder of an Israelite on other Israelites? Politics, of course! Both of these authors were writing at a time in which Rome was still in control of Israel and thus, of them. When one is subject to the whims of “ruthless” overlords as Levine describes the Romans, it is no wonder that Luke and Matthew did not want to draw undue political attention to themselves. No wonder that they did not want to place the blame with those who had the power to execute them as well.
Those are the ancient politics of the text. But where does that leave us in the 21st century? In most nations, at least, we are not in immediate danger of execution no matter how we exercise our religious or political speech. And certainly, the Roman executioners of Christ are long gone from the historical scene and dangerous to no one anymore. Today, the danger lies, in fact, at the opposite extreme. It lies in distancing ourselves and Jesus from his Israelite heritage, as the NRSV translation seems to do. It lies in placing the blame with the Israelites, whom we too often identify as others—as outsiders—and in all of the horrible consequences that have come and can come from that kind of othering and blame. Today, as in the first century, the danger lies in playing the blame game. The challenge for preachers in the 21st century, then, is to break this biblical text. To preach against the blame that Peter wrongly, no matter how graciously, assigns. To preach against all the othering and blaming continues today in so many forms and so many spheres. And to claim instead the Messiah—the risen Lord who stands in the midst of his followers, even after they’ve blamed, abandoned, and betrayed. This risen Lord Jesus stands among the disciples—neither insiders nor outsiders, but people (andres) in need of grace. He stands amidst them and breathes, “Peace.” This is the Risen Lord in whose name the beggar, just moments before Peter’s speech in the temple begins, is healed. This is the Risen Lord in whose name Peter and all of us must preach.
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and a Theology and Practice fellow in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. She and her family reside in Franklin, TN where they attend the Lutheran Church of Saint Andrew.