WATCHING THE PBS Frontline documentary “Top Secret America” in April reminded me of why I read the gospels. They help me get my head screwed on right—upside-down, that is.
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In that show, Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter Dana Priest investigates the secret history of anti-terrorism in America since 9/11. “Secret” is the key word, since the public has little idea of the injustice, torture, black sites, civilian-killing drone strikes, data-mining, over-surveillance, and general terrorizing that have been done in our name and with our tax money for the past 12 years. The Boston Marathon bombings will only up the ante.
“Empire,” I think as I watch. Our American empire has secret tentacles in every part of our inhabited world. Cofer Black, then head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, announced after we were attacked on 9/11, “The gloves come off!” In other words, we will do whatever it takes to obliterate al Qaeda. “We went in [to Afghanistan] to kick ass. And we did!”
Restraining gloves have apparently stayed off, since little has changed in the Obama administration. No current national security big shot would speak to Frontline. It’s “top secret,” of course, since in public we are supposed to be a democracy and not an empire.
I THINK OF texts from the gospel of Matthew—radical texts penned under the thumb of the Roman Empire. A couple of years ago, I was asked to write “insight essays” for a teacher’s guide in the “Gather ’Round” series of Sunday school lessons for children and youth published by the Brethren Press and MennoMedia. The first seven lessons leading up to Easter were centered on texts from Matthew 18-28. I struggled to find a common thread running through these stories and sayings leading up to the final events in Jesus’ life.
I knew that the author of this gospel was highly organized, presenting Jesus as the new Moses whose five speeches—representing the five books of Moses—blast legalism and raise the moral bar on the original Mosaic Law. The narrative sections between the speeches show how Jesus puts what he says into practice. I saw Jesus’ nonviolent activism begin with his rejection of empire during the desert temptations (Matthew 4:1-11) and end with his refusal to fight with the sword when he is arrested (26:52-53). I had read New Testament scholar Warren Carter’s book Matthew and Empire, which identifies Jesus’ political platform in this gospel as a radical alternative to Rome’s empire. But could I find an underlying theme in the texts that had been assigned to me?
Here are the texts, with brief descriptions. Below that is what I learned as I played with them.
- 18:1-5—believers must become like children if they want to enter God’s kingdom
- 18:6-9—hyperbole about drowning and cutting off limbs if someone offends “little ones”
- 18:10-14—parable of the lost sheep
- 18:15-20—what to do if someone offends you
- 19:13-15—Jesus blesses the children
- 25:31-46—the future judgment of the nations
- 26:1-13—a woman anoints Jesus
- 26:36 - 27:66—Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion
These texts, I came to see, are dominated by the upside-down idea that it is “little ones” who make up the core of God’s kingdom. As in Mark and Luke, Matthew presents Jesus announcing the reign of God as a political and social alternative to the Jerusalem temple system that was working hand-in-glove with its Roman overlords and occupiers.
THE PRIME EXAMPLES of humble, powerless people in those days were children (18:1-5). Jesus does not focus on them because they are innocent and trusting, but because they have no social status. Babies were not named, nor boys circumcised, until after their first week of life, since many did not survive that long. Nearly half would die before age 12. Society invested little in its weaker members until they proved hardy enough to grow up. But in Jesus’ realm, children are ranked highest becausethey are the most powerless and vulnerable members of society.
Note that Jesus blesses the children (19:13-15) after his speech of 18:1-35 is over and the next narrative section has begun. This illustrates not only how Jesus put his own teaching into practice, but also how his male disciples did not have ears to hear his main point, since they sternly ordered mothers and children to stay away from Jesus (19:13).
Moving to the second unit of Jesus’ sermon (18:6-9), we find drastic retribution for those who offend “little ones who believe in me” (verse 6). Does this mean child abuse? Certainly, but in light of the entire speech in chapter 18, it must also refer to any believer who has no particular status or honor, either in church or society. Here we see that the author of Matthew collapses the story of Jesus with the story of the church of his day. The “little ones” (micros in Greek) are church members with low social status—the poor, women, children, former prostitutes, Samaritans, and foreigners. That Jesus is deadly serious about respecting such people can be seen in his colorful hyperbole about drowning under a huge millstone or cutting off a hand or foot to prevent abuse.
In 18:10-14, Matthew changes Luke’s “lost sheep” from a sinner to a “little one” (verse 10) who got left behind and in whom both angels and shepherd delight more than the 99 in the fold.
The rights of a victimized “little one” are further driven home by the next unit (18:15-20) about judgment for the offender. If a micros has been hurt by someone in the church, she can first speak to that person in private and, if not listened to, can bring witnesses—and finally shame the abuser by bringing the matter to the whole church. The unrepentant offender, rather than the victim, must leave the church.
MY NEXT ASSIGNED text was the climax of Jesus’ fifth and final speech in Matthew—that of the “judgment of the nations” in 25:31-46. (The Greek word ethnoscan be translated “nation” or “gentile.”) Jesus, here called the Human One, is now arrayed in glory, and the nations come before him for judgment on the basis of how they have treated his “little ones.” I agree with Warren Carter that here “little ones” refers to disciples who have been sent out to proclaim the gospel without money, sandals, or a change of clothing (10:8-15). But now they are of even lower status. They are “the least” (25:40), the superlative of micros—the “littlestones.” Jesus identifies with these “littlest ones” as his sisters and brothers. Gentiles who have responded to and cared for these low-status workers are invited into Jesus’ eternal kingdom, while those who have rejected them are sent away.
But all of that lies in the apocalyptic future. After Jesus’ final speech, the drumbeat of empire and its colluding local temple-clients begins. Jesus’ upside-down kingdom looks like a threat to the present one. A killer plot is hatched (26:1-5).
Yet in a last interlude of comfort before the darkness falls, we meet one more “little one” in 26:6-13—a nameless female disciple who has ears to hear, and who understands. She anoints Jesus’ head with ointment in the tradition of Israelite kings, knowing that it also symbolizes his death and burial under the present empire. Once again, the men don’t get it and only see her action as a useless waste (verse 8).
The next lesson text (26:36-27:66) is long, bleak, and brutal. Jesus himself becomes “the least of these”—the littlest one. Treated as a criminal, a rebel, a threat to empire, he nevertheless maintains his nonviolent convictions. The cost is horrific. He descends into such shame his male followers cannot risk watching—only women (the micros disciples) stay as his naked body convulses in agony, and dies.
We all know that wasn’t the end—but how would we know this without the faithful contingent of “little ones” whose gender always placed them below the status of men and usually erased them from the public record? How would we know there really is an upside-down kingdom to be inherited by the littlest ones and those who have cared for them?
AND SO I watch “Top Secret America,” wondering what terrible things the empire does in my name that I don’t know about and hating many things I do know about. Then I reread the gospels to remember an alternative—an open-source “kin-dom” instead of a top secret empire. Jesus became the littlest one for us. Calling himself the Human One, he asks us to search for lost sheep, to care for the powerless among us, and to follow him in challenging both empire and church when they dominate and abuse little ones.
Reta Halteman Finger, who taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., is the author of Roman House Churches for Today: A Practical Guide for Small Groups.