THE COUNTERNARRATIVELarge portions of the story of Jesus are copied from the Empire’s originals. That’s why Easter is unique.
As we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning, the story about this God-man coming back from the dead may to many seem tired, old, and simply not that unique two thousand years after the fact.
In reality, much of Jesus’ story as told by Luke and the other evangelists was not unique in first century Palestine. Here are just a few examples worthy of consideration.
First, divine titles.
The most divine Caesar…we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things…; for when everything was falling [into disorder] and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura; Caesar…the common good Fortune of all… The beginning of life and vitality… All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as their new beginning of the year… Whereas Providence, which has regulated our whole existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us [the emperor] Augustus, whom it [Providence] filled with strength for the welfare of men, and who being sent to us and our descendents as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order, and [whereas] having become [god] manifest (phaneis), Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times…in surpassing all the benefactors who preceded him…, and whereas, finally, the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (evangelion) concerning him.
The Beginning. Divine. Savior. God become manifest. Evangelion (AKA “gospel”). Elsewhere Caesar is called Son of God, High Priest, and Lord.
Next, the Roman Triumph.
After a military victory, a general and his soldiers would descend on Rome and parade through its streets. You might even call it street theater. The victor would ride on a horse or chariot with god-like stoicism. With branches in hadn, the crowds would cheer raucously for the victor who had won their freedom and peace through violence. The whole triumph would end at the temple where the victor would give a sacrifice to the gods.
Now for the “tropaeum.”
A tropaion — where we get the term trophy — was a symbol erected either in a place of conquest or in the city of Rome, a sign of a general’s victory. A tree with a crossbeam on which things were hung, the tropaion often held the opposing general’s armor as a tangible sign of defeat at the hands of the empire.
The tropaion took on new significance in 44 BCE with the death of Julius Caesar. Those wanting to cast Julius’ death as a victory made a mold of his body and hung it from a tropaion in the middle of the city.
And finally the ascension and divinization.
Upon their death, it was believed that the Caesars rose to be among the gods and became a god themselves, deserving of worship. A comet was said to have appeared in the sky for seven days after Julius Caesar’s death, as he made his way to the gods apparently. The same for emperor Titus, the sign of his ascension an eagle.
Rising in order to ascend to be among and worshipped alongside the gods.
And these are just a handful of narrative details that the Gospel writers borrowed from the stories of the Empire. So it seems that we must conclude that the Jesus story according to Luke is simply not that unique.
How does that all sit with you on this Easter morning?
Why on earth would Luke and the other Christians writing the story of Jesus include all of these ideas so obviously borrowed from the storytelling of the empire?
The answer: to draw contrasts and to construct a counternarrative. Rather than making them sweat with doubt and uncertainty, those reading this in the first century would have reacted with “Ooooooo, no he didn’t!”
In borrowing familiar narrative details — by refusing the make the Gospel narrative completely unique — Jesus and Luke his storyteller are making a mockery of Rome and its king over and against the kingdom of God and its king.
As Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in triumph like a Roman general on Palm Sunday, he lamented, “You celebrate this as peace and victory and freedom? Or Jerusalem, if you only you understood what would bring you peace!”
Just seven days later, Jesus gives his answer. THIS is what peace and victory and freedom look like:
Now on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women went to the tomb, taking the aromatic spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men stood beside them in dazzling attire. The women were terribly frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has been raised! Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then the women remembered his words, and when they returned from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. But these words seemed like pure nonsense to them, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He bent down and saw only the strips of linen cloth; then he went home, wondering what had happened.
– Luke 24:1–12
This part of the story might not sound unique to us, but — as opposed to many of the other elements of the Jesus story to this point — the first century readers would have been witnessing a story that was new, unique, perhaps even absurd.
As opposed to the Caesars whose soul went to be among the gods after their death, the body of this Jesus — whom Luke just subtly refers to as “Lord” — is nowhere to be found.
“Some ‘Lord’ Caesar is,” says Luke. “Jesus actually came back from the dead.”
The ones who find this empty grave is a group of women. This is a terrible detail to include in the story if Luke wants anyone to believe it. Women couldn’t be trusted — not even the apostles believe these women and their “pure nonsense.”
“Some ‘common good Fortune to all’ Caesar is,” says Luke. “Jesus chooses the lowly and disrepected to carry his story.”
In fact, Peter is the only one who is compelled to go check things out, only to find exactly what the women had told him. Then Peter does something unique too: he normalizes the uncertainty of such an absurd turn of event. The tomb is empty — just as Jesus and the women had told them it would be — still he “went home and wondered what happened.”
“Some ‘benefactor’ Caesar is,” says Luke. “Jesus uses even chief doubters to lead in his kingdom.”
Finally, the underlying assertion with this resurrection story is that violence and death did not win. As opposed to all those other kings silenced by the sword of the empire, this king and his kingdom would not die.
“When Caesar claims another victory,” says Luke, “Jesus bursts forth to announce that all is NOT lost!”
The dominant narrative of the first century was Pax Romana, the Roman Peace — peace through military power. Blessed by the gods, Rome and its king were exceptional among all the nations of the world and deserving of your allegiance. Keep to yourself, keep your mouth shut, and all will be well for you. Step out of line or speak out against injustices, and be prepared for the crosshairs of the empire to be set against you. Wealth was an indicator of a right relationship with the gods. Nationality was an indicator of a right relationship with the gods.
Dominant narrative (noun): a set of stories, beliefs, and guiding values — stated or implied — that seek to explain the world and our place within in.
So to be a Jew in first century Roman occupied Palestine wasn’t all that difficult. You could freely practice your religion, go to your cute little temple, even pray to your cute little God. No, you didn’t have the same rights as Roman citizens. Yes, you did have to give what little you have to line the pockets of the empire and the emperor. But peace was worth it, right?
Enter Jesus and his band of misfits. And notice what they did not do.
They did not like the Sadducees align themselves with the dominant narrative and point to its success as God’s blessing of it.
They did not like the Essenes retreat from the dominant narrative to caves and caverns where they could live out their hippie worldview free of conflict.
Nor did they like the Pharisees and Zealots merely make noise by fighting against the dominant narrative with regulations and violence.
Counternarrative (noun): a contextually relevant but culturally divergent way of understanding the world and our place within in.
Instead, amidst a dominant narrative perpetuated by the empire, Jesus and his followers offered a counternarrative — a contextually relevant but culturally divergent way of understanding the world and our place within in.
A counternarrative of “evangelion” — good news from the Jews, among the Greeks, and for the whole world.
A counternarrative in which a king is born to a virgin, not among the ruling class but along peasants.
A counternarrative in which a king’s birth is announced by heavenly figures, not to nobles in palaces but in shepherds out in a field.
A counternarrative in which a kingdom which will have no end grows up under the feet of an empire and emperor whose days are fleeting.
A counternarrative in which those who will receive blessing are not the hoarders but those willing to give everything they have.
A counternarrative in which God’s love is open not merely to a select and elect group of people but to anyone and everyone.
A counternarrative in which living in accordance with strict rules is much less important than living in right relationship with our neighbors.
A counternarrative in which a king doesn’t slaughter his enemies but is willing to be slaughtered by his enemies.
And a counternarrative in which violence and death do not have the last word.
This story about resurrection — and all these stories in this ancient book — are thousands of years old. We are tempted to discredit them or merely disregard them as old, tired, irrelevant. But now — perhaps more than ever — we are in need of compelling counternarratives.
Thousands of years later, we continue to have dominant narratives seek to shape the way we understand and live in the world.
These narratives make assertions about entitlements and who is deserving of them.
They make assertions about who is fully human and who is not, who is blessed by God and who is not.
They make assertions about what freedom is and that to which we must pledge our allegiance in order to gain that freedom.
Our responses to these dominant narratives can be varied.
Sometimes we might be tempted to baptize and legitimize the narrative as God-ordained.
Sometimes we might seek to withdraw from the narrative and retreat to our own little homes where we can practice in peace and quiet.
And sometimes — maybe often — we might just get mad that feels good but merely contributes to the noise.
Meanwhile, we have these ancient stories passed down to us through generations that borrow from the dominant narratives and OUR dominant narratives in order to mock them and offer a compelling alternative.
So as we find yourselves in places that say …
… the powerful are the most important and blessed and love …
… the way to peace is through war and killing …
… that happiness can be bought …
… that righteousness is synonymous with religious piety …
… hat certain DNA makes you superior to other humans …
… hat death has the last word …
…telling and retelling this story becomes increasingly important.
Luke’s story of Jesus is all about freedom — including freedom from crappy stories that come to define us.
So may the God who looks like a crucified and risen Jesus keep us vigilant when we feel most weary.
May he keep us encouraged when we are frustrated.
May he give us freedom when we feel trapped.
May he give us holy laughter that makes mockery of the forces that dominate us.
And may he help us to live and move and breath a beauty counternarrative in a world full of noise.
All is NOT lost!
6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross”
– Colossians 2.6–15