Empires don’t really seem to change all that much over time. In the Roman Empire brutality was considered a necessity. Callousness was seen as virtuous. We may call it interrogation techniques, we may call it austerity, but the moves are sort of the same. Cut food stamps. Cut the programs that benefit the poor. Give tax breaks to the corporations–the machine has to run smoothly and this is how the empire works: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Something like wrath is appropriate.
But distraction is the oil on the gears. Give the people games. Gather the masses in the coliseum where they can forget about injustice and watch people bludgeon each other for sport. It’s such an old and obvious strategy. I can hardly believe it works. But it does.
Watch other people be shamed and berated by a gladiator, a chef, a celebrity dancer, Donald Trump (what is it with reality TV?). When the crowds got bored with men killing each other, the game masters would think up something more perverse: pit a woman against a dwarf. Put blind people in the arena with swords. Watch a rhinoceros take down a giraffe.
The Roman Emperor was worshipped as the Son of God–that was the official title. Of course we can’t hear the gospels very well if we aren’t all the time thinking about the empire–thinking about the pervasive imperial context in which they were written and in which we receive them.
Into this context, comes (as John the Baptist puts it) the Lamb of God. I may be reading this wrong, but it seems almost funny. At first glance it might not seem like some wild-revolutionary-far-out-there thing, but just think of the animal here. I’m not kidding. We’re used to this language so it might not seem so startling, but the one who was greater than John, the one whose sandal he was unworthy to untie comes and John glimpses him for the first time, and it’s not “behold the mighty fortress is our God.” Really. Behold the lamb.
A Great One in the Roman Empire would never ever be okay with a title like The Lamb of God (Behold Caesar: The Kitten of God)—NEVER. The image is so counter-imperial.
The empire was strong and bold. It may have preached peace, but it instilled fear. This is how it works. Sheep (on the other hand) do not instill fear. A lamb is not glorious or strong or fierce or wrathful or powerful. It’s not omnipotent or omniscient. It’s almost as opposite of all those things as you can get. It’s really turning things upside down right out of the gate.
Later in the gospel of John, Jesus will call himself the good shepherd, which seems like a pretty fine image for a god, but he is introduced as a baby sheep—so strange. You could not possibly come up with an animal image less evocative of imperial might—unless of course, it was a dove. John says, behold the lamb and john says he knows Jesus is the Son of God because he saw the spirit if God embodied in a dove land on his shoulder.
I’m not making these animals up.
Birds were pregnant with meaning all over the ancient Mediterranean. They were omens and oracles and messengers of the divine. A bird predicted the ascension of the Emperor Claudius: an eagle that swooped down and landed on his shoulder–a huge eagle with its wings screeching triumphantly–this was seen as an omen of divine presence.
A man being declared a son of god with the accompanying descent of a bird was a familiar story in the empire, actually–they were very big on birds as omens and oracles…but not a dove, for heaven’s sake.
The eagle was and is (it can hardly be overstated) HUGE in the symbolic world of the empire. The eagle was the symbol on the Roman Standard. An eagle bearer led the Roman Legions into battle. It was thee supreme imperial symbol.
Of course it’s not an accident or a coincidence of insignificance that John knows Jesus is the Son of God because a dove descended and remained on him.
It almost seems like it could be just a sort of mocking mimicry of the empire and it’s birds, but I think it’s more than that. I think it says something about God and how God acts in the world. And it may be just vaguely disappointing that it isn’t like a fierce eagle sweeping in to rescue and defend us and swoop us away to some shiny heaven, but it isn’t like that. Obviously.
This isn’t a god like everyone imagined the gods. It’s like you’re waiting for Zeus or Poseidon or the fire at Mt. Sinai and you get—a lamb. You couldn’t make up a more emphatic image of a god stripped of glory and power and wrath than Jesus on the cross. It’s all very strange, isn’t it?
I don’t think it’s something you can get all at once by studying or memorizing or agreeing to a creed. Jesus first words in the gospel of John are the farthest thing from a divine declaration–he asks a question. When John’s disciples follow him, he asks them “what do you seek?”
They don’t really have an answer. They probably have no idea. And it doesn’t seem like that really matters to Jesus. They follow him and he teaches them–slowly over time.
He teaches them that he is like water and he is like food. God as food. Not a vindictive, exacting god of wrath all for himself and his greatness and power. God doesn’t come to be worshipped up on a throne where people will serve God big plates of fancy food. God comes to feed people with some food that will satisfy their hunger even if they don’t know what they’re hungry for.
God doesn’t come down and start banging heads–doesn’t start coercing people to bow down at God’s feet, doesn’t come down and display the power of God how anyone ever imagined the power of God. God’s purpose doesn’t seem to be to rule the world at all in the way of empires and kings. I’d think we might be desperate for this alternative. If we were not so easily distracted.