Narratives are the stories we tell. They shape our understanding of reality and help us explain what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. Narratives, if they are widely accepted, wield great power. The philosopher Plato said, “Those who tell the stories rule society.” Right now, in Washington DC two sides are wrestling to control the story people believe about the president of the United States. There are two competing accounts concerning who he is and what he is doing. One side paints him as a devil, the other as an angel. The narrative that wins out will have the power to shape a nation.
Such conflicts are nothing new. Powerful forces have always struggled to control the narrative people believe. In Jesus’s day, the mighty Roman empire had its story to explain who they were and what they were doing. We call it “Pax Romana,” the Peace of Rome. In their own eyes, Roman armies were not brutal conquerors but liberators bringing peace to the world. Their aim was to bring an end to wars and bring unity to a very divided world.
At the heart of their story was Caesar. According to the Romans, their emperors weren’t just men but gods to be worshipped. Temples sprung up across the empire where people gave homage to Caesars, both living and dead. Bowing to the Divine Caesar was often a test of loyalty. Rome’s rulers carried glorious titles. We recognize them all: King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, and Savior of Mankind. It is easy to see why conflict between Caesar and Christ became inevitable.
The Jewish people believed a very different narrative. They viewed the Romans not as liberators but as unclean pagans bent on enslaving God’s chosen people. When the Roman general Pompey marched into Jerusalem in 63 BC, it is said he went straight to the temple. The priests allowed no gentiles in the second court of the temple, and only the High Priest could enter the Holiest of Holies, but that did not deter Pompey. He marched straight into the second court and entered the Holiest of Holies, defiling the Jew’s most sacred place.
More defilements followed. Rome forced the Jews to make a daily sacrifice for Caesar in the temple. This created constant angst for devout Torah keepers. Yet, to cease the sacrifice was an act of war in Rome’s eyes. When the priests stopped the daily sacrifice in 66 AD, the great Roman/Jewish war soon followed. To make matters worse, Herod the Great, the Jewish king at Christ's birth, built an enormous fort for the Romans next to the temple. Ft. Antonia sat on a hill higher than the temple, so it appeared to loom over God’s most sacred space saying Caesar was lord not Yahweh. Additionally, Herod tried to place a golden eagle, the symbol of Rome, above the main gate to the temple. These are just a few of ways Rome violated the sanctity of God’s holy land and its holy people.
The Roman way of thinking was a far greater threat than buildings and symbols. The Greek mindset swept through the known world. We call it Hellenization. Rome spread this paradigm, and they had accomplices such as Herod the Great. Herod decided to change the culture of the Palestinian region from Hebrew to Greek. He viewed the old ways of thinking as backward, and he tried to bring God’s people into the modern world. This greatly insulted a culture rich in tradition. The Hebrew people believed their way was God’s way, and the mind of God had to be defended.
The Romans were brutal conquerors. They crushed and humiliated their enemies. Roman soldiers not only destroyed opposing armies but also slaughtered countless unarmed citizens. Yet, dying by a Roman sword was merciful compared to crucifixion. The cross was Rome’s great deterrent. It said, “This is what happens when you stand against the Divine Caesar!” Crucifixion was not only unimaginably painful, it carried with it great shame. In fact, the writers of the day did not write as much about crucifixion’s pain as they did about its shame. Untold thousands of Jews met their end on a Roman cross.
However, neither paganism nor Roman brutality was the greatest burden to the Jewish people. Taxes destroyed far more lives. The Romans placed a great tax burden upon the common people. Picture a poor farmer struggling to feed his family, and suddenly he must pay taxes on his land, his livestock, and even a “head tax” on his wife and children. Rome wasn’t the only one after his money. The Jewish kings taxed the people to pay for their building projects. The most well-known was the temple tax. It financed Herod’s most glorious project, the temple in Jerusalem.
Our poor farmer had to pay his taxes, or he could end up on a Roman cross. Fortunately, there were rich benefactors who would step in and solve the poor man’s dilemma. They gladly paid his taxes, but at a price. The debtor had to give up his land and sell himself into some sort of servitude. Roman taxes squeezed the life out of the common people, and the cogs in the Roman machine were the tax collectors.
Nothing about Rome looked like peace to the Jewish people. It was a pagan invasion. The unclean had come, and their presence threated to defile the land. What should they do? More importantly, what would God do? To answer these questions the Jewish people turned to the Old Covenant narrative. The gentiles had come before, and the same drama played out again and again. It was the story of Israel’s covenant with God.
At Mt. Sinai the people made an agreement with Yahweh. If they worshiped no other gods and kept the Lord’s commandments, God would give them a good land with abundant prosperity, and they would be free from the gentiles. If they disobeyed, God would bring calamity upon the people, and if things got bad enough, they would lose the land. Much of the Old Testament is the story of God’s faithfulness to His covenant with His people.
When the Hebrews gave their hearts to strange gods and defiled the temple, judgement came, usually in the form of a gentile army. God in His mercy would often raise up a messiah figure to lead the people back to obedience. There were good kings such as David, Hezekiah, and Josaphat who filled that role. The people measured their kings by his relationship with the temple. Their heroes cleansed it and set it aright which opened the doors for God’s deliverance. In the Old Testament the Lord’s victories were violent. The gentile’s demise was swift and brutal.
In the first century, the Jews still celebrated their most recent messiah, Judas Maccabeus, also known as “The Hammer of God.” In 167 BC a pagan king, Antiochus IV, oppressed God’s people and defiled the temple by sacrificing a pig to the Greek god, Zeus. Judas led a rebellion against impossible odds and won freedom for the Jews. When the war was over, he entered Jerusalem triumphantly. The people spread palm branches on the ground and blessed the one who came in the name of the Lord. Sound familiar? No doubt the people in Jesus day expected the old narrative to replay. They were waiting for the next Hammer of God.
People misunderstood Jesus because He didn’t proclaim the old narrative. In fact, He preached against it. In some ways Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. He warned the people if they tried to establish the Kingdom of God through violence, the results would be devastating. Yet, His warnings fell on deaf ears.
Jesus was not the only one in His day claiming messiahship. Many claimed the title, but the others came with a sword. They thought they were the next Hammer of God. These would-be messiahs believed if they set the temple aright and did right by Yahweh, God would bring a supernatural victory over the Romans just as He had defeated the gentiles in the past. All these self-proclaimed saviors came to a bad end, and their zeal led to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. Those who took up the sword against Rome died by the sword just as Jesus predicted.
Jesus preached a new narrative. It would not be the story people expected where God separated Jew and Gentile. It would be the account of how God brought them together as one.
The New Covenant narrative is the story of the Christ, His death and resurrection. Yet, it is not just His story. It is a narrative in which we all participate. It redefined who we are and who our neighbor is. This is hard to comprehend. When we think of our story and who we are, we focus on ourselves, what we have done and what has happened to us. The New Covenant proclaims there is a higher narrative that transcends the history of self, and that is the story of the Christ. The power of the new narrative is so great that puts away self-definition, and it reframes history not as our story but God’s. In the new paradigm we are God-defined. Thus, we share in His identity and His accomplishments and so does our neighbor.
When we ponder the Lord’s death, we view it as something that happened to Him. Yet, the scriptures say the cross is an event in which we participate. As Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ… (Galatians 2:20). Jesus’s death ended an identity, one in which we all shared. We were the children of wrath. The Law identified us as such.
Redemption is not just about forgiveness. Christ came not just to give us a clean slate. At the cross God ended separateness. In God’s eyes separateness is death. When Paul spoke of being dead in trespasses and sins, he was not talking about biological death but something relational. Jesus came to restore the tie between God and humanity so that who He is might once again define who we are.
Notice the progression in Paul’s statement. He uses the word “together” three times to describe what God has done. In other words, what happed to Christ happened to all. His story has become our story, and who He is the measure of who we are. This is the heart of redemption. It more than forgiveness. It is reunion, two becoming one.
When Christ ascended to the heavenly places (Paul’s expression for the presence of God), He took us with Him. How do you get close to God? Most look to their own story, the story of their own piety. Yet, this self-focus comes from the old narrative, and we end up with a God behind the veil, distinct from ourselves. If we hold to our own narrative, we cannot know the power of Christ’s.
Hebrews tells us since our High Priest, Jesus, has passed through the heavens, we are to come boldly before the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:14-16). The throne of grace was the mercy seat in the Holiest of Holies, the Old Covenant heavenly place. The writer of Hebrews shows us the power of Christ’s narrative. He went into the heavenly place, so we too could enter the heavenly place. His story is indeed our story, and His infinite story transcends any finite story of our own.
This leads us to the delightful conclusion that God’s presence is not something we achieve. It is something we perceive, and we perceive it when we let go of our own works for the works of the Christ.
Notice where Paul’s discourse ends up… with a kindness so great it will take forever to reach its end. Ephesians chapter two speaks of a change in identity. It begins with the child of wrath, and it ends with the child of infinite kindness. Christ's story compels us not just to change our ways but to let go of our old identity based on the old narrative. The story of self was ending. The story of God was breaking forth on the earth.
We do not take part in the narrative of God alone. It includes our neighbor even if he is a Roman.
In Matthew chapter five Jesus repeatedly said, “You have heard it said….” The people heard the old narrative again and again. It was the old story interpreted through the lens of the Law with an eye on self, the story where you get what you deserve. Under that old narrative gentiles got Yahweh's wrath. Therefore, rebels had to have swords in their hands. The Law said Romans deserved to die not only for who they were (unclean pagans) but also for what they did and didn’t do. They did not keep the Torah!
In many ways, the Romans lived in that same eye for an eye paradigm. If someone hit you, you hit them in return, only much more forcefully. If someone slapped you in the face, you hit them back with a rod or cut them with a sword. In this way the world would know who was on top and who was the nobody.
Jesus presented a new paradigm that forbids hitting back and call us calls us to repay evil with unimaginable kindness. This response comes from the new narrative. In this new story God’s works define who our neighbor is, even if they can’t see it. In other words, if your neighbor treats you like you are the Devil, you treat them like they are the Christ. This is living from a higher place and a higher story. Only a citizen of the Kingdom of God could have such an otherworldly response to evil. Yet, this response is not weakness or passivity but rebellion, rebellion against the old narrative, the one that ruled the world.
Consider Jesus’s command to turn the other cheek. This is an obvious reference to the Roman backhand. If you crossed a Roman soldier, you would get a backhand across the face. This not only inflicted pain. It devalued and humiliated. Its message was that you were inferior.
Some scholars say to turn the other cheek would be a demand to be hit in a more respectful way, not with the backhand but with the palm. This could be true, but Jesus’s words go far deeper. A person whose worth is beyond reproach has the strength to turn the other cheek. If my worth does not come from self, you can belittle me all you want, and it will have no effect. You are not attacking my source of worth, so to devalue me is like devaluing a dead man. Yet, if my worth is in the Infinite Christ, no finite deed can take it away.
To hit back would be to lower ourselves. It is going back to the old narrative where the only way to preserve our worth is to retaliate. You devalue me, so I devalue you. Isn’t that the narrative of the world? It is played out every day in more ways than we can count. To refuse to hit back is a rebellion of a godly kind. It the response of one who lives from above where we are seated with Christ far above all the rulers of the old narrative.
Jesus made another reference to Rome in this passage. To the Roman soldier, the Palestinian region was an undesirable assignment. Strange people lived there, and they had a strange God. The Roman soldier was on top and the conquered were below. Yet, even though the Jewish people were defeated, they still thought they were better than the Romans. In their eyes gentiles were unclean dogs, not even worthy to eat at their tables.
Soldiers no doubt relished their power to put people in their place. There was the back hand, and you could escalate the humiliation all the way to the cross if need be. You also had the right to make anyone carry your pack for one mile. It was the law. (Apparently, the Romans liked making people carry things. Remember they made Simon carry Jesus’s cross!)
You are a Roman soldier. It is a hot dusty day, and you are not in a good mood. Ahead you see someone upon whom you can take out your frustrations and maybe boost your ego while you are at it. With authority you command, “Carry my pack!” Your victim has no choice but to take your pack and walk a mile without complaint. After a mile you stop with a smile on your face. You just humiliated someone, and there is nothing they can do about it.
When your forced servant hands you your pack, you are expecting the world’s narrative to be played out yet again. Your victim can’t say anything, but we humans are so good at devaluing each other we don’t need words. We can do it with our eyes. Yet, to your surprise your unwilling servant is not so unwilling after all. He simply smiles at you and says, “Let’s go another mile!” You might not drop your sword, but you certainly would be disarmed. You would have no defense against this deed of unthinkable kindness, and once you witnessed this otherworldly act of rebellion, you would never forget it.
In the Kingdom of God, the way we expose the old narrative is by living in the new. An eye for an eye merely strengthens an old story that devalues us all. In the old paradigm I increase my worth by devaluing others, especially those who seek to steal my worth. In the new mindset I cement my place in infinite worth by giving it to others, and the greater the act of love, the more I behold Christ, the one who defines us all.
The old story was the account of how God destroys the unclean. Yet, the new narrative is that God redefined the unclean, and the measure of their purity is not who they are or what they did, but Christ, Himself. This is the new creation. It has shed the measure of self for the measure of Christ, and the means of its transformation was the cross.
Narratives are like the lens through which we see God, ourselves, and our neighbor. The new creation, born of the new narrative, sees itself and the world through the lens of Christ. Those who live in the old story view the world through the lens of self. When their eyes turn back and forth, what they are looking to see is themselves, that which agrees with them, acts like them, and looks like them. If they don’t see self, they label the other “unclean.” Thus, we end up in a world of us and them, the world of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
So many people misunderstood Jesus because they didn’t understand God’s story. They had the Law and the prophets, but they interpreted them through the lens of self. The Law always pointed to Christ, compelling them to see Him, but their self-definition blinded them. Thus, men like the Pharisees considered themselves defenders of the Law, but they were really enemies of God. The paradox is mind-boggling until we understand the real conflict was between self-definition and God’s definition.
Christ calls us to come out of the old story and live in the new. In this paradigm, when we see others, we do not see people to be measured by self but those whose measure is Christ. There is no us and them. That is an illusion of the old narrative. As Paul said in Colossians 3:9–11: