When I was a student in seminary several years ago, my New Testament professor, Dr. Greg Riley, invited my class to try a little game. (Kind of like “Button Button Who’s God the Button, but instead of “Button” use “Messiah”)
First, he had us open our bibles to Deuteronomy Chapter 28 (I know, strange Old Testament territory for a New Testament professor to be leading his students, right?). In this most informative chapter, the Deuteronomist (Moses?) lays out in no uncertain terms what extremely good things (ie blessings) God brings you when you follow His commandments. Then there is the list (way longer) of what happens (CURSES!) when you don’t.
If you don’t have time to read them all right now (after all, it is Holy Weekend and the Final Four), here are the lists in a nutshell:
Blessings those who are Obedient to God:
- You will be blessed in city and field.
- You will be blessed is your fruit of your womb and all your stuff.
- You will be blessed is your coming in and going out.
- You will defeat all your enemies.
- Your enemies will come at you as one and flee seven ways.
- You will be blessed in all you undertake.
- You will be God’s holy people.
- All will see you are God’s people and be afraid of you.
- You will abound in prosperity.
- You will be the head, not the tail; always at the top and never at the bottom.
Curses for the Disobedient:
- You will be cursed in city and field.
- Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and all your stuff.
- Cursed shell be your going out and coming in.
- You will have disaster, panic and frustration in everything until you are destroyed and perish quickly.
- You shall suffer consumption, fever, inflammation, drought and famine.
- The sky over your head shall be bronze and the earth below you iron.
- You shall be defeated before your enemies.
- You shall go to your enemies as one and flee from them in seven ways.
- You shall be an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.
- You shall be food for the birds and animals, and no one will be able to frighten them away.
- You shall grope about at noon like blind people grope in darkness.
- You shall be abused and robbed.
- You shall build a house but not live in it.
- You shall become an object of horror to all the peoples.
- Others will be the head and you shall always be the tail; always at the bottom and never at the top
Dr. Riley then had us look at both lists side-by-side: the blessed life for the Good vs the cursed life for the Bad.
He asked us, “Now, consider Jesus' life. On what list does he land?”
- He wasn’t all that blessed in city and field…he was run out of several towns and never owned property.
- He wasn’t blessed with fruit of the womb, nor did he have any stuff.
- He came into the world in a marginal way at best, and he went out in horrible fashion.
- He was defeated by his enemies and they hung him on a cross.
- No one was afraid of him; they spat on him and mocked him instead.
Actually, when you look at it, Jesus’ life didn’t have the look of anything anyone would consider blessed. And as we come to Good Friday it looks more cursed than ever: -
- you shall have panic and disaster and frustration
- you will flee in seven directions (the disciples did that)
- you shall be food for birds and animals (what corpses on the cross became)
- you shall grope at noon in darkness
- you shall become an object of horror
- you will always be at the bottom (the place Jesus said we should always aspire to go and besides, crucifixion was the lowest punishment).
From beginning to end, Jesus was clearly cursed. The "rewards" he received in life were all marks of disobedience and great Divine displeasure.
And as we arrive on Good Friday, the final nail on the coffin, as it were - and the cross, as it were - is hammered.
Deuteronomy 21:23: “Cursed is anyone who hangs from a tree.”
Before we jump to any conveniently tidy explanation that Jesus wasn't cursed but was rather the hero who gallantly carried the curses of humanity to the tree, let’s let the kind of super-anxious head-scratching and where-did-the-oxygen-in-the-room-go-I-suddenly-can’t-breathe kind of feeling take us over…like when we let Jesus’ parables and their truly radically paradoxical nature not only turn us upside down but explode our finely-developed reasoned and ethical minds altogether. Like when Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed (…that grows into a virulent, noxious weed).” “It’s like leaven (...the stuff that makes bread unholy, that represents sinful, faithless behavior).” “Follow the neighborly example of the Good Samaritan (...wait, that’s Laura Ingrahm!)”
On Good Friday, we are invited to remember more than any other day the reason Jesus gave for teaching in parable: “in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:12 and elsewhere.)
How’s THAT for a meditation on the cross?
Noted Jesus historian and theologian John Dominic Crossain calls Jesus’ life (and death) the Ultimate Parable. (In Parables, Harper & Row, 1973) As the Comic Lens has noted before, “parable” is another word for “riddle.” It sets up a conundrum that is seemingly and absolutely unsolvable.
Rather than try and explain away what we’re sure are the blessings and curses of the cross right now, I think God wants us just to sit in the paradox it so uncomfortably creates until Easter…when the crazy punch line (which we may or may not get or think is funny)…will make things crystal clear! Alleluia!! :)