Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent: Genesis 12: 1-4A; Psalms 33: 4-5, 18-22; 2nd Timothy 1: 8b-10; Matthew 17: 1-9
The sudden revival of Joe Biden’s candidacy on Super Tuesday represents a victory for cautious centrists in the Democratic Party. They’re afraid of Bernie Sanders and his self-proclaimed revolution on behalf of the working class, low income earners, and the environment threatened by the devastations of climate change. They fear Sanders strategy of “Going for Broke.”
That strategy came in for criticism a few days ago from Paul Krugman in his New York Times op-ed called precisely that: “Bernie Sanders Is Going for Broke: Is maximalism the best political strategy?”
In the light of today’s liturgical readings for this Second Sunday of Lent, the phrase “going for broke” has special meaning. The day’s Gospel selection recounts the familiar story of Jesus’ “Transfiguration,” where on a high mountain, the Master’s appearance is transformed (enlightened) before three of his apostles as he dialogs there with Moses and Elijah. Today, I’d like to give that dramatic parable a unique spin and explain it in historical context — as liberation theologians might. I’ll retell the story in terms of Jesus establishing a go for broke strategy for himself and his followers on their paths of faith.
Before I get to that, however, consider Krugman’s rejection of that approach.
Krugman’ Rejection of Maximalism
The jumping off point for his criticism of “maximalism” was a Sanders ad centralizing Barack Obama’s praise for the Vermont senator over the years. Krugman argued that such association is disingenuous since (in Krugman’s words) Sanders’ approach is a “go for broke maximalism” as opposed to Obamism which the columnist described as accepting “incremental, half-a-loaf-is-better-than-none politics.”
Echoing traditionalist appeals for gradualism in the face of the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffragist movements (not to mention Republican talking points), Krugman alleged, that Sanders’ maximalism is unrealistic. After all, it includes “complete elimination of private health insurance and a vast expansion of government programs that would require major tax increases on the middle class as well as the wealthy.” And Sanders would do all of this, the columnist argued, on the theory that it would win over white working-class constituents and bring a surge of new voters.
Krugman concluded “unfortunately, no evidence supports this political theory.”
Apart from the fact that Sanders’ strategy actually does find historical precedent in Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s (as Krugman himself argued on “Democracy Now” a week earlier), the columnist’s words ignore the fact that only a “go for broke” strategy can save the planet at this moment of climate emergency.
Simply put, the planet cannot endure another four years of Bidenesque gradualism (much less of Trumpian denial). Instead, the required strategy is what Sanders and progressive Democrats have proposed as the Green New Deal, which Biden, Krugman, and establishment incrementalists studiously ignore.
Jesus’ Embrace of Maximalism
This Sunday’s Gospel reading announces Jesus’ strategy of maximalism in the face of his people’s unprecedented crisis in the early years of the first century. (Actually, however, Jesus’ crisis is dwarfed by the one the entire human race faces today.)
Be that as it may, consider Jesus’ maximalism. Today’s reading finds the young carpenter from Nazareth on his way to Jerusalem, where he knows something extremely risky is about to happen. Yet he’s determined to be part of it. The risky action has to do with the temple and the collaboration of its leaders with the Roman Empire.
The temple has become worse than irrelevant to the situation of Jesus’ people living under Roman oppression. What happens there not only ignores Jewish political reality. The temple leadership has become the most important Jewish ally of the oppressing power. And Jesus has decided to address that intolerable situation despite inevitable risks of failure.
Everyone knows that a big demonstration against the Romans is planned in Jerusalem for the weekend of Passover. There’ll be chanting mobs. The slogans are already set. “Hosanna, hosanna, in the highest” will be one chant. Another will be “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Hosanna” is the key word here. It means “save us!” (The Romans won’t notice that the real meaning is “Save us from the Romans.” “Restore an independent Israel – like David’s kingdom!”) It was all very political.
Jesus has heard that one of the main organizers of the demonstration is the guerrilla Zealot called Barabbas. Barabbas doesn’t call what’s planned a “demonstration.” He prefers the term “The Uprising” or “the Insurrection” (Mk. 15:6-8).
Barabbas has a following as enthusiastic as that of Jesus. After all, Barabbas is a “sicarius” – a guerrilla whose solemn mission is to assassinate Roman soldiers and their Jewish collaborators. His courage has made him a hero to the crowds. (Scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan compares him to the Mel Gibson character in “The Patriot.”)
Jesus’ assigned part in the demonstration will be to attack the Temple and symbolically destroy it. He plans to enter the temple with his friends and disrupt business as usual. They’ll all loudly denounce the moneychangers whose business exploits the poor. They’ll turn over their tables.
As a proponent of non-violence, Jesus and his band are thinking not in Barabbas’ terms of “uprising,” but of forcing God’s hand to bring in the Lord’s “Kingdom” to replace Roman domination. Passover, the Jewish holiday of national independence could not be a more appropriate time for the planned demonstration. Jesus is thinking in terms of “Exodus,” Israel’s founding act of rebellion.
And yet, this peasant from Galilee (even like Paul Krugman and establishment Democrats) is troubled by it all. What if the plan doesn’t work and God’s Kingdom doesn’t dawn this Passover? What if the Romans succeed in doing what they’ve always done in response to uprisings and demonstrations? Pilate’s standing order to deal with lower class disturbances is simply to arrest everyone involved and crucify them all as terrorists. Why would it be different this time?
So before setting out for Jerusalem, Jesus takes his three closest friends and ascends a mountain for a long night of prayer. He’s seeking reassurance before the single most important act of his life. As usual, Peter, James and John soon fall fast asleep. True to form they are uncomprehending and dull.
However, while the lazy fall into unconsciousness, the ever alert and thoughtful Jesus has a vision. Moses appears to him, and so does Elijah. (Together they represent the entire Jewish scriptural testament – the law and the prophets.) This means that on this mountain of prayer, Jesus considers his contemplated path in the light of his people’s entire tradition.
According to the Jews’ credal summary in Deuteronomy 26, their whole national story centered on the Exodus. Fittingly then, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah “discuss” what is about to take place in Jerusalem. Or as Luke puts it, “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Jesus’ Exodus!!
It is easy to imagine Moses’ part in the conversation. That would be to remind Jesus of the chances Moses took when he led the original Exodus from Egypt. That might have failed too. Nevertheless . . .
Elijah’s part was likely to recall for Jesus the “prophet script” that all prophets must follow. That script has God’s spokespersons speaking truth to power and suffering the inevitable consequences.
Elijah reminds Jesus: So what if Barabbas and those following the path of violence are defeated again? So what if Jesus’ non-violent direct action in the temple fails to bring in the Kingdom? So what if Jesus is arrested and crucified? That’s just the cost of doing prophetic business. Despite appearances to the contrary, Jesus’ faithful God will somehow triumph in the end.
Is there a message for us here as Bernie Sanders (the most honest politician our country has produced in generations) calls us towards a maximalist response to a world-wide crisis so much worse than the one that faced Jesus’ people under Roman domination?
I think there is.
Today’s readings tell us that God’s People are not to be led by frightened little men who place security and their own careers above compassion for the poor, the oppressed, and Mother Nature Herself. Faith is not primarily about cooperating with denialists, settling for half-a-loaf or about gradualism advocated by the rich and their comfortable allies. The crisis facing the human race is unprecedented. It calls for maximalism far beyond what Krugman criticizes in Sanders. At the very least, it calls for a Green New Deal, which Krugman could not even bring himself to mention.
No: faith is not at all about gradualism. It’s about risk on behalf of God’s creation and the poor, who will suffer most from the ravages of climate change.
Yes, Mr. Krugman, there are people like you and Mrs. Biden who say they are concerned, but who cancel out such claims by fearful, self-defeating caution and cowardly willingness to sacrifice even the lives of their children and grandchildren for a near-term, more-of-the-same future. There, Mr. Biden has promised his corporate supporters, “Nothing fundamental will change.”
Such people cannot claim to be followers of the prophetic Jesus of Nazareth. In our present crisis, those of us who do are called to adopt nothing short of the maximalism Paul Krugman fears.