by Rosie Snow
The author of the Gospel of Matthew really, really wants to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. Throughout the book, Matthew slowly, steadily builds this case. He comes with receipts—he quotes the Hebrew Bible 61 times attempting to show the many ways that Jesus has fulfilled what had been promised. He meticulously highlights ways in which Jesus’ life and ministry echoes that of Moses. By the end the reader may be convinced that Jesus is indeed the Jewish Messiah who was promised. But another, perhaps deeper question remains—what kind of Messiah is Jesus? What is the nature of his power? How is it that he is going to bring redemption? Matthew tells us this, too, although it may not be quite as obvious.
Matthew gives us a good idea about what kind of power this Messiah wields at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, because the first two things Jesus does is to come up against two major types of power that rule our broken world. The very first thing that Jesus does after his baptism is to go out into the wilderness and test himself against the cosmic power of Satan. Satan meets Jesus after Jesus has already been pushed to his limits, and tries to tempt him into betraying his mission on earth. This is a spiritual test, and Jesus passes it.
But immediately after, Jesus comes up against a different kind of power—one that proves trickier: worldly power. Jesus finds that John the Baptist has been arrested. This is devastating news. John the Baptist has been the most prominent character in this Gospel so far besides Jesus, and now he has been caught in the net of worldly power, arrested by Herod and likely to be executed. So this is a very interesting moment for the reader. Jesus is the Messiah, and he was powerful enough to overcome Satan’s test, so he can just use that power to conquer Herod and free John the Baptist, right? Well, no. Apparently this is not how Jesus operates because he doesn’t fight, doesn’t raise up an army of angels or men. He withdraws into the land of the gentiles.
Plot twist! Nope, there is no swift justice against the tyrants of the day. Jesus moves AWAY from the action. By way of explanation, Matthew gives us another quote: “the people living in darkness have seen a great light.”
So, Jesus is not solving this problem of worldly power with violence or strength, but with light. And he’s not just coming in and fixing things by himself presto chango—he’s bringing light to the people. This is a collective endeavor that is being fulfilled over time.
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” Jesus says. The word “repent” really gets a bad rap these days. It brings to mind angry bigots with signs, pointing their fingers in people’s faces, calling names and casting judgement. But the meaning is actually quite positive. It means to change one’s mind or turn away. St. Augustin gave the visual of someone who is facing away from the sun, towards their own shadow, who then decides to turn around the receive the sun’s light. When Jesus tells the people to repent, he is inviting them into his great work.
Of course, there are many ways that one can repent, either by changing behavior or attitude. But I would like to focus on a type of repentance that is a little different—one that is actually central to the Gospel. Jesus invites us into a repentance of imagination.
We may not think of imagination as being a serious force in our lives, but it absolutely is. More than idle daydreams, imagination completely shapes our shared world. So much of our physical world reflects the imaginations of those who surround us, and those who came before us. The cherry blossoms that bloom in spring are there because someone imagined them there. The streets we live on are there because someone designed them to be. The music you listen to first passed through someone else’s imagination. And the list is endless. As citizens of Charlottesville, VA, has it ever occurred to us how much we are living in the imagination of one man, Thomas Jefferson? Isn’t that wild?
Indeed, while our world is a wild amalgam of ours and others’ imaginations, it does seem as though certain imaginative strains gain dominance over others. And those dominant strains are not always good. All of us can be trapped in strains of imagination that are completely toxic. Look at what we are doing to the earth—when did we become trapped in the imagination of the fossil fuel industry? Look at what we are doing to asylum-seekers at the border—when did we become trapped in Stephen Miller’s imagination? White supremacy is one particularly horrific example of how a dominant strain of imagination can turn into an absolute nightmare. Consider these words from writer and facilitator adrienne maree brown:
Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Renisha McBride and so many others are dead because, in some white imagination, they were dangerous. And that imagination is so respected that those who kill, based on an imagined, radicalized fear of Black people, are rarely held accountable…Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of ability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone’ else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.
Let me repeat that last line of brown’s quote:
I often feel I am trapped inside someone’ else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.
Worldly power tries to tell us whose imagination we are allowed to live, and die in. Sometimes I look at Mitch McConnell and think, “I cannot believe that I’m trapped inside THAT man’s imagination.”
But then Jesus walks in and says, “no you’re not.”
When Jesus walks up to Peter and Andrew, they are ordinary citizens of their time. They spend most of their time laboring and keep some small fraction of the wealth they produce. Herod is King. The Roman Empire makes the rules, no matter how brutal those laws may be. There’s no evidence that Peter and Andrew question or push back against this before they meet Jesus—they aren’t part of one of the revolutionary groups of their day like the zealots.
But then Jesus comes along and invites them to imagine a totally different life for themselves. “Come, follow me,” he says. “And I’ll make you fish for people.” They lay aside their nets and follow him. They turn – they repent – and go. And it’s not such an easy thing to do. There is risk in it. They haven’t changed their material circumstances—they haven’t overthrown the systems that had dictated their place in life. Because although the Roman Empire still stands, imaginatively, they have left it.
Jesus imagines something different for the world. He imagines a world where the poor and sick are taken care of. Where all bodies matter and are treated with equal respect regardless of station. He imagines healthy spirits in healthy bodies in healthy relationship with each other and with God. He imagines a world brought into light.
But this world of light doesn’t come about because Jesus personally conquers whatever Empire or tyrant happens to rule the day. If Jesus came back right now and simply removed the world’s worst tyrants and maybe all the billionaires, what would that change if the underlying conditions were the same? Jesus was not born into political power and he does not take his vision into the halls of power. He takes it to two ordinary fisherman, and invites them into his imagination.
And it doesn’t end there. It turns out Jesus’s imagination is something like a net. It is capable of catching great numbers of people. Evidently THIS is his plan, to override the darkness of worldly power not with armies or politics—he’s not negotiating with worldly power at all. He’s growing a light in the world that will make the darkness irrelevant.
The most inspiring moments in history have come when people refused to live in someone else’s imagination. Harriet Tubman refused to live in the imagination of American white supremacy when she repeatedly risked her life to lead people to freedom. The Austrian farmer Carl Jagerstatter refused to live in the Nazi imagination when he chose to follow Jesus instead of Hitler, refusing to fight for Germany. And Maria Chavalan-Sut refuses to live in ICE’s imagination every second of every day.
The power brokers of our day would love for us to feel trapped in their imaginations. They would love for us to feel trapped in the toxic politics of their minds. But we are not. We live in Jesus’s imagination—in his vision for the world—and we have the freedom to co-imagine with him. Jesus gives us the light that will override the darkness of cosmic and worldly power. That’s the kind of Messiah he is. Only this kind of Messiah poses a lethal, rather than temporary, threat to Empire. And only this kind of Messiah could truly bring Creation into the light, by means not of violence, but by means of imagination and love.