Tempting Jesus and Democracy

Who knows if Peter and the disciples were just peeved?

After all, rather than inviting them to share a intimate dinner together there on the lakeshore with just barely enough bread and fish for their party, Jesus had made it a humongous banquet for about ten thousand or so people (the 5,000 men plus the women and children).

And rather than relaxing after a taxing day of dishing out compassion and healing as the physician’s assistants for Jesus, he had commandeered the disciples first into being waiters at the banquet and then the clean-up crew afterwards (twelve baskets full of broken loafs of bread).

If that weren’t enough, Jesus had rather briskly demanded that the disciples leave him alone, insisting that they get into the boat and head out into the sea, while he dismissed the hangers-on from the banquet and headed up a nearby mountain so he could pray by himself.

Peter and the disciples probably didn’t understand that Jesus had made a momentous decision earlier in the day and was still trying to work out the implications of it all.

Earlier Jesus had received word of the death of his compatriot, John (the baptizer), by beheading at Herod Antipas’ directive, after having been imprisoned by this Herod, Jr. for being a threat to his rule and the unjust political and economic order he had inherited from his father, Herod the Great.

Now Jesus himself had to decide if he – like John, despite all the warnings – would continue to announce the coming new and radically different reign of God. Both Jesus and John had drawn massive crowds from the villages and cities with their shared call for repentance from loyalties to lesser gods and belief in the incredibly good news that the true God was near to establish a completely fresh and spirited order of justice and peace.

Would he stay the course, even with the knowledge of what had just happened to John? Or would he quietly retreat back to Nazareth, to pick up his father’s carpenter’s tools, to blend in with those very people from the hometown who had recently rejected him as a false prophet?

Actually, the decision had already been made. He had made the decision that morning when he saw the crowds coming toward him on foot and “he had compassion toward them.” The decision had been made when he chose to invite the crowds to stay rather than send them away, and when he chose to cure their sick and feed them all. He knew that when word about all this got back to Herod, Jr., he would again find himself in the same peril that John had faced.

But he still needed some time by himself to work out what would be his strategy going forward.

That’s what Peter and the disciples didn’t understand when Jesus commanded them to get in the boat and head out to sea.

When the praying was over and Jesus came back from the mountain to the shoreline—this was early in the morning, in the range of 3:00 to 6:00 a.m.—he realized that a storm had taken the disciples’ boat far from land. He was fairly sure that his followers on that boat would be full of fear, given the wind and the waves.

So he went to them to give assurance that everything would be all right.

In their state of mind—a combination now of being both peeved and fearful—the disciples thought the figure they saw coming toward them was a ghost.

Jesus told them to take heart, to realize that it was him, their leader, and to not be afraid.

But that didn’t help. They still doubted what they were seeing and hearing.

So, acting and speaking for the whole crew, Peter decided to test and tempt Jesus: “If you really are who you say you are, command me to come to you out there on the water in all this wind and keep me safe.”

Jesus told Peter to “come” and, sure enough, Peter was safely making his way to Jesus on the water until he took notice of the wind and waves and immediately began to sink.

Jesus, of course, rescued Peter, and then everyone on board, but saying: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” That was another way of saying: “Why did you have to test and tempt me, when it was you who were being tested and tempted?”

It’s not a prefect analogy by any means, even at a very formal level.

But haven’t we been experiencing this same kind of behavior from a bunch of peeved disciples in our American democracy?

Peeved that compassion is extended to everyone and healing to all who are ill, lame, and diseased?

Peeved that the meal isn’t restricted to the chosen few but extended to all? Peeved that public servants have to get the meal to everyone? Peeved that, yes, some have to assume the janitorial duties of picking up the pieces afterwards?

Peeved enough that, even out on the choppy seas of national and world-wide economic and political turmoil, they would tempt democracy and threaten the well-being of all it would serve, by insisting that the democratic process be manipulated to save only their own limited political and economic ends?

The analogy, of course, completely breaks down when it comes to a savior figure: who will be the one (or ones) not only saving but also telling those peeved disciples just how little faith they have in democracy—a democracy that has capacity to advance both freedom and equality for everybody?

Maybe at least some of those who could save American democracy are the once-doubting disciples of Jesus who believe that God calls them now, even in finite and approximate ways, to work for the common good and an inclusive beloved community.

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