June 27, 2011

(Mis)Remembered Words

by Brian Volck
Zechariah 9:9-10; Matthew 11:25-30

In an October 13, 1813 letter to his former political rival, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson described his work on a short book, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. This was Jefferson’s own distillation of gospel texts, in which he meant to include, “the very words only of Jesus,” while eliminating all elements Jefferson deemed irrational.  Jefferson assumed the parts he found superstitious were simply the result of ignorant men who misremembered or misunderstood Jesus’ “pure principles.” 

When he was done with his editing, Jefferson wrote, “There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”

He later completed The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, a unified narrative of Jesus’ life cut from the New Testament with all mention of miracles, angels, prophecy and resurrection edited out. Jefferson privately shared his compilation with friends, but declined to have it published in his lifetime.


A quarter century earlier, Jefferson, living in Paris, received unsettling news from a certain William Smith. A recently-suppressed uprising in Massachusetts (Shay’s Rebellion) incited by a profound financial crisis had encouraged a group of notable American men to propose a stronger national government than that which the Articles of Confederation provided. In a November 13, 1787 letter to Smith, Jefferson vehemently disagreed with this response, writing, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

These words have been remembered and quoted many times since, in support of varied causes, some quite disturbing. When Timothy McVeigh was arrested shortly after the bombing of the Alfred P.  Murrah building in Oklahoma City, he wore a T shirt with Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” words printed on the back. McVeigh later expressed regret that children died in his attack, saying, “…that’s a lot of collateral damage,” but he’s also quoted as saying, “I am sorry these people had to lose their lives, but that's the nature of the beast. It's understood going in what the human toll will be.”


Seventeen centuries before that, someone wrote down the remembered words of a Galilean peasant: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones.” The speaker of those words was executed, his blood refreshing a rather different tree than either Jefferson or McVeigh had in mind.

Search the gospels for the word “liberty” and you’ll find only one reference in Luke, when Jesus reads in the synagogue at Nazareth from the book of Isaiah. The freedom Jesus preaches is, as today’s gospel puts it, a yoke.

Easy? Yes.

Light? Yes.

But still a burden, a cross taken up.

Self-described followers of Jesus have been rejecting his burden and misusing his words from the moment the gospels were written – perhaps even before. The one who submitted to our violence and thereby triumphed over death has had his words tendentiously edited and misquoted countless times, often in service to later versions of the same violent powers that killed him. 


In the sixth century before Christ, Zechariah, a Hebrew prophet whose name means “God has remembered,” wrote:
See, your king shall come to you;
a just savior is he,
meek, and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the foal of an ass.
He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim,
and the horse from Jerusalem;
the warrior’s bow shall be banished,
and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.
Christians can’t help but read this with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem in mind. Do we remember, though, the subversive image of a king riding the beast of “the little ones,” entering a city without weapons or show of force?  Are we willing to take up the costly grace granted by so humble a monarch? Do we embody his vulnerable humility, or do we edit these words at our convenience?

This weekend, amid the fireworks and flags, what words will you remember and embody? Which will you misquote, misuse, or edit away?    

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