FOLLOWING JESUS: A NEW KIND OF EMPIRE
On Sunday, I asked the congregation to imagine what it would be like growing up in utter poverty in Antioch, the capital city of Syria—a Roman province—in the first century. You eat one small meal a day if you are lucky and when you are finished eating your very small meal, there is no more food left in the house. You have to wait until your father comes home from work the next day with more food. There is a little bit of money left, but that is for taxes, and no one would dare not pay their taxes. When you get sick with a cold or the flu, your parents pray that you don’t die, because most children die; they die from colds, flus and all kinds of other diseases. Your family cannot afford a doctor or medicine or any kind of healthcare; so everyone learns to pray really hard. Getting sick and dying from illness happens a lot in every family. Death is a constant topic of conversation. When the tax collector comes around on one of his regular rounds, he demands the tiny bit that your parents have saved up; and this is the reason you can only afford one small meal a day; but your family give him whatever he asks for. If they don’t, the tax collectors will have Roman soldiers sent to your house; and they will drag one or both of your parents off to prison. Speaking of Roman soldiers, there were some 20,000 in your little city. To get an idea of the huge military presence in Antioch, imagine 500-1,000 soldiers patrolling Koloa and Poipu. They would be everywhere! You would see dozens or maybe even hundreds of them every single day. Back in Antioch, if you didn’t pay your taxes, they might kick the entire family out of your home; then all of the children are likely to be orphaned and the likelihood of illness and death increases even more.
You are told during your childhood that the reason you live in these conditions is because of your sins. You are told that your ancestor—the people of Israel—were unfaithful to God, and therefore God delivered them to the Roman Empire. And this is why your family now lives the way they do—under Roman oppression. And every day your family prays for a Messiah—the Anointed One—who will deliver your family and all of the other people of Israel from their sins…along with all of the consequences of their sins…most importantly the economic, physical and spiritual conditions under the oppression of the Roman Empire. And so, when you pray, “Forgive us our sins,” what you are really saying is, “Deliver us from the injustice of the Roman Empire.”
I shared about life in Syria for the average person because scholars believe that Antioch of Syria was the audience to which Matthew was addressing his Gospel. So, when Jesus showed up on the scene and began talking about an altogether different kind of “empire” (the same word as used in Roman “empire” and often translated “kingdom” in most Bible translations), it was in the context of people longing to be delivered from the Roman Empire. Jesus called this new empire the “Empire of the Heavens.” When Jesus spoke about “good news of the empire,” they knew that it must be a completely different way of doing things because the only empire they knew was bad for them—all bad in every way. This news was so good that people found it irresistible. In Matthew 4, while walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus approached two brothers who were fishermen, Simon Peter and Andrew, and said to them “Follow me.” They left their nets and followed Jesus. Then Jesus said to two other brothers who were also fishermen, James and John, “Follow me.” They too left their nets, boat and father in order to follow Jesus. The next thing you know, great crowds were following Jesus. The scenario that Matthew was creating is that the good news of Jesus and his altogether new kind of empire was irresistible.
The good news is still irresistible today! Just imagine a world where there is no hunger, poverty, needless suffering or fear of violence. Imagine a world where compassion and abundance are truly experienced by everyone. May God grant us the imagination to dream of such a world and the courage to create it.
Kahu Alan Akana
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