Robinson College Chapel, March 2015
Finally, after a two-term marathon, we reach the end of our engagement with the Olympian gods, looking this evening at Zeus – the father of gods and men. He is the most formidable of the gods, but he was not the creator God, nor was his power unrivalled. He was born – at a time when divine fathers were in the habit of eating their offspring the moment they were born. However, Zeus’s mother – having watched all her other children gobbled up by their father – decided to hide Zeus, feeding his father with a rock instead. Zeus grows up, poisons his father, releases his siblings from his belly, teams up with his father’s enemies and becomes overlord himself. Zeus is the god of power.
In fact, like all other Olympians, Zeus has multiple attributes – and the earliest it seems, is that he was god of the sky, of light, of shining. Our word for Day has the same root as the word for Zeus. He is up there, above the earth, god of sky and of lightning bolts and irresistible power. Even in war today, before any land warfare has a hope of success, invaders must gain ‘air superiority’. The strike from above, the bolt out of the blue, unstoppable and terrifying. That is Zeus. His strength was such that even if all other gods ganged up on him, they would not be strong enough to overcome him.
But Zeus is in no way omnipotent, all powerful. In Homer’s Iliad, Zeus favours the city of Troy, but is unable to prevent its destruction. He wants to intervene in battle to save Sarpedon, the son he loves, but his wife prevents him and he must watch his son die. Ultimately, and radically unlike the Yahweh of Jewish and Christian scripture, there is still some external set of rights and wrongs and principles that Zeus himself must obey. The order of society has to be held in place by Zeus – and any earthly king has the responsibility to do likewise: to keep order in society by means of power. In the end, for the Greeks, Might is Right. The strongest win, the strongest lead – not by virtue of their morality, or their fairness, or their wisdom – but by their strength. The gods favour the strong. Might is Right.
That, at least, is how Greek society functioned, but what about the Romans? Once the Romans had spread their net across the known world, Zeus himself was recruited for Rome’s imperial purposes, where he became Jupiter. That word itself is simply a transliteration from the name Zeus combined with the Latin word for father. Dzeus Pater - Jupiter. And once Zeus has become Jupiter he begins to acquire further divine attributes.
Most significant, under the Romans – Jupiter becomes Omnipotent, as you can’t help noticing if you read Virgil for instance. But omnipotence in its Latin context was a very different attribute from what we might imagine today. Omnipotence means that you have all power, that other kings are subject to you, that your authority extends to all the land. It was a title for kings as well as gods – and certainly did not mean that you have every conceivable form of human power and influence at your disposal.
This, after all, is the irrefutable argument against the existence of the God of Scripture. That is god is both omnipotent (all powerful) and omnibenevolent (all loving), how can he allow suffering? But omnipotence in its earliest manifestation did not mean all-powerful in this sense. It would be like asking Emperor Augustine the same question – if you are the most powerful being, why is there still suffering in your empire? It makes no sense at all. Christ himself did not become omnipotent until he had been rebranded as a Roman emperor in the fourth century AD. From this point, Christianity becomes the dominant religion, and once again, across the empire, we have the assurance that Might is Right. Omnipotence speaks not only of the extent of one’s power, but of the nature of that power. The omnipotent Christ is the one who by prayer, for justice, against evil, enables great military victories.
With this distortion, this Christ – as an omnipotent figure – would gradually devolve into the divinity who controls every flap of every insect wing, every flight path of every pollen grain, every course of every bacterial cell. This is the god who carries bullets from gun barrels into victims, who supplies water for tsunamis and who nurtures cancerous tumours in those we love. Thankfully, in his kind-hearted moments he also guides believers to parking spaces, grants visions of saints in your latte and, on exam result day, enables lazy but prayerful students to discover the existence of skin on their teeth. This omnipotent and schizophrenic deity is the image projected by those seeking to defend the Christendom version of God for the modern era. Might is Right – and if it doesn’t look or seem or feel right, it’s only because life’s too complicated for us pathetic earthlings to understand what’s really going on.
The Christ of Scripture is a different figure. This is a Christ who his followers claim, fulfils many of the great prophecies of ancient Jewish Scriptures. Of course, even the Hebrew Bible is full of horrible things happening to people. If you read only the caricatured versions, you could be forgiven for thinking the entire Old Testament was written and directed by Quentin Tarrantino. But never is the Hebrew God described as Omnipotent. For those who read the texts carefully, we read about an Almighty God, but as the story of the Jewish people progresses, the power of this god is expressed in radically counter-cultural ways.
And if Quentin Tarrantino wrote the Old Testament, we could equally argue that Russell Brand wrote the new. – not only because he claims to have a Messiah complex. The books of the New Testament are deeply revolutionary in their politics, in their social dynamics, in their moral frameworks – and the reason these books were banned by the empire is that they undermined the whole notion that Might is Right. In the first century, the revolutionary, subversive figure, Jesus of Nazareth – did not lead any kind of military revolt, or violent rebellion – but he had gained an enormous following of those who shunned the power games of the powerful, in the belief that the God of heaven and earth had shaped the world and would continue to shape the world by means far more powerful than any omnipotent god could hope to achieve.
We call the events leading up to his crucifixion the Passion – i.e, Jesus is literally the pathetic one. Not remotely proactive, but simply the victim, the passive recipient of the machinations of the mob, the one upon whom the power games of the powerful are acted out. Pitiable and powerless and pathetic -
The Christ of Scripture is a vulnerable outsider, subject to all the dominant social, economic, religious and political powers of his day. And yet it is under the shadow of such forces that he displays his divinity. Never does he attempt to overcome these forces with redemptive violence, military force or any form of coercion. According to Scripture, God’s very nature is manifest most clearly in the body of a naked, mutilated and humiliated political criminal, in the kind of power that gives itself to failure, to defeat, to utter and abject powerlessness. A power expressed in the capacity to allow one’s enemy to have the final word, to gloat over his victory, to display his triumph – but to remain present, nevertheless, to that enemy.
This Christ reveals the nature of God through radical self-giving, world-saving love for the other. By inviting his followers to do likewise, one might assume, he invites them to a way of life destined to futility and failure, in which the machinations of human power brokers destroy the gentle beauty of the humble Christ. This, of course, is what we witness at the crucifixion. Jesus, his way of life, and the kingdom he proclaims come to a violent end at the cold hard justice of the cross. In the end, so it seems, Might is Right. Jesus is crucified, no match for the omnipotence of the emperor. Those who had followed this would-be Messiah had been mistaken. The Omnipotence of Jupiter is witnessed for all to see, the God of Scripture is revealed as a weakling, and the kingdom of God is defeated kingdom. If might is right, god is dead.
This is what Lent builds towards. But it is not, of course, the end of the story…