The Last Week: The Day-By-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem
Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossman; (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, ©2006), 220 pages, including notes; 1st ed., hardcover
It is difficult for me to read books about the Bible, because I bring so much of my own history and education to the experience, and because I tend to look for direct applications of Biblical stories to my life and times. So when I began Borg’s and Crossan’s exegesis of Jesus’ last week, as told in Mark’s Gospel, with a definition of domination systems, I knew I would have to struggle to stay focused on their story.
Briefly stated, Mark’s Gospel tells the story of a peasant who directly confronts the domination system of his time, and suffers the logical consequences of that system’s processes. Borg and Crossan describe “domination system” as “shorthand for the most common form of social system … in preindustrial agrarian societies.” Its principal characteristics were political oppression, economic exploitation, and religious legitimization, and it was normal development for civilizations. (p.7-8) Jerusalem was the center from which the Romans and the Temple authorities controlled Palestine for their mutual benefit.
The Roman governor traditionally came to Jerusalem during Jewish holidays, to assert imperial supremacy and provide crowd control, if needed. Knowing this, Mark sets Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a deliberate counterpoint to Pontius Pilate’s simultaneous entry on the other side of the city. In effect, he juxtaposes the Kingdom of God against the Roman Empire. The following day, Jesus enters the Temple and overturns the vendors’ tables, setting God’s justice and righteousness against the priests’ exploitation and corruption. And so we follow, day-by-day, Mark’s story of Jesus’ week in Jerusalem.
Confronting domination systems is one theme in Mark; the other is death and resurrection. Following Jesus on the way means living God’s justice in an unjust world. It means walking with him towards death and resurrection. The underlying premise is that God’s kingdom is here, now, and the disciples’ job is to live in it, rather than within the constraints of the domination system.
There is a great deal more to this book than a short review can touch on. The Bible embodies so many strands: history, politics, revelation, religion… and so many genres: narrative, poetry, chronicle, parable…. They do a good job separating the strands and clarifying the relationship of each to the others and to the context. They interweave Mark’s story with its background and their interpretation of events. They address the importance of factual truth and of parable in Mark’s time, and contrast that with our tendency to regard non-factual narratives as untrue. There is a great deal on the significance of Jerusalem; there are many comparisons with the other Gospel stories and with Paul’s writings. There is considerable discussion of Mark’s time, place, and audience.
That Jesus cared so passionately about God’s justice and compassion for all people that he was willing to stand up to the might of the Roman Empire and accept the logical consequences forces me to look at my life and ask if I have such a passion for anything. This brings me back to my initial statement that it’s hard to set aside my own lenses and stick rigorously to Borg’s and Crossan’s interpretation of Mark’s story. But, ultimately, isn’t the point of the Gospels to make us confront our relationship to God and to God’s world in our time?
Christianity is an intensely personal religion, even when practiced with elaborate ceremonies. Ultimately, the Christian has to answer two questions: Do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? And: What are you going to do about it? Or, as Borg and Crossan ask it: Do you accept Jesus as your political Lord and Savior? (p.215)
I found The Last Week an affirmation of my commitment to non-violence and resistance to anything that incorporates violence into our common life. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is just one example of his admirable chutzpah. This counter-procession and his subsequent teaching in the Temple presented a way of non-violence and justice, a way opposed to empire, a way open to all equally. That includes me. Now, once more, I need to consider what I’m going to “do about it.” How can I confront the present system with the Good News of God’s justice, love, and reconciliation? The Last Week doesn’t provide answers, but it offers an opportunity to deepen our understanding of Jesus and his message and, consequently, choose again to follow him in the way.
Victoria Medaglia, reviewer