Jesus, the real Hobbes, and Superhero Stories

Batman vs. Superman

This week one of the most anticipated movies of the year will open. DC Comics tries to challenge their rival Marvel by having their two biggest properties square off, Batman vs. Superman.

The trailers tease lines, scenes and the plot to us. From the trailer it seems that the world has understood something about Superman. He’s an alien with seemingly unlimited power. The government has decided that this kind of power cannot be left to itself. Something must be done.

In the trailer Lex Luther quips to the Senator

“Do you know the oldest lie in America Senator? That power can be innocent.”

Thomas Hobbes Leviathan

The writers of the superhero stores are of course not the first people to think of such things. Thomas Hobbes in the 17th Century wrote Leviathan where he talks about the state of nature. 

Given human nature, the variability of human desires, and need for scarce resources to fulfill those desires, the state of nature, as Hobbes calls this anarchic condition, must be a war of all against all. Even when two men are not fighting, there is no guarantee that the other will not try to kill him for his property or just out of an aggrieved sense of honour, and so they must constantly be on guard against one another. It is even reasonable to preemptively attack one’s neighbour.

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.[5]

In our system of government we empower the state to be one center of power with a monopoly on violence and attempt to make that great instrument of power subject to the will of the people. It’s our hope that by things like elections and courts and laws that government will be a force for good, for the public welfare. We are, however, seldom united over what those things actually look like so we live in perpetual struggle and conflict between powers.

Is it any wonder that our political contests are increasingly indistinguishable from our sports or fantasy narratives?

Jesus’ Triumph

Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. There are layers to this entry into the city that should not be missed.

A “triumph” was a victory parade celebrated by a king returning from victory over his adversary. The famous “Arch of Titus” still stands in Rome celebrating the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.

arch of titus

This famous arch still bears the image of the plundering of the temple that Jesus was marching towards.

Spoils_from_Jerusalem_-_Arch_of_Titus_-_Rome_2008

The French took up the theme in their famous arch celebrating the victories of the Napoleonic wars.

Arc_de_triomphe_Paris

Photographers during the Nazi triumph over France in World War II of course couldn’t miss this shot.

Paris, Parade auf der Champs Elysée

Paris, Champs Elysée: Die Wache zieht auf.

This was Jesus’ victory lap. Here is Luke’s telling.

Luke 19:28–40 (NET)

28 After Jesus had said this, he continued on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.29 Now when he approached Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 telling them, “Go to the village ahead of you. When you enter it, you will find a colt tied there that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it.’ ” 32 So those who were sent ahead found it exactly as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying that colt?” 34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt, and had Jesus get on it. 36 As he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. 37 As he approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen:38Blessed is the kingwho comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 But some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”40 He answered, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the very stones will cry out!”

There is so much to this passage that pastors like me who have to preach on it every year have more trouble with focus than with exhausting it. There are a slew of texts from the Old Testament that Jesus and the gospel writers are building on to convey the meaning of this event.

What we should not miss is that Jesus is received by the crowd, propelled by the crowd “because of the mighty works that they had seen”. The things Jesus had done were so stupendous that there seemed no possibility that his enthronement could be stopped. In a sense they were already having the parade even before he took down the authorities in Jerusalem or the authorities in Rome. He was their champion. Their superhero. He would not be stopped.

Messianic Visions

What might have confused the Romans but what the religious authorities and the Jewish people understood were the prophesies. These from the book of Zechariah.

Zechariah 9:9–10 (NET)

9 Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! Look! Your king is coming to you: he is legitimate and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey— on a young donkey, the foal of a female donkey. 10 I will remove the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be removed. Then he will announce peace to the nations. His dominion will be from sea to sea and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.

And the details of the Mount of Olives figuring prominently.

Zechariah 14:1–9 (NET)

1 A day of the Lord is about to come when your possessions will be divided as plunder in your midst. 2 For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to wage war; the city will be taken, its houses plundered, and the women raped. Then half of the city will go into exile, but the remainder of the people will not be taken away. 3 Then the Lord will go to battle and fight against those nations, just as he fought battles in ancient days.4 On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives which lies to the east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in half from east to west, leaving a great valley. Half the mountain will move northward and the other half southward.5 Then you will escape through my mountain valley, for the mountains will extend to Azal. Indeed, you will flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah of Judah. Then the Lord my God will come with all his holy ones with him. 6 On that day there will be no light—the sources of light in the heavens will congeal.7 It will happen in one day (a day known to the Lord); not in the day or the night, but in the evening there will be light.8 Moreover, on that day living waters will flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it will happen both in summer and in winter. 9 The Lord will then be king over all the earth. In that day the Lord will be seen as one with a single name.

This was the day of days they had been faithfully waiting for and hoping for. The Lord had finally returned bringing with him the power that crushed Egypt and enemy armies in days of old. The prophesies were being fulfilled in their very sight!

On this day only Jesus accepts this

Jesus up until now had been at best reluctant to accept this mantel of their imagination. He had ducked becoming king. He had taught and spoken in code. He had not taken up their culture war against Roman might and Greek culture. He had been coy, but now on this day he accepts the full weight of their messianic dreams and carries them on his colt through the gates into Jerusalem. To blunt the protests of those who understood the meaning and the political realities he declares that even the stones of the temple wall would cry out if the people did not.

Peace in heaven, but where are the heavenly hosts?

Luke nicely bookends the scene and Jesus here. You might recall the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds.

Luke 2:14 (NET)

14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!”

and now here the statement is completed by the people. The earth is finally singing back to heaven the song the angels began!

Luke 19:38 (NET)

38Blessed is the kingwho comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Jesus is taking his victory lap, but surely he’ll need to finish this job and all would imagine the angels will reappear to back him up.

How Superhero Movies Work

If Jesus is their hero, and we have these apocalyptic vision of power it isn’t hard to imagine what’s on the minds of the people. It’s in fact what we see movie after movie.

According to the trailers apparently as Batman and Superman are dueling “Doomsday”, a greater terror will be unleashed and together Batman, Superman and Wonder woman will contend against this beast. Any guesses how it will end? Should we be in doubt?

Jesus Breaks the Script

Jesus goes into Jerusalem, throws out the money changers, curses the fig tree, but then when the conspiracy lands him in the hands of the temple guard and then the Roman soldiers he fails to act. He fails to break free from the clutches of his adversaries and instead is tortured and then killed while his enemies mock him.

Samson was overcome by cutting his hair? Was Jesus always a paper tiger? Did he have a glass jaw?

You might say “well his was the ultimate triumph in the resurrection” and that would be true, but notice how he doesn’t act like a superhero then either. He doesn’t show up to Pilate and gloat “how do you like me NOW!”

Christians have always had to account for this. What exactly was Jesus trying to do? Why didn’t “the kingdom come” in the images of Zechariah in that moment? Even in Acts 1 the disciples are waiting for the big moment, the big reveal, the breakout where Herods and Caesars are toppled, and instead Jesus tells them that they will receive the Holy Spirit and will be his witnesses.

Witnesses

Now sure the witnessing will involve miracles. Check out Peter in Acts 5:15-16 or Paul in Acts 19:11-12. The witnessing will not major in the acts of power in the ways that we see superheros fight in the movies. It will be in the acts of sacrifice that we Jesus accomplish in his ministry. Jesus, Peter and Paul will all seem to be killed by the imperial beasts that come out of the sea in the book of Daniel.

The power Jesus reveals is not to take the life of your enemies but to lay down your life for your enemies. This is what the Apostles becomes witnesses of.

Now anyone reading Hobbes would say “this is a bad strategy. If the natural state of the world is war of all against all then such a strategy would lead to defeat and extermination.”

This is a fair point that must be raised and looked at squarely. It is at this point that the miracles and the resurrection also come into play. Miracles and resurrection are NOT natural if you consider nature to be what we observe commonly from day to day in the world.They are signs of the larger frame, or the bigger picture, of the larger reality. They are not unnatural if in fact miracles and resurrection are true and real and that nature is finally beneath the power of its creator.

What this reveals is a larger frame where joy is more enduring than pain, and love stronger than hate. This kind of power isn’t so much innocent as it is finally good. This doesn’t work, of course, if you can’t buy the miracles or the resurrection. Without these, Jesus, Peter and Paul are just lemmings who will be swallowed up with the losers and the winners of history as the world heads inevitably towards its dark conclusion.

The Invitation

We of course now watch Jesus enter Jerusalem with the knowledge of not only what the following week would contain, Good Friday and Easter but also what 2000 years would reveal. Jesus did not go all superhero, flying up in the air beating down kings and armies. Neither was he annihilated by his death as Hobbes’ vision might imagine. He would rise, not to pummel but to bless. His witness would be born by others who would also be killed, or be marginalized, or be ignored. In the end, however, Jesus would take over the Roman Empire in a way and his kingdom continues to expand, surprisingly so.

In a way our celebration of Palm Sunday seems just as inappropriately premature as Jesus’ did. We claim “Jesus is Lord” while life goes on much like it did. Empires still wage war subjecting the weak. On Palm Sunday we do as the crowd did around Jesus but will less surprise and disappointment. We now understand the shape of this savior and the means by which he saves.

Invitation to Die

When we see Jesus as reigning with joy and conquering with love this gets us excited because these are popular ideas right now. What we have to resist is imagining that this all comes cheaply or naturally. Hobbes was right about nature and history. Loving, apart from the resurrection usually gets what the world expects. It is, however, in the light of the resurrection that it all comes into different focus. Loss in this world is not the final answer. Death in this world is not the last chapter. By faith one loves and loses in hope, and sometimes even joy that Jesus is alive and that his promised new day is coming. With such a view Palm Sunday IS fully a Triumphal Entry. We’re just celebrating a little early.

 

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Jesus, the real Hobbes, and Superhero Stories

  1. Very informative, Paul.
    Love the cross-reference to Christmas and the angels’ song. That’s a neat detail.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s