Urban Theology (11) Jesus, Jerusalem, Christians and the city

Chapter 7 of David Smith’s book, Seeking a City with Foundations:  theology for an urban world is called ‘From Jesus to John of Patmos’

This is a key chapter of the book in terms of a NT theology of the city. I’m sketching and highlighting here over a couple of posts because it is another big chapter.

One value of this book is to look at familiar themes through the lens of urban theology. So in this regard, it’s important to look at Jesus’ relationship with the ‘holy city’ of Jerusalem.

Under Herod, it was undergoing an intensive period of Romanization and urbanization – much of it suffused with a paganism abhorrent to Jewish faith: Greek style games with naked wrestlers, gladiatorial contests, amphitheatre, hippodrome, pagan symbolism and so on. Even the impressive extending of the temple complex into a magnificent spectacle was in Graeco-Roman style and the temple complex itself had become ‘a central and powerful economic institution’.

Smith argues for a sort of ‘ideological religion’ that oppresses the poor and generates profits for the insiders – the powerful within the temple cult. And it is this injustice that Jesus sees as the ‘antithesis of the kingdom of God’.

And so Jerusalem, the dwelling place of Yahweh, was fatally compromised ‘by a pagan culture of death’. So Jesus’ lament over the city (Luke 19:37-44). By its rejection of Jesus’ shalom, and opted for compromise, idolatry, and collusion with oppression and injustice. Judgement, conflict and destruction would follow.

Smith proposes, convincingly I think, that Jesus’ institution of a new Passover within the city was a deeply radical move: a new covenant and a new salvation revolving around the death (and resurrection) of the Messiah, meant that even in Jerusalem, Israel was enslaved.

The path to the cross was thus the way to a new and greater liberation, an exodus which in its spiritual depth and geographical reach would fulfil the visionary hopes of the prophets for the arrival of the age of God’s shalom. 190.

And it’s a fascinating point, how ‘the rejection of Christ and his death outside the city walls, together with the subsequent flight to the suburbs by his followers, provides one possible (anti-urban) paradigm for a Christian response to the urban world.’

Christians, the writer of Hebrews says, have ‘no enduring city’ and ‘are looking for the city that is to come’ (Heb 13:12-14). See also James and his warnings against compromise with Roman urban values associated with the making of money. See God’s revelation to John on Patmos, and the command to ‘come out’ of the worldly city and away from her sins (Rev 18:4).

Smith leaves this hanging a bit, but implies that this anti-urban reading is incomplete and ultimately a distortion of the full NT picture. For that bigger picture is of cross as the surprising victory of God. The post-resurrection encounters with the risen Christ lead the scattered disciples, men and women, to re-enter the abandoned city and testify to Jesus within its walls, indeed right back within the temple itself. And it is from their testimony that the gospel goes out into the great urban centres of the Mediterranean world.

Interesting parallels here to contemporary Christians’ attitudes to the city: flight and abandonment of the ‘evil’ city versus a committment to ‘return’ into the city with the good news of the resurrection of the Messiah?


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