Bread and Circuses

“Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” Rulers, such as the scribes, could keep the people busy with memorizing doctrine or even entertained with superficial rhetoric. But rulers could not draw forth what Jesus drew forth, “All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.”

Jesus being an authority meant he was creative, an instigator, an originator. For example, Jesus told quite original parables. The parables and other teachings made it likely that Jesus was very entertaining. It cannot be said Jesus was entertaining in a superficial manner though, meaning to flirt or toy with something. Jesus was prompting people to entertain ideas, getting people to think. Entertainment in the form of superficial diversions that flirted or toyed with people was a quality of the rulers. A notorious example of the superficiality of entertainment spread by rulers was the Bread and Circuses of ancient Rome. Its rulers, who lived in opulence, subjugated the people to living in deficiency and denied them decisions in the republic. In devious fashion, rulers also provided the people food allotments and allowed them decisions on the fate of entertainers in the arena. Doing both kept the people satisfied. More importantly, doing both kept the people from thinking about their condition, from questioning the rulers, and from discovering their own authority. The Roman poet Juvenal understood this, “The evil was not in bread and circuses, per se, but in the willingness of the people to sell their rights as free men for full bellies and the excitement of the games, which would serve to distract them from the other human hungers which bread and circuses can never appease.” Human hungers of authority for our own lives, of meaning in our life’s purpose, of significant contributions to our culture. Filling those hungers would have us drawing forth that which Jesus drew forth, “All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.” It has, unfortunately, been shown an easy task for U.S. rulers to diminish our authority and to oppress us and entertain us as they do so. We will be Survivors Keeping Up with the Kardashians as Real Housewives who seek to be a Trump Apprentice while watching Masked entertainers in Hell’s Kitchen. We will be entertaining ourselves and each other with delusions of superficial uniqueness and specialness while maintained in deficiency and ignorance. We may transition to adolescent naivete by accepting the oppression of rule under a new Caesar who offers gluten free bread and technologically advanced entertainment to keep us satisfied. But we will still be ruled and not be witnessing our authority. It is helpful to consider in every age and under every ruler how we are being lulled out of our authority, out of thinking and questioning. We can ask ourselves if we are being the full challenge to the ruling class and the full participant in a people’s movement as was Jesus. We can decide not to live superficial lives of contrived pleasure. Such a life will not encourage us to live meaningful lives of genuine authority. Will we be passive, irrelevant, and trivial when we could have been creators, instigators, and originators?

“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves… we had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another… Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.… Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required… people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there… would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture… Huxley, not Orwell, was right.” (Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman)

Prayer: Holy Spirit, draw forth in us our teaching with authority.

Question: What passive, irrelevant, and trivial habits must end for what I am called to create, instigate, originate?

January 31, 2021         Gospel Mark 1:21-28    Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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