A Man, a Landowner

The Parable of the Owner of the Vineyard who hires workers throughout the day and then pays the workers who were brought in at the last hour a full day’s wages is startling. Most preachers use it to teach God’s abundant mercy and generosity and how we shouldn’t grumble like the workers who thought they should have gotten more than the agreed wage because the workers at the last hour got such a good deal.

But a few months ago I came up against a challenge to this interpretation in Reading from the Edges by Jean-Pierre Ruiz. He argues that the owner of the vineyard, far from being generous, was playing power games with the workers, particularly with his rhetorical question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Mt. 20: 15) From the standpoint of someone who is vulnerable to people who have power over them, this question sounds oppressive.

Should we jettison the traditional interpretation of this parable? The best way to answer that question is to look at the character of the landowner. In the traditional interpretation, there is a tendency to assume that the landowner stands for God. If that is correct, then the matter is settled. Who can argue with God? But note that Jesus introduces the parable by saying “there was a man, a landowner.” Moreover, we have this same pattern in the surrounding parables, such as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant and the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding, In each case, the landowner or the king is “a man.” Unfortunately, the NRSV obscures this phrasing. Matthew has gone out of his way to stress that the landowner is a man, thus questioning the likelihood that the landowner stands for God. We see the same pattern in greater intensity with the man, a king, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant who seems righteous by treating the otherwise forgiven servant harshly for being unforgiving himself, but this man, a king, in turn is vengeful and unforgiving. The man, the owner of the vineyard with the wicked tenants is also vengeful. The man, a king, in the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding is hot-tempered and violent with much less excuse.

The Man, a Landowner, in this parable, seems to come off better than the other landowner and the kings. He does not cheat any workers out of their pay, and seems to be generous in giving the workers at the last hour the full day’s wage. One can understand, though, the grumbling of the workers who toiled all day and were exhausted. The owner blows these workers off with a rebuke that, though a far cry from the vengefulness of the authority figures in the other parables, is insensitive. Ruiz is quick to pick up on the capriciousness of this landowner. His untactful response to the longsuffering grumbling workers reminds them that they are fully at his mercy and they have no recourse if they have any complaint of the way they are treated. Ruiz says: “the lesson is not about generosity or his magnanimity but about his own power, about their dependence on him, and about the insignificance of their own toil.” Such workers in Jesus’ time were in the same position.

Can we salvage the traditional interpretation? I think we can, to some extent at least, if we note the human distortion. The second rhetorical question of the landowner is still apt: “Are you envious because I am generous?” Again, the landowner is being insensitive and judgmental, but envy is a huge human problem. We don’t do our work as effectively as we might if we are focused on whether or not somebody else seems to get a better deal. We really need to be weaned from our envious tendencies just as we need to be weaned from our instinctive vengeful attitudes as the preceding parable reminds us. However, as the vengeful violence of the man, a king, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is not very helpful in teaching forgiveness, the Man, a Landowner, is not helpful in healing anybody’s envy. On the contrary, the landowner uses his power to stir up envy and divide the workers against each other, a typical trick by those in power. Since the king and the landowner are humans and not God, we can see them as mirrors of us. The formerly forgiving but vengeful king spurs on the vengefulness of the affronted slaves. The power games played by the landowner lock the workers in resentment. These examples show that teaching forgiveness and weaning people from envy are undermined when people try to use strong-arming power to further these ends. We can take Jesus’ conclusion as a commentary on the landowner: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Ruiz says “today’s immigrant laborers know more than enough about being last.” So how are they first? It is these “last” who are the first to reveal the distortions in the human mirrors. It is these last who are the first to show us our need for God’s forgiving love and generosity that our distorted humanity obscures.

The Rock From Which We Are Hewn

KatrinaCrossAbraham1It is significant that Jesus had wandered over to Caesarea Philippi, deep in imperial territory, before asking his disciples who they thought he was. After they repeated a few rumors going round, Jesus asked who they thought he was. Simon Peter piped up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt. 16: 16) Jesus’ commendation showed that Peter had caught on to something important: it was not Caesar, whose neighborhood they were hanging out in, but Jesus, who was the real, true Lord. But what kind of Lord was Jesus?

When Jesus called Simon “Peter,” meaning rock, to honor his correct answer, perhaps Jesus was reminding Simon of the words of Isaiah: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” (Is. 51: 1–2) Simon Peter, like all Jews, was hewn from the rock of Abraham, the one called to leave his own idolatrous country for a land God would show him where he would make out of Abraham a great people. If Peter is a rock like Abraham, then Peter, too, will leave the idolatrous imperial culture surrounding him and will allow God to make yet another great, new people out of him and the other disciples. What kind of people? What kind of culture?

In writing to the Romans, Paul admonishes them to follow Abraham out of the idolatrous empire in which they live: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12: 2) And what does this transformed people with renewed minds look like? Paul has just told the Romans that such people present their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [their] spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12: 1) The imperial culture is all about using power to make sacrifices of others for the sake of the Empire. The culture of Christ is all about making a sacrifice of self as did Jesus, so as to make all of our lives an act of self-sacrificial worship. Although emperors always think more highly of themselves than they should, Paul warns us not to think more highly of ourselves than we should, “but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Rom. 12: 3) Paul then goes on the enumerate the measures of faith as a distribution of gifts of the Holy Spirit so that each of us makes our bodies living sacrifices of worship in various ways, making up the Body of Christ.

Being transformed by the renewal of our minds entails a radical makeover. It’s not just a matter of changing one’s mind about what book to read next. Paul is writing about a radical turnaround in one’s attitude to power. The first step is to be very vigilant about the power we happen to have in relation to other people and how we use it. Even if some of us have rather little power we need to be acutely aware of how we use what little we have. Do we try to get an upper hand against other people one way or another rather than looking for ways we can lay down our selves in service to them?

It turns out that Peter himself hasn’t caught on to the kind of ruler Jesus is. When Jesus talks about laying down his life, Peter resists and is rebuked by Jesus. This turn of events should caution us about the difficulties of the makeover that is being asked of us. Like Peter, we are likely to revert to imperial thinking just as quickly as Peter did. This is not surprising since the default reflex movement is to act like an immovable rock if we are threatened. Yet Jesus says he is going to do the opposite of that. Which is to say, the rock we stand on in the culture of Jesus is the rock of being vulnerable to the forces of Empire. Whether we are going to take the way of vulnerability, the way of giving ourselves for the sake of others, even when such gifts of self are not appreciated or are even actively scorned is a question that presents itself to us day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. We can easily get tired of asking this basic question so constantly, but if we persevere even when we are weary, we will eventually find that God makes a living but vulnerable rock not only out of Peter but out of each one of us.

The Woman Who Is the Mother of God

Mary at the crossIn celebrating Mary, we celebrate the mystery that a human woman is the Mother of God. This is an explosive phrase. Nestorius is famous for his rejection of it and many other people have had trouble with it since. Why would God be willing, even want to have a human mother? Does this make Mary a goddess? Not at all. It is Mary’s humanity that makes the phrase a paradox, and it is Mary’s humanity that makes her a model to be imitated. Let us look briefly at the few glimpses of the human called Mary that the Bible offers us.

Mary’s famous fiat in response to the extraordinary words of the angel reveal Mary’s character as one full of obedience. Not obedience in the sense of being a mop in the hands of others, but obedient in the sense of taking responsibility for a profound mystery, knowing she will encounter misunderstanding and worse from others.

Right after the visit from the angel, Mary did what a wise person would do: she hastened to visit a trusted person who could help her cope with, if not understand, this mystery. As it happened, Elizabeth had already encountered a like mystery herself and was able to give Mary her full support. Although most scholars don’t think Mary herself composed the famous hymn that she utters, the words are appropriate to her character as they are filled with praise for God’s mercy “from generation to generation.” (Lk. 1: 50) Moreover, by having her own world turned upside down by the child in her womb, she knew that the whole world was about to be turned upside down.

After Jesus was born and the shepherds came to visit the child and told her what the angel had told them, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Lk. 2: 19) With these words, I can’t help but think of Mary as the first Christian contemplative. To reflect quietly on such a mystery is something all of us should do, to let that mystery sink into our bones, into our inner being. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, Mary was among her son’s disciples, constantly devoting herself to prayer. (Acts 1: 12) By then the mystery had deepened: the child she carried in her womb had been murdered and yet was alive in an incomprehensible way. A lot more to ponder in her heart. These two verses form an arch of prayer and contemplation encompassing Mary’s life and that of her son.

Mary’s ongoing obedience expressed in her fiat not only showed itself in her contemplation but also her solicitude for Jesus. When Jesus turned up missing, like any anxious parent, she and Joseph searched all through Jerusalem until they found Jesus in the temple. The twelve-year-old seems to have implied that if his parents had understood him, they would have looked in the temple sooner. Years later, Jesus’ family tried to restrain him because other people said Jesus was “out of his mind.” (Mk. 3: 21) Mark doesn’t say if Mary was among those trying to restrain Jesus, but it seems likely she was involved. Again, there is a difficulty in understanding Jesus, but we also see here solicitude for Jesus’ safety as those who were saying Jesus was out of his mind were threatening Mary’s son.

Mary’s solicitude extends to others at the wedding in Cana when she notices that they have run out of wine prematurely. This seems to be a small matter, but one who is solicitous in small things is solicitous in greater things. And one greater thing is that in John’s Gospel, the wine seems to symbolize the renewal of Israel leading to the renewal of all humanity.

Most movingly, Mary’s solicitude took her to the foot of the cross where her son died an agonizing death. This time there was no taking Jesus away from those who thought he was out of his mind. She could only be present, pondering the terrible event in her heart.

Earlier, when Jesus was speaking to the people and he was told that his mother and brothers wanted to speak to him, Jesus replied that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mt. 12: 50) By following Jesus to the cross, Mary was clearly doing the will of Jesus’ heavenly Father, thus proving that she was his mother in the fullest sense. and also proving that she is the Mother of us all.

Sowing Parables in our Hearts

mustardTreeThe eighth chapter of Romans is among the most inspirational passages in all scripture. Paul assures us that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” and that we will be “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” (Rom. 8: 28–29) Lest we think that only some people are predestined for God’s family, Paul asks: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8: 31) If Jesus is interceding for us, what more powerful persecutor is there to speak against us? Do we really want any personal being to veto the advocacy of Jesus? If we are truly stirred by these words, then we must stamp them deep into our hearts and allow them to govern how we view God and how we view other parts of scripture. For today, I suggest using these words to help us understand the parables in Matthew 13.

There is a tendency to interpret these parables separately, treating each as a little gem of wisdom in itself. Each parable is indeed a gem but I think we do well to see how these parables interact with each other. Perhaps we’ll get one great big gem with many facets.

Most of the parables present images of sowing seeds and cultivating plants, a similarity that begs for comparisons. The Parable of the Sower, the Parable of Weeds among the Wheat and the Parable of the Fishnet all deal with sorting the good from the bad. One comes at the beginning of the sequence, one in the middle, one at the end, providing a frame for the set. Sorting good from bad seems to be a good thing to do, but there are some cautions in these parables. The slaves of the household want to pull out the weeds sown among the wheat but the householder says that we can’t differentiate well enough to do this sorting without pulling out a lot of good stuff. And what about the seed that falls on bad soil or among the thorns? Are they bad seeds because they got tossed on the wrong places? Are these seeds just cast away? And do the fishers sorting fish caught in the net really want any fish to be so bad that they have to throw them away? Does God, who did not withhold his only son, want the angels to throw anybody away? (Rom. 8: 32)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Mustard Plant gives us pause. When we take the parable in isolation, we assume the mustard plant is a great good thing, a sign of God’s kingdom. But many farmers consider it a weed and try to get rid of it, although the farmers hired by Grey Poupon Dijon seem to want it. Maybe it is precisely because the mustard plant, “the greatest of shrubs,” is a weed, or in any case not an impressive plant, that it is a sign of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was treated like an unwanted weed that was pulled up by the roots and thrown away. And yet this weed popped back up and grew until birds could nest in its branches. This weedy shrub continues to shelter many others who are elsewhere treated like weeds.

How did we get into the habit of treating some (many) people like weeds? René Girard suggests that it happened at the dawn of humanity when social tensions were most successfully resolved (in the short run anyway) through everybody ganging up on a victim or a group of victims. That is, somebody was weeded out. When Jesus let the people of his day weed him out, he revealed the truth of what we have been doing all these millennia. So who planted the mustard seed? Looks like the work of God.

In the other two parables, Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field and a pearl, both so valuable as to be worth selling everything to buy them. The large family that Paul says God is gathering everybody into would surely be the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, worth everything we have. But are these treasures worth giving up our desire to weed out the people we don’t like, or hoping God will do it for us? That is the route to weeping and gnashing of teeth. Or will we embrace the priceless pearl that puts us in embrace with everybody else? That would give our culture a makeover, maybe like the small measure of yeast that transforms the bread. Paul concludes his inspirational chapter: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If that is so, than no number of weeds in our lives can separate us from God.

For an introduction to René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

The Common Ministry of Peter and Paul

220px-Greco,_El_-_Sts_Peter_and_PaulMuch has been said about the conflicts between Saints Peter and Paul. I have commented on them myself. However, whatever their conflicts, they were martyred in Rome at roughly the same time and that is one of the reasons they are celebrated together in one Feast. Let us see if they have more in common

Both Peter and Paul were penitents. Peter betrayed Jesus by denying that he knew him when pressured by the people in the high priest’s courtyard. Paul approved of the stoning of Stephen and persecuted the Christians. Peter heard the cock crow and he wept. Paul head a voice asking him: “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Both came to know themselves to be profoundly forgiven sinners. How do we know this? Both preached God’s forgiveness to others.

When. at Pentecost, Peter confronted the people with the truth of what they did in Jerusalem forty days earlier, that they handed an innocent man over to death on the cross, they “were cut to the heart” and asked how they could be saved. Peter’s reply was: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2: 38) Peter was announcing both the truth of what the people had done and the forgiveness of God for what they had done.

In his epistle to the Romans, Paul wrote: “Therefore we have been buried with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6: 4) This is Paul’s more complex way of saying that repentance and baptism bring us forgiveness of our participation in the death of Christ so as to be free to rise with Christ and live new lives in Christ.

In the First Epistle attributed to Peter, the author cites the forgiving example of Christ: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” (1 Pet. 2: 23) It is troubling that Peter is speaking specifically to slaves but we should note that the masters are not being upheld as good examples of anything. Later in the Epistle, Peter says to everybody: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.” (1 Pet. 3: 8–9) The forgiving example of Christ should be followed by everybody. (Could one follow this admonition and still be a slave master?)

Likewise Paul makes the identical admonitions when writing to the Romans: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” and “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12: 14, 19–21) Lofty words but there is a troublesome sting to them. It should be noted, though, that vengeance is indeed God’s prerogative. The teachings on the part of both Paul and Peter raise the questions as to whether God actually uses that prerogative. The burning coals in the quote from Proverbs are also troubling, but sometimes an undeserved act of kindness has that effect.

What we can celebrate today on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul is their united front in preaching the forgiveness of the Risen Victim which we must both receive and give to others.

On Sacrificing a Cup of Water

sacrifice of IsaacWhen the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac was first told to me in Sunday school, the teacher prefaced the story by saying that in biblical times there were people who made sacrifices to “god” and some people even sacrificed their own children, but God decided to teach Abraham that he should not do that. The story was troubling but it was comforting to know that God did not want such an awful thing. Between that and being told around the same time the story about Jesus inviting the children to come to him did much to instill in me a trust in God as deeply loving from an early age. Since then, I’ve come across many learned scholars who think such an interpretation of the Isaac story is simplistic. Who’s right?

Christian exegetes in the early Christian centuries softened the story to some extent through a Christological interpretation where Isaac is an antitype of Christ, the Son who was willing to lay down his life. Such an understanding continued in folk tradition where the English Miracle plays dramatized the story of a pleading child wondering if he really was that naughty and then becoming reconciled to his fate.

Such an approach is still troubling but it makes some effort to draw back from the notion of an violent and arbitrary “god” who really would make such a command to Abraham. Unfortunately, later medieval and Reformation theologians shifted the emphasis back to Abraham and his anguished “obedience.” Such an emphasis falls deeply into the tragic pitfall of a sacrificial atonement. While even St. Anselm, who set in motion this theological tendency, still emphasized the Son’s love of humanity in laying down his life, Luther and Calvin emphasized the Father’s sacrifice of his Son with severe violence with the Father taking his anger over human sin out on his Son. Martin Luther, for example was very stern in saying that in no way was it legitimate for Abraham (or us) to question what God orders, no matter how unethical the command. In Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author calls this kind of obedience “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” Many think Kierkegaard supported that position but in fact, this suspension of the ethical is not faith. Abraham is a “knight of faith” because he does not kill his son but receives him back from God. This treatise then is actually Kierkegaard’s first salvo in dismantling a sacrificial understanding of atonement such as Luther’s. The highly convoluted arguments of this book end up in roughly the same place as my Sunday School teacher.

The French thinker René Girard is very helpful in helping us deal with this troubling story. He theorizes that since the dawn of humanity, societies have dealt with systemic conflict through uniting against a victim who is blamed for the crisis. This initial act of mob violence, repeated time and again was institutionalized into rites of sacrifice. Children were frequently among the victims. The Maya, for example, thought that the children’s tears would bring much-needed rain. This social factor is a startling contrast to the narrative of Abraham where he and Isaac are alone save for a pair of servants. Girard would have us see Abraham’s dilemma in terms of his surrounding culture where everybody else was sacrificing their children so that it seemed the religious thing to do. For Girard, God breaks through the collective so that Abraham, as an individual hears God’s true desire, not as an individual genius, but as a human related both to God and to Isaac and the many offspring in faith that he would beget through Isaac. So Girard also agrees with my Sunday school teacher.

When Paul says: “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Rom 6: 12) we tend to understand these words as lone individuals each struggling against our sinful hangups. But for Paul, the dominion of sin is the human culture that perpetuates itself through collective murder and sacrifice. This is the Gospel story Paul preached: not a story about individuals who sin, but a society that swarms with violent passion in troubled times. Such as our own time. This is why the end of sin is death. Literally.

Before the movers and shakers and the crowd coalesced to put Jesus to death, Jesus told us that; “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Mt. 10: 42) Simple. It doesn’t take a professor with several degrees to understand it. And yet, the “little ones,” not just children but vulnerable people in many inner cities, do not get a cup of water that is not dangerously contaminated. Flint, Michigan is everywhere. This is the power of sin’s dominion that holds society in thrall. Jesus is telling us, as God told Abraham, that we should not sacrifice our “little ones,” but we should nurture them. Like Abraham, we have to move out of the crowd that continues to sacrifice children and then regather with those who will bring drinkable water to those who need it. My Sunday school teacher got it right.

See also: Abraham out on Highway 61

For an extensive discussion on the story, including the quote from Martin Luther, see:

Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, Proper 8, Year A

For an introduction to René Girard, see: Violence and the Kingdom of God

and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

 

The Holy Spirit as a Divine Person who Inspires and Fosters Love

White_Doves_at_the_Blue_Mosque_(5778806606)The Holy Spirit is the most obscure of the three Persons of the Trinity, not that the other Persons aren’t mysterious as well. One reason is that the Son is said to show the Father, and the Holy Spirit is said to show the Son, but that leaves nobody to show the Holy Spirit. So obscure is the Holy Spirit that it is difficult to think of the Holy Spirit as a Person at all. It is not uncommon to hear the Holy Spirit referred to as “it,” although both masculine and feminine pronouns also fall far short of the Holy Spirit’s personhood.

It is easier to sense some personhood for the Father and the Son because their relationship is defined by filiation, that is, the Father begetting the Son has a personal analogy in human experience. But the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the other Divine Persons is through spiration, that is breathing. We think of breath as a human function rather than a person in his or her own right. The Holy Spirit is often called the “Bond of Love” between the Father and the Son. This is a beautiful phrase but again, it doesn’t give the Holy Spirit a personality. If we say two people are bonded in love, we think of the bond as something between the two people, not a third person.

Since it is a sure thing that the Holy Spirit is a Person, however obscure, and however mysterious, then perhaps we can take these rather impersonal images and analogies and personalize them.

The Holy Spirit as breath, the Person spirated, or breathed, by the Father and the Son is associated with inspiration. The Holy Spirits’s inspiration in its gentler form is symbolized by a dove in scripture, most importantly at Jesus’ baptism, where the image accompanies the heavenly voice acclaiming Jesus as the Son of the heavenly Abba. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appears as flames of fire inspiring the disciples to preach in the languages of the pilgrims from foreign countries. In all this, we have, again, impersonal images, except insofar as birds can show some elements of personality. In all this, however, we can see the Holy Spirit revealed as a Divine Person who inspires and energizes. In fact, the Holy Spirit inspires by distributing various gifts to various people, enhancing both the individuality of people and our connectedness as we exchange these inspired gifts to each other. Through this exchange of gifts, we can inspire others with our insights and enthusiasms. We can think of the inspiring teachers and preachers who have energized us to spread that same enthusiasm and inspiration to others. This is what the Holy Spirit does.

The Holy Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and the Son can also be understood in a personal way. That is, the Holy Spirit is a Person who actively encourages love between other people. Humans can act as such a bond of love. Friar Lawrence plays such a role in Romeo and Juliette. In South Pacific, Bloody Mary encourages the love between Col. Talbot and the Polynesian woman in the song “Happy Talk,” while Col. Talbot himself struggles with his racist heritage in “Carefully Taught.” As these go-betweens try to help lovers overcome obstacles (scandals), so the Holy Spirit encourages all of us to overcome all obstacles to loving relationships.

In the Upper Room, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the apostles and then commissions them to spread forgiveness to other people. (Jn. 20: 23) (I don’t think Jesus wants us to retain the sins of others.) Here we have the Holy Spirit as the Person who inspires, encourages, forgives, and reconciles. In all of these acts, the Holy Spirit remains hidden, showing other people to us and us to other people. At the same time, the Holy Spirit shows us the Son in other people and shows the Son in us to others. If we wish to really honor and celebrate the Holy Spirit, we, too, will go and inspire, encourage, forgive, and reconcile others.

The Still Small Voice of the Good Shepherd

lambsThe Good Shepherd is a reassuring image. The shepherd is in charge and the sheep follow the shepherd’s guidance. When thieves and robbers and wolves come to threaten the sheep, the shepherd deals with them in no uncertain terms. Jesus’ claim to be the gate, the way in and out of the fold, gives us another reassuring image: some of us are in and certain other people are out, just the way it should be.

But in my reflections on John 10 from a year ago, I noted that the Good Shepherd is the Lamb of God who lays down his life for the sheep. With this realization, the hierarchical picture breaks down. The Good Shepherd is not above the sheep but is one of the sheep. Whereas even the most compassionate and conscientious shepherds end up eating or sacrificing the sheep, Jesus shares the fate of the sheep by becoming the Paschal Lamb in place of the sheep.

The Lamb of God is also an odd gate. Rather than keeping the lambs inside, he leads the lambs in and out with so much movement that the idea of there being a gated sheepfold ceases to make sense. Rather than keeping the bandits and robbers away, Jesus lays down his life for the flock when the bandits attack. If Jesus is the gate, than his willingness to lay down his life is the way in to this abundant pasture for all who would join his flock.

In an essay on the Eucharistic Christ, James Alison explores these paradoxes with great insight. After taking us through stages where we fixate on the bad shepherds and feel righteous about identifying and hating them, Alison takes us to a stage where the fixations fall away:

There is no definitive inside and outside for the Good Shepherd, there are places of shelter and of feeding, different places to which the door gives access, and which presuppose movement, non-fixity, and confidence in being neither in nor out. It is assumed that the best feeding place might not be one that seems to be “in,” yet the good shepherd is able to make that place available to his sheep.

The mixup that Alison envisages reaches the point where we are all sheep and all wolves, not in a negative sense where each of us supposedly good people find the wolf within, but rather a recreation of abundant life where nobody needs to be a sheep who is devoured or sacrificed or a wolf who does the devouring and sacrificing. This is where our baptism into the death of Jesus leads us further into the abundant life of Jesus.

It is in the space of this abundant life that we hear the true voice of the Good Shepherd as the Lamb of God, which Alison suggests is the still small voice that Elijah heard in the wilderness. When we hear this still small voice, the strident voices of bandits are drowned out and our own voices can take on the same stillness that others need to hear.

The Shaken Empty Tomb

lightingEasterFire (2)Matthew says there was an earthquake when the angel of the Lord came down, rolled away the stone of an empty tomb and sat on it. Both the earthquake and the empty tomb give us apt images for the way we experience Easter this year.

An earthquake turns the world turned topsy-turvy in a short time and that is exactly what the COVID-19 pandemic has done. Suddenly everything is out of place. Church, the place of refuge in hard times has become a place of danger. Schools are empty. Community is suddenly located on the Internet where social critics have said it is conspicuously absent.

The earthquake has Eastertide, like the tomb, feeling empty this year. The boisterous celebrations with trumpets and choirs aren’t happening. Here at the abbey, we celebrate the Easter Vigil the way we usually do except for simplifying the lighting of the Easter fire and the procession. But we usually have a lot of people join us for the liturgy and this year nobody can come. The church will feel empty. We usually have a party after the Easter Vigil. This year we will not because there is nobody to have a party with.

At Easter, we usually skip the empty tomb and jump to celebrate Jesus’ being raised to life, which is quite a lot to be excited about. The empty tomb is mentioned in all four Gospels but it seems beside the point when Jesus is walking around, still bearing the wounds of his crucifixion yet very much alive.

The earthquake and the empty tomb go together. An earthquake shakes everything up, leaving us with a lot of empty space. And that’s what the empty tomb is: an empty space where the body of Jesus was supposed to be. Since, in Matthew’s Gospel, the angel wastes no time in telling the women that Jesus is risen and the women run into Jesus himself almost immediately on their way to tell the disciples, we are not given time to reflect on the empty tomb. The other evangelists, especially John, give us more time for this.

But let’s linger at the empty tomb just a bit in this time of loss and fear of more loss. The empty tomb is a hole in the Resurrection. How can the Resurrection have a hole in it? Isn’t the Resurrection about the fullness of life? But emptiness and fullness go together when it comes to the spiritual life. We go through life with gnawing desires that can’t be filled and sometimes shouldn’t be. Usually we don’t even realize it. If we stop and reflect, the emptiness stares us in the face. That is why many prefer not to stop and reflect.

When an earthquake like the pandemic strikes, we are so shaken up that it is very hard to avoid thinking about what really matters in life and what doesn’t. Things important yesterday aren’t so important today. The disciples thought they knew Jesus pretty well but when Jesus allowed himself to be handed over to the Jewish and Roman authorities and be crucified by them, they weren’t so sure they knew Jesus after all. Wasn’t he the one who was going to redeem Israel? Doesn’t look like he’s done that.

The earthquake and the empty tomb give us the space to empty out our preconceptions about Jesus, and what it means for Jesus to reveal God to us. One of the preconceptions is the need to organize society around who is “in” and who is “out.” Jesus was cast out of the city and crucified so that society could come together in his absence. But Jesus’ absence, the empty tomb, becomes the center. And in this empty center, Jesus comes to greet us and to tell us not to be afraid. Strange words to hear in the midst of a frightening earthquake and in an empty tomb. Can we hear these words? Can we empty ourselves enough to let the greeting of Jesus fill us with a new life that is beyond our understanding, a new life that will transform the crisis of today and the crises we will face in the future?

A Season for Sacrifice

crossRedVeil1Lent is the season when we think of making sacrifices, usually small ones, like giving up a pleasure or two. This Lent, we have been called upon to make many large sacrifices because of the COVID-19 virus. The social distancing needed to slow the spread of the disease entails giving up many very good things that we take for granted. I can’t even go out and get a haircut when I need one. The disappointments through canceled events are many. For me, it’s a concert I was looking forward to and, more disappointing, a speaking engagement where I was going to present a paper I had worked on for many hours. I’m sure many others have had greater disappointments than that. It must be hard, for example for children not to be able to play freely with their friends and to be separated from grandparents. One of the greatest renunciations for committed Christians is, ironically, Church. Usually, going to Church is something one increases during Lent, but the social distancing called for right now has worshipers staying home and making do with online services. I would think this would make worship a self-emptying process as the familiar sacred space and the people one is usually with would not be there except on a computer screen.

We do not necessarily choose to give up these things. When concerts are cancelled, for example, one doesn’t have the option of going. Bishops around the country ordered the cancellation of in-person services before most state governors had issued executive orders. The only choice is to be a reasonably good sport about it. Or not. We may grieve the things we lose during this time, but we can take comfort in the assurance that these renunciations are saving lives, maybe even one’s own. Thinking of others in this way lightens the load that comes of focusing on our own losses. Greater than the sacrifices of social distancing are the sacrifices of those who are risking their health and possibly their lives to serve others during this time. Medical workers top the list. True, these people entered these professions expecting to make sacrifices for others, even if not in so intense a fashion. But people stocking shelves in grocery stores or working elsewhere in the food chain are also risking themselves and these are not jobs one normally expects to be so risky. Then there are those who lay down their lives. One example I’ve heard of is a priest in Bergamo. His parishioners had bought a lung ventilator for him, but he gave it to a younger man who was dying. Not even his body was recovered in the midst of the mass burials.

In such times of stress, there are some who opportunistically seek to profit instead. The selling of needed medical equipment for many times their wealth is a tragic example of this. There is also talk about sacrificing human lives to save the economy, a notion that makes The Economy loom like a deity requiring sacrifices. I don’t mean to minimize the economic impact of the COVID-19 virus and the need for careful balancing of economic peril with that of the disease. I am calling for a deep concern for the lives of all people. In all this, there is the fundamental choice of whether we will make sacrifices of ourselves as needed or will prefer to sacrifice other people. This is a fundamental choice we face all the time, but the current crisis adds urgency to it.

The Great Sacrifice of Jesus who died on the cross makes it quite clear that God is in the business of self-sacrifice and is certainly not a deity that requires sacrifices of others. And yet, as our model, self-sacrifice is what is asked of us because of what Jesus did for us and continues to for us all the time. During this season, we are reminded of those who made a sacrifice of Jesus, oblivious of the sacrifice Jesus was making for us and even for them, if they could accept it. The love that motivates Jesus is awesome, beyond our comprehension. If we even begin to tap in to this love, we come to see for ourselves that it is the way, not to glory, but the way of glory.