God’s Economy

Money comes up in the Gospels more frequently than one might expect for writings that are supposed to be “spiritual.” Just last week’s Gospel featured a parable about financial mismanagement on the part of a roguish manager. The Gospel before that included a short parable about a lost coin. Maybe that wasn’t mismanagement, but just carelessness. Sandwiched between those parables was a parable of a son who asked for his share of the inheritance and then lost it all, another case of financial mismanagement. Money and wealth come up yet again today in the parable of the Rich Man and the beggar Lazarus. Since the Rich Man was successful with money, one might think that mismanagement wasn’t his problem, but maybe his wealth itself was the problem. The roguish manager, after all, ameliorated his circumstances by reducing the debts of his master’s clients, which made him more generous than his master, and much more generous than the Rich Man who ignored the poor man at his gate. Actually, the Rich Man didn’t ignore the beggar altogether. After all, he recognized him resting in the bosom of Abraham and apparently was used to giving the beggar orders without giving him anything in return. If so, not paying his errand boy would indeed be a misuse of financial resources.

The writer of the First Epistle to Timothy famously says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Tim 6: 10) More dramatically, the author warns that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Amos denounces the wealthy many times, sneering at people who “lie on beds adorned with ivory” and “dine on choice lambs and fattened calves.” (Amos 6: 4,5) Sounds the Rich Man in the parable. In the preceding Parable of the Roguish Manager, Jesus uses the term “dishonest wealth “ several times, suggesting that it is the only kind of wealth there is. That this is so is capped with the warning: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Lk. 16: 9-13)

But isn’t money in itself neutral, and it’s a matter of how we use it? After all, God’s creation is good, meaning that material goods are good as and we only need to use them well. Yes, but how do we use money and material goods well? It is our desires, of course, that distort the use of material goods. Desiring so many butterscotch sundaes that one gets sick is a distortion of desire. But more precisely, it is our desires in relation to other people that tend to get distorted, such as “needing” to have more butterscotch sundaes than somebody else. However, money is not a material good in the sense that wheat and lambs are material goods that one might consume. Money is the medium of exchange that connects us to each other as we negotiate our desires. That is., money itself is created straight out of our desires in relation to other people. Transactions can indeed be fair and charitable exchanges, but they easily degenerate into competitions where we each try to outdo the other.

When being wealthy is an end in itself, as it seemed to be for the rich man who wouldn’t even give Lazarus a scrap from his table, then there is indeed a “great chasm” in our human relationships created by the discrepancy of wealth. The rich man’s placement in Hell is not the act of a vindictive god; it is simply the reality of the rich man’s alienation from humanity, not only from Lazarus’s humanity but from his own as well.

It is true enough that one needs some material goods in order to survive and that normally one needs some money to obtain these goods. The warnings in scripture about money are warnings of a lust for wealth, a lust that destroys human relationships. The author of First Timothy suggests that we be content with the necessities of food and clothing. (1 Tim 6: 8) This sort of contentment and a concern for other people go together. When we are content with what we have, it is not necessary to have more than others. On the contrary, our contentment will make us all the more concerned that others also have enough for their basic necessities. As Jesus stresses time and again in the Gospels, serving God is tantamount to serving other people and God’s creation. That is why it is not possible to serve God and wealth. Only if we stop serving wealth as our master will we serve God through serving God’s people. So, it is indeed the case that our use of money has much to do with spirituality.

On Taking the Lowest Place

Jesus’ parable of the important seats is easy to understand. It’s one of the first parables I learned as a young child in Sunday school. It could easily have come from any of the sitcoms I watched at that age. I can imagine Jackie Gleason barging into a dining hall and rushing for the best seat at the table, followed by his spluttering rage when he’s told he has to sit over in a corner.

In this parable, Jesus shows a profound awareness of social contagion, a phenomenon analyzed with much insight by René Girard. What Girard articulates is our human tendency to receive desires from other people. In the case of the banquet, the more some people want the best places, the more other people will want the best places just because other people want them. If some people think some places are the best and rush for those, then other people will desire those places because other people want them.

One way to get some perspective on this parable is to reflect on the kind of person who rushes for the best seat and the kind of person who holds back. The kind of person who holds back is apt to be more kind than the other, or at least not so unkind. The thing is, reaching the best seat can be a kind of pyrrhic victory. One might have the prestige of being a CEO, the president of the United States, or the center of a social set, but if such a one treats people badly, that person will not be liked or respected on a personal level, even if there is respect for the position. It’s a way of saying one might gain the world and lose one’s soul. One has lost one’s soul to the social contagion that blunts concern for the well-being of other people. In fact, although this parable doesn’t speak of darker alternatives, it is easy to imagine the rush for the highest place resulting in a violent free-for-all. This is what Girard says is likely to have happened at the dawn of humanity, and the free-for-all resulted in everybody converging on a victim. It isn’t easy to escape the power of this social contagion but if one takes notice of Jesus, then one sees an alternative.

To begin with, Jesus is not giving us a social strategy for getting the best place by being laid back. Jesus would have us realize that grabbing one of the best places at a dinner party or pushing for social dominance over others is not where our priority should be. Rather than trying to get the highest place, one should be content with the place one happens to have and do the best one can in that place while attending to the needs of others, which is the best way to be given a higher place due to one’s accomplishment. But there is more.

Jesus didn’t just take a middling place; he took the lowest place. His preaching ministry, for all the acclaim it received from many people, gained the opprobrium of those who thought they had the highest places and wanted to keep them. These people sentenced him to a criminal’s death, death on a cross. That was the lowest place there was in the Roman world at the time. But then Jesus was raised from the dead by his heavenly Abba and raised to his Abbas’s right hand in Heaven which is about as far up as one can go. Such is the Christological level of this parable. Who would have thought that a sitcom scenario could outline the story of our redemption?

For more on René Girard, see Violence and the Kingdom of God, Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim, and Living Together with our Shared Desires.

Mary and Martha Together

This little story of Mary and Martha where Martha does all the work while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus has been interpreted as referring to the relationship between action and contemplation since the early church. In his book Three Studies in Medieval Religious Social Thought Giles Constable has a long essay on the interpretations from Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the late second century through the late Middle Ages. In the Gospel story, there is sone hint of sibling rivalry, especially on Martha’s part. According to Constable’s essay, this rivalry continues through many of the countless interpreters of the story with some arguing that Mary has chosen the “best part” and that the contemplative life is superior while others champion Martha because of her fruitful charitable work.

By and large, though, a preponderance of thinkers over these centuries argue for a complementarity between the two sisters and the ways of life they are said to represent. Sometimes it is a complementarity between different lifestyles, but more usually it is a complementarity within each person. That is, each person should have elements of both Mary and Martha. This embrace of both sisters is called “the mixed life.” It is worth noting that our patron St. Gregory the Great is among the many who affirmed the mixed life, even though he had a personal yearning for the contemplative way.

There is an amusing story from the Desert Monastics that illustrates the need for both sisters. A pilgrim came to a monastery to visit. The monks asked him if he could help with their chores, but the pilgrim said that he had chosen the “better part” of Mary and did not work. Hours passed while this pilgrim spent time in reading and contemplation and finally he became hungry. He asked the monks when dinner was going to be served and was told that the monks had eaten some time ago. The pilgrim asked why he was not invited to eat with them and was told that he didn’t need earthly food because he had chosen the “better part.” I think this pilgrim learned his lesson.

This way of framing the issue of an active way and a contemplative way seems to owe more to the Greek tradition than it does to the Jewish tradition out of which the Gospels emerge. Origen and Clement certainly draw on Greek thought in this matter. However, Jesus was a person who had done many thought-provoking things and said many things that were even more thought-provoking and mysterious. Might a sensitive woman like Mary have felt moved to sit and just listen to Jesus and ponder what he says? This is precisely what Mary, the Mother of Jesus, did when confronted with the mysteries surrounding her son’s birth. (Lk. 2: 19) And then Jesus himself, faced with the mystery of his own unique calling, spent many times alone in prolonged prayer, sitting at the feet of his heavenly Abba so to speak. Jesus and his mother would have seen such prayerful pondering modeled many times in the Psalms, such as: “I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory because your love is better than life,” and “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help.” (Ps. 63: 2–3, 6–7)

Often in his epistles, St. Paul demonstrated the fruits of pondering the mystery of the Christ whom he encountered on the road to Damascus. In Colossians, for example, he says: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Col. 1: 15–16) It wasn’t a matter of logic but one of intuitive contemplation that led Paul to realize that the One who called him out of his persecutory mania was not only the forgiving victim on the Cross but also the One who participated in creating the world, something only God can do. But there is more. Paul’s prayerful pondering brought him to this even deeper insight: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col. 1: 19–20) Paul’s contemplative insight deepened his sense that Jesus was so filled with God as to be God and, more important by far, this God was devoted to a costly reconciliation where he absorbed the rage on the part of Paul as well as that of the rest of us.

Jesus clearly led a mixed life of action and contemplation, and it is noteworthy that his mother, Mary, was held up as a model of the mixed life by many medieval writers, since Mary not only pondered the mystery of her son’s birth but had to take care of him day after day. Paul himself is clearly yet another model of the mixed life. Although we tend to consider St. Gregory’s to be a contemplative monastery, there is much work we all need to do to minister to each other and our numerous guests. With that said, Mary of Bethany had been pretty well knocked off the map since the later Middle Ages until a number of people in recent decades began to realize that their activism needed to be tempered by sitting at the feet of Jesus. It is true enough that we should respond to Jesus by doing as the Good Samaritan did, but we also need to respond to Jesus by taking time to open our hearts in silence to Him as did Mary of Bethany.

Bring Peace to Each House

The mission of Jesus’ seventy disciples in Luke is filled with breathless excitement and peril. There is an urgency to the mission as “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” (Lk. 10: 2) On the other hand, Jesus warns his disciples that he is sending them out “like lambs among wolves.” (Lk. 10: 3).

The tone of the mission is expressed in the phrase: “Peace be to this house.” (:l. 10: 5) This offer of peace makes the disciples vulnerable to the reaction of the members of the house. In the best case scenario, somebody there promotes peace and welcomes the disciples who then accept what hospitality they are given. When peace is offered and accepted, it becomes dynamic throughout the house that has received it as the disciples heal the sick and announce that the Kingdom of God has come near. All this has the flavor of Jesus’ inaugural sermon that announced a new Jubilee. That is, announcing good news to the poor and freeing captives. We can see this missionary journey, then, as Jesus’ disciples spreading the Jubilee throughout the country.

As with Jesus first announcement of the Jubilee, there is no litany of doctrines or list of rules but a spirit of living, like the Spirit that was upon Isaiah and then upon Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. In his mission to Galatia, we see Paul, in his way, proclaiming the same Jubilee of good news to the poor and freedom of the captives. In this case, freedom from the Jewish Law and freedom for Christ. He celebrates this freedom through reconciliation so that anyone who is caught in a sin is restored “gently.” The spirit of this reconciliation is to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6: 2) Perhaps we can see this as the essence of the kingdom that has come near. Although there have been attempts to define the carrying of one another’s burdens, as Charles Williams famously did with his doctrine of substitution, it is best to see the mutual bearing of burdens as a Spirit-filled shape of spreading peace within the house that has received it.

But what about the wolves? Jesus tell the disciples that if a town rejects them, they should wipe off the dust from their feet and move on. (Lk. 10: 11) The wolves don’t seem to have done any real harm. But then Jesus goes on to say that it will be better for Tyre and Sidon than for the towns that rejected the disciples. Far from threatening these towns with divine vengeance, Jesus is actually warning us that the systemic violence embodied by these past cultures is about to be a lot worse in the present. Lots of wolves here. The few households of peace are surrounded by imperial strife and persecution. Paul’s church in Galatia was in this situation and we find ourselves in an even worse maelstrom of social rage. (It will go even worse for Western Civilization than it did to the towns that rejected the disciples.)

Maintaining a sense of peace in the midst of all this turmoil is excruciatingly difficult. We easily become enraged just from reading the news. What if we should actually face these enraged people in real life? It is hard to believe that the disciples had been so successful in their mission, but then if Satan fell from the sky, where else would Satan be now than in the midst of the wolves? This is where we must allow the peace we offered to return back to us and then vent our frustrated anger by dusting off our feet. Otherwise, we are drawn into the surrounding rage and all peace is lost. In the midst of this turmoil, bearing one another’s burdens is a practical way of developing the spirit of Jubilee, all the more so when we are all overburdened by the stress of it all. Bearing each other’s burdens fulfills the Law of Christ because this practice takes us right into the heart of what Jesus did for all of us on the Cross. Our house of peace in the mission of the Seventy seems small and weak, and it is. Paul’s household in Galatia was small and weak, too. But could the oppressive rage around us also mean there is the potential of a plentiful harvest if we can bring peace to others so as to bring the Kingdom of God closer?

Inside the Host

A Eucharistic host is usually small. At my first communion, it was about the size of a nickle and so thin I thought it was a sticker. The host that goes into a monstrance is closer to the size of a silver dollar but it’s still awfully thin. So why put such a small thing into a fancy monstrance? The word comes from the Latin monstrare meaning to show, indicating that a monstrance shows something hidden in the small host. As if the monstrance in itself were not enough, from medieval times up to recent modern times, the host was carried in elaborate processions through public places. Just a few years ago, I witnessed such a procession in Innsbruck that featured prayers given by the city dignitaries and rifle salutes by the Landwehr.

So what’s the big deal? Many religious thinkers not sympathetic to such devotions have asked the question and with a full heap of scorn and have complained of attempts to imprison Christ in a small piece of bread. This accusation misses the point. It isn’t that some evil bishop kidnaped Jesus and locked him up in the piece of bread. Rather, Jesus himself offered himself to us in the bread at the Last Supper. In a mysterious way, the piece of bead has become the Body of Christ. That really is a big deal.

But how can this be? How can a piece of bread ever become the Body of Christ? Jesus did not explain it, which is as good a reason as any for us not to try to explain it either. I personally find attempted explanations along the line of transubstantiation interesting as I savor the paradoxical reasoning of substance and accident becoming at odds with each other, but I have to admit this is more of a puzzle game than an act of devotion. After all, we aren’t saved by a metaphysical formula; we are saved by Jesus. And it is Jesus who invites us into the tiny home that he has made in the host. The very word expands:” “host” as in sacrifice (from hostias) as well as a host who invites us as a guest. (Any host knows that there is some sacrifice in inviting a guest.)

Just the notion of one person being invited by Jesus to an intimate meal as in George Herbert’s celebrated poem Love III would entail quite an expansion of space inside the a Eucharistic host. But there is much more. Jesus invited all twelve of his disciples to his Last Supper and it is possible that many more attended as well. In any case, Jesus invites not just one person, however individual and focused each invitation might be, but a multitude of people to the meal, so the inside of the host is more the size of an infinite banqueting hall. And the meal offered by Jesus has brought in the whole of creation that made the bread on the altar possible to begin with.

But there is much more. Since it is the person of Jesus who invites us in the sacrament, then we are meeting up with the whole person, not an outward persona such as what a maitre D’ in a restaurant would present us with. Besides meeting the person who healed the sick and the crippled, told mysterious parables, and commended the lilies of the field, we are meeting the person who was crucified on account of the social tensions we humans were not able to solve. The tomb in which Jesus was laid would have been a real prison except that it couldn’t hold him and it exploded inside out as Jesus was raised from the dead. So, inside the Eucharistic host, we are meeting the crucified and risen Jesus who is also glorified in Heaven. The inside just keeps on expanding.

There is still more. The crucifixion of Jesus is not an isolated act of one person: it is an act that absorbs every single unjust act of violence committed against every human being for all time. So all of the horrific atrocities we know of and many more are all included with the crucified Jesus inside the Eucharistic Host. This is the reason that the Eucharist has profound social significance. It isn’t just about me and Jesus; it’s about everybody and Jesus and we share with Jesus the suffering of everybody. And yes, there is still more. If every human atrocity is absorbed in the crucifixion which is present in the little host, then all the more is the redemption of the Resurrection present, a presence to raise every unjust act up to God for God to vindicate every injustice. The crucifixion absorbing all crucifixions is dark and unspeakable. It is all the space of infinite nothingness. (It has been asked if there can be poetry after the Holocaust.) The dazzling darkness of the Resurrection is even more unspeakable in its embrace of all crucifixions. This darkness is more infinite than the first. All of this inside a Eucharistic host no matter how small on the outside. Quite a lot to swallow.

The Risen and Ascended Living Interpreter of Scripture

In Luke’s Gospel, the first thing Jesus does after rising from the dead is explain the scriptures to two of his followers on the Road to Emmaus, explaining how it was “necessary” that the Messiah “suffer these things and then enter his glory.” (Lk. 24: 26) The last thing Jesus does before his Ascension is explain the scriptures to the disciples in the same way. Understanding this “necessity” is a tricky business. For whom was it “necessary?” It is ludicrous to suggest that it was “necessary” for God that the Messiah should suffer. On the contrary, Luke, like the other Gospel writers, tells the story of Jesus’ execution on the cross in such a way as to stress the necessity on the part of humans that Jesus die in order to bring “peace” to Jerusalem. The key to understanding the scriptures that Jesus opened his disciples’s minds to is this human necessity that the Messiah (Jesus) die so that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins. . . be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Lk. 24: 47) So what was “necessary” for God? For God the only thing necessary was to raise Jesus from the dead so that he could continue to open our minds to the true meaning of the scriptures as a living interpreter.

Luke’s Gospel and its sequel, Acts, reveals quite clearly the human tendency to solve social problems through collective violence as theorized by René Girard. But these writings also reveal a deeper and much brighter truth about the human potential for sympathy and empathy. This is where Resurrection and Ascension, repentance and forgiveness, all come in. In announcing the Jubilee in his inaugural sermon in Luke, Jesus proclaims a gathering through sympathy and caring rather than through competitive tensions and violence. This new gathering involves freeing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, and setting the oppressed free. (Lk. 4: 18) In his teaching, Jesus makes the words quoted from Isaiah his own in his famous parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. In opening the scriptures to the disciples, Jesus is not only revealing the truth of collective violence but also the human potential for sympathy that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation as taught in these parables. From there, Jesus leads us even deeper into the self-giving love shown on the cross, a love we too may need to embrace. More important by far, Jesus embodies this teaching and revelation in his own act of forgiveness and thus enables the same in each of us.

A dead Messiah wouldn’t be available to enact and enable repentance, forgiveness and costly self-giving. Only a Messiah who is very much alive can do that. This is why Jesus, having been raised from the dead and now ascended into heaven, is seated at the “right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” (Eph. 1: 20–21) The image of all things placed under Jesus’ feet suggests the earthly rulers who use their fallen enemies as a footstool. (Ps. 110: 1) I suspect this is the image the disciples have when they ask Jesus just before the Ascension if now he is “to restore the kingdom to Israel.” (Acts 1: 6) But Jesus, in opening the scriptures to the disciples, has revealed his kingship to be one of sympathy, forgiveness, and compassion; in short a kingship based on the Jubilee proclaimed at the start of his ministry. Rather than thumping his foot on us, Jesus bends down and raises us up to his seat. In revealing his true kingship, Jesus has not only opened up the scriptures to us, but he has opened up the truth of human history as well, a truth more glorious than the “necessary” violence that we think gives life its “meaning.” As the key to scripture and history, Jesus fulfills Paul’s prayer that “the eyes of [our] hearts may be enlightened in order that [we] may know the hope to which he has called [us], the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph. 1: 18–19)

Hearing and Seeing the Good Shepherd

With a bewildering shift, John 10 skips three months and interrupts the Good Shepherd Discourse with Jesus fending urgent inquiries as to whether or not he is the Messiah. (“How long will you keep us in suspense?) (Jn. 10: 24) For all of the intensity of asking, the Jews don’t really seem to be asking. Rather, they seem to have made up their minds that Jesus is not the Messiah. (Prophets don’t come from Galilee. Isn’t that obvious? Just look at the scriptures.)

Jesus then returns to the Good Shepherd theme, saying that those hounding him do not believe in him because they are not of his sheep. His sheep, on the other hand, know his voice and follow him. Are the “Jews” ontologically incapable of believing in Jesus? That doesn’t seem possible, but throughout his Gospel, John is showing us how it is possible to become willfully hard of hearing. This raises the question: Are we equally hard of hearing?

Being able to hear Jesus’ voice has to do with a certain amount of openness to Jesus. It isn’t just a case of being open-minded in general, although that can help. There is a special kind of openness that is required here. The ones who hear Jesus’ voice are the ones who respond to the works Jesus does, the works that testify to who and what he is. This whole Good Shepherd passage follows straight on from Jesus’ healing of the man born blind and the long hostile discussion with the Jews that followed. Those who rejected the miracle are the ones who are blind, but those who see the miracle for what it is, can see with the sharpness of the formerly blind man. These are the sheep who know Jesus’ voice and follow him.

What follows is an extraordinary verse that I admit has slipped by me all these years: “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” (Jn. 210: 29 For Jesus, the sheep who see his acts of healing and hear his voice are the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field worth selling everything for it, including his life. But what of those who do not hear Jesus’ voice, and what of ourselves if we do not hear it? Does Jesus throw the blind and hard of hearing away? But Jesus says here that nobody can snatch this treasure, each and every one of us, out of his hand. Throughout the Gospel, and especially in the story of Jesus’ healing the man born blind and the Good Shepherd discourses, there has been a sharp division between those who see and hear and those who don’t, suggesting the deaf are doomed. Yet here Jesus gives us a pre-echo of his prayer in chapter seventeen that we all might be one. Here we enter a mystery where we do not take seeing and hearing for granted. If we all are going to be one in Jesus, we must all hear deeply the voices of those around us and seek deeply to speak in ways that can be heard in a healing way. Since Jesus himself is the Forgiving Victim, hearing his voice in the voices of other people includes special attention to the voices of oppressed people, the victims of racism and other social evils, learning to hear that whatever racism we hear and see in our hearts, and any oppression we inflict on others victimizes us as much as it does other victims. It is this deep listening, this deep seeing of God’s will to heal our blindness and deafness that will make us all one.

The Gentle Resurrection

Luke’s first Resurrection narrative is the quietest of all four Gospels. Matthew is easily the loudest with an earthquake announcing the event. That’s our idea of Easter! Mark is puzzling and a bit of a cliffhanger with the women running away from the tomb out of fright. That’s still a pretty intense reaction. John is almost as quiet with the women finding the tomb empty before Jesus appears to Mary, but Luke is quieter still. The women are puzzled by the empty tomb and the announcement of the two men in dazzling clothes. They do tell the disciples but the disciples don’t believe them, not just because they are women but because the news is too unbelievable. The narrative ends with Peter looking into the empty tomb, amazed, but scratching his head.

There is an air of suspended reality about all this. Much of it has to do with the shock of grief over the death of a loved one. In the shock of grief, nothing seems real, least of all the absence of the loved one. It’s like the person is there and not there. This isn’t what we think Easter is all about but I would argue that this is the most realistic entry into this stupendous event. We are used to thinking of earth-shaking events as–well–events that shake up the world. But these sorts of events don’t really change the world as they are the same old acts of competition and violence and force that have been with us since Cain killed Abel. If the Resurrection were such an earth-shaking event, it would actually have kept the world going in the same old rut of retaliatory violence. That the Resurrection is so low-key, especially in Luke’s version, shows us that the Resurrection does indeed embody a radical act of non-violence, giving us all the space we need, century after century, the discern why it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners, crucified and then rise from the dead. The necessity for the death was, of course, a human necessity as Caiaphas affirmed. (Jn. 11: 15) The Resurrection, though, is God’s necessity. It was necessary that God raise Jesus to give us an undying life-giving presence for all time. But this presence needed to be totally without violence, i..e. without force of any kind, just as Jesus’ death had to result from renouncing all violence in the face of evil. Not even the earthquake in Matthew forced Jesus’ resurrected life on anybody.

St. Paul writes about being baptized into Christ’s death before rising with him. (Rom. 6: 3) The initial phase of disorientation described by Luke is very much a feeling of death as the world the disciples had been living in had also been rendered unreal, even if the imperial order continued unabated as it always had done. There is a lot more to dying to the old self than giving up our own personal sins. More than that, we need to die to the culture of violence we are immersed in so as to enter the life-giving nonviolence of the resurrected life. Since there is nothing earthshaking about it, nothing to make headlines, it may not seem like much, but to the contrary, embracing the forgiving life is indeed everything.

We may think that nothing has changed when we read about the virulent racism in our own country and around the world. Even worse is the horrific act of violence in Ukraine, which makes headlines, but is really only a repeat of what Rome was doing in Jesus’ time. But something has changed over the centuries. We now have oppressed people throughout the world arising in non-violent protest, including Martin Luther King Jr and William Barber II. We have a world-wide protest against the invasion of Ukraine and many countries doing what they can to help their stricken neighbor. These are all signs of the Resurrection in the midst of the horror and death that Jesus suffered on the Cross. The Resurrection, though, isn’t just about events on a large scale. It is also about small events of love and concern for the well-being of others day after day with the people right next to us—our neighbors.

The Work of a Slave

When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he stressed the importance of what he was doing. Likewise, when he passed the bread and the wine, he stressed the importance of what he was doing. Both acts were to be remembered and done in memory of Jesus. And both are to this day, although the footwashing is not anywhere near as common as the eating and drinking of the bread and wine.

What is it about the footwashing that has put it into a very low second place? Logistics may have something to do with it but a look at its meaning, the sign that Jesus is giving us, probably has a lot more to do with our not even talking about it all that much. In the Greco-Roman world, it was slaves who washed the feet of their masters and their masters’ guests. That Jesus would do the work of a slave must have been shocking at the time and still is, if we consider the implication that imitating Jesus’ act is not confined to literally washing the feet of others but entails acting as a slave to others. Fundamentally, being a slave means to be in the hands of another person. If we are supposed to put ourselves into the hands of others like this, what does this say about trying to enslave another human being? Jesus himself was about to put himself into the hands of others with the result that he would be crucified. If the disciples still remembered the anointing of the feet of Jesus by Mary of Bethany six days ago, that too would have added to their discomfort. This discomfort extends to the parallel versions of this story

The woman ( or women) in the Gospel stories poured out her very substance (the expense of the perfume or oil) in devotion to Jesus. Likewise, Jesus poured out his very self to his disciples in washing their feet just as he was about to pour out his life for all people to put an end to the violence that includes the enslaving of other people. In those Gospel stories, the women were commended as examples of discipleship. If Jesus thought these women were such good examples, it makes sense that Jesus was humble enough to learn from them and do for his disciples what the women had done for him. There is no indication in any variant of the story that the disciples were reconciled to what the women had done. Did Peter take umbrage at Jesus for washing his feet because he associated it with the women as much as he associated it with slavery?

With the bread and wine, Jesus again poured himself into the two elements just as he poured out his life on the cross. So it is that the footwashing and the Eucharist both mean the same thing. We have put up with the Eucharist more than the footwashing because we have been able to sidestep this meaning by arguing about the metaphysics of Jesus’ presence. But the real presence of Jesus is his pouring himself into the hands of others and through them, the hands of his heavenly Abba. Paul knew this very well but we also conveniently forget that the context of his recalling the Last Supper is to upbraid the Corinthians for violating its meaning through denigrating the weaker and poorer members of the assembly.

Jesus rebuked Peter for refusing to have his feet washed, warning him that he would have no share in him. (Jn. 13: 8) This warning converts Peter so powerfully that he goes overboard and asks to be washed all over. He has allowed Jesus to be a slave to him so that he could be a slave to Jesus and all people. This conversion did not prevent him from denying Jesus three times but it allowed him to hear the cock crow and then to affirm his love to the Resurrected Jesus three times. This is what both the footwashing and the Eucharist are all about.

Giving Everything and More

The meal at Bethany served by Martha seems to be an ordinary meal but in reality it is extraordinary. To begin with, John explicitly says that it is six days before Passover. This puts the meal in the context of the most solemn festival of the Jewish year. For another thing, Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead, is present. The imminent offering of the paschal lamb and resurrection are both brought together. Even more extraordinary is the extravagant anointing of Jesus’ feet with precious perfume by Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. Jesus interprets Mary’s action as a preparation for his burial, which he seems to expect is imminent, thus tying his death with the both the Passover and Resurrection. Judas’s protest over this “waste” shows that the hostility against Jesus has reached the inner circle of his disciples.

All four Gospels have a story of a woman who pours expensive ointment or perfume over Jesus, but the differences are striking. Matthew and Mark are very close parallels. Just before the Passover and Jesus’ Passion, an unnamed woman enters the house of Simon the Leper, who lives in Bethany, pours the ointment and dries Jesus’ feet with her hair. The disciples as a group protest the “waste.” This is much the same story as in John except the host is different. (Mt. 26: 6–13), Mk. 14: 3–9) Luke tells the same story except that it is placed much earlier in his Gospel and is not connected to the Passover and the Passion. (Lk. 7: 36–50) That the anonymous woman is called “a sinner” adds a sharp edge to the story. The host is Simon and he is identified as a Pharisee. He grumbles that Jesus should have known the woman was a sinner and elicits a famous parable on sin and repentance. The woman in Matthew and Mark, like the sinful woman in Luke, is so froward with Jesus that she too is considered a loose women if not a sinner. Mary of Bethany in John is more respectable and is a hostess rather than an intruder, which gives the story a very different feel from the other three, but this respectability makes the gesture all the more shocking. Respectable women don’t act this way.

It is intellectually interesting to piece together the symbolism in John and the relationships between the four versions of the story. If we let all of this seep deeply into us, it can be quite spiritually stimulating. But what really connects the women in all four versions is the extravagance of the woman which is warmly commended by Jesus. Even if we are shocked by these women (or woman), we should be even more shocked at ourselves over how little we care about Jesus. Are we like Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his table but showed no affection? Are we like the apostles who complained about the waste? To this day, we tend to look down on this woman, thinking the worst of her, when Jesus would have us look up to her as an example of apostolic zeal. It is worth noting that in Luke Mary of Bethany is the one who sits at the feet of Jesus listening to this teaching while Martha (as in John) serves the meal. Here, Mary of Bethany shows her ardor but in a more contemplative way.

Isaiah proclaims God’s promise to “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” In this generosity, God is pouring Godself out as extravagantly as the women with the ointments, and surely God does need see this extravagance as“wasteful.” (Is. 43: 19–21) When Paul writes to the Philippians that he is pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” his words gush out like ointment flowing out of control. (Phil. 3: 12–14) Bob Dylan expresses this gush in his song “Pressing on” which repeats these words over and over with greater and greater intensity that becomes overwhelming.

The women and Paul return the overflowing love of God back to God while the rest of us sit back and grumble at the unseemliness of it all. Do we not realize that the women who let their hair down and gush out their love for Jesus will also gush out that same commitment to Jesus who is present in the poor? Meanwhile, the complaining disciples, and especially Judas, don’t really mean to help the poor or anybody else. More importantly, do we not realize that on the Cross, Jesus’ blood will pour forth as did the ointment poured over him? It isn’t that all of us have to be as emotional as these women and Paul, but we do need to be as deeply committed to Jesus so as approach the deep commitment Jesus shows to us. We should take to heart Leonard Bernstein’s directions to a choir and orchestra: “Give me everything you’ve got, and then a crescendo.”