John the Baptist: A transitional Figure

220px-John_the_Baptist_Prokopiy_ChirinAlthough John burned with a conviction that God was going to do something new, he had only the models of past prophets to guide him in opening a way to the great new thing. He lived in the desert, wore a camel hair coat and ate wild locusts and honey in imitation of Elijah. Like the prophets of the past, he warned the brood of vipers of the wrath to come if people did not shape up and turn back to God. (Lk. 3: 7) Again like the prophets, he told soldiers not to oppress vulnerable people. Yet again like the prophets, he rebuked his ruler, Herod. And like so many of the prophets, he was put to death.

In John’s time, baptism was established as a custom for cleansing converts. John gave it a new twist by insisting that his fellow Jews needed to be converted as much as the Gentiles and so were in need of being baptized. This was a prophetic action to dramatize God’s word. Today we call it guerilla theater. The teaching dramatized in this novel way was traditional: the people should return to the Lord who will purify them of their sins.

John defined himself through the words of Isaiah by quoting Isaiah’s prophecy of a new pathway of the Lord. (Is. 40: 3) The pathway through the desert that Isaiah was prophesying was for the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem, a great new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time. In quoting these words, John was announcing that God was going to do yet another new thing, something God had never done before.

For John, this new thing was focused on a person who was to come. John believed that Jesus was this person when he came to the river. But John was confused about him, and not for the last time, when Jesus insisted on being baptized although John thought Jesus was the one person who didn’t need it.

When he was in prison by order of King Herod, John had doubts about Jesus and he sent two followers to ask Jesus if he was the one he was expecting. It seems odd that the healing miracles John’s disciples had just reported should cause doubts, but a ministry of healing was beyond the scope of John’s own ministry. Typically, Jesus did not answer the question, but pointed to his healings and said “ blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Lk. 7: 23) Given the fiery rhetoric of John’s own preaching, the sentiments of the Sermon on the Mount may also have been confusing to John.

John knew that his prophetic ministry was fading. In such a situation, most people fight back and try to regain the upper hand. René Girard suggests in The Scapegoat that John denounced Herod’s marriage not so much on legal grounds but because of the rivalrous action of taking his brother’s wife. This realization would have made John all the more cautious about rivalry on his own part and caused him to take Jesus’ admonition to avoid offense to heart, as offense is the spark that flames rivalry. John managed to renounce rivalrous behavior to the extent of saying that Jesus would increase while John would decrease. But did John know what he was renouncing rivalry for? Did John ever get an inkling that the greatest new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time was not returning the exiles to Jerusalem but raising up a person who accepted disgrace, torment and possibly death without retaliating in any way? On reflecting on Jesus’ insistence that he be baptized, did John finally realize that Jesus was taking on the sins of the people as did Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, which would make Jesus the “lamb of God?” Most Bible scholars think it unlikely that John arrived at these insights and they think the evangelists wrote them into the narrative to elucidate John’s place in relation to Jesus. Maybe. But John obviously thought long and hard about his own vocation in relation to Jesus and he was outspoken enough to cry out glimpses of insight he still did not understand.

In our time we may think we know what John was pointing to even when John didn’t, but we do well to ponder why, in her infinite wisdom, the Church gives us a liturgical year that begins with Advent where John the Baptist is prominent. Why have a season to look forward to what we know we are looking forward to? Maybe we are more in the dark about what it means for Jesus to be the Lamb of God than we think we are. Maybe we still don’t really know what great new thing God has done and what greater thing God will do. Maybe we have a lot more to look forward to than we know.

Giving Thanks to God

wineTableFeast1Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Phil. 4:6) (All Bible quotes are from the NRSV)

When James says in his Epistle: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17) he is suggesting that giving is of the very essence of God, and that every act of giving participates in God’s own generosity. When Jesus sites the lilies of the field as a counsel not to worry about our material needs, Jesus is assuring us that the heavenly Father knows we have these needs and that He will fulfill them.
However, the prayer and supplication we are encouraged to make should be made with thanksgiving. It is not just a matter of being grateful for what we have already received; we should be thankful in the act of asking. Usually, we prefer to wait until a request has been granted before thanking the donor. Here, however, we are expected to thank the donor in advance. This can be taken as an expression of confidence that the request will be granted in precisely the way we asked for it. However, thanksgiving in advance could just as well be gratitude for whatever is given us in whatever way it is given. In short, gratitude is an ongoing attitude that motivates us to make requests of God, but it is also an attitude that permeates these requests.
When Jesus tells us not to worry about what we are to wear or what we will eat, Jesus says that “it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” (Mt. 6:32) The key word here is “strive.” It is one thing to need certain things in life and quite another to strive for them. Striving after goods is the quickest way to lose any sense of thanksgiving.
The warning Moses gives the people when they are about to enter the Promised Land is cautions us against one of the ways we strive after goods: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Deut. 8:12-14) The way we might exult ourselves is to think that: “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deut. 8:17) This blatantly false supposition shows the Israelites striving for the Promised Land when they are meant to receive it. When we think that we have earned what we have received, then we feel no gratitude for it. When we think we had something coming to us, there is nobody to thank for it but ourselves. We don’t write a thank you note to our boss for paying our salary. Likewise, if we feel that God owes us what God gives us as the just payment for the prayers we have given or for other acts of service we have performed for the sake of God’s Kingdom, then we don’t thank God for it. On the contrary, if “the wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, olive trees and honey” fall short of our standards, we complain to God about it. It is important, then, to realize that a covenant between God and humanity it is not a contract where God gives us a pre-established “salary” for what we do for God. Rather, a covenant sets in motion a circle of giving. We give free gifts to God and God gives free gifts to us.
At St. Gregory’s, we don’t earn money from the monastery by washing the dishes or setting up tables. We do the work as a free gift to the monastery. However, the members of the community are fed because they are members of the community. Nobody calculates whether or not a monk has enough “work credits” to qualify for coming to supper. Likewise, we do not charge for praying for people in their needs, just as we do not charge for the Abbey Letter and we do not charge our guests for staying with us. They are guests, not customers. We depend on the free gifts given us by people who are willing to support what we do because they think it is worth doing. The point is, these gifts are is not contracted payments for any services we may have given or prayers we have offered.
Jesus’ counsel that we not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own,” (Mt. 6: 34) is also vital to an attitude of thanksgiving. When we are thankful, we are focusing on what we already have rather than on what we do not have. More important, when we are thankful, we are content with what we have. On the other hand, when we strive for what we do not have, we are focused on what we lack and so we do not even think about what we have already, let alone give thanks for it. This attitude is also important in our human relationships as well. When we are thankful for what the people in our lives do for us and for what they mean to us, we are content with them as they are, even if we know that there is room for them to grow in virtue and goodness. Striving to change other people becomes a contest against that very person. If we succeed in reforming another, it is seen as a victory over that person. Being content with the other person as that person is in the present can become complacency, but it is also a condition with great potential for encouraging a person to change.
Contentment with what we have does not deny the intrinsic value of those goods we desire but do not have already. It only means that we can be patient about what we do not have because we appreciate the intrinsic value of what we have already. This is the key to “making supplications” with thanksgiving. This does not mean that we pray with thankful hearts because we assume we are going to get what we want when we want it. Rather, this is a matter of praying out of contentment in the present that only worries that “today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Jesus gives us the true focus for gratitude when he goes on to admonish us to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt. 6:33) Note that the word “strive” is used again here to show us that striving in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. What matters is the objective of our striving. If we strive for God’s kingdom, then we do not strive for “all these things” like the “Gentiles.” Striving for God’s kingdom, of course, entails striving to provide the needs and wants of other people, i.e. being “doers of the word” rather than hearers only. When we strive for God’s kingdom, it becomes immediately apparent that our efforts cannot earn the good we are striving for. Our efforts fall far short and we can only receive God’s kingdom as a gift. When we know that we cannot earn the kingdom, then we don’t require other people to earn it either. We become free of worry over whether or not the widows and orphans are worthy of the aid we give them and, likewise, we become free from the need to grumble like the workers in the vineyard who didn’t like it when the master was generous with his money to other people. This freedom from worry encourages us to become more open-handed and open-hearted towards other people in their needs. The more we open our hands and hearts to others, the more we receive to be thankful for.

God’s Kingdom in Two Small Coins

widow's miteThe widow who put “two small copper coins” in the temple treasury, all she had to live on, (Mk. 12: 42) has been held up by many preachers as a touching example of heart-warming generosity. Those of us who have come to notice the social and economic issues in the Gospels have seen some concerns that are rather chilling.

Highly troubling are the preceding verses where Jesus denounces the scribes who “devour widows’ houses.” The scribes of today wear state-of-the-art business suits, sit on prestigious boards, and make a great display of their almsgiving after defrauding vulnerable people with such practices as predatory loans. Although using economic power to defraud the vulnerable is not the same thing as passively receiving a penny from a poor widow, the juxtaposition of these references to widows raises questions. The questions become more worrisome when we recall how the prophets denounced those who oppressed widows and orphans almost every time they spoke out on social issues.

The very next verse on the other side of the story of the widow and her two coins raises even more urgent questions. In response to a disciple’s commenting on the great stones of the temple, Jesus says: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mk. 13: 1) This suggests that the poor widow is giving her last two coins for a bad cause. The Epistle to the Hebrews drives home this point when he says: “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” (Heb. 9: 24) Jesus himself has become the Temple and there is no need for any other.

Is this poor widow a bad example, then? By no means. This poor widow reminds us of the widow who gave Elijah some of the last grains of meal that she had after which she expected to die with her son. (1 Kings 17: 12) Moreover, the poor widow’s generosity in giving everything she had echoes the story of the rich man who was also asked to give everything but went away sad because of his great wealth. Since giving everything is a sign of the Kingdom of God, the poor widow is a sign of the Kingdom while the rich man who went away sad and the rich who contributed lavishly to the temple treasury are not. On the other hand, the woman who poured a jar of ointment over Jesus’ head (Mk. 14: 3–9) was also giving most, if not all, she had. Another sign of the Kingdom.

The matter of a bad cause reminds us that generosity is required of those who depend on alms. We must be good causes. In a time when many “scribes” of today create charitable scams, it is important to use charity money in a charitable way. I feel this responsibility as a member of a monastic community as I remember where the money we spend comes from.

The Jar of meal from which the widow baked a cake for Elijah did not run out in spite of the long famine. Jesus, who also gave all of himself on the Cross, rose to new life, a new life of endless abundance that the widow who gave two small coins surely shares along with the woman who poured out a jar of oil over Jesus’ head. Will we be signs of God’s Kingdom like these two women?

The Eleventh Commandment

monksinChoir1The rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life and then walked away grieving when Jesus told him to sell all that he owned (Mk. 10: 21) is a warning to all of us, rich or poor. Jesus’ added warning that it “is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” only makes the warning all the more dire. Paul strengthens the warning further when he tells Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” (1 Tim. 6: 10) Bucking these warnings is our formation from earliest childhood that money is both good and necessary and more of it is always better than less.

Money is not an individual matter; money is a system. It has to be if it’s going to be a medium of exchange. As a system, money gains power over all of us who use it. This is a power that easily distorts the moral conscience. In this regard, it is telling that in the commandments Jesus lists to the rich man, all are from the Ten Commandments except “You shall not defraud.” (Mk. 10: 19) Perhaps this is an eleventh commandment, or perhaps it is a version of: “You shall not covet.” (Ex. 20: 17) The more power money gains over us, the more likely it is that we will defraud others in order to get more of it. Indeed, most rich people in Palestine gained their wealth at the expense of poor farmers during hard times. Amos denounces those who “ trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain.” (Am. 5: 11) Such people turn “justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground.” (Am. 5: 7) Here we see courts of justice and the spoken word brought in with oppression of the poor as one knotted system.

The thought of the French thinker René Girard demonstrates that economic systems, like other interlocking social systems, are part of an all-pervasive system generated by what Girard called “mimetic desire.” That is, when one person wants something, other people are more apt to want it. The more somebody wants something, the more other people want it, not because of the intrinsic vale of whatever is valued but because something is valued. The interlocking of shared desires permeates society, making society a more tightly knotted system than the economical one. This is what the tenth commandment not to covet is all about. Jesus’ eleventh commandment deepens the tenth: you shall not steal what you covet because you have the social and economic power to do so. Coveting is not a vice only for the rich. I am among those who are seriously offended by what some preachers call “the Prosperity Gospel,” which seems to contradict Jesus’ words to the Rich Man. Somewhere (sorry, I can’t remember where), I read that many people who are attracted to the “Prosperity Gospel” are not rich but poor. In mimetic desire, other people model desires for other people. That is, other people tell me and show me what to desire. In the case of the “Prosperity Gospel,” rich people model to the poor what they should desire. We see the same phenomenon among Jesus’ disciples when, after being told how hard it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, asked Jesus: “Then who can be saved?” (Mk. 10: 26) The economic system, then, is fueled by the deeper system of mimetic desire wherein everybody wants to be like the rich landlords who break the tenth and eleventh commandments.

Jesus, then, is not inviting one person who happens to be rich to change; Jesus is asking all of us to change in such a way that the system is changed. The omnipresence of mimetic desire makes it clear that, important as it is to reform economic structures, it isn’t enough to do the job on its own. Our hearts need a makeover individually and collectively. It is this new system of the heart that Jesus inaugurated at the beginning of his teaching ministry when he proclaimed a Jubilee of freedom from being either a debtor or a creditor. (Lk. 4: 16–21)

St. Paul’s collection for the Church of Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8: 1–15) can be seen as an example of what economy can look like if we give our hearts to the tenth and eleventh commandments. Interestingly, the Macedonians, out of their poverty “overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” (2 Cor. 8: 2). This makes one wonder if the Macedonians were more able to thread the eye of the needle than the Rich Man. Paul adds a Christological dimension with the example of Jesus who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich. (2 Cor. 8: 9) Jesus was asking the Rich Man and each of us to do what He Himself had already done by coming into our world and its systems driven by mimetic desire. Here mimetic desire becomes redirected to desiring the good of other people, giving new vitality to Jesus’ famous words quoted by Paul: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20: 35)

See also my blog post: Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem.

For an introduction to René Girard and his theory of mimetic desire, see: Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim.

On Carrying Crosses and Renouncing Them

sideAltarsIcons1Jesus’ insistence that we deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him (Mk. 8: 34) jolts us into thinking about what our priorities in life should be. Without being so jolted, we tend to deny other people, take up our favorite pastimes and follow whoever takes our fancy. However, we encounter a serious problem if and when we do take Jesus’ words to heart. We tend to get muddled over what constitutes a “cross” and how we should carry it. Because of this muddle, there is the danger that the cross will be trivialized. Carrying our own crosses is not about being a good sport if we catch the flu.

Fundamentally, the cross is about persecution. Jesus is telling his disciples that he expects to be crucified for the way he is confronting the religious and imperial authorities. The Servant in Isaiah was also persecuted by people who smote his back and plucked out his beard. (Is. 50: 6) More importantly, the cross is about not retaliating if one is persecuted, so being patient with Great Aunt Hattie who complains about every act of service is not so trivial. The combination of not retaliating and setting our faces like flint (Is. 50: 7) is precisely what Peter missed when he called Jesus the Messiah. That is why Jesus shut him up.

The biggest problem of waxing eloquently about carrying our crosses is that we overlook the danger, the likelihood, of being crosses for other people. We easily fool ourselves into thinking we are not persecuting others as long as we aren’t pulling beards or driving nails into someone’s hands and feet. But, in his epistle, James shows us how easy it is to be a persecutor. He says that the tongue, small as it is, is a fire that can set a whole forest ablaze and it even “sets on fire the cycle of nature.” (Jas. 3: 5–6) We both bless and curse others with this little member. (Jas. 3: 10) James is warning us how the contagion of collective violence such as that afflicted on Isaiah’s Servant and Jesus can afflict anyone by the agency of anyone through such use of the tongue. Language, the sign of civilization, is compromised from the start by its role in persecution. The more “civilized” we become through writing, the printing press, newspapers, the Internet and Twitter, the more quickly and efficiently peoples’ reputations are destroyed by firestorms set off by the tongue and its extensions the pen and the computer keyboard.

Instead of boasting about carrying crosses, we most need to busy ourselves with relieving others of the crosses we lay on them. Manipulating others into persecuting us to make them feel bad while making us feel good is really another way of persecuting others. As Isaiah’s Servant and Jesus show, crosses can come to us quickly if we speak out against persecution, since that is everybody’s favorite blood sport. Jesus warned the people of his time and us of our persecutory tendencies with his parable of the evil workers in the vineyard. (Mk 12:1-12) and by driving the money changers from the temple whose officials were exploiting the poor. (cf. Mark 12:41-44)

Following Jesus, then, is about both taking up our crosses and renouncing them. We take up our crosses by doing everything we can to stop persecution even if we suffer for it. But before going after other persecutors, we need to take the logs out of our eyes before taking the splinters out of the eyes of others. (Mt. 7: 5) Otherwise, our witness against persecution is likely to turn into persecution of the persecutors. This is why we can only take up the cross if we renounce using it as a weapon but rather use it as a Tree of Life for others.

Eating Together

garden1Eating is among the most fundamental activities of civilization, perhaps the most fundamental. It is the practice that brings people together to share in nourishment and social nurturing. And yet, throughout the animal kingdom, sustenance requires feeding on other living beings. Sometimes it is other animals, sometime plants. That is, a group bonding through eating inevitably bonds at the expense of other living beings.

The Christian Eucharist builds on the social bonding with its celebration of a meal that binds people together. Being bound up with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, a sacrifice made so that all other people may live, it is a meal of human sacrifice. Yet it is made a bloodless sacrifice by the serving of bread and wine that in some mysterious way are identified with the body and blood of Jesus, thus sanitizing the Eucharist of the violence in the story that is told in the breaking of the bread.

Jesus’ strange words in his long monolog that follows the feeding in the wilderness connects this feeding with the Eucharist in words that are both comforting in that they promise a deep union with Jesus, but disturbing by thrusting the violence of Jesus’ death in our faces. English translations inevitably lose much of the force of the words as there is no English word that catches the connotations of trogein.“Gnaw” comes closest but even that is not strong enough. The German word fressen, which refers to the eating of non-human animals, comes much closer. When I used the word flippantly in conversation with a German acquaintance, his reaction was very strong, about as strong as our reaction to Jesus’ words ought to be. Which is precisely the way “the Jews” react to Jesus’ words.

In reply to “the Jews’s” anger, Jesus promises that his flesh and blood are “real food” and “real drink” without which we have no life in us. Jesus goes on to make the even more audacious claim that his body and blood do not nourish us as meat and vegetables nourish us. Such nourishment is not lasting and needs to be renewed by further eating and drinking as the manna God fed the Israelites in the desert needed to be re-gathered every day. But Jesus’ own flesh and blood feeds us in such a way that we will live forever.

If Jesus can be our food in a way that sustains us everlastingly, then his own life must also be constantly renewed. This is the claim he makes when he says that he abides in his Father and his Father abides in him. This amounts to the astounding claim that it is possible to be nourished in a way that it is not at the expense of any living being. How can this be?

Since Jesus’ promise of everlasting nourishment is tied so closely to his painful death, we might get some understanding by looking at sacrifice. Sacrifice is closely tied to eating. Deities feed on animals or vegetation, or at least the aroma of them, and the sacrificers usually eat the food that was sacrificed. The Passover lamb is sacrificed both to spare the Israelites from the plague that strikes the first-born of Egypt and a sacrifice to physical hunger, and thus a source of nourishment as well. Sacrifices need to be repeated, as the author of Hebrews says. (Heb. 7: 27; 9: 6) In his sacrificial death, Jesus has obtained “eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9: 12) Thus, this author is making the same claim on behalf of Jesus that Jesus is making in John’s Gospel.
René Girard is helpful here. His thesis that civilization is founded on sacrifice and thus needs to be fueled by repetition of the same alerts us to the ongoing “nourishment” civilization receives through the periodic deaths of victims. One sacrifice lasts only for so long and then social tensions require another. Caiaphas intended Jesus’s death to be such a life-giving sacrifice for the people, (Jn. 12: 50–52) but Caiaphas got more than he bargained for. Jesus was raised from the dead and so became empowered to continually offer his life for others while no longer being subject to death himself. This is how Girard would have us understand the Church’s claim that Jesus’ sacrifice is the final sacrifice. There is no longer a need for sacrificial victims because the way has been opened for us to be everlastingly nourished by the life that was given once for all.

The death and resurrection of Christ, then, are a pledge of the heavenly banquet where we will be nourished without need of taking any life, not even that of plants, but in this life, we still need to eat living beings of some sort. Even Lady Wisdom has to slaughter animals for her banquet. What we can do is let Christ nourish us deeply in the here and now so that we do not need to sacrifice other people as we are prone to do, but rather will feed others in anticipation of the heavenly banquet.