A Sign that will be Opposed

Simeon’s prophecy over the baby Jesus on the occasion of the child’s presentation in the temple, the Nunc Dimittis, has brightened the service of Evensong throughout the Anglican Communion for centuries. It is inspiring to hear that the salvation represented by this child has been “prepared in the presence of all peoples.” It is all the more inspiring that this child is a light to all nations but is also glory for his own people Israel. (Lk. 2: 31–32) That is, this child will unite all people in the embrace of salvation. The countless musical settings of these words magnify their effect, starting with the hushed entrance of “Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace” then swelling to a brief but overpowering climax with “To be a light to enlighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel,” with the word “glory” often drawn out to dramatic effect. Historians might doubt that an old man made such a prophecy, particularly since it fits the author’s theology so well, but such doubts need not dampen the encouragement these words give us.

But then, Simeon makes a darker and more enigmatic prophecy. The child in his arms is “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.” (Lk. 2: 34) This seems to be a contradiction and retraction of the first prophecy. How can Jesus unite all people, Jews and Gentiles if he is opposed by, apparently, everybody? Simeon gives us a hint when he says that “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” But this hint is far from self-explanatory. We can begin to make sense of this tension when we think about our reactions to suggestions that we try to get together with other people and learn to get along. The idea sounds great until we think of some of the people we have to get together with. What often happens in such situations is that the people who hate each other unite and gain up on the person who suggested they get together. It is worth noting that, for all the musical settings of the Nunc Dimittis, these following words have been rarely set to music, if at all. As my comments about the fate of one who would unite people suggests, this prophecy points to the cross, which is the culmination of Jesus being opposed, and yet it is from the cross that Jesus becomes a light to the nations and the glory of Israel. There are, once again, many ;powerful musical settings of the Passion. This second prophecy also embodies Luke’s own theology. John, in his Gospel, articulates this tension with his use of the word doxa which means both honor and shame. As with John’s Gospel, Luke uses the prophecies of Simeon foreshadow the end of the Gospel where glory and shame are closely intertwined.

We can see all these themes laid out in Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ inaugural sermon. As soon as Jesus finished speaking, Luke says: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (Lk. 4: 22) But then immediately some people murmur that he is just the carpenter’s son. Jesus responds by reminding his listeners of foreigners who were healed by Elijah and Elisha. Next thing we know, all of the people who had just been admiring Jesus try to hurl him over a cliff. The suggestion that some Gentiles might have received grace from God was apparently unpalatable to them. This incident, of course, is another preview of the end of the Gospel. One could say that the inner thoughts of the people in the synagogue were revealed. What inner thoughts are revealed in each one of us as we ponder the implications of Jesus being both a light to the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel?

Our Deepest Calling

The calling of Jesus’ first four disciples raises the question of who else Jesus calls. To begin with, after calling the first four disciples, Jesus called eight more to add up to twelve. But there were many others. According to Luke, Jesus sent out seventy-two disciples on a mission. Several women also are mentioned as ministering to Jesus. And then Jesus asked that the children also should come to him and not be hindered. It begins to look like a lot of people are called by Jesus with the growing suspicion that Jesus calls everybody.

The sense of a call from God is quite meaningful to me. While I was at Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin, I felt called to be a Benedictine monk. This calling was quite palpable and it became unthinkable that I would do anything else but seek admission to St. Gregory’s Abbey after I graduated. Before I could respond to this call, though, I had to answer a more fundamental call: namely the calling to be a Christian. Long story short: although I was raised in the Episcopal Church and formed by the liturgy while singing in a boys choir, I had fallen away for several years. By hindsight, I can see God drawing me back during all that time even when I was fighting the hardest to resist God.

Many people also feel a calling to holy orders: priesthood or the diaconate, as I did myself several years after having joined the monastery. Although the church is working hard to expand the sense of calling, there is still a tendency to think of certain ministeries as callings but everything else is a job or volunteer work. But these are callings just as much as callings to holy orders or the monastic life. When we go back to the earlier call to be a Christian, we get a sense of God’s call to everybody, not just a few special people, (or better said: everybody is special in some way!) Everybody is called to baptism and from this calling, we each receive a calling to one thing or another. Actually, this preliminary call goes back even further. Each of us is called out of nothingness into being by the God who created all of us.

There are many implications to the fact that we are called. The most fundamental is that we are relational beings. As we become aware of the richness and depth inside each one of us, it is easy to become intoxicated with a sense of self that tries to build a little isolated world. But the notion that this inner world is autonomous in an individualistic sense is sheer illusion. Being called into being and then called to be in a particular way is based on a relationship with God. But note that Jesus did not call an individual here or there; God called several people into a community. Creation and re-creation in baptism are thus calls into community. We are all baptized in the Body of Christ, the Church. Indeed, we are not only called by God, we are called by many other people who also have a strong effect on us. The richness experienced within is in fact derived from other people calling on us from before we were born. With each particular calling, there is not only the inner sense of being called by God but the external call from other people. In my case, many people confirmed a potential call to the monastic life during my time in seminary, not least the dean and my diocesan bishop. And then there was the need for discernment with the abbot and chapter of St. Gregory’s. Likewise, when a person experiences a call to holy orders, there is a communal discernment process in place. From the standpoint of people helping with such a discernment, the question is: Do I want to call this person to minster to me? This question that makes it clear that a calling isn’t about me, it is about us as a community.

The particular calling that each of us has lies in the communal calling of the Church. In our Gospel reading, we have the rudiments of the communal calling through Jesus’ ministry of repenting and “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (Mt. 4: 23) What is the Good News? Jesus’ movement into the territory of Zebulim and Napthtali is quite significant and not just an obscure geographical detail. This had been Gentile territory since the Assyrian invasion of Israel and was land occupied by the Romans in Jesus’ time. The history of military violence is the darkness in which Isaiah is prophesying that a “great light” was coming. Jesus was preaching the deliverance from violence based on forgiveness. Forgiveness is the deep healing offered by Jesus as he healed the people who came to him. In various ways, proclaiming the Good News of forgiveness is what each of us is called to through our calling in creation and baptism. The way each of us carries out this fundamental mandate will differ and it is because healing and proclaiming the Good News needs to be done in so many different ways that there are so many vocations in which we serve each other, even if in seemingly small ways.

A calling is not a once-in-a-lifetime done deal. Each calling has to be renewed year by year, day by day, hour by hour. The situation in Corinth that exasperated Paul is the result of failure to renew our communal calling. The disciples, too, fought over who among them was the greatest. Some of the healings by Jesus were exorcisms, the casting out of demons. This belief in possession may seem mythological to some people today, but we can easily become possessed by other people with whom we are in conflict who then draw us away from the call of Jesus to forgiveness and reconciliation. (Note how we say that this or that person gets under our skin.) This is where repentance comes in. Every time we are drawn into conflict, we need to hear anew the call of Jesus to repent and proclaim the Good News of forgiveness and healing.

Fulfilling All Righteousness

Setup for blessing of holy water celebrated on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord

Setup for blessing of holy water celebrated on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord

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The baptism of Jesus is the inspiring event that sets Jesus’ earthly ministry in motion. It is also an event that continues to puzzle us as much as it puzzled John the Baptist.

What did Jesus mean when he told John that it was “proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness?” (Mt. 3: 15) Perhaps Jesus was proclaiming full solidarity with all fellow humans in that, although he did not have any sin to repent of, he repented with us who do have sins to repent of. But this way of looking at it presupposes that sin is only a personal matter. It is that, of course, but we should note that in Hebrew anthropology, righteousness is not a matter of individuals being righteous; it is a matter of social justice. That is, all righteousness is not fulfilled until social justice has been established. In Isaiah 42, which this episode in Matthew recalls, the prophet will not rest “until he has established justice in the earth,” (Is. 42: 4) Such justice involves bringing “out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Is. 42: 7) Jesus was soon going to teach a whole new way for people to relate to each other that would dismantle our prison system in favor of a whole new way of reforming people and society if ever the teachings were truly followed. In accepting a baptism of repentance in order to “fulfil all righteousness,” Jesus is expressing a deep solidarity with all people at the level of social sin. Maybe Jesus was personally sinless, but as fully human, Jesus was just as compromised from birth by the social matrix as anybody else. Jesus immersed himself in sinful human culture in order to redeem it. That’s solidarity.

As soon as Jesus was baptized in solidarity with us, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. Jesus’ act of solidarity was opening up new and great possibilities for the relationship of all people with God. The divine voice praising Jesus for what he had done is also offered to each one us: each of us is invited to be sons and daughters of God with whom God is well pleased. It is fitting that this affirmation overflowing like a flood of water should happen at the moment of repentance, for it is repentance that opens up the new possibilities. The two actually happen together as it is God’s affirmation that gives us the strength and courage to repent.

It is also God’s affirmation which reveals the need for repentance. Sadly, God’s affirmation draws our attention to the many failures we all experience in affirming each other. More sadly, it is those who try the hardest to actualize the new possibilities God is opening up who receive the most violent opprobrium as the Suffering Servant did in Isaiah and as Jesus would suffer as well. In the United States, racial injustice continues to be an intractable problem, a problem that imprisons all of us. Black people in the US receive quite the opposite message from the dominant white society than the message God gives each of us, black and white and colored alike. So habitual is the assumption among those of us who are white that blacks are inferior that even those of us who are well-meaning in racial matters have a very hard time seeing the truth of what we are doing and not doing and we need the assistance of others, not least the assistance of persons of color, to begin to see the problem.

The first Christians were faced with a similar challenge with the issue of admitting gentiles into the nascent church. It came as a shock to Peter when he was told in a vision to go to the house of the gentile Cornelius. (Acts 10) The power of his socially-induced prejudice was so great that, despite his declaration that these gentiles were “acceptable” to God after all, he earned the rebuke of Paul at a later time when he held back from table fellowship with gentiles. The story of the Canaanite woman suggests that Jesus himself truly struggled with the social norm of excluding such people. (Mt. 15: 21-28)
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This consideration is discouraging and hardly sounds like the deep affirmation God offers us through the affirmation of Jesus at his baptism. This discouragement comes from a misunderstanding of what God’s affirmation is all about. In our egocentricity, we tend to think and feel that God’s affirmation is all about ME. It isn’t. God’s affirmation is all about US. By “us,” I don’t mean just me and others like me; I mean all of us, including those who are different from us.

Does this mean that God does not affirm us after all if we don’t affirm others? Let me put it this way. The way of repentance was opened not only by God’s affirmation of us but also by God’s forgiveness as proclaimed by the apostolic preaching. Many times, Jesus connected God’s forgiveness of us with our forgiveness of others. That is not to say that God does not forgive us when we don’t forgive; it is more a case that we fall away from the forgiveness we continue to receive. The same goes for God’s affirmation through Jesus’ baptism. We are all affirmed as sons and daughters with whom God is well pleased, but if we don’t share this affirmation with everybody else, we fall away from the affirmation that God continues to shower on us. None of us likes it of we have to struggle with dis-affirmation to arrive at the truth of God’s radical affirmation of us. So why impose the same struggle on others? Let us instead embrace God’s affirmation of us all so that we can all escape the prisons we have imposed on ourselves. Then, and only then, will we fulfill all righteousness.

Taking Care of God

Children are being born all the time, so one might think there’s nothing special about it. But the birth of a child is special for those involved. Maybe all the other births happening all the time are ordinary, but the birth of one’s own child or the child of someone close to us is indeed special with all the hopes and fears the event arouses.

But the birth we celebrate at Christmas is both more special and unique than all other births. As with all other human births, a human being has into the world, a helpless human being who was totally dependent on the care of other people. If such care is not present, the newborn child will not survive long enough to grow up.

But this time, the human being is also God. That doesn’t compute. God is supposed to be the Master of the Universe, totally in charge and in need of nothing from nobody. If God can and does whatever God wills, as Psalm 135 says, than God could only have become a helpless newborn child by willing to do just that. Why would God do such a thing? Theologians, starting with St/ Paul, say that God became a human being in order to save the world. Indeed, Jesus’ dying on the cross and being raised from the dead is believed to have saving consequences for humankind. But the fact that Jesus was killed by humans in early adulthood makes it clear that, although he was/is God, Jesus was just as vulnerable and killable as any other human being. But what if Jesus had not been nurtured and protected as in infant? What then? Fortunately, we don’t have to explore that question further as we knew that at least Jesus grew up into early adulthood. But only because he was cared for in his most vulnerable years. This vulnerability on the part of Jesus has everything to do with how salvation works

There are many ways in which the Incarnation of our Lord can be said to have turned the world upside down. One of the most startling ways the Incarnation has done this is that, although we all depend on God for our very existence and for sustaining us in being, God has turned the tables by making Godself dependent on us. Mary and Joseph and probably a few other people held Jesus in their arms. In our devotions, we can imagine ourselves holding the baby Jesus in our arms, tenderly consoling him for any discomfort he might feel and trying to make it better. If anybody, such as Herod, should try to harm this helpless child, we would do anything possible to protect him.

The fact that God has entered humanity and become as dependent on other people jas ll other people deepens profoundly the notion that all people depend on other people and all people should cherish and protect everybody else.. That is, God has made every person, every newborn child, special.

The Ongoing Coming of Christ

Scripture readings such as Matthew 24 have some Christians looking forward to what is called a Second Coming of Jesus but have other Christians scratching their heads, trying to figure out what the words of Jesus really mean. As for me, I look forward to Jesus’ coming but these passages in Matthew have me scratching my head a lot and raising some questions.

The scenario of the Second Coming seems to suggest that God is holding back, not doing anything while waiting to see what we humans do about the world and then jumping in with a decisive intervention when we mess things up. But isn’t God vitally present all the time?

The notion that it would be better to be caught doing good when Jesus comes rather than caught doing evil makes some sense but makes God seem more of a threat than a savior. More puzzling is the complacency on the part of some people who neglect pressing social issues such as ecology on the belief that Jesus will come before we destroy the planet. It seems to me that it would be a bad idea to be caught polluting the planet rather than helping to make the planet cleaner if Jesus should return a second time. It is even more troubling when some people think war is a good thing because it will bring on the Second coming, but one would think it would not be good to be caught waging a nuclear war if Jesus comes.

The violence imagined by some in a Second Coming gives the troubling impression that the first coming, when Jesus was crucified, didn’t work out, so the second time round God will jettison the Good Cop scenario and send the Bad Cop who beats up all the bad guys. Hoping for that kind of scenario denies that the Resurrection of the crucified Lord is the defining revelation of God’s Truth and makes the violent avenger the ultimate revelation.

But if we hold fast to the crucifixion and Resurrection as the vital primary truth of what God reveals to us about Godself, then our hope for Christ’s coming will be shaped by the compassion that lead God to become a vulnerable human being who was killed by his fellow humans. The violence on the part of humans in the crucifixion should alert us that the social violence Jesus warns about is done by humans and not by God.

This reflection suggests we should dwell on the first coming, the only coming that we know has happened. And if Christ has already come, Christ is already here and not waiting in the wings to pounce on us later. The name Emmanuel means “God is with us.” St. Benedict tells us that the first step of humility involves remembering that God is always present to us and that we should likewise be present to God. If Jesus is already “God with us” than who needs a second coming? Isn’t the first coming enough? Of course, we all know that we are very capable of being not so present to God and that inattentiveness easily leads to acting in ways we wouldn’t if we were attentive to God’s presence. When we are not being attentive to God, God’s persistent presence will keep pressing in on us until God breaks in on us like a burglar or a thief in the night.

We know that crises in our personal lives and in the larger social arena can break down our usual defenses against the Divine Burglar. It isn’t that God causes these crises just to help us grow spiritually, but God does use these events to enter more deeply into our lives. After all, it is in times of crisis that we are most apt to rethink our lives and ask ourselves what is really important and where our hearts are. These crises, whether natural disasters such as hurricanes or military invasions, also raise these fundamental questions. They also create victims in whom Christ is intensely present. When we meet Christ in the victims of human violence we bring Christ deeper into the world, where Christ wants to be–that is, be with us.

I suggest, then, that we use this season of Advent to open ourselves to God’s presence to us, encouraging Christ to come into our lives. Let us go out to meet the bridegroom by having times of prayer and reflection that give us time with God. Let us meet Christ most intimately in the Eucharist. In all these things, let us look forward to the celebration of the First Coming when Jesus comes among us as a helpless baby in a manger during the coldest time of year. Let us look forward to following Jesus through the following seasons in his ministry and in his cruel death. If there should be a Second Coming, what better preparation can we make for it? We have much to look forward to.

The Living God

In today’s Gospel, (Lk. 20: 28-38) the Sadducees are using the old trick of reducing their opponent’s position to absurdity. If Jesus, like the Pharisees, believes in the resurrection of the Just, then what will he do with the hypothetical problem of a woman who married seven brothers and still died childless? This refers to the Leverite marriage commanded in Deuteronomy 25 where, if a man dies childless, the widow marries her late husband’s brother so as to bear heirs for the man who died. The scenario mockingly proposed is highly unlikely but that is not the point. Even if there are only two brothers who die without an heir, there is the question of who will be the woman’s husband in the resurrected life. And, of course, everybody who has been widowed at least once and then remarried will have the same problem.

What the Sadducees are telling Jesus is that they don’t take him seriously. They don’t want any wisdom from this troublesome traveling preacher who has shown up in Jerusalem. But Jesus still gives them a serious answer. The first part of the answer: dismissing the problem because marriage ceases to be an issue is surprising and disturbing. Given the closeness of the marriage relationship, when it is a real marriage, and considering the heartbreak for a spouse left behind, one would think that the relationship continues for eternity. And surely it does! And I would think that the lack of marriage in the resurrected life would be about a lot more than there being no need to procreate because there is no death. There is no death. This is the deeper point Jesus is making here. He makes this point with a clever argument. Since the Sadducees accepted only the Five Books of the Torah as authoritative, Jesus had to defend a belief in the resurrection from them, and Moses didn’t seem to give him any support on this. Or did he? Jesus remind the Sadducees that when God spoke in the Burning Bush, God claimed to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If that is so, then how could these three patriarchs, assumed dead, not be alive? For how can the living God be a living God of the dead? As Jesus says, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is God of the living, and not of the dead. So how could the patriarchs be anything else but alive? In Raising Abel James Alison uses Jesus’ reply to show that Jesus, in his eschatological imagination, already knew that in God, there was no death, because His heavenly Abba is a living God.

As for marriage, the Book of Revelation ends with the Marriage of the Lamb with all creation. All creation includes all of us. As with all other language having to deal with god in any way, the term “marriage” is analogous. The Marriage with the Lamb has the intensity of the marriage relationship in this life but it is also very different. The big difference is that this is not a marriage of just two people, but a marriage of everybody with everybody else. Such a thing is hard to imagine, but we should expect the resurrected life to come to be hard to imagine. If we are going to allow Jesus’ words to the Sadducees to widen the imagination to the quality of the resurrected life, we need to allow these words to widen the imagination for everything, especially the good things in life. It isn’t just marriage, but friendships, music, nature in its beauty—everything that will be transformed in the resurrected life. This is why, in the end, we have to give up everything in order to have everything.

Jesus the Helpless Widow

Jesus’ parable of the widow and the unjust judge is puzzling. (Lk. 18: 1-8) Why would Jesus compare God with an unjust judge when everybody knows that God is just, hears our prayers, and answers them in God’s time. But if we think about it, our thoughts may wander into the ways we treat people. Are we ourselves like the unjust judge who takes advantage of people weaker than we? Do we put off helping out those people because it isn’t convenient, and only if the helpless person hassles us will we grudgingly do the helpless person the favor so that we aren’t pestered any more?. If our thoughts move far enough along in that direction, we might realize that we think that God is like us; God does not want to be bothered by our needs and God does not want to be pestered.

In Genesis, we have the mysterious story of Jacob wrestling with the angel until the angel finally gives Jacob a blessing. All his life Jacob had been getting his way through conflict: first getting his brother Esau’s birthright and Esau’s paternal blessing, and then building a prosperous herd after wrangling with his father-in-law Laban for twenty years. If conflict is all Jacob knows, then he”knows” that God won’t give him a blessing unless he fights for it. Jacob walks away from the struggle with the blessing but he is wounded by it. Was it the blessing that wounded him, or was Jacob wounded because conflict was all he knew in life? Are we like Jacob, thinking we have to fight with God to get anything through prayer because we live in conflict with other people?

One could say that each of us has an inner importunate widow and an inner unjust judge. On the surface, we might want to identify with the importunate widow because she is in the right. The problem is, the importunate widow is helpless and we don’t like being helpless. The unjust judge is the one in control and we usually prefer that position, except that it is not the righteous position. Of course, if we struggle like Jacob, we don’t feel so helpless, even if in truth we are. The thing is, if we keep struggling because conflict is our way of life, we end up growing the unjust judge in us. It is worth noting here that Jesus himself was condemned by unjust judges such as the likes of us.

The author of Second Timothy urges us to: “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Tim. 4: 2) It sounds as if the apostle would have us act like the importunate widow. If apostolic ministry is about doing the things Jesus did, then it follows that Jesus, the victim of unjust judges, is himself an importunate widow. The apostolic author goes on to warn of people with “itching ears” who don’t like sound doctrine. We tend to assume that those people with “itching ears” are those who happen to disagree with us. We should worry about itching in our own ears. In light of Jesus’ parable, having itchy ears could have to do with thinking God is like the unjust judge when God is much more like the helpless widow just as Jesus was helpless on the cross. That is, God cries out to the unjust judge in each of us day in and day out, pleading for justice. Like this widow, God does not stop pleading, and so we, too should plead in prayer without ceasing and yearn for justice for ourselves and for other people.

The same thoughts are developed in Unjust Judges and Widows.

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.