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?

Transfiguring Darkness

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1aI was introduced to the Transfiguration of Our Lord when Raphael’s great painting of the event hit me between the eyes during my student travels in Rome. With the Feast of the Transfiguration coming during my church’s summer slump (and it wouldn’t have celebrated the feast anyway) I knew nothing about it. In many ways, I didn’t have to. The painting opened up a vision of a transfiguration of humanity beyond what I had thought possible. At the time, what faith I had wasn’t centered around any particular religious viewpoint but I was majoring in religion because I thought the subject dealt with the most important things in life. Seeing the painting was more of a religious awakening than I knew. I was, of course, impressed by the sublimity of the upper half of the canvas where Jesus is floating in the air with Moses and Elijah. But I was even more impressed by the inroads the transfigured light made into the lower half which is often interpreted as indicating sinful and benighted humanity. It has taken me years to see further into the significance of this chiaroscuro effect.

Now that I have preached on the Transfiguration more times than I can count, I have had many occasions to study and reflect on it. I remain inspired by Raphael’s vision of the transfiguring light and fascinated by the Eastern Orthodox doctrine that holy persons can be filled with the uncreated energies that emanated from Mount Tabor. But under the influence of René Girard’s thinking about the scapegoat mechanism, I am most impressed by the proximity of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the transfiguring light.

The narrative begins: “Now about eight days after these sayings.” (Lk. (9: 28) These sayings were about Jesus announcing that he was going to be rejected by the chief priests and scribes and be killed after great suffering, followed by Jesus’ famous words about carrying one’s cross daily. After the return from the mountain and delivering a demon-possessed boy, Jesus said : “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” (Lk. 9: 44) So it is that predictions of Jesus’ passion envelope the transfiguration. Moreover, on the mountain, Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Lk. 9: 31) So Jesus and his two great predecessors weren’t exactly whooping it up and playing games with primordial light. Both Moses and Elijah knew a lot more about persecution than they really wanted to know and Jesus knew what the scriptures said about them.

There is much talk about the transfiguring light being an encouragement to Jesus and his disciples in preparation for the suffering ahead. There is truth to that and I have said as much in previous sermons. But the deeper truth I am seeing is that the suffering and death of Jesus is the transfiguration. The primordial uncreated energies have penetrated into the depths of human suffering, not only that of Christ but of all other people. This is the significance of the light reaching the people in darkness at the foot of the mountain in Raphael’s painting. A particularly bright spot of light lands on the chest of the boy Jesus delivers of a demon as soon as he comes down. What is the uncreated glory of God? It is that God would come to us in our darkness and suffer with us the sufferings that we inflict upon one another with the rage that makes us foam at the mouth and persecute one another. We can’t stay on the mountaintop, even if we should ever get there, but we can bring the mountaintop to others if we are willing to take up our crosses and follow Jesus down to the bottom where foul spirits rage and foam. What makes the glory of God glorious is that, as St. Peter says, the light shines in the darkness “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Pet. 1: 19)

Whirlwinds and Storms

Cemetary2In the readings from Job and Mark huge storms break out. Storms are chaotic, but they follow the laws of nature, curiously now called “chaos science.” Just before the stormy voyage on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus had pointed out that plants grow from seeds by the laws of nature and that the Kingdom of God is like this natural growth. But what does the storm at sea have to do with the Kingdom of God? Since it is also by the laws of nature that storms destroy crops, are there storms that can blow away the Kingdom of God? The frightened disciples in the boat seem to have thought so and they feared that Jesus didn’t even care about it. Out of the whirlwind God says a lot about throwing oceans around but doesn’t say anything about caring for Job’s excruciating sufferings. Being a puny being in a vast universe doesn’t cheer up a suffering person.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul doesn’t write about any storms at sea (although he was to endure one later on) but he writes of his apostolic life as one big storm. Many of the hardships are human-caused such as “ beatings, imprisonments, riots.” Paul goes on to say that he and his companions are “treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed.” Paul could be forgiven for wondering if God cared about him. Job also complains about human storms. In addition to the torment from his so-called “comforters,” he bemoans that “my adversary sharpens his eyes against me. They have gaped at me with their mouths; they have struck me insolently on the cheek; they mass themselves together against me.” (Job 16: 10.) René Girard has demonstrated that human behavior also follows natural laws, particularly in the chaos of mob violence such as described by Job and Paul. Far from thinking God cares about him, Job charges God with handing him over to the ungodly and casting him into the hands of the wicked. Three chapters later, Job cries out with the hope that his Redeemer, or vindicator, lives and will stand up for him, even if his own flesh has rotted away by then. Paul, though thrown into the hands of the ungodly at least as much as Job has a different reaction. He describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Paul doesn’t say anything explicitly about God’s providential care for him, but his sense of having everything in the midst of deprivation and rejoicing in his sorrow witnesses to a bounty of God’s grace in the midst of the storm.

The storms on the Sea of Galilee may remind some readers of human storms such as the meltdown of human evil that led to the Flood, or perhaps was the flood, from which Noah and his family was delivered by God. (1 Pet. 3: 20) It is worth noting that natural laws provide consequences for irresponsible use of the environment that bring on storms and more intense storms at that. As the political storms in our country and elsewhere in the world continue to escalate with an immigration policy that has become a huge atrocity and the heartless neglect of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, one wonders if God cares. Obviously a lot of humans don’t. This sort of neglect on the part of people who claim to be Christian sets the kind of obstacles in the way of others that Paul himself says he tries to avoid. From the whirlwind, God says to Job that God “shut in the sea with doors when it burst out of its womb” and then prescribed boundaries. So, God did not just let the sea run wild but put limits to its chaos. On the Sea of Galilee, Jesus topped that act by calming the sea entirely. Curiously, calming the sea seems to have intensified the human storm as the disciples became more afraid of Jesus than ever. This fear spills over to the next story when the Garasenes drive Jesus away for healing the demoniac.

Storms are scary but we have to face the question of whether or not we are even more scared of God’s peace, the vindication from God that Job longed for. Storms are chaotic, but social change that brings people at enmity together feels more chaotic and is scarier still. Why else should there be so much talk about walls at our borders? Note that the boat carrying Jesus and his disciples was heading from Jewish territory to Gentile territory. Was the whole idea of bringing peace across the dividing sea more frightening than the storm? Paul’s confidence in rejoicing in the midst of sorrow and possessing everything in dispossession is scary too. What a way to calm human storms! For Paul, God has not calmed the human storm that brought him persecution; God has calmed Paul himself in the midst of the storm, a powerful indication that God cared for him and for all others still caught in the storm. The image of Jesus sleeping through the storm at sea indicates that Jesus, too, had this calm in the midst of the storm. But Jesus did not calm the human storm that nailed him to the cross at Calvary, and Jesus himself cried out with fear that he had been forsaken. As soon as this storm started to break at Gethsemane, the disciples fled. When the women came to the tomb where a young man dressed in white told them that Jesus was going before them to Galilee, they were even more frightened by the calm after the storm and they fled. Are we willing to follow Jesus in the way that leads us, with Paul, into the teeth of the storm with rejoicing and hope for social change that does not require others to be dispossessed, or do we fear more the calm after the storm where we confront the God who cares about those we don’t care about and also those we fear and hate?

On Being Branches Connected to the Vine

eucharist1The image of the vine and the branches in John 15 gives us a powerful image of closeness both between ourselves and God and also with each other through our grounding in God.
Each of us is a branch connected to the vine which is Jesus. Jesus is telling us that the desires of each and every one of us must be rooted in His Desire, which is the same Desire as that of his heavenly Father. Between Jesus and his Father, there is no rivalry and Jesus does not enter into rivalry with us. From our side it tends to be a different story. We experience rivalry so constantly that it is very hard to imagine a relationship without rivalry. Just note how political and social debates are saturated with it.

Jesus’ words start to sound threatening when he talks about branches withering, being thrown away, and then burnt. However, it isn’t Jesus who cuts off the branches; it’s branches that cut themselves off. Life rooted in Christ has to be rooted in Christ. This is, or should be, a tautology, but we have a folk saying about cutting off the limb we’re sitting on. People who center their lives on one or more rivals instead of Christ are doing just that. Once cut off from the vine, we are consumed with rage with our rivals, a strife that burns us up.

We often think of union with God as individualistic but that is not so. On the contrary, union with the vine unites us with all of the other branches. This means we share our union with the vine with everybody else’s union with the vine. It is by being united to others through Christ that we have the ability, through grace, to act towards others in God’s Desire rather than through our rivalistic tendencies. Since there is no rivalry in Jesus, there is no way that Jesus would encourage rivalry with others who are connected to him. In his first epistle, John says that we should love one another because “love is from God” and God is love. (1 Jn. 4: : 7–8) Again, God’s love for us is deeply connected with our love for one another. God abides in us insofar as we love one another. If we cut ourselves off from God, we cut ourselves off from other people and if we cut ourselves off from other people, we cut ourselves off from God.

The image of the vine and the branches is, above all, Eucharistic. The Eucharist is a public event. The wine in the Eucharistic celebration is the blood of Jesus that he gave to heal all of us of our violent ways. The blood of Jesus on the altar shared with each of us makes present to us the death of Jesus at the hands of persecutory humans as it also makes present the risen life of Jesus. In exchange for the way we betray Jesus with our violence, we receive the gift of life through deep union with Jesus, a union like that of the branches to the vine. We associate blood with violence, such as with the term “bloodshed,” but blood is the life within us and it is life that the Risen Jesus gives us through his Blood. This is the wine, the blood, that flows from the vine to the branches to connect us to Christ and to each other.

What Kind of Spirit was Jesus Casting Out?

wreckedTrees1When Jesus opened his teaching ministry, Mark says that the people were “astounded” because he taught them“as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mk. 1: 22) Oddly, Mark doesn’t include anything of what Jesus said. The Greek work exousia is much stronger than the English word that translates it. “Powerful authority” would bring us closer to the meaning. That Jesus’ teaching was not like that of the scribes doesn’t give us much more to go on as to the content, but it indicates that this authoritative teaching was distinct from those who were normally considered the teaching authorities.

However, Jesus did something. Dramatically. He cast out an unclean spirit. In our time, we have trouble understanding what this is about and how we might draw any practical teaching from it. We tend to dismiss unclean spirits as coming from a primitive mindset and bring the affliction up to date by considering it a psychological problem which sends the poor man to a treatment facility far way from us.

I suggest that René Girard’s teaching on what he called “mimetic desire” gives us a richer approach. Basically, Girard’s insight is that our desires do not originate from within ourselves but are derived from other people; we all resonate deeply with each others’s desires. This resonance is fruitful if one person’s enthusiasm for a song inspires me to like the song so that we both enjoy the song. This resonance is more threatening if all of my friends hate a song I like so that I begin to doubt that I liked the song after all. This resonance with the desires of another becomes more dangerous if it becomes rivalrous as it does if two people desire to write and sing the best song. Some rivalrous relationships are more or less a fair fight but many times it is not. A strong-willed person, especially one with social power, can impose his or her desire on another in destructive ways. This is what happens in childhood trauma. Girard also teaches that a whole society can unite in a desire to destroy a person which is not a fight at all but a demolition.

However we understand the possession of this man, it is the imposition of something alien and oppressive. This is what a supernatural spirit would have done and maybe that was the case. But Girard’s teaching of mimetic desire shows us how an alien invasion could have afflicted this man and created a state of bondage through human agency. We get an important clue as to the nature of this alien invasion when the unclean spirit says: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mk. 1: 24) We often think that Jesus told the unclean spirit to be silent because the spirit was correct and Jesus didn’t want people to know that yet. But Robert Hamerton-Kelly points out that the term “Holy One of God” refers to Israel’s priesthood. One of the main jobs of the priest was to expel anybody who was “unclean.” Jesus’ silences the unclean spirit, then, because the spirit is wrong. Jesus does not represent a priesthood who expels the “unclean.” Quite the opposite. Jesus is expelling the collective attitude that the man is unclean when it is the crowd’s spirit that has invaded the man and declared him unclean. By casting out this spirit, Jesus makes the man clean and so that he can rejoin the community. If the community accepts what Jesus has done.

The crowd confirms that casting out the unclean spirit is Jesus’ teaching when it asks: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mk. 1: 27) Jesus is not healing an individual; he is healing a community. Or, Jesus is giving the community the opportunity to be healed. For healing to take place, the community must renounce the rivalry that had been imposed on one vulnerable person. In his stimulating book The Desire of the Nations, Oliver O’Donovan confirms the conflation of teaching and power in Jesus. (O’Donovan, 89) Picking up on the political aspect of exousia. O’Donovan goes on suggest that Jesus is using his authority to liberate Israel while treating “the fact of Roman occupation casually, with little respect and less urgency.” (O’Donovan, 93) That is, Jesus was focused on strengthening Israel rather than attacking the Roman Empire. Mark shows that Jesus’ liberation of Israel includes judging the leadership both of the teachers (the scribes) and the priests. Jesus’ action/teaching caused quite a sensation as word “spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee..” (Mk. 1: 28) A sensation is not the same as a healing. The excitement could easily be mistaken for a communal healing when it only reproduces the scapegoating process. We are left with the question of whether or not our communities accept the healing of Jesus where the unclean spirits of human persecution are cast out or if we will be swept away on the excitement of the crowd.

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

The Throne of David: Part Two

crecheThe celebration of the birth of Jesus is a time to put all political differences aside in glad agreement that this child is born. I wish! I have pointed out many times over the years when preaching on Luke’s nativity story that it puts political issues front and center, forcing us to confront our political realities if we are to confront the Gospel.

The key political words uttered by the angel who appeared to the shepherds are: “good news,” “savior,” and “peace.” These words sound innocuous to most of us but they aren’t. In Luke “Good News” is not a cheery feel-good article in the newspaper or on the Internet. “Savior” isn’t a cartoon super hero who knocks out the bad guys for us. “Peace” has to be understood rightly or it isn’t peace.

“Good News” or “Good Tidings” are the usual translations of the word euangelion. It also provides the title of Luke’s book. In Roman times, euangelion was the technical word for tidings sent out from Rome by the Emperor who was the only one who had the right to send out “good News” or “Good Tidings.” Caesar Augustus had recently sent out the Good News that he had won the long civil war triggered by the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive father Julius. This “Good News” made Augustus the “Savior” of the Roman Empire. Again, only the Emperor was allowed to be the “savior.” By winning the war, Augustus had brought “peace” to the Empire. Nobody else had the right to be the “peace” maker. But Augustus had brought and preserved “peace” through violence. Although many biblical historians have cast doubt on the likelihood that the registration ordered by Caesar Augustus happened right at the time of Jesus’ birth, it puts the whole nativity story under the shadow of the Emperor’s controlling power that enforced “peace” by keeping track of his subjects and pushing them from place to place if “necessary.”

At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel promised Mary that Jesus would inherit he throne from David from his heavenly Abba and reign forever, He would, however, be a very different king than his forbear. Another angel is now telling the shepherds that the true Good News is that this child has now been born and this child is the one who can truly save us from our own violence and establish true peace. Jesus’ rulership has been expanded beyond the House of David to the whole Empire, which is to say, the entire world. Caesar Augustus is the one who has usurped God’s role of savior and bringer of peace.

This neat contrast between Jesus and Caesar, however, looks like a political campaign between the competing leaders of two political parties. This is our human way of looking at it. The mystery is that Jesus did not come into the world to compete with Caesar Augustus the way he competed against Brutus and Mark Antony or David competed with Saul. Jesus came to preach and live a totally different way of living than the way of Empire, a way not based on violent competition but on mutual support. Rather than inflict violence in humanity’s never-ending civil war, Jesus took the whole violence of all empires in all times on himself in the place of all those who have been and ever will be victims of Empire. That shepherds, social outcasts in their time, heard the voice of the angel and the song of the heavenly host but the ruling elite saw and heard nothing should serve as a warning to those of us who are relatively well-off in our own time.

I suppose I shouldn’t spoil our Christmas party by bringing up Jesus’ death, but it is Jesus’ death that we will shortly commemorate at the altar. Closer to holiday cheer: we also celebrate at the altar the risen, forgiving resurrected life of Jesus that opens us up to a new birth, a new life, based on the forgiving risen life of the child whose birth we celebrate tonight.

See also The Throne of David: Part One

The Throne of David – Part One

MaryWhen the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to conceive and bear a son, the angel said that her son “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Lk. 32–33) However, the prophet Nathan made this same promise to King David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Sam. 7: 16) Likewise, Psalm 89 say that David’s “line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun. It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies.” (Ps. 89: 36–37)

But the throne of David’s house came to an abrupt end with the Babylonian conquest and exile. Right after echoing the promise to David, Psalm 89 went on to declare its falsity: “But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.” (Ps. 89: 38–39) According to the genealogy that opens Matthew’s Gospel, the line of David continued after the deportation to Babylon, but we know nothing about Salathiel and his descendants until we reach Joseph, the husband of Mary. Joseph was a carpenter, a worthwhile means of making a living, but carpenters are not usually considered royalty. The idea of a carpenter’s son ruling over the House of David forever was absurd. But that was hardly as absurd as God impregnating a young woman who was still a virgin.

From the moment of Jesus’ conception, then, we have the premonition that if the boy is going to grow up to become a king who rules forever, he is going to be a very different king than his ancestor David. He will be raised in a backwater of Galilee rather than in a palace. He will not have glossy magazines printing feature stories about him. His retinue will be a small group of men of humble origins, many of them fishers. The biggest and most crucial difference will be that David replaced Saul as king because he slew tens of thousands to Saul’s thousands, (1 Sam: 18: 7) but Jesus would not wield a sword. Neither did he compete for the kingship with anybody, whether within or without Israel while David competed both against the Philistines and his own king. Rather than running a military operation, he let the Roman military operation run him up against the cross. But this slain king still reigns forever. How can this be? The angel also told Mary that her son would be holy and “be called the son of God.” (Lk. 1: 35) Whereas David, descended from the house of Jesse in Bethlehem, rose up in the world, Jesus came down from heaven to a totally washed up royal house. That’s quite a come down! But after dying on the cross, Jesus was raised from the dead where he does rule forever. And yet we still fight with each other, trying to kill tens of thousands over/against the thousands killed by our competitors. We fight those in our defined out-groups while we struggle against those within our in-groups whose authority we resent. But Jesus reigns without competing and without resentment. As one who became one of us among humans, Jesus is with us, within our hearts just as much as he is at the right hand of his heavenly Abba. Are we willing to be subject to a king as low as this?

 

See also The Throne of David: Part Two