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.

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.

The Elusive Trinity

KatrinaCrossAbraham1The Trinity is a fundamental doctrine for Christianity but Christianity is a story of salvation before it is a set of doctrines. The Trinity is no exception. If we get the story right, we might get the doctrine right, but if we get the story wrong, then we get the doctrine wrong for sure.

John 3 tells of Nicodemus coming to see Jesus at night, suggesting he is in the dark. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” (Jn. 3:3) don’t seem to follow from what Nicodemus has just said. It sounds like the answer to a question that was not asked. Is there an implied question to what Nicodemus did say? The only implied question I can pick up is: “How do I do the signs that you do?” If so, Jesus is saying that Nicodemus is asking the wrong question. Jesus says first that Nicodemus must be born again, or born from above, most likely both. Jesus “clarifies” the matter by saying that Nicodemus must be “born of the Spirit,” which is a problem since, like the wind, nobody knows “where it comes from or where it goes..” (Jn. 3: 8) Here, one Person of the Trinity enters into this story.

So far, Nicodemus is showing difficulty in knowing what he really wants, further indicating that he is in the dark. We are tempted to laugh at him for his obtuseness, but we would do well to ask ourselves if we really know what we want? So asking ourselves inserts us into the story where all of us are in the same pickle as Nicodemus, which is to say, we are all in the dark. René Girard is helpful here when he suggests that all of us don’t know what we want and so we all look to other people to show us what we want. That is, if we see (rightly or wrongly) other people wanting something, we tend to want it too. Girard also gives us the insight that since none of us knows what we really want, we end up in a social muddle that is fraught with conflict. In Romans, Paul tells us that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (Rom. 8: 14) So, even though we don’t know what we want we can be born anew, from above, into the Kingdom if we let this Spirit, whom we can’t understand or grasp, lead us.

Then, in another non sequitur, Jesus tells us a mini-story: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (Jn. 3: 13) While Nicodemus and the rest of us have been thinking of rising above our humanity, Jesus has come down to take on our humanity and only then did he rise back up to heaven. So, trying to do the signs that Jesus did by some human technique is bound to fail and will keep us in the dark. But Jesus then retells a mysterious story in Numbers as a variant of the first story. During a medical and social crisis of plague in the wilderness, the sort of crisis Girard warns us will happen when we don’t know what we want, Moses was instructed to raise a bronze serpent so that any who look upon it are healed. Jesus is now claiming that he is the “bronze serpent” raised up on the cross. Raising Jesus on the cross is the result of our muddle over not knowing what we want and falling into violence as did the Jews in the desert. Yet looking at Jesus on the cross to the point of really seeing what we have done offers us a cure of our violence. Not only that, but so looking at Jesus will give us eternal life. In John, this phrase does not refer primarily to life after death but to the quality of life here and now (and presumably after death as well.) Being cured of our violence certainly is a way to an improved quality of life. This is the way of being born again, from above, of being children of God. Once born from above, our desires become much clearer and they are focused on the well-being of other people. More important, after coming down from heaven, Jesus did not return there until after he was raised up on the cross. What is above and what is below has gotten thoroughly turned around. We now have two members of the Trinity in our story.

Then Jesus briefly tells the same story in a different way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn. 3: 16) Jesus was not sent to condemn the world, although there was much to condemn, but Jesus was sent so that the world might be saved through him. Paul says that the Holy Spirit cries out within us: “Abba! Father!” This exclamation makes us joint heirs with Christ if we allow our desires to be formed by the Desire that flows through all three persons of the Trinity.

When presented as just a doctrine, the Trinity looks like an mutual admiration society of three. When presented as a story, the Trinity is a union of three persons dedicated to creating and re-creating humanity and all creation.

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.