On Entering Jesus’ Baptism

HolyWater1When we dip our fingers in a holy water stoup as a reminder of our baptism, how much do we really remember? Do we stop to think that the water is as explosive as the bread we receive at the Eucharist?

John baptizing people with water at the River Jordan seems idyllic if we overlook John’s warnings to flee the wrath to come and the axe poised to chop down the tree of our lives; all this to prepare the way for the one who comes to baptize with fire to burn away the chaff. The baptism of Jesus seems much gentler in that Jesus did not need to be cleansed of sins and vices like the rest of us and so didn’t need to be saved from a wrathful response from God. But this peaceful event becomes dramatic when a voice from Heaven declares Jesus to be God’s son with whom God is well pleased. Whatever Jesus is going to baptize people with, it won’t be fire burning up the chaff.

At the end of his life, the baptism with which Jesus is baptized turns out to be his suffering and death on a cross. This makes it clear that we did not need to be baptized to ward off the wrath of God, but to ward off human wrath. What we needed was to be delivered from the wrath in our own hearts that led us to join the persecutors of Jesus. This is what Paul was getting at in his epistles, when he wrote of baptism as a passage through the death of Jesus into Jesus’ resurrection. The passage of baptism, then, is a passage into death to our own wrath, then unto the flood of the wrath of other humans which was inflicted on Jesus, and ending in a new resurrected life without wrath.

The acclamation of Jesus’ heavenly Abba becomes all the more significant in retrospect as it gave Jesus the loving encouragement to go through his own baptism. When we follow Jesus in our baptism, we also begin with the encouragement of the voice from Heaven that we are beloved of God. Far from being driven to flee God’s wrath, we are invited by love to enter the cleansing water so as to participate in God’s affirming love, a love that will sustain us when we struggle with our own wrath and suffer the wrath of others.

That’s a lot to think about when we dip our fingers into a holy water stoup.

John’s Offended Puzzlement

Mattia_Preti_-_San_Giovanni_Battista_PredicazioneJohn the Baptist is so closely associated with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry that it’s easy to see them as two of a kind. Both preached repentance. Both died the death of a martyr.

But if the two of them saw eye to eye, why would John send his disciples to ask Jesus if Jesus was “the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt. 11: 3) As is usually the case when asked any kind of question, Jesus gives only an indirect answer. He lists the miracles that are happening such as the blind receiving their sight and the lame walking. Then he caps it off with the cryptic and seemingly incoherent words: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Mt. 11: 6) The implication is that John is taking offense at Jesus, or is in danger of doing so. If Jesus is concerned that John, his onetime mentor, might take offense at him, what about his followers? What about us?

The Greek word used here for “offense” and throughout the New Testament is skandalon. We get the English word “scandal” from it. The word means “a stumbling block” and it particularly applies to conflictual circumstances. In the thought of René Girard, two or more people in conflict are stumbling blocks to one another. In his important book The Scandal of the Gospels, David McCracken examines the concept of scandal at length. Jesus’ challenge in his reply to John’s followers is central to McCracken’s argument that faith and scandal are inextricably entangled. What this amounts to is that “only when the possibility of offense exists will the possibility of faith exist.” Being offended, scandalized by Jesus takes us half-way there. One who is not offended because of indifference has not even started. (McCracken 1994, p.82) On the other hand, someone who is stuck in being scandalized for the sake of being scandalized is not likely to move forward either. The people who were scandalized by both John and Jesus, although for opposite reasons, fit this profile. (Mt. 11: 16–19)

So why might John or we take offence at Jesus? Both Jesus and John called for repentance but John’s warnings were accompanied by images of wrath: an axe at the tree, a winnowing fork, fire. John’s preaching can be heard as a renewal of Isaiah’s prophecy of hope: creating a highway through the desert as God did to bring the Jews back from the Babylonian exile, opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, coming with vengeance and “a terrible recompense.” (Is. 35) If we tick the boxes of Jesus’ ministry, there is a check mark for each item except for the “terrible recompense.” There are also no axes, winnowing forks, or fire in Jesus’ preaching. Perhaps John felt like an emcee announcing a dramatic act only to get a puff when he thought he’d get an explosion.

When we think of the people in our lives and public figures who affect us that we sincerely think are “a brood of vipers,” do we want the wrath they are fleeing to fall on them? Are there people we think should be chopped down and thrown into the fire? If we harbor the same vengeful feelings, we are scandalized by these people. How then do we feel about a preaching ministry where the poor and the peacemakers are blessed and we are asked to forgive those who scandalize us? Are we scandalized at the idea of renouncing vengeance against these people? If so, then we are taking offense at Jesus and we are not blessed.

The earnest moral sense and integrity of John the Baptist represents the best humanity has to offer but “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” That is, as soon as we take even the smallest of baby steps in the way of forgiveness and not being scandalized by seriously scandalous people, we are better than the best humanity can offer. There’s nothing to be proud of here. Jesus healed the cripple when he forgave his sins. This same forgiveness heals us and gives us the strength to take these baby steps into the Kingdom of God.

The Place of Jesus

crossRedVeil1When Jesus warns of wars and insurrections fought by nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom, he is painting an image of humanity divided by violent conflicts on a grand scale. These conflicts are coupled with catastrophic natural disasters such as earthquakes, plagues, and famines. .(Lk. 21: 9–11) Jesus then goes on to warn his followers of persecutions on an equally large scale involving kings and governors, clearly suggesting a strong connection between strife and persecution. In the late twentieth century, the French thinker René Girard speculated that humanity suffered the same dangerous conflicts at the dawn of civilization and it instinctively resolved the conflicts by persecuting a victim or small group of victims. These victims were blamed for both the violence and the earthquakes and the plagues and famines. Blaming the victims entailed falsifying the reality of what had happened. Persecution and lies are inseparable. It is not difficult to see that Jesus saw clearly the truth in his time that Girard was to articulate in ours.

When warning of persecution, Jesus advises us not to prepare a defense in advance because Jesus will give us words and a wisdom that “none of [our] opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Lk. 21: 15) How is this so? Since persecution requires falsehood, then it follows that truth is found in the perspective of the victim of persecution. That is, the victim is in a highly privileged position to see what others, clouded by the accusations of persecutors, do not see. This is a dubious privilege since the place of the victim is excruciatingly painful and sometimes does not last very long.

But this is the place Jesus occupied and this is the place where any of us who would be followers of Jesus also have to be ready to occupy. Jesus knew that, barring a massive social act of repentance, the volatile situation in his time and place was going to result in the persecution of a victim. Jesus made sure that he, and not somebody else, would be that victim. This is what it means to say that Jesus died for us; not that Jesus died to deflect the alleged wrath of God.

In this place of the victim, reality is crystal clear in a way that it is not in any other place. This is why we really do not know what to say, how to say it, how to act, what our bearing should be until we are actually there. Presumably, Jesus had no script for facing Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate. He knew what to say and what not to say only when he stood in that position. And only if and when we stand in that same position will we know what to say, how to say it, and what not to say.

The position of the victim is not one that involves calling for vengeance, hoping that God will burn the bad guys into stubble, but instead, one only prays for “the sun of righteousness to rise with healing in its wings.” (Mal. 4: 1–2) To wish vengeance is to wish to become a persecutor if the opportunity should arise. Jesus himself did not call for vengeance, and when he was raised from the dead and could have inflicted vengeance, he did nothing of the kind. Jesus assures us that, in this place of the victim where we may be betrayed and even put to death, not a hair of our “heads will perish,” and by our endurance we will “win our souls.” (Lk. 21: 18–19)

Winning our souls can be understood in many ways, but in the place of the victim, winning our souls means seeing God as God truly is by being like God in the same place as God, like the sun with healing in its wings. (Cf. 1 Jn. 3: 2) This winning of souls is precisely what we see in the story of the 21 Coptic Martyrs in 2015, whose story has been told by Martin Mosebach. In interviewing the families of these martyrs, Mosebach encountered grief but also rejoicing in their loved ones’ rising in Christ. In losing sons, brothers, husbands, these people were also in the place of the victim. Mosebach said in his many conversations: “never once did anyone call for retribution or revenge, nor even for the murders to be punished.” This is what it means to be in the place of the risen and forgiving Victim.

Unjust Judges and Widows

crosswButterfliesThe introduction to the Parable of the Unjust Judge tells us that we should keep on praying and never give up. At the end of the parable, Jesus tells us that we should keep on praying even when our prayers go unanswered for so long that we think we are praying to one who does not care and perhaps is not even just.

It happens that in life, nagging and nagging is often the only way to get justice, or what we think is justice. There are some people who are eager to help and will hop to a request as soon as it is spoken, but many people are rather slow to do what is asked of them, and many people have vested interests in denying pleas for justice. These are the people who have more power than others and they usually use that power to take advantage of those who are weaker. Do the people with power take an initiative in renouncing their power for the benefit of others? Do people with power renounce it when politely requested to do so? We all know that doesn’t happen very often. Even in the top-down case of Czar Alexander II freeing the serfs in Russia, the class structure in Russia didn’t change very much.

Most of us instinctively identify with the widow who is trying to get justice. As widows, we expect that God’s granting of justice involves God strong-arming the unjust judges of the world until all of us widows get our rights. But that is not what happened with Jesus. Far from dismantling the unjust rule of the Romans, Jesus himself was condemned to death by the unjust judges among the Jewish leaders, the Roman governor, and the rest of us in the crowd. As the culmination of the persecuted prophets, Jesus reveals God to be the widow who is pleading with us, for justice.

That is. we are the unjust judges. Even people with little power overall tend to be unjust judges over those (such as children) who have even less power. This portrait of humanity raises the question as to whether it is God who delays justice. If humans act unjustly and delay justice to the point that injustice is a longstanding epidemic, then God could have been working overtime since the dawn of civilization and still have no hope of keeping up with the injustice.

Jesus as the crucified widow who died at our hands, the unjust judges, is not what we were looking for when we thought of ourselves as widows. But that is what we got. Not only that, but we also got the resurrected widow who still pleads for justice without ceasing. As the resurrected widow, Jesus has offered us, the unjust judges, forgiveness and the offer to enter into the kingship of Jesus. The parable suggests that we enter as importunate widows who plead with forgiveness and love for the unjust judges as some of our greatest leaders have done, leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu. But we also enter the kingship of Heaven as repentant unjust judges. In the parable, the Unjust Judge only relents because he is more miserable from being hassled by the widow than he is with any power he might lose by giving her justice. But at least the Unjust Judge finally does the right thing, even if his motives are as selfish as those of the Dishonest Steward in the earlier parable. (Lk. 16: 10–13) Maybe if we start to do the right thing, however grudgingly, we might find that doing the right thing, of granting justice to those weaker than we, isn’t so bad after all. Maybe giving justice can become a habit.

What does this parable teach us about prayer? It surely teaches us to pray constantly like the importunate widow, and to thirst for justice, as the Sermon on the Mount would have us do. However, we are not praying to a strong man who will manhandle the bad guys for us. (We would be among those so manhandled in that case.) We are praying with God the Crucified and Risen Widow who offers us freedom from our own injustice so that we can spread justice to others with a burning desire.

Learning How to Pray to Our Abba

HolyFamilybyGutierrezWhen Jesus’ disciples asked their master how they should pray, he taught them a prayer that has us learn by doing. We are taken aback by Luke’s shorter version of this prayer (Lk. 11: 2–4) since the liturgical use of Matthew’s version with an added doxology causes us to think it is the only form it has. We will find, however, that this shorter version has the main elements of the longer one.

The opening word, Abba, is startling. The English word “father” fails to capture the tone of the Aramaic word believed by scholars to be the one Jesus used here. Even those of us who know this word from preachers and scholars can easily forget the impact of addressing God so intimately, the way a small child addresses his or her father. It is easier to identify with Abraham who speaks deferentially to God when interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah. He seems very much afraid of pestering God too much, perhaps afraid God will rain fire and brimstone on him if he keeps at it. (Gen. 18: 20–32) Unfortunately, many people experience their earthly fathers in this way, and project such experiences on our heavenly Abba.

The petition: “Hallowed be your name,” asks that God vindicate God’s name as when God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. Such acts make God so awesome they make us forget that God is our Abba. But perhaps Jesus is teaching us that what we thought was such an awesome god is really as close, even closer, than a parent to a small child, a different kind of awesome. Miracles can be intimate.

“Your kingdom come” is a prayer for this awesomely intimate God to establish the kingship, the right ordering of human relationships, that Jesus has been preaching in his teaching ministry. Hallowing God’s name in this way and establishing God’s kingship both constitute God’s will being done on earth as in heaven.

“Give us today our daily bread” is a petition indicating that God’s kingship, God’s will, is that each person have reasonable and needed sustenance and nobody should go without. “Forgive us our sins” as we forgive those “indebted to us” makes forgiveness central to the right ordering of human relationships. The final petition: “And do not bring us to the time of trial” is a prayer that we not suffer the social disorder, turmoil and violence that comes of neither feeding each other nor forgiving one another. This time of trial, of course, is also the evil we pray to be delivered from. These petitions taught by Jesus teach us to pray that we treat people with the same intimacy that our Abba offers us.

Looking back at Abraham’s bargaining for Sodom and Gomorrah, we begin to suspect that it was human violence that destroyed the cities, and not God’s, since Jesus is making it clear that God’s kingship is not about destroying cities. It is worth noting that, although Abraham is afraid of asking too much of God, God shows no impatience with each request and perhaps would have been patient even with bargaining all the way down to zero.

Jesus’ model prayer raises questions about possible differences between our Abba’s intentions and our projections. Would we rather hoard sustenance rather than share it? Would we rather hold grudges than forgive? Jesus speaks to these questions in a pair of mini-parables that elaborate on the prayer he has just taught us. Do we think that our Abba is as grudging and stingy as a family that has gone to bed for the night and does not want to be inconvenienced by a neighbor’s emergency need for three loaves of bread? Would any of us give our own child a snake or a scorpion instead of a fish or an egg? The statistics on cruelty to children suggest that many people do just that. These mini-parables on prayer suggest that if we sincerely pray for God’s name to be hallowed and for God’s kingship to come, then we would willingly suffer inconvenience to give sustenance to a neighbor and would want all children to have fish and eggs rather than snakes or scorpions.

St. Paul admonishes us to be rooted and built up in Christ, (Col. 2: 7) the very person who taught us how to pray. The homely images of Jesus’ mini-parables give way to Paul’s cosmic imagery of “rulers and authorities” who run the world through the violence of withholding necessities and stoking vengeance. Paul says that Jesus has nailed all of this violence to the cross so that the intimacy of nurturing and forgiveness triumphs in Jesus. To be rooted in Christ is to give fish and eggs and forgiveness to one another. This is how the cosmos should operate.

Holding Back the Fire—Embracing the Beloved Community

GuestsoutsideWhen called by the prophet Elijah, (1 Kings 19: 19–21) Elisha asks to kiss his mother and father first. When he is rebuked for this demurral, he slaughters his oxen, breaks the yokes and burns them, and then follows Elijah. That is, he burns his bridges in making a clean break. Elisha makes this break, however, to join a brotherhood of prophets who have set up an alternate community to the violent and idolatrous kingdom of Ahab and Jezebel. Unfortunately, this community is also compromised by violence as Elijah calls fire down on his enemies (2 Kings 1: 10–12) and one of the prophets anoints Jehu to pull of a violent coup d’état. (2 Kings 9)

We see the same dynamics of making a clean break in the stories of Jesus calling his disciples. The earlier callings of Peter, Andrew, James, John and the others were successful as they left their boats and families and followed Jesus. But when Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem where he will be crucified, we have what appear to be three failed callings. (Lk. 9: 57-62) In each case, Jesus is stressing the homelessness and the break with the culture these people have known, just as Elijah was asking Elishah to do. They will have no place to lay their heads because, with Jesus, they will no longer have a place in the culture. The dead can bury the dead because the culture they would be leaving is dead. Like a farmer at the plow, they must look ahead, towards Jerusalem, not back the way they came.

We normally think the cultures we live in are pretty good. After all, they have nurtured us from infancy and we owe a lot to them. But the story preceding the failed callings shows up the problem with our cultures. The solidarity with our “own” people tends to put us at enmity with those who are “other.” The beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem takes him through Samaria, where a village there did not “receive” them. Whether or not they were actually rejected by the Samaritans is not clear, but the suggestion of James and John that they command fire to rain down on the Samaritans suggests they probably were. This quick escalation from rejection to total destruction is the trademark of human culture that builds up such enmity and violence. Jesus rebukes his disciples for suggesting such a thing. Interestingly, some manuscripts add a verse where Jesus says: “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.” Even if this added verse is not authentic, Jesus’s rebuke already conveys that sentiment. Rejection and raining down fire is the culture of violence that the disciples and would-be disciples are commanded to turn away from.

Turning away from one’s own culture, in itself, is negative. As long as it is negative, it is fueled by alienation and resentment, which leads to the seething irrational anger of the Underground Man as Dostoevsky calls him. Cutting oneself off from everybody is also a violent act, one that can lead to senseless violence as it does with the Underground Man who eventually attacks another person out of sheer spite. I myself was mired in such alienation and resentment for some years when the problems with my own culture became evident through the Viet Nam War, racist practices and other social ills. This attitude felt like freedom until I was freed by God from the resentment and discovered it had really been a prison.

In Galatians 5, Paul illustrates the culture Jesus is calling us from, what he calls the “works of the flesh,” as “licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy” and much, much more. It is precisely envy, quarreling, strife and the like that makes human culture so violent that rejection from other humans leads to raining down fire in retaliation. No wonder some people turn away in disgust and resentment. But Jesus would have us turn away from the culture of death and violence, not to close in on ourselves in impotent fury, but to embrace humanity in a much deeper, much more inclusive way. Paul says that the fruits of the Spirit, the spirit that comes to save lives, not destroy them, are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. “ (Gal. 5: 22–23) Just a bit further on his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus illustrates the fruit of the Spirit with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10: 25–37) where the enemy the disciples would rain fire on is the one who shows compassion for an enemy who, in turn, is challenged to accept love from an enemy. Paul says this is crucifying the “flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5: 24) As Jesus shows at the end of the road to Jerusalem, kindness, generosity, gentleness and the like end up on the cross where the strife, jealousy and envy of the people is absorbed. Once we embrace this culture of love, what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the Beloved Community,” we embrace the culture we have renounced so as to bring it into the culture of the Spirit.

The Lamb of God is our Shepherd

Ghent_Altarpiece_D_-_Adoration_of_the_Lamb_2We usually understand a shepherd to be one who leads a flock of sheep and protects it from harm. But in Revelation, the author proclaims “the Lamb at the center of the throne” to be the shepherd of the multitude of worshipers from all nations. The worshipers are praising this Lamb whom they follow and the Lamb “will guide them to springs of the water of life.” (Rev. 7: 17) Their white robes have been made white in the blood of this Lamb because the Lamb has lead his followers through the ordeal. This is an odd sort of shepherd since normally it is the job of the shepherd to protect the flock from danger, not lead the flock into it.

In John 10, often referred to as the Good Shepherd Discourse, Jesus claims that he is the true shepherd who protects his sheep, even to the extent of laying his life down for his sheep. (Jn. 10: 11) Jesus is not only the leader, but he is the gateway into the fold, the only gateway safe from thieves who come to destroy. When Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” (Jn. 10: 27) he is attesting to a much more intimate relationship between himself and the sheep than is usually the case. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus is not just leading us, his flock, externally by walking in front of us, Jesus is leading us from within, speaking in a voice that we learn to hear as quite distinct from bandits and robbers who come to destroy or hired hands who run away when there is danger.

Early in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist points to Jesus and calls him “the Lamb of God.” The reason that the sheep hear their shepherd’s voice and recognize it intimately is because their shepherd is a lamb, one of them. As the Lamb of God, Jesus protects his sheep from being snatched out of his hand. (Jn. 10: 28) But what does the Lamb of God protect the sheep from? We were not protected from bandits and robbers any more than the martyrs in white robes were protected from the ordeal. What the Lamb of God protects us from is being or becoming bandits and robbers. That is, we are protected from being people who shed the blood in which the white robes of the martyrs are washed. Most important, it is precisely by being the Lamb of God that this shepherd does not attack robbers and thieves with the violence they impose on him, but instead he lays down his life, not only for those of us in the sheepfold, but for those who attack him and the flock. This raises the question: In protecting us from becoming bandits and robbers, is Jesus laying down his life to turn those of us who have become bandits and robbers from what we have become? If the Lamb of God died for sinners as St. Paul claimed many times, then that is exactly what he has done and that is why, in following the Lamb of God as our shepherd, we do the same, secure in the sheepfold of our shepherd with the multitudes from every nation.