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.

It Was Necessary

yellowTulips1Easter is an occasion of great rejoicing with bells, boisterous singing, and feasting. But do we really know what we are celebrating? The Gospel reading, doesn’t exactly ring out with Christmas joy of angels filling the skies with songs of God’s glory. Instead, we get “two men in dazzling clothes” who tell the women who came to the grave to anoint Jesus’ body that Jesus was not there but had risen. They had come to the wrong place.

A small group of confused women running off to stammer the news to the disciples isn’t exactly a celebration either. The disciples’s thinking the news is an “idle tale” may reflect a masculine condescending attitude towards women, but their reaction also shows how totally disorienting the news was. The Gospel reading ends with Peter running to the tomb to take a look for himself, seeing the empty linen clothes lying about, and then going home, “amazed at what had happened.” (Lk. 24: 12) Still no celebration; just a lot of unanswered questions. Luke continues his Resurrection narrative with two followers of Jesus walking to Emmaus with no indication of why they should be going there, implying that they are going the wrong way. Their conversation with a stranger on the way confirms their sense of confusion. Should we, too, be too disoriented to celebrate?

I think the key to understanding the problem lies in the words of the angelic beings: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Lk. 24: 6–7) The stranger who met up with the two disciples asked them rhetorically: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24: 26) The word “must” is the key here. The Greek word dei is often translated “it is necessary.” In this case, for whom was it “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners to be crucified and then rise on the third day? There is a tendency to think the death was necessary for God, but that suggests that God needed to have God’s own son die a painful death. Many people have a problem with that notion, I among them.

I find the French thinker René Girard helpful here. He interprets the available anthropological evidence as indicating a tendency of archaic societies to solve social tensions by a process that transforms competitive relationships throughout the society into a shared desire to focus on one person and then kill that person who is deemed responsible for the social tensions. The ensuing peace (for a time) is so strong that the victim is then worshiped as a deity. It is this social mechanism that convinces people that it is necessary for “god” that the victim be killed. Throughout this process, the truth of the victim is precisely what nobody knows, except possibly the victim.

This truth of the victim was gradually being revealed in the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people, most prominently in the verses about the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah, whom the people accounted “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” (Is. 53: 4) But then the people realized that they, not the victim, were the guilty ones. God had vindicated the “stricken one,” not the persecutors. It was these passages in Isaiah that most helped Jesus’ followers begin to make sense of what had happened to Jesus.

But on the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, the disciples had not thought to connect Jesus with the Suffering Servant. Jesus had told them many times that it was “necessary” that he be handed over to be crucified, but they could not understand. How could it be “necessary” that the man who they thought was going to restore Israel should be handed over to death? They assumed it was “necessary” that the guilty ones be handed over, not the innocent. Then, at Passover time, Jesus was deemed to be the guilty one who was causing the tumult by both religious and civil authorities, and so he was handed over. But the disciples had thought Jesus was innocent. Had they gotten their man wrong? Their fleeing when Jesus was arrested suggests they weren’t so sure.

The empty tomb was the first hint that Jesus’ death wasn’t business as usual. A tomb was supposed to have the corpse of the guilty one, but this one didn’t. The announcement of the angelic beings to the women was a stronger hint that Jesus was innocent after all. The women were told that it, although it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over and killed, it was even more necessary that Jesus be raised from the dead. By raising Jesus from the dead, God showed Jesus’ followers that the “necessity” that Jesus die was a human necessity, a necessity of human factors, and that it was Jesus’ rising from the dead that was the true divine necessity. Only then could the disciples have their minds opened to understand the scriptures when the Risen Lord met with them himself. (Lk. 24: 45)

It is gloriously great news and a wondrous cause for rejoicing that we are freed from the human “necessity” to blame a victim who is put to death for the crimes of a society. That is, unless we feel too disoriented about not having scapegoats. Maybe that is why rejoicing in Jesus’ Resurrection is a much greater challenge than rejoicing in the birth of a child who is going to accomplish something great—what, we don’t know. Rejoicing in the necessity that Jesus be raised from the dead requires us to change our minds and hearts in radical ways to take in this news. Most challenging of all, we have to accept and then embody the forgiveness of the Risen Victim when storms of accusation remain the status quo even at this present day. Are we up to the challenge? Will we come to the party?

For an introduction to the thought of René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

On Being Called by God

AndrewPreaching1The narratives of the call of Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter bring to mind my own experiences of God’s call. In my case, it wasn’t quite like being attacked by a Cherubim in church, getting knocked down on the Road to Damascus or being told to throw out the fishing nets one more time and being overwhelmed by the catch.

I did quite a lot of fishing as a child for the simple reason that my father loved it and my family spent most summer vacations at a fishing lodge. I lost interest in fishing by the time I was a teenager but the contemplative aspect of fishing stayed with me as I became a monk. While praying the Divine Office and praying silently in the Abbey Church, I constantly sense God calling me out of my self-preoccupations and self-indulgence to the wider concerns of God.

I had the call of Isaiah memorized when I was a choirboy because I sang an overwrought anthem to that text, ending with the prophet’s quiet volunteering to be sent by God. Even then, I had intimations that I might be called to the ministry although I was put off by how much kneeling I would have to do. Even so, one Sunday when our whole family was too sick to go to church, I led the four of us in the Office of Morning Prayer. As for kneeling, liturgical renewal dealt with that.

During my late high school and college years, I was a self-styled religious rebel who didn’t like the way God ran the universe. Like Paul, I was quite vocal about saying what I thought to anyone who would listen and to others who would rather not. By hindsight, I realize that I was being called all that time until I listened sufficiently to get on the track that led me to St. Gregory’s Abbey. By then I had come to realize that God doesn’t try to run the universe but God has pointed out ways we can run it better than we’re doing it if only we would listen.

It is tempting to think that one is special if one senses a call from God, as if God would surely call a superior person such as myself. But Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter all felt differently when approached by God. In each case, the call convicted them and pulled them out of the way they were living to a radical change of attitude and activity. In my case, I had to realize that a seminary I went to after graduating from college was the wrong choice for me, one fueled by my rebellious attitude. Only then could I hear the call to a seminary much better suited for me.

In God’s mission charge to Isaiah, God tells him to tell the people: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” (Is. 6: 9) Jesus uses these same words to characterize the response he got from his own preaching. Some way to be “ catching people.” (Lk. 5: 10) There are many ways one can understand what it means to be a person of unclean lips living “among a people of unclean lips.” (Is. 6: 5) René Girard writes of the human tendency to share desires so intensely that they become rivalrous. When that happens, we may have ears but we will not hear what other people are saying and we will not hear what God is saying to us. In my case, I had cast myself so deeply into rivalry with God that I drowned out the direction of my call for many years. Since the most vulnerable people in a society bear the brunt of the rivalry of the powerful, deafness to the cries of the poor go unheard with only prophets like Isaiah to defend them.

Paul received his call from the resurrected Christ who asked Paul why he was persecuting him in the act of persecuting his people. John’s Gospel has a variant of the story of the overwhelming catch of fish placed after the Resurrection which raises the intriguing question of whether or not Luke placed a resurrection narrative in an early chapter of his narrative. In any case, after deserting Jesus, the disciples did need to be called a second time by the resurrected Christ. Jesus was raised from the dead because first he was killed in an act of collective violence, the sort of persecution Girard argues is the result of a society allowing itself to be swamped in rivalry where we have ears but fail to hear.

Since God’s call to each of us entails preaching the Word and, much more important, witnessing to it in our ways of living, we are fundamentally spreading our repentance to others to open their ears as well. The hazard is that a sense of rivalry can enter through the back door if we treat our ministry of witnessing as a contest in which we try to “defeat” the other and win a “victory.” What we need to do is listen to ourselves in God, and listen to others as God listens to them, and use our listening skills, based on repentance, to help other people learn to listen.

For an introduction to the thought of René Girard, see Violence and the Kingdom of God  and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim.

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.