On Giving Everything

“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mk. 10: 21) These words of Jesus to the rich young man who says he wants to follow Jesus haunt us so powerfully that we all squirm and look for loopholes. Since few people have followed this advice literally, not even people who say they take the Bible literally, I guess I could say most of us have found at least one. My New Testament professor in seminary said that these words mean that we have to give up whatever it is that comes between us and the Kingdom of God That is pretty common loophole, but it also has much insight and doesn’t leave us off the hook altogether. As a Benedictine monk, I could self-righteously claim to have followed Jesus’ words since I have no legal title to anything, but the monastery I live in has possessions so I’m not so sure I follow Jesus’ words so thoroughly that I can look down on other people. On St. Benedict’s day, I think we can get a better idea of what Jesus’ words say us and how Benedict would have us understand them by looking at the other two lections for guidance.

Benedict models much of the Rule on the Bible’s Wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, often quoting or paraphrasing it, as in the admonition to apply the heart to understanding and call out for insight. (Prov. 2: 2–3) This suggests that understanding Jesus’ hard words requires commitment to know what they mean to us, no matter the cost. Speaking of cost, the Sage urges us to seek wisdom as we would for silver or hidden treasure. (Prov. 2: 4) The Sage seems to presuppose, as does Jesus, actually, that we tend to be greedy for riches and so the Sage and Jesus challenge us to desire wisdom at least as much as that. But why are silver and gold so desirable? They are desirable because they are desired. Other people want them so the rest of us want them too. Moreover, silver and gold are desired at the expense of other people. It isn’t enough to have some silver and gold; it is necessary to have more than the next person. Jesus, on the other hand, redirects us to the treasure in the field that is worth spending everything we have to obtain it. What kind of treasure is this? According to Proverbs, the treasure is “knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2: 6). Any takers?

In writing to the Colossians, St. Paul would have us clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Col. 2: 12) As if this isn’t enough, and it isn’t, Paul goes on to tell us to bear with one another, and forgive as God forgives us. And as if that still isn’t enough, and it isn’t, Paul admonishes us to clothe ourselves with love “which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col. 3: 14) Maybe that’s enough, but clothing ourselves with love takes all that we’ve got, or the cloak of love will be threadbare and cold. In any case, clothing ourselves in love leads us to “admonish one another in all wisdom,” which we are to treasure more than silver or gold. Wisdom is shown here to be a social quest, not an individual quest. We either grow in wisdom together, or we diminish into a bunch of fools. Rather than wanting more than others have, we value the well-being of others, even if it is at the expense of ourselves. Singing spiritual songs with gratitude is something Benedict expects his monastics to do all day. The Work of God (the Divine Office) is itself a great treasure, one that should be preferred above other treasures. To top all this off, we should “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3: 17) Once again, we have to give all that we’ve got. That’s all Jesus is asking of the rich young man and that’s all Jesus is asking of us. Sorry, no loopholes here.

The Weakness of God (2)

The brief account of Jesus’ Resurrection that ends Mark’s Gospel has puzzled readers since the Gospel was written, judging by the two additions tacked on to it. Why would the inventor of the Gospel as a literary genre end the narrative with the women running from the tomb, frightened out of their wits? In a time when uncertain endings to literary works have been in vogue for over a century, we seem more able and willing to puzzle out the ending more sympathetically than earlier readers could. It also seems fitting that in another year when a pandemic has closed many churches from public worship and silenced the usual trumpets and choruses, we have a Gospel that discourages such celebrating.

In his provocative A Study in Mark, Austin Farrer suggests that the “young man” at the tomb telling the women to tell the disciples that Jesus is going before them to Galilee has a cyclical effect. Far from going in a circle, though, the return to Galilee and the beginning of Mark’s Gospel allows one to re-read everything in light of the Resurrection. With this insight, the ending isn’t quite the downer it seemed to be and maybe at least a muted trumpet can sound. It isn’t hard to see a foretaste of the Resurrection in the healing of the paralytic, one of Jesus’ earlier miracles. (Mk. 2: 1–12) The paralytic being lowered through the roof so that he can rise up on his feet, cured by Jesus, has the shape of Jesus’ descending to the grave and rising up. Many more foretastes of the Resurrection follow in subsequent healings and exorcisms with the raising of Jairus’s daughter being the climax. The two narratives of Jesus’ feeding a multitude suggest Jesus redeeming his own people and then redeeming the Gentiles, pointing to the mission that postdated the Resurrection.

This reading of the Resurrection into Mark works very well until we get roughly half way through the Gospel. This is where the power of Jesus turns into weakness, where Jesus fails to get his followers to understand him and, in the end, is nailed to the cross. Interestingly, Farrer didn’t try to read the Resurrection into the second half of the Gospel. One can see why. It’s hard to see the Resurrection in the misunderstandings and hostility that Jesus suffers. Before giving it up, though, let’s take a look to see if there are at least traces of the Resurrection in this less promising material. Since this is the point where Jesus had eschewed using authoritative power, perhaps this weakness has more to do with the Resurrection that we thought.

When Jesus predicted that he would be handed over and killed, he also said he would rise again. At the time, the disciples were too dismayed at the idea of Jesus being executed to think much about Jesus rising again. More seriously, the disciples react to Jesus’ predictions with fighting about who is the greatest. But when Jesus tells them that whoever would be first must be the servant of all (Mk. 9: 35) we have a glimpse of the resurrected life. Again, there isn’t any resurrection in the disciples’s trying to turn the children away, but we can see the resurrection when Jesus welcomes the children to come to him. We can begin to see the resurrected life as one of service in the midst of protracted misunderstandings and obtuse behavior.

What about the parable of the evil workers in the vineyard? This doesn’t look like Resurrection and it isn’t. But in the Parable, we have a distorted image of what the resurrected life should be like, where the owners and the workers all collaborate to yield a fruitful crop so that the multitudes of four and five thousand can be given food and drink. Surely there is no Resurrection when Jesus is nailed to the cross, but again, here is an inverted image of the risen life. Instead of a society uniting against a victim, as in the Passion narrative, the resurrected life is one where every individual is respected and nurtured as indispensable. And then, once again, a certain “young man” in an empty tomb sends us back to the beginning to try again.

These reflections suggest that weakness is fundamental to the resurrected life. Far from being about defeating others, it is about being defeated again and again. As we go through Mark’s story a third time, we see the acts of power and powerful admonitions to be the servant of all given out yet again to uncomprehending listeners. Perhaps we ourselves don’t understand very well and that is why we try yet again.

The Parable of the Sower (Mk. 4) is, among other things, a parable of the strengths and weaknesses of God. The Sower throws out the seed indiscriminately, not considering any place as unworthy of receiving it. For those who actually receive the seed, God can create a yield of thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold. What God apparently can’t do is make soil that rejects the seed yield much of anything, just as those who drive the children away or who gain up on the vineyard owner’s son don’t produce anything either.

But each time we re-live Mark’s Gospel, we can do the humble work of tilling the soil for ourselves and for others. This is what the resurrected life is about. This is a far cry from trumpets and joyous Easter hymns, but for those faced with people who act like workers in the vineyard, this can be the basis of hope. God is not finished with us yet. The risen Christ is right with us as we dig into the hard soil in ourselves and in others so that the soil will soften enough for the resurrected life to give yields of thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold for everybody.

The Weakness of God (1)

Singing the part of the crowd in St. Mark’s Passion on Palm Sunday as Jesus was mocked for saving others while he could not save himself really made me think about what I was singing. If Jesus could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, then getting himself off the cross would be a cinch. And surely if Jesus was the Messiah, he could free himself of his predicament with no trouble. Such mockery hurts when one is reminded of one’s powerlessness. It hurts even more if Jesus did have the power but chose not to use it. Did Jesus have that power?

The Gospel of Mark starts out with Jesus casting out demons and curing serious illnesses right and left by exercising an authoritative power over both. At the climax of his ministry, Jesus feeds the crowds of four thousand and five thousand. Such exercises of power would suggest that Jesus did indeed have the power to bring himself down from the cross. If that is true, why did Jesus not do it? Let’s take another look at Jesus’ power.

Starting at roughly the midpoint of his Gospel, Mark switches from describing acts of authoritative power to stressing Jesus’ weakness. What kind of weakness? Not a weakness in healing or delivering or feeding, but a weakness in getting the crowds or even (or especially!) his disciples to understand what he was really about. Perhaps the acts of power were contributing to the misunderstanding. Right after Peter declared Jesus to be the Christ, Jesus explained that being the Christ meant being handed over to the chief priests and the scribes to be killed. Being the Christ meant denial of self and taking up one’s cross. This is a far cry from giving demons the boot. Jesus repeats his expectation of being handed over and killed two more times and the misunderstanding only gets worse. The disciples fight over who is the greatest and bargain for the best seats when Jesus comes into his glory. After a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus does not perform more healings and exorcisms of the type he did in Galilee. Rather, Jesus seems to be trying a more fundamental exorcism of violence through parables such as that of the evil workers in the vineyard. Far from being exorcized, the Pharisees and chief priests only strengthen their resolve to commit the violence of killing Jesus.

It isn’t long before Jesus is hanging on the cross, dying. Do those mocking him really think Jesus has the power to shrug himself off the cross and use his power to send some lightning bolts against them to teach them a lesson? That is the sort of thing a real “god” would do, isn’t it? If the mockers really thought Jesus had this power, they probably would not have been quite so bold in mocking him. They see Jesus as weak, even crying out in anguish over being forsaken, so obviously Jesus is not the Messiah, not the Son of God or anything of the sort. If anybody is mighty and powerful, it’s God. But Mark’s Gospel has shown that acts of power do not bring on the kingship of God. What about weakness, weakness even unto death on a cross? Will Jesus’ death in weakness bring anything about?

Epiphany

Epiphany traditionally celebrates the universal dimensions of the coming of the Christ Child.

One of the most universal ways God is seen is through nature. However, nature in the past has often been mistaken for God, either by natural beings being worshiped as God or by nature as a whole taken to be God.

God has also been seen through moral introspection, where the yearning of the human will towards some sense of goodness has been taken to be inspired by a Supreme Being. Unfortunately, wrong and destructive actions obscure any sense of cosmic truth.

Sacrifices were also universal in early human cultures. These sacrifices were not normally considered revelatory as far as I can tell, but they did create contact with the deities.

Suspicions that sacrificial rites might be obscuring the truth of God appeared in many cultures, not least among the Jewish people whose prophets argued that both the sacrifices and even more injustice to society’s victims hid God from view.

Then there are those four odd documents that suggest that God has appeared in the form of a human being by actually being a human being. This person was born in obscurity, was not welcomed by the people, and died an ignominious death. While alive, this person was known to suggest that God can be seen in the lost, the rejected, and the forgotten.

Immanuel—God is With Us

When the angel assured Joseph that Mary’s child was conceived from the Holy Spirit, the angel said the child’s name was to be Jesus. Matthew follows this with a quote from Isaiah’s prophecy that a young woman was about to conceive and bear a son who would be called Immanuel. (Mt. 1: 21–22; Is. 7: 14)

So it is that two names are given to the Christ Child, The name Jesus means: “Yahweh Saves.” As the angel said, the child is going to save his people from their sins. (Mt. 1: 20) The name Immanuel means “God is with us.” One name refers to what Jesus does, the other refers to what Jesus is.

Of the two names, it is Immanuel, God-is-with-us, that I want to reflect on in this Christmas reflection. There is an old theological conundrum: Would God have become incarnate if humanity had not fallen into sin? In one respect, the question is mute because humanity did fall into sin and so the Incarnation was a rescue mission. Many theologians leave it at that. But there are some theologians, who suggest that the Incarnation was not a Plan B but was Plan A all along. God was going to take on human nature no matter what. Ever since hearing this line of thought, I have been intrigued by it. I like to think that God did not need to have a desperate predicament on humanity’s part as a reason to come and be with us. Rather, God is the sort of God who wants to be with us. Period.

Let’s say there is a family that has an Aunt Polly who comes to visit from time to time. Aunt Polly is a very competent person who is always ready and willing to help out. So, if there should be any problems in the family at the time of her visit, she will help solve them or at least make them better. But does she come just because there are problems to solve? Clearly Aunt Polly comes to visit because she simply wants to be with the family. If there are no problems to work out, so much the better. If Aunt Polly is motivated by sheer fellowship to visit her family, then surely God is motivated by fellowship to come and visit God’s people. Shouldn’t we take both comfort and delight that God wants to be with us?

The name Immanuel reminds us of the ultimate aim of creation; namely fellowship with God. Redemption is the means to that end once humanity had fallen into sin. Since God was willing to die on a cross to open up the resurrected life to us, it follows that God cares about us very much. So surely God cares enough to want to be with us without needing us to go bad to get God’s attention. If God were Superman, would God have a life if all the bad guys repented?

We might think we are not worthy of God’s presence, and we aren’t, but God thinks we are. Christmas is a good time to reflect on this truth. Before Jesus does anything in particular to save us, Jesus rests in the arms of his mother and feeds at her breast. All Jesus is doing is being with us. Let us do the same and spend time just being with God.

Advent Message: 2020

Advent is the season of expectation and hope. We look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus, an event that happened in the past, to renew our hope that the presence of God among us in human form will transform our lives. The example of Jesus’ earthly life should rub off on enough people for some things to get better but every year the setbacks are discouraging. We also look forward to the consummation of God’s Kingship when setbacks will be no more and there will be no more need for hope.

Hope is a virtue needed only when the present is problematic and all the more so when the present is filled with pain and anxiety. It is when things are bad that we hope things will be better. If things get better, there is less to hope for, but more to appreciate. Appreciation, gratitude, is key here. We need to be profoundly grateful for the life Jesus led here on earth. We also need to be grateful for all the constructive work that has been done and is being done in the spirit of Christ, whether known by the doer or not.

This year, the biggest anxiety is the COVID-19 pandemic. It combines three of the traditional Advent themes: death, judgment, and hell. Death: many people die of the disease, although thankfully at a lesser rate than at the beginning of the pandemic. Hell: hopefully temporal, but the sufferings of those with serious cases is said to be excruciating. Judgment: the disease in itself is a natural event and not a divine punishment for sin. However, the poor handling of the situation by some political leaders and numerous people (albeit a minority apparently) who rebel against the discipline of social distancing that could keep other people safer casts a judgment of our character as a society. Where is heaven in all this? We can hope that heaven is comforting those who suffered and died. More important, we see glimpses of heaven in the dedication of medics and workers who give so much of themselves to make things better.

The good news is that several vaccines are apparently coming down the pipeline that should be game changers. This is situation is a parable of hope for even deeper matters. We are currently in a painful fix that asks many onerous sacrifices of us but help is on the way. Not every human crisis offers us such a specific hope as this one does at the present time. At the same time, hope for deeper things would have us all probe deeper into our willingness to make sacrifices for the well-being of others. This is the hope generated by the life of Jesus who did whatever was needed for the sake of other people. This is the hope for the Kingship of God when our hearts will be so closely intertwined with the hearts of others that we will see clearly how the interests and needs of others are our own interests and needs.

Who Owns You?

When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees and the Herodians whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not, they were not really interested in resolving the question and Jesus knew it. (Mt. 22: 15–27) They were, of course, trying to trap Jesus into giving a reply that would alienate his supporters. But if Jesus didn’t exactly resolve the question, he gave a firm answer that eluded the trap. It is significant that the Pharisees and Herodians, who normally hated each other, united in the cause of discrediting Jesus, just as they would unite in having Jesus executed when their scheme of discrediting failed.

The question that the Pharisees and Herodians didn’t want answered was: Who owns you? The Jewish tradition was quite clear that it was Yahweh who claimed ownership over the entire Jewish nation, so that each individual person was owned by Yahweh. Not only that, but the prophet Isaiah also claimed Yahweh’s ownership of King Cyrus of Persia, the most powerful ruler in the known world at the time. Yahweh claimed to have anointed Cyrus “to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes.” (Is. 45: 1) Admittedly, the prophet realized that Cyrus did not know that he had been claimed by Yahweh, (Is. 45: 4) but Cyrus was nonetheless doing the work Yahweh wanted done, namely, allowing the Jews to return from the Babylonian exile. All of this might sound like a good deal for Cyrus, but not really. Cyrus seemed to think he owned all of the people in his empire, including the Jew,s and he was moving the chess pieces for the sake of his agenda, which included weakening Babylon in favor of a Jewish restoration that wouldn’t be strong enough to threaten him. But Yahweh not only claimed ownership over all of the people Cyrus thought he owned but Yahweh also claimed ownership of Cyrus himself. Cyrus, of course, hadn’t signed the dotted line on that.

The Pharisees who were questioning Jesus took a hard line on Isaiah’s perspective and insisted that they were owned by Yahweh and not the Roman Emperor who, like Cyrus, was claiming ownership over everybody in the Empire, including the Jews. The Herodians perhaps paid lip service to Yahweh’s theoretical ownership of them but in practice, they acknowledged the Emperor’s ownership while treating Yahweh like an absentee landlord. The Pharisees and Herodians were fighting each other over the allegiance of the Jewish people as a whole. Although we can assume that most of the people accepted Yahweh’s ownership rather than the Empire’s, they weren’t so sure about allowing the Pharisees to claim ownership over them. If Jesus had said unambiguously that it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, then the people who were following him would have been disillusioned in their leader and would have forsaken him. If Jesus had said unambiguously that it was not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees and Herodians could have handed him over to the Romans with a ready-made charge of treason.

As it happened, Jesus unambiguously affirmed Yahwe’s ownership of the people but in a way that took the wind out of the sails of the Pharisees and Herodians. Apparently not having a coin to produce himself, he asked the questioners to produce one. The very act of pulling out a coin with Caesar’s image on it undermined their attempt to discredit Jesus since simply having one of Caesar’s coins acknowledged the Empire’s ownership of them. Jesus’ emphasis on the word “image” is most significant here. The Jewish people could hardly help but recall that at the beginning of Genesis, Yahweh created humanity in Yahweh’s image, thus claiming total ownership of all humanity. Jesus suggests that one can give a coin with Caesar’s image back to Caesar, but as to one’s self, a self made in God’s image, that should be totally given to God.

In the opening of St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians Paul tells them that they are chosen by God. (1 Thess. 1: 4) This is a new kind of ownership, one based on divine initiative (as was the case with the Jews and Cyrus) but also based on relationship. Paul goes on to write about the Thessalonians imitating him and his fellow evangelists and, thus also imitating the Lord. (1 Thess. 1: 6) This imitation includes enduring persecution just as Paul had endured persecution in imitation of Christ who was crucified. The enthusiasm for the faith that Paul commends and celebrates gives us a picture of what it really means to be owned by God through Christ. Can we acknowledge God’s ownership of us as fervently as did Paul and the Thessalonians?

A Man, a Landowner

The Parable of the Owner of the Vineyard who hires workers throughout the day and then pays the workers who were brought in at the last hour a full day’s wages is startling. Most preachers use it to teach God’s abundant mercy and generosity and how we shouldn’t grumble like the workers who thought they should have gotten more than the agreed wage because the workers at the last hour got such a good deal.

But a few months ago I came up against a challenge to this interpretation in Reading from the Edges by Jean-Pierre Ruiz. He argues that the owner of the vineyard, far from being generous, was playing power games with the workers, particularly with his rhetorical question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Mt. 20: 15) From the standpoint of someone who is vulnerable to people who have power over them, this question sounds oppressive.

Should we jettison the traditional interpretation of this parable? The best way to answer that question is to look at the character of the landowner. In the traditional interpretation, there is a tendency to assume that the landowner stands for God. If that is correct, then the matter is settled. Who can argue with God? But note that Jesus introduces the parable by saying “there was a man, a landowner.” Moreover, we have this same pattern in the surrounding parables, such as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant and the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding, In each case, the landowner or the king is “a man.” Unfortunately, the NRSV obscures this phrasing. Matthew has gone out of his way to stress that the landowner is a man, thus questioning the likelihood that the landowner stands for God. We see the same pattern in greater intensity with the man, a king, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant who seems righteous by treating the otherwise forgiven servant harshly for being unforgiving himself, but this man, a king, in turn is vengeful and unforgiving. The man, the owner of the vineyard with the wicked tenants is also vengeful. The man, a king, in the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding is hot-tempered and violent with much less excuse.

The Man, a Landowner, in this parable, seems to come off better than the other landowner and the kings. He does not cheat any workers out of their pay, and seems to be generous in giving the workers at the last hour the full day’s wage. One can understand, though, the grumbling of the workers who toiled all day and were exhausted. The owner blows these workers off with a rebuke that, though a far cry from the vengefulness of the authority figures in the other parables, is insensitive. Ruiz is quick to pick up on the capriciousness of this landowner. His untactful response to the longsuffering grumbling workers reminds them that they are fully at his mercy and they have no recourse if they have any complaint of the way they are treated. Ruiz says: “the lesson is not about generosity or his magnanimity but about his own power, about their dependence on him, and about the insignificance of their own toil.” Such workers in Jesus’ time were in the same position.

Can we salvage the traditional interpretation? I think we can, to some extent at least, if we note the human distortion. The second rhetorical question of the landowner is still apt: “Are you envious because I am generous?” Again, the landowner is being insensitive and judgmental, but envy is a huge human problem. We don’t do our work as effectively as we might if we are focused on whether or not somebody else seems to get a better deal. We really need to be weaned from our envious tendencies just as we need to be weaned from our instinctive vengeful attitudes as the preceding parable reminds us. However, as the vengeful violence of the man, a king, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is not very helpful in teaching forgiveness, the Man, a Landowner, is not helpful in healing anybody’s envy. On the contrary, the landowner uses his power to stir up envy and divide the workers against each other, a typical trick by those in power. Since the king and the landowner are humans and not God, we can see them as mirrors of us. The formerly forgiving but vengeful king spurs on the vengefulness of the affronted slaves. The power games played by the landowner lock the workers in resentment. These examples show that teaching forgiveness and weaning people from envy are undermined when people try to use strong-arming power to further these ends. We can take Jesus’ conclusion as a commentary on the landowner: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Ruiz says “today’s immigrant laborers know more than enough about being last.” So how are they first? It is these “last” who are the first to reveal the distortions in the human mirrors. It is these last who are the first to show us our need for God’s forgiving love and generosity that our distorted humanity obscures.

The Rock From Which We Are Hewn

KatrinaCrossAbraham1It is significant that Jesus had wandered over to Caesarea Philippi, deep in imperial territory, before asking his disciples who they thought he was. After they repeated a few rumors going round, Jesus asked who they thought he was. Simon Peter piped up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt. 16: 16) Jesus’ commendation showed that Peter had caught on to something important: it was not Caesar, whose neighborhood they were hanging out in, but Jesus, who was the real, true Lord. But what kind of Lord was Jesus?

When Jesus called Simon “Peter,” meaning rock, to honor his correct answer, perhaps Jesus was reminding Simon of the words of Isaiah: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” (Is. 51: 1–2) Simon Peter, like all Jews, was hewn from the rock of Abraham, the one called to leave his own idolatrous country for a land God would show him where he would make out of Abraham a great people. If Peter is a rock like Abraham, then Peter, too, will leave the idolatrous imperial culture surrounding him and will allow God to make yet another great, new people out of him and the other disciples. What kind of people? What kind of culture?

In writing to the Romans, Paul admonishes them to follow Abraham out of the idolatrous empire in which they live: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12: 2) And what does this transformed people with renewed minds look like? Paul has just told the Romans that such people present their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [their] spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12: 1) The imperial culture is all about using power to make sacrifices of others for the sake of the Empire. The culture of Christ is all about making a sacrifice of self as did Jesus, so as to make all of our lives an act of self-sacrificial worship. Although emperors always think more highly of themselves than they should, Paul warns us not to think more highly of ourselves than we should, “but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Rom. 12: 3) Paul then goes on the enumerate the measures of faith as a distribution of gifts of the Holy Spirit so that each of us makes our bodies living sacrifices of worship in various ways, making up the Body of Christ.

Being transformed by the renewal of our minds entails a radical makeover. It’s not just a matter of changing one’s mind about what book to read next. Paul is writing about a radical turnaround in one’s attitude to power. The first step is to be very vigilant about the power we happen to have in relation to other people and how we use it. Even if some of us have rather little power we need to be acutely aware of how we use what little we have. Do we try to get an upper hand against other people one way or another rather than looking for ways we can lay down our selves in service to them?

It turns out that Peter himself hasn’t caught on to the kind of ruler Jesus is. When Jesus talks about laying down his life, Peter resists and is rebuked by Jesus. This turn of events should caution us about the difficulties of the makeover that is being asked of us. Like Peter, we are likely to revert to imperial thinking just as quickly as Peter did. This is not surprising since the default reflex movement is to act like an immovable rock if we are threatened. Yet Jesus says he is going to do the opposite of that. Which is to say, the rock we stand on in the culture of Jesus is the rock of being vulnerable to the forces of Empire. Whether we are going to take the way of vulnerability, the way of giving ourselves for the sake of others, even when such gifts of self are not appreciated or are even actively scorned is a question that presents itself to us day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. We can easily get tired of asking this basic question so constantly, but if we persevere even when we are weary, we will eventually find that God makes a living but vulnerable rock not only out of Peter but out of each one of us.

The Woman Who Is the Mother of God

Mary at the crossIn celebrating Mary, we celebrate the mystery that a human woman is the Mother of God. This is an explosive phrase. Nestorius is famous for his rejection of it and many other people have had trouble with it since. Why would God be willing, even want to have a human mother? Does this make Mary a goddess? Not at all. It is Mary’s humanity that makes the phrase a paradox, and it is Mary’s humanity that makes her a model to be imitated. Let us look briefly at the few glimpses of the human called Mary that the Bible offers us.

Mary’s famous fiat in response to the extraordinary words of the angel reveal Mary’s character as one full of obedience. Not obedience in the sense of being a mop in the hands of others, but obedient in the sense of taking responsibility for a profound mystery, knowing she will encounter misunderstanding and worse from others.

Right after the visit from the angel, Mary did what a wise person would do: she hastened to visit a trusted person who could help her cope with, if not understand, this mystery. As it happened, Elizabeth had already encountered a like mystery herself and was able to give Mary her full support. Although most scholars don’t think Mary herself composed the famous hymn that she utters, the words are appropriate to her character as they are filled with praise for God’s mercy “from generation to generation.” (Lk. 1: 50) Moreover, by having her own world turned upside down by the child in her womb, she knew that the whole world was about to be turned upside down.

After Jesus was born and the shepherds came to visit the child and told her what the angel had told them, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Lk. 2: 19) With these words, I can’t help but think of Mary as the first Christian contemplative. To reflect quietly on such a mystery is something all of us should do, to let that mystery sink into our bones, into our inner being. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, Mary was among her son’s disciples, constantly devoting herself to prayer. (Acts 1: 12) By then the mystery had deepened: the child she carried in her womb had been murdered and yet was alive in an incomprehensible way. A lot more to ponder in her heart. These two verses form an arch of prayer and contemplation encompassing Mary’s life and that of her son.

Mary’s ongoing obedience expressed in her fiat not only showed itself in her contemplation but also her solicitude for Jesus. When Jesus turned up missing, like any anxious parent, she and Joseph searched all through Jerusalem until they found Jesus in the temple. The twelve-year-old seems to have implied that if his parents had understood him, they would have looked in the temple sooner. Years later, Jesus’ family tried to restrain him because other people said Jesus was “out of his mind.” (Mk. 3: 21) Mark doesn’t say if Mary was among those trying to restrain Jesus, but it seems likely she was involved. Again, there is a difficulty in understanding Jesus, but we also see here solicitude for Jesus’ safety as those who were saying Jesus was out of his mind were threatening Mary’s son.

Mary’s solicitude extends to others at the wedding in Cana when she notices that they have run out of wine prematurely. This seems to be a small matter, but one who is solicitous in small things is solicitous in greater things. And one greater thing is that in John’s Gospel, the wine seems to symbolize the renewal of Israel leading to the renewal of all humanity.

Most movingly, Mary’s solicitude took her to the foot of the cross where her son died an agonizing death. This time there was no taking Jesus away from those who thought he was out of his mind. She could only be present, pondering the terrible event in her heart.

Earlier, when Jesus was speaking to the people and he was told that his mother and brothers wanted to speak to him, Jesus replied that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mt. 12: 50) By following Jesus to the cross, Mary was clearly doing the will of Jesus’ heavenly Father, thus proving that she was his mother in the fullest sense. and also proving that she is the Mother of us all.