Pastoral Care and Ubuntu

goodShepherdThe Feast of Saints Peter and Paul celebrates the pastoral ministry of the Church initiated by two different personalities with some differences of opinion. Celebrating two formative pastors already points to pastoral ministry as one of relationships. Then there is the whole matter of shepherds, as we often call pastors, in relationship with their flocks.

Having just returned from a conference on the subject of Ubuntu, I am inclined to reflect on pastoral relationships in terms of this social vision. Forrest Harris, President of American Baptist College in Nashville, explained Ubuntu as giving full respect for the being of other people. Naomi Tutu imaged Ubuntu with the African practice of giving a bowl of food to the eldest child in an extended family. This child is expected to share the food with his or her siblings in such a way that all of them, especially the youngest, gets a full share. The oldest child is given to understand that taking more than a fair share may increase the food taken in, but it diminishes that same child even more than it diminishes the youngest who goes without. Ubuntu, then, is so simple that it seems like an insult to one’s intelligence. Even a five-year-old can understand it, which is the point, since the eldest child might be that age.

However, Ezekiel complains of a total breakdown of pastoral care and Ubuntu. The shepherds eat the fat and clothe themselves with wool. “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezek. 34: 4) As a result, the flock is scattered. There is no Ubuntu here. These non-shepherds may be fat, but they are more diminished in their humanity than the starved sheep. If Ubuntu is so easy as to insult the intelligence, why is it so hard for anybody in Israel to practice it? Indeed, Ezekiel exclaims that God has given up on Israel’s shepherds: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” (Ezek. 34: 15–16) As Psalm 23 says, God is our shepherd. Ezekiel adds that God is our only shepherd. In John 10 Jesus, fulfilling the words of Ezekiel, announces that he is the Good Shepherd who gathers the flock, protects the flock from bandits and robbers and lays down his life for his flock. This is Ubuntu to the max, but it is a one-person show.

But after Jesus had finished laying down his life for his sheep and then rising again, he gathered his disciples who had been scattered by the thieves and bandits. At the Lake of Galilee, he asked Peter three times: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (Jn. 21) Each time that Peter said he loved Jesus, Jesus told him to feed or tend his sheep. The Good Shepherd is telling Peter to be a good shepherd as he is a good shepherd, to participate in the shepherdness of Jesus.

Making Peter a shepherd was just the beginning of the proliferation of shepherds who would tend the flock of Christ, with Paul being the most prominent. But here we are at a point where the analogy between sheep and church congregations breaks down. Sheep never cease to be dependent on their shepherds, but with humans, it’s a different matter. A big part of Ubuntu is helping other people mature. The young child is given the bowl of food to distribute to the other siblings as an the opportunity to learn the responsibility of being a shepherd so he or she can pass that responsibility on to the next generation.

We are fed with so much wisdom in Paul’s epistles that we often fail to notice the final chapters that are filled with heart-filled greetings to his colleagues in ministry. But what these greetings show us is that Paul, having poured out his life like a drink offering, (2 Tim. 4: 6) has passed the bowl of responsibility to the people he ministered to so that we, today, can continue to pass the bowl of Ubuntu to others, making all of us shepherds of one another.

Jesus’ Last Prayer

WilliamGuestsChurch1The last wishes of a dying person are traditionally considered sacred and binding on that person’s survivors. Although it is the seven recorded words on the cross that are considered the last words of Jesus, the prayer uttered by Jesus in John 17 constitute the last words of Jesus before he was handed over to be crucified. He prays that we disciples “may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn. 17: 21) These words have been systematically disobeyed by those of us who are Jesus’ followers from that day until now.

The trouble with complaining about our disobedience to Jesus’ last prayer is that our complaints fall into accusations of other people who are responsible for the disunity, even if we do include ourselves in the accusations. In accusing others of disunity, we tend to think other people have to come to their senses and make the adjustments to bring about unity. As long as that is the case, we will all be waiting until the end of time.

As if obeying Jesus’ final prayer was not hard enough, the Gospel of John undermines the vision of unity in the high priestly prayer in many ways. It is the most combative of the Gospels with its fierce debates between Jesus and “the Jews.” To take one painful example, Jesus says to “the Jews: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.” (Jn. 8: 44) Even in the high priestly prayer, Jesus refers to “the one destined to be lost.” (Jn. 17: 12) If anyone at all is missing, what kind of unity do we have?

Discouraging as this reflection is, the most amazing thing about John’s Gospel is that it draws our attention to this tension, and refers to the one destined to be lost. Why spoil the party by mentioning anybody who is “lost?” When we go back through the scriptures with the “lost” Judas in mind, we find many other “lost” people such as Achan who was stoned for taking some of the booty after a battle (Josh. 7) or Tamar, Absalom’s sister, who was raped, not to speak of the multiple victims in the book of Judges. We find that scripture constantly reminds us of people who are otherwise “lost” or forgotten. The same thing happens in the last chapter of Revelation where all who are thirsty are invited to come. Yet outside are the “dogs and sorcerers” and all other wicked people. One can say that murderers deserve to be outside the gates and we should be glad they are. But is Jesus’ final prayer fulfilled as long as these bad people are outside? We are quick to celebrate case closed and mission accomplished, but scripture leaves these loose ends that unravel such premature celebrating.

Unity, then, seems to be beyond us, although it exists in God’s mysterious triune unity where Jesus and his heavenly Abba and the Paraclete dwell within each other and in each of us. In the midst of the hope of this unity from before the world began, we feel the pain of those who are missing, regardless of whose fault it is. The story of Paul and Silas in jail (Acts 16: 16–34) offers us a sense of direction of what we can do. That Paul and Silas should be thrown in jail for preaching the Gospel points to a lack of unity among people. When they are miraculously freed from their chains, they could have run off and left the jailor to his fate. But they did not. First, they reached out to the jailer and not only saved his life, but they won him and his household to Christ. Bringing about unity for all people is not something we can accomplish on a dime, but we can each reach out to other people and seek to create and strengthen unity through the opportunities that come our way.

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.

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

And It Was Night

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyProbably nothing is more painful than betrayal. My own personal experiences of feeling betrayed are, so far, much smaller than what I know others have suffered, but even the smallest doses of betrayal are unspeakably painful. The pain of betrayal is a pounding discord in the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ Last Supper and Paul’s own short narrative of it. This discord is particularly prominent to the point of being unbearable in John’s Gospel where it overshadows Jesus’ loving act of washing the disciples’s feet. Right after leading into the story with these sublime words: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end,” (Jn. 13: 1) John says: “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.” (Jn. 13: 2) When Judas leaves the supper, John says “And it was night,” (Jn. 13: 30), meaning “night” in all of its most ominous meanings. Right after Judas’s departure, Jesus gives his disciples his great “new” commandment: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (Jn. 13: 34)

Does this new commandment cancel the night into which Judas has just walked? Or does the night cancel the light of the commandment? Hatred for Judas has echoed through the centuries with betrayers often called a “Judas.” So commonly is this epithet used that it can be hurled at a person for playing an electric guitar instead of an acoustic one, as Bob Dylan found out. The raging pain of Judas’s betrayal occasions several outbursts in the responses of the Tenebrae services of Holy Week. Most chilling is the “Judas mercator:” “Judas, the worst possible merchant, asked to kiss the Lord.” In the powerful setting by Tomas Victoria, the pain is unbearably searing. Where is the love we are supposed to have for one another? Even in the glory-filled High Priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus says he has guarded the ones entrusted to him “except the one destined to be lost.” (Jn. 17: 12) I feel those words as a shadow in the prayer of glory. The author of 1 John reaffirms this great commandment and insists that God is light with no darkness at all, (1 Jn. 1: 5) but then rages with the hurt received from several “antichrists”who have betrayed the community by going out from them. (1 Jn. 2: 19–20)

There have been attempts to vindicate Judas. One of the more thought-provoking attempts comes in Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ where Jesus entreats Judas to betray him because it is necessary that he be crucified. Kazantzakis appeals to the reader’s sympathy for the two millennia of opprobrium Judas has suffered for doing what his best friend asked him to do. I fear, though, that the paradoxes of John’s Gospel do not give us this out. We have to face the pain of the betrayal. This pain is all the greater and hits closest to home when we realize that all of Jesus’ disciples betrayed him except “the Beloved Disciple” in John’s account. This suggests that, like Judas, we are all betrayers of Jesus. This doesn’t make Judas right; it makes us as wrong as Judas. Would it have been better if none of us had been born? Our hatred of Judas distracts us from the truth of ourselves. Accusations of betraying Jesus fly between Christians, each convinced that it is other people who have betrayed Jesus while each of us is as faithful as the Beloved Disciple. I have my own list of traitors of Jesus that tempts me to dwell on them more than on myself.

John takes us into the “night” into which Judas walked because this is the night into which Jesus himself walked when he carried the cross to Golgotha and was crucified there because he had been handed over multiple times by the time he reached that destination. Does Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us extend to everybody who handed Jesus over to the next step towards the cross? Does it apply to each of us when we betray Jesus by disobeying this commandment? Does it apply to Judas? After Jesus’ Ascension, Peter announced that the gap left by Judas had to be filled and Matthias was chosen by lot to make the disciples twelve once more. (Acts 1: 21–26) Does Mathias rub Judas out, or does Mathias redeem Judas in a mysterious way by taking his place so that the Twelve Apostles can be the twelve tribes of a New Israel that embraces everybody? Does the Light shine in the darkness so powerfully that the darkness cannot overcome it, (Jn. 1: 5) not even the darkness into which Judas walked?

A God Who Does the Same Great New Thing

crossRedVeil1Right after dramatically recalling God’s deliverance of the Jews from the Red Sea, Isaiah proclaims that God is “about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is. 43: 19) By his time, the Red Sea deliverance was an old thing, something the Jews repeatedly recalled, especially at the celebration of Passover. But at the time of that deliverance, it was a new thing that had sprung forth. Delivering escaped slaves through turbulent waters just wasn’t in the play books of deities at the time. God had changed the play book and revealed the hitherto unknown truth that God is a God who delivers victims and outcasts from the rich and the powerful.

The new thing that Isaiah was proclaiming was another deliverance, this one from the Babylonian Exile. In this respect, the new thing that God was doing was a lot like the old thing: both were acts of deliverance from powerful and tyrannical rulers and both involved leading the people through a desert. One could say that God was actually doing the same old thing that God had done centuries earlier. During the ensuing centuries, the Jews repeatedly recalled the old deliverance, especially at times of crisis such as the Babylonian captivity, bringing the old act into the present in hopes for a repeat performance. Psalm 44, for example, recalls “the days of old” while complaining that the people had been “scattered among the nations” and had become “the derision and scorn of those around us.” Where are the deeds of old? The Psalmist asks. Isaiah replies that the deeds of old have returned, have become “a new thing,” a new act of deliverance. Isaiah affirms that God is a God who delivers victims and outcasts from the rich and the powerful. The old thing is a new thing.

In our time, we might be tempted to think that both of these new things are old things, But we need to keep bringing them into the present time, making them new by realizing that God is always making these deeds new. When we don’t, we backslide. One of the most egregious ways we backslide is by becoming the oppressors of the poor and vulnerable that the Egyptians and Babylonians were. That is what happened between the two great “new” things God did for the Jews. Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets denounced just such oppression. They were making clear that one of the principle ways of making the old things new and present is to imitate God by delivering “from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jer. 22: 3)

St. Paul proclaimed another great new thing accomplished by God: the death and resurrection of Jesus. In comparison with this, Paul declared everything else, most especially his accomplishments, as rubbish (to use a polite term). All Paul wanted was “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3: 10–3) This may seem to be a different thing, even a radically different thing than the earlier “new” things God had done. What is particularly new is that instead of delivering victims and outcasts by mighty acts, God in Jesus Christ died on the cross, thus becoming a victim. In doing this, God subverted the power of oppressors from within their system. Rather than inflict violence on them such as drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea or sending the Persians against Babylon, God in Jesus Christ died at the hands of his oppressors. It is out of this death that a new life was inaugurated by God when Jesus rose as the forgiving victim. There are times, not least in Romans 5, when Paul proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus in cosmic terms, but here in Philippians, he proclaims it in personal terms. The great new thing God had accomplished is inside of him. God’s solidarity with victims in Christ has completely overtaken everything else in Paul. Paul himself will prefer to be a victim rather than an oppressor or a mighty avenger who destroys armies. Christ Jesus has made Paul “his own.” (Phil. 3: 12)

A woman pouring ointment all over Jesus to prepare him for his upcoming burial (Jn. 12: 7) may seem an eccentric act but hardly a significant one, hardly a great new thing done by God. But up to that time, how often had any person done such an act of outpouring generosity, giving everything she had in doing it? This looks like God in Jesus Christ completely making this woman, Mary, his own just as much as God in Jesus Christ made Paul his own. This is indeed a great new thing accomplished by God. Will we ourselves be part of this great new thing?

 

See also: A Scandalous Woman as Extravagant as Jesus

On Living with Temptation

altarDistance1The temptations of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are stylized accounts of three temptations that may not have happened in so neat a fashion in real life, but are clearly meant to be comprehensive of the fundamental temptations that challenge all humans, Jesus included. Jesus’ responses to the three temptations, which would have been particularly strong during his forty days of solitude in the wilderness, are a guide to dealing with the same temptations in our own lives.

The first temptation, that Jesus should turn stones into bread, can stand for all sensual temptations. It is surely not a sin to satisfy one’s hunger but it is a sin to be focused on physical sustenance to the neglect of all else, to make god our belly. (Phil. 3: 19) The devil’s proposal puts bread front and center, which sparks the competitive tendencies of humans to seek more material goods for the sake of having more material goods than others. Jesus’ reply puts bread in a wider context, implying what Matthew spells out, that we not only need bread but “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt. 4:4) Within this broader context, bread is provided in the wilderness by God as it was to the Israelites in their desert journey after escaping from Egypt. When bread is a gift from God, then it should also be a gift between humans as well.

Lust for power is often thought to be the greatest human temptation, as Matthew suggests in his ordering of the temptations, but Luke makes it the second greatest temptation. We might think that the devil’s offering Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” as being out of our league, but all of us tend to seek power in our own social settings. That is, we try to build up what sociologists call “social capital.” This is what Jesus was warning us about in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday when he told us not to fast or give alms “like the hypocrites” who compete for human admiration. (Matthew 6) In seeking social capital, we try to build our little kingdoms piece by piece. As with the first temptation, Jesus responds with the larger picture grounded in God by alluding to Deuteronomy 6: 13: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” That is, we should seek our social capital first with God rather than with humans. By worshiping and serving God, we will then serve other people rightly and thus gain social capital in less competitive ways.

The third temptation is the most subtle and the most dangerous. The first two temptations proposed substitutes for focusing primarily on God. The third temptation focuses on God. The devil quotes Psalm 91 to assure Jesus that if he threw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus’ heavenly Abba would surely save him, as promised in the psalm. But the focus on God is distorted in what amounts to an attempt to manipulate God, which would make God a competitor among human competitors. Catching this distortion, Jesus clarifies the right focus on God by saying that one should not put God to the test. The distortion of the third temptation is subtle because it is based on the profound truth that God cares for each of us and takes care of us. But to assume that we can do anything, no matter how heedless and reckless because God will take care of us is presumption, putting God to the test. If there is anything the prophets have taught us, it is that God allows us to live with the consequences of our choices. Otherwise, what meaning would free will have?

The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our frailty as mortal creatures. The temptations of Christ, the same temptations we experience daily, remind us of our moral and spiritual frailty. If Jesus had to remain mindful of his heavenly Abba and guard against distortions in that relationship, we should do no less. Let us take comfort that, as the author of Hebrews said, precisely by being tempted in every way as we are, Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 4: 15, 12: 2)