The custom of imposing ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, has the potential to encourage us to think that mortality is something we should repent of. The opposite is the case. We are not asked to repent of our mortality, we are asked to remember our mortality. Remembering our mortality is an important way to repent and to amend our lives. Since God made us mortal, mortality is not the problem. The problem, a huge problem, is the tendency to deny our mortality, to think that death should not apply to us. Clinical studies inspired by Ernest Becker show that denial of mortality leads to violent and insensitive behavior while some measure of acceptance leads to a much more humane way of relating to others, of connecting to others. I can’t help but reflect that in a great many fantasy novels, the villain tries to gain immortality which can only be achieved by stealing the life substance of others; an extreme example of how denial of mortality inevitably leads to victimization of other people. Such villains are always so deeply isolated as to be living deaths, no matter how many years they survive in this world. But if we accept our mortality, we put our trust in the crucified and Risen Lord, the true giver of life. When we accept our mortality, the time we have to repent becomes precious and we are ready to spend this precious gift wisely in the way we live so that others, too, may live.
When Jesus opened his teaching ministry, Mark says that the people were “astounded” because he taught them“as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mk. 1: 22) Oddly, Mark doesn’t include anything of what Jesus said. The Greek work exousia is much stronger than the English word that translates it. “Powerful authority” would bring us closer to the meaning. That Jesus’ teaching was not like that of the scribes doesn’t give us much more to go on as to the content, but it indicates that this authoritative teaching was distinct from those who were normally considered the teaching authorities.
However, Jesus did something. Dramatically. He cast out an unclean spirit. In our time, we have trouble understanding what this is about and how we might draw any practical teaching from it. We tend to dismiss unclean spirits as coming from a primitive mindset and bring the affliction up to date by considering it a psychological problem which sends the poor man to a treatment facility far way from us.
I suggest that René Girard’s teaching on what he called “mimetic desire” gives us a richer approach. Basically, Girard’s insight is that our desires do not originate from within ourselves but are derived from other people; we all resonate deeply with each others’s desires. This resonance is fruitful if one person’s enthusiasm for a song inspires me to like the song so that we both enjoy the song. This resonance is more threatening if all of my friends hate a song I like so that I begin to doubt that I liked the song after all. This resonance with the desires of another becomes more dangerous if it becomes rivalrous as it does if two people desire to write and sing the best song. Some rivalrous relationships are more or less a fair fight but many times it is not. A strong-willed person, especially one with social power, can impose his or her desire on another in destructive ways. This is what happens in childhood trauma. Girard also teaches that a whole society can unite in a desire to destroy a person which is not a fight at all but a demolition.
However we understand the possession of this man, it is the imposition of something alien and oppressive. This is what a supernatural spirit would have done and maybe that was the case. But Girard’s teaching of mimetic desire shows us how an alien invasion could have afflicted this man and created a state of bondage through human agency. We get an important clue as to the nature of this alien invasion when the unclean spirit says: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mk. 1: 24) We often think that Jesus told the unclean spirit to be silent because the spirit was correct and Jesus didn’t want people to know that yet. But Robert Hamerton-Kelly points out that the term “Holy One of God” refers to Israel’s priesthood. One of the main jobs of the priest was to expel anybody who was “unclean.” Jesus’ silences the unclean spirit, then, because the spirit is wrong. Jesus does not represent a priesthood who expels the “unclean.” Quite the opposite. Jesus is expelling the collective attitude that the man is unclean when it is the crowd’s spirit that has invaded the man and declared him unclean. By casting out this spirit, Jesus makes the man clean and so that he can rejoin the community. If the community accepts what Jesus has done.
The crowd confirms that casting out the unclean spirit is Jesus’ teaching when it asks: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mk. 1: 27) Jesus is not healing an individual; he is healing a community. Or, Jesus is giving the community the opportunity to be healed. For healing to take place, the community must renounce the rivalry that had been imposed on one vulnerable person. In his stimulating book The Desire of the Nations, Oliver O’Donovan confirms the conflation of teaching and power in Jesus. (O’Donovan, 89) Picking up on the political aspect of exousia. O’Donovan goes on suggest that Jesus is using his authority to liberate Israel while treating “the fact of Roman occupation casually, with little respect and less urgency.” (O’Donovan, 93) That is, Jesus was focused on strengthening Israel rather than attacking the Roman Empire. Mark shows that Jesus’ liberation of Israel includes judging the leadership both of the teachers (the scribes) and the priests. Jesus’ action/teaching caused quite a sensation as word “spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee..” (Mk. 1: 28) A sensation is not the same as a healing. The excitement could easily be mistaken for a communal healing when it only reproduces the scapegoating process. We are left with the question of whether or not our communities accept the healing of Jesus where the unclean spirits of human persecution are cast out or if we will be swept away on the excitement of the crowd.
For an introduction to René Girard see: Violence and the Kingdom of God.
When the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that the child she was about to conceive in her womb would be the heir of the House of David, making him a second David, one might have thought that the child would be named David after his forebear. But the angel said the child should be named “Jesus” and he was given that name when he was circumcised on the eighth day.
This name tells us that not only was this child another David, a fulfillment of what royalty means in the eyes of Jesus’ heavenly Abba, but another savior. How so? In the many times that Israel’s God Yahweh was called a “savior,” there was usually an act of violence. That is, God “saved” God’s people by defeating the enemies who were oppressing Israel. In some cases, as in the Psalms, an individual was delivered from a violent mob. More often than not, the delivered victim called on God to commit violence on the oppressors. But saving God’s people in that way didn’t change the violent structure of human culture.
The name Joshua, Jesus’ earlier namesake, means”Yahweh saves.” Joshua “saved” Israel by violently destroying the peoples of Canaan. But just as Jesus was to prove to be a different, even contrary king than David, Jesus was to be a different, even more contrary savior. To the disappointment of many, Jesus did not “save” Israel by scattering the Roman armies and ruling in Caesar’s stead. (See The Naming of Jesus.)
Come Easter, we will see that Jesus saves by dying on a cross. That’s an odd way to save anybody. Perhaps it is that oddity that led to the notion that God saved us by suffering our punishment. But God was not suffering our punishment, Jesus was suffering from human violence in order to save us from our violence. It isn’t the crucifixion in itself that saves us from our violence but the Resurrection and, crucially, Jesus’ forgiveness that saves us from our violence.
If it is by forgiveness and not violence that Jesus saves us, then we cannot participate in Jesus’ gift of salvation though violence but only through forgiveness. By forgiveness, Jesus has given us an escape route from our own vengeful rage if we are willing to take it. We are inclined to shrink from this challenge when we think about how vulnerable that makes us. We would rather use our rage to seek out the vulnerability of others. Can we, instead, take heart and take the risk by recalling how vulnerable Jesus was as a baby born into a violent and vengeful world?
The celebration of the birth of Jesus is a time to put all political differences aside in glad agreement that this child is born. I wish! I have pointed out many times over the years when preaching on Luke’s nativity story that it puts political issues front and center, forcing us to confront our political realities if we are to confront the Gospel.
The key political words uttered by the angel who appeared to the shepherds are: “good news,” “savior,” and “peace.” These words sound innocuous to most of us but they aren’t. In Luke “Good News” is not a cheery feel-good article in the newspaper or on the Internet. “Savior” isn’t a cartoon super hero who knocks out the bad guys for us. “Peace” has to be understood rightly or it isn’t peace.
“Good News” or “Good Tidings” are the usual translations of the word euangelion. It also provides the title of Luke’s book. In Roman times, euangelion was the technical word for tidings sent out from Rome by the Emperor who was the only one who had the right to send out “good News” or “Good Tidings.” Caesar Augustus had recently sent out the Good News that he had won the long civil war triggered by the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive father Julius. This “Good News” made Augustus the “Savior” of the Roman Empire. Again, only the Emperor was allowed to be the “savior.” By winning the war, Augustus had brought “peace” to the Empire. Nobody else had the right to be the “peace” maker. But Augustus had brought and preserved “peace” through violence. Although many biblical historians have cast doubt on the likelihood that the registration ordered by Caesar Augustus happened right at the time of Jesus’ birth, it puts the whole nativity story under the shadow of the Emperor’s controlling power that enforced “peace” by keeping track of his subjects and pushing them from place to place if “necessary.”
At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel promised Mary that Jesus would inherit he throne from David from his heavenly Abba and reign forever, He would, however, be a very different king than his forbear. Another angel is now telling the shepherds that the true Good News is that this child has now been born and this child is the one who can truly save us from our own violence and establish true peace. Jesus’ rulership has been expanded beyond the House of David to the whole Empire, which is to say, the entire world. Caesar Augustus is the one who has usurped God’s role of savior and bringer of peace.
This neat contrast between Jesus and Caesar, however, looks like a political campaign between the competing leaders of two political parties. This is our human way of looking at it. The mystery is that Jesus did not come into the world to compete with Caesar Augustus the way he competed against Brutus and Mark Antony or David competed with Saul. Jesus came to preach and live a totally different way of living than the way of Empire, a way not based on violent competition but on mutual support. Rather than inflict violence in humanity’s never-ending civil war, Jesus took the whole violence of all empires in all times on himself in the place of all those who have been and ever will be victims of Empire. That shepherds, social outcasts in their time, heard the voice of the angel and the song of the heavenly host but the ruling elite saw and heard nothing should serve as a warning to those of us who are relatively well-off in our own time.
I suppose I shouldn’t spoil our Christmas party by bringing up Jesus’ death, but it is Jesus’ death that we will shortly commemorate at the altar. Closer to holiday cheer: we also celebrate at the altar the risen, forgiving resurrected life of Jesus that opens us up to a new birth, a new life, based on the forgiving risen life of the child whose birth we celebrate tonight.
See also The Throne of David: Part One
When the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to conceive and bear a son, the angel said that her son “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Lk. 32–33) However, the prophet Nathan made this same promise to King David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Sam. 7: 16) Likewise, Psalm 89 say that David’s “line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun. It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies.” (Ps. 89: 36–37)
But the throne of David’s house came to an abrupt end with the Babylonian conquest and exile. Right after echoing the promise to David, Psalm 89 went on to declare its falsity: “But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.” (Ps. 89: 38–39) According to the genealogy that opens Matthew’s Gospel, the line of David continued after the deportation to Babylon, but we know nothing about Salathiel and his descendants until we reach Joseph, the husband of Mary. Joseph was a carpenter, a worthwhile means of making a living, but carpenters are not usually considered royalty. The idea of a carpenter’s son ruling over the House of David forever was absurd. But that was hardly as absurd as God impregnating a young woman who was still a virgin.
From the moment of Jesus’ conception, then, we have the premonition that if the boy is going to grow up to become a king who rules forever, he is going to be a very different king than his ancestor David. He will be raised in a backwater of Galilee rather than in a palace. He will not have glossy magazines printing feature stories about him. His retinue will be a small group of men of humble origins, many of them fishers. The biggest and most crucial difference will be that David replaced Saul as king because he slew tens of thousands to Saul’s thousands, (1 Sam: 18: 7) but Jesus would not wield a sword. Neither did he compete for the kingship with anybody, whether within or without Israel while David competed both against the Philistines and his own king. Rather than running a military operation, he let the Roman military operation run him up against the cross. But this slain king still reigns forever. How can this be? The angel also told Mary that her son would be holy and “be called the son of God.” (Lk. 1: 35) Whereas David, descended from the house of Jesse in Bethlehem, rose up in the world, Jesus came down from heaven to a totally washed up royal house. That’s quite a come down! But after dying on the cross, Jesus was raised from the dead where he does rule forever. And yet we still fight with each other, trying to kill tens of thousands over/against the thousands killed by our competitors. We fight those in our defined out-groups while we struggle against those within our in-groups whose authority we resent. But Jesus reigns without competing and without resentment. As one who became one of us among humans, Jesus is with us, within our hearts just as much as he is at the right hand of his heavenly Abba. Are we willing to be subject to a king as low as this?
See also The Throne of David: Part Two
There are many stories of kings who go about their kingdom in disguise, usually as a beggar. In such cases, whatever a subject of the king should do to that “beggar” would literally be done to the king himself. This may not have happened much in real life but it did happen when God became a true human being. Whatever anyone did for or to a certain itinerant preacher in Palestine was indeed done to God. It is important to note that in neither scenario did anyone consciously see the king or see God; one saw the beggar or the itinerant preacher.
The concluding parable of Matthew 25, the final teaching of Jesus in that Gospel, shows Christ as a king going about in disguise. Or does it? Neither the “sheep” who are welcomed into the Kingdom nor the “goats” who are sent to “the bad place” thought they were either serving or rejecting their heavenly king. What both the sheep and the goats saw—or failed to see—were vulnerable people who were starving or naked or in prison. This teaching has inspired a spirituality of “seeing” Jesus in vulnerable people, the rejects of society, the ones who are normally seen as the “goats,” if seen at all. But what is at stake is seeing the people, seeing their vulnerability, and showing one has seen them by serving them. After St. Martin had famously cut his cloak in half to give half to a freezing man, he had a dream of Jesus wearing that half of the cloak. But at the time, what Martin saw was the freezing man, and that was enough.
In his new book Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise, the therapist Richard Beck explores the ways of seeing and not seeing vulnerable people. He suggests that Jesus is prodding us to widen our affections beyond the friends and family we are comfortable with and move beyond our comfort zones. Beck covers several obstacles to such expansion, among them disgust, contempt and fear. Then comes the rub: how do we expand our affections? Beck searched through many books on spirituality for an answer until he came across the teaching of the Little Way” in the writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Beck says that this “little way” seems simple until one tries it. The “little way” begins with noticing. Thérèse says that she noticed that some sisters in her Carmelite convent were saintly and popular and other sisters were difficult and ignored as much as possible: a separation of sheep and goats. Thérèse then had to move beyond her comfort zone and seek out the neglected, difficult sisters. It happens that Fr. Anthony, my novice master, taught us the “little way” of St. Thérèse as a means of teaching us how to live the Benedictine life which also depends on attending to the same details of everyday life in community. I particularly remember Fr. Anthony’s reading about Thérèse pushing the wheelchair of a crabby sister who constantly complained about every little bump in the way. When Benedict instructs us to pay particular attention to the sick and the poor in reference to Matthew 25, Benedict is telling us that being obedient to Christ entails being obedient to the needs of vulnerable people.
Edifying as this teaching of serving Christ through serving vulnerable people is, the grim sending away of the “goats” who failed to serve the vulnerable is disturbing. One way to understand this grim ending is to suggest that if our hearts shrink to the vanishing point so that we become permanently blind to the plight of vulnerable people, we end up in our own darkness. This is a salutary warning. But perhaps these “goats,” like the crabby sister in the wheelchair, are people who also need to be served through the “little way.” I wonder if it might be emotionally easier to feed a hungry person than to care for a person who denies food to the hungry. It seems to me that any “sheep,” like the Lamb of God, would want to save all of the “goats.”
The denunciations by prophets like Micah of the rulers “who abhor justice and pervert all equity” (Mic. 3:9) and Jesus’ denunciations of Pharisees in Matthew 23 tend to curl our mouths in a snide smile as we think about how much better we are than they. But while Jesus is still warming up for his fiery words to come, he slows down and says: “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” (Mt. 23: 9–10) When Jesus goes on with words of woe for the scribes and Pharisees, we are apt to conveniently shove these words aside, but, I think we should linger over them a bit before enjoying the scolding of “other” people.
That the false prophets and wayward rulers, the Pharisees and the scribes are not worthy of being called “Father” or “Teacher” or Leader” is understandable. The broader implication of not calling other people “father” is that we are all brothers and sisters. That is, Jesus is leveling the field among humans so that all of our relationships are fraternal, including relationships with people we usually think are “higher” or “lower” than we are, such as the relationship between parents and children and leaders and their followers. That is, we are all equal but we have a tendency to try to be more equal than others. And that is where we have problems.
Jesus scoffs at those who want the best places in the synagogues and banquets and who want to be greeted with fawning respect in the marketplace. We scoff at them too since mocking the foibles of our leaders and putting them down is everybody’s favorite blood sport. Which is to say that it is not just false prophets and ruthless leaders and scribes and Pharisees who do these things. We all do them. We all try to be a little more equal than other people in little and big ways. It is this desire to be more equal than others that causes us to lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others and not “lift a finger to move them.” After all, putting a weight on another makes the person stoop, lowering that person. So why do anything to help the lowered person rise up?
The lectionary spares us the rest of Jesus’ harsh words as he dissects the ways we interpret law and morality to our own advantage and the disadvantage of others. Jesus reaches his climax with the charge that we persecute the prophets and so that “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah” will be on our heads. (Mt. 23: 35) Jesus is warning us that the pushing and shoving to get the best seats at the banquet lead to the violence perpetrated against the prophets sent by God.
Forgotten in all this rivalry is Jesus’ teaching: “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Mt. 23: 11) This is quite the opposite of laying burdens on other people to make them bow down to us in public places. Jesus is also accepting the fact that some humans naturally take more responsibility for others and do act as leaders. Paul, for example, was called to preach the Good News of Jesus and naturally went on to help people organize their churches. But when preaching in Thessalonika, Paul took the burdens on himself and worked hard so as not to be a burden on others. And he dealt with the Thessalonians like “a father with his children” in trying to lead them in a way worthy of God’s kingdom and glory. (1 Thess. W: 11–12) That is, a leader has to make everyone else more important than oneself.
This is what Jesus did, even to dying on the cross. And this is why Jesus is our teacher and guide to his heavenly Abba.