On Saving a Fig Tree

Both Matthew and Mark have brief stories of Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit even though it is not the season for figs. The story is puzzling and some people think Jesus is just throwing a childish tantrum.

Fig trees, like vines, have much resonance throughout the Bible and the Gospels are almost certainly referring to some of the verses about them. In 1 Kings 4: 21 it says: “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.” Micah prophesies that “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4: 4) In contrast to these images of well-being, Jeremiah complains that “there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.” (Jer, 8: 13) The fig tree appears to stand for Israel as a whole in these instances and they make Jesus’ curse of the fig tree understandable as a prophetic warning that Israel is on the verge of becoming irremediably fruitless.

In Luke, Jesus refers to two recent disasters:: Pilate’s mingling the blood of some Galileans with his sacrifices, and the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. (Lk. 13: 1–5) He scotches the blame game where we assume the victims deserve what they got, but warns the crowd that all will perish in an equally horrible way if they do not repent. Paul refers to a series of disasters at least as ghastly in First Corinthians: the Israelites fell, were destroyed by serpents, or destroyed by the Destroyer on account of sinful behavior. In both examples, there is a mixture of natural causes and human causes, both of which show Israel suffering disaster for failing to bear fruit, like the barren fig tree.

The small parable in Luke (Lk. 13: 6–9) gives us a different take on the fruitless fig tree. The owner is losing patience after three years without fruit and demands that the tree be cut down, but the gardener pleads for one more chance. The gardener will make an extra effort and see if that makes the tree bear some fruit. One wonders if this gardener will ever stop pleading for one more year, year after year. This is in dramatic contrast to the threatening words of imminent disaster the precede the parable.

Jesus’s cursing the fig tree for not bearing fruit and Jesus’ parable seem to work at cross purposes. Is there a resolution to this tension? The Old Testament reading adds weight to the gentler position in Luke. Yahweh, speaking to Moses out of the burning bush, promises to deliver the Israelites from Egypt and bring them to a land where they will find, among other things, fig trees, as Moses’s sermon in Deuteronomy promises. (Ex, 3: 8; Deut. 8: 8) Hosea spoke of Israel as “like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season.” (Hos. 9: 10) This initial commitment suggests that God will not give up on Israel easily, and probably not at all, no matter how barren the tree. We can ask ourselves: Are we like the owner who has given up on the fig tree that is human culture today, or are we like the gardener who will keep on trying when we fail to bear fruit year after year?

In his first Epistle, Peter says that Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree. (1 Pet. 2: 24). Could this tree be the withered fig tree? In the parable in Luke, the gardener says he will put manure around the barren tree. Manure is considered a waste product, but farmers know that it brings fertility. Is Jesus, the stone rejected by the builders, (Ps. 118: 22; Lk. 20: 17) himself the manure that makes the withered tree bear fruit again as Gil Bailie and Paul Nuechterlein suggest? Are we willing to give of ourselves for the sake of others who seem to be as barren as the fig tree?

Living With Jesus’ Temptations

Every year, the first Sunday of Lent has us reflect on Jesus’ testing in the desert. In two of the three years, the Gospel narrates the three temptations presented by the devil. We have been over this terrain many times, but since we struggle with temptation and fall, each year we need to see what insight we might get from the way Jesus dealt with the three temptations. With the help of Luke’s ordering of the temptations, it is easier, compared with Matthew, to see the first two temptations as focused primarily on our relationship with the material world while the third is focused on our relationship with God.

This year, I realized that in the first temptation, it is the devil who offered the stones as raw material for bread. This ties into the second temptation where the devil claims that the kingdoms of this world are his to give. If the devil believes he owns the kingdoms, it is small wonder he thinks he owns the stones in the desert. So who gave the stones and the kingdoms to the devil? God? Hardly, as Jesus makes clear in his reply. The only other possibility is that humans have given the kingdoms and stones to the devil. What does that say about us? I can’t help but think of Jesus’ rhetorical question: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Mt. 7: 9) But when we think of all the carbs, fat, sugar, and other junk that goes into so much food these days, aren’t we practically feeding each other stones? This thought leads to the suggestion that in offering the kingdoms and their authority, the devil is offering mountains of stones that threaten to bury us. And with the overwhelming social injustices in our country, not least the racist system that entangles all of us, our social relationships consist of throwing stones at each other rather than offering each other wholesome bread.

The first temptation is closely linked to the feedings in the wilderness narrated six times in the four Gospels. Significantly, Jesus does not pick up stones and turn them into bread; he takes a few loaves of bread and makes many loaves to feed the people. Jesus is not concerned with feeding himself; he is feeding others, and he is using the initial generosity of the disciples (or the boy with some loaves and fish in John) and extending that generosity. Generosity creates abundance while parsimoniousness creates scarcity. There is much we need besides bread alone to live on, and one of them is the willingness to share with others. The same principle applies to our relationships with kingdoms and their authorities. The stones that the devil offers feature sacrificial practices where the well-being of many is sacrificed for the benefit of the few. That is certainly the case where maximizing the bottom line in a business becomes an absolute value to the exclusion of everything else. It is tempting here to wax eloquently about the dictator of a certain country who has unleashed an invasion of another country, but we must not let that distract us from how we ourselves handle social and power relationships.

This brings us to the third temptation. As a promise of care and protection, Psalm 91 is among the most comforting in the Bible. That the devil should quote it to pervert the assurance that the angels will bear us up lest one dash a foot against a stone (Ps. 91: 12) is especially painful. When Jesus replies with Deuteronomy 6: 16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he gets to the heart of the matter. Yes, we are to trust in God’s providence but not in a way that focuses on self rather than God. We ourselves put God to the test in the same way if we assume we can do what we want and God will protect us from the consequences. The late Tom Truby, a good friend of mine, said in a sermon on this Gospel that our ecological situation is an example of this presumption. The demonic voice says: “Go ahead, jump into environmental free fall, nothing will happen to you.” With this attitude, we are testing God, expecting God to clean up our messes. Instead, we may dry up all the drinking water on the planet.

There came a time when Jesus indeed fell into the pit of death and needed to trust his heavenly Abba and the angels to catch him and raise him up. But far from self-centeredly making a spectacle of himself, Jesus gave his life for the sake of us all. If we think and care deeply for others, we will enter difficult and sometimes dangerous situations for their sake. This is what the psalm verse is about. God and the angels will protect us but, as with Jesus, the protection does not necessarily leave us unscathed in this life. After all, we are venturing into the Paschal Mystery. As material goods such as food and our social relationships need to be focused on the good of others, our dependence on God’s protection must be focused even more deeply in the same way. As Jesus depended on his heavenly Abba and the angels to sustain him during the temptations in the desert and throughout his life and death, so we also must depend on Jesus and his heavenly Abba.

A Brief Message for Ash Wednesday

I am tempted to feel that Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the Paschal Mystery of Passiontide and Eastertide have all been upstaged by world politics, most especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What are a few ashes on the forehead compared to armored tanks? The only way to answer the question is to receive the ashes and God’s gift of penitence that they symbolize and then receive the Body and Blood of our Lord in the bread and wine, which is to take into ourselves the Paschal Mystery. Jesus himself was shoved offstage by those who held center-stage and crucified outside the city. (Heb. 13: 12) That is, offstage has become the new center stage where we, too, follow Christ.

Where Are You Planted?

The last time I preached, Jesus announced the Jubilee of God. I suggested that we will likely find the rest of the Gospel filling out what such a Jubilee entails. If that is so, the blessings and woes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain (Lk. 6: 20–26) seem to be an odd way to have a jubilee. Usually we think that being rich and being well fed at meals filled with laughter and receiving lots of compliments is precisely how to have a jubilee. On the other hand, being poor and hungry while weeping and being reviled are all downers, but Jesus seems to suggest that these downers are what the jubilee is all about. As for Jesus himself, after he announced the Jubilee, he was spoken well of for about a minute and then it all tanked and he was driven out of the synagogue. So Jesus was already practicing his jubilee in terms of the Sermon on the Plain from the start of his ministry.

Obviously we need all the help we can get for understanding these troubling and puzzling words, so let’s see what we can glean from the first two readings. Jeremiah also talks about blessings and curses. Does he mean that God curses people God doesn’t like? The people that Jeremiah says are cursed “trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength.” (Jer. 17: 5) Sounds like these people are cursing themselves by rejecting God. The contrast of a tree planted by the water and a tree planted in salt land suggest that blessings and curses are simply natural outcomes of being grounded in God or not being so grounded. Jesus, then, picking up on Jeremiah, would be suggesting that the poor and hungry are grounded in God and the rich and sated aren’t. If that is true, then maybe being rich is overrated and is not such a great cause for jubilee. It is worth noting that the Rich Young Man went away sad because he had many possessions.

The words of St. Paul from the end of his First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15: 12–20) with his anxious defense of the Resurrection suggest the possibility that the reversal takes place in the afterlife. Jesus does hint at that for the reviled and defamed. Maybe a better afterlife can also be some consolation for the poor and starving, but that does not otherwise help us cope with being poor and starving and slandered right now. And Jesus is saying that the poor are blessed now, not just later. The anxiety on Paul’s part is the denial of the resurrection on the part of some supposed followers. What’s the problem? If applying Jeremiah’s words to the Sermon on the Plain leads us to depend on God, we must depend on a living God, not a dead one. Only if Jesus is truly raised from the dead as the apostolic witness avers can Jesus be depended on right now.

So, the big take from Jeremiah and Paul is that we are blessed if we are grounded in God and we are unfortunate if we are not. That much is certainly true and has the advantage of being a pretty big loophole where there didn’t seem to be one: we don’t have to worry about having some economic resources and being well-fed as long as we are grounded in God. But maybe this loophole threatens to be a trap. Surely Jesus is warning us that the more we have, the less likely we are to depend on God.

At this point. I get the feeling I’m fretting that if I have one penny too many, I lose my blessing and become unfortunate. Same if I take one bite of food too many, laugh too much or get one compliment past my quota. There is no end to this spiral unless I stop and turn around. After all, these thoughts are all centered on self. There is no jubilee in such fretting and there is no depending on God either. But what if we think more about other people having something to eat and something to laugh about? What if we stop reviling other people and build them up by letting them know we appreciate them? Doesn’t this start to look a little more like the Jubilee announced by Jesus? If we take this approach, we start to see how we hinder these things and how our social system hinders them. This gives us cause to weep, but if weeping leads to making these things better, then we have turned tears into laughter. But the deeper mystery remains. Sometimes we don’t see the silver lining of being poor and starving, crying and being reviled and these things often happen as a result of doing the things listed above. Jesus is encouraging us by promising that the silver lining we cannot see is really there in the love we pour out for others. He should know, having gone through Gethsemane and the Cross. This is why we are blessed even in such times if we are grounded in the crucified and Risen Christ.

How About a Jubilee?

After celebrating the Baptism of Jesus and the Wedding at Cana with its Eucharistic overtones, Luke’s lectionary cycle takes us to visions of the Body of Christ as community, what Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday we celebrated this week, called “the Beloved Community. This theme is most appropriate for the octave for Christian unity.

The reading from Nehemiah 8 gives us a glimpse of the initiation of the body of worship that became the synagogue. Ezra reads the Law (the Torah) and includes explanation, which is the heart of synagogue worship to this day. Nehemiah and Ezra conclude with these comforting words: “This day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh. 8: 10) Unfortunately these two leaders also thought that social cohesion required the expulsion of all wives who are not sufficiently “pure” to be part of this emerging Jewish community, a recurring problem of creating unity through division.

In his first Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul counters the exclusionary behavior in this church with his famous analogy of the human body with the Church as the Body of Christ. This analogy gives us a powerful vision of unity in diversity with each part interacting with all the others. If one part of the body hurts, all parts hurt. This analogy also reminds of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words: “Nobody is free until we are all free.” The implication is that if we try to exert our “freedom” by expelling others, we are not free.

The Gospel reading from Luke portrays the opening of Jesus’ teaching ministry. As the forerunner John the Baptist quoted Isaiah’s words about Israel’s return from the Babylonian exile as God’s preparing a way for the people to return over rough country made smooth, Jesus began by quoting Isaiah’s words about what a settled people should do: Have a jubilee. The Jubilee was designed to make high economic mountains and low valleys more level; to give everybody a new start by cancelling crippling debts. This really was good news for the poor who particularly needed another start. But there is more: Isaiah also envisioned freeing captives and giving sight to the blind. Could it be that economic injustice makes all of us blind to what is really going on? In any case, Jesus is broadening the scope of the Jubilee to apply to everything we can do to strengthen community. To return to Paul’s analogy of the Church as Christ’s Body: it is as if some parts of the body swelled and caused other parts to shrink. Maybe the swollen parts thought that was a good deal, but the reality is that the whole body, not least the swollen parts, is sick when that happens. Economic issues are unmistakable in Luke but a Jubilee is about and for everybody. So how do all of us participate in the Jubilee? What about problems of exclusion? Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a society where the exclusionary practices of race would no longer tear the nation and the churches apart. More important, King sought to achieve this end through reconciliation rather than through adversarial approaches. Isaiah had also proclaimed the freeing of captives. Besides re-evaluating our prison system, we should reflect on how we imprison each other and most of all ourselves in resentment and vengefulness.

The only words of Jesus that Luke quotes are: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk. 4: 21) This is particularly startling. According to Leviticus, a Jubilee happened every seven years with a super Jubilee every seventy years. A Jubilee was something to look forward to, but Jesus is telling us to celebrate the Jubilee NOW. Not next week or tomorrow, but NOW. That puts all of us on the hot seat right now and calls us to consider what we can do NOW to participate in the Jubilee. Since Jesus’ quoting Isaiah is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, it stands to reason that the rest of the Gospel shows us ways to live the Jubilee. That is, Luke’s Gospel is a Jubilee Gospel. The famous Lukan parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son give us powerful examples of what Jubilee looks like.

I will close with an example from a presentation by the black theologian Julia Robinson Moore in North Carolina whom I heard a few months ago. She said that a white parish with many descendants of slave owners offered an apology to her black congregation for their enslavement of the forebears of her congregation. This may not seem like much given the enormity of slavery’s cruelty, but Julia said the apology was both significant and meaningful for her and her congregation. Their acceptance of the apology is another act of Jubilee. Even if we start small, we can hope for an increase of sixty, eighty and a hundredfold.

NOTE: AN organization dedicated to relief of medical debt has just come to my attention. St. John’s, Midland, MI is currently running a campaign for debt relief in this area. https://ripmedicaldebt.org/

As Jesus Grew

Church window at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont, PA

The story of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve (Lk. 2: 41–41) is unique in the New Testament in that, being the only story about Jesus as an adolescent, it is also the only text that gives us insight into Jesus as a developing person. The infancy narratives show Jesus as a vulnerable baby and stories of Jesus as an adult, thirty years of age, show a pretty steady portrait of Jesus although a few stories hint at some change in Jesus’ perspective, such as the story of the Canaanite woman. (Lk. 18: 1–9). The big turning point in Jesus’ life was the baptism when the heaven’s opened. This was clearly a powerful experience that oriented him for the rest of his life and solidified his identity. It is well-known that early adolescence is a time of transition and a growing sense of identity, and Luke shows us the beginnings of the identity that was firmed up by his baptism.

The biggest transition for an adolescent is to move from parental care and authority to a growing independence in calling the shots for one’s own life. This is a transition that both parents and children have to navigate. That Jesus’ parents assumed that their son had rejoined the caravan for the return trip from Jerusalem (a poor assumption) suggests that they were indeed letting go and giving their son some responsibility for himself. If Jesus had been younger, they would have made sure the boy was with them before the caravan left. As for Jesus, it is obvious that he made an independent decision on his own initiative. This independent choice led to a new dependence beyond his family as Jesus felt drawn to the temple and took advantage of the opportunity to learn and sharpen his own growing insights in conversation with the elders. Although Jesus would, as an adult, have an adversarial relationship with many of the same people, at this time in his life, Jesus asked questions, listened carefully, and weighed the answers for what they could teach him. As often happens with adolescents, Jesus seemed to assume that his parents would know where he would be, another poor assumption..

That Jesus was drawn to the temple and to conversation with the elders indicates that he had a growing sense of a vocation deeply involved with the religious tradition of his people and the time to begin preparing for it had come. When his parents found him, he showed himself to be firm in this growing sense of vocation when he said: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2: 49) Like many adolescents, Jesus failed to make himself understood to his parents. Not wishing to be a rebellious adolescent, Jesus returned to Nazareth and “was obedient to them.” (Lk. 2: 51)

The insights into adolescent psychology are pretty good for a writer who had no opportunity to take a course in developmental psychology, but that is not the point of the story. What is important, and something we should ponder, is that Jesus, as truly and fully human as well as divine, developed as a human being as every human being develops. As with everything else human, Jesus leads us through his own human experience in our own navigating of transitions in life.

God’s Christmas Gift

How can God possibly become a real and true human being? We don’t know. God knows, but God isn’t telling. That is probably because I can’t imagine God giving an answer that would be intelligible to humans. All we know is that God became a human being. Impossible, right? Well, if it really happened, then it isn’t really impossible; it just seems that way. And it is indeed impossible for humans. Only God can do this trick.

So what’s the big deal about God becoming a human being? The big deal, which is an infinitely big deal, is that humans can become God. Impossible! Well, yes. For humans it most certainly is impossible, notwithstanding the many people who have thought they could and failed for all their delusions. Once again, only God can do this trick.

Many Christians are astonished at the prospect although this belief goes back to the early Christian centuries and is enshrined in the second Epistle of St. Peter where Peter says that we become “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Pet. 1:4) It sounds as presumptuous to some as it sounds impossible, and it is presumptuous and impossible if one thinks in terms of humans having divinity within themselves that they can tap into at will. (Hence the many failures.) But note that I said it is only God who can do this trick. And it doesn’t mean we become “god” in some sort of fusion. If we dissolve, there is no relationship between ourselves and God ,which is a prerequisite for participation in God’s nature. Becoming partakers of the divine nature is a gift which God makes possible by entering human nature and becoming a human being. The thing about a gift is that there must be both a giver and a receiver. So the question is: are we willing to receive the gift of God’s nature or not?

The question is pretty abstract in the terms discussed so far, but the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke brings the question down to earth. By setting the story in the context of the Roman Empire’s exertion of power through the census taken by Quirinius, Luke sets the stage for what the world is like, the world that will welcome Jesus and the gift of deification–or not. That the only shelter Joseph could find when Mary delivered her child was a stable, suggests that Jesus was not welcome to this world, a point made also in John’s Gospel. (Jn. 1: 11-12) The ubiquitous manger scenes make this setting very sweet and romantic, but if one were to feel the cold and smell the smells, it wouldn’t be so romantic. The story emphasizes the vulnerability of the child in spite of that child’s being God, capable of sharing his godhead with us. So far, only Mary and Joseph have welcomed the child into world and are taking care of him as well as they can. In contrast to this stark scene, we have the shepherds in the field seeing the Glory of the Lord and hearing the singing of the heavenly hosts. This reminds me of the double level in Revelation which draws the contrast between the human violence on earth and the rejoicing heavenly choruses in Heaven. For all their fear, the shepherds also receive the Christ Child. At this point, the only welcomers comes from the bottom of society, with the shepherds being the dregs. No red carpets from royalty or even a decent shelter offered by somebody of modest means. So if we think we are above the lowest rank of society, how about us? We should worry that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a well-healed person to accept the gift of deification.

During Jesus’ life, we see much welcoming as crowds of people follow Jesus to receive healing and to listen to his words. Many of them are of the lowest classes but there are a few higher-ups who welcome Jesus, at least up to a point, with Simon the Leper being an example. But with the religious and political leadership, not so much. Religious and politicians should ponder this. When the Empire struck back after Jesus cleansed the temple, the welcome of just a few days before evaporated and Jesus died on the cross, alone, or almost alone. Not much of a welcome there.

There is more to welcoming God than welcoming a certain baby born in a stable some two thousand years ago. We can do this sentimentally in prayerful exercises and then get on with life. But if we really welcome God, we welcome everything Jesus said and did throughout his life. Which is to say we welcome the self-giving of God entering humanity, and we don’t try to become “god” on our own terms since welcoming God’s humanity involves welcoming our own. More challenging, we must welcome everybody else, even if they don’t welcome us, since Jesus welcomed them and still does. More challenging still, the gift of God’s nature means serving others, not asking them to serve us. Receiving the gift of God’s divinity gives us the gift of rejoicing with the heavenly hosts who sang to the shepherds, but it also gives us the gift of poverty and the vulnerability of a stable and then the vulnerability of the cross. The gift of participation in the divine nature is free, but it is also just as costly for us as it is for God.

Preparing the Way of the Lord

Advent is an odd sort of beginning for the liturgical year. In one respect , it is the beginning of the story of Jesus, starting with his conception and St. John the Baptist’s preaching as a forerunner of Jesus, but in another respect, Advent is thought to be about the end of the story, the end of the world with the “second coming” of Jesus. Or is it? John the Baptist is a transitionary character who points to a great good God will do without knowing what it is going to be. Might the “end” of the story really be another transition? Malachi’s image of God being like a refiner’s fire (Mal. 3:2) sounds ominous and violent, a perfect image for God burning up the world in a fit of anger. But a refiner’s fire is not destructive; it is constructive, even healing. As a refiner’s fire restores metals to their best condition, God’s refining fire purifies the sons of Levi so that they can offer their sacrifices. The refining fire is not an ending but a new beginning. In what other ways might the ministry of John the Baptist be a new beginning for us today?

Luke has John begin his preaching with a quote from Isaiah which stands by itself with no elaboration. John’s quote features the leveling of valleys and mountains in order to “prepare the way of the Lord.” The image of leveling can be threatening as it calls up fears of violent revolutionaries leveling everything to the ground out of anger and resentment. But this is not the kind of leveling Isaiah and John are envisioning. Isaiah was proclaiming the leveling of valleys and mountains in order to remove the obstacles between Babylonia and Jerusalem so that the Jews could return safely to their homeland. The way to prepare for the Lord, then, is to remove obstacles that we put between each other. In an online discussion of this reading, it was suggested that one way we smooth the way for others is to create barrier-free access for handicapped people although it was noted that we still have more progress to make since the distance of a barrier-free route can be quite extensive. In any case, this image gives us a small parable of the greater project of removing obstacles placed in the paths of the helpless. One way to do this would be to pass legislation that makes voting easier for people instead of harder. On paper or in a spoken sermon, removing barriers may sound like a calm action, but in reality, we are, first of all, removing obstacles in ourselves that cause us to stumble in the way of the Lord. Since we are likely to find that many of these obstacles have been mistaken for parts of ourselves instead of invasive infections, removing these obstacles may well feel like being refined by fire. Another way to say the same thing is to note that the Way of the Lord is from Empire whether in the household or a nation-state (Babylon) to Jerusalem, the freedom of a new beginning of life without obstacles between each other and God. Hence the importance of Luke meticulously listing the imperial rulers three times in the first three chapters of his Gospel.

In parallel to John’s introducing his ministry with an otherwise unelaborated quote from Isaiah, Luke has Jesus inaugurate his ministry with another quote from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” We do well to place these two quotes side by side as they add up to a fuller program of preparing the way of the Lord by freeing the oppressed from the obstacles we place before them..

In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist famously said of his relationship with Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn. 3: 30) As my confessor of many years reminded me often, we must be like John the Baptist: decreasing so that Christ may increase within each of us. Letting Christ increase in us, of course has us decreasing ourselves by removing the obstacles in ourselves so as to prepare the way of the Lord.

Not One Stone Upon Another

It is one of many signs that Jesus’ disciples still don’t “get it” when they ooh and ah about the beautiful temple that Herod has built. Haven’t they noticed that Jesus doesn’t see Herod as a model ruler? Did they notice that Jesus wrecked havoc in the temple? Did they think about what the gesture might mean? The chief priests most certainly were thinking very hard about it and their thoughts were very hard. If any of the above notions were going through their heads, they might not have been so startled when Jesus predicted that “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mk. 13: 2)

It is important to realize, as pretty much all biblical scholars have noted, that prophecy is not fortune telling about the future, but is a word of where the present trends are leading unless there is a change of course. For example, many prophets warned that the injustices in their time were destroying the social fabric and were going to lead to a violent end. Throughout his teaching, Jesus gave a threefold set of warnings: 1) Social injustices connected to the temple were unraveling the religious system. (The scribes and Pharisees “devour widows’ houses.” (Mk. 12: 40.) 2) The threat of rebelling against Rome will redound on the Jewish people. 3) The religious leaders and the imperial leaders were on course to commit lethal violence against Jesus, as he warned in the Parable of the Evil Workers in the Vineyard. (Mk. 12: 1–12)

We can see readily enough that the social violence is human violence through and through and it has nothing to do with God. Mark’s Gospel also tells a story of human collective violence directed at one person who is deemed responsible for the social crisis in Judea. If social ills of institutionalized violence and scapegoating are the work of humans and not God, what about the apocalyptic violence in Mark 13? Jesus does mention earthquakes, which are natural disasters and not God’s doing, but mostly Jesus warns of “wars and rumor of wars,” and nations rising against nation. (Mk. 13: 7–8) Once again, we have human acts, only on a grander scale. Here we have Jesus’ warning of the ineluctable results of staging a violent rebellion against Rome. This violence causes social ties to break down to the extent that “brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” (Mk. 13: 12) Jesus then warns of being handed over to councils and then standing “before governors and kings.” (Mk. 13: 9) The chaotic violence circles back to collective violence against a few victims. The technical term for religious cataclysmic literature is “apocalypse,” which means unveiling. Many people think that apocalyptic literature reveals God, but actually it reveals the truth of human violence.

In this analysis of violence, I have been greatly helped by the French thinker René Girard who argued that from the dawn of civilization, there has been a tendency of humans to solve social problems by suddenly gaining up on a victim or a small group of victims with lethal results. The peace following each gruesome episode was so dramatic that it was seen as an “act of god.” It is no wonder that societies founded on collective violence would be sustained by ongoing social violence. There is no time to explain Girard’s arguments further, but it is worth noting that all the Gospels end with the story of the collective murder of Jesus while stressing the human action that caused it. Girard also warns us that although the Gospel Story has opened the way to renewing society through concern for previously overlooked victims, it also greases the breaks that collective violence had previously put on social crises with the result that such crises spin out of control with no end in sight. This is precisely what we see going on all around us as I speak.

Although Jesus’ warnings about violence include violence that one might suffer, such as the violence Jesus suffered and his followers would suffer in the future, the warnings mostly concern inflicting violence upon others. That is, he is warning his listeners to refrain from the violence of social injustice, the violence of collective violence against a victim, and the violence of social upheaval that will only escalate violence. There is much fully justified therapeutic concern for victims of violence, but the trauma of committing violence is also severe. In fact, on a spiritual level, it is more devastating. What is so tragic about the trauma of inflicting violence is that so often one thinks that it is violence that reveals God. Jesus is telling us that we need to make a 180-degree turn to see God. An oppressive social order where some people are perpetual victims is not a God-given order. As Matthew 25 show us clearly, God is seen only in the victims of such a social order. Others turn to the social chaos of social upheaval, proclaiming that God is in the violence. But in Mark, Jesus makes it clear that God has nothing to do with the violence. The designated disrupter of the social order is the one believed to be designated by God for death or exile. In Isaiah, the people thought that the “Suffering Servant” was “stricken by God.” (Is. 53: 4) Mark tells us at the end of the Gospel that God is seen in a man dying in agony and despair on a cross. Keeping our attention fixed there will be our only defense before the powerful, which isn’t much of a defense. But it is the only way we can point to God in a world that is falling apart. Any other way will leave us with not one stone left upon another.

For introductory essays on René Girard, see:

Violence and the Kingdom of God

Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

Living with our Shared Desires

On Not Offending the Vulnerable—Or Anybody Else

Jesus’ suggestions that we cut off a hand or a foot or tear out an eye are so shocking that we are pulled away from the previous verse where Jesus mildly says that “whoever is not against us is for us” and that anyone who gives a cup of water will be rewarded. (Mk. 9: 41) It is worth noting that a great many sayings and parables of Jesus take us out of our comfort zones. This particular hard saying takes the cake, a rock hard bad tasting cake at that. The standard way for a preacher to wriggle out of these hard sayings is to say that they are “hebraisms,” that is to say, hyperboles to get our attention. Maybe so, but let’s allow these verses to get our attention and see where they take us.

We get some help from the broader context of these sayings. Earlier in Mark 9, read as last week’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be “betrayed into human hands” and killed. The disciples respond to this warning by fighting about who is the greatest. Jesus responds to this infighting by putting a child among the disciples and saying that whoever welcomes this child welcomes him and the one who sent him. (Mk. 9: 37)

In this context, we can see that the disciples’ complaint about the person who is not “one of us” casting out demons is a renewal of the competitiveness on the part of the disciples. Casting out demons is something Jesus has told the disciples to do and now this other person is doing it. What’s the problem? Maybe the problem is that the disciples had just failed to exorcize a demon as Jesus was coming down from the mountain and they are jealous. Jesus gently rebukes them for their competitiveness by saying that anyone who is not against him is for him. The disciples aren’t the only show in town. Then Jesus echoes his commendation of the child by saying that whoever offers anyone a cup of water will be rewarded. That is, thinking about the needs of others, especially the most vulnerable, and doing something about it, leaves no room for competition.

Then come the hard sayings. Jesus warns the disciples (and us) about putting stumbling blocks before these little ones: the child in the midst of the disciples, the one who should be given a cup of water. It is precisely the competitive behavior that scandalizes the little ones, leading them to copy the behavior modeled by those larger and more powerful than they. Children playing cowboys and Indians, as in my day, or with GI Joe or Ninja toys more recently, may be cute, but aren’t they mimicking their elders too closely for comfort? When children see their elders fighting over who is the greatest, is it any wonder they do the same? The notion that it is better to be hurled into the sea with a millstone around the neck than to scandalize the little ones should make one think. It is worth noting that throwing people off of cliffs was a popular means of sacrificing. Being willing to cut off a hand or leg or gouge out an eye rather than scandalize a little one is drastic, but it makes it urgent that we sacrifice our competitiveness rather than scandalize the vulnerable. Indeed, lacking a limb or an eye (remember Odin?) causes one to be a “random” victim of sacrifice. Moreover, dismemberment is also a common method of sacrifice. (Remember Prajapati?) Of course, it would be simpler and less drastic to offer a cup of water, but if competitiveness through what René Girard called “mimetic rivalry” is a powerful addiction, as Girard suggested, our hands and feet are too caught up in rivalry to make even so simple a gesture.

This brings us to hell where the worm never dies and the fire never quenched. (Mk. 9: 48) It would indeed be better to have one hand rather than two that burn in hell for all eternity. But that isn’t what Jesus is talking about here. The word he uses is “Gehenna,” which means something different. Some scholars think it was a large garbage dump outside Jerusalem whose flames never stopped smouldering. More to the point, Gehenna was the valley where Jeremiah claimed that children were sacrificed to the pagan deities. It does seem fitting that such a cursed place would be turned into a refuse heap. Gehenna, then, is where our rivalrous battles end: a place where the vulnerable are sacrificed to fuel our battles. Maybe Jesus’ words about cutting off limbs is hyperbole, a set of “hebraisms,” but they are warning us of the consequences of our rivalrous ways. One of the clearest symptoms of mimetic rivalry is the sharp divide between us and them, a divide the contending disciples tried to make between themselves and the other person who exorcized people.

Jesus concludes his teaching by referring to salt. Salt was added to sacrifices by both Jews and Romans, but as in the use of the image in Matthew and Luke, salt refers to an inner quality, perhaps a willingness to sacrifice self rather than others. This willingness to sacrifice self is of great value and losing it would be much worse than losing an arm or a leg. Jesus tells us that the greatest value of the inner salt is to “be at peace with one another.” (Mk. 9: 49) Being at peace allows for offering a cup of water to one who has need of it, and such giving creates more peace. Indeed, Jesus himself gave up much more than a hand or a foot; he gave up his life to deliver us from the Gehenna of our own making.