Holding Back the Fire—Embracing the Beloved Community

GuestsoutsideWhen called by the prophet Elijah, (1 Kings 19: 19–21) Elisha asks to kiss his mother and father first. When he is rebuked for this demurral, he slaughters his oxen, breaks the yokes and burns them, and then follows Elijah. That is, he burns his bridges in making a clean break. Elisha makes this break, however, to join a brotherhood of prophets who have set up an alternate community to the violent and idolatrous kingdom of Ahab and Jezebel. Unfortunately, this community is also compromised by violence as Elijah calls fire down on his enemies (2 Kings 1: 10–12) and one of the prophets anoints Jehu to pull of a violent coup d’état. (2 Kings 9)

We see the same dynamics of making a clean break in the stories of Jesus calling his disciples. The earlier callings of Peter, Andrew, James, John and the others were successful as they left their boats and families and followed Jesus. But when Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem where he will be crucified, we have what appear to be three failed callings. (Lk. 9: 57-62) In each case, Jesus is stressing the homelessness and the break with the culture these people have known, just as Elijah was asking Elishah to do. They will have no place to lay their heads because, with Jesus, they will no longer have a place in the culture. The dead can bury the dead because the culture they would be leaving is dead. Like a farmer at the plow, they must look ahead, towards Jerusalem, not back the way they came.

We normally think the cultures we live in are pretty good. After all, they have nurtured us from infancy and we owe a lot to them. But the story preceding the failed callings shows up the problem with our cultures. The solidarity with our “own” people tends to put us at enmity with those who are “other.” The beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem takes him through Samaria, where a village there did not “receive” them. Whether or not they were actually rejected by the Samaritans is not clear, but the suggestion of James and John that they command fire to rain down on the Samaritans suggests they probably were. This quick escalation from rejection to total destruction is the trademark of human culture that builds up such enmity and violence. Jesus rebukes his disciples for suggesting such a thing. Interestingly, some manuscripts add a verse where Jesus says: “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.” Even if this added verse is not authentic, Jesus’s rebuke already conveys that sentiment. Rejection and raining down fire is the culture of violence that the disciples and would-be disciples are commanded to turn away from.

Turning away from one’s own culture, in itself, is negative. As long as it is negative, it is fueled by alienation and resentment, which leads to the seething irrational anger of the Underground Man as Dostoevsky calls him. Cutting oneself off from everybody is also a violent act, one that can lead to senseless violence as it does with the Underground Man who eventually attacks another person out of sheer spite. I myself was mired in such alienation and resentment for some years when the problems with my own culture became evident through the Viet Nam War, racist practices and other social ills. This attitude felt like freedom until I was freed by God from the resentment and discovered it had really been a prison.

In Galatians 5, Paul illustrates the culture Jesus is calling us from, what he calls the “works of the flesh,” as “licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy” and much, much more. It is precisely envy, quarreling, strife and the like that makes human culture so violent that rejection from other humans leads to raining down fire in retaliation. No wonder some people turn away in disgust and resentment. But Jesus would have us turn away from the culture of death and violence, not to close in on ourselves in impotent fury, but to embrace humanity in a much deeper, much more inclusive way. Paul says that the fruits of the Spirit, the spirit that comes to save lives, not destroy them, are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. “ (Gal. 5: 22–23) Just a bit further on his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus illustrates the fruit of the Spirit with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10: 25–37) where the enemy the disciples would rain fire on is the one who shows compassion for an enemy who, in turn, is challenged to accept love from an enemy. Paul says this is crucifying the “flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5: 24) As Jesus shows at the end of the road to Jerusalem, kindness, generosity, gentleness and the like end up on the cross where the strife, jealousy and envy of the people is absorbed. Once we embrace this culture of love, what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the Beloved Community,” we embrace the culture we have renounced so as to bring it into the culture of the Spirit.

Strange Wedding

wineTableFeast1The Wedding at Cana of Galilee is a beautiful story of celebration. The only problem is the story makes no sense, perhaps because celebration is infinitely beyond sense.

Foremost among the oddities is the scarce presence of the groom and no mention of the bride. The effect of Jesus being at the center of the story and no bride mentioned has the effect of putting us into the position of the bride of Jesus as Isaiah said: “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (Is. 62:5)” The scarcity of wine (probably humanly created—Cana was a poor village—looks ahead to the scarcity of bread in the wilderness. Both times, Jesus counters scarcity with extravagant abundance.

The six stone jars are supposed to hold water for purification. That would be a lot of purity, but the jars are empty. Well, purity laws and rituals tend to divide humans arbitrarily into clean and unclean. That is, purity always creates a scarcity of purity, especially of pure people. Quite the opposite of God’s marriage with all God’s people.

The water with which the attendants fill the jars suggests baptism, as does the water at the well in Samaria, another story with nuptial overtones. The wine is a festive drink but it also looks toward Jesus’ death as does the bread in the wilderness. The story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple, the event that drove the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to plot the death of Jesus, further suggests that the water and wine refer to the Passion.

Dostoevsky makes powerful use of this story in Brothers Karamazov. The great staretz (spiritual father) Zossima has just died. When his corpse follows the normal course of nature and creates a stink, many of the people are scandalized, including Zossima’s youthful follower, Alyosha. Late at night, the stricken Alyosha  is praying in the hermitage where the body lies in state. Another monk is reading the story of the Marriage of Cana. The room expands to take in a vast celebration. Then Alyosha sees Zossima rejoicing. The elder says to him: “We are rejoicing . . . we are drinking new wine, the wine of great joy. See how many guests there are?” “He [Jesus] became like us out of love, and he is rejoicing with us, transforming water into wine, that the joy of the guests may not end. He is waiting for new guests, he is ceaselessly calling new guests.”

Cana was a backwater in a backwater, a place of no significance. The temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religion and culture. As with the outcasts at the manger, the party is in the backwater, not the center. In this new center, Jesus calls all of us to the party, the party that transforms the body and blood of Jesus into bread and wine of feasting and rejoicing, a party open to all of us. . Jesus has indeed saved the best wine until last.

See blog posts Humanly Created Scarcity, Divinely Created Abundance, and Outcasts at the Manger and article Violence and the Kingdom of God for more comments on Brothers Karamazov.