John the Baptist: A transitional Figure

220px-John_the_Baptist_Prokopiy_ChirinAlthough John burned with a conviction that God was going to do something new, he had only the models of past prophets to guide him in opening a way to the great new thing. He lived in the desert, wore a camel hair coat and ate wild locusts and honey in imitation of Elijah. Like the prophets of the past, he warned the brood of vipers of the wrath to come if people did not shape up and turn back to God. (Lk. 3: 7) Again like the prophets, he told soldiers not to oppress vulnerable people. Yet again like the prophets, he rebuked his ruler, Herod. And like so many of the prophets, he was put to death.

In John’s time, baptism was established as a custom for cleansing converts. John gave it a new twist by insisting that his fellow Jews needed to be converted as much as the Gentiles and so were in need of being baptized. This was a prophetic action to dramatize God’s word. Today we call it guerilla theater. The teaching dramatized in this novel way was traditional: the people should return to the Lord who will purify them of their sins.

John defined himself through the words of Isaiah by quoting Isaiah’s prophecy of a new pathway of the Lord. (Is. 40: 3) The pathway through the desert that Isaiah was prophesying was for the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem, a great new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time. In quoting these words, John was announcing that God was going to do yet another new thing, something God had never done before.

For John, this new thing was focused on a person who was to come. John believed that Jesus was this person when he came to the river. But John was confused about him, and not for the last time, when Jesus insisted on being baptized although John thought Jesus was the one person who didn’t need it.

When he was in prison by order of King Herod, John had doubts about Jesus and he sent two followers to ask Jesus if he was the one he was expecting. It seems odd that the healing miracles John’s disciples had just reported should cause doubts, but a ministry of healing was beyond the scope of John’s own ministry. Typically, Jesus did not answer the question, but pointed to his healings and said “ blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Lk. 7: 23) Given the fiery rhetoric of John’s own preaching, the sentiments of the Sermon on the Mount may also have been confusing to John.

John knew that his prophetic ministry was fading. In such a situation, most people fight back and try to regain the upper hand. René Girard suggests in The Scapegoat that John denounced Herod’s marriage not so much on legal grounds but because of the rivalrous action of taking his brother’s wife. This realization would have made John all the more cautious about rivalry on his own part and caused him to take Jesus’ admonition to avoid offense to heart, as offense is the spark that flames rivalry. John managed to renounce rivalrous behavior to the extent of saying that Jesus would increase while John would decrease. But did John know what he was renouncing rivalry for? Did John ever get an inkling that the greatest new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time was not returning the exiles to Jerusalem but raising up a person who accepted disgrace, torment and possibly death without retaliating in any way? On reflecting on Jesus’ insistence that he be baptized, did John finally realize that Jesus was taking on the sins of the people as did Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, which would make Jesus the “lamb of God?” Most Bible scholars think it unlikely that John arrived at these insights and they think the evangelists wrote them into the narrative to elucidate John’s place in relation to Jesus. Maybe. But John obviously thought long and hard about his own vocation in relation to Jesus and he was outspoken enough to cry out glimpses of insight he still did not understand.

In our time we may think we know what John was pointing to even when John didn’t, but we do well to ponder why, in her infinite wisdom, the Church gives us a liturgical year that begins with Advent where John the Baptist is prominent. Why have a season to look forward to what we know we are looking forward to? Maybe we are more in the dark about what it means for Jesus to be the Lamb of God than we think we are. Maybe we still don’t really know what great new thing God has done and what greater thing God will do. Maybe we have a lot more to look forward to than we know.

Transfiguring Darkness

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1aI was introduced to the Transfiguration of Our Lord when Raphael’s great painting of the event hit me between the eyes during my student travels in Rome. With the Feast of the Transfiguration coming during my church’s summer slump (and it wouldn’t have celebrated the feast anyway) I knew nothing about it. In many ways, I didn’t have to. The painting opened up a vision of a transfiguration of humanity beyond what I had thought possible. At the time, what faith I had wasn’t centered around any particular religious viewpoint but I was majoring in religion because I thought the subject dealt with the most important things in life. Seeing the painting was more of a religious awakening than I knew. I was, of course, impressed by the sublimity of the upper half of the canvas where Jesus is floating in the air with Moses and Elijah. But I was even more impressed by the inroads the transfigured light made into the lower half which is often interpreted as indicating sinful and benighted humanity. It has taken me years to see further into the significance of this chiaroscuro effect.

Now that I have preached on the Transfiguration more times than I can count, I have had many occasions to study and reflect on it. I remain inspired by Raphael’s vision of the transfiguring light and fascinated by the Eastern Orthodox doctrine that holy persons can be filled with the uncreated energies that emanated from Mount Tabor. But under the influence of René Girard’s thinking about the scapegoat mechanism, I am most impressed by the proximity of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the transfiguring light.

The narrative begins: “Now about eight days after these sayings.” (Lk. (9: 28) These sayings were about Jesus announcing that he was going to be rejected by the chief priests and scribes and be killed after great suffering, followed by Jesus’ famous words about carrying one’s cross daily. After the return from the mountain and delivering a demon-possessed boy, Jesus said : “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” (Lk. 9: 44) So it is that predictions of Jesus’ passion envelope the transfiguration. Moreover, on the mountain, Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Lk. 9: 31) So Jesus and his two great predecessors weren’t exactly whooping it up and playing games with primordial light. Both Moses and Elijah knew a lot more about persecution than they really wanted to know and Jesus knew what the scriptures said about them.

There is much talk about the transfiguring light being an encouragement to Jesus and his disciples in preparation for the suffering ahead. There is truth to that and I have said as much in previous sermons. But the deeper truth I am seeing is that the suffering and death of Jesus is the transfiguration. The primordial uncreated energies have penetrated into the depths of human suffering, not only that of Christ but of all other people. This is the significance of the light reaching the people in darkness at the foot of the mountain in Raphael’s painting. A particularly bright spot of light lands on the chest of the boy Jesus delivers of a demon as soon as he comes down. What is the uncreated glory of God? It is that God would come to us in our darkness and suffer with us the sufferings that we inflict upon one another with the rage that makes us foam at the mouth and persecute one another. We can’t stay on the mountaintop, even if we should ever get there, but we can bring the mountaintop to others if we are willing to take up our crosses and follow Jesus down to the bottom where foul spirits rage and foam. What makes the glory of God glorious is that, as St. Peter says, the light shines in the darkness “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Pet. 1: 19)

The Throne of David: Part Two

crecheThe 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

The Throne of David – Part One

MaryWhen 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

On Expecting Patiently in God

simeonThe Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is a belated closure to the Christmas Season. Since the excitement of Christmas and New Year’s Day is long past, we may have assumed Christmas was over, but the Presentation of Jesus is the last of the Infancy Narratives. The Christmas Cycle began with Advent, the time of expectation of God’s coming to us. In Simeon and Anna, we come full circle with two more people who were waiting for the consolation and redemption of Israel. Anna had been waiting for 57 years, with nothing to show for it until that day.

To wait in expectation as Anna did takes much patience. For most of us, expectation is coupled with impatience. If we expect something, we expect it now. There should be no delay when it comes to what I expect. God’s time is shown here to be different than ours. The many centuries during which Israel had been expecting consolation and redemption were a lot more years than Anna had spent coming to the temple fasting and praying.

Expectation can lead to rivalry and even violence. This is all the more likely when expectation is coupled with impatience. The more impatient we are, the more likely we are to act precipitously to bring about the consolation and redemption of our own people. This is what happened in Israel. Few, perhaps nobody at all, had the patience of Simeon and Anna and were violently hastening the redemption and consolation of Israel. This haste resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.

Expectation is, however, quite different when we give ourselves over to it in patience and in God. The patience and presence of God wear away the trap of violent rivalry. Patience in God also made Anna and Simeon responsive to the Holy Spirit so that they came to the Temple at the right time to see the Christ Child.

More important, patience in God broadened the expectation of Anna and Simeon. Although Simeon had been waiting for the “consolation of Israel,” when he held the child in his arms, he said that he had seen the salvation “prepared in the presence of all peoples.” Not only was this child the glory of God’s people Israel, he was “a light for the revelation to the Gentiles,” the very people from whom they were expectantly waiting for deliverance.

Patience in God also deepened the expectation so that Simeon realized that Jesus would be a “sign that is opposed,” one who would reveal the “inner thoughts of many.” This child, then, was not destined to be a consolation and redemption of Israel in a comfortable or cosy way, but would console and redeem Israel and the Gentiles (i.e. everybody else) by revealing the truth of how we build human culture on collective violence and then offering us redemption through embracing this truth.

We also see patience on the part of Joseph and Mary who offered a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons as required of the Law for those who were poor. Many years later, Jesus would again make the offering of a poor person who had been opposed and so “reveal the inner thoughts of many” as they “look on the one whom they have pierced.” (Zech 12: 10)

Jacob & the Prodigal

???????????????????????????????????????????Kenneth Bailey’s book Jacob & the Prodigal overlaps with important sections of my own book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: A Spirituality of Peace. In using the thought of René Girard and his colleagues to explore ways of renewing Christian spirituality (see Violence and the Kingdom of God for an introduction to Girard), I comment at length on the stories of fratricidal strife in Genesis and Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke. (The Parable is better titled something like “The Prodigal Father and His Two Sons.”

Wee both see Jesus’ Parable as seeking to resolve the strife between brothers although, like the story in Genesis, the Parable is left open, leaving the possibility of resolution open but not fulfilled in the text. Having grown up in the Near East, Bailey has much knowledge of Semitic culture that many of us in the West do not have. As a result, Bailey offers many important insights into the Parable and the earlier narrative that pass many of us by. For example, Bailey emphasizes the foolishness of the Father in the Parable in running to meet his son at the edge of the village. For a grown man to run for any reason was considered shameful and to run for such a purpose especially so. This is just one example among many of the new insights Bailey has to offer us. Bailey treats the Parable as the climax of a trilogy of parables in Luke 15 which begins with the Parable of the Lost Sheep and continues with the Parable of the Lost Coin before concluding with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. By studying the parables together, Bailey explores the Christology of the Parables where the shepherd, the woman searching for her coin and the father all become images of Jesus Himself as he reveals how overwhelming and unimaginable the Love of God is.

The final portion of the book is a comparison of the Parable with the Saga of Jacob and Esau. Many of the parallels are contrasts which are at least as illumining as the likenesses. In both cases we have two brothers in strife. Isaac, however, in his in ineptness in being tricked is a huge contrast to the father in the Parable. Another contrast is that Jacob does well in the foreign country while the Prodigal Son does not. Another likeness is that neither Jacob nor the Prodigal Son repent of wrongdoing. (Bailey explains at length that the Prodigal Son is only scheming to get set up in a craft to get enough money to live on; he is not repenting of asking his father for half the estate, brutal as that was to his father.) Bailey argues that Esau doesn’t really forgive Jacob as I argue in my take on the story. The number of armed men Esau brings could suggest an aggressive meeting but it could be a defense measure, not knowing how many armed men Jacob might have. Bailey argues that the vowels of the Hebrew word for “kiss: are the same as the vowels for “bite,” leaving open the possibility that Esau bit Jacob. I can’t argue the linguistic case but it seems to me that so aggressive an act would have led to a more violent reaction than we have. In any case, I see Jacob not believing in Esau’s forgiveness and rather than a reconciliation, the story ends in a permanent separation.

In the Parable, the two brothers are separate at the end, thus keeping up the conflict that I see between them dating back to before the younger brother leaves. In the Parable, however, the central separation is between each of the brothers and their father. The younger son does seem to have accepted his father’s welcome, although we don’t know if he persevered in his gratitude. The older son is at odds with his father as well as with his brother. The challenge is whether or not the older son will accept his father’s love for his younger son. In like manner, Bailey demonstrates that this challenge is thrown out to the scribes and Pharisees who criticized Jesus for eating with “sinners.”
Bailey’s book is a valuable source of new insights that deeply refresh our understanding of a Parable that we think we understand so well that we have let it go stale. Most important, Bailey’s study makes the Love of God revealed in Jesus “full of sap, still green.”

Zacchaeus and his City

zacchaeusThe French thinker René Girard has argued that since the dawn of humanity, we have tended to solve social tensions through persecuting a victim who absorbs these tensions and suffers for them. Girard has also argued that the Gospels unveil the truth of this scapegoating mechanism in their narratives of Jesus’ death and Resurrection where Jesus opens up new possibilities for humanity to gather through the forgiveness of the Risen Victim. It happens that the Gospels show Jesus unveiling these very same dynamics in his earthly ministry. I analyzed our such stories in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire. Here is what I have to say about Zacchaeus:
When Jesus came to Jericho, he was famous, or notorious enough, that something of a hubbub arose as a result of his passing through the town. People gathered and crowded one another to gawk at the man and his followers. Why the stir? The mayor wasn’t exactly giving him the key to the city. Throughout Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, Jesus was set upon by Pharisees and scribes and questioned in front of the crowd. Such questioning, of course, was made with the intention of publicly discrediting the freelance itinerant preacher who was becoming famous for his clever retorts. The result was bound to be entertaining. The scribes and Pharisees were surely on the prowl in a town that large. Zacchaeus’s act of climbing a tree to get a look at Jesus need not be taken as an indication that he was inclined to have his life changed by this stranger. His eagerness to see and hear the duel is enough to account for his action. And yet the anticipated debate does not occur. Why? Because Jesus saw Zacchaeus up in the tree. The signs that Zacchaeus was a rich man hated by everybody in town were there to be seen by a person with eyes to see.
That Jesus had discerned the social matrix of Jericho rightly was immediately manifest when Jesus called out to the tax collector and invited himself to that man’s house. St. Luke says that “all who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” (Lk. 19:7) Here is another example of Luke’s astute anthropological insight. It isn’t just the Pharisees and scribes who grumble about Zacchaeus. Everybody grumbles about him. Like Simon when confronted with the Woman Who Was a Sinner, (Lk. 7:36–50) the people of Jericho were thinking that if this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of man this was who was sitting up in a tree—that he was a sinner. One doesn’t have to be a demonically possessed man or a sinful woman to be a communal scapegoat. A rich man who is a traitor to his people can hold the same position. And deserve it. After all, he was treading down the downtrodden. For scapegoating others, he deserved to be scapegoated. As it happened, Jesus did know what kind of man Zacchaeus was. It is through showing us that anybody can be the scapegoat and anybody can be a persecutor that Luke shows the communal scapegoating phenomenon for what it is. Given the fact that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem with a pretty clear idea of what was going to happen to him there, it behooved Jesus to give his followers every opportunity to see how collective hostility against one person works, in the hope that they would learn to recognize the process when it happens in the Holy City, and that is what he has done here.

As with the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus performs an exorcism of the communal scapegoat, a quiet one this time, but just as effective. The result is that the homeostasis sustained by the scapegoating process is destabilized. There is some ambiguity as to whether or not Zacchaeus is actually converted by his encounter with Jesus or if he had repented earlier but nobody believed it. Bible scholars disagree as to whether the verbs used by Zacchaeus are in the present tense or the future. That is, Zacchaeus may be saying that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times anybody he has defrauded, but he could be saying that he is already doing these things. If Zacchaeus is using the future tense, then he is announcing a change of heart. If Zacchaeus is speaking in the present tense, then he is claiming that he is better, or less terrible, than he has been made out to be. I think our best bet is to look at the implications of either interpretation of the verb tenses.

If Zacchaeus has been converted on the spot by Jesus, and we assume that Jesus did not zap people with a magic wand to override their free will, then we may ask ourselves how this conversion happened. The information in Luke suggests two possibilities. As the communal scapegoat, Zacchaeus had “the intelligence of the victim” and perhaps that intelligence led him to understand what it meant to other people to be the victim of his tax collecting. The other possibility is that an undeserved commendation from Jesus freed Zacchaeus from the necessity of acting in such a way as to justify his designation as communal scapegoat. It is more than likely that both factors played their part here. On the other hand, if Zacchaeus was speaking in the present tense, the implication is that the collective attitude of the townspeople was unjust, which would underline the arbitrary aspect of scapegoating. Generous actions on the part of a rich person who has drawn the collective resentment of the community often do not diminish resentment against him or her. It is also possible, of course, that Zacchaeus is trying to make himself look better than he really is. That is, he is boasting of his good deeds while overlooking the unjust means used for gaining the wealth that he uses for his acts of largesse. If I am right in taking this story as being primarily concerned with communal scapegoating, then the ambiguity enriches the story and there is no need to solve the grammatical problem once and for all.

The challenge of this story, however, is not limited to the possible conversion of one person. It extends to the possible conversion of the whole community. Whether or not Zacchaeus needed to be converted and, if so, whether or not he did change his life, is immaterial for the greater challenge. Either way, by singling out Zacchaeus and inviting himself to that man’s house, Jesus has already robbed Jericho of its scapegoat. The unanimity has been irretrievably broken. That everybody turns to grumbling at Jesus for going to the house of a man who is a sinner suggests that Jesus is well on the way to becoming a unanimous object of hatred. Since Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, where he would, once again, become the object of hatred, it is no surprise that it should happen in Jericho, while he was on the way to the Holy City. This development does not bode well for Jericho becoming a social climate of healing.