Mary and Martha Together

This little story of Mary and Martha where Martha does all the work while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus has been interpreted as referring to the relationship between action and contemplation since the early church. In his book Three Studies in Medieval Religious Social Thought Giles Constable has a long essay on the interpretations from Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the late second century through the late Middle Ages. In the Gospel story, there is sone hint of sibling rivalry, especially on Martha’s part. According to Constable’s essay, this rivalry continues through many of the countless interpreters of the story with some arguing that Mary has chosen the “best part” and that the contemplative life is superior while others champion Martha because of her fruitful charitable work.

By and large, though, a preponderance of thinkers over these centuries argue for a complementarity between the two sisters and the ways of life they are said to represent. Sometimes it is a complementarity between different lifestyles, but more usually it is a complementarity within each person. That is, each person should have elements of both Mary and Martha. This embrace of both sisters is called “the mixed life.” It is worth noting that our patron St. Gregory the Great is among the many who affirmed the mixed life, even though he had a personal yearning for the contemplative way.

There is an amusing story from the Desert Monastics that illustrates the need for both sisters. A pilgrim came to a monastery to visit. The monks asked him if he could help with their chores, but the pilgrim said that he had chosen the “better part” of Mary and did not work. Hours passed while this pilgrim spent time in reading and contemplation and finally he became hungry. He asked the monks when dinner was going to be served and was told that the monks had eaten some time ago. The pilgrim asked why he was not invited to eat with them and was told that he didn’t need earthly food because he had chosen the “better part.” I think this pilgrim learned his lesson.

This way of framing the issue of an active way and a contemplative way seems to owe more to the Greek tradition than it does to the Jewish tradition out of which the Gospels emerge. Origen and Clement certainly draw on Greek thought in this matter. However, Jesus was a person who had done many thought-provoking things and said many things that were even more thought-provoking and mysterious. Might a sensitive woman like Mary have felt moved to sit and just listen to Jesus and ponder what he says? This is precisely what Mary, the Mother of Jesus, did when confronted with the mysteries surrounding her son’s birth. (Lk. 2: 19) And then Jesus himself, faced with the mystery of his own unique calling, spent many times alone in prolonged prayer, sitting at the feet of his heavenly Abba so to speak. Jesus and his mother would have seen such prayerful pondering modeled many times in the Psalms, such as: “I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory because your love is better than life,” and “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help.” (Ps. 63: 2–3, 6–7)

Often in his epistles, St. Paul demonstrated the fruits of pondering the mystery of the Christ whom he encountered on the road to Damascus. In Colossians, for example, he says: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Col. 1: 15–16) It wasn’t a matter of logic but one of intuitive contemplation that led Paul to realize that the One who called him out of his persecutory mania was not only the forgiving victim on the Cross but also the One who participated in creating the world, something only God can do. But there is more. Paul’s prayerful pondering brought him to this even deeper insight: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col. 1: 19–20) Paul’s contemplative insight deepened his sense that Jesus was so filled with God as to be God and, more important by far, this God was devoted to a costly reconciliation where he absorbed the rage on the part of Paul as well as that of the rest of us.

Jesus clearly led a mixed life of action and contemplation, and it is noteworthy that his mother, Mary, was held up as a model of the mixed life by many medieval writers, since Mary not only pondered the mystery of her son’s birth but had to take care of him day after day. Paul himself is clearly yet another model of the mixed life. Although we tend to consider St. Gregory’s to be a contemplative monastery, there is much work we all need to do to minister to each other and our numerous guests. With that said, Mary of Bethany had been pretty well knocked off the map since the later Middle Ages until a number of people in recent decades began to realize that their activism needed to be tempered by sitting at the feet of Jesus. It is true enough that we should respond to Jesus by doing as the Good Samaritan did, but we also need to respond to Jesus by taking time to open our hearts in silence to Him as did Mary of Bethany.

Bring Peace to Each House

The mission of Jesus’ seventy disciples in Luke is filled with breathless excitement and peril. There is an urgency to the mission as “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” (Lk. 10: 2) On the other hand, Jesus warns his disciples that he is sending them out “like lambs among wolves.” (Lk. 10: 3).

The tone of the mission is expressed in the phrase: “Peace be to this house.” (:l. 10: 5) This offer of peace makes the disciples vulnerable to the reaction of the members of the house. In the best case scenario, somebody there promotes peace and welcomes the disciples who then accept what hospitality they are given. When peace is offered and accepted, it becomes dynamic throughout the house that has received it as the disciples heal the sick and announce that the Kingdom of God has come near. All this has the flavor of Jesus’ inaugural sermon that announced a new Jubilee. That is, announcing good news to the poor and freeing captives. We can see this missionary journey, then, as Jesus’ disciples spreading the Jubilee throughout the country.

As with Jesus first announcement of the Jubilee, there is no litany of doctrines or list of rules but a spirit of living, like the Spirit that was upon Isaiah and then upon Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. In his mission to Galatia, we see Paul, in his way, proclaiming the same Jubilee of good news to the poor and freedom of the captives. In this case, freedom from the Jewish Law and freedom for Christ. He celebrates this freedom through reconciliation so that anyone who is caught in a sin is restored “gently.” The spirit of this reconciliation is to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6: 2) Perhaps we can see this as the essence of the kingdom that has come near. Although there have been attempts to define the carrying of one another’s burdens, as Charles Williams famously did with his doctrine of substitution, it is best to see the mutual bearing of burdens as a Spirit-filled shape of spreading peace within the house that has received it.

But what about the wolves? Jesus tell the disciples that if a town rejects them, they should wipe off the dust from their feet and move on. (Lk. 10: 11) The wolves don’t seem to have done any real harm. But then Jesus goes on to say that it will be better for Tyre and Sidon than for the towns that rejected the disciples. Far from threatening these towns with divine vengeance, Jesus is actually warning us that the systemic violence embodied by these past cultures is about to be a lot worse in the present. Lots of wolves here. The few households of peace are surrounded by imperial strife and persecution. Paul’s church in Galatia was in this situation and we find ourselves in an even worse maelstrom of social rage. (It will go even worse for Western Civilization than it did to the towns that rejected the disciples.)

Maintaining a sense of peace in the midst of all this turmoil is excruciatingly difficult. We easily become enraged just from reading the news. What if we should actually face these enraged people in real life? It is hard to believe that the disciples had been so successful in their mission, but then if Satan fell from the sky, where else would Satan be now than in the midst of the wolves? This is where we must allow the peace we offered to return back to us and then vent our frustrated anger by dusting off our feet. Otherwise, we are drawn into the surrounding rage and all peace is lost. In the midst of this turmoil, bearing one another’s burdens is a practical way of developing the spirit of Jubilee, all the more so when we are all overburdened by the stress of it all. Bearing each other’s burdens fulfills the Law of Christ because this practice takes us right into the heart of what Jesus did for all of us on the Cross. Our house of peace in the mission of the Seventy seems small and weak, and it is. Paul’s household in Galatia was small and weak, too. But could the oppressive rage around us also mean there is the potential of a plentiful harvest if we can bring peace to others so as to bring the Kingdom of God closer?

The Risen and Ascended Living Interpreter of Scripture

In Luke’s Gospel, the first thing Jesus does after rising from the dead is explain the scriptures to two of his followers on the Road to Emmaus, explaining how it was “necessary” that the Messiah “suffer these things and then enter his glory.” (Lk. 24: 26) The last thing Jesus does before his Ascension is explain the scriptures to the disciples in the same way. Understanding this “necessity” is a tricky business. For whom was it “necessary?” It is ludicrous to suggest that it was “necessary” for God that the Messiah should suffer. On the contrary, Luke, like the other Gospel writers, tells the story of Jesus’ execution on the cross in such a way as to stress the necessity on the part of humans that Jesus die in order to bring “peace” to Jerusalem. The key to understanding the scriptures that Jesus opened his disciples’s minds to is this human necessity that the Messiah (Jesus) die so that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins. . . be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Lk. 24: 47) So what was “necessary” for God? For God the only thing necessary was to raise Jesus from the dead so that he could continue to open our minds to the true meaning of the scriptures as a living interpreter.

Luke’s Gospel and its sequel, Acts, reveals quite clearly the human tendency to solve social problems through collective violence as theorized by René Girard. But these writings also reveal a deeper and much brighter truth about the human potential for sympathy and empathy. This is where Resurrection and Ascension, repentance and forgiveness, all come in. In announcing the Jubilee in his inaugural sermon in Luke, Jesus proclaims a gathering through sympathy and caring rather than through competitive tensions and violence. This new gathering involves freeing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, and setting the oppressed free. (Lk. 4: 18) In his teaching, Jesus makes the words quoted from Isaiah his own in his famous parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. In opening the scriptures to the disciples, Jesus is not only revealing the truth of collective violence but also the human potential for sympathy that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation as taught in these parables. From there, Jesus leads us even deeper into the self-giving love shown on the cross, a love we too may need to embrace. More important by far, Jesus embodies this teaching and revelation in his own act of forgiveness and thus enables the same in each of us.

A dead Messiah wouldn’t be available to enact and enable repentance, forgiveness and costly self-giving. Only a Messiah who is very much alive can do that. This is why Jesus, having been raised from the dead and now ascended into heaven, is seated at the “right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” (Eph. 1: 20–21) The image of all things placed under Jesus’ feet suggests the earthly rulers who use their fallen enemies as a footstool. (Ps. 110: 1) I suspect this is the image the disciples have when they ask Jesus just before the Ascension if now he is “to restore the kingdom to Israel.” (Acts 1: 6) But Jesus, in opening the scriptures to the disciples, has revealed his kingship to be one of sympathy, forgiveness, and compassion; in short a kingship based on the Jubilee proclaimed at the start of his ministry. Rather than thumping his foot on us, Jesus bends down and raises us up to his seat. In revealing his true kingship, Jesus has not only opened up the scriptures to us, but he has opened up the truth of human history as well, a truth more glorious than the “necessary” violence that we think gives life its “meaning.” As the key to scripture and history, Jesus fulfills Paul’s prayer that “the eyes of [our] hearts may be enlightened in order that [we] may know the hope to which he has called [us], the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph. 1: 18–19)

The Gentle Resurrection

Luke’s first Resurrection narrative is the quietest of all four Gospels. Matthew is easily the loudest with an earthquake announcing the event. That’s our idea of Easter! Mark is puzzling and a bit of a cliffhanger with the women running away from the tomb out of fright. That’s still a pretty intense reaction. John is almost as quiet with the women finding the tomb empty before Jesus appears to Mary, but Luke is quieter still. The women are puzzled by the empty tomb and the announcement of the two men in dazzling clothes. They do tell the disciples but the disciples don’t believe them, not just because they are women but because the news is too unbelievable. The narrative ends with Peter looking into the empty tomb, amazed, but scratching his head.

There is an air of suspended reality about all this. Much of it has to do with the shock of grief over the death of a loved one. In the shock of grief, nothing seems real, least of all the absence of the loved one. It’s like the person is there and not there. This isn’t what we think Easter is all about but I would argue that this is the most realistic entry into this stupendous event. We are used to thinking of earth-shaking events as–well–events that shake up the world. But these sorts of events don’t really change the world as they are the same old acts of competition and violence and force that have been with us since Cain killed Abel. If the Resurrection were such an earth-shaking event, it would actually have kept the world going in the same old rut of retaliatory violence. That the Resurrection is so low-key, especially in Luke’s version, shows us that the Resurrection does indeed embody a radical act of non-violence, giving us all the space we need, century after century, the discern why it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners, crucified and then rise from the dead. The necessity for the death was, of course, a human necessity as Caiaphas affirmed. (Jn. 11: 15) The Resurrection, though, is God’s necessity. It was necessary that God raise Jesus to give us an undying life-giving presence for all time. But this presence needed to be totally without violence, i..e. without force of any kind, just as Jesus’ death had to result from renouncing all violence in the face of evil. Not even the earthquake in Matthew forced Jesus’ resurrected life on anybody.

St. Paul writes about being baptized into Christ’s death before rising with him. (Rom. 6: 3) The initial phase of disorientation described by Luke is very much a feeling of death as the world the disciples had been living in had also been rendered unreal, even if the imperial order continued unabated as it always had done. There is a lot more to dying to the old self than giving up our own personal sins. More than that, we need to die to the culture of violence we are immersed in so as to enter the life-giving nonviolence of the resurrected life. Since there is nothing earthshaking about it, nothing to make headlines, it may not seem like much, but to the contrary, embracing the forgiving life is indeed everything.

We may think that nothing has changed when we read about the virulent racism in our own country and around the world. Even worse is the horrific act of violence in Ukraine, which makes headlines, but is really only a repeat of what Rome was doing in Jesus’ time. But something has changed over the centuries. We now have oppressed people throughout the world arising in non-violent protest, including Martin Luther King Jr and William Barber II. We have a world-wide protest against the invasion of Ukraine and many countries doing what they can to help their stricken neighbor. These are all signs of the Resurrection in the midst of the horror and death that Jesus suffered on the Cross. The Resurrection, though, isn’t just about events on a large scale. It is also about small events of love and concern for the well-being of others day after day with the people right next to us—our neighbors.

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?

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/

The Place of Jesus

crossRedVeil1When Jesus warns of wars and insurrections fought by nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom, he is painting an image of humanity divided by violent conflicts on a grand scale. These conflicts are coupled with catastrophic natural disasters such as earthquakes, plagues, and famines. .(Lk. 21: 9–11) Jesus then goes on to warn his followers of persecutions on an equally large scale involving kings and governors, clearly suggesting a strong connection between strife and persecution. In the late twentieth century, the French thinker René Girard speculated that humanity suffered the same dangerous conflicts at the dawn of civilization and it instinctively resolved the conflicts by persecuting a victim or small group of victims. These victims were blamed for both the violence and the earthquakes and the plagues and famines. Blaming the victims entailed falsifying the reality of what had happened. Persecution and lies are inseparable. It is not difficult to see that Jesus saw clearly the truth in his time that Girard was to articulate in ours.

When warning of persecution, Jesus advises us not to prepare a defense in advance because Jesus will give us words and a wisdom that “none of [our] opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Lk. 21: 15) How is this so? Since persecution requires falsehood, then it follows that truth is found in the perspective of the victim of persecution. That is, the victim is in a highly privileged position to see what others, clouded by the accusations of persecutors, do not see. This is a dubious privilege since the place of the victim is excruciatingly painful and sometimes does not last very long.

But this is the place Jesus occupied and this is the place where any of us who would be followers of Jesus also have to be ready to occupy. Jesus knew that, barring a massive social act of repentance, the volatile situation in his time and place was going to result in the persecution of a victim. Jesus made sure that he, and not somebody else, would be that victim. This is what it means to say that Jesus died for us; not that Jesus died to deflect the alleged wrath of God.

In this place of the victim, reality is crystal clear in a way that it is not in any other place. This is why we really do not know what to say, how to say it, how to act, what our bearing should be until we are actually there. Presumably, Jesus had no script for facing Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate. He knew what to say and what not to say only when he stood in that position. And only if and when we stand in that same position will we know what to say, how to say it, and what not to say.

The position of the victim is not one that involves calling for vengeance, hoping that God will burn the bad guys into stubble, but instead, one only prays for “the sun of righteousness to rise with healing in its wings.” (Mal. 4: 1–2) To wish vengeance is to wish to become a persecutor if the opportunity should arise. Jesus himself did not call for vengeance, and when he was raised from the dead and could have inflicted vengeance, he did nothing of the kind. Jesus assures us that, in this place of the victim where we may be betrayed and even put to death, not a hair of our “heads will perish,” and by our endurance we will “win our souls.” (Lk. 21: 18–19)

Winning our souls can be understood in many ways, but in the place of the victim, winning our souls means seeing God as God truly is by being like God in the same place as God, like the sun with healing in its wings. (Cf. 1 Jn. 3: 2) This winning of souls is precisely what we see in the story of the 21 Coptic Martyrs in 2015, whose story has been told by Martin Mosebach. In interviewing the families of these martyrs, Mosebach encountered grief but also rejoicing in their loved ones’ rising in Christ. In losing sons, brothers, husbands, these people were also in the place of the victim. Mosebach said in his many conversations: “never once did anyone call for retribution or revenge, nor even for the murders to be punished.” This is what it means to be in the place of the risen and forgiving Victim.

Unjust Judges and Widows

crosswButterfliesThe introduction to the Parable of the Unjust Judge tells us that we should keep on praying and never give up. At the end of the parable, Jesus tells us that we should keep on praying even when our prayers go unanswered for so long that we think we are praying to one who does not care and perhaps is not even just.

It happens that in life, nagging and nagging is often the only way to get justice, or what we think is justice. There are some people who are eager to help and will hop to a request as soon as it is spoken, but many people are rather slow to do what is asked of them, and many people have vested interests in denying pleas for justice. These are the people who have more power than others and they usually use that power to take advantage of those who are weaker. Do the people with power take an initiative in renouncing their power for the benefit of others? Do people with power renounce it when politely requested to do so? We all know that doesn’t happen very often. Even in the top-down case of Czar Alexander II freeing the serfs in Russia, the class structure in Russia didn’t change very much.

Most of us instinctively identify with the widow who is trying to get justice. As widows, we expect that God’s granting of justice involves God strong-arming the unjust judges of the world until all of us widows get our rights. But that is not what happened with Jesus. Far from dismantling the unjust rule of the Romans, Jesus himself was condemned to death by the unjust judges among the Jewish leaders, the Roman governor, and the rest of us in the crowd. As the culmination of the persecuted prophets, Jesus reveals God to be the widow who is pleading with us, for justice.

That is. we are the unjust judges. Even people with little power overall tend to be unjust judges over those (such as children) who have even less power. This portrait of humanity raises the question as to whether it is God who delays justice. If humans act unjustly and delay justice to the point that injustice is a longstanding epidemic, then God could have been working overtime since the dawn of civilization and still have no hope of keeping up with the injustice.

Jesus as the crucified widow who died at our hands, the unjust judges, is not what we were looking for when we thought of ourselves as widows. But that is what we got. Not only that, but we also got the resurrected widow who still pleads for justice without ceasing. As the resurrected widow, Jesus has offered us, the unjust judges, forgiveness and the offer to enter into the kingship of Jesus. The parable suggests that we enter as importunate widows who plead with forgiveness and love for the unjust judges as some of our greatest leaders have done, leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu. But we also enter the kingship of Heaven as repentant unjust judges. In the parable, the Unjust Judge only relents because he is more miserable from being hassled by the widow than he is with any power he might lose by giving her justice. But at least the Unjust Judge finally does the right thing, even if his motives are as selfish as those of the Dishonest Steward in the earlier parable. (Lk. 16: 10–13) Maybe if we start to do the right thing, however grudgingly, we might find that doing the right thing, of granting justice to those weaker than we, isn’t so bad after all. Maybe giving justice can become a habit.

What does this parable teach us about prayer? It surely teaches us to pray constantly like the importunate widow, and to thirst for justice, as the Sermon on the Mount would have us do. However, we are not praying to a strong man who will manhandle the bad guys for us. (We would be among those so manhandled in that case.) We are praying with God the Crucified and Risen Widow who offers us freedom from our own injustice so that we can spread justice to others with a burning desire.

A Rogue and God’s Kingship

purpleFlower1Can a charming rogue be an example of how to enter the Kingship of God? Jesus’ Parable of the Dishonest Manager invites us to explore that question.

The Rich Man has heard rumors that his Manager is squandering his property and decides immediately to fire the Manager without giving the Manager a chance to defend himself. In a most helpful article on the parable, David Landry makes the Rich Man’s swift action understandable by explaining the importance of honor in ancient society. In an honor system, the notoriety of a delinquent subordinate reflects badly on the pater familias who is supposed to control everybody under his authority. The public rumors about the Manager threaten the Rich Man with social disgrace and he is running scared.

The inner dialogue of the Dishonest Manager shows no honor as his desperate scheming leads to an inventive solution to his dilemma. Generous with the Rich Man’s money, he quickly acts to reduce the debts owed the Rich Man. These debts strengthen the portrait of the Rich Man as a ruthless person who uses economic power to oppress others, a common practice of absentee landlords in Jesus’ time. He is the sort of rich man who the prophet Amos accused of “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” (Amos 6) Although the Dishonest Manager is acting only out of self-interest, he is still helping other people in the process.

The Rich Man’s commendation of the Manager is perhaps the most puzzling turn in the parable. Landry’s discussion of honor is helpful here as well. He suggests that the Manager’s reducing the debts has brought admiration and honor to the Rich Man, something the Rich Man has probably had very little of in the past. The same person who had brought dishonor on the Rich Man has now used his agency to bring the Rich Man more honor than he has ever had.

The act of forgiveness, self-centered as it is, has thrown a monkey wrench into the economic system which up to this time has been one of economic exploitation of the weak. This is what trickster rogues like the Dishonest Manager do. The Rich Man, hard-hearted up to this point, confirms the forgiven debts, which are a fait accompli anyway. What kind of chain reaction might occur out of this action that could transform the economic system into one based on forgiveness and love? What transformation of character might there be on the part of both the Manager and the Rich Man? At the beginning of the parable, the Rich Man believes the accusations against his Dishonest Manager out of fear that his honor is compromised. By the end of the parable, the Rich Man has gained honor for being generous, a challenge to gain even more honor through more generosity, honor that can be enhanced by keeping the Manager.

When we note that this parable in Luke’s Gospel follows directly the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the probability that the Parable of the Dishonest Manager is indeed about forgiveness is heightened. Moreover, there are some significant links between the two parables. Most prominently, each features a man who has squandered the resources of somebody else. Indeed, the same otherwise rare Greek verb diaskorpizo is used both times. The theme of honor plays a contrasting role in these parables. The Rich Man clings to his honor, but he does shift from being a slave to the opinions of those accusing the Manager to accepting honor from those whose debts have been forgiven. The Father of the Prodigal Son, on the other hand, throws honor to the winds throughout, first by allowing the younger son to insult him by asking for his inheritance, then by frantically running out to meet the younger son when he returns. Might the Rich Man eventually take this final step in renouncing his sense of honor out of love for those indebted to him? Is such renunciation of honor what it means to serve God rather than wealth, since honor is a form of wealth? (Lk. 15: 13)

Right after the Rich Man’s commendation of the Manager, Jesus adds: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” (Lk. 16: 8) Here, Jesus poses a powerful question to his followers: Do we actually forgive others even as much as the Dishonest Manager forgave the debts owed the Rich Man? Is there a chance that the Dishonest Manager and the Rich Man will enter the Kingdom of God before us?