A God Who Does the Same Great New Thing

crossRedVeil1Right after dramatically recalling God’s deliverance of the Jews from the Red Sea, Isaiah proclaims that God is “about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is. 43: 19) By his time, the Red Sea deliverance was an old thing, something the Jews repeatedly recalled, especially at the celebration of Passover. But at the time of that deliverance, it was a new thing that had sprung forth. Delivering escaped slaves through turbulent waters just wasn’t in the play books of deities at the time. God had changed the play book and revealed the hitherto unknown truth that God is a God who delivers victims and outcasts from the rich and the powerful.

The new thing that Isaiah was proclaiming was another deliverance, this one from the Babylonian Exile. In this respect, the new thing that God was doing was a lot like the old thing: both were acts of deliverance from powerful and tyrannical rulers and both involved leading the people through a desert. One could say that God was actually doing the same old thing that God had done centuries earlier. During the ensuing centuries, the Jews repeatedly recalled the old deliverance, especially at times of crisis such as the Babylonian captivity, bringing the old act into the present in hopes for a repeat performance. Psalm 44, for example, recalls “the days of old” while complaining that the people had been “scattered among the nations” and had become “the derision and scorn of those around us.” Where are the deeds of old? The Psalmist asks. Isaiah replies that the deeds of old have returned, have become “a new thing,” a new act of deliverance. Isaiah affirms that God is a God who delivers victims and outcasts from the rich and the powerful. The old thing is a new thing.

In our time, we might be tempted to think that both of these new things are old things, But we need to keep bringing them into the present time, making them new by realizing that God is always making these deeds new. When we don’t, we backslide. One of the most egregious ways we backslide is by becoming the oppressors of the poor and vulnerable that the Egyptians and Babylonians were. That is what happened between the two great “new” things God did for the Jews. Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets denounced just such oppression. They were making clear that one of the principle ways of making the old things new and present is to imitate God by delivering “from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jer. 22: 3)

St. Paul proclaimed another great new thing accomplished by God: the death and resurrection of Jesus. In comparison with this, Paul declared everything else, most especially his accomplishments, as rubbish (to use a polite term). All Paul wanted was “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3: 10–3) This may seem to be a different thing, even a radically different thing than the earlier “new” things God had done. What is particularly new is that instead of delivering victims and outcasts by mighty acts, God in Jesus Christ died on the cross, thus becoming a victim. In doing this, God subverted the power of oppressors from within their system. Rather than inflict violence on them such as drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea or sending the Persians against Babylon, God in Jesus Christ died at the hands of his oppressors. It is out of this death that a new life was inaugurated by God when Jesus rose as the forgiving victim. There are times, not least in Romans 5, when Paul proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus in cosmic terms, but here in Philippians, he proclaims it in personal terms. The great new thing God had accomplished is inside of him. God’s solidarity with victims in Christ has completely overtaken everything else in Paul. Paul himself will prefer to be a victim rather than an oppressor or a mighty avenger who destroys armies. Christ Jesus has made Paul “his own.” (Phil. 3: 12)

A woman pouring ointment all over Jesus to prepare him for his upcoming burial (Jn. 12: 7) may seem an eccentric act but hardly a significant one, hardly a great new thing done by God. But up to that time, how often had any person done such an act of outpouring generosity, giving everything she had in doing it? This looks like God in Jesus Christ completely making this woman, Mary, his own just as much as God in Jesus Christ made Paul his own. This is indeed a great new thing accomplished by God. Will we ourselves be part of this great new thing?

 

See also: A Scandalous Woman as Extravagant as Jesus

Celebrating our Baptism

baptism_of_christ_by_tiffany (2)Luke stresses the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus much more than the three other evangelists. Most strikingly, Luke does not specifically say that John himself baptized Jesus. Luke describes John’s ministry and then says Herod added to all his other crimes by putting John in prison. (Lk. 3: 19–20) Then Luke puts Jesus front and center by saying the he was baptized “when all the people were baptized.” (Lk. 3:21)

The Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the “bodily form of a dove” and the voice from Heaven proclaiming Jesus to be God’s son, “the beloved,” (Lk. 3: 21–22) could not be a greater contrast to John’s closing words that the one who is “more powerful” was going to bring a winnowing fork to baptize by burning the chaff with “unquenchable fire.” John’s water baptism was a rite of purification and he expected the one who was coming to bring fire to do a more powerful job of purifying. But instead Jesus’ first act of preaching was to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk. 4: 16–19) Quite a different approach than John’s! Jesus was going for transformation, not purification.

We celebrate our own baptism on this day as we follow Jesus to the river Jordan, see the dove for ourselves and listen to the voice from Heaven proclaim us sons and daughters of God. Our baptism, too, is a call to spread God’s love and favor to others. We are used to living in a culture built on wrath and disfavor, where we bind and oppress captives rather than free them. The call of baptism is a constant call to leave this culture of wrath to journey towards a culture of love and the freeing of captives.

Isaiah’s prophecy of Israel’s return from exile gives us powerful images for our own return from exile through baptism. Isaiah grounds this call in creation, linking baptism with God’s calling us into being. The journey is arduous, as Jesus’ journey in the desert was an arduous testing by Satan. We will pass through waters and rivers but God will be with us and they will not overwhelm us. We will walk through fire but the flame will not consume us. (Is. 43: 2) As with the Flood from which Noah was delivered and the waters of the Red Sea through which the Israelites fled from Egypt, we can see the waters and the fire as images of the wrathful culture that is trying to pull us back. In his exuberance, Isaiah himself stumbles by suggesting that other nations are given in ransom for the freeing and gathering of Israel. Jesus’ baptism, on the other hand, is the first step of bearing the sins of all people so that he will be a ransom for everybody, Egypt, Ethiopia, and even Babylon, included.

Each of us receives a unique call to play our part in the baptismal journey. Can we hear the voice from Heaven declaring God’s love for us and moving us in the direction we are each to go to perform our part of the journey?

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.

On Carrying Crosses and Renouncing Them

sideAltarsIcons1Jesus’ insistence that we deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him (Mk. 8: 34) jolts us into thinking about what our priorities in life should be. Without being so jolted, we tend to deny other people, take up our favorite pastimes and follow whoever takes our fancy. However, we encounter a serious problem if and when we do take Jesus’ words to heart. We tend to get muddled over what constitutes a “cross” and how we should carry it. Because of this muddle, there is the danger that the cross will be trivialized. Carrying our own crosses is not about being a good sport if we catch the flu.

Fundamentally, the cross is about persecution. Jesus is telling his disciples that he expects to be crucified for the way he is confronting the religious and imperial authorities. The Servant in Isaiah was also persecuted by people who smote his back and plucked out his beard. (Is. 50: 6) More importantly, the cross is about not retaliating if one is persecuted, so being patient with Great Aunt Hattie who complains about every act of service is not so trivial. The combination of not retaliating and setting our faces like flint (Is. 50: 7) is precisely what Peter missed when he called Jesus the Messiah. That is why Jesus shut him up.

The biggest problem of waxing eloquently about carrying our crosses is that we overlook the danger, the likelihood, of being crosses for other people. We easily fool ourselves into thinking we are not persecuting others as long as we aren’t pulling beards or driving nails into someone’s hands and feet. But, in his epistle, James shows us how easy it is to be a persecutor. He says that the tongue, small as it is, is a fire that can set a whole forest ablaze and it even “sets on fire the cycle of nature.” (Jas. 3: 5–6) We both bless and curse others with this little member. (Jas. 3: 10) James is warning us how the contagion of collective violence such as that afflicted on Isaiah’s Servant and Jesus can afflict anyone by the agency of anyone through such use of the tongue. Language, the sign of civilization, is compromised from the start by its role in persecution. The more “civilized” we become through writing, the printing press, newspapers, the Internet and Twitter, the more quickly and efficiently peoples’ reputations are destroyed by firestorms set off by the tongue and its extensions the pen and the computer keyboard.

Instead of boasting about carrying crosses, we most need to busy ourselves with relieving others of the crosses we lay on them. Manipulating others into persecuting us to make them feel bad while making us feel good is really another way of persecuting others. As Isaiah’s Servant and Jesus show, crosses can come to us quickly if we speak out against persecution, since that is everybody’s favorite blood sport. Jesus warned the people of his time and us of our persecutory tendencies with his parable of the evil workers in the vineyard. (Mk 12:1-12) and by driving the money changers from the temple whose officials were exploiting the poor. (cf. Mark 12:41-44)

Following Jesus, then, is about both taking up our crosses and renouncing them. We take up our crosses by doing everything we can to stop persecution even if we suffer for it. But before going after other persecutors, we need to take the logs out of our eyes before taking the splinters out of the eyes of others. (Mt. 7: 5) Otherwise, our witness against persecution is likely to turn into persecution of the persecutors. This is why we can only take up the cross if we renounce using it as a weapon but rather use it as a Tree of Life for others.

Tending God’s Vineyard

Cemetary2I have discussed the Parable of the Evil Workers in the Vineyard in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire where I suggest that Jesus was warning his listeners of impending collective violence. I also have used this parable as Exhibit A for René Girard’s thesis that humans have a tendency to establish culture in the midst of social crisis through rounding on a victim who is killed or expelled. This time I want to take the parable in a different direction.

The cue for my changed direction is the end of the Parable of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5 on which Jesus’ parable is modeled. In both parables, the owner of the vineyard has taken great trouble to set up the vineyard for maximum productivity, but things still go awry. In Isaiah’s parable, there is not the cycle of violence described in Jesus’ parable, but the well-planted grapes grow wild. The owner (Yahweh) “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Is. 5: 7) Isaiah goes on make it clear that the violence he is complaining about is about those “who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Is. 5: 8) We could update this verse by adding those who add company to company and conglomerate to conglomerate.

Bringing this background into Jesus’ parable prods us to understand this parable, too, as referring not only to collective violence such as that threatened against Jesus but the ongoing social violence of the religious and political leaders. Properly tending the vineyard of the Lord is about properly caring for all people in society, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. Jesus was seeing quite the opposite in his time and the Risen Christ continues to see this systemic injustice continuing unabated in our time.

The stone rejected by the builders that Psalm 118 says becomes the cornerstone is rightly taken as referring to the persecuted prophets and then to Jesus who, rejected by the builders of society, has in his Resurrection become the cornerstone of the Church. But when we take into account the concluding parable in Matthew 25, it becomes clear that what is done to “the least of the members” of God’s family is done to Jesus. That is, the weak, the vulnerable, and the poor are the stones rejected by the builders of society, the same builders who put stumbling blocks before those who try to better themselves. But in the eyes of Jesus, it is those rejected by the builders who are the true building blocks of God’s kingdom.

When Jesus asks his listeners what they think the owner of the vineyard will do, they say that the owner “will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” (Mt. 21: 41) So it is that those committing social oppression embody an unforgiving attitude. Today, we hear many of the rich and powerful demonize the poor and vulnerable for their situation, blaming the victims of their oppression.

Yet, as Raymund Schwager points out in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, the risen Christ did not come with vengeance against the evil workers in the vineyard. Instead, the risen Christ came in peace with forgiveness. Those experiencing oppression are often scandalized by the notion of forgiveness, but we see in the unforgiving attitude of the Jewish leaders who are the oppressors that forgiveness is even more scandalizing for them. We often overlook how easy it is to hold unforgiving grudges against those people whom we have wronged in some way. The reason that we blame our victims is because accepting forgiveness from the risen Christ implies acceptance of our own wrong doing. No matter how gentle the Lamb of God is, forgiveness is still an accusation, and accepting forgiveness can only be done in a spirit of penitence. Looked at this way, the gift of forgiveness is not necessarily easy to accept. Yet overcome this difficulty we must if we are to avoid the cycle of violence that the Parable of the Evil Workers warns us against.

[For quotes and references to Moving and Resting in God’s Desire and Raymund Schwager’s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, see Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary Proper 22A]

[For an introduction fo René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God]

Above the Circle of the Earth

treespath1The Babylonian exile was traumatic for the Jews. Those who were taken to Babylon had to live in an alien environment quite contrary to everything they believed in. But an interesting thing happened during this exile. The sages and prophets who were living in exile came to close quarters with the mythology and sacrificial religion of their captors. When the Jews had come close to the Canaanite religion earlier in their history, the clash had taught them a few things about what the God they worshipped was all about. When the prophets saw the sacrifices of children to Moloch, they knew that this was not the kind of sacrifice Israel’s God wished and they protested these sacrifices with all their might. In Babylon, they came up against a mythology of a violent creation that took place with the dismemberment of Tiamat who, of course, was the deemed the cause of all the problems among the deities and who had to be punished. Moreover, the reason for creating the world was to make servants who would serve the gods. The sages and prophets learned from this mythology that this was not what their God was about. The God who had delivered them from the Red Sea was freeing slaves; not making them. This God had created a people by delivering them from violence and from a violent culture. They were hoping their God would do it again, and God did just that when the Persians defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their home.

The Creation narrative that begins the book of Genesis can easily be read as a refutation of Babylonian mythology. Far from creation emerging from violence, creation emerges from the Word of God which allows creation to be. The prophet we call Second Isaiah also proclaims Israel’s God to be far different, fully Other, than Marduk and his pantheon. “With whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?” asks Israel’s God in a question so rhetorical that it stops all human mouths (Is. 40: 25.) The violence in Babylonian mythology mirrors the violence of Babylonian culture and other human cultures as both deities and humans live in the same system of retributive violence. But Israel’s God “sits above the circle of the earth” (Is. 40:22.) That is, God is outside the system. From God’s vantage point, we are all like little grasshoppers. This God is the creator “of the ends of the earth.” Not only that, but God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Is. 40: 29.) Far from creating servants, God serves the creatures God has made and God serves most especially the powerless, like a rabble of slaves in Egypt and an exiled people in Babylon. Grasshoppers may be small in size but they are great in God’s care.

This vision of God as one who serves is embodied in Jesus as presented by Mark. Coming from outside the human system of violence, Jesus exorcises those who are possessed by their violent culture. Jesus serves Peter’s mother-in-law by healing her of a fever, thus allowing her to imitate Jesus by serving him, the disciples, and her family. Meanwhile, Jesus goes on to serve the many people who come to be healed of sickness and violence. Now God has come from “high above the circle of the earth” to serve us grasshoppers size.

Both Isaiah and Mark are showing us that creation is not a one-shot deal. Creation is a continuous process. God renews the strength of those who wait on God so that we can “mount up with wings like eagles.” Jesus uses the same creative power to heal sicknesses and drive away the violence that possesses us.

The question then is: Will we allow Jesus to bring us out of the exile into which violent human culture has captured us so that we can return to the world God created from the beginning—outside the System—or will we prefer to stay in exile?

A Highway to Seeing the Glory of the Lord

treespath1After her humiliating defeat by Babylon, Israel was broken. The movers and shakers who had kept the society going were taken to Babylon where they couldn’t move or shake any more. Then, fifty years later, the prophet known as Second Isaiah proclaimed comfort to Jerusalem: the exiles will return, travelling through the desert on “a highway for our God.” Jerusalem will be made whole once again! This return of the exiles is a new thing, at least as great a new thing as God’s delivery of the Jews out of Egypt. Not only that, but, like the earlier new thing, this deliverance is a re-creation of the world by the God who is now proclaimed to be the sole creator of the world out of nothing.

René Girard suggested that the levelling of mountains and valleys stood for the levelling of society that precipitates a sacrificial crisis. I have a counter Girardian suggestion: the levelling of the desert landscape is God’s removing of the obstacles that prevent us from seeing God. The obstacles here are the social tensions created through mimetic rivalry that tear a society apart. For Isaiah, this levelling is God’s work and removing obstacles is what God does. God does not create social crises; humans do that. Isaiah said that, with the highway smoothed out, “all flesh” will see the glory of the Lord.” Not only that, but if a Gentile king had made this return possible, how much greater would the outreach be from Jerusalem to all Gentiles once the Jewish nation was reunited?

But such was not to be. The Jewish nation broke again and this time it was the Jews who broke it, not the Babylonians. Denunciations of social injustice protested by the Isaianic prophets before the Exile were repeated by Isaiah’s successors after the exile. The movers and shakers who had returned from exile also returned to moving and shaking at the expense of their weaker Jews. An anonymous victim, known as the “Suffering Servant” paid the price for the nation’s brokenness. The mountains and valleys had been recreated and the glory of the Lord was hidden once again.

“The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” is the opening of Mark’s Gospel. The Greek word “arche” also refers to the ultimate beginning of creation and the two attempted re-creations in Jewish history. Mark quotes the words of Isaiah to announce that once again (or still) God is creating a highway for God. So it is that the subsequent appearance of Jesus and his baptism by John is yet a new beginning for humanity. Once again God is removing the obstacles and just as quickly, humans are putting the obstacles back in place, with the result that Jesus was left hanging on a cross.

By coming round every year, the Season of Advent proclaims God’s removing of obstacles so that all of us, together, can see the Glory of the Lord. Will we join God, at least a little, in the work of removing obstacles so that we can glimpse the glory the obstacles hide?