Gifts to the Universal King

crecheThe story of the Magi’s visit to the newborn Christ Child in Matthew is one of the archetypes of the Christmas season. Most popularly, the Magi are the archetypes of giving because of the gifts they brought to the Christ Child and they are often credited with being responsible for the exchanges of gifts customary during the Christmas season, even among people who otherwise have nothing to do with Christianity.

Theologically, the incident manifests the universality of the Christ Child. From the first, the child has received homage from representatives of other parts of the world beyond the Jewish culture into which he was born. The Magi were astrologers, but they had nothing to do with fortune cookie-type columns for daily newspapers; they studied the stars to probe the world’s mysteries. Since the sky was observable by all people, the study of the stars is an apt image for the universality of Christ. The star that the Magi followed is likely a reference to the prophecy of Balaam: “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.: (Num. 24: 17) Here a mercenary pagan makes a favorable prophecy for Israel when he could have been richly awarded for doing the opposite. The gifts of gold and frankincense are often interpreted as fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: “All those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Is 60: 6) The myrrh, not mentioned in Isaiah, would foreshadow Jesus’ passion and death.

The priestly authors of Numbers and the prophet called by many scholars “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66) are among the writers of the Hebrew Bible who pushed for an inclusive Israel that would welcome all people from all nations against those who would shut the gates and keep them shut. In her book on Numbers, Mary Douglas offers the interesting argument that the story of Balaam’s prophecy is a lampooning of the exclusionary policies of Ezra who ordered his fellow Israelites to put away all foreign wives and their children after the return from the Babylonian Exile. (Ezra 9–10) The allusion to the prophecies of Balaam and Isaiah would put Matthew firmly in the inclusionary camp. The affirmation of an inclusive Israel where Jews and Gentiles come together, is also affirmed by Paul as one of his most fundamental teachings. In Ephesians, he writes of God’s plan “for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1: 10)

This preaching of universality is among the more attractive strands in biblical thought. However, as with most good and glorious things, there is a shadow that we must deal with. It is very easy for an inclusionary view to become imperialistic and intolerant to the point that everybody must conform to the one particular inclusionary embrace that I happen to accept. Everybody must be a Christian, actually, my kind of Christian. As a committed Christian, I believe my faith is true and universal and I would like for all people to share its blessings, but I accept that people of other faiths feel the same about theirs.

The generosity of giving seems to be the best way out of this impasse. In the Isaianic prophecy fulfilled by the Magi, people bring their gifts to God from all over the earth. These gifts represent many cultures, many faiths. Each of these traditions have gifts that we all can benefit from and receive with gratitude. If we offer our talents, our insights, our beliefs, and the revelations we have received as genuinely free gifts, then we do not want to smother what others have to offer us in return.

An interesting question remains. If Jesus was given these valuable gifts at the time of his birth, how come he was a homeless itinerant teacher with no place to lay his head? If indeed he had some gold and other precious gifts when he was young, we have to assume that he did what he asked the rich young man to do: he gave all of it away to the poor. Jesus still keeps on giving us all of himself. What about us?

John’s Offended Puzzlement

Mattia_Preti_-_San_Giovanni_Battista_PredicazioneJohn the Baptist is so closely associated with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry that it’s easy to see them as two of a kind. Both preached repentance. Both died the death of a martyr.

But if the two of them saw eye to eye, why would John send his disciples to ask Jesus if Jesus was “the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt. 11: 3) As is usually the case when asked any kind of question, Jesus gives only an indirect answer. He lists the miracles that are happening such as the blind receiving their sight and the lame walking. Then he caps it off with the cryptic and seemingly incoherent words: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Mt. 11: 6) The implication is that John is taking offense at Jesus, or is in danger of doing so. If Jesus is concerned that John, his onetime mentor, might take offense at him, what about his followers? What about us?

The Greek word used here for “offense” and throughout the New Testament is skandalon. We get the English word “scandal” from it. The word means “a stumbling block” and it particularly applies to conflictual circumstances. In the thought of René Girard, two or more people in conflict are stumbling blocks to one another. In his important book The Scandal of the Gospels, David McCracken examines the concept of scandal at length. Jesus’ challenge in his reply to John’s followers is central to McCracken’s argument that faith and scandal are inextricably entangled. What this amounts to is that “only when the possibility of offense exists will the possibility of faith exist.” Being offended, scandalized by Jesus takes us half-way there. One who is not offended because of indifference has not even started. (McCracken 1994, p.82) On the other hand, someone who is stuck in being scandalized for the sake of being scandalized is not likely to move forward either. The people who were scandalized by both John and Jesus, although for opposite reasons, fit this profile. (Mt. 11: 16–19)

So why might John or we take offence at Jesus? Both Jesus and John called for repentance but John’s warnings were accompanied by images of wrath: an axe at the tree, a winnowing fork, fire. John’s preaching can be heard as a renewal of Isaiah’s prophecy of hope: creating a highway through the desert as God did to bring the Jews back from the Babylonian exile, opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, coming with vengeance and “a terrible recompense.” (Is. 35) If we tick the boxes of Jesus’ ministry, there is a check mark for each item except for the “terrible recompense.” There are also no axes, winnowing forks, or fire in Jesus’ preaching. Perhaps John felt like an emcee announcing a dramatic act only to get a puff when he thought he’d get an explosion.

When we think of the people in our lives and public figures who affect us that we sincerely think are “a brood of vipers,” do we want the wrath they are fleeing to fall on them? Are there people we think should be chopped down and thrown into the fire? If we harbor the same vengeful feelings, we are scandalized by these people. How then do we feel about a preaching ministry where the poor and the peacemakers are blessed and we are asked to forgive those who scandalize us? Are we scandalized at the idea of renouncing vengeance against these people? If so, then we are taking offense at Jesus and we are not blessed.

The earnest moral sense and integrity of John the Baptist represents the best humanity has to offer but “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” That is, as soon as we take even the smallest of baby steps in the way of forgiveness and not being scandalized by seriously scandalous people, we are better than the best humanity can offer. There’s nothing to be proud of here. Jesus healed the cripple when he forgave his sins. This same forgiveness heals us and gives us the strength to take these baby steps into the Kingdom of God.

God’s Sabbath Rest

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyJesus’ healing of the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years (Lk. 13: 13–17) is one of many healing miracles where the Evangelist emphasizes its occurrence on the Sabbath. These healings were provocative to the Jewish leaders because they interpreted the Sabbath law to preclude any kind of work. Jesus clearly intended to challenge that interpretation but there is a deeper teaching about the Sabbath that he wants us to learn.

We see hints of this deeper teaching in these stirring words from Isaiah about the Sabbath:

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Is. 58: 13–14)

For the prophet, one dishonors the Sabbath by grimly pursuing one’s own interests instead of delighting in the Lord. In healing the crippled woman, Jesus was not pursuing his own interests, but that of another. More important, the healing caused much delight in the Lord on the part of the people who witnessed it except for the Leader of the Synagogue. A bit earlier, before speaking specifically of the Sabbath, Isaiah expressed God’s commendation of those who offer food to the hungry and “satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” ( Is. 58: 10) Jesus obviously thought that satisfying the need of an afflicted woman is a way of honoring the Sabbath.

Psalm 95 refers to God’s “Rest” to mean both entry into the Promised Land and the Sabbath Rest as God’s intended end for humanity. The rebellion of the Israelites in the desert threatens to prevent the Israelites from entering God’s “Rest” on both levels. (Ps. 95: 11) The author of Hebrews picks up this theme in its eschatological dimension, noting that Joshua had not led the Israelites into the ultimate Rest when we cease from [our] labors as God did from his.” (Heb. 4: 10)

The author of Hebrews returns to this eschatological theme at the end of the letter when he contrasts the frightening dark cloud of Mount Sinai that the Israelites came to with our coming to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb. 12: 22–24) Once again, we have corporate rejoicing. More important, we have the “better word” of Jesus, the Forgiving Victim in contrast to Abel’s blood that inspired vengeance from which God had to shield the murderer.

The Psalmist’s warning that those who murmur against God and Moses will not enter into God’s Rest and the author of Hebrews’s use of the same threatening tone for those who refuse the warning from Heaven sound vindictive but the “better word than Abel” suggests otherwise. I think we do better to realize that God’s Sabbath Rest isn’t so restful as long as we grumble like the Leader of the Synagogue. Nobody was casting him out of God’s Sabbath Rest; he just wasn’t having any part of it.

Inspired by Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week, most Christians celebrate the Sabbath on that day when we celebrate the Paschal Mystery of Christ at the altar. Since the Resurrection points to the ultimate meaning of the Sabbath, I would think it is not too much to see this healing by Jesus as one of many foretastes of the Resurrection, an encouragement to celebrate new life from the bondage of illness and injury and social oppression. The healing of just one person seems a small thing compared to the heavenly crowd in Hebrews but the whole crowd rejoiced in the healing, indicating that healing one person entailed healing the whole community. This group rejoicing suggests that the Sabbath Rest is hardly a boring, static existence but a dynamic rejoicing in the interests and healing of others which leaves no room for murmuring and rejecting God’s blessings. We should be too busy rejoicing for that.

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?