Whose Axe? Whose Winnowing Fork?

220px-John_the_Baptist_Prokopiy_ChirinAfter centuries without a prophet, a wave of expectation flooded Judea and Galilee. A man dressed the way Elijah was dressed rode this wave and pushed it along with his boisterous preaching. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” What sort of kingdom did he expect? The call to repent tells us only that we must turn from the direction we are going and move into a different direction. Question the ways we live and look for a different direction.

Two astounding prophecies by Isaiah offer us intriguing, inspiring, but puzzling hints about what the Kingdom might be when he urged us to turn “swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning hooks” so that we “study war no more” as the spiritual says and that “the wolf shall live with the lamb.” So, now we have all of creation at peace? Not quite. Isaiah tells us that the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” will “smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” Apparently taming lions and tigers and bears is easier than taming predatory humans. In calling the Pharisees and Sadducees, “that brood of vipers,” and asking who told them to flee the “wrath to come” while an ax was “laid at the trees” and his successor would have “a winnowing fork in his hand” suggests that they were not as tamable as predatory animals. The predatory lenders of today seem just as untamable. However, surely the kingdom of Heaven was not wrath of this sort, even if John, like the prophets before him, thought such wrath might clear the way for Heaven’s Kingdom.

As soon as he is baptized by John, Jesus cries out precisely the same words: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” By saying these same words, is he perhaps telling us that John the Baptist, of whom there is none greater born of woman, hasn’t quite set the right direction either. His baptism has taken him on a very different track: the Paschal Mystery. That may seem a bit anachronistic, but from the preaching the Sermon on the Mount on, Jesus takes the direction of absorbing violence rather than inflicting it. Not only does the Kingdom not consist of threshing out the bad guys with a winnowing fork and burning them, but such threshing doesn’t even pave the way to the kingdom. If anything, this violence only blocks the way for everybody as, in our righteous indignation against predatory lenders and their ilk, the axes and fires for burning chaff multiply. One might argue that Jesus himself had some choice words for the Sadducees and Pharisees. However, Jesus called them whitewashed tombs filled with people’s man’s bones. Jesus wasn’t chopping off their heads or burning them up; he was warning them about how dead they were. If Jesus isn’t a thunder deity carrying a battle axe, whose axe is laid to the tree?

In his lectionary commentary, Paul Nuechterlein provocatively suggests that the axe is wielded by us. It isn’t God but we who are chopping down trees all over the world. That is indeed what happened on Mount Calvary. Moreover, according to Isaiah, it is from the stump that new life emerged. So, whose wrath should we flee? Ours. What should we run to? How about the chopped stump from which the new Tree of Life is growing?

A Scandalous Woman as Extravagant as Jesus

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyThe synoptic Gospels interlace Jesus’ disciples’ infighting as to who is the greatest with Jesus’ predictions that he will be handed over to the authorities to be crucified. The disciples consistently fail to understand or accept what Jesus is saying to them. Interestingly, the disciples suddenly come to an agreement when a woman enters the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany and pours an enormous amount of costly oil over Jesus. It is telling that it is a corporate condemnation of a marginal person that has united the disciples. To their chagrin, Jesus defends the woman, saying that she has prepared him for burial, precisely the destiny Jesus is facing and the disciples are denying. It is quite possible, however, that for Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ defense of the woman was the last straw. In both Gospels, Judas’ fateful interview with the chief priests follows immediately.

Curiously, Luke has a version of the same story that is detached from the passion narrative. That this woman had a bad name in the town suggests uneasiness with this woman and her extravagant actions. That she shamelessly washes Jesus’ feet with her tears doesn’t help matters. If the disciples were there, one wonders if they agreed with Simon in thinking that Jesus should have known that the woman was a sinner and therefore unworthy of offering such an extravagant gift.

John has a similar, but different account of the anointing of Jesus. The woman is Mary of Bethany and, far from being an intruder into somebody else’s house, she is herself the hostess along with her sister Martha. As in the Lucan story, Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. This time the gesture is all the more suggestive of things to come as John places the incident just before the Last Supper when Jesus of washes the feet of his disciples. This time, Judas alone objects to the waste. John goes on to say that Judas was upset, not because he cared for the poor, but because he wanted more money in the common treasury for him to steal. The question is: if the disciples unanimously censured the woman as they unanimously opposed Jesus’ predictions of his death, was Judas really the only betrayer? Chances are, Judas was saying out loud what the other disciples were thinking.

The parable of the Prodigal Father tells of the extravagant love of our heavenly father. Isaiah 43 proclaims God’s extravagant gesture of bringing God’s people through a desert overflowing with water. In Philippians, Paul insists that the cross and resurrection are so extravagant that all of his human qualifications are reduced to rubbish. Mary of Bethany shows the same extravagance, an extravagance that makes us uncomfortable to this day. This is the extravagance that embraces the cross and Jesus’ resurrected life and leads to truly caring about the poor and raising them up into a life of generosity for everyone.

Prepare a Way for the Lord: an Advent Meditation

field1John the Baptist calls out to us with Isaiah’s words: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Isaiah here was referring to the return of God’s people to their rightful home from which they had been uprooted by the Babylonians. Even today, we live in exile, not living our lives in God as we ought. The call to repentance (metanoia) in John’s baptism means, literally, to turn our minds. This does mean just filling or minds with new books; it means turning our whole embodied selves in a new direction to see and live in a different way.

Isaiah prophecies a leveling process where the valleys are filled in, the mountains are brought low, and the crooked ways are straightened. That is, the obstacles within ourselves and within our culture that prevent God from coming to us must be removed. The image of leveling seems to suggest a social upheaval where the mighty are brought low and the lowly are raised up so that all are on the same level. This would be to overlook the real obstacle to God: our tendency to compare ourselves with one another without reference to God, preoccupied with being better than others or fretting that others are better than us. This preoccupation and the resentments they foster maintain the isolating barriers of valleys and mountains and block the way to God.

The repentance that Isaiah calls for is the renunciation of our rivalrous entanglement with others and allow for God’s leveling process that holds everybody in the same regard without exalting some or lowering others. Unfortunately, while God is smoothing out the way for us, we prefer to maintain the barriers that we think protect us. Opening a highway for God makes us vulnerable, not only to God but to all of God’s people. Take out the valleys and mountains and anybody could come deeply into our lives! Isaiah gives us fair warning by declaring that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Like all analogies, the analogy of smoothing out the landscape has its liabilities. Flat ground makes for boring scenery. Valleys and mountains make for beautiful scenery. God doesn’t destroy the landscapes God has made. That means, if we turn our embodied minds, we see that God’s leveling process is to rejoice in the valleys and mountains and twists of the road without rivalry or resentment.