The Eleventh Commandment

monksinChoir1The rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life and then walked away grieving when Jesus told him to sell all that he owned (Mk. 10: 21) is a warning to all of us, rich or poor. Jesus’ added warning that it “is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” only makes the warning all the more dire. Paul strengthens the warning further when he tells Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” (1 Tim. 6: 10) Bucking these warnings is our formation from earliest childhood that money is both good and necessary and more of it is always better than less.

Money is not an individual matter; money is a system. It has to be if it’s going to be a medium of exchange. As a system, money gains power over all of us who use it. This is a power that easily distorts the moral conscience. In this regard, it is telling that in the commandments Jesus lists to the rich man, all are from the Ten Commandments except “You shall not defraud.” (Mk. 10: 19) Perhaps this is an eleventh commandment, or perhaps it is a version of: “You shall not covet.” (Ex. 20: 17) The more power money gains over us, the more likely it is that we will defraud others in order to get more of it. Indeed, most rich people in Palestine gained their wealth at the expense of poor farmers during hard times. Amos denounces those who “ trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain.” (Am. 5: 11) Such people turn “justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground.” (Am. 5: 7) Here we see courts of justice and the spoken word brought in with oppression of the poor as one knotted system.

The thought of the French thinker René Girard demonstrates that economic systems, like other interlocking social systems, are part of an all-pervasive system generated by what Girard called “mimetic desire.” That is, when one person wants something, other people are more apt to want it. The more somebody wants something, the more other people want it, not because of the intrinsic vale of whatever is valued but because something is valued. The interlocking of shared desires permeates society, making society a more tightly knotted system than the economical one. This is what the tenth commandment not to covet is all about. Jesus’ eleventh commandment deepens the tenth: you shall not steal what you covet because you have the social and economic power to do so. Coveting is not a vice only for the rich. I am among those who are seriously offended by what some preachers call “the Prosperity Gospel,” which seems to contradict Jesus’ words to the Rich Man. Somewhere (sorry, I can’t remember where), I read that many people who are attracted to the “Prosperity Gospel” are not rich but poor. In mimetic desire, other people model desires for other people. That is, other people tell me and show me what to desire. In the case of the “Prosperity Gospel,” rich people model to the poor what they should desire. We see the same phenomenon among Jesus’ disciples when, after being told how hard it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, asked Jesus: “Then who can be saved?” (Mk. 10: 26) The economic system, then, is fueled by the deeper system of mimetic desire wherein everybody wants to be like the rich landlords who break the tenth and eleventh commandments.

Jesus, then, is not inviting one person who happens to be rich to change; Jesus is asking all of us to change in such a way that the system is changed. The omnipresence of mimetic desire makes it clear that, important as it is to reform economic structures, it isn’t enough to do the job on its own. Our hearts need a makeover individually and collectively. It is this new system of the heart that Jesus inaugurated at the beginning of his teaching ministry when he proclaimed a Jubilee of freedom from being either a debtor or a creditor. (Lk. 4: 16–21)

St. Paul’s collection for the Church of Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8: 1–15) can be seen as an example of what economy can look like if we give our hearts to the tenth and eleventh commandments. Interestingly, the Macedonians, out of their poverty “overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” (2 Cor. 8: 2). This makes one wonder if the Macedonians were more able to thread the eye of the needle than the Rich Man. Paul adds a Christological dimension with the example of Jesus who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich. (2 Cor. 8: 9) Jesus was asking the Rich Man and each of us to do what He Himself had already done by coming into our world and its systems driven by mimetic desire. Here mimetic desire becomes redirected to desiring the good of other people, giving new vitality to Jesus’ famous words quoted by Paul: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20: 35)

See also my blog post: Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem.

For an introduction to René Girard and his theory of mimetic desire, see: Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim.

God’s Kingdom as Gift

treeBlossoming1There is only one simple qualification for being a disciple of Jesus: give up everything. That’s one whale of a qualification. So hard is this qualification that earnest Christians have thought of many ways to soften Jesus’ words without washing all meaning and challenge out of them. My New Testament professor at Nashotah House, O.C. Edwards, suggested that this qualification means we have to give up everything that comes between us and God. That is, if parents, children, spouses, friends, or fellow members of a community help us draw closer to God, we don’t have to give them up. The same would go for material possessions. Even Benedictine monks have to use things in this world in order to live so we can’t give up having anything at all. The trick is to use things in such a way that the work and recreation we do with them draws us closer to God rather than farther away.

We could phrase this approach by saying that the problem is not possessions but possessiveness. God gives us parents, children, siblings, and friends as gifts. Likewise we should give each ourselves as gifts to other people. The things we use in the world are likewise gifts from God and should be treated accordingly. The problem comes when we prefer to take other people and things rather than receive them. In such cases, the intensity of love we feel for others is actually possessiveness rather than love. We are told to “hate” parents, children, siblings, and friends so as not to be possessive of them. Taking people and things is the result of putting ourselves in competitive relationship with other people. When we compete with others, we have to win and a victory is something we earn, not a gift. This same competitiveness carries over to our attitudes toward possessions. As the French thinker René Girard teaches us, we often want things that other people have or want to have things at the expense of others so that we can claim a victory over them. Of course, competitiveness is a bottomless pit. If we win one round, we always fear losing the next. If we have to have more than other people, or at least as much, we have to keep on accumulating more things no matter the damage our hoarding does to others. In all this, the people we try defeat and our lust to win through possessions become stumbling blocks between ourselves and God. This is what we have to give up.

Paul’s Letter to Philemon illustrates this point very well. Slavery, very common up to the present day (although now other terms such as “trafficking” are often used for it), is perhaps the ultimate in possessing other people. Onesimus was a runaway slave. Paul experienced Onesmimus, not as a possession but as a gift, a person who freely gave of himself to serve Paul while he was a prisoner. Paul is tempted to be possessive and keep Onesimus for himself but he offers Onesemus to Philemon as a gift, clearly hoping that Philemon will give Onesimus back to Paul as a free gift. Paul makes it clear that he is not giving Onesimus back as a slave; instead, he is giving Philemon back as a beloved brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Philem. 16) If Philemon receives Onesimus as a brother in Christ, he can hardly continue to possess him as a slave.

I’ve always seen Paul’s letter as an artful piece of emotional blackmail, but for all his manipulative rhetoric here, Paul is basically passing on to Philemon Jesus’ invitation to the Kingdom with its one qualification. This sounds simple, but in the heat of daily battles, we find that the possessiveness born of competitiveness is very hard to renounce and it amounts to carrying our cross daily. If we can daily renounce our possessiveness, we will indeed receive everything from God and from others as Gift.

Christian Community (1)

guestsNarthex1The French modernist theologian Alfred Loisy famously quipped: “Jesus preached the kingdom of God and got the church.” This dictum pits the Jesus movement against the church that followed.

The Gospels attest to Jesus having many people gathering around him for healing and to listen to his teachings. Except for the twelve apostles and the women who, according to Mark, provided for him when he was in Galilee and followed him to the cross in Jerusalem, there is no indication of how stable the group of followers was. Since many of them had to eke out hard livings on the land, probably most people gathered around Jesus when he was in town and that was about it.

The teachings of non-retaliation and forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount and in other parables were clearly on a higher plane than his listeners could have been used to. They pose such a severe challenge that many of the greatest Christian writers have relegated these teachings to the margins and re-instituted retaliation both in moral theology and dogma. Maybe monks and nuns could turn the other cheek if a fellow monk or nun insulted them, but that was about it. No wonder Alfred Loisy and many others have grumbled about the church. Did the people who listened to Jesus and tagged along at least for a while catch on to the preaching of the kingdom based on peace and forgiveness in the midst of a world just as violent as our own? The indications I can see suggest that they probably did not.

Jesus’ closest followers consistently failed to understand and absorb Jesus’ teachings. Peter’s question as to whether or not he should forgive a brother or sister as much as seven times betrays this incomprehension. The constant bickering among the disciples as to who was the greatest further exposes their incomprehension. Mark juxtaposes this inner fighting with predictions of his crucifixion three times. Three is universally the number standing in for infinity so probably this didn’t happen just three times but an uncountable number of times. Moreover, when Jesus was arrested, he had to tell Peter to put his sword away.

The man who asked Jesus to make his brother share their inheritance equitably, only to be rebuked (along with his brother) for avarice, suggests that his listeners weren’t giving up rivalry over possessions at the drop of Jesus’ words. The crowd’s seizure of Jesus right after he had fed them bread from heaven seems to be John’s retrospective image of what Jesus’ listeners understood and hoped for.

The mysterious reversals of the crowd during Jesus’ last week are especially astonishing until we reflect on what the Gospel writer teach us about crowd psychology. All of the synoptic Gospels emphasize the fear the Jewish leaders had of the crowd. They wanted to put off the arrest until after the Passover at which point the crowd would disperse. When Jesus forced their hand, they had to do their own crowd manipulation. None of that would have worked if Jesus had spoken before Pilate. I suspect that Jesus chose to be silent because any words at all, no matter what they were, could have been construed as an encouragement to start an uprising. In the wake of Jesus’ silence, the disappointed crowd who had wanted to make him king were ready to be turned against him.

It is not productive to knock these people for being stupid, obtuse, and hard of heart. The truth is that we imitate their very stupidity, obtuseness, and hardness of heart more often than not. The followers of Jesus during Jesus’ earthly life do not give us very good models for how to listen and act. All except the few faithful women and the Beloved Disciple had deserted Jesus by the time he died. The rest of Jesus’ “followers” are very accurate mirrors that continue to stare us in the face. Then something happened. Jesus met up with the women to begin the process of re-gathering a following. Will we gather with them this time around?

Go to Christian Community (2)

Principalities and Powers

WilliamGuestsChurch1Jesus was not crucified by just one person; he was crucified by a social system. The Gospels and the apostolic preaching in Acts show clearly how hostile social systems in Jerusalem came together to create a larger social system that was united solely by the agreement to put Jesus to death. By quoting from the persecution psalms, these sources suggest that persecutory social systems have always been a part of humanity. René Girard has demonstrated how mythology covers up and yet still points to this same persecutory mechanism. It is such social systems that Paul calls the “principalities and powers” of the world. These principalities get their power from the collective cohesiveness of persecution. This collective power is overwhelming to the individual within this system. Hence the transcendent power they have for Paul. However, Paul also says that the principalities and powers have been dismantled and nailed to the cross by Jesus. The forgiving victim is gathering a radically different social system that not only does not require the sacrifice of the victim but totally precludes such a thing. Paul says that if the principalities and powers had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. Because they did, we have some ability, by the grace of God, for seeing the fundamental signs of a society that is still run, at least in part, by the principalities and powers and for seeing what are the signs of the Kingdom that the Risen and Forgiving Victim has opened up for us.

A society run by the principalities and powers is punitive. Some people may think that is a good thing, but in  a punitive society, somebody must be to blame whenever anything goes wrong or even seems to go wrong. That is, somebody must be punished. When a society needs to have somebody punished, then this need takes precedence over justice. It is better for an innocent person to suffer than for the corporate rage of the society to suffer for lack of an object of that rage.  It follows that the Law of Tit for Tat reigns. There is no room for mercy. Every offense must be met in equal measure. As long as this Law reigns, there is no end in sight to the spiral of retaliation. In Jesus’ Kingdom, restoration of relationships is the corporate desire when things go wrong. The pain of this restoration might feel like punishment for some, but the pain is remedial, moving toward reconciliation.

In the society of the Principalities and Powers, somebody is always expendable. Caiaphas’ dictum that it is better that one person die than that the whole nation should perish is “gospel.” Collateral damage is an acceptable price to pay for objectives deemed good to those who are running the show. Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep that the shepherd seeks until he finds it and brings it back to the fold shows that in Jesus’ Kingdom, nobody is expendable.

The society of the Principalities and Powers is dualistic.  There has to be an “in” group and an “out” group. The society’s identity is based on what is wrong with those people, the enemy.  If we are to love our enemies, as Jesus teaches, then enemies do not define us in any way.

Most devastating of all, the society of the Principalities and Powers is mendacious. The need to cover up the truth of collective violence in primitive societies carries over to the most sophisticated of modern societies. Part of this mendacity is to blame the victim. The blame that many US politicians cast on women who are raped is a particularly grisly example. Victims of lynching, too, were blamed for what happened to them.

Here is the choice. Where is our treasure? Where is our heart?

Blueprint of the Kingdom

buddingTree1The blueprints for a building are a lot less exciting and interesting than the building itself. However, blueprints are useful for showing the fundamental shape and structure of the building at a glance. The readings for Epiphany 3A are more like a blueprint for the Kingdom of God than a tour of the Kingdom in its fleshed-out form.

In Mt. 4:17, Jesus says:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repenting does not mean to make a laundry list of our little sins and try to stop doing them. Repenting means to turn around, to switch our minds and our hearts, to see life in a new way. This is the fundamental thrust of the Kingdom. But what specs can we get from the blueprint?

The quote from Isaiah, especially the part about Zebulun and Naphtali may not seem exciting but they show some important shapes in the blueprint. These places in Galilee are Gentile territory, lands of the enemies of Israel, lands that were occupied by the Assyrians in their invasion of Israel. The darkness has to do with the power and might of military occupation and enmity between peoples. Isaiah’s saying that God broke the rod of the oppressor as on the day of Midian suggests that God’s Kingdom will free us from military force that inevitably creates darkness. Reconciliation with the Gentiles involves forgiveness for past wrongs, even past atrocities such as those committed by the Assyrians and then the Romans in Jesus’ day. Matthew notes that Jesus moved to this area of Galilee after Herod’s arrest of John the Baptist, another instance of Roman oppression. One might feel this is not applicable to most of us because most of us are not high government officials or military leaders. However, all of us live either in a country bursting with military might or in a country that is in some way, perhaps economically, occupied by another. That means we need to turn away from anything that contributes to the enmity this situation creates and start breaking the yokes we impose on each other.

In First Corinthians, Paul gives us another example of darkness that is very close to everyday life for all of us. The church is in conflict with its members using slogans such as: “I belong to Apollos!” “I belong to Cephas!” One could say that this is war on a small scale but the darkness is the same as that created by the Assyrians and the Romans. Paul suggests that the light of the kingdom which Jesus is bringing near is to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose,” which for Paul is the mind of Christ, whose cross is foolishness for those who are perishing in the darkness of violence but is the power of God for those being saved.

The “power of God” doesn’t look much like power as we usually understand it. It isn’t exactly a large-scale military invasion like D-Day. In fact, it is quite the opposite. But the cross is power in the sense of shedding light in the darkness which John says the darkness cannot overcome. The light reveals the darkness of the military might of the Assyrians, the Romans and all else who imitate them. The light also reveals the hatred of victims for their oppressors, however understandable, for what it is: a wall of enmity that perpetuates divisions between people. As I struggle with my almost constant anger at many politicians in this country for their misuse of power and the public trust, I have to repent of this anger minute by minute.

Where does this darkness come from? Isaiah and Matthew are not portraying darkness as part of the created order in the sense that night time is natural. This is not darkness that God made, or in fact had anything to do with. This is darkness as a human creation. It is human beings who organize armies to oppress people or who tear congregations apart with petty party politics. This sort of behavior is highly contagious. The more people build walls or fight, the more people feel the need to build walls and fight.

What does the Kingdom of God, founded on the foolishness of the cross look like? The blueprint we have in these readings doesn’t look like much, but then a crucified criminal in Roman times doesn’t look like much either. When we read just a bit further in Matthew, we enter the real-life rooms of the Kingdom outlined in the blueprint. We find many rooms, many mansions, all of which offer contagious possibilities such as being blessed for being poor or for being a peacemaker, or turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile, and then finding in these weaknesses the rock that supports the house of faith we are building against the storm of Rome and Assyria and the power brokers of our time.

Jesus’ Escape to the Kingdom

crosswButterfliesThe Ascension is among the most puzzling festivals in the church calendar. The contradictory accounts of the event are a puzzle but one thing the accounts by Luke and John’s Gospel share is to connect Jesus’ departure with his sending the Holy Spirit. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come to lead them into the truth. What truth did the disciples need that they hadn’t learned already from their teacher? Did Jesus have to leave before the disciples could hear the Holy Spirit?

During his ministry, Jesus warned his disciples three times that “he would be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” These warnings came precisely at the times the disciples thought that a Maccabean-like revolution against the Romans was just around the corner: when Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, right after the Transfiguration, and when James and John asked if they will sit at Jesus’ right and left in his kingdom.

After his Resurrection, Jesus tried again to get across to the disciples what his kingdom was really all about. When Clopas glumly said that he and his companion had hoped that Jesus “was the one who was to redeem Israel,” Jesus, not yet recognized by them, rebuked them for their slowness of heart in believing what “the prophets have declared.” Then he “interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Later, Jesus appeared to the twelve and explained that everything written about him in “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled. “Since the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” was used to refer to the whole Hebrew Bible, the special mention of the psalms is significant. The psalms include many laments over persecution from the standpoint of the victim. Jesus went on to say that when the scriptures say that the Messiah was “to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,” it means that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed” in Jesus’ name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Proclaiming repentance and forgiveness is a very different proposition from starting a revolt to restore the kingdom to Israel.

When, in spite of hearing this teaching for forty days, the disciples asked their Risen Lord: “Is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus must have banged his head against the nearest tree and cried out: “I’m out of here!” This repeated question may have convinced Jesus that the disciples were never going to stop asking him to restore kingdom of Israel as long as he was walking on the earth with them. Maybe Jesus was planning all along to leave after forty days; maybe he planned to stick around indefinitely but this question was the last straw.

Jesus’s Ascension put paid to any notion of his leading a second Maccabean-type revolution. The disciples were left with no choice but to try doing what Jesus told them to do when he breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus’ kingdom is to preach repentance and forgiveness to the whole world until everybody has repented, been forgiven, and has forgiven everybody.