Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: Gn. 15:5-12, 17-18; Ps. 27:1, 7-9, 13-14; Phil. 3:17-4:1; Lk. M9:28B-36.
Is faith more about what we say or what we do? And who is more Christian, Donald Trump or Pope Francis?
Those questions were sharpened yesterday, when Pope Francis implied that Donald Trump is not a Christian. Responding to a reporter’s question, the pontiff lit up the internet when he said about Trump, “Anyone, whoever he is, who only wants to build walls and not bridges is not a Christian.” In other words, the pope was saying that actions speak louder than words.
The pope’s comment came at the end of his six-day trip to Mexico, where he celebrated Mass with 300,000 faithful in attendance near the Mexican-U.S. border. He used the occasion to decry the “human tragedy” of worldwide migrations of people fleeing violence, war and the effects of climate change. That analysis, of course, conflicts with Mr. Trump’s who sees immigrants as rapists, drug-dealers, and terrorists.
It’s not surprising then that the pope’s words drew a quick response from The Donald. He called the pope’s charges “disgraceful” and accused him of being a pawn of the Mexican government. His sentiments were mirrored mildly in the comments of Mr. Trump’s competitors for the Republican presidential nomination. They seemed to agree that faith and Christianity is a private matter, between the believer and God. About that no one – not even the pope – can or should judge. For instance, Jeb Bush said, “Christianity is between he and his creator. I don’t think we need to discuss that.”
Today’s liturgy of the word disagrees. It wants us to discuss the relationship between words and actions – even between God’s words and God’s actions. In fact, according to readings for this Second Sunday of Lent, actions constitute demonstrable proof of faith claims. Specifically, the first reading from Genesis presents the God of Israel as one who is willing to stop being God – to butcher himself – if God’s word does not match with God’s deeds.
Then today’s Gospel reading (the account of Jesus’ transfiguration) indicates the type of action of which Israel’s God approves in his People. It is not action motivated by fear, but by courage – even in the face of failure, personal harm, or death itself. In other words, the Gospel call is to put aside our fearful little selves who rank personal safety and security above everything else.
First of all, consider that very strange first reading from the Book of Genesis. It’s about Abram, an ancient sheik – the Founding Father of the Jewish nation. He originally lived in ancient Babylon but felt called to move off to the west, to start over, find a new homeland, and start a new independent tribe. He somehow felt that God was calling him to do all these things. Problem was, Abram was already advanced in years and his wife, Sarah, was beyond menopause. Still, he felt that God was promising him a large family – a tribe whose people would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.
In today’s readings, Abram evidently feels time is running out on God’s promise. The sheik is looking for reassurance. It comes in the form of a dream. The dream answers his question: how trustworthy is God? Can God be trusted to have God’s actions and words conform?
Abram’s question makes this tribal pastoralist dream of the most solemn human covenant he knew of – the “Covenant of Pieces.” According to tribal practice, when an inferior made an important agreement with a patron – say to transfer property, do work, fight a battle, or repay a debt – he had to go through an extremely graphic pledge ritual. The ceremony involved sacrificing animals from the client’s flock (in today’s reading a mature heifer, she goat and a ram along with a turtle dove and a pigeon). The inferior was to split the animals in two, and align the carcasses in rows so that they formed a path with one half the heifer’s carcass on the left and the other on the right, and the same with the she goat and ram. Then with the patron holding his hand, the client was to solemnly walk between the carcasses taking note of their dead rotting state, their putrid smell, and of the vultures flying overhead.
All of this was a reminder of the power the client was handing over to his patron. He was saying in effect, if I don’t keep my pledge, I’m giving you permission to do this to me and to my family. You can butcher us all and leave us to rot in the sun. That’s a pretty serious commitment. Sheik Abram could think of nothing more solemn, reassuring or binding.
So his dream which at first glance seems so strange and confusing to us was extremely comforting to him as a tribal pastoralist. It had God (in the form of fire and smoke) playing the role of client to Abram. God was performing the “pieces” ritual in Abram’s presence by running the gauntlet formed by rotting meat. That is if God did not keep his word, God was willing to be butchered! This, of course, could never happen. So the dream meant God could never not keep God’s word. A God willing to be butchered rather than break his word? Reassuring indeed!
That tells us something about the biblical attitude towards word and deed – faith and works. God’s word is God’s bond. The same should be true of those who profess to be God’s people.
But what type of action are believers bonded to? Today’s reading from Luke answers that question. They are called to courageous action against those who oppress the poor (immigrants, victims of war and “scorched earth”) including religious “leaders” cooperating with empire. And they must do so even at the risk of their own lives.
That’s the implication of today’s gospel reading. There the young carpenter from Nazareth is on his way to Jerusalem. He knows something extremely risky is about to happen there. Yet he’s determined to be part of it. The risky action has to do with the temple and the collaboration of its leaders with the Roman Empire.
The temple has become worse than irrelevant to the situation of Jesus’ people living under Roman oppression. What happens there not only ignores Jewish political reality. The temple leadership has become the most important Jewish ally of the oppressing power. And Jesus has decided to address that intolerable situation.
Everyone knows that a big demonstration against the Romans is planned in Jerusalem for the weekend of Passover. There’ll be chanting mobs. The slogans are already set. “Hosanna, hosanna, in the highest” will be one chant. Another will be “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Hosanna” is the key word here. It means “save us!” The Romans won’t notice that the real meaning is “Save us from the Romans.” “Restore an independent Israel – like David’s kingdom!” It was all very political.
Jesus has heard that one of the main organizers of the demonstration is the guerrilla Zealot called Barabbas. Barabbas doesn’t call what’s planned a “demonstration.” He prefers the term “The Uprising” or “the Insurrection” (Mk. 15). Barabbas has a following as enthusiastic as that of Jesus. After all, Barabbas is a “sicarius” – a guerrilla whose solemn mission is to assassinate Roman soldiers. His courage has made him a hero to the crowds. (John Dominic Cross compares him to the Mel Gibson character in “The Patriot.”)
Jesus’ assigned part in the demonstration will be to attack the Temple and symbolically destroy it. He plans to enter the temple with his friends and disrupt business as usual. They’ll all shout at the money-changers whose business exploits the poor. They’ll turn over their tables. As a proponent of non-violence, they’re thinking not in Barabbas’ terms of “uprising,” but of forcing God’s hand to bring in the Lord’s “Kingdom” to replace Roman domination. Passover, the Jewish holiday of national independence could not be a more appropriate time for the planned event. Jesus is thinking in terms of “Exodus.”
And yet, this peasant from Galilee is troubled by it all. What if the plan doesn’t work and God’s Kingdom doesn’t dawn this Passover? What if the Romans succeed in doing what they’ve always done in response to uprisings and demonstrations? Pilate’s standing order to deal with lower class disturbances is simply to arrest everyone involved and crucify them all as terrorists. Why would it be different this time? Like Abram before him, Jesus has doubts.
So before setting out for Jerusalem, he takes his three closest friends and ascends a mountain for a long night of prayer. He’s seeking reassurance before the single most important act in his life. As usual, Peter, James and John soon fall fast asleep. True to form they are uncomprehending and dull.
However, while the lazy fall into unconsciousness, the ever-alert and thoughtful Jesus has a vision. Moses appears to him, and so does Elijah. (Together they represent the entire Jewish scriptural testament – the law and the prophets.) This means that on this mountain of prayer, Jesus considers his contemplated path in the light of his people’s entire tradition.
Last week, we saw in the reading from Deuteronomy 26, that tradition centered on the Exodus. Fittingly then, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah “discuss” what is about to take place in Jerusalem. Or as Luke puts it, “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Jesus’ Exodus!
It is easy to imagine Moses’ part in the conversation. That would be to remind Jesus of the chances Moses took when he led the original Exodus from Egypt. That might have failed too. Elijah’s part was likely to recall for Jesus the “prophet script” that all prophets must follow. That script has God’s spokespersons speaking truth to power and suffering the inevitable consequences. Elijah reminds Jesus: So what if Barabbas and those following the path of violence are defeated again? So what if Jesus’ non-violent direct action in the temple fails to bring in the Kingdom? So what if Jesus is arrested and crucified? That’s just the cost of doing prophetic business. Despite appearances to the contrary, Abram’s faithful God will somehow triumph in the end.
Is there a message for us here as the pope and Donald Trump disagree over authentic Christian faith?
I think there is.
Today’s readings tell us that God’s People are not to be led by frightened little men who place security above compassion for the poor and oppressed. Faith is not primarily about words, thinking, written creeds, or feeling in one’s heart. Instead it’s about living God’s life – the One who before Abram was willing to self-immolate rather than “break faith.”
Being a follower of Jesus is not about “security above all.” Quite the opposite: it is about risk on behalf of God’s true people – the poor, immigrants, and victims of war, violence and scorched earth.
Yes, Mr. Trump, there are people who say they believe in God, but who cancel out that belief by their concern for self-preservation and fearful willingness to sacrifice others rather than themselves. Such people cannot claim to be followers of the prophetic Jesus of Nazareth.