Readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Exodus 17:22-24; Psalm 92: 2-3, 13-16; 2nd Corinthians 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34.
Today’s readings put me in mind of two superb films I’ve recently watched, “Joker” and “In the Heights,” both available on HBO.
Each film described a world inhabited by people our culture tends to despise and that empires like ours devalue and vilify. In that sense, both “Joker” and “In the Heights” focus on individuals very like the Hebrews liberated from Egyptian slavery and like Jesus himself and his friends who lived under impoverishing Roman occupation.
“Joker” showed the dark threatening side of life under an order structured to favor the rich. “In the Heights” was infinitely more positive. However, taken together, they illustrate a theme suggested in today’s liturgical readings. It’s that positively or negatively, the poor represent our future. They are the key factor that will either destroy or save us.
Begin with “Joker.” It points up the need for a new (divine) order in our collapsing world whose worship of the rich is leading to disaster.
“Joker” is the story of Arthur Fleck, a sign-spinning clown and aspiring comedian who, he admits, has never had a positive thought in his life.
And there’s good reason for Arthur’s depression (ironically underlined by uncontrollable laughing fits). As a child, he was abused by his adoptive mother’s boyfriend. He’s down and out and spends much of his life watching television with his now sick mother. Crucially, he has no other community.
The world in Arthur’s Gotham City is also disintegrating. Garbage litters its streets. Rats are running wild. And rampant crime plagues city streets.
Meanwhile the rich hide behind their gated estates, all the time blaming the poor characterizing them as lazy clowns who need sermonizing from above rather than the dignity of employment at a living wage. Tellingly, at one point the headline of the city’s main paper reads “Kill the Rich!”
Little wonder then that after Arthur murders three Wall Streeters on the subway following their unprovoked attack on him, alienated poor people throughout the city adopt his clown mask as a sign of rebellion reminiscent of the Guy Fawkes mask in “V for Vendetta.”
Arthur had unwittingly started a class war of poor against rich. He has his community at last, but it is completely hopeless, nihilist and destructive.
In the Heights
Compare that with Latinix life portrayed in Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.” It too unfolds in New York City’s real-life version of comic book Gotham.
True, Washington Heights has problems like Arthur’s context – poverty, prejudice against immigrants and the poor. Nonetheless, “In the Heights” underlines the unmistakable gift-to-America brought by its Latinix citizens with their sense of community and solidarity – not to mention patience and faith. It’s all so hopeful and joyous.
That’s because those living in Miranda’s idealized Washington Heights have community. As individuals, they are hard workers with lofty aspirations. But in community they share rich cultures with enviable familial unselfishness, joy, music, dance, colorful language, and resourcefulness. They all love their children and grandparents; they care for one another. They scrimp and scrape and give their neighbors hope by sharing their meager resources.
All of that enables them to endure blackouts (recalling months without power in post-Maria Puerto Rico) that render them powerless in more ways than one, but without diminishing their indomitable carnival spirits.
In the perspective of today’s liturgy of the word, Miranda’s romanticized barrio contrasts sharply with “Joker’s” more realistic dark and dirty city streets. However, both put faces on abstractions like Jesus’ description of the “Kingdom of God.”
I mean, today’s readings present Jesus in his familiar role as the Great Reverser of values and cultural expectations. He agrees with Miranda in celebrating the poor and insignificant as the very embodiment of the joy and happiness that give life meaning. However, Jesus does so in a way that might confuse those unfamiliar with his peasant context.
Conventional thought in Jesus’ day is reflected in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus. It estimates that bigger is better. A Cedar of Lebanon celebrated at the beginning of Hebrew history is an obvious image of the kind of national power to which Israel (and all other nations) aspired. To speak of Israel as a huge and powerful cedar — as a kind of Gotham — made common sense.
But more than 1000 years later, Jesus reverses all of that. In a world that (like ours) seems to be falling apart, his “ridiculous” metaphor for national prosperity is a mustard plant – a kind of weed which farmers in his day thought of as a curse.
In the spirit of Small is Beautiful, Jesus nonetheless ascribes to a weed the very same qualities that the author of Exodus accords a giant old-growth tree. He sees it as imposing, fruitful, and providing shelter for birds of all kinds. In short, the pesky and irrepressible shares the same characteristics that the world evaluates as formidable and powerful. Washington Heights is worthier than the rest of NYC.
Moreover, one could argue that the Divine Parent has chosen the poor (not Gotham’s rich Wall Streeters) as the locale of divine revelation, because the poor reveal what’s wrong with our lives and the directions for righting the wrong.
To suggest what I mean, here are my “translations” of today’s readings. Please note their upbeat tone.
Exodus 17:22-24 After their liberation from Egypt Runaway slaves Understood the Great Parent Promising That they would flourish Like a giant old-growth cedar A fruitful and mighty home For escaped jailbirds like them According to the wise plan Inherent in Life’s Great Force. Psalm 92: 2-3, 13-16 We thank you, Almighty Parent, For your kind and faithful care Showered upon us From bright dawns Through fearful nights. Your will is that We all flourish like palm trees And Cedars of Lebanon In a just New World Order Where all enjoy vigorous health And long productive lives. Thank you indeed. 2nd Corinthians 5: 6-10 Knowing all of that Is a source of our great courage Admittedly based upon Unprovable convictions That we will one day Live in the just world Called “God’s Kingdom.” Yes, we trust in Christ’s judgment That in following him, We are advancing towards that end. Mark 4: 26-34 Trailing the Master At a confusing distance We are like farmers Who sow seeds Knowing they will grow But without understanding Why or how. It’s that way too With God’s Kingdom Which, it turns out, Is more like a pesky weed Than Moses’ mighty cedar. Yet even Jesus’ poor mustard plant Draws the same odd birds To flourish in its shade. (How’s that For a head-scratching simile?)
So, the choice is up to us. Do we want a powerful world with room for a few to flourish obscenely behind locked gates while the many are forced to exist with rats, garbage, envy, and hatred? That world can pretend to be as mighty as an ancient cedar tree. But too often its apparent might conceals desperate inner rot, nihilism and misery.
Or do we want a simpler powerless world with room for everyone, where people prioritize not money and might, but family, each other, joy, spicy food, party, carnival, and love?
Again, it’s up to us — to follow the example (or not) of those our culture despises and rejects.
We all know how wise spiritual masters from Moses to Jesus and his rebellious Mother Mary have answered our question. It’s what’s suggested in today’s readings.
Whether we live in a culture that seems like a mighty cedar or one that resembles the weedy mustard bush, all of us know the direction we’re called to take.
If we don’t choose it, Arthur Fleck’s gun points towards the destiny that will inevitably be ours.