Jesus Was a Radical Feminist

Bleeding Woman

Readings for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13-16; Mk. 5:21-43

My wife, Peggy, is a radical feminist. As emerita director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Berea College in Kentucky, she has always been so.

Whenever we discuss world issues, my tendency is to trace their roots to capitalism. Peggy’s is to find their origins in patriarchy. Capitalism itself, she says, is founded on patriarchy. Until we realize that and address the influence of patriarchy, nothing can really change.

She goes on. Ironically, patriarchy has men making decisions for women on issues that impact females much more directly than males – matters such as contraception, maternity leave, funding for childcare, abortion, wage disparity between men and women, the Equal Rights Amendment, and wages for housework. All of that, she adds, has to change.

I find Peggy’s logic and criticism compelling. This morning’s gospel reading indicates that Jesus would too.

In fact, the gospels in general show Jesus himself to be a radical feminist. In addressing specifically female issues, he favored women who spoke for themselves and courageously exercised their own initiative. Jesus even praised women who disobeyed laws aimed against them precisely as women. He ended up preferring the disobedient ones to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. To repeat: we find an example of such radical feminism on the part of Jesus in today’s reading from the Mark’s gospel.

First of all, consider Mark’s literary strategy. In today’s reading he creates a “literary sandwich” – a “story within a story.” The device focuses on two kinds of females within the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. In fact, Mark’s gospel is liberally sprinkled with doublets like the one just described. When they appear, both stories are meant to play off one another and illuminate each other.

In today’s doublet, we find two women. One is just entering puberty at the age of 12; the other has had a menstrual problem for the entire life span of the adolescent girl. (Today we’d call her condition a kind of menorrhagia.) So, to begin with the number 12 is centralized. It’s a literary “marker” suggesting that the narrative has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel – and in the early church, with the apostolic leadership of “the twelve.” The connection with Israel is confirmed by the fact that the 12-year old in the story is the daughter of a synagogue official. As a man in a patriarchal culture, he can approach Jesus directly and speak for his daughter.

The other woman in the doublet has no man to speak for her; she has to approach Jesus covertly and on her own. She comes from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the 12-year old daughter of the synagogue leader. The older woman is without honor. She is poor and penniless. Her menstrual problem has rendered her sterile, and so she’s considered technically dead by her faith community.

Her condition has also excluded her from the synagogue. In the eyes of community leaders like Jairus, the petitioning father in the story, she is “unclean.” (Remember that according to Jewish law, all women were considered unclean during their monthly period. So, the woman in today’s drama is exceedingly unclean. She and all menstruating women were not to be touched.)

All of that means that Jairus as a synagogue leader is in effect the patriarchal oppressor of the second woman. On top of that, the older woman in the story has been humiliated, exploited, and impoverished by the male medical profession which has been ineffective in addressing her condition.

In other words, the second woman is the victim of a misogynist religious system which, by the way, saw the blood of animals as valuable and pleasing in God’s eyes, but the blood of women as repulsively unclean.

Nonetheless, it is the bleeding woman who turns out to be the hero of the story. Her faith is so strong that she believes a mere touch of Jesus’ garment will suffice to restore her to life, and that her action won’t even be noticed. So, she reaches out and touches the Master. Doing so was extremely bold and highly disobedient to Jewish law, since her touch would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. She refuses to believe that.

Instead of being made unclean by the woman’s touch, Jesus’ being responds by exuding healing power, apparently without his even being aware. The woman is cured. Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples object, “What do you mean? Everybody’s touching you,” they say.

Finally, the unclean woman is identified. Jesus praises her faith and (significantly!) calls her “daughter.” (What we therefore end up finding in this literary doublet are two Jewish “daughters” – yet another point of comparison.)

While Jesus is attending to the bleeding woman, the first daughter in the story apparently dies. Jesus insists on seeing her anyhow. When he observes that she is merely asleep, the bystanders laugh him to scorn. But Jesus is right. When he speaks to her in Aramaic, the girl awakens and is hungry. Mark records Jesus’ actual words. The Master says, “Talitha Kumi,” i.e. “Wake up!” Everyone is astonished, and Jesus has to remind them to feed her.

What does all the comparison mean? The doublet represented in today’s Gospel addresses issues that couldn’t be more female – more feminist. The message here is that bold and active women unafraid of disobeying the religious patriarchy will save our world from death. It will awaken us from our death-like slumber.

“Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise our world will be for all practical purposes dead.”

Could this possibly mean that feminist faith like that of the hero in today’s Gospel will ultimately be our salvation from patriarchy? Is our reading calling us to a world led by women rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly hold elective office?

My Peggy would say yes.

Today’s Gospel, she would say, suggests that it’s time for men to stop telling women how to be women – to stop pronouncing on issues of female sexuality whether it be menstruation, abortion, contraception, same-sex attractions, or whether women are called by God to the priesthood.

Correspondingly, it’s time for women to disobey such male pronouncements, and to exercise leadership in accord with their common sense – in accord with women’s ways of knowing. Only that will save our world which is currently sick unto death.

Talitha Kumi! It’s time to wake up.

Jesus’ Angry Call to Fearlessly Protect the Waters of the Earth

Readings for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Job 38: 8-11; Psalm 107: 23-31; 2 Corinthians 5: 14-17; Mark 4: 35-41

This Sunday’s readings celebrate water as a fundamental gift from the universe. They remind us that without water life itself is impossible.

More specifically, the account of Jesus calming a storm at sea centralizes the Master’s impatience with our fearful paralysis in the face of nature’s brute force demonstrated today in the disaster of climate chaos.  

In the process, today’s selections also give insight into the way that modern scripture scholarship deals with the miraculous that post-moderns might reject out of hand as unacceptable or simply childish. Such knee-jerk reaction closes us off to the saving relevance of biblical narratives like those we encounter on this Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

To avoid such dismissal, contemporary scholarship applies what Jesuit theologian Roger Haight calls the principle of analogy. It says that we should not ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what is thought or proven to be impossible in the present.  In applying that rule, scholars’ purpose is to get to the historical facts and (more importantly) to the human meanings that may lie behind biblical stories most of us might otherwise reject.

Let’s apply that principle to the Gospel story just mentioned (Jesus’ calming of a threatening storm). Doing so will unexpectedly reveal the humanity of Jesus as it calls us to recognize the Great Parent’s gift of water and its human-induced crisis.

Our Water Crisis

To set all of that up, however, consider more generally our readings’ focus on water.

Today’s biblical excerpts tell us that the ocean represents the Goddess’ ultimate self-disclosure. It manifests her sacred order. When waters are in trouble, human life itself is endangered.

And the planet’s waters are certainly in danger as we speak.

Think for example about the importance of water. Evolutionarily speaking, we all came from the ocean. Up to 60% of the adult human body remains water. Seventy-three percent of brain and heart are composed of water; the lungs are about 83% H2O. In the absence of potable water, we inevitably perish.  

And yet, humans have come to treat this miraculous gift as simply another commodity. In my privileged position as a community elder, I still can’t believe that we bottle water in plastic, sell it at a price that far exceeds gasoline, and then throw its plastic container into the ocean, where it kills whales and other sea life.

In fact, the world’s oceans have become for us like huge commodes where we spew not only human but industrial waste including pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and nuclear detritus. With virtual impunity, cargo ships flush and spill oil into our seas along with untold chemicals. Islands of plastic the size of entire countries threaten to replace the earthen landmasses our post-industrial lifestyles surrender to surging sea levels caused by human-induced climate change. Wars waged primarily by the United States and its allies routinely bomb water purification plants serving civilian populations – as in Yemen and Gaza.

Then when those immediately affected by such disasters arise as anti-colonialists or “water protectors,” authorities employ police, dogs, tear gas, live ammunition and water cannons to make them cease and desist. Elected officials enlist reporters and media in general to discredit protestors, even branding protectors of water as terrorists.    

However, one Protestor whom industry-friendly authorities cannot silence is Mother Earth herself. Her responses to her children’s shameless elder abuse include tsunamis, hurricanes, massive flooding, and destruction of entire cities. The Earth’s response is to promise destruction of human life as we know it.

Today’s Readings

Despite all that, humans seem paralyzed by the multifaceted water crisis at hand. We end up arguing about the reality of the tragedy unfolding before our very eyes. We’re like Jesus and his disciples caught at sea in the eye of a terrible squall while they waste time and energy paralyzed by argument about who’s to blame.

At least, that’s the interpretation of today’s final reading as given by Cuban theologians Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother Jose Ignacio in Just Jesus. (The book is based on a radio program series they broadcast some years ago throughout Latin America. Scandalously to many and delightfully to even more, the airwave transmission attempted to put a human face on Jesus that accords with the interpretations of the modern scholarship mentioned above.)

Accordingly, the Lopez Vigils attempt to uncover the real-life basis of the story (assuming, of course, that some suggestive event may have actually occurred and that the account wasn’t a whole cloth invention of Mark’s community). In doing so, the Lopez Vigils implicitly take note of revealing phrases in today’s reading indicating that:

  • As a construction worker, not a seafarer, Jesus was out of his element in a boat. (He was truly “at sea.”)
  • It was he who suggested a late evening crossing of the sea.
  • In Mark’s mysterious words, his fisherman friends took him “just as he was.”
  • Jesus fell asleep and improbably remained unconscious even though the boat was tossed about and in danger of being swamped.
  • The disciples awaken the Master and blame him for not caring about their fate.
  • Jesus responds with a shout calling for “quiet” and “calm,” and with remonstrations about unwarranted fear and lack of faith.

With all of that in mind, the Lopez Vigils, elaborate Mark’s spare account. Their analysis involves an inexperienced landlubber Jesus persuading his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee despite indications of an approaching storm. Against their better judgment those veteran seamen obey.

Then Jesus gets seasick and passes out. In the middle of the trip, the storm hits, but the comatose Jesus remains dead to the world. The frantic disciples shake him awake. They blame not only him, but their terrified companions for not paying attention to what their experienced eyes told them would inevitably happen.

But instead of entering argument, Jesus shouts to everyone to shut up and start rowing. Miraculously, it seemed, the disciples’ resulting efforts save the day and bring them successfully to shore.

My Translations

Put all of that in the larger context that includes all of today’s liturgy of the word, and (for me) it comes out something like my following “translations.” Please check out the originals here to see if I got them right:

Job 38: 1, 8-11

Our Holy Mother Earth
Manifests herself
Through the ocean
To which her laws
Set firm boundaries
As if behind a mighty 
Firmly sealed door.
As if its waters burst 
From her very womb,
Attired at night
In shrouds of darkness
And by day in raiment
Of fluffy white clouds.

Psalm 107: 24-31

Thus, we know
Her love and power
As every astonished sailor
Can attest
As huge breakers
Toss about 
Their magnificent vessels
Raising them like toys 
To the heavens
Then thrusting them 
Towards a bottomless abyss.
Their desperate prayers
Seek answer in Goddess calm
Gentle breezes
And safe return home.
(For such answered invocations
We are grateful.)


2 Corinthians 5: 14-17

Our Master Jesus
Knew such fearful threat
But his sailor’s prayers 
For deliverance
Finally went unanswered.
Instead, he showed us
How to die
Under his saving conviction
That life can never end
And that apparent death
Leads inevitably to
New Creation.

Mark 4: 35-41

To illustrate his faith, 
His friends recalled
How one day
Amid a fearful squall
The landlubber Jesus 
Caught seasickness
And passed out.
They remembered 
How he came to
And shouted indignantly
At his paralyzed friends
To overcome their fears
And row mightily 
Against the mountain waves
Until as if by miracle
They reached calm haven.
Some however remembered
That like creation’s Goddess
He had quieted
The storm directly
With his angry remonstrations alone.
(Both versions may be true.)

Conclusion

So here we are, like Jesus, knowing full well our basic relationship to water, but nonetheless landlubbers with little understanding of the sea, oceans, and the laws governing such bodies.

And so, we blithely endanger our lives by adopting courses of action that fly in the face of Mother Nature’s warnings that are abundantly apparent not only to climate scientists, but to “water protectors,” fishermen, and others mystically in tune with nature’s cycles and rhythms.

Today’s readings make us aware that (again, like a sleeping Jesus) we can still be shaken awake by the more insightful among us.

Then once awakened, we need to listen to the courageous Master’s voice shouting at us to overcome our paralysis and fear. We cannot depend on divine intervention, the improbably miraculous, or on some scientific deus ex machina that will suddenly save us.

Instead, accepting the principle of analogy, we need ourselves to seize the oars of what’s become our Lifeboat Earth and row mightily against the mountainous waves that will otherwise engulf and swallow all of us including our children and grandchildren.

Anti-Semitism, Holocaust Denial, Hurt Feelings: The Bible’s Prophetic Tradition

Rob Kall, the editor in chief of OpEdNews (OEN) recently published a provocative edition of a weekly Zoom call among editors and contributors to his website. It was provocative because the remarks of one of the participants about fascism and the Jewish holocaust caused several other attendees to take offense and vehemently accuse him of holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. The discussion that ensued led Rob to wisely recommend caution in approaching such sensitive topics.

In my capacity as a theologian of the specifically Judeo-Christian Tradition, the conversation made me realize that the type of criticism that offended so many on the OEN call was entirely biblical. It was consonant with the tradition of Jewish prophets like Amos and Jesus of Nazareth who because they denounced the rich and powerful among their countrymen, were roundly accused of being self-hating Jews.

My hope is that summarizing the offending remarks on the one hand along with the outraged responses to them on the other, might highlight the value of the biblical tradition in helping us transcend national and institutional loyalties that prevent frank self-criticism and acceptance of historical fact.

Offending Remarks

Begin by considering the provocative remarks in question. In paraphrase, they ran as follows:

“I never use the word ‘fascist,’” the provocateur said. “I never use the word ‘holocaust’ either. That’s because the simple use of those words implies that one accepts the assumptions of Zionists and right-wing Jews. I refuse to do that, because the words suggest that in the 1930s, the German Jews were entirely innocent, when they weren’t – not by a long shot.

“I mean, no one hates any person or group without reason. For instance, the Shylock character in the “Merchant of Venice” wasn’t simply a product of Shakespeare’s imagination. Shylock had a foundation in reality – in people’s experience.  And like Shylock, elite Jews in Germany gave Germans plenty of reason for hating them. In turn, Hitler used that legitimate animosity towards the few to tar all Jews – even the poorest and most exploited – with the same well-justified brush.

“Let me explain.

“The fact is that the period from the end of the 19th century to WWI was a very prosperous time. Working class expectations for social mobility were on the rise. However, to move up the social ladder – to become an attorney, for instance — one had to belong to certain clubs (like guilds) in order to get clients. Wealthy Jews who were the bankers, attorneys and physicians, controlled the clubs in question; and they wouldn’t let working class people in. That created a lot of bitterness towards Jews in general.

“Before that, under feudalism and until the end of the First World War, the people who owned the land were the nobles, the clergy, the burghers and yes, the Jews. Wealthy Jews were not peasants. They had privileges. For instance, they could carry weapons. They also bought leases to the estates of the nobles (sometimes the size of entire counties). They managed those estates for a profit.

“In other words, wealthy Jews were the interface between the peasants and the nobles.

“At the same time, the nobles mistrusted the Jews I’m describing because (again) they were the bankers, attorneys, and physicians. The nobles resented having to trust the Jews for all those essential services. For their part, the peasants mistrusted the Jews just referenced because they were always in debt to them as their landlords.

“Then following the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles, Germany experienced tremendous inflation that drastically devalued the German mark. The Jews were blamed for that too because they controlled banking. The fact is that Jewish bankers engineered the inflation to bring down the actual costs of repaying the debts demanded by the Versailles treaty. That served the interests of the wealthiest Germans who, like the wealthy today, kept their money not in savings accounts but in stocks, bonds, and real estate. Unlike working class savings accounts, the value of stocks, bonds, and real estate float with inflation. So, inflation helped the rich Germans stay rich, but completely wiped out the country’s workers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. 

“Finally, there came the Great Crash of 1929 that impoverished everyone. So, by the time Hitler came to power in 1933, the Germans, the Poles, the Hungarians and the Austrians were all ready to explode. And, of course, Hitler lit the match with his identification of all Jews as the root of their problems.”

Defensive Responses

Responses mainly from Jewish participants in Rob’s Zoom call came thick and fast.

They included the following:

  • I disagree. People do in fact hate individuals and groups for no reason at all. And Jews in Hitler’s Germany represent a case in point. They were completely innocent. To hint otherwise is simply anti-Semitic and leads to holocaust denial.
  • I don’t think there were very many Jews who managed property for the feudal lords. Yes, there may have been a few Jews who had a lot of power, and there is something to the Rothschilds, and now we have the Zionists that I absolutely hate. However . . .
  • You’re talking about Jews as if they were somehow monolithic. Most Jews were poor.
  • Yes, my own ancestors were holocaust victims and I assure you that they had nothing to do with what you’ve just described.
  • My grandmother was dragged off to Auschwitz with her husband and three children. Their entire village was leveled.
  • I’ve heard these tired arguments before – you know: the Jews keep to themselves, they wear odd clothes, speak their own language, etc., etc. It’s all part of anti-Semitism. I don’t buy any of it.
  • You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re nothing but an anti-Semitic holocaust denier. You’re basically saying that “The Jews deserved what they got in the holocaust. That makes you uncivilized; you should get off this call.”
  • I hope you’re recording all of this, Rob, so we can go back and see who’s misrepresenting what.

Biblical Perspective

Of course, it’s probably futile for a member of the goyim like me to comment on the dialog just summarized. Frankly, I’m unqualified to do so. My relatives and loved ones weren’t the ones slaughtered in Hitler’s crematoria and gas chambers. They weren’t among the peasants, laborers, shopkeepers, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children whose lives were cruelly wasted and destroyed by the Third Reich.

Instead, as Elie Wiesel has pointed out again and again, my Christian religious cohorts were the very ones who incinerated Jews during the week, went to confession on Saturday, were given absolution, received Holy Communion on Sunday, and then returned to their gruesome work the following day.

Yet, it must be acknowledged that my religious tradition is also specifically Judeo-Christian. Its central figure is the Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, who was a reformer of Judaism and had no intention of founding the new religion that ended up defaming Jews as God killers – and who finished by supporting Hitler’s genocide. Jesus was not a Christian; from his birth to his death, he was a proud and faithful Jew.

In a sense, then, especially as a theologian in this tradition, I too am somehow a spiritual Semite. Whether they realize it or not, all Christians are. So, in that capacity, please indulge the attempt that follows to shed some biblical light on the dialog centralized here.

What really happened in the Zoom conversation just summarized mirrored exactly the traditional dynamic between on the one hand Jewish prophets like Amos and Jesus, and on the other, their contemporaries, especially among the elite in Amos’ 8th century BCE and in Jesus’ first century of our era. Both Amos and Jesus (as typical Jewish prophets):

  • Denounced their nation’s elite in no uncertain terms
  • Predicted that their crimes would lead to destruction of the entire nation
  • Were vilified as unpatriotic, self-hating Jews
  • Were threatened with ostracism, imprisonment and death
  • And were often (as in the case of Jesus) assassinated for their prophetic words      

Put otherwise, the Jewish prophets were social critics – the kind of clear-eyed seers who weren’t afraid to blame the powerful in their own nation for crimes that brought harm, ruin, death and destruction to the entire nation. The prophets did not blame the widows, orphans, foreigners, peasants, unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, or the hobbled and ill. Instead, they unstintingly impugned the equivalents of Germany’s Jewish one percent while recognizing that the crimes of those few inevitably brought ruin, pain, exile and death even to the innocent among their own people. It’s simply the way the world works.

For his part, Amos criticized the wealthy for breaking covenant with Yahweh, their God, the traditional protector of widows, orphans and resident non-Jews. Instead of caring for the poor, the one-percenters, he said, lay on beds of ivory, lounged idly on soft couches, drank the finest wines, anointed themselves with precious perfumes and oils, lived in their luxurious summer houses while underpaying and overcharging the peasant poor. They victimized everyone, even the most innocent. Such crimes brought harm, the prophet warned, to everyone, even the most innocent. Once again, that was simply the law of cause and effect.

Jesus did something similar under the Roman Empire. His prophetic criticism was directed not towards his people’s poor majority; he didn’t blame them. No, he unrelentingly criticized their Jewish exploiters. However, at the same time he knew that the crimes of those powerful would cause untold suffering for everyone. So, he predicted the absolute destruction of Jerusalem where forty years after his death more than one million innocent Jews were slaughtered and nearly 100,000 of his blameless compatriots were captured and enslaved.

To repeat, that’s the way the world works. The blameworthy crimes of the powerful cause suffering, death and massacre for the innocent majority.

Conclusion

Despite what I said about being unqualified to comment on words that seem cruel and insensitive to victimized Jews, I do know something about being tarred with a broad brush. As a Roman Catholic and former priest, I could easily be accused of being part of a worldwide pedophilic ring represented by the priesthood and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It would even be true to say that the ring has connections to an even wider movement of pedophiles among the world’s elite whose iceberg tip revealed (e.g. in the Epstein scandal) connections with the CIA, mi5, mi6, Mossad, and Mafias of various types throughout the world.

All of that would be true even though I never personally encountered any hint of pedophilia in all my more than 20 years preparing for and direct involvement in the Roman Catholic priesthood. It remains true despite the innumerable saints, martyrs, and holy men and women I’ve known personally and from the otherwise hallowed history of the Catholic Church.

The point here is that as an American, and much more as a former priest, I’ve been deeply associated with horrendous institutional delinquencies that I’d rather not discuss, because they hit too close to my spiritual and cultural identity. In other words, I find in my own community, uncomfortable truths that parallel the “accusations” against the Jewish 1% in Hitler’s Germany. I feel resentment at their very mention.

Nonetheless, and despite my hurt feelings, truth remains truth. And in the spirit of Amos and Jesus, I must face the facts and draw appropriate conclusions. Doing so draws me out of ghettoized consciousness and self-defensive denial. It creates room for self-criticism, dialog and recognitions that might head off further community disaster.

Faith Is Belief in What the World Cannot See – In What the Mainstream Denies

Readings for 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 18:6-9; PS 33 1,12, 18-19, 20-22; HEB 11: 1-2, 8-19; MT 24:42A, 44; LK 12: 32-48

Despite their apparent obscurity, this week’s readings should be powerful and encouraging for people of faith. They are about faith that enables followers of Jesus to see what remains opaque to a purblind world.

By definition faith cannot adjust to what the world takes for granted. It is commitment to what materialists cannot see – to what the mainstream denies. After all, the world’s normalcy exalts individualism, money-grubbing, meaningless entertainment, oppression of “the othered,” endless war, and the never-satisfied quest for pleasure, power, profit, and prestige.

Faith, on the other hand, believes in a world that remains unseen by the dominant culture. It’s the world as it comes from the hand of God: beautiful, simple, loving, forgiving, and belonging to everyone.

As a result, people of faith are called to stand with those our dominant culture rejects. In “America,” that means standing with the poor and homeless, with immigrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBTTQQIAAP humans, socialists, communists, environmentalists, and social justice warriors. . .  That’s the short list, today’s readings suggest, of those who are favored by God.

Put more simply, faith realizes that all of us are one. All are children of God. All creatures from smallest to greatest are loved by God. It’s that simple. It cannot be said too often. That’s why some of us formally celebrate creation’s oneness each week with others who share our simple outlook. That’s why the world’s spiritual teachers of all faiths insist that each day must begin with some spiritual discipline (such as meditation or centering prayer). Such quiet time reminds practitioners that we do not belong to this world. That’s why Jesus told us to “pray always.”

There is nothing more important than living from the truth that all creation is one. NOTHING! That faith alone can save our world from the impending disaster sadly looming on our near horizon in the form of nuclear war and climate disaster.

But it is so hard to swim against the stream, isn’t it? It’s exhausting. After all, we’re surrounded by daily events that contradict it at every turn. Everything in our world conspires to tell us that we’re atomized individuals hostile to everyone unlike us. Think of the daily mass shootings, endless sanctions of designated enemies, obvious public lies, redefinitions of truth, police brutality, worship of money, resources absolutely wasted on war, and the distortions of God and religion for selfish purposes. Think of our belief that our country, the principal cause of the world’s problems, is somehow special, exceptional, and favored by God. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Thank God for Sacred Scripture that calls us back to Center. (That’s the beautiful thing about the Bible – almost alone in ancient western tradition it represents the consciousness and voice of the poor, rather than those of kings, generals, and court prophets.)  

In any case, and for what they’re worth, here are my “translations” of this week’s readings as they’d be understood by their authors who were themselves marginalized people surrounded by Great Powers intent on exploiting and even obliterating them. Please read them for yourself here. At first, and in their original form, they might strike you as obscure. However, read thoughtfully, they are powerful. So, here’s what I take them to say in these dark times. See if you agree.

 WIS 18:6-9 (A reflection on Israel’s Exodus)
 
Our tradition is that of
An enslaved people
Exhibiting the meaning
Of faith
As courageous commitment
To an unseen glorious future
Where the mighty
Are dethroned
And brought to justice
While the exploited
Are exalted
As God’s own people.
 
PS 33: 1, 12, 18-19, 20-22 (Blessed are the people God has chosen to be his own)
 
Yes, God’s Chosen People
Are the famished
And those threated
By death.
They are driven by
A divine Life Force
Calling them
To struggle for justice.
The Force is kind
And protective
Of the oppressed.
 
HEB 11: 1-2, 8-19 (Follow the example of our forebears)
 
In fact,
Faith is a verb,
An active commitment
By the hopeless poor
To a just future
That the world
Cannot even see.
It’s what our ancient ancestors
Lived by
Giving them hope
Even when they were
Only a few immigrants
Among a hostile
Foreign people
Fearful that the poor
Unbelievably fertile “invaders”
Would eventually outnumber
And replace them.
 
MT 24: 42A, 44 (Don’t give up the fight)
 
So, wake up!
God’s future will dawn
Just when the World’s saying
“That can never happen.”
 
LK 12: 32-48 (These readings are meant for everyone)
 
Yes, we might be small in number
And it might take a long time,
But we are the agents
God has chosen
To bring about
Our Master’s future
Where money’s not important,
The rich serve the poor,
The thieves are thwarted,
And empires overthrown
By true humanists,
Yes, humanists
Like Jesus
And us!

Jesus again Makes Fun of The Silly Rich (Sunday Homily)

funny-rich-people

Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 8:4-7; PS 113: 1-2, 4-8; I TM 2:1-8; LK 16: 1-13

Jesus loved telling stories that made fun of rich people. He’s at it again in this morning’s gospel.

You can imagine the delight such parables brought Jesus’ audiences of poor peasants, fishermen, beggars, prostitutes, and unemployed day laborers. They surely chuckled as he spun tales about “stewards” who couldn’t dig a hole in the ground if their life depended on it or who were mortified at the very thought of begging. They’d laugh about rich landowners storing up grain and dying before they had a chance to enjoy their profits. They knew what Jesus meant when he mocked pathetically avaricious landlords getting angry when their money managers failed to increase their bank accounts while the boss was away attending parties. They’d shake their heads knowingly when Jesus mocked heartless employers who reaped where they didn’t sow.

Jesus’ listeners would have found today’s story especially entertaining. After all it featured an accountant who cheated his wealthy employer. And then the rich guy ends up appreciating the accountant’s dishonesty. Men and women in Jesus’ audience would have nudged each other and smiled knowingly at the tale.

“That’s the way those people are,” they’d laugh. “They’re so dishonest; they can’t help appreciating corruption in others, even when it means they’re getting screwed themselves!

“Yeah, the rich stick together,” the crowds would agree. “Their greed and dishonesty is the glue. They know: today it’s you getting caught with your hand in the till. Tomorrow it might be me. So let’s not be too hard on one another.

“Ha, ha, what a joke they are!”

In today’s first reading, the prophet Amos uses a different tactic to decry the rich. Instead of humor, Amos straight out lambasts them for “trampling on the needy,” and exploiting poor farmers. They’re so eager to make money, Amos charged; they can’t wait till the Sabbath ends so they can resume their dirty work. Then first chance they get, the crooks manipulate currencies and rig scales in their favor and short-change the buyer. They sell shoddy products and underpay workers. God will never forget such crimes, Amos angrily declares.

Our responsorial psalm agrees with the prophet. The psalmist reminds us that God is not on the side of the rich, but of the poor. In fact God so honors the lowly that (S)he considers them royalty. “He seats them with princes” the psalmist says. Yahweh rescues the lowly from their greedy exploiters.

So Jesus ridicules the rich with humor, while Amos wrings his hands over their crimes with righteous indignation. Both approaches highlight the basic truth put so memorably by Jesus when he says in today’s reading from Luke that we have to choose between money and the biblical God who champions the poor. It’s one or the other. We can’t serve two masters.

“So be like the rich guys in today’s story,” Jesus adds with a twinkle in his eye. He searches the crowd for the pickpockets, the “lame” and “blind” beggars. He looks for the hookers and tax collectors.

“Stick together,” he says. Then he winks. “And that dishonest money you depend on . . . Spread it around and help us all out.

“Better yet, give it to the Resistance Movement and you’ll get one of those rich guys’ houses when the Romans are gone and the Kingdom comes.”

Everyone laughs.

Colin Kaepernick as Heretical Prodigal Son (a Sunday Homily)

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, shocked us all recently by refusing to stand up for the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before football games. His bold action seems intimately connected with Andre Gide’s daring reinterpretation of Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son which is centralized in today’s liturgy of the word.

To begin with, think about the reasons for Kaepernick’s action and the response it has evoked. Explaining himself, the Pro Bowl quarterback said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

In effect Kaepernick was supporting the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). He was pointing out the fact that from the African-American point of view we don’t actually live in anything like “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Instead our homeland is a place where African-Americans are still not as free as white people, and where most of us are scared out of our wits. White people walk around frightened of terrorists, black men, immigrants, Muslims, and a whole host of ailments whose remedies Big Pharma hawks to us incessantly through our computers and flat screens. Free and Brave? Not so much.

By sitting down during the singing of the National Anthem Kaepernick was symbolically calling attention to that contradiction. He was separating himself from the comfort of his patriarchal home dominated by the false consciousness of American exceptionalism, machismo, militarism, and knee-jerk jingoism.

All of reminds me of the hero of The Prodigal Son story retold in today’s liturgy of the word. (We’ll return to Kaepernick in a moment.) No, I’m not talking about the father of the so-called prodigal. Instead, I’m referring to the central character in Andre Gide’s version of today’s over-familiar tale.

Here’ I’m taking my cue from John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about JesusThere Crossan suggests challenging Luke’s parable as excessively patriarchal. After all, the story is about a bad boy who realizes the error of his ways and returns home to daddy and daddy’s patriarchy with its familiar rules, prohibitions, and tried and true ways of doing things.

But what if the story were about escaping the confines of a falsely-secure patriarchal reality. What if prodigal left home and never looked back? Would he have been better off? Would we be better off by not following his example as described today by Luke – by instead separating from the patriarchy, its worship of power, violence, and patriotism and never looking back? Would we be freer and braver by following the example of Colin Kaepernick?

The French intellectual Andre Gide actually asked such questions back in 1907 when he wrote “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” In his version, Gide expands the cast of the parable’s characters to five, instead of the usual three. Gide adds the father’s wife and a younger son. The latter, bookish and introspective, becomes the story’s central figure who escapes his father’s walled estate never to return.

According to Crossan, Gide tells his version of Jesus’ parable through a series of dialogs between the returned prodigal and his father, his older brother, his mother, and lastly, his younger brother. In his dialog, the father reveals that the older brother is really in charge of the father’s household. According to daddy, the brother is extremely conservative. He’s convinced that there is no life outside the walls of the family compound. This is the way most people live.

Then the mother comes forward. She tells the prodigal about his younger brother. “He reads too much,” she says, and . . . often perches on the highest tree in the garden from which, you remember, the country can be seen above the walls.” One can’t help detect in the mother’s words a foreboding (or is it a suppressed hope) that her youngest son might go over the wall and never come back.

And that’s exactly what the younger son decides to do. In his own dialog with the returned prodigal, he shares his plan to leave home that very night. But he will do so, he says, penniless – without an inheritance like the one his now-returned brother so famously squandered.

“It’s better that way,” the prodigal tells his younger sibling. “Yes leave. Forget your family, and never come back.” He adds wistfully, “You are taking with you all my hopes.”

Gide’s version of Jesus’ parable returns us to Colin Kaepernick, and how in these pivotal times he has followed the youngest son in Gide’s parable as he goes over the wall into the unfamiliar realm of uncertainty, danger, and creative possibility.

Echoing the younger son’s lack of material concern, Kaepernick has said, “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”

In response to Kaepernick’s audacity, patriarchal authority figures came out of the woodwork not only to denounce his point about cops killing unarmed black people, but to connect his protest with patriotism and the military.

“Many have given their lives defending the freedom and justice the flag stands for,” they all repeated. “Kaepernick is slapping all those brave service men and women in the face. If he doesn’t like it here, let him move to Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea or Russia. Then he’ll come to his senses.”

The shrillness of such reaction, suggests that the powers that be might be deathly afraid themselves – afraid that the rest of us might see Kaepernick’s point and start following his example.

What if we all suddenly grasped the BLM message. What if we realized that our military isn’t really defending us from anything, but instead is at the service of international corporations intent on stealing the resources of poor countries especially these days in the Middle East?  What if we started reading and discussing General Smedley Butler’s War Is a Racket? What if we drew obvious conclusions from Fallujah, Haditha, Abu Ghraib, and the fact that the Pentagon can’t account for $6.5 trillion of our tax money?

Such realizations might force many of us to remain seated during the pre-game rituals that reek so much of patriarchal machismo and pure propaganda. And that might lead to political rebellion, refusal to pay taxes, and formation of parties representing alternatives to Democrats and Republicans.

In other words, Colin Kaepernick has taken a small step. But because of his courage we’re all better off, and our country’s false reality is correspondingly weakened.

Imagine football fans all over the country wearing their Kaepernick jerseys and refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That would be a start towards those other more radical measures I mentioned

Everyone Likes a Good Joke: Jesus Makes Fun of Pharisaical Hypocrites (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29; PS 68: 4-5, 6-7, 10-11; HEB 12: 18-19, 22-24A; LK 14: 1, 7-14.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus finds himself invited for dinner to the home of a Pharisee. All present, Luke tells us, are watching Jesus closely. No doubt, they’re keeping an eye on his disciples too. And they don’t approve.

After all, like Jesus, his disciples are mere riff-raff. But at least Jesus is the reputed peasant-rabbi. Everyone’s talking about him. And investigating Jesus is the whole reason for this dinner. So for the moment at least, the Pharisees are willing to cut him some slack.

His hangers-on however are a different story. They’re rough. They smell of fish and sweat, and have no manners. And yet, as Jesus’ friends, they’ve been placed towards the head of the table in places of honor. Granted, they feel out of place, but for that very reason they are enjoying themselves tremendously. You can imagine their rough jokes and loud laughter.

Yes, the Pharisees are watching Jesus and his friends. But obviously, Jesus has been watching them as well. He knows they are expecting some words of wisdom. So . . . he tells them a joke. And the joke’s on them. It contains a sharp barb.

“Thanks for inviting us to this banquet,” Jesus begins. “Unaccustomed as we are . . .” He pauses and smiles. “That’s quite generous of you. After all, none of us can repay your kindness. We are homeless people, as you know. We’re unemployed too, so we are in no position to return your kindness.

The best I can do is offer you some wisdom. So let me tell you what I’ve been observing here.

“Evidently,” Jesus goes on, “it’s your custom to adopt the humility recommended in the biblical Book of Sirach. I can’t tell you how impressed I am; I’m edified by your piety. I mean, you have clearly taken to heart the words of the sage, Jesus ben Sirach – what he said about being humble, especially if we are ‘great’ as all of you are here, I’m sure.”

Jesus eyes his listeners. He can tell that they are waiting for the penny to drop. So he drops it.

“I can see that when you come into a place like this, you take the lowest place available.” With this, Jesus stands up bows his head, stoops his shoulders and slumps towards the lowest place at table. He laughs.

“That way,” the Master continues, “our host, of course, is obliged to publically invite you to a more honored position at table. ‘Friend,’ he’ll say, ‘come up higher, and sit in the place you’ve merited not down there with the unwashed and poor.’”

Now Jesus is standing. He throws out his chest and strides towards the seat right next to his pharisaical host. He chuckles again. “That enables you,” Jesus continues,” with great protestations of unworthiness, to take your ‘rightful’ place at table. Your stock has risen in everyone’s eyes.

“So congratulations are in order,” Jesus says. “All of you have learned your lessons well. You’ve just created a show, and have actually exalted yourself by pretending to be humble. In a sense, you’ve received your reward.”

Jesus is seated now and looking intently at everyone. Their mouths are open with shock.

“So here’s my wisdom, friends. . . . Your ‘humility’ is not what Sirach was recommending. In fact, it’s a form of pride and self-promotion.

“Instead, real humility is this: when you throw a party like this one, invite the poor, the lame and the blind, and then serve them. Place them at the head of your table and treat them as honored guests. People like that can’t or won’t repay you. But in fact, YOU OWE THEM.” Jesus fairly shouts those last three words.

“I’m telling you the truth,” he says. And humility is nothing but the truth.”

Jesus pauses, but he hasn’t finished yet. “You see, those belonging to what you consider the Great Unwashed are actually God’s favorite people. Recall what the psalmist said about them in Psalm 68. He said God is the Father of orphans; he’s the defender of widows, of prisoners, of the homeless, and of farmers without land.”

Jesus is quiet now; his smile is broad and friendly. He searches the faces of his table companions one-by-one.

Then he turns to his host and adds.

“To be fair, my friend, you yourself are on the right track. By inviting us today, you’ve shown that you already understand what I’ve been saying. As I say, none of us can repay you, and yet you’ve invited us to this abundant table. We are sincerely grateful.

“But don’t think that you’ve somehow performed an act of charity by your invitation. No, it’s an act of justice – of compensation to make up for what you have stolen from the poor by underpaying them and taxing them heavily. In supporting the poor and even the “lazy,” you are simply imitating our generous God.

“I mean the earth and its produce are all gifts from God. No one has earned them. No one owns them but the creator. If you have food, then, you are obliged to share it with the hungry – even with those unwilling to work. As difficult as it might be to understand, that’s simply the divine dispensation.

“The earth and the life it supports have been freely given to everyone – even to people like me and my friends who refuse to work and live from the alms of friends like you. No one deserves life or food more than anyone else. So in effect, you are obliged to do what you’ve done.

(Homilist’s note) None of this needs commentary from me.

What’s your commentary?

(Sunday Homily) Is God Speaking to Us through Our Muslim Sisters and Brothers?

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Readings for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 18-21; PS. 117: 1-2; HEB. 12: 5-7, 11-13; LK. 13: 22-30.

Messages from God can come from the most unlikely places – even from our enemies and those our culture considers inferior and evil. That’s the teaching I find in today’s liturgy of the word. There God speaks to Babylonians through Jews, and to Romans through Christians. This suggests to me that God might be evangelizing Americans today through Muslims.
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Consider our first reading from Isaiah.

Imagine yourself a Babylonian in the 6th century BCE. You belong to an empire – one of the most powerful nations the world has ever seen.

In 586 your people conquered a small insignificant nation called “Israel.” Its leaders have been taken captive, and for more than three generations (586-516) have remained prisoners of your country. They are your enemies. You despise them as inferior, superstitious and violent.

Now towards the end of the 6th century, one of their “holy men,” someone called “Isaiah,” claims that those captives, those refugees, those “fugitives” as Isaiah calls them, are agents of the single God of the Universe. They have been sent specifically to call you away from your polytheistic worship of your Gods, Anshar, Ea and Enlil, and to recognize that there is only one God. They call him Yahweh. This God has special care specifically for refugees, slaves and outcasts in general.

For you, recognizing that entails releasing the prisoners your government has held captive for so long.

Even more, Isaiah says you and your proud people are being called to actually worship that God of refugees, political prisoners, and slaves! That means putting their needs first, while subordinating your own.

As Babylonian, you find all of this incredible and obviously insane.
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Now to grapple with today’s gospel selection from Luke, imagine that you are a Roman living towards the end of the 1st century CE.

You belong to an empire recognized to this day as the greatest the world has ever known. As with the Babylonians more than 500 years earlier, Palestine and its Jewish people are provincial possessions of the empire; they are your captives. Roman legions continue to occupy Palestine whose haughty people resist their occupiers at every turn.

“Jews are nothing but terrorists, every one of them,” you think.

Among the most infamous of those terrorists was a man called Jesus of Nazareth. You’ve learned that he was a Jewish peasant crucified by Rome about the year 30 CE. You’ve heard that a new kind of religion has formed around that so-called “martyr.” In fact, his followers acclaim him by a title belonging to the Roman emperor alone – Son of God. To you that sounds absolutely seditious.

In any case, this Jesus asserted that the God he called “father” was blind to people’s national origins. He told a parable (in today’s gospel) whose refrain from a thinly veiled God figure was, “I do not know where you are from.” Apparently Jesus meant that in God’s eyes no nation – not even Rome – is superior to any other.

You wonder, was Jesus blind? No nation superior to any other? Did Jesus not have eyes to see Rome’s power, its invincible army, and feats of engineering – the aqueducts, the roads, the splendid buildings and fountains?

According to Jesus, Israel itself is not above other nations in the eyes of God. Nor are his own followers better than anyone else. Even those who drank with him and shared meals with him could not on that account claim special status in God’s eyes.

In fact, the only “superiors” are what Jesus called “the least” – his kind of people: artisans, peasants, the unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, lepers, immigrants, women and children. As in today’s reading from Luke, Jesus calls these people “the last.” In God’s eyes, they are “the first,” he said. Meanwhile those who are first in the eyes of Rome, Israel, and even of his followers end up being outcasts.

Worse still, many Romans, especially slaves and criminals, are embracing this new religion. Some in the Empire’s capital city are already worrying that if not stopped, this worship of an executed criminal from a marginal imperial province might undermine the religion of the Roman Gods, Jupiter, Mithra and of the emperor himself.

How absurd, you think, that Romans could be schooled in matters theological by riff-raff, Jews, and terrorist sympathizers.
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Finally, imagine that you are an American today. Many think that your country is the proud successor of Babylon and Rome. In fact, the United States may have surpassed Rome’s greatness. Certainly, it has the most powerful military machine the world has ever known. It has the capacity to destroy the earth itself, should its leaders take that decision.

Some attribute America’s greatness to its embrace of the faith of Jesus of Nazareth and to its partnership with Israel, the biblical People of God. As a result the U.S. has become the light of the world, the “city on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5: 14-16). America can do no wrong.

This is not to say that its leaders aren’t fallible. They make their share of mistakes and even commit crimes. Yes, they torture, support dictators across the planet, imprison a higher percentage of their citizens than anyone else, drop atomic bombs, even threaten the extinction of human life as we know it, and have declared a state of permanent war against virtually the entire world.

But as a nation, the United States, you continue to believe, is idealistic; it stands for democracy, freedom and equality. As a result, America continues to enjoy God’s special protection.

Nevertheless, there are those in your midst who say that none of this is true. They are like the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob living in 6th century Babylon. They are like the first Christians who refused allegiance to Rome. They are the foreigners found in U.S. prisons all around the world – in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

By and large, those prisoners, those (in Isaiah’s terms) “fugitives” and exiles share a religious faith (Islam) that is as difficult for most Americans to understand as it was for Babylonians to understand Jews or for Romans to understand Christians. The faith of those held captive by America today is largely the faith of poor people called “terrorists” by your government – just as were the Jews and early followers of Jesus.

However, closer examination shows that Allah is the same as the Jewish God, Yahweh. Moreover Muslims recognize Jesus as the greatest of God’s biblical agents.

With that in mind, you realize that Muslims routinely invoke their faith to resist U.S. imperial rule. And they are critical of the use of Judaism and Christianity to justify oppression of their brothers and sisters in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia, throughout the rest of Africa and elsewhere.

Could it be that these exiles, captives, fugitives, “terrorists,” might be your empire’s equivalents of 6th century Jews in relation to Babylon and of 1st century Christians vis-a-vis Rome? Could they possibly be God’s agents calling us Americans away from heartless imperialism and to the worship of the true God (even if called “Allah”)?

Are our Muslim captives reiterating the words of Jesus in this morning’s gospel: God is oblivious to people’s national origins and to physical ties to Jesus? The Master “does not know where we are from” even if we’ve shared table with him. It makes no difference if we’re Jews or Christians, Babylonians, Romans, Americans, or Muslims.

Only the treatment of “the least” is important in God’s eyes. And for us Americans, those “least,” those “last” happen to be the poor of the Islamic world against whom our government has declared permanent war. And what is their God’s demand? It’s simple: Stop the war on us and our religion!

Is their God – our God – trying to save us – and the planet from the crimes of American Empire?

The fates of Babylon and Rome hang over us all like Damocles’ sword.

 

Did Jesus Justify Armed Resistance to Roman Imperialism? What about Insurgent Resistance to U.S. Imperialism? (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 38: 4-10; PS 40: 2-4, 18; HEB 12:1-4; L 12: 49-53

Today’s gospel excerpt presents problems for any serious homilist. That’s because it introduces us to an apparently violent Jesus. It makes one wonder; why does the Church select such problematic passages for Sunday reading? What’s a pastor to make of them?

On the other hand, perhaps it’s all providential. That is, today’s gospel might unwittingly help us understand that even the best of imperialism’s victims (perhaps even Jesus) are drawn towards reactive, revolutionary, or self-defensive violence. After all, Jesus and his audiences were impoverished victims of Roman plunder. By the standards most Christians today accept, they had the right to defend themselves “by any means necessary.”

Here’s what I mean. Without apology, today’s reading from Luke has the ‘Prince of Peace” saying, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

In a parallel passage, Matthew’s version is even more direct. He has Jesus saying, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Is that provocative enough for you?

What’s going on here? What happened to “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemy?”

There are two main answers to the question. One is offered by Muslim New Testament scholar, Resa Aslan, the other by Jesus researcher, John Dominic Crossan. Aslan associates the shocking words attributed to Jesus in this morning’s gospel directly with Jesus himself. Crossan connects them with the evangelists, Luke and Matthew who evidently found Jesus’ nonviolent resistance (loving enemies, turning the other cheek) too difficult to swallow for people living under the jackboot of Roman imperialism.

For his part, Aslan points out that the only God Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped was the God of Jewish scripture. That God was a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). He repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews. He’s the “blood-spattered God of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3). He is the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies” and who bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalms 68: 21-23). This is a God every bit as violent as any the Holy Koran has to offer.

For Aslan, Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and loving enemies pertained only to members of the Jewish community. They had nothing to do with the presence of hated foreigners occupying and laying claim to ownership of Israel, which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. Accordingly, Jesus words about his commitment to “the sword” expressed the hatred he shared with his compatriots for the Roman occupiers.

In other words, when it came to Roman imperialists, Jesus was not a pacifist. He issued no call for nonviolence or nonresistance. Quite the opposite.

John Dominic Crossan disagrees. For him the earliest layers of tradition (even the “Q” source in Matthew and Luke) reveal a champion of non-violent resistance. In fact, the Master’s earliest instructions to his disciples tell them to travel freely from town to town. But in doing so, they are to wear no sandals, carry no backpack, and no staff. He instructs: “Take nothing for the journey–no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt” (LK 9:3).

Crossan finds the prohibition against carrying a staff highly significant. The staff, of course, was a walking stick. However, it was also a defensive weapon against wild animals – and robbers.

So with this proscription Jesus seems to prohibit carrying any weapon – even a purely defensive one like the staff all travelers used.

Apparently, that was too much for the evangelist, Mark. Recall that he wrote the earliest of the canonical gospels we have – during or slightly before the Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome (66-70 CE). Matthew and Luke later copied and adapted his text for their own audiences – one Jewish (in the case of Matthew), the other gentile (in the case of Luke). Mark remembers Jesus’ directions like this: “He instructed them to take nothing but a staff for the journey–no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (MK 6:8).

Notice that Mark differs from what Crossan identifies as the earliest Jesus traditions upon which Matthew and Luke depended. Instead of prohibiting carrying a staff, Mark’s Jesus identifies the staff as the only thing Jesus’ disciples are allowed to carry. Evidently, that seemed more sensible to a pragmatic Mark than the words Jesus probably spoke. I mean, everyone needs to at least protect themselves from violent others.

Matthew and Luke prove even more pragmatic. By the time we get to them (almost two generations after Jesus’ death and fifteen or twenty years after Mark), we find their Jesus commanding that his disciples carry, not just a staff, but a sword – an offensive, lethal weapon. Matthew even portrays Jesus’ right-hand-man, Peter, actually armed with a sword the night Jesus was arrested. Jesus has to tell him: “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” (MT 26:52). (It makes one wonder if Peter was absent the day Jesus gave instruction about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies. Or is Aslan correct about Jesus’ militancy?)

In other words, on Crossan’s reading, it is the gospel authors, not Jesus himself, who subscribe to belief in the blood-spattered God of the Jewish Testament. Jesus’ God was the Forgiving One who recognized no one as enemy, and who (as his later actions showed) refused to defend himself. His dying words were about forgiving his executioners.

Crossan reasons that this more pacifist Jesus is probably the authentic one, precisely because his words (and actions) contradict so radically the Jewish tradition’s violent God.

So whose words do we encounter in today’s gospel? Can we attribute them to the historical Jesus or to his disciples who found themselves unable to accept the Master’s radical non-violence?

Whatever our answer, the shocking words we encounter today remind us that even people of great faith (Mark, Matthew, Luke – or perhaps even Jesus himself) despise imperial invaders. Their arming themselves and fighting revolutionary wars (like the 66-70 Uprising) are completely understandable.

In any case, by gospel (and Koranic?) standards such rebellion is more justified than the entirely unacceptable violence of imperial invasion.

Does any of this shed light on ISIS response to U.S. Middle Eastern invasions, bombings, torture centers and dronings? As a Christian, what would be your response if foreigners did in our country what U.S. soldiers and pilots are doing in Arabia? Would you be a non-violent resister as Crossan says Jesus was? Or would you take up arms – the way violent insurgents have done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia, and elsewhere?

Which Jesus do you follow? Can you understand religious people who in the face of United States imperialism say: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

Jesus Is Cutting Your Lawn! (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wis. 18: 6-9; Ps. 33: 1, 12, 18-20, 22; Heb. 11: 1-2, 8-19; Lk. 12: 32-48.

Today’s liturgy of the word invites us to consider the hot-button issue of immigration. The issue is contentious because conservatives in our country generally oppose immigration reform. More accurately, they tie changes in the legal status of immigrants to strengthening border security with Mexico and the building of walls along our southern border to keep undocumented immigrants out. Until such measures are foolproof, conservatives generally promise to oppose reform of immigration laws.

That’s ironic because Evangelical Christians make up the strongest component of the U.S. conservative party, the GOP. So the dominant attitude of that party on immigration ends up militating against American Christians’ brothers and sisters in faith. After all, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, an estimated 83 percent, or 9.2 million, of the 11.1 million people living in the United States illegally are Christians from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Our readings this morning call into question such exclusionary attitudes about immigration. They suggest that far from excluding immigrants, insisting on observance of law, and building walls to keep them out, Christian response to immigrants should take the form of welcoming, wealth-sharing and service.

Let me show you what I mean.

To begin with, today’s first passage from the Book of Wisdom underlines the point that the biblical People of God were all immigrants. They were unwanted strangers whose ancestors had come to Egypt to escape famine in Palestine. Remember those Bible stories of Joseph and his brothers? Read them again (Genesis 37-50). Those legends explain how the families of Jacob’s sons came to be enslaved in Egypt in the first place. As you no doubt recall, Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery.

However, in Egypt, Joseph landed on his feet and eventually became the Pharaoh’s Minister of Agriculture. That meant that when famine struck Joseph’s former homeland, his brothers were forced to come hats-in-hand to beg food from the very one they had betrayed. However, when they came into Joseph’s presence, his own brothers didn’t recognize him. In one of the most beautiful stories in all of world literature, the unrecognized Joseph finally discloses his true identity. Instead of punishing them for their betrayal, Joseph feeds his brothers and invites them to join him in Egypt.

In other words, Joseph’s response to immigrants and refugees was to recognize them as members of his own family and to welcome them “home.”

In today’s second reading, Paul digs further into Israel’s past only to find that Abraham himself (the original father of Israel) was himself an immigrant. He entered a land that God decided was to belong to Abraham and his descendants though the ones dwelling there didn’t share that secret understanding. (The Canaanites, of course, thought Canaan belonged to them.)

So Abraham and his sons were forced to live in poor housing – in tents, Paul recalls for us. All the while, however (like most immigrants) they dreamt of better lodging “with foundations.”

Meanwhile Yahweh saw to it that Abraham’s family grew prodigiously. They begat and begat until they seemed to everyone to be “as numerous as the stars of the sky;” they were as plentiful as grains of sand on the beach. Such legendary fertility eventually came to be seen as threatening and led one pharaoh to order the death of all of the Hebrew immigrant boys (Ex. 1:22). By Yahweh’s special intervention, Moses alone was saved from such genocidal population control.

Again, this was Israel’s God protecting immigrants as his chosen people. That’s the point today’s responsorial psalm underlines with its refrain, “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Ironically those people were persecuted immigrants.

Then in today’s Gospel, Jesus presents a riddle about the identity of his faithful servants. Jesus asks, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?” His answer has implications for immigration reform measures.

In any case, you can imagine a lengthy interchange between Jesus and his audience about his riddle. No doubt, some identified “faithful and prudent stewards” with those who kept the absolute letter of the law. Others probably cited the Jewish purity code and said fidelity meant keeping the bloodline pure; it meant keeping foreigners out of the Holy Land and preventing inter-marriage with gentiles. Still others may have responded in economic terms. For them the faithful and prudent steward was probably the one who defended Jewish livelihood by keeping foreigners from taking Jewish jobs.

Jesus’ own response is different. He replies in terms of generosity, as well as in terms of service with its “law of abundance.” Jesus also invokes the law of karma. God’s faithful servants are those who sell what they have and give it to the poor. They are not the ones who are served, but those who serve. Meanwhile those who mistreat God’s servants will reap what they sow.

Above all, notice that the emphasis in Jesus’ words today is on service. His riddle brings us entirely from the “upstairs” culture of dominance into the “downstairs” culture of servants. The steward is the head servant. He’s in charge of others, but his service consists in distributing food allowances to his fellow servants. Even the Master ends up serving. When he returns from the wedding, his servants don’t wait on him. Rather as an expression of gratitude, he brings them upstairs, sits them at table and waits on everyone! (How consoling is that?! The “law of abundance” says that what we receive in life is determined by our own generosity.)

Similarly, we can’t mistreat others without harming ourselves. The law of karma decrees that we reap what we sow. Jesus endorsed that law in today’s reading. More specifically Jesus says that those who mistreat God’s servants will find themselves similarly mistreated. Here Jesus gets quite graphic: to the degree that they beat others, they themselves will be beaten. Again, it’s the law of karma; and it’s inescapable.

What does Jesus’ riddle have to do with immigration? First of all, remember it’s told by a former immigrant. According to Matthew’s story, Jesus lived in Egypt when Mary and Joseph sought refuge from Herod’s infanticide. Yes, Matthew’s Jesus must have known first-hand the experience of being an unwanted immigrant. In Egypt he spoke with a Jewish accent. Or maybe his family didn’t even bother to learn Egyptian.

Remember too that the riddle about faithful servants is posed by the Jesus who identifies with “the least of the brethren.” He said that whatever we do to the least, he considers done to him. In terms of today’s considerations, does that mean that what we do to immigrants, we do to Jesus?

As for Jesus’ response to his own riddle, it reminds us to receive immigrants as we would our Master returning home – yes, as our Master, Jesus himself – the one who ends up serving us! Again, Jesus identifies with the least of our brothers and sisters.

Does that mean that Jesus appears to us today in our service industries and in the informal economy where immigrants work as our kids’ nannies, our house cleaners, as construction workers, hotel maids, and gardeners?

At this very moment might Jesus be out there cutting my lawn, roofing my house or cleaning my bathroom?

When our border guards beat “illegals” (and worse!) are they beating Jesus?

And what does that mean for their karma – and for ours?

Those are riddles worth discussing and solving!

The way we answer will determine the side we come down on in the immigration debate.
(Discussion follows)