Readings for Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: NEH 8; 2-6, 8-10; Ps. 19: 8-10, 15; I Cor. 12: 12-30; Lk. 1:1-4; 4: 14-21
In these days of rising right-wing fascism, a dangerous religious alliance has emerged. I’m talking about the supportive relationship between Christian Evangelicals and Israeli Zionists. For many, the basis of the support is the belief that Israel represents God’s Chosen People.
However, today’s liturgy of the word suggests something quite different for Christians honoring the Bible as God’s word. It underlines the point that the phrase “God’s Chosen People” does not primarily refer to a national entity, but to the poor and oppressed in general. It even implies that in our present historical context, the phrase “God’s Chosen” applies more aptly to the Palestinians than to the Zionists who kill Palestinians on a daily basis – without the least objection from our government or from most U.S. Christians. (In fact, since last March, Zionist soldiers have shot with impunity peaceful protestors in Gaza. They’ve killed more than 200 and wounded more than 18,000 — with many crippled for life — since the Palestinian rallies around the “Great March of Return” started on March 30th.)
Right now, this point about the identity of God’s People needs to be underlined because so many religiously-motivated people, and legislators in particular have taken such a strong stance against the Boycott Divest and Sanction Movement (BDS) that activists have directed against Israel to stop the slaughter in Gaza, which has been described as the world’s largest open-air prison camp. The conviction behind the divestment campaign is that a Zionist version of apartheid rivals South Africa’s hated system that economic boycotts, divestment and sanctions helped to bring down in 1994. (President Jimmy Carter’s book on the topic, Peace Not Apartheid, supports that conviction. So do the words I’ll soon quote of Dr. Martin Luther King.)
However, in response, anti-BDS legislators in Congress and in 26 of our states have proposed and/or passed legislation forbidding support of the movement. Anti-BDS legislation prohibits government investments, for example, in companies or in pension funds that support BDS. In some cases, anti-BDS laws even require employees (e.g. public-school teachers) to, in effect, pledge allegiance to Israel despite its genocidal policies.
Nonetheless, (as I said earlier) today’s liturgy of the word calls all of that into question.
Biblically speaking, it’s true that Israel did fit the “God’s Chosen” profile at the time of its origin – in Egyptian slavery (13th century B.C.E.) – and later during its captivity in Babylon (6th century B.C.E.). As poor and oppressed, they were “chosen” as well as when Israel was under the control of the Assyrians (8th century), Persians (6th century), Greeks (2nd century), and Romans (1st century). In all those instances, precisely as oppressed, Israel was the paradigmatic object of the biblical God’s special love and protection. In fact, at Mt. Zion, Moses enshrined in Israel’s law protection of people like them – slaves, widows, orphans, immigrants, the imprisoned, and the poor.
That’s the Law that the scribe, Ezra is remembered as reading to the people for hours in today’s first reading. They had just returned from exile in Babylon. For them “The Law” (the first five books of the Jewish Testament) was a source of joy and strength. After all, those books recounted what for Jews was the liberation of all liberations – from Egypt under the leadership of the great rebel hero, Moses. Now in the 6th century BCE, with Ezra in charge, they were celebrating the end of a long and painful Babylonian Captivity in the geographical area that is now “Iraq.” Ezra reminded the assembled people that in their return to the Promised Land, they were experiencing Exodus all over again. Indeed, he said, it was a time for celebration – for eating, as he put it, rich meats and drinking sweet drinks.
Today’s second and third readings pick up on Ezra’s theme – that God favors the poor and oppressed. However, both Jesus and Paul do so emphasizing the point that Yahweh’s favored ones are not always Jews.
When Jesus said that in his hometown synagogue (in the verses immediately following today’s excerpt), it enraged his former neighbors. “Who does this guy think he is?” the Nazarenes asked indignantly. “We know his family; he’s nothing special. Yet here he is speaking critically about his own people! He must be one of those ‘self-hating Jews’.” Luke says Jesus’ hometown citizens were so outraged that they tried to kill him.
Jesus’ words before the Nazarene’s attempted assassination do not merely underline the identity of God’s chosen as the poor and oppressed rather than exclusively the Jews. The words are also central in terms of Luke’s definition of Jesus’ entire project. In fact, they connect that project with God’s very identity as described throughout the Jewish Testament particularly by the prophet Isaiah whose words Jesus quotes: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.”
Did you notice the importance of the word “because?” It absolutely identifies the “Spirit of the Lord” with Ezra’s good news to the poor about release from captivity and recovery of sight. Jesus is saying we know that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon” him because he brings good news to the poor, those in captivity and the blind. Jesus goes on to say that his commitment to the poor is what will define his entire mission.
Today’s excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Greeks in Corinth continues that theme of Isaiah, Ezra, and Jesus. Only Paul does so in terms of a familiar yet powerful metaphor – what he calls the “Body of Christ” enlivened by the “One Spirit” of God. For Paul followers of Jesus constitute the way the Master is present today long after Jesus’ death. As that presence, we are Jesus’ hands, feet, eyes, ears, and tongue. And elsewhere Paul specifically says it makes no difference whether one is Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (GAL 3:28-29).
What does make a difference though is one’s social standing. Paul goes out of his way to say that the “less honorable” and the “less presentable” in Christ’s body are to be more honored and cared for than the more presentable and more honorable according to the standards of the world. The weaker parts, he says are somehow “more necessary” than the stronger parts. This could hardly be a clearer reference to the poor and those who are normally neglected and looked down upon. Here Paul is following the thrust of Jesus’ words and deeds by turning the social order upside-down. The poor and oppressed come first in God’s order.
Today, part of that revolutionary inversion is recognizing that Zionists have nothing positive to do with God’s preferences. Quite the contrary: as the Palestinians’ oppressors, they are the imperial analogues of the Egyptians, Babylonians – and yes, fascists – who persecute God’s Chosen.
Meanwhile, because they side with the poor to whom Jesus brought Good News, the BDS activists stand with Jesus – and Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
With last week’s MLK celebrations still fresh in our minds, and with today’s readings ringing in our ears, we do well to recall Dr. King’s words spoken on December 7th, 1964 – just days before he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. In a major address in London, he said,
“If the United Kingdom and the United States decided tomorrow morning not to buy South African goods, not to buy South African gold, to put an embargo on oil, if our investors and capitalists would withdraw their support for that racial tyranny that we find there, then apartheid would be brought to an end. Then the majority of South Africans of all races could at last build the shared society they desire.”
King’s words (and those of Jesus, Paul, and Ezra in today’s readings) are as true in relation to Zionist Israel as ever they were of South Africa. Today, the Palestinians not the Zionists are God’s chosen and should be treated as such.