From the Beatification of Pontius Pilate to the Sanctification of Donald Trump: Two Peas in a Pod

Readings for Palm Sunday: LK 19:28-40; IS 50: 4-7, PS 22: 8-9, 12-20, 23=24, PHIL 2:6-11, LK 22: 14-23:58.

It’s puzzling to see white Evangelicals rallying around Donald Trump. He’s the one who owns casinos and strip clubs, who has been married three times and brags about sexually assaulting women. 

How is it possible for white evangelicals to support such a person whose policies favor the rich and punish the poor, who despises immigrants, advocates torture, and whose appetite for profit seems insatiable.

After all, Jesus was a poor laborer who criticized the rich in the harshest of terms. He and his family knew what it was like to be unwelcome immigrants (in Egypt). He himself was a victim of torture, not its administrator. Far from a champion of empire, he was executed as a terrorist and enemy of Rome.  His followers were not about accumulating wealth but shared what they had according to ability and need.

When you think of it, all of this seems antithetical to not only to Trumpism, but to the declared positions of virtually the entire Republican Party. They’re all imperialists. All of them are friends of the one percent. They all want to increase military spending — apparently without question or limit.

How did all of that happen?

Today’s Palm Sunday readings provide some clues. Luke’s Passion Narratives reveal a first century Christian community already depoliticizing Jesus in order to please Roman imperialists. The stories turn Jesus against his own people as though they were foreign enemies of God.

Think about the context of today’s Palm Sunday readings.

Note that Jesus and his audiences were first and foremost anti-imperialist Jews whose lives were shaped more than anything else by the Roman occupation of their homeland. As such, they weren’t waiting for a Roman-Greco “messiah” who, like the Sun God Mithra, would die and lead them to heaven. They were awaiting a Davidic messiah who would liberate them from the Romans.

So, on this Palm Sunday, what do you think was on the minds of the crowds who Luke tells us lined the streets of Jerusalem to acclaim Jesus the Nazarene? Were they shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” (Save us! Save us!) because they thought Jesus was about to die and by his sacrificial death open the gates of heaven closed since Adam’s sin by a petulant God? Of course not. They were shouting for Jesus to save them from the Romans.

The palm branches in their hands were (since the time of the Maccabees) the symbols of resistance to empire. Those acclaiming Jesus looked to him to play a key role in the Great Rebellion everyone knew about to take place against the hated Roman occupiers.

And what do you suppose was on Jesus’ mind? He was probably intending to take part in the rebellion just mentioned. It had been plotted by the Jews’ Zealot insurgency. Jesus words at the “Last Supper” show his anticipation that the events planned for Jerusalem might cause God’s Kingdom to dawn that very weekend.

Clearly Jesus had his differences with the Zealots. They were nationalists; he was inter-nationalist who was open to gentiles. The Zealots were violent; Jesus was not.

And yet the Zealots and Jesus came together on their abhorrence of Roman presence in the Holy Land. They found common ground on the issues of debt forgiveness, non-payment of taxes to the occupiers, and of land reform. Within Jesus’ inner circle there was at least one Zealot (Simon). Indications might also implicate Peter, Judas, James, and John. And Jesus’ friends were armed when he was arrested. Whoever cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant was used to wielding a sword – perhaps as a “sicarius” (the violent wing of the Zealots who specialized in knifing Jews collaborating with the Romans).

But we’re getting ahead of our story. . . Following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus soon found himself and his disciples inside the temple participating in what we’d call a “direct action” protest. They were demonstrating against the collaborative role the temple and its priesthood were fulfilling on behalf of the Romans.

As collaborators, the temple priests were serving a foreign god (the Roman emperor) within the temple precincts. For Jesus that delegitimized the entire system. So, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, Jesus’ direct action was not so much a “cleansing” of the temple as the symbolic destruction of an institution that had completely lost its way. It was this demonstration that represented the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution described so poignantly in today’s long gospel reading.

Following the temple demonstration, Jesus and his disciples became “wanted” men (Lk. 19:47). At first Jesus’ popularity affords him protection from the authorities (19:47-48). The people constantly surround him eager to hear Jesus’ words denouncing their treasonous “leaders” (20:9-19), about the issue of Roman taxation (20:20-25), the destruction of the temple (21:1-6), the coming war (21:20-24) and the imminence of God’s Kingdom (21:29-33).

Eventually however, Jesus has to go underground. On Passover eve he sends out Peter and John to arrange for a safehouse to celebrate the feast I mentioned earlier. The two disciples are to locate the “upper room.” They do so by exchanging a set of secret signs and passwords with a local comrade.

Then comes Jesus’ arrest. Judas has betrayed Jesus to collect the reward on Jesus’ head – 30 pieces of silver. The arrest is followed by a series of “trials” before the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin), before Pilate and Herod. Eventually, Jesus is brought back to Pilate. There he’s tortured, condemned and executed between two other insurgents.

Note that Luke presents Pilate in way completely at odds with what we know of the procurator as described for example by the Jewish historian Josephus. After the presentation of clear-cut evidence that the Nazarene rabbi was “stirring up the people,” and despite Jesus’ own admission to crimes against the state (claiming to be a rival king), Pilate insists three times that the carpenter is innocent of capital crime.

Such tolerance of rebellion contradicts Crossan’s insistence that Pilate had standing orders to execute anyone associated with lower class rebellion during the extremely volatile Passover festivities. In other words, there would have been no drawn-out trial.

What’s going on here? Two things.

First of all, like everyone else, Luke knew that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans. That was an inconvenient truth for Luke’s audience which around the year 85 CE (when Luke wrote) was desperately trying to reconcile with the Roman Empire which lumped the emerging Christian community with the Jews whom the Romans despised.

Luke’s account represents an attempt to create distance between Christians and Jews. So, he makes up an account that exonerates Pilate (and the Romans) from guilt for Jesus’ execution. Simultaneously, he lays the burden of blame for Jesus’ execution at the doorstep of Jewish authorities.

In this way, Luke made overtures of friendship towards Rome. He wasn’t worried about the Jews, since by the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple along with more than a million of its inhabitants. After 70 Jewish Christians no longer represented the important factor they once were. Their leadership had been decapitated with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Relatedly, Jesus’ crucifixion would have meant that Rome perceived him as a rebel against the Empire. Luke is anxious to make the case that such perception was false. Rome had nothing to fear from Christians.

I’m suggesting that such assurance was unfaithful to the Jesus of history. It domesticated the rebel who shines through even in Luke’s account when it is viewed contextually.

And so, what?

Well, if you wonder why Christians can support Donald Trump . . . if you wonder why they so easily succumb to empires (Roman, Nazi, U.S.) you’ve got your answer. It all starts here – in the gospels themselves – with the great cover-up of the insurgent Jesus.

And if you wonder where the West’s and Hitler’s comfort with xenophobia in general and anti-Semitism in particular come from, you have that answer as well.

The point here is that only by recovering the obscured rebel Jesus can Christians avoid the mistake they made 87 years ago in Germany. Then instead of singing “Hosanna” to Jesus, they shouted “Heil Hitler!” to another imperialist torturer, xenophobe, and hypocrite.

The readings for Palm Sunday present us with a cautionary tale about these sad realities and the trend among white evangelicals that impossibly transforms Donald Trump into a Christian hero. The imperialists Pontius Pilate, Adolf Hitler, and Mr. Trump all belong in the same anti-Christ category.

Was Mary Magdalene the First Pope? (Sunday Homily)

hieros gamos

Readings for the eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2SM 12:7-10, 13; PS 32: 1-2, 5, 7, 11; GAL 2: 16, 19-21; LK 7: 36-8:3

As much as we love Pope Francis, many of us have been disappointed by his consistent refusal to consider ordaining women to the Catholic priesthood. In the light of such irritating consistency, the pope would do well to reconsider today’s Gospel reading.

I say that because it offers a compelling argument not merely admitting women to the priesthood, but to the highest office in the church – the papacy itself. It does so by presenting Mary Magdalene as performing an undeniably priestly function far beyond any recorded of Yeshua’s apostles. Doing so brings to mind the Master’s supreme elevation of Mary Magdalene found in patriarchally-suppressed sources outside the canonical Gospels. There Yeshua designates Mary as superior even to Peter.

Consider the episode Luke records.

Yeshua has been invited to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. For Jews Pharisees were defenders of the father-rule system the Church and Pope Francis have made their own. But in this case, the “host” proves to be inhospitable in terms of Jewish custom. He obviously sees the carpenter from Nazareth and his uncouth fisherman friends as riff-raff. He omits giving them the traditional greeting, and doesn’t even offer them water to wash their feet. Evidently he considers the band from Nazareth unclean – dirty people who won’t even know the difference.

Then the hero of the story appears to set things right. She’s a woman whose gender relegated her to unquestionably second class status. She is Mary of Bethany (whom scholars identify with Mary Magdalene). And she does something extraordinary. She does what Nathan the prophet recalled in today’s first reading that he did for David. She anoints Yeshua as the Christos – the Christ, designating (and making) him God’s chosen one. This is the priestly act I referred to earlier.

Mary’s act is absolutely extraordinary. Remember, the term “Christos” (or Christ) itself means “anointed.” And in the gospels there is only one anointing of Yeshua the Christ. And, as we see, it occurs at the hands of Mary Magdalene, not of some male priest. In other words, the Magdalene in today’s gospel acts as prophet and priestess on a level arguably above Nathan’s role recalled in today’s reading from 2nd Samuel.

And there’s more. The Magdalene appears in public with her head uncovered and hair flowing – a condition appropriate for a woman of Yeshua’s time only in the presence of her husband. And besides anointing Yeshua, she performs what can only be described as an extremely intimate act. She continually kisses his feet with her lips and washes them with tears of love.

But how could a woman perform such an act? Why would Yeshua allow it? After all, according to Jewish law, women were not even permitted to say ritual prayers at home, much less perform religious rites of such central import as identification and anointment of the Christ.

That is, not according to Jewish law. . . However, according to universally recognized pre-patriarchal traditions, such election by a priestess was not only permitted but essential for any sacred king. There according to the rite of hieros gamos or sacred marriage, the priestess would anoint the priest-king. By virtue of her act (often consummated by ritual sex), the anointed would be flooded with power of the god. Conversely, without the power conferred by the woman, the king would remain powerless and have no knowledge of himself or of the gods. These facts would have been evident to Yeshua’s contemporaries.

Why has this history and the prophetic role of Mary Magdalene in identifying (and consecrating) the Christ been hidden from us all these years? Feminist scholars tell us that patriarchal misogyny – anti-woman sentiment – is the answer.

And negativity towards women is written all over today’s excerpt from Luke’s Gospel. There the evangelist emphasizes the sinfulness of the Magdalene as that of the other women in Yeshua’s company.

Luke describes Mary as “a sinful woman in the city,” and “a sinner.” He has Yeshua tell those seated at table that “many sins have been forgiven her,” and say to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” So we won’t miss the point, Luke gratuitously describes Mary Magdalene as the one “from whom seven demons had been cast out.” And finally, women in Yeshua’s company are described as formerly sick and possessed.

Nevertheless, Luke feels compelled to note what everyone in his community would have known: women like the Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna and the “many others” who followed Yeshua were financial supporters of Yeshua and “The Twelve.”

But Luke reveals no corresponding negativity towards the male leaders of the early church. He doesn’t call the apostles “free-loaders.” Neither does he parallel his description of the women as sinners by recalling that one of the 12, Peter, was identified with Satan himself by Yeshua. Nor does he recall that a key apostle, Judas, actually betrayed Yeshua or that all of the twelve but one (unlike the Master’s women followers) abandoned him in his hour of greatest need. Instead, Luke simply mentions “the twelve,” who by the evangelist’s omissions are implicitly contrasted with the “sinful” women.

Above all, Luke omits the description of Mary Magdalene which we find in the church-suppressed Gospel of Thomas. There she is described as “the apostle of apostles” – no doubt because of her key role in identifying and anointing Yeshua as the “Christos,” and because she was the one to whom the resurrected Yeshua appeared before showing himself to any of “the twelve.”

In fact the Gospel of Thomas says explicitly:

“. . . the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved here more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended . . . They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?’”

Here the word for “companion” is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature. Moreover in other suppressed writings, Magdalene emerges as Yeshua’s star pupil and the center of his attention. He praises her as “one whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren.” He predicts that she “will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries.” Additionally, following Yeshua’s ascension, it is Magdalene who comes to the fore to encourage the disheartened apostles to man-up and get on with the business of understanding and living out the teachings of the Master.

These words and the Magdalene’s functioning as prophet and priest should be extremely meaningful for contemporary women – and patriarchs blind to women’s leadership in the early church. They highlight the way at least one female disciple of extraordinary talent and charisma was not only marginalized but denigrated in the patriarchal church right from the beginning. And that denigration has continued in church circles and beyond to our very day.

Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, today’s readings expose the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical “fathers” in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. They also uncover the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.

In short today’s liturgy of the word helps us see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It is the males – the ones we call “father” – who are the interlopers and charlatans.

Clearly, Pope Francis, should change his mind on women’s ordination.

A Pope and a Pimp Went into St. Peter’s to Pray (Sunday Homily)

Pharisee_and_the_Publican
Readings for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 35: 12-14, 11-18; PS 34: 2=3, 17=18, 19, 28; 2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18; LK 18: 9-14. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/102713.cfm

“A pope and a pimp went into St. Peter’s to Pray.” That’s the way scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan, conveys the shock that must have been felt by Jesus’ audience when he opened this morning’s gospel parable by even joining the words “Pharisee” and “tax collector” in the same sentence. It’s like putting “pope” and “pimp” together. It jars the ear. And why would a pimp be praying at all?

Nevertheless, Jesus begins: “A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the Temple to pray.” Customarily homilists use this parable to reinforce conventional wisdom about pride and humility. The Pharisee was proud, they say. The tax collector was humble. Be like the tax collector.

I however think there’s something much more challenging and fundamental going on in this parable. The focus of Jesus’ story is not pride vs. humility. It’s about rejecting the Pharisee’s conventional morality. The parable even calls us to scrap conventional wisdom about pride and humility.

More positively, the story is a summons to enter God’s Kingdom by identifying with the poor and despised. It also explains why the conventionally good simply cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

Let me explain.

Think in terms of popes and pimps. Popes are generally respected people. They’re religious leaders. Wherever they go, crowds flock around them just to get a glimpse, a blessing, or possibly even a smile or touch.

Pharisees in Jesus’s time enjoyed similar respect with the common people. Pharisees were religious teachers and textbook examples of conventional morality. They usually did what the one in today’s gospel said he did. They kept the law. The Pharisee in today’s reading was probably right; chances are he wasn’t like most people.

Generally Pharisees, were not greedy, dishonest, or adulterers. Or as their exemplar in Luke put it, he was not like the tax collector alongside him in the Temple. Pharisees gave tithes on all they possessed – to help with Temple upkeep.

On the other hand, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were notorious crooks. Like pimps, they were usually despised. Tax collectors were typically dishonest and greedy. They were adulterers too. They took advantage of their power by extorting widows unable to pay in money into paying in kind.

In other words, the Pharisee’s prayer was correct on all counts.

But, we might ask, what about the tax collector’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner?” A beautiful prayer, no?

Don’t be so quick to say “yes.”

Notice that this tax collector doesn’t repent. He doesn’t say, like the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke’s very next chapter, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much (LK 19:8). There is no sign of repentance or of willingness to change his profession on the part of this particular crook.

And yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying: ”I tell you, the latter (i.e. the tax collector) went home justified, not the former. . .” Why?

I think the rest of today’s liturgy of the word supplies an answer.

Look at those readings again. They’re all about God’s partiality towards the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly – those who need God’s special protection, because the culture at large tends to write them off or ignore them. Typically, they’re the ones conventionality classifies as deviant. The Jewish morality of Jesus time called them all “unclean.”

However all of them – even the worst – were especially dear to Jesus’ heart. And this not because they were “virtuous,” but simply because of their social location. Elsewhere, Jesus specifically includes tax collectors (and prostitutes) in that group. In MT 21: 38-42, he tells the Pharisees, “Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter God’s Kingdom before you religious professionals.”

More specifically, in this morning’s first reading, Sirach says that the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly are the ones Yahweh fittingly pays attention to. That same theme appears in the refrain we all sang together in today’s responsorial psalm, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”

As a result, those who simply belong to that category – the poor and oppressed – are “justified” in virtue of their social (non) status. The word “justified” means “made just” – or fit to enter God’s Kingdom where justice is the order of the day.

Similarly justified are the non-poor who imitate Sirach’s “God of Justice” by conscious identification with those considered “sinners” by the prevailing culture. Those who humble themselves in that way are like Sirach’s “God of justice” who hears the cry of the oppressed, the wail of the orphan, the prayer of the lowly. Or (again) as our responsorial psalm put it today: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”

But why would a good person like the Pharisee be excluded from God’s Kingdom? Does God somehow bar his entry? I don’t think so. God’s Kingdom is for everyone.

Rather it was because men like the Pharisee in the temple don’t really want to enter that place of GREAT REVERSAL, where the first are last, the rich are poor, the poor are rich, and where (as I said) prostitutes and tax collectors are rewarded.

The Pharisee excludes himself! In fact, the temple’s holy people wanted nothing to do with the people they considered “unclean.” In other words, it was impossible for Pharisees and the Temple Establishment to conceive of a Kingdom open to the unclean. And even if there was such a Kingdom, these purists didn’t want to be there.

Let’s put that in terms we can understand in our culture.

Usually rich white people don’t want to live next door to poor people or in the same neighborhood with black people – especially if those in question aren’t rich like them.

Imagine God’s Kingdom in terms of the ghetto. Rich white people don’t want to be there.

But ironically, according to this morning’s readings – according to Jesus – the “undesirables” who live there are the ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. They are the favorites of the God who Sirach says is “not unduly partial to the weak.” Rather God is fittingly partial to them as the Sirach reading itself and the rest of today’s liturgy of the word make perfectly clear!

This means that any separation from God’s chosen poor amounts to excluding oneself from the Kingdom white Christians spend so much time obsessing about.

So today’s readings are much more radical than usually understood. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector – of the pope and the pimp in St. Peter’s – is not an affirmation of conventional morality. It rejects such ethnocentric hypocrisy! Jesus’ parable is not even about approving conventional wisdom concerning pride and humility.

As always with Jesus’ teachings, it is about the Kingdom of God – about those who belong and those who exclude themselves.

In practice, this realization suggests for starters that:

• It’s no badge of honor to subscribe to conventional morality or conventional wisdom.
• Christians are called to be counter-cultural – more in solidarity with those we associate with pimps than with popes.
• For “Americans” this means discounting middle class morality and (white) “family values” as criteria of faith.
• According to Jesus, by itself such conformity actually excludes one from participation in God’s promised future.
• Instead authentic faith means living a life of solidarity with the poor – making their issues our own.
• Hence Christians should be in the forefront of movements on behalf of the poor.
• For example, rather than joining “devout Catholics” like Paul Ryan in leading crusades to cut back food stamp programs, we should be applying pressure to expand them.
• The same holds true for public housing, Medicaid, Social Security, and voting rights.

Combat Greed (and illness): Boycott McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Subway . . . (Sunday Homily)

McDonalds

Readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ecc. 1:2, 2: 21-23; Ps. 90; 3-6, 12-14, 17; Col. 3: 1-5, 9-11; Lk. 12: 13-21. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/080413.cfm

This week’s liturgy of the word focuses on greed, its idolatrous nature, and how death (the Great Leveler) puts greed in stark perspective.

According to the prophet, Qoheleth, the shortness of life renders “empty” (vain) any life devoted to amassing wealth. Life is not about money, Paul agrees in this morning passage from Colossians. It’s about following Jesus by bringing forth our true Self which is identical with the God who dwells within each of us. But our time for doing so is short. As the Psalmist puts it in today’s responsorial, our days are numbered; that realization alone, he says, should give us wisdom. Then in today’s gospel selection, Jesus contrasts such wisdom with the foolishness of human surrender to the economics of growth. Paul even terms such greed “idolatry,” the ultimate biblical sin.

Those readings have driven me to think about greed in my own life. It makes me think about my own approaching death and what I do each day to hasten its arrival. At the public level, I’m driven to consider today’s headlines about fast-food workers and the difference in pay between them and their ultimate bosses. It makes me think about resisting greed at both levels (personal and corporate) in very practical, effective ways. Let me explain.

Last week I traveled from our summer home in Michigan back to our permanent residence in Berea, Kentucky. When I arrived home, the cupboard was bare – no food. So I set out to get something to eat for supper. Problem was, our local health food store, “Happy Meadows,” was closed.

Fast food options like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Subway called to me. Despite nearly forty years of sharing board with a dedicated vegetarian, the urge to eat meat is still strong. However, I was too haunted by what I’ve learned from “Food Inc.” and similar films, books and articles. Their images of factory farms and the cruel mistreatment of cattle, pigs, and chickens can never be erased from my consciousness. In their light, eating dead animals raised on feed lots and super-cramped pens, and then killed for my platter almost turned my stomach. I just couldn’t bring myself to eat meat.

I remembered that Walgreens and Rite Aid sold packaged fast food. So I went to the drugstore to look around. As I probably should have foreseen, the food offerings there were . . . well, highly drugged. I mean I easily found non-meat offerings on the Walgreens shelves – items like Kraft Mac & Cheese; I found vegetarian frozen pizza, and other similar items. But they were mostly full of fats. And as I looked at some lists of ingredients, I found many I couldn’t even pronounce. Chemicals were often high up on the lists, meaning their presence was rather intense. “Why would I put that stuff in my body?” I thought. “Do I want to get fat and sick?” So I walked out still hungry, still searching for something to eat.

I drove to Subway remembering their veggie sub. The young man behind the counter asked, “May I help you?”

“Just looking,” I said.

I scanned the brightly lit menu over his head. There it was, the Veggie Sub. Should I get the six-inch or the twelve-inch? I looked at the young man again. There he was with his plastic gloves in place smiling and eager to serve me.

Then I remembered. This kid is making $7.35 an hour. Whether he’s aware of it or not, his comrades all across the country are striking to double that wage to $15.00 an hour. They’re walking off the job in places like New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Michigan. They’re demanding not just a living wage but the right to unionize. Unionization would mean the end of the Fast Food Industry’s routine practice of “short-working” employees, i.e. preventing them from putting in enough weekly hours to qualify for the benefits that come with full-time employment.

Those striking workers don’t want me here, I thought. So I turned on my heel and left.

Soon I found myself cruising the aisles of Save a Lot. I bought some pasta, and some sauce. I picked up a head of broccoli (Dole! Ugh!). I returned home to throw my supper together.

The little episode helped me come face-to-face with greed – again the topic of today’s liturgy of the word. I had to confront my own greed and that of the corporations that dominate our culture.
My particular greed manifests itself at least three times a day at the table. There my actions say a whole lot: I want meat. I want its flavored grease. I want salt. I want sugar. I want convenience. I want instant gratification.

My spiritual teacher, Eknath Easwaran, would say all of that means, “I want a heart attack. I want diabetes. I want cancer. I want to die as soon as I can.”

My well-ingrained tendencies also imply that “I don’t care about justice or workers who put in forty hours or more (often on two or more jobs) and who still cannot put together a dignified life without Food Stamps. I don’t care that they want to unionize and they’re asking me to boycott McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and other corporate giants who underpay their workers while amassing obscene fortunes for themselves.

To those workers (and their bosses), the words of Qoheleth apply:

“Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and yet to another who has not labored over it,
he must leave property.”

Usually, these words are taken to apply to the rich who are thought to labor long hours without really enjoying life. In the end, they leave their property to their heirs who benefit from their now-deceased relative’s work.

However, with the Bible’s overwhelming “preferential option for the poor,” I think the words apply even more fittingly to workers like the one in Subway and those in McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Wendy’s, etc. Those “associates” labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill and then get underpaid. The wealth they produce (their property) goes to their fat-cat bosses. Meanwhile the rest of us are forced to subsidize those fat-cats by making up the difference (in food stamps, Medicaid, WIC Programs, etc.) between the wages the bosses pay their workers and the true living wage those workers deserve.

Yes, so-called “welfare programs” are more directed towards the rich than the poor. For working people such “welfare” should be replaced by a living wage.

Qoheleth says such selfishness and greed creates empty lives, anxiety, sorrow, grief and sleepless nights for all concerned both rich and poor.

A friend of mine constantly reminds me that little can be done to change the world. We just have to go along with the way things are, he often says. Sometimes I think he’s right.

However, today’s liturgy of the word reminds us that he might not be completely correct. At least we can do something about underpaid fast food and big box workers. That’s not trivial. We can relieve the “vanity,” the emptiness of their lives by joining them in their efforts to unionize and achieve a living wage.

We can abstain from the products of McDonald’s, Subway, Wal-Mart and similar corporations – and perhaps even become more healthy in the process.

Our presence here at the Lord’s Supper says we’re willing to do that, so that all may share in the gift of God’s bread with dignity and joy.

Am I right in saying that? What do you think?
(Discussion follows.)

Forget Martha; Be Like Lazy Mary and Jester Jesus (Sunday Homily)

Moreno

Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gn. 18: 1-10A; Ps. 15: 2-5; Col. 1: 24-28; Lk. 10: 38-42. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/072113.cfm

What do you think you’ll regret most as you lay dying? If you’re like most, it will be that you spent too much time at your day job – too much time working and not enough time socializing and enjoying life. Study after study affirms that.

Commenting on this regret, one Hospice nurse said:

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

I’ll bet almost everyone reading this can relate to those words and would like to avoid final regrets about overwork.

Problem is: our culture sets overwork as an ideal. In fact, we’re taught to prize overwork. This is especially true of “American” culture where unlike our European counterparts, we spend an average of three hours per week more on the job. That adds up to something like a month more of work each year than our Europeans sisters and brothers. Most important, Americans take fewer (and shorter) vacations. The average American takes off less than six weeks a year; the average Frenchman almost 12. Swedes take the longest vacations – 16 ½ weeks per year.

Today’s gospel reading from Luke urges us to correct our tendency to overwork before it’s too late. In doing so, it directs our attention to the counter-cultural nature of Jesus’ teachings.

Yes, Jesus was extremely counter-cultural. We shouldn’t forget that. As Deepak Chopra points out (in his The Third Jesus), the Sermon on the Mount, which captures the essence of Jesus’ wisdom, has him explicitly telling his disciples not to earn a living, save money, plan ahead or worry about the future. Of course, most of us don’t listen to Jesus when he says things like that.

And did you notice the description of the “Just Person” in today’s responsorial psalm? Man or woman, they harm no one, do not slander, speak ill of no one, and refuse to accept bribes. All of that raises no eyebrow. We yawn: none of that seems particularly counter-cultural.

But how about, “They lend not money at usury?” What about that? Yes, lending at interest is considered robbery and is forbidden in the Bible. (What if all Christians (and Jews) kept that commandment? Our world with its economy based on credit and interest, would be entirely different.)
The world would also be different – our lives would not be the same – if we acted like Mary instead of Martha.

The misdirection of traditional sermons obscures that possibility. Customarily homilists understand the story of Martha and Mary in a strictly spiritual sense. Their commentaries use the two sisters to compare the active and the contemplative lives – as though poor Martha stood for lay people having to wait on others with no time for prayer like the more otherworldly Mary. Martha’s sister “choses the better part” like a contemplative “religious” eschewing “the world of work” and spending their time pondering the spiritual teachings of Jesus and living a life rapt in prayer and contemplation.

I used to think that too – until I read Un Tal Jesus (“A Certain Jesus”) written by Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother, Jose Ignacio. (The book has been translated into English under the title Just Jesus.) The authors are Cuban and now live in Nicaragua. Maria is a former nun; Jose Ignacio, a former priest.

Together the Lopez-Vigils created a series of radio programs broadcast all over Latin America. The shows dramatized the four gospels and presented a very human Jesus – the one who emerges from recent scholarship on the historical Jesus.

In Un Tal Jesus, Jesus is black, has a winning smile, and a very down-to-earth sense of humor. (The photo at the top of this blog entry shows Jesus as depicted in the Lopez-Vigil’s book.) The human Jesus portrayed in that radio series scandalized many and inspired even more throughout the Latin world and beyond.

As the Lopez-Vigils envision it, today’s episode takes place in a Bethany tavern owned by Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. It’s a place of eating, drinking and lodging for travelers. It’s a place of laughter, joking, over-eating and drunkenness. And Jesus is right there in the middle of it all.

Passover is approaching, and the inn is full of pilgrims. It’s steamy, noisy, and loud. Martha is on the job, waiting on tables and controlling the rest of the staff. Meanwhile Mary (whom scholars increasingly identify with Mary Magdalene, Jesus closest female companion) is distracted by conversation with Jesus, who is bantering with his friends.

And what are they talking about? Religion? God? Spirituality? No, they’re joking. Jesus is posing riddle after riddle. And Mary finds it completely entertaining. In part, their dialog goes like this:

Jesus: What’s as small as a mouse but it guards the house like a lion. One, two, three: Guess what it is!
Mary: Small as a rat…and…it’s a key! I guessed it, I guessed it!
Jesus: Listen to this one: It’s as small as a nut, has no feet but can climb a mountain.
Mary: Wait… a nut going up the mountain…a snail!…Ha, ha, ha, tell me another one!
Jesus: You won’t guess this one right. Listen well: It has no bones, it is never quiet, with edges sharper than scissors.
Mary: It has no bones… I don’t know…
Jesus: It’s your tongue, Mary, which never rests!

Well, Mary and Jesus might have found that sort of patter entertaining, but Martha did not. She’s in charge of the inn and is worried about her guests waiting impatiently for their food while bread is burning in the oven. So she makes her complaint to Jesus: “Stop your chatter and let my sister do her job!” It’s then that Jesus makes that remark about Mary’s choosing the better part. She’s chosen socializing and play over work.

Does that scandalize you – Jesus distancing himself from work? Well, it seems completely consistent with what I said about Jesus earlier. It coincides with his general approach to work, money, profit, saving, and anxiety about the future.

What difference would it make in our own lives if we accepted that message: socializing, community, and fun are more important than work? What difference would it make in our culture if, in a context of widespread unemployment we elected candidates advocating “spreading the work around,” spreading the money around, shortening the work week, and affording us more time with friends and family, eating, drinking, joking, and playing?

What difference would it make to us on our death beds?

What do you think?

(Discussion follows)

“Thank You, Lord, for Not Making Me a Woman” (Sunday Homily)

Adultery

Readings for 5th Sunday of Lent: Is. 43:16-21; Ps. 126:1-6; Phil. 3: 8-14; Jn. 8: 1-11. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/031713-fifth-sunday-lent.cfm

Ten days ago, President Obama reauthorized the Violence against Women Act of 1994. This time the bill was expanded to cover lesbian, transgender and bisexual women. It also recognized the special circumstances of Native American women and of immigrants who according to government statistics are more likely to be raped and/or beaten than other women.

Some of our Catholic bishops disagreed with the legislation. In part, they said recognizing the rights of LGBT women undermined the “meaning and importance of sexual difference.” The changes, they said, might be “. . . exploited for purposes of marriage redefinition.” After all, they reasoned, “. . . marriage is the only institution that unites a man and a woman with each other and with any children born from their union.”

All of that is important because in today’s gospel, Jesus quietly decrees his own Violence against Women legislation. Better put, he literally performs (acts out) his own Violence against Women anti-legislation. His defiance of biblical law marks out a position quite different from the one taken by the bishops just mentioned.

Here’s what I mean: Jewish law punished adultery with death by stoning. That was a biblical requirement – one that many Muslims today still honor in their fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. However the Jewish patriarchy applied that law differently to men and women. A man, they said, committed adultery only when he slept with another married woman. But if he slept with a single woman, a widow, a divorced woman, a prostitute or a slave, he remained innocent. A woman, on the other hand committed adultery if she slept with anyone other than her husband.

Of course, great injustices were committed in the name of this law. Often rumors and outright lies led to the death of innocent women. In many cases, the ones throwing the stones of execution were men who had spent their whole lives deceiving their wives.

Jesus calls attention to such hypocrisy and double standards in today’s gospel episode. All the elements of last week’s very long parable of the Prodigal Son are here. Jesus is teaching in the temple surrounded by “the people” – the same outcasts, we presume, that habitually hung on his every word.

Meanwhile, the Scribes and Pharisees are standing on the crowd’s edge wondering how to incriminate such a man? As if ordained by heaven, an answer comes to them out of the blue. A woman is hustled into the temple. She’s just been caught in flagrante – in the very act of adultery. What luck for Jesus’ opponents!

“Master,” they say, “This woman has just been caught in the act of adultery. As you know, the Bible says we should stone her. But what do you say?” Here Jesus’ enemies suspect he will incriminate himself by recommending disobedience of the Bible’s clear injunction. After all, he is the compassionate one. He is especially known for his kindness towards women – and others among his culture’s most vulnerable.

But instead of falling into their trap, Jesus simply preaches a silent parable. He first scribbles on the ground. Only subsequently does he s speak — but only 18 words, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

A wordless parable . . . . What do you suppose Jesus was scribbling on the ground? Was he writing the names of the guilty hypocrites who had cheated on their wives? Was he writing the laws the Scribes and Pharisees were violating? Some say he was simply drawing figures in the dust while considering how to reply to his opponents?

The first two possibilities seem unlikely. How would this poor country peasant from Galilee know the names of the learned and citified Scribes and Pharisees? It is even unlikely that Jesus knew how to write at all. That too was the province of the Scribes. The third possibility – that Jesus was absent-mindedly drawing figures in the dust – is probably closer to the mark.

However, it seems likely that there was more to it than that. It seems Jesus was performing some kind of symbolic action – that mimed parable I mentioned. By scribbling in the dust, he was wordlessly bringing his questioners down to earth. He was reminding them of the common origin of men and women?

Both came from the dust, Jesus seems to say without words. The creation stories in Genesis say both men and women were created from dust and in God’s image – equal in the eyes of God. “In God’s image God created them. Man and woman created he them,” says the first creation account (Genesis 1:27). By scribbling in the dust, Jesus was symbolically moving the earth under the feet of the Scribes and Pharisees. He was gently but strongly asserting that they had no ground to stand on. They were hypocrites.

Then his 18 word pronouncement offers Jesus’ own standard for judging the guilt of others. According to that standard, one may judge and execute only if he himself is without sin. This, of course, means that no one may judge and execute another. All of us are sinful.

What genius in this silent parable! As usual, Jesus outsmarts his interlocutors. They ask him an incriminating question. He refuses to answer, but instead turns their own question against them. They want to know about guilty women and the patriarchal law governing their sexuality. Instead, Jesus’ scribbling redirects the question to something more basic – the very ground his opponents are standing upon and to God’s first law regarding human beings, both men and women. Equality precedes patriarchy and its law, Jesus says without even uttering a word.

And that brings us back to our Catholic bishops and their reasons for opposing the Violence against Women Act. As you recall, they were concerned about the “meaning and importance of sexual difference.” Jesus own Violence against Women Act points in the opposite direction – towards sexual similarity and the original unity of men and women that transcends biology.

Later on St. Paul will give clearer expression to Jesus’ basic insight. In today’s epistle, he claims that his understanding of everything has changed since he began living “in Christ.” In Galatians 3: 26-28, he’ll get even more specific. He’ll say “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28).

Have the bishops thought about the implications of these biblical words in terms of same-sex marriage? If in Christ there are no males or females, but only persons, does that not mean that any human beings who love one another (regardless of their merely biological differences) may marry?

And finally, Jesus’ silent rearranging of “ground” along with his 18 words seem to call into question the very foundation of the bishops’ right to authoritatively pronounce on sexual matters. They, after all, are the ones who denied, covered-up, and excused sexual deviance on the part of the clergy they were responsible for overseeing – and whose overriding (public) concern has centered on sexual purity. Does that not dictate that the bishops and their priests have no ground to stand upon in the field of sexual morality? Isn’t it time for them to silently slink away along with their Scribe and Pharisee counterparts, and to replace judgmentalism with Jesus’ forgiveness and compassion?

Jesus’ silent assertion of gender equality along with the words Paul adds to Jesus’ mime direct all of us to reconsider our double standards and preconceptions about men and women. Paul’s words in Galatians are especially important. They reverse a prayer first century Jewish men would recite each morning. The prayer went, Blessed are you, Lord, for making me a Jew and not a Gentile, for making me free and not a slave, and for making me a man and not a woman.”

Certainly, Jesus was taught that prayer by his pious father, Joseph. Perhaps for most of his life, Jesus recited that prayer on a daily basis. But something must have happened to him to change his faith. We’ll never know what that “something” or someone was.

We do know however what happened to Paul; as he says this morning he entered “into Christ.” And that turned all his previous perceptions “to rubbish” – including evidently his fundamentalist understandings of biblical law like the one commanding the stoning of adulterous women or alleging the superiority of men.

After all, if Jesus thought like the Catholic bishops I mentioned, he would have thrown the first stone. He alone in that group was without sin. He would have thought, “Forgiving this woman will seem like condoning adultery. And condoning adultery might lead to abortions of the pregnancies that result. Not throwing the first stone will also lessen the authority of the Bible which clearly justifies punishing women for adultery. I’ve got to do it.”

Luckily for the woman taken in adultery (and for the rest of us), Jesus wasn’t a fundamentalist – or a Roman Catholic bishop. He was an opponent of Violence against Women.