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)

Gil Rosenberg’s Anniversary, Jesus’ Pentecost (Sunday Homily)

Gil

Readings for Pentecost Sunday:Acts 2: 1-11; Ps. 104: 1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34; I Cor. 12: 3B-7, 12-13; Jn. 20: 19-23. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/051913-pentecost-mass-during-day.cfm

A couple of weeks ago Peggy and I were blessed to attend an extraordinarily powerful spiritual gathering. It was at the home of June Widman, a friend of ours in Berea, Kentucky who lost her husband, Gil Rosenberg, in a tragic car accident one year earlier (See my “In Memoriam” blog entry for Gil under the “Personal” button just below this blog site’s masthead). Our friend’s daughter and son (Jessie and Greg), some co-workers and friends like us were all present at this commemoration potluck. There were about 20 of us in all.

Before eating we gathered in a circle. The “priest” among us – a former Mercy Sister who has a real gift for this sort of thing – started us off reminding us of why we were there and of how quickly (and painfully) the intervening year had passed. There were some readings – most moving for me “Death” by Pablo Neruda, read in both English and Spanish. A recorded musical selection followed.

And then people began sharing memories of Gil – an extraordinarily beloved member of our church community in Berea. (His funeral had been attended by an overflow crowd rarely seen in our Catholic church – and this for a man who was himself Jewish, though a faithful attendee at weekly Mass along with June and their children.) Gil was smart, quick-witted, and very funny. A teacher at a local community college, he was also a soccer and basketball coach for many of our children. Everyone loved him.

And that’s what we talked about. But more than that, Gil’s friends told stories of how they continued to experience his presence during the past year. People told of actual “conversations” they had with him (mostly humorous) as they faced problems or were taking themselves too seriously. They told how memories of Gil’s quirky wisdom helped them muddle through otherwise overwhelming circumstances. It was entirely inspiring.

The whole experience made me think of that first Pentecost experienced by Jesus’ followers after his resurrection. What happened then stemmed from an attempt on their part to keep Jesus’ memory alive. That’s what June and the rest of us were going for in relation to Gil as well. And like June’s gathering (and like Gil himself), Pentecost blended Jewish and Christian elements. “Pentecost,” of course, was originally a Jewish feast. It was celebrated fifty days after Passover.

Whereas Passover celebrated the Exodus from Egypt, Pentecost (seven weeks later) commemorated the giving of God’s Law at Mt. Sinai. Also called “the Feast of Weeks,” Pentecost was a harvest festival like our Thanksgiving. And like the Passover, the feast drew Jews from all over the world to Jerusalem and its Temple. The evangelist, Luke, takes time to make this point. He lists Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene. He refers to travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs.

Because of the events recorded in today’s readings, Christians have come to consider Pentecost the “birthday of the Church.”

I used to think of Pentecost as taking place among Jesus’ disciples (the 11 apostles and about 110 others, they say, including many women) who had stayed in Jerusalem following Jesus’ death and resurrection simply awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. However, now that seems unlikely.

Jesus’ followers and inner circle were poor working people. They needed to earn their daily bread. Even John 21:3ff indicates that following the tragic (and later hopeful) events in Jerusalem, several of them returned to Galilee to resume their labor as fishermen.

Then as the feast of Pentecost approached, they must have decided to return to Jerusalem along with all those other pilgrims I mentioned. No doubt they wanted to re-experience “on location” their final hours with Jesus, even returning to the “Upper Room” to do what June and the rest of us did a couple of weeks ago in commemorating Gil on the anniversary of his death. Surely they wanted to break bread together as Jesus had told them to do – but there in the Upper Room. That would make it truly special.

So they returned to Jerusalem at some risk to their own safety. Luke tells us that they kept the doors locked because they were afraid of the same powers that had arrested, tortured and executed Jesus. After all, Jesus’ disciples had been responsible for circulating the rumor that their Teacher was not really dead. They told their friends that he somehow survived the Roman’s attempts to eliminate him. He was alive.

Evidently, word of that “resurrection” had gotten back to officials of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish court whose members were collaborators with the Romans, working with them hand in glove. The Jewish sell-outs well remembered how the carpenter from Nazareth had “stirred up the people” (Lk. 23:5) with his message about God’s revolutionary “Kingdom.” They especially recalled how just before his execution, he had entered Jerusalem to popular acclaim and led that notorious demonstration in the Temple.

As a result of all that, the people took Jesus for their messiah, which meant he was the enemy of Rome and collaborators like the Sanhedrin members. If word got out that “He lives!” the trouble could well start all over again during the Pentecost feast. So the Sanhedrin mobilized its brutal police to hunt down the members of Jesus’ Galilean terrorist gang and solve the Jesus problem once and for all.

Despite such threat, Jesus’ followers gathered in the Upper Room (or perhaps, some scholars say, it was even in the Temple). There in that place so full of memories, they must have recalled the Master’s words and deeds, and how he continued to influence them even in his apparent absence. I’ll bet their stories were just as dear and humorous as June’s friends’ recollections of Gil.

Then suddenly (in John’s version of the Pentecost event) Jesus is standing there in their midst. He tells them not to worry about the police. “Peace be with you,” he says twice. Jesus shows his friends his pierced hands and wounded rib cage. Don’t be worried, he implies, they can kill you and torture you, but like me, you will not really die.

Then Jesus breathes on them all, and they receive his own Spirit – of forgiveness and discrimination in the sense of discernment. His spirit, Jesus promises, will instruct them about forgiveness — and about what they should never overlook. He tells them to continue his work despite any threats from Rome and its collaborators.

Luke’s version of the same event is recorded in the familiar story from Acts which we heard in today’s first reading. Luke calls on imagery from Exodus – wind and fire – to describe the transforming event of Pentecost. Instead of Jesus appearing personally to bestow his Spirit, Luke says the Spirit came in the form of a mighty wind. It was like the wind that dried up the Sea of Reeds in the Exodus. The Spirit came in the form of “tongues of fire” like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites during the dark nights that followed the initial euphoria of liberation from Egypt.

In both cases (John and Luke), the result of receiving Jesus’ Spirit is the same. The disciples are literally encouraged. Their fear entirely disappears. Doors are unlocked. Jesus’ friends are suddenly are out in the street. And everyone can understand the import of their words: Jesus lives! Everyone can understand because Jesus’ message (as always) is about the Kingdom of God. No matter where people come from, famished stomachs speak the same language of hunger. Calloused hands speak the same eloquent “sign language.” Mothers weep the same tears for their sons tortured and victimized by empire.

According to Jesus’ Spirit, it’s the Romans and their collaborators, not Jesus’ followers, who have reason to fear. Their days are numbered. God’s kingdom is at hand. Once again, Jesus lives! The old order is about to be overturned. The first will be last; the last, first. The rich will be poor; the poor, rich. Those laughing now will find themselves in tears; those in mourning will at last find joy.

In their sheer numbers of converts (3000 says Luke that very first day) the crowds from all over the Jewish world protect Jesus’ friends from the Sanhedrin police. We can picture the lawmen on the edges of the crowd rendered powerless by the crowd’s solidarity.

And what’s to be learned from that first Pentecost experience? Could it be that we must keep Jesus’ memory alive – as the prophetic preacher of God’s Kingdom in the here and now, not in the sky somewhere after death? (Shouldn’t that be the purpose of our weekly gatherings for worship and the Lord’s Supper?) Is the lesson of today’s feast that believers must insist on speaking in language that anyone can understand – the language of the working classes, the hungry, and of mothers in mourning? Is it that a measure of the truth of our beliefs is the degree of threat we feel from empire and its collaborators as a result of the beliefs we fearlessly profess? Is it that followers of Jesus should refuse to accept division but unite instead with a solidarity that protects us from the same forces of empire and its collaborators that threatened Jesus’ first followers?

The truth is that there’s much to learn from Pentecost. June’s and her children’s devotion to Gil Rosenberg along with his friends’ recollections and experiences of Gil’s “real presence” remind us of the nature and purpose of that first Pentecost gathering. It was not only to recall what Jesus said and did in terms of resistance to Rome and its oppression on a macro-level. For us it can also be about creating Kingdom in our personal lives and with our families as Gil himself did. Besides bringing gifts of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit was the basis of Gil’s humor, non-conformity, attention to the needs of the exploited, and refusal to take himself (or others) too seriously.

If we open ourselves wide, we too can receive all of those gifts. The Spirit can make us fierce advocates of God’s Kingdom. It can help us overcome our very selves, along with our fears of the Empire, its police and religious collaborators.

Pope Francis, Summon a Council: It’s Our Tradition!

Francis I

Readings for 6th Sunday after Easter: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Ps. 57: 2-3, 5, 6, 8; Rev. 21: 10-14; 22-23; Jn. 14: 23-29. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/050513.cfm

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council. The Catholic Church is still reeling from that earth-shaking event. Conservatives often consider it a huge mistake. They want to return to the Latin Mass, to women’s head-coverings in church, to weekly confessions and communion placed by the priest on the communicant’s outstretched tongue.

Liberals too are disappointed by Vatican II. It didn’t nearly go far enough, they say. It should have eliminated priestly celibacy and the all-male clergy. The church should have divested itself of the Vatican Bank, sold its art treasures and given the proceeds to the poor. The Council’s teaching on collegiality should have decentralized church bureaucracy and made lay-leadership more prominent. The prohibition of contraception should have been changed.

Into which of those camps do you fall? As a church member, do you consider yourself conservative or liberal? Today’s liturgy of the word provokes the question. It reveals a church which at its very beginning surrendered itself to extreme liberalism – or should I say to the “radicalism” of Jesus’ Spirit?

Think about those terms for a minute in the light of today’s readings. Think about what “conservative” and “liberal” mean for us as individuals and community members in our faith tradition. Think of the Holy Spirit as “radical” – something believers are rooted in.

According to every great tradition (Christian or otherwise), the spiritual life – human life itself – is about change, about transformation. Change is the point. We are called to grow. Growth involves transformation. At the biological level, we’re told that all of our cells change every seven years. That means that at my stage in life, I’ve already gone through more than ten bodies! If I tried to keep my body from changing, I would die.

At the personal, psychic and intellectual levels we’re called to change as well. As St. Paul puts it, when we were children, it was appropriate to think, speak and act as children (I Cor. 13:11). But as adults, we’re called to something more. If we don’t change, we can never become who we’re meant to be.

Even institutions must change to survive. That’s true in the realm of politics, economics, and religion. Jesus’ followers found no exemption from this rule of life – of evolution; as community members they had to change or die. In other words, at the end of the day, strategies of conservatism are doomed for Christians as well as for everyone else.

It’s easy to sympathize with conservatives however. I spent much of my life in that category. As such, my concern was simply to preserve what is essential. I saw liberals as being too free with the unchangeable. Like other conservatives I accused them of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Nonetheless, in today’s liturgy of the word, we get an idea of how difficult it is to determine which is which –baby or bath water. That is, in our readings, we are faced an example of a key conflict between religious conservatives and liberals within the first century infant church. Paul, Barnabas, Silas and Barsabas lead the liberal wing. Peter and Jesus’ brother, James are the leaders of the conservatives.

Paul and his friends come from the gentile world. Their concern is to make Jesus both understandable and acceptable to non-Jews. For their audience, circumcision and dietary restrictions (like not eating pork) represent great obstacles to accepting Jesus’ “Way.”

On the other hand, Peter and Jesus’ brother, James, are Jews through and through. They remember the importance of full observance of the law within the Jewish tradition. They recalled for instance that during the second century Seleucid persecution of the Jews under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, many Jews gave their lives rather than eat forbidden foods. Faced with Paul and his colleagues, the conservative faction wondered: were those lives sacrificed in vain? And besides, circumcision was the identifying mark of Jewish manhood. What good follower of the biblical God set that all-important commandment aside?

The issue is so serious that it provoked a meeting of church leaders – what scholars call the “Council of Jerusalem.” Like Vatican II (1962-’65) it called together church leadership to discuss burning issues of the day and to make changes that responded effectively to what Gaudium et Spes called the “signs of the times.”

Today’s gospel reading implies that leaders could come together with confidence because of Jesus’ promise that his Holy Spirit would continue teaching the church even after he is gone. The Spirit would remind the church of what Jesus himself taught – and more besides.

According to today’s readings, it was the “more besides” that the Jerusalem conservatives were resisting. They didn’t deny, of course, that Jesus himself was a religious liberal. (It was Jesus’ liberalism that angered the Scribes and high priests.) Jesus frequently placed love and compassion above God’s most important commandment, the Sabbath law; he associated with the “unclean;” he even befriended and worked miracles for gentiles. Jesus was never bound by the letter of the law as were his conservative opponents.

At the same time however, Jesus was Jewish to the end. He had no intention of founding a new religion. He was a Jewish reformer. No one could deny that. Jesus didn’t revoke the Law. He simply gave it an enlightened, more humane, more liberal interpretation. He himself had been circumcised!

It was with these understandings that the Council of Jerusalem convened. And according to Luke, the author of Acts, it was a battle royal. Luke says the meeting (like Vatican II) was filled with “dissension and debate.”

What we find in today’s first reading is the final decree of the Council of Jerusalem. Concerning circumcision, it says “never mind.” As for dietary restrictions, fagedaboutit. The Council was concerned with not placing unbearable burdens on converts. In other words, it couldn’t have been more liberal. It could not have been less conservative.

The Council of Jerusalem is reputed to have happened no more than 30 years after the death of Jesus. But by the time John of Patmos writes his book of Revelation at the end of the first century, look where his church had come. His vision of the “New Jerusalem” which we read about in today’s second reading doesn’t even have a temple. Jerusalem without a temple?! The city is founded not on the 12 patriarchs of Israel, but on the 12 apostles. How liberal is that!?

I suppose what I’m saying is that Christians shouldn’t be afraid of change. It’s our tradition – right from the beginning. In fact, in today’s gospel, John has Jesus say specifically that we should not be agitated or fearful. Rather, our hearts should be filled with peace because of our reliance on the Holy Spirit. John’s Jesus teaches that the Spirit’s presence guarantees the community is moving in the right direction, even when the Spirit’s teachings shock and scandalize – as long as it’s moving towards Jesus’ compassion, love, and ease of burden. The guarantee remains even when the Spirit’s guidance seems to dilute what many consider essential – like circumcision, dietary laws and the Jerusalem Temple.

What “essentials” is the church being called to set aside today? Priestly celibacy? An all-male priesthood? Prohibition of contraception? Are any of these really essential?

The question is as unnerving for the church as it is for us as individuals. But the answer is always the same: “Don’t be afraid or agitated; the Holy Spirit guides.”

Think about it: at the personal level, after ten changes of body and innumerable psychic growth spurts and changes of mind, what remains that allows me to identify with that child they tell me I was in my baby pictures? The bath water has been thrown out virtually every day. But somehow I’m able to say “I” remain. Who is that “I?”

Once again, today’s gospel leads us to believe that the answer is the indwelling Holy Spirit herself who continually leads us into the new and unforeseen – but without that “fear or agitation.” That unifying, enlightened Spirit is the same in me as She is in you.

The bottom line: today’s readings teach that there is no future in timid conservatism. Instead we are called to extreme liberalism. And that liberalism actually translates to Jesus-like radicalism (or going to the root of things). The Holy Spirit is that root.

And so we can pray with confidence: “Holy Spirit, in the present crisis of your church, inspire Francis I to call us together once again. Convene a Council. Surprise us. Shock us one more time. Wake us up! Move us towards compassion, love and ease of burden as you did the Jerusalem Council. We believe that under your guidance, we can never go wrong!

Drones, the Marathon Bombing And Today’s Liturgy of the Word (Sunday Homily)

I got into trouble with a lot of people over the last week or ten days. It all goes back to the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15th. The very next morning I found myself writing a blog entry that drew fire from friends who go back with me nearly sixty years, and even from my family members. I had written that the Marathon Bombing paled in comparison with the havoc and destruction the United States’ drone policy creates in the world virtually every day.

For instance, last week in the Senate hearing on that policy, a young Yemeni activist, Farea Al-Muslimi, gave testimony about the destruction in his village brought about by a drone attack that had occurred a few weeks earlier. [Do yourself a favor and see the video of his testimony (above); it went viral last week.] Women and children were killed by the drone apparently intended to eliminate a single person who might easily have been apprehended by local police. Instead, the missile launching killed indiscriminately. In the resulting carnage, the young man said, you couldn’t distinguish the bodies of women and children from their animals which had also been killed in the raid. The human victims had to be buried with their animals as though there were no difference between them.

According to the young activist, drones hovering over villages like his own, ready to release their deadly cargo are a form of terrorism. They have for Yemenis become the new face of the United States, and have caused great anger and hatred towards our country. Drones are what Yemenis now think of when they hear “America.” They represent a highly effective recruiting tool for what Americans understand as “terrorists.”

This means that in the activist’s own village, the drones accomplished in an instant what the propaganda of Islamic jihadists had been unable to do after years of effort.

It was this sort of testimony that I had in mind when I wrote the morning after the Marathon bombing. I was also inspired by the kind of faith-consciousness communicated by the readings in this morning’s liturgy of the word. Those readings call us to embrace an awareness of the unity of the entire human race. All are our sisters and brothers, the readings emphasize; Yeminis are as important to God as we are. Put otherwise, all four readings call us beyond the nationalism that makes us so sensitive to violence directed towards our own people, while ignoring or down-playing much greater terror our country directs towards those we consider “foreign” or “other.”

In fact, today’s liturgy of the word might well be considered a hymn of praise to the God of Love who cherishes everyone and everything equally. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles highlights the expansion of the understanding of God’s Chosen People. Paul and Barnabas extend the concept from the Jews to non-Jews – i.e. to gentiles. God’s people are found not merely in Israel, but in strange sounding places like Lystra, Pisidia, Pamphylia, Perga, Attalia, and Antioch.

The author of the Book of Revelation concurs with Paul’s interpretation. In his utopian vision of the “end of time,” John of Patmos hears a loud voice proclaiming, “God’s dwelling is with the human race.” Did you hear that? God’s People are found not just in Israel (or in “America”), but are co-extensive with the entire human race. People of all nations constitute God’s Chosen, John says. In other words, God considers everyone God’s beloved simply in virtue of their being human.

However, John “loud voice” also suggests that God is especially partial to the poor and oppressed. God wishes that tearful people stop crying. God’s kingdom is an entirely new dispensation without premature death, mourning, wailing, or pain. The suggestion here is an understanding of God’s chosen people as those within the human race who suffer the most. (As a nation, Americans, it seems, are not in that category.)

Does this mean that in our assessment of world events, the suffering should be given greater attention than the well-off?

Moreover, God’s love extends beyond humans to all of physical creation. The responsorial psalm describes God as generous, merciful, slow to anger, exceedingly kind, and good to all. That “all” includes everything God has made. In the psalmist’s words, God is “compassionate to all his works.”

Finally, today’s brief gospel reading suggests that the vocation of Christians is to mirror God’s universal love specifically as reflected in Yeshua ben Joseph – who accepted his own death at the hands of the violent rather than defend himself or take the lives of others .

Yeshua’s followers, John the evangelist suggests, must be willing to love in the same way Jesus loved. We must be ready to give our lives for “the least of our brothers and sisters” – to die ourselves before taking the lives of poor Yemenis, Pakistanis, Afghanis, Iraqis, Somalis . . . . (That’s what the words of the gospel seem to propose!)

But there’s a warning with all this talk of God’s universal love. Nationalism is strong. Criticizing it evokes energetic resistance. This is the thrust of Paul’s words in today’s first reading when he says that “It is necessary to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” Evidently some within the emerging Christian community wanted to stick with the old narrow notion of “God’s People” limiting it to a single nation. They thought of the community of Yeshua as a reformed wing of Judaism. As the reading from Acts tells us, they resisted Paul’s more expansive reinterpretation, sometimes violently.

Something similar can happen today when the suffering of “those others” are equated or even prioritized over the suffering of our compatriots.

Nonetheless, today’s readings remind us that in God’s eyes there are no “others.” If they are human, if they are part of God’s creation, they are God’s children every bit as important as “Americans.” Their suffering (especially when it originates from our hands) should be prioritized over our own.

That’s where I was coming from last week.

Jesus’ Case for Non-Violent Resistance to Rome (Sunday Homily)

images16[1]

Readings for 3rd Sunday of Lent: Ex. 3:1-8A, 13-15; Ps. 103: 1-4, 6-8, 11; I Cor. 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk. 13: 1-9 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/030313-third-sunday-lent.cfm

I’m currently teaching a little Lenten seminar on the historical Jesus. Its central emphasis explores the context of Jesus life and words. The idea is that understanding that context will help us better interpret the gospel readings we encounter in church each Sunday. Our goal is to get closer to the meaning intended by the Four Evangelists and beyond that by the historical Jesus who stands behind the evangelists’ interpretations of the carpenter from Nazareth.

We’ve discovered that one of the criteria for identifying the authentic words and deeds of Jesus is the unconventionality of Jesus’ teaching. By all the accounts we find in the gospels, Jesus regularly scandalized and angered his straight-laced listeners – especially the professional rabbis, priests and scribes. So anything in the gospels that smacks of the scandalous has a point in its favor regarding the authenticity that concerns our seminar. By the same token, expressions of conventional wisdom are doubtfully authentic for that very reason.

With this in mind, there are at least two ways of interpreting today’s gospel reading from Luke. The more or less standard reading boils down to conventional wisdom. It’s what we usually hear from the pulpit. The other interpretation is truer to Jesus’ context. The difference between the two interpretations illustrates what we’re about in the seminar I mentioned. Contrasting the understandings also uncovers a strong challenge otherwise concealed in this more contextualized reading.

Before we get to that, consider the standard interpretation of this text. Jesus is asked about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” Evidently, Roman soldiers had surprised some Galilean insurgents while the rebels were engaged in worship. The soldiers had slaughtered the men then and there. Jesus asks “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way because they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?” Then he answers his own question, “By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

Jesus continues his questioning. He asks,

“Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

Here interpreters unfamiliar with the historical context in question usually understand Jesus as referring to a random accident that was well-known in his time. A tower had fallen by chance and killed some innocents. It raised the familiar question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

In both cases, Jesus’ answer seems to be: bad things happen to good people because the people aren’t really good. The insurgents were guilty and deserved what they got. The same is true about the apparently innocent bystanders killed by the tower’s freak accident. Even more, Jesus seems to be saying, everyone is guilty and needs to repent or all will perish in the same way. “Repentance” is usually understood as more faithful observance of the 10 Commandments – especially those having to do with sex.

There are obvious problems with this interpretation. To begin with, the “wisdom” attributed to Jesus is nothing if not “conventional.” That in itself distances the explanation from the decidedly unconventional historical Jesus. Secondly, the standard interpretation ignores the political nature of this passage. It places in the same category of “acts of God” the accidental collapse of a tower on the one hand and the murder of Jewish patriots on the other. This equivalency has Jesus more or less endorsing Pilate as the agent of God’s punishment for the sins of the Galileans in question. Such endorsement and lack of political nuance is hard to imagine coming from the mouth of a Galilean Jew of the 1st century.

An explanation more faithful to Jesus’ context takes the topic of today’s readings to be violence, counter-violence and the need for non-violent resistance. According to this reading, Jesus’ words are not taken as an abstract statement about bad things happening to good people. His pronouncement doesn’t equate Pilate’s murder of innocents with the accidental collapse of a building. Instead the two incidents are seen as mirror images of each other. Together they warn about the cycle of violence Jesus sees as destroying his people. This approach contextualizes Jesus’ words and takes seriously the political intent of the news item shared with Jesus at the very outset. Luke tells us,

“Some people told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.”

No doubt, this was not news to Jesus. Everyone in Galilee must have been talking about it. Some Galileans – people from Jesus’ own province – had been slaughtered by Roman soldiers while offering sacrifice. The opening words of today’s gospel were not meant to communicate news but to complain about the Roman occupiers. Those introducing the topic were looking for sympathy and agreement. Jesus does not disappoint.

Pilate, of course, would have claimed that his victims were insurgents against the Roman occupation; they were “guilty” as terrorists, he would have said. That was his official line. Jesus says, “Don’t believe it” – as if his audience were tempted to believe Roman lies. “Do you think they were guilty?” Jesus asks. “By no means,” he answers.

Here Jesus is agreeing with his Galilean compatriots. If the ones Pilate killed were terrorists, he says, so are all Galileans; we’re all guilty in Pilate’s eyes. None of us wants the Romans here, Jesus implies. After all, it wasn’t the Galileans who threw the first stone; it was Pilate and the Roman soldiers who did so by invading Israel’s sovereign territory.

But then Jesus suddenly takes another tack. He connects Pilate’s butchery with another headline of his day – an act of counter-violence taken by the “Zealot” forces Pilate was attempting to punish. (Zealots were the revolutionary force committed to ousting the Roman occupiers from Palestine.) Pilate’s action, Jesus suggests, started the cycle of violence that evoked a disaster at Siloam at a spot near the Fountain of Ezekias. Siloam was the location of a small arsenal, where the Romans kept their swords, shields, battering rams and other weapons.

According to Maria and Ignacio Lopez-Vigil, a group of Zealot insurgents had tried to dig a tunnel up to the tower with hopes of seizing the weapons and turning them against the Romans. But the tower’s foundation was already in a state of decay, and the tunnel caused the entire construction to suddenly collapse. The falling tower claimed the lives of several Galilean families who had built their houses near the arsenal.

Jesus point: Pilate is certainly a bloodthirsty man. None of us want him or his armies on our soil. However, those who return his violence with their own are bloodthirsty too. And if we don’t reform our ways we’ll all drown in a bloody deluge. Or as Jesus put it, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

And time is running short, he adds with his parable about a fig tree. The bloody deluge has been building for at least three years. We have maybe another twelve months before the chickens of the deadly cycle of violence come home to roost. Without repentance, without replacing violent resistance to Roman butchery with non-violent tactics, we’ll all be cut down like a barren fig tree. (Later on, remember, Jesus himself demonstrates the kind of non-violent direct action he had in mind, with his “cleansing” of Jerusalem’s temple.)

Jesus’ prediction of bloodbath, of course, eventually comes true, but not as soon as he thought. The Romans would defeat the Zealot uprising in the year 70, and definitively squash all Jewish rebellion in 132. Jesus was right however about the extent of the slaughter. It was horrific resulting in the deaths of more than a million Jews. Such disaster is inevitable, Jesus teaches for all who “live by the sword.”

What does all of this say to us today? The message is quite relevant. It says first of all that we must be careful about domesticating Jesus and the gospel. The standard interpretation of this passage has the effect of making us comfortable with empire as somehow the instrument of God. It is not. Instead, empire represents the systematized oppression of the poor and defenseless by the rich and powerful. That was true of Rome; it’s true of U.S. empire today. We’re still killing insurgents in their churches and mosques.

Secondly, this passage calls us to non-violence and warns us about where the cycle of violence will inevitably lead. Sandy Hook provides a window into the world created by the worship of guns. Another window is provided by Afghanistan and Iraq, Vietnam, Hiroshima, the Cold War, and the general impoverishment of our country and world brought on by so-called “defense” spending. All of it has us drowning in a deluge of blood. And it promises to get worse and eventually destroy us all. How much time do we have before our chickens come home to roost – three years, one year. . .?

Christians represent about 30% of the world’s inhabitants. There are more than 2 billion of us. Imagine the world we’d create if we insisted on following the call to non-violence represented by Jesus’ words in this morning’s gospel!

The Dysfunctional Holy Family

Readings for Holy Family Sunday: Sir. 3: 2-6, 12-14; Ps. 128: 1-5; Col. 3: 12-21; Lk. 2: 41-52 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/123012.cfm

Today is the feast of the Holy Family. We’re used to thinking of it as a cozy group of 3, Jesus, Mary and Joseph living in ideal circumstances, the way we picture them in our nativity crib scenes. Or we imagine Jesus’ early life as we find it depicted in medieval paintings of the carpenter Joseph’s workshop. There we often find a loving haloed and elderly foster-father instructing Jesus in his trade while Mary smiles in the background.

However, if we take seriously the “infancy narratives” coming from Matthew and Luke, we must draw the conclusion that Jesus’ home life was more complicated than that. You might even say that it was “troubled” right from the beginning. So for the moment, let’s suspend disbelief surrounding the historicity of the narratives about Jesus’ early years. Let’s try instead to unpack the stories at face value. Doing so, I think, shows them to be quite relevant to our own experiences – especially to that of our family dysfunctions and to our own experiences of being no one, without face, identity, or power before the world’s problems.

To begin with, think about Jesus’ family, the focus of today’s liturgy of the word.  It wasn’t perfect. The holy family was larger than we’re accustomed to imagine. Joseph and Mary probably had 7 or 8 children. According to the gospels, Jesus’ brothers’ names were James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. Jesus is also said to have had at least 2 unnamed sisters. On the one hand, a large family like that would have been helpful to peasant farmers, if Mary and Joseph had any land. On the other hand, a family of 9 or 10 people would have been hard to maintain for rural peasants living in a backwater like Nazareth. It is likely then that hunger and struggling to make ends meet was a major part of Jesus’ early experience.

Jesus’ country was also war-torn at the time when he was born, and that certainly impacted his family. At approximately the moment of his conception, the Romans had razed the city of Sepphoris, located just an hour’s walk from Nazareth. Sepphoris was the capital of Galilee where Nazareth was located. Galilee was a hotbed of resistance to Rome’s occupation of Palestine. And a rebellion had erupted in Sepphoris about the year 4 BCE. That meant that the countryside would have been crawling with Roman soldiers at the time of Jesus’ conception. Inevitably, many young Jewish girls would have been raped by the occupying forces. Some see that fact as lending credence to an anti-Christian tradition claiming that Jesus was the product of rape of Jesus’ mother, Mary by a Roman soldier called Panthera.

In any case, Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy would have raised many eyebrows in the rural village of Nazareth. Town gossips would have snickered and talked behind their hands about the young girl’s “virginal conception.” We know for certain that Mary’s mysterious pregnancy put Joseph in crisis. According to tradition, he suspected she had been unfaithful and thought her condition reason enough to break off their engagement. We also know that Mary chose to leave town “in haste” and travel to the hill country of Judah to her Cousin Elizabeth’s home – possibly to get some distance from small village talk.

Once that problem was resolved, the holy family’s troubles continued.  There was the matter of Jesus’ homelessness at the time of his birth. For the occasion, Joseph and Mary had to make do with a filthy stable with all of its animal droppings, noises, smells, vermin, rodents and cold.

And things got worse after that. The story goes that the local king Herod ordered an infanticide of all children under the age of 2 in the area surrounding the place of Jesus’ birth.  For Mary and Joseph, avoiding such unspeakable violence meant fleeing to Egypt in the middle of the night. It also meant trying to survive as immigrants in that far-off country – not speaking the language or knowing the customs, or feeling at home among those prejudiced against foreigners.

Once back in Palestine, things apparently settled down. However, the episode in today’s gospel reveals tension in the holy family that will resurface later in the gospels.

“The Finding in the Temple” is a coming of age story. At the age of 13, all Jewish boys would accompany their parents for the first time as a “genuine Israelite.” Each would then become a man, “one who goes up to the temple.” In Jesus’ time, the 13th year was anticipated by a year as a kind of preparation for the “big step” into adulthood.  Coming from a place like Nazareth, the boy from the country would have been dazzled by the splendor of the Temple with its colonnades, precious woods, unending polished steps, gold and silver candelabra. It would have been easy for him to wander away with other boys and become lost in it all.

His parents find him, we are told, easily conversing with learned men from the city whose manners, accents and clothing would have been intimidating to Jesus’ simple parents. And yet here was the country boy Jesus astounding the city people with the incisiveness of his questions and the wisdom of his answers. No doubt, the rural parents waited till they were out of earshot of their “betters” till they gave Jesus the dressing down they thought he deserved. The scolding may have lasted the entire three-day journey back to Nazareth.

His parents, we’re told in this morning’s reading, did not understand their son. We find out later on that the lack of understanding continued. At one point in Mark’s gospel, his mother and his siblings are described as thinking Jesus was out of his mind (Mk. 3: 34-35). This led to a formal estrangement between Jesus and his family. He more or less disowned them. When Jesus was told that his family has come to rescue him from his madness, he said in effect, “My mother – my family? That’s not who those people are. Instead, you (the outcasts, beggars, insurrectionists, prostitutes, unemployed, and ne’er do wells, who were his companions) – you are my real family, my real people.”

And yet today’s gospel concludes that Jesus went back to Nazareth with them. He advanced, Luke tells us in age and wisdom and grace before God and his neighbors. And that’s it. We hear no more about him for 20 years or so. He disappears. He becomes nobody.

And that brings me to the other part of today’s reflection – being a nobody. What does Jesus’ disappearance, his “hidden life,” tell us about the human condition?  According to our faith, Jesus was the full embodiment of God. Presumably, then, he had infinite power at his disposal. His world was as filled with problems as ours. There was Roman imperialism and the occupation of Palestine with its brutality, torture, rape, exploitation and oppression. There was political corruption among Jesus’ own people as the leaders of his time climbed into bed with the Romans. There was extreme poverty alongside obscene wealth. There was religious corruption. There was disease and ignorance.  And yet as far as the record is concerned, this embodiment of God did nothing.  For 97% of his life, Jesus did absolutely nothing!

Why? Do you think it might have been because, like us, he could do nothing significant about all those problems? And even when around the age of 30 he did finally emerge as a more or less public figure, what did he really do? He spoke some inspiring words, healed a few people, and worked some miracles that his contemporaries dismissed as parlor tricks. He provoked the authorities in a temple demonstration for religious purity and social justice, was arrested, tortured and executed as an insurrectionist.  That was pretty much it as far as his “public life” was concerned. Afterwards, the world pretty much continued as it had before his arrival.

I somehow find comfort in both Jesus’ family dysfunctions and in his “nobodiness.”  None of our families are perfect. Unexpected pregnancies, suspicions and jealousies dividing couples, financial struggles, problems with neighbors and gossip, displacement, lost and alienated children – it all seems about par for the course. I’m not even sure that Mary and Joseph didn’t wonder at times where they went wrong. There was a lot for them to process in their pillow talk as they saw their son hanging out with the wrong crowd, apparently losing his faith, and then getting into political problems they didn’t understand. My God, he finally ended up on death row! The black sheep of the family . . . .

And then there are our own little lives and their apparent lack of meaning. In the end, we’re nobodies, all of us. That’s what death makes apparent as we lose our physical form and minds and all that we worked for. We’re nobodies.  Few will remember us or think of us after we’re gone. We’re born, get married, have children, buy and sell a few items, and then die. And what became of all our hopes and dreams? What does it all mean?

Does it mean that it’s all O.K.; it’s all good? Does it mean “that’s life” – what it’s about? In fact, our vocation is to be precisely nobody instead of constantly striving to be Somebody. In the end, death discloses the truth about our vocation. It is the same as Jesus’ vocation. And that is to be open, faceless channels that disclose the presence of God in our very ordinary lives with their family dysfunctions and personal failures. It is to rise above such limitations or rather to use them to express the unbounded love of an apparently powerless God to those around us – especially to our family members who might not even understand.

Without Market or Violence: Women’s Role in the Miracle of Sharing: (17th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

 Today’s Readings: 2 Kgs. 4:42-44; Ps. 145: 10-11, 15-18; Eph. 4:1-6; Jn. 6: 1-15

Thirty thousand children die every day of absolutely preventable causes associated with hunger. Mostly they die from diarrhea connected with unsafe drinking water. Forty million people in all die every year from those same easily remediable causes. That’s like the death toll from 300 jumbo jets crashing each day for a year, with no survivors, and with most of the victims children and women.

Can you imagine 300 jumbo jets crashing every day? Of course, you can’t. Just three jumbo jets crashing on a single day would throw the airline industry into complete panic. It would recognize that something was deeply wrong with the system. More regulation would be demanded by everyone. 

And yet, with hunger, the equivalent of one hundred times those crashes with the horrendous figures I just mentioned happen each day, throughout each year, and no one in authority will say that the system is defective. In fact we celebrate the system as the best possible. Politicians commonly champion less regulation rather than more. They believe the free market is the solution to all of the world’s problems.

But is unregulated market the answer to world hunger? According to the U.N., the problem of world hunger is not lack of food production, but its faulty distribution. Through no fault of their own, but through the fault of the reigning market system, people in hungry countries just don’t have the money to buy food. According to the same U.N., a mere 4% tax on the world’s richest 250 people would solve that problem.

Each year those 250 people receive as much income as the world’s nearly 3 billion people who live on $2 a day or less.  Taxing the 250 by a mere 4% would provide enough to make the hunger I’m referencing disappear – and not just hunger, but unsafe drinking water itself, along with illiteracy, poor housing, and lack of medical care.

That sounds so easy. But such a tax is not even discussed – not even by Christians like us who profess to be “pro-life” and concerned about defenseless human life forms – at least before they’re born. In defense of the unborn, such Christians want to force women to bring all pregnancies to term. However they see forcing the super rich to part with an infinitesimal portion of their great wealth an unfair limitation on their freedom – even if it is to save thousands of already born children each day.

In the face of such intransigence on the part of those who see the free market as the solution to everything, many in hungry countries have turned to the violence of revolution or terrorism in efforts to change the system. So free market or violence against that system – which is the way Jesus approved? Today’s gospel reading indicates that Jesus approved of neither. Instead, he offers a third alternative – a non-violent system of sharing led by his followers with women in the forefront.

Let me explain what I mean.

Today’s Gospel reading comes from St.  John. Bread holds an extraordinarily prominent and symbolic place for him. In our gospel reading where Jesus feeds bread to 5000 men, there is no mention of the women and children inevitably in the crowd. Mark’s version of this story does mention their presence.   

It is important to note that there is also no mention of a “miracle” in this story. People have followed Jesus “to the other side” of the Lake of Galilee. They are hungry. Testing him, Jesus asks Phillip where to buy bread for so many. Phillip has to confess that the market system cannot even begin to feed them all. There’s nowhere to buy, and even then a year’s wages would be insufficient to give each person even a morsel. To reiterate: in the story the market system proves incapable of meeting the challenge. Jesus and the women in the crowd are about to offer an alternative.

But before we get to that, it’s important to acknowledge the other way of dealing with the desperation of hunger that is present in the story – armed violence – the traditional “manly” way of dealing with almost any problem. John the Evangelist underlines Jesus rejection violence as well as market – even though he evidently gives revolution and insurrection much more consideration than the market alternative he considered briefly with Phillip.

Think about it. In John’s account, the time is near the Passover feast of national liberation – a traditional time of civil unrest in Jesus’ Palestine. Moreover, the episode we’re considering takes place in the desert – the time-honored place of insurrectionary resistance. Revolution is evidently on the minds of the 5000. Jesus knows, John says, that the men want to make him king by means of violence. Perhaps that’s the whole reason they’ve stalked Jesus and cornered him in his desert get-away. In any case, after a day-long meeting, the intention of the 5000 remains unchanged.  On the contrary, it is merely reinforced by Jesus’ remarkable solution to the problem of hunger experienced then and there. Unable to dissuade those who would choose the way of violence, Jesus in John’s account simply walks away. He remains unambiguously the non-violent revolutionary.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that he walks away from the problem of hunger. Instead, he enacts a parable of what might be called “The Kingdom Sharing System.” This is the typical female way of dealing with problems – by establishing personal relationships and breaking bread together.

To begin with, Jesus has everyone relax – to sit down on the soft grass that nature has provided. In Mark’s account of this same event, the evangelist notes that Jesus divided the huge crowd into small groups of ten or so each. That gave all present a chance to introduce themselves and exchange pleasantries.

Then a child shows the way. A small boy brings forward five loaves and two fish and places them before Jesus. Jesus calls everyone’s attention to what the child had done. And that starts a “miracle of sharing.” The crowd is touched.  People begin to offer one another the plenty collectively present among them, but that everyone was perhaps reluctant to share.

The abundance was surely there, thanks to the way women work. I mean, can you imagine a Jewish mother going on a day-long trip to the desert with packing a lunch for her husband and children? Of course not.  In fact, there’s such abundance that even after everyone has eaten, 12 baskets remain to bring back to those not present to witness this “miracle of enough.” The dramatized parable’s point is: that’s the way the Kingdom of God works.  (And note how women must have been central to it all.)

What’s the lesson in all of this? First of all (as today’s responsorial psalm says) it’s God’s will that everyone have enough to eat. Bread is God’s gift to everyone, without exception. And whether people eat or not shouldn’t be dependent on their ability to buy. In fact, if someone is hungry, humans and their market system are the sinfully responsible ones.  And, we might add, it is anonymous women who actually save the day – those mothers who took the time to lovingly prepare food.

The bottom line here is that the way to satisfy hunger is not by depending on blind market forces or by waging violent revolution. Rather it is exemplified by the child in the story and the women in the crowd. That’s the way that Jesus calls us to deal with the problem of hunger with which our reflections began this morning.

And it’s Jesus’ followers, people like you and me who should be leading the way. How best can we do that in our hungry world? (Discussion follows.)

America Is Not the Greatest Country in the World

Today’s readings: Am. 7:12-15; Ps. 85:9-10, 11-2, 13-14; Eph. 1:3-14; Mk. 6:7-13

Just before this year’s July 4th celebrations, HBO aired its first episode of “Newsroom.” Its highlight had lead actor, Jeff Daniels, delivering a speech about our country that has been viewed widely on the web. I’m sure many of you have seen it. As a news anchorman of the stature and credibility of Walter Cronkite, Daniels’ character is badgered into answering the question “Is America the greatest country in the world?” Here’s how he answered:

 

Whew! Those are hard words for most of us to hear, aren’t they? It’s almost as if their speaker were viewing the United States the way foreigners often do – or at least as someone highly sympathetic to the uneducated, infants, the poor, sick, imprisoned, and the victims of imperialistic wars. He seems to be saying that the experience of such people represent the measure of greatness.

I raise the “Newsroom” speech today because of today’s first reading from the Book of Amos. He was a prophet whose most famous speech was very like the one we just saw. I mean his words were similar in that they were offensive to patriotic ears and centralized the experience of the poor. And they were delivered by an outsider. As we saw in today’s first reading, Amos’ words also evoked such negative response that they led the chief priest of Israel to lobby for the deportation of the prophet.

What did Amos say ? Well, he was a very clever speaker. He did his prophetic work towards the end of the 8th century B.C.E. That was after the death of Solomon, when the Hebrew people had split into two kingdoms. The northern one was “Israel;” the southern one was “Judah.” Often the two were at war with one another. Yes, the “People of God” were that deeply divided even then.

Amos came from Judah, the southern kingdom. He went up north, to Israel, and confronted the people there. And he tricked his audience into agreeing with him that all their official enemies were really bad – the Aramites, Philistines, Moabites, and especially Judah, that kingdom to the south. God is extremely angry with these people, Amos promised. They would all be soundly thrashed.

“And they all deserve it!” his audience would have agreed.

And then the prophet turned the tables on his listeners. “But you know the nation that will be punished more harshly than all of them put together, don’t you? You know who the worst of all is, I’m sure.” (He now had his audience in the palm of his hand.)

“Who?” they asked eagerly.

“YOU!” the prophet shouted. “The nation of Israel has been the worst of all because of your treatment of the poor. You have shorted them on their wages. You have sold them into slavery. Your rich have feasted and lived in luxury, while those closest to God’s heart, the poor, have languished in hunger and poverty. In punishment, the Assyrians will invade your country and reduce all of you to the level of the lowest among you.

Of course the prophet lost his audience at that point. They didn’t want to hear it.

It was almost as if the Daniels character in “Newsroom” had responded like this to the question “Is America the greatest country?” No, I take that back. It’s almost as if some foreigner – one of our designated enemies, say from Iraq or Afghanistan, answered the question by saying:

“Well, America surely isn’t Nazi Germany, and it’s not the Soviet Union. Those places were hell on earth, weren’t they?  They caused havoc in the world; I’m sure we’d all agree. Those countries were truly the enemies of humankind. Neither is America Saddam’s Iraq, or Kaddafi’s Libya, or Ahmadinejad’s Iran. It’s none of those. But you know what? AMERICA IS  A LOT WORSE! And that’s because of the way it treats not only its own poor, but the way it savages the poor of other countries. Treatment of the poor is God’s criterion for greatness. And America falls flat before it!”

My point is that it sometimes takes someone who doesn’t share our cultural values and especially our class loyalties to help us see ourselves in something like the way God sees us. Those outside our culture often see us more clearly than we see ourselves.

Do you think Amos’ concern for the poor (the Bible’s real People of God) might be also centralized in today’s Gospel? I think it is. Mark seems to be reminding his audience (40 years after Jesus’ death) that the poor represent the touchstone for Christian authenticity.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus sends off his 12 apostles two by two as his emissaries. They are to drive out unclean spirits and demons and to cure the sick. Can you even imagine them doing that? They were just fishermen, maybe a traveling merchant or two, a former tax collector – all of them likely illiterate – not public speakers at all. Who would ever listen to such people? And yet Mark pictures Jesus sending them off in pairs to preach his message: “Repent; the Kingdom of God is at hand.” These are the same disciples who Mark tells us later never really grasped what Jesus was all about. And yet here they are preaching,  curing the sick and driving out demons.

Such considerations lead scripture scholars to conclude that these words were probably never spoken by the historical Jesus. Instead they were added later by a more developed church. Early Christians evidently believed so strongly in Jesus’ post-resurrection presence that they thought the risen Christ continued addressing their problems even though those difficulties were unknown to him and his immediate followers while he walked the earth.

And what was the message to those later followers? It seems to have been this: “Remember where we came from. We’re followers of that poor man from Nazareth. So stay close to the poor as Jesus did: walk; don’t ride. Steer clear of money. Don’t even worry about food. The clothes on your back are enough for anyone. Others will give you shelter for the night.” This passage from Mark almost pictures Jesus’ followers like Buddhist monks with their saffron robes and begging bowls.

Mark’s message to his community 40 years after Jesus — and to us today —  seems to be: “Only by staying close to the poor can you even recognize  the world’s unclean spirits. So concealed and disguised are they by material concerns and by things like patriotism and religious loyalties.  So don’t be seduced by identification with the rich, your own culture, and what they value — sleek transportation, money, luxurious food, clothes and homes.” Surrendering to such seductions, Mark seems to be saying,  is to depart from the instructions of Jesus. We’d say it is a recipe for loss of soul on both the individual and national levels as described by Amos and “Newsroom’s” Jeff Daniels.

But identification with the poor is hard, isn’t it? It’s hard to walk instead of ride, to have less money, to share food and housing with others. It’s hard to make political and economic choices on the basis of policy’s impact on the poor rather than the rich. For that reason, Jesus sends his apostles off not as individuals, but in pairs. The message here is that we need one another for support. This is also true because adopting counter-cultural viewpoints like those of Amos and the “Newsroom” anchorman evoke such negative response.

What do you think? Are we Christians really called to centralize concern for the poor, to simplify our lifestyles, and run the risk of being judged unpatriotic? If so, how can we support one another in doing that? (Discussion follows.)

Jesus Was a Radical Feminist: 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sunday’s Readings: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13=16; Mk. 5:21=43

All of us, I know, have been following with great interest the Vatican’s confrontation with U.S. nuns. Officials in Rome are disturbed because the sisters have adopted what the patriarchy considers a “radical feminist agenda.” That agenda includes advocating a priesthood open to women.  It also places service of the poor ahead of issues dear to our male church leadership such as contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

Towards resolving the crisis, the Vatican has insisted on placing a major national organization of sisters under the authority of a Rome-appointed bishop. The idea is that this man would determine what is best for the women religious.

Not surprisingly, the nuns find the Vatican’s action unacceptably patriarchal, patronizing and insulting. They also insist that the issues Rome finds objectionable are more in accord with the actual teaching and example of Jesus than the focus the hierarchy prefers. After all, the nuns say, Jesus said a great deal about the poor, but nothing at all about contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, or women priests.

Jesus himself might also be considered a radical feminist, some sisters hold.  They point out that 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 them to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. 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 oppressor of the second woman. On top of that the older woman in the story has been humiliated and exploited 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.

So 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.” So what we 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. 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 the faith community from death. “Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise the community of faith will be for all practical purposes dead.”   

Could this possibly mean that we should imitate the women religious who evidently represent such a threat to the Vatican today? Could today’s gospel be telling us that their bold specifically feminist faith that sides with the poor and oppressed (like the hero of today’s Gospel) will be the salvation of the church which is otherwise moribund? Are they today’s real faith leaders, rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly claim to lead the church?

Consider some patriarchal history related to today’s Gospel reading. Does it suggest déjà vu?

As late as the 13th century Christian theologians were warning people that it was a mortal sin to have relations with a menstruating woman because sickly or possessed children would result from them. A hotly debated theological theme during the middle ages was whether a woman during menstruation (also called her “periodic pollution” or her “monthly venting”) could receive communion during mass or not. Even worse, the blood of a woman giving birth was considered to be more noxious that the menstrual blood. The Synod of Treves in the year 1227 established that after childbirth women needed to be “reconciled” with the Church – a disposition which combined the Jewish laws of ritual purification with Christian theologians’ rejection of the pleasure that is implicit in every sexual relation. In many cases of that epoch the religious hierarchy determined that women who died in childbirth could not be buried in Christian cemeteries because they had not been “reconciled.”

Such recollections do not inspire confidence in patriarchs making pronouncements on women’s issues. I mention them here only because they show those male “leaders” pontificating quite confidently about women’s biological processes, about the effect of sexual intercourse on fetuses, about God’s attitude towards women during menstruation, and about women’s “pollution” following sexual intercourse and childbirth. And in hindsight all of it turns out to be pure nonsense!  In summary, it reveals that male church leaders never have really understood female sexuality – or sex for that matter. Obviously, pronouncements like those just mentioned (however confident and supported by scripture) have nothing to do with “revelation.” Is it any different – can it be any different – in our own era? 

Today’s Gospel then 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 religious community which is currently sick unto death.

All of us can imagine how such suggestions apply to the controversy between the Vatican and U.S. nuns. Let’s discuss that now. (Discussion follows).