God’s Kingdom is for Clowns, Comedians, Immigrants and Exiles

Readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Exodus 17:22-24; Psalm 92: 2-3, 13-16; 2nd Corinthians 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34.

Today’s readings put me in mind of two superb films I’ve recently watched, “Joker” and “In the Heights,” both available on HBO.

Each film described a world inhabited by people our culture tends to despise and that empires like ours devalue and vilify. In that sense, both “Joker” and “In the Heights” focus on individuals very like the Hebrews liberated from Egyptian slavery and like Jesus himself and his friends who lived under impoverishing Roman occupation.  

“Joker” showed the dark threatening side of life under an order structured to favor the rich. “In the Heights” was infinitely more positive. However, taken together, they illustrate a theme suggested in today’s liturgical readings. It’s that positively or negatively, the poor represent our future. They are the key factor that will either destroy or save us.

Joker

Begin with “Joker.” It points up the need for a new (divine) order in our collapsing world whose worship of the rich is leading to disaster.

“Joker” is the story of Arthur Fleck, a sign-spinning clown and aspiring comedian who, he admits, has never had a positive thought in his life.

And there’s good reason for Arthur’s depression (ironically underlined by uncontrollable laughing fits). As a child, he was abused by his adoptive mother’s boyfriend. He’s down and out and spends much of his life watching television with his now sick mother. Crucially, he has no other community.

The world in Arthur’s Gotham City is also disintegrating. Garbage litters its streets. Rats are running wild. And rampant crime plagues city streets.

Meanwhile the rich hide behind their gated estates, all the time blaming the poor characterizing them as lazy clowns who need sermonizing from above rather than the dignity of employment at a living wage. Tellingly, at one point the headline of the city’s main paper reads “Kill the Rich!”  

Little wonder then that after Arthur murders three Wall Streeters on the subway following their unprovoked attack on him, alienated poor people throughout the city adopt his clown mask as a sign of rebellion reminiscent of the Guy Fawkes mask in “V for Vendetta.”

Arthur had unwittingly started a class war of poor against rich. He has his community at last, but it is completely hopeless, nihilist and destructive.

In the Heights

Compare that with Latinix life portrayed in Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.”  It too unfolds in New York City’s real-life version of comic book Gotham.

True, Washington Heights has problems like Arthur’s context – poverty, prejudice against immigrants and the poor. Nonetheless, “In the Heights” underlines the unmistakable gift-to-America brought by its Latinix citizens with their sense of community and solidarity – not to mention patience and faith. It’s all so hopeful and joyous.

That’s because those living in Miranda’s idealized Washington Heights have community.  As individuals, they are hard workers with lofty aspirations. But in community they share rich cultures with enviable familial unselfishness, joy, music, dance, colorful language, and resourcefulness. They all love their children and grandparents; they care for one another. They scrimp and scrape and give their neighbors hope by sharing their meager resources.

All of that enables them to endure blackouts (recalling months without power in post-Maria Puerto Rico) that render them powerless in more ways than one, but without diminishing their indomitable carnival spirits.

Today’s Readings

In the perspective of today’s liturgy of the word, Miranda’s romanticized barrio contrasts sharply with “Joker’s” more realistic dark and dirty city streets. However, both put faces on abstractions like Jesus’ description of the “Kingdom of God.”

I mean, today’s readings present Jesus in his familiar role as the Great Reverser of values and cultural expectations. He agrees with Miranda in celebrating the poor and insignificant as the very embodiment of the joy and happiness that give life meaning. However, Jesus does so in a way that might confuse those unfamiliar with his peasant context.

Conventional thought in Jesus’ day is reflected in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus. It estimates that bigger is better. A Cedar of Lebanon celebrated at the beginning of Hebrew history is an obvious image of the kind of national power to which Israel (and all other nations) aspired. To speak of Israel as a huge and powerful cedar — as a kind of Gotham — made common sense.

But more than 1000 years later, Jesus reverses all of that. In a world that (like ours) seems to be falling apart, his “ridiculous” metaphor for national prosperity is a mustard plant – a kind of weed which farmers in his day thought of as a curse.

In the spirit of Small is Beautiful, Jesus nonetheless ascribes to a weed the very same qualities that the author of Exodus accords a giant old-growth tree. He sees it as imposing, fruitful, and providing shelter for birds of all kinds. In short, the pesky and irrepressible shares the same characteristics that the world evaluates as formidable and powerful. Washington Heights is worthier than the rest of NYC.

Moreover, one could argue that the Divine Parent has chosen the poor (not Gotham’s rich Wall Streeters) as the locale of divine revelation, because the poor reveal what’s wrong with our lives and the directions for righting the wrong.

To suggest what I mean, here are my “translations” of today’s readings. Please note their upbeat tone.

Exodus 17:22-24

After their liberation from Egypt
Runaway slaves
Understood the Great Parent
Promising
That they would flourish
Like a giant old-growth cedar
A fruitful and mighty home
For escaped jailbirds like them 
According to the wise plan
Inherent in Life’s Great Force.

Psalm 92: 2-3, 13-16

We thank you, Almighty Parent,
For your kind and faithful care
Showered upon us 
From bright dawns  
Through fearful nights.
Your will is that 
We all flourish like palm trees
And Cedars of Lebanon
In a just New World Order
Where all enjoy vigorous health 
And long productive lives.
Thank you indeed.

2nd Corinthians 5: 6-10

Knowing all of that
Is a source of our great courage
Admittedly based upon  
Unprovable convictions
That we will one day
Live in the just world
Called “God’s Kingdom.”
Yes, we trust in Christ’s judgment
That in following him,
We are advancing towards that end.

Mark 4: 26-34

Trailing the Master
At a confusing distance
We are like farmers
Who sow seeds
Knowing they will grow
But without understanding
Why or how.
It’s that way too
With God’s Kingdom
Which, it turns out,
Is more like a pesky weed
Than Moses’ mighty cedar.
Yet even Jesus’ poor mustard plant
Draws the same odd birds
To flourish in its shade.
(How’s that
For a head-scratching simile?)


Conclusion

So, the choice is up to us. Do we want a powerful world with room for a few to flourish obscenely behind locked gates while the many are forced to exist with rats, garbage, envy, and hatred? That world can pretend to be as mighty as an ancient cedar tree. But too often its apparent might conceals desperate inner rot, nihilism and misery.

Or do we want a simpler powerless world with room for everyone, where people prioritize not money and might, but family, each other, joy, spicy food, party, carnival, and love?

Again, it’s up to us — to follow the example (or not) of those our culture despises and rejects.

We all know how wise spiritual masters from Moses to Jesus and his rebellious Mother Mary have answered our question. It’s what’s suggested in today’s readings.

Whether we live in a culture that seems like a mighty cedar or one that resembles the weedy mustard bush, all of us know the direction we’re called to take.

If we don’t choose it, Arthur Fleck’s gun points towards the destiny that will inevitably be ours.

Controlling History’s Narrative: Who Speaks for God Today?

Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; Psalm 95: 1-9; I Corinthians; 7: 32-35; Mark 1: 21-28

Today’s readings once again raise the central biblical question of prophets and prophecy.

We should read them carefully remembering that prophets are not fortune tellers focused on the future. They were and today remain social critics focused on present injustices committed against the original beneficiaries of Life’s covenant with Moses – the poor and oppressed (widows, orphans, and resident aliens). Insofar as they predict the future, the prophets’ threat is usually that neglect of the poor will lead to national tragedy.

 Yeshua the Christ, of course, appeared in the prophetic tradition which is always confused by the fact that the Great Mother’s spokespersons are inevitably contradicted by their fake counterparts. This Sunday’s readings highlight that point.

 Prophets Then

I was reminded of all this last week during a Zoom “Talk Back” responding to our pastor’s Sunday sermon on the fictional story of the prophet Jonah. That tale was centralized a week ago in the liturgy of the word. Towards the end, the pastor herself asked the question, “Who today is speaking the harsh truth that the Book of Jonah expressed?”

(As we saw last week the little Jonah parable (only 48 verses) is about a reluctant prophet who eventually has to face the fact that those imagining themselves to be the People of God (Israel) were quite the opposite. Meanwhile those whom Israel viewed as their corrupt enemies (Assyrians) were more responsive to God’s word.

In my own response to our pastor’s question, I observed “That would be like our hearing during the Cold War that Russians (communists) were more on God’s side than Americans. Today, it would be like being told the same thing about the Chinese or Muslims, or (worse still) al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”

Yes, that’s the way the Book of Jonah would have been heard in the middle of the 8th century BCE – as the Assyrian hordes massed on Israel’s borders ready to descend on “God’s People.” Eventually, they’d come (as Lord Byron would put it) “like the wolf on the fold.” They’d destroy the Northern Kingdom and take large masses of its people off to the Assyrian capital, Nineveh – as slaves. The book of Jonah dares to identify Assyrians as godly.

Imagine if some prophetic preacher today actually echoed Jonah saying, “You American exceptionalists believe that you’re especially pleasing to God. The exact opposite is true. In fact, your designated ‘enemies,’ Muslims, the Russians, the Chinese, and those you imagine as terrorists are actually God’s favorites.”

How hard would that be for Americans to hear?

Prophets Now

But (to answer our pastor’s question directly) there actually have been and are religious prophets among us who have said such things and who are saying them today. I’m thinking of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jeremiah Wright, William Barber II, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, Dorothy Day, and even Pope Francis. Here’s what they’ve said in the name of God:

  • Malcolm X: “I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
  • Martin Luther King: The United States is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
  • Jeremiah Wright: “When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. . . The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America“. No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America. . . as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme”
  • William Barber II: “. . . I, too, am an atheist. . . if we were talking about the God who hates poor people, immigrants, and gay folks, I don’t believe in that God either.” 
  • Liz Theoharis: “Jesus led a poor people’s campaign.”
  • Dorothy Day: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”
  • Pope Francis: “This system is by now intolerable: Farmers find it intolerable; laborers find it intolerable; communities find it intolerable; people find it intolerable.”

Those are not voices most of us are accustomed to hearing as representative of a Christian message that has been completely dominated by right-wingers who have effectively silenced the political voice of the one Christians pretend to recognize as the greatest of all prophets. They silence Yeshua’s authentic voice by focusing exclusively on the fiction of American Exceptionalism and on personal “salvation.”   

The Prophet Yeshua

Instead, the very life of Yeshua the Christ was highly political from start to finish. He literally embodied God’s prioritization of the needs of the poor while specifically condemning the rich and powerful of his day. That’s why he had to be assassinated at a very young age — same as Malcolm, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton. . .

Think of it this way: Isn’t it true that Christian belief holds that Yeshua was the fullest revelation of God? If so, isn’t it therefore significant that the revelation site supposedly chosen by God was a poor man from the working class? Isn’t it theologically meaningful that he was born out-of-wedlock to a teenage mother (LK 1:34), was houseless at birth (LK 2:7), experienced immigrant status as an asylum seeker (MT 2: 13-15), traveled with a band of young people who had no visible means of support, was thought insane by his mother and close relatives (MK 3:21), was identified as a terrorist by the most powerful nation then on earth, and finished a victim of its torture and capital punishment?

I’d say that believers should find all of that extremely revealing.  

Moreover, the highly political Yeshua is reported to have made radical statements about wealth and poverty, e.g.:

  • “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:16-22)
  • “Blessed are you poor, yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
  • “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (Luke 6:24).
  • “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
  • “So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33)
  • “If you want to be whole, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).

Still more, his followers took their teacher literally as they practiced a kind of primitive communism:

  • “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2: 44-47).
  • Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 2: 32).

All of that identifies Yeshua as a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, the liberator of slaves in Egypt, of Amos who defended the poor and criticized the rich, of Karl Marx, the last of the great Jewish prophets, and of the contemporary troublemakers listed above.

Today’s Readings

Keep all of that in mind as you review today’s liturgy of the word which centralizes the question, “Who are the true prophets among us?” What follows are my “translations.” You can find the originals here to see if I’ve got them right.

 
 Deuteronomy 18: 15-20:
 More than 500 years
 After the Great Prophet’s Death
 Moses was remembered
 As predicting the advent
 Of another Great One
 For a people deathly afraid
 Of hearing God’s voice directly.
 Problem was:
 There’d be false prophets too
 Claiming to speak 
 In the name of Yahweh,
 But actually representing 
 False gods
 Whom, if listened to
 Would bring to believers
 Severe punishment. 
 (Hmm.
 Where does that leave us?)
  
 Psalm 95: 1-9
 It leaves us confused
 And in danger
 Of letting our own self-interest
 Harden our hearts
 To the authentic voice
 Of our loving Mother-Father God
 Our firm refuge
 Benefactor and guide.
 Her wonderful handiwork
 In creation itself
 Reveals more
 Than any prophet’s words.
 So, believe and embrace
 What you see
 With your own eyes.
 
 I Corinthians 7: 32-35
 The case of St. Paul
 Illustrates our confusion
 About what to believe – 
 What our eyes tell us
 Or the words 
 Of an anxious 
 Celibate prophet
 Like Paul
 Who’s been interpreted 
 To say that
 Eros is somehow “improper”
 And a huge “distraction”
 For anyone serious
 About what’s truly important.
 (For, doesn’t Life Itself teach
 That Eros is
 A primary source
 Of God’s revelation
 About the nature of Life
 And Love?)
  
 Mark 1: 21-28
 Jesus, on the other hand
 Had no such reservations.
 His followers believed
 Him to be the Great Prophet
 Predicted by Moses.
 He taught astonishing truths
 With authority and certainty
 Unlike the temple scribes
 (And the doubt-filled Paul).
 He terrified unclean spirits
 While delighting
 The (married) women and men
 Who hung on his every word.  

Conclusion

The disparity between the nationalistic and exclusively personal understandings of the prophet Yeshua on the one hand and the highly political nature of his life and discourse on the other is extremely important to confront.

That’s because (as Caitlin Johnstone has recently reminded us) those who control cultural narratives control the world. And no narrative is more important to history’s control than the religious one we’ve just considered. That’s because religious faith addresses life’s most fundamental questions – the ones so thrillingly addressed by the prophets we’ve considered here: about the nature of life; our relations with one another, human connections with the environment, about foreigners, power, love, money, and justice.

I’ll even venture to say that religious story supplies the popular “philosophy” of most people in the world. It organizes their experiences. They might not know much about history, economics, or political parties, but they know what they’ve been told about the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Holy Koran.

To ignore this truism is tragically to surrender an essential tool of social justice to its enemies. On the other hand, exposing the radical social justice character of the Judeo-Christian narrative while challenging its domestication by false prophets represents an essential element of any attempts to shape the world by controlling its narrative.

Even completely secular social justice warriors should take note.

The Most Revealing Take-Away from the Nevada Debate: Our Problems Have Been Solved

Readings for Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time: Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18; Psalms: 103: 1-13; 1st Corinthians: 3: 16-23; 1 JN 2:5; Matthew 5: 38-48

Last week’s Democratic debate was the most interesting and revealing yet. And we have Mike Bloomberg to thank for that. His tone-deaf buffoonery was stunning and just happens to be intimately connected with this Sunday’s liturgical readings.

Taken together, the readings and Bloomberg’s performance show us that all the problems addressed in the debate have already been solved – especially that of religiously inspired terrorism despite its not being addressed in last Wednesday’s “show.”

I say all that because today’s selections contrast the foolish wisdom of the world (embodied in billionaires like Bloomberg) with the contradictory visions of Moses and Jesus the Christ who are prophets not just for Christians and Jews, but for Muslims as well. As such, their words call us to recognize our absolute unity with our neighbors, and to reject entirely the Bloombergian separative thinking of the world. What we do to others, the readings tell us, we do to ourselves.

But before we get to that, let’s recall what happened on Wednesday. 

As far as I was concerned, the most instructive moment came not when Mr. Bloomberg declined to release women from their non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). It wasn’t even when he arrogantly joked about the inability of TurboTax to help determine his annual attempts at gargantuan tax evasion.

No, it came in a throw-away line in his exchange with Elizabeth Warren about her proposed “two-cent wealth tax.” Almost as an aside, he said something like, “Well, of course I don’t agree with Senator Warren’s tax proposal.” He then went on to make another of his monumentally vacuous non-points.

I only wish one of the moderators or debaters had followed up: “What exactly is your objection to a two-cent tax? Would it somehow diminish your lifestyle or impoverish you?”

Bernie Sanders came closest to asking that question when he raised the issue of capitalism’s immorality. He observed:

“We have a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income. Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. That’s wrong. That’s immoral. That should not be the case when we got a half a million people sleeping out on the street, where we have kids who cannot afford to go to college, when we have 45 million people dealing with student debt. We have enormous problems facing this country, and we cannot continue seeing a situation where, in the last three years, billionaires in this country saw an $850 billion increase in their wealth — congratulations, Mr. Bloomberg — but the average American last year saw less than a 1 percent increase in his or her income. That’s wrong.”

There, Bernie said it: capitalism is a highly immoral system. No Jewish prophet; not Moses, not even Jesus of Nazareth could have said it better.  We have the money – unlimited resources – to solve the world’s problems. However, those resources remain locked up in the vaults of the world’s 2000 billionaires. Fact is: their living standards would not be lowered by Warren’s 2% tax. Mr. Bloomberg’s lifestyle would even be unaffected if billionaires like him were outlawed altogether and if as a result, he lost 49.1 billion of his 50-billion-dollar bank account.

Yet, those resources (along with similar confiscations from other billionaires) could absolutely eliminate our material problems not merely in the United States, but throughout the entire world. Despite that undeniable fact, the billionaires and their kept allies refuse to entertain even the possibility of such taxation.

Could anything demonstrate more clearly the immorality of the reigning system?

In other words, the super-rich and corporate “persons” along with their servants in the mainstream media, and in the United States Congress prevent us from seeing that the solutions to the world’s problems are already here and staring us in the face. Yes, the world’s major problems have already been solved!

And I’m not just talking about correcting wealth inequality through confiscatory tax rates on the world’s billionaires. I’m also referring to “problems” like immigration, Medicare for all, free college tuition, forgiveness of college loans, the $15.00 an hour minimum wage, the Green New Deal, world peace, and especially (in the light of today’s readings) terrorism. To repeat: all of those problems (and more) have already been solved. It’s just that the prevailing received wisdom prevents us from recognizing it.

Consider the issues just mentioned one-by-one and how they’ve already been effectively addressed:

  • Immigration: The United States, Canada, and Australia prove that nations made up almost entirely of immigrants (most of them poor at the beginning) cannot only survive but thrive. There is nothing to fear from even the poorest of immigrants. Virtually all of us are descended from such outsiders. Why not make it as easy for immigrants to enter our country today as it was when our parents, grandparents or great grandparents came over? It’s already been done.
  • Medicare for all: Publicly funded healthcare has outperformed (and at much lower cost) the U.S. privately funded system in every industrialized country. The same has happened in the U.S. itself in the form of Medicare, Medicaid, and as plans provided by the Veterans’ Health Administration, and by those extended to U.S. legislators. Medicare for All merely expands already proven systems. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.
  • Free College Tuition: We already have publicly funded elementary and high schools. Why not extend that funding to public colleges and universities? Mr. Bloomberg’s billions could take care of that.
  • College Loan Forgiveness: Michael Hudson has shown that periodic debt forgiveness has been an engine of economic growth since ancient times. It was even enshrined and required in the Hebrew Testament (Leviticus 25: 8-13) as well as centralized in Jesus’ preaching (Luke 4: 19). Moreover, billionaires (like Messrs. Bloomberg and Trump) declare bankruptcy all the time. Why exclude students from such relief?
  • Minimum Wage: A $15-dollar-an-hour minimum wage is already a fact in Seattle, New York, in the Amazon workforce, and elsewhere. It provenly works to raise working class living standards.
  • Green New Deal: In the 1930s FDR’s New Deal fundamentally changed the economic landscape of the United States including (for the first time) a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, social security, and a government jobs program employing millions. The result was the creation of a large, previously non-existent prosperous middle class. Similar even more robust programs were enacted throughout Western Europe even though its infrastructure had been devastated by the Second Inter-Capitalist War. In other words, the Green New Deal is not unprecedented. Its suggested provisions are affordable and have highly successful and popular precedents.
  • World Peace: Think about it. Current crises with Iraq, Korea, Russia, China, Iran, Syria and elsewhere have been manufactured — absolutely pulled out of the air. None of those countries represent mortal threat to the United States. And in any case, the tools for resolving international conflicts already exist under the auspices of the United Nations. Those who routinely ignore those tools and associated laws are not our “enemies,” but ourselves and our “allies.” “We” are the agents who employ force, sanctions, droning, and bombing as a first resort rather than observe international law and UN procedures for avoiding international conflict. Our merely observing international law would represent a giant step towards world peace.

But, of course, the wisdom of the world denies all of the above. It would convince us that reform is without precedent, that those proposing it are radicals, and that their proposals are unrealistic and impossible to implement. They would even have us believe that Bloombergian and Trumpian wealth based on individualism, competition, and separateness are somehow compatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Today’s readings make the opposite point and condemn as heretical such received wisdom. Instead, the readings emphasize the unity of humankind and the need to reject the world’s ideology.

And that’s where the connection with terrorism comes in. The fact is that the world’s leading terrorists are religiously motivated Jews, Christians and Muslims. Yet, all three accept the Bible as inspired. All three recognize Moses and Jesus as hallowed prophets. All three claim to endorse the basic teachings of those prophets as contained in today’s readings. Such convergence represents a basis for eliminating terrorism far more powerful than bombs, drones or boots on the ground.

To see what I mean, please consider today’s readings in my translated form. (And do check them out here to see if I have them right.) They describe the basis for replacing armed conflict with peaceful religious dialog.

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18: Moses called Yahweh’s people to divine holiness outlawing all hatred, grudges and any type of revenge. All such animosity, he warned, ultimately equates with self-hatred.

Psalms: 103: 1-13 This is because God’s very essence is kindness, compassion, generosity, and unbounded forgiveness.

1st Corinthians: 3: 16-23:And that essence is ours too. Hence, destroying another person represents an attack not only on God but on our Selves. Such profound wisdom is 180 degrees opposed to the world’s foolhardy “savoir faire.” Therefore, accepting Jesus means rejecting received wisdom.

1 JN 2:5:  In other words, following Jesus’ teaching (and btw the Buddha’s, Mohammed’s, Krishna’s, Lao Tzu’s, and that of history’s great humanists) is the only way of pleasing God

Matthew 5: 38-48: More specifically, the world teaches eye for eye revenge, retaliation two for one, suing at the drop of a hat, suspicion of borrowers and beggars, and hatred of enemies. However, (along with Moses) Jesus counsels exactly the opposite: gentleness, generosity, having no enemies at all, loving even those who cause us pain, recognition that all are neighbors loved equally by the One whose sun and rain benefit everyone without distinction. Yes, our neighbor (including “enemies”) is our very Self!

Can you see how the wisdom expressed in those readings provide a basis for dialog rather than for armed conflict between Jews, Christians, and Muslims? Can you see how rejecting the “wisdom of the world” reveals that the world’s most pressing problems have already been solved? None of them is new, unprecedented, or insoluble.

It’s time for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to unite in a shared project that opens everyone’s eyes to those facts. It’s time to expropriate the Bloombergs, Trumps and their corporate allies who deny solutions that are absolutely staring everyone in the face.  

A Frightening Child & Prayer to Save the Environment

Readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time:  EX 17: 8-13; PS 121: 1-8; 2 TM 3: 14-4:2; HEB 4: 12; LK 18: 1-8

Were you inspired by Greta Thunberg? I couldn’t get over her courage.

Imagine: a child of 16 years suddenly thrust beneath the blinding spotlight of the world’s stage – speaking confidently with a pope and with heads of state, addressing huge crowds and the United Nations itself. All of that would frighten me. How about you?

And she called them all to task. “How dare you!” she repeated again and again to the world’s movers and shakers whose programs for addressing climate change fell far short of the goals set by climate scientists. “Don’t listen to me,” she repeated; “listen to the scientists.” In other words, align yourselves with what Mother Nature, Life Itself, and the Universe are telling us.

And, of course, you saw the effects of her audacity. Millions were mobilized across the planet.

What started as a one-girl protest before the Swedish parliament swiftly became a thing.

Youngsters everywhere, including my own grandchildren, walked out of class and imitated Greta’s defiance. My five-year-old grandson challenged us all for driving a Volvo van whose gas engine, he said, is destroying the environment. “We should be driving an electric car instead” he objected. A five-year-old!

As someone pointed out, it’s a “Children’s Crusade” against capitalism’s worship of Moloch.

And what fear it inspired in the powerful! This wisp of a girl exercising the super-powers of concentration and focus conferred by an Asperger’s condition that would have others hiding under a rock, suddenly had the movers and shakers shaking with fear. Some ganged up on her, attacked her parents, and even belittled the teenager as mentally deficient. Their cowardly desperation showed that they were more afraid of her than she of them.

All of that is relevant to today’s liturgy of the word. It’s about prayer understood as Greta- Thunberg-like alignment with Life’s processes. Regardless of what we might call it, such re-orientation can change the world and cause powerful enemies of justice to tremble even before those they see as the weakest among us.

More specifically, today’s readings trace biblical understandings of prayer from a voodoo-like practice intent on harming one’s enemies to the alignment with Life’s purposes just described. Here’s the way they run according to my own “translation.” Judge for yourself to see if I’ve got them right. You can read the originals here

 Long ago
When Israel’s primitive faith
Still pictured God
As a Man O’ War,
They magically imagined
A Yahweh persuaded
To slaughter their enemies
By Moses’ adoption
Of Wiccan postures,
Magic rocks
And feats of
Super-human endurance.
 
PS 121: 1-8
 
They were right,
Of course,
To intuit
That the Creator
Is eternally helpful
In protecting
The lives
And chosen paths
Of his creatures
Providing sunlight by day
And moonlight by night.
Divine power
Is always disposed
To help
The oppressed.
 
2 TM 3: 14-4:2
 
However, the mystic Paul
Had already
Ventured far beyond
His forebears’ voodoo.
Though he recognized
Israel’s written tradition
As inspired,
He also
Identified Jesus
As its ultimate interpreter.
For the Master,
Life’s Author
Was no Man O’ War
But a loving, patient, encouraging
Father.
 
HEB 4: 12
 
Deep in our hearts
We already knew
This to be true.
Thank you!
 
LK 18: 1-8
 
The comic Jesus
Even joked about
Those who thought
Of God as a cruel judge
Susceptible
To tiresome entreaties
And cowering before
Poor widows who
Might cuff him
About the ears
If he didn’t
Answer their petitions.
Better, he said
To “pray always”
In a quiet way
That matches
God’s unwavering disposal
To secure justice
For the oppressed.
No Man O’ War
No exhausting prayers
No Mosaic sorcerer
Here!

There are salutary lessons in those readings.

According to their vision, prayer does not mean persuading some Man in The Sky to change his mind to match our capricious whims. Instead, it’s the process of aligning our minds with the Universal Love that underpins all of reality and that in practice expresses itself in justice for widows, orphans, and immigrants – the traditional biblical protegees of God’s concern. Prayer is a habit of mind that doesn’t call for words or supplications, but for awareness of the places in life where love-as-justice is breaking in.

That love remains nearly invisible because of human attempts to obscure it with tropes about rugged individualism, survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog reality, and “nature red in tooth and claw.” Such worldly wisdom normalizes fear. Unlike Greta Thunberg, ordinary people adopting that normality become frightened and immobilized before terror -inspiring kings, presidents, bosses and judges.

Jesus’ parable of the widow and the judge turns that familiar dynamic on its head. It calls us to “pray always” in the sense earlier described. Then, once our minds are aligned with God’s loving purposes, we’re called to imitate the widow who insistently sought justice not from God, but from the judge “who neither feared God nor respected any human being.”

In other words, Love understood as Justice for the oppressed will drive us (as it did Greta and her Children’s Crusade) to petition, protest, demonstrate, and engage in the type of direct action that threatens such agents of injustice. Jesus’ joke about the judge’s fear that a poor widow might do him physical harm makes his point that the selfish ones who exercise power over us are more afraid of us than we of them.

So, today’s readings suggest, align with justice and then join Greta in the streets. Be as courageous as she. Become as a little child (MT 18:3). Frighten the hell out of those judges, presidents and worshippers of Moloch! Save the planet!  

Christianity is the Enemy of Humankind (Reflections on the Historical Jesus)

To the least

Last night I concluded a Lenten series of classes on the historical Jesus. As always, the course had its ups and downs. But it was faithfully attended by about 25 soul mates who, like me, remain fascinated by and somehow in love with Jesus of Nazareth.

At last evening’s final meeting, one of the participants – a fierce unflinching seeker of truth, asked the question in the back of everyone’s mind. “So what?” she asked. “If, as we have learned here, Jesus has been distorted beyond recognition by the early church (and especially by Paul and Constantine) why should we believe any of it?”

What a good question! It has forced me to pull together (for myself!) what I have learned from this latest round of studies of the historical Jesus. Let me express them in as clear an unvarnished a way as possible both positively and critically.

First of all, my positive learnings . . . . The study forced me to face the fact that the historical Jesus, un-obscured by later developments is the touchstone for authentic Christian faith. That is, the Jesus of history (vs. the Jesus of later doctrines) trumps all other conceptualizations in terms of being normative for Christian faith. The teachings of the historical Jesus were extremely simple: God is love. God is bread. Salvation consists in sharing food – bread and wine. A world with room for everyone (the Kingdom of God) is entirely possible. Empire is the anti-thesis of love and sharing. It uses religion to enslave. It finds Jesus message of liberation abhorrent. Empire is the enemy.

Second of all, my critical learnings . . . . If anything the Christian Testament makes it extremely difficult to locate the normative historical Jesus. In fact, the canonical gospels often contradict the basic revelations of Jesus. When this happens, those contradictions have to be faced, learned from, and set aside as merely illustrative of the way history and religion are routinely distorted by the rich and powerful. It is evidence of what people either used to believe before Jesus’ revelation, or what they came to believe when the faith of Jesus subsequently interacted with and was domesticated by other cultures and times.

More particularly, examination of the gospels makes it abundantly clear that following the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman War (66-73), the Jesus of history increasingly receded from Christian perception. In his place a Jesus of faith came to prominence. The two are at odds with each other. The Jesus of history strove to liberate the poor. The Jesus of faith became the servant of empire and the rich who run it.

The Jesus of history was a mystic, prophet, teacher, healer, and movement founder. He was intent on reforming Judaism whose leaders had sold Judaism’s soul to the Roman Empire transforming it into a religion of laws, rituals and obedience to the powerful. This Jesus called himself the “Son of Man,” not the “Son of God.” He was perceived by the poor as a “messiah” who would deliver his people from Roman domination. He proclaimed a new social order which he referred to as the “Kingdom of God.” There Rome’s domination model of social organization would be replaced by a sharing model. In God’s kingdom everything would be reversed: the rich would be poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first; prostitutes and “the unclean” would enter the new order before priests, the rich and the famous.

And although he shied away from accepting the conventional messianic identity associated with “The War” (against the Romans), Jesus’ program of “Good News for the poor” along with his healings and exorcisms confirmed that identification in the eyes of the marginalized and oppressed. It did the same for the Romans and their collaborators to such an extent that they ended up executing him as an insurgent.

The memory of this Jesus of history was preserved and celebrated by the Jerusalem community called “The Way” before its eradication in the horrendous Roman-Jewish War of 66 to 73CE. In obedience to Jesus, they adopted a communal life where food, drink, and material possessions were shared and held in common. Following Jesus’ death, some were even hoping for his “second coming” in their own lifetimes to complete the task of empire-destruction his execution had prevented him from fulfilling.

This prophetic Jesus was replaced by the Jesus of faith who emerged in the post-war world after the Jerusalem church and its leadership had been slaughtered by Rome. At this point, “The Way” (Jesus’ version of reformed Judaism) was replaced by “Christianity.” This religious movement was non-Jewish. It derived from the teaching of Paul of Tarsus (in Turkey) who never met the historical Jesus, and who thought of him in terms of God’s unique and only Son. Paul was a thoroughly Romanized Jewish rabbi intent on acquainting non-Jews with the Jesus he experienced in the visionary psychic experience recorded as his conversion on the Damascus Road.

By ignoring the Jesus of history, Paul’s experience and subsequent preaching laid the foundation for an understanding that centralized a Jesus understood as God’s only Son – a divine being who would have been (and was!) completely unacceptable to the fiercely monotheistic Jews. At the same time, this domesticated Jesus was not threatening to Rome. In fact, he was completely familiar to Romans resembling the “dying and rising gods” of Roman-Greco culture who offered “eternal life” beyond the grave rather than an anti-imperial Kingdom of God in the here and now. In other words, the Jesus of history was co-opted beyond recognition by the Roman Empire.

So what’s the take-away from the study of the historical Jesus? I think the following extremely important lessons:

1. History is unreliable. It has been distorted and manipulated by the powerful to suit their own needs. (If taken seriously, this in itself is an invaluable lesson.)

2. Hard work is required to find historical truth – not just about Jesus but about what happened yesterday!

3. Empire is the enemy. It is a system of robbery whereby the rich and powerful steal resources from the poor they oppress. It is entirely contrary to the will of God (the Principle of Life). It represents a “preferential option” for the rich and powerful. It is absolutely ruthless in its eternal war against the world’s poor and in falsifying history for its own benefit.

4. Those who resist empire can expect to be tortured and assassinated. Nonetheless, from time to time courageous and insightful prophets arise from the non-rich and non-powerful with Good News for the poor. Their very simple message: fullness of life is to be found not in empire, but among the poor and simple of the world (God’s people). Salvation, these prophets teach, consists in sharing the simple realities of bread and wine. In effect: God is Bread.

5. Among the west’s best known prophets of Jesus’ God are Moses, Jesus himself, Gandhi, Bartolommeo de las Casas, Karl Marx, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, and the nameless martyrs (so many of them women!) inspired over the last fifty years by liberation theology.

6. Most people are in denial about these simple facts. They are powerfully assisted in their denial by politicians, scholars, priests, and the media who make the teachings of the prophets extremely complicated. They have transformed the prophets’ message about sharing bread and fullness of life in the here and now into “religion” and a promise of life after death. As such, religion is the enemy of humankind. Christianity is the enemy!

7. Those who accept these learnings should leave institutionalized “religion,” band together, internalize the teachings of the historical Jesus and change the world!

Abram’s Self-Butchering God (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: Gn. 15:5-12, 17-18; Ps. 27:1, 7-9, 13-14; Phil. 3:17-4:1; Lk. M9:28B-36. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/022413.cfm

For the last several months I’ve been involved with an alternative faith community in central Kentucky. It calls itself the “Ecumenical Table.” It’s composed of people like me who for one reason or another find ourselves dissatisfied with our local church experiences.

In my own case, I find Sunday experiences in my Catholic parish irrelevant to my life and disconnected from reality in general. Here we are living in a world of rampant violence, widespread addictions, permanent war, torture, climate change, drone attacks on the innocent, and rather complete cultural disintegration, and yet in church none of these problems is even mentioned.

We pretend to be following the example of a Martyr who opposed empire and religious hypocrisy on the one hand, and who literally identified with the tortured and victims of capital punishment on the other. And still we carry on as though that Martyr, Jesus of Nazareth, was somehow like white bourgeois Americans and blessed our addiction to imperial overconsumption and violence. I find that painful to endure.

And so I find myself following the hallowed example of religious protesters (Protestants) over the last 2000 years, and looking for something better. Actually, I find myself following the example of the Jewish Testament’s Abram, and that of Jesus himself as he’s pictured in today’s gospel account of his transfiguration. Abram was himself looking for something better. And in today’s reading, he receives assurance that the One in whom we live and move and have our being would lead him there. For his part, Jesus of Nazareth, received reassurance in today’s gospel episode that his life as professional troublemaker was on the right track. Let me explain. . . .

Abram was an ancient sheik, who turned out to be the furthest back ancestor the Jews could remember. He originally lived in ancient Babylon but felt called to move off to the west, to start over, find a new homeland, and start a new independent tribe. He somehow felt that God was calling him to do all these things. Problem was, Abram was already advanced in years and his wife, Sarah, was beyond menopause. Still, he felt that God was promising him a large family – a tribe whose people would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.

In today’s readings, Abram evidently feels time is running out on God’s promise. The sheik is looking for reassurance. It comes in the form of a dream. The dream answers his question: how trustworthy is God? How far can you trust an agreement – a covenant – with this God who has promised him a large family? Can God be trusted to guide Abram as he starts over and begins a new life?

Abram’s question makes this tribal pastoralist dream of the most solemn human covenant he knew of – the “Covenant of Pieces.” According to tribal practice, when an inferior made an important agreement with a patron – say to transfer property, do work, fight a battle, or repay a debt – he had to go through an extremely graphic pledge ritual. The ceremony involved sacrificing animals from the client’s flock (in today’s reading a mature heifer, she goat and a ram along with a turtle dove and a pigeon). The inferior was to split the animals in two, and align the carcasses in rows so that they formed a path with one half the heifer’s carcass on the left and the other on the right, and the same with the she goat and ram. Then with the patron holding his hand, the client was to solemnly walk between the carcasses taking note of their dead rotting state, their putrid smell, and of the vultures flying overhead.

All of this was a reminder of the power the client was handing over to his patron. He was saying in effect, if I don’t keep my pledge, I’m giving you permission to do this to me and to my family. You can butcher us all and leave us to rot in the sun. That’s a pretty serious commitment. Sheik Abram could think of nothing more solemn, reassuring or binding.

So his dream which at first glance seems so strange and confusing to us was extremely comforting to him as a tribal pastoralist. It had God (in the form of fire and smoke) playing the role of client to Abram. God was performing the “pieces” ritual in Abram’s presence by running the gauntlet formed by rotting meat. That is if God did not keep his word, God was willing to be butchered! This, of course, could never happen. So the dream meant God could never not keep God’s word. A God willing to be butchered rather than break his word? Reassuring indeed!

Jesus obtains similarly strong reassurance from Abram’s Servant God in today’s reading from Luke. The young carpenter is on his way to Jerusalem. And something extremely risky is about to happen there. He’s determined to be part of it. The risky action has to do with the temple and Jesus’ dissatisfaction with what routinely happens there. (It was not unlike the dissatisfaction with church that I referenced earlier.)

The temple has become worse than irrelevant to the situation of his people living under Roman oppression. What happens there not only ignores Jewish political reality. The temple leadership has become the most important Jewish collaborator of the oppressing power. And Jesus has decided to address that intolerable situation.

Everyone knows that a big demonstration against the Romans is planned in Jerusalem for the weekend of Passover. There’ll be chanting mobs. The slogans are already set. “Hosanna, hosanna, in the highest” will be one chant. Another will be “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Hosanna” is the key word here. It means “save us!” The Romans won’t notice that the real meaning is “Save us from the Romans.” “Restore an independent Israel – like David’s kingdom!”

Jesus has heard that one of the main organizers of the demonstration is the guerrilla Zealot called Barabbas. Barabbas doesn’t call what’s planned a “demonstration.” He prefers the term “The Uprising” or “ the Insurrection” (Mk. 15). Barabbas has a following as enthusiastic as that of Jesus. After all, Barabbas is a “sicarius” – a guerrilla whose solemn mission is to assassinate Roman soldiers. His courage has made him a hero to the crowds. (John Dominic Cross compares him to the Mel Gibson character in “The Patriot.”)

Jesus’ assigned part in the demonstration will be to attack the Temple and symbolically destroy it. He plans to enter the temple with his friends and disrupt business as usual. They’ll all shout at the money-changers whose business exploits the poor. They’ll turn over their tables. As a proponent of non-violence, they’re thinking not in Barabbas’ terms of “uprising,” but of forcing God’s hand to bring in the Lord’s “Kingdom” to replace Roman domination. Passover, the Jewish holiday of national independence could not be a more appropriate time for the planned event. Jesus is thinking in terms of “Exodus.”

And yet, this peasant from Galilee is troubled by it all. What if the plan doesn’t work and God’s Kingdom doesn’t dawn this Passover? What if the Romans succeed in doing what they’ve always done in response to uprisings and demonstrations? Pilate’s standing order to deal with lower class disturbances is simply to arrest everyone involved and crucify them all as terrorists. Why would it be different this time? Like Abram before him, Jesus has doubts.

So before setting out for Jerusalem, he takes his three closest friends and ascends a mountain for a long night of prayer. He’s seeking reassurance before the single most important act in his life. As usual, Peter, James and John soon fall fast asleep. True to form they are uncomprehending and dull.

However, while the lazy fall into unconsciousness, the ever-alert and thoughtful Jesus has a vision. Moses appears to him, and so does Elijah. (Together they represent the entire Jewish scriptural testament – the law and the prophets.) This means that on this mountain of prayer, Jesus considers his contemplated path in the light of his people’s entire tradition.

Last week, we saw in the reading from Deuteronomy 26, that tradition centered on the Exodus. Fittingly then, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah “discuss” what is about to take place in Jerusalem. Or as Luke puts it, “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Jesus Exodus!

It is easy to imagine Moses’ part in the conversation. That would be to remind Jesus of the chances Moses took when he led the original Exodus from Egypt. That might have failed too. Elijah’s part was likely to recall for Jesus the “prophet script” that all prophets must follow. That script has God’s spokespersons speaking truth to power and suffering the inevitable consequences. Elijah reminds Jesus: So what if Barabbas and those following the path of violence are defeated again? So what if Jesus’ non-violent direct action in the temple fails to bring in the Kingdom? So what if Jesus is arrested and crucified? That’s just the cost of doing prophetic business. Despite appearances to the contrary, Abram’s faithful God will somehow triumph in the end.

Is there a message here for us – in the experience of Abram and of Jesus, both of them seeking reassurance as they embark on risky paths in response to a compassionate Servant God? Is there hidden meaning for those of us who like Abram are seeking a new home and “church” community blessed by a God who would rather die than be unfaithful? Is there a message here for followers of the Nazarene rabbi who cannot separate worship and political commitment and activism?

Those are the kind of questions Christians should ask and discuss around Ecumenical Tables everywhere on this Second Sunday of Lent.

(Discussion follows)

Jesus as Self-Hating Jew!

Readings for Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: NEH 8; 2-6, 8-10; Ps. 19: 8-10, 15; I Cor. 12: 12-30; Lk. 1:1-4; 4: 14-21 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/012713.cfm

Last week I published an editorial on my blog site that was picked up by the Lexington Herald-Leader (http://www.kentucky.com/2013/01/19/2482073/ky-voices-the-chosen-people-are.html) and by OpEdNews (http://www.opednews.com/articles/Unconditional-Support-for-by-Mike-Rivage-Seul-130118-813.html.) It was about Chuck Hegel and the criticism he has endured from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and people like Elliot Abrams, the former Undersecretary of State for Human Rights in the Reagan administration.

Hegel had been nominated for Secretary of Defense by President Obama. Abrams and the others had criticized the nominee for being insufficiently supportive of Israel and therefore unfit for the “Sec Def” position. Hegel’s critics were looking for “unconditional support” for Israel, and didn’t find it in President Obama’s candidate. Their criticism was so effective that Hegel has since been forced to apologize for his past criticisms of the Jewish-Zionist Lobby.

Many Christians probably felt vindicated by Hegel’s groveling before his Jewish critics. After all, they might reason, Israel is God’s Chosen People; they deserve unconditional support.

However, today’s liturgy of the word underlines the point I tried to make in my op-ed: the phrase “God’s Chosen People” does not primarily refer to a national entity, but to the poor and oppressed.

Biblically speaking, it is true that Israel did fit that profile at the time of its origin – in Egyptian slavery (13th century B.C.E.) – and later during its captivity in Babylon (6th century B.C.E.). They were oppressed as well as when Israel was under the control of the Assyrians (8th century), Persians (6th century), Greeks (2nd century), and Romans (1st century). Then, precisely as oppressed, they were the object of God’s special love and protection.

At Mt. Zion, Moses enshrined in the law protection of people like them – slaves, widows,orphans, immigrants, the imprisoned, and the poor.

That’s the Law that the scribe, Ezra is recorded as reading to the people for hours in today’s first reading. They had just returned from exile in Babylon. For them “The Law” (the first five books of the Bible) was a source of joy and strength. After all, those books recounted what for Jews was the liberation of all liberations – from Egypt under the leadership of the great rebel hero, Moses. With Ezra in charge, they were celebrating the end of a long and painful experience in the geographical area that is now “Iraq.” Ezra reminded the assembled people that in their return to the Promised Land, they were experiencing Exodus all over again. Indeed, he said, it was a time for celebration – eating rich meats and drinking sweet drinks.

Today’s second and third readings pick up on Ezra’s theme – that God favors the poor and oppressed. However both Jesus and Paul do so emphasizing the point that Yahweh’s favored ones are not always Jews. When Jesus said that in his hometown synagogue, it enraged his former neighbors. (Their response reminds me of Elliot Abrams and the AIPAC demanding “unconditional support” for Israel.)

By the way, did you notice the strangeness of the reading from Luke’s gospel today? It starts out with the very first verses of Luke, verses 1-4. There the evangelist announces his intention – to carefully draw on the oral traditions of eyewitnesses and present an orderly researched account of what Jesus said and did.

But then the reading suddenly jumps ahead to Luke chapter 4 and presents Jesus’ preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. That gives the impression that Jesus’ first significant act was that Nazareth sermon. Perhaps it was – since Luke’s “infancy narratives” belong more to the realm of poetic imagination than of history.

Today’s reading also leaves out the response of those who heard Jesus’ words in Nazareth. (And that’s where the theme of “chosen people” becomes relevant.) Verses 22-30 tell us that the Nazarenes were outraged by Jesus’ implied criticism of Jews and his openness to non-Jews. After all, he had charged that prophets like Elijah and Elisha found more receptivity to their work in Lebanon (Sidon) and Syria than they found among Jews in Israel.

“Who does this guy think he is?” the Nazarenes asked indignantly. “We know his family; he’s nothing special. Yet here he is speaking critically about his own people! He must be one of those ‘self-hating Jews’.” Luke says Jesus’ hometown citizens were so outraged that they tried to kill him. (Chuck Hegel is in good company!)

Jesus’ words before the Nazarene’s attempted assassination do not merely underline the identity of God’s chosen as the poor and oppressed rather than exclusively the Jews. The words are also central in terms of Luke’s definition of Jesus’ entire project. In fact they connect that project with God’s very identity as described throughout the Jewish Testament particularly by the prophet Isaiah whose words Jesus quotes: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.”

Did you notice the importance of the word “because?” It absolutely identifies the “Spirit of the Lord” with Ezra’s good news to the poor about release from captivity and recovery of sight? Jesus is saying we know that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon” him because he brings good news to the poor, those in captivity and the blind. Jesus goes on to say that his commitment to the poor is what will define his entire mission. (The implication here is that anyone who brings good news to the poor, those in captivity and the blind embodies the Spirit of God.)

Today’s excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Greeks in Corinth continues that theme of Isaiah, Ezra, and Jesus. Only Paul does so in terms of a familiar yet powerful metaphor – what he calls the “Body of Christ” enlivened by the “One Spirit” of God. For Paul followers of Jesus constitute the way the Master is present today long after Jesus’ death. As that presence, we are Jesus’ hands, feet, eyes, ears, and tongue. And Paul specifically says it makes no difference whether one is Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.

What does make a difference though is one’s social standing. Paul goes out of his way to say that the “less honorable” and the “less presentable” in Christ’s body are to be more honored and cared for than the more presentable and more honorable according to the standards of the world. The weaker parts, he says are somehow “more necessary” than the stronger parts. This could hardly be a clearer reference to the poor and those who are normally neglected and looked down upon. Here Paul is following the thrust of Jesus’ words and deeds by turning the social order upside-down. The poor and oppressed come first in God’s order.

Today’s readings are calling us to grow out of our nationalism that understands Jews or Americans as God’s favorites. They call us to become citizens of the world – or in Jesus’ words to be cured of our blindness.

He wants us to finally see, the readings suggest, that the Jews as such are not God’s people. Neither are Americans. In God’s eyes, (despite the protests of our politicians and talking heads) our country is not the greatest in the world. For in the body of Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, American, Afghani, Iraqi or Cuban.

Instead, true followers of Christ recognize that our allegiance belongs to the Body of Christ. This means that our care should be showered on the widows, orphans, undocumented immigrants, beggars, and social outcasts – LGBTQs, victims of AIDS, mothers on welfare, and on Mother Earth herself. These are the poor and oppressed. These are God’s people.

Our presence at this Eucharist represents our pledge to put the needs of those groups and individuals before our own.

Given the numbers of those who claim to be Christian, if we followed through on that pledge, how drastically different our world would be! Don’t you agree?

Jesus Decides to Redeem His Wasted Life (Sunday’s Homily)

Readings for Feast of Baptism of the Lord: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/011313.cfm

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In that context, let’s think about baptism and the differences between the understandings we’ve inherited and those reflected in the practice of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Those differences hold practical implications for our own lives as we wrestle with a faith that may have lost meaning for us, and as we struggle with the relative smallness and insignificance of our lives.

To begin with, think about traditional beliefs about baptism. If you’re like me, you may find them hard to swallow. A friend of mine, theologian Tony Equale, has recently pointed out that theology doesn’t really determine worship patterns. Instead superstitious temple and church rituals have shaped our beliefs. Practice determines belief, not the other way around. (See http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/the-religiosity-of-the-people/)

What my friend means is that theology’s job has traditionally been to rationalize what people actually do in their efforts to tame life and achieve contact with the numinous, the mysterious, and the transcendent. They sacrifice chickens, behead bullocks, or vivisect lambs and then burn the animals’ carcasses. The smoke thus ‘feeds’ the Gods who are believed to need nourishment, placation, and cajoling in order to do the will of the people and their priests. Those congregations actually turn out to be more intelligent than the God who must be informed of their needs and what is best for their welfare. That’s superstition.

Catholic beliefs around baptism and the “sacrifice of the Mass” are cases in point. They were actually formed by the People’s credulous practice of baptism which was informed more by ancient ideas of all-powerful angry Gods than by Jesus’ radical teaching that God is Love. I mean early on, in a time of very high rates of infant mortality, popular belief came to see infant baptism as necessary to somehow save deceased children from a hell created by a threatening God.

This practice of the people rather than reflection on the words and deeds of Jesus led St. Augustine at the beginning of the 5th century to theorize that people have been born guilty – at enmity with God. Augustine thought that since children were condemned even before any personal sin on their parts, they must be born in sin. And that must be, Augustine reasoned, because they had inherited sin from their forebears and ultimately from the first human beings, Adam and Eve. Because of that “original sin,” God is justly angry with humans.

Now, as I said, the ancients believed that sacrifice was necessary to placate an angry God like that. So, in the Roman world, where sacrifice was understood in the terms I’ve just explained, Jesus’ death eventually became to be seen as a sacrifice whose primary purpose was to secure God’s approval of the Roman state. In this way, the “Mass” was transformed from a memorial meal to a re-enactment of Jesus’ sacrificial death. It was moved from a table with friends gathered around sharing food, to a “sacrifice” performed at an “altar” by a priest with his back turned to the people who watched the show from afar.

This Mass differed very little from what Romans were used to before Christianity became the state’s official religion in 381. In fact, it is entirely possible that ordinary people saw no difference between the “Mass” and the religious ritual they had been accustomed to when Jupiter or Mithra were worshipped as the official Gods of Rome. In other words, Christianity was transformed by the Roman Empire rather the empire being transformed by Christianity. There was a “theogony,” a battle of the Gods, between Jupiter and the Bible’s Yahweh; and Jupiter won. We’ve been worshipping him ever since.

How different all this is from what happens to Jesus at the baptism which today’s liturgy of the word celebrates! (And that brings me to my point about meaning in our seemingly wasted lives.) In today’s gospel, there is nothing suggesting “original sin.” Nor is Jesus presented as the incarnation of a God who needs to be mollified by sacrifice. Rather, Jesus comes as a disciple of John. (Scripture scholars tell us that John’s words about his inferiority before Jesus were inventions of the early church in a Jewish context where many still believed that John rather than Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.)

So at the age of 30 or so, this young peasant from Nazareth presents himself for a ritual washing at the prophet’s hands in the legendary Jordan River. In Israel’s idealized past, that river had been crossed by slaves escaped from Egypt who on the river’s opposite shore found the “Promised Land” that became their national home. Eventually that crossing came to be understood as transforming a motley horde of renegade slaves into a unified nation of free people at the service of the God who had liberated them from demeaning servitude.

John’s practice of baptism in the Jordan (far from the corruption of the priests’ Temple and its endless sacrifices) summoned his Jewish contemporaries to reclaim their ancient identity that had been lost by the priests and scribes who had sold out to Roman re-enslavement of a once proud and liberated people.

John’s was a revivalist movement of Jewish reform. Those presenting themselves for baptism were expressing a desire to return to their religious roots and to alter their lives in a profound way.

Evidently, that’s why Jesus came to be baptized too. This country boy who (according to Luke’s “infancy narratives”) had begun his life with such promise is now about 30 years old. Perhaps in view of his parents’ expectations of him, his life so far seemed wasted. Perhaps he had resolved to finally make a difference. In any case, by approaching John in the Jordan’s waters, he expresses an intense need for change in his life. He wants to be John’s follower.

So John performs his baptismal ritual. And the miraculous happens. An epiphany occurs for Jesus. He hears a voice. It informs him that he is a child of God. Immediately he sets out on a vision quest to discover what those words might mean. Forty days of prayer and fasting bring on the visions – of angels and devils, of temptations, dangers and possibilities.

In the light of his desert experience, Jesus chooses not only to follow John as the leader of a reform movement. He chooses as well to follow Moses as the liberator of an enslaved people. He has truly crossed the Jordan. So he brings his message to the captive poor. Like him, they too are children of God — God’s specially chosen people. God’s kingdom belongs to them, he says, not to their rich oppressors. The poor must not allow themselves to be misled by the stultifying and domesticating doctrines of the priests and scribes. That was the thrust of Jesus’ teaching.

Coherent acts follow Jesus’ words. He discovers wondrous healing powers within himself. By touch, by faith, by his friendship, he cures stinking lepers, dirty beggars, street walkers who have lost their self-respect, the deaf, the dumb, the blind and lame. Jesus eats food with the social outcasts and street people of his day, sharing nourishment the way God does – without cost or expectation of reciprocation. Jesus finds himself explaining the mysterious, transcendent and ineffable in unforgettable stories that capture the imaginations of simple people hungry for the spiritual sustenance that he offers – that he embodies. No wonder his early followers tried to imitate Jesus by choosing John’s baptism as a sign of membership in their community and by following the Master’s example of sharing food the way God does in their re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper.

That was the understanding of baptism and Lord’s Supper that the first generations of Christians embraced. But it didn’t last long. Within a few generations (and especially after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century) the superstitions I referenced earlier had replaced the understanding and practice of Jesus and the Baptist. Soon baptism became an instrument for saving babies from original sin and hell. Soon the Lord’s Supper became the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” differing very little in ritual and spirit from offerings to Jupiter and Mithra.

Today’s liturgy of the word calls us beyond all of that. It summons us to follow Jesus who shows us the way to truly change our lives. Change comes by leaving behind the superstitious faith that supports empires past and present. Transformation comes when we share our food with each other and with the poor. It happens by committing ourselves to the “other world” represented by God’s Kingdom that has room for everyone, not just for the 1% served by our own churches, priests, scribes and their superstitious rituals.

Today’s liturgy of the word summons us to the banks of the Jordan to stand with Jesus and to hear God’s voice calling us from what has been so far wasted in our lives. Like Jesus, we are daughters and sons of God. We are beloved by the God of Love. Jesus’ example reminds us that It’s not too late to change our commitments and way of life.

After all (if we take our tradition literally) Jesus redeemed the insignificance of his own life in a single meaningful year – or maybe it was three.

Jesus Calls the Rich Man to Practice Wealth Redistribution (And “Communism”)

Today’s Readings: Wis. 7:7-11; Ps. 90: 12-17; Heb. 4: 12-13; Mk. 10:17-30 (http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/101412.cfm)

On October 19th, 1998, President Barrack Obama speaking at Loyola University in Chicago said that he believed in wealth redistribution. In this campaign season, the president’s opponents have revived that statement and denounced it as “Marxist,” “socialist,” “communist” and “un-American.”  Opponents also characterized Mr. Obama’s words as inciting class warfare. Please keep that in mind as I speak.

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It is very difficult to understand Jesus’ words in today’s gospel about the impossibility of rich people entering the Kingdom of God as long as we identify that kingdom with an after-life “heaven.” If we do that, then Jesus’ words about the exclusion of the rich from God’s kingdom seem very threatening, punitive, and almost unfair – as though a severe and angry God were unreasonably excluding the rich from the eternal happiness they desire and sending them all to hell. We’re all too familiar with that understanding of God. Most of us have had enough of it.

But Jesus wasn’t a punitive person; he was compassion itself. And the focus of his preaching was never the afterlife. His reference to “heaven” in today’s gospel is a circumlocution Jews of his time used to avoid pronouncing the unspeakable holy name YHWH. The “Kingdom of Heaven” was synonymous with the Kingdom of God — a vision of what life on earth would be like if God were king instead of Caesar.

According to that vision, everything would be reversed in God’s realm. The rich would see themselves as poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first. Jesus’ was a vision of a world with room for everyone – where everyone had a decent share of the pie. He knew however that getting from here to there would require wealth-redistribution and a kind of communism. Hence Jesus’ words to the rich man in today’s gospel, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor.”

Just think about what Jesus meant in Jewish biblical terms.  He was asking the rich man to join the poor in a “Jubilee Year” as mandated in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, in his world characterized by extortionist creditors and money-lenders, in his world of extremes of wealth and poverty that “Year of Grace” became the central point of Jesus’ message.

Recall what Jubilee was. It was a divinely appointed time of wealth redistribution. Such a year occurred every fifty years (i.e. after every “seven weeks of years,” or once in a person’s lifetime). During that special year, the land was to be left fallow, slaves were to be set free, debts were to be cancelled, and land was to be returned to its original owner. This was not voluntary; it had been central to God’s law since the time of Moses as recorded in Leviticus 25:8-18. In other words, this type of communism had been essential to the Jewish tradition from the very beginning.

Jubilee was also a critical part of Jesus teaching from the outset. That’s what he was talking about in Luke’s version of Jesus’ first preaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19). There, using the words of Isaiah 61:1-2, he summed up the program that would characterize his entire public life: to “…proclaim release to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Jesus’ proclamation of Jubilee was sanctioned in the prayer he taught his disciples: “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Of course the rich don’t want to enter the kingdom of wealth redistribution and debt forgiveness. So they enthusiastically or sadly but almost inevitably exclude themselves. They prefer the poor enjoying pie in the sky after they die rather than here on earth. The rich don’t like wealth redistribution; they have no use for communism. So they willingly walk away from Jesus’ utopia just as the rich man did in today’s gospel. They enclose themselves in their gated communities and from their verandas judge the poor as unworthy – as their enemies instead of as God’s Chosen People. And so it’s nearly impossible for the rich to enter the Kingdom — by their own choice.

Nearly!  That is, Jesus leaves hope. When his disciples object, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answers, “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.”  That is, without God’s help, it is impossible for the rich to redistribute their wealth.  Jesus’ joke was that it’s about as impossible as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Someone today might say, a rich man’s opting for wealth redistribution or communal sharing is about as unlikely as Warren Buffett squeezing through the night deposit slot in the Chase Manhattan Bank. But with God’s help, Jesus suggests, even old Warren could find the strength to actually sell his goods, give them to the poor, and follow Jesus. Metaphorically speaking, even W.B. could actually squeeze through.

Once inside, Jesus promises, the miraculous occurs: to their surprise, the rich discover that in giving all away, they end up with unlimited wealth, houses and possessions. That promise reflects the experience of the earliest Christian communities as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. There they practiced a kind of Christian communism. Or in the words of Acts:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to any as had need.”  (Acts 4:32-36).

Those are the words of the Bible not of Marx or Engels. In other words the formula “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” comes straight from the Acts of the Apostles. Yet, those critical of President Obama’s statement about wealth redistribution speak as though Jesus were a champion of capitalism. It’s almost as if the passage from Acts had read:

Now the whole group of those who believed lived in fierce competition with one another, and made sure that the rights of private property were respected. They expelled from their midst any who practiced communalism. As a consequence, God’s ‘invisible hand’ brought great prosperity to some. Many however found themselves in need. The Christians responded with ‘tough love’ demanding that the lazy either work or starve. Many of the unfit, especially the children, the elderly and those who cared for them did in fact starve. Others raised themselves by their own bootstraps, and became stronger as a result. In this way, the industrious increased their land holdings and banked the profits. The rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Of course, all of this was seen as God’s will and a positive response to the teaching of Jesus.

On a world scale, most of us hearing these words are rich. Jesus’ advice to the man in today’s gospel is actually addressed to us. In order to enter the kingdom, we are called to somehow redistribute our wealth and support wealth redistribution programs. How are we to do that? Some would say by strictly voluntary “charity.” Jesus Jubilee proclamation suggests something more structural – something demanded by law.

Does that have anything to do with Warren Buffet’s idea of the rich and the rest of us paying our fair share of taxes? If used to improve the life of the poor rather than to fight wars against them, could progressive taxation represent the contemporary way of fulfilling Jesus’ injunction?

Ironically, is Warren Buffet trying to show us the way to squeeze thorough that night deposit slot? What do you think?

(Discussion follows)

Plucking Out Eyes and Cutting off Hands and Feet

Today’s Readings: Nm 11:25-29; Ps 19:8, 10, 12-14; Jas. 5:1-6; Mk. 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48

This, of course, is the “political season,” and debate is heating up. All the candidates claim to be followers of Jesus. Governor Romney is a Mormon. Paul Ryan is Catholic. President Obama’s affiliation is with the United Church of Christ. Like his Republican counterpart, Joe Biden is Catholic.

And that’s confusing, because often it’s precisely as “religious,” and specifically as being Christian that the candidates explain their policies.  In the name of Jesus, Republicans speak of individual independence, personal responsibility, “tough love” and of riches as God’s blessing as though such orientations represented the attitude of Jesus.  On the other hand, Democrats talk about compassion, community identity and “we’re all in this together” solidarity in the same way. In the end, however, both parties explain their policies in terms of their impact on the “one percent” and on the “middle class.” Virtually no one utters a word about “the poor.”

Today’s liturgy of the word calls into question such silence about the real People of God. Using the images of Moses and Jesus, this Sunday’s readings remind us that both the Jewish and the Christian Testaments describe a God whose people are the Poor. Moreover, the readings supply us with criteria that turn out to be useful for critiquing candidates’ discourse during this political season. In the first reading from the Book of Numbers, Moses declares that whoever speaks and acts like him has the right to prophesy (i.e. speak in God’s name) even if he or she hasn’t been officially approved. In the Gospel, Jesus says something similar. He says “Whoever is not against us is for us.” That is, no one should be silenced whose message is in line with Jesus’ own. Then today’s second reading, the author of the Letter of James specifically identifies the policies that are in line with the teachings of Moses and Jesus. We do well to take all three readings very seriously.

As for the reading from Numbers, it helps to remember who Moses was.  Though born a slave, Moses was raised in the Pharaoh’s palace. However as a young adult, when he saw an Egyptian overlord mistreating a slave, he recognized himself in the abused slave, and experienced a kind of personal conversion. So Moses fled his comfortable palace home and took off for the desert. There he discovered a Nameless God whose single desire was that Egypt’s slaves be freed. That God persuaded Moses to overcome his fear and self-doubt to confront the Pharaoh himself and demand the freedom of Egypt’s slaves. “Let my people go,” was the message of the God on whose behalf Moses prophesied.

Today’s first reading says wherever Moses’ spirit of identification with the poor and oppressed appears, it represents the Spirit of God. Would that all people of faith, Moses says in the reading, would share his spirit and speak out on behalf of the poor (i.e. prophetically). No one needs special appointment to do that, Moses says. To qualify as prophet, it’s enough to be a human being who recognizes solidarity with the least.

Jesus echoes Moses in today’s Gospel selection. It helps to recall who he was too. Jesus was a Galilean peasant from an extremely poor background.  He was born in Nazareth of Galilee, a community of about 24 families. Jesus was originally a follower of the great prophet, John the Baptist. He actually took over the Baptist’s movement after John was executed by King Herod of Galilee.

Jesus’ prophetic message was not about himself, but about the Kingdom of God which was good news for the poor (“anawim” in the Jewish Testament). That news said that God was on their side.  (It was in no way about the rich who are “poor in spirit.”) In fact, according to Jesus, the only way for the rich to enter the kingdom was for them to adopt the perspective of the poor, support them in their struggle against oppression, and to share their own wealth with the indigent.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says that anyone with a message not contrary to his proclamation of a kingdom belonging to the poor, the prostitutes and tax collectors is on his side. Standing with Jesus doesn’t depend on official approval Jesus’ disciples were so concerned about. We’d say, it doesn’t depend on religious affiliation – whether one is a Mormon, a Catholic, or a member of the United Church of Christ. Jesus’ own words say it best: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

However, the reverse is also true. That is, whoever’s message is against Jesus’ message of identification and solidarity with the poor cannot claim to stand with him. Here’s where the words of James come through so strongly.  They represent harsh criticism of the rich and of those who, like both Republicans and Democrats, implement policies that favor the rich while imposing austerity measures on the poor.

Have you been listening to the readings from James over the past number of weeks? They are so harsh in their criticism of the rich. In fact, their harshness rivals Jesus’ own words about the wealthy – “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Elsewhere Jesus reveals a clear class-consciousness. In Luke he says, “Blessed are you poor,” and “Woe to you rich! You have received your reward.” Erich Fromm has referred to the Letter from James – so faithful to the spirit of Jesus himself – as the clearest expression in the ancient world of the disdain of the poor for their overlords – the rich, the learned and the powerful.

The disdain continues in today’s excerpt from James. Be aware that he is addressing rich Christians – people of faith who thought of themselves as their community’s most respectable members. He mentions specifically employers who pay slave wages to their workers and as a result amass great fortunes. Does that sound like the globalized order that both Republicans and Democrats support? The fact is that the huge fortunes that allow 225 people to own as much as nearly half the world (nearly 3 billion people) are made from exploitation of the world’s most vulnerable.

However, in God’s eyes, James warns, such accumulation is for naught. In the Great Reversal represented by the Kingdom of God, the silver and gold of the wealthy will have corroded. Their fine clothes will have turned to moth-eaten rags. It will become evident that they were not God’s people at all. In Jesus’ fearfully poetic words, they will be cut off from the Body of the Faithful like unwanted hands or feet; they will be cast out onto Jerusalem’s garbage heap everyone knew as “Gehenna.”

Those words about cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes are written for us too – even for us who are not in the 1% that controls more than 40% of the world’s resources and wealth. The words of course are hyperbolic. They’re about the harsh choices we all have to make in following Jesus. If the food we take with our hands is produced by those underpaid workers James talks about, we have to stop eating it. “Cut off your hands” is the way Jesus puts it. If our eyes make us envious of others possessions produced by the same processes of exploitation, we have to “pluck them out.” Stop looking! Stop consuming! And if our feet need to travel despite the impact of modern motorized journeys on the environment, we told to “cut them off” and throw them on the garbage heap. These are hard, challenging words that call us all to self-examination and repentance.

“Make the hard radical choices necessary to follow me” is what Jesus commands. What radical choices do you think today’s readings are calling you to make personally?

Discussion follows

Don’t miss Monday’s posting on the historical Jesus.