What is the Better Part?

marthaandmary-1The story of Martha and Mary is like an old friend. As women, sometimes we feel like Martha and sometimes Mary. What is there to tease from this periscope that hasn’t been said again and again?

I’m a liberation theology student and have read a fair number of learned tombs on the subject. One that I never got around to is the perhaps “bible” for women’s liberation theology, In Memory of Her, the groundbreaking work by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Dr. Fiorenza is no doubt the most famous of all women in the work of retrieving women’s voice in the early church.

I thought it might be useful to use that lens of women’s liberation theology to look at the story and see what insights one might gain.

As far as we know, all the books of the bible were written by men, men who lived in a time and place in which patriarchy was the norm. Roles were highly gendered, and sexes were often segregated in the home and in the synagogue. Women were lumped with children in their general irrelevancy in decision-making and in leadership.

Of course the role of Martha was the norm in the Palestine of Jesus’ time. Women were servers of men. They were in charge of the hearth. We see this in the initial story from Genesis wherein the strangers visit Abraham. The code of hospitality requires Abraham to make strangers comfortable, to feed and lodge them as needed. Note that Abraham doesn’t do the work himself, he orders his servant to slay the steer and prepare the meat while he tells Sarah to get busy making the bread. The man, Abraham of course entertains the guests while others do the work of hospitality.

Similarly Martha gets about the business of preparing food for Jesus and those of his followers who have arrived. Such a large entourage, no doubt there was much to be done. But Luke introduces something new here, Mary, who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him. Luke’s readers or listeners surely would have seen nothing untoward in the Martha end of things, but they must have been taken aback by Mary’s unusual behavior.

Women in that time did not eat with men, and they surely didn’t sit in on men’s conversations. So Mary’s actions surely got everyone’s attention when the story was first heard. Martha’s actions are what would be expected as well. She is put out by having to do all the work herself.

Martha seeks assistance from a male in getting Mary back to her business of helping in the kitchen. This again might be the norm  since it would have been unusual for women to live alone (we believe they had a brother Lazarus  from the Gospel of John. Although John was written well after Luke’s account and it is never a good idea to conflate Gospels to “fill in the blanks”, it would be more likely that the women did not live alone than not). Yet Martha seeks out Jesus rather than the male of the household to make her complaints.

Jesus here is suggesting, that women should be part of the preaching and teaching diakonia. It was service of a different kind. Jesus, through Luke, announces that in this area, his followers are to be different as well. Women were not simply in the background, ducking in and out discretely as they tended to the food and drink of those men who were about the business of spreading the gospel. Women were to learn too, and thus to be ministers of the Word.

Luke’s framing of the story suggests that the early communities were conflicted on this issue of women serving in teaching, preaching and leadership. And Luke seems to come down kind of in the middle.

What is disturbing in the text is the manufactured fight between women. Surely diakonia involved  serving at table (eucharist), listening to the Word (and resultant preaching) and leadership within the community (Martha welcomes Jesus to her home). Yet Luke manages to split the combined diaconate and make Martha’s “part” of it lesser and somewhat derogatory by reference to the “better part” of Mary’s service. This must have echoed the fight going on within the church itself a the time of Luke’s writing.

As well, Luke makes Mary’s service a “listening” and inactive service. While to sit around at the feet of the rabbi was a full-interchange of back and forth between teacher and disciple, we see none of that in Luke. Again, even though the listening is more important that the diaconate of table service, it has been reduced to being “preached to” rather than to be educated to preach.

Thus we get the watered down vision that learning the word of God is more important than the normal business of everyday life. This is what is often preached in the pulpits of our churches. This is, I would suggest, superficial and really a misunderstanding of what is going on here. Luke has served to deflate the argument going on about what is “woman’s place” by turning the entire story to one that reflects nothing about the role of women at all, but merely suggests that listening to the word of God is always preferable to doing everyday things. In doing so, we miss the real and very shocking teaching that Jesus actually expressed.

Amen.

 

Give Them Some Food Yourselves

breadIt is ironic in a sense that one of the greater divides between Catholic and Protestant is over the issue of the Eucharist. Here, Catholics are most literal, taking the “institution of the Eucharist” to be the actual eating of the blood and flesh of Christ, while most Protestants see it as a symbolic act of remembrance.

To be honest, the Protestants are closer to the mark exegetically. While Matthew relates the story of the Last Supper in a “bread = body” fashion, Luke and Paul frame it as a “remembrance”. Quite frankly it should not matter at all, since if we wish to talk about the mystery of Christ’s presence to us as Christians, the how is singularly not important.

What is important is the stage being set. The table was a place where differences were set aside, weapons left at the door, where people were in a sense forced to confront each others as equals–nourishing the body.

The history of table hospitality in the Middle East is well-known. In such a harsh environment, even enemies broke bread together as a means of survival. It was not all equality of course, there were heads of the tables often, and women and children were separated, eating after the men were through. Food was life at its most basic, and Jesus spared no opportunity to connect food and eating with teaching.

When people are chewing, they can listen.

I see the Eucharist as a time when for a few moments my thoughts are utterly aligned with my God. I choose to believe that God comes to me in some precious way through the bread and wine. I do not examine that process for the process doesn’t actually matter. Is this not why we pause, (those of us who do) at the beginning of a meal to silently or otherwise, give praise to God for what we are about to consume?  We have internalized the importance of meal, of table fellowship, even if that fellowship only includes ourselves and the Lord.

When Jesus has been teaching and the disciples urge him to send people away to find something to eat, he teaches an important lesson: give them some food yourselves. In this salient sentence, Jesus draws us together as community, making us each responsible for all, including feeding each other.

For in the feeding of others, we feed ourselves.

When the disciples answer Jesus’ directive, they say what we are wont to say: “Five loaves and two fishes are all we have.

We rebel. We start by turning inward, counting what we have, and finding we don’t have enough to share. We look about as dumb animals. What to do now?

Do with what you have! Amazing things happen when you just start doing, without fretting about how little you have.

Every revolution starts with the desire of one person to take one step in a new direction.

One in five humans is hungry in the world. One in five children in this country doesn’t get enough to eat. Our food banks are stretched to their limits every week. Men and women sit along our roadsides, along our city streets, hungry. Twenty-five percent of our veterans are homeless, living on the streets, unable to work and dependent upon soup kitchens, garbage receptacles, and the largess of passerby’s.

Food is life. All our actions regarding food can be and should be a Eucharistic event for us. The gardening we so love, the shopping and choosing of just the right melon, the careful preparation, presentation, all these are Eucharistic moments. We can treat these times as Holy deliberately and prayerfully, opening our hearts and minds to God’s presence.  Food can continue to teach us.

With each can of soup, we realize that it would feed another. Is it so much to ask that we save aside a few cans a week and once a month deliver them to a pantry? Is it too much to send a monthly check of a few dollars to your local mission or shelter?

And if I may ask you, please, please, when you do such things, hold them in your own heart. Your God knows, and that is all that need know. Only the Pharisees find the need to tell others of their giving. For no matter how much you give, others give more, and others are prevented from giving as much only because they have even less than you claim to have. You shame them, and yourself when you brag of your offerings.

Give them some food yourselves.

Amen.

 

 

What of This Thing Called Unity?

UnityI read a statistic some years ago. If anything, the number has probably grown larger.

At that time, there were some 35,000 different “Christian” churches throughout the world.

Think of that. In two thousand years, the Christian community has managed to splinter into so many diverse belief systems, that virtually anyone can pretty much choose their flavor of Christianity. Go into any American city, grab the Yellow Pages and see for yourself. Pages and pages of “denominations”.

What is at the basis of such a plethora of choices? Why nothing less than the honest belief on the part of each that they have “got it.” By got it, I mean, the true and correct understanding of the bible.

Add to that the incredible number of people, who (given the above) with some ( and I mean only some) justification, feel that they can cut to the chase so to speak and go to no “organized” church at all. If there are that many ways of interpreting scripture, then who is to say that I can’t do as well all by myself. Thus is born the non-denominational phenomenon, churches aligned to no recognized Protestant “church”, those that arise around the charismatic leadership of a single pastor and his/her personal interpretation, or the greatest non-denominational of all, the “unchurched,” but “spiritual” category.

The waters continue to muddy as the non-denominationals become mega churches themselves. In the end, a miasma of variety is offered to the average person that belies any “true” Christian faith at all. We truly are a Baskin and Robbins affair, replete with our own 31 + thousand flavors.

To be fair, any serious look at the early church shows pretty much the same picture. The Roman Catholic Church became the “winner” of the heresy wars, able in the end to define heresy as anything that we agree is wrong doctrine. All the others who had been arguing that they preached the “true” faith, faded into the history of doctrine that failed to win the day.

Truly, from the start, we have never agreed about what Christian doctrine is. This fact is recorded first in Acts when we learn that Paul and his followers had a much different idea of what Christianity consisted of than did Peter and those in Jerusalem. We are assured that  all was worked out amicably, but of course the bible we read today avoids the Gnostic “problem” and others. All those “other” Gospels float around from those earliest of days to suggest that there was always plenty of dissension among the believers that never got ironed out amicably or otherwise.

Yet Jesus talks to us of unity.

Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying:
“Holy Father, I pray not only for them,
but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
so that they may all be one,
as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
that they also may be in us,
that the world may believe that you sent me.
And I have given them the glory you gave me,
so that they may be one, as we are one,
I in them and you in me,
that they may be brought to perfection as one,
that the world may know that you sent me,
and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, they are your gift to me.
I wish that where I am they also may be with me,
that they may see my glory that you gave me,
because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Righteous Father, the world also does not know you,
but I know you, and they know that you sent me.
I made known to them your name and I will make it known,
that the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them.”

Jesus knew, as we all intuitively do, that in unity is power. Not the power of dominion and rule, but the power of persuasion. In their unity, they would illustrate forcefully that indeed the Father had sent Jesus to “save” us from ourselves. Save us, not in the unhealthy way of dying for our sins in some atonement sense, but save us from our own petty selfish selves by teaching us to live rightly.

We all know that the most powerful convincing tool in any arsenal is living the life one is preaching. Jesus really tried to teach us how to live. That convinces other more than anything we say. How do we live? How do we project the love that we know through this Jesus who lived and died so long ago? If our lives reflect a way of being that is attractive to others, then we truly preach the Gospel.

That is the unity. That is the template we should be seeking.

Instead we argue about doctrine all day and every day. We do this of course under the guise of proving that we are rightly interpreting this Jesus. It has never been and will never be about this thing we call a bible. That is a collection of human writings. It is and will always be about trying to live out the way of life as the Master announced to us. And quite frankly, much of that is pretty well understood by even the most limited of us.

Love God. Love each other. Take care of each other.

It’s all so very simply. All the rest, is as someone said,  is mere commentary.

What a powerful force we “Christians” could be, if only we simply lived as Jesus asked us to–in love.

What of This Spirit?

holyspiritIn John’s Gospel, we have the beautiful final discourses. John places Jesus’ last words before his arrest, where they can be seen as prophesies and promises and become all the more powerful to us.

Jesus, among other things, promises that the Holy Spirit of God will come after he has left them:

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.

Surely this is not a new idea, for the Spirit of God appears as in the opening sentences of Genesis:

“In the beginning there was a formless void and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters … “

As Fr. Ron Rolheiser suggests, the Spirit is the very life force of the universe, breathing it into existence, and being the “glue” if you will, that animates and orchestrates it.

Jesus thus suggests that this Spirit of God, present since before the beginning, will be a personal presence in the lives of all who welcome it into their lives. The Spirit represents that personalized God who dwells intimately with His people.

The Father, so Jesus explains, sends His Spirit in Jesus’ name, as a sign to us that what we have learned from Jesus is in fact the Father’s will. We begin to see the interplay in this trinity of love, God, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit. All are one, one are all, each a part, yet not separate, each with its own duties, yet doing the will of all. This is mystery in its finest manifestation.

We can trust this Spirit as being of God, because Jesus has told us it can be trusted. It will teach us everything. It will remind us of what Jesus taught. Strange and opaque words are they not?

It is said by some that Vatican II showed the in-pouring of the Spirit in a most obvious way. A council that started in one direction, is captured by the Spirit, and sent on a new trajectory. Some are saying the same thing about the Pontificate of Francis.

The question becomes, will we open our minds and hearts to the working of the Spirit, confident that it can be trusted? As our dear friend Tim reminds us, much of the Hebrew Scriptures can be seen as a discourse on learning to trust this God that we have come to know. This becomes the ultimate in trust–“the spirit will teach you everything!”

But the ending statement is, I think most telling–“it will remind you of all that I have told you.”

This is the key to understanding I believe.

We are all of us, attempting to discern truth. We read the bible. We read learned and not so learned “experts”. We pray. We think. We ponder.

We all wish to believe that the Spirit guides our conclusions. We all wish to believe that we understand rightly. Some of us are very sure of that. Some of us are not at all sure. How can we be? The bible, (except for some few of us) remains a maddeningly enigmatic series of documents, difficult to define, difficult to unravel, seemingly contradictory in places and inexplicable in others. The more we study the more we realize that it is a collection of very different writings pointing in many different directions. As I said, it is only the most arrogant of persons who claims that it is obvious and clear.

Let us be honest. We are but mortals attempting to define that which is ineffable. We walk upon holy ground. We breath holy air. We are gifted with this life of short duration, a mere moment in the grand design. We are like an ant trying to discern the pattern in an area rug which we walk upon. We cannot see the expanse to make out the pattern.

Yet, we have this Spirit guiding us. And if we remember the words of Jesus, recorded in some fashion within the Gospels as they have come down to us–if we remember the ideas and the themes he brought to us, THEN these become the guide to how we might approach understanding “God’s Will”.

When our understanding is in alignment with what Jesus said, then we approach truth. When it does not, when we stretch and twist the Gospel stories to stand for things that can bear no relationship to Jesus’ world, or to the body of his teachings, then we are moving from truth and toward a self-centered non-truth that may  serve us but not the Gospel. If we must warp the Gospel to reach the place we want to go, we are most assuredly heading in the wrong direction.

We can learn “everything” from the Spirit when we use as our template the basic tenets of love, kindness, forgiveness, inclusiveness, justice, fairness, equality, patience, humility, and honesty. These are what the Master taught. We will act within the Spirit of God when we bring to every experience these qualities.

What Would Jesus Do?

The Spirit will tell you everything.

Amen.

A New Look at Romans 1:26-27

This is a reprint of a post from Nota Bene:

I believe it is the most interesting and convincing argument I have yet seen on the issue of homosexuality and “Paul’s” alleged beliefs about it. It is compelling in my opinion.

Romans

Whenever I’m debating with someone who authoritatively declares that the Bible condemns homosexuality, and who cites the infamous Romans 1:26-27 as proof, I almost always offer this rejoinder: “What do you make of the vocative at the beginning of Romans 2?”

The question is admittedly pretentious on my part but I’ve found it effective, because those often most eager to wield the Bible as an authoritative weapon are also often those who have read it only in translation, and not very closely at that.

But it’s not an idle question.


Anyone who has engaged the issue of sexuality and the Bible has at some point contended with Romans 1:26-27, in the NRSV: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Sounds pretty bad, and indeed, so does the entire last half of the first chapter of Romans. Who, broadly, is being described here? Most agree it’s the Gentiles, and most agree that what is being represented here is boilerplate, Hellenistic Jewish material that attacks the Gentiles. But the condemnatory nature of the verses from 1:18-32 also fits awkwardly, if at all, with the spirit of the rest of the epistle, which goes from talking about the “uprightness of God” in the early verses to suddenly referring to the “anger of God” here, an anger that God uses to “hand over” these people to all manner of horrible behaviors.

But then, they’re Gentiles. They’re rotten, horrible individuals. Did you hear the sorts of things they do? In fact, as pointed out by scholar Calvin Porter, “they” recurs in this section with striking concentration, with repetition of the third-person pronoun αὐτός thirteen times, the reflexive (“themselves”) once, and third-person plural verbs over and over: “No other section of Romans contains such a concentration,” he observes.

What’s even more striking, notes Porter, is what comes next: an abrupt change to the second person in Romans 2:1:

“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

Here, then, is the vocative in the Greek, “Oh man,” a grammatical case used for direct address: ὦ ἄνθρωπε. And this takes us to the question I have posed to those who repeat 1:26-27 in condemnation. Who’s the ἄνθρωπος that Paul’s addressing here?

It’s actually a very big question.

Scholarship has been preoccupied often with the content of verses 1:26-27 to the distraction of its context. Scholars such as James Miller and Mark D. Smith have gone back and forth as to whether the behavior described in those verses can be considered “homosexual” from our culture’s standpoint, or whether they refer to something else entirely. But an even more interesting angle surfaced in Roy Bowen Ward’s entry into the fray: “It is still open to question whether these two verses represent Paul’s voice or the voice of a rhetorical spokesperson in Rom 1:18-32, whom the apostle criticizes beginning in Rom 2:1.”

That’s right. Some scholarship of late, of which Porter’s article is the most thorough example, has noted that Romans 1:18-32 does not represent Paul’s view, but the prevailing view of Gentiles among many Jews at the time, which this apostle to the Gentiles feels compelled to refute. Building off of the scholarship of J.C. O’Neill (who calls it “a traditional tract which belongs essentially to the missionary literature of Hellenistic Judaism”) and E.P. Sanders (who explains that “Paul takes over to an unusual degree homiletical material from Diaspora Judaism”), Porter ultimately concludes that “in 2:1-16, as well as through Romans as a whole, Paul, as part of his Gentile mission, challenges, argues against, and refutes both the content of the discourse and the practice of using such discourses. If that is the case then the ideas in Rom. 1.18-32 are not Paul’s. They are ideas which obstruct Paul’s Gentile mission theology and practice.”

Other explanations of what ὦ ἄνθρωπε is doing here are less satisfactory. Some have suggested that Paul is sincerely making these condemnations, stressing here (but only here) God’s anger instead of his kindness (as in 2:4), and then he imagines some onlooker applauding what he’s saying and turns to address him, condemning him for judging but somehow still agreeing with the content of what was just said.

Porter’s argument (which he thoroughly supports with rhetorical models from antiquity) makes much more sense: that the arguments present in the last half of Romans 1 were typical of those made by Hellenistic Jews to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles (thus the repeated use of “they” as noted before), and Paul, as an apostle to the Gentiles, finds this condemnation problematic and thus seeks to refute it, leading up ultimately to his similar conclusion in Romans 14:13, using strikingly similar language to that in 2:1: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

Paul goes on to offer advice on healing the rifts between Jew and Gentile, so Porter’s reading is compelling, and certainly the best I’ve seen for answering the question of who’s being addressed in 2:1: “The shift to the direct address, the second person singular, along with the coordinating conjunction, διό, indicates that the reader who agrees with or is responsible for 1.18-32 is now the person addressed.”

Of course, there will be all sorts of arguments apologizing for the words of 2:1 so that one can keep the words of 1:26-27 as a straight-up, unambiguous condemnation, which one can then rely upon to rationalize all manner of discrimination against gays and lesbians. But the flurry of scholarship on this score, not to mention all of that preoccupied with the words of 1:26-27 themselves, should in the very least make it clear that it’s not all that clear.

It’s yet another example of how close study of the Bible – in this case, the function of a single word – raises far more questions than it does answers.

A Tale of Two Women

I confess that I am puzzled by the inclusion of 1Kings 17: 10-16 along with Mk 12: 38-44. They seem to be very different stories with very different lessons.

As you recall, in Kings, Elijah stops a woman gathering sticks and asks for a drink of water. She stops her work and begins to comply when he asks for bread as well.

She tells him she has only a bit of flour and a small portion of oil left, just enough for one more meal for her son and herself. After this, she expects to die from starvation.

Elijah tells her to bring him the cake anyway and then feed herself and her son, for the Lord will not let the flour be gone nor the oil. Indeed, neither went empty for an entire year.

In Mark, we have the famous story of the widow who enters the temple and gives her last two coins to the treasury while the rich give great amounts. Jesus reminds that she has given of all she had while they give only of their excess.

Both deal with the end of things. The end of the flour and oil, and the end of one’s entire savings. Both women would appear destitute. And indeed we do learn somewhat different lessons.

From the widow in Kings we learn that when we are near the end of our ability to soldier on, relief will come. We some how or from some one, receive the strength to go on. Just at the moment when we feel we cannot endure one second more, we find that we can. All of us have had occasion to marvel at someone who manages to keep going when things seem hopeless.

During the last few years we have witnessed countless people who have lost jobs, fallen behind on their mortgages and literally live hand to mouth each and every day. How often do they lament that they have no idea how they can pay this bill or find enough to purchase food next week? Yet they do, and they manage albeit in great difficulty. Until one day, one day, the new job comes or the bank finally agrees to a refinance. The dark days are over.

The widow in Kings reminds us that we must never give up hope and our faith that better days will come, that we can endure this present pain, that God continues to love and uphold us and we will, with God’s help, find a way.

In Mark, we have a woman who is voiceless in her society. She is the prey of the rich scribes and Pharisees for she has been taught that her first obligation is not to her own well-being, but to the Temple. She may well have given up the money for food that day. She shows us in her simple piety what true giving is all about.

The rich are proud of their foundations and their philanthropy. Many of us are proud of our service on Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen. Similarly we might be proud of the commitments we make to our churches, contributing to the fund that builds the new kitchen, or the new landscaping. We too, feel good when we drop our dollar in the kettles outside the stores at Christmas time.

But we are throwing our excess into the Temple kettle. We are almost never giving away that which will cause us great suffering or loss.

And the lesson is not that we should. An argument could be made that the widow in Mark is to be lamented that she would risk her very life in service to the Temple. Her first duty was to at least live so that she might guide others to a greater understanding of charity and love for her fellow beings. Similarly we should not give to the point where we become an unnecessary burden on society ourselves.

What we should learn from this teaching is that we should not think ourselves esteemed for our small acts. They should be not things to crow about but things that we do as often as we are able. If we cannot give greatly in funds, and even if we can, we should be looking for ways to serve those least among us with our time, and our compassion.

The widow in Mark should shame us as to our own lack of thinking when we casually make our offerings. She should shame us into remembering that our offerings are not just monetary but may come in many forms. We are resourceful, as the widow in Kings reminds us. God will help us if we call upon Him. We will find a way.

Amen.

 

Where Will You Sit?

As I listened to Mark 10: 35-45 this morning, a number of thoughts flooded my mind. I am reminded of the Republicans and their meme on the President’s approach to foreign policy:

“He leads from behind,” they charge, and they don’t mean it as a compliment.

Recently I reviewed a book here called Alone with a Jihadist, in which the author posited rather convincingly that the attempt by the evangelical religious right to secure political power in order to further the aims of their version of God’s will, was unbiblical and certainly anti-Jesus.

Jesus, certainly in the passage from Mark, and generally throughout the Gospels, presents a picture of leadership that is not directed at power and authority. Jesus seeks no power much to the chagrin occasionally of his followers. He seeks no authority over others, and certainly not over his enemies of the day.

He seeks to serve. And he teaches service.

To lead from behind is in a sense very Jesus-like. Such an idea of course would drive the religious right insane at the mere thought because they have decided to believe and push the idea that the President is the antithesis of a Godly man. Many argue that he is in the arms of Satan himself, and is in the process destroying all that is Godly about America.

But Jesus led from behind. What I mean by that is that Jesus taught that the essence of love of God was service to God’s children. And the essence of service is empowerment. It is helping others to help themselves by raising up their value and abilities to equality with those around them. When Jesus cures and forgives, he do so to return people to their rightful place as equals within their society. He empowers them to take their place in the world with their heads up once again.

He does not empower them in the sense that he gives them tools to rule over others. That is not what the Kingdom of God is about. He gives them the tools by his example, that they are to express to everyone they meet from that day forward. The Kingdom has nothing to do with power exerted OVER people, but rather it lifts people up to be fully functioning people of God.

Similarly, Aaron Taylor, when he suggests that it is not the place of a true Christian to seize political power for the purpose of bringing into existence some man-made government in their image of God, he is merely restating what Jesus announced to poor John and James when they asked Jesus to recognize their importance in the coming Kingdom. Jesus said, no, this is not what my Kingdom is about. You will suffer for my sake, but your reward is not honor and power over others, but the continuing opportunity to serve all those in need.

One can argue whether Jesus intended to set up a new church and if John and James and the rest of the disciples were being instructed on how that church was to be organized. I personally don’t believe, based on my examination of the literature regarding this issue, that Jesus had any such intention to set up a new church. He was and remained a Jew in the Jewish faith until his death. What he wished to do, was to bring Judaism back to its true focus, and that was the one he preached to everyone who would listen.

But he certainly was aware that those he left behind had a message to continue to share, and he made sure that his followers understood his teaching in all its revolutionary significance. You lead by serving.

Where will you sit?

 

What Did Jesus Mean?

Well, you can imagine the fun I had today at Mass. Given the conservative bent of my parish, I was treated to a thinly veiled reminder of what “true marriage” amounts to rather than that “thing” which is nothing more than the whims of the day, to be replaced no doubt by something else tomorrow.

Following that I got the old “marriage is forever” and the appropriate readings of today which “prove” that. We ended with a reminder that nothing could be finer than a trip through natural family planning which is a-okay with God, while contraception leads to abortion and promiscuity.

Let me straighten out this mess if I can.

First it might be useful to understand the history going on here. (Mk 10: 2-16)

In Jewish law, in the time of Jesus, marriages were not entered into voluntarily by men and wome. They were arranged by a set of parents who put forth their child and as did the family of the other child. The resultant “marriage”  was a union of whole families, not the two actual children. These chosen “spouses” were considered to be God’s choice through the parents. Since these families ere now bound together, no PERSON had the right to separate the internal union.

But the people were unable to abide by this law, so through Moses, God allowed divorce. However it was only the man who had the right, and he had the right to divorce his wife for ANY reason whatsoever. This worked, as you might expect great hardship upon women who might be turned out for simply not being good-looking, or not  being a good cook, and very often for not being sufficiently fertile.

Jesus first rectifies the inequality of divorce by saying that men have no more right to summarily dismiss a spouse, and further than either spouse who initiates divorce and marries again is committing adultery. This was contrary to the social world of the time, where no woman could, by definition, shame another woman.   Jesus equalizes this and moreover, makes brings shame upon the man who “commits adultery” which  thereby brings shame to his entire male family.

Since this shaming would lead to feuding and often bloodshed, divorce must be avoided at all costs. They were simply too devastating to the families and the small communities involved.

Jesus did not speak to the issue of marriage when it breaks down or where divorce is desired by both parties.  Today,  people make their own choices, often at young ages and without due thought. Marriages don’t involve the larger families either in today’s world, where families are often spread out over many states and sometimes countries.

When we read these passages, who should be sure to remember that they are joined to the act of creation (in Genesis) whereby God made it clear that he wanted his creation to experience an openness and closeness that required a similarity of being. Adam could not relate in that intimate way with the creatures that God created for him to name and care for. A creature of similarity (woman) was created that Adam might share that sense of open-hearted intimacy that he could not enjoy with any of the other creatures.

Similarly, Jesus reminds us that Moses allowance of divorce was the result of a hardness of heart that the people evidenced. Jesus thus calls us to relationships that bring about that openness of heart envisioned by God’s creation.  Jesus speaks to the misuse of power rather than to the denial of divorce in our time.

In addition, I would argue that Genesis should not be read as some definition of marriage as between a man and a woman only but rather that it acknowledges that human relationships of mutual openness are what are desired by God.

It is especially painful as I stated last Sunday to see folks who avoid communion out of a belief that they are unworthy based on current Catholic teachings on these subjects. I am left with the wonderful words of John Kavanaugh S.J. who stated:

We Catholics have our liturgies, our communions, our Eucharists. Some of us attending are divorced and remarried and place it all before God, not knowing really whether we have put asunder what God had once joined in us. Some have annulments, a human judgment offered only after long analysis and painful remembrance. Some of us weep in the back, not approaching the altar of union. Some trust God and abstain. Some trust God and partake.

Few, thank God, judge. For no matter what our rightful relationship to our church, its laws and traditions, we all pray in an assembly of believers who are sinners; and, most assuredly, we all stand before our good and great God as children.

Amen

**I am deeply indebted to the remarks of Joyce Ann Zimmerman, John Kavanaugh S.J., and John J. Pilch in The Sunday Liturgy of St. Louis University. My remarks reflect my understanding of their thoughts and reflections.

How To Screw Up the Meaning

 

 

Today’s readings are pretty darn straight forward. In Numbers (11:25-29) Moses is informed that a couple of elders are prophesying in his name although they were not in the tent with the other elders who were commissioned by God.

In Mark,  (9: 38-43) Jesus is similarly informed that someone is casting out demons in his name.

In both cases, the expectation is that this unauthorized behavior should be stopped immediately. In neither case is this done. Instead, both tell their followers that if they are doing the right thing, let them continue.

This should teach us that everyone doesn’t have to be “like us” to do good in the world. We should honor the good period. This should give us renewed hope and dedication to trying, where ever we can, points of agreement with those we are at odds with, and cooperating on at least those issues where we find  that agreement.

And indeed, our priest this morning made the first point. God teaches us that “not only Catholics” but Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and even non-believers can do good things. Gosh I never would have guessed!

He then went on to run off the tracks. “Please don’t get the wrong idea here. Jesus was no relativist. He wasn’t saying all faiths are equal like so many say today.”

He then went off on a tangent based on the rest of Mark’s gospel reading:

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,
where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

Then, he (the priest) explained that such sin as depicted here must be serious sin. He decided it must have to do with  alcohol and drug abuse, pornography, adultery, and things such as this. He then went on to explain that we must be always on guard against such “personal” sin, and protect our eternal souls against these persistent pernicious sins.

Alas, the priest forgot entirely the other reading: James.

James clearly speaks to the wealthy of his time:

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.
Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten,
your gold and silver have corroded,
and that corrosion will be a testimony against you;
it will devour your flesh like a fire.
You have stored up treasure for the last days.
Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;
he offers you no resistance.

Since Jesus in his remarks in Mark makes no statement of what things should cause us to “pluck out our eye”, then perhaps there is a reason that James discourse is part of the liturgy to be read with Mark’s gospel.

James makes no bones about it. The rich, who live in splendor while withholding wages from those who work them are the ones who will be devoured in the fires that Jesus refers to as Gehenna.

This is not a new concept, and it is one that Jesus repeatedly referred to. His “preferential option” for the poor, God’s preferential option, causes that to be the great sin we must guard against. Jesus warns–don’t cause these “little ones” to sin (children were the least in the world and are synonymous with the poor). One causes them to sin by setting as an example a life of wealth and privilege all the while ignoring the plight of those less fortunate. It is teaching this capitalistic winner-take-all, survival of the fittest, to the victor belong the spoils, kind of mentality that places one in dire circumstances at judgment day.

These readings are about cooperation, love, caring, compassion, brotherhood and sisterhood. They are uplifting and guiding. They are not some self-centered directive to beware of serious sin for our own good, although our own good may well be in the balance. They help us to look outward rather than inward.

Amen.

 

 

Love or Sin

 

 

Since I insist on talking about politics and religion all the time, I get a fair amount of blow back. From the religious Right, it generally takes the form of reminding me that “real” Christians  like themselves are warned in scripture “about people like me.”

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1Jn 4: 1-6)

I often laugh at this, for I of course would often be of a mind to recite the same or similar verses as to them if I were of such a mind.

For truly I am of the opinion that many on the right say a good deal that is false and not “of the spirit.”

As I listened to James 2: 1-5 this morning, I heard reference to this, though I admit it is not what people usually think of when they read or hear it.

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality
as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes
and say, “Sit here, please, ”
while you say to the poor one, “Stand there, ” or “Sit at my feet, ”
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?

There are plenty of teachings in scripture which deal with the dangers of wealth and more so the dangers of paying too much homage to it. We are, contrary to the Republican Party’s claims against the Democrats, not a people who begrudge the wealthy their riches, we are more likely to be star-struck by those who live “above” us.

But as I said, I saw something different here. The one with golden rings and fine clothing, I would suggest, may be the one with the flowery language who encourages us to believe the snake oil he or she is selling. Such a person may tell us things that make us feel good, and I would argue, often have ready-made excuses for why your life isn’t what you wish it were.

Beware, my beloved of those who remove your own burden of responsibility by attempting to shift it to someone one (ones) else, whom you can blame. And beware all the more when those “others” are declared to be wanting in faith and God’s grace.

I would argue that those speakers are most assuredly the false prophets.

How often has it been that the poorest, most ill-educated often has the greatest wisdom? How often do we hear words that thrill us to the heart from people of very different faiths. Who does not nod in agreement at the words that come from say a Thich Nhat Hanh? Or a Dalai Lama?

Jesus, you remember was the poorest of itinerant preachers. He spoke about things that were definitely not kosher if you will, when it comes to the standard Jewish teaching.  That is why so many who were learned and “cultured” dismissed him as some radical troublemaker. He didn’t preach against the Pharisees so much as he admonished them to their faces when they attacked him with their sly questions. To his sheep, he told them the simple lessons of God’s love and how they could enter the kingdom.

Throughout the scriptures we are advised to avoid those who hearts are not on God, but who claim they speak for God.

The trouble is, it is very hard for any of us mere mortals to know who is and who is not teaching falsely. Some think it easy, but that is only because they are blinded by their own arrogance. You see, they think that there is but one interpretation of scripture, and they surely have it. Thus when someone sees it different–bingo you have identified a false teacher.

Of course, most of us can see the fallacy in such reasoning and such judgment. Most of us know that the ineffable is well, to a great extent unknowable by us. We do our best to understand, but as Augustine often said, most of what we decide is true about God is probably not.

I know of only one guiding principle, and it is I admit based nearly entirely upon my own theological beliefs. I believe that God is love, pure and simple and that all that God is is a constant reaffirmation of that fact and an attempt to bring it forth in the world through us, his creation. Anything that separates any of us from God, is in my mind, not from God. Any who preach this, who preach that some are “others” and must conform to their way of thinking in order to be saved, is probably speaking from ego rather than grace.

Is the message Love or Sin? Sin, it seems to me, is in the act of keeping God’s children from God and from each other.

But that is my opinion.

Reach for love my friend and God be with you.

Amen

 

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