Increasing Faith in Forgiveness

mulberry_tree_by_vincent_van_goghThe disciples’ demand (not a request) that Jesus increase their faith, (Lk. 17: 5) with a hint of desperation that such a demand entails, seems to come out of nowhere when it begins the Gospel reading. So let us look at the preceding paragraph for some context.

That paragraph begins with Jesus’ ominous warning against being occasions of stumbling (scandals) for any of Jesus’ “little ones.” Unlike the parallels in the other synoptic Gospels, however, this warning is quickly followed by an admonition to rebuke those who cause stumbling but then to forgive them if they are penitent, even if it is seven times a day, which is a lot of forgiving.

So, the disciples aren’t having a problem believing in the Nicene Creed. They are having a problem accepting this demand to be forgiving on such an incredible scale. After all, if one repents seven times a day, how serious is the repentance? Forgiving like that often requires the patience of a saint and not even many of the saints I know anything about are as patient as that. The “faith” at issue here, then, seems best understood in the usual meaning in Jesus’ time which would stress fidelity to Jesus’ teachings and trust in his sanity in the face of such impossible demands. In the same fashion, we can understand “faith” as used in Habakkuk 2:4 as referring to remaining steadfast to Yahweh in the face of the human violence of social injustice in Israel and the violence of the Babylonian invaders. That is, in the face of people who cause much stumbling and need forgiveness almost nonstop.

Unlike the parallels in Matthew and Mark, faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to move this mountain, perhaps the Temple Mount and its sacrificial system, from here to there. But mulberry trees have nothing to do with sacrifice. So why a mulberry tree in this version? A mulberry tree can be nice to have around but it an be a nuisance in some circumstances. When I was growing up, we had a mulberry tree on the edge of our property. The berries were a nice treat but they also stained the driveway a deep purple. Mulberry trees also have complex root systems that spread out a large distance just under the surface and they also send sinker roots deep into the soil. This may be one of the reasons my father used a tree removal service rather than faith to move the tree off from the property.

We an see the mulberry tree as an image of the intractability of the occasions for stumbling that we encounter on a daily basis. The image also stands for the tangle of our anger and frustration over being asked to forgive those who keep making us stumble over and over again. The close coupling of Jesus’ admonitions here suggests that all of us cause others to stumble about as much as we have occasion to forgive others for making us stumble. Faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to pull us out this tangle of scandal and stumbling and yet we have trouble having as much faith as that!

A brief parable follows. We are apt to think the master treating his slaves so harshly stands for God, but Jesus is asking: Whom among you would say to his slave to come sit down for dinner after a hard days’s work? The implication is that we are the ones who would like to have the power to order people about like that. But is that faithfulness to Christ? Looks more like a cause of stumbling to me. Jesus then shifts to the perspective of the slave who must not presume to be worthy of any reward, just as slaves were so considered in his time. In a similar parable in Luke 12, Jesus says that the master is the one who will wait on those slaves who eagerly await his return. In daily life, we often feel that we are slaves of those who cause trouble and so demand much attention and energy on our part and yet are the last to express any gratitude for what we do for them. We tend to resent such slavery and take refuge in vengeful anger and maybe some grudging forgiveness that makes us feel superior. But Jesus places himself in the position of the slave to those who stumble and makes others stumble, so that is where we will find Jesus if we have the faith the size of a mustard seed.

God’s Kingdom as Gift

treeBlossoming1There is only one simple qualification for being a disciple of Jesus: give up everything. That’s one whale of a qualification. So hard is this qualification that earnest Christians have thought of many ways to soften Jesus’ words without washing all meaning and challenge out of them. My New Testament professor at Nashotah House, O.C. Edwards, suggested that this qualification means we have to give up everything that comes between us and God. That is, if parents, children, spouses, friends, or fellow members of a community help us draw closer to God, we don’t have to give them up. The same would go for material possessions. Even Benedictine monks have to use things in this world in order to live so we can’t give up having anything at all. The trick is to use things in such a way that the work and recreation we do with them draws us closer to God rather than farther away.

We could phrase this approach by saying that the problem is not possessions but possessiveness. God gives us parents, children, siblings, and friends as gifts. Likewise we should give each ourselves as gifts to other people. The things we use in the world are likewise gifts from God and should be treated accordingly. The problem comes when we prefer to take other people and things rather than receive them. In such cases, the intensity of love we feel for others is actually possessiveness rather than love. We are told to “hate” parents, children, siblings, and friends so as not to be possessive of them. Taking people and things is the result of putting ourselves in competitive relationship with other people. When we compete with others, we have to win and a victory is something we earn, not a gift. This same competitiveness carries over to our attitudes toward possessions. As the French thinker René Girard teaches us, we often want things that other people have or want to have things at the expense of others so that we can claim a victory over them. Of course, competitiveness is a bottomless pit. If we win one round, we always fear losing the next. If we have to have more than other people, or at least as much, we have to keep on accumulating more things no matter the damage our hoarding does to others. In all this, the people we try defeat and our lust to win through possessions become stumbling blocks between ourselves and God. This is what we have to give up.

Paul’s Letter to Philemon illustrates this point very well. Slavery, very common up to the present day (although now other terms such as “trafficking” are often used for it), is perhaps the ultimate in possessing other people. Onesimus was a runaway slave. Paul experienced Onesmimus, not as a possession but as a gift, a person who freely gave of himself to serve Paul while he was a prisoner. Paul is tempted to be possessive and keep Onesimus for himself but he offers Onesemus to Philemon as a gift, clearly hoping that Philemon will give Onesimus back to Paul as a free gift. Paul makes it clear that he is not giving Onesimus back as a slave; instead, he is giving Philemon back as a beloved brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Philem. 16) If Philemon receives Onesimus as a brother in Christ, he can hardly continue to possess him as a slave.

I’ve always seen Paul’s letter as an artful piece of emotional blackmail, but for all his manipulative rhetoric here, Paul is basically passing on to Philemon Jesus’ invitation to the Kingdom with its one qualification. This sounds simple, but in the heat of daily battles, we find that the possessiveness born of competitiveness is very hard to renounce and it amounts to carrying our cross daily. If we can daily renounce our possessiveness, we will indeed receive everything from God and from others as Gift.

Just a Little Jewish Girl: A Homily for the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin

MaryBack when I was a seminarian at Nashotah House, a student from the South transferred there in the middle of the academic year. Not surprisingly, given Nashotah’s Anglo-Catholic tradition, several students ganged up on him and tried to convert him to an ardent devotion to Our Lady. This student’s response was: “I thought Mary was just a little Jewish girl.”

Not surprisingly, this student never got into rosaries or other Marian devotions. For myself, young and zealous over the Anglo-Catholic way but cautious about going as overboard as some of my classmates did, I was bemused by the remark and it has stuck with me. As I think about it now, I am convinced that this student’s remark, surely meant to be dismissive, was spot on. Mary was a Jewish girl, and if we want a sound Mariology, we are wise not to forget it. In fact, when we look at the Gospels, we see a Jewish girl who said very little, although she pondered much in her heart.

Some of the overblown piety directed at Mary has been enough to make one forget she had ever been a human being, let alone a humble girl from a humble Galilean village. The Gospel canticle known as Magnificat, which was read for today’s Gospel, has this little Jewish girl flinging the mighty from their seats and scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts. Maybe this little Jewish girl took some Judo lessons and got herself a black belt. Then the paintings of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven and her coronation there make her look something like a goddess. Many devotions to Mary suggest that she is the vehicle of salvation and either her son is just an afterthought, or he just as stern and unapproachable as his heavenly father. This little Jewish girl sure rose up in the world.

However, if God was going to send His Son, born of a woman, at the “fullness of time,” (Gal. 4: 4) a woman would gave to give birth to him. If Jesus was going to be born a Jew, then his mother would have to be a little Jewish girl and not a goddess organizing the heavenly realms. Jesus would not have been fully human otherwise. As a baby and little boy, he needed to be cared for by his mother and adoptive father. Nothing unusual there. What was unusual, to the point of being earthshaking, as the Magnificat proclaims, was that God had entered human nature so that this human mother was not only the mother of a human boy but the Mother of God! So it is that in the Magnificat, it isn’t Mary who is throwing the bad guys around; it is God raising up a little Jewish girl and, with her, the whole human race, little old me and little old you included.

In this festival, we do not celebrate a goddess; we celebrate a little Jewish girl who said “Yes” to God’s Desire, just as every human is called to do. It is saying “Yes” to God’s desire that scatters the imagination of our hearts and raises us up to the level of this little Jewish girl.

The Burglar Who Serves

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe first verses of today’s Gospel (Lk. 12: 32–34) pick up from where we left off last week. That reading ended with Jesus’ little parable about the rich fool who tore down his barns to build bigger barns (Lk. 12: 12–21) only to find that his life was being demanded of him. This reading begins with Jesus’ soothing admonition to “sell our possessions and give alms” and “make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Lk. 12: 32-33) This is quite a contrast to two brothers fighting over an inheritance or a rich person gloating over fabulous amounts of wealth. Lest we think Jesus is asking us to make ourselves miserable, Jesus assures us that it is our heavenly Abba’s pleasure to give us a treasure that is the kingdom. If this treasure, the kingdom, is the Abba’s pleasure, then it is our pleasure as well.

It is important to see that Jesus is not telling us to give up desires. The heavenly Abba has a profound Desire for a deep union of love with each of us, a union God would have us share with each other. If God is comprised of God’s Desire, than it follows that we creatures are created with desires. What Jesus is doing here is redirecting our desires from the desires of rivalrous avarice towards God’s Desire that is without rivalry. Isn’t every fight, ultimately, over what we think we are entitled to as our inheritance? Yet aren’t we all offered the whole world to be an inheritance rather than a bone for contention? Since these rivalrous desires embroil us with our rivals, the material inheritance we are fighting for is destroyed as if by moths. Of course, each rival blames the other for being the thief that has stolen the treasure.

Jesus then shifts to an admonition to be ready for the Master’s “return from the wedding banquet.” (Lk. 12: 36) If we servants are alert and ready to greet the master, the master will wait on us as Jesus waited on his disciples at the Last Supper. This little feast shared by master and servants is an image of the treasure our hearts should be set on. The progression of vignettes and admonitions throughout this chapter suggests that the best way to be prepared for God’s coming is to set our hearts on treasure that moths cannot consume and thieves cannot steal. Fundamentally, being alert for the “master” consists of serving one another in the same way that the master serves us when he comes.

The following little parable is comical and a bit threatening. The master who serves those who wait for him is transformed into a thief breaking into a house in the middle of the night. (Lk. 12: 39–40) If our hearts are not set on the treasure of serving one another, but instead we fight over our inheritance and try to gather it into bigger barns, then the God who serves us will be quite alien to us and will be perceived as a thief, a burglar. If our rivalry deepens as it does in the still more threatening parable that follows, so that our rivalry causes us to “beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk,” (Lk. 12: 45), then the gracious master will indeed rob us of our victims.

God is both a burglar and a gracious master who serves. God only breaks in to take away all that draws our hearts away from God and from each other. What this burglar leaves in return is a treasure well worth setting our hearts on.

On Being a Bad Samaritan And a Good Person

Good_SamaritanMany of us instinctively think that knowing is something we have in our heads, something we can recite, like a catechism. This is the sort of knowing that the lawyer demonstrates when he recites, correctly, the two great commandments when Jesus encourages him to answer his own question as to what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Lk. 10: 27) But then the lawyer shows a certain ignorance, a missing piece. He doesn’t know who or what his neighbor is. Jesus answers this question by telling a story that pinpoints exactly the missing piece in the lawyer’s cognition.

The key phrase in this familiar story that shows what the lawyer lacks is that the Samaritan was “moved with pity.” The Greek word is one that twists the mouth all out of shape: splagchnizomai (pronounced splangkhnizomai). Literally, this word means his entrails were stirred up at the sight. Here is a visceral response that didn’t need the benefit of the catechetical verse from scripture to be activated.

The response of the Samaritan, then, was instinctive, a bonding with the victim who had been severely injured. We are naturally wired for this sort of solidarity, but René Girard has demonstrated that this natural solidarity often takes the form of bonding with other people at the expense of those who are excluded from this bond. Paul Dumouchel, in his analysis of this process in The Ambivalence of Scarcity, argues that the social bonds in early humanity required not only self-sacrificial nurturing of others in the group, but also the obligation to kill all those outside the group, who were considered enemies. The natural response to a person in trouble is hedged in with limitations. One’s entrails are not stirred by the plight of just anybody, but only the plights of those who are within the group.

It is this bonding based on exclusion that Jesus thrusts into the face of his listeners by telling us that a priest and a Levite both passed the victim by but then a Samaritan came to his aid. Since the victim might have been dead, both the priest and Levite would have been rendered ritually unclean by touching a corpse. Ritual purity, like all kinds of purity, requires exclusion. One is pure only if something or someone is defined as “impure” so that the “impurity” can be purged from the social fabric. This kind of bonding by exclusion becomes so instinctive that it trumps bonding through sympathy with someone outside the group. The lawyer’s question came naturally to him because it was natural for him to place boundaries around who was a neighbor and who wasn’t.

The ethnicity of the victim in the parable is not given but Jesus’ listeners would have assumed that he was a Jew like them, most likely a Galilean. Samaria came between Judea and Galilee. This was a problem because all Jews hated all Samaritans and vice versa. When Jesus went through Samaria with his disciples, they were refused hospitality at a village they came to. The reason this Jew from Galilee would have been on the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, was because he would have traveled along the Jordon River to avoid going through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. So, the traveler, in trying to avoid Samaritans, ended up encountering a Samaritan who helped him and undoubtedly saved his life!

What Jesus is doing in this parable, then, is shock us out of our tendency to bond through exclusion and bring us back in touch with the deeper natural bonding through compassion for whichever victim we pass by. For a Jew of the time to help a Samaritan in similar circumstances would have been unthinkable. Such a person would have been a bad Jew—like Jesus. Likewise, the “Good Samaritan” was actually a bad Samaritan in the eyes of other Samaritans and all Samaritans were bad in the eyes of the Jews. In his novel A Boy’s Life, Michael McCammon presents us with a similar situation that brings this parable home for many white Americans. A violently racist white man in a small town in Alabama tried to blow up a museum of Black culture but ended up in a life-threatening situation, caught in his own trap. This racist was then rescued by a black man. The cognitive dissonance experienced by the man who had hated blacks so viscerally all his life was highly dramatic. In the broader context of the novel, the eleven-year-old protagonist Corey, a white boy, consistently showed a visceral sympathy for victims that extended to saving a black boy from drowning during a flood.

Jesus knew better than most liberals like me that we don’t overcome prejudice by trying to be more logical about the problem. Our bonding through exclusion short-circuits rational thinking as the lawyer, the priest and the Levite demonstrate in much the same way as priests, ministers and social workers demonstrate today. What is needed is knowledge through our deepest natural bonds of sympathy with the other that has no boundaries. Then, we need not ask: Who is our neighbor? because, as Kierkegaard tells us in Works of Love, the person nearest us, no matter who he or she is, is our neighbor.

God’s Reconciliation: A Thought on the Feast of Saints Peter & Paul

220px-Greco,_El_-_Sts_Peter_and_PaulIt is interesting and a bit ironic that we celebrate Saints Peter and Paul on the same day. Although there are famous icons of the two embracing one another in Christian love, the two seem not to have had an easy time getting along in real life. Although the two appeared to have been somewhat reconciled at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that he opposed Peter “to his face” for backing down from what he thought they had agreed on. (Gal. 2: 11) The final chapters of John’s Gospel suggest tensions between the “Beloved Disciple” and Peter, and/or some tension between the two communities derived from them. The Beloved Disciple rests on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper while Peter stubbornly tries to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. In her book Courting Betrayal,” Helen Orchard argues that Peter was resisting the slavish action of Jesus in washing his feet because he did not want to stoop so low himself. The episode of the Empty Tomb in John shows a rather awkward dance between the two where the Beloved Disciple gets there first but waits at the entrance and allows Peter to go in first. In this little tangle of a narration, both seem to have been first but not in the same way; which suggests some attempt to overcome the tension. In the final chapter of John, after the threefold question to Peter: “Do you love me?,” Peter points to the Beloved Disciple and asks” What about him?” Jesus answer basically tells us it is none of his business.

Peter is redirected to the threefold command he has just been given: “Feed my sheep.” Here is the key for overcoming tension and competition. When we compete with another, we become preoccupied with our rivals and nobody else. What does this do for pastoral care?  The preoccupation of rivals with each other answers the question quite clearly. It is tempting to say that pastors should never fight so as not to undermine their ministries, but there are times when we do have to stand up for the people we minister to. Paul stood up to Peter because he was paying close attention to the pastoral needs of the Galatians and other Gentiles he preached to. There are times in his epistles when Paul comes across as disputatious and rivalrous but in this instance, he was holding his focus on how to feed the sheep entrusted to him and trying to help Peter see the need of the Gentile sheep for himself.

Scripture does not tell us how this conflict ended as far as these two men are concerned although subsequent tradition claims that they were indeed reconciled. Likewise, the Johannine literature stemming from the Beloved Disciple was integrated into the New Testament, creating a deeper unity then Peter and the Beloved Disciple seem to have had. The art of differing and reconciling with others is much too complex to be taught in a brief sermon, but we have a couple of basics to get us started. 1) Keep our attention focused on those who depend on us for pastoral support; 2) Remember that Divine Providence can and will work out a deeper harmony underlying our conflicts and it isn’t always up to us to solve them, which means that, as Peter was told to stop worrying about his rival, we should stop worrying about our own rivals quite so much. And now for a third thought: Both Peter and Paul had much to repent of and they did just that. Can we do the same?

Salvation as Communal Healing

anointingJesusFeetWe have a tendency to think of salvation as a personal matter. To some extent it is, but the way salvation is presented in scripture, it is never personal in an individualistic sense. In the case of the famous story of “The Sinful Woman,” we easily focus on the woman whose dramatic action is enough to grab our attention. However, her act is a public drama. Moreover, in very few words, Luke paints the social context of the woman’s behavior. She is a “sinful woman.” We are not told the nature of her sinfulness, so that is not relevant to what we should learn from the story. Simon, Jesus’ host at the dinner, assumes that Jesus should have known that the woman was a sinner and he should not have allowed her to anoint and dry his feet with her hair, actions that further proved the woman’s sinfulness in Simon’s mind. Simon may have been expecting Jesus to have supernatural discernment, but he may have simply expected Jesus to know who had a bad reputation and who didn’t.  In any case, it is a social judgment that has labeled this woman as sinful. That is, this woman shows all the signs of being the community scapegoat who helps everybody else feel good about themselves.

Jesus’ brief parable of the two debaters can be understood as presenting salvation in a social context. The two debtors gives us, in miniature, an image of society where everybody is in debt in the sense of being sinful, even if the sinfulness of each person is not equal. We can see this indebtedness on a horizontal level as each person has wronged somebody else. In a religious culture, such as the Jewish one, the notion of everybody being indebted to God would, of course, also come to mind. The problem with Jesus’ parable is that if we see ourselves as parts of a society full of moral debt, then scapegoating one particular sinner ceases to be viable.

Simon’s grudging answer to Jesus’ question that the one who owed more would love more suggests that Simon is beginning to see the implication of the parable and it is making him uncomfortable. Jesus’ proclamation that the woman’s sins are forgiven leads to muttering and outrage from Simon and his other guests. If the moral debt of even one person is forgiven, then how can the community have a scapegoat? Forgiving the scapegoat was totally unforgiveable! The important thing is that it was not just the woman as an individual who was offered forgiveness, but everybody in the social system. The catch was, and is for us today, that we have to renounce the “comfort” that a social scapegoat gives us before our communities can be healed. As with so many of his parables, this story in Luke leaves us hanging. Will Simon and his friends accept forgiveness, or will they remain outraged by it, thinking that they don’t need it. The same question faces us as well.