On Welcoming a Thief in the Night

crucifix1A thief is not usually thought of as a good type of person and a thief in the night is worse. And yet Jesus characterizes himself as a thief when he says: “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” (Mt. 24: 43) The expression that God will come like “a thief in the night” also comes up in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and 2 Peter 3:10. Since Jesus commends the dishonest steward who defrauds the master who is firing him and the unjust judge who gives the widow a fair hearing just to stop her from pestering him, it seems that Jesus has a soft spot in his heart for rogues. Maybe he was a bit of a trickster rogue himself.

But surely it isn’t good to be a thief is it? A thief is someone who takes what belongs to somebody else for personal gain at the expense of the thief’s victim. That is not good. However, before we get too self-righteous about other people who are thieves, we should pause to take note that one can steal the reputations of other people through misrepresentation and downright lying. Worse, we can steal the dignity of other people by treating them with disrespect. With these considerations, we begin to see that thieves aren’t just other people.

The context of this verse in Matthew strengthens this uncomfortable realization. Jesus refers to the Flood of Noah’s time, noting that people were going about their business as if nothing was wrong. But Genesis says that the whole society had become a flood of violence that was sweeping everybody away. The implication is that the society of Jesus’ time was likewise being swept away in a flood of violence while most people thought things were just going along normally. And what about our own time? We go about our business while reputations and human dignity are being stolen right and left by both right and left. All of us have become thieves and we will never get out of this social flood until we realize this truth.

So, is Jesus a good thief while the rest of us are bad thieves? Let’s take a look at how Jesus acts like a thief in the night. Does Jesus steal our things for personal gain? Jesus does steal everything we have but he does not steal our things for his personal gain but for our personal gain. More important, Jesus steals everything in us and about us that destroys our relationships with other people and God. That is, Jesus steals our thieving ways that we are so attached to. How else can we feel good about ourselves if we can’t steal the reputations and dignity of other people? But while a human thief leaves nothing for the thief’s victim, Jesus gives us the full richness of God, the richness bestowed on humankind at the dawn of creation.

How can we be ready for a thief like this? St. Paul tells us to “live honorably as in the day” by giving up “quarreling and jealousy.” Then, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 13: 13–14) Then, as Isaiah teaches us: beat our “swords into plowshares” and our “spears into pruning hooks.” (Is. 2: 4) Then we won’t have so much thievery and violence for Jesus to take away from us when he sneaks into our lives.

Luke tells us of a thief who became good because he repented and, in so repenting, realized that Jesus had been unjustly swept away by society’s violence. Will we choose to repent and become good thieves?

Jacob & the Prodigal

???????????????????????????????????????????Kenneth Bailey’s book Jacob & the Prodigal overlaps with important sections of my own book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: A Spirituality of Peace. In using the thought of René Girard and his colleagues to explore ways of renewing Christian spirituality (see Violence and the Kingdom of God for an introduction to Girard), I comment at length on the stories of fratricidal strife in Genesis and Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke. (The Parable is better titled something like “The Prodigal Father and His Two Sons.”

Wee both see Jesus’ Parable as seeking to resolve the strife between brothers although, like the story in Genesis, the Parable is left open, leaving the possibility of resolution open but not fulfilled in the text. Having grown up in the Near East, Bailey has much knowledge of Semitic culture that many of us in the West do not have. As a result, Bailey offers many important insights into the Parable and the earlier narrative that pass many of us by. For example, Bailey emphasizes the foolishness of the Father in the Parable in running to meet his son at the edge of the village. For a grown man to run for any reason was considered shameful and to run for such a purpose especially so. This is just one example among many of the new insights Bailey has to offer us. Bailey treats the Parable as the climax of a trilogy of parables in Luke 15 which begins with the Parable of the Lost Sheep and continues with the Parable of the Lost Coin before concluding with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. By studying the parables together, Bailey explores the Christology of the Parables where the shepherd, the woman searching for her coin and the father all become images of Jesus Himself as he reveals how overwhelming and unimaginable the Love of God is.

The final portion of the book is a comparison of the Parable with the Saga of Jacob and Esau. Many of the parallels are contrasts which are at least as illumining as the likenesses. In both cases we have two brothers in strife. Isaac, however, in his in ineptness in being tricked is a huge contrast to the father in the Parable. Another contrast is that Jacob does well in the foreign country while the Prodigal Son does not. Another likeness is that neither Jacob nor the Prodigal Son repent of wrongdoing. (Bailey explains at length that the Prodigal Son is only scheming to get set up in a craft to get enough money to live on; he is not repenting of asking his father for half the estate, brutal as that was to his father.) Bailey argues that Esau doesn’t really forgive Jacob as I argue in my take on the story. The number of armed men Esau brings could suggest an aggressive meeting but it could be a defense measure, not knowing how many armed men Jacob might have. Bailey argues that the vowels of the Hebrew word for “kiss: are the same as the vowels for “bite,” leaving open the possibility that Esau bit Jacob. I can’t argue the linguistic case but it seems to me that so aggressive an act would have led to a more violent reaction than we have. In any case, I see Jacob not believing in Esau’s forgiveness and rather than a reconciliation, the story ends in a permanent separation.

In the Parable, the two brothers are separate at the end, thus keeping up the conflict that I see between them dating back to before the younger brother leaves. In the Parable, however, the central separation is between each of the brothers and their father. The younger son does seem to have accepted his father’s welcome, although we don’t know if he persevered in his gratitude. The older son is at odds with his father as well as with his brother. The challenge is whether or not the older son will accept his father’s love for his younger son. In like manner, Bailey demonstrates that this challenge is thrown out to the scribes and Pharisees who criticized Jesus for eating with “sinners.”
Bailey’s book is a valuable source of new insights that deeply refresh our understanding of a Parable that we think we understand so well that we have let it go stale. Most important, Bailey’s study makes the Love of God revealed in Jesus “full of sap, still green.”

Zacchaeus and his City

zacchaeusThe French thinker René Girard has argued that since the dawn of humanity, we have tended to solve social tensions through persecuting a victim who absorbs these tensions and suffers for them. Girard has also argued that the Gospels unveil the truth of this scapegoating mechanism in their narratives of Jesus’ death and Resurrection where Jesus opens up new possibilities for humanity to gather through the forgiveness of the Risen Victim. It happens that the Gospels show Jesus unveiling these very same dynamics in his earthly ministry. I analyzed our such stories in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire. Here is what I have to say about Zacchaeus:
When Jesus came to Jericho, he was famous, or notorious enough, that something of a hubbub arose as a result of his passing through the town. People gathered and crowded one another to gawk at the man and his followers. Why the stir? The mayor wasn’t exactly giving him the key to the city. Throughout Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, Jesus was set upon by Pharisees and scribes and questioned in front of the crowd. Such questioning, of course, was made with the intention of publicly discrediting the freelance itinerant preacher who was becoming famous for his clever retorts. The result was bound to be entertaining. The scribes and Pharisees were surely on the prowl in a town that large. Zacchaeus’s act of climbing a tree to get a look at Jesus need not be taken as an indication that he was inclined to have his life changed by this stranger. His eagerness to see and hear the duel is enough to account for his action. And yet the anticipated debate does not occur. Why? Because Jesus saw Zacchaeus up in the tree. The signs that Zacchaeus was a rich man hated by everybody in town were there to be seen by a person with eyes to see.
That Jesus had discerned the social matrix of Jericho rightly was immediately manifest when Jesus called out to the tax collector and invited himself to that man’s house. St. Luke says that “all who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” (Lk. 19:7) Here is another example of Luke’s astute anthropological insight. It isn’t just the Pharisees and scribes who grumble about Zacchaeus. Everybody grumbles about him. Like Simon when confronted with the Woman Who Was a Sinner, (Lk. 7:36–50) the people of Jericho were thinking that if this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of man this was who was sitting up in a tree—that he was a sinner. One doesn’t have to be a demonically possessed man or a sinful woman to be a communal scapegoat. A rich man who is a traitor to his people can hold the same position. And deserve it. After all, he was treading down the downtrodden. For scapegoating others, he deserved to be scapegoated. As it happened, Jesus did know what kind of man Zacchaeus was. It is through showing us that anybody can be the scapegoat and anybody can be a persecutor that Luke shows the communal scapegoating phenomenon for what it is. Given the fact that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem with a pretty clear idea of what was going to happen to him there, it behooved Jesus to give his followers every opportunity to see how collective hostility against one person works, in the hope that they would learn to recognize the process when it happens in the Holy City, and that is what he has done here.

As with the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus performs an exorcism of the communal scapegoat, a quiet one this time, but just as effective. The result is that the homeostasis sustained by the scapegoating process is destabilized. There is some ambiguity as to whether or not Zacchaeus is actually converted by his encounter with Jesus or if he had repented earlier but nobody believed it. Bible scholars disagree as to whether the verbs used by Zacchaeus are in the present tense or the future. That is, Zacchaeus may be saying that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times anybody he has defrauded, but he could be saying that he is already doing these things. If Zacchaeus is using the future tense, then he is announcing a change of heart. If Zacchaeus is speaking in the present tense, then he is claiming that he is better, or less terrible, than he has been made out to be. I think our best bet is to look at the implications of either interpretation of the verb tenses.

If Zacchaeus has been converted on the spot by Jesus, and we assume that Jesus did not zap people with a magic wand to override their free will, then we may ask ourselves how this conversion happened. The information in Luke suggests two possibilities. As the communal scapegoat, Zacchaeus had “the intelligence of the victim” and perhaps that intelligence led him to understand what it meant to other people to be the victim of his tax collecting. The other possibility is that an undeserved commendation from Jesus freed Zacchaeus from the necessity of acting in such a way as to justify his designation as communal scapegoat. It is more than likely that both factors played their part here. On the other hand, if Zacchaeus was speaking in the present tense, the implication is that the collective attitude of the townspeople was unjust, which would underline the arbitrary aspect of scapegoating. Generous actions on the part of a rich person who has drawn the collective resentment of the community often do not diminish resentment against him or her. It is also possible, of course, that Zacchaeus is trying to make himself look better than he really is. That is, he is boasting of his good deeds while overlooking the unjust means used for gaining the wealth that he uses for his acts of largesse. If I am right in taking this story as being primarily concerned with communal scapegoating, then the ambiguity enriches the story and there is no need to solve the grammatical problem once and for all.

The challenge of this story, however, is not limited to the possible conversion of one person. It extends to the possible conversion of the whole community. Whether or not Zacchaeus needed to be converted and, if so, whether or not he did change his life, is immaterial for the greater challenge. Either way, by singling out Zacchaeus and inviting himself to that man’s house, Jesus has already robbed Jericho of its scapegoat. The unanimity has been irretrievably broken. That everybody turns to grumbling at Jesus for going to the house of a man who is a sinner suggests that Jesus is well on the way to becoming a unanimous object of hatred. Since Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, where he would, once again, become the object of hatred, it is no surprise that it should happen in Jericho, while he was on the way to the Holy City. This development does not bode well for Jericho becoming a social climate of healing.

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.