Jesus as the Way

WilliamGuestsChurch1Jesus’ famous words in John: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn. 14: 6) have inspired many Christians, including me, but they tend to cause some consternation in an age where many seek to be inclusive and affirming of diversity. Now that René Girard has greatly increased our awareness of mimetic rivalry, the worry grows that we might understand a verse such as this as meaning “my god is better than your god.” Such a reading projects our own rivalry onto Jesus so as to make Jesus a rival against other “gods.” Which is to turn Jesus into an idol of our own making.

In mimetic rivalry, as Girard articulates it, two rivals become mirror images of one another as they become so entangled in their struggle that the original bone of contention disappears. The two rivals are no longer fighting over a car or a dating companion but are directly tearing each other down and apart. Even ( perhaps especially) with people not so caught up in fighting for material possessions, rivalry over seemingly threatened beliefs can be extraordinarily fierce as we often stake our very being on our beliefs—whatever they are. If we engage in rivalry with people who hold beliefs other than our own, or with people with different understandings of Jesus, we lose sight of Jesus in the very act of defending Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus rebuked his disciples when they fought over who was the greatest. Surely Jesus himself was not fighting with anybody over who was the greatest and he doesn’t want us to do that on his behalf.

I think we start to get a better understanding of this verse when we note that it leads up to Jesus’ proclamation: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (Jn. 14: 9) This verse tells us that there is not the faintest trace of mimetic rivalry between Jesus and the Father. That is why Jesus is so transparent that we can see the Father through his actions and words. Later in this chapter, past what was read for today’s Gospel, Jesus promises to send “another advocate” to guide them into the truth. (Jn. 14: 16) This fills out the Trinitarian dimensions of divine transparency that attests even further to the lack of mimetic rivalry in God. Since Jesus says that he is sending “another advocate,” the implication is that he also is an advocate for us and his advocacy images the Father’s advocacy as well. This means we have three advocates who are advocates for everybody, including any person we might be in rivalry with. Not only is there no mimetic rivalry within the Trinity, there is no mimetic rivalry on the Trinity’s part with us. Any mimetic rivalry we experience comes from our human relationships.

To follow Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life is to renounce all mimetic rivalry. This is a huge challenge because we feed on our rivalries so constantly that we often can’t imagine life without them. Much is said by theologians about how mysterious and incomprehensible God is. Often this mystery is couched in terms of God’s infinity and our finite minds. That is true, but for practical purposes, the divide between our mimetic rivalry and God’s total lack of it is the source of our incomprehension of God in our daily lives. This is why we are so prone to pitting God as a rival with others with whom we just happen to be in rivalry with. Renouncing rivalry is one of the ways we die to sin so as to rise to new life. Insofar as we manage to renounce our rivalries so as to follow Jesus as the Way that leads to life, we ourselves become life-givers who show the way and the life and truth that we receive from the Persons of the Trinity.

For an introduction to René Girard, see my essay Violence and the Kingdom of God.

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.

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.

God So Loved the World

NicodemusRight after Jesus had turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple and driven out the sacrificial animals, Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin approaches Jesus by night. In the strange dialog that follows, we see Jesus reaching out to a member of the establishment that he has just challenged, but we also see this same establishment figure stammering as he tries to understand Jesus and fails. This is a time for stammering as it is a time of transition. Jesus has just ended the sacrificial age with his actions in the temple. The question is: What is the new age going to be?

Nicodemus is confounded when Jesus tells him that he cannot see the kingdom of God without being “born anew,” born “from above” by water and the Spirit. The water and the Spirit both suggest baptism. The Greek word baptizmo means to be overwhelmed and just as Jesus was overwhelmed by both water and Spirit in the river Jordan in the account in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus wishes for Nicodemus and all of us to be overwhelmed by both. In this dialogue, however, Nicodemus is overwhelmed with puzzlement and perhaps, so are we. Jesus then compounds Nicodemus’ puzzlement (and ours!) by suddenly shifting to Moses raising the bronze serpent in the wilderness, a mysterious event recorded in Numbers. The bronze serpent was raised during a social crisis driven by a plague. (Both the disease and the violence against Moses were contagious.) The phrase “lifted up” refers to Jesus being raised on the cross and then being raised from the dead. The bronze serpent, then, becomes an image of Jesus being raised on the cross to draw all people out of the society overwhelmed by violence into a new society as free of violence as Jesus is himself. It seems that being born “from above” entails being born from the raised up cross, which is the entry into a new way of living, what John calls “eternal life” several times in his Gospel. After all, St. Paul said that “we were buried therefore with him [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).

This is the context of the famous words that follow in John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:17) These words echo, in a different key, the acclamation of the voice from heaven after the sky opened up declaring that Jesus is God’s beloved son in whom God is well pleased. Baptism, then, initiates us into this love of the heavenly father. If God so loves the world, then God is not bringing a winnowing fork or a rod of iron as John the Baptist expected, but is bringing only himself, wounds from the cross and all, to lift all of us out of the world’s overwhelming violence to overwhelm us with his love.

John goes on to assure us that God did not send the Son into the world “to condemn the world, but that in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:18) These two verses should be strong enough to prevent us from thinking that the solemn verses that follow concerning condemnation take back even a smidgeon of the proclamation of God’s love. The judgment is not God’s judgment but the self-judgment of those who “loved darkness rather than light.” If God’s very Being is light and we don’t like it, what else can God do but keep on being the light until, hopefully, we learn to like it and then love it and so turn away from the darkness in our hearts and turn to the cross that gives us a new birth from above?

Above the Circle of the Earth

treespath1The Babylonian exile was traumatic for the Jews. Those who were taken to Babylon had to live in an alien environment quite contrary to everything they believed in. But an interesting thing happened during this exile. The sages and prophets who were living in exile came to close quarters with the mythology and sacrificial religion of their captors. When the Jews had come close to the Canaanite religion earlier in their history, the clash had taught them a few things about what the God they worshipped was all about. When the prophets saw the sacrifices of children to Moloch, they knew that this was not the kind of sacrifice Israel’s God wished and they protested these sacrifices with all their might. In Babylon, they came up against a mythology of a violent creation that took place with the dismemberment of Tiamat who, of course, was the deemed the cause of all the problems among the deities and who had to be punished. Moreover, the reason for creating the world was to make servants who would serve the gods. The sages and prophets learned from this mythology that this was not what their God was about. The God who had delivered them from the Red Sea was freeing slaves; not making them. This God had created a people by delivering them from violence and from a violent culture. They were hoping their God would do it again, and God did just that when the Persians defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their home.

The Creation narrative that begins the book of Genesis can easily be read as a refutation of Babylonian mythology. Far from creation emerging from violence, creation emerges from the Word of God which allows creation to be. The prophet we call Second Isaiah also proclaims Israel’s God to be far different, fully Other, than Marduk and his pantheon. “With whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?” asks Israel’s God in a question so rhetorical that it stops all human mouths (Is. 40: 25.) The violence in Babylonian mythology mirrors the violence of Babylonian culture and other human cultures as both deities and humans live in the same system of retributive violence. But Israel’s God “sits above the circle of the earth” (Is. 40:22.) That is, God is outside the system. From God’s vantage point, we are all like little grasshoppers. This God is the creator “of the ends of the earth.” Not only that, but God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Is. 40: 29.) Far from creating servants, God serves the creatures God has made and God serves most especially the powerless, like a rabble of slaves in Egypt and an exiled people in Babylon. Grasshoppers may be small in size but they are great in God’s care.

This vision of God as one who serves is embodied in Jesus as presented by Mark. Coming from outside the human system of violence, Jesus exorcises those who are possessed by their violent culture. Jesus serves Peter’s mother-in-law by healing her of a fever, thus allowing her to imitate Jesus by serving him, the disciples, and her family. Meanwhile, Jesus goes on to serve the many people who come to be healed of sickness and violence. Now God has come from “high above the circle of the earth” to serve us grasshoppers size.

Both Isaiah and Mark are showing us that creation is not a one-shot deal. Creation is a continuous process. God renews the strength of those who wait on God so that we can “mount up with wings like eagles.” Jesus uses the same creative power to heal sicknesses and drive away the violence that possesses us.

The question then is: Will we allow Jesus to bring us out of the exile into which violent human culture has captured us so that we can return to the world God created from the beginning—outside the System—or will we prefer to stay in exile?