Sharing God’s Riches

creche1-copyLike every culture, the Jews had to face fundamental decisions as to how open or closed they would be to others. The default mechanism tends to be flight or fight. In discussing remaining social groups living close to the level of what he calls “traditional” societies, Jared Diamond observed this phenomenon. A stranger wandering into the territory of a different tribe had better come up with a common ancestor or the encounter could prove fatal.

The type of encounters with other nations has an effect on such decisions. In the case of the Jews, most encounters were bad. Slavery in Egypt was followed by both cultural and military threats from the Canaanites who tempted the Jews to forsake the God who had delivered them from Egypt. Encounters with the Assyrians and Babylonians were catastrophic. But then the Persians destroyed the Babylonian Empire and invited the Jews to return to their homeland and revive their cultural and religious traditions. It is surely no accident that the return from Babylonian exile and resettlement back in their homeland coincided with the first expressions of openness to other cultures on the part of the Jews such as we have when Isaiah proclaims: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Is. 60:3) With Isaiah, we have the breakthrough insight that the God who brought them out of Egypt and then delivered them from Babylon was the God for all people and not just them. Although Adam Smith took the title of his famous book The Wealth of Nations from Isaiah 60:5: “the wealth of the nations shall come to you,” the prophet encourages a much more profound exchange than that of capital: an exchange of the riches of the Jews’ religious tradition for the riches other nations can bring to that same tradition. Unfortunately, retrenchment followed, climaxed by the expulsion of all foreign wives at about the time of the building of the second temple.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles, the other nations, was complex and tense. Their religious traditions were mostly tolerated but at times menaced by the Romans. Although some individual Gentiles became God-fearers, practicers of Jewish piety such as the Centurion who built the synagogue at Capernaum, (Lk. 7: 4-5) there were few friendly relations between Jews and Gentiles. And yet in the face of this tension, Matthew sees in the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the exchange of wealth between the two peoples.

It was for St. Paul to return the gifts to the Magi. After his dramatic conversion, he was called to preach the Good News of Jesus, a Jew, to the Gentiles. To the surprise of many Jews who followed Jesus, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3: 6) That is, Jesus dissolved the fundamental division between Jew and Gentile when he was crucified by a collaboration between the two peoples who had suddenly come together for that brief moment. But when Jesus was raised from the dead as the forgiving victim, he bridged the gap between nations with one comprehensive act of forgiveness.

Ever since Paul’s commission, the Church has been tempted to retrench herself as the Jews did after building the second temple. This is to fall back into the default hostility to the stranger that Jared Diamond saw as part of “traditional” humanity. What the feast of Epiphany celebrates is the generosity of God who shares God’s riches with all so that all people can share this same richness with all others, not least with strangers who can then soon cease to be strangers.

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PETER AND PAUL: The Church’s Quest for Mimetic Unity

Sts_Peter_and_PaulThe presence of two strong personalities roughly the same sphere of influence is a perfect recipe for mimetic rivalry that can tear the social fabric apart until it is resolved either through implosion or collective violence against a victim. There is evidence that precisely these sorts of tensions played out between Saints Peter and Paul but there is also evidence of attempts at reconciliation between the two and further reconciliation on their behalf in the early Church to provide a very different model for the relationship between two strong outstanding personalities.

In the Acts of the Apostles Luke seems to have taken great pains to balance the impact of the missionary work of these two apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That Peter drops out of the narrative half way through the book and the seemingly abrupt ending with Paul awaiting trial in Rome diminishes the importance of even these great saints and emphasizes their subordination to the Holy Spirit. At the momentous Council of Jerusalem where the two apostles meet, at the heart of the book, the situation is ripe for conflict, but Luke presents the Council as an amicable solution to their conflict. Luke heightens the reconciliation by having Peter speak up Paul him in with words that sound a lot like a speech Paul could have made himself. That is, Peter imitates Paul to support his position at a time when he could have become a mimetic double in conflict with him. Peter’s earlier struggle over the appropriateness of preaching to of the Gentiles resolved by his vision of a sheet coming down from Heaven with both clean and unclean animals on it sets up this reconciliation. James plays the role of the mediator who states the amicable solution that allocates a separate sphere for Jews and Gentiles so that the two groups need not compete but are given space to follow the guidance of the Spirit. Paul’s letter to the Galatians tells a different story full of tension. Although Peter and gave Paul received “the right hand of fellowship” in Jerusalem, he later found it necessary oppose Peter “to his face” for rejecting table fellowship with Gentiles. Perhaps Peter had suffered a relapse of his own tendency to be swayed by the wrong mimetic crowd, such as happened to him in the courtyard of the high priest when he was surrounded by fellow Jews were against that fellowship. We never learned if this quarrel was ever healed between them in this life before it was healed posthumously in the hagiography and liturgy of the Church but there are hints that it probably was.

In writing to the Corinthians, Paul took pains to quell rivalry that had triangulated him with Peter by taking them severely to task for using such slogans as: “I am for Paul,” “I am for Cephas.” Far from fanning the flames of conflict, Paul distances himself from it in no uncertain terms and renounces any possible gain he might get from the “Paul” Party in Corinth. Although Peter is not believed to be the author of the Second Epistle bearing his name, it is significant that he refers to “our brother Paul, who is so dear to us.” At the very least, these words attest to the Church’s corporate effort to maintain a peaceful relationship between the two apostles. Peter says that Paul wrote “with the wisdom that is his special gift,” but then he cautions his readers that some points in Paul’s letters are hard to understand and are “easily distorted by uneducated and unbalanced people.” Tension and reconciliation between the two great apostles are themselves held in close tension here. A generation later, St. Clement of Rome writes the Corinthians to rage over an “abominable and unholy schism” in the community fueled by jealousy and envy. As a counter-example, Clement describes the deaths of Peter and Paul, stressing the harmony between the two great apostles. A century or so later, St. Ireneaus called the Church of Rome “the greatest and most ancient Church, founded by the two glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.” Archaeological investigations along the Appian Way have unearthed rooms with inscriptions honoring both saints together and a bronze medal dating from the first half of the second century pictures the heads of the two saints on the same side of the medal.

The Golden Legend, a 13th century compilation of saints’ lives by Jacob of Voragine is not the book one goes to for the most accurate history of the early church or anything else, but it is one of the best books for studying the way saints have been presented as models to the faithful. In his entry on Paul, Jacob explicitly curbs the alleged rivalry with St. Peter when he says: “We find that at different times Paul is portrayed as Peter’s inferior, as greater than Peter or as Peter’s equal, but the fact is that he was inferior in dignity, greater in preaching, and equal in holiness.” Jacob seals this unity by affirming the early Church’s legend that they were martyred under Nero on the same day. Before they were parted for their executions, Jacob records that Peter and Paul exchanged benedictions of each other.

This reconciliation between these two apostles is effected by their sharing the same feast day on June 29 when the other apostles get a day each for themselves. The Magnificat antiphon for First Vespers of this feast says: “Peter and Paul were at one in their love of the Lord: neither in life nor death were they divided.” The second half of this text comes from David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:23), so that a verse referring to the protracted mimetic struggle between David and Saul is applied to another problematic relationship to heal whatever division there may have been in real life and offer the Church a model of mimetic amity.