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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The Power of the Ascended Lord

Human_headed_winged_bull_facingAscension Day is a feel-good celebration of Jesus seated at God’s “right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” If Christ is reigning like that and we are reigning with Him and sharing in Christ’s power, then we too are over everybody else just as Jesus is over everybody else. Sounds like a good deal. Or is it? Let’s take a closer look at what this power of Christ is all about.

Getting a sense of how power and especially omnipotence applies to God is tricky. After all, we dream of being omnipotent and invulnerable so we assume that the Master of the Universe wishes the same thing. Not a good assumption.

René Girard noted that power is attributed to the primordial victims of collective violence. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God) That is, the victim was powerful enough to be the cause of the social meltdown and also powerful enough to be the solution to the violence. (The reality, of course, is that such victims were normal humans with no supernatural powers.) The Gospels reveal Jesus as a vulnerable human being who clearly did not cause the social crises of first-century Jerusalem and whose death brought about no solution to it. Whatever power Jesus has, it isn’t this power. The illusion of the power of the victim should make us suspicious about how we attribute power to God.

A second and more common image of power is the imperial structure. In the days of Isaiah and other prophets, Assyria was such an image. The statues and friezes of winged bulls are symbols of this kind of power. This is the kind of power the apostles seem to have been thinking of when they asked Jesus: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) Jesus’ ascension right after hearing this question was a firm No.

When Paul says that Jesus is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come,” he is saying that Jesus is far above and beyond all cultures that rely on sacrificial violence and the Assyrian-Roman impositions of power. That is, the power of Christ is to bring us out from these cultural practices. But are we being brought out of the world to escape these cultural entanglements? Sorry if you were hoping for that.

crosswButterfliesPaul concludes this section of Ephesians with powerful irony: “God has put all things under [Jesus’] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Paul is using the common image of military victim where the victor lays his foot on the head of the vanquished, making the loser his footstool. But under Jesus’ foot is not the head of the vanquished but Jesus’ own Body, the Church. This is the Body of the crucified one who was raised from the dead and returned as the forgiving victim. Jesus’ reigning in Heaven at the right hand of the Father is coterminous with Jesus living with us here on earth, sharing our vulnerability to the imperial structures of power who continue to act like the Assyrians and the Romans.

If we are the Body of the forgiving victim, then forgiveness, not rulership, is what reigning with Christ is all about. This power to forgive was the gift the risen Christ breathed into the disciples (Jn. 20:23)  In John, Jesus says that it is this “Spirit of truth” who abides in us. When we keep Jesus’ words, he and the Father and the Spirit will come and dwell within us to empower us with their love for one another and for us and for all those whose sins (including our own!) need forgiving.