I appreciated Laura Ortberg Turner’s recent article in The Atlantic (“What Happens When the ‘Moral Majority’ Becomes a Minority?”). She identifies a suggestion by some American evangelical leaders that Christians withdraw from the political scene, emulate the Benedictines by engaging for a season in the contemplative life, and then prepare to reemerge in order to change the culture.
It is interesting to me that, after thirty-five years of presence in American culture—a culture that identifies itself as 70% Christian and 25% evangelical—those who are associated with the Moral Majority would think that withdrawal and reengagement would result in changing the people of the United States. I wonder what they might think would be different once evangelical Christians returned to the political scene after a time of isolation. Would God allow the rest of the USA to suffer consequences in the meantime that might parallel the disasters that befell ancient Israel?
A time of rest and contemplation might actually be good for American evangelicals, if that time of contemplation is less of a strategic withdrawal in preparation for a new attack on culture, and more of a humble time of reflection about what it means to follow Jesus into the world that God loves. We could all probably use a time out in order to give thought to our identity.
I am also interested in the way that the term “American evangelical” often suggests a unified body of religious people. There are a number of prominent voices that do not speak for all evangelicals. There are seminaries that consider themselves to be evangelical, and yet differ with one another about certain areas of theology, ethics, and social justice. There is probably a lot less uniformity among evangelicals than many people think.
Roman Catholics are sometimes described as though they are similarly uniform. In reality, the Roman Catholic Church is made up of a number of orders that are expanded by many sub-orders. There are orders that focus on attending to the inward life (like the Benedictines), and those that attend to the active life (like the Franciscans). They would all say that they are Roman Catholics and share a common life of prayer, but that they also express their vocations in a variety of ways.
I once heard Dr. Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, wish out loud that we Protestants could see our various denominations in the way that Roman Catholics see their orders. I wish that for evangelicals. I wish that some would, indeed, withdraw from the divisive drama of American political life and seek a fresh identity as the people of God. I wish that others would see their evangelical vocation as humble service to the poor and suffering of the world. I’d like to see others give themselves over to the enrichment of the church, calling people prophetically to live their lives in the way of Jesus.
Maybe that’s already going on. If so, then it might be good for some of the more dominant evangelical voices to withdraw for awhile so that the caricatures attributed to evangelicals would wither and die and people might see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. Just maybe.
And maybe we could, indeed, redefine “evangelical” so that the term, rather than attributed to a particular block of American voters, would describe a people who continuously proclaim and demonstrate the present reality of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that Jesus said is now upon us. As such, we could become comfortable with that identification being expressed in ways as diverse as the orders of the Roman Catholic Church.
I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant when used the metaphors of “salt” and “light.”
I wrote this chapter (from my book, Shadow Meal: Reflections on Eucharist) in 2009. I thought it might be good to revisit, since we are approaching another election season in the USA.
Manners at the Table
We were fairly informal at the dinner table when I was a kid, yet there were basic manners that were expected when we gathered to eat. My grandmother, however, was of the ancient school that believed a certain level of decorum was mandatory and certain violations were punishable by death or worse.
My grandparents were not rich people. My grandfather had been a poor preacher and then a struggling businessman his entire life. When he died, they were living in a nice, tidy but small mobile home in southern California. While my grandmother had to learn to make do with very little, she saw to it that the little she had was clean, set out properly, and not taken lightly. Maybe the family would have to eat porridge for dinner, but at least the bowls would sit on a lace tablecloth.
My grandmother and her sisters, my aunts, could cook a glorious dinner out of tree branches and moon beams if pressed to the task. On holidays they would join together in someone’s kitchen, gabbing and arguing, flour and baking soda floating through the air, aromas unspeak¬ably rich and savory finding their ways to sniffing noses and hungry bel¬lies. They were the food wizards of a bygone era and I love the memory of those kitchen extravaganzas, although I was always kicked out when caught on one of my early raiding attempts.
When Grandma made a pie, all of time stopped, the moon and stars gaped in wonder and the earth went silent. I should have gone silent, on that summer afternoon in 1962, when I said too much and received too little for my trouble.
My numerous and rambunctious cousins were up from San Diego, and we played in Grandma’s front yard while she prepared her amazing cherry pie, my eternal favorite. When it was time to dish out the portions, I catapulted myself inside the house, leaving my unworthy cousins in my wake. As Grandma dished out the pieces, I recklessly and foolishly uttered words that I have wished for years that I could take back:
“I want the BIGGEST piece.”
Grandma, who I knew loved me dearly, would not put up for a moment with any such selfish demands. There was not a weak bone in her body and her principles were shored up with rebar and steel beams. She did not waver nor did I consider for a moment the possibility of a tantrum or efforts at renegotiation when she replied,
“Then you get the SMALLEST piece.”
And so I did. I wanted to cut my throat and then slaughter my cousins (especially the girl cousins) who would surely mock me when they discovered the insidious consequences of my crime. Violating man-ners anywhere near the table was, for Grandma, an offense not to go unpunished.
Are there manners at the table of Jesus? I suspect that Jesus is fine with a little sloppiness and an occasional belch. I wonder, however, how he feels about our bad mouths when we pull up our chairs and hold out our hands for more? What is his response when we trash talk people down the row or speak against those who are absent altogether? Do our portions change? Do we even notice?
I have this image in my mind of we who return often to the table of Jesus pulling up our chairs, smiling sweetly, and asking for things to be passed our way. Our conversation is normally civil, but suddenly things become different. It is election season, and new permissions seem to be given to the ones calling themselves followers of Jesus. We might be citi¬zens of the kingdom of God, but we’re also Americans, and as Americans we embrace our right to hate and bear false witness as long as it is during an election year and our venom is reserved for the candidates and party we do not prefer.
This is actually more than an image for me, because election years come around often enough for this to be a recurring theme. With the invention of the Internet, I receive scores of messages from my Christian brothers and sisters who tell me why I must fear and hate the candidate they don’t like, a candidate who is very likely the Anti-Christ and/or Satan (depending on what bent eschatology you want to embrace) or just plain evil and stupid. With transmittable videos, I can now receive obviously doctored films of candidates seeming to say things that they aren’t really saying, providing apparent evidence of their dark, evil hearts.
In the last election, I received so many of these kinds of things that I finally snapped, wrote a response to the propaganda I had received, and hit REPLY TOALL. I never heard back from even one of the forty million recipients, but at least the emails quit coming for a while.
It isn’t that I object to their preference for a particular candidate. I object to speaking, writing and forwarding things that foster hatred, slan¬der and the bearing of false witness. While I support the debates about important issues, I am hurt when I see and hear remarks (and video clips) that show how we Christians don’t mind playing by the rules of negative ad-speak when it suits us.
I wonder why, during these election years, I never receive any mes¬sages encouraging us to pray for our future leaders. Never got one. Not a one.
I seem to recall that Israel got in some pretty deep trouble by playing politics by the rules of the world. Everyone else in the neighborhood had a king, so the Israelites wanted a king. Other nations had big armies, so Israel built an army. The surrounding culture had more interesting and sexually active gods, so Israel co-opted a few just for good measure. In the end, they lost at that game because that wasn’t what they were made for. They were made to be God’s people and, as such, to bring blessing to all the families of the earth through their worship, devotion, and unique way of living under the shadow of Yahweh’s wings.
What are we Christians made for? Is it to hate, slander and bear false witness in the name of Jesus? Election year or not, I sure hope we’re made for something better than that. In fact, I’m pretty confident that we are.
I know that this kind of bad behavior comes at other times also, but election years are like Mardi Gras: Normally sane and sober people take advantage of the opportunity to run around like drunken, crazy people (actually, many of them are drunk and crazy) and then pretend to return to business as usual the next day. I just wonder why we Christians don’t question our own behavior during these times. It is interesting that in the United States, our presidential election season ends just prior to Advent. We should think about the irony of that. Welcoming Jesus into the world right after we spew election year sewage should bother us just a bit.
Could the worst manners at the table of Jesus be despising someone that Jesus loves rather than putting our elbows on the table?
In a social media-saturated culture we are offered any number of stories and photos insisting that certain events or images are indisputably true. Take, for example, the following pair of photographs:
The captions suggest that there is something lacking in the 2015 photo. Is it simply the lack of American flags? Or is it something deeper, something more sinister—like a lack of patriotism in the current US president and the people who rally around him? Hmmmm . . .
There is clearly a lack of American flags in the lower photograph. That photo, however, has been cropped. When you search around and find a more expansive shot of the same scene, you get this:
There are, indeed, flags present. Instead of being waved in victory in the crowd, they are proudly displayed at the front of the buildings along the street. The first photograph is a celebration; the second is a memorial. Both have flags.
Only two things would keep people from making this discovery:
1. A desire that the dark, sinister version of the story would be true; and/or
2. A lack of critical analysis.
We see this kind of thing all the time on social media. I’ve recently seen social media threads expressing dismay over the dismissal of employees at Christian organizations in three different states. The comments that follow the stories are overwhelmingly supportive of the seemingly wronged employees and offer harsh criticisms of the offending organizations.
From what I can tell, the comments come from people who are bright and well-educated. But the streams of comments appear to lack two important elements:
1. A voice at the conversation table by someone who expresses an alternative view.
2. Any sense of critical analysis
Consequently, the story ends up offering only one side, and that side may or not be accurate. We could be looking at a cropped picture, but it’s difficult for us to tell.
Which is why the lack of critical analysis is so alarming to me.
I’m struggling to understand how these intelligent people would read an account of conflict on the Internet and offer unbridled support without making some attempt to understand the larger picture. As I’ve looked over these threads of discussion, I have not been able to find anyone speaking who suggests that there might be a more to consider before making a judgment on the situation. I’m troubled by that. I’m troubled at the absence of healthy, well-intended critical analysis.
I’d hate to be arrested for a crime, and then sent to trial, only to discover that the judge and jury have decided to only allow the prosecutor to speak, giving the defender no opportunity to make a case on my behalf. But in our social media world, we get to do that all the time.
Now that same-sex marriage is woven into the national legal fabric of the US, Christians and their communities of faith are considering how to respond. Some are angry, decrying the imminent demise of the nation; others are celebrating this progressive move.
This isn’t the first time that churches in the US have had to deal with changes in legal requirements that relate to marriage. Up until the 1970’s there had to be some provable violation of the bonds of marriage for a divorce to be granted. Since the creation of no-fault divorce, however, the process has been streamlined and made easier for everyone (except, of course, the children).
This was a challenge for people of faith, who trusted the authority of that part of the wedding ceremony that proclaimed,
“What God has joined together, let no one separate.” (A quote from Jesus, to be clear)
The State made a ruling on divorce, and churches had to live with it. How did many churches respond? Many realized that marginalizing or excluding divorced people from their fellowships was not the way of Jesus. Divorce recovery ministries sprang up. There was even a growing acceptance of those who divorced and remarried. Most didn’t do a particularly good job of exploring the theology of it all, but there was still a response that resulted in acts of ministry.
Now the State has made a ruling on marriage, and churches have to live with that as well.
So, now what?
I think that the good people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, have helped us with the way forward.
After nine worshippers were gunned down in their church, the members of Emanuel probably recognized that the rest of the world would sympathize with them if they called for retributive justice—the death of the perpetrator that might somehow set things rights. They might have called for a violent response from their community.
Instead, they sent the world a message. They said, in effect,
“In times of pain, sorrow, and grief, we begin with worship, and then we forgive. That’s how we do it.” And the world, including the media, marveled.
And now, the Supreme Court has laid claim to a time-honored tradition for religious folks of all kinds: Marriage. And, as a majority, the citizens of our nation are on board with that change. The times, indeed, are a-changin’.
So, my Christian brothers and sisters, how do we do it?
Do we spew vitriol on the Internet, drawing lines and investing ourselves in the polarized screaming matches that have too long characterized people in our society? Do we simply embrace the decision of the court and cheer for what we’ve thought was right all along?
Or, do we stop, take a breath, and consider who we are. We who follow Jesus are not called to be ideologues that live or die based on the rulings of the Court or the preferences of our culture. We are called to be God’s people for the sake and blessing of the world.
The most appropriate response to the drama of this week is, I believe, to come together in worship. I think the noble people at Emanuel AME have shown us the power of such a response. Regardless of our views about the Court’s decision, we should intentionally and vulnerably place ourselves in a posture that demonstrates the lordship of Jesus Christ and recognizes that the church in America is a church in exile.
And then we open our eyes and ears and ask ourselves: What does the ministry of Jesus look like in this time and place? In challenging times, how is the love of God made known? I’m pretty sure it won’t be made known in political posturing and venomous denunciations.
The Facebook posts regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to declare the legality of same-sex marriage across the US have been predictably interesting. Like many others, I’ve been thinking about this topic for quite some time, and I am going to weigh in with my own observation and recommendations, at least for those who operate in the realm of the Christian community.
For a very long time, clergy have officiated at weddings in a dual representative capacity. On the one hand, they represent the Christian church; on the other hand they represent the State (as in , The Government). We often provide evidence of this dual representation by closing the ceremony with words like these:
“By the power invested in me by the church of Jesus Christ and the State of XXX, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
Whether those words are spoken exactly that way or not, the dual agency is real.
I’ve officiated at quite a few weddings, all in the state of California. It is humbling to me that when I say the words that declare the marriage of the two people standing before me, it has the power of law. Upon my word, at that moment in time, those people are married to each other. The Church and State both back me on this.
This is a powerful reality because I sign the marriage license sometime later in the day, mail it off a few days later, and the County Recorder enters it into some computer within the following weeks. Nevertheless, those folks were married the second I said they were married. The Church and State both grant me that authority.
Church and State in the US have had this complicit relationship for many years and everyone’s been pretty much okay about it.
We religious folks have long believed that marriage is our business. That is, we see marriage as a sacred bond and, therefore, part of our turf. Up until recently, Church and State have been in agreement about what constitutes a marriage (we have had some conflict with the State about what constitutes a divorce, but we somehow got comfortable with that one).
As of this morning, the Federal government has sent all religious people—regardless of their views on same-sex marriage—this message:
“We own marriage. You do not.”
And, apparently, they are right.
So maybe this is an opportunity for Christian leaders to reflect in some new ways about our relationship with the State and with the culture at large. Perhaps we’ve been complicit with the State when it suits us, but have expressed outrage when the State reveals its true character as the dominant power structure in the US.
So here’s what I’m thinking. Consider these words of Jesus:
“ . . . if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:40)
I know this text is addressing the issue of retaliation, but perhaps we can allow it to inform our thinking on the issue of marriage. The State has taken our coat—the definition of marriage—as its own. Maybe its time for us to hand the State our cloak as well—that is, our role as agents of the State in the performance of marriages.
In other words, maybe we need to get out of the marriage business.
The State already owns that business. People have long been able to go the courthouse, pay for a license, and have a court deputy perform a brief ceremony, resulting in a legal marriage. It’s quicker, easier, and a lot less expensive than a big, fancy church wedding with a reception.
Maybe it’s time for us to look at what a train wreck marriage has been over the years in this country, and rethink what we do to solemnify and bless this union that we have traditionally referred to as “marriage.” Maybe we need to revisit the concepts of covenant and faithfulness and reframe them under the lordship of Jesus Christ, and let the State do its job of deciding who gets married and who doesn’t.
We can be for or against this Supreme Court decision, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. Religious groups in general and Christians in particular don’t own marriage. That coat has been taken.
When he heard the sound of raindrops tapping against the living room window he knew it wasn’t rain but rather the clicking and scraping of fingernails, torn and bloody, arching from fingers that should have seen the grave long ago. He rolled off the couch where he had been sleeping and stumbled into his tiny kitchen, careful to keep his throbbing eyes trained to the floor. The clicking against the window ceased.
He picked up a tumbler from the cluttered sink and rinsed it out with tap water, then filled it half way. The water tasted flat and lifeless and he spit it into the sink, the steel wool feeling in his mouth unabated. He opened a cupboard and cracked the seal on a fresh bottle of Scotch. The amber liquid splashed into the tumbler and paused at one finger, then settled at two. He held the drink under his nose, inhaling from habit into olfactory senses deadened long ago by alcohol. The Scotch burned his tongue with familiar fire.
The weight of the bottle felt promising in his hand as he carried it toward his perch on the couch. He stopped abruptly when he saw the figure sitting there, first appearing as his ex-wife, then becoming a former colleague and, finally, transforming into an ape of comic proportions before disappearing. The space remained empty. He made his way to the other side of the couch and sat down heavily, drops of Scotch fleeing the glass and spattering unnoticed across the front of his soiled t-shirt.
He was not dead yet, and he wondered why not. He had been alone for a year and his drunken slide toward death remained at bay. He thought he had shut himself off from all that had come before, all that had been lost, the disasters that had driven him to this place, but the memories returned, rehearsing and re-enacting the comic nightmare that was the story of his life. He drained his glass and poured again.
Something shifted in the bedroom. He listened as a body fell from the bed and crumpled to the floor. It crawled—no, lurched—toward the door but he refused to look. He squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth, raggedly whispering stop, stop, stop. The thing reached the doorway and then made no more sounds. He opened his eyes and turned to see nothing.
The drink burned again, his stomach tightening at the fresh introduction of alcohol. He wished again for dreamless sleep, but instead the video began its replay in his head. He closed his eyes, sat back, and let the story roll.
Years ago a woman approached me after our weekly church service. Since I was her pastor, she wanted to tell me something she had experienced in order to hear my perspective.
She said that, as a young teenager, she had experienced various forms of abuse, both within her family and at church. One day she made a firm decision about her life, a decision she carefully explained to God.
“God,” she said, “I want you to know that I am going to start drinking and partying and doing all kinds of things that I don’t think you’re going to like.”
She told me that she heard words in her head—tender words that she believed were from God—saying, “All right. I’ll go with you.”
During her years of self-destructive behavior—right up through her time in rehab—she never doubted that God had been with her all the time. She had no illusions about God’s approval or endorsement of her behavior. She believed that she had broken God’s heart, but that he still remained quietly with her.
I had to really think about this one. It was an important question: In our worst circumstances, when we have chosen paths of pain and dehumanization, does God abandon us or wait patiently alongside us, grieving over our self-inflicted choices?
I think that the biblical history of Israel has something to say about this. What do you think?
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
“ I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1:23-27, 33)
John the Baptizer committed the ultimate heresy: Telling the power brokers of the dominant culture something that they didn’t already believe.
This kind of behavior is what got both John and Jesus in trouble with the local religious leaders. John’s call to repentance seemed to bother them, not necessarily because they didn’t appreciate the idea, but because John lacked adequate credentials. If he wasn’t the Messiah or Elijah or “the prophet,” then what was he doing in his ragged garments and crazy hair telling people to turn their lives back to God before it was too late?
But John knew who he was and who had authorized him to do what he was doing. More importantly, he knew who he wasn’t. He wasn’t the Messiah. He wasn’t the one long awaited by Israel to renew their destiny as the people of God. In the meantime, John served as sign and wonder, pointing through his actions toward a new and better thing that was to come. He drenched people with common river water in the act of baptism; someone was coming, he claimed, who would drench people’s lives with the very spirit of God.
In this Advent season, as we consider and reconsider the coming of Jesus, it might be good to reflect on how our lives are also intended to be sign and wonder for the sake of the world. In all that we do as followers of Jesus—gather together for worship, care for the poor, pray for the sick and hurting, work for justice in the world—we give evidence to Jesus’ claim that the kingdom of God is near (Mark 1:15).
Forty or so years after John’s death, the Roman army wiped out Jerusalem, destroying the city and its center of worship. John’s ministry pointed to something better that was to come, and still the world carried on in its self-destructive cycles. John was not about altering that inevitability.
Perhaps, in a similar way, followers of Jesus may not be able to divert the disastrous course of the world, but our lives—both individually and corporately—should serve as sign and wonder, pointing to God’s intentions for a new heaven and a new earth, one in which his justice, healing, and peace will be established.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)
“I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)” (Luke 7:28-30)
John the Baptizer offended people with his message. Calling people a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7) doesn’t seem like the best way to build a following of happy customers. But the imagery was apt: If the ongoing sin of the people of Israel was going to bring God’s wrath to bear on the nation, then they would flee like snakes trying to escape a fire. People were apparently concerned about the situation, and came to John to seek a remedy.
Rather than demand that people become more rigorously religious, John called them to ethical behavior. He told them that their ethnic identity as children of Abraham was insufficient; how they lived out their calling from God was what really mattered.
When Jesus affirms John, he also makes it clear that the Baptizer doesn’t enjoy a place of hierarchical dominance in the kingdom of God. The economy of God’s kingdom values “the least” in ways that flies in the face of conventional thinking about human significance.
Luke’s parenthetical addition to Jesus’ words is worth our consideration. He says that when the Pharisees—significant religious leaders in that time—refused John’s baptism, they were actually rejecting “God’s purpose for themselves.” God’s purpose, it seems, was to realign the people according to his desires as reflected in Isaiah 40: To do God’s will and to have his law written on their hearts. Too many of the religious leaders thought they had God’s desires all figured out, and had reframed them according to their own preferences. Luke says that they missed out on a gift that God was presenting to them and (since we know the end of the story) they ended up trying to protect their preferred convictions by seeing to the deaths of both John and Jesus (yes, Herod imprisoned John and had him executed. But we don’t hear about any Pharisees coming to John’s defense).
In this Advent season, as we consider again how the coming of Jesus challenged the conventions of both government and religion, it might be good for us to reflect on how our convictions are often formed by culture, politics, family traditions, and even church experiences. Do we express those convictions in ways that reflect the heart of God? Could some of our convictions be misplaced? Would it be heretical to challenge some of our most cherished beliefs (heresy shouldn’t be defined as telling me something I didn’t already know)?
Every so often we might stop and reflect on these things. Perhaps God is always presenting us with the gift of repentance—to turn from one way of ordering our lives in order to embrace another way that is in touch with God’s purposes and desires.
If the LORD of hosts
had not left us a few survivors,
we would have been like Sodom,
and become like Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1:9)
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
The story of the coming of Jesus opens with reminders of the tentativeness of ancient Israel’s existence. In the extensive genealogy listed by Matthew in the beginning of his account of Jesus, he separates the generations between King David and Jesus by indicating those who lived before being deported to Babylon and those who lived after that time of exile.
The Old Testament has numerous references to the time of exile, usually expressed in laments and cries for God’s rescue of his people. Isaiah recognizes that, had there not been a remnant that was allowed to remain in Jerusalem, the city would likely have not survived. Regardless of the responsibility the people felt about why this had happened to them, the sense of abandonment is not difficult to find in the Bible.
By the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jewish people were, for the most part, living in their home country again, but were now under the rule of foreign oppressors. There would surely have been many who would continue to wonder when God would rescue his people, forgive them for generations of rebellion and idol worship, and restore Israel to its rightful place in the world. It would seem to many that God continued to have his back turned and was still demanding that the people measure up to his demands through strict adherence to the laws of Moses.
Into this time of isolation, Matthew has the audacity to quote the prophet Isaiah and use his words to frame the birth of Jesus: He will be called Emmanuel—a Hebrew name which means God is with us. The message is startling: God is not absent, his back is not turned. God is not waiting for adequate religious performance before he will act. He is present, he is with his people, and he is with them in the birth of the baby who is named Jesus.
We revisit and rehearse the season of Advent every year because it is there that our own stories find meaning. We live in a world so violent and threatening that news of death and destruction become commonplace to us. There is enough information available that reminds us that we live on planet earth tentatively, and the health of our world depends, it seems, on human intervention to heal its wounds—wounds that we have largely inflicted by our own power. It seems that we must intervene, since we have come to believe that we are alone in the universe.
Into this precariousness, this tentativeness, the words once again echo in our minds as we rehearse our story anew: "They shall name him Emmanuel, which means, 'God is with us.'"
He stared at her arm as she poured the coffee. The colors were vibrant and fresh, cascading from shoulder to fingertip in a swirl of manic design. He half expected the rainbow of ink to leak through to his cup, but the coffee retained its dark brown identity, just as he believed that God intended.
She moved away from his table and he watched her, not lasciviously, but rather with fascination. Her entire body—at least what he could see in arms, legs, and midriff—appeared to be an artist’s palette, ending at ankles and neck, saving face, feet and palms for some future burst of creativity.
She waltzed gracefully from table to table, pouring coffee and asking about orders and satisfaction with the food. The occupants of each booth watched her just as he did, smiling and wincing as she moved away, whispering their evaluations of her skin and the character beneath it. Much of the conversation in the room seemed to focus on the woman’s painted body.
Having no one with whom to speak, he sat alone and watched her. She was young—maybe mid-twenties—with dark blond hair that was bundled and pinned at the back of her head with a carelessness that suggested detachment from the world of respectable fashion. Her body was slim and appreciable to the eye, her face pretty in a natural way; it was likely that little of her waitress’s income was spent on makeup. He was glad that her body art did not extend to her face. He liked her face and hoped it would continue to be ink free.
“That girl is a whore.” The woman hissed her accusation to her friend as soon as the waitress was out of earshot. “Just look at the tattoo on her back—look right now, Audrey! She’s pouring coffee for that man over there! I’ll bet the tattoo artist got an eyeful when he put that monstrosity on her. Another inch and you can see . . .”
Audrey looked back at her friend and widened her eyes, signaling her to stop talking. “She’s coming back this way. Shhhh!”
The waitress passed by their table, smiling as she observed their full coffee cups. “Your food should be right up, ladies,” she smiled.
Thank you,” the two women purred in unison. They were silent until the waitress disappeared into the kitchen.
“I read the other day that you can get AIDS from tattoo needles,” said Audrey. “Do you think she has AIDS, Joanie?”
Joanie sniffed. “I don’t know and I don’t want to know. She’s so young and it’s just a shame what these people are doing these days. They think they look so sexy with those tattoos and it’s all about that, you know. They’d put tattoo spiders on their faces if they thought they could get some slimy boy to have sex with them.”
“They’re just sluts,” said Audrey.
“Sluts,” agreed Joanie, sipping at her coffee. “Where’s our food? It’ll be lunchtime before we get breakfast.”
“Joanie—do you think we should eat it? What if she’s—infected?”
Joanie considered the possibility, and then shook her head. “No, she’s not the cook. If she were the cook, we’d never come here again. You can’t get AIDS from someone carrying a plate.”
“What if she spits in our food?”
“Just don’t make eye contact with her, Audrey. Don’t make her mad at us. People with tattoos are really angry people.”
He left a tip on the table and walked up to the register to pay his bill. The waitress passed by him, her purse over her shoulder, and exited out the front door of the café. Apparently her shift was over. As the door closed, two young men followed after her, having left their payment for their meals on the table. The café manager emerged from the kitchen and approached the register.
“Was everything okay, Father?” The manager offered up a half smile.
“Hmm? Oh, yes. Everything was fine.”
“The collar’s a dead giveaway. No disrespect intended.”
The priest smiled. “None taken. It comes with the uniform.”
He paid the bill and stepped outside. In the parking lot, the waitress was attempting to unlock her car door as her short skirt revealed an ample amount of leg. The two young men who had followed her out were now flanking her, and their smiles did not appear to be friendly. The waitress did not appear to be flattered by their inquiries.
The priest walked casually to the trio and stopped just a few feet away.
“Hello, friends. Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”
The leering smiles left the faces of the men and they glared at the priest. The waitress turned, her face expressing relief.
The priest turned his attention to the waitress. “Can I help you with anything?”
“No, I’m okay. I just need to get going.”
“Hey,” said one of the men, “don’t be in such a hurry. We just want to talk.”
“Just leave me alone,” said the waitress. “I really don’t want to talk to you.”
“Sure you do,” said the other man. “You’ll love us once you get to know us.”
The priest took a step closer. “I think you heard what she said, gentlemen. She wants you to leave her alone. I would advise you to respect her wishes.”
“Piss off, priest,” said the first man. “This is none of your business.”
“Actually,” said the priest, “this is a big part of my business.”
The second man stepped up and leaned into the priest’s face. “Maybe you’re in over your head here. Don’t think your dog collar will protect you.”
“Are you threatening me, young man?” The priest smiled innocently.
“I’m not afraid to kick your ass, pal.”
The priest took on a pensive look. “I wonder what would be more embarrassing for you: To have to tell your friends that the two of you beat the crap out of a priest who is twice your age, or that a middle-aged priest beat both of you senseless.”
The second man laughed. “Right. Like you could take us.”
The priest straightened his posture, his thick chest expanding against his black coat. “I wasn’t born a priest, my friends. That came later for me, after my days as a Navy Seal.”
“Bullshit,” said the first man. “You weren’t no Seal.”
“We could find out,” said the priest. “Maybe I’ll even show you my Seal tattoo.”
“You’re lying,” said the second man.
“Maybe,” said the priest. “And maybe not. Why don’t we find out?” The priest’s calm, soft demeanor changed suddenly, his blue eyes turning to ice and his face losing all expression. He unfolded his hands and let them drop to his side. He widened his stance by a few inches.
The first man stepped back, his expression now conveying uncertainty. He looked at his friend, and then at the waitress.
“Come on, Billy. She’s not worth it.” He turned and started walking away. The second man hesitated, glaring at the priest and then at the waitress.
“You can have her, man. Look at her—she’ll go with anybody.” He spit on the ground and wiped his chin on his sleeve. Both climbed into a pickup truck and pulled out of the parking space. The priest watched as they drove away.
“I’m sorry about this,” he said.
“That’s okay,” said the waitress. “Thanks for stepping in. I’ve seen those guys before. They’re real creeps.”
“Keep an eye open. They might come back.”
“I will,” she said. “They think because I have all this . . .” She held up one multicolored arm. “That I’m easy. I hate that.”
“I understand,” said the priest. “People make assumptions about me all the time because of this.” He pointed to his clerical collar.
“Yeah,” she said, “I guess so.” She looked quizzically at him. “So were you really a Navy Seal?”
“Yes, I was.”
“And you really have a tattoo?”
“I do,” he said, pointing to his right shoulder. “Here.”
“So you really could beat the crap out of those guys.”
“Well, probably not.” He smiled sheepishly. “It’s true I was a Seal, and I did, in my youthful enthusiasm and in a less-than-sober state, get tattooed. But I blew out both my knees in a training exercise before I ever saw any action. I’m better with books now than I am with fighting. They probably would have thrashed me.”
“Wow,” she said. “Good bluff. Thanks for taking the risk.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “By the way, my name’s Jeff.” He extended his hand, and she took it.
“Hi . . . Jeff. I’m Annie.”
“Nice to meet you, Annie. Be careful now. I’ll see you some other time.” He turned to walk to his car, but stopped when she called after him.
“I’m not that way, you know.”
He looked back and returned, walking closer to her. “What way?”
“The way those guys think. And the way a lot of people think. I’m not a whore.”
“I believe you, Annie.”
“That’s not why I have tattoos.”
Her tank top and short skirt revealed limbs that sported all manner of figures and words, colors and shapes. The priest shifted uncomfortably, trying not to look at her legs too closely.
“Can you tell me why you have them?”
She leaned against the car and set her purse on the roof. “My skin is the only story I have.”
“What do you mean?”
She took a deep breath. “My dad was killed in a car wreck when I was really little. I don’t even remember him. It was only my mom and me growing up—no other kids, no grandparents, no relatives at all. We were alone, but we had each other.”
“It sounds like she was a good mother.”
Annie shrugged. “She did what she could, I guess. She died of cancer when I was thirteen. After that, it was a whole series of foster homes.”
“I’m sorry, Annie. That must have been very difficult.”
“I got used to it. No one ever hurt me or anything, but I never felt like I belonged anywhere to or anybody. I didn’t know my own family history and I didn’t have any relatives in the whole world who could tell me what story I belonged to. When I moved out on my own, I realized that if I died, I would just disappear like I never existed in the first place. It freaked me out, the loneliness was so bad.”
The priest looked at her arms and shoulders, the drawings of ocean waves, faces, and names cascading across her skin. “So your skin is telling your story.”
She looked down at her feet, moving a piece of gravel with the toe of her sandal. “Yes. I am my story. I’m the only record of my dad and mom and what little life we had together. My skin reminds me that I’m living a real life and that I’m a real person. When you’re completely alone, you start to lose a sense of yourself if you don’t have a way to remember who you are and where you came from.”
They stood quietly for a moment. The priest spoke softly.
“Thank you for telling me this, Annie. I’m honored that you would include me in . . . your story.”
She smiled. “It’s the least I could do, after you almost got the crap beat out of you.” They both laughed. “Maybe I’ll include you in my permanent record.”
The priest chuckled at the thought, wondering where his image might find a place on her already-crowded body.
“I hope we can talk again sometime, Annie. I hope that in sharing this with me that you don’t feel as alone as you did before.”
“Yeah, maybe I don’t. We’ll see.” She retrieved her purse and opened the car door. “Bye, Jeff.”
“Goodbye, Annie.” He walked to his car, climbed in, and started the engine. He watched in the rearview mirror as Annie drove away. He reached over and rubbed his right shoulder as though it ached.
He suddenly felt very glad that he had his tattoo.
I discovered some interesting hoo-haw on Facebook this morning about a graham cracker advertisement created by Nabisco. It features a variety of families—same-sex, tatted and pierced, interracial—and makes the following promise:
“No matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will. Honeymaid: Everyday, wholesome snacks for every wholesome family.”
Nabisco claims that, while they received a great deal of positive response to the ad, there were also a significant number of outraged responses, especially to the depiction of the same-sex couple.
So, rather than attack their critics, Nabisco did something that I found astounding. They brought in a couple of artists who printed off all the responses, rolled them into little tubes, and formed the word “Love” out of the negative responses, and created a background out of the positive ones.
In all the recent controversies about marriage (and other major issues as well, such as immigration, economic reform, and so on), I’ve been troubled at the harsh reactions from some of my Christian brothers and sisters. I realize that it’s difficult when things we hold dear are challenged and even taken down, and I understand the emotion that results when we become ideological enemies with other people.
But we have already been given our response to this situation. Jesus said,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
Jesus spoke into a cultural and historic reality that allowed for all kinds of enemies, not the least of which were the Romans. He didn’t, for example, endorse the Romans’ occupational oppression of Israel, but instead recognized it as something real and unavoidable. And into that reality he called for his followers to love and pray.
I didn’t hear Nabisco endorsing any particular brand of family. I did hear them recognizing, as they said, that things change. And indeed they have. For them, such change hasn’t altered the mission of their Honey Graham’s department (or whatever it’s called). They still make graham crackers for kids to eat, regardless of their family environment.
We Christians also live in a changing environment. Like it or not, things we have held dear have changed, but our place and mission in the world has not. We are still called to join the apostle Paul in proclaiming that
“. . . in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them . . .” (2 Corinthians 5:10)
And we are to do that as ones who love and pray for our so-called enemies.
Why is it that we have trouble with this, but Nabisco seems to get it?
Nabisco. They make and sell cookies and graham crackers and the like.
Some might say that we have nothing to learn from popular culture. I would suggest that we have a great deal to learn, even if it comes from a cookie company.
I’ve done a fair number of things in my life. Over time I’ve realized that the work I’ve done in various vocations usually gave me a sense of autonomy and some level of freedom to call my own shots (except when I was in the Navy. It’s okay to be autonomous in the military, as long as you are like everyone else). I’ve made decisions about raising my daughters, seeing to it that they were nurtured and educated. I feel that I’ve been fairly proactive about life.
I think that qualifies me to claim that I am fairly independent.
Now, as I prepare for a fairly common and non-life-threatening shoulder surgery, a bunch of people are telling me what to do, and I am obeying them. They’re telling me what tests to get done, what not to eat and when not to eat it, to get a driver for the trip home from the hospital, and so on. Most of the people calling me with these orders are woman younger than my own daughters. They are very nice, yet authoritative, and I do not question their demands. I hear, and I obey.
This reminds me that my independence is a big fat sham. I have become a jellyfish.
As I get older, I reluctantly accept the fact that my body is aging and requires the occasional repair. I haven’t had much need for physical repair in my life, so doing it now feels intrusive and inconvenient. I also suffer under the illusion that, once the repairs are done, I’ll enjoy the kind of vitality I had when I was younger. Not likely (I did ask one young nurse if I would be able to play the cello after my surgery. She said yes. I said that was great, since I didn’t know how to play it now. It was an old, stupid joke, and she totally fell for it. I love young people).
I have a dear friend, a few years older than me, who is in a nursing home recovering from a very serious illness. This condition has taken a heavy toll on her life, and I pray for her often. Her body and mind have suffered deeply, and a number of people—medical professionals, loved ones, friends, church folks—have gathered around her to help her in the recovery process.
She’s a strong, independent woman and now is resting in weakness and dependence. I suppose it’s a path we must all eventually take.
It’s interesting how we start our lives in the place where we end up. My hope is, when that time comes for me, to end things well.
In the meantime, I’m totally milking this surgery thing. I want to see if people will pour my coffee, volunteer to bring lunch to the office when I return, offer to do things for me that I can actually do, but they won’t know that because I’ll be faking that I feel too tender to do anything. It’s going to be awesome.
This morning I am continuing to read a new book by a pastor who I deeply respect. I am also reading Facebook comments by his colleagues, and several seem to believe that he should be “purged” from the denomination or at least harshly corrected for his views on a very difficult and controversial issue.
I applaud this pastor’s courage in writing this book. Like others who have stepped out and opened up a public conversation on challenging topics, he will undoubtedly feel the fire of opposition. And, in our culture, disagreement can be vitriolic and painful.
You see, we evangelical Christians no longer burn our perceived heretics at the stake. We just set out to ruin them.
But I continue to admire this pastor’s courage. Rather than cut himself off from those who might disagree with him, he has chosen to speak in the midst of his “friends,” making himself vulnerable to whatever might come next. He has, in effect, operated in the context of dependency by giving up his right to independently carve out his own way in ministry. He still plans, from what I can tell, to pursue a particular course of pastoral action, but seeks to do so as one dependent upon his relationships with others in a world of shared ministry.
In the end, he just might find himself excluded from his denominational family. I hope not, but it remains to be seen. He might not seek independence, but it might be thrust upon him. In the meantime, he has cast himself upon the possibilities that mutual dependence in pastoral ministry will allow for civil and reasonable discussion.
I wish I could be less cynical about the outcome. But I wish this pastor well.
I think I’m learning something here. I sometimes want to independently make my voice heard, letting the chips fall where they may. I’m learning that I live in a world of mutually dependent relationships, and speaking my mind in a context of shared vulnerability allows correction and maturity to take place, even when I don’t want it. When I run off independently, I start believing that I don’t require any form of accountability or correction, and that’s a mistake.
It’s a dangerous business, this recognition of dependence. One hopes for care and nurture, but sometimes pain and exclusion are the result. I suppose that the possibility of pain is embedded in vulnerability, just like the way that the possibility of martyrdom is embedded in the commitment to follow Jesus.
I finished up my teaching assignment on Saturday afternoon and hurried to the airport to catch my 4:40 flight home, only to find, upon my arrival, that the flight had been cancelled.
The next flight was at 6:35, so I had to hang around the airport and kill some time. It was a minor inconvenience for me—I was just heading home rather than racing for a connecting flight or trying to get to an important meeting on time. I had plenty of reading material and a computer to keep me occupied during my wait.
The man at the airline’s check-in counter was apologetic and kind. We explored a couple of options for me and agreed that waiting the extra couple of hours was the best choice. He gave me my new boarding pass and I went upstairs, passed successfully through security, and settled in.
That airline official, at the end of his shift, would climb into his car, drive home, eat dinner, chat with his family, catch up on past episodes of Breaking Bad, and go to bed. All the people who had to be redirected because of the cancelled flight, however, had evenings that were disrupted because of the delay. Each traveller—including me—had become dependent upon a man (and the airline he represented) who did not have to share the inconveniences that had been inflicted upon us. Perhaps he had to put up with some grouchy customers, but he still got to go home on time.
Given the circumstances, I am not holding a grudge against that man. He recognized my plight, helped me consider some options, and expressed his apologies on behalf of his employer. I didn’t come away feeling exploited or disparaged, even though I recognized my dependence on him and the airline to get me home at a reasonable time.
There have been times when people have been dependent upon me. How have I treated them? Did they come away with a sense that they were lesser humans than others because of their need for care? Did they feel that I had little or no concern for their pain or discomfort because it was not truly shared between us? Or did they experience me entering into their circumstance with them, helping to shoulder a burden they could not endure alone? Did they hear me express grief over a tragedy that was not mine to share, or did they just hear the clicking of my tongue as I stood away from them, glad that the sufferer was not me?
In speaking of Jesus, the writer of the book of Hebrews says,
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)
We can confidently expect God’s mercy and grace in our time of need because we believe that, in Jesus, God has fully entered into all that it means to be human. When others become dependent upon us, may we cast our lots with the One who truly sympathizes with our weaknesses.
It is interesting to see how often Jesus responded to people who asked him to bring his divine power to bear in the lives of others. He once pronounced that a man was forgiven for sins and then healed his paralyzed body on the basis of the faith of the man’s friends. Jesus healed others and even raised a person or two from the dead because those who cared about those people brought their causes to Jesus.
I wonder how many people throughout history have experienced significant changes in their lives when others obeyed Jesus’ admonition to “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” In theory, if these words were taken seriously, Christians would be the best kinds of enemies to have.
I know I’ve had people who have prayed for me throughout my life. Sometimes that bothers me, because I don’t like the idea of another person seeing things in me that I don’t see for myself. Of course, in my twisted, dark mind I don’t imagine someone praying, “Give Mike the grace to grow in love and mercy.” I hear them asking God to make me stop being such a jackass. Just because I’m an extrovert doesn’t mean I’m not overly sensitive.
So, my thoughts on Lent today centers on my dependence upon others to bring my life before God and to pray on my behalf. In some very important ways, my life hangs on the faith of others. I am like that poor, paralyzed man that was lowered through the roof by his friends so that Jesus would heal him. As the story is relayed to us (Mark 2:4 and Luke 5:19), the man never speaks for himself (perhaps his mouth was paralyzed along with the rest of his body). In fact, no one speaks except Jesus. In both texts, Jesus’ observation is the same:
“When he saw their faith . . .”
It was the very actions and, possibly, even the looks of expectation on their faces, that caused Jesus to respond. The sick man was dependent upon his friends to transport him from his home to the roof over Jesus’ head. He had no choice but to allow them to lower him on his cot through the hole they had carved in the roof and down to Jesus’ feet. And then the man was dependent upon Jesus to act.
And Jesus did.
In my family, we sometimes talk about “lowering the ropes” in reference to someone for whom we are praying, a person who may be so broken that having faith seems impossible. It occurs to me that sometimes I am the person being lowered through the roof, the faith of my friends rushing like the wind past my spiritual paralysis and pouring over Jesus, inviting him into my broken life.
And sometimes you are that person as well.
I wonder if there are people out there who are languishing in independence, with no friends to lower them on ropes of faith to the feet of Jesus. Such independence would be like being stranded on the Moon. It would be a horrible freedom, one that would allow paralysis and death to have the last word.
The faith of the friends, however, prompts Jesus to have the last word. And his last words sound like this:
“Son, your sins are forgiven.” And, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”
While I love the rhythms of the Church calendar, I’m not always good at engaging with them on a personal level. I’ve gotten better at my attentiveness to Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and so on, but there are practices that I often avoid.
Like giving up something for Lent.
In the Catholic neighborhood where I grew up, my friends would talk about giving up certain things for Lent, like watching TV or eating candy or whatever. It never made a significant impact on me and, since I didn’t come from a family that cared about such things, it never had a place to land.
But now I do care about such things, but I continue to be hesitant to scrub things out of my life for a few weeks and call such self-denial a spiritual practice. So, a couple of years ago I decided to add a discipline into my life during Lent rather than subtract something out. I soon discovered that the very act of addition required other apparently less important things to be automatically subtracted. Funny how that works.
So, in this Lenten season, I’ve come upon a unique addition to my life as a result of partial incapacitation. Soon I’ll have shoulder surgery and will be required to keep my right arm in a sling for about six weeks. There are certain things that I won’t be able to do during that recovery period, the most significant being the ability to drive a car. That means I will have to embrace a certain level of dependence as I look to others to get me where I need to go. In doing so, some independence will be subtracted from my life
My wife, of course, is thrilled beyond belief at the prospect of driving me the 17 miles to my office in the mornings. My co-workers are drawing straws to see who has to run me to the train station at the end of the day. I offered, in martyr-style, to ease everyone’s burdens by walking the distance, hitchhiking, or just sleeping in my office. They all thought those were creative and wonderful ideas. I think they were mocking me.
I am already coming to realize that complete independence is, for the most part, an illusion. As I sit in my chair at home writing these words, I am dependent upon my computer to work properly, the light next to me to burn brightly, the city’s electrical grid to supply power to both, and so on. I’m seeing that everything I do is dependent on something else.
I believe, in principle, in my dependence upon God. But mostly I believe in my dependence upon my perceived independence. I have a difficult time praying, “Give us this day, our daily bread,” because I’m not concerned about running out of bread. I have enough food in my pantry and enough money to buy more. I don’t even have to think about God when it comes to food. I can feed myself, thanks.
And I understand that this is a problem.
Hence, my Lenten discipline of adding physical dependence into my life. The timing is pretty good, really. The sling is scheduled to go away just after Easter, so I’m conforming to the Church calendar pretty well.
I’m hoping to soak myself in what the apostle Paul said to his Athenian conversation partners in Acts chapter 17: “In him we live and move and have our being.” I think that will be a helpful addition. I’ll wait and see how the subtraction plays out.
At the end of Matthew chapter 5—the end of the first third of what we call “The Sermon on the Mount—Jesus says some things that tend to drive people crazy:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
It seems difficult to conjure up warm and fuzzy feelings toward people who wish you harm. But that may not be the point of love, and perhaps that’s not the point of what Jesus is saying.
God is the central player in the generous act of love, and Jesus affirms that as he describes the way that God cares for all people through the natural order of things. Love for the enemy, like all of God’s love, is an ongoing activity into which we are called to participate. In other words, God’s love is a party in process, and we’re always showing up at a celebration that is fully underway.
I like to think of things like love and hate as spinning cycles or wheels. You can either break the spinning of the cycle or you can latch onto it and enjoy the ride. You can join into the cycle of hatred and it will keep spinning faster and faster. You can also break that cycle by not offering it the energy it demands. In a similar way, you can jump into God’s cycle of love, allowing it’s power to carry you into places you could never go to on your own power. And even though you can never break God’s cycle of love, you can certainly refuse to participate in it.
I believe there are a number of things that work this way, things like love, forgiveness, and generosity. That’s why what Jesus says at the end of the quotation is so important to us:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In the Greek of the New Testament, the word that we often translate as “perfect” can also be “mature” or “complete.” This is not an impossible call to strive toward perfection, but rather a call to participate in the generous, loving, life of God, to launch our lives into the spinning cycle of his reckless love—a love that has universal impact. Love finds perfection, not in our flawlessness, but in our vulnerable engagement with God’s love.
I wonder if, during certain parts of Jesus’ words that are reported in Matthew chapter five, his listeners thought that he had gone off the rails, that some of his mental circuits had gotten sizzled by the heat of the sun. He says things that violate basic wisdom, not to mention the logic of justice.
He reminds them of a familiar saying, one that is found in Exodus 21 but was also a common statement in the ancient near east regarding appropriate retaliation:
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
It seems to make sense, really. It’s certainly better than the possibility of violent overreactions (as in, you steal my chicken, then I burn down your house, steal your children, and send you off to live with the scorpions). If offenses are addressed with like treatment, if the punishment is in proportion to the crime, then perhaps true justice—the restoration of balance—can be administered.
But that form of logic seems to be lost on Jesus. His “But I say to you” response is stunning in its reckless disregard for parity and fairness:
Do not resist an evildoer.
If someone sues you, give more than what was demanded.
If you are forced into servitude, serve beyond the requirements.
Be generous toward those who can never repay you.
These very unrealistic responses completely ignore the ongoing realities of the world. In order to keep the inevitability of injustice and violence at bay, responses that limit the effects of human violation are necessary. Otherwise, injustice will reign supreme, and the powerful will oppress and even destroy the weak.
So, how’s that working out for us today? Is justice or injustice the dominant theme in the world?
Jesus orients his listeners—including us—toward responses that do not seek to balance the scales of justice (sometimes thinly disguised forms of vengeance), but rather to break the cycles of injustice by refusing to keep the fires of violation blazing. Not responding in kind to violence and offense exposes those actions for the distortions that they are, allowing the twisted face of evil to reveal its true nature. Jesus suggests that his followers—like him—maintain a loose hold on what others hold dear, recognizing that the real treasures of life lie within God and not in the temporality of human life.
Jesus shakes up his listeners by declaring that certain conventional and legal actions (or inactions) are not at the heart of goodness, not at the core of righteousness. He reminds them of what everyone already knows (“You have heard . . .”) and then pulls the rug out from underneath their feet by pushing them away from their perceived moral and ethical safety zones (“But I say to you . . .”). So:
Not committing murder doesn’t eradicate the internal anger that resides in one’s heart.
Not committing adultery doesn’t magically erase the objectifying of someone as a mere object of sexual desire.
Following the legal rules that allow a man to divorce his wife—thereby forcing her into a new marriage relationship in order to avoid becoming destitute—doesn’t wipe the slate of oppression clean.
These first three admonitions, while clearly not ignoring the fact that actions and thoughts do not necessarily have the same consequences (actually killing someone brings a more severe result than just thinking about murder), bring to the forefront two important emphases:
First, there resides in the human heart the potential for the worst of human actions. Therefore, all people stand together in a sea of dark possibilities. It’s one thing to make a right judgment about something, as in bearing witness to some observable event (such as, “Officer, that car made a left turn and crashed into the light pole;” or, “I saw that man strike that woman and run away with her purse”). It’s another thing to claim that the possibilities for wrongdoing and error do not exist in those of us who haven’t committed any crimes. Such a claim is at the heart of judgmentalism.
So, just because a person didn’t pull the trigger on the gun doesn’t mean that her inner anger, an anger that makes murder a possibility, has no unrighteous power.
Just because a man hasn’t cheated on his wife doesn’t mean that his constant lusting over his neighbor’s wife doesn’t have the potential to destroy lives and relationships.
Second, legal permissions and boundaries do not necessarily mirror what is truly right. In Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife, sometimes on flimsy grounds, as long as he gave her a certificate of divorce (most likely a legally-recognized document that freed her to marry another). To be a divorced and disempowered woman in that time would be a sure ticket to destitution. Jesus wouldn’t allow for such a legally protected action, as though the boundaries of the law eliminated the destruction that would surely follow.
I wonder how things would change for us if, when we heard that someone did something awful, rather than saying, “How could he do that?” we lamented, “I am capable of the same thing.”
I wonder how generous our hearts might become if, while respecting the reality of our national laws, we didn’t allow legal regulations to be the ultimate definers of righteousness? For example:
Do the existence of immigration laws and national borders mean that “neighbor” is defined only by the legalities of residency and citizenship?
When the courts make a declaration requiring obedience—whether related to abortion, marriage, immigration, discrimination, and any number of other important issues—is the conversation over for followers of Jesus? Or do we look to him and wait for him to say, “But I say to you . . .”?
The words of this sermon in the gospel of Matthew—typically called “The Sermon on the Mount”—have been studied, reflected upon, and cherished by people for centuries. But they are not necessarily words of comfort. They force us as readers to confront ourselves and challenge our own perceived securities.
There is a road leading down from a mountain in Mexico where I have ridden my bicycle several times. There is a big sign on the side as the road begins its winding, eight-mile descent. The sign reads, “Curvos Peligrosos.” Dangerous Curves.
There should be a heading at the beginning of this message from Jesus that reads: “Palabras Peligrosas.” Dangerous Words.