“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.
In the movie Minority Report, the minds of three young seers are tapped to give future law enforcement authorities the ability to stop crimes before they actually happen. These glimpses into the future allow the police to thwart wrongdoing—especially murder—when the acts are nothing more than possibilities bubbling in the perpetrators’ minds.
Jesus said some startling things about guilt, sin, and righteousness—things that didn’t allow for the disconnecting of the mind from the body, of intentions from actions, of the state of the heart from the committing of the crime. He showed that the apparent outward righteousness of certain religious leaders—specifically the Jewish scribes and Pharisees—was a smokescreen that obscured the hidden realities of their inward realities. He wasn’t shy in his attacks against their hypocrisies and would say things like,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matthew 23:27)
As Jesus sat with his followers on the side of the mountain, he must have shocked them with the contrasts he made concerning what they had learned from their childhoods in home and synagogue against the deeper way of thinking about life that he was laying before them. He challenged them with seven brain-twisting examples drawn from the law of Moses and also from conventional folk wisdom:
Love for the enemy
Giving of alms
Jesus brilliantly reminds his followers about what they have heard about each of these topics, and then moves behind the veil and reveals the heart that birthed each action. Are people free from the sin because they haven’t committed murder or adultery? No, because the reality of anger and lust in the human heart binds all people together under a shroud of guilt where the seeds of destruction and violation are planted, sometimes sprouting and sometimes not.
Are people safe when they build walls against one another through the legalities of divorce, the craftiness of contractual language, rules allowing for revenge, and the acceptability of hatred? Jesus collapses them all, and draws his listeners into ways of engaging with others in the completeness of love that comes only from God.
It was probably easy for people in Jesus’ day to allow social, religious, political, and military frameworks to provide artificial safety zones in which to live. It’s just as easy for us to do it as well. It’s easier to label other people as sinners when we deny the realities of our own hearts. It’s easier to allow the boundaries and borders of nation-states to define the word “neighbor” than it is to see all people as co-humans made in the image of God. It’s easier to crush others under religious dogma than it is to listen deeply and find where God is already at work in the lives of those who are not like us.
There are many areas of life and thinking where Jesus rightly declares, “You have heard that it was said . . . .”
It’s more important for us to hear, “But I say to you . . . .”
[See Matthew chapter 5 for the details of Jesus’ words to his followers]
The ancient laws chronicled in the Old Testament often confound people. It’s not just the Ten Commandments, but also the myriad of dietary/social/economic laws that fill the pages of books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy (not most people’s preferences for devotional reading). The laws seem to us to be mostly irrelevant in our time and provide us with clear evidence of the fruitlessness of legalism when it comes to pleasing God.
Or, could it be that something else is going on here?
Imagine the ancient Hebrew people as they suffered through generations of slavery under the yoke of the Pharaoh in Egypt. After their rescue under Moses’s leadership, they wandered in the wilderness for a long time before landing in a place that would become their homeland. What was going on for them in that long sojourn?
They were being reformed.
The lens through which the people saw the world would be colored by their experiences of captivity in Egypt. Their religious views would be as permeated by Egyptian mythology as much as it was by early Semitic worship practices. How would they move from a people oriented around slavery to a people with a destiny crafted and energized by the God of the universe?
They would be reformed by adherence to laws that would reorient every aspect of their lives. They would be required to think in new ways about human relationships and interactions, the nature of life-giving work, the purpose and effects of communal worship, and care for the world around them. It would take a great deal of reorientation to extract the mentality of slavery from the people and to reorient them around the presence of the God who had rescued them from Egypt.
And Jesus sits on the side of the mountain and tells his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
It appears that, for Jesus, the law and the prophets were not static propositions but rather signs and wonders that continuously directed the people into the living presence of God. Yet the law had become rigid and life-draining in Jesus’ day, framed by the religious elite as measurements of personal righteousness, a righteousness attained by disciplined adherence to the ancient code of Moses.
And Jesus must have startled his followers when, after affirming the authority and purposefulness of the law and the prophets, he warns of a distortion that was evidenced in the Jewish religious leadership of the day:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And what comes next will shake people’s understanding of righteousness for centuries to come.
As Jesus looked upon the crowds from his vantage point on the side of the mountain, he called them blessed. His disciples, gathered around him as he spoke, must have recognized that Jesus’ words were not spiritual abstractions, but statements of reality. The crowds had come to Jesus, and “they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.” The blessing to which Jesus referred had been experienced in the lives of the people, not simply anticipated as a reward for spiritual purity.
The tone of Jesus’ message shifts as his attention moves from the crowds to his disciples. He now speaks of blessing that comes to “you”—those now gathered before him:
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
These are words about vocation, the vocation of following Jesus, of learning anew what it means to be the people of God. There will be persecution—the history of Israel’s prophets confirms the inevitability of resistance. But there will also be the embodiment of God’s intentions for the rescue of the world, an intention first spoken to the ancient patriarch Abram as he was summoned from his nomadic life into a destiny that would result in the nation of Israel:
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
The blessing that Jesus extended to the crowds brought healing and life. The blessing that he gave to his followers drew them into God’s mission. Once again, this blessing was no abstraction; the blessing came as the result of responding to the call of Jesus to follow him. Those who put their trust in Jesus would not create a new religion—they would renew and enliven God’s original intention for Israel for the sake of the entire world.
Jesus sits on the incline of the mountain and positions himself so that he can look into the faces of his disciples who are gathered before him, but also to look beyond them to the crowds gathered in the valley below.
What is he seeing?
He sees many who are poor, not only in terms of resource but also in terms of life. Their very bodies suffer the poverty of malnutrition and disease, and the hope of a renewal of God’s breath within them is vague at best. That is, until Jesus has touched them. He sees them in the distance and brings them out of the depths of despair when he claims,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
There are those who have given up on their lives, seeing their suffering and pain as evidence of God’s disinterest in them. Others came in despair, having lost hope that their loved ones might be made whole again. But Jesus declares a reality that they are only beginning to experience, and he calls out,
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Many who have brought loved ones to be healed by Jesus have spent long periods of time as caregivers. Some might have taken on their tasks grudgingly, but others would bring care with love and gentleness, characteristics that would not have put them in league with the strong and powerful of the world, those who would not be encumbered by the concerns of the infirm. Jesus sees those who exhibit humility and points them toward a surprising destiny:
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
There would be those in the crowds who strained against injustice—injustice seen in the dominance of the Romans over the Jews, injustice within the very life of Israel, and the injustice of sickness and pain being visited upon God’s people. They would long for things to be put right in the world and for God’s intentions to be made real in the here and now. They long also for their own hearts to be made right before God. Jesus celebrates their longing and gives them hope:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
There would have been many people in the crowds who had left homes and businesses to bring others to the feet of Jesus. Many of those who were suffering would have been incapable of such travel on their own. They would have been dependent upon the mercy of others whose bodies were whole and strong to carry them to the valley were Jesus might bring his healing. Those who had given of themselves for the sake of others did not miss Jesus’ notice:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
One of the insults branded upon Jesus by his opponents was “friend of sinners.” Jesus was not put off by those who lives were lived out on the fringes of religious and social respectability. In his encounters with these “sinners,” he found some who, in the midst of their brokenness, exhibited a transparent innocence, an innocence that allowed them to be exposed before Jesus so that he might draw them into a new kind of life. Unencumbered by the scheming and posturing that often characterized the strong and powerful, their eyes were opened to the fullness of God that was in Jesus. Jesus saw them, too:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
It may be, because of the large gathering of people, that soldiers were present on that day. They might have been Jewish temple guards or even Roman soldiers, standing off and away from the crowds, watching in case some form of insurrection might be brewing. Jesus sees them just as he sees the others, and he redefines their vocations, calling them away from the corruption and violence that was always a possibility for them, and to a new view of themselves of ones who might foster peace in a violent and destructive world:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Stories of Roman persecution of the Jews were commonplace in Israel. Some were devastated financially by unfair taxation. Others might have suffered at the hands of Rome’s interrogators whenever plots to overthrow Roman rule were suspected. Many had been sent to their deaths, rows of crucified bodies reminding the populace of the power of the dominant rulers. Perhaps even anticipating his own suffering and death, Jesus refuses to allow those who have been sinned against to be forgotten:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus sees them all, and calls them blessed. He draws them—the sick, the tormented, the poor, the unpowerful, the marginalized, the “sinners”—away from the fringes of life and into the circle of God’s love. It is a place of God’s blessing, a place were hope and healing thrive.
It is a much larger circle than anyone could have imagined.
I appreciate good storytellers. For me, the gospel-writer Matthew ranks up with the best crafters of words that serve to foster a hopeful imagination (as the scholar Walter Brueggemann titled one of his great books) in the readers.
Here’s an example of Matthew’s work:
"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them . . ." (Matthew 4:23-5:2)
Can you see yourself in this story, following Jesus around, elbow-to-elbow with people who have gathered with the hope that their loved ones and friends will be healed in their bodies and minds? It’s a diverse group, made up of pilgrims coming from different parts of the region, giving evidence to Jesus’ broad reputation as a healer.
The picture that Matthew paints here sets the stage for what is coming next. There is nothing abstract and legalistic about the words that Jesus is about to speak. Instead, what he will say is personal, purposeful, deconstructive and reconstructive. Jesus will not offer a new set of laws that will take the place of the old forms of religious legislation; he will set people free into a new kind of living that demands honesty about the human condition yet draws people into relationship with both God and human beings in ways that crash against the boundaries of culture.
Jesus brings healing to those who were suffering, people brought to him by those who were not afflicted by disease and pain. Jesus sees them all, and he then he moves up the side of the mountain. I imagine him sitting in a place that provides an expansive view of the valley below him, not posturing himself as a lecturer behind a podium, but rather as an observer, one who has come from the gathering of the people and now reflects on who they are and how they might live in the hopefulness that comes from a life centered in God.
Jesus sits down and his disciples come to him, sitting around him, waiting for their teacher to speak. I imagine him, as he prepares to lead his friends into new depths of understanding, looking past them, over their heads, toward the crowds below who are now a gathered people who have just experienced healing in their midst.
Jesus sees them clearly. Then he begins to speak. And the first words that his friends hear are not about them. These words are about those that Jesus sees in the valley below.