Readings for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 45: 1, 4-6; PS 96: 1-5, 7-10; I THES 1: 1-5B; MT 22: 15-21. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/101914.cfm
Well, it’s time for your pastor to trot out those well-worn platitudes around Jesus’ famous “Render” riddle. So after reading this morning’s gospel about payment of taxes to Caesar, your priest or minister will say something about separation of church and state. Ho-hum. Caesar’s realm is the political, he’ll say; God’s is the religious. Caesar’s is less important than God’s, of course. But be sure to vote (Republican) on November 4th anyway – just to make sure that the anti-abortionists win. Never mind that their policies are pro-war, anti-life (apart, I suppose, from their single issue) and suicidal in terms of climate change. Those are merely political concerns. See ya next week.
Problem is: all that has nothing to do with today’s reading. In fact, it entirely misses the point of Jesus outwitting his questioners in their attempt to entrap him with a question about taxation that had no good answer – except the unforeseen one that Jesus gave.
Jesus is smarter than his opponents. That’s the obvious point.
The less obvious one is that Jesus’ response attacks the Roman Empire itself. It undercuts its economic base by rejecting Rome’s “fast money” in favor of the Jewish insurgency’s “slow money.”
Have you heard of that concept – I mean slow money? It’s explained in Woody Tasch’s book, Slow Money: Investing as if food, farms, and fertility mattered (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing 2008).
Building off Carlo Petrini’s idea of Slow Food, Tasch’s book presents the case for divesting from the haste of the global economy whose lightning fast computerized operations are necessarily devoid of thought about things that really matter. “Fast money,” as Tasch calls such transactions thinks of nothing but the corporate bottom line.
The outcomes of such inattention are evident for all to see. They include climate chaos, topsoil loss, water waste and pollution, as well as loss of jobs at home in favor of low labor costs abroad. Fast money causes inequalities which give 35 men as much wealth as half the world’s population. Fast money is like “fast food” which fills bellies but destroys health.
Slow money, on the other hand, invests locally, thoughtfully, and at a pace that imitates the very leisurely processes of nature. So Tasch’s book calls for a correspondingly paced economy. The slow money approach preserves family farms, encourages the growth of organic foods, and prevents waste of soil and water, while eliminating the contradiction of widespread hunger existing alongside fast-food induced obesity.
Once again, I bring that up because Jesus’ response to his interlocutors in today’s gospel represents rejection of Rome’s fast money. At the same time, it implicitly endorses a local form of slow money that almost everyone overlooks.
Recall the story’s pivotal question. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
If Jesus answered the way your pastor says, the Great Teacher would have fallen into the trap set by an unlikely alliance of Herodians (pro-Rome lackeys) and Pharisees (anti-Rome populists).
Saying “Yes, pay taxes to Caesar,” would have discredited Jesus in the eyes of the poor who comprised his main audience hanging on his every word. The hated Roman tax system cost them as much as 50% of their yearly income.
On the other hand, if Jesus had said “No,” that would be reason enough to have him arrested and turned over to the imperial authorities on charges of subversion. [In fact, that did become one of the charges at Jesus’ trial: “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ . . . (LK 23:2)] Does that sound like Jesus ever said “Pay your taxes?”
So instead of saying “yes” or “no,” Jesus turns the tables on his questioners in a way that convicts them instead of himself.
“Show me an imperial coin,” Jesus asks; “I, of course, don’t carry any.”
One of the interrogators (probably from among Rome’s collaborating Herodians) obligingly reaches into his pocket and pulls out a shiny denarius. By that very act, he’s already fallen into Jesus’ trap. All bystanders can hear the cage door slam, as the insincerity of the Pharisees and Herodians stands exposed for all to see. Jesus’ follow-up question makes clear why.
“Whose image and inscription is on that coin, he asks?
“Caesar’s” his antagonists reply.
“Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus says, “and to God what is God’s.”
You see, no good Jew would carry Roman money. (And here comes the part about slow money.) Instead, Jewish nationalists did business using coins minted by Jerusalem’s Revolutionary Provisional Government. On its face was the image of a palm branch – the Provisionals’ “flag.” Such money was of no use to the Romans and could only be used locally to support the Jewish economy.
In fact, the insurgents forbade using Roman currency at all. That’s because doing so benefitted the Romans by giving them control over the Jewish economy.
And besides, carrying Roman coin recognized Caesar’s claim to own Judea which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. In fact for good Jews (as today’s first reading and responsorial make clear), EVERYTHING belongs to God. That leaves absolutely NOTHING for Caesar – except his own idolatrous servants clutching his pathetic coins in their bloated hands.
Even more, the face of Roman coins displayed a forbidden image – that of Augustus himself with the inscription surrounding the image identifying the emperor as “the Son of God.” The image and inscription made carrying the coin not only unpatriotic, but an act of idolatry. That in turn meant that the bearers of the coin themselves belonged to Caesar not Israel’s God, Yahweh.
Again, case closed.
All of this should remind us that our attitude towards money and its connection with imperialism is a spiritual matter of deep concern to those wishing to follow the Way of Jesus. As today’s readings remind us, everything belongs to God who (as Isaiah puts it in today’s first reading) is concerned about the welfare of “all nations” and not about the 1% or any abstract corporate bottom line. Empire’s God (as in “in God we trust”) is the God of fast money and not the God of Jesus who stood with those resisting the wholesale robbery that empire always represents.
So how do we avoid empire’s fast money when our wallets’ contents and those of our closets and garages convict us of idolatry? Here are a few of Tasch’s suggestions:
• Imitate Nature and her pace.
• Slow down everything – from your thinking processes to the way you walk and wash dishes.
• Change thinking patterns from fast money’s quarter and years to slow money’s seasons and eons.
• Where available (as with “Ithacash” in Ithaca, New York) use local currencies instead of greenbacks for local purchases.
• Adopt role models like poet, Wendell Berry, and Amish farmer, Scott Savage, rather than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
• Change allegiances from institutions and organizations (like “America” and members of its military-industrial complex) to land, household, community and place.
• Grow a garden and eat its produce.
• Stay away from fast food and out of Wal-Mart’s and Lowes’ Big Boxes.
• If you must invest in the stock market, “create a portfolio of venture investments in early-stage sustainability-promoting food companies.”
Like Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Herodians, such practices undercut empire and its destructive haste.
What other strategies can you think of to subvert fast money structures and practices?
Readings for 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 25: 6-10A; PS 23: 1-6; PHIL 4: 12-14, 19-20; MT 22: 1-14 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/101214.cfm
Currently, I’m back in the saddle. A dear colleague of mine is continuing her courageous fight against cancer. So I was asked to fill in for her teaching a religion course called “Poverty and Social Justice” – the very topic I’ve been struggling to understand and explain to students during my 40 years at Berea College in Kentucky. I have 19 very interested and wonderful students. Most of them are juniors and seniors, even though Religion 126 entry-level.
Together we’ve looked at the experience of white Appalachians, African-Americans in Mississippi, and people living in the former colonies of Africa, Latin America and South Asia. My students are watching “Democracy Now” each day as it deals with issues like ISIS, Ferguson, and voter suppression.
However, the most important lesson I’ve been trying to drive home in “Poverty and Social Justice” is an understanding of Christianity that Pope Francis, the Second Vatican Council, and liberation theology term its “preferential option for the poor.” That option holds that God’s People are not a single national group. Rather, God’s chosen are the poor and oppressed whom Christians have been taught at best to pity or treat with “tough love,” and at worst to despise as unworthy. The Hebrews were merely the paradigmatic example of God’s own choice of the poor as a divinely revelatory people. The poor show us what God is like.
I bring all of that up because today’s liturgy of the word is really about the preferential option for the poor. Our sources pressing that idea include two exiles (Isaiah and Matthew), a prison inmate (Paul), and the Son of God revealing divinity veiled in a working-class prophet who ends up being arrested, tortured, and a victim of capital punishment.
The first selection from Isaiah introduces the theme of “chosenness” by describing what God holds in store for the wretched of the earth. In a word, God’s will is abundance for all those currently experiencing painful exile in Babylon. Those are Isaiah’s words: God wants abundance – but “for all peoples.”
No harps and clouds here; no abstract heaven. Instead, Isaiah envisions God’s utopia taking form here on earth, in a particular place – on “this Mountain” Isaiah says (referring to the exiles’ motherland). There God’s Kingdom will take the form of a huge picnic – an outdoor feast of incomparable abundance. On God’s mountain, all will engorge themselves, Isaiah promises, “with rich foods” and cups overflowing with “choice wines.” The prophet repeats the phrase twice for emphasis: “a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.”
The feast will be a celebration of Enlightenment – of revelation or removal of the “veils” or barriers that separate human beings into “chosen” and “unchosen.” Isaiah predicts: “On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from every face; the reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth.”
Notice this promise is inclusive. Again, it is directed to “all peoples,” not to a single nation. It is addressed to suffering and exiled people who find themselves in a “web” of death, tears and blame caused by deceptive divisions into nation states.
The theme of God’s all-inclusive, life-giving kindness is reinforced in today’s responsorial – the familiar Psalm 23, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.” According to the psalmist, God is the one who fulfills everyone’s desire for food and water, wine and oil for cooking. In addition, God provides rest, refreshment, and guidance. The courage God gives removes fear of evil and threat. All of that is music to the ears of the poor and deprived.
In today’s second reading Paul touches a similar chord. From an imperial prison (perhaps like Abu Ghraib), he writes, “God supplies whatever you need.” Imagine Paul’s courage! “Yes, I’m distressed,” he writes. “But don’t worry about me. I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.” Here then is a prisoner whose experiences of abundance are not contradicted by their opposite. Paul’s own experience of abundance and deprivation keeps his outlook positive and is the basis for his confident promise, “My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
And that brings us to this Sunday’s Gospel selection. It’s a parable illustrating the surprising identity of God’s chosen people. The parable is addressed to the “elders and chief priests,” the political leaders of Jesus’ day who thought of themselves as God’s elect. The tale ends with the familiar tagline, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” But mystifyingly, its point seems to be the opposite: “Few are called, but many are chosen.”
I mean today’s gospel is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable about a king inviting his rich friends (the few) to his son’s wedding feast. It’s a party characterized by abundance reminiscent of “the juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” in today’s first reading.
In the story, that feast is already prepared. But the king’s rich friends exclude themselves from its abundance, preferring instead the pursuit of their individualistic pleasures and profits. Some are so ungrateful that they mistreat and even kill those proffering the king’s invitation. All of this, of course, is Matthew’s thinly veiled reference to the way Jewish leaders treated God’s messengers, the prophets whose line for Matthew culminates in Jesus of Nazareth.
Thinly veiled as well is Matthew’s reference to the destruction of Jerusalem a generation earlier in the year 70. Matthew writes, “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” According to Matthew, then, Jerusalem’s fate was the karmic result of the rich and powerful dishonoring prophets like Jesus and refusing to enter God’s kingdom with the poor and oppressed.
It is at this point that Matthew (and presumably Jesus) makes the point about the real identity of God’s Chosen People. The king says, “’the feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.”
There you have it: God’s New People are the dregs of humanity like those my class is studying. They are from the streets – the good and bad alike.” That’s the very point Jesus’ parables have been making for the past few weeks: Prostitutes and tax collectors enter God’s kingdom before the “chief priests and elders of the people.”
But wait; there’s more.
At this government-provided feast of free food, choice alcoholic beverages, and even (it seems) free festive clothing, one person insists on differentiating himself from the rest. He refuses to change his clothes – always a literary (and liturgical) marker for change of lifestyle. At bottom, it’s a refusal to identify with the street people particularly dear to God’s heart.
According to the story, this karmic choice leads to unhappiness – to sharing exterior darkness suffered by the rich Refuseniks whose city was earlier destroyed by imperial armies.
So although the few were called, the many are chosen. Once again, that’s good news for the kind of people my “Poverty and Social Justice” class is studying at Berea College.
What then of Matthew’s tagline that says the opposite – that many are called, but few are chosen?
I think it can only be a koan-like saying we’re meant to puzzle over in the light of the seemingly contradictory message of today’s parable. Perhaps it refers to the few (the 1 %?) whose selfish choices exclude them from God’s New People as though they selected their own destruction on purpose. They are the few self-chosen for destruction.
What do you think?
Today The New York Times published an inflammatory editorial called “The Fundamental Horror of ISIS.” The evident but unstated purpose of the piece was to strengthen support for the latest waste of our tax-payer dollars on the most recent phase of the so-called “war on terror.” Like its predecessors, that phase has nothing to do with protecting our “homeland.” Rather as Dennis Kucinich has observed, it’s yet another phase of the (by-now) 25 year long war against the impoverished masses who have the misfortune of finding their homes floating on top of a vast sea of oil controlled by foreign outsiders.
To help the White House justify its consequent greed-based aggression, the NYT editorial trotted out the well-worn thesis that ISIS represents unmitigated, irrational evil entirely foreign to the sensitive minds of its gentle readers. So it rehearsed “the beheadings, crucifixions, tortures, rapes and slaughter of captives, children, women, Christians, Shiites.”
This, of course, represents a highly familiar litany relative to our state’s designated enemies. The “presstitutes” made similar allegations against “the Russians” during the Cold War as well as the Chinese Communists. It was also the case with the Sandinistas, the PLO, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Similarly, Manual Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Muammar Kaddafi, and (until recently) Bashar al-Assad all represented unmitigated evil. Now it’s the turn of ISIS and (as of last Tuesday) Khorasan.
In all of these cases the designated enemies in question have represented pure evil without any legitimate grievance other than sadism that strangely and inexplicably has (according to the Times in the case of ISIS) “attracted hundreds of willing followers — yes, also from Europe and America.”
Times editors put it succinctly in today’s rant: “Comparisons are meaningless at this level of evil, as are attempts to explain the horror by delving into the psychology or rationale of the perpetrators. . . as Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist, wrote in a recent piece about ISIS, there is no “why” in the heart of darkness.”
To repeat, this level of evil is entirely foreign to the civilized westerners.
Try explaining that to the victims of the 25 year war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• The million and a half civilian deaths in Iraq caused by the U.S.’s naked “war of aggression” against that country – the “supreme international crime” in the eyes of the United Nations.
• YouTube films of U.S. military personnel urinating on the bodies of dead Iraqi patriots defending their “homeland” from barbarous Marines, Special Forces, and Navy Seals.
• Abu Ghraib and its broadly smiling heroes (from next door) sexually assaulting their victims and proudly posing with thumbs up over bodies of those they’ve just tortured to death.
• President Bush and Dick Cheney not only ordering the war crimes of water-boarding and other acts of torture, but joking about it.
• Fallujah and the use of illegal white phosphorous.
• Haditha and the heartlessness of U.S. soldiers systematically slaughtering entire families there.
• The frequent reports of wedding parties and funerals routinely devastated by drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, and who knows where else?
• Chelsea Manning’s release of the film “Collateral Murder,” where U.S. “pilots” joke about “wasting” international journalists and the civilians who came to their aid.
• U.S. insistence on using cluster bombs whose known effect is to blow arms and heads off children attracted to explosives disguised as toys.
• Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s justification of the effects of U.S. sanctions on Iraq, which she admitted killed 500,000 Iraqi children. “Yes, Leslie,” Ms. Albright said to interviewer Leslie Stahl, “we think it was worth it.”
• U.S. supply of arms enabling Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” which wantonly slaughtered more than 2500 Palestinians in direct attacks on civilians and the infrastructure of Gaza.
• U.S. stated intent to adopt similar policy of “relaxed rules” around tolerance of civilian deaths in its latest attacks on Iraq and now Syria.
All of that would easily inspire Al-Jazeera editors to write:
“Comparisons are meaningless at this level of evil, as are attempts to explain the horror by delving into the psychology or rationale of the perpetrators. . . as one of our reporters wrote in a recent piece about the United States, there is no “why” in the heart of darkness.”
But of course, there’s always a “why.”
The difference is that the “why” in the U.S. heart of darkness is greed for oil and the protection of an oil economy that will predictably destroy our planet.
Meanwhile the unexamined “why” of ISIS and the thousands attracted to its cause is intimately connected with response in kind to the Original Aggression of colonialism’s systematic rape of the Middle East. ISIS is responding in kind to U.S. crimes. It’s all blowback.
And the gentle editors of the New York Times (speaking for their employers in the military-industrial complex) can’t stand what they see when they look into the mirror.
Readings for 26th Sunday in ordinary time: EZ 18:25-28; PS 25: 4-5, 8-10, 14; PHIL 2: 1-11; MT 21: 28-32 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/092414.cfm
If I were you, I’d be careful about air travel. That’s because, as the President reminded us last week, the enemies we’ve so fiercely created over the last 13 years are plotting to blow U.S. commercial aircraft out of the skies. So one of these days Khorasan’s heat-seeking missiles will find the rear end of your plane, and that will be the end of you.
And, when you think about it, those firing the rockets will be justified in doing so. That is, if we allow them to apply the insane logic behind Mr. Obama’s latest justification for bombing his seventh Muslim country in six years.
In doing so the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said last week, “Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people.”
Wait a minute!
Our “leader’s” logic (if we universalize his pronouncement) has just endorsed an endless cycle of violence that should be completely unacceptable to any human being — not to say any Christian. His words mean that anyone who plots against another country trying to do their citizens harm can claim no safe haven. They will be subject to reprisal.
Tell that to drone victims and to Syrians who lost their children in last week’s bombings – or to similar casualties at weddings and funerals in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The President’s doublespeak logic allows them to say, “Once again it must be clear to the Americans plotting against us and trying to do our citizens harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for such terrorists who threaten our people. There will be reprisals.”
That means that the militants in the countries just mentioned can legitimately respond to the terrorism of drone and outright bombing attacks with similar assaults on American citizens in our own “homeland.”
So as I say, hold your breath on your next airline trip to Miami or New York. The blowback is coming – and the blowback to that blowback too.
Such are the realities of Eternal War.
It’s that sort of damned logic (I’m choosing my words) that is addressed in today’s liturgy of the word. It’s not at all comforting.
The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel sets the tone. It underlines what Easterners call the Law of Karma. Ezekiel says that people die because of their wicked deeds. He says, “When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.” That’s karma. It’s an inescapable law of the universe.
St. Paul put it this way, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” (GAL 6:7-9). Relative to war, Jesus was even more pointed. He said all those who live by the sword will die by that same instrument (MT 26:52). It’s all karma.
As citizens of a nation that lives by the sword more than any other in world history, what then are we to do? Here, once again, today’s readings supply an answer. We must abandon the destructive path we’re on. That’s what Ezekiel says. Speaking of the potential recipient of negative karma, Ezekiel promises, “But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, he does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” That too is karma.
In other words, to avoid the negative consequences of our actions, we must change course radically. More specifically today’s gospel selection addresses that imperative to political leaders. It calls them to make their actions correspond to their words.
Yes, today’s gospel is addressed to leaders like our president and congresspersons. There Jesus addresses those in power and tells the local rulers of his day (“the chief priests and elders”) a parable about lip service and the required change of direction. (Remember, in Jesus’ context there was no sharp distinction between religious and civil government.)
“A man had two sons,” the Great Teacher tells these government officials. “He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not, ‘ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,‘ but did not go. Which of the two,” Jesus asks, “did his father’s will?”
The chief priests and elders answer,”The first.”
Jesus said to them,”Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
I’m sure you see that Jesus’ parable is about governmental lip service and deception. The parable calls them to radical change in policy. Jesus implies that the leaders of his day were like the first son. They said the right things, but their actions belied their words. As a result, their deeds excluded them from the New Order (God’s Kingdom) which was always the focus of Jesus’ revolutionary discourse.
And that brings us back to our own leaders and the differences between what they say and do. Think of the events of recent weeks – even last week. During that time our leaders have:
• Paid lip service to national boundaries in the case of Russia and Ukraine, but then have claimed that national boundaries are irrelevant in their own “war on terrorism.”
• Paid lip service to international law – again in the case of Russia and Ukraine, but then ignored that law by going to war with ISIS without the required U.N. resolution.
• Paid lip service to civilization and decency in decrying ISIS’ brutal beheadings (by knife) of innocent civilians, but then beheaded literally untold others via drones and direct bombings. (Yes, drones and bombs inevitably blow heads off bodies.)
• Paid lip service to the human rights of civilians brutalized by ISIS, while ignoring the million and a half civilians their own armed forces have just as brutally killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• Paid lip service to nuclear non-proliferation in their demands upon Iran, but then have pledged billions to modernize their own overwhelming nuclear arsenal.
• Paid lip service to environmental protection (following last Sunday’s “People’s Climate March”), but the very next day implicitly embraced the possibility of “nuclear winter” through that same weapons modernization program.
Of course, there are many more examples of our leaders’ saying one thing and doing the opposite. In fact, their lies come so thick and fast that confusion and weariness results on the part of listeners. Our leaders’ honeyed words accompanied by unspeakably cruel acts paralyze us from taking action against or even recognizing in our own country a world force that is far more destructive than ISIS, Khorasan, or al-Qaeda. In the words of Noam Chomsky, the latter represent “retail terrorism,” while the U.S. “network of death” (with bases all over the world) embodies “wholesale terrorism” that is far more evil and destructive.
I believe that danger of confusion and consequent inaction is why Jesus shocked his opponents by saying simply, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
That would be as scandalous to Jesus’ audience as if he said to President Obama and John McCain, “Amen, I say to you, ISIS, Khorasan and al-Qaeda will enter God’s kingdom before you.”
What does that mean for us who are attempting to follow the Way of Jesus and are trying to be part of his Kingdom revolution? It means that we must realize that:
• Perpetual war contravenes the teachings of Jesus who taught us to love our enemies.
• Our “leaders” (just like the priests and elders of Jesus’ day) are liars to the core.
• The United States is (in the words of Dr. King) the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
• That the retail terror and brutality of ISIS pales in comparison with the wholesale terror the United States inflicts on the world’s poor.
• That we must work and pray every day for the defeat of the United States in its endless, genocidal wars.
Believe me: that defeat is coming. Better yet, believe Ezekiel. It’s the law of karma.
Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55: 6-9; PS 145: 2-3, 8-9; 17-18; PHIL 1: 20c-24, 27A; MT 20: 1-16A. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/092114.cfm
What will the Kingdom of Heaven be like for minimum wage workers? Ask the poor people Jesus speaks to in today’s gospel. There the Great Teacher tells them a story about a character every employee – all of us, I’m sure – encounters at some point in her or his life. He’s the skinflint boss who imagines himself a great humanitarian, despises his workers as lazy, and treats them with complete arbitrariness. He takes great delight in disappointing them – simply because he can.
The familiarity of this comic book character must have set Jesus’ audience laughing. And it probably started a long animated conversation about bosses, wages and employment.
Anyway, the story goes like this . . . It’s late in the harvest season and this big fat landowner goes to the town square to hire fruit pickers who are shaping up there. (You can imagine him coming by in his pick-up truck, smoking his cigar, pointing at the strongest workers, and shouting, “Hey, you guys, get off your lazy duffs and jump in the back. I haven’t got all day. There’s work to be done!”)
In the story, you can tell the owner’s a cheap skate because he’s careful to hire just the minimum number of workers he thinks can get the job done – if he pushes them really hard.
But he miscalculates. So he has to return at noon for more pickers. But instead of blaming his own stupidity, he blames the workers. He calls them “lazy” for “standing around idle.” He shouts at them, “Get in the truck, you lazy no-goods! You should be working!” (What does he expect? They’re waiting for someone to hire them, for God’s sake! But then coupon-clippers, like the boss in the story, always despise calloused hands.)
Now it’s almost quitting time. With only an hour’s daylight left, and with his fruit ready to rot in the fields, the skinflint owner finds himself back in the square hiring more workers. Again, he blames them for being lazy. But off they go to finish the day’s work.
Then the punch line comes. The completely capricious landowner suddenly decides to play the generous humanitarian. So with great flair he gives a full day’s wage to those last hired – my guess is: just a few workers.
Naturally, the other pickers rub their hands together, drooling with expectation that they’ll be paid more generously too. But of course old Scrooge disappoints them. (These kinds of bosses always do! They love it.) He decides instead to turn legalistic and teach these lazy good-for-nothings a lesson – about power.
“What do you mean: ‘MORE?’” he shouts like the beadle in Oliver Twist. “Have you forgotten our contract? And besides, I’m the boss. I can do what I want, and you can’t do a thing about it!”
By this time, Jesus’ audience surely had stopped laughing. They were probably grumbling and rehearsing their own similar experiences with cheap legalistic bosses who love to play the generous philanthropist.
But then Jesus gets everyone smiling again by adding with a wink: “And so it will be when the revolution comes (or as he put it – “in the Kingdom of God”) where “the first will be last and the last will be first – you know what I mean?” He winks again.
It takes a while for the message to sink in. Not everyone “gets it.” The audience scratches its collective head. Finally the penny drops.
“Oh, I see what you’re saying, Jesus,” someone says. She looks around at the others. “Don’t you get it?” she asks. “All of the workers in the story are ‘the last;’ it’s the boss who’s ‘first’.” In the final judgment, Uncle Scrooge will be last and all of us will be first!”
The audience starts to cop on.
“Yeah,” someone else says doing a quick calculation. “And do you know what that means for us, doncha?”
“It means we’ll all be on Easy Street; that’s what it means. Think about it; in the Kingdom, we’ll all be making a hundred grand a year!”
“No, I mean it. Do the math: minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, right? That means that those guys who worked only one hour earned $58. That’s $464 dollars a day, if they had worked all day – or $2320 per week, or $9280 per month, or $111,360 per year! Now that’s a just wage for bustin’ our butts. Whaddaya think? Talk about a workers’ paradise!”
By this time, everyone’s laughing so hard, they’re in tears.
Hmm . . . Kingdom economics. Kingdom pay for minimum wage workers: $58.00 an hour. . . . First/last; last/first . . . .
The Waltons should take note!
Readings for Feast of Exaltation of the Holy Cross: NM 21:48-49; PS 78: 1BC-2, 34-38; PHIL 2: 6-11; JN 3: 13-17 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/091414.cfm
Today is the feast of “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.” It might as well be called the feast of “The Exaltation of the Electric Chair” or of the exaltation of death row or of torture or terrorist martyrs. For relevance’s sake, we might today call the feast “The Exaltation of ISIS or Al Qaeda.”
That’s because the cross on which Jesus died was not only empire’s instrument of unspeakable torture and capital punishment. It was also the punishment the Romans reserved for terrorist insurgents against their empire. Among many others, biblical scholar, Reza Aslan underlines that point in his best-selling study, Zealot. (I recommend the book.)
All of that indicates that the Romans thought of Jesus as a terrorist – just as “Americans” do its enemy du jour whether we call them ISiS, ISIL, or al Qaeda. Let me repeat, Christians worship someone whom the quintessential empire (Rome) and its hangers-on vilified as much as President Obama vilified ISIS last Wednesday night in his address to the nation announcing yet another war. In the eyes of Rome and its Jewish collaborators, Jesus was a terrorist. They said he was stirring up the people and trying to take Caesar’s throne by force (LK 23:5, JN 19:15).
And yet, in today’s liturgy of the word, Jesus himself tells us to follow his example. You might say that he urges us to do what’s necessary to merit the charge of “terrorism” and even its punishment. That’s right. He says, “You cannot be my disciple unless you too take up your cross and follow me to Golgotha – or as we might put it, to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, death row, and ultimately to the electric chair or gurney to be lethally injected. That is, following Jesus means all of us should be traitors and rebels and enemies of the murderous state the U.S. has become. This is particularly true since our “leaders” have chosen the path of war without end.
However, (if we’re to believe the polls) instead of taking up our crosses, those calling themselves “Christians” have identified with another of the empires in the long line that has succeeded Rome. In other words, we’ve refused the project of Jesus who had more in common with ISIS than with the United States.
Think about it. Jesus’ “gang” was filled with insurgents. How could it be otherwise – poor working class men coming from the hotbed of rebellion in Galilee? They followed a man proclaiming “God’s Kingdom” as a world where Yahweh is king instead of Caesar. In fact, there were many points of convergence between Jesus’ program and that of Zealot terrorists. Like them he favored land reform, cancellation of debts, and justice for the poor. Both the terrorists of his day and Jesus opposed the Jewish leaders who collaborated with Rome. Both detested Roman occupation of God’s lands.
Even more, one member of Jesus’ inner circle was specifically called “the Zealot” (the 1st century equivalent of ISIS). Another’s nom de guerre was “Iscariot” [quite possibly a “sicarius” or assassin of occupation forces). Peter’s nickname was “Rock Thrower.” And James and John were fierce enough to merit the name “Sons of Thunder.” Recall that one of Jesus’ closest friends tried to cut off the head of one of Jesus’ arresters. Yes, cut off his head! Luckily for the militarized cop in question, Peter narrowly missed and only cut off the man’s ear.
But it was at that point, though traveling with an armed group (Think about that for a minute!) that Jesus made the pronouncement that separated him from his band of patriotic resisters to imperial occupation. It’s here that he departs from ISIS as well. He rebukes Peter for drawing his sword. Jesus said, “Put away your sword. All those who live by the sword will perish by it” (MT 26:52).
Those words should astound would-be Christians so ready to bomb, kill and live by the sword to an extent unsurpassed in all of human history. You’d think that if there’s ever been justification for using weapons, it would be to defend the life of a man like Jesus. But no, Jesus insisted that the way to liberation is not by taking life, but by giving one’s own life in non-violent surrender – an insistence echoed by Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
Last Thursday, the day following President Obama’s war speech, Amy Goodman ran a segment on “Democracy Now” asking the question, “What would Martin King do in the face of ISIS?” The segment recalled for viewers Dr. King’s 1967 speech at the Riverside Church in New York City. There he memorably called our beloved country ”the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/058.html
King, of course, was right in 1967 when he spoke those words. They ring even truer today. Without the U.S. there would be no ISIS, no al-Qaeda. We’ve trained many of their troops; they’re using weapons the United States military has poured into the region. Without “America,” there would be no crisis in Ukraine evoking threats of World War III. Without U.S. unconditional support of Israel, there would be no “Operation Protective Edge” with more than 2500 Palestinians dead – mostly women and children. Libya would still be intact and so, of course, would Iraq. More than a million people our brutal military has slaughtered in Iraq would still be alive.
(Talk about transubstantiation! Everything our country touches is transformed into the crucified body of Christ. Wine people share at droned weddings and funerals in a sense becomes Jesus’ blood.)
So what would King do? According to Tavis Smiley who has just published Death of a King: the Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year, King would urge a sharp turn in U.S. policy. Such repentance would entail:
• Confessing our nation’s responsibility for the crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Libya, Assyria, Yemen, Somalia, Bahrain, Egypt, Ukraine. . . .
• Paying reparations to all those countries.
• Redirecting the billions (and trillions) wasted in war to health care, education, and infrastructure reconstruction in our own United States.
• Using presidential speeches not to announce further wars, but to lay out emergency plans for addressing the genuine crises that face us, viz. climate chaos world-wide and the Ebola outbreak in Africa.
• Announcing expedited plans to wean the U.S. from the oil consumption that drives our country’s perpetual war policy.
In today’s second reading St. Paul quotes an ancient Christian hymn which scholars universally recognize as encapsulating the belief of the earliest Christians. It’s a song about the Divine One choosing to appear in history not as an exalted king, but as a human being, a slave, and an executed criminal.
If we wish to find God, the hymn suggests, we should look and listen not to our presidents, but to “the other – those the Empire hates – and make their cause our own. It’s in the ranks of the oppressed that God’s Son is found – among empire’s designated enemies, among the enslaved, the tortured and those our “leaders” identify as terrorists.
Does this mean we are being called to somehow recognize Jesus in ISIS?
Yes it does. ISIS has legitimate demands. We need to talk with them, not bomb them. Followers of Jesus should be demanding that – even if it means being branded “terrorists” ourselves.
Readings for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: EZ 33: 7-9; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; ROM 13: 8-10; MT 18: 15-20 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/090714.cfm.
We’ve met the enemy and it is us!
Indeed! Over the past number of weeks, we’ve been introduced to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Its militants seem to have somehow appeared from nowhere.
However, as Tom Engelhardt has pointed out, they actually represent the largely Sunni blowback from U.S. policies over the last 13 years. In fact, ISIS would not exist were it not for the United States.
Think about it. ISIS is the direct result of:
• The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and its over-the-top, loosely-target response to 9/11.
• The 2003 criminal occupation and destruction of Iraq.
• The thoughtless dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s army with its largely Sunni command structure (which is now directing ISIS).
• The crimes of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Haditha, and other massacres perpetrated by barbaric elements in the U.S. military.
• The more than one million Iraqis who have lost their lost their lives as their country has been systematically pulverized by bombings, white phosphorous, and the nuclear waste called “depleted uranium.”
• Former President Bush and Vice President Cheney bragging about ordering the war crimes of water boarding and other forms of torture.
• U.S. soldiers urinating on the bodies of Iraqi insurgents and on copies of the Holy Koran.
• The horrors of the film clip, “Collateral Murder” released by Chelsey Manning.
• Drone strikes across the world in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere routinely killing women and children, revelers at weddings and mourners at funerals.
• Blind U.S. support of Israel’s pogrom aimed at “the Jews’ Jews” concentrated in the world’s largest open-air prison camp called Gaza.
Such horrendous provocations make it entirely possible for ISIS leaders to echo the words solemnly intoned by President Obama last week in response to their movement’s brutal beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff. ISIS leaders might well have said:
“We will not be intimidated. Those who make the mistake of harming Muslims will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served . . . such horrific acts only unite us as movement. . . ISIS will continue to lead the battle against the kind of barbaric and empty vision that the United States represents. We will degrade their forces and destroy them completely.”
In fact, the whole ISIS phenomenon and the response it has evoked only illustrate the senselessness of any strategy of revenge and fatuous, doomed attempts to solve conflict by the unapologetic use of military first response to violence perpetrated against “Americans” or Muslims.
A different way of responding is outlined for followers of Jesus’ Way in today’s liturgy of the word. It might seem idealistic and perhaps even unrealistic in the face of ISIS. But give it a chance.
In today’s gospel reading, Matthew the Evangelist addresses the problem of conflict resolution. He emphasizes dialog not revenge and violence. In fact, he outlines four alternatives towards resolving disputes. He has Jesus say that if step one doesn’t work, move on to the subsequent strategies. The four alternatives include (1) healing conversation with one’s adversary, (2) arbitration with a mediator or two, (3) consultation with the entire community, and (4) shunning the offending party.
More specifically, Matthew has Jesus say, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone . . . If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
Obviously, these words did not come from Jesus himself. To begin with, there was no “church” at Jesus’ time. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and a reformer of Judaism rather than the founder of some new religion or “church.”
It was different for Matthew who was writing for a community of specifically Jewish Christians some fifty years after Jesus’ death. By then, questions of community order within the emerging church had become prominent. So Matthew invents this saying of Jesus to deal with them.
Another reason for reaching this conclusion is the reference to treating a recalcitrant individual “as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” This phrase reflects traditional Jewish avoidance of Gentiles and hatred of Roman collaborators. It runs counter to the practice of Jesus who time and again in the Gospels causes scandal by practicing table fellowship and community with the very people Matthew’s instruction indicates are outsiders to be shunned by believers.
Were Matthew following the Spirit of Jesus, the evangelist’s instructions for addressing conflict resolution might involve the following process: (1) private dialog with one’s adversary, (2) arbitration with a mediator or two, (3) consultation with the entire community, and (4) moving in with the offending party – or at least taking them out for dinner regularly.
In any case, the emphasis in Jesus’ own approach is communion, not shunning or refusal to talk. Nowhere does Jesus’ approach say that one should refuse meeting until the offending party stops offending. Much less does the process outlined include “if he refuses to listen, shoot him, cut his head off, or kill his family.”
“But,” you object, “The words attributed to Jesus in today’s gospel selection are about church order, not about international politics, much less the barbarity of a movement like ISIS. Jesus’ instruction, you might say, is about private disputes among Christians and are laughably impractical in the political sphere.
And that’s just my point. To repeat: Matthew’s account does not reflect the teaching or practice of Jesus. Jesus’ actual teaching was not confined to the private realm. His practice was highly political.
Eating with tax collectors, street walkers, lepers, Pharisees, Gentiles (including members of the Roman army) represented doing the unthinkable, the unexpected, the forbidden. . . . It meant crossing boundaries, breaking taboos, acting counter-culturally, and offending people on all sides of sizzling debates.
This is what the example of Jesus calls us to do even in the case of ISIS. Its emergence calls for departure from business as usual. It requires admission of guilt and responsibility on the part of the United States. It demands a complete reversal of “American” policy.
Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Rome puts a finer point on the reasons for such response on the part of those pretending to follow the teachings of Jesus.
Paul reminds us of Jesus’ summary of God’s law. He writes:
“Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Emmanuel Levinas helps us understand that Jesus’ teaching on neighbor love is much more radical than commonly accepted. Loving your neighbor as yourself, Levinas says, does not mean “Love your neighbor because s/he is like you.” No, according to Levinas, it means, “Love your neighbor as yourself, because s/he is you.”
In other words, there is no meaningful distinction between you and any other human being you care to name – even if we call them “terrorists.” Moreover, if you shared the same history as your “enemy,” you would be doing exactly the same thing that currently enrages you. As a result, no killing can be justified. It is suicide. That’s the thrust of Jesus’ words: to kill the other is to kill yourself. Killing of any kind is suicide.
What does that mean for followers of Jesus’ way as we try to respond to the ISIS phenomenon? At least the following, I think:
• Facing the fact that the ONLY REASON for our Middle Eastern policy and wars is oil, and doing everything necessary to wean our lives away from dependence on fossil fuels.
• Realizing that we cannot expect politicians like President Obama to initiate any other policy than revenge as if the U.S. were principled, civilized, innocent, and pure before an enemy that is completely unlike us.
• Nonetheless demanding that our officials absolutely reverse course, recognize responsibility for the emergence of ISIS, and establish dialog with their leaders.
• Refusing to allow our children to serve in an armed force that commits ISIS-like crimes on a wholesale scale.
• Imagining what would happen if even a quarter of our country’s 160 million people who claim to be Christian refused the self-destruction the words of Jesus and Paul imply.
For Christ’s sake, do the unthinkable. Hard as it might be: listen to ISIS. Reverse course. Put a stop to our collective suicide!