(Sunday Homily) Matthew’s God as Mafia Don: The Religion That’s Killing Us

Mafia Don

Readings for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 27: 30-28:7; PS 102: 1-4, 9-12; ROM 14: 7-9; JN 13:34; MT 18: 21-35

Today’s gospel is a confusing one. For me, it’s troubling. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it illustrates what’s wrong with religion.

What’s wrong is that too often religion is made to justify violence, guilt, fear and economic exploitation. Its God is like a Mafia Don who intimidates, punishes, tortures, and never forgives. For the sake of money (!), He even engages in child trafficking and leg-breaking extortion.

That’s ironic, isn’t it? I mean, the gospel reading begins with Jesus’ comforting and challenging logion about forgiveness. How often should we forgive, he is asked? Jesus’ answer: “Always! In fact, you can’t put a number on it. But, if you insist, how about 490 times – 70 X 7?”

Jesus would surely say something like that. Seven times is not enough. Seventy times seven is more like it. That formula probably represents an authentic saying of the Master whose followers eventually saw as divine. His teaching: always forgive; that’s God’s way.

But then comes the confusing illustration that seems to contradict those comforting and challenging words. Matthew presents Jesus as identifying the God whom the Master embodied with a cruel king. The ruler’s actions contradict not only Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness, but everything the rest of today’s liturgy of the word says about Jesus’ compassionate God.

Think about it. In the first reading, Sirach says that anger and vengeance are hateful. Don’t cherish wrath or refuse mercy, we are told. Instead overlook the faults of others and heal, rather than punish.

In that respect be like God, the Responsorial Psalm tells us. God is always kind, merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion. The Divine One heals rather than punishes. In fact, in God’s eyes, we are for all practical purposes guiltless. He doesn’t even see our sins. As the psalmist puts it, the gap between us and guilt is infinite – as wide as that between east and west. That’s the way we should see each other too – entirely guiltless.

The alleluia verse continues in the same vein. It reminds us of Jesus’s words: “Love one another as I have loved you.” That means, as Paul says in the reading from Romans, living and dying as Jesus did – with a prayer of forgiveness for his executioners on his lips: “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” Jesus pardoned even his assassins and executioners.

But then comes that troubling illustration. Matthew presents Jesus as identifying his Father with a money lender – with a king whose first impulse towards his debtor is to sell him and his entire family – including his children – into slavery. That’s human trafficking. That’s trafficking in children.

Put otherwise, for the sake of recovering his money (!), no cruelty seems excessive. That’s evidently why the money lender employs torturers on retainer. Their job, as we see in the parable’s conclusion, is to squeeze blood from a turnip. If a debtor can’t pay with money, he’ll pay with pain. Here torture’s purpose is to intimidate – to send a message to others who might be tempted renege on their debts. Does that remind you of Mafia leg-breakers?

Nonetheless, at the end of the parable, Matthew has Jesus saying: “So will my heavenly Father do to you unless each of you forgives your brothers from your heart.” Contradictions, anyone? Silliness? Intimidation?

Yes!

In fact, Jesus could never have spoken these words because, as I said, they run counter to the instructions that precede them. They also contradict the descriptions of God exemplified in biblical teachings as found in today’s reading from Sirach, Psalms, Romans, and the Gospel of John.

Not only that. Jesus’ audience was filled with debtors whose lives were imiserated by Shylocks like the king in this morning’s story. They would never have listened to a teacher who identified God with such oppressors.

So what’s up with Matthew? Why does he insist on a punishing God who seems to support economic exploitation and Mafia ethics?

Fact is: right from the beginning it was difficult for Jesus’ followers (especially those like Matthew who never met him) to leave behind their religion’s overwhelming concept of a violent, punishing God. Moreover, despite Jesus’ teaching about the entirely new order represented by God’s Kingdom, they found it nearly impossible to distance themselves from the contradictory normality of economic exploitation, human trafficking, slavery, torture, war and violence.

So early on, all those elements crept back into Christianity – again, despite Jesus’ teaching and example. And those elements covered with a veneer of faith are precisely what is killing us today. Or, as Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer has put it: that’s why Religion is Killing Us:Violence in the Bible and Quran.

Christians have no trouble seeing that with Islam. But as Nelson-Pallmeyer has explained, it’s just as true of Christianity.

So, as I just said, Christianity like that presented in today’s gospel has been made to support everything Jesus stood against.

In the face of such contradictions, what are believers to do? My answer:

  • Be discerning.
  • Realize that Christianity is just as threatening to the world as we imagine religions like Islam to be.
  • Accordingly, embrace atheism before violent, exploitative images of God like the Mafia Don Matthew presents.
  • At the same time, embrace Jesus’ forgiving Father.
  • After the usual sermon today, question your priest or minister about the king in this morning’s gospel.
  • Most importantly, strive to act like that God as embodied in Jesus practice on the cross.

Seventy times seven is only the beginning!

(Sunday Homily) North Korea: Jesus’ Plan for De-escalation

Kim Jong-un

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/091017.cfm.

“Meet the Press” and other news programs were abuzz last Sunday over the apparent testing of a hydrogen bomb by North Korea. In the aftermath, President Trump not only threatened nuclear war with North Korea (again!). He also harshly criticized South Korea for proposing to engage its neighbor in diplomatic talks. The president tweeted that such proposals would be fruitless, since North Korea “understands only one thing.”

So rather than talk, the president evidently prefers bombing – nuclear bombing – in an area of the world that is home to half the world’s population as well as to its largest militaries and most prosperous economies. He’s threatening nuclear war in a region that hosts 83 U.S. bases, and where authorities estimate that even a conventional artillery barrage from the North would kill 64,000 (including South Koreans and U.S. military personnel) in the first three hours.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un, of North Korea (like Trumps admired “friends,” for example General Sisi of Egypt, the Saudi princes, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines) is, no doubt a repressive dictator who cares little for human rights. However, his development of nuclear weapons and repeated shows of force are not unreasonable. After all, he is exquisitely aware of what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muamar Gaddafi after they stopped similar programs. Like all North Koreans, he recalls his people’s history that saw his country invaded and flattened by the United States during the Korean War which cost 1,316,579 North Korean lives.

Even now, President Kim also feels that his country is encircled and under severe U.S. threat and provocation. Consider how we would feel if North Korea (or Russia or China) had 83 bases in Mexico, if its ships were constantly patrolling in the Gulf of Mexico, or if it were regularly dropping mock nuclear weapons on D.C. What would Washington do under such circumstances? Yet, mutatis mutandis, the United States has been provoking North Korea in exactly these ways for years.

What then would be a proper response to North Korea’s counter-threats?

Today’s liturgy of the word gives specific directions. There, 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 even like the one between the United States and North Korea. 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, kill him and his entire people.”

“But,” you object, “The words attributed to Jesus in today’s gospel selection are about church order, not about international politics, much less the irrationality embodied in Kim Jong-un. 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 North Korea. 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 “communists” or “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 in relation to North Korea? At least the following, I think:

  • Recognize and publicize North Korea’s willingness to enter dialog about a “freeze for a freeze.” That’s a reference to Kim Jong-un’s apparent willingness to halt development of his nuclear weapons program in exchange for the U.S. halting its war games off the North Korean coast and for stopping deployment of the THADD (terminal high-altitude area defense) anti-missile system in South Korea.
  • Actually enter into such dialog.
  • Freeze the U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program.
  • Discourage our children from serving in our country’s armed force that threatens the world with nuclear destruction.
  • Imagine 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, Mr. Trump, do the unthinkable. Hard as it might be: repent. Listen to North Korea. Reverse course. How dare you threaten collective suicide!

(Sunday Homily) Hurricane Harvey and Its Three Unspeakable Descriptors

Pope-Francis Harvey

As everyone knows, hurricane Harvey struck Houston, the 4th largest city in the United States, last week. Apart from its obvious devastation, initial reports said Harvey had caused at least 12 deaths across an area that is home to more than 6 million people.

What most don’t know is that on the other side of the world, in Bangladesh, India and Nepal people are currently experiencing 100 times the initially reported Houston death toll. There torrential rains have killed more than 1200 people and wreaked havoc in the lives of up to 40 million South Asians living in those countries. One third of Bangladesh is currently under water.

At the same time, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have recently published a warning that the parts of Asia just referenced (as well as Pakistan) will soon become uninhabitable for its 1.5 billion residents because of rising temperatures. Incessant heat waves will soon make it impossible for peasant farmers to work their fields. The predictable result will be famine and unimaginable loss of life.

Despite such climate events and dire warnings, there are three terms Americans will scarcely hear mentioned in media reporting of these disasters. The first two are “climate change” and “profit.” The third is especially relevant to a Sunday homily like this. It is a person’s name. The name is “Pope Francis.” In fact, I’ll wager that this Sunday you’ll not hear him or his encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS) mentioned in connection with Hurricane Harvey even in most Catholic Churches. And that sad fact (despite Pope Francis’ brave efforts) simply underlines the irrelevance to which the church has been reduced.

Begin by considering the silence of our leaders and media about “climate change,” “global warming,” or “climate chaos.” Even during non-stop TV coverage of Harvey, the terms hardly crossed the lips of commentators. That’s because virtually alone in the world, the United States (and its media enablers) stand in aggressive denial of the obvious fact that the “American” economy and way of life remain the major causes of such disasters. (Even the Chinese contribution to climate chaos is largely induced by U.S. factories relocated there.)

In fact, far from admitting its criminal and willful ignorance, the Republican-controlled presidency and congress are moving in the exact opposite direction of that required to address super-hurricanes (like Katrina, Sandy, and now Harvey), as well as torrential flooding, disintegrating icebergs, rising sea levels, and soaring temperatures. Setting itself in opposition to the entire world, our country has withdrawn from the landmark Paris Climate Accord, and is doubling down on the production and use of the dirtiest fuels at human disposal (including coal) .

Additionally, hardly a day goes by without our president threatening nuclear war. As Jonathan Schell pointed out even before most of us were aware of climate change, that event would also have devastating effect on the earth’s atmosphere aggravating the climate syndrome already so well under way.

So you don’t hear much these days about climate chaos and the devastating effects of climate change denial. The reason? That brings me to the second culturally unpronounceable word: “profit.” In fact, as Noam Chomsky points out, that word is so unspeakable that it must now be pronounced and spelled as j-o-b-s. Nevertheless, we all know, the real reason for climate denial isn’t jobs, but capital accumulation. That is, corporations like Rex Tillerson’s Exxon are willing to destroy the planet, rather than respond appropriately to the climate impacts of their products that their own research uncovered decades ago.

Pope Francis has recognized the deception and hypocrisy of it all. And that’s why his name along with climate change and profit, is unmentionable in connection with Harvey. Yet, more than two years ago, Francis wrote an entire encyclical addressing the problem. (Encyclicals are the most solemn form of official teaching a pope can produce.) Still, his dire warnings remain largely ignored even by “devout Catholic leaders” such as Paul Ryan and his Republican cohorts. Even worse, the pope’s words generally go unreferenced by pastors in their Sunday homilies.

Yet the pope’s words are powerfully relevant to Harvey, Sandy, and Katrina – to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. For instance, in section 161 of Laudato Si’ Francis says,

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste, and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.”

And what are the “here and now” “decisive actions” the pope called for? Chief among them is the necessity for all nations of the world to submit to international bodies with binding legislative powers to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (LS 53, 173-175).

That, of course, is exactly what the Exxons of the world fear most. Such submission threatens jobs profits. But realities much more important than jobs profits are at stake here. We’re talking about the survival of human life as we know it.

This is a matter of faith. It is a matter of basic decency and common sense.

In fact, Hurricane Harvey and the other climate disasters I’ve just mentioned remind us of the most dreadful papal observation of all. “God always forgives,” Pope Francis has said. “Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.”

Last week’s events in Texas demonstrate that truth. Mother Nature is angry, and She’s coming after us.

Are we listening?

(Sunday Homily) Jesus’ Promise: Despite Appearances, God’s Kingdom Will Ultimately Triumph

Arc of history

Readings for 21st Sunday in Ordinary time: IS 22: 19-23; PS 138:1-3, 6,8; ROM 11: 33-36; MT 16: 13-28.

Of course, you’re all following the news, I know. It’s so discouraging, isn’t it? Charlottesville, Syria, Yemen, and President Trump’s defense of Neo-Nazis.

It all reflects such one-dimensional thinking. I mean it gives the impression that in the eyes of public officials from the militarized cop in the street to the POTUS himself, the only solutions to social problems are found in shooting, tear gas, torture, and Hell Fire Missiles? In sum, “solutions” uniformly involve locking the people of color behind “the Gates of Hell” centralized in today’s Gospel reading.

In every case, diplomacy, social reform, and negotiation seem out of the question. In fact, diplomacy has become a vanished art. Who needs it? After all, those damn “others” – be they African Americans in Charlottesville, Houthis in Yemen, or ISIS militants in Syria – can’t possibly have legitimate grievances. They simply must be brought to heel by force – shooting, bombing, and killing their children and youth. We’re made to believe that alternatives such as dialog and working out problems by discussion and compromise are signs of weakness. So violence is the first resort, never the last. It’s the order of the day in a world ruled by machismo, revenge, violence, and the law of the strongest.

When we’re not bombing, we’re building walls with locked gates. Our “gated communities” and locked doors wall us off from unsightly ghettos and the realities of the world’s poor mostly non-white majority. Better to build a wall along the Mexican border and then lock the gates, throw away the key and pretend that such barriers solve the problem of farmers and their children driven off their land by globalization, poverty and gangs. Better to justify it all by invoking the Ultimate White Privilege: “I feared for my life!” (We whites are the only ones who can get away with that one.)

All that brings us to today’s Liturgy of the Word. It’s about God’s interest in matters like those just enumerated – about politics, oppression and the liberation of non-white people like Jesus, Houthis, Syrians, and residents of Chicago’s south side. It’s about breaking bonds and opening the gates of hell so that every Inferno can be transformed into the Kingdom of God. It’s about refusing to be discouraged even though the flow of history makes Jesus’ prayer, “Thy Kingdom come” seem like an impossible dream.

Start with today’s first reading. There the prophet Isaiah has God telling a courtier named Shabna to step down in favor of a man called Eliakim. Little is known about either one. The reason for including the reading today is apparently to establish today’s central point that God is concerned with the world of politics, and that (despite appearances) God is ultimately in charge of what happens in that sphere. There can be no separation of politics and religion in the divine dispensation.

The responsorial psalm continues the “this worldly” theme set by the first reading. It had us all singing “Lord, your love is eternal. Forsake not the work of your hands.” Once again, emphasis on “the work of God’s hands” reminds us of God’s commitment to this world – including ghettos, those living under endless bombing campaigns in Syria and Yemen, and rich people like Mr. Trump and Saudi Princes making life unbearable for the world’s largely non-white poor. The psalm goes on to praise Yahweh for divine kindness, truthfulness, encouragement of the weak, care for the impoverished, and God’s alienation from their proud oppressors – again all connected with life here and now.

Then in today’s Gospel selection, we find a reprise of the very reading we shared just two months ago on the “Solemnity of St. Peter and Paul.” We practically know this passage by heart.

The reading centers on three titles associated with Jesus of Nazareth – Son of Man, Son of God, and Christ. All three names are politically loaded – in favor of the poor rather than the privileged and powerful.

Jesus asks his friends, “Who is the Son of Man in history and for us today?” (Scripture scholars remind us that the “Son of Man” is a figure from the Book of Daniel. He is the judge of all those who oppress the People of God whether they’re Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks or Romans. He is “the human one” as opposed to a series of monstrous imperial beasts which the author of Daniel sees arising from the sea against God’s poor.)

So Jesus’ question boils down to this: who do you think has taken the strongest stand against Israel’s oppressors? Jesus’ friends mention the obvious heroes, Elijah and Jeremiah. But in the end, they settle on a contemporary political prisoner in King Herod’s version of Abu Ghraib. He’s John the Baptist who was Jesus’ mentor. (According to Jesus, John was the greatest of all the prophets of Israel.) He’s the Son of Man, they say.

Having set that anti-imperial tone, Jesus then asks the question, “What about me? Who do you say that I am?” No question could be more central for any of us pretending to follow the Teacher from Nazareth. How we answer determines the character of the path we walk as Jesus’ would-be disciples in a world filled with Charlottlesvilles, Yemens, Raqqas, Hell Fire Missiles and militarized cops. Our answer determines whose side we are on – that of Mr. Trump, his friend Sheriff Arpaio, or with the innocent victims of U.S. bellicosity.

Matthew makes sure we won’t miss the political nature of the question. So he locates its asking in Caesarea Philippi – a city Herod obsequiously named for his powerful Roman patron. Herod had commemorated the occasion by minting a coin stamped with the emperor’s countenance and identifying him as “the Son of God.” Caesar was also called “the Christ,” God’s anointed. Good Jews saw all of that as idolatry.

So Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” has the effect of delegitimizing Caesar and his empire. It’s also a swipe at King Herod. Peter’s response couldn’t be more political. Jesus, not Caesar is king, God’s anointed, the Son of God.

Neither could Peter’s words be more spiritually meaningful and heartening for those of us discouraged by events in those places afflicted by permanent U.S. belligerence.

The encouragement is found in Jesus rejoinder about the “gates of hell” and the “keys of the kingdom.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah . . . I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . . whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

What powerful words of encouragement! They say that the world’s ultimate decision-makers are poor people like the fisherman, Peter, and like the rest of Jesus’ followers – the beggars, prostitutes, and victims of Roman imperialism. It’s what they decide — what they bind on earth — that reflects God’s divine order. History is on their side, not on that of the apparently invincible.

For those who would join Jesus on “The Way” to God’s Kingdom, Jesus’ words disclose the very key to life’s meaning. In effect, Jesus says, “Here’s the key to opening ‘the gates of hell’ and transforming life’s Infernos into God’s kingdom: all our actions – even apparent failures like my coming crucifixion – have cosmic significance. Don’t be discouraged even when the agents of hell end up killing me – as they inevitably will.”

In other words, we may not be able to see the effect of resisting empire and its bloody agents in the short term. But each act has its effect. God’s Kingdom will finally come. That’s our faith! It’s what gives meaning to our lives of resistance.

In today’s second reading, Paul elaborates the point. He says it’s not always apparent what God is up to in the world. After all, the ways of Transcendent Reality are deep and beyond comprehension – even by the wisest human beings. We may not be able to see God’s (political and personal) purposes at close range. But ultimately their inscrutable wisdom will become apparent (ROM 11: 33-36).

Or as Martin Luther King put it: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

All of us need to embrace that wisdom, refuse discouragement and continue doing what we can to resist the forces of empire and unlock those “Gates of Hell.”

A Chauvinist Jesus Gets Schooled by a Palestinian Mom

syrophoenician-woman

Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 56:1, 6-7; PS 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8; ROM 11: 13-15, 20-32; MT 15: 21-28.

“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Those are the words addressed to Jesus in today’s gospel reading. They come from a woman whom the evangelist, Matthew, remembers as “Syrophonecian”

An uncharacteristically narrow-minded Jesus has his own name for the woman and her daughter. He calls them “dogs” – b_tches, really. That’s the term for female dogs, isn’t it?

We’ll come back to that in a moment.

For now, note that “Syrophonecian” meant the woman was not a Jew. She was a native or inhabitant of Phoenicia when it was part of the Roman province of Syria. She was living near the twin cities of Tyre and Sidon – a gentile or non-Jewish region of the Fertile Crescent where Matthew takes trouble to locate today’s episode. That would have made Jesus’ petitioner what we call a “Palestinian” today.

No doubt you’re surprised at Jesus’ rough and disrespectful language towards the woman and her child. I am.

As I said, at first he gives no reply at all; he ignores the two females completely. If Matthew’s account is accurate, in his silence Jesus showed himself to be captive to his own cultural norms. It was inconceivable in Hellenistic antiquity for a strange woman to directly approach a man the way the woman in this story did. Above all, it was so for a non-Jewish woman to directly address a Jewish man. In other words, Jesus’ silence shows him a captive to his patriarchal “honor culture.”

But then, as I said, it gets worse. When the woman insists, Jesus implicitly at least uses that term that women find so offensive. He says, “I have been sent for the lost children of Israel . . . it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to a pair of b_tches.”

Is that a sneer I see on Jesus’ face?

In any case, the reply seems out of character for Jesus. In fact, such dissonance has led many scholars to reject the saying as inauthentic – or as though Jesus were only pretending to be hard to test the woman’s faith. Whatever the case, Jesus’ words only echo the rabbinic saying of the time, “He who eats with idolaters is like one who eats with a dog.”

Can’t get much more chauvinist than that, can you? Foreigners’ religions are nothing but “idolatry.” Foreigners themselves are filthy animals.

Do you know anybody that thinks like that? I mean, we still haven’t outgrown such narrowness, and disrespect any more than this stony Jesus apparently had.

But then the woman disarms the Master completely, even as he turns his back on her. Listen to her words. Unfazed in her desperation before this peasant faith healer, she blurts out, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

Silence.

We can almost see Jesus stop in his tracks. He shakes his head ruefully and turns back. We can almost hear him stifle a laugh as he exclaims, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Can you believe it? This poor woman has just schooled Jesus – the Great Teacher. She successfully called him back from his self-identification as an ethnocentric patriarch to his better Self. So he concedes her argument. The one whom the gospels present as the invincible master of verbal riposte admits error and defeat at the hands this simple Palestinian mom.

What does the interaction between Jesus and the woman called “Syrophonecian” mean for us today?

I don’t know . . . Perhaps it means that:

  • If this story actually happened, it’s somehow comforting to know that Jesus was so human — more like us than we’ve been made to think.
  • Xenophobia and racial prejudice are powerful!
  • So is the patriarchal narrow-mindedness fostered by religion. It even captivated Jesus.
  • It continues to captivate most of us even as we speak — in the context of immigration controversy and Black Lives Matter.
  • Women’s voices, especially when defending their children, are often more perceptive than even the wisest of men.
  • For that reason, it’s simply wrong to exclude women from leadership roles in politics and legislation – especially when questions of children, health, women’s reproductive rights, and spiritual leadership are at stake.
  • Given our liturgical context today, it’s wrong to exclude women from the highest leadership posts in the Catholic Church.
  • Don’t let name-calling deter you from doing the right thing.
  • “Sticks and stones . . .”

A Courageous Pope Francis Knows about Walking on Water: He Calls Us to Do the Same

Francis & Trump

Readings for 19th Sunday in ordinary time: I KGS 19: 9A, 11-13A; PS 85: 9-14; ROM 9: 1-5; MT 14: 22-23

In today’s Gospel, we hear Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on water – and of his invitation to Peter to follow the Master’s example. The story is relevant to Pope Francis who believes he is Peter’s successor.

The walking-on-water episode is also relevant to Catholics in general trying to figure out how to comport ourselves in this age of Donald Trump with its renewed threats of nuclear war. Should we risk criticizing the president in the name of our faith, or not? The pope’s example says we should. Speak out, it says, against pre-emptive war, narrow fundamentalism, racism, rejection of immigrants, and environmental destruction. And don’t worry: it won’t kill you. Not speaking out may.

Just last month, the pope gave that message, showing, once again, his willingness to step out of his boat and follow Jesus’ symbolic example of fearlessly confronting the monstrous threats facing our world.

In case you missed it, I’m referring to Francis’ apparent endorsement of sentiments expressed in a controversial article that appeared last month in La Civiltà Cattolica – the Vatican’s quasi-official weekly publication. The article boldly criticized American Catholics who accommodate the Gospel to Trumpism.

More specifically, the Vatican weekly accused U.S. Catholic ultraconservatives of making an alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians in their backing of President Trump. In doing so, the article warned, they have strayed dangerously into the turbulent waters of political polarization in the United States. According to the Civiltà Cattolica writers, the conservatives’ worldview and literal understanding of the Bible is “not too far apart’’ from that of jihadists.

The Pope’s apparent endorsement of the article showed once again his willingness to confront Monsters like Donald Trump himself along with Steven Bannon, and their Catholic supporters like Paul Ryan, Cardinal Raymond Burke, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, and Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the German conservative appointed by Benedict XVI (and recently fired by Francis) as the church’s chief judge of doctrinal orthodoxy.

The suggestion here is that the Pope’s courageous stands over the course of his papacy represent his acceptance of Jesus’ invitation to “walk on water” – to follow the example of Jesus in confronting fearful demons that life inevitably forces us to face.

To see the connection, first consider today’s Gospel reading.

The story goes that following Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 (last week’s Gospel focus), Jesus forces the apostles to get into their boat and row to the other side. [The text says, “Jesus made (emphasis added) the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side.” Perhaps these experienced fishermen (as opposed to the land lubber, Jesus) saw a storm was coming and were reluctant to set sail despite Jesus’ urgings.]

In any case, a storm does come up and the apostles fear they are all about to drown. You can imagine their cries for help.

Then they see a figure walking on the water in the midst of high threatening waves. At first they think it’s a ghost. Then they realize that it’s Jesus. He’s walking on the raging waters.

Peter, ever the impetuous leader of the apostles, doubts what he sees. So he says, “Prove to me that it’s you, Jesus; let me walk on the waves just as you’re doing.” Jesus says, “Join me then over here.” So Peter gets out of the boat and, like Jesus actually walks on water for a few steps.

Then, despite the evidence, he begins to doubt. And as he does so, he starts sinking below the water line. “Save me, Lord!” he cries out again. Jesus stretches out his hand and saves Peter. Then he asks, “Where’s your faith? Why is it so weak? Why did you doubt?”

Of course, this whole story (like last week’s “Loaves and Fishes”) is one of the dramatic parables Matthew composed. If we get caught up in wondering whether we’re expected to believe that someone actually walked on water, we’ll miss the point of this powerful metaphor. It’s about Jesus’ followers doing the unexpected and irrational in the midst of the seriously threatening crises life forces upon us.

You see, Matthew’s Jewish audience shared the belief du jour that the sea was inhabited by dangerous monsters – Leviathan being the most fearful. And courageously walking on water was a poetic way of expressing what Matthew’s community believed about Jesus, viz. that he embodied the courage and power to do the completely unexpected in the midst of crisis and subdue the most threatening forces imaginable – even the most lethal they could think of, the Roman Empire.

Jesus’ invitation to Peter communicates the truth that all of us have the power to confront monsters if we’ll just find the courage to leave safety concerns behind even in the most threatening conditions, to confront life’s monsters, and join Jesus in the midst of its upheavals.

Problem is: we easily lose faith and courage. As a result, we’re overcome by life’s surging waves and by the monsters we imagine are lurking underneath.

And that brings me back to Pope Francis and the stands he has taken against the secular orthodoxy of the day that accommodates itself to an emerging neo-fascism. Since the outset of his papacy, he has demonstrated unusual courage attempting to join Jesus on the world’s dangerous waves in contradiction to expectations established by his predecessors. Remember:

  • Unlike other popes, he’s adopted a comparatively simple, unpretentious lifestyle.
  • He’s lost no opportunity to condemn neo-liberalism, growing income inequality, and capitalism itself.
  • His apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (largely unheeded) called for radical change in the church, and implicitly endorsed the liberation theology his two immediate predecessors had tried to kill.
  • More specifically, he adopted liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” as the leitmotif of his papacy.
  • In that spirit, his famous “Who am I to judge” gave hope to the LGBTQ community.
  • In 2014, his Vatican Peace Vigil helped head off President Obama’s plans to bomb Syria.
  • The following year, he addressed the U.S. Congress where he forthrightly called for an end to capital punishment, and urged divestment from the arms industry, whose profits he described as “soaked in blood.”
  • On that same occasion, he called his audience to imitate fierce critics of capitalism and United States policy, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.
  • He helped shape and gave unequivocal endorsement to the Paris Climate Accords (recently repudiated by Mr. Trump) by publishing his radical eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, also in 2015. It arguably remains the most important public document of the 21st  century.
  • His contextual approach to family issues (pre-marital sex, abortion, sexual orientation, same sex marriage, divorce . . .) recognized the sovereignty of individual conscience. In Amoris Laetitia, he admits that moral choices in family and other matters are inevitably conditioned by age, maturity, degree of moral development, economic necessity, and, yes, ignorance and religious misinformation. As a result, no one is anyone else’s judge.

True, his papacy has daringly left safe harbor and courageously sailed into the storm. Francis clearly sees Jesus as his role model in the face of today’s unprecedented winds and waves. Indeed, Francis has gotten out of the boat to trample underfoot the beasts and monsters roiling the seas all around us.

The question is, will we follow him? The monsters we fear can be intimidating:

  • The pro-war mainstream media
  • Those politicians and churchmen I mentioned earlier
  • The relatives, neighbors, friends, and fellow parishioners who might think us too political
  • Our own attachment to our petty reputations and self-conceptions
  • The militarized police at demonstrations
  • The emerging right wing, “brown shirt” thugs who might threaten our political expression

As the crisis this week over North Korea shows, this is no time for followers of Jesus to be silent, to remain in safety inside gated communities, behind our computers, TVs, sports fanaticism, and other entertainment addictions. This is the time for us to follow the example of Jesus and Pope Francis.

Today’s dramatic parable calls us to get out of the boat and confront the demons who keep us silent and compliant.

The Loaves & Fishes Story Is Not Just about Food: It’s about Just Food

loavesfish

Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55: 1-5; PS 145: 8-9, 15-18; ROM 8: 35, 37-39 MT 14: 13-21

I’ve been vacationing in Michigan over the past three months. We’re living in the lovely cottage my wife, Peggy, inherited from her father in the northern part of the state.

The community there is called Canadian Lakes. It’s white, upper middle class, and very pretty. Peggy and I have spent large parts of our summers there ever since we we’ve been married. Our kids feel attached to the place. In a sense, they’ve grown up there.

In a word, life at Canadian Lakes is good. It’s water-centered and comfortable.

That makes today’s liturgy of the word (with its emphasis on the free gift of water) especially poignant for me. So does the fact that our lake home is located in Michigan with Detroit not so far away. Water’s a problem there.

You see, the relationship of Detroit’s poor to water is very different from ours in Canadian Lakes. Unlike our lakeside community, 44% of Detroit residents fall under the poverty line; 83% of the city’s population is African American. Unemployment in the former Motor City is well above 14.5%. Yet, Detroit’s (unelected) City Manager has been cutting off the water of poor people there. Regardless of your circumstances, if you’re an ordinary Detroit resident two months, behind on your bill, you will suddenly find yourself without water for drinking, bathing and flushing toilets.

If you’re rich, however, it’s a different story. Some of the city’s largest corporate water users are also behind on their water bills – even years behind. For instance high-end golf courses, the Detroit Red Wings, the city’s football stadium and more than half the city’s commercial and industrial users owe back water bills totaling over $30 million. No one is cutting off their water.

It’s also worth noting that the price of Detroit’s water system (administered by private contractors) is more than twice the national average and that the water cut-off plan is part of a scheme to move the city towards a completely privatized water system. Some see it as a measure intended to drive Detroit’s poorest from the city for purposes of gentrification.

Detroit’s water policy has gotten world-wide attention. A United Nations Human Rights office designated it a clear violation of fundamental human rights.

In the light of today’s liturgy of the word, we might also designate Detroit’s plan (and in general the commodification of God’s free gifts to all of creation) as a violation of God’s order. In fact, today’s liturgy of the word implies indictment of water privatization schemes and the market system’s practice of treating food itself as a commodity. These are gifts of God the readings say – part of God’s gift economy which is unbelievable in its generosity.

And why should we be surprised? The God celebrated in today’s responsorial is described as “answering all our needs.” According to the psalmist, that God is gracious, just, holy, merciful, slow to anger, hugely kind, and compassionate. S/he gives food to everyone and everything – without cost.

So why pay for water? Isaiah asks. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!” he says. “You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

The point of contrasting God’s “gift economy” with our exploitive “exchange economy” is driven home in today’s Gospel episode from Matthew the evangelist. The famous “miracle of loaves and fishes” is actually a dramatic parable about God’s Reign and its order. The event may even be factual in the way I’m about to explain.

In any case, the tale is symbolic. It’s about the way the world would work if God were king instead of Caesar. In God’s dispensation, the gifts of creation – food and drink – are given to all without payment. God’s order contradicts our own where food production and even water delivery reap huge profits for the rich.

You know the story. Jesus meets with 5000 men in the desert (“not to mention,” Matthew says, “the women and children”). It’s late in the day. People are hungry and no-doubt getting restless. Jesus’ disciples offer a market solution to the problem of the crowd’s hunger. They say, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”

Jesus’ solution is different. He says. “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”

The disciples almost mock Jesus’ suggestion. They say, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” We can imagine them rolling their eyes and smirking ironically in disbelief at Jesus’ naivety. Did he really think that the loaves and fishes they had would be enough to feed 5000 hungry men and their families?

Nevertheless, Jesus “ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.” Mark adds the detail that he had them break up into small groups of 50 and 100. In those smaller groups, people could see each other’s faces. Inevitably, they must have introduced themselves and shared some personal background, a joke, laughter and human warmth. Friendships blossomed.

Then Jesus “said grace:” That is, with everyone’s eyes on him, the Master Teacher broke the bread, divided the fish and gave it to those around him. No doubt he did so with gestures inviting the crowd to do the same.

As a result, the “miraculous” happened. And it wasn’t a “popcorn miracle” where five loaves suddenly popped into 5000 or where two fish suddenly multiplied by 3000. Instead, the good mothers in the crowd must have followed Jesus’ example. (Can we imagine any good Jewish mamma leaving home for a day in the desert without packing a hearty lunch for her husband and children?) The mothers opened their picnic lunches and shared them with the people they’d just gotten to know.

It was a “miracle of enough.” Everyone shared. So even the improvident were able to eat with plenty left over – 12 baskets Matthew tells us.

No, I’m not saying the miracle of loaves and fishes was just about food. No. As John Dominic Crossan puts it, the “miracle of loaves and fishes” was not just about food; it was about just food – about just distribution where no one is left hungry. Why? Because that’s the way God and his order are. God gives food, drink – the earth itself – to everyone and everything without cost.

That’s the order Jesus’ followers are called to imitate here and now.

And it is Detroiters (as well as many others throughout the world) who doing just that. They’re busy not only sharing water, but gardening and eating free from their plots on vacant lots – taking grateful advantage of God’s free gifts. You might be surprised to know that Detroit has the largest number of urban gardens in the United States.

We would do well to follow the example of people there and expand on it, taking advantage of God’s free gifts by:

• Opposing water privatization schemes
• Supporting local farmers
• Gardening
• Composting
• Installing water catchment systems
• Heating water (and our homes) with solar energy
• Bicycling to work
• Getting to know our poor neighbors
• Sharing food with them
• Even paying their water bills
• Opposing military spending increases while U.S. citizens go without water.

To repeat: today’s readings are not just about food and drink; they’re about just food and drink. They’re about sharing God’s free gifts rather than turning them into commodities to benefit the 1%.