Notes for a Home Church: The Eucharist Is Not a Sacrifice or a Magic Show, But a Shared Meal (Pt. 3 of 4)

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My beloved eight-year-old granddaughter is getting ready to receive her First Holy Communion in May, and it’s got me worried. I mean her Sunday School teachers are filling her head with “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected. In the 4th century he wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Eventually, my granddaughter, I predict, will come to the same conclusion. And rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s Shared Bread, she’ll probably follow the example of so many young people I know and reject the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasy akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because it represents a rejection of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, From the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well. It was something uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against one another, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves. That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction (found in I COR: 12-12-27) is worth quoting at length:

12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.

15 Suppose the foot says, “I am not a hand. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 16 And suppose the ear says, “I am not an eye. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear? If the whole body were an ear, how could it smell? 18 God has placed each part in the body just as he wanted it to be. 19 If all the parts were the same, how could there be a body? 20 As it is, there are many parts. But there is only one body.

21 The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 In fact, it is just the opposite. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without. 23 The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honor. The private parts aren’t shown. But they are treated with special care. 24 The parts that can be shown don’t need special care. But God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honor to the parts that didn’t have any. 25 In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.

27 You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context.  That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me.  And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is not a magic show. It’s a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

My granddaughter and the world she’ll inherit need everything that signifies. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

(Next Week: How priests fit into the Eucharistic picture of the early church)

If You Think Jesus Approves of GOP Policies towards the Poor, Here Are Two Riddles for You . . . (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for Third Sunday of Advent: IS 35: 1-6A, 10; PS 146: 6-10; JAS 5: 7-10; MT 11: 2-11

If Trump cabinet nominations are any indication, the president-elect will continue pursuing what have long been the GOP’s two main domestic goals. They are eliminating labor unions and cutting social services such as Food Stamps and Medicaid. Even Trump Republicans (led by their groper-in-chief) will do so while at the same time invoking values they call “Christian.”

Today’s liturgy of the word shows that the GOP position flies in the face of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition expressing (as it does) God’s special concern for the poor and oppressed.

More specifically, the readings demonstrate that the anti-poor policies of the Christian right are actually a slap in the face to Jesus himself. That’s because (once again) in today’s selections, the recipients of God’s special concern turn out to be (in Jesus’ words in our gospel reading) not just “the least.” Rather, in their collectivity, they are identified with the very person whom our sisters and brothers on the right aspire to accept as their personal Lord and Savior.

The vehicle for today’s version emphasizing Jesus’ identification with the poor is a riddle. It’s found at the very end of that reading from Matthew. Matthew has Jesus posing it by saying:

  1. John the Baptist is the greatest person ever born.
  2. Yet the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John.

That leaves us with the question: How can this be? How can “the least” be greater than the one identified by Jesus himself not only as the foremost prophet of the Jewish Testament, but the greatest human being who ever lived?

In the context of Matthew’s gospel, the answer is the following:
1. Jesus is the one far greater than John. (As the Baptist admitted in last week’s reading from Matthew, John was not even worthy to loosen the straps on Jesus’ sandals.)
2. But Jesus identified himself with “the least.” Recall that in his parable of the last judgment (Matthew 25), Jesus says, “Whatever you did to the least of my brethren, you did to me.”
3. Therefore the “least” as identified with “the greatest” (Jesus) is greater than John and should be treated that way – as Jesus himself.

Riddle solved. The rest of today’s liturgy adds the details as it develops the theme: recognize the least as God’s favorites – as Jesus himself – and treat them as the most important people in the world.

And who are these “least?” According to Isaiah in today’s first reading, they are the blind, deaf, lame, and mute. They are ex-pats living in exile. The psalmist in today’s responsorial, widens the list by adding the oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, and immigrants. He includes single moms (widows) and their children.

In today’s gospel selection, Jesus recapitulates the list. For him “the least” (who are greater than John) include the imprisoned (like John himself sitting on Herod’s death row). They are (once again) the lame, the deaf, the mute, and lepers. They even include the dead who are raised to life by Jesus.

Do we need any more evidence to support the biblical authenticity of what Pope Francis continually references as God’s “preferential option for the poor?”

Does the Christian Right believe the teaching contained in Jesus’ riddle?

Well, maybe not. I mean, here’s another riddle for you: How can Christians oppose labor unions and eliminate Food Stamps and Medicaid, while still calling themselves followers of Jesus?

Sorry: I can’t solve that one.

Donald Trump and His Christian Supporters Hate Jesus (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe”: 2 SM 5: 1-3, PS 122: 1-5; COL 1: 12-20; LK 23: 35-43.

How on earth were USian Christians able to elect a man like Donald Trump?

After all, Trump represents the polar opposite of the values embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, Jesus was the kind of person Donald Trump and his supporters actually hate.

I mean, the Nazarene was poor, dark skinned, the son of an unwed teenage mother, and an immigrant in Egypt. Jesus was viscerally opposed to an empire very like the United States. And that empire (Rome) executed him as a terrorist. Jesus ended up on death row and finished as a victim of torture and capital punishment. To repeat, Trump and the Republicans hate people like that. They want Middle Easterners like Jesus out of their country at best, and dead at worst.

Again, how could followers of Jesus elect his sworn enemy?

The readings for today’s feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe” provide the answer. They explain what might be termed the great “makeover” of Jesus of Nazareth changing him from the leader of an anti-imperial revolutionary movement into a pillar supporting the very institutions that assassinated him.

In other words: through 4th century sleight of hand, the Jesus who sided with the poor and those oppressed by empire was made to switch sides. He was co-opted and domesticated – kicked upstairs into the royal class. He became not only a patron of the Roman Empire, but a “king” complete with crown, purple robes, scepter and fawning courtiers.

Reza Aslan’s best-seller, Zealot, explains the process in detail. The book centralizes today’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke, Chapter 23. There Aslan pays particular attention to:

  • Jesus’ cross,
  • to the Roman inscription identifying Jesus as “King of the Jews,”
  • and to the dialog between Jesus and the two “thieves” presented as sharing his fate.

Take the cross first. It was the mode of execution reserved primarily for insurrectionists against the Roman occupation of Palestine. The fact that Jesus was crucified indicates that the Romans believed him to be a revolutionary terrorist. Aslan asks, how could it have been otherwise?  After all, Jesus was widely considered the “messiah” – i.e. as the one, like David in today’s first reading, expected to lead “The War” against Israel’s oppressors.

Moreover, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God,” a highly politicized metaphor which could only be understood as an alternative to Roman rule. It would return Israel, Jesus himself promised, to Yahweh’s governance and accord primacy to the poor and marginalized. The Romans drew logical conclusions. Put otherwise, the Roman cross itself provides bloody testimony to the radical threat the empire saw personified in Jesus.

That threat was made specific in the inscription the Romans placed over the head of the crucified Jesus. It read, “King of the Jews.”

Typically, those words are interpreted as a cruel joke by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate – as if he were simply poking fun at those who saw Jesus as the worthy successor of Israel’s beloved King David.

However, according to Reza Aslan, nothing humorous was intended by the inscription. Instead it was a titulus. Every victim of crucifixion had one – a statement of the reason for his execution. The motive for Jesus’ crucifixion was the same as for the many others among his contemporaries who were executed for the same crime: aspiring to replace Roman rule with home rule – with an Israel governed by Jews instead of Romans. The titulus on Jesus’ cross, along with the cross itself identify him as the antithesis of what he eventually became, a Roman tool.

And then there are those two thieves. Aslan says they weren’t “thieves” at all. That’s a mistranslation, he points out. A better translation of the Greek word, lestai , would be “bandits” – the common designation in the first century for insurrectionists. And there probably weren’t just two others crucified the day Jesus was assassinated. There may have been a dozen or more.

In this context the dialog between Jesus and two of the terrorists crucified with him takes on great significance. Actually, it documents the beginning of the process I described of changing Jesus’ image from insurrectionist to depoliticized teacher.

Think about it. Luke’s account of Jesus’ words and deeds was first penned about the year 85 or 90 – 20 years or so after the Roman-Jewish War (66-70 C.E.) that utterly destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. In the war’s aftermath, defeated Christians became anxious to show the Roman world that it had nothing to fear from their presence in empire.

One way of doing that was to distance the dying Jesus from the Jewish insurgents and their terrorist actions against their oppressors. So in Luke’s death-bed dialog among three crucified revolutionaries, one of the terrorists admits that Jesus is “under the same sentence” as he and his comrade in arms. Given what Aslan said about crucifixion, that fact was undeniable. All three had been sentenced as insurrectionists.

But now comes the distancing between Jesus and Israel’s liberation movements. Luke has the “good thief” (read good terrorist) say, “. . . indeed we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”

In other words, Luke (writing for a post-war Roman audience) dismisses insurrection as “criminal,” and removes Jesus from association with such crime – a fact endorsed, Luke asserts, by insiders like the honest lestai crucified with Jesus. Luke’s message to Rome: the killing of Jesus was a terrible mistake; he meant no harm to Rome. And neither do we, his followers.

After the 4th century, Luke’s message became the official position of the Catholic Church – adopted subsequently by Protestantism. The message transformed the poor, brown, bastard, revolutionary martyr from a tortured and executed criminal into “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.”

So by now in 2016 Jesus has changed color and class. He is the white, rich, bigoted “American” champion of U.S. empire. Those pretending to follow the one-time immigrant from the Middle East show they want to keep riffraff like Jesus, Mary and Joseph out of their land of the free and home of the brave. They want enemies of empire like the Nazarene tortured and executed the way Rome tortured and killed the historical Jesus. Their president-elect even wants to go after Jesus’ parents while he’s at it.

We’ve come a long way, baby! Or have we?

The truth is that only by rescuing the historical Jesus – the antithesis of his Republican version – can we be saved from Jesus-hating Trumpism.

Trumpocalypse: America Just Voted for the End of the World (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 3: 19-20A; Ps. 98: 5-9; 2 THES 3: 7-12; LK 21: 5-9.

We’re still reeling from the astounding results of the November 8th U.S. elections, aren’t we?

For many – especially immigrants, people of color, Muslims, progressives and followers of Jesus – what some have called the “Trumpocalypse” nearly seems like the end of the world as we know it.

Even the Republican Establishment is not completely happy. Mr. Trump is not really one of them.  In effect, (like socialist Bernie Sanders for the Democrats) the Donald was a third (Fascist) party candidate. His election shows that both major parties are disintegrating before our eyes. Powerful third and fourth parties are proliferating alongside Greens and Libertarians. In reality six relevant parties contended in the recently concluded election cycle.

At the moment however, it’s the anti-Gospel political right that is enjoying its moment in the sun.

All of that makes today’s readings disturbingly relevant. They appear to centralize “the end of the world.” And on top of that Paul’s dictum from Second Thessalonians seems eerily to confirm right wing tendencies towards “tough love.” There Paul says “. . . if anyone is unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.”

But don’t be misled. There’s not a trace of “tough love” in Jesus’ treatment of the poor. And “apocalypse” is not about the end of the world. It’s about unsustainability. The word apocalypse means “unveiling.” It’s about “revelation” in that sense – making evident what’s hidden about the world and who’s in charge. Apocalypse affirms the unsustainability of empire. Radical change is inevitable.

Apocalypse emerged a few centuries before the birth of Jesus. To convey its message of impending radical change, it employed stock images of natural catastrophe, plagues, wars, earthquakes, and portents involving the sun, moon, and stars. The change would be cosmic.

The audience of this strange literary form was empire’s victims. It was meant to encourage the poor and dispossessed, the unemployed, sick, widowed and orphaned – not the rich and well-off. Apocalypse assured the poor that all systems of oppression end in flames whether they’re Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman. (Those are the global giants that oppressed Israel at one time or another in its history.) Where are they today? They’ve been swept away by the tide of history. And the apologists for “Eternal Rome” find themselves somewhere in antiquity’s dustbin.

So it’s ironic that apocalypse should be embraced by conservatives and their rich patrons – by those who want to keep things as they are. Things do not have to be that way. And “by God,” they won’t be! That’s the message of apocalypse. A new era is dawning, and you’d better be on the right side of history or you’ll lose out. Being “left behind” means supporting the old order that’s doomed.

The problem is that right from the beginning, believers took literally the cosmic and highly poetic symbolism of apocalypse. (We always get in trouble for being too literal.) That’s the attitude that caused Paul to tear his hair out in today’s second reading. Some in the early Christian community took the imminence of this expectation so seriously that they even stopped working.

What was the point of work, they reasoned? Everything was about to change profoundly by God’s intervention. That made human work meaningless. All believers had to do was sit back and wait for Jesus’ triumphant arrival. Eat, drink, be merry, and whistle past the graveyard in the meantime.

Those are the people Paul addresses in this morning’s excerpt from Second Thessalonians. He’s clearly exasperated. He says, “Look I’m working. And I’m the one responsible for your believing in Jesus’ Second Coming! Get real, people. Go back to work. Stop sponging off the community. Instead, be like me and do your part to bring about the new order we all expect. “

Paul’s words bring to mind the people who refuse to work today because they deem apocalyptic expectations divinely ordained or “natural.” And I’m certainly not referring to welfare queens.

Instead, I’m talking about people so committed to the old order that (with Margaret Thatcher) they’re convinced that “There is no alternative,” even though the “inevitable order” they support threatens the very survival of their own grandchildren. So they do what must be done to perpetuate what in God’s eyes is unsustainable.

Such “busy-bodies” refer to their endeavors as “work,” but in reality, their occupations represent a refusal to work. That is, if we identify that term with what contributes to life and the establishment of the Kingdom community Jesus proclaimed.

On this understanding, involvement in the military and the military-industrial complex is certainly not work. Neither is labor in financial market casinos or in the health-insurance and fossil fuel industries and their nuclear power counterparts. Advertising, fashion, professional sports, or much of what we refer to as “education” and journalism might also qualify as anti-work. Such occupations are not only highly questionable in terms of building up human community and protecting the planet. They are often positively destructive. Their purpose is to ward off or distract from the impending Big Change promised by the great unveiling.

Do I mean followers of Jesus should renounce such “work?” Yes I do. Or at least, we need to work to bring about a world where such occupations are not rewarded with pay – i.e. with a ticket to overconsumption even in terms of food and drink. And, to quote St. Paul, if arms manufacturers want to continue their anti-work as inevitable, let them starve! The world will be better off.

What about the unemployment caused by such radical change? It’s simple: share the remaining work. Make sure everyone is working – say for four hours each day, or three days a week, or six months each year. Get everyone to work building or rebuilding infrastructure, paving highways and covering rooftops with solar cells, and cleaning up the dump sites where all our toxic waste has been buried.

Think of the freedom such changes would create for building up God’s kingdom – to play, to garden, write, converse, make love, raise our children, and do all the things that make us human!

“Totally unrealistic” you say? Precisely! Apocalypse is by nature unrealistic. It calls us to work for an entirely different order we can hardly imagine. It calls us to reclaim our humanity from the insanity of destructive anti-work.

So maybe the election of Donald Trump is exactly what we needed. After all, “America” is just another of those oppressive empires God’s People have always suffered from. It is doomed and will soon disintegrate like Babylon, Rome – and the Soviet Union.

Our apocalyptic readings tell us the present order must end. Second Thessalonians helps us discern directions for a new one

The destruction of both the Democratic and Republican Parties portended by Mr. Trump’s election is a very good start.

Donald Trump and Torture (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 MC 7: 1-12, 9-14; PS 17:1, 5-6, 3, 15; 2 THES 2:11-3:5; LK 20: 27-38.

One of the wonderful aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition is how so much of it reflects the consciousness of the poor and oppressed, while at the same time giving expression to a “preferential option for the poor.” That’s a gift for us in a culture that generally despises poor people, oppresses the world’s impoverished majority, and spins the news in ways that ignore the poor and reflect a decided “preferential option for the rich.”

This morning’s first reading is especially valuable for us who live in a system where a candidate for president, Donald Trump, advocates torturing poor people who rebel against American imperialism. He has promised, to bring back water boarding.  He’s said, “I would bring back water boarding, And I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than water boarding.”

Before Abu Grahib, a statement like that would have been unthinkable. Torture is against international law. It contradicts Article 5 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which identified the right not to be tortured as a fundamental human right. At least since the end of World War II, torture has been considered one of those intrinsic evils about which there simply could be no debate.

However, ever since Abu Ghraib gave the lie to George W. Bush’s famous prevarication, “The United States doesn’t do torture” – ever since our government redefined the word to exclude even waterboarding – it has become apparent that Bush (and so many others of our “thought-leaders”) was lying. So today, it’s possible for a presidential candidate to propose measures worse than water boarding – perhaps cutting out of tongues and removal of limbs – as measures Americans admire and advocate..

But what do tortured terrorists actually think about while having limbs removed and tongues cut out? Read today’s selection about the Maccabee brothers and find out.

The Maccabees were members of a heroic family of guerrilla fighters who in the mid- 2nd century BCE terrorized the invading Greek forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. (Actually, “Maccabee” wasn’t the family’s name; it was more a nom de guerre for an entire resistance movement. The word meant “Hammer” – the Hammer Gang – so-called because of its delight in pounding to mincemeat the invaders of their beloved homeland. The term “Maccabee” was similar to “al Qaeda,” when it simply meant “the list” – a reference to the Rolodex of assets the CIA used when it employed al Qaeda back when they were “freedom fighters” against the Russians in Afghanistan.)

For his part, the Seleucid king, Antiochus, was fiercely anti-Semitic. He considered the Jews historically and culturally backward. For him and his empire’s advancement, Jews had to be brought into the 2nd century BCE even if it meant their kicking and screaming the whole way.

Today we might understand Antiochus’ project as “modernizing” the Jews – as Hellenizing them for purposes of imperial control. Evidently the Seleucid king subscribed to the position that if empire can persuade conquered peoples to adopt its patterns of thinking and especially of imagining God, the task of imperial administrators is made that much easier.

Many Jews agreed with the program of Antiochus. After all, the Greeks’ empire seemed invincible. If the empire couldn’t be beat, it was better to join it willingly. So these “Hellenized Jews” stopped circumcising their sons, and changed their diets even to include eating pork. They became more Greek than the Greeks.

They also became the targets of Maccabee “terrorist” attacks. In today’s terms, such Hellenized Jews would be the targets blown up by Maccabee suicide bombers in marketplaces located in Jewish but Greek-loving neighborhoods. (Even if the Maccabee targeting may have been more selective than that, it is certain that Hellenized Jews were as much the objects of Maccabee terror as were the Seleucid forces themselves.)

In countering such extremism, Antiochus IV proscribed the Jewish religion as itself criminal and illegitimate. This was very similar to the way many “Americans” consider Islam. So Greek troops burnt and otherwise desecrated copies of the Torah in much the same way as our “Christian” troops are frequently caught burning or urinating on the Holy Koran and on corpses of Muslim resistance fighters.

Though the Greeks considered the Maccabean forces to be terrorist, faithful Jews admired them as national heroes and servants of God. They understood that the Maccabees were fighting a Holy War against the much more powerful Seleucids. It was David against Goliath all over again.

In any case, according to today’s selection from Second Maccabees, seven brothers of the gang’s leadership were finally arrested (along with their mother) by the Greek invaders. (This would have been reported to Greeks “back home” as a great triumph – “Senior Leaders” captured making “our troops” and “our world” much safer.)

Then the torture and the screaming start.

According to today’s reading, all eight are beaten with whips and instruments designed to tear open their flesh. Then following standard operating procedures still practiced today, other enhanced interrogation techniques were used to torture the brothers one after the other in the presence of their blood-drenched mother, herself near death. The purpose here, of course, was to induce the woman to divulge names, places, and plans that she was privy to as the wife of the one who started the Jewish resistance to the Seleucids.

But what does she do? And what about her sons?

In a word, they are all – mother as well as her sons – completely defiant.

“What do you expect to achieve by questioning us” one of the brothers shouts? “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

Even at the point of death he spits out the words: “You accursed fiend” (I wonder what expletive he really used!), “you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.”

Another of the brothers sees that his torturers are actually enjoying their work. (The text refers to cutting out his tongue and amputating his hands as “cruel sport.” Does that remind you of Abu Ghraib?) So he sticks out his tongue and stretches out his hands inviting them to do their work. “It was from Heaven that I received these,” he says. “I’d rather lose them than offend Yahweh” (read Allah).

“Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage,” the text says. Far from being intimidated, the freedom-fighter “regarded his suffering as nothing.”

Just before dying, another of the tortured brothers undergoing the very same cruelties says: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.” As indicated by those words, conviction of a happy eternity moved these guerrilla fighters to embrace death willingly. (Seventy-two virgins, anyone?)

So what goes on in the heads of the tortured? Disdain for their torturers. Defiance. Show of courage. Love for the motherland. Hope.

And what is the response from the people they die for? Admiration. Elevation of martyrs and the tortured to sainthood. Motivation to follow their example.

And ultimately victory for the tortured and assassinated. . .  I mean, against all odds, the Jewish resistance – the Hammer Terrorists – did succeed in evicting the Greeks from their homeland.

As I was saying, this reading should cause us to reevaluate our attitude towards terrorism, terrorists, and the scandal of debating the pros and cons of torture. It should cause us to reevaluate any thoughts of voting next Tuesday for the would-be torturer-in-chief, Donald Trump.

(Sunday Homily) Zacchaeus, White People, and the Case for Reparations to African Americans

reparations

Readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 11: 22-12: 2; PS 145: 1-2, 8-11, 13-14; 2 THES 1: 11- 2: 2; LK 19: 1-10.

In the June 2014 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an article called “The Case for Reparations.” There he argued that the United States owes a huge debt to African Americans. It’s a debt compounded by 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate but equal and 35 years of racist housing policy. Until those debts are paid, Coates wrote, America will never be whole.

Today’s gospel story about Zacchaeus, the tax collector, relates to Coates’ concern.  It addresses the problem of unjustly acquired wealth and reparation. As such the reading opens a question very much on the minds of our country’s African American community as described in Coates’ Atlantic piece.

White people probably disagree. Surveys show that nearly 75% of us oppose reparations. Slavery happened so long ago, the dissenters argue. They deny that slavery constitutes a factor contributing to the contemporary wealth gap between blacks and whites. At any rate, they think reparations are impractical and even impossible. Needless to say, Christians in that group see no connection between their faith and the reparations Coates was writing about.

Today’s Gospel reading calls such convictions into question.

There Jesus invites himself for dinner to the home of Zacchaeus, a tax collector. The latter is so overjoyed by the invitation that his very first reaction is to divest himself of his wealth and to make reparations for his ill-gotten affluence. He exclaims, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”

The first part of Zacchaeus’ promise (“Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor”) represents recognition on the tax collector’s part that his extorted wealth constitutes a crime against poor people in general. So it calls for general divestment on his part. He’s going to give away half of his property – half to the poor of Jericho where he’s been overseeing tax collection for years!

The second part of Zacchaeus’ promise (“And if I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over”) is directed specifically to identifiable victims of his extortion. He’ll return to them four times what he defrauded – four times!

Luke’s remembering and repeating a story where wealth divestment and reparation are the very first reactions of a rich person to Jesus’ offer of table fellowship is significant. It seems to suggest that such rectifications are not only recommended for those deciding to join “The Way” of Jesus; they constitute a requirement of discipleship.

All of this suggests that in today’s Gospel we find an invitation to open our eyes to the fact that, far from impractical, reparations are not only possible but required from people of faith. In fact, they have already been proven to work. For instance, in 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act that recognized the need to redress the wrongs suffered by Japanese-Americans unjustly interned in World War II concentration camps. Cash payments were made to survivors.

But slavery and its aftermath have been far more hurtful than that particular instance of wrongful imprisonment. Consequently, much more than one-time payments seem due to the descendants of the millions of slaves whose unpaid labor contributed so mightily to the building of America.

Reparations are also due for Jim Crow, low wages, glass ceilings, denial of loans, and segregation’s practices of red-lining. All such measures have prevented the descendants of slaves from participating in the American Way of Life that has remained largely closed to blacks.

As shown by police killings from Ferguson to Baltimore and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement, as shown by the resistance of heroes like Colin Kaepernick, by the brave example of the Black Panthers (whose 50th anniversary we celebrate this year), it’s time for a national conversation on race – for a Peace and Reconciliation Commission to consider the form that long-overdue reparations might take.

Suggestions for spending the estimated $14.2 trillion owed the descendants of slaves include:

  • A federal employment program offering well-paid jobs to all our country’s poor.
  • The provision of state-of-the-art day care centers to help newly-employed parents.
  • A housing program providing decent dwellings for African Americans in urban centers now being gentrified.
  • Major upgrading of public schools attended by black children – to make them equal to those in affluent white suburbs.
  • De-militarization of urban police forces and the introduction of community controlled policing.
  • Release of non-violent offenders from prison and the restoration of their voting rights.
  • Transformation of prisons from places of punishment and degradation to centers of education and personal reform.

All such reparations are clearly possible. They will not happen without the national conversation just mentioned and without a Peace and Reconciliation Commission.

However, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, absent such measures our country will never be whole.

Today’s Gospel reading seems to endorse his observation. It invites Jesus’ followers to lead the way.

(Sunday Homily) Amy Goodman Shows Us How to “Pray Always”

dog-standing-rock

Readings for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: EX 17: 8-13; PS 121: 1-8; 2 TM 3:14-4:2; LK 18: 1-8;

Amy Goodman is in trouble. She’s the television journalist my wife and I had dinner with last summer. She’s the host of “Democracy Now: the War and Peace Report” – a daily news hour on the Pacifica Radio and Television network.

In the face of mainstream media’s refusal to cover significant grassroots events and issues, Ms. Goodman’s program has been called “probably the most significant progressive news institution that has come around in some time” (by professor and media critic Robert McChesney.) In addition to sources such as OpEdNews, Information Clearing House, and Alternet, “Democracy Now” is an invaluable fountain of information about issues that touch all of our lives.   Amy’s program is an example of what can be accomplished for peace and social justice in the face of overwhelming odds.

Anyway, Amy is in trouble. Or should I say that judges in the North Dakota legal system are in trouble. I mean the court’s black robes there are about to tangle with a woman who is stronger and more committed than all of them put together.

The issue at hand is a charge of criminal trespassing against Ms. Goodman. It stems from her coverage of Native American protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline – a nearly 2000 mile, multi-billion dollar construction stretching through North and South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois. The pipeline cuts across Sioux Tribe sacred sites and burial grounds at their Standing Rock Reservation. Defense of those holy grounds has brought together thousands of Native Americans from across the country and Latin America, as well as indigenous peoples from around the world.

On Labor Day weekend this year, while Amy was covering that resistance, security forces of Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the pipeline’s builders, set dogs on the Standing Rock “Protectors” (they refuse the name ” protestors”). She filmed a dog whose mouth was dripping with Protectors’ blood.

Amy’s honest reporting (protected by our Constitution’s First Amendment) proved offensive to ETP, their security forces, and to the local police. Hence the charges.

_____

Please keep all of that in mind as we attempt to understand today’s liturgy of the word. In the context of an unjust legal system, our readings raise the question of what it means to “pray always.” Jesus says it means persistently demanding justice. Amy embodies that meaning.

Actually, the readings compare what might be termed men’s intermittent way of praying with women’s unrelenting persistence. For instance, in today’s readings, men shockingly pray that God might intervene to slaughter their enemies.

In contrast, the woman in today’s gospel is in it for the long haul. She indefatigably confronts the power structure of her day as her way of “praying always.” That is, like Amy Goodman, she persistently works to bring her world into harmony with God’s justice. According to Jesus, that’s what prayer means.

Take that first reading from Exodus. . .  Did it make you raise your eyebrows? It should have. It’s about God facilitating mass slaughter. It tells the story of Moses praying during a battle against the King of Amalek. It’s a classic etiology evidently meant to explain a chair-like rock formation near a site remembered as an early Hebrew battleground.

“What means this formation?” would have been the question inspiring this explanatory folk tale. “Well,” came the answer, “Long ago when our enemy Amelek attacked our people, Moses told Joshua to raise an elite corps of fighters. During the course of the ensuing battle, Moses watched from this very place where we are standing accompanied by his brother Aaron and another assistant called Hur.

Moses raised his hands in prayer during the day-long battle. And as long as he did so, Joshua’s troops got the better of Amalek’s. But Moses would get tired from time to time; so he’d lower his hands. When he did so, Amalek’s troops got the better of Joshua’s.

“To solve the problem, Aaron and Hur sat Moses down on this stone you see before us. They held up his arms during the entire battle. That strategy saved the day. Joshua won his battle “mowing down Amelek and his people.”

So here we have a God who responds to ad hoc prayers and reverses history so that one group of his children might “mow down” another group of people he supposedly loves. That’s a pretty primitive concept of prayer (and of God), don’t you agree?

In today’s gospel, Jesus has another approach to prayer. For him, prayer is not an ad hoc affair – about changing God’s mind. Rather, “praying always” represents the adoption of an attitude — a way of life — that consistently seeks justice for the oppressed. Praying always means living from a place that won’t let go of justice concerns like those that drive Amy Goodman.

To illustrate that point for his own time, Jesus tells a comic parable about a persistent woman. (Remember, he’s speaking to people who have no power in a legal system, which, like ours favors the wealthy and powerful.)

“Imagine a judge,” Jesus said. “He’s like most of the judges we know. He doesn’t give a damn about the God of the poor, and he doesn’t care what people like us think of him.” (Already Jesus’ audience is smiling seeing a funny story coming.)

“But then along comes this widow-woman. Like all of us, she’s poor, and as usual, the judge pays no attention to her.” (Jesus’ audience recognizes the syndrome; they nod to each other.)

“But this woman’s a nagger,” Jesus says. (Now his audience is snickering and chuckling.)

“She just won’t let go. And she’s strong and aggressive besides. She comes back day after day insisting that she get justice against her adversary. And as the days go by, she gets more and more insistent – and threatening. So much so that the judge starts getting worried about his own safety.

(Laughter from the crowd . . .)

“’While it is true,’ the judge says to himself, ‘that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’”

In other words, this macho judge is afraid of this poor widow; he’s afraid she’ll come and beat him up!

Can you imagine Jesus saying that without smiling broadly – and without the crowd roaring in laughter?

Anyway, here’s Jesus point: “If an unjust judge responds to the prayer of the poor like that, how do you suppose the All-Parent will respond when we ask for justice? The All-Parent will respond swiftly, Jesus says, because that’s who God is – the one who (as Martin Luther King put it) has established an arc of history that bends towards justice.

Prayer, then, is about reminding ourselves of that fact, trusting and having faith that in the long run justice and truth will prevail. Taking that position and acting upon it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, takes great faith that’s harder and harder to find.

So Jesus ends his parable with the rhetorical question, “When the Son of Man returns, do you think he’ll find that kind of faith anywhere?”

What I’m suggesting here is that today we’re more likely to find that kind of faith, that kind of prayer, that kind of persistence in women rather than men. The example of Amy Goodman and her “War and Peace Report” inspires us to renounce ideas of a God who calls us to “mow our enemies down.” It inspires us to view prayer not as a now-and-then petition, but as a lifestyle based on a struggle for justice.

In any case, Amy Goodman seems even more determined than the widow in Jesus’ parable. In prosecuting her, the pro-ETP justice system has bitten off more than it can chew.

Thank God for persistent women! We men have so much to learn from them. A good start towards doing so would be to watch “Democracy Now” every day. It’s on line. Check it out.