Be Like Pope Francis: Bury Your Talent, Oppose Capitalism as We Know It!

Francis

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: PRV 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31, PS 128: 1-5; I THES 5: 1-8; MT 25: 14-30.

Today’s gospel story, the familiar “Parable of the Talents,” is about economics. It’s about the world of investment and profit-taking without real work. It’s also about dropping out and refusing to cooperate with the dynamics of finance, interest and exploitation of the working class.

The parable contrasts obedient conformists with a counter-cultural rebel. The former invest in an economic system embodied in their boss – “a demanding person harvesting where he did not plant and gathering where he did not scatter.” In other words, like the system of capitalism itself, the boss is a hard-ass S.O.B. who lives off the work of others. The conformists go along with that system which to them has no acceptable alternative.

Meanwhile, the non-conformist hero of the parable refuses to go along. And he suffers the predictable consequences for doing so. Like Jesus and his mentor, John the Baptist, the non-conformist is marginalized into an exterior darkness which the rich see as bleak and tearful (a place of “weeping and grinding of teeth”). However, Jesus promises that exile from the system represents the very kingdom of God. It is filled with light and joy.

In contemporary terms, today’s gospel selection could hardly be more pertinent. It contrasts two current understandings of the contested terrain that is today’s Christianity. One understanding endorses our polarized economic system where “everyone who has is given more so that they grow rich, while the have-nots are robbed even of what they have.”

That concept is embodied today in President Trump and his Republican cohorts. The other finds its personification in Pope Francis.

In sharp contrast to Trump’s faith in the capitalist system, Pope Francis himself is trying mightily to distance himself from it. He’s like the servant in today’s parable who buried his talent in the ground refusing to invest it in a corrupt system that invariably widens the gap between the rich, like Trump, and the poor the pope is attempting to champion.

Francis couldn’t be clearer about rejecting the elements of capitalism celebrated by the U.S. president. The pope has repeatedly urged action to secure the basic entitlements the poor deserve. These include rights to land, housing and work as well as to higher wages, unions and social security – all of which are abhorrent to Republicans.

Francis even connected being Catholic with communism. “It’s strange,” the pope said, that “if I talk about this, there are those who think that the Pope is Communist. . . The fact that the love for the poor is in the center of the gospel is misunderstood.” Fighting for the poor, he added, doesn’t make me a communist; it makes me Catholic.

(Did you really hear what the pope just said: “THE LOVE FOR THE POOR IS IN THE CENTER OF THE GOSPEL.” THE CENTER OF THE GOSPEL!)

Obviously, the statement suggests significant overlap between Marx’s critique of free market capitalism and the social teachings of the church. The pope’s words certainly don’t sound like a ringing endorsement of the free market.

And how should Catholics express their love for the poor? Clearly not by endorsing the dynamics of the free market Trump and his allies lionize. In the “Joy of the Gospel” (JG) – published in 2014 – the pope identifies the unfettered markets so dear to Republicans’ hearts (along with their “trickle-down” ideologies) as homicidal (JG 53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59). He sees “each and every human right” (including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage (192) as intimately connected with “defense of unborn life” (213).

And it gets worse for the Republicans’ position. Their party, of course, loves the free trade agreements that are at the heart of the corporate globalization the pope deplores. One wonders how Catholic members of the GOP reconcile advocacy of free trade agreements with the pope’s uncompromising words “We don’t want this globalized economic system which does us so much harm.”

Clearly, the debate about unfettered capitalism is settled in the pope’s mind. He has condemned the system without equivocation. And in doing so, Pope Francis has established himself  as the foremost moral leader of our time. Virtually alone among world leaders, he has the courage to call us away from the worship of Market and Money.

The alternative, he assures us, is not a world of darkness, weeping and grinding of teeth. It is a kingdom of light and joy.

It is time for Jesus’ would-be followers to join that conversation – about getting from here to there in the name of the gospel.

Puerto Ricans Pray “Forgive Us Our Debts:” The U.S. Says “Go to Hell!”

hurricane-maria-puerto-rico

Readings for 30th Sunday in ordinary time: EX 22: 20-26; PS 18: 2-4, 47, 51, I THES 1:5C-10; MT 22: 36-40.

Have you been following Puerto Rico’s recent crisis? I’m talking about the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria and the apocalyptic damage the island has suffered.

On September 7th Irma just missed a direct hit on the U.S. colony, but it knocked out power for almost a third of its 3.5 million people. Then less than two weeks later, Maria finished the job. The whole country went dark.

And now after more than a month, 50% of the island still lacks electricity, and over a million people have no clean drinking water. Overflow from toxic Superfund sites is contaminating available water sources producing widespread gastrointestinal diseases. One in three sewage plants are still inoperable, and there is no cellphone service for 40% of the island.

Imagine yourself living there with our fellow Americans! (Remember, all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.)

So, how do you think our government has responded to the crisis? The response is five billion dollars IN LOANS! We’re not talking grants here, but LOANS! And the $5 billion comes on top of the island’s previously existing $74 billion debt that all agree is completely unpayable – without even mentioning unfunded pension obligations that amount to an additional $49 billion.

Everyone in Puerto Rico knows that increasing the island’s debt does not spell relief. Instead, it represents a heartless tool for further enriching the already super-wealthy, and for exercising control of poor people while further impoverishing a colony that has served ever since its annexation as a source of valuable minerals including gold. As well, the island has provided a major production center for the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, a source of cheap labor, a dump for chemical waste, and a bombing range testing ground.

Puerto Rico has been effectively indemnified for none of this. Instead, rich U.S. banks and hedge funds are demanding austerity. They want islanders to sacrifice health, education, and social services including pensions, to pay back their creditors. This means that moneybags on Wall Street see misery in Puerto Rico as a business opportunity to further fill their coffers and perpetually control its destiny.

I bring all of this up, because it’s relevant to today’s liturgy of the word, which addresses the question of lending, debt and treatment of the poor.

Begin with a consideration of today’s gospel.

There Jesus is asked a question consistently addressed to rabbis and to wise persons in all traditions. “Which is the greatest of God’s commandments?”

The question is reminiscent of the familiar cartoon where the bedraggled seeker climbs up that mountain, confronts the guru sitting in front of his cave and asks him, “What’s the purpose of life?” That’s really the gist of the question presented to Jesus. What is life’s purpose?

Jesus’ response is not humorous as we’re always led to expect from those cartoons. His answer is not even surprising. Instead, it’s the standard one usually given by rabbis and wise people: “Look within,” he advises. “Find Ultimate Reality and devote yourself entirely to it. And then love that Reality’s every manifestation beginning with the people closest to you and finishing with the trees, soil, rocks, and cockroaches.”

That’s the meaning of Jesus’ response in today’s gospel. It mirrored perfectly the answer, for instance, of Rabbi Hillel, one of Jesus’ near contemporaries. Both of them said, “Love God with all your heart, mind, and spirit – and your neighbor as yourself. That’s the greatest commandment,” they agreed. “That’s the purpose of life. That summarizes all the content of humanity’s Holy Books. All the rest is commentary.”

We get a snippet of that commentary in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus, which supplies practical content to the general answer about life’s purpose invariably given by the wise. (And it’s here that the business of debt enters the picture.) Today’s 16-line excerpt from Exodus focuses on two issues: (1) treatment of the most vulnerable in the community, and (2) prohibition of taking interest on loans. Obviously, the two matters are intimately connected to the situation in Puerto Rico.

The reading says that loving God and neighbor means taking care of society’s most vulnerable – beginning with immigrants and including single mothers and street children. Reality decrees that mistreatment of people like that will bring very negative karmic consequences.

The reading goes on. When dealing with immigrants, remember you were once in their position. So treat them the way you would have liked your great-grandmother to have been treated when she arrived at Ellis Island from the Old Sod.

The second part of the Exodus reading addresses the most common instrument oppressors employ for mistreating society’s vulnerable. You’ve guessed it: it’s debt.

When you heard it read this morning, you might have been surprised that God’s Covenantal Law as recorded in the Bible prohibits the taking of interest at all. The Law indicates that God considers interest sinful! It’s a form of “extortion,” says the book of Exodus. As the dictionary explains, extortion is the “criminal offense of obtaining money, property, or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion.” The definition goes on to say that extortion is commonly practiced by organized crime.

For more than a millennium, moral theologians within the Church agreed with our dictionary. Under pain of sin (as they put it), no interest could be charged on loans.

But then modern economists discovered the wonders of compound interest. That changed everything. Suddenly, charging interest became not only moral, but virtuous – including for Christians! Even the Vatican owns a bank whose underlying foundation is interest!

So times have indeed changed. Currently, moralists explain that the modern science of economics now understands what was not grasped in the ancient world of Exodus. So, morality had to change to keep up with the times and the advances of science. It’s a new world.

(Hmm . . .  Does that same reasoning apply to matters such as homosexuality in relation to the insights of the modern science of psychology? And what about abortion and what modern medicine has disclosed about the beginnings of specifically personal life? After all, the Bible has this clear and strong teaching about prohibiting interest and is silent about abortion. It also says nothing unambiguous about homosexuality.)

The suggestion here is that if we were truly a humanitarian nation and kept The Commandments as explained by Jesus and all the world’s great spiritual teachers:

  • We’d give grants, not loans, to our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.
  • We’d forgive entirely the country’s unpayable debt, forcing banks to eat their bad loans – just as prescribed by Adam Smith’s capitalist theory.
  • We’d force U.S. polluters, not the U.S. government – much less Puerto Ricans – to clean up the mess they’ve made on the island.
  • We’d pay reparations for the gold and other minerals extracted (stolen!) since the U.S. colonial system was imposed.
  • Reparations would also be made for the destruction caused on those bombing ranges.

And more generally:

  • We’d demand that student loans be forgiven or refinanced at the prime rate.
  • We probably wouldn’t support “capitalism” as we know it.
  • We’d make usury as important a “Christian issue” as some make abortion.
  • We’d hear about that from the pulpit, at least occasionally.

We’d vote accordingly.

Jesus’ Teaching about Paying Taxes: It’s about “Slow Money,” Not What Your Pastor Says!

Slow Money

Readings for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 45: 1, 4-6; PS 96: 1-5, 7-10; I THES 1: 1-5B; MT 22: 15-21.

Well, it’s time for your pastor to trot out those well-worn platitudes around Jesus’ famous “Render” riddle. So after reading this morning’s gospel about payment of taxes to Caesar, your priest or minister will say something about separation of church and state. Ho-hum. Caesar’s realm is the political, he’ll say; God’s is the religious. Caesar’s is less important than God’s, of course. But be sure to vote (Republican)  anyway – just to make sure that the anti-abortionists win. Never mind that their policies are pro-war, anti-life (apart, I suppose, from their single issue) and suicidal in terms of climate change. Those are merely political concerns. See ya next week.

Problem is: all that has nothing to do with today’s reading. In fact, it entirely misses the point of Jesus outwitting his questioners in their attempt to entrap him with a question about taxation that had no good answer – except the unforeseen one that Jesus gave.

Jesus is smarter than his opponents. That’s the obvious point.

The less obvious one is that Jesus’ response attacks the Roman Empire itself. It undercuts its economic base by rejecting Rome’s “fast money” in favor of the Jewish insurgency’s “slow money.”

Have you heard of that concept – I mean slow money? It’s explained in Woody Tasch’s book, Slow Money: Investing as if food, farms, and fertility mattered (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing 2008).

Building off Carlo Petrini’s idea of Slow Food, Tasch’s book presents the case for divesting from the haste of the global economy whose lightning fast computerized operations are necessarily devoid of thought about things that really matter. “Fast money,” as Tasch calls such transactions thinks of nothing but the corporate bottom line.

The outcomes of such inattention are evident for all to see. They include climate chaos, topsoil loss, water waste and pollution, as well as loss of jobs at home in favor of low labor costs abroad. Fast money causes inequalities which give 35 men as much wealth as half the world’s population. Fast money is like “fast food” which fills bellies but destroys health.

Slow money, on the other hand, invests locally, thoughtfully, and at a pace that imitates the very leisurely processes of nature. So Tasch’s book calls for a correspondingly paced economy. The slow money approach preserves family farms, encourages the growth of organic foods, and prevents waste of soil and water, while eliminating the contradiction of widespread hunger existing alongside fast-food induced obesity.

Once again, I bring that up because Jesus’ response to his interlocutors in today’s gospel represents rejection of Rome’s fast money. At the same time, it implicitly endorses a local form of slow money that almost everyone overlooks.

Recall the story’s pivotal question. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

If Jesus answered the way your pastor says, the Great Teacher would have fallen into the trap set by an unlikely alliance of Herodians (pro-Rome lackeys) and Pharisees (anti-Rome populists).

Saying “Yes, pay taxes to Caesar,” would have discredited Jesus in the eyes of the poor who comprised his main audience hanging on his every word. The hated Roman tax system cost them as much as 50% of their yearly income.

On the other hand, if Jesus had said “No,” that would be reason enough to have him arrested and turned over to the imperial authorities on charges of subversion. [In fact, that did become one of the charges at Jesus’ trial: “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ . . . (LK 23:2)] Does that sound like Jesus ever said “Pay your taxes?”

So instead of saying “yes” or “no,” Jesus turns the tables on his questioners in a way that convicts them instead of himself.

“Show me an imperial coin,” Jesus asks; “I, of course, don’t carry any.”

One of the interrogators (probably from among Rome’s collaborating Herodians) obligingly reaches into his pocket and pulls out a shiny denarius. By that very act, he’s already fallen into Jesus’ trap. All bystanders can hear the cage door slam, as the insincerity of the Pharisees and Herodians stands exposed for all to see. Jesus’ follow-up question makes clear why.

“Whose image and inscription is on that coin, he asks?

“Caesar’s” his antagonists reply.

“Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus says, “and to God what is God’s.”

Case closed.

You see, no good Jew would carry Roman money. (And here comes the part about slow money.) Instead, Jewish nationalists did business using coins minted by Jerusalem’s Revolutionary Provisional Government. On its face was the image of a palm branch – the Provisionals’ “flag.” Such money was of no use to the Romans and could only be used locally to support the Jewish economy.

In fact, the insurgents forbade using Roman currency at all. That’s because doing so benefitted the Romans by giving them control over the Jewish economy.

And besides, carrying Roman coin recognized Caesar’s claim to own Judea which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. In fact for good Jews (as today’s first reading and responsorial make clear), EVERYTHING belongs to God. That leaves absolutely NOTHING for Caesar – except his own idolatrous servants clutching his pathetic coins in their bloated hands.

Even more, the face of Roman coins displayed a forbidden image – that of Augustus himself with the inscription surrounding the image identifying the emperor as “the Son of God.” The image and inscription made carrying the coin not only unpatriotic, but an act of idolatry. That in turn meant that the bearers of the coin themselves belonged to Caesar not Israel’s God, Yahweh.

Again, case closed.

All of this should remind us that our attitude towards money and its connection with imperialism is a spiritual matter of deep concern to those wishing to follow the Way of Jesus. As today’s readings remind us, everything belongs to God who (as Isaiah puts it in today’s first reading) is concerned about the welfare of “all nations” and not about the 1% or any abstract corporate bottom line. Empire’s God (as in “in God we trust”) is the God of fast money and not the God of Jesus who stood with those resisting the wholesale robbery that empire always represents.

So how do we avoid empire’s fast money when our wallets’ contents and those of our closets and garages convict us of idolatry? Here are a few of Tasch’s suggestions:

  • Imitate Nature and her pace.
    • Slow down everything – from your thinking processes to the way you walk and wash dishes.
    • Change thinking patterns from fast money’s quarter and years to slow money’s seasons and eons.
    • Where available (as with “Ithacash” in Ithaca, New York) use local currencies instead of greenbacks for local purchases.
    • Adopt role models like poet, Wendell Berry, and Amish farmer, Scott Savage, rather than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
    • Change allegiances from institutions and organizations (like “America” and members of its military-industrial complex) to land, household, community and place.
    • Grow a garden and eat its produce.
    • Stay away from fast food and out of Wal-Mart’s and Lowes’ Big Boxes.
    • If you must invest in the stock market, “create a portfolio of venture investments in early-stage sustainability-promoting food companies.”

Like Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Herodians, such practices undercut empire and its destructive haste.

What other strategies can you think of to subvert fast money structures and practices?

(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) 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.