Mary’s “Virginity”: Its Warning about Donald Trump and Sexual Assault by the Military (Sunday Homily)

sexual-assault

 Readings for 4th Sunday in Advent: IS 7:10-14; PS 24 1-6; ROM 1: 1-7; MT 1: 18-24.

Do you ever wonder what effect Donald Trump’s proclivity for sexual assault might have on the problem of military rape? After all, his racist, sexist, and xenophobic comments along with his personal behavior have already emboldened copycat words and actions by many of his followers including schoolchildren. Will Mr. Trump similarly embolden enlisted men and officers to follow the example of their Commander-in-Chief?

That question becomes relevant on this Fourth Sunday of Advent because the readings for today emphasize Jesus’ “virgin birth.” Such emphasis resurrects a persistent tradition identifying Mary’s “miracle” as the result of military rape.

If that tradition were true, what light would it shed on the problem of rape in the military in connection with the example of its Commander-in-Chief?

Let me put that question in context by offering some background for today’s reading from Matthew along with a reference to the selection from Isaiah traditionally seen as a prophecy of Jesus’ virginal conception.

To get from here to there, try to understand the situation of Joseph and Mary as young marrieds in a context of imperial aggression. They’re a teenage couple; they are poor and living in an occupied country. Joseph is a jack-of-all-trades – that’s what the Greek word we translate as “carpenter” meant in first century Palestine. Like everyone from his class, he was unemployed most of the time. But he’d fix your leaking roof if you hired him. When he could, he’d harvest grapes and wheat for local landlords.

And he was probably deeply involved with the local insurgency against Roman occupation. (Nearly every impoverished patriot is in such situations.) Additionally, the only commentary we have on Joseph’s character is Matthew’s single word “just.” He was a just man. (By the way, his son, James – the one who headed the Jerusalem church following his brother’s death – was also known as “James the just.”) In the Hebrew culture of Jesus’ day, justice meant taking the side of the powerless. It appears to have been a central value Joseph passed on to his children.

As resisters, Joseph’s kind would have been considered terrorists by the Romans. In fact, the very year in which Jesus was likely born (6 BCE) Galilee’s countryside would have been crawling with Roman soldiers fighting against people like Jesus’ supposed father. The occupiers were busy laying siege to the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee – a mere hour’s walk from Joseph’s village.

There the insurgency had taken a decisive stand against Rome’s puppet, King Herod. And like Americans in Iraq’s Fallujah under “Mad Dog” Mattis, the Romans were determined to make an example of the city by laying it waste utterly. Before their final offensive, that involved night raids, kicking in doors, and raping young Jewish girls. (All forces of occupation – including our own today – know the drill.)

In any case, according to that persistent tradition about her “virginity,” that’s where Mary came in. She was a young teenager about 12 or 14. Although she eventually became Joseph’s “dream girl” (MT 1:18-25), she was probably linked with him by the village matchmaker perhaps when they were both still toddlers. They had not yet begun to live together, because they were probably waiting for Mary to come officially “of age” – able to bear children.

Be that as it may, Mary suddenly finds herself pregnant out of wedlock. Can you imagine her worry? Innumerable teenage girls can relate to her panic – and disgrace. Obviously, Mary did not want to be just another of her community’s “virgins.” [Matthew’s term “parthenos” (virgin) to refer to Mary was often connected with children of unknown paternity. Such offspring were disparagingly called “virgins’ kids.” “Virgin” is what (behind their hands) local matrons called an unwed mother.]

According to the story, Joseph too shared Mary’s disgrace and embarrassment. He wanted a divorce (i.e. release from his commitment to marry). And he probably demanded it with the anger and recrimination that are inevitably associated with the dreaded “d” word.

Joseph’s anger, suspicion, and thoughts about divorce may also have come from his hatred of the Romans. (And here comes that persistent tradition about Mary’s “virginity.”) It even remembers the rapist’s name. According to Celsus’ “True Doctrines” written about 178 C.E., the rapist was called “Panthera.” That was also the name of one of the Roman legions involved in that siege of Sepphoris.

Such suspicious circumstances around Jesus’ questionable conception also find some support in John’s gospel, where Jesus is called a “Samaritan” (8:48). That was a harsh term equivalent to our “bastard.” Additionally, Mark refers to Jesus simply as “Son of Mary” (6:3) – a quite unusual reference in a culture where children were identified by their father’s name.

With all of that in mind, and if Celsus’ tradition has merit, it’s easy to understand how the thought of taking up with a girl defiled by a Roman “pig” (what Jews called the occupiers) probably turned Joseph’s stomach. No wonder he wanted a divorce.

That is, if the tradition has merit . . .  You see, we can take our pick here. And that brings me to the point about the historical veracity of the stories around Jesus’ birth: all of the traditions are entirely questionable as far as historical fact is concerned.

For instance, the familiar account of Jesus’ virgin birth is found only in two of the canonical gospels (Matthew and Luke). Mark and John make no mention of it. That means that they either didn’t know about the tradition, or Mark and John didn’t think it important enough to include. (By the way, if Jesus’ conception was as miraculous as we’ve always been taught, how likely is either of those alternatives?)

And then there’s that business – recounted in today’s first reading – about Isaiah’s supposed prediction of Jesus’ virginal conception. Matthew takes Isaiah’s words completely out of context.

Actually, Isaiah’s not referring to Jesus at all, but to his own time more than 500 years earlier. And the Hebrew term he uses is not the equivalent of “virgin.” That’s a mistranslation. The word the prophet employs simply means “young girl.” Isaiah’s prediction is that a “young girl” of his own time will conceive. The prophet’s words had nothing to do with Jesus or virgin birth.

The point here is we’re not dealing with “history” in the story of Jesus’ virgin birth. Instead we’re confronted with a miraculous “birth story,” – a literary genre that characterizes accounts of virtually all “Great Men” in the ancient world. Its point is that God’s Spirit entered into Jesus from the very outset – long, long before his actual birth.

In that light, historically speaking, rape is a much more likely explanation of Jesus’ conception than intervention by the Holy Spirit. Think about it. That’s simply a fact.

How then was Jesus begotten? If Joseph was his father, we understand how Jesus was so concerned with social justice. And through this pre-birth story we can hear (once again!) a summons to learn from Joseph the way Jesus and his brother James did. It’s also a reason for re-evaluating our culture’s drumbeat of indoctrination against “terrorists.” Jesus came from a family the Romans would have considered terrorist.

If Panthera humiliated Jesus’ mother (and Joseph), and Jesus was the product of rape – and if rape is an inevitable strategy of war – then that’s an additional reason for pressuring the U.S. military to aggressively investigate and punish perpetrators of military rape. It’s also a reason for refusing to honor the U.S. military in general, for opposing war, working for peace, and appreciating Jesus’ solidarity with the poorest of the poor.

Finally, it’s yet another cause for reflection on the unsuitability of Mr. Trump as Commander-in-Chief. Predictably, his example will embolden soldiers to objectify, demean and rape the ones the president-elect termed“fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” It is certain that the Roman military made similar characterizations of Jewish girls like Jesus’ mother.

The bottom line here is that (as Pope Francis would have it) if we’re not resisting war, military culture in general, its Commander-in-Chief and working for peace, our observation of this Christmas season is pure theater and sham.

Was Mary Magdalene the First Pope? (Sunday Homily)

hieros gamos

Readings for the eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2SM 12:7-10, 13; PS 32: 1-2, 5, 7, 11; GAL 2: 16, 19-21; LK 7: 36-8:3

As much as we love Pope Francis, many of us have been disappointed by his consistent refusal to consider ordaining women to the Catholic priesthood. In the light of such irritating consistency, the pope would do well to reconsider today’s Gospel reading.

I say that because it offers a compelling argument not merely admitting women to the priesthood, but to the highest office in the church – the papacy itself. It does so by presenting Mary Magdalene as performing an undeniably priestly function far beyond any recorded of Yeshua’s apostles. Doing so brings to mind the Master’s supreme elevation of Mary Magdalene found in patriarchally-suppressed sources outside the canonical Gospels. There Yeshua designates Mary as superior even to Peter.

Consider the episode Luke records.

Yeshua has been invited to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. For Jews Pharisees were defenders of the father-rule system the Church and Pope Francis have made their own. But in this case, the “host” proves to be inhospitable in terms of Jewish custom. He obviously sees the carpenter from Nazareth and his uncouth fisherman friends as riff-raff. He omits giving them the traditional greeting, and doesn’t even offer them water to wash their feet. Evidently he considers the band from Nazareth unclean – dirty people who won’t even know the difference.

Then the hero of the story appears to set things right. She’s a woman whose gender relegated her to unquestionably second class status. She is Mary of Bethany (whom scholars identify with Mary Magdalene). And she does something extraordinary. She does what Nathan the prophet recalled in today’s first reading that he did for David. She anoints Yeshua as the Christos – the Christ, designating (and making) him God’s chosen one. This is the priestly act I referred to earlier.

Mary’s act is absolutely extraordinary. Remember, the term “Christos” (or Christ) itself means “anointed.” And in the gospels there is only one anointing of Yeshua the Christ. And, as we see, it occurs at the hands of Mary Magdalene, not of some male priest. In other words, the Magdalene in today’s gospel acts as prophet and priestess on a level arguably above Nathan’s role recalled in today’s reading from 2nd Samuel.

And there’s more. The Magdalene appears in public with her head uncovered and hair flowing – a condition appropriate for a woman of Yeshua’s time only in the presence of her husband. And besides anointing Yeshua, she performs what can only be described as an extremely intimate act. She continually kisses his feet with her lips and washes them with tears of love.

But how could a woman perform such an act? Why would Yeshua allow it? After all, according to Jewish law, women were not even permitted to say ritual prayers at home, much less perform religious rites of such central import as identification and anointment of the Christ.

That is, not according to Jewish law. . . However, according to universally recognized pre-patriarchal traditions, such election by a priestess was not only permitted but essential for any sacred king. There according to the rite of hieros gamos or sacred marriage, the priestess would anoint the priest-king. By virtue of her act (often consummated by ritual sex), the anointed would be flooded with power of the god. Conversely, without the power conferred by the woman, the king would remain powerless and have no knowledge of himself or of the gods. These facts would have been evident to Yeshua’s contemporaries.

Why has this history and the prophetic role of Mary Magdalene in identifying (and consecrating) the Christ been hidden from us all these years? Feminist scholars tell us that patriarchal misogyny – anti-woman sentiment – is the answer.

And negativity towards women is written all over today’s excerpt from Luke’s Gospel. There the evangelist emphasizes the sinfulness of the Magdalene as that of the other women in Yeshua’s company.

Luke describes Mary as “a sinful woman in the city,” and “a sinner.” He has Yeshua tell those seated at table that “many sins have been forgiven her,” and say to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” So we won’t miss the point, Luke gratuitously describes Mary Magdalene as the one “from whom seven demons had been cast out.” And finally, women in Yeshua’s company are described as formerly sick and possessed.

Nevertheless, Luke feels compelled to note what everyone in his community would have known: women like the Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna and the “many others” who followed Yeshua were financial supporters of Yeshua and “The Twelve.”

But Luke reveals no corresponding negativity towards the male leaders of the early church. He doesn’t call the apostles “free-loaders.” Neither does he parallel his description of the women as sinners by recalling that one of the 12, Peter, was identified with Satan himself by Yeshua. Nor does he recall that a key apostle, Judas, actually betrayed Yeshua or that all of the twelve but one (unlike the Master’s women followers) abandoned him in his hour of greatest need. Instead, Luke simply mentions “the twelve,” who by the evangelist’s omissions are implicitly contrasted with the “sinful” women.

Above all, Luke omits the description of Mary Magdalene which we find in the church-suppressed Gospel of Thomas. There she is described as “the apostle of apostles” – no doubt because of her key role in identifying and anointing Yeshua as the “Christos,” and because she was the one to whom the resurrected Yeshua appeared before showing himself to any of “the twelve.”

In fact the Gospel of Thomas says explicitly:

“. . . the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved here more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended . . . They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?’”

Here the word for “companion” is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature. Moreover in other suppressed writings, Magdalene emerges as Yeshua’s star pupil and the center of his attention. He praises her as “one whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren.” He predicts that she “will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries.” Additionally, following Yeshua’s ascension, it is Magdalene who comes to the fore to encourage the disheartened apostles to man-up and get on with the business of understanding and living out the teachings of the Master.

These words and the Magdalene’s functioning as prophet and priest should be extremely meaningful for contemporary women – and patriarchs blind to women’s leadership in the early church. They highlight the way at least one female disciple of extraordinary talent and charisma was not only marginalized but denigrated in the patriarchal church right from the beginning. And that denigration has continued in church circles and beyond to our very day.

Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, today’s readings expose the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical “fathers” in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. They also uncover the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.

In short today’s liturgy of the word helps us see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It is the males – the ones we call “father” – who are the interlopers and charlatans.

Clearly, Pope Francis, should change his mind on women’s ordination.

(Sunday Homily) Jesus Meets with Terrorists in the Desert

Loaves & Fishes

Readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: GN14: 18-20; PS 110: 1-4; I COR 11: 23-26; LK 9: 11B-17.

In this morning’s Gospel episode, a group of 5000 men— presumably with something to hide – meet in in a secret, out-of-the-way place.

The secrecy is entirely appropriate at this time of revolution against the Romans, their country’s hated occupying force. That context requires it. If such a gathering were discovered, the Roman Pigs (MK 5: 1-13) would surely attack and wipe out all present without a trace of pity. It’s been their consistent track record.

The desert context also evokes in everyone’s mind the halcyon years their ancestors spent in the desert following their liberation from Egypt. It reminds them that deliverance from foreign domination is the very core of their faith heritage. As well, the wasteland context recalls the recently martyred prophet, John the Baptizer who lived among the rocks, sand, wild creatures, heat and cold.  In absentia, his own wildness is the unspoken inspiration for this assembly.

Naturally, many of the men present are armed. They are part of the resistance, the Insurrection. Virtually everyone in the country supports them. They are celebrated as heroes.

This day, one of those sympathizers known for his fiery rhetoric spends hours speaking. It’s the worker-rabbi, Yeshua, the carpenter from Nazareth. He is the heir apparent of the assassinated Baptizer. Like John, Yeshua is a social revolutionary hated by the Scribal Establishment. The same is true for the priestly caste and Roman occupiers. They all think “the Master” is a terrorist – an armed Zealot like many in his audience. In fact it is certain that several in his inner circle bear arms (LK 22:38, JN 18:10). They are suspected of being sicarii – patriotic assassins of Roman soldiers.

In the past, Yeshua has routinely excoriated the rich who collaborate with the oppressors of their own people. He has encouraged the destitute. Today is no different. Over and over he has told his oppressed followers “The Kingdom of God is yours.”

All are familiar with that metaphor – “the Kingdom of God.”  It describes what Israel would look like if it were ruled by their tribal God, Yahweh, rather than by filthy goyim. Everything will be reversed in the Kingdom, Jesus has said. The rich will weep; the poor will laugh. The first will be last; the last, first.

“The Kingdom of God” is not about some “heaven up there,” Yeshua insists. “Don’t let anyone tell you different. It is about this world of body and blood, bread and wine.

“Eventually, it will be about my body and blood,” he has also predicted on several occasions. With such words he has signaled his fearless embrace of his “prophetic script.” Like prophets before and after him, he knows his inevitable fate. The Powers and Principalities simply cannot abide prophets or liberators. They call all such resisters “terrorists“ and butcher them without a second thought.

“But my death,” Yeshua has assured, “will be like a seed giving rise to others like me. There have been many before. Many will emerge after my death. Everyone has a duty to resist oppression. Take long quaffs of my blood,” he has said. “Death suffered struggling for God’s justice is nothing to fear.”

Like most revolutionary groups, the assembly this day is highly organized. After Yeshua finishes speaking, it disarticulates into 100 groups of 50 for discussion. A subsequent plenary centralizes the far-reaching conclusions of a group of fishermen especially close to the prophet Yeshua. The fishermen propose a New World Order where wheat farmers share bread and fishermen distribute the fruits of their labor for free. Such sharing, they’ve concluded is the answer to hunger and poverty. It would yield abundance for all with plenty left over.

And that’s what happens on this day. When everyone shares the lunches they’ve brought with them, 12 baskets of bread and fish are left over.

“It’s a miracle,” everyone agrees.

And it’s true: selfless sharing is revolutionary. It’s the nature of God’s Kingdom.

Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Resurrection

Readings for Easter Sunday:ACTS 10:34A, 37-43; PS 118: 1-2, 16=17, 22-23; COL 3:1-4; JN 20: 1-4.

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or is belief in his physical resurrection childish and equivalent to belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus?

I suppose the answer to those questions depends on what you mean by “really.” Let’s look at what our tradition tells us.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic gospels, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, the rabbi from Nazareth was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion.

That women were the first witnesses to the resurrection seems certain. According to Jewish law, female testimony was without value. It therefore seems unlikely that Jesus’ followers, anxious to convince others of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, would have concocted a story dependent on women as primary witnesses. Ironically then, the story’s “incredible” origin itself lends credence to the authenticity of early belief in Jesus return to life in some way.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, psychic, metaphorical or visionary?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because his experience was equivalent to that of the companions of Jesus who were known by  name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than physical.

The earliest gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus.

In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark there are not only no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes unproclaimed. This makes one wonder: was Mark unacquainted with the appearance stories? Or did he (incredibly) not think them important enough to include?

Resurrection appearances finally make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. Always however there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance Matthew 28:11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24:13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:30-32)?

Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection threatens to destroy faith.

However, doesn’t such perception of threat reveal a quasi-magical understanding of faith? Does it risk limiting faith to belief in a God who operates outside the laws of nature and performs extraordinary physical feats that amaze and mystify? Doesn’t it flatten the significance of resurrection belief to simply one more “proof” of Jesus’ divinity?

But faith doesn’t seem to be principally about amazement, mystification and proof analogous to the scientific. It is about meaning.

And regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of a corpse or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”

Surely it meant that Jesus’ original followers experienced a powerful continuity in their relationship Jesus even after his shameful execution. Their realm of experience had expanded. Both Jesus and his followers had entered broadened dimensions of time and space. They had crossed the threshold of another world where life was fuller and where physical and practical laws governing bodies and limiting spirits no longer applied. In other words, the resurrection was not originally about belief or dogma. It was about a realm of experience that had at the very least opened up in the context of sharing bread – in an experience of worship and prayer.

Resurrection meant that another world is possible — in the here and now! Yes, that other world was entered through baptism. But baptism meant participation in a community (another realm) where all things were held in common, and where the laws of market and “normal” society did not apply (Acts 2:44-45).

In order to talk about that realm, Jesus’ followers told exciting stories of encounters with a revivified being who possessed a spiritual body, that was difficult to recognize, needed food and drink, suddenly appeared in their midst, and which just as quickly disappeared. This body could sometimes be touched (Jn. 20:27); at others touching was forbidden (Jn. 20:17).

Resurrection and Easter represent an invitation offered each of us to enter the realm opened by the risen Lord however we understand the word “risen.” We enter that realm through a deepened life of prayer, worship, community and sharing.

We are called to live in the “other world” our faith tells us is possible – a world that is not defined by market, consumption, competition, technology, or war.

Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’ supplies the details.

(Palm Sunday Homily) Christians Supporting Donald Trump: How Luke’s Passion Narrative Prepared the Way

Trump & Jesus

 Readings for Palm Sunday: LK 19:28-40; IS 50: 4-7, PS 22: 8-9, 12-20, 23=24, PHIL 2:6-11, LK 22: 14-23:58.

It’s puzzling to see white Evangelicals rallying around Donald Trump. He’s the presidential candidate who owns casinos and strip clubs, and who has been married three times.

His pre-candidacy positions on social issues conflict with those Evangelicals have considered sacrosanct in the recent past. As Michael Moore points out, Trump has been pro-choice, pro-gun control, and a supporter of Planned Parenthood. He’s been in favor of gay marriage, raising the minimum wage, and single payer health care. Trump has been pro-union (at least in the private sphere), and has proposed a one-time 14% tax on the accumulated wealth of the super-rich in order to retire the U.S. national debt (i.e. to enrich the banksters).

In the foreign policy sphere, Mr. Trump advocates torture beyond water boarding. His desire to “make America great again” leads him to propose intensified wars in the Middle East, building a wall across the U.S.-Mexican border, filling Guantanamo with even more prisoners, and evicting Muslims from the United States.

How is it possible for white evangelicals to support such a candidate? On the one hand, his personal life and long-standing positions on the “social issues” conflict with what such believers have deemed undebatable in the past. And on the other hand, Trump’s foreign policies conflict with the teachings and example of Jesus himself.

After all, Jesus was a poor laborer who criticized the rich in the harshest of terms. He and his family knew what it was like to be unwelcome immigrants (in Egypt). He was a victim of torture, not its administrator. Far from a champion of empire, he was executed as a terrorist and enemy of Rome.  His followers were not about accumulating wealth, but shared what they had according to ability and need.

When you think of it, all of this seems antithetical to not only to Trumpism, but to the positions of virtually all the candidates for president this election year. They’re all imperialists. All of them (except Bernie Sanders) are friends of the one-percent. They all want to increase military spending which now costs taxpayers about a billion dollars a day.

How did all of that happen?

Today’s Palm Sunday readings provide some clues. Luke’s Passion Narratives reveal a first century Christian community already depoliticizing Jesus in order to please Roman imperialists. The stories turn Jesus against his own people as though they were foreign enemies of God.

Think about the context of today’s Palm Sunday readings.

Note that Jesus and his audiences were first and foremost anti-imperialist Jews whose lives were shaped more than anything else by the Roman occupation of their homeland. As such, they weren’t waiting for a Roman-Greco “messiah” who, like the Sun God Mithra, would die and lead them to heaven. They were awaiting a Davidic messiah who would liberate them from the Romans.

So on this Palm Sunday, what do you think was on the minds of the crowds who Luke tells us lined the streets of Jerusalem to acclaim Jesus the Nazarene? Were they shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” (Save us! Save us!) because they thought Jesus was about to die and by his sacrificial death open the gates of heaven closed since Adam’s sin by a petulant God? Of course not. They were shouting for Jesus to save them from the Romans.

The palm branches in their hands were (since the time of the Maccabees) the symbols of resistance to empire. Those acclaiming Jesus looked to him to play a key role in the Great Rebellion everyone knew about to take place against the hated Roman occupiers.

And what do you suppose was on Jesus’ mind? He was probably intending to take part in the rebellion just mentioned. It had been plotted by the Jews’ Zealot insurgency. Jesus words at the “Last Supper” show his anticipation that the events planned for Jerusalem might cause God’s Kingdom to dawn that very weekend.

Clearly Jesus had his differences with the Zealots. They were nationalists; he was inter-nationalist who was open to gentiles. The Zealots were violent; Jesus was not.

And yet the Zealots and Jesus came together on their abhorrence of Roman presence in the Holy Land. They found common ground on the issues of debt forgiveness, non-payment of taxes to the occupiers, and of land reform. Within Jesus’ inner circle there was at least one Zealot (Simon). Indications might also implicate Peter, Judas, James, and John. And Jesus’ friends were armed when he is arrested. Whoever cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant was used to wielding a sword – perhaps as a “sicarius” (the violent wing of the Zealots who specialized in knifing Roman soldiers).

But we’re getting ahead of our story. . . Following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus soon found himself and his disciples inside the temple participating in what we’d call a “direct action” protest. They were demonstrating against the collaborative role the temple and its priesthood were fulfilling on behalf of the Romans.

As collaborators, the temple priests were serving a foreign god (the Roman emperor) within the temple precincts. For Jesus that delegitimized the entire system. So, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, Jesus’ direct action was not so much a “cleansing” of the temple as the symbolic destruction of an institution that had completely lost its way.

It was this demonstration that represented the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution described so poignantly in today’s long gospel reading.

Following the temple demonstration, Jesus and his disciples became “wanted” men (Lk. 19:47). At first Jesus’ popularity affords him protection from the authorities (19:47-48). The people constantly surround him eager to hear Jesus’ words denouncing their treasonous “leaders” (20:9-19), about the issue of Roman taxation (20:20-25), the destruction of the temple (21:1-6), the coming war (21:20-24) and the imminence of God’s Kingdom (21:29-33).

Eventually however, Jesus has to go underground. On Passover eve he sends out Peter and John to arrange for a safe-house to celebrate the feast I mentioned earlier. The two disciples are to locate the “upper room.” They do so by exchanging a set of secret signs and passwords with a local comrade.

Then comes Jesus’ arrest. Judas has betrayed Jesus to collect the reward on Jesus’ head – 30 pieces of silver. The arrest is followed by a series of “trials” before the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin), before Pilate and Herod. Eventually, Jesus is brought back to Pilate. There he’s tortured, condemned and executed between two other insurgents.

Note that Luke presents Pilate in way completely at odds with what we know of Pilate as described for example by the Jewish historian Josephus. After the presentation of clear-cut evidence that the Nazarene rabbi was “stirring up the people,” and despite Jesus’ own admission to crimes against the state (claiming to be a rival king), Pilate insists three times that the carpenter is innocent of capital crime.

Such tolerance of rebellion contradicts Crossan’s insistence that Pilate had standing orders to execute anyone associated with lower class rebellion during the extremely volatile Passover festivities. In other words, there would have been no drawn-out trial.

What’s going on here? Two things.

First of all, like everyone else, Luke knew that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans. That was an inconvenient truth for Luke’s audience which around the year 85 CE (when Luke wrote) was desperately trying to reconcile with the Roman Empire which lumped the emerging Christian community with the Jews whom the Romans despised.

Luke’s account represents an attempt to create distance between Christians and Jews. So he makes up an account that exonerates Pilate (and the Romans) from guilt for Jesus’ execution. Simultaneously, he lays the burden of blame for Jesus’ execution at the doorstep of Jewish authorities.

In this way, Luke made overtures of friendship towards Rome. He wasn’t worried about the Jews, since by the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple along with more than a million of its inhabitants. After 70 Jewish Christians no longer represented the important factor they once were. Their leadership had been decapitated with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Relatedly, Jesus’ crucifixion would have meant that Rome perceived him as a rebel against the Empire. Luke is anxious to make the case that such perception was false. Rome had nothing to fear from Christians.

I’m suggesting that such assurance was unfaithful to the Jesus of history. It domesticated the rebel who shines through even in Luke’s account when it is viewed contextually.

And so what?

Well, if you wonder why Christians can support Donald Trump . . . if you wonder why they so easily succumb to empires (Roman, Nazi, U.S.) you’ve got your answer. It all starts here – in the gospels themselves – with the great cover-up of the insurgent Jesus.

And if you wonder where the West’s and Hitler’s comfort with xenophobia in general and anti-Semitism in particular come from, you have that answer as well.

The point here is that only by recovering the obscured rebel Jesus can Christians avoid the mistake they made 80 years ago. Then instead of singing “Hosanna” to Jesus, they shouted “Heil Hitler!” to another imperialist torturer, xenophobe, and hypocrite.

The readings for Palm Sunday present us with a cautionary tale about these sad realities.

(Sunday Homily) Angry White Christians, Donald Trump and the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Trump I'm a Christian

Readings for 4th Sunday of Lent: Jos. 5:9A, 10-12; Ps. 34:2-7; 2 Cor. 5: 17-21; Lk. 15: 1-3, 11-32

The rise of Donald Trump has a lot of people worried. Jerry Falwell Jr. and Pat Robertson however are not among them. Rev. Falwell, the president of Liberty University, has called Mr. Trump “one of the greatest visionaries of our time.” Pat Robertson, the founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, finds the billionaire universally inspirational.

As New York Times columnist, Peter Wehner, has pointed out, such endorsements are surprising. After all, Mr. Trump seems to be the antithesis of what Evangelicals claim to endorse. If they hated Bill Clinton for his lack of moral probity, they have in Donald Trump a Bill Clinton in spades. Trump’s been married three times, owns gambling casinos and strip clubs, and hasn’t consistently darkened the door of a church for many years – although he does claim to have “eaten my little cracker,” and “drunk my little wine” in liturgical context more than once in the recent past. Moreover, he has supported what Evangelicals call “partial-birth abortion.” Besides, his personal character seems boastful, self-centered and ruthless. None of those qualities seems particularly Christ-like.

What’s up with all that?

Wehner explains it in terms of scapegoating. White evangelicals, he says, “feel increasingly powerless, beaten down, aggrieved and under attack.” They’ve been left out of any “recovery” since the Great Recession of ’07. And demographics seem to be against them. They sense that whites are falling into minority status – a feeling only aggravated by eight years of having an African-American in the White House. They need an Alpha Male like Trump to “take our country back” from “those people” regardless of their champion’s moral deficits.

Despite such rationalizations, the whole dynamic smacks of a certain hypocrisy fueled by resentment – jealousy stemming from loss of status before others seen as less deserving.

This morning’s gospel “Parable of the Prodigal Son” addresses resentment of that kind. It is one of the most beautiful and well-known stories in World Literature. However, standard readings of the parable domesticate it. They turn the parable into an allegory and in so doing rob it of the cutting edge which connects with today’s Angry White Christians. Please think about that with me.

Standard readings of “The Prodigal Son” make it a thinly veiled allegory about God and us. God is the father in the story, non-judgmental, full of compassion, willing to overlook faults and sins. Meanwhile, each of us is the wayward son who temporarily wanders away from home only to return after realizing the emptiness of life without God. The older brother represents the few who have never wandered, but who are judgmental towards those who have.

Such reading never fails to touch our hearts and fill us with hope, since the story presents such a loving image of God so different from the threatening Judge of traditional Christian preaching. And besides, since most of us identify with the prodigal rather than with the older brother, we’re drawn to the image of a God who seems more loving towards the sinner than towards the saint.

Though beautiful and inspiring, such allegorical reading distorts Jesus’ message, because it makes us comfortable rather than shaking us up. At least that’s what modern scripture scholarship tells us. Those studies remind us that Jesus’ stories were parables not allegories. Allegories, of course, are general tales in which each character stands for something else.

Parables on the other hand are very particular rather than general stories about the human condition. Parables are addressed to particular people – to make them uncomfortable with their preconceptions and cause them to think more deeply about the central focus of Jesus’ teaching, the Kingdom of God. In the gospels, Jesus’ parables are usually aimed at his opponents who ask him questions with an eye to trapping or discrediting him. Jesus’ parables turn the tables on his opponents and call them to repentance.

That’s the case with the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It contrasts two very particular historical groups absolutely central to the teaching career of Jesus of Nazareth. On the one hand, there is Jesus’ inner circle, “tax collectors and sinners.” These included sex workers, lepers, beggars, poor peasants, fishermen, shepherds, day-laborers, insurgents, and non-Jews, all of whom were especially receptive to Jesus’ teaching. On the other there are the Pharisees and Scribes. They along with the rabbis and temple priesthood were responsible for safeguarding the purity of the Jewish religion. They were Jesus’ antagonists.

Today’s gospel tells us that the sinners were “coming near to Jesus and listening to him.” For their part the Pharisees and Scribes stood afar and were observing Jesus’ interaction with the unwashed and shaking their heads in disapproval. They were “grumbling,” the gospel says, and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” That’s a key point in the reading – Jesus was eating with the hungry, poor, and unclean.

The gospel goes on, “So he told them this parable” – the parable of the prodigal son. In other words, the parable was addressed to the Pharisees and Scribes. And the story not about God and humans in general. It’s simply about a father and two sons and the way things work in the Kingdom of God, which (to repeat) was consistently the focus of Jesus’ preaching.

According to Jesus, that New Order will be a Great Party to which everyone is invited. The party will go on and on. There will be laughter, singing and dancing and the wine will never run out. The “fatted calf” will be slaughtered and there will be an overabundance of food. That’s the future willed by the one Jesus called “Father.”

Jesus was anticipating that order by practicing the table fellowship with sinners and outcasts referenced at the beginning of today’s reading. At the kingdom’s banquet, the sinners gathered around Jesus in this morning’s gospel will be the first to accept the invitation. And though the Scribes and Pharisees are invited as well, they freely choose to exclude themselves. Like the older brother, they are “angry and refuse to go in.”

What I’m saying is that the lesson of today’s gospel (read as a parable rather than an allegory) is: Join the Party! Anticipate the New Order of the Kingdom in the here and now. Follow Jesus’ example, sit down with the unwashed, poor and despised. After all, the kingdom of God belongs to them – and to anyone (even the priests, scribes, rabbis, Pharisees, and any of us) who can overcome our reluctance to descend to Jesus’ level and to that of the kind of people he counted as his special friends.

What can that possible mean for us in the age of Angry White Christians? If we keep Jesus’ original meaning in mind, we’ll see “the Prodigal Son” as a call to change attitudes towards those belittled and feared by Mr. Trump’s followers — Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants in general, Black Lives Matters protestors, the families of terrorists the billionaire would “go after,” and those he would torture by means worse than water-boarding.

That’s a hard message for most middle-to-upper class white people to hear. Like the culture of the professionally religious of Jesus’ day, ours despises those with whom Jesus ate and drank. In fact, it teaches us to dislike people resembling Jesus himself. Our culture sees those in Jesus’ class as lazy, dishonest, and undeserving. That’s the vision exploited by politicians like Donald Trump.

So today’s parable should make us squirm just as Jesus’ original words must have embarrassed the scribes and Pharisees. They should make would-be Christian supporters of Donald Trump squirm as well. Being a follower of Jesus has nothing to do with resentment, jealousy or exclusion. Quite the opposite.

But Jesus’ parable shouldn’t just embarrass. His words should be hopeful too. Like the father in the parable, he’s telling angry whites, his self-righteous sons and daughters, “We’re having a party. Why don’t you join us? Come in and share what you have, adopt God’s political program which creates a world with room for everyone – even the ‘undeserving’.”

In other words, it’s not God who excludes us from the Kingdom’s feast. It’s our own prejudice and choice.

It’s following politicians like Donald Trump rather than Jesus of Nazareth.

(Sunday Homily) The Pope’s Faith vs. The Donald’s

 

Fired

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: Gn. 15:5-12, 17-18; Ps. 27:1, 7-9, 13-14; Phil. 3:17-4:1; Lk. M9:28B-36.

Is faith more about what we say or what we do? And who is more Christian, Donald Trump or Pope Francis?

Those questions were sharpened yesterday, when Pope Francis implied that Donald Trump is not a Christian. Responding to a reporter’s question, the pontiff lit up the internet when he said about Trump, “Anyone, whoever he is, who only wants to build walls and not bridges is not a Christian.” In other words, the pope was saying that actions speak louder than words.

The pope’s comment came at the end of his six-day trip to Mexico, where he celebrated Mass with 300,000 faithful in attendance near the Mexican-U.S. border. He used the occasion to decry the “human tragedy” of worldwide migrations of people fleeing violence, war and the effects of climate change. That analysis, of course, conflicts with Mr. Trump’s who sees immigrants as rapists, drug-dealers, and terrorists.

It’s not surprising then that the pope’s words drew a quick response from The Donald. He called the pope’s charges “disgraceful” and accused him of being a pawn of the Mexican government. His sentiments were mirrored mildly in the comments of Mr. Trump’s competitors for the Republican presidential nomination. They seemed to agree that faith and Christianity is a private matter, between the believer and God. About that no one – not even the pope – can or should judge. For instance, Jeb Bush said, “Christianity is between he and his creator. I don’t think we need to discuss that.”

Today’s liturgy of the word disagrees. It wants us to discuss the relationship between words and actions – even between God’s words and God’s actions. In fact, according to readings for this Second Sunday of Lent, actions constitute demonstrable proof of faith claims. Specifically, the first reading from Genesis presents the God of Israel as one who is willing to stop being God – to butcher himself – if God’s word does not match with God’s deeds.

Then today’s Gospel reading (the account of Jesus’ transfiguration) indicates the type of action of which Israel’s God approves in his People.  It is not action motivated by fear, but by courage – even in the face of failure, personal harm, or death itself. In other words, the Gospel call is to put aside our fearful little selves who rank personal safety and security above everything else.

First of all, consider that very strange first reading from the Book of Genesis. It’s about Abram, an ancient sheik – the Founding Father of the Jewish nation. He originally lived in ancient Babylon but felt called to move off to the west, to start over, find a new homeland, and start a new independent tribe. He somehow felt that God was calling him to do all these things. Problem was, Abram was already advanced in years and his wife, Sarah, was beyond menopause. Still, he felt that God was promising him a large family – a tribe whose people would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.

In today’s readings, Abram evidently feels time is running out on God’s promise. The sheik is looking for reassurance. It comes in the form of a dream. The dream answers his question: how trustworthy is God? Can God be trusted to have God’s actions and words conform?

Abram’s question makes this tribal pastoralist dream of the most solemn human covenant he knew of – the “Covenant of Pieces.” According to tribal practice, when an inferior made an important agreement with a patron – say to transfer property, do work, fight a battle, or repay a debt – he had to go through an extremely graphic pledge ritual. The ceremony involved sacrificing animals from the client’s flock (in today’s reading a mature heifer, she goat and a ram along with a turtle dove and a pigeon). The inferior was to split the animals in two, and align the carcasses in rows so that they formed a path with one half the heifer’s carcass on the left and the other on the right, and the same with the she goat and ram. Then with the patron holding his hand, the client was to solemnly walk between the carcasses taking note of their dead rotting state, their putrid smell, and of the vultures flying overhead.

All of this was a reminder of the power the client was handing over to his patron. He was saying in effect, if I don’t keep my pledge, I’m giving you permission to do this to me and to my family. You can butcher us all and leave us to rot in the sun. That’s a pretty serious commitment. Sheik Abram could think of nothing more solemn, reassuring or binding.

So his dream which at first glance seems so strange and confusing to us was extremely comforting to him as a tribal pastoralist. It had God (in the form of fire and smoke) playing the role of client to Abram. God was performing the “pieces” ritual in Abram’s presence by running the gauntlet formed by rotting meat. That is if God did not keep his word, God was willing to be butchered! This, of course, could never happen. So the dream meant God could never not keep God’s word. A God willing to be butchered rather than break his word? Reassuring indeed!

That tells us something about the biblical attitude towards word and deed – faith and works. God’s word is God’s bond. The same should be true of those who profess to be God’s people.

But what type of action are believers bonded to? Today’s reading from Luke answers that question. They are called to courageous action against those who oppress the poor (immigrants, victims of war and “scorched earth”) including religious “leaders” cooperating with empire. And they must do so even at the risk of their own lives.

That’s the implication of today’s gospel reading. There the young carpenter from Nazareth is on his way to Jerusalem. He knows something extremely risky is about to happen there. Yet he’s determined to be part of it. The risky action has to do with the temple and the collaboration of its leaders with the Roman Empire.

The temple has become worse than irrelevant to the situation of Jesus’ people living under Roman oppression. What happens there not only ignores Jewish political reality. The temple leadership has become the most important Jewish ally of the oppressing power. And Jesus has decided to address that intolerable situation.

Everyone knows that a big demonstration against the Romans is planned in Jerusalem for the weekend of Passover. There’ll be chanting mobs. The slogans are already set. “Hosanna, hosanna, in the highest” will be one chant. Another will be “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Hosanna” is the key word here. It means “save us!” The Romans won’t notice that the real meaning is “Save us from the Romans.” “Restore an independent Israel – like David’s kingdom!” It was all very political.

Jesus has heard that one of the main organizers of the demonstration is the guerrilla Zealot called Barabbas. Barabbas doesn’t call what’s planned a “demonstration.” He prefers the term “The Uprising” or “the Insurrection” (Mk. 15). Barabbas has a following as enthusiastic as that of Jesus. After all, Barabbas is a “sicarius” – a guerrilla whose solemn mission is to assassinate Roman soldiers. His courage has made him a hero to the crowds. (John Dominic Cross compares him to the Mel Gibson character in “The Patriot.”)

Jesus’ assigned part in the demonstration will be to attack the Temple and symbolically destroy it. He plans to enter the temple with his friends and disrupt business as usual. They’ll all shout at the money-changers whose business exploits the poor. They’ll turn over their tables. As a proponent of non-violence, they’re thinking not in Barabbas’ terms of “uprising,” but of forcing God’s hand to bring in the Lord’s “Kingdom” to replace Roman domination. Passover, the Jewish holiday of national independence could not be a more appropriate time for the planned event. Jesus is thinking in terms of “Exodus.”

And yet, this peasant from Galilee is troubled by it all. What if the plan doesn’t work and God’s Kingdom doesn’t dawn this Passover? What if the Romans succeed in doing what they’ve always done in response to uprisings and demonstrations? Pilate’s standing order to deal with lower class disturbances is simply to arrest everyone involved and crucify them all as terrorists. Why would it be different this time? Like Abram before him, Jesus has doubts.

So before setting out for Jerusalem, he takes his three closest friends and ascends a mountain for a long night of prayer. He’s seeking reassurance before the single most important act in his life. As usual, Peter, James and John soon fall fast asleep. True to form they are uncomprehending and dull.

However, while the lazy fall into unconsciousness, the ever-alert and thoughtful Jesus has a vision. Moses appears to him, and so does Elijah. (Together they represent the entire Jewish scriptural testament – the law and the prophets.) This means that on this mountain of prayer, Jesus considers his contemplated path in the light of his people’s entire tradition.

Last week, we saw in the reading from Deuteronomy 26, that tradition centered on the Exodus. Fittingly then, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah “discuss” what is about to take place in Jerusalem. Or as Luke puts it, “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Jesus’ Exodus!

It is easy to imagine Moses’ part in the conversation. That would be to remind Jesus of the chances Moses took when he led the original Exodus from Egypt. That might have failed too. Elijah’s part was likely to recall for Jesus the “prophet script” that all prophets must follow. That script has God’s spokespersons speaking truth to power and suffering the inevitable consequences. Elijah reminds Jesus: So what if Barabbas and those following the path of violence are defeated again? So what if Jesus’ non-violent direct action in the temple fails to bring in the Kingdom? So what if Jesus is arrested and crucified? That’s just the cost of doing prophetic business. Despite appearances to the contrary, Abram’s faithful God will somehow triumph in the end.

Is there a message for us here as the pope and Donald Trump disagree over authentic Christian faith?

I think there is.

Today’s readings tell us that God’s People are not to be led by frightened little men who place security above compassion for the poor and oppressed. Faith is not primarily about words, thinking, written creeds, or feeling in one’s heart. Instead it’s about living God’s life – the One who before Abram was willing to self-immolate rather than “break faith.”

Being a follower of Jesus is not about “security above all.” Quite the opposite: it is about risk on behalf of God’s true people – the poor, immigrants, and victims of war, violence and scorched earth.

Yes, Mr. Trump, there are people who say they believe in God, but who cancel out that belief by their concern for self-preservation and fearful willingness to sacrifice others rather than themselves. Such people cannot claim to be followers of the prophetic Jesus of Nazareth.