Jesus as Self-Hating Jew!

Readings for Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: NEH 8; 2-6, 8-10; Ps. 19: 8-10, 15; I Cor. 12: 12-30; Lk. 1:1-4; 4: 14-21 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/012713.cfm

Last week I published an editorial on my blog site that was picked up by the Lexington Herald-Leader (http://www.kentucky.com/2013/01/19/2482073/ky-voices-the-chosen-people-are.html) and by OpEdNews (http://www.opednews.com/articles/Unconditional-Support-for-by-Mike-Rivage-Seul-130118-813.html.) It was about Chuck Hegel and the criticism he has endured from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and people like Elliot Abrams, the former Undersecretary of State for Human Rights in the Reagan administration.

Hegel had been nominated for Secretary of Defense by President Obama. Abrams and the others had criticized the nominee for being insufficiently supportive of Israel and therefore unfit for the “Sec Def” position. Hegel’s critics were looking for “unconditional support” for Israel, and didn’t find it in President Obama’s candidate. Their criticism was so effective that Hegel has since been forced to apologize for his past criticisms of the Jewish-Zionist Lobby.

Many Christians probably felt vindicated by Hegel’s groveling before his Jewish critics. After all, they might reason, Israel is God’s Chosen People; they deserve unconditional support.

However, today’s liturgy of the word underlines the point I tried to make in my op-ed: the phrase “God’s Chosen People” does not primarily refer to a national entity, but to the poor and oppressed.

Biblically speaking, it is true that Israel did fit that profile at the time of its origin – in Egyptian slavery (13th century B.C.E.) – and later during its captivity in Babylon (6th century B.C.E.). They were oppressed as well as when Israel was under the control of the Assyrians (8th century), Persians (6th century), Greeks (2nd century), and Romans (1st century). Then, precisely as oppressed, they were the object of God’s special love and protection.

At Mt. Zion, Moses enshrined in the law protection of people like them – slaves, widows,orphans, immigrants, the imprisoned, and the poor.

That’s the Law that the scribe, Ezra is recorded as reading to the people for hours in today’s first reading. They had just returned from exile in Babylon. For them “The Law” (the first five books of the Bible) was a source of joy and strength. After all, those books recounted what for Jews was the liberation of all liberations – from Egypt under the leadership of the great rebel hero, Moses. With Ezra in charge, they were celebrating the end of a long and painful experience in the geographical area that is now “Iraq.” Ezra reminded the assembled people that in their return to the Promised Land, they were experiencing Exodus all over again. Indeed, he said, it was a time for celebration – eating rich meats and drinking sweet drinks.

Today’s second and third readings pick up on Ezra’s theme – that God favors the poor and oppressed. However both Jesus and Paul do so emphasizing the point that Yahweh’s favored ones are not always Jews. When Jesus said that in his hometown synagogue, it enraged his former neighbors. (Their response reminds me of Elliot Abrams and the AIPAC demanding “unconditional support” for Israel.)

By the way, did you notice the strangeness of the reading from Luke’s gospel today? It starts out with the very first verses of Luke, verses 1-4. There the evangelist announces his intention – to carefully draw on the oral traditions of eyewitnesses and present an orderly researched account of what Jesus said and did.

But then the reading suddenly jumps ahead to Luke chapter 4 and presents Jesus’ preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. That gives the impression that Jesus’ first significant act was that Nazareth sermon. Perhaps it was – since Luke’s “infancy narratives” belong more to the realm of poetic imagination than of history.

Today’s reading also leaves out the response of those who heard Jesus’ words in Nazareth. (And that’s where the theme of “chosen people” becomes relevant.) Verses 22-30 tell us that the Nazarenes were outraged by Jesus’ implied criticism of Jews and his openness to non-Jews. After all, he had charged that prophets like Elijah and Elisha found more receptivity to their work in Lebanon (Sidon) and Syria than they found among Jews in Israel.

“Who does this guy think he is?” the Nazarenes asked indignantly. “We know his family; he’s nothing special. Yet here he is speaking critically about his own people! He must be one of those ‘self-hating Jews’.” Luke says Jesus’ hometown citizens were so outraged that they tried to kill him. (Chuck Hegel is in good company!)

Jesus’ words before the Nazarene’s attempted assassination do not merely underline the identity of God’s chosen as the poor and oppressed rather than exclusively the Jews. The words are also central in terms of Luke’s definition of Jesus’ entire project. In fact they connect that project with God’s very identity as described throughout the Jewish Testament particularly by the prophet Isaiah whose words Jesus quotes: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.”

Did you notice the importance of the word “because?” It absolutely identifies the “Spirit of the Lord” with Ezra’s good news to the poor about release from captivity and recovery of sight? Jesus is saying we know that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon” him because he brings good news to the poor, those in captivity and the blind. Jesus goes on to say that his commitment to the poor is what will define his entire mission. (The implication here is that anyone who brings good news to the poor, those in captivity and the blind embodies the Spirit of God.)

Today’s excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Greeks in Corinth continues that theme of Isaiah, Ezra, and Jesus. Only Paul does so in terms of a familiar yet powerful metaphor – what he calls the “Body of Christ” enlivened by the “One Spirit” of God. For Paul followers of Jesus constitute the way the Master is present today long after Jesus’ death. As that presence, we are Jesus’ hands, feet, eyes, ears, and tongue. And Paul specifically says it makes no difference whether one is Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.

What does make a difference though is one’s social standing. Paul goes out of his way to say that the “less honorable” and the “less presentable” in Christ’s body are to be more honored and cared for than the more presentable and more honorable according to the standards of the world. The weaker parts, he says are somehow “more necessary” than the stronger parts. This could hardly be a clearer reference to the poor and those who are normally neglected and looked down upon. Here Paul is following the thrust of Jesus’ words and deeds by turning the social order upside-down. The poor and oppressed come first in God’s order.

Today’s readings are calling us to grow out of our nationalism that understands Jews or Americans as God’s favorites. They call us to become citizens of the world – or in Jesus’ words to be cured of our blindness.

He wants us to finally see, the readings suggest, that the Jews as such are not God’s people. Neither are Americans. In God’s eyes, (despite the protests of our politicians and talking heads) our country is not the greatest in the world. For in the body of Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, American, Afghani, Iraqi or Cuban.

Instead, true followers of Christ recognize that our allegiance belongs to the Body of Christ. This means that our care should be showered on the widows, orphans, undocumented immigrants, beggars, and social outcasts – LGBTQs, victims of AIDS, mothers on welfare, and on Mother Earth herself. These are the poor and oppressed. These are God’s people.

Our presence at this Eucharist represents our pledge to put the needs of those groups and individuals before our own.

Given the numbers of those who claim to be Christian, if we followed through on that pledge, how drastically different our world would be! Don’t you agree?

“Ephphatha” Be Opened (Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s readings: Is. 35:4-7a; Ps. 146:7-10; Jas. 2:1-5; Mk. 7:31-37

Recently Bill Moyers wrote an insightful column picked up by the alternative news and commentary website AlterNet. The article highlighted the clip from President Obama’s 2008 campaign speech we just watched (see immediately above).

Moyers’ piece was about the invisibility of the poor in the United States. We can’t see them, he wrote, not because they’re not there; the numbers of U.S. poor are actually growing by leaps and bounds. According to the federal government, a family of four making less than $28,800 is considered poor. This year the number of Americans at or below that level is expected to reach 66 million. And they’re facing the prospect of an incoming government bent on shipping jobs abroad, cutting unemployment benefits, further restricting food stamps, eliminating Medicare as we know it, and “reforming” Social Security to the point of its elimination.

In the light of such prospects, Moyers asks Candidate Obama’s question, how can we allow this to happen? How especially, Moyers asks, can someone like President Obama allow this to happen?  After all, he should know better. He was a community organizer in Roseland, one of the poorest most despair-driven neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. In Dreams from My Father, Mr. Obama calls his work there “the best education I ever had.” The experience motivated him to attend Harvard to gain the knowledge and resources he needed to return to Roseland and make an even bigger difference than he did before. “I would learn power’s currency,” he wrote, “in all its intricacy and detail” and “bring it back like Promethean fire.”

Since writing those words, Mr. Obama, of course, has become President. However since his election he has not given a single speech about poverty. It’s difficult to do so, his staff says. If you talk about the poor, the middle class says, Hey, what about us?  And the 1% who lay out fat campaign contributions say So what?

Today’s liturgy of the word, addresses the question of blindness to poverty, of deafness to the voices of the poor, and the inability to speak with or about them. Taken together, the readings for today implicitly and explicitly call us to open our eyes and ears and to be the voice of the voiceless. Jesus’ healing Aramaic word “Ephphata” (Be opened) is central here. We’re called to open ourselves to the poor.

The first reading from 2nd Isaiah addresses the captives in Babylonia in the 6th century before the Common Era. Following their defeat in 581 the cream of Israel’s society were held captives by their Babylonian conquerors. Speaking as one of them, and acting as a prophet of hope, Isaiah promises that the “Babylonian Exile” will soon come to an end. Then everything will be wonderful, he assures his readers. The desert will bloom. The blind will see; the deaf will hear, and the mute will speak. The inclusion of this reading in today’s liturgy implies that Jesus and his works of healing on behalf of the poor is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Isaiah’s sentiments are reinforced by the responsorial psalm. To Isaiah’s insight it adds the specific identification of Yahweh as the God of the poor and oppressed. According to the psalm, Yahweh sets captives free, secures justice for the oppressed, feeds the hungry, and protects immigrants, widows and orphans. Yahweh is on the side of the poor, the psalmist says. Hard as the words might sound to us, God prefers the poor to the self-satisfied rich – to people like us.

Today’s second reading – from the Letter of James continues the theme of the responsorial psalm. James warns against showing partiality for the rich. “Don’t be judgmental about the poor,” he warns. They after all are the ones God is partial towards. “God chose the poor,” James says, “to be heirs of the kingdom.”

All of this celebration of the poor as God’s people reaches its zenith in today’s Gospel selection. There Jesus cures a poor man who is deaf and who cannot speak. There are at least three noteworthy elements to this cure. Considered as a whole, all three are connected with the topic of poverty and its absence from public perception and discourse.

The first thing to note is that this episode is almost certainly an accurate reflection of something Jesus actually did. The detail about Jesus’ curing ritual – his use of spit, his loud sigh, and the quasi-magical Aramaic word he used (ephphatha) to effect the cure indicate the account’s authenticity. In this passage, the healer Jesus is acting like what indigenous Mayans in Guatemala call a “curandero” – a traditional healer, or what unsympathetic outsiders might term a “witch doctor.”

The second noteworthy element of today’s story is where it occurred – in the Gentile region of Palestine. Here we have Jesus (and this is one of the recurring themes of Mark’s Gospel) treating non-believers – people outside the Jewish community – the same as those inside. Jesus constantly crossed such boundaries. And he usually got in trouble for doing so. But he continued those boundary-crossings because he found more receptivity among non-believers than among would-be people of faith.

The third noteworthy element of this story goes along with the previous one. It’s the response of the non-believers to the Jesus’ cure of the deaf-mute. Tremendous enthusiasm. Despite his best efforts, Jesus couldn’t keep quiet the people who witnessed the cure. Once again, this reaction stands in sharp contrast to Jesus’ own disciples who in Mark’s account never quite “get it.”

The rich liturgical context for the account of Jesus cure of the deaf-mute including  Isaiah’s promise to the exiles and  James’ words about God’s preferential option for the poor directs our attention towards the social meaning of Jesus healing action in chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel. It indicates what curing blindness, deafness and impediments to speech might mean for us today.

We are called, the liturgy suggests, to be opened to the invisible poor among us and to cross forbidden boundaries to meet them. We are summoned not only to see them, but to hear what they are saying. They, after all, possess what theologians call a “hermeneutical privilege,” i.e. the most reliable and accurate insight into what really ails our society, our culture, the world. This means that if we truly listen, we can learn more about the world from the homeless person on the street than from all the learned tomes in our libraries or from the pop-sociology we find on the New York Times best-seller list – or for that matter from our politicians, bishops and popes. [Isn’t it ironic that Christians today should be the ones downgrading the poor implying (with atheist Ayn Rand, the hero of the religious right) that they are “lazy,” “moochers,” and “useless eaters?”]

On top of that, the suggestion today is that as followers of Jesus, we have to drop the “Hey what about us?” attitude Bill Moyers referenced and that keeps President Obama from addressing the issue of poverty. Poverty and God’s poor are biblical categories. Following Jesus means putting our priorities aside so the poor may be served. This means trying to be the voice of the poor in the places from which they are excluded, but to which we have access. We are being directed to overcome our reluctance (inability?) to break the silence about poverty. Here I’m not just talking about letters to the editor, attending public meetings, joining the “Occupy Movement,” or phoning our President, senators and congressional representatives. I’m also speaking about conversations around our family dinner tables, at the water cooler, in the locker room, and in our schools.

Following Jesus, we can’t allow the enemies of the poor and those who are indifferent to them to twist the Gospel. We can’t allow them to carry the day as if Jesus and the Biblical tradition so well reflected in today’s liturgy shared our culture’s prejudice against the poor.

Today in response to our biblical readings let our prayer be “Ephphatha! Lord, open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. Loosen our tongues” — not only to speak the truth about poverty (as President Obama did in 2007), but to act on that truth ourselves and stimulate our elected leaders to do their part.

Please consider these thoughts as you listen to the beautiful prayer-song, “Ephphatha.”

______

Don’t miss tomorrow’s third installment on Mary Magdalene: “The Magdalene Code”