Conclusions about “The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess”

To say the least, Lynn Picknett’s The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess makes a distinct contribution towards a fuller understanding of the “woman called Magdalene.”  Picknett helps us see beyond the prostitute stereotype to a financial supporter of Jesus’ ministry;  the African priestess (from Egypt or Ethiopia) who anointed Jesus as Christos; his lover and perhaps his wife;  the holy one who prepared him for crossing over to the other side; the disciple who first perceived that Jesus had risen from the dead;  first among the women who stood by Jesus in his darkest hour;  the “Apostle of Apostles” enjoying primacy among those within the Master’s inner circle; the mystic whom Jesus called by names originally belonging to the goddess, Isis; the real founder of the church, and an object of jealousy, hatred, and threat by the patriarchal Twelve. Picknett indeed helps us see how we know those things.

In addition, the book’s clear exposition of the identity of Mary Magdalene and her primacy among Jesus’ followers is invaluable for a more complete understanding of the earliest traditions within the Jesus Movement where women were not only prominent but preeminent.  Those traditions, it turns out, prove extremely meaningful for contemporary women. For they highlight the way female disciples of extraordinary talent and charisma were not only marginalized but denigrated in the church right from the beginning. They were the victims of an extreme misogyny that continues in church circles to our very day. Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, Picknett’s “secret history” exposes the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical patriarchs in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. It also uncovers the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.

As noted previously, Picknett is especially strong in her willingness to effectively question and turn upside-down long-accepted “truths” about the focus of her study. To reiterate, “Magdalene the whore” is the prime example. Examination of extra-biblical and especially historical sources revealed the sixth century origin of that smear. That revelation evidently led Picknett to better understand the smear’s source in the biblical texts themselves. As she indicates, those texts lose no opportunity to denigrate the woman from Bethany. In other words, regarding the Magdalene, Picknett’s methodology is that of scripture scholars over the last hundred years and more: she distinguishes the historical Magdalene from what biblical traditions on the one hand and patristic glosses on the other made of her. Like the good scholar she is, she peals back layer after layer till she gets to the historical woman.

It is here, however, that a curious inconsistency surfaces in the final third of Picknett’s work. There she deconstructs the person of Jesus of Nazareth, finding him, as noted earlier, to be self-promoting, petulant, irrational, vindictive, and generally unpleasant. She is able to do so only because she ignores the findings of scripture scholarship over the last one hundred years – especially the findings of Form Criticism and Redaction Criticism. Form Criticism is the branch of biblical study which has pointed out that not everything in the Bible, not even most of its contents, is history. Instead, there are many literary forms there including myth, legend, debate, fiction, poetry, genealogies, parables, allegories, law, letters – and Gospel. If one mistakes the literary form and reads legend, for instance, as history, the reader will miss the intended meaning of the text. And yes, Gospel is its own literary form distinct from history. And so the work of the evangelists cannot be treated as “lives” or biographies of Jesus. Instead (and Picknett is correct here) they are religious propaganda. This however does not mean, as Picknett often implies and even states, that they are lies, deliberately disguised half-truths, or outright deceptions. They are “Gospel” and as such express not what happened, but the meaning of what happened for those who already recognize Jesus as the Christ. Picknett however often crossly dismisses the gospel authors as charlatans and deceivers. And she reads their portrayals of Jesus as though they were falsified histories. And so she reports that believers have been deceived into believing in a virgin birth, that Jesus walked on water, fed the 5000, and that his corpse was resuscitated three days after his death (which, she points out may have been only apparent). At the same time, however, Picknett takes the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels as though they were his very words. Thus she finds him bad tempered when he curses a barren fig tree, a braggart, when he calls attention to his union with God, and in general a human failure when he fails to live up to the traditional image of “Jesus meek and mild” (186, 208).

It is here that Picknett overlooks the insights of “redaction criticism.” Redaction critics are the scholars who have helped us realize that the gospels are thickly “layered,” and as such rather far removed from what Jesus actually said and did. That is, the words and deeds of Jesus were one thing; how they were remembered in oral tradition was another, how they were written down another still, and how they were interpreted by later generations something else again.  To sharpen the point, the works of the evangelists are post-resurrection compositions (whatever the resurrection might have been).  As such, they reveal an understanding of Jesus that was not apparent, and therefore impossible before the resurrection event. Accordingly, one must distinguish between the pre and post-resurrection Jesus; one must separate the pre-resurrection Gospel of Jesus from the post-resurrection Gospel about Jesus. The Gospel of Jesus was not about himself, but about the Kingdom of God – what the world would be like if God, not Caesar were king. The Gospel about Jesus (the product of the emerging church) was indeed about Jesus. So according to that latter gospel, Jesus is made to say what would have been both impossible and highly improbable for him to utter before his death. Consequently when Jesus apparently says, “I and the Father are one,” that is not Jesus boasting about himself, but the early church “boasting” about Jesus, i.e. expressing its post-resurrection faith.

Similarly, the Gospel about Jesus is full of symbol, which as Picknett well knows, is the normal language of faith. It is not denial or misrepresentation of fact; it is more than fact. So when Jesus is presented as cursing a barren fig tree, it is not a sign of his irritability, as Picknett would have it, but probably has something to do with “fig tree” as a traditional symbol for Israel itself. Yet, despite an entire book devoted to identifying layer upon layer of tradition and unpacking symbols (relative to Mary Magdalene) Picknett finds such unpacking and layer-identification as “unconvincing” when it comes to any positive view of Jesus’ words (193) . And while she had no trouble demythologizing the Magdalene’s traditional identity as a prostitute, Picknett scandalized by any gospel departure from the “Jesus meek and mild” image that has prevailed in understandings of the central figure in mainstream Christianity (186, 208). Any departure from that milk-sop image to show him politically engaged or prophetically outspoken is interpreted as somehow reprehensible. This is a shortcoming of her book and misleads her audience.

The misdirection would have been avoided had Picknett muted her book’s sensationalist tone to explain that under the leadership of Mary called the Magdalene (possibly Jesus’ spouse) the discouraged male apostles did not give up as they would have without her encouragement. Instead they pondered and discussed the words and deeds of Jesus. They realized that inspired by his mentor, John the Baptist, Jesus had continued the latter’s ministry. Unexpectedly and scandalously however, Jesus too been executed – by Rome (rather than by its puppet, Herod as was the case with John). Meditation, discussion, and (as they claimed) the inspiration of the Holy Spirit led that first community of the Jesus Movement to realize that their martyred master had not really joined the ranks of the hundreds of failed Messiahs who regularly surfaced in Palestine during the first century of the Common Era. Instead, he was somehow more present among them than he was before his death.

But how were they to explain this to their contemporaries – to Jews first of all, and later to those outside the Jewish community? Their answer was to use one language set for Jews and one for Greco-Romans. The language set for Jews presented him in terms of a new Adam, or in reference to Abraham, David, or as fulfillment of inferences derived from the prophets. By modern standards, their connections seem forced, stretched and artificial. And no doubt, they invented some of the words and deeds they attributed to Jesus to make the point about his continuity with Jewish tradition. In other words, for the evangelists, the Jesus of faith sometimes took precedence over the Jesus of history.

In the same way, the Jesus story was reshaped for those outside the Jewish community for whom things like circumcision, the prophets, Abraham and David meant nothing at all. For these, Jesus had to be re-presented in religious terms understandable to Hellenistic culture. “Pagans” knew about Isis and the “dying and rising” gods. They knew about hieros gamos or sacred marriage with its priestesses and anointing. So Jesus was presented in those terms. We find them buried in stories like the anointing at Bethany.

Such retelling and refashioning of the Jesus story went on orally for many years. Then (beginning around 70 C.E.) the oral traditions were given written form. By then one could hardly distinguish what the historical Jesus had said and done from what was part of the retelling of his story specifically tailored for Jews on the one hand and for Greco- Romans on the other. Additionally each evangelist further reformulated the received traditions to address problems unique to his own community and its problems that Jesus could never have anticipated. This called for additional retailoring of Jesus’ words and deeds to fit the even newer circumstances further removed from the original consciousness of the historical Jesus.

Subsequently, church fathers and popes like Gregory I added their own layers of interpretation for their own communities now centuries removed from Jesus and his original intentions, words,  and deeds. In the process the Jesus of history was nearly swallowed by the Jesus of faith. However, that Jesus of history has to comprise the standard for soberly determining the essential elements of the Christian faith.

That’s what modern scripture scholarship has determined. Uncovering the Jesus of history is the work of the Jesus Seminar, whose members, it seems, would be open to most of the conclusions Picknett draws about Mary Magdalene. They would not however agree with conclusions based upon uncritical attribution of deeds and words to Jesus that fails to distinguish between layers of gospel texts.

Nothing said immediately above should detract from the fact  that Lynn Picknett is a wonderful reader, a diligent energetic researcher. She knows how to make the ever-present connections that in fact link everything that exists. Picknett is expert in applying the principle of analogy in both its negative and positive meanings. Negatively, that principle holds that we cannot expect to have happened in the past what is presumed or proven to be impossible in the present. According to that principle, she helps the non-academic community understand what scholars have been up to over the last hundred years and more. Positively, the principle of analogy says that the same natural and human forces and dynamics that are operative in the world today (especially in the realm of historiography) were also operative in the past. Those forces and dynamics indeed include lies, cover-ups, propaganda, and self-interest.  Applying that version of the analogy principle, Picknett’s Hidden History helps readers see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It’s the males who are the interlopers and charlatans.

I’m going to recommend this book to that friend of mine with all that rage to know “how do they know all of that?”

Next week: What Jesus Scholarship Tells Us about the Historical Jesus

Oh No: Not another Sermon on Abortion!

Today’s Readings: Wis. 2:12, 17-20; Ps. 54:3-4, 5, 6 &8; Jas. 3:16-4:3; Mk. 9:30-37

When I read today’s gospel selection, I knew it would inspire preachers everywhere in this country to sermonize about abortion. After all, the reading has Jesus embracing a child and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

That scene will lead preachers to say that Jesus loved children. We all love them, they’ll add, and go on to argue that the children most in danger today are the unborn. So homilists will conclude or imply, we should vote for pro-lifers who claim to care about the unborn, and will pass laws to eliminate abortion. It follows then that we should not support those who identify themselves as “pro-choice,” since they care less about the children so close to Jesus’ heart.

Of course, the preachers in question have the best of intentions. And concern for the unborn is well and good. No doubt abortion represents a horrendous choice. It’s painful for everyone.  Virtually no one favors abortion.

However in today’s gospel, Jesus wasn’t embracing a fetus, but a real child of the kind our culture shows little concern about once they’re outside the womb. Even pro-life politicians want to cut back on programs that would help such children. That, I think, is the issue today’s gospel should be made to address. But before getting to that, and since our preachers will inevitably bring it up, let’s talk about abortion like adults.

As adults we have to admit two facts. One is that abortion cannot be eliminated, no matter what laws are passed. Trying to eliminate abortion is like trying to eradicate prostitution. Large numbers of people have always and will always seek abortion services. The rich will fly their wives, lovers or daughters to the Netherlands or Belgium or wherever safe abortion procedures are legally available. The poor will go to back-alley practitioners or they’ll take drugs or use coat hangers to do the job themselves. No, the question is not about eliminating abortion, but of reducing the number of abortions – of lessening the perceived “need” for abortion.

The second undeniable fact is that we live in a pluralistic society where people of good faith find themselves on both sides of the abortion question. And this is because they differ (most frequently on religious grounds) about the key question of when specifically personal life begins. That is, few would argue that a fetus at any stage does not represent human life and should not therefore be treated with respect. No, the real question is when does fetal life become personal? The question is when does aborting a fetus become murder?

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas and others held the position that personal life began with “ensoulment,” i.e. when God conferred a soul on the developing fetus. According to Thomas, because of the high numbers of spontaneous abortions in the early pregnancy, ensoulment could not logically happen at the moment of conception. So in his patriarchal way, he conjectured it occurred for males 40 days after conception; for females it happened 80 days after the mother’s egg was fertilized. Before those turning points, there was no question of personal life.

Of course, Aquinas’ logical position is no longer held by the Catholic Church. Its official teaching is that personal life is present from the first moment of conception. But even within the Catholic community, prominent moral theologians beg to differ. Some, for instance, would argue their case by directing attention to the way the medical profession determines the moment of death. When the brain stops emitting brain waves, “brain death” occurs. Personal life has stopped though bodily life may continue. Plugs may then be pulled even if the patient continues to breathe with artificial assistance.  If that is so, these moralists reason, no personal life exists before a fetus’ brain begins sending off detectable brain waves. That occurs only several weeks into the pregnancy.

Other people of faith have traditionally identified the beginning of specifically personal life with the moment of “quickening” (when the mother first feels her baby move), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the emergent child to distinguish it from animals.

[By the way, no Protestant churches took an official position on the abortion question before the 1979. It was then that the Moral Majority decided to adopt abortion as the trump issue of the Republican Party. The idea was to gain partisan allegiance by tapping into racial resentment among whites, especially in the South who saw “big government” as unfairly favoring African-Americans. Accordingly, the issue of abortion was presented as another example of “big government” in a political climate where overt racism was no longer socially or politically acceptable. “Pro-life” became an acceptable substitute for anti-Black.]

Given those differences among people whose religious traditions will not be going away any time soon, the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 probably goes about as far in restricting abortions as any law in a pluralistic U.S. can go. (Yes, Roe v. Wade does not simply legalize abortions; it restricts them significantly.) The controversial Supreme Court decision specifies that during the first trimester the mother may decide about the termination of her pregnancy without consultation. During the second trimester, she must confer with her physician. And during the final three months of pregnancy, the state recognizes its need to protect the unborn; it can accordingly forbid or otherwise condition pregnancy termination.

But aside from all that, it still must be admitted that the numbers of abortions in the United States and in the world remain unacceptably high. The question remains how to reduce those levels. Ironically, passing laws does not seem to help. For instance, abortion has been completely outlawed in many Latin American countries.  Yet those very countries lead the world in numbers of abortions performed each year. But where abortion has been legalized, as in the Netherlands and Belgium, abortion levels are the lowest in the world.

Government-sponsored social programs explain the difference. These involve provision of thorough sex education in public schools, free contraceptives, pre and post-natal care for expectant mothers, family leave arrangements and affordable child care for working parents, subsidized food grants, and a host of other child-centered programs of the very type “pro-life” politicians would like to abolish.  However, all of the programs just mentioned provide a welcoming atmosphere for children and reduce the perceived “need” for abortion.

Where would Jesus stand on all of this? We don’t know. He said not a word about abortion. But in today’s gospel he says more than a word about children. He embraces a child and says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Once again, in doing that Jesus is not embracing a fetus, but an actual living child about whose human status there can be no debate. Moreover, the child in question was probably of the type many opponents of abortion have little use for or sympathy with. After all today’s gospel scene takes place in Capernaum, the urban center that Jesus adopted as his home town after he was thrown out of Nazareth.

Remember that Jesus spent his time among the poor who represented his own origins.  So the child Jesus embraces was probably a smelly street kid with matted hair and a dirty face. He or she was probably not unlike the street kids found in any city today – the ones hooked on sniffing glue and who have learned to sell their bodies to dirty old men from way across town, and often from across the world.

I make all this supposition because the reason Jesus embraces the child in today’s gospel is to present his disciples with a living example of “the lowest of the low” – God’s chosen people.  In Jesus’ world, all children were at the bottom of the pecking order whose rabbinical description ended with “idiots, deaf-mutes and the young.” And among the young, street children without father or mother would indeed represent scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Embracing children like the one Jesus held doesn’t mean legally restricting abortions beyond Roe v. Wade. Neither does it mean “tough love,” nor forcing impoverished mothers to bring their children to term and then telling them “You’re on your own.” Rather, embracing poor children – truly being pro-life – means creating a welcoming atmosphere that receives children as we would receive the Jesus who identifies with them in today’s gospel. Yes, it suggests supporting those “Big Government” programs that work so well elsewhere.

Remember all of that when you hear your pastor’s sermon on abortion this Sunday.

Magdalene: Egyptian Priestess and Consort of Jesus (Fourth Posting in a Series on MM)

Last week we saw that the Jesus of Mark 14:4 saw Mary Magdalene’s anointing as somehow central to his mission and to preaching the gospel. But what could that mean especially about Mary Magdalene’s relationship to Jesus?

For Lynn Picknett (author of The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess), it points to a pre-anointing intimacy between Mary of Bethany and Jesus. Were they husband and wife? Lovers?  Even more importantly however, Mary’s act has the character of a sacred ritual pre-arranged by Mary and Jesus – an extremely important one, far surpassing the spontaneous act of repentance and pre-burial ritual that ordinarily explains it.

The act says something important both about Mary of Bethany, and was intended to say something even more important about Jesus himself. It shows Mary to be the bearer of a type of priestly power. After all, there is only one anointing of Jesus (the Christos, i.e. anointed one) recounted in the Gospels. And the anointer is this woman who is acting like a priestess. Just before his death, her act finally designates Jesus as the One – the expected Messiah.  It’s like Nathan’s identification of David as king a thousand years earlier. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. The priestess has spoken. That’s what it says about Jesus.

But how could a woman perform such an act? Why would Jesus 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 “pagan” law 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 and 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 (58). This concept of sacred marriage, Picknett notes, would have been familiar to the pagans of Jesus’ day whose “dying and rising gods” were typically anointed by priestesses and assisted by them across the threshold of death while remaining conscious of the entire process (59).  Pagans would have recognized in Mary of Bethany such a priestess who in the Gospels anoints Jesus as “Christos,” especially if she were also involved in the burial of the anointed one.

It’s that association with the burial of Jesus that suggests a syndrome of connections between Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene. According to Picknett, the two women are identical. To see the author’s point, remember Magdalene’s importance. Luke listed her prominently among the financial supporters of Jesus’ ministry. More significantly, she is the one who took charge of Jesus burial following his crucifixion. This suggests continuity with the priestess functions belonging to the agent of the Bethany anointing.  More importantly still, Magdalene was remembered as the first disciple to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection.  That appearance alone conferred on Magdalene incomparable dignity and implies the type of special relationship the anointing story establishes between Jesus and Mary of Bethany.  Additionally, John the Evangelist outright identifies Magdalene as a woman especially beloved by Jesus. Finally, there exists a long church tradition consistently identifying Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany. On Picknett’s analysis, those characteristics taken together more than justify the conclusion that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are the same person.

Why then the confusion? Why did the evangelists apparently split a single person into three: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the unnamed penitent woman? Here the plot thickens. It was because, Picknett says, the patriarchal evangelists wished to obscure the primacy of this woman whom Jesus loved more than them, and who, precisely as woman could not possibly be accepted as superior to men. The trouble was, the events at Bethany were so central and well known that none of the evangelists could omit the story altogether. So they transformed it from a messianic anointing into an act of repentance. Simultaneously, they converted the presiding priestess/paramour into an anonymous sinful woman “from whom Jesus had cast out seven evil spirits.”

And where is the proof for that? Here Picknett refers her readers to the Gnostic Gospels. In The Gospel of Thomas, for example, the tension between Magdalene and the male apostles and with Peter in particular is palpable.

. . . the companion of the Saviour 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?’ The Saviour answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you as I love her?’

As Picknett notes, the word for “companion” here is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature. That description alone could easily explain the alienation of the disciples from Jesus’ companion as well as the desire of the evangelists and church fathers to demote her to an anonymous, penitent and distinctly fallen woman.  More reason for antipathy on the part of Jesus’ apostles emerges from the Pistis Sophia (Faithful Wisdom), a Gnostic source discovered before the unearthing of the 1945 cache of Gospels. There Magdalene emerges as Jesus’ star pupil and the center of attention (85). 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” (89). Most gratingly of all, Jesus calls her the “apostle of apostles” (157). Jealousies arising from such preferences on the part of the Master are entirely understandable.  Moreover following Jesus’ 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 Jesus (215). In view of all this, it is not surprising that again in the Pistis Sophia, Magdalene accuses Peter of threatening her because, she says, of his own hatred of women (86).

Additionally, in the light of Jesus’ praise of the “apostle of apostles,” it is not surprising that Mary of Bethany should be called “the Tower,” “The Great,” “The Magnificent” – possibly in itself another cause of jealousy vis-à-vis the apostles.  As Picknett argues, the real meaning of “Magdalene” might well refer to rank of this sort rather than to place of origin (82). For if this Mary came from Bethany, “Magdalene” would not refer to her supposed hometown in Galilee. In fact, no town with any name resembling “Magdalene” is to be found in first century Galilee. (There was, however, a place in Egypt by the name of Magdolum and also a Magdala in Ethiopia. So the term might have referred to either of those locations as Mary’s place of origin – adding additional credence to the theory that she was an Egyptian priestess and perhaps even black).  Picknett concludes however that the term “Magdalene” most likely refers to Mary’s preeminence among Jesus’ disciples. In any case, it has some connection with terms for “Tower” and greatness. Jesus’ own reference to her in the Gnostic sources as “the All” and the “One who know all” seems to support this.

Next week: Pulling It All Together

Hating THE SIN, but Loving the Sinners (Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s readings: Is. 50:5-9a; Ps. 116: 1-6, 8-9; Jas. 2: 14-18; Mk. 8:27-35

I often have spirited political debates with my grown children. My contributions to such debates have often been critical of the U.S. So my sons half in jest often accuse me of “hating America.”

Really though, I love the United States. It’s my home; it’s the country I know best; it’s simply beautiful; its people, its artists, its inventors have given so much to the world. Its Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation Movement have set examples for emancipation campaigns throughout the entire world. As the song says, it all makes me feel “Proud to be an American.”

And yet there is some truth in what my sons say. While I love America, I have trouble with “Amerikkka.”  That, I suppose, is like saying “I love the sinner, but hate the sin.” I say that because in this case “Amerikkka” stands for the imperial United States. And here I’m referring to the nation described in the following film clip by John Stockwell. He’s the former and much-decorated CIA station chief in Angola who has “gone public” with his story about what the United States has actually done in the world for the last forty years. He describes a “Third World War” against the poor – a war responsible for the death of more than 6 million of the world’s poor. Listen to what he has to say; its information is what I have in mind in those conversations with my sons.

What Stockwell says is quite shocking, isn’t it? I’ve shared it with you today, because the liturgy’s Gospel selection is about empire and Jesus’ non-violent resistance to it. It’s about his hating the sin of empire, while refusing to do harm to the sinners who support it.  That’s the real focus of today’s Gospel. Its key elements are (1) Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter, (2) his self-identification as the “Son of Man,” and (3) his insistence that his followers must oppose empire no matter what the cost.

For starters, take Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter. He’s impatient with Peter, and in effect tells him to go to hell. (That’s the meaning of his words, “Get behind me, Satan.”) Why does he speak to Peter like that? To answer that question, you have to understand who Peter is.

Simon was likely a Zealot. Zealots were fighters in the Jewish resistance movement against the Roman occupation of Palestine. They were committed to expelling the Roman occupiers from Palestine by force of arms. Scholars strongly suspect that Simon Peter was a Zealot. For one thing, he was armed when Jesus was arrested. His armed status (even after three years in Jesus’ company!) also raises the possibility that he may have been a sicarius (knifer) – one among the Zealots who specialized in assassinating Roman soldiers. Notice how quick Simon was to actually use his sword; he was evidently used to knife-fighting. In John 18:10, he tries to split the head of one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. However his blow misses only slicing off the intended victim’s ear.  Put that together with Simon’s nom de guerre, “Peter” which arguably meant “rock-thrower,” and you have a strong case for Peter’s zealotry.

In any case, when Jesus asks Peter “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s response, “You are the Messiah” means “You’re the one who will lead us in expelling the hated Romans from this country by force of arms.”

Now consider where Jesus is coming from. (This is the second key element of today’s Gospel.) Because his primary identity is not being Jewish but being human, he forbids Peter to call him “Messiah.” In effect he says “Look,” “like the “Human One” (Son of Man) Daniel wrote about, I’m as much an enemy of foreign occupation as you are.  But unlike you, I’m not going to be part of killing the brothers and sisters who share my humanity. Yes, I’m saying that the Romans and ‘our’ Temple collaborators are our brothers and sisters! Killing them is like killing ourselves. It’s even like trying to kill God. So, I won’t be introducing the glorious Israel you’re thinking about. It’s just the opposite; the Romans are actually end up torturing and killing me! And I’m willing to accept that.”

All of that was too much for Peter. To stand by and let the Romans torture and kill Jesus seemed crazy to him – especially when Jesus’ following was so strong and militant. [Recall that two chapters earlier in Mark, Jesus had met all day with 5000 men in the desert. (Can you imagine how the ever-watchful Romans would have viewed such a meeting? Today what kind of drone strikes would be unleashed in Afghanistan against participants gathered like that?) Recall too that (according to John 6:15) at the end of that day’s meeting a resolution was passed to make Jesus king by force. Of course, Jesus had rejected that proposal and had walked out on the meeting. But evidently Simon here still wasn’t getting it; there was still hope that Jesus might change his mind.

But no, here was Jesus reiterating that his resistance to Rome and its Temple collaborators was to be uncompromisingly non-violent. For the Rock Thrower, the equation “Messiah” plus “non-violence” simply couldn’t compute.  So he blurts out his own “Don’t say things like that!”

And this brings me to that third point I indicated at the outset – Jesus’ invitation to each of us to follow him to the cross. In today’s reading he says that those wishing to follow him must take up crosses. Now the cross was the special form of execution the Romans reserved for insurgents. So Jesus words seem to mean that his followers must be anti-imperial and run the risks that go along with insurgency.

What can that mean for us today – for those of us who have chosen to join this emerging ecumenical Christian Base Community meeting here in Richmond, Kentucky? Jesus’ words, I think, call us to a “paradigm shift” concerning the United States, ourselves, and this emerging Christian Base Community.

Jesus teaching means first of all that we have to recognize our own situation as “Americans.”  We’re not living in the greatest country in the world. We are indeed living in the belly of the brutal imperial beast.  While loving our fellow Americans, we have to (as they say) “hate THE SIN” – of being imperialists, of being  Amerikkka.

Secondly, Jesus’ words about embracing the cross challenge us as individuals to figure out how closely we really want to follow the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel. If we agree that Jesus is Daniel’s “Human One” destined to live out the “prophetic script,” then our claim to follow him has consequences. It means each of us is called to follow not only Jesus but Daniel, John the Baptist, Gandhi, King, Romero, Rachel Corrie and the impoverished people the United States kills each day in the many countries it occupies. Jesus’ words this morning leave little room for escape or denial. It’s not, of course, that we seek martyrdom. However, we must live the prophetic script those others followed and be ready for arrest – and even torture and execution – should it come to that.

Thirdly, all of these considerations have implications for the Christian Base Community we’re attempting to form here in the belly of the beast. In our community’s attempt to follow Jesus more closely, can we determine a prophetic project that we can all support? What might the project be? The question has particular importance in the context of the approaching General Election. Should our little community become directly involved in the campaign?  Should we bring the Occupy Movement to Madison County or take on the Climate Change issue? What about Mountain Top Removal?  Should we join forces with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, with Sustainable Berea, with the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice? Today’s Gospel implicitly calls us to a serious conversation about all of that.

In answering such questions, we must realize that circumstances have changed here over the last eleven years. We’re losing our rights to protest. It’s much more dangerous than it once was. When we resist state terrorism, we now risk arrest, being tazed, peppers sprayed, or tear gassed. We risk going to jail and all that suggests. Are we up to that challenge? Do we really want to follow a Jesus who says we must take up crosses?

No doubt, these are hard words and challenges. And surely we’re tempted with Peter to take Jesus aside and tell him to be more reasonable. Like Peter, we find denial comfortable.

Inevitably though I think we’ll hear Jesus say as he did to Peter: “Take it or leave it. Follow me to the cross. There’s no other way into the Kingdom.”

(Discussion follows.)

Don’t miss Monday’s posting on Mary Magdalene as Egyptian priestess and consort of Jesus

“What if Jesus Had Been a Republican?” (Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings: Dt. 4:1-2, 6-8; Ps. 15:2-5; Jas. 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk. 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Tikkun Magazine (the Israeli-American quarterly published by Rabbi Michael Lerner) recently published an article called “What if Jesus Had Been a Republican?” It rewrote three well-known Christian Testament scriptures to reflect the world vision and morality of the Republican Party. The piece was reproduced on the news and analysis website “AlterNet.” (Here’s the reference http://www.alternet.org/belief/what-if-jesus-had-been-republican?paging=off).

The first rewritten episode was entitled “The Lazy Paralytic.” It was about the paralyzed man whose friends removed roof tiles on a home to bring him into Jesus’ presence, when the Master was otherwise inaccessible because of the large crowds around him. The revised story has Jesus saying to the paralytic, “Can’t you take care of your own health problems? I’m sure that your family can care for you, or maybe the synagogue can help out.” . . . . What would happen if I provided access to free health care for everyone? That would mean that people would not only get lazy and entitled, but they would take advantage of the system. Besides, look at me: I’m healthy. And you know why? Because I worked hard for my money, and took care of myself.”

The second rewritten episode was called “The Very Poorly Prepared Crowd.” It re-imagined the feeding of 5000 people usually understood as the “Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.” Only this time there was no feeding. Jesus says that would make the improvident crowd too dependent on authority figures like himself. People would never learn to think ahead and the lesson of self-sufficiency would be lost. So applying the principle of “tough love,” Jesus eats one loaf and one fish himself and gives the remaining four loaves and one fish to his twelve apostles.

Even more to our readings’ main point this morning, the reformulated story of “The Rich and Therefore Blessed Young Man,” has a rich man kneeling before Jesus to ask, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus learns that the man has been born into wealth and privilege, Jesus’ admiration knows no bounds. However, he says, one thing is lacking in terms of God’s kingdom: “A bigger house in a gated community in Tiberias. Buy that and you will have a treasure indeed. And make sure you get a stone countertop for the kitchen. Those are really nice.” Jesus’ disciples are scandalized by all of this and ask, “But Lord,” they said, “what about the passages in both the Law and the Prophets that tell us to care for widows and orphans, for the poor, for the sick, for the refugee? What about the many passages in the Scriptures about justice?” 7. “Those are just metaphors,” said Jesus. “Don’t take everything so literally.”

I point you towards those rewritten parables not only because they made me laugh, or because we saw the Republicans in action at their convention last week, but because the last rewrite I mentioned is closely related to this morning’s readings. Those readings remind us of how religion, and specifically the person and words of Jesus can be distorted to reflect what Jesus calls “human traditions” rather than “God’s commandments.”

Today’s first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy reminds us of what the heart of God’s commandments actually was. The Deuteronomy reading shows Moses preparing the ex-slaves just escaped from Egypt for a law that centralizes social justice and care for the orphans, widows, (and immigrants).  The Law of Moses was about setting up a community where what we today would call social structures protected society’s most vulnerable. Its Jubilee statute made provision for the periodic cancelling of debt and the return of land and homes to those who had lost them to the bankers.  The Mosaic Law even forbade charging interest itself – as the words of today’s responsorial psalm remind us. In fact, up until the late Middle Ages, when capitalism began to emerge, charging interest on loans was considered immoral and contrary to Scripture. But then, of course, the Tikkun Jesus would remind us, “Don’t take everything so literally.”

Today’s second reading from the Letter of James’ stands firmly in the Mosaic tradition and defines religion in terms of specific acts directed towards the poor. In fact, James definition of pure and undefiled religion consists entirely in taking care of the orphans and widows in their affliction.  That definition reflects the very attitude of Jesus himself. Recall that in Matthew 25 – our only unambiguous account of the final judgment – the entire affair is based on specific acts of compassion, even though those performing the acts were utterly unconscious of any spiritual motivation. Jesus welcomes into his Father’s kingdom those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the immigrant, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. Those who don’t do such things are condemned.

What I’m saying is that in James’ following of Jesus we find a definition of religion that is not only down to earth and practical, but calls for day-in and day-out embrace of society’s marginalized rather than leaving them to fend for themselves. James’ words, like those of Jesus, challenge us all to self-criticism about our own neglect of the poor and those at risk. The implication here is that God is not happy with us when our only response to poverty is “tough love” instead of the hands-on compassion and involvement Jesus demanded and exemplified.

However since James’ time – and especially after the 4th century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christian faith became more abstract, intellectualized and (in terms of today’s Gospel reading) Pharisaic. Essentially “true religion” was transformed into simply believing things about Jesus rather than imitating him as healer, feeder, and champion of the poor. Since the fourth century, Christians are those who believe in God, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, and his resurrection. Unlike Jesus’ words about the hungry and thirsty, none of those beliefs directly ask believers to be any different from others except inside their heads.

That leaves true believers free to act like the Pharisees Jesus confronts in today’s Gospel. So believers condemn “those others” who don’t see things as we do. Religion then becomes a cause of separation rather than of unity. This is especially true when the life choices of “those others” differ from those of believers. So the essence of Christianity becomes condemning the poor as “lazy.” Christians condemn Muslims as terrorists. Straight people condemn gays as immoral. Celibate men condemn married people for practicing contraception. And believers well beyond the age of child bearing condemn “those others” for resorting to abortion. Conservatives condemn liberals for not thinking as they do. Liberals do the same thing to conservatives. In virtually none of those cases is anything asked of the condemners except scorn and contempt for “those others.” It’s the others who must change, not us!

In today’s Gospel selection, Jesus calls us away from that kind of self-centered complacency to self-criticism. That’s the first step in identifying and changing the elements all of us find within ourselves that deprive us of compassion for others – especially for the widows, orphans and immigrants. The elements Jesus names as enemies of compassion sound like a description of the cultural values we “Americans” celebrate: greed, envy, arrogance, deceit, licentiousness – and the murder (as in wars) necessary to keep “our” stuff.

Taking the example of Jesus “more literally” calls us to the type of humility and personal transformation that recognizes our very selves in those we have been taught to despise as unworthy. The simple understanding of religion espoused by Moses, Jesus and James reminds us that its “pure and undefiled” form calls us to community, to seeing ourselves in “the least” – to our own humanization.

Here I recall a relevant sign I saw at a political rally I once attended. The sign reminded me of James’ doctrine-less definition of religion. It read simply “Do what God did: become human.”

That’s the essence of our Christian faith.

_____

Don’t miss Monday’s second installment of the series on Mary Magdalene

“Everyone’s Talking about Mary Magdalene” (First in a Monday Series on Mary Magdalene)

Not long ago a friend asked me about Mary Magdalene. Yes, Mary Magdalene. Thanks to Dan Brown and others, she’s been cropping into conversations lately much more than she used to. In any case, the observation had been made in this particular exchange that there existed animosity between the Magdalene and Peter the apostle. From there it was a short step to sharing opinions about Mary’s relationship to Jesus. Were they married? Were they lovers?

After a while, my friend asked in apparent frustration. “But how do they know these things?” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene was mentioned, and then the conversation trailed off into more mundane topics. As a theologian, I was left wishing I was more informed about the Magdalene part of the discussion. I knew there were plenty of recently published books on the topic, but I hadn’t read them. Shortly afterwards, almost by sheer chance one of those books dropped into my lap. It was written by esoteric researcher Lynn Picknett and called The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess.  I devoured the volume immediately finding it every bit as interesting and just as much a page-turner as The da Vinci Code.

Unlike Daniel Brown’s work however, Picknett’s work is a largely successful effort at serious scholarship. Though not writing for academicians, she uses non-canonical gospels and heretical sources as well as their biblical counterparts to substantiate her surprising conclusions. Basically, they are that far from being a reformed and eternally penitent prostitute and sinner, Mary Magdalene was actually the spouse or lover of Jesus, possibly an Egyptian priestess, and very likely black.  She is the one whom Jesus often “kissed upon the mouth,” and whose intimate relationship with the Christ enraged Jesus’ male companions, especially Peter who actually threatened to kill her. Even more, in words attributed to Jesus in that Gnostic Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), she was “the All,” “The Woman who knows all,” the “apostle of apostles.” Such apostolic primacy makes the Magdalene the true founder of the church and rightful possessor of Peter’s throne. In fact, as the anointer of Jesus, Mary Magdalene may have been his equal – a true Egyptian goddess, an incarnation of Isis. Possibly, she was even Jesus’ superior.

According to Picknett, such pre-eminence even over Jesus should not astonish, for a close reading of the Synoptics and John show that even those Christian propagandists present a Jesus with feet of clay. He was often self-promoting, petulant, irrational, vindictive, and generally unpleasant. The Jesus hidden in those “sacred texts” was a bitter rival of John the Baptist, and may even have been part of a plot which ended in the Baptist’s beheading. In any case, on Picknett’s analysis, Jesus was not the Messiah; John was. And although branded as heretics, John’s followers survive to this day as bitter  opponents of the Jesus Movement. Most prominent among them was Leonardo da Vinci.

Even readers of The da Vinci Code would find such positions not only surprising but shocking. But how does Picknett arrive at such conclusions, what are the details of her argument, and how is one to evaluate the evidence she marshals?

Tune in next week to find out. . . .

Next Monday: “The Methodology of Magdalene Scholarship” 

Jesus Had a “Bleeding Heart” (Homily for 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings: Jer. 23:1-6; Ps. 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Eph. 2: 13-18; Mk. 6: 30-34

The theme for today’s Liturgy of the Word is leadership political and spiritual. The image uniting both is shepherding.  For me that pastoral metaphor brings to mind characteristics of presence, watchfulness, protection, and overriding concern for the sheep of the flock. I’m confident you’d agree that in both government and church those qualities are in extremely short supply.

Think about political “leaders” announcing (literally) the day after the election of our nation’s first African American President, “I want that man to fail.” (Didn’t that mean they want our country to fail?) Think about clergy from our own faith community (literally) preying on young boys, ruining them for life, and then presuming to speak authoritatively to women and the rest of us about sexuality. That’s failed leadership.

The first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah laments the absence of political and spiritual leaders who were watchful, protective and caring in his time too. Instead of uniting people, and drawing them together, the would-be leaders of Jeremiah’s day (all men) were dividing and scattering them as effectively as our own. Through Jeremiah God promises to appoint new leadership to reverse that syndrome.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark specifically addresses that promised reversal. It focuses on Jesus’ own practice of spiritual shepherding.  Jesus fulfills the promise of Jeremiah by drawing his apprentice shepherds from an entirely new class of people – not from the tribe of Levi and its inherited priesthood, not from the royal palace, but from the marginalized and decidedly unroyal and unpriestly in the traditional sense. Jesus chooses illiterate fishermen, day-laborers, and possibly real working shepherds. By all accounts women also prominently filled shepherding roles in the early church.

Finally, the responsorial psalm and Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Ephesus remind us of the reason for shepherds at all – not the preservation of tradition, much less of patriarchy. Rather, shepherds are there to embody compassion. They exist for the welfare of the sheep. Leaders are there to foster the emergence (in Paul’s words) of a new kind of person – not over-worked, but rested, living in pleasant surroundings, without fear, lacking nothing, with plenty to eat and drink.  In a word shepherds are there for the sake of righteousness, justice, and compassion.

No doubt Jesus had that kind of respite in mind for his tired apostles when he invited them to “rest a while.”After all they were his sheep, and he their shepherd. His invitation reflects compassion for his friends.

But there was to be no rest. The “sheep” in the wider sense were so starved for the compassionate guidance unavailable to them either in court or at the Temple. So in droves they stalked Jesus and his friends even to their desert retreat. All of that evoked Jesus’ own compassion. The text literally says “his guts churned” when he saw the directionless people; they were so forlorn. So that was the end of any thoughts of “R&R” for Jesus and the others. (Buddhists speak of “The Compassionate Buddha. Mark reminds us here of “The Compassionate Jesus.”)

All of this highlights the defining characteristic of the type of leadership, the type of “shepherding” Jesus prized and practiced. It was defined by putting the needs of others first, even when that meant he himself would be deprived of the rest he deserved.

What a practical criterion for judging the leadership of our politicians, popes, bishops and priests! What a powerful criterion for judging our own leadership in our families, communities and places of work.

Who are the best leaders you know (political and/or spiritual) in terms of putting the needs of others first? When have you or persons close to you exercised leadership in those terms? Do our daily lives, our political lives show evidence of following the Compassionate Jesus? Why does our culture consider having compassion (a “bleeding heart”) a negative quality?  (Discussion follows.)