Jesus, the Law, and “Les Miserables” of Today

Les-Miserables[1]

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 62; 1-5; Ps. 96: 1-3, 7-10; I Cor. 12: 4-11; Jn. 2: 1-11

During our family’s recent Christmas trip to France, we spent a couple of evenings watching “on location” films. We saw Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and loved it. Owen Wilson did such a good job of imitating Allen himself. And seeing Wilson wander through the famous sites we were passing each day was great fun.

But on a more serious note, we also took in “Les Miserables” which was such a success back in 2013. At the Golden Globes that year, “Les Miserables” won the “best film” award in the category of musicals and comedies. Hugh Jackson was named best actor for his portrayal of Jean Valjean. Anne Hathaway won best supporting actress for her role as Fantine. She went on to win an Oscar as well.

Watching the film in France this time made it especially poignant. I ended up in quiet tears at its conclusion.

“Les Miserables” is Victor Hugo’s familiar tale of Jean Valjean, a Christ figure intimately connected with today’s Gospel reading about Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana.

Following the royal restoration after the French Revolution of 1789, Valjean was convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving children. He was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in the most brutal conditions.

Having completed his sentence under the watchful and threatening eye of the cruel Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe in the film), a bitter and vengeful Valjean journeyed homeward. As he passed through the town of Digne, he was given food and shelter by the kindly Bishop Myriel, the pastor of the local cathedral.

But Valjean is not impressed. He rises in the dead of night, steals the bishop’s silverware and candelabra, and flees the rectory. Soon he’s captured by the gendarmes. When he’s dragged back to the bishop by the police, Bishop Myriel secures Valjean’s release by confirming the thief’s lie that the stolen goods had been given him as a gift by the priest. Valjean cannot believe his ears. The bishop’s act of generosity, forgiveness, and mercy transforms him. He goes on to become a successful factory owner and champion of the poor.

However the former convict has broken his parole. So he’s pursued by his prison tormentor, Inspector Javert. Javert is determined to return Valjean to chains. The inspector is a lawman in the strictest sense of the word. He believes he is doing God’s work in pursuing Valjean, and often prays for success in his mission.

Nonetheless towards the film’s end, Javert falls into Valjean’s hands. His former ward has the opportunity to kill Javert with impunity for opposing the People in their revolution against the French crown. Yet Valjean refuses to do so, opting instead to follow the example of bishop Myriel, even though releasing Javert means Valjean will likely return to prison.

Javert can neither believe nor accept Valjean’s generosity. In his eyes, since the law has been broken, Valjean must pay the price. Yet Valjean has acted towards him with such generosity. . . . Javert doesn’t know how to handle such kindness. His life dedicated to law enforcement now seems entirely wasted in the light of Valjean’s compassion and wonderful disregard of the law. Confused and disheartened Javert commits suicide.

Of course, Victor Hugo’s tale is much more complex than that – and much more beautiful. (The singing and lyrics are gorgeous!) But that’s the story’s kernel – a portrayal of a conflict between love, compassion, and mercy on the one hand and respect for the law on the other. That’s what makes it relevant to today’s Gospel.

There we find Jesus attending a wedding. With the other revelers at this feast of seven days, he’s been dancing, singing, eating and drinking already for days. Then the wine runs out. The party is in danger of losing its spirit; the guests will go home; the bridal couple will be disgraced. So Jesus responds to the alcohol shortage by providing about 200 gallons of the best wine the partiers had ever tasted. Significantly, he takes the large stone vessels full of water for ritual washing according to Jewish law, and turns that water into wine. As a result, the fun never stops. And believers have never ceased telling this story – the very first of Jesus’ “signs” as John calls them. We’ve come consider them miracles.

But let’s take John at his word. He sees this rather trivial event at what turns out to be Jesus’ coming out party as a sign, a symbol, a metaphor. . . . (I say “trivial” because on its surface nothing “great” is accomplished. A party is saved from petering out. Some friends – the bridal couple and their families – save face. But was that worth this exercise of divine power?) Nevertheless, John says this is a sign. But of what?

The answer, of course, is that changing water into wine so early in John’s story constitutes an image providing indication of Jesus’ entire mission as John understands it. Jesus’ mission is to obey the spirit of the law even when that means disobeying its letter.

In John’s poetic narrative, the letter of the law is cold, hard, and insipid – as hard and frigid as the stone vessels John takes care to mention, and as tasteless as water in comparison with wine. But it’s even worse than that. The law as Jesus will criticize it in John’s pamphlet is routinely used against the poor (people like Valjean in Hugo’s tale) – the lepers, prostitutes, beggars, Samaritans, tax collectors, and the generally “unclean.” The law is used to oppress “Les Miserables.” Meanwhile, the privileged and elite use legalisms for their own benefit – to enrich themselves and elevate their prestige. Jesus, John is saying, has come to transform all of that.

He has come to change the water of the law’s letter into everything wine symbolizes. The wine of Jesus’ teaching and life is meant to lift the spirit. (It’s not for nothing that alcohol is called “spirits.”) Wine is red like blood not colorless and neutral like water. Wine relieves pain. It evokes laughter, and singing and dancing as it did for the revelers at the Cana wedding feast. Wine enlivens life which, John implies, has more to do with a seven-day party than with what happens in the Temple (or our churches!).

We need to be reminded of all that don’t we? That’s especially true today when the law is used so clearly against the poor, while the rich typically escape its reach. Think about the way our political “leaders” villainize the world’s most impoverished people. They tell us that the dirt poor are the cause of the very problems they and their rich friends have produced. (For example, the poor had nothing to do with the Great Recession whose disastrous effects are still ruining the lives of the poor and middle classes.)

Even worse, the coalition of the rich creates refugees by sending planes, missiles and drones to destroy the homes, schools, hospitals of already desperate people throughout the Middle East and Global South. They overthrow the governments the poor have elected, and afterwards install dictators and drug lords to take their places. Then they complain when the refugees they’ve created seek escape in countries like our own.

In the process, distressed mothers and their children are described as drug dealers, gang members, and murderers. So, in the name of unjust laws, our leaders rationalize the separation of pre-teens from their parents and even create baby jails. Meanwhile, the business of privatized prisons prospers, while their dungeons are increasingly filled with the poor and minorities.

In the meantime, the those who dedicate their lives to exposing such crimes are treated like Jesus and Valjean. The Julian Assanges and Chelsea Mannings — the whistle-blowers of the world – are arrested, tortured and threatened with life imprisonment. “The law is the law,” the criminal arresters remind us. Once again, it’s the story of Jesus and Jean Valjean all over again.

Like “Les Miserables,” John’s story of Cana can raise our consciousness about all of that. The tale of water turned into wine can move us to defend the poor, powerless, imprisoned and whistle-blowers that the law routinely oppresses. Jesus’ example calls us to celebrate “spirit,” and feasts, and food, laughter and dancing. It invites us to destroy by our own hands the law-worshipping Javert who resides within each of us.

Both John the Evangelist and Victor Hugo call us to imitate those who dedicate their scandalous lives to obeying the Spirit of God’s Law by disobeying the letter of human law.

Jesus Was against Machismo Not Divorce

Today’s readings: Gn. 2:18-24; Ps. 128:1-6; Heb. 2:9-11; Mk 10:2-16 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/100718.cfm

I shared Tammy Wynette’s award-winning song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” because it captures the pain that more than half of married people go through when they decide to divorce. Tammy’s opening words, “I want to sing you a song that I didn’t write, but I should have,” as well as the way she sings capture the very sad experience that divorce is for couples who all started out so full of love and hope. As all of us know, divorce is often characterized by regret and feelings of failure especially relative to the children involved. The irony is that many divorced people will come to church this morning and find their pain compounded by today’s readings and no doubt by sermons they will hear.

However today’s liturgy of the word is surprising for what it says about Jesus and his teachings about divorce. The readings tell us that Jesus wasn’t really against divorce as we know it. Instead as the embodiment of compassion, he must have been sympathetic to the pain and abuse that often precede divorce. As a champion of women, he must have been especially sensitive to the abandonment of divorced women in his highly patriarchal culture.

What I’m suggesting is that a sensitive reading shows that what Jesus stands against in today’s Gospel is machismo not divorce as such. Relative to failed marriages, he implicitly invites us to follow his compassionate example in putting the welfare of people – in his day women specifically – ahead of abstract principles or laws. Doing so will make us more understanding and supportive of couples who decide to divorce in the best interests of all.

By the way, the gospel reading also tells us something important about scripture scholarship and its contributions towards understanding the kind of person Jesus was and what he taught on this topic.

First of all consider that scholarship and its importance relative to the topic at hand.

To begin with, it would have been very unlikely that Jesus actually said “let no one” or (as our translation went this morning) “let no human being” put asunder what God has joined together. That’s because in Jesus’ Palestine, only men had the right to initiate a divorce. So in prohibiting divorce, Jesus was addressing men.  The “no one” or “no human being” attribution comes from Mark who wanted Jesus’ pronouncement on divorce to address situations outside of Palestine more than 40 years after Jesus’ death. By the time Mark wrote his Gospel, the church had spread outside of Palestine to Rome and the Hellenistic world.  In some of those communities, women could initiate divorce proceedings as well as men.

Similarly, Jesus probably did not say, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Such a statement would have been incomprehensible to Jesus’ immediate audience. Once again, in Palestine no woman could divorce her husband. Divorce was strictly a male right. Women could only be divorced; they couldn’t divorce their husbands.

So what did Jesus say? He probably said (as today’s first reading from Genesis puts it) “What God has joined together let no man put asunder. “ His was a statement against the anti-woman, male-centered practice of divorce that characterized the Judaism of his time.

And what was that practice?

In a word, it was highly patriarchal. Until they entered puberty, female children were “owned” by their father. From then on the father’s ownership could be transferred to another male generally chosen by the father as the daughter’s husband. The marriage ceremony made the ownership-transfer legal. After marriage, the husband was bound to support his wife. For her part however the wife’s obedience to her husband became her religious duty.

Meanwhile, even after marriage, the husband could retain as many lovers as he wanted provided he also able to support them. Additionally the husband enjoyed the unilateral right to demand divorce not only for adultery (as some rabbis held), but also according to the majority of rabbinical scholars for reasons that included burning his food, or spending too much time talking with the neighbors. Even after divorce, a man’s former wife needed his permission to remarry. As a result of all this, divorced women were often left totally abandoned. Their only way out was to become once again dependent on another man.

In their book Another God Is Possible, Maria and Ignacio Lopes Vigil put it this way: “Jesus’ saying, ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ is not the expression of an abstract principle about the indissolubility of marriage. Instead, Jesus’ words were directed against the highly patriarchal marriage practices of his time. ‘Men,’ he said, should not divide what God has joined together. This meant that the family should not be at the mercy of the whimsies of its male head, nor should the woman be left defenseless before her husband’s inflexibility. Jesus cut straight through the tangle of legal interpretations that existed in Israel about divorce, all of which favored the man, and returned to the origins: he reminded his listeners that in the beginning God made man and woman in his own image, equal in dignity, rights, and opportunities. Jesus was not pronouncing against divorce, but against machismo.”

Here it should be noted that Mark’s alteration of Jesus’ words is far less radical than what Jesus said. Mark makes the point of the Master’s utterance divorce rather than machismo. Ironically, in doing so and by treating women the same as men, Mark’s words also offer a scriptural basis for legalists who place the “bond of marriage” ahead of the happiness (and even safety) of those who find themselves in relationships which have become destructive to partners and to children.

Traditionally that emphasis on the inviolability of the marriage bond has represented the position of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It is very unlikely that the historical Jesus with his extremely liberal attitude towards law and his concern for women would have endorsed it.

Instead however, it never was Jesus position that any law should take precedence over the welfare of people. In fact, his refusal to endorse that precedence – his breaking of religious laws (even the Sabbath law) in favor of human welfare – was the main reason for his excommunication by the religious leaders of his own day. In other words, Jesus was the one who kept God’s law by breaking human law.

So instead of “Anti-Divorce Sunday,” this should be “Anti-Machismo Sunday.” It should remind us all of what a champion women have in Jesus.

Sometimes feminists complain that Christian faith finds its “fullness of revelation” in a man. But as one Latin American feminist theologian put it recently, the point of complaint shouldn’t be that Jesus was a man, but that most of us men are not like Jesus. Today’s Gospel calls us men to take steps towards nullifying that particular objection.

The Ten Commandments Call Us to Joy and Peace, Not to Guilt and War

Heston

The emphasis in today’s liturgy of the word is on the wonders of God’s law. Today’s first reading reviews the expanded version of the familiar “Ten Commandments” which many of us were made to memorize as children. Then the responsorial psalm praises God’s Law as perfect, refreshing, wise, right, joyful, clear, enlightening, true, just, precious, and sweet.

On hearing that string of adjectives, many might raise their eyebrows in disbelief. “Joyful, “refreshing,” “precious,” “sweet?” “That’s not been my experience of the Ten Commandments,” we might say. “My experience of what’s called “God’s law” is entirely negative. When I hear references to the Ten Commandments I think of repressed fundamentalists wanting the Commandments posted on school walls and enshrined on lawns before every courthouse.”

And it’s true: negative reaction to talk of “Commandments” is completely understandable. From childhood, authority figures intent on controlling the most intimate details of our lives have threatened us with “The 10 Commandments,” “sin” and “punishment.” From the time we were children, and especially as adolescents and young adults “God’s Law” seemed to militate against everything we really wanted to do – especially in the area of sexuality.

However, a bit of reflection shows how misplaced such reactions are. It reveals that “God’s Law” is not something posted on a classroom wall or on a plaque in front of a government building. It’s not written in stone either. Instead, it’s enshrined deep in the human heart. And human happiness – world peace – is impossible without observing that law which in its essence is no different from nature’s law.

That recognition in turn suggests how important it is for us to come to agreement about moral and ethical behavior if we truly want peace in the world. The U.N. has realized that and has sponsored research into the content of what it terms “a universal ethic.” According to the U.N., there are just four basic “commandments”: (1) Don’t kill; (2) Don’t rape; (3) Don’t lie, and (4) Don’t steal.

People as diverse as Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung and professional atheist Richard Dawkins agree but go further in what seem to me very helpful ways.

In fact, at the age of 89, Kung has dedicated the last part of his career to peacemaking by building bridges between religions whose differences are so often the cause or pretext for violent conflict. Kung works on the four principles that (1) International peace is impossible without peace between religions; (2) there can be no inter-religious peace without inter-religious dialog; (3) there can be no inter-religious dialog without agreement about a global ethic, and (4) our world cannot survive without such an ethic that is universally accepted.

So in terms of “God’s law,” what do all major religions agree about? The Golden rule is the point of convergence.

Christianity puts it this way: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets “ (Mt. 7:12). In Confucianism the same statute is expressed in these terms, “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state” (Analects 12:2). Buddhism’s version runs, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5,1). Hinduism agrees in these words, “This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you” (Mahabharata . 5, 1517). Islam’s expression is, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself (Sunnah). In Taoism the same law finds this formulation: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss” (Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien). Zoroastrianism says, “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself” (Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5). Judaism says, “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellowman; this is the entire law; all the rest is commentary” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id).

Even Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist endorses the Golden Rule. In formulating his own Ten Commandments, he leads off with his own version of that principle. Here are Dawkins’ Ten Commandments:”

* Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
* In all things, strive to cause no harm
* Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
* Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
* Live life with a sense of joy and wonder
* Always seek to be learning something new
* Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
* Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
* Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
* Question everything

Dawkins also has something to say about that fraught area of sexuality I mentioned earlier. He adds four additional statutes:

* Enjoy your own sexual life (as long as it does not harm to others), and let others enjoy their sexual lives in private according to their own inclinations which in any case are none of your business.
* Don’t discriminate against or oppress anyone because of their sex, race or (insofar as possible) species.
* Don’t indoctrinate your children. Teach them to think for themselves, how to weigh evidence, and how to disagree with you.
* Respect the future beyond the temporal limits of your own life.

Now those laws are “delightful,” many would agree. They make sense because they reflect human nature and nature’s laws. They also can be perfectly aligned with God’s Law presented in today’s initial reading.

Imagine the world we’d create if we joined our brothers and sisters in all those religions I referenced and promoted Dawkins commandments with the same vigor the fundamentalists promote their repressed interpretations of the Ten Commandments.

Kung is right: we might witness an out-breaking of world peace.

A Spirituality for Climate Change Activists: Al Fritsch’s New Book, “Resonance”

Al Fritsch

Climate chaos activists and theoreticians are missing the boat, because they overlook their problem’s profound spiritual dimensions. The omission is not trivial, because at heart climate change represents the most pressing spiritual problem of both our age and, no doubt, in the history of the world.

This is the basic thesis of Resonance: Promoting Harmony when Confronting Climate Change.  by Rev. Al Fritsch.

The book points out that indeed many are familiar with the scientific dimensions of climate change. The science has been trumpeted for years by virtually the entire community of climate scholars. Similarly, the problem’s moral dimensions should also be evident in a world where giant corporations make billions by producing planet-destroying fossil fuels while at the same time sponsoring well-funded campaigns to deny that human-caused climate chaos even exists.

Nevertheless, the spiritual dimensions of climate chaos remain soft-pedaled – including by climate change activists. This is true even within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church, despite the brave efforts of its own Pope Francis who tried to underline connections between faith and climate change more than two years ago, with the publication of his monumental eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’.

In making such observations, Father Fritsch knows what he’s talking about. Like Pope Francis, he is a scientist himself. Dr. Fritsch owns a PhD in chemistry. He is also a life-long activist – a colleague of Ralph Nader in the founding of Washington D.C.’s Center for Science in the Public Interest. Later on, in his native Kentucky, Fritsch extended his D.C. work to the foundation and direction of Appalachian Science in the Public Interest and most recently of Earth Healing, Inc. (For years, my family and I have benefitted from the daily, down-to-earth practical recommendations Fr. Fritsch’s organizations have publicized in their Appalachia Simple Lifestyle Calendar.)

Most importantly, however, Al Fritsch is a Jesuit priest. His Ignatian spirituality has made him a mystic whose faith in the underlying unity of all creation finds evidence on every page of his inspiring book. Mystics, of course, are convinced that (1) there is a spark of the divine in every human being, (2) that spark can be realized – i.e. made real by expression in daily action, (3) it is the purpose of life to do so, (4) every great religious tradition embodies means and methods to facilitate such activation (e.g. meditation, prayer, spiritual reading, repetition of mantras, training the sense, slowing down, one-pointed attention, putting the needs of others first, and practicing community with similarly committed others), and (5) once the realization of the divine spark within dawns, the realizer finds that same presence in every other human being and in all of creation.

Even the most casual reader of Fr. Fritsch’s masterpiece cannot avoid perceiving his internalization of such convictions. In fact, they are all embodied in the very title of his book.

“Resonance” is about the harmony present in everything that exists – a synchronizing force caused by a shared divine presence in micro-organisms, plants, animals, human beings, the earth itself, our galaxy and the entire universe.

In the first part of his book, Fr. Fritsch displays his grasp of the scientific and social dimensions of creation’s universal harmony. There resonance is evident, he argues, not only at the physical levels of time and space, but below them in creation’s chemical and biological dimensions.

Socially, such harmony is also found in human communication, and in artistic creations, especially in music. Resonance then reaches its human apex in love, compassion, and in the type of human collaboration that enhances civilization. Entire chapters are devoted to each of these topics making Resonance a kind of reference work that can be delved into where interest and personal or research needs demand.

However, it is the second part of Resonance that makes its most important contribution. For it specifically addresses the spiritual dimension whose omission, Fritsch argues, deprives climate change activists of the enthusiasm necessary for continued hope-filled struggle in the face of odds stacked against their efforts by the previously noted forces of corporate greed and deception.

“Enthusiasm,” Fr. Fritsch reminds us, is related to his essentially mystical outlook. Etymologically, the word means “in God.” It refers to the energy derived from awareness that (as St. Paul puts it) we all live and move and have our being in a profoundly divine reality (ACTS 17:28). Without that awareness enhanced by daily prayer and meditation and frequent communal celebration of life (e.g. in the Eucharist) weariness, despair, and burnout easily replace the energetic action necessary for the long-haul struggle required of those aspiring to effectively defend the earth.

Accordingly, chapters in the second half of Resonance address specifically mystical resonance as exemplified in Jesus the Christ. For many, Christ’s Spirit, Fr. Fritsch emphasizes, promises to awaken that earlier-referenced consciousness of the divinity resident at the heart of everything that exists. That consciousness in turn awakens compassion for the suffering earth and its vulnerable and wounded inhabitants.

But Fr. Fritsch’s call to spiritual awakening is by no means confined to those sharing the Christian faith or any faith at all. With homage to Karl Rahner, the author recognizes “Anonymous Christians” who can recognize the harmony of creation exposed in Part One of Resonance. Despite their lack of formal faith, they too need the spiritual centering of meditation practice that need not be Christ-centered or religious. To repeat: without such grounding, they run the risk of despair and burnout.

Resonance is a welcome complement to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. Activists, teachers, and discussion groups will find it an inspiration and source of practical energy fueling their efforts to save the planet for their grandchildren and generations to come.

G 20, God’s Peace and the World’s Wars: 180° of Separation (Sunday Homily)

G20

Readings for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: ZEC 9:9-10; PS 145: 1-2, 8-12; ROM 8:8, 11-13; MT 11: 25-30

So the G-20 is meeting this week in Hamburg, Germany. Isn’t it comforting?  Among other things, this privileged group of wealthy co-conspirators will choose the means by which the rich would ultimately destroy the planet. Will it be by nuclear holocaust or by ignoring climate change?

Or will it be by economic policies that enable eight (count ‘em – 8) individuals to possess as much wealth as 3.6 billion people, while 30,00 children die of starvation each day. President Trump prefers to end the world by climate change; Ms. Merkel’s leans towards nuclear weapons. However, in the spirit of irenic political compromise, both Merkel and The Donald could ultimately go either way. In any case, they both approve the reigning system’s math whose product is mass starvation.

It’s great to be rich, don’t you agree?

Think about it. According to today’s papers, our billionaire leaders have more or less out-of-the-blue decreed that Russia, North Korea, the Ukraine, and Syria represent urgent crises and causi belli nuclear. And this, even though using just 1% of the world’s 15,000 nuclear weapons of mass-destruction would likely render our planet completely uninhabitable.

Meanwhile, no one I know can even explain to me why Pakistan, India, and Israel should be allowed to possess nuclear weapons, but not North Korea or Iran. No one can help me understand why we’re even concerned about Ukraine or Syria – much less Yemen or Somalia. What dog do we have in those fights?

And, explain to me, pray-tell, why an ignoramus like Mr. Trump and his gang of Republican Know-Nothings should be able to determine the fate of the planet relative to climate change. Do their opinions represent yours? Not mine! What happened to democracy?

It’s all quite insane.

In contrast to all of this, today’s liturgy of the word celebrates peace unequivocally. All three of the day’s readings, plus the responsorial psalm emphasize the fact that peace, not war or planetary destruction is the way of God’s kingdom. That reign, where God is king instead of Caesar (or Mr. Trump or Ms. Merkel), turns out to be diametrically opposed to the world’s logic of war and disregard for Mother Nature. It contradicts ALL of the values of the planet’s “wise” and “learned” – ALL OF THEM! This means that if you want to do the right thing or support the right policy, you should do the exact opposite of what the politicians, pundits and professors tell you.

Yes, read the final communication from Hamburg. But then add the qualification “NOT!!” Like magic, then, you’ll arrive at God’s position.

That’s more or less what our readings today tell us!

Even before Jesus, and setting the tone for the day, the first reading from Zechariah describes God’s divine Spirit as completely anti-war. In the prophet’s words, it banishes chariots from Ephraim, and the warhorse from Jerusalem. It breaks the warrior’s bow in two not only in the holy city, but across the planet itself.

For St. Paul, in today’s second selection, such rejection of war manifests the very Spirit of Christ dwelling within us all. That Spirit gives life, not death, to the entire world. It is the Spirit of God himself. It is our own spirit – our true Self. So, if we choose to bomb, shoot or drone anyone, we’re committing suicide. That’s what it all means.

In his own phrasing, Paul describes the opposite of such divine rationale as “flesh,” “body,” “mortality,” “darkness,” and “death.” It is the logic of individuality and separation. In practice it all leads inevitably to war – to Zechariah’s horse, chariot, bow and spear – all of which the world’s “learned” consider “wise,” practical, and realistic.

Today’s responsorial psalm calls the contradicting World Soul “merciful” and “compassionate” towards all creatures, not just humans, much less exclusively towards those of a particular race or nation. Though “mighty,” it is gentle and non-violent (“meek”) especially towards the heavily burdened and crushed.

All of that represents the logic of God’s kingdom, which according to Jesus’ words today, emphasizes the unity of humankind – the fact that we and all of creation are linked by what Jesus calls his single easy “yoke.”

According to Jesus, his message or “burden” is not dark, heavy, or difficult to understand. Even the most unlearned (“the little ones”) can grasp it. Far from threatening our survival, it is light itself; its acceptance represents the epitome of enlightenment. Ironically, then, the simple, the unlearned, the nobodies of the world, appreciate Jesus’ proclamation better than their educated counterparts.

In practice, those wise men (including many church leaders) continue to dismiss God’s logic as somehow impractical, stupid, suicidal, utopian, unrealistic, and naïve. As I’ve already indicated, their wisdom instead dictates “wise” and “realistic” policies emphasizing separation, individuality, competition, nuclear weapons, and mutually assured destruction (MAD).

And how’s that wisdom working out for you, your children, grandchildren, and our world?

It’s time for followers of Jesus to finally embrace God’s word as expressed in today’s readings. Our very survival depends on it. It’s up to us to reject the world’s logic – the calculus of flesh, body, darkness, war, and violence.  Now is the hour for us to vote, take to the streets (like the hundreds of thousands in Hamburg), and begin living according to Spirit, light, peace, and non-violence.

That’s because we are Spirit, not flesh. So only the non-violence celebrated in today’s readings can save us. That’s not naive, my friends, it’s the realism of God.

(Sunday Homily) Jesus & His Friends: Slackers All

hippie-jesus

Readings for 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49:14-15; PS 62: 2-3, 6-9; I COR 4: 1-5; MT 6: 24-34.

Today’s liturgy of the word raises the question of work and money – always two difficult elements of life for those claiming to follow Jesus’ Way. They’re difficult because both occupy so much of our attention and lives that they can distract us from what’s really important – what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.” Consequently, in this morning’s Gospel selection, Jesus tells us to back off from both money and work while opening ourselves to the abundance of God’s Kingdom.

For American workaholics, that’s surprising. It’s especially challenging for those who love to attack “the undeserving poor” – that is, workers empowered by government programs even like the Affordable Health Care Act.

About money Jesus directly compares the worship of God with the common attitude Americans adopt towards money – or as Jesus puts it, “Mammon” (the name for an idol). It’s impossible, Jesus says, to make money the focus of your life while claiming to serve God. In fact money can make us hate God. But that’s not the surprising part.

What is surprising is that Jesus’ claim comes very close to saying that loving God should make us hate money. That seems to be the meaning of his words recorded in today’s selection from Matthew. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

In other words, there’s a choice to be made here: serve God or money; hate and despise money or hate and despise God. No one can have it both ways. The text seems to bear that reading, don’t you think?

Of course Jesus’ pronouncement will lead many to “clarify” his words to mean don’t be attached to money. It’s the service of money – it’s making money your master – they would explain, that causes hatred of God.

Okay. But who among us (even financiers, banksters and hedge fund managers) would claim to serve money even though they spend all their waking hours scheming about it. Who would admit that they’re attached to money, or have made it their master? Even those 85 individuals proud of owning as much as half the human race would probably deny that they “serve” money or that it’s their master. (And if they’re right, we can stop our discussion right here!)

On the other hand, those wishing to have it both ways might go further. They might invoke “nature.” They might point out we obviously can’t do without money; it’s a product of nature (human nature) they might say. Some might even argue we can’t even do without capitalism and its drive to “maximize profit.” Capitalism and profit maximization simply represent the inescapable way the world works. They are reflections of the natural order. If they allow 85 people to own more than half the world, so be it. That’s simply natural.

Such talk about nature brings us to my second point – Jesus’ attitude towards work and those who choose not to. Here he definitely has a “back to nature” approach. And once again, it’s surprising. Jesus is not talking about the naturalness of competition or of the law of supply and demand.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says clearly that the natural order not only minimizes the importance of money (at the very least); it also minimizes the importance of work. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says, “they don’t sow or reap or store food in barns.” Or “Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin.” Learn from them both. Follow their example.

Say what? Is Jesus intention here to discourage work itself? (Talk about contradicting “American” values!) It’s easy to draw that conclusion, I think. After all, he seems to be saying don’t sow or reap or store products in warehouses. Don’t toil or spin. It’s a short step from there to saying, “Don’t work!”

Besides that, Jesus seems to have lived out that latter implication. I mean as an able-bodied 30-something, he left his job as a carpenter to wander from village to village in Palestine philosophizing and apparently living on hand-outs. On the road, he had no home and must have sought shelter from friends. Moreover, he got rough fishermen to leave their nets and follow his example of what appears to be idleness as far as economic productivity is concerned.

In fact, Republicans today would clearly regard Jesus and his apostles as examples of the idle undeserving poor – not to say bums – living off the donations of hard working people. I mean, does that contradict our Protestant Work Ethic, or what?

The point is that Jesus and his sainted friends were not only among the undeserving poor, they flaunted it. They recognized that according to God’s natural order, the world belongs to all creatures including the birds and flowers. If its resources were shared according to Jesus’ Kingdom values, there’d be enough for everyone – just as there was for birds and flowers in Jesus’ day.

So in minimizing the importance of money and praising freedom from work, Jesus was not being unrealistic or some starry-eyed hippy. Instead (as always) he was proclaiming the Kingdom of God. In God’s order, he insisted, there is abundance for everyone – or as Gandhi said enough for everyone’s need, but not for their greed.

Realizing the reality of God’s and nature’s abundance – and not giving in to the world’s myth of scarcity, overwork, and focus on money – should give workers rather than those belonging to the 1% courage to demand what is their birthright.

That natural condition is a life without worry about making ends meet and with enough leisure to enjoy life just like the birds and flowers.

Sunday Homily: U.S. Christians Shouldn’t Be the World’s Most Violent People (But We Are!)

christian-violence

Readings for 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time: LV 19: 1-2, 17-18; PS 103: 1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; I COR 3: 16-23; MT 5: 38-48.

We’re living at a time characterized by military crisis; wouldn’t you agree? I mean we’re still in Afghanistan (our country’s longest war ever). Can you tell me why? We’re also fighting in Iraq and have been doing that one way or another since at least 1990. Then there’s Syria and Yemen – not to mention droning in Libya, Somalia, and who knows where else? And on top of that there’s saber-rattling about what Russia does in its backyard, and even about “our” rights to float battleships in the South China Sea – more than 7000 miles away from our shores. We spend more on war than all the other nations of the world combined, and are in the process of modernizing our nuclear weapons arsenal that our “leaders” once pledged to abolish.

And what has it all accomplished? Can you tell me that? Well, while it may make arms manufacturers richer and happier, here’s a short list of its downsides:

  • It kills millions of people – yes more than a million in Iraq alone since 2003!
  • It threatens the very future of the human race.
  • It contributes mightily to environmental destruction,
  • And to global warming as the U.S. military remains the largest institutional consumer of oil in the world
  • As well as to the creation of an unprecedented refugee problem,
  • It appears to motivate terrorists to respond in kind.
  • All of which seems to make us less safe rather than more so.

Doesn’t that seem crazy? Why do we put up with it? I mean to spend more than a billion dollars each day on war and to have absolutely nothing positive to show for it? NOTHING! And then instead of facing that colossal failure, to pledge to do even more of the same – forever and ever?

I’m hard put to think of anything crazier. And scandalously, it’s a nation that claims to be Christian that’s doing all of that – in the name of God and even of Jesus. The Muslims would have a hard time even remotely approaching that level of religiously-motivated violence!

Say, here’s an idea: why don’t we try following the actual teachings of Jesus as found in today’s Liturgy of the Word? I didn’t say “the teachings of the Bible” in general, but the teachings of Jesus.

I mean, in today’s Gospel, the Master takes pains to distinguish between the Bible’s warlike vengeful God and its Compassionate One. Jesus specifically rejects the one and endorses the other. For Matthew that rejection and endorsement was momentous – as significant as Moses reception of the Ten Commandments from his God, Yahweh. That’s why Matthew [in contrast to Luke’s equivalent “Sermon on the Plain” (LK 6:17-49)] has Jesus deliver his “sermon” on a mountain (5:1-7:27). The evangelist is implicitly comparing Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus on “the Mount.”

In any case, through a series of antitheses (“You have heard . .. but I say to you . . .”), Jesus contrasts his understanding of the Law with more traditional interpretations. The Mosaic Law demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but Jesus’ Law commands:

  • Turning the other cheek
    • Going the extra mile
    • Generosity with adversaries
    • Open-handedness to beggars
    • Lending without charging interest
    • Love of enemies

Matthew concludes that if we want to be followers of Jesus, we must also be merciful and compassionate ourselves. As today’s reading from Leviticus says, we are called to be holy as God is holy. Or as Jesus puts it, perfect as God is perfect.

And how perfect is that? It’s the perfection of nature where the sun shines on good and bad alike – where rain falls on all fields regardless of who owns them. It’s the perfection of the God described in this morning’s responsorial. According to the psalmist, the Divine One pardons all placing an infinite distance (“as far as east is from west”) between sinners and their guilt. God heals all ills and as a loving parent is the very source of human goodness and compassion. That’s the perfection that Jesus’ followers are called to emulate.

All of that is contrasted with what Paul calls “the wisdom of the world” in today’s excerpt from his first letter to the Christian community in Corinth. The world regards turning the other cheek as weakness. Going the extra mile only invites exploitation. Generosity towards legal adversaries will lose you your case in court. Open-handedness towards beggars encourages laziness. Lending without interest is simply bad business. And loving one’s enemies is a recipe for military defeat and enslavement.

Yet Paul insists. And he bases his insistence on the conviction that we encounter God in every human individual whether they be our abusers, exploiters, or legal adversaries – whether they be beggars or debtors unlikely to repay our interest-free loans.

All of those people, Paul points out are “temples of God.” God dwells in each of them just as God does in us. In the end, that’s the basis of the command we heard in the Leviticus reading, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Normally, our self-centered culture interprets that dictum to mean: (1) we clearly love ourselves more above all; so (2) we should love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.

But in the light of Paul’s mystical teaching that God dwells within every human being, the command about neighbor-love takes on much deeper implication. That is, Paul the mystic teaches that our deepest Self is the very God who dwells within each of us as in the Temple. We should therefore love our neighbor (and our enemy, debtor, adversary, and those who beg and borrow from us) because God dwells within them — because they ARE ourselves. They ARE us! To bomb them, to fight wars against them is therefore suicidal.

No wonder, then, that Paul predicts the destruction of the person who fails to recognize others as temples of God and harms them. Paul means that by destroying others we ipso facto destroy ourselves, because in the end, the God-Self dwelling within us is identical with the Self present in the ones we shoot, bomb and drone. That is a very high mystical teaching. It should be the faith of those pretending to follow Jesus. It should make all of them (all of us!) pacifists.

If we owned that truth, that would be the end of wars. Imagine if the world’s 2.2 billion Christians gave up our addiction to violence and simply refused to destroy our fellow human beings because we recognized in them the indwelling presence of God. Imagine if we stopped worshipping the God Jesus rejects – the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” War God – and embraced Jesus’ compassionate and loving All-Parent.

The resources freed up would be sufficient to literally transform this world into a paradise.