Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

THE CHANGING IMAGE OF JESUS

Dear Jesus,

Sometimes I wonder about the message that goes out about you.  I mean if it could be tweaked a bit, more people might be interested in following you.  It’s natural for people today to ask, “What’s in it for me?”  And when they do, what kind of response are we supposed to give?

I remember being invited to a Christian Fellowship lunch.  When I arrived I found myself among a pleasant group of obviously prosperous people.  The agenda to be accomplished over our shrimp Caesars was to give testimony about your impact on our lives, what following you has meant.  I’ve never been comfortable with that kind of witnessing, probably because it wasn’t part of my tradition when I was growing up.  So my salad began to sit heavy in my stomach as, one by one, different people took the hand-held microphone and told their stories.

The common theme soon became obvious.  You have made a big difference in terms of these people’s pocketbooks.  I heard one after the other say how poorly they were doing in their various business pursuits before they found you.  As a result of turning their lives over to you, their fortunes changed.  You and prosperity go together, it seemed to me.  Each tale of success brought that microphone closer to me.

When it was my turn, I looked around the room at all the smiling and anticipating faces focused now on me.  I thought of my father who used to chide me whenever I voiced envy for some luxury item that another had, a fine home or automobile.  He always told me that I had chosen the wrong profession if I wanted those kinds of things.  Besides, he said, what does wealth prove about the character of the person?  Since my father came out of poverty and never achieved what would have been considered wealth, he was comfortable with that question.

Finally, I cleared my throat and gave my hesitant witness. I asked their pardon if what I was about to say offended.  I had to confess that prosperity hadn’t come my way in my walk with you.  In fact, I said, being too comfortable seems to weaken the Christian response.  I admitted to wishing from time to time that my fortunes would change.  But each time I did, I would remember your talking about poverty and about carrying the cross, and your own going up to Jerusalem to suffer, to die and to rise.  You challenged those who would be your disciples to walk in your footsteps.  I told them that your words to the rich young man, your urging him to go and sell what he had and give it to the poor before coming and following you always reverberated in my heart.  I paused and looked around the room.  Very few eyes were fixed on me.  Most stared at the near empty plates before them.  Could you hear my heart pounding in my chest as my discomfort grew?  I paused and took a sip of water.  The microphone picked up the clinking sound of the ice cubes against the glass.  Finally, to get myself off the hook and out of those still staring at me I concluded my witness by saying, “But you never know, my fortunes might change.  It just hasn’t happened yet.”

Jesus, I have been thinking a lot about you lately.  My image of you is changing.  That’s what I want to run by you.  As always, I would welcome your comments if my thinking were straying off base.

Is it natural to human beings to want power?  We are taught to be competitors from our earliest moments of life.  We are to expect that there will be winners and losers.  We should do all we can to be winners.  “To the victor belongs the spoils,” we are told.  Our concern ought to be about amassing a fortune.  The poor are only poor because they have not committed themselves completely enough in their quest for the gold.  If they worked harder they could be rich, too.  And the rich shouldn’t have to share their wealth with those who haven’t worked hard enough.  That philosophy, as you know, is called “Objectivism.”  Have you noticed how popular it is becoming again?

I can remember as a child one of the first images I had of you.  It was on a holy card that I received from Sister for acing a spelling test.  You were robed in splendor and majesty, crowned with the royal diadem, and seated on a throne in a far-off heaven.  A hint of clouds was at the bottom of the picture.  That image kept you distant and out of reach of the common person.  One could aspire to share in your triumph, foretastes of which were earthly victories.

Now I struggle with that image.  It makes me uncomfortable because I want to see you as the One who comes to serve, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, on a mission to die in every age.  I see you looking at me, peering into my soul’s depths, challenging me to do the same thing you did.  As one of the Baptized, I have to deal with what it means to be identified with you, to be born again in you.  Whether I knew it or not at the time, at Baptism is when I was given a share in the Priesthood of the Baptized.  And when I received my first Holy Communion, I was told to imitate what I have handled, and to go out and be bread broken for the poor.  Over the years I came to believe that the highest office in the church to which I should aspire was to be a foot washer.  You did say in effect during your final supper with the disciples, if I have washed your feet, so should you wash one another’s feet.  You dare me to do what you do, which ultimately entails being willing to suffer and die for the sake of the Gospel’s call to the freedom of the children of God.

All this makes me wonder about the image of you that should be put forth today.  It is true after all, that with money comes power.  If you want to get something done, go to the wealthy who can finance it.  Today, wealth and success are one and the same thing.  Who are the most admired among us?  Right after the teen idols, are the Fortune’s 500.  Would that image of you resplendent in a crown of diamonds and gold and emerald lined silk cope be more appealing today?

I can’t help envying those successful business people with whom I ate lunch.  But as I envy, I can’t get by your prediction that greatness in your number entails being a servant, no, not a servant, but a slave of all.  Just the way you are.  Is that what you are saying?  That is what I seem to hear in the preaching of your Gospel.  And that doesn’t come from reading between the lines and inferring. It comes from your boldest texts.

I would be happy to be shown another way, a more comfortable way to follow you if there is such a way.  I have been listening for a long time.  But I don’t hear another way.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – August 28, 2011

Jeremiah 20:7-9

Romans 12:1-2

Matthew 16:21-27

How you hear the words will determine the shade of meaning.  You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.  The dictionary says that a dupe is one who is easily deceived or cheated; in other words, a fool.  So, to be duped is to be made a fool of.  Was Jeremiah raging with fist raised to the heavens when these words came forth from his mouth?  Was he broken hearted with tears streaming down his face as he whispered them?  Was there a wry smile accompanied by a wagging head that left Jeremiah telling God that God had really pulled a clever one on the lad when God tapped him to be a prophet?  It’s all in how you hear the words as they are proclaimed.  Regardless of how you hear them, the truth remains that for Jeremiah the die has been cast.  Even if prophesying were to cost him his life, he still must do what God called him to do.  Jeremiah is in love with God and God’s people come what may.  And he can’t be quiet about that.

Jeremiah’s feelings may mirror Peter’s in the gospel.  Remember last week’s reading?  Peter proclaimed for the other disciples that they were convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  Jesus is the Messiah of God, the anointed one God has sent into the world.  Remember the praise that Jesus lavished on Peter for his insight?  Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  It is difficult to reconcile such generous praise with the rebuke that the Rock receives a few short verses later: Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle to me!

What had happened?  It seems Peter has a lot to learn.  He must be disabused of some assumptions he has made.  You see, for Peter the word Messiah had rich meaning that included power and prestige in the here and now.  Peter had seen evidence of Jesus’ formidable powers.  Over 5000 had been fed when Jesus blessed, broke and distributed a few loaves of bread.  Jesus walked on the water in the midst of a storm and then, as he got into the boat, commanded the storm to be quiet and it obeyed.  No wonder Peter assumed that Jesus as Messiah would be powerful in driving the Romans out of Israel and in turn would set up a powerful Kingdom, a rich kingdom, God’s kingdom that would last for ever.  It would be the end of the Jews’ oppression.  God had promised something like that if the Jews were faithful to the Law.  That’s what Jeremiah had prophesied.  And Peter could hardly wait because when those wonders happened and the rewards started pouring in, who would be there in a position of favor to bask in the luxury?  You guessed it.  Peter.

Those dreams are dashed in today’s gospel when Jesus begins to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly…and be killed and on the third day be raised.  What about the might and the glory?  What about Peter’s sharing the throne with a position of power?  After all, Jesus had just said that Peter was foundational to the kingdom that Jesus was bringing.  There is a word in the text whose force we might miss.  Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.  To rebuke someone is to give a complete dressing down to that person.  The word is harsh and severe in undertone.  Maybe a fist was shaken in Jesus’ face.  The words must have hissed from Peter’s lips with panic just beneath the surface.  The panic is born of Peter’s fear that he has been duped by Jesus whose first words of invitation to him had never ceased ringing in Peter’s ears: Come after me and I will make you fishers of humankind.  That’s a power position, isn’t it?

Jesus rebukes Peter in turn.  But when he tells Peter to get behind me, Satan, he is not banishing Peter, excommunicating him, as it were.  Rather, Jesus calls Peter a tempter the way Satan was when Satan argued with God in the Book of Job.  The order to get behind me is telling Peter to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and learn from what he observes over Jesus’ shoulder.  From there Peter will not see the workings of a warrior Messiah.  Peter will watch a Messiah as servant.  This Messiah will associate with all the wrong people – the poor, the blind, the lame, the lepers – all those people whose conditions were interpreted by the scribes and Pharisees as signs of their being reprehensible and out of favor with God.  That was the commonly accepted assumption of the times.  Worse than that, this Messiah sees suffering and death to be at the very core of his mission.  Peter is destined to see the worst things that people can inflict on people inflicted on Jesus.  Rejection.  Crucifixion.  Death.  In those days there was nothing worse that could be imagined.  And Peter probably missed the part about rising on the Third Day.  What could that have meant, anyway?

What tone of voice do you imagine that Jesus used in the final discourse of this pericope?  We might like to hear the Gentle Jesus reassuring Peter and the other disciples.  But could it be that Jesus used a stern voice with a hint of anger in it?  It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Peter’s words had been a temptation against which Jesus had to struggle.  Jesus must shock his audience into hearing the new basic condition for discipleship.  They are going to have to do what Jesus does.  They will have to walk in Jesus footsteps and learn to imitate what they see over his shoulders.  Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow me.  In other words, if one seeks discipleship for the good things that will follow from it, the prosperity, power, and position that will follow, that one is following the wrong Messiah.  The trappings of glory are not part of Jesus’ scenario.  It is a servant church whose foundation is Rock (Peter) that Jesus is bringing into existence.

You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped!  Jeremiah’s words are now on Peter’s lips.  What was true for Jeremiah is also true for Peter.  Peter may have been duped, but for him there is no turning back.  Life without Jesus would be no life at all.  He may still have a lot to learn, even the basic meaning of discipleship, but the truth emerging is that for Peter to live is Christ and to die is gain, as Paul will say later when facing his own death.

People can come to Christ from various motives and begin to walk with him on The Way.  But that walking takes time and the walking is formational.  Inevitably that walking necessitates denying self and giving up presuppositions.  That walking must be in Jesus’ footsteps with lessons learned from watching over his shoulder and from doing what Jesus does.  Those who aspire to discipleship must accept vulnerability.  Jesus’ values are not the world’s values.  It’s not about power here, but service – about serving the poorest of the poor and giving them primacy of place.  Discipleship entails gathering at the Table to give thanks to God – the word Eucharist means thanksgiving.  There, dying and rising happen as the Assembly breaks the Bread and shares the Cup and is transformed into the Body of Christ in order to be sent themselves to be broken and distributed until all the poor have been fed.  Being vulnerable, service might entail dying, too.  It did for Jesus.  It may well for those who follow him.

Don’t miss the promise.  For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to their conduct.  I think of St. Ignatius of Antioch who pled with his people not to try to dissuade him from the martyrdom, the lions’ jaws that awaited him.  He urged them to let him be ground like wheat in the lions’ jaws, an allusion to the flour from which the Eucharistic bread would be kneaded.  For Ignatius, the death of martyrdom was not defeat but victory in Christ.  So must it be for all who follow Christ.  We may not be cast to the lions.  But we may be ridiculed and abased in our service.  Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t how it is supposed to be.  Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t the lesson to be learned and taken to heart by all those who let themselves be duped by the Gospel.

Sincerely,

Didymus

MY HEART LISTENS

Dear Jesus,

Recently someone asked me how many times I had heard “The Prodigal Son” parable.  I had to be honest and say that I had no idea, since the parable is one of my favorite passages in the gospels.  What came next surprised me.  “When was the last time you really heard it, I mean heard it with an open heart?”  He wasn’t trying to be nasty or cutting.  He was drawing me to enter into his insight that twice-told tales tend to become routine and humdrum.  We seldom can hear them the way we did that first time.

I took my friend’s sharing as a challenge to try to hear the parable anew.  I realize that that’s not easy to do.  A lot of accommodations creep in with multiple readings.  Over the years subconsciously I have added details that are not in the bare text of your telling.  Perhaps those subtleties and nuances are necessary to make the story palatable resulting in my being less uncomfortable.  I should have realized that the easier the story goes down, the farther I am from your intention and meaning.  Your parables always have problems and ultimately are meant to be unsettling, challenging the hearer to see things in a wholly new and different way, to see things the way God does.

So, taking the dare, I sat with the text and let the words wash over me.  I was determined not to accommodate at any point.  I imagined the sound of your voice, hearing a bit of an edge in it because you are speaking to people who are upset with you for the company you keep, for welcoming sinners and eating with them.  Then I thought of a few people whom I won’t name here that, were you to be seen eating with them, I would be upset, too.  And I was hooked.  You had me.  Over the years I had become accustomed to identifying with the returning son.  The story comforted me as a blanket does a thumb-sucking infant.  But you don’t serve pabulum, do you?  Where had I come up with the idea that the Prodigal son wasn’t really that prodigal?  He wasn’t really a sinner, was he?  Was he?

This time, for the first time, he did sin.  He was selfish, preoccupied with himself, and cruel to his father as he told him he could not wait for his father to die to receive his inheritance.  He wanted it now.  You said he squandered his inheritance on dissolute living.  I looked up the word.  It means loose moral living.  Maybe his brother was right in saying that he was involved with prostitutes.  I couldn’t accept that before.  I have forgotten that part of this story has to do with repentance, with being sorry for sin.

Cutting to the chase, let me tell you that this time when I finished the once beloved story, I was aquiver.  Don’t you think this is dangerous stuff if we were to take it literally?  I think it would be fine if you were a prodigal son type, waking up at the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, and suddenly were looking for an excuse to return to the table.  There would be comfort in imagining being received with open arms by a father who had never stopped loving the son.  But think about this from the community’s point of view.  Could they live by these standards and imitate the father in the prodigality of his forgiving?  Wouldn’t that make absolution too easy to come by?  And what would this say to all of those who haven’t strayed.

Don’t you think we have to be more exacting than the father who sounds – pardon me for saying this – sounds foolish in his excesses over the son who had in effect betrayed him?  Shouldn’t there be something of the teacher in the father’s response?  Shouldn’t the son learn a lesson?  What’s to keep the young returnee from doing it all over again?

Are you going to write back to me and tell me that I am still not getting it?  Forgive me for being obtuse.  But think with me for a moment.  What would the church be like if this parable became a foundation piece governing her actions?  There’s wisdom in making things difficult for people once they have crossed the line.  Shouldn’t they have to prove their repentance?  Translate the father’s joy in embracing his returning son to our table of fellowship and it would seem that everyone should be welcome.  Would the church survive long with that attitude?

Tell me.  Are you really saying that there is nothing God loves to do more than to forgive and welcome back?  If the prodigal father is really a God figure, is your story saying that God would risk appearing so foolish as to run through the city streets toward the beaten and bedraggled returning son?  Wouldn’t God take time to listen to the protestations of repentance and so be moved with pity when the one returning said, “I deserve to be treated like one of your hired hands”?  But then I noticed in this reading that the son doesn’t repeat that rehearsed line.  Are you saying that God can’t resist forgiving?  What if people laughed, thinking the behavior demented?

Oh, my, I just had a thought.  Are you the prodigal son in the story?  You went out and emptied (yourself) of everything that was divine and became sin for us.  You squandered gifts among sinners, telling them of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and unconditional love.  Now I hear your last words from the cross later in Luke’s Gospel as I have never heard them before: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!  God was there in the void of death’s darkness to catch you on your return and raise you up.

If I get your meaning, you are saying that your destiny will be mine if I forgive others the way God does.  This is not an invitation to be like the prodigal son so much as it is to have a heart like the prodigal father’s.  There’s comfort in the former’s stand.  But challenge to be an imitator of the latter’s.

Could you get back to me if I am on the right track here?  If I am, I am gong to have to admit to my friends that I have finally heard this parable with an open heart that could be changed by the reading.  And I will pray that you change my heart.  I can’t do this on my own.

Sincerely,

Didymus