Samaritans in the Ditch

Luke 10:25-37

The Revised Common Lectionary will not get to Luke’s retelling of Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan until mid-summer.  But this blog is discussing Luke/Acts in the sequence in which it was written.  By unfortunate yet serendipitous chance, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is especially timely.

The story of the good Samaritan is probably one of the most loved and misunderstood parables that Jesus told.  Nearly all of us identify with the Samaritan who stops to help a man who had been robbed and left for dead by the side of the road.  There are probably hundreds of homeless shelters, feeding programs, and free clinics world-wide with the name “Samaritan” in them, but they miss the original point of the parable.  See The Five Gospels, (Harper SanFrancisco, 1993) p. 324.  For a couple thousand years, probably starting with Luke’s community, people who heard this story heard it as changing the idea of a neighbor from one who receives love (the man in the ditch) to one who gives love (the Samaritan).

Luke throws the parable off point when he uses the story to answer a legal expert who tries to test Jesus by asking, “what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus answers with his own question: “How do you read what is written in the Law?”  The lawyer quotes the founding rule of Jewish covenantal life: “You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your energy, and with all your mind; and [you are to love] your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him he’s right.  “Do this, and you will have life.”  But the lawyer isn’t satisfied.  He wants Jesus to tell him who his neighbor is.  So Jesus tells the parable about the Samaritan.  At the end of the story, Luke’s Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, in your opinion, acted like a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The lawyer answers, “the one who showed him compassion.”  Jesus says, “Then go and do the same yourself.”

Luke was writing for Roman citizens –  Gentiles, who accepted the Jewish God but not Jewish customs.  If Luke’s readers were also among the educated and rich, the story would have been perfect for challenging the conscience without challenging Roman authority.  Gentile readers, with no real idea about what Jewish custom or history was, would have been glad to blame the priest and the Levite for passing by callously on the other side because of “purity laws.”  Like 21st Century Christians, who have heard the story since childhood, Luke’s 1st Century community would have had no idea what it would have meant to the Jewish man in the ditch to be saved by an enemy Samaritan.  But Jesus’ original audience would have immediately seen the improbability of an enemy Samaritan helping a Jew.  In 21st Century terms, receiving such assistance would be like accepting donations from Hammas to the fund for 9/11 victims.  In Jesus’s original parable, roles are reversed, expectations exploded, and the playing field has been radically leveled.

Jesus’ contemporaries may have heard him tell the story at a banquet.  After the main course has been cleared and the wine and fruit brought out, the political discussions begin, interspersed with jokes and aphorisms about the occupying Romans, godless Greek pagans, Arab traders, and local riff-raff such as the tax collectors, dishonest merchants, and of course, those dirty, shifty-eyed Samaritans, who live in the hills and probably worship the old Canaanite gods and goddesses in contravention of God’s law.

Into the raucous profanity Jesus tosses this gem: “Have you heard the one about the man who was going from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell into the hands of robbers?  They stripped him and beat him up and left him for dead.”

“So what else is new?” the listeners gripe.  “The Romans refuse to secure the road.  We’re all at the mercy of bandits and murderers!”

“Well it just so happens,” Jesus goes on, “That a priest was going down that road.  When he saw the man, he went out of his way to avoid him.  In the same way, a Levite came to the place, took one look at him, and crossed the road to avoid him.”

“Probably thought he was dead. Unclean.  Can’t touch him.  It’s the law.”

“But this Samaritan who was traveling that way came to where he was and –”

“Hah!  Picked what was left of his pockets, right?”

“– was moved to pity at the sight of him.”

Jesus has everyone’s full attention at this point, and escalates the preposterousness of the scene with every following phrase: “He went up to him and bandaged his wounds–”

[“huh?”]

“–poured olive oil and wine on them.  Then he hoisted him up on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and looked after him.”

“Get out!”

“The next day, he took out two silver coins, which he gave to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Look after him, and on my way back, I’ll reimburse you for any extra expense you have had.”

The entire room falls out laughing.

It would be fun to remain a fly on the wall at this point and listen to the discussion among the listeners, who identified with the victim in the ditch, not with the people passing by.  The question was not to whom am I a neighbor, but from whom can I expect help?

The following chilling, contemporary example reflects the parable from both points of view.  First, a homeless man (Hugo Tale-Yax) came to the assistance of a woman being attacked.  Assistance came to her from a very unexpected quarter of the human terrain.  The rescuer was then stabbed by the woman’s attacker.  Both the woman and the attacker fled in different directions.  The homeless man lay in a pool of blood on the pavement for an hour and-a-half, while people passed by, looked at him, took cell phone photos of him, and turned him over to see if he was dead.  No one came to his assistance.  By the time somebody got around to calling 911, he was dead at the scene.

Taking the traditional reading of the parable, how much longer can we pass by on the other side?  Taking the more disturbing meaning, what happens to us when we are tossed into the margins? From whom can we expect help?  Apparently our fellow human beings are no more likely to come to our aid than are the institutions we thought we had created to help us.  Law enforcement, FEMA, the U.S. Congress – all fail us.  Even our 21st century equivalents of the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s parable – our institutional churches – look the other way when confronted with inhumane workplace conditions, unfair immigration laws, and war disguised as “preemptive strikes” against “enemies,” whom we are supposed to love.

Perhaps it has been more convenient for Christians to understand this parable as requiring selflessness on our part.  We are to be as compassionate as the Samaritan, and therefore worthy of “salvation” from Hell in the next life.  When the rich and socially-connected take care of charity cases, the need for expensive government safety nets is much less.  And when the “less fortunate” are convinced that it is their duty as well to care for their own, even better.

Oppressed people often side with their oppressors as a matter of survival.  The man in the ditch had to accept help from his enemy or die.  On that very personal level, it is easy to see that refusing assistance would have been stupid  But the stupidity is not so obvious when the choice for those in the ditch is to work for Walmart for minimum wage versus working overtime for unsafe mine operators while taking home upwards of $70,000 a year.  Accusations of collaborating with injustice are easy to make.  After all, we might be thinking, that “contemporary” incident mentioned above was nothing more than a criminal street fight.

But something else more radical than any of these scenarios is going on in this parable.  The playing field has been leveled.  The despised Samaritan is saving the equally despised victim of Roman oppression.  In the contemporary example, the whole altercation happened in Queens, New York, among people of questionable reputation at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday.
Deeper yet, in the parable, both parties have surrendered to the reality of their individual humanity, and have acted from that common ground.  The Samaritan has treated his enemy as a friend; the Jew has experienced his enemy as a savior.

Do we no longer recognize humanity in 21st Century America?  How long must we lie in the ditch?

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Call For Progressive Christian Evangelism

Luke 10:1-24

Luke’s Jesus sends out 72 disciples to teach and heal.  He provides instructions for the road; he also rails against cities that don’t accept his teachings – despite the fact that elsewhere he has said to love your enemies.  When the disciples come back exulting that “Lord, even the demons submit to us when we invoke your name!” Jesus says (as though he had magically seen the evidence) “I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” He says that the truth about him has been hidden from the wise and intelligent, but revealed to the “untutored.”  Everything has been turned over to him, but no one knows who Jesus is unless he wishes to reveal himself.  “Many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, and didn’t see it, and to hear what you hear, and didn’t hear it.”

Luke likes to contrast insiders with outsiders.  Jesus’s teachings are secrets to be passed on only to those privileged few in the inner circle to whom Jesus chooses to reveal them.  The Jesus Seminar Scholars have suggested that Luke was making Jesus’s message safe for Roman society.  However, that does not mean “safe” as in “safe from persecution.”  There was little to no persecution of Jews or Christians during the time when Luke was probably creating his two-part epic.  “Safe for Roman society” more likely means, watered down (or coded) so it would not present too great a challenge for non-Jewish newcomers to the Way, or offend the imperial theology.  If followers of Jesus’s Way proclaimed Jesus as Lord, and not the Emperor, they would be guilty of disloyalty if not treason.  But that was a matter of law, not a policy of deliberate persecution on the part of the Roman government.

These passages are easily read as a call to conservative evangelicals to step out in faith and proclaim Jesus as savior from death, hell and sin.  Satan, as conservatives like to say, is roaring around like a hungry lion, looking for sinners to snatch and consume.  But belief in Jesus can defeat the powers of evil today, just like they did in Jesus’s time.

The idea of “progressive” or “liberal Christian evangelism” may seem at first to be an oxymoron.  But consider the state of Biblical literacy in the 21st Century.  Most people have little to no knowledge of what the New or the Old Testament actually says.  Indeed, outside of Christian churches few consider the Bible to be relevant to any discussion about the tough issues such as human rights for women (i.e., the right to choose what happens to our bodies); climate change; corporate malfeasance; poverty; or war.  As for church-going Christians (whether liberal or fundamentalist) most turn out to be “untutored” in the Bible beyond the few short verses required to be memorized in Sunday School.  Among these, of course is “Jesus wept.”  The writer of Luke’s gospel was trying to make a point that the “wise and intelligent” were less able to recognize the Kingdom of God all around them.  The “untutored” were children, the poor, and the less privileged, whose only hope was the Kingdom of God.  Given the state of Biblical literacy in the church today, the truth about Jesus is still hidden from “the wise and intelligent.”

The possibility that Jesus’s message was one of radical fairness, and that following Jesus means creating and living in a world based on non-violent covenant instead of desperate selfishness, has certainly been hidden from view since before Luke decided to tell the story.  It’s time to give the presidents and prime ministers of today the chance to see and hear the alternatives to imperial, retributive, business-as-usual.  It’s time to offer viable alternatives to the feel-good, prosperity-based, exclusive, self-righteousness that passes for evangelism on the right.  As liberal pundit Keith Olbermann has suggested, it’s time for some non-violent democratic action.

Taking Luke’s version of Jesus’s marching orders as a model, what would liberal or progressive Christian evangelism look like?

To start with, there are two sets of instructions for the road in Luke.  The first set is in 9:1-6, and applies to the 12 members of Jesus’s inner circle.  The second set is for the advance team that Luke’s Jesus sends out in pairs ahead of him to the villages he intends to visit.  Unlike the 12, the72 are not supposed to wear sandals; not to greet anyone on the road; they are to extend the peace greeting to each house; and eat and drink whatever is provided.  But really, all this shows is that as Christ communities formed and re-formed in the earliest days, ideas evolved.  One of the ideas that did not survive on a large scale is that followers of the Way were (must be?) itinerant travelers, trusting the culture of hospitality, and the providence of God’s realm.

If 21st Century liberals are to reclaim Jesus’s teachings as a way of life, we may want to take a page from Paul’s mission to the Gentiles outside of Jerusalem.  Paul’s original intent was not to form a new separate church, but to transform Judaism from within.  But the controversy over whether new Gentile converts to the Way were required to follow Jewish laws (specifically circumcision) led to a rift between Paul and the Jerusalem faction.  Paul’s increasingly universal interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection resulted in the eventual separation of Judaism from Christianity.  If an analogy may be made between this historical series of events and current Christian debates, then Paul’s letter to the Galatians is particularly relevant.  (As an aside, note that Luke’s version of the encounter between Peter and Paul in Jerusalem differs significantly from what Paul writes.  Compare Acts 15 with Galatians 2.)

Instead of demanding belief in a story about a resuscitated corpse that somehow is still walking the city streets today, scaring people into proper behavior, progressive Christians can witness to what scholars are telling us was Jesus’s original message.  Instead of hellfire and damnation (such as Luke’s Jesus lets loose in 10:13-15) the good news from liberals is that the realm of God – where distributive justice-compassion rules – is here now (See Luke 10:9).  Don’t worry about stepping on scorpions or handling snakes or subduing demons.  The writer of Luke’s gospel may not have meant that to be taken literally, even at the end of the 1st Century.  Once people start living from non-violent distributive justice-compassion, demonic evil begins to retreat.

Today, the controversy is between those who would insist that belief in the story of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead is necessary for salvation in the next life versus the reclamation of Jesus’s original message, which says nothing about the dead, except that the dead should be left to bury their own (Luke 9:62). According to Jesus (in all four Gospels) the realm of God is here and now.  This version of Christianity means living in radical abandonment of self-interest in the service of distributive justice-compassion in this life.  Signing onto this way of life is a choice that anyone can make, without declaring belief or non-belief in anyone coming back from the dead.  Much like Jewish law in Paul’s arguments, the metaphors of incarnation and resurrection – powerful as they are for those who understand them – are irrelevant.  What matters is the result.  Do we have a world where distributive justice-compassion holds sway?  Or do we have a world where greed, retribution, and getting even are the norm?  Liberal, progressive Christian evangelism is nothing less than changing the paradigm.

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Miners, Massey, and Montcoal

The Choice for Progressives II: Jesus – Magician or Liberator?

Luke 9:7-62

The first part of this section of Luke’s Gospel deals with Luke’s version of the Feeding of the 5,000.  These particular verses from Luke are never read in any of the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary.  Mark’s original story of the Feeding of the 5,000 is also never read; the developers of the RCL prefer Matthew’s version. But neither Matthew nor Luke (and certainly not John – whose version is substituted for Mark’s in Year B) lay out the sequence like Mark does (seeLosing the Way Parts I-III and Bread of Life Parts I-IV).

Mark’s story (6:34-8:21) is an extended parable about the fair distribution of food, interspersed with hints from an increasingly exasperated Jesus about who he is and what he is trying to do. While the idea that this was a demonstration of radical sharing is there in Luke’s short vignette, Luke’s emphasis is on Jesus as the Anointed one, “the son of Adam [who] is destined to suffer a great deal, be rejected by the elders and ranking priests and scholars, and be killed and, on the third day, be raised.”  The Transfiguration scene is of course read on the last Sunday of Epiphany and the second Sunday of Lent in Year C.  Luke does not include Jesus walking on the water, or the discussion about food purity laws that Mark presents and Matthew copies into his gospel.  Instead, Luke concentrates on what Jesus’s followers will, should, and must do after Jesus’s death.

What is Luke suggesting?

1.    Deny yourselves, take up your cross EVERY DAY and follow me.
2.    Lose your life FOR MY SAKE and find it
3.    Whoever is ashamed of ME AND MY MESSAGE the Son of Adam will be ashamed of in return
4.    Anyone who looks back from the plow is not qualified for God’s imperial rule.

None of these phrases is considered to be traceable to the historical Jesus.  Instead, they are aphorisms for the community for which Luke was writing, 50 to 75 years after Jesus’s death.  The Jesus Seminar scholars suggest that these admonitions are softened, or “domesticated.”  They do not reflect Jesus’s original radical abandonment of self-interest in the service of distributive justice-compassion.  Instead, the Scholars argue, Luke has turned the cross into an “everyday,” ordinary piety.  The sayings encourage belief about Jesus himself, not participation in the way of life that he taught.  The idea that “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (NRSV) reflects the story of Lot’s wife, who looked back at Sodom and Gomorrah and turned into a pillar of salt.  Once you have accepted the Kingdom of God, Luke seems to be saying, you can’t have second thoughts.  To follow the agricultural metaphor (which the JS Scholars do not pursue in their notes) anyone who looks back at the row he’s been plowing will veer off and the row will not be straight.  Christian piety abounds.

The JS scholars argue that Luke made Christianity safe for Roman society, and Luke may well have succeeded in describing the message so that only insiders would realize what it meant.  But I would suggest that Luke’s list can be read as radically as anything Jesus may have actually taught.  Let’s consider Luke’s sequence in 9:7-62 in the light of the April 5, 2010 Massey Energy Company mining disaster in Montcoal, West Virginia.

Interestingly, the story begins with Herod, the oppressor and representative of imperial Rome, who wonders who this Jesus is.  “He was curious to see him,” Luke reports.  Then Luke briefly sketches the legend of the feeding of the 5,000.  We might think this has only to do with food.  But what Mark (and Luke) emphasize is the necessity for the followers of Jesus to trust the way of life in the realm of God and share what they have.  This sharing does not begin and end with food, nor – applied to the 21st century – does this sharing end with comfort or charity provided to the survivors of preventable accidents.  This sharing is in stark contrast to the greed represented by the deliberate decision to enjoy profit and productivity at the expense of the health and safety of workers.  The disciples missed the point in all the gospel accounts.  It’s not about magic and miracle.  It’s about transforming the world from greed to giving.

Next, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah (God’s anointed one).  Jesus warns his followers that the anointed one will suffer, be rejected by the elders and ranking priests and scholars, and be killed and on the third day be raised.  Here the consequences of kenosis the radical abandonment of self-interest, and the intention to create a share-world instead of a greed-world are clear: rejection by the authorities and death.  Vindication or resurrection are a hope, not a certainty.  Luke’s Jesus says, “Those who want to come after me should deny themselves, pick up their cross every day, and follow me.”

This does not mean follow Jesus like sheep into the mines to be sacrificed to the god of greed and international commerce, in the vain hope that a miracle will bring us out safely.  Nor does it mean that once dead, we will live again in some heavenly realm beyond Antares.  It means somehow finding the courage to blow the whistle on the safety violations; to refuse to work in illegal conditions; to organize collective bargaining associations in the face of company rules prohibiting unions.  These are the crosses mineworkers are asked to bear.  The consequences can be dire:  losing jobs through firing or because the mine is at last shut down; falling into poverty; and death.  Death can come at the hands of corporate collaborators, or friends who – like Judas  – see no other way to survive than to sell out.  If the mines can be shut down because of safety violations, the temptation is high for inspectors to ignore unsafe conditions, and for miners themselves to decline to complain.

Luke’s Jesus asks, “what good does it do a person to acquire the whole world and lose or forfeit oneself?”  The writer of Mark’s Gospel adds a correlative: “Or what would a person give in exchange for life?”  These are disturbing and dangerous questions to ask, especially if those questions are asked about the victims who died, and put to their surviving families.  The point is not to blame the victims.  The point is that the people West Virginia coal country (and throughout Appalachia) have no choice about where and how they earn a living.  If they are to have the level of wealth that middle class white collar or unionized blue collar workers have elsewhere, then they have to work in the mines.

However, in the context of 21st Century corporate malfeasance, these are very valid questions with which to confront the boss.  What would the corporation give in exchange for the lives of the mine workers?  $70,000 a year, including required overtime pay? $4.2 million in corporate penalties and fines in one year, which amount to one hour of profit? Luke’s Jesus suggests a judgment against those who are “ashamed of me and my message.”  Jesus’s message is, “deny yourself, pick up your cross every day, and follow me.”  In 21st Century words, Jesus demands the radical abandonment of self-interest in the service of distributive justice-compassion here and now.  Otherwise, “when the Son of Adam comes again to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, he will in turn be ashamed of that person.”  Again, in 21st Century language, the judgment is not some time in the future when the world ends.  The judgment is now in the consequences that result in death.

About a week after delivering these sayings, Luke says, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray.  Jesus is transfigured to a being of dazzling white light.  Moses and Elijah – the greatest of prophets up to that point in Jewish spiritual history – appear to walk beside him.  Then a cloud moves in, and God says, “This is my son, my chosen one.  Listen to him!”  But the disciples apparently don’t listen.  The following day a man brings his son to Jesus because the disciples are unable to exorcise the evil spirit that is possessing the child.  Jesus has had enough.  “You distrustful and perverted lot,” he yells, “How long must I associate with you and put up with you?”  And he heals the boy himself.  Luke follows this with another warning from Jesus about his impending death, but the disciples not only don’t understand.  “They always dreaded to ask him about this remark.”  Worse, Luke chooses this point to talk about the argument that broke out among them about who is the greatest.

Who is listening today?  Corporations that are now considered to be people by the U.S. Supreme Court are certainly not listening.  They are too busy determining who will be the greatest, the richest, the most politically powerful.  The workers are not listening either, but at ths point cannot be blamed for choosing what appears to be the only path. They are oppressed and victimized by corporations that win awards for stated policies regarding safety, but whose daily behavior nullifies what’s on paper.  Neither the political parties on the right who claim Jesus as their Lord, nor the political parties on the left who claim justice and equity for all, are listening.

Nor is the Church, the purported “body of Christ,” listening.

Jesus said, “Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the son of Adam has nowhere to rest his head.”  Scholars argue that this may have actually been a call to the earliest of Jesus’s followers to live a life of itinerancy.  But the literal meaning of those words is evident today: The Son of Adam is nowhere to be found in the economics of mining nor in other economic systems on the planet.  Further, if the government of the State of West Virginia continues its policy that assures that mining trumps everything, then the foxes and the birds will soon join Jesus in the homeless population.

Jesus also said, “Leave it to the dead to bury their own dead; but you go out and announce God’s imperial rule.”  These are shocking words.  Luke tries to soften and explain them when he has Jesus say, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is qualified for God’s imperial rule.”  We cannot know the context that produced Jesus’s original words, handed down by oral tradition, and captured in this sequence by the writer of Luke’s gospel.  But in terms of justice-compassion, and applied specifically to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, Luke’s qualifier is just as radical as Jesus’s seemingly heartless demand.

So far, what the coal companies have done is assure that regulations and changes are only brought about with the blood of the people in the mines.  Let those who are dead to the possibility of justice-compassion bury the dead.  For those who would assure the future health, safety, and justice for the mining industry, don’t look back.  The workers must organize and stand together for fair wages and working conditions; the regulators must ignore threats from corporations and close down unsafe operations; state legislators must stop worrying about being elected, and start passing laws that assure federal regulations will be enforced; and the rest of the people in West Virginia must demand world-class education, retraining, health care, sustainable, meaningful work, and affordable housing for everyone.  Higher taxes and lower profits are far less expensive than 29 lives.

Luke’s sequence begins with Herod, the oppressor and representative of imperial Rome, who wondered who this Jesus was, and wanted to meet him.  Perhaps, as the story of the Upper Big Branch Mine continues to unfold, the supporters of business as usual in West Virginia will have that chance.…

Good Friday and Holy Saturday

Holy Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis
copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.

Friday

John 18:1-19:37; Isaiah 52:13-53:12

John’s detailed story of the arrest, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus is intricately interwoven with the third Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.  John is especially interested in showing that Jesus died in fulfillment of scripture.  Two millennia of tradition, visual art, musical art, and film confirm the basic belief of all Christianity.  “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. . . he was wounded for our transgressions . . . and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  There isn’t a choir member on the Planet who has not sung these choruses from Handel’s great Messiah.

As should be evident from this past week of commentary, this Christology cannot be reclaimed; it must be replaced.  Neither guilt nor self-loathing are emotions that empower people to love others, or spur people to take action with justice as radical fairness, or to give up systems that demand retribution and payback.  Jesus was not executed by the representatives of the Roman Empire because God needed a scapegoat to carry away the sins of the world.  Jesus was executed because the way of life that he taught challenged and contradicted the conventional order.  Jesus’s Way overturns the normal systems of piety, war, and victory, and restores God’s Covenant:  non-violence, distributive justice, and true peace.

The question for 21st Century Christians is not whether you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, but whether your Jesus – your Christ – your Lord – your God – is violent, demanding retributive justice, or non-violent, expecting and desiring distributive justice-compassion. The choice we make regarding the nature of our God determines the quality of life for all sentient beings on the Planet.  The non-violent, non-interventionist, kenotic God, without ego, without being, is the context within which and from which the earth and all its creatures realize wholeness.  The crucifixion and death of Jesus – indeed the violent death of anyone working for the cause of justice-compassion – signals the absence of that kenotic god whose presence is justice and life.

Kenosis, in this series of essays, means the radical abandonment of self-interest in the service of distributive justice-compassion.  When we make that choice, as John’s Jesus showed and taught us, we suffer because that choice can mean going against family, friends, church, society, government.  What is most difficult to deal with is that seldom do we see any confirmation that our choice has made any difference.  The versions of Jesus’s death in Mark and Matthew graphically describe Jesus’s certainty that he had been abandoned by God.  If injustice and death indicate the absence of the kenotic god, then Jesus was not only betrayed and abandoned by his friends; he was indeed betrayed and abandoned by his God.

Saturday

John 19:38-42; Job 14:1-14

“As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep . . . If mortals die, will they live again?  All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come.”  So the writer of Job – taken out of the context the writer intended – plunges us into the stark reality of the death of the Servant, who dies in the service of God’s justice, and waits for God’s vindication.  Holy Saturday is the via negativa: the journey into darkness, despair, hopelessness, death.  (See Matthew Fox, Original Blessing (Bear & Co., Santa Fe, 1983).)

The developers of the Revised Common Lectionary, of course, have cherry-picked the passages from Job, ending with the Servant’s anticipated release.  If the entire chapter is read, the mourning for loss is profound: If my release should come, the servant Job says, “[God] would call, and I would answer; [God] would long for the work of [God’s] hands. . . [God] would not keep watch over my sin . . . But the mountain falls and crumbles away, and the rock is removed from its place . . . so you [God] destroy the hope of mortals . . . their children come to honor and they do not know it; they are brought low, and it goes unnoticed. . . .”  By stopping with verse 14, the possibility is left open for the theological argument about how Jesus descended into Hell to release the souls of the martyrs.  But as far as Jesus’ community of followers was concerned, as of the Sabbath, the powers and principalities had won.  It is important to realize how possible such an outcome is in the 21st Century.

The powers and principalities, the normalcy of civilization, the seemingly inevitable domination of empire and systems of retribution have brought us to the brink of human if not planetary extinction.  To quote Borg and Crossan yet again, “ . . . we can do it already in about five different ways – atomically, biologically, chemically, demographically, ecologically – and we are only up to e” (p. 171).  Politically, the United States is the first among equals of violent empire, following the drumbeat of military and economic power in pursuit of world domination.  U.S. foreign, domestic, and economic policies are grounded in violent ideology that is deaf to reality, even provable, measurable, physical realities such as global warming, mortal poverty, and ignorance.  We should sit in dust and ashes for a moment, and not skip blithely into Easter’s happy ending.  Without experiencing via negativa, without traveling to the middle of the labyrinth, past the demons, we can never arrive at the fire at the center where the creative response is generated, and the key to the way out into transformation is found.

Without death, there is no life.  This is the law of the Universe.

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Thursday

Holy Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis
copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.

Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; John 13:1-17; 31b-35; 1st Cor. 11:23-26

Holy Week began with Jesus’s demonstration countering the pomp and circumstance of imperial force; Monday was a foreshadowing of the consequences of taking such a stance against the powers and principalities of normal human systems, as Mary anoints Jesus, preparing his body in advance for death.  Tuesday provided the theological context.  God’s wisdom raises the slave above all others who would pretend to be the rulers of the universe.  Wednesday suggested Jesus as the model of that kenotic Servant.  This is not a power-over others, but a power-with the seamless matrix of Being in the Universe.  On Thursday those who would follow that model receive the mandate.

When the Church conflates John’s pre-Passover footwashing with the imagery of the Paschal Lamb and the stories of the “last supper” in the synoptic gospels, the result is a mixed metaphor: Forgiveness of “sin” is confused with deliverance from injustice, and the radically inclusive equality of the Kingdom of God is lost.

In John’s version of Jesus’ story, Jesus “loved his own, who were in the world, [and] he loved them to the end.”  As a demonstration of that self-less love, Jesus takes off his outer robe, wraps a towel around himself, and proceeds to wash his disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel.  In the normal course, as the master teacher, Jesus would be justified in expecting that his disciples wash his feet.  But Jesus never does what would be expected in the normal course.  His kenotic action is a demonstration of how his followers are to treat one another.  After he has washed their feet he says, “I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you . . . I tell you, servants are not greater than their masters, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”  In other words, John’s Jesus says, if you understand the conventional social arrangement (servants are not greater than their masters), Congratulations.  But look at what I have just done.  The master has become the servant; the order of normal human interaction is reversed.  When Peter objects, Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share [i.e., nothing in common] with me.”  Taken at face value, these words seem contradictory or exclusionary; instead, they illustrate the profound equality of power in the Kingdom of God.

The inclusion of Exodus 12:1-14 in the list of readings for Maundy Thursday seems to confirm John’s theology that Jesus is the new Paschal Lamb.  Twice John refers to the day and time of Jesus’s death being the “day of preparation” for the Passover,  when the Passover lambs were ritually slaughtered in the temple (see John 19:14; 19:31).  But the synoptic tradition does not make that connection.  The blood of the Paschal Lamb was smeared above the doors of the ancient Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, so that God’s angel of death would pass over them.  The Paschal Lamb is a symbol of deliverance, both from God’s judgment for injustice, and from the people’s enemies.  It is not a symbol of forgiveness of sin.  As John’s high priest Caiphas says (albeit without a clue what he was saying at the time), “. . . it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50-52)  Jesus is the willing sacrifice – the one who willingly chooses to give up his life in the process of restoring God’s justice-compassion to God’s world.  Borg and Crossan say it best:

   “Recall, however, the challenge of Jesus in [Mark] 8:34-35: “. . . those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake . . . will save it.”  Recall also [that] . . . Peter wanted no part of that fate, the Twelve debated their relative worth, and James and John wanted first seats afterward.  But Jesus had explained to them quite clearly that his and their life was a flat contradiction to the normalcy of civilization’s domination systems.  In other words it was by participation with Jesus and, even more, in Jesus that his followers were to pass through death to resurrection, from the domination life of human normalcy to the servant life of human transcendence.”

The Last Week, pp. 119-120.

There is no “institution of the Lord’s Supper” in John, and so the Revised Common Lectionary offers what is thought to be the original from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  Paul’s Jesus declares, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Paul explains, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  But these words have become identified with substitutionary atonement and apocalyptic second-coming imagery.  The Eucharist has become the commemoration of Jesus’s betrayal and death, and the confession of sin as complicity on the part of his followers (then and now) in that action.  The celebrant proclaims “The blood of the new covenant poured out . . . for the forgiveness of sins.”  But that is not what Paul intended.

The purpose of the shared meal that became the defining ritual of early Christianity was to renew the Covenant with God for radical, distributive justice, and to pledge to keep the Covenant until the Christ would come again.  Like the foot-washing ritual in John’s story, the usual social order was reversed.  Instead of a public sacrifice and banquet intended to maintain the proper relationships between the social elements of clients and patrons, extending to the emperor and ultimately to the gods (and to the god Cesar), the bread and cup were a symbol of the absence of hierarchy among the members of the communities founded by Paul (the body of Christ).  In the Corinthians passage, which is of course lifted out of context, Paul explains that if the ritual meal maintains the usual social hierarchy, then it is not “the Lord’s supper” (1 Cor. 11:17-22).

The Maundy Thursday Tenebrae ritual, whether it includes footwashing, or simply the re-enactment of Jesus’ last supper, sends us out of the church in silence and darkness to contemplate our complicity in Judas’ betrayal.  The betrayal is understood to be the sin that Jesus forgives.  But traditional commemorations of the last night Jesus spent with his disciples risk empty if not dangerous piety.  Piety is empty when it relies on the certainty of forgiveness without accountability and unaccompanied by transformation; piety is dangerous when it is aligned with imperial injustice.

Followers of Jesus’s Way are complicit with Judas, not because of personal wrongdoing, or some kind of “original sin” dating back to Adam and Eve, and certainly not because of vicarious responsibility for Jesus’s death.  Followers of Jesus’s way are complicit with Judas because it is so much easier to settle for survival.  If we try to organize a union where we work in our local grocery store chain, we will be fired.  If we preach a 21st Century faith, based on scholarship and the realities of 21st Century life, we will be ignored at best or fired and defrocked.  If we defend terrorists, our homes may be fire-bombed.  If we come out as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered humans, we will be drummed out of the military.  If we provide legal abortions to poor women, we risk being murdered.

It gets worse.  Whether we claim to be followers of Jesus’s Way or not, if we invest our money in the companies that give us the best return, we will be supporting companies that exploit workers, intimidate whistle-blowers, and disrupt the balance of the Earth’s eco-systems.  If we move to the country to escape the stress of the city, we end up with a much less sustainable life-style, unless we grow our own food.  The “interdependent web of which we are a part,” celebrated by Unitarian Universalists, is nearly totally compromised by the normalcy of human social systems.

Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday, may be a time of profound ritual of remembrance but what is more important is that it is a time for recommitment to the great work of distributive justice-compassion, in the face of the overwhelming strength of conventional, normal, social and political systems.  Maundy Thursday, when the mandate to love one another as Jesus loved his disciples is powerfully demonstrated by Jesus, is actually the heart of Holy Week.  The execution of Jesus at the hands of Rome is not the point.  The belief in the resurrection of Jesus as a verifiable fact is also not the point, no matter how many reinterpretations of the metaphor of the empty tomb.  The point is kenosis:  the radical abandonment of self-interest in the service of distributive justice-compassion, with the expectation that living such a life leads to death on a cross, and the willingness to take that risk.

Tenebrae Eucharist

One:        On the last night with his disciples, as they lounged at their dinner, Jesus decided to try one last time to make them really understand what he was doing, and what it really meant to follow him.

Another:    He picked up a loaf of bread, and spoke into the hubbub of their conversation: Listen! – he said – This bread is like God’s justice in this world.  Then he tore the loaf into two pieces.  This is God’s justice in the hands of the Romans and the Temple authorities who collaborate with them.  Believe me, one of you is going to turn me in to them soon.  If not tonight, then as soon as the Passover is finished.   Whenever you eat together after this night, remember that, and remember me.

One:        Then Jesus picked up the jug of wine.

Another:    This wine is also like the Kingdom of God – it is the blood of the paschal lamb, painted on the lintels and doorposts of our people as a sign that they belong to God and not to Pharoah’s Empire.  But now the collaborators have made this wine into a corruption – a libation poured out in honor of the Empire of Rome. – a repudiation of God’s protection and deliverance.

One:        And he poured the wine into a cup and held it up to them.

Another:    He said, “Let the one who has chosen this cup take his possessions and do what he must.”  And he dumped the contents into a bowl for disposal.

One:        Several of the company began to leave quietly, and he let them go.  Then he poured a second cup of wine and said, “But this cup that I drink is a new cup.  It is a libation of my blood poured out for justice for all those who chose to share it.  Drink it.  All of you who are willing to commit to establish God’s justice-compassion, and remember.

Another:    He passed the cup to them, and they passed it among themselves as a pledge.  And while they were doing this, one of the women – perhaps it was Mary of Magdala – the one who Jesus loved – left the room and returned with a tiny jar of essential oil of lavender.  And she came up to Jesus’ couch and said, “You will die for what you have done this week – perhaps tonight – and I know I will never have the chance to prepare your body for burial.  If they take you, there will be nothing left.”

One:        Then she broke open the vial and anointed his face and hands.  And he took it from her and went to the one next to him and said, “She has done what she could.  She has prepared my body for death.  Do the same for one another in remembrance of her.”  And he anointed that one, and that one went to the next until all in the company had been so ordained.…