Third Sunday in Advent: The Emperor’s Soft Clothes
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; Luke 1:47-55; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11; Thomas 78.
The third Sunday in Advent is full of familiar themes: John the Baptist, acknowledged by Jesus himself as the messenger, who prepares the way for the coming of the Messiah; Mary’s Magnificat, put into exquisite musical format by C.P.E. Bach: “My soul does magnify the Lord for he has done great things for me,” chosen to be the Mother of the Messiah; Isaiah promises, “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense, He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped . . .”; and James reminds us to “be patient, . . . for the coming of the Lord is near. . . . See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” Here is the entire Christian belief system, laid out at once: The Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news; Mary, the blessed Virgin mother; the judgment of God against those who do not believe in Jesus, and the judgment of Jesus himself against those who “grumble against one another.”
Only one item is missing from the list: distributive justice. There is plenty of retributive justice – judgment – found in Isaiah and hinted at in James’ letter to the church in Jerusalem. But distributive justice – the kind that Jesus was talking about, which has nothing to do with payback and everything to do with radical abandonment of self-interest – is easily missed. Perhaps it is there, behind the “good news” preached to the poor; perhaps it is more evident in Mary’s song of praise: “he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” “Justice” is assumed to be automatic once Jesus has arrived on the scene. All we have to do – according to James’ letter – is to have patience and stop grumbling.
Matthew’s Jesus is already well advanced in his ministry by the time Chapter 11 rolls around. John has sent him a message, demanding to know if he is “the One,” or “are we to wait for another?” Jesus tells John’s disciples to go and tell John what they have seen and heard, as evidence, and says further that those who don’t take offense at his (Jesus’s) teaching are to be congratulated. Maybe Jesus was thanking John and his disciples for taking him seriously. After they leave, according to Matthew’s story, Jesus turns to the watching crowd and says, in effect, “what did you come out here into the boonies to see? Somebody with no conviction? Some rich bigot slumming?” In Matthew’s story, Jesus is talking about John the Baptist. But in the sayings gospel of Thomas, the same words appear with no context: “Why have you come out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind? And to see a person dressed in soft clothes [like your] rulers and your powerful ones?” The Five Gospels, p. 516. Jesus may be talking about himself, challenging the people who came out to see him, not John. If you came out expecting a pious show, forget it.
In Isaiah 35, the exiles – redeemed – return to Zion. They are redeemed because they return to the ways of the Lord. And what are those ways? Psalm 146 spells them out: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help . . . Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry . . . The Lord . . . upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” – distributive justice. Mary also sings about distributive justice: “He has put the arrogant to rout along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. . .” Jesus challenges people who come out into the countryside expecting to see the usual rulers and collaborators with injustice, who wear soft “rich” clothing. Neither Jesus nor the Messiah foretold of old fit that expectation.
The favorite theme of the prophets, and especially those who wrote from Babylonian exile (Jeremiah and the writer of portions of the Book of Isaiah), is reconciliation with the Hebrew God by returning to a way of life that restores God’s justice. God metes out retributive justice to anyone who does not participate in the distributive justice required in order to survive and thrive in God’s community. In other words, if you don’t take care of the poor, and protect the “widow and orphan” – read, unmarried women and fatherless children – God will get you. But if you do, then “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.”
Isaiah is metaphor, not to be taken literally. Using the metaphor of exile from God as illustrating those who ignore justice, who are the exiles today? Maybe the ones who are collaborating with Empire? What is “collaboration with Empire” today if not predatory bank and credit card practices that ensnare the poor and naive? What is “collaboration with Empire today” if not protecting corporate profits at all costs? Structuring a world economy so that poor nations are required to decimate their rain forests in order to feed their people? Forbidding free access to medical care? Disenfranchising women – who are more than half of the human population? These, and other injustices — economic, political, social, environmental – are an exile of the spirit into mind, ego-driven, power-mad, and unable to see that the Emperor’s fine clothes and pious talk are an illusion.
Political leaders in the U.S. are so intimidated by the self-righteous posturing of the religious right – including the president, who believes the interventionist, tribal God of ancient Israel put him in the White House – that Congress has been unable to control the conduct of war, devise a sustainable energy policy, remedy the increasingly unfair federal tax code, protect the Constitutionally-mandated civil rights of the people, or quell the alarm among European allies raised by unilateral policies that ignore hard-won international customs respecting human rights and mutual cooperation.
After actively attempting to derail the international talks on the environment held in Bali in the past week, the White House is proposing its own environmental conference. Countries who seriously considered the issues in Bali are now seriously considering boycotting the apparent (and arrogant) U.S. attempt at appropriating or reversing the progress that was made. Like the November peace talks held in Annapolis, the purpose is to attempt to bully the rest of the Planet into complying with the Bush Administration’s agenda. Perhaps the White House thinks the hubris that brought us the Iraq War (based on the notion that Iraq is the 21st Century metaphor for 20th Century Nazi Germany) will be forgotten in the universal acclamation accorded to the Bush administration for bringing peace in the Middle East, and saving the Planet from the Armageddon of Global Warming.
These are the soft clothes and easy piety of Empire. The writer of James’ letter and institutional Christian church leadership since the 2nd Century C.E. have missed the point. The Messiah’s coming, or “return” is not about putting a stop to petty “grumbling” between privileged members of the “Christian” community over who pays the most taxes and whether or not the Planet is in the midst of human-caused environmental disaster. The Messiah comes and the redeemed return when the exiles abandon self-interest and start working for distributive justice-compassion.