Theology From Exile-Volume II The Year of Matthew – A Review

Bookmark.2013

by Fred Plumer, President Progressive Christianity.org

I must admit for twenty three years in the pulpit, I was not a great fan of Lectionary commentaries. The commentaries always seemed too contrived, were overly concerned with nuance and often seemed dated in the scholarship. And now as someone who has spent nearly a decade in the pews in possibly a hundred churches, I have grown weary of pastors struggling to create a sermon out of the lectionary selections, often trying to force two or three of the selections into something meaningful.  So when I agreed to do a review for Sea Raven’s second year set of commentaries, I was hesitant. However, I was delighted to discover that Sea Raven has created something of great value here. Drawing on some of the best and latest scholarship available, she brings new life to words and texts that have lost their meaning and their intention for far too many people, including those leading churches. She accomplishes this with clear and even simple language and a clarity that I find rare with scholars.

As in her first commentary, The Year of Luke, Sea Raven frames her commentaries by responding to four questions: 1) What is the nature of God? Violent or nonviolent? 2) What is the nature of Jesus’s message? Inclusive or exclusive? 3) What is faith? Literal belief, or commitment to the great work of justice-compassion? 4) What is deliverance? Salvation from hell, or liberation from injustice?…

End Times – Apocalypse 101: Proper 18-19, Year A

Matthew 24 and 25 (selections)

This commentary will conclude the exploration of the Gospel of Matthew over the next two weeks, dealing with two doctrines that became fundamental to traditional Christianity, and skewed the teachings of Jesus almost beyond recognition:  Apocalyptic eschatology and the Last Judgment.

The process the early followers of Jesus went through that resulted in the Church of Jesus Christ is fairly long, fairly obscure, and full of pitfalls for those who seek to recreate it.  One of the key debates among New Testament scholars is whether or not Jesus believed himself to be the “son of Adam” (KJV: “son of Man”) described in the apocalyptic legend of Daniel.  For example, see The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate (Polebridge Press, 2001, Robert J. Miller, ed.).  In the Book of Daniel, written in the 2nd century before the common era, God acts to establish God’s Kingdom (the 5th Kingdom) on earth by designating a savior, who will be “taken up” to God, then returned to earth at a time determined by God to overthrow the wicked empire of Rome.  Specific timing is spelled out.  The dead will be resurrected so that even they can participate in God’s ultimate justice.

Jesus is highly likely to have known about the legend of Daniel.  But he never referred to himself as the hoped-for messiah described there.…

Tea Parties and Fig Trees: A Parable for Today – Proper 15, Year A

Mark 11:12-14; 20-25
Matthew 21:14-22

The Fig Tree parable is never read if the Revised Common Lectionary is followed, whether one uses the version in Mark or in Matthew (Luke left it out altogether). The “triumphal entry into Jerusalem” and the famous incident in which “Jesus cleanses the Temple” are the foundations for Christianity’s “Holy Week.”  The accompanying scene in which Jesus curses a fig tree for not having figs out of season is ignored as not important.  After all, Jesus is looking at a very bad week ahead, so perhaps he can be excused for taking it out on a stupid tree.…

A New World Order: 4th Sunday in Eastertide

Matthew 13; Mark 4; 2 Corinthians 5

The collection of parables in Matthew 13 is the third of the great discourses Matthew collated and put into a particular context, and then attributed to Jesus.  The Jesus Seminar scholars have determined that all seven of the parables are found in Thomas, and the writer/evangelist has also fleshed out his particular point of view with sayings from the Q collection.  The Five Gospels, p. 190.  To compare with Mark, see blog.06.07.09; and blog.06.14.09.  These earlier commentaries from Year B include the Revised Common Lectionary readings.

Matthew is most concerned with insiders who know the secrets that will reveal the kingdom of God versus outsiders, who – no matter how obvious Jesus might make the story – are closed minded and hard hearted, and are unable to get it.  In 13:11-17, Matthew’s Jesus is clear: “You [followers/disciples] have been given the privilege of knowing the secrets of Heaven’s imperial rule, but that privilege has not been granted to anyone else.”  He then transplants the saying about “those who have more will get more, and those who have less will lose what they have” from the economic context of the parable of the money in trust, which is how it appears in Mark and Luke, and later in Matthew’s own gospel (25:29).  Here he tells the disciples that they have indeed been given the secret, inside knowledge that no one else has.  Further, he says, to those who have this privilege, more knowledge and understanding will be given, while those who do not have the inside track will be deprived of even the little bits of wisdom that they may have been able to acquire.

Matthew is using the collection of parables as a way of describing the nature of God’s imperial rule – or conditions that will or could pertain in the realm/kingdom of God.  The first part of the discourse focuses on the metaphor of the sower and the seed.  …

Whatever Happened to “Love your Enemies”? 3rd Sunday in Eastertide Year A

Matthew 12:38-50; Jeremiah 22:1-9

The Elves skip all of Matthew 12.  Most of it is covered in readings from Mark and Luke, which are read in their respective years.  However, the end of chapter 12, which Matthew borrowed from Mark and Q, and which does appear also in Luke, contains a curious combination of a diatribe from Jesus about “an evil and immoral generation” (totally ignored by the Elves) and Jesus’ apparent rejection of his family in favor of “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven,” normally covered in proper 5, Year B.  Due to the vagaries of the timing of Easter, proper 5 can be superseded by Pentecost (Trinity Sunday), which means the controversy about exactly who is Jesus’ family is seldom considered.

For the third Sunday of the Easter season, Matthew 12:38-42 seems to be relevant.  Some Pharisees and scholars (Matthew’s favorite foils) ask Jesus for a sign.  Because this scene follows Matthew’s version of the “Beelzebul controversy” i.e., Jesus must be using demons to drive out demons; and that his critics’ own words will come back to haunt them – the critics are apparently still demanding proof that Jesus works through God’s power.  An exasperated Jesus puts on his apocalyptic judgment hat and blasts this “evil and immoral generation.”  He tells them that “no sign will be given, except the sign of Jonah the prophet.”  He then suggests that the proof will come when – just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three nights – the “son of Adam will be in the bowels of the earth for three days and three nights.”

Matthew’s Jesus throws the Pharisees’ hypocrisy right back in their faces: That “evil and immoral generation” claims to believe in resurrection, but not in Jesus’ resurrection.  “At judgment time,” he says, “the citizens of Nineveh will come back to life along with this generation and condemn it, because they had a change of heart in response to Jonah’s message.  Yet take note: what is right here is greater than Jonah.  At judgment time, the queen of the south will be brought back to life along with this generation, and she will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom.  Yet take note: what is right here is greater than Solomon.”  So, Matthew’s Jesus is saying, “you scholars and Pharisees have heard someone greater than Jonah, but you haven’t had a change of heart, like the people of Nineveh did; and what’s worse, you don’t have the sense of a queen of the south to honor a wisdom that is greater than Solomon’s.”  He then adds insult to injury in 12:43-45, comparing “this evil and immoral generation” with an “unclean spirit” that returns to its host after having been exorcised, with “seven other spirits more vile than itself, who enter and settle in there.”…

Counter the Culture: 2nd Sunday in Lent

Romans 12; Matthew 10:37-11:1

The Elves won’t get around to considering specific verses from Romans 12 until late summer (propers 16 and 17), and then they are paired with Matthew 16: 13-28 (considered in last week’s blog, along with Philemon and Romans 6.  So far as scholarship has been able to determine, Paul either did not know about the sayings of Jesus that were orally preserved by the Q people, or if he did, he did not quote them directly.  Paul was the contemporary of Jesus and the first followers who mourned his death and did their best to make sense of it.  The gospel writers presented their interpretations 20, 50, possibly as long as 125 years after Paul (according to some scholars concerning Luke/Acts and John).  When Paul’s pastoral letters are considered first, what the gospel writers created may be heard as an echo of Paul’s insight into an oral tradition.…

Mary, Martha, and Zen

Luke 10:38-42; Amos 8:1-12; Genesis 18:1-10; Psalm 52; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:15-28

As with last week’s commentary on the parable of the good Samaritan, the Revised Common Lectionary does not get to Luke’s story of Mary and Martha until mid-July of this current Year C.  However, the RCL does follow Luke’s sequence.  It may be that Luke’s back-to-back scenes illustrate the grounding laws of Judaism:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” (Deuteronomy 6 :4-5) and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  The parable of the Samaritan – according to Luke – is about loving your neighbor; the vignette with Mary and Martha – again according to Luke – is about loving God.

Because Luke made up the story of Mary and Martha out of whole cloth, we can do with it whatever we wish.  Jesus never had this encounter, never hinted that women disciples are better (or worse) than women supporters or servants of his ministry.  We might wonder, briefly, if Luke created this story in order to address an issue in his community.  As John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg are fond of reminding us, prohibitions on or sermons about particular behaviors never arise unless there is a problem.  For example, posting a sign on the church door saying that nudity is not acceptable would only be necessary if someone had walked in naked.  Perhaps a debate had developed in Luke’s community about the proper role of women as disciples vs. caretakers.  It is impossible to know.  But in any event, this story is not about women’s liberation from patriarchy.  It is not about the proper role for women in 21st Century church and society.  It’s about choosing to follow Jesus’ Way into God’s Kingdom.

The Common Lectionary readings that accompany Luke’s story offer metaphors of fruitfulness and spiritual maturity.  The prophet Amos talks about the basket of summer fruit that will become famine because the people turn away from God’s great work of justice-compassion.  Sarah and Abraham– in their spiritual maturity and trust in God’s word – will bear the fruit of a son, and be the ancestors of many nations.  Psalm 52 warns that evil doers will not succeed; Psalm 15 says that those who will dwell on God’s holy hill will be “those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right.”  The only piece that is a clanging gong in the ensemble is the Colossians rant about “Christ” being “the head of the body the church,” and the theology of substitutionary atonement, which the real Paul had no time for.  Perhaps it’s a way out for orthodox preachers who don’t want to consider unconventional interpretations of Luke’s Mary/Martha drama.  Contrary to much contemporary preaching, the story is not about sibling rivalry and woman’s real place in the home.

In the 14th Century, Meister Eckhart may have had the same accompanying scriptures in mind.  In 1980, Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox published a collection of Eckhart’s sermons titled Breakthrough:  Meister Eckhart’s Creation Spirituality in New Translation.” In commentaries on each of 37 sermons, Fox spells out the Catholic mystic justification for his theology of Creation Spirituality.  Two sermons are on the subject of Mary and Martha, using the metaphor of fruitfulness as a sign of spiritual maturity.  Meister Eckhart’s Sermon 20 talks about how Martha represents the mature person – the “wife” who bears fruit, who serves the master.  Mary is the “virgin,” the young sycophant, enamored of the guru, naive, and trapped in ego-involvement.  Mary Magdalene’s aria, “I don’t know how to love him,” from Jesus Christ Superstar comes to mind.  But “wife” and “virgin” are metaphors for Eckhart, and gender is irrelevant to this discussion.  In Sermon 34, Eckhart continues with the metaphor of a spiritually mature person (Martha) living in depth with God, not – as is Mary – enamored with the idea of being a disciple.  For Eckhart, contemplation is not better than action, nor are ideas more valuable than work.

Eckhart writes, “I call it obedience when the will is sufficient for what our insight commands”  (Sermon 34p. 485).  Mary cannot yet imagine what action her devotion to Jesus’s teaching might demand.  But Martha has already integrated the desire to follow Jesus’s teachings with the work required to do so.  Eckhart imagines that Martha’s complaint that Mary isn’t helping is really a bit of gentle ribbing to get Mary to let go and let be – to get out of her mind and into the fruitfulness of service.  Mary’s “better part” is that she is learning to live in God’s kingdom and to join in the ongoing work of distributive justice-compassion, but is not there yet.  Fox suggests that this Mary is the Magdalene, who only later . . . learned how to . . . do works of compassion. . . .”

To be spiritually mature is to participate in the great work of distributive justice-compassion, in order to bring about the transformation of human society from greed to sharing, from violent retribution and payback to the non-violent, radical abandonment of self-interest.  Fox writes, “Eckhart believes that contemplation is not better than, nor in the mature person even different from, work. . . . Compassion and the works born of compassion are themselves acts of contemplation.  This is the fulness of spiritual maturity: to be in the world, active in the world, and yet not hindered by these actions from being always in God.”  Fox commentary on Sermon 34, p. 489.

Fox says that our work is an enchantment.  That means, we live, breathe, move and have our being in that ocean of compassion that is God.  We are possessed by and obsessed with that spirit.  At the same time, the Zen of following Jesus’ Way and doing the great work of God’s Kingdom of Justice Compassion means letting go and letting be.  Let go of the mind chatter about being a disciple, activist, whatever, and just do it.

Progressing from naivety to maturity is not a linear journey, but a continuum of experience.  Luke’s story is a snapshot of a moment in time, not an allegory about women’s role in the early church.

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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.…

Wednesday

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

John 13:21-32; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Hebrews 12:1-3; Psalm 70

For those who chose not to do the Passion readings on Palm Sunday, Isaiah 50:4-9a is revisited now, but not in the context of Paul’s letter to the Philippians (“at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”).  Now the emphasis is on the willingness of the servant to submit to the will of God: “I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. . . I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”  John’s Jesus knows who will betray him, and clearly indicates who it is by handing Judas the bread after it has been dipped in the bowl – yet the disciples fail to realize what is right in front of their faces: The hour for Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension has arrived. 

If the readings suggested by The Revised Common Lectionary are simply read in the context of traditional Christian belief, the story of the servant depicted in Isaiah easily becomes a prequel to the suffering and death of Jesus, the Messiah.  The Psalm then is a plea on the part of listeners to be saved from such a death: “Be pleased, O God, to deliver me . . . Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life . . .”  The verses cherry-picked from the pastoral letter called “Hebrews” reassures that “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .” we can indeed “run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . .” 

That portion of the sermon by the writer of Hebrews has been used by would-be preachers and genuine prophets of Christianity for nearly two millennia.  In his last speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made reference to those who did not receive what was promised in their lifetimes, but who, like Moses and King himself, had been to the mountain top and had been privileged to see the promised land.  The “cloud of witnesses” refers to a litany of the Judeo-Christian journey (Heb 11:29-40), and the promise of the power of the Christ coming again.  But if read beyond the portion selected by the RCL, the metaphor soon breaks down into a thinly-veiled antisemitism along with the usual threats of hell-fire and damnation: “. . . for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! . . . for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (12:25-29)

Because we already know the story from Mark, Matthew, and Luke, we assume that John’s Judas has already conspired with the high priest Caiaphas to hand Jesus over to the religious authorities for 30 pieces of silver.  We assume that the reason the “chief priests and the Pharisees” in John’s story wanted to kill Jesus was because of Jesus’s demonstration against the money-changers in the Temple.  We never read John 11:45-57, in which the religious authorities plot to kill Jesus.  We never learn that Jesus’s raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead was the last straw for the high priest Caiaphas.  “This man is performing many signs,” Caiaphas tells the meeting of the council.  “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”  (The Romans did indeed destroy Jerusalem, well before John wrote his gospel, but not because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, or performed any other “signs.”)  John then says, “Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples” until the time came for him to return to Jerusalem for the final Passover.  “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.”  The stage is set for Judas leading both Roman soldiers and Temple police to arrest Jesus in the garden, not for the exchange of silver or Judas’s eventual remorseful suicide.

Judas’s motives have been the subject of speculation since the story was first told.  Jesus hands the bread to Judas and tells him to “Do quickly what you are going to do,” and Judas goes out into the night.  John’s version of the story says that “Some thought that because Judas had the common purse,” Jesus was telling him to buy supplies for their Passover festivities, or make a donation to the poor – acts of easy piety.  The writer of John’s gospel concludes that Judas was taken over by Satan.  In The Last Week, Borg and Crossan write that “. . . it is possible to gain control of the earth by demonic collaboration.  It is possible to fall prey to the ancient (and modern) delusion of religious power backed by imperial violence.” (p. 206) Quite probably, Judas did what he thought was right.  He abandoned what had to look like a lost cause in occupied Jerusalem in order to save himself from the consequences of being associated with a man the authorities wanted to arrest.  Caiphas did what he thought he needed to do in order to survive and preserve what he perceived to be the Jewish way of life.  Indeed, John has him say that “it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).  Ultimately, Pontius Pilate was absolutely correct in sentencing Jesus to death for the sake of preserving law and order and his own position as the Roman ruler of Palestine.

There is nothing supernatural about Jesus’ conviction that he would be turned over to the religious authorities, and likely ultimately executed by the Roman occupiers.  Jesus maintains his integrity in the service of justice-compassion, against the normalcy of civilization, relying upon the same kind of faith as Isaiah’s Servant.  But the kenosis illustrated by the third servant song of Isaiah is not submission to the will of an interventionist God who wants a sacrifice in payment for sin, or who “disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts” (Heb. 12:5-6 ref Proverbs 3:11-12).  Instead this kenosis means actively listening to the desire of a relational spirit for an exiled people to live in justice-compassion.  The servant says, “Morning by morning he wakens my ear to listen as those [do] who are taught.”  The servant listens and continues to teach reconciliation with that spirit and distributive justice among the people.  The servant does this despite persecution, torture, failure, and insult.  He empowers the people to maintain their covenant with God against the demonic forces that impel the people to collaborate with the empire that has carried them off into exile. 

The disciples could not hear what John’s Jesus was trying to tell them.  The others around the table that night apparently had no clue of the danger that he (and they) were in because of the threat that he (and they) presented to law and order under Roman occupation.  Judas was not the only follower of Jesus to be caught up in the mind-set that reduces teachings of non-violent justice-compassion to empty piety.  To live and practice non-violent justice-compassion is to actively counter the imperial forces that seduce us into going shopping, hiring illegal aliens as slave labor, and joining the military because we have been convinced that it is the only way to “be all we can be.” 

The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary leave out verses 10 and 11 of Isaiah 50, and they should not because the Servant addresses those very conditions that produce empty piety instead of an active counter to imperial retributive systems.  The Servant wonders “who [among you] walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God?”  The conclusion is, few if any.  But in a post-modern world, where the interventionist god died long ago, the Servant’s challenge to faith has meaning only if we accept the invitation to participate in the ongoing great work of justice-compassion.  Then we become partners with the kenotic servant God in restoring God’s justice-compassion to the world – which belongs to that kenotic servant God.  And the life and death of the servant-teacher Jesus is the model.

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