Archive for April, 2019

Easter Day C, 2019
Luke 24:1-12

Resurrection as Healing and Humour

Easter Day – today – is regarded as the most important day in the liturgical life of the church. Theologically speaking, Christmas doesn’t hold a candle to Easter. It is the day in which we celebrate the mystery of resurrection. Notice that.  I said ‘mystery’ of resurrection, not the ‘fact’ of resurrection (JShuck. Shuck&Jive blog, 2007).

My recent reading of the world views of millennials and people of the future suggests, we modern folks like facts. Did this happen? Did this not happen? What are the facts? But as the reading has pointed out, correctly I think, the problem with religious symbols such as resurrection is, they are not fact-friendly (JShuck. Shuck&Jive blog, 2007).

So; this day, as part of the ‘mystery’ of resurrection, we celebrate life over death. This day we celebrate the moments of life that make up the span of our lives. This day we celebrate changed possibilities. The serendipitous moments, the creative moments. And we give thanks for the Spirit of Life visible in Jesus, visible in each one of us, visible in people in all walks of life… As we celebrate, we also acknowledge that all we have, are the stories, shaped and reshaped and told orally, by people of faith from generation to generation. No logical, scientific proof of a ‘bodily’ resurrection. No videotape of an empty tomb. No seismograph of an Easter earthquake.  Just the stories. But significant stories of life, hope, promise and revelation.

The stories tell us that in the midst of brokenness, healing stirs. That in the midst of darkness, a light shines. That in the midst of death, life is breaking forth. That when all seems gone, hope springs eternal. We are convinced that, Jesus’ death mattered to all those early storytellers. But only because his life mattered more. So, they spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life. And to be embraced by life, not scared of it. This is the invitation to us all today. The ‘resurrection’ invitation today is similar: be embraced by life, not scared of it? Then there is this suggestion that talks about what this might look like. These stories have a touch of humour.

David Henson writes: “[Jesus] is no longer doing miracles for the masses. He’s no longer directly confronting the Powers that Be. He’s no longer teaching in synagogues, or leading a movement, or marching on Jerusalem. He’s just doing a few simple things, slowly: gardening, walking, eating, laundry, and cooking.

“The first thing he does is to fold up the shroud neatly and to take care with his linen grave clothes… And then, in the final verses of the final chapter in [John’s] gospel we realize that Jesus, for all his talk of feeding, for all his multiplication of loaves and fish, for all the times he feasted with sinners, tax collectors, and Pharisees, has apparently never cooked a meal of his own, at least not one worth remembering, until he’s resurrected.

“Meals feature so heavily throughout the gospels. Jesus presided over many feasts and meals. But he apparently didn’t take the time to cook them himself. He certainly took the time to criticize those like Martha who did spend so much time cooking, but we never see him actually cooking a meal in the gospels.

“But here, the last thing Jesus does on earth is cook a meal, his first recorded one, and then he commands Peter to feed his sheep. In the resurrection, it seems, Jesus institutes the sacrament of housework and everyday chores”.  (pathos.com/blog)

It is good to be reminded of these very human activities. Especially in the midst of so much super-natural stuff! So, says Rex Hunt, “let me offer some other suggestions (religious sounding perhaps) you might like to ponder sometime:”

  • How do we care for each other interpersonally in ways which do not suffocate and oppress?
  • How is the well-being of our neighbour pursued in the complex problem of global hunger and international war?
  • How are communities developed positively around respect and care for each person, rather than around a common enemy?
  • How are the systemic causes of non-love eliminated? All human issues to be viewed in the light of the resurrection stories… Bishop John Shelby Spong has offered a comment which is also worth pondering:
  • Loving God… means that people do not treat the legitimacy of their own spiritual path as a sign that every other spiritual path is somehow illegitimate.
  • Loving your neighbour… means treating all people – regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, nationality, ethnicity or economic class – as holy, as having been made in God’s image.
  • Loving ourselves… means basing our lives on the faith that in Jesus as the Christ all things are made new and all people are loved by God (Spong Newsletter, 23/3/06).

All of the above has implications for us here in NZ with the horrific execution of people of faith in Christchurch. How do we be a Jesus follower in the light of what has taken place?

To live with these questions and their implications coursing in our veins, is to live in the spirit of the sage we call Jesus, it is to embrace life, not be scared of it. Because ‘resurrection’ can and does happen every day!  Love says so, Love demands it, Love resources it.

Peter Rollins, author of The Orthodox Heretic, puts it another way. He has this to say about ‘the’ resurrection: “Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ…  I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.  However, there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are.  I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed” (Rollins 2009).

According to Irish-born Rollins, you can believe all the things you want.
You can even be as religious as the Pope (Francis i) or your favourite TV evangelist.
But unless you can “cry for those who have no more tears left to shed”,
the resurrection means little to nothing.  Amen.

Notes:
Rollins, P. 2009.  The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. Orleans. Paraclete Press

rexae74@gmail.com

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A Credible Jesus…

Posted: April 16, 2019 in Uncategorized

A Credible Jesus…

Many people who watched Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ (some years ago) were torn between the identification with the suffering that was portrayed by the film of the treatment Jesus received and a deep sense of the horror of brutality and violence. It was a film that divided Christians and non-Christians alike  Some said they were “offended by the violence”  One of the major outcomes of such a film is that we begin to wonder if too much violence, full in the face of the viewer, desensitizes them to the greater violence in the community. Does it normalize revenge, or aggressive and violent response?  Will wise political leaders be encouraged to deprive people of their human rights or their democratic freedoms ‘in the name of God’…  An interesting debate is ensuing presently over biblical language, Is the propositional nature of scripture and the brutality of the particular vocabulary hate speech or not.  Can Israel Filau quote biblical text that discriminates and incites brutal response against people? As Doug Purnell has said; “The truth is that we have put too many people violently on crosses in our world, isn’t it time we found ways to bring them down” (Doug Purnell. Letters… Insights March 2004/2).

At the time of the film, people shaped and nurtured by a fundamentalist, pentecostal theology, declared the film is a ‘faithful’ and ‘accurate’ account of what happened, supporting the theology that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice for sin and all part of God’s plan. People shaped and nurtured by a progressive liberal theology, declared the film mediaeval, confusing liturgy for history, anti-Jewish (rather than anti-Semitic), and where ignorance and prejudice have scored again over scholarship and integrity.

Of all the reviews at the time one written by John Carroll, professor of sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne (Vic) in the Sydney Morning Herald, was interesting.

John Carroll wrote: “The Passion fails, crucially, at what in the Jewish tradition is called midrash. That is the method of retelling fundamental stories and their classical themes in ways that speak to the new times. Every new generation has to midrash its stories. This film reverts to the Middle Ages; it lacks spiritual force; it does not uplift; and it leaves little sense of who this extraordinary man was, and why he changed Western history” (Carroll 2004. SMH 3 April/Spectrum 4-5).

So, here we are once again at Good Friday morning, and we might well ask again “why did Jesus die? I think we can say that Jesus died because he was publicly and brutally executed. I think we can say that he did not want to die. He died as a result of his passionate, imaginative living. His vision for his people. He died as a result of a decision not to deviate from the God-Self-Neighbour relationship he continually lived. As we said when last week we looked at the Palm Sunday Passover events; what Jesus said and did and stood for…  collided with all that was heartless and oppressive in a social religion that had forgotten its real meaning. His healings on the Sabbath. His acts of forgiveness. His stories which turned conventional social wisdom upside down. His association with that society’s outcasts. His speaking in the name of the God of compassion… all tore open the social political economic and religious fabric of his time.

Either that social, political, economic and religious order, or Jesus, had to go. I liked what biblical scholar Brandon Scott said: when he said “… one can see in Jesus’ language-activity the seeds of a conflict that could easily escalate to a confrontation and to death… Rome’s rule is built on the premise that the local population is divided and distrustful of each other.”  (Scott 2002:35) Their methods of control through elites and then through the Temple maintained ferment and distrust among the people. Sounds a bit like a community not too far from here as a result of the activity of a certain organisation. Create embarrassment or dissention and create chaos and this weaken the ability to respond.

And again… some telling comments from John Shuck:  “Jesus was about making changes in this world. That is what got him killed. He talked about compassion. He talked about moving beyond ethnic boundaries and divisions. He talked about forgiveness. Not something you go to the priest for or even to God for, but your neighbour. That is the one we hurt. That is the one from whom we need forgiveness. We get it as we give it. He worked to bring people together: Samaritan and Jew, Greek and Roman. Makes one wonder why we were surprised with Christchurch people’s response to the shooting.

Jesus practiced an open table, rich and poor, male and female. He challenged unjust boundaries and rules. That is what got him killed. Dying was not his reason for living. Living was his reason for dying. For life, he died. For integrity, he died. For compassion, he died. For justice, he died.  For change, he died…  John Shuck says: “I think it is a sham and a shame that the religious establishment distorted his story.” (‘No More Crosses’  3/2010)

And to complete my list of quotes, this from Rita Nakashima Brock, author of Saving Paradise: “One of the great controversies to emerge from Re-Imagining was our rejection of the atonement, the idea that the torture and execution of Jesus Christ saved the world. My theological career says Rita; has been spent dismantling that doctrine. I want to tell you that I am convinced that atonement theology is the deepest betrayal of Christianity ever perpetrated. It is not just one way to understand salvation, but a betrayal of salvation, a doctrine that abandoned the life and ministry of Jesus Christ for loyalty to Caesar and his legions.” (Brock 2009)

So a response to Mel Gibson’s film  and more importantly to all the fundamentalist hype that surrounds Good Friday and films like the Gibson film:

  • The cross is about Jesus’ integrity, not sacrificial atonement;
  • God’s love is not about supernatural payment or rescue, but, to quote the process theologians, divine sharing in human suffering;
  • Jesus did not invite the cross but accepted it rather than abandon his vision or glimpse of what the world can really be like when you look at it with God’s eyes.

And with one additional personal comment from Robert Funk: “Jesus attempted to pass his vision or glimpse along, as he told about it in stories and sayings and conversations. He did not write a definitive essay or the complete book. And more often than not the ‘book’ we have hides more of Jesus than reveals him.  Instead, his efforts were more like that of a painter who uses broad strokes. And those strokes were ones which enlarged God to include humankind and enlarged the self to include the neighbour.

Why did Jesus die? Integrity to a vision rather than a sacrifice for sins… I Think that’s what I and many others of the progressive theological spirit want to claim the ‘cross’ is a symbol of. Integrity to a vision of what could be and not a dramatic sacrifice for a moral code. And sadly, that is a hundred miles away from both the empty heart of the Apostle’s Creed, and Mel Gibson’s film and his fundamentalist medieval Catholic theology.

It is also, I think, a far more appropriate and suitable vision with which to shape a 21st century faith. As Marcus Borg sums up his ‘Lent and the Cross’ article: “Imagine: what if Lent and Holy Week are not about Jesus as a divinely-ordained payment for sin but about protest against a world that makes martyrs of the prophets? What if it is not about dying for a cause and more about claiming an world without violence and rules for normalisation.

“And imagine: what if Easter is about God saying “yes” to Jesus and what he stood for and “no” to the powers that killed him? “Imagine that Christianity is not about an afterlife for those whose sins are forgiven. Imagine that it’s not about constructing a future we can control and more about transforming the now of our living. “Imagine that it’s about participating in Jesus’s passion for the transformation of “this world” this now, into a world of justice and peace. “Imagine that it’s about passion commitment and intention to change “this world.” That we know. What difference might that make for what it means to be Christian…”

Notes:
Brock, R. N. & R. A. Parker. Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire. Boston. Beacon Press, 2009

Funk, R. W. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Shea, J. The Challenge of Jesus. Chicago. The Thomas More Press, 1975.

rexae74@gmail.com

Which Procession are we in?

Posted: April 9, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 19:28-40

Which Procession are we in?

Our title is where Palm Sunday begins and ends. Which procession are we in? Is it one of empire or one of sacred realm? Which procession will we choose? The one of power, control, correctness, and certainty or one of humility, ambiguity, mystery and novel? One of right or one of love?

We need to acknowledge here that the conflict that brought about the crucifixion of Jesus was not a conflict between Jews, Christian Jews and other Jews, nor was it a conflict between Jesus and Judaism, Jesus was a devout Jew and this conflict was a conflict between Jesus and a dominant system that was in conflict with what the dream of God was and could be.

It takes place at the beginning of the most sacred week in the Jewish calendar, the week of Passover and it is the event of two processions, one peasant and one imperial, Both processions about the kingdom of God but one a God of the poor, of compassion and love and one a kingdom of power over, control of and empire. These two processions do more than demonstrate the difference, they embody it.

Another significant thing to note is the place of Jerusalem in this conflict. It begins with the fact that on almost every occasion of a Jewish festival Roman imperialism was present and participated, not out of reverence for Judaism but as a threat of imposition. Make trouble and we will crush you. We are in control here. Why was this important? Well it was important because Passover was a festival that Celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire.

The Roman garrison was permanently stationed overlooking the Jewish Temple and its courts and it was seen as a chore to be stationed there. So much so that it was always a stationing that needed adding to at festival times. Pilate and the main cohorts were stationed at Caearea on the Sea, a far better stationing some sixty miles to the West. It was a new and splendid city and far more pleasant that Jerusalem which had become insular, provincial and partisan and often hostile. It was somewhat of a chore to go to Jerusalem and this inevitably led to the imperial nature being flaunted with a very visual panoply of power, cavalry with war horses, soldiers, armour, weapons along with banners and eagles mounted on poles glinting in the sun. One can imagine the sounds of leather, clinking of bridles and the beating of drums all in the face of people with dust swirling around their eyes some awed and others resentful. Silenced by the show of power.

But this was not only a display of imperial power. It was also a show of imperial theology. The emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome but the Son of God. This idea had begin in 31BCE with Augustus whose Father was the god Apollo and Augustus was the saviour, the one who had brought peace on earth. The continuance of this was that was seen ascending into heaven to take his permanent place among the gods. His successors continued to bear divine titles including Tiberius who was emperor during Jesus time. Palm Sunday then is a political, military and theological confrontation of epic proportion. It was not only a time of rival social order abut also a rival theology.

We note here that the gospels differ a bit. Mark tells it as a prearranged ‘counter-procession’ Jesus planned it in advance. The colt story makes this look like a planned political demonstration and this is reinforced with the link to Zechariah story where the king riding a donkey will banish war from the land, The king will be a king of peace. Implicit almost is the importance of Jerusalem as the place of the sacred temple. We remember here that Jerusalem has been central to the sacred imagination for a millennium. It is the City of God and the faithless city, a city of hope and a city of oppression, a city of joy ad a city of pain. It began its journey around 1000bce when under David all twelve tribes were under one king. We recall also that under David Jerusalem was not only a time of power and glory but also of justice and righteousness. He was associated with goodness, power, protection and justice. This is why the hoped-for deliverer was expected to be the Son of David, a new David indeed a greater David.

We remember here also that Jerusalem was not new to the domination matrix. In the half century after David Jerusalem become the center of a domination system, in this case the organization of a society marked by three features. By Political oppression, the many ruled by the few, the powerful and wealthy elites. Ordinary people had no voice in the shaping of society. By economic exploitation where the greatest percentage of a societies wealth came from agricultural production, in this case in a pre-industrial society where the wealth went to the Roman economy to feed Rime and the elites within Palestinian society in support of that. The gospel’s highlighting of tax collectors and collaborators indicated their influence within the society structures of ownership and commerce. The third aspect was the religious legitimation. These systems were legitimated or justified with religious language. The king or emperor ruled by divine right, the king or emperor was the Son of God the social order reflected the will of God and the powers that be were ordained by God. Of course religion can also become the source of protests against these claims but in most cases religion has been used to legitimate the place of the wealthy and powerful in the social order over which they preside.

We remind ourselves about now that none of this is unusual. Most human civilizations operate this way in the case of a non religious society is the way things are and the religious society is one where God has set it is that way. For our story then of Jesus last week Jerusalem is a very significant setting that had come about through the centralization and the building of the single Southern Kingdom of Judah with Jerusalem at its core. We are also aware of its persistence in that for several centuries Jerusalem had been ruled by foreign empires and under them Jerusalem was the center of local government falling in 63BCE under the control of Rome. Here the significant change was that Rome abolished the Jewish monarchy and installed the high priest, in other words the temple as the primary place of collaboration. The primary qualification was wealth. Rome trusted the wealthy families as local collaborators with a free hand except for the collecting and paying of the annual tribute owed to Rome.

Of course we can guess how this went as we are aware of what greed and power over do to us and so we hear of Herod executing his own class in the interests of power and control. His goal was to centralize power and control and he made Jerusalem the most magnificent in the Roman Empire. The trouble was that when he too overstepped the mark and spent too much money he was forced to put pressure on his own sources losing their support to the point that when he died revolts erupted throughout the kingdom. Again this mean a change for the Temple as Rome having burnt its bridges with local politicians e.g. Herod, it transferred control to the temple. It was of course very likely that the elite families created by Herod had provided the Priests and so the domination system continued this time under the umbrella of the Temple. Here the economics of society became intertwined with the economics of religion and local taxes became tithes paid to the priesthood amounting to over 20% of production. Another plus was the festivals when the 40 thousand Jerusalem inhabitants would become hundreds of thousands during festivals. All this meant that the temple authorities had a balancing act on their hands. How to make sure the annual tribute to Rome was paid while maintaining the domestic peace and order. Rome did not want rebellions. It was better that one man die than the whole nation be destroyed.

This was the Jerusalem that Jesus entered on Palm Sunday. His message was deeply critical of the temple and its role in the domination system. Alongside this is the Essenes who rejected the legitimacy of the present temple and priesthood and who looked forward to the day when they would be restored to power. Here we have the environment for the 66CE revolt that was directed as much against the temple collaborators as it was against Rome itself.

Again this is the Jerusalem that the two processions enter into on Palm Sunday. The City of God is in trouble and we know it did not survive the first century. One of those processions was about the empire of Rome and the other was about the empire of God.

Borg and Crossan write: “Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city.  Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that rules the world.  Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the [empire] of God…  The confrontation between these two kingdoms [or empires] continues through the last week of Jesus’ life” (Borg & Crossan 2006:4-5).

Well, all that is about way back then.  What about now? What can we resonate with in 2019? There continues to be two visions of how we are to be human, religiously. Sometimes the vision from both the empire and the church seem very similar. As in the prosperity theology of such places as Destiny Church and the like.- the mega-church models that we hear have got it right and from such people as those of the “hysterically religious” (Spong 2007:9), such as those who preach a violent God. They say that “Some day we may blow ourselves up with the bombs… But God’s going to be in control… If God chooses to use nuclear war, then who are we to argue with that” (Jones, Quoted in Crossan 2007:199).

Sometimes the church has just got it wrong about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, which has resulted in a racist theology and overt racism. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem was not against Judaism, not against the Temple as such, not against the priesthood or Temple leaders. It was, suggests biblical scholar Dom Crossan, a protest by one within Jewish society “against Jewish religious co-operation with Roman imperial control” (Crossan 2007:132).

As has there been many within the Global society who have protested against imperial control which has led nations to detain refugees in prison-like conditions. To wage war on countries through the spectacles of terrorism, but really through the hip pocket of ‘oil’
and to abandon citizens overseas, for political expediency. Most times the church has misunderstood Jesus’ journey, calling it ‘the triumphal entry into Jerusalem’. It was not.  Actually it was an anti-triumphal entry. But regardless, sections of the church decide to take to the city streets to ‘march… demonstrating the power of Easter’ in gatherings of piety and triumphalism! But… and you will probably suggest I often have a ‘but’. But this is all very serious.

I want to finish with a flourish by asking what if there is just a touch of humour in all this.

Jesus’ stories – we call them parables – often had a humorous side to them.
So, what if his ‘Palm Sunday’ procession also had a touch of humour to it? Was the peasant procession taking the mickey’ out of the other, pompous procession? Maybe the emperor is not wearing any clothes after all!

What if Palm Sunday, if it is anything, draws us into the reality of this world. It is an invitation to continue to view the world differently. Barbara Brown Taylor in an article in The Christian Century, wrote: “When I listen to the most devoted followers of Jesus, they tell me what it costs to love unconditionally, to forgive 70-times-seven, to offer hospitality to strangers, and to show compassion for the poor.  These are essential hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry, which no followers of his can ignore…  What I hear less about from Jesus’ followers is what it costs to oppose the traditions of the elders, to upset pious expectations of what a child of God should say or do, to subvert religious certainty, and to make people responsible for their own lives. Yet all of these are present in his example too” (Taylor 2007).And sometimes that can take some real doing! Amen.

Notes:
Borg, M; J. D. Crossan. 2006. The Last Week: A day-by-day account of Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Cox, H. 1969. The Feast of Fools. A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge. Harvard University Press.
Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Patterson, S. J. 2004. Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Spong, J. S. 2007. Jesus for the Non-religious. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Taylor, B. B. 2007. “Something about Jesus” in The Christian Century, 3 April. Web site.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

‘Gospel Extravagance’

Posted: April 4, 2019 in Uncategorized

5C, 2019
John 12:1-8

‘Gospel Extravagance’

This morning’s theological storyteller we call John, has told a very old story and this story seems to have been reworked several times as it appears in various guises in at least three other gospels. In John, it is a good woman. In Luke, a sinful woman. In Mark, the woman anoints Jesus’ head. In Luke and John, she anoints his feet. Later generations wrongly imagined the woman was Mary Magdalene. And the differences go on.

In John, Judas objects. In Matthew, the disciples object. In Mark, it was some of those present who objected. In Luke, it was Simon, the pharisee who objects. In Matthew and Mark, all this took place in the house of Simon, the leper. In Luke, it happened in the house of Simon, the pharisee. In John, it took place in the home of Lazarus. About now one might be excused for being confused. This is quite a story!

So, amid all the changes to this story, where do we go? Where is the story’s focus? Maybe it’s on the response of the woman. But we need to be careful if we go down that road because we know the woman’s response is not always welcomed. Looking at the wider context of the story we see that the protests in many of the stories surrounding this one seem to focus on the waste of resources, with those resources going to assist the poor. So as a guide, Uniting Church theologian Bill Loader offers this comment: He says: “It is not that we should see [her response] as stroking the ego of Jesus, but rather as indicative of her response…  A person is responding to love and acceptance.  It is not the time to talk budgets, but to value the person” (WLoader Web site 2004).

A Girardian note on this story suggests that we find ourselves in Lent and the cross looms large ahead of us, bringing us closer to the revelation of God’s extravagant love – reflected in Mary’s scandalous generosity – juxtaposed against humanity’s imposition of blame and cruelty. This passage contains layers upon layers of scapegoating and misappropriated blame, but cutting through it is truth, beauty and compassion.

A frequent misinterpretation of this passage is that Jesus is acquiescing to the inevitability of impoverishment, as if poverty is a natural phenomenon to which some are necessarily doomed. But if God is Love – if Love fashioned the universe and all that is in it and formed humanity to reflect Love – then the suffering that comes with destitution is not divine design. No, there is abundance for all, so why does Jesus say, “You always have the poor with you?”

What if poverty is a way that the consequences of negative mimesis have become entrenched over time? As people live over and against one another and exclude and marginalize or exploit and manipulate others for their own benefit, the abundance of creation is horded by some and denied to others?

Furthermore, the escalation of human conflict, as desires for wealth, power, and influence clash against each other, erupts into war that further impoverishes those who already have little. The poor are often those conscripted into battle or sent to the front lines to fight for profits claimed by others under the guise of patriotism. Spilled blood poisons the soil, and today tools of modern warfare destroy homes and livelihoods and wreak havoc on the land and water, rendering them unable to provide for the people as intended. I don’t think Jesus foresaw bombs and missiles, per se, but I do think he understood the escalation of violence and the advancement of weaponry over time which would be put to use in the service of fear and greed and deepen the poverty of the people.

Jesus has seen how God’s commands to welcome and love strangers and foreigners have been neglected. He has seen instructions on forgiveness of debts ignored and the further entrenchment of poverty through the generations. He has seen how people and nations have defined themselves over and against others and how claiming the exclusive This extravagant focus raises the question of an exclusive God who has pushed out scapegoats within communities and fostered enmities between them. Thus the Poverty that results and metastasizes from these patterns of human behaviour is something Jesus intimately understands precisely because he has placed himself at the center of it. The same forces that impoverish ultimately kill Jesus.

So, when Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you,” he is lamenting, not acquiescing to, human sinfulness – which can be summed up as the brokenness of human relationships that compels us to find our identities over and against, rather than with and for, one another. We become unbalanced, left brain prioritized and adversarial responsive. And then Jesus says, “You do not always have me.” He is affirming that his challenge is to see the need to challenge our assumptions that are not balanced.

Yes, he is very likely foreshadowing his death. But he is not contrasting himself with the poor but rather standing in solidarity with them. He is not seeking any focus on himself but rather highlighting the need for constant vigilance in the face of responses that are not tested against reality as we know it. And he is saying, “Unless you can see the unique and beautiful face of each person right in front of you, you will never truly care for the poor.” Poverty comes from dehumanization and exclusion, from casting people aside from the human community, from violence that violates and destroys bodies and souls. If you want to help those who are poor, see them! Welcome and befriend them, Jesus tells us. “And do not begrudge an act of extraordinary kindness and generosity toward them, as Mary is doing for me.” The issue of debate between The Friends and ourselves about what is the better way to deal with homeless who use our doorways as shelter is a perfect example of this challenge. Ban and police them or work with them in the needs. The poor, disaffected, unable to work with the system are always with us.

Yes, there is so much more in this action, in this anointing for burial as both preparation for death and the beginning of death’s undoing itself – the undoing of the victimization and ritualization that grafts sacrifice into the lifecycle of communities and destroys them from the inside out is another half dozen sermon.

What I think is important here is the idea that poverty as a consequence of the dehumanization that is pinpointed against a single individual or group in the scapegoating mechanism, as the widespread result of scapegoating from the foundation of the world. Because in an age and a society where the poor are still scapegoated, and violence – in the form of destruction of social programs and the diversion of funding to wars that further entrench poverty – violence that harms the poor is whitewashed and cloaked in pseudo-righteousness.

The Girardian approach to this suggests that we must see the social and political dimension of Jesus’s words, as well as the personal. At the core of it all, to say “You always have the poor with you,” is to say that the fullness of humanity is always denied.  I would prefer to say unfinished. In our story Jesus draws the focus back to himself; ultimately to affirm the dignity of everyone and to show us that dignity that we may see it in ourselves and others, and not to offer us a supernatural escape clause.

If we follow the Girardian approach and see poverty itself through the lens of scapegoating, we can see how this passage presents further layers of scapegoating as well. These are layers that can lead to marginalization and poverty. Judas scapegoats Mary. He chastises her for her extravagant generosity as she spreads the perfume over Jesus’s feet. The evangelist scapegoats Judas. He says that Judas has no concern for the poor, but wanted to steal from the treasury.

Commentaries say other scholars are more sympathetic to Judas. And, yes, the story has Judas betraying Jesus, but so do we all. To give in to and turn to the ways of violence for self-protection or enrichment is to betray Jesus. To build ourselves up over and against others is to betray Jesus. Entrenched biases and prejudices are betrayals of Jesus that permeate our world and infect our souls.

For the evangelist to hone in on Judas’s faults and judge his motives is to detract from the deeper truth that everyone witnessing such extravagance on Mary’s part was very likely scandalized by it. And today, while giving to the poor is considered a virtue, programs that uplift the poor and attempt to restructure society so that poverty is reduced are often maligned as “hand-outs.” “Do away with foodbanks because all they do is perpetuate people who cheat the system”. Ban the homeless from our CBD because we are damaging out tourism potential. We must ask, to what extent are we scandalized by our extravagant abundance, and how much more must we open our own hearts to acts of extraordinary generosity and kindness?” As I implied the other night to our leadership team. Maybe we should build rooms in the old church and give them to the homeless.

The chief priests scapegoat not only Jesus, but Lazarus as well, “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting their Judaism and were believing in Jesus.” And let’s remember that this was Jews moving between their own faith expressions. They were not becoming pagan or any other form of religion but rather within a world of diverse practice. Fearing loss of authority and power, and fearing destruction of their particular community by Rome, they conspire to put Lazarus to death… again.

The challenge to us in this text is to acknowledge that generations of Christians have scapegoated Jews because of an anti-Semitic reading of this text. We have scapegoated many who can’t keep up or fit in to our norms of society and we have set Jesus apart from every other victim by making him carry the burden of being supernatural and we see his execution as something unique and more offensive than that of anyone else, we miss his solidarity with the victims of violence in all times and places, and we mistake the violence done against him as worse than our own. We push to the background the fact that many in his world were crucified.

But what do we do about this?  Well maybe look again at Mary who, being herself, marginalized, models the generosity and vulnerability that Jesus later displays when he washes the feet of his disciples. In our Hebrew Scripture for today God declares “I am about to do a new thing,” foreshadowing perhaps the forgiveness and undoing of the ways of blame and violence that lead to death that spring from the cross and resurrection…

So, what do we do about this? What is our response to this reality? How do we interpret Jesus’ words about the poor, Mary’s extravagant generosity, or Judas’s chastisement, or the reaction of the chief priests? And if “we always have poor among us,” what does that mean? What does Jesus have to say to today’s social and political and economic systems? What does he have to say to the ways we see, or don’t see, those who are poor among us? What hope does he offer the poor themselves, who comprise the majority of the world?

Well, lets go back to the story again, in fact lets see if we can put this story into context.

Stories such as: The man who had two sons; A man with a hundred sheep, and
A woman with ten coins. In the parable of the man who had two sons we meet the younger son who, after collecting his share of the family’s estate, leaves home and spends it all on extravagant living. When he returns home, broke, he is welcomed back by his father, who bankrolls, out of the other brother’s inheritance, an extravagant homecoming party. In the parable of the one sheep missing from a flock of 100, the fellow goes off searching for the lost one until it is found. And when he finds that one sheep, throws a party in an act of extravagance and maybe even offering the sheep as part of the party food!

Likewise, in the parable of the woman who loses a coin. With a sense of urgency, she lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and goes searching. She is in charge of the household finances.  Indeed: “her power and status derive from maintaining orderly household management” (Reid 2000:187) So she doesn’t give up until she has found that coin. Then she throws an extravagant party, probably spending that coin and several others,
in honour of the recovered coin and her selfhood.

Extravagance and joy characterize these Lukan stories. As it does, I suggest, in this morning’s story by John. But what of John’s added comment: ‘There will always be poor around, but I won’t always be around.’ Well, again if we go back and ‘hear’ that again, checking the passage from Deuteronomy which many scholars feel John has been inspired by. this is what we hear: Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land’ (NRSV). Open your hand…  Be compassionate to others! Com- passion.  Feeling with. From the very depths of your person.

So, with the broader Deuteronomy text ringing in my ears, I think along with others that this story from John implies that it was: Mary – with the lotion and the touch, and not
Judas – with the speech and the pious-sounding advice, whose response was genuinely compassionate. The speech by Judas sets up a competitive situation and a closed hand. The action of Mary sets up common likenesses and an open hand. Matthew Fox of ‘creation spirituality’ fame, and who is to be our Ferguson Lecturer this year has some interesting comments on compassion which I think could be helpful: “Competition isolates, separates and estranges.  Compassion unites, makes one and embraces…  If we can move from competition to compassion we will have moved from dull and moralistic and ungrateful and legalistic (thinking)… to celebrative thanking… Celebration leads the work with The Friends on the restoration of our building.

Extravagance and celebration and joy! For of such are the images of the ‘glimpsed alternative’, and ‘revelation of potential’ called the realm of God. It seems here that Jack Spong got it right when he said: love wastefully!

Notes:
Fox, M 1979.  A spirituality named compassion and the healing of the global village, Humpty Dumpty and us. NM: Santa Fe. Bear & Company.
Reid, B. E. 2000.  Parables for preachers. Year C. MN: Collegeville. Liturgical Press.
Scott, B. B. 2001.  Re-Imagine the world. An introduction to the parables of Jesus. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Scott, B. B. 1989.  Hear then the parable. A commentary on the parables of Jesus. MN: Minneapolis. Fortress Press.

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