Theodicy

Rev’d Canon Edward N. West

The readings for the 29th Saturday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Putatis quod hi Galilaei prae omnibus Galilaeis peccatores fuerint, quia talia passi sunt? Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?

JMJ

Back in 1985, I took a year off college. I really wasn’t sure what I was doing and by a twist of the post office and federal record-keeping no one could tell me where my financial aid forms were. Thus, three days before the school year started (I was already living on campus) as I was sitting in a student club office in the Loeb Student Center, I freaked out, filed for a leave of absence, and moved out of NYC to Atlanta. That worked for about 4 months. When I went back to my parents’ house for Christmas I stayed. Then, in the back of the (Episcopal) Diocese of New York newspaper, I found an advertisement for the Institute of Theology. It was a “late vocations” program as we would call it now. It met on Saturdays (and a couple of nights in the week) and was taught actual professors from actual seminaries. I begged permission from everyone to attend, got my pastor to write a letter, got references from some surprising folks, begged and got a waiver on paying for it… and off I went. A semester in “Seminary” to see if I liked it: a pre-vocations program if you will.

My favorite class was homiletics, taught by the Rev’d Canon Edward N. West. That’s him up there. He called me (and anyone else under the age of 70) “Ducky.” He was as familiar with Eastern as with Western Liturgy, and in terms of heros and people I’d like to be like when I finally grow up, he’s on the top of the list. He had a life-sized painting of the late Czar Nicholas in his apartment that was a gift from a scion of the Royal Family. His first public liturgy was the funeral of Mayor Laguardia. Ok, enough geekery.

My least favorite class was called, “The Problem of Evil.” “Theodicy” is the technical term for this.

I know this has bedeviled Christian theologians for two millennia – and it’s in the Books of Job and the Psalms as well. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s classic work, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, has given a cliched phrase as a talking point. This issue is best put this way: If God really loved us he would fix it so things did not suck. If there is a loving God, things shouldn’t suck. If there are sucky things (and there are) it proves that God is either not loving or not all-powerful.

We had a whole class on this. Two weeks in we had to discuss why people die. I blundered in with “Everything in nature dies, that’s just what happens. And we sinned. So we get to be natural too.” The professor countered with “What about good people?” And I responded with “There are no good people: we’re all sinners.” And he pushed back really hard. Then dismissed me as a young’n who didn’t know nothin. And I had essentially failed the course.

I’m kind of cold I think. Life sucks. Jesus offers us no reason at all why some folks were crushed by a tower and why others were turned into mortar for Roman masonry. And then he says, “Look, you know life sucks, so repent.”

This is God talking. It made sense to me, having lost my brother, his best friend, and the best friend’s sister within 1 year when I went to college in 1982, I find this oddly comforting. It was even more so when in 1984, I lost my grandmother. The world sucks. Yeah, so?

The Greek word most often rendered as “sin” is ἁμαρτία harmatia. It doesn’t mean “breaking the rules” but rather “missing the mark” as in not hitting the bullseye on a target or maybe better missing the target altogether. This is not a more-liberal reading of this verb: in fact, it expands it. It’s not just this sort of thing here – it’s a whole class of things! It’s not just a rule broken: it’s a relationship. With that idea in mind, we can see what St Paul means. An addict doesn’t just get drunk, doesn’t just shoot up: she ruins lives including her own in the present and future tenses. A moment of harmatia breaks communion.

St Paul doesn’t talk about breaking the rules: he talks about “sinful flesh” σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας sarkos hamartias. What is in the flesh misses the mark. See that? Our flesh is not out and about breaking rules (although we do do that sometimes, yes). It is not being “bad people” that makes life suck: it’s being humans in the flesh. What we have here is a broken, dysfunctional thing. We should not be surprised that it is broken and dysfunctional.

This problem of evil raises another concern: what’s evil? I think we know what evil is: it’s anything we don’t like or – sometimes – don’t understand. We are convinced the Christmas Tsunami was evil, that the boss I hate so much is evil, that the diagnosis of cancer is evil, that having my car broken into is evil, that this election or that is evil. What we may mean is these seem wrong but we’re saying Evil not wrong.

Later in Romans 8 St Paul says, Scimus autem quoniam diligentibus Deum omnia cooperantur in bonum, iis qui secundum propositum vocati sunt sancti. We know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints. (We’ll get there on Wednesday next week in the lectionary.) And so, if all things work together for our good – even the things we call “evil” – is there anything actually evil that can happen to us?

We can be killed, we can become ill with cancer, we can have a tower fall on us, we can have our blood mingled with cement for the Empires building projects, but: if we love the Lord, if we desire to be saints, these things are not evil. They are mysteries leading us to salvation. I realize there was ways for humans to be evil, to miss the mark entirely, but even then God is working out his purposes. Who was more evil in recent history: those who killed millions of people or those who knew what was happening and did nothing? I would not like to face that question on Judgement Day.

The professor, I later found out, had – early during my 4 months in Atlanta – lost his wife to cancer. The entire class was, really, a way for him to work through that. His pushing back made sense after a while. But – legit question – is losing your wife to cancer an evil or just an example of the world being broken? Like I said, maybe I’m cold. But Christians don’t believe that death breaks communion. “For your faithful, Lord,” we say at Mass. “Life is not ended but only changed.”

Is there evil? I think so – but I think when we say something is evil we mean only, “that thing was surprising and confusing.” So many things arise from Natural Consequences, are they evil? If I drink to excess, I will possibly pass out on the subway. Then my wallet could be stolen during my long, sleeping subway ride back to Brooklyn. Is that evil? There’s a sin there, yes (theft) but is that better or worse than the sins of drunkenness and wasting the resources God provided for me to care for my needs and the needs of others? But is it evil? Or just the way the world is always missing the mark?

I don’t know, Ducky. But all things work for our good. I’ll take that.

Mercy and Justice have Kissed

We tend to argue about matters of leisure (such as sex) because otherwise, we might have to discuss the injustice arising from our wealth.

The Readings for Monday, 29th Week, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Stulte, hac nocte animam tuam repetunt a te : quae autem parasti, cujus erunt?
You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?

JMJ

It was an interesting discussion yesterday with the Third Order Dominicans: how do we care for the poor? Actually, the discussion started with a discussion of Theft and the discussion of the 7th Commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Did Jean Valjean commit a sin when he stole bread for his family?

The Rich Man says, “I will build barns for my surplus…”

In the Catholic Church there is a doctrine on Private Property: we have the right (from God) to own things. But “The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind.” That is to say, God gave everything to everyone and while you have the right to own your home, for example, “The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.”

The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family.

In short, after providing for your family, everything else is yours in trust from God for the care of others.

I, myself, have no family so I wonder how this pertains to me. I’ve made several choices since leaving the monastery about not owning extra stuff, although I think I fail in this. My apartment seems filled with clothes I can’t wear and food I won’t ever get around to eating. How do I become a good steward? At my age and income status, I can’t pretend to be poor. So, I think I’m obligated by today’s Gospel not to be the stupid man in the parable. But how?

This discussion on care for the poor was preceded by a discussion of the false dichotomy between God’s Mercy and his Justice. God cannot be both, it is claimed. Either in Justice, we’ll all get a slapdown, no matter what we do (because we’re that bad), or in his Mercy, we’ll all be ok – no matter what we do or have ever done. The payoff for this argument is usually not at all theological: we mean it only (usually) in the second person. If I project lots of mercy on God, then, really, you have no right to tell me I’m wrong. If I project a lot of Justice on God, then, really, you had better start doing all the right things and I have the right to judge you too.

Both of these aspects play out in a discussion of sexual matters because the world only thinks about sex as a matter of liberty, but that’s an issue of western, wealthy entitlement. There’s nearly no one involved in the Culture Wars who is poor. So, we tend to argue about matters of leisure (such as sex) because otherwise, we might have to discuss the injustice of our wealth. So, it’s better to say, “You, fellow rich white person, are committing a sexual sin.” And to reply, “You, fellow rich white person, have no right to judge me.” Then we all feel good, having done our religious duty, and go back to being fellow, rich, white folks.

In this we make justice to mean “punishment” and mercy to mean “letting me off the hook”. These definitions are neither of them true, and they make God to be petty as we are.

Mercy is God’s divine and infinite condescension to us in kindness and love. The first instance of this, personally and for each of us, is the creation of the entire world. The second is the creation of your individual soul, an act of infinite love and creation in time that took place at the moment of your conception. All things – all blessings, all punishments, all teachings, all correction, all salvation, all purgation, all joys, and all sorrows – arise from this original mercy, or original blessing, as the former Dominican, Matthew Fox, called it. This is an act of Mercy because God has no need of you, no need of the universe, no need of creation at all. God’s love did this.

Then we want to think of human sin and its punishment. Yet we do not think of, even then, God’s constant mercy. For we know that sin is death. We know that we are cut off from the divine life by mortal sin (that’s why it’s called “mortal”) yet, in God’s mercy, we do not die, we are not “smote”. God lets us go on with an eye towards our repentance and restoration. Almost all of life, then, is a mercy. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions for that is part of the way the world functions: if you kill someone, they are really dead. You will grieve that action even if you are absolved. If you spread hate, you will suffer the social blowback from your actions even if you are able to grow towards love. If you commit sexual sin, there’s the possibility of a child, of disease, of re-writing the reward pathways in your brain towards an addiction. These are parts of the world in which we live and each sin means that we must deal with the actions. That’s not justice, though.

God’s justice is a restoration of right relationship.

Imagine you are building one of the barns in today’s parable. The floor should be perfectly level. From that floor, at perfect 90° angles, should rise each of the walls. This means the walls are “plumb”. The structure is “level, plumb, square, and true”. However, let us say that one wall begins to sag inwards. This wall will – eventually – make the adjoining walls weaker. They may begin to sag. And the roof could possibly collapse. So the rich man calls you back and asks you to fix it – to make the wall square again. The process of returning the wall to plumb, when projected on human relationships, is justice.

If we pitched our economic morals with the same arguments we use for sex, it would sound like this: “You have to stop being rich and share with me!” “You can’t judge me, go away.” Environmental morals are the same: our wealth is destroying the world, we are the rich man in the parable.

We want to think of Justice and Mercy in opposition, but, in fact, they are part and parcel of each other. Justice demands a right relationship. Mercy makes it mutually possible. Justice demands I share my surplus with the poor – not store it up in my new barns, level and plumb. Mercy (God’s kindness) allows me to have the grace to do it. It is not “just” for the rich man to build barns unless it is for him to use the barns to more easily invite in the poor. It is not mercy for us to say, “He can do whatever he wants” for that leaves him in wrong relationship, leaves him in his sins. When we remind the rich man of his duty to justice and move him (through God’s grace) to restore a right relationship with the poor, that is mercy. When we use love to show someone walking away from God the right path, we are merciful: and that restores right relationship to God and others, that is justice.

They do not kiss together: they are the same thing.

All are welcome!

JMJ

The Readings for Thursday in the 29th week of Ordinary Time (B2)

In caritate radicati, et fundati, ut possitis comprehendere cum omnibus sanctis, quae sit latitudo, et longitudo, et sublimitas, et profundum : scire etiam supereminentem scientiae caritatem Christi, ut impleamini in omnem plenitudinem Dei.
That you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.


Paul holds out to the Ephesians – and passing them, now hold out to us not the pale and powerless possibility of “heaven”; not “pie in the sky, by and by when you die” but here, now. No harps and crowns just now: power! The Power to comprehend divine fire in breadth, fire in length, fire in height, fire in depth.  This is what the Greeks call “Theosis”:  impleamini in omnem plenitudinem Dei, to be filled with the fullness of God.

I’ve sat in discussions with faithful Catholics who cannot imagine this is the Church’s teaching. For they only know they should follow the rules, do penance, and hope for something better in the future. They call this teaching of the saints and scripture blasphemy, as they fear traditional worship with its focus on glory. They hide behind guitars and call us all to just get along… 

They are like so many Orthodox who are hung up on “Did you have cream in your coffee this day in Lent?” These Orthodox speak of every mouthful of food taken without first a prayer, gagging us in the afterlife. They say that every drink of wine taken on fasting days will drown us… they wave toll houses at us to keep us from heaven. And they say they know “Theosis” – but say Catholics are in error for teaching Purgatory… meh. There are cancerous growths of legalisms in both lungs of the Church.

St Paul offers us that all divine, all embracing, all changing Love that is called “Agape”. Yes, Love welcomes all… But no one can join Love without changing. This Love – a him, not an it – welcomes all to a constant conversion. Jesus tells us, “Ignem veni mittere in terram.” I am come to cast fire on the earth. Set the world ablaze Lord! Again as at Pentecost when the very fire of God in golden tongues will fall on all flesh. Arise and blaze across all time and space and burn – yet do not consume – us all in Love.

This is not easy work. And there is no peace in this love. Becoming saints is a lifetime of hard engagement a lifetime of sacrificing self will, of giving up all that comes in the way, of moving apart from all that would hold us back. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father,  a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother… coworkers from coworkers, neighbor from neighbors, even fellow parishioners against each other as one says “The Gospel” while the other says “The Compromise”. We stand on the edge of the Spiritus Gladius, the Sword of the Spirit… and we dare not fall to one or the other side. 

And yet… and yet… we know we have to use both hands: one reaching for Jesus, while the other reaches out to bring our friends. For none of us go alone. It would not be Love if we were alone. This is ecstatic Love, call us and all out of ourselves. We must call all along with us. We must dance forward in a great reel or Dionysiac Procession: the ancient Tripudium of three steps forward, one back. No one can know the Liturgy in all its holiness of heaven striking earth with fire… and not be set aflame. It matters not if there are guitars or drums, Byzantine or Gregorian chant: when heaven moves, the earth will follow.

When you know the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s infinity how can you hold it back from others? If you are fire yourself, how can you prevent the fire from spreading by the very touch of your eyes on those around you?

Oh dear friends, have you seen it like a fire wrapping a bush that is burned yet not consumed, this love that falls down on us like a gentle, driving, roaring monsoon? We are awash in grace and Love and nothing stands between us and this… save ourselves. There is no other Love without it. And with this Love, there is nothing else. 

Wrapped in prayer, swathed in light, and holding God himself in your mouth and soul, can you not know that here and only here is Love. 

The Domestics

JMJ

The Readings for Tuesday in the 29th week of Ordinary Time (B2)

Quoniam per ipsum habemus accessum ambo in uno Spiritu ad Patrem. Ergo jam non estis hospites, et advenae : sed estis cives sanctorum, et domestici Dei.
For by him we have access both in one Spirit to the Father. Now therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners; but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God.
We’re so very used to our modern “classless” society that we tend to think the idea of class is bad. As we play that assumption we forget to note that class is a very real part of our world: it is only the obligations of class that we have done away with. Rich and poor are treated equally before the law as is proper in things criminal, but in things civil there was a notion of noblesse oblige, the idea that one’s higher position required an assumption of charity, of noble largess to those in a lower station. We still have classes of folks in America, we’ve just done away with the idea of an obligation entailed by participation in that structure.

When the Vanderbilt family moved to Asheville, NC, in the 1880s, they built a huge estate… railroad money, you know… but that was not all that they did: they reforested much of several counties that had been greedily logged after the Civil War and left barren. This actually became the seed (root?) for the first national forest, the Pisgah National Forest. They imported experts to decorate the house… whom they hired to teach the locals how to be artisans. They built housing for their growing family and, in the area known as Biltmore Village, they even built a church.

This is noblesse oblige.

In a similar situation today – if someone owned say a Palace or a Casino, or a Tower with their name on it – these folks would all be thought of as “employees” and may not even get them health insurance or a living wage. It’s not just folks who have the trump card in the economic world, either. At one time a single man of my paygrade would have employed a valet and a cook, quite possibly a maid as well. And these would have invested in my success as much as anyone: for my success was theirs as well. Today I do my own laundry and turn out my own lights.

We’d call that a smart business decision. The Vanderbilts would call it greed, sin, and would think it beneath their station to act is such a way.

Why this lecture of the cultural morals of another time?

Because it was the same in St Paul’s time. Because to be a wealthy member of the society in which Paul lived was to have servants and one could judge the quality of the person by they way they treated their servants or those less fortunate who lived around them. This was true in the Roman world just as a matter of culture, but in the Jewish world it was a matter of God’s law. The latter dictated how the wealthy were to leave the corners of the field for strangers to harvest for free, how temple sacrifices were shared with the poor, how an entire society was built around property and yet sharing at the same time.

All this to explain when St Paul uses one Greek word οἰκεῖος ekeios to describe the position of Gentiles and Jews united together. On the one hand it means “members of the same household”, but on the other hand it’s the same word used for what we would call today, The Family, and The Help. Folks upstairs and down are equally part of the same οἰκεῖος.

Paul is using this word on purpose to show that there is no difference between classes of people in the Household of God, for we are all one people. All one household – no matter what our classes are “in the world”. In this household we are all together and all servants. Even our Lord and God washes our feet. So much so should we to each other. Rich and poor, Jew or Greek, in the household of God we are all there, all with our parts to play, all with our obligations to each other fully in place. None of us can claim to be above the other, for we are all in need in someway, all rich in some way, and all called to share in humility in all ways.

All I Want is My Fair Share

JMJ

The Readings for Monday in the 29th week of Ordinary Time (B2)

Videte, et cavete ab omni avaritia…
Take heed and beware of all covetousness…

The Gospel is messy: it doesn’t color between the lines we’ve drawn. Who in this brief Gospel story of familial dysfunction gets your sympathy? We’re not told if we’re talking to the younger or elder brother. My guess is younger because the elder would normally get it all – but see Jacob and Esau, or Isaac and Ishmael. Fathers can be capricious. We don’t know but maybe the man is the eldest son of a second wife or the eldest son in fact, by a mistress though, rather than the wife. Who knows? Who gets your sympathy? My late younger brother (along with many of his friends) was a bully. I rarely see things in these internecine incivilities without that memory coming into play. I tend to pity the one standing in front of Jesus. I often wondered why I was the one that wanted to go to church, but my brother was the one who got to beat me up. So I don’t necessarily see this as an issue of “justice” because my younger brother often got away with a lot of stuff.
What would Jesus say? The answer is one that is certain to annoy anyone who thinks the Gospel is only about “social justice”. Jesus doesn’t even ask the brother who’s right and who’s wrong or what might be going on. He says, simply, don’t covet.
Aslan would remind us we never get to know what might have been, what could have been, or even what would have been. All we can know is what is (and what was). So yes, I had a brother who was a bully, but that’s what providence has dealt. It’s created some interesting memories and mental dynamics in my life. However to fight back, to blame, to demand fairness would have only complicated things, and perhaps have lead Jesus to offer me some interesting parables. This says nothing about what he would have said to my brother… or anyone else involved. This is always only in the the first person.

St John Chrysostom directs us to this in another way…

The sins of the rich, such as greed and selfishness, are obvious for all to see. The sins of the poor are less conspicuous, yet equally corrosive of the soul. Some poor people are tempted to envy the rich; indeed this is a form of vicarious greed, because the poor person wanting great wealth is in spirit no different from the rich person amassing great wealth. Many poor people are gripped by fear: their hearts are caught in a chain of anxiety, worrying whether they will have food on their plates tomorrow or clothes on their backs. Some poor people are constantly formulating in their minds devious plans to cheat the rich to obtain their Wealth; this is no different in spirit from the rich making plans to exploit the poor by paying low wages. The art of being poor is to trust in God for everything, to demand nothing-and to be grateful for all that is given.

Mindful, this is from the same Saint who teaches that both rich and poor alike rely too much on having stuff and not enough of God. This same saint teaches it is the duty of the rich to share in humble thankfulness for all they have and the duty of the poor to be humble in their reception of charity. The same saint teaches that laws do nothing for charity, as only a change of heart brings about charity…
See? The Gospel is really messy and doesn’t fall neatly into modern political parties.

Jesus asks, “Who made me the judge (literally, the divider) over this?”

In the first person singular and plural the Gospel offers no justice at all. In talking to Christians the only thing we’re promised is hate and eventually death. However we are to do justice – by which the Biblical writers do not mean “pass laws, march in the street, fix things”. We have a huge problem with those sorts of activism. Because we know God wants to save everyone: rich and poor, men and women, all races, all religions, all tribes, nations, and tongues. God doesn’t have time to care about our political squabbles.

In the life of Sts Cyril & Methodious we learn: That is why we generously endure offenses caused us as private people. But in company we defend one another and give our lives in battle for our neighbors, so that you, having taken our fellows prisoners, could not imprison their souls together with their bodies by forcing them into renouncing their faith and into godless deeds.
The Gospel is very messy. Our problem today seems to be that we are unwilling to “endure offenses caused us as private people”. We instantly demand justice and “our fair share”. Jesus accuses us (in the first person) of being covetous. Our job is to defend the weak, feed the poor, shelter the lost, but never to assume that is us we’re talking about there.

Lord, can we ask you something?

JMJ

The Readings for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B2)

Magister, volumus ut quodcumque petierimus, facias nobis.
Master, we desire that whatsoever we shall ask, thou wouldst do it for us.

This came up last night at St Dominic’s. It was a surprise to realize, but the Apostles – in fact James and John, two of the “Big Three” insiders – were making a secular power grab here. Could have been one of the Borgia Popes for this moment. And so they thought that Jesus was going to be a secular king… and these Fishermen and sons of a fisherman, wanted to be on either side of the throne. Just not getting it: God’s kingdom doesn’t work that way. Fr James, the preacher, used it to point out that the Church has been dealing with sinners in leadership roles from the very beginning.

James and John, thinking they’re in at the start of some popular movement that will overthrow the government want to make sure they’re in good with seats secured on the new ruling junta.  They want to make sure they have options that can be exercised when this new startup IPOs. They want their share of that first day stock boom.

They want their share. You know, Jesus doesn’t yell at them. This is not like when Peter said, “Don’t go to the cross”. They are mistaken – but only in some part of the equation. Jesus is a king. And he will drink a cup. And they, too, will drink it… They will get their share.

They are wrong in the application though.

So… I want to suggest something: that being wrong in the application may not be as bad as taking the cross out entirely. James and John don’t get the same response as Peter.

There are those who think their faith requires them to make political actions and movements. There are those who feel their faith urges them to take out civic power. Jesus has some hope for them that, in fact, they will drink his cup with him.  James, you know, dies a martyr’s death. John lives a long life of martyrdom, caring for Jesus’ mother, going to prison, exile… but he dies an old man praising Jesus.

And when the others hear about it, they get all uppity and in each other’s faces. Jesus has to shut them up with a teaching moment: You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt.

This was also true among the Jews as well in Jesus time: for they had several generations of Maccabees who were a Theocracy – where the king was also the high priest. Then they had client kings who were Jewish at least by birth, but had no sense at all of stewardship or shepherding over the people. The Herods were the most recent of these kings, Jewish in name only and despised by the people.

Christian leadership requires the Cross. This leader is there not as a pusher and mover, not a cowboy with a cattle prod. A Christian leader has to woo, has to call by name, has to give his life for the sheep. Leadership in this role is about sacrifice. It’s about self-emptying. It may be next to impossible to be a Christian Civil Servant, but it’s not forbidden.

In some cases a Crown worn right has made a King a Saint.

But there are those who take the cross out of Christianity. Peter said the cross wouldn’t sell. They don’t mind the politics (as long as they agree) but they don’t want any, you know, sacrifice or conversion. Penance doesn’t play in Peoria. It doesn’t pay well in DC. There are those who ignore the cross even as they use it as a label for their own purposes. They too, don’t want any conversion or sacrifice. They want prosperity and “justice” rather than kenosis. Their politics leads to victory for “us” and an end to “them”. The Cross is for all – or else it is for none. These would not drink the cup of Jesus if they had a choice. It has no meaning, in fact, it may be opposed to all they stand for.

Jesus calls them Satan

Continuity and Rupture

In the last two weeks of the Lectionary, Weeks 29 and 30 of year A, we’ve had this story (in two parts):

The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them,”Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:15-21, 29th Sunday) 

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40, 30th Sunday)

There are, in addition, several other moments in the Gospel stories where Jesus is seen in discussion with the religious leaders of the people. It is a homiletical commonplace to use these to say, “Jesus was offering a different vision than the Jews had hitherto.” In fact, it can be tempting to do so because so may have done so. That such often arises from a covert Anti-Semitism, especially among the more liberal, is dangerous. The approach is, generally, “The legalistic religious experts were wrong. Love is the Answer”. We place a homiletic rupture between the Good Jesus and the bad Jewish elders. Specifically, it’s right up there with the Jews killed Christ in terms of misunderstanding what’s going on here.

A cursory reading of Jewish Culture will recognize what’s going on here: rabbis debate. Rabbis debate with their students to understand the law. Rabbis debate with each other to sharpen their skills. Rabbis debate with each other to correct errors. This debate can be rather calm and contemplative, or it can be heated. We see all types of this discussion in the New Testament: Jesus at dinner parties, Jesus on street corners. Now, to be clear: Jesus is God. To disagree with his point is sin – and it’s the trump card for Christians. But on the streets of the Jewish Communities in the Roman Empire of the 1st Century, AD, this was not a thing. Jesus was God using the cultural tools available. Rabbinic Debate was the way to be. Jesus’ actions are in continuity with the actions of those around him. We must read the Gospels in this hermeneutic.

Dealing with the second Gospel story first (because it’s what made me grumpy) we have to know the history behind Jesus’ response. The greatest commandment is one that pious Jews recite three times a day as part of their daily prayers. It is the obvious answer. The second one, like unto the first, though: there’s a story behind that one. I’ve heard two versions of this story – and I will cite the one I don’t like first. It’s not the first one I read, though, which is the same all the way through except the punch line. It is the one that comes with a citation, though.

One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this–go and study it!”

(The cited text backs up this version.)

The second version of the story, the one I read first, has Rabbi Hillel respond thus: The main idea of the Torah is ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Although the text of this second story is not backed up by the Talmud as such, the Rabbis tie that text with love of neighbor as self throughout Rabbinic debate.

Jesus would know this story about Hillel. Jesus would know this context. Jesus was not putting the Pharisees in their place with a new teaching, but rather taking a side in an existing Rabbinic Debate.

Specifically the question should be heard like this: Rabbi, some of us say that all the laws are equally important. But others say some are more important than others. How say you?

Then Jesus – God in the Flesh – gives a shoutout to Hillel.

That’s a much better sermon! In another Gospel passage recounting the same story, the querent responds with “you have answered well…” Jesus is agreeing with a certain party of Pharisees.

The first Gospel Passage, with the Herodians, is beyond funny. Jesus is still debating with others, but in this case, he’s debating with Herodians. They are fans of the established political order. They don’t rightly care what the religious folks do as long as the Herodians get to stay on top of the secular pecking order. They are, basically, successful, secular Jews in our modern understanding. They are as closely aligned with the political power structure as the pro-Israel lobby is in the US today.

So, on the coin, whose image is this? In Greek Jesus asks, “Whose icon is this?” The answer is correct: it is Caesar. But, brothers and sisters, Whose icon is Caesar? Every human being is created as the icon of God!

When the Herodians, not even thinking religiously, hear “Render to Caesar…” they are pleased.  Yet Jesus says something even more shocking: and much more in keeping with the Hebrew Prophets. Jesus says whatever political authority you have… This is part of God’s icon, part of God’s plan. This is the root of St Paul saying that all authority is God-given and that the King is God’s instrument. This is right in line with the Hebrew Prophets saying God has used Persia to save the Jews (even calling the King of Persia “Messiah” at one point!)

Jesus says, “You’re right… but not enough. You’re drawing distinctions where there are none to draw.”

We, friends, must stop drawing lines of rupture between Jesus and his culture. God in the flesh decided the time and the place of his incarnation. The culture, the people, the politics, the family structure, the class war, these are not accidents. Nor are they necessarily divinely ordained for all time, to be clear. But they are the choices God made for making points.

If we rob the Gospel story of those points, the rest falls apart and becomes a nice story about a hippie with a leftist political agenda… but that’s only for us, today. Another party could rob Jesus of his Judaism and make him out as a hatemonger. (Failing to invoke Godwin’s law would be an error here: Nazis said there were no real differences between Jesus and Hitler. Right wing hate groups today make Jesus out as a white supremacist. Although conservatives often have Anti-semitism in their works, I say “liberals” because they often drive this point home to toss out all the Jewish Law, including teachings on sex and morality. Also the “Jesus Seminar” and their ilk,  eliminates anything from the sayings of Jesus that other teachers were saying at the time… so that Jesus becomes almost entirely disconnected from his Jewish conversants. This idea that the Jewish Scriptures are so filled with error that we toss them out is a heresy condemned by the Church.