Friday, March 22, 2013

Apostle to the Apostles

Maybe Dan Brown was on to something.

In his controversial 2003 novel The DaVinci Code, Brown builds a mystery thriller around the myth that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants now live quietly in modern France.

Thousands of angry Christians condemned Brown for his heretical idea, but – as he is the first to admit – the idea had been around for years.

Many readers of The DaVinci Code were reminded of a 1982 volume called Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, which claimed the messianic descendants are protected by a secret society called the Priori of Sion.

The book is unconvincing and unintentionally amusing when it offers photos of the alleged grandkids of Jesus: pear-shaped, balding middle-aged hommes with bulbous noses and beady eyes.

Writer Anthony Burgess said the book’s far-fetched claims would make a great novel but he never got around to writing it. Dan Brown did.

And to be sure, The DaVinci Code is a page-turner. But apart from the fictional notion of a holy blood line, the novel’s main contribution has been to revive interest in a misunderstood biblical figure: Mary Magdalene.

Mary has been the target of so much derision, in fact, that one of Brown’s claims rings true. It seems plausible that the patriarchs of the church were so disturbed by the special presence of this mere woman in Jesus
life that they went out of their way to misrepresent and dismiss her.

The most common calumny about Magdalene, of course, is that she was a hooker.

In Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1971 rock opera by Sir Anthony Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Mary’s bawdy background torments her as she struggles with her love for Jesus. “I don’t know how to love him,” she sings.

I don't see why he moves me.
He's a man. He's just a man.
And I've had so many men before,
In very many ways,
He's just one more.

Mary’s profession is even more explicit in the 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel of the same title. Portrayed by Barbara Hershey, Mary is actually shown turning tricks seriatim as sweaty customers line up at her door.

In the film and novel, Jesus is tempted on the cross by his love for Mary and his desire to break free from messiahship to start an ordinary family.

“Barbara Hershey is so beautiful,” a Baptist minister whispered to me after he saw the movie, “I’d have been tempted, too.”

And for the record, there is nothing heretical about Kazantzakis’ story. Jesus was indeed led into temptation, as the author of Hebrews makes clear:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested, as we are, yet without sin. Hebrews 5:15

It’s logical to assume that being tested in every respect includes sexual tension, and most extra-biblical traditions about Mary Magdalene suggest she was uncommonly beautiful.

But she was no whore.

Magdalene is mentioned in the gospels more than a dozen times, and it is never stated or insinuated that she was a prostitute.

The notion that she was a sex professional originated with Pope Gregory I in 590 C.E.

Gregory, dubbed “the Great” and canonized a saint by popular demand as soon as he died in 604, was a monastic mystic. He devised an enduring style of Christian worship that included the harmonious chants that bear his name. He is the patron saint of musicians, and was a respected  evangelist and church administrator. John Calvin, the 16th century reformer not known for his public relations sensitivity, called Gregory “the last good pope.”

Gregory was also a prolific writer whose cataracts of words were sometimes preceded by trickles of thought. In one of his homilies, he confused Mary Magdalene with the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil in Luke 7:36-50, and also with Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who performed a similar act in John 12:1-8.

Susan Haskins, writing in Mary Magdalen: The Essential History, quotes the pope’s dubious exegesis:

“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? ... It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” (Homily XXXIII).

What was clear to the brothers had no basis in logic, but the confused words of popes are remembered a long time. The church maintained for 15 centuries that the prostitute who went to Jesus, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene were the same person. In 1969, Pope Paul VI – reluctant as he often was to question the infallibility of his predecessors – corrected the error. Still, millions still embrace the notion that Mary Magdalene was a reformed hooker.

And if she was not, what was she?

No one knows the nature of the seven demons Jesus cast out of Mary, and they could mean almost anything. One theory is that demons represent an illness or menstrual tortures that Jesus cured. Whatever they were, the point is that they were cast out, and Mary was sufficiently relieved by their absence that she became a faithful follower of Jesus.

She became, in fact, one of his leading followers. And in the most important events in Jesus’ ministry, she was the bravest, truest, and closest disciple Jesus had.

She was present at his crucifixion and refused to move from his side when all but one of the male disciples escaped into hiding from the Roman authorities.

She was present at his burial.

She was the first to discover early Sunday morning that his body was missing from the tomb.

She was the one to whom Jesus chose to appear before he announced his resurrection to the world.

She was the harbinger who sought out the male disciples in their hiding place to tell them the Lord had risen.

She was, as Augustine famously said, the Apostle to the Apostles, the first to whom the good news had been given and the first herald who shamed the boys out of their seclusion.

In patriarchal fashion, the boys promptly took charge of the gospel and Mary Magdalene faded from church history.

In fact, the church treated Mary badly. She was the one to whom the risen Lord first appeared while Peter and the boys were still trembling in isolation. When Mary came to Peter with the good news, he should have knelt and kissed her ring before be followed her to the tomb. And apostolic succession over the next 2000 years would have been very different.

But the boys did not give Magdalene the respect she was due, and we are left to wonder what happened to Mary, the first Apostle.

Did she marry Jesus?

No. That is certainly not the secret the old boys tried to cover up by dismissing Mary as a cypher and a whore. The secret they wished to cover up is that a Jesus had given a woman such an important role.

Did she love Jesus?

Of course she did. Her behavior during Jesus’ last hours was a testimony of love and caring that surpassed anything the male disciples did.

Did she love Jesus in a romantic sense? Did she want to marry him?

Perhaps. If so, her encounter with the risen Jesus at the tomb must have elicited both profound and conflicted emotions: incredible joy that the man she loved was alive, and unspeakable sadness that he would never be available to her in ways a woman might desire:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he had said these things to her. John 20:15-18

Those would have been difficult words to hear by one who yearned to embrace a loved one thought to be lost forever: “Do not hold on to me.”

But Jesus was alive, and now his circle had expanded beyond a few earthly apostles to the whole world.

The Lord had risen and death had been defeated and salvation was available to everyone who believed.

Mary would have known as soon as Jesus spoke her name that she was uniquely special to him and he wanted her to be the first to hear it.
She was the first evangelist of the good news.

She was the Apostle to the Apostles.

And despite the fact that salient details of her life were ignored by her contemporaries and distorted by early bishops, Jesus made sure the story of his resurrection could never be told without mentioning her name.

Hers was the first name to pass his lips as he stood in the garden outside the empty tomb.

And she was the first to utter the phrase Christians use to greet each other every Easter Morning:

The Lord has risen.

The Lord has risen indeed

That's the good news the gospel proclaims. And we can never forget the woman who proclaimed it first.

Hail, Mary.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Donkey Sense and the Pope

Pope Francis’ spectacularly inauspicious beginning is full of encouraging signs of the man’s humility.

He instills a hope that change is in the wind, not only in the Roman Catholic Church but among persons of faith and good will around the world.

The Vatican has a reputation for secrecy and self-protection. The clergy child abuse scandal, the secret report on curia corruption that was promptly locked in Pope Benedict's safe, claims of money laundering in the Vatican Bank, all these concerns and more have been swept under the pontifical rug.

Church leaders say secrecy is necessary to protect the faithful, whose faith might be jeopardized by evidence of human failings in Holy Mother Church. Perhaps they miss the irony they have the chutzpah to call themselves the Holy See.

It is
also a strange way to serve Jesus, who despite the dangers and controversies swirling around him, set the highest standards of openness and transparency.

Jesus had a special knack for symbolic gestures of humility that preached louder than words.

Pope Francis seems to have a similar knack. And as the western Christian world approaches Holy Week, all eyes are on him.

The Holy See is the last unconditional monarchy on earth. The pontiff has unqualified authority over the minions and the mighty of the church. Pope Francis’ predecessors wore gold crosses, ermine lined silk brocade, jeweled crowns and red shoes, and they lived in palatial luxury.

Yet Francis, who lived in a tiny apartment in Buenos Aires and took the bus to work, wears a simple iron cross, scuffed black leather shoes, and an unadorned white cassock.

He expresses his love for the powerless, whom he identifies using Jesus’ words, as the poor, the captive, the oppressed, the sick and disabled, and the financially strapped.

On Tuesday he urged the world’s politicians to protect the earth’s ecology.

And during his mass of installation Tuesday, this inheritor of monarchial authority defined leadership and power as “really about service,” and declared that even the pope should be “lowly, concrete, and faithful.”

It seems, well, Christ-like.

Whatever happens now – and perhaps it is too much to hope that this elderly, gentle Jesuit might have the time or the resolve to throw open the heavy windows of the church as did John XXIII to let the polluted air escape – Francis is off to a good start.

Among the hopeful signs this week is that the pope has shown he understands the power of symbolism, evidenced by the simplicity of his dress and out-stretched arms to the poor and powerless. These gestures are more eloquent than any homily he could give.

And how fitting it is – perhaps even providential – that he has begun his ministry a few days before the holiest week of the Christian year, beginning this Sunday when the master of all used symbolism and imagery to transform the world forever.

This Sunday is Palm Sunday in western Christian traditions.  (Orthodox Christians, who began the observance of Great Lent on Monday, will celebrate Palm Sunday on April 28, followed by Pascha – Easter – on May 5.)

But despite allegiances to different calendars, all Christians know Palm Sunday is the day Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds shouted, “Hosanna!”

In all of the Baptist Sunday school classes I’ve attended on Palm Sunday, two questions are inevitably asked, each of them related to the issue of symbolism.

One, the most common, is, why didn’t Jesus walk?

Most Sunday school teachers (including me on occasion) don't know the answer to this question. I tended to skirt the issue by raising my finger in the air while proclaiming, “Tradition!”

Not many seventh grade Sunday school students are satisfied with that answer.

Probably a better answer is that God wanted it that way, and, sure enough, God seems to been on lookout duty when Jesus sent his disciples to commit grand theft-donkey. (Luke19:30-31).

Other sources soften the legal implications of donkey snatching by reporting “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.” (John 12:14)

Years later, gospel writers continued their efforts to sanitize the story by quoting ancient scripture references that suggest God had the donkey in mind all along:

“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)

Whatever the reason, Jesus – who heard the roar of the crowd but sniffed the fickleness that would lead to his crucifixion in five days – chose to ride on a donkey rather than walk.

Perhaps Jesus chose not to walk because that would have placed him on the same level as everyone else. He would have been just another perambulator in the crowd, virtually invisible unless he was taller than everyone else.

If the Messiah required a triumphant entry into Jerusalem, he had to ride in on some conveyance that set him apart from the crowd. Strolling wouldn't do it. A cart ride would have been silly. A chariot would have been out of the question.

The second question that comes up in Sunday school is, why didn’t he ride a horse?

This is a less common query because people have a hard time imagining Jesus on Trigger.

But why not a horse?

Horses don’t make a lot of appearances in the bible, except as visions, such as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In mundane reality, though, horses must have been common enough in Jerusalem to compete with sheep and goats in the excremental sweepstakes.

Riders of the Roman Equites Legionis were used as scouts, messengers, and defensive screens when testosteronal Goths or other scary enemies surrounded foot soldiers. Roman officers, most of who were petite by our standards (judging from forensic evidence left behind in burial grounds) hoped they looked more imposing on a horse.

Horses were beasts of war. Any king who rode a horse through the streets of an ancient city had either already conquered the city or was signaling his intention to take the city by force of arms.

Obviously that is not a suitable image for the Prince of Peace, no matter how gentle the horse.

In ancient times, the donkey was a working class favorite often regarded as an animal of peace. If a celebrity or monarch were to part the teeming crowds while perched on a donkey, his common touch and pacifist intentions would have been instantly perceived.

So it was on the first Palm Sunday.

The donkey offered another advantage for Jesus, in addition to its peaceful symbolism. A person straddling a donkey may attract more attention than someone merely walking, but that person is not lifted above the crowd as much as a daunting equestrian.

Seated on a donkey, Jesus was accessible to the masses. People could grasp his hands or touch his shoulder as he passed. The donkey permitted him to pass among the people as one of them, not as a king on a horse whose prancing angular hooves would frighten them out of the way.

It’s obvious that Jesus had given careful thought to the sermon he wanted to preach by riding on the donkey.

Although we remain uncertain about the identity of his co-conspirators in donkey nabbing, it’s clear Jesus knew a donkey had been arranged for him in a suburb of Jerusalem before they entered the city.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone said to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this: ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” (Mark 11:1-3)

It’s reassuring that Jesus planned all along to return the donkey, and we may even surmise that new donkeys do not depreciate in value during a test-drive.

We may also surmise that Jesus knew exactly how the sermon on the donkey would be remembered through the millennia. Neither a horse nor a stroll on foot would say it as clearly: here, on a humble ass, is the monarch of the universe, who was in the beginning with God, who took on human flesh to experience all the joys, pains and travails of humanity, who was one of us, who came to rescue us from sin, who came in peace to reconcile us with the God we had rejected.

It’s impossible to envision Jesus on the donkey and mistake him for a shock-and-awe conqueror. He rode on the ass through the streets of Jerusalem to say, my time is near. Raise your palms and spread your cloaks before me as signs you know who I am. Then depart in peace and ponder this revelation in your hearts. Leave the violence and flogging and crucifying to others.

Five days later, we know, the palm wavers joined the vicious crowds who called for a brutal end to the sermon. They stood outside Pilate’s palace shaking their fists and chanting, “Crucify him.”

It’s an excruciating story to hear every Passion Week, all the more so because it set a pattern of church brutality and carnage that has lasted to the present day. Even the peaceful donkey ride through Jerusalem was re-invented by the church as an opportunity for mayhem. According to an online source:

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the burning of Jack-o-Lent figures marked Palm Sunday. This was a straw effigy that would be stoned and abused. Its burning on Palm Sunday was often supposed to be a kind of revenge on Judas Iscariot, who had betrayed Christ.

What a travesty of the sermon Jesus was preaching by riding on the donkey.

And how agonizing it is as we begin Holy Week to reflect on other bloody events in Christian history that mock the peaceful entry into Jerusalem: the Crusades, stake burnings, beheadings, disembowelments, and hideous tortures of Christians who didn’t believe what the Christians in power believed.

In our Anabaptist traditions, the Martyrs’ Mirror records countless examples of Christian-on-Christian cruelty.

For example, a Mennonite named Dirk Willems who was jailed for heresy by his Dutch Lutheran neighbors in 1569, and sentenced to die. Willems escaped from jail and was hotly pursued by angry Lutherans, one of whom fell through thin ice and was about to drown. Willems, a true Christian to the end, stopped running and pulled the man to safety. It was just enough time for the crowd to catch up with him. They arrested Willems and burned him at the stake.

No wonder we cannot repeat Tertullian’s Apology without snickering: “‘Look,’ they say, ‘how the Christians love one another, and how they are ready to die for each other.’” The quote is from an essay written in 200 A.D. And looking back, one wonders if it was ever true.

As we begin the last week of Lent, Passion Week, we are called to ponder these matters.

Lent is a time of reflection and repentance.

Lent is a time to remind ourselves of the reasons Jesus came to us.

Lent is a time to recommit to the commandments Jesus said were the essential ingredients for human behavior: to love God with our heart, mind and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

In his homily Tuesday, Pope Francis described how this love should be carried out:

Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross. He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked Saint Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Only those who serve with love are able to protect!

Jesus expressed all of this in the simple symbolism of riding a donkey through the gates of Jerusalem.

And as we watch him in our minds eye, making that astounding passage one more time, may we remember the message he intended.

And may we join the cheering crowds in that cleansing refrain:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Who Vetted Judas?

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.
The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” John 12:1-8

This particular passage from John’s gospel is full of tasty tidbits, and I can hear the old Southern chaplains I worked for in the Air Force smacking their lips.

“You can preach this up one side and down the other,” was a favorite phrase of Chaplain Lewis Evans, a good ol’ boy Southern Methodist from Alabama.

“You can preach this six ways to Sunday,” Chaplain Harland Getts would affirm. Getts was a courtly Southern Baptist from Arlington, Va.

I’m not sure what either of those homely phrases means (and figuring things like that out was above my pay grade as a buck sergeant).

But decades later I find myself looking at this passage (served up by the Revised Common Lectionary for the fifth Sunday in Lent) and feeling a bit overwhelmed by the number of potential sermons it suggests.

For the past several Sundays, the lectionary has offered Luke’s gospel to tell of Jesus’ preparation for the climax of his mission. Knowing that the fulfillment of his mission will result in his death, Jesus nevertheless “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) and he will not be deterred.

John picks up the narrative and you can almost hear the fluttering wings of the death angel over Jesus’ head.

The first ominous clue is that Jesus is joined at the dinner table by Lazarus, who until recently has been quite dead himself.

The presence of Lazarus should probably be one of the sermons the passage provokes, but it’s hard to see where you could go with it.

Seasoned Christians have read the passage for so many years they have lost touch with its incipient creepiness. 

Actually, there are many Christian stories and jargons that don’t translate well in secular society or among non-Christians. I remember watching a young Jewish woman as she listened politely to a zealous evangelical insist her only hope of salvation was to be “washed in the blood of Jesus.” The woman blanched. “I can’t even imagine that,” she said.

And just as challenging to the imagination, here is Lazarus, who moldered in his grave so long he emitted a stench (Luke 11:39), now noshing with his sisters and Jesus as if he had just returned from a Tiberian spa.

In the absence of guidelines as to how to comport oneself when dining with the formerly dead, one must wonder what the table conversation was like. Does one make a big deal of the man? Does one pretend his presence is perfectly normal?

Does one ask Lazarus the ultimate eschatological questions? What was it like? What kind of accommodations do they have? Do they serve decent wine? Did you see my late Uncle Mordechai?

Or is it bad form to have a private discussion about the afterlife when the Son of God is at the table?

If I had been at the table, I think I would have been uncomfortably silent, hoping Lazarus didn’t ask me to pass the gefilte, and probably diverting my eyes if I thought he was looking at me.

I’ve always thought Lazarus was one of the least fortunate recipients of one of Jesus’ miracles. As unpleasant as his final illness must have been, once he died he had cleared the ultimate hurdle. He was beyond the pains and travails of life, and no longer had to fear death.

Why would anyone who had escaped earth’s trials want to come back and face death all over again? According to John, death could return to Lazarus at any moment because the chief priests planned to kill him “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” (John 12:11) There is no record that Lazarus ever thanked Jesus for wresting him from the tomb, and that’s no surprise.

If there is a sermon in Lazarus’ presence at the table, it could be this: once he had raised a man from the dead, Jesus own fate was sealed. Word of the raising of Lazarus had spread widely and large crowds came to see what the ex-dead look like.

Lazarus was living proof that Jesus was a man of no ordinary powers, and the priests had to put a stop to him lest all their best tithers desert them.

If Lazarus’ presence at the meal was not concrete enough a reminder of death, his sister Mary brought fragrant nard to the table, smeared it on Jesus’ feet, and rubbed it in with her hair.

Nard was expensive because it was imported along grueling trade routes from Nepal, China, and India, where it was distilled from the spikenard plant. It was used as a sedative as well as a perfume and had medicinal properties for curing insomnia and easing birth difficulties. 

Mary was using it as a perfume known to have relaxing vapors, but Jesus had death on his mind. “She bought it so she might keep it for the day of my burial,” he explained to the others. (John 12:7)

Mary’s foot massage is striking on a number of levels. It must have scandalized those who witnessed it because they lived in a culture in which men and women who were not married were not supposed to converse, let alone touch each other. And when Mary used her hair to rub the luxurious perfume into Jesus’ feet, the act was personal, not business. It was an intimate, even erotic act. The Jews regarded a woman’s hair as ornamental, an object of beauty to be celebrated by her husband; rabbinic modesty required a woman’s hair to be covered as a sign of her sexual reserve. (See Dr. Leila Leah Bronner’s essay on Jewish hair laws across the ages.) 

Mary must have created consternation among the boys (and possibly arousal and envy) when she pulled the tie from her cascading tresses and used her lucious locks to rub the lavish perfume on the boss’s feet.

Jesus is quick to divert attention from the sensuality of the moment by talking about death. Even so, the passage is one of many reminders that Christianity is not one of those sacrificial sects that require the faithful to deny their bodies to save their souls. Despite his poverty and deprivation, Jesus rarely turned down an invitation to eat, drink, or – as John records – an offer of soothing and fragrant caresses. The central theme of Christianity is the resurrection of the body and all the pleasures that go with it. And that’s another sermon that can be gleaned from this opulent passage of scripture.

And there is yet another sermon that raises some troubling questions.

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

The nard smelled like money to Judas. A lot of money.
According to some sources, the denarii was a day’s pay for most people. It could buy (according to wiki.answers) about 20 loaves of bread, so if you could get by on a few slices of bread a day, there was a lot left over for meat, drink, and assorted creature comforts.

Three hundred denarii was almost a year’s salary. Just where Mary got that kind of money is not known, but it was a pretty penny and more than enough to attract Judas’s attention.

But even more interesting than this rate of exchange is the very presence of Judas in this band of apostles.

From a human resources point of view, the man is a nightmare. Donald Trump would have fired him.

As you may know, human resources directors have their own perspective on these matters.

A few weeks ago, a human resources director of our acquaintance reacted with horror when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation.

“He can’t do that,” our friend said, her voice rising in alarm. “He’s the CEO! He’s not exempt! He can’t just give three weeks notice!”

Imagine a human resources director’s response to Judas.

“Who vetted this guy? Who hired him? Who made a man with his reputation the office treasurer? Who has the authority to hand him his yarmulke and show him the door?”

The answer to each of these questions, of course, is Jesus.

But scholars and critics across the centuries have raised other questions about Judas.

Among them: was he set up?

Some church historians speculate that if Jesus knew who Judas really was (and it seems impossible that the man who perceived power surging from him when his robe was tugged in a jostling crowd could not know Judas), then Jesus allowed Judas to betray him.

And for some, it absolves Judas from blame if he carried out a role that was never in his power to evade.

For others, such as Hugh Schonfield, author of The Passover Plot, Jesus may even have conspired with Judas to do the deed in order to fulfill his mission.

The conspiracy claim is also made in an ancient Coptic papyrus traced to the second century that purports to be “The Gospel of Judas.” The document caused a stir when it was discovered in the 1970s, although it may be the same text that was denounced in 180 A.D. as “fictitious” by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon.

Whether there was a conspiracy or not, it seems likely that Jesus, who was a marked man even before he raised Lazarus from the dead, would have been arrested in Jerusalem with or without Judas’s help.

It is interesting to note that Judas doesn’t even appear in the very earliest Christian writings, namely the epistles of Paul that were written when the apostles who knew both Jesus and Judas were still alive. Paul may not have considered the traitor worthy of mention, or he may have known details about Judas’ role that we don’t have.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that a few hundred years later, gospel writers depicted Judas as a traitorous thief, and his name today is synonymous with betrayal. Jesus said Judas, alone among the twelve disciples, was “destined to be lost,” (John 17:12).

So if Jesus knew that, why did he confound all future Human Resources Directors by keeping Judas around?

Hidden in that question, I think, is the best sermon of all.

Jesus kept Judas around for the same reason he put up with the scribes, the Pharisees, the Romans, the pushy crowds, and the disciples themselves.

He loved him.

Jesus didn’t come to save only good and sinless people or we would all be lost. And most of us would have to admit we are not sufficiently free of sin to cast stones of condemnation against Judas.

Adam Clarke writes: “he [Judas] committed a heinous act of sin...but he repented (Matthew 27:3–5) and did what he could to undo his wicked act: he had committed the sin unto death, i.e. a sin that involves the death of the body; but who can say, (if mercy was offered to Christ's murderers? (Luke 23:34)...) that the same mercy could not be extended to wretched Judas?”

Jesus should have fired Judas’s patootie early on. But he kept him around despite Judas’s pitiful performance record and failing annual evaluations.

Maybe that was careless management, and maybe Donald Trump would have handled it differently.

But it’s good news for the rest of us that Jesus didn’t stop to inventory all our sins before he took them to the Cross of Atonement.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Unreciprocated Love

From my perspective, there has never been any question about the true star of the popular 1987 film Dirty Dancing

Not Patrick Swayze in the role of Johnny Castle, the strong but sensitive dance instructor at the 1960’s era Catskill summer resort where the action takes place. And not Jennifer Grey, the naïve coming-of-age Frances “Baby” Houseman who falls in love with Johnny.

Granted, the characters captured the hearts of a generation of X’ers. I still remember two of my daughters re-creating a dance number by Johnny and Baby, imitating their lithe movements so meticulously that I was afraid one might swoop the other over her head and jump off a stage.

But to me, the central character has always been Baby’s father, Dr. Jake Houseman, played by Jerry Orbach.

Orbach, a seasoned song-and-dance man remembered for his role as Detective Lennie Briscoe in Law and Order, was probably the best-known actor in the low-budget film. Jake Houseman suffers all the classic stresses of fatherhood, including the open rebellion of Baby, his youngest, who becomes actively and secretly involved with the older and more experienced Johnny.

Jake also has a troublesome older daughter Lisa, played by Jane Brucker, who decides to become sexually active with a boy at the resort. Lisa, who strives to feign an intelligent worldliness she lacks, provides one of the more imponderable lines in the show: “If Vietnam falls, is China next?”

With both daughters lying to him and sneaking around behind his back, Jake finds himself in an awkward position: he is a faithful provider who envelops his daughters with material possessions, security, and love. But to his daughters, once those possessions are securely in place, Jake’s presence in their lives is scarcely noticed except for its occasional inconvenience.

I may be overstating the case a bit, but this is how the fathers of adored daughters sometimes feel about that inevitable time when Daddy is no longer the central figure in a girl’s life. Of course, Jake’s daughters still love him, but they’re quickly maturing to the point where they no longer need him. To Jake and millions of fathers like him, his love for them is beginning to feel unreciprocated.

Dirty Dancing is supposed to be a charming love story involving Baby and Johnny, and of course it is.

But the film is also a parable of fatherhood, and it’s not a lot different from the soap opera related by Jesus that we call the Prodigal Son.

Both are stories about loving fathers, and we are invited to put ourselves in God’s place: what does a parent do with love when love is no longer returned?

The parable of the prodigal son, which is also called the parable of the good father, seems to be making this point: greater love has no one than the love that is not returned.

My spouse and I have spent many hours immersed in the story and music of Les Misérables, on stage and most recently in the cinema.

As disciples of Victor Hugo’s novel know, Les Misérables is a parable of love: parental love, romantic love, and divine love. The show’s climatic declaration is from Hugo himself: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

For me, the most loving person in the story is Éponine because she never stops loving the dashing Marius, even though the young man will never love her.

My spouse, who has memorized the entire score of Les Misérables and is more expert than I am in its nuances, believes the most loving character is Fantine, who chooses a life of degradation so her daughter Cossette could live, and ultimately she gives her life for Cossette.

But Fantine had a loving benefactor in Jean Valjean, who knelt beside her death bed and raised Cossette as his own child.

Éponine, on the other hand, was the daughter of the thieving Thénardiers who cynically used her to advance their own felonious schemes. When Éponine fell in love with Marius, he treated her like one of the boys and turned his attentions to Cossette. Éponine knew this was unlikely to change, that she would forever be on her own.

I love him
But everyday I'm learning
All my life
I've only been pretending
Without me
His world will go on turning
The world is full of happiness
That I have never known
I love him
I love him
I love him
But only on my own

The youthfully obtuse Marius, who thinks of Éponine as a pal, gives her a love note addressed to Cossette and asks the heartsick girl to deliver it for him. Éponine does so, but she returns to Marius at the barricades where students prepare to do battle with the repressive Parisian regime. As she struggles to get over the barrier, Éponine is fatally wounded.

Marius rushes to hold her in his arms, and I can never listen to her dying song without a small catharsis:

The rain can't hurt me now
This rain will wash away what's past
And you will keep me safe
And you will keep me close
I'll sleep in your embrace at last
The rain that brings you here
Is Heaven-blessed!
The skies begin to clear
And I'm at rest
A breath away from where you are.

Éponine, whose love will never be reciprocated, loves anyway. And not only that: she gives her life for the love that will never be returned.

It is that kind of love that emanates from the parable of the Prodigal Son.

The misnamed story (Jesus never used the title) places too much attention on the loving father’s sons, both the callous ingrate and the smoldering aggrieved.

Jesus is on his journey to Jerusalem as he has been throughout much of Luke’s gospel. His loyal followers are divided into two main groups: tax collectors and sinners, and Pharisees and scribes.

The tax collectors and sinners are not the Pharisees’ type of people; in fact, they are not our type of people.

The tax collectors are government lackeys skimming large amounts of money off the taxes they collect from decent folks.
Sinners” are so designated because they have committed moral offenses so grievous that they are no longer allowed in the Synagogue. And Jesus loves to hang with both tax collectors and sinners, engaging them in friendly conversation and even joining them for supper.

The Pharisees and scribes – proud exemplars of moral comportment – complain audibly about the riff-raff Jesus associates with.

Which reminds Jesus of a story, which he shares with the riff-raff loudly enough for the exemplars of comportment to hear him.

The father in the story is identified simply as a “man,” but the two sons are more vividly cast.

The younger son is self-absorbed and impatient, lacking in gratitude to the father who enables him to live comfortably and eager to strike out on his own in search of a hedonist existence.

The older son is a self-righteous conformist, orthodox, boring, and unadventurous.  He reminds you of the Pharisees.

Neither son is a prize, but the father loves them both – unconditionally and without any hope they will return his love.

The younger son shows his disdain for his father by making it clear he regards the old man as a meal ticket. As far as this son is concerned, the old man can’t die soon enough.

In fact, the son tells the father, let’s dispense with all that. You give me everything I would have inherited anyway and I’ll get out of your hair.

The father, disappointed but committed to supporting the free will of his children, complies.

What happens next is pure novella, and Jesus lays it on thick. It’s not hard to figure out what Jesus meant by the “dissolute living” that caused the son to squander his father’s money. And when the son ends up feeding pigs – those unclean creatures Jews weren’t even allowed to touch – it’s obvious the boy could fall no lower.

When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! Luke 15:14-17

Chagrined, penitent, and now history’s archetype of the perfect screw-up, the young man returns home to the father he once spurned and begs for food and a job.

The father – still unconditional in his love for the little creep – leaps to his feet in joy and welcomes the boy home.

The celebration feast must have looked like the repasts Jesus is having with the salvaged tax collectors and sinners.

Too, the upright scribes and Pharisees couldn’t have missed that Jesus was comparing them with the offended older brother.

Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” Luke 15:26-32

If the scribes and Pharisees were listening, they would have got the point.

Jesus is telling them: Shut up.

Sinners and tax collectors may not be your kind of people, but God has always loved them and God could not be happier that they are now following Jesus on his way to Jerusalem.

The good fortune of God's love extends to the scribes and Pharisees as well as to the sinners and tax collectors. It extends to the resentful older brother as well as to the ungrateful and profligate brother.

We are all, in fact, fortunate that God loves each of us, even at times when his love for us has not been reciprocated.

And, granted, it’s not always easy to love God. God is a vast concept, an invisible spirit, an incomprehensible essence of creativity and order. How, exactly, do we love a God too big for us to even imagine?

The parable of the Good Father who loves his sons no matter who they are or what they do is a comforting message for us as we continue our Lenten journey to Jerusalem.

The unreciprocated love God has for each of us is the greatest kind of love we will ever experience.

And God will never stop waiting for us to return to the fold, no matter how far we stray or how creepy we get.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

If Tenderness Doesn't Work ...

Jesus asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Luke 13:2-3

Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before?

Where did we get that idea? That wasn’t even true for Jesus.

This week’s scripture selection from the Revised Common Lectionary finds Jesus preaching and teaching on his way to Jerusalem.

Maybe the heat of the road is burning through his sandals, or maybe the crowd is beginning to smell bad, or maybe Jesus is just worn-out.

Whatever the cause, Jesus is getting grouchy.

Just a few verses earlier, you could almost hear Bobby McFerrin’s soothing percussion as Jesus crooned don’t worry, be happy.

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear,” he said reassuringly. “For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor bard, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” Luke 12:22-23

But that was then. Now, Jesus is telling the crowds, get with the program or you’re going to hell.

A little black storm cloud has appeared over Jesus’ head.

He reminds the crowd how God deals with sinners.

“Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’” (Luke 14:4-7)

If I were preaching about Jesus’ unconditional love and infinite forgiveness for all people, these are not proof texts I would choose.

The United Church of Christ doesn’t mention the passage when it invites everyone and anyone into its congregations, no questions asked.

At first glance – even at second glance – it looks like Jesus has some serious questions about your chances of sneaking into heaven. It seems he sets conditions for his love, and his forgiveness has limits.

What is he saying? You think Bernie Madoff was bad? Not as bad as you if you don’t repent. Hitler? You’ll be his roommate in Hell if you don’t repent.

Jesus, isn’t that a little harsh?

Hell is such a horrifying concept that many of us can’t believe it exists – or, if it does exist, we can’t believe the God who loves us unconditionally would send us there.

There are even those who believe everyone, ranging from the thief who was impaled on the cross next to Jesus to Lucretia Borgia to Hitler to Ted Bundy, will be spared eternal damnation.

This consequential universalism is hard for many of us to swallow, especially by those who have been victims of murderous crimes and rely on God to be just.

At the same time, how many of us are so sinless that we would readily cast others into Hell because they don’t share our theological views? I knew many Christian missionaries who served in Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Shinto cultures who couldn’t do it.

“Every day I lived with wonderful, kind, and thoughtful non-Christians,” the daughter of a missionary to Burma once told me. “I knew beyond doubt that God was not going to send them to Hell because they didn’t accept Jesus.”

We like to preach a gospel of unconditional acceptance. When we invite people to church we like to promise God does not judge them, that God doesn’t care who they are – thieves, murderers, drug addicts, abusers, losers – God loves them anyway. And we can find many passages in scripture to back us up.

But other passages, like the one before us now, are more troubling.

In his book What Jesus Meant, Garry Wills warns us not to assume we can ever fully understand Jesus. Wills rejects that kind of presumption, and singles out the What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) faction as a particularly cheeky example. 

“Can we really aspire to do what Jesus did?” Wills asks. “Would we praise a twelve-year-old who slips away from his parents in a big city and lets them leave town without telling them he is staying behind? (Luke 2:48)”  

There are some things God’s son might do that shouldn’t serve as a model for our own behavior, Wills points out.

“If we could cast out devils, would we send them into a herd of pigs, destroying two thousand animals (Mark 5:13)? Some Christians place a very high value on the rights of property, yet this was a massive
invasion of some person’s property and livelihood.”

Such behavior might work for Jesus, but do not try it at home.

Wills also quotes G.K. Chesterton:

“We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellant dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is … very nearly the reverse of the truth.”

In the passage before us, Jesus is showing a side of his nature we don’t like to see. We’d prefer the tender Jesus portrayed in those pastel pictures in our Sunday school classrooms, the Jesus smiling at a lamb slung casually across his shoulders as he walks gingerly through gaggles of clinging children.

But of course we know there is more to Jesus than that. According to legend, the Rev. Peter Marshall, the Scotland born pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, offended his well-heeled congregation when he described a different side of Jesus.

Peter Marshall was A Man Called Peter in the 1951 biography by his wife, Catherine Marshall, and the subject of the 1955 film of the same title. Marshall, who was also chaplain of the U.S. Senate back when the title was an honor, was a powerful preacher who achieved posthumous fame when his wife’s book became the Book-of-the-Month Club’s selection.

The sermon that offended the proper Presbyterians in Washington included these words:

We have had enough of the emaciated Christ – the pale, anemic, namby-pamby Jesus – the ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ – Perhaps we have had too much of it. Let us see the Christ of the Gospels striding up and down the dusty miles of Palestine – sun-tanned bronzed fearless. Let us see the white knuckles of the carpenter’s hand as He upset the tables of the money-changers and glared at the racketeers. Let us feel the terrific dynamic of the personality that walked clear through the lynching mob that sought to throw Him over a cliff. He strode through them, and no man laid a hand on him. That’s the Christ we ought to see. Let’s see the Christ who called a spade a spade and let the chips fall where they might. Take Jesus out of the perfumed cloisters of pious sentiment, and let Him walk the street of the city.

It is certainly no perfumed, cloistered Jesus who brings us this warning:

“Unless you repent, you will all perish.”

The theme of repentance runs like a steel thread throughout Luke’s Gospel, and it is certainly consistent with the invitation of every evangelist from Ignatius Loyola to Amy Semple McPherson to Billy Graham. In order to reap your heavenly reward, you must repent and be born again. That is the message Jesus is setting before the crowd and, if you think about it, the message is anything but arbitrary. The collapse of the tower of Siloam that killed 18 random people was arbitrary to be sure: but Jesus assures the crowd that the same fate will be in store for all of them if they don’t repent.

This is an important insight for people who believe God uses disasters and diseases to punish the sinful. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson both declared the AIDS epidemic was God’s punishment on sinners, but Jesus makes it clear that catastrophes like a plague or the collapse of a building are not willed by God. Punishment, illness, and suffering are not the result of sin but the fate of all unrepentant peoples.

Jesus’ call to repentance must be taken seriously, of course, because it opens the door to eternal life.

But the issue of whether that door will be closed arbitrarily on unrepentant sinners or persons of other faiths is open to question. Jesus makes this clear when the fruitless fig tree in the parable is reprieved.

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:7-9)

The parable suggests God is willing to be patient. And, as one commentator on the passage writes, God has yet to slam shut the door to salvation. “In other words,” states Preaching the New Common Lectionary*, “God’s mercy is still talking to God’s judgment, and on that conversation hangs our salvation.”

That’s why many Christians, including members of the United Church of Christ, wear a red or rainbow colored pin in the shape of a comma. It means one should never put a period where God has put a comma.

That message applies to all us sinners, repentant or otherwise:

God is still speaking.

* Preaching the New Common Lectionary, Year C, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, by Fred B, Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R, Halladay, Gene M. Tucker, Abingdon, 1989.