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Sunday, February 3, 2013

How the truth "passes through" violence - 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The end of the 4th chapter of Luke and the story that began in last week’s gospel ends thus:
They rose up, drove him out of the town,
 and led him to the brow of the hill
 on which their town had been built,
 to hurl him down headlong.
 But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away. 
This sounds funny, but that just hit me in the face, “passed through the midst of them.” That’s what I’d call “passover language,” because it’s the same words that the scriptures use to describe the incident at the Red Sea, when they “passed through its midst, with the water like a wall to their right and to their left.” In other words, God was at work rescuing his people from destruction. Here those words are again, here is God's rescue again, at Nazareth in the beginning of St. Luke's gospel. Jesus “passed through the midst of them” when they wanted to kill him, after he had told them the prophetic message of God, that salvation and jubilee is for all people. It’s amazing to me how, after reading it a thousand times, hearing it a thousand times, two times previously even today, that phrases like that can come alive. Who says that scripture isn’t a literary event? All written texts should be so full of allusion and emotional weight!

Again, interpolation of 1 Corinthians between the two prophetic readings from Jeremiah and Luke is strange and wonderful. As a younger man, I bridled at the way the 2nd reading "interrupted" the logic of the liturgy of the word, and wished it were not there. I suppose I thought that it had nothing to do with the other readings, if one only saw a univalent "message" in the texts. We used to talk about moving the 2nd reading until after communion, so that it wouldn't "interrupt the message" of the first reading/psalm/gospel axis, which generally has an obvious motif. Over the years, I've grown into the church's wisdom on the way the liturgy of the word unfolds, and today was a good example of why.

The word of God needs to be spoken, and it’s not always going to feel that good to speaker or the hearer. There has to be a way to tell the (prophetic) truth with love. Sometimes we are so at-one with sinful structures that we need to be torn out of them, and it is painful. But listen to the echoes, after listening to Jeremiah and Luke today, of St. Paul in the letter to the Corinthians, speaking of the undying truth of agape. It's a litany of behaviors that indicate union with the divine life (agape):
Love is patient, love is kind.
 It is not jealous, it is not pompous, 
it is not inflated, it is not rude, 
it does not seek its own interests, 
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, 
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
 It bears all things, believes all things,
 hopes all things, endures all things.

It’s like he’s been reading my (e)mail, even my thoughts. Maybe you have a similar response? A Christian wants to speak out against evil, against whatever inhibits the reign of God that Jesus announced from Isaiah 61: whatever oppresses, holds in prison, prolongs blindness and causes mourning or delays the great equalizing on the day of jubilee. And yet,

If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
The prophet, see, is not released from the great commandment. One can see in St. Paul the clear representation of genuine conversion to Christ. Before his encounter on the Damascus road, he was as fiery and convinced a prophet as he was afterward. But the encounter with Christ, whatever it was, changed him. He put away the sword, stopped the threats and intimidation. He became a truth-teller like Jesus himself and like the God who raised Jesus. He cajoled, persuaded, engaged, wrote letters, lived in solidarity. Love, as the song says, changes everything.

The good folks in the Nazareth synagogue had their own truth. They thought Jesus was going to echo it back to them. Instead, they heard the word of the Lord pour out of a heart unencumbered by prejudice and exceptionalism, simply open to the universal freedom offered by turning away from the failed strategy of empire and believing the good news of the jubilee for everyone. On this occasion, at least, Jesus passed through their wrath to tell the story another day. On another day, at the geographical heart of the powers that oppress, imprison, invade, excommunicate, withhold healing, cause mourning, and laugh off the imperatives of justice, he would not pass through them unscathed. But without a retributive act, without violence, his life would be restored, multiplied, glorified by the One who had called him "Beloved." That "passing through," that Passover, would mark history, and offer us a way out of hellish violence and inequality that passes for civilization.

All I've read of Rene Girard and James Allison about scapegoating and violence really comes back to me in this area, how the only real way to change the cycle of blame, recrimination, and violence is to just stop, think, and love, to be like God who lets the sun shine and rain fall on good and bad alike. It may not do much for our longevity here, but if the story’s true, longevity here, lovely as it is, is just the beginning.

But in reality, it's so hard. To be convinced one is right is such a hard thing to let go of. Being right becomes a weapon, ruthlessly wielded, and every nasty word or bitter behavior or violent deed elicits an equal and opposite reaction from the other, who is also convinced s/he is right. Until, miraculously, heroically, love intervenes. Someone says "put the sword away." Someone realizes that even self-defense isn't an excuse for violence. That's where the gospel leads, to Gethsemane and Calvary. No. Other. Place.

So, from one clanging cymbal to another, let's not imagine that being right, being prophetic, being "on God's side" is a license to say whatever we want, or beat the other side into submission. The journey is destiny. If justice is delayed, I guess, we wait for it. If Jesus was right, it is worth the wait.