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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Don't the pagans do as much? (A7O) Part 2

“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In preparation for the gospel today, we hear a short piece of Leviticus, and it might seem that the passage is just saying, 'Love your neighbor, your countryman, the guy who lives next door, as yourself.' That's hard enough. But even Leviticus goes on to include foreigners and strangers a few verses later, by saying, "You shall love the alien as yourself, because you yourselves were once aliens in the land of Egypt." (v.34) Jesus expands this even further: not just your neighbor, not just the foreigner, but your enemy.

There is a principle in Jesus study when determining ipsissima verba or, more precisely, ipsissima vox, that is, which words in the gospels did the Lord himself say, or in what passages do we hear the "very voice" of the Lord (perhaps not his exact words) and what has been redacted, shifted, and rewritten over the times the gospels were being assembled. The principle is sometimes called the criterion of embarrassment, meaning that the very fact that the words or actions appear in the scripture is reason enough to believe that they actually happened, because they don't make the story better, or make sense, or raise the honor of those who took part. Included in this might be, for instance, the baptism of Jesus by John, or the dullness of the apostles in Mark. As for me, I think that the passage above, from the Sermon on the Mount that concludes the gospel for today, must fit into this category. While consistent with the actions of Jesus in his life, the command to love the enemy and do good to the persecutor is so counter-intuitive that it could almost only have come from another world. Add to that the haunting question about "making nice" with your friends and locals, "Don't the pagans do that much?"

So much of our parishes' energy seems to be directed to activities about which Jesus might say, "Don't the pagans do that much?" I'm sure that when he said it, if he said it, he spoke with a grin, as if to say, "Look at yourselves! Isn't it crazy that you think you're some kind of 'chosen people'? If you're chosen, what are you chosen for? Why don't you act like it?" I think it would be a good question about every project that every parish council and/or pastor undertakes in the community: "Don't the pagans do that much?" Or, in the other phrase, Jesus said, "Don't the tax collectors do that much?" So we could fill in the blank with whoever it is we think are lost souls: Don't the Democrats/ Republicans/ Texans /New Yorkers /Lawyers/ White Sox/ Cubs/ immigrants/ people on welfare/ Mexicans/ norteños/ Reform-of-the-reform-crowd/ NCR subscribers/ etc. etc do that much?

How can we tell if the project we are undertaking as the cause célèbre du jour is actually worthy of people who are called to the empire of God, those who are addressed in the beatitudes, and called light of the world, salt (fire-catalyst) of the earthen oven, and city set on a hill? Are we supposed to
blend in, or stand out? Catholics make up the largest percentage of any faith group in the United States, ex-Catholics the second largest. Our brothers and sisters of other Christian faiths aside for the moment, with that catechetical patrimony, why do we have Congress at a standstill, no civil discourse, rancorous ad hominems in the press and internet, wars with robotic weapons and acceptable collateral damage, free access to guns, limited access to health care, no humane policy toward immigrants, and an equally appalling record on the environment, the penal system and death penalty, job creation, and other life issues? Catholics vote. Catholics hold office. But who can't look at this country and say, "Don't the pagans do that much?" And maybe add, "And sometimes, more?"

I picture Jesus speaking these words, whether he spoke them all at once or whether they were collected and remembered from many sermons on many mounts and many plains, with his main message right at the top of his mind: "Repent, and believe in the gospel." Or, "Turn around, go in another direction, I have good news for you about a different god and a different emperor than the one whom you think is in charge." He thinks of his audience, and that is us, as "blessed," that is, makarioi or full up with the good fortune of being loved by God who is right here with us in the trenches when we're poor, lowly, thirsty for justice, merciful, peacemakers, single-hearted, and put down because we try to be on God's side. He says we have light and fire in us, we can be a city on a hill.

And he tells us how to show it, too. The law we have is not even close to the way God lives. God is nothing like Caesar, stop thinking that, and nothing like religious leaders who think Caesar's power is the way power looks, stop thinking like that too. God is not an emperor arrayed in gold or a general with armies, or a judge, bookkeeper, or heavenly tycoon. God is a father, the head of the household that we all live in, and what God wants is a functional family of people who take care of each other. What God expects is, "Love your neighbor as yourself," and everyone, especially people with no one to help them out, and especially people who are violent and seem to be God's enemies, everyone is your neighbor.


So before we congratulate ourselves too much on that new building, or being a blue-ribbon Catholic school, or this new program or that new committee, we might just stop and ask ourselves, "Don't the pagans do as much?" With a smile, of course, because we always fall short of where we want to be, but let's never mistake missing the mark, hamartia, or sin, for virtue. We need to repent, turn around, and go in the other direction, the gospel direction.

How is that even possible? How can we be asked to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect? Well, because it's the only way out of the hell we have made of revenge, competition, class warfare, racial profiling, homophobia, and every kind of violence. "He makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust." Everybody is God's child, everyone is loved by God, and everyone deserves the love of every brother and sister. That's this God. There are other ones, and they have led us to the world we have now. How is that working out for you? And if we're feeling all right, we'd better check to see whose neck we're standing on, and whose wounds were made by weapons funded by our taxes, and whom we've robbed of comfort and home to build our own nests. Everyone can be kind to the gift-giver, the shogun, and the one with the sunny disposition. Those who live in the city on the hill, those who are the light of the world, are called to be like God, stop the cycle of greed and revenge, and repay evil with kindness, giving ourselves in service to everyone, even the reprehensible and vile. How on earth is that possible? It is possible because God does it, and that energy forged the universe and keeps it and all of us alive. That God serves us.

I just keep thinking to myself, don't think of all this as "the ideal." In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is describing what is genuinely real. Life is deeper than we imagine. I don't know what that means, I don't know how it expands beyond our lifetimes. What I know is that it matters what we do now, in this world. This world may be ruled by one Caesar or another, but all the worlds belong to Abba. It's up to us, sitting around Christ on the mountain, to waken to our calling to be that city set on a hill. To be there, we need to turn around. Or, as the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation puts it, when we come together, gathered by the crucified and risen Jesus whom Caesar imagined he had destroyed, ...we might turn again to you, (Father,) and find our way to one another. 

Music we're doing at St. Anne this weekend:

Gathering - We Are Called (Haas)
Psalm 103 The Lord Is Kind (Cotter)
Presentation of Gifts: Be Perfect (Cooney)
Communion: One in Love (Kendzia/Cooney)
Sending Forth: Bring Forth the Kingdom (Haugen)

We also have the Rite of Sending to Election and Recognition by the Bishop this Sunday, so we'll be using "Who Calls You By Name" (Haas) and "I Have Loved You" (Joncas) as well.