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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Second thoughts: Je m'accuse (B23)

James of Jerusalem. Icon by
Br. Tobias Haller
1. Jesus and that spitting thing
This morning I was reading Rachel Held Evans' wonderful book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church when I read this sentence in one of her chapters in the section called "Baptism": "In some Orthodox traditions, the convert literally spits in the face of evil before going under the water." She quotes Alexander Schmemann in other places in this chapter, who was an Orthodox liturgical theologian, and it makes me think she may have read this in one of his books as well.

When Sunday's gospel had us imagining the scene with Jesus and the deaf man with the speech impediment, groaning, spitting, and touching his tongue, I'm guessing a lot of people were wondering what the hell was going on with the spitting. But one homilist mentioned something very similar to RHE's observation, and it made me sit up and take notice. I'm guessing that what's going on here is exactly that. Part of what Jesus is doing in the act of healing is "spitting in the face" of the sickness, making an outward act of disgust and revulsion at the disorder that caused the pain and difficulty of this man's, and so many others', life. Maybe the groaning was part of it too, a belly-roar of sadness and regret to begin to open the man's closed-off hearing and speech.

2. James's letter and the meaning of faith
I'm fairly certain that I've told you about how Reza Aslan's book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, while not convincing on every level in its portrayal of Jesus as one political "messiah" in a long line of many who tried and failed to rouse the populace, even if peaceably, against Rome, really did speak to me about the early church conflicts about who Jesus was and what his ministry meant to the apostles and how his memory should shape the future of the community of believers. This played out largely in the tensions between factions in Jesus's all-Jewish band of apostles and evangelists. Some, like Paul and Barnabas, were looking for ways to bring the "adopted" children of God, the gentile Christian believers, into the community without making them adopt the rigors of the Torah, particularly the dietary proscriptions and circumcision. Others, like James and, at least for a time, Peter, thought that being brought into Judaism was essential to being part of the Way. Famously, in the "council of Jerusalem," some accommodation was made, though it's not entirely clear, between Paul's own version of what happened and Luke's in Acts of the Apostles, what the nature of that was. Nevertheless, on the question of faith and works, a question where Paul seemed to say that works (like the works of Torah, including circumcision and diet) were dead and could not save, James, "the brother of the Lord" and one who, unlike Paul, had been with Jesus during his ministry, said that works, and specifically works of justice, that is, acting in life the way God acted on behalf of people, were a necessary outward sign of inward conversion to Jesus and the way.

This is so brilliantly brought forward in the Letter of James in these few weeks we get to hear it read in the liturgical assembly. When I think of it as the word of a man who perhaps knew Jesus, was possibly a close relative, even a brother, and how in the face of rebellion and the pending siege of Jerusalem he would insist that justification by faith had to be evidence in an egalitarian attitude, care for orphans and widows, and active help in relieving the suffering of the hungry and poor, it gives me a new appreciation for Jesus's preaching and life and death. It feels true to me. I know that I might be mistaken, but for now, I take it as true. There's that great line where James is using Paul's own icon of faith, Abraham, to make his argument about works, calling the person he is addressing an "ignoramus. (2:20)" Could he have meant Paul? A perverse part of me wants to think these titans might have escalated their argument to the ad hominem level for all eternity, but I'm also willing to believe James was correcting a misinterpretation of Paul. That's nowhere near as fun, though! What's the old saying? Two rabbis, four opinions?

3. Finalment, je m'accuse.
In the light of all that, in the light of James's admonition that our works show our faith, in the light of the psalm we sang that gave praise to God who "upholds the stranger and orphan" and "gives bread to the hungry," I was hoping for some rousing preaching about doing something positive, especially in the light of the humanitarian crisis in Europe because of the influx of Syrian refugees. But it was not to be. And then, our beautiful pope, leading by example, announces that beginning with the parishes under his jurisdiction in Rome, monasteries and parishes in Europe should each to adopt a Syrian family. That was something. That was worth an "alleluia."

But then I realized I hadn't done a damn thing myself, so I did some quick searching for entities that were already on the ground and working there, and found some that used over 90 cents of every donated dollar to actually helping people. Terry and I sent some money to Medical Teams International. UNICEF and CRS are also highly rated charities already helping. Will you join us? You have to hear James one more time this Sunday, if you know what I mean.

Donate here to Medical Teams International
Donate here to Catholic Relief Services