Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The parable of God's Name (C3L)

"Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith." Misericordiae Vultus, 4/11/2015, Pope Francis

The Lord is kind and merciful. Full stop.

Is there any word from beyond which we need to hear any more during Lent? In these days when we are more aware than ever of how how impossibly vain we are and how futile our attempts to do good are, how far we are from what the gospel calls us to do and to be, what's more important to hear that those six words from the psalm Sunday? Or these, from the first reading: "I know well what (my people) are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them."

Of course we want God to come down to rescue people from their suffering, and when triaging that, we hope God gets to us first, however self-focused and petty our misery. Meanwhile, we tend to carom between amazement and blame when we witness the suffering of others, still convinced in our heart of hearts that the Deuteronomist was right, that those who suffer are being punished for their sins, or for being infidels, or for being born in the southern hemisphere, and that those who are doing well are the blessed and chosen.

In these readings for the third Sunday of Lent in year C, it seems to me that we have a couple of parables of God's mercy, one from Luke and one from Exodus. We see, as it were, God's Son in one and God's name in the other, and from both of those there radiates the tenderness and compassion we hear proclaimed for our violent, exploitative, and recidivist race, the spark of whose interior life nevertheless shines with the very image and likeness of the creator.

Reports come in to Jesus asking for his judgment on an item heard on Herod-the-Fox News, about an abomination perpetrated by the sadistic Roman governor, apparently murdering some Galileans in the middle of some religious rituals. Quickly losing patience with their bewilderment, Jesus throws in another story making the rounds, about the deaths of eighteen people when a tower collapsed at a site near Jerusalem. His point was not to shock the crowd into silence, but to make them stop wondering whether the victims were somehow at fault for what happened, more worthy of their terrible fate than other Jews including his listeners. The question is, how did he get from their misfortune to "unless you repent, your fate will be the same"? Is he saying that repenting of sin will render the penitent immune from disaster?

It's hard to think so, looking at the arc of history and the rest of the gospel kerygma. But what if by "repent" he continues to mean "get your meaning and destiny from God," and start believing and living in the kingdom? Stop believing in Rome, and start believing in your own God, in solidarity, community, and social equality. Start believing in a God who doesn't prevent disaster but is present to disaster, and become agents of God's presence with your healing and hospitality.

Jesus turns to a parable, as he always seems to do when discursive language isn't enough. When we hear this parable, we often want to turn it into an allegory. Who does the fig tree represent? Who is the planter? Who is the gardener? The trouble with an allegory is, if you get a character wrong the first time around, it blows the meaning of the whole story. Are we the fig tree and is God the planter? (Psalm 80 and other scriptures could support this reading.) Maybe. That might fit the "angry God" theory, as though Jesus and God disagreed on the fate of the world, and Jesus talks God out of chopping us down. Is that how we want to think of God? Is it possible for the Father and Son to be so out of sync with each other? I can't imagine it.

But maybe the planter is just "the way everything is." The planter is the law of entropy. Everything deteriorates to chaos. The planter is "might makes right" and "survival of the fittest" and the Pax Romana. The planter is the way all of us look at the wreck of our lives, at the destruction wrought by our culture, when we take the time to assess it and admit our complicity. The planter is the voice that says, "It was worthless anyway, throw it out. Let them die. They deserved it. Life is futility, chaos. We bring order. Rip it all out and we'll try something else." And maybe, just maybe, God, and therefore Jesus, is the gardener. When we turn back to the values of our culture for the thousandth time, when we refuse to believe in peace and equality, when we work and vote and support terrible, divisive ideas that take life away from people, that steal from the poor and give to the rich, even after decades of listening the gospel and singing the songs and going through the rituals, and we're right at the place where no one would blame God or Jesus or anyone else from throwing the book at us and letting us experience some of the very suffering we've caused the world, God steps between the victim and the axe, the culture and its victims. Christ the gardener takes the maligned tree tenderly in infinitely merciful fingers and says, "Wait a minute. Here I am. Let me work with it again." Here's someone, finally, who can make something out of nothing, a world out of the dust that we are. Someone believes that we have possibility. Can we remember that touch?

In the Exodus story, God sees the way things are, the "normalcy of civilization" in Crossan's wonderful phrase, and comes to Moses in a sign that breaks open the possibility that "normalcy" isn't the way things are going to be any more. There is a bush. It is on fire. And it is not burning. There's something you don't see every day. God sends Moses, a renegade slave hiding from a murder rap, back to the seat of power, to Pharaoh, to demand the release of the Hebrews. The conversation around the name of God, which Moses thinks would be a good idea to know, since the Egyptians know so many gods that they're bound to ask him which one sent him, is exasperating in how little it reveals. In other words, it tells the truth. "You don't know me. You can't even imagine my name." That's one way of reading the unpronounceable, unknown name Moses receives. Another way, one excellent article suggests, is that the text is in the future tense: "I WILL BE THAT WHICH I WILL BE." The (Jewish) commentator says that the future tense is used in the Hebrew, which the commentator finds interesting because it's the only form of the verb that doesn't specify gender. "The people will come to  know God through their unfolding experiences together...(The name) seems to tease us, saying, 'You want to know my name, just wait and see!' While God is absolute, there are no divine absolutes; each of us, in our own time, will come to know God in our own way." (The article is here.) (And another good one.)

In the gospel, Jesus reminds us that repenting is for everyone. And Jesus doesn't mean beating our breast and being miserable: he means turning in another direction, he means turning toward the Father, and he has already said that he is showing the direction ("follow me"), ditto his honor-bestowing mother ("Do whatever he says") and Father ("Listen to him.") The baptismal message of Lent is: God keeps coming after us. Stick together. Wash off the "way things have to be" and start living in the new world. Stick together. Take care of each other. Make peace through your just living.

See, God is the protagonist in the universe. It is God who is acting from utterly beyond all knowing but more intimately than we can imagine. We are players in God's world. Or would be, if we weren't constantly being distracted by the counterfeits of peace, safety, and power that are being pushed on us by "the way things are," the normalcy of civilization. That is Egypt. That is Rome. That is empire.  Our refusal to turn, or blindness, or fear, whatever it is, is what is making us so unhappy. The "other god" demands unanimity or destruction, cooperation or the cross, submission or slavery, participation or marginalization. The One who reveals self in action, "I AM WHO I SHALL BE," invites us to walk through the cleansing water to the margins of civilization and do something new. Together. With Jesus, the "face of the Father's mercy," we place ourselves between the fig tree and the axe, and ask for a little time to work on things.

Here's what we're singing this weekend at St. Anne:

Entrance song: Lead Me, Guide Me
Kyrie: Daigle-Kendzia "Lead Us to the Water"
Psalm 103: The Lord Is Kind and Merciful (Cotter)
Gospel acclamation and General Intercessions: Mass of Christ the Servant (still in beta)
Preparation Rite: Be Merciful (Haugen)
Mass of Creation
Lamb of God: Mass of St. Aidan
Communion: Christ Be Our Light
Closing: Amazing Grace

No comments:

Post a Comment