Another week has gone by, filled (according to the news channels) with unprecedented storms, wrecks, mass shootings, violence, and civil discord from Paris and London to Kabul and Caracas. It’s not all fake news, either.
We often think of the ancient world as violent and merciless, but as the story from the Book of Samuel shows us, even mortal
enemies could be spared by someone who was attentive to God’s voice. For God is in love with life, not death. And mercy is not only God’s way, but to the extent that we follow the way of Christ, it will be ours as well. Jesus, St. Paul tells us, is our model as well as our teacher. Or was he really just shockingly naïve?
Now in the twenty-first century of what was once called Anno Domini, the Year of our Lord, mercy seems to disappeared from public discourse like last week’s snow. We are far more apt to hear of calls for punishment than forgiveness. Hostility, retribution, and revenge seem to have become the currency of the day.
The word we use for “enemy” in English comes from the Latin, ‘in-amicus,’ which means “no friend.” That’s straightforward enough. But it is significant that when Jesus is asked, also in the tenth chapter and by a lawyer if you recall, who one’s neighbor really is [Luke 10:27], Jesus’ answer surprises him. And us.
The common English word “neighbor,” so important in the gospels, accurately translates the Greek word, ‘plesion,’ which means someone near or close by. The English word comes from the old word “nigh,” meaning “near” and the interesting word “boor,” which originally meant something like “peasant” or “farmer.” It’s related to the word “bower,” which meant “a dwelling.” So your neighbor is not merely the rustic oaf next to you (which is what boor ultimately came to mean), but someone who shares your bower, your dwelling.
Unfortunately the “Boor Wars” are still going on in our own homes and offices, the classroom, the factory — wherever we encounter those boorish bumpkins, rustics, and oafs who make things so difficult for us. Jesus said, after all, “A person’s enemies will be found in their own household….” Our enemy is all too often also our neighbor!
That is why it is not easy to love our neighbor, even though that is half of the whole law and the measure of our closeness to God. Nor is it even enough to love our neighbor — even oafish rustics do as much. No, Jesus says, “you are to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” For if we only love those who love us, we may be being neighborly — but we not being Christians. Not yet.
After twenty-five years as a marriage counselor in a psychiatric clinic, I am still often amazed that two people can live together for decades without communicating their wants and needs effectively or responding promptly or generously to each other. Of course, it’s no different in religious life and the priesthood. Whether married or celibate, people who live in the same bower for ten or twenty years may rarely if ever come to shouts and blows, but they often develop great skills in enmity. We know exactly how to wound each other and do it with economy and surgical precision, often with a simple shrug, the movement of an eyebrow, or just silence. We could give the CIA lessons in covert activities and sabotage.
Over the years, or if we are really clever, within a few weeks or months, we learn where the right controls are — which is to say the wrong ones: buttons for shame and guilt, levers for anger, aggravation, and anxiety, the power switch. And some of us learn how to stay close to that large red button that has “Total War” written above it in glowing letters. We might even keep our finger on it for good luck. We all have such buttons, of course, which is why we build strong defenses around our precious little world while trying to weaken that of the boor next to us. “Good fences make good neighbors,” the man said.
The fullness of love, real maturity, lies in anticipating the needs, hopes, wants, and desires of our neighbor – wife, husband, even the boor next door. And being ready at all times to forgive.
Jesus commands us to be compassionate and merciful the way God is compassionate and merciful. That’s a tall order. In the Hebrew scriptures, mercy is rarely listed as a human quality — one of the rare examples is that story in today’s first reading, when David spares Saul although he could have killed him. Mercy is usually seen as divine, in fact, the most appealing of God’s qualities when it comes to human beings.
In mercy, God bends down to us and lifts us up to divine heights. Our mercy is to be no less, Luke says. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” And how is God merciful to us? “By being kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.” Not, I might add, by dropping bombs on them – even verbal bombs, much less real ones.
This, of course, is how Luke expounds the Golden Rule. As with Matthew’s account, Jesus makes it a positive statement, which is much rarer than similar statements found in the Book of Tobit, Confucius, and the Talmud: do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you. Jesus’ statement is also universal in its sweep: give to all who ask. Just give. “If someone robs you of your cloak, your outer garment, also give him the shirt off your back. And don’t expect to get it back. Don’t even ask.”
He adds, the measure we give to others is the same measure we will get back — and here, as elsewhere, Luke goes farther than Matthew. But so abundant is God’s mercy, our reward will exceed our capacity to receive it, it will run over like grain or fruit out of the fold of the tunic that served as a shopping bag in the ancient world.
That we are to love not only our enemies but, even worse, our neighbors, seems to be what Jesus expects of his followers. It isn’t easy. But the general directions are clear — give without being asked and without hope of return; forgive without demanding apologies or punishing the offender for days or weeks with silence, scorn, or condescension; be sparing of blame, don’t condemn, be quick to overlook offenses to our own sacred persons, and look for opportunities to be of real assistance and comfort when needed. Or even when they’re not.
If justice postponed is justice denied, how much more is that true of mercy and love?
“… earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.” [The Merchant of Venice, iii. 1.]
How do we love one another then? Here and now — immediately, proximately, practically, concretely. Love is not a sentiment, a thought, or an attitude. It is an action. It is often small and humble, like a smile, and sometimes as deep and dark as death. Jesus said it was also frequently anonymous; things done when no one was looking and might never notice.
With love like that in our hearts, we will be ready for Lent. It’s coming soon!
It has been a woeful week – as fierce rain and snow storms battered much of the country, the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day was diminished by the somber recollection of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a year ago. The next day, a mass shooting in a plant in Aurora, Illinois, 40 miles west of Chicago, shocked the nation. Again. We also watched the President declare a National Emergency along the borderlands between the US and Mexico, to the consternation of anyone who knows the facts of the situation. We need some serious fixing.
When I was a boy, my grandfather used to sing me his favorite “aria” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, The Sorcerer:
… my name is John Wellington Wells,
I’m a dealer in magic and spells,
In blessings and curses,
And ever-filled purses,
In prophecies, witches, and knells.
Today’s readings sound a bit like that. But despite the proliferation of scriptural weals and woes, the difference between Gilbert and Sullivan and Jeremiah, Luke,
and Paul could not be more complete. Neither Jesus nor Jeremiah was a sorcerer. Both were true prophets, however, announcing the good news of salvation, which is sometimes bad news as well.
Today’s gospel contains three prophetic reversals of fortune, a hallmark of Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ revolutionary preaching and ministry, much like that foreshadowed in the Magnificat. For Jesus delights in turning things upside down as the world sees them and values them, in order to give them new meaning and new value. Here he restores the hope of the poor and oppressed in the form of the ancient Jewish custom of blessing.
In English, the word “bless” comes from the older word “blood.” Both animal and human blood were used from the dawn of humankind in ceremonies of consecration. To bless meant to mark with blood, to make holy, to sign, in Christian terms, with the cross. But “bless” also means to make happy. It is used to translate beatus, benedicere, and benedictus, where the Greek has makarios. All these words mean fortunate or happy in the sense of “blest,” but also and more importantly, they mean being close to God. Matthew’s gospel reflects the same usage in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus pronounces eight or nine blessings rather than Luke’s four.
But in the gospels, being blest (or blessed) does not mean “follow your bliss.” The real and perplexing question behind blessing is not merely “what is happiness?” but “what is the character of our fundamental relationship with God?”
Hebrew, like Greek and other languages, uses several words to indicate what we translate as “blessing.” The most common are ashar, “to be straight, or level,” and especially barak, which means “to kneel,” and from which we get the word for “blessing,” berakah. (Yes, it is also a personal name of some standing!) The fundamental sense is to benefit someone, to praise, to prosper. For the Hebrews, from whom our spirituality has its first origins, blessing was a reciprocal act: we are blessed by God, and we bless God in return. But only God can truly bless: we bless when we extend God’s blessing to each other, and to the world of creation. When we bless God we acknowledge God as the source of our life and welfare and the origin of all goodness and gifts. It is thus an act of giving thanks and praise, ultimately, therefore, of eucharist. To experience woe is to lack and long for that intimacy and communion.
In the beginning, God blesses birds and fishes, and then blesses human beings (Gen.1:22,28; 5:2). All are told to increase and multiply as part of this blessing. God blesses the Sabbath (Gen 2:3) and makes it a day of blessing. God blesses Noah and his children, and tells Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and by you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12:2-3).” God commands the Hebrews in Deut 8:10, “You shall bless the Lord,” and they are promised a few verses later, “The Lord will bless you (15:10).” Over a third of the Psalms sing of blessing God for all the favors and gifts showered abundantly on us. Under the New Covenant the cup of blessing is the blood Christ shed for the salvation of the world, and for this we praise and worship God.
In scripture, “woe” (‘oy in Hebrew and ouai in Greek, almost exactly the same sound) is an exclamation, a lament at being deprived of God’s blessing, or worse, cast out of God’s presence and grace. But woe is not the same as a curse or malediction, the pronouncement of a judgment against a person, a people, or the very land itself, as in Genesis 3, where God curses the serpent and then the earth because of sin. Jesus is not cursing the scribes and Pharisees. He is foretelling their future based on the way they conduct themselves in the present.
Thus both Beatitudes and Woes are declarations, even litanies of such blessings or their lack. Scripture is full of them. There are 26 beatitudes in the Psalms, 8 in Proverbs, and 23 in the other books of the Old Testament. There are lots of woes, as well. Today’s reading from Jeremiah is a whole catalogue of both. Luke gives us four of each. (Matthew later adds seven “woes” in chapter 23 which do not quite balance the beatitudes of the fifth chapter. But they still go together.)
The lists hardly summarize all the blessings that link us to God. Most translations reduce such statements to the banal: how happy, how fortunate, or, in one strange instance, how “lucky.” Luck means enjoying good fortune as the result of chance. Luck has nothing to do with it. We are celebrating grace, the most original of all blessings, which is poured out on us with gracious abundance in thousands of ways. And grace is not fortuitous. It is deliberate and prodigal.
In the end, all blessing is closeness to God. For Paul, blessedness flows from identification with Christ. Christ IS God’s blessing itself, God’s benediction on Creation and the divine presence made visible and tangible. To the extent that we draw closer to Christ, the happier we become. Not merely receptively, but — and this is more important — actively. We bear blessing, like a tree planted near water that continues producing foliage and fruit even in drought.
For Jesus, the drought comes in the form of persecution, attacks on reputation, and oppression: poverty, hunger, and grief. The Beatitudes in Matthew and Luke are linked by the word “poor.” Both point to the oppressed and dispirited classes of that world, those who lacked worldly wealth and enjoyed no esteem. Jesus, the master of paradox, locates their blessedness in their very lack of fortune and success. To the extent that we see in such events the hidden gift of God’s favor, it is possible to become happy. For true happiness is found only in the Kingdom of God, not the Empires of the World.
To be blessed means to remain joyful, to sing and dance, to celebrate beauty and goodness in circumstances of deprivation, oppression, infamy, and even senseless and brutal death. It means to be raised to new life, delivered from the power of sin and death. Jesus warns us not to look to those who are wealthy, overfed, and carefree to understand happiness. No, look to the lives of those whom the world counts worthless or worse, much as the rich and powerful look on the refugees from the south. For the seed of their bliss is hope, watered by faith in God’s promises and the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst, blossoming in justice and love.
At one time or other, we’ve all received a call (or we will), late at night, or early in the morning, at home, or at work or school. Someone on the other end of the line urgently wants us to do something or go somewhere. The call is one we may dread or welcome, perhaps one that we hope will never come. One day during a break in a summer course I was teaching at Loyola University some years back, I was told my father had called from New Mexico. “I can’t walk,” he said when I called back. “I think I’m paralyzed. Can you come home?” I went that night, and I was able to return shortly afterwards to be with him for the next two months before his death from cancer at 78.
The call might not be a summons to a difficult vigil. Often it is a call that brings an invitation to promotion or an appointment. One way or another, there are calls that we may not or should not refuse. They will shape the rest of our lives, summoning us to a destiny we only dimly imagine.
Today’s three readings all turn on the challenge of the prophet’s call or, as some say, vocation. In the first, we hear
the story of Isaiah’s vision in the Temple, which has much in common with Jeremiah’s experience we heard about last week. Here, we have a classic theophany, a manifestation of God’s presence in power and glory. And it has the expected effect on Isaiah: “I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” [Isaiah 6:1].
Samuel and Jeremiah received similar, disturbing calls. Jeremiah’s response was even less confident than Isaiah’s. He immediately tried to back out of his summons: “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” [Jeremiah 1:6.]
God touches Jeremiah’s mouth and gives him prophetic speech. The Book of Isaiah relies on symbolism to communicate the same divine insistence and the same promise of divine support. Isaiah’s response is more wholehearted after that: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here — me! Send me.”
The first reaction a genuine prophet has to the call of God is likely to be sheer terror and a fast retreat. Elijah fled to Carmel to escape the wrath of Jezebel, and Jonah’s futile attempts to evade his responsibility became a paradigm of the reluctant prophet. Even Jesus was tempted to back away from the full implications of setting himself against the principalities and powers that dominate the social systems of the world, both his and ours. In each of these cases, God promises to strengthen and support the one chosen to bear the bad tidings that so often make up the prophet’s message. It is that promise of help, of companionship and strength that Paul appeals to in the reading from his letter to the Corinthians:
“…by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of [the other apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.”
The same promise is conveyed in the gospel reading, which takes the form of a parable in action. Peter and his partners had been fishing all night, without success. And now this stranger, this… this carpenter’s son tells them to try again, they weren’t doing it right. Peter protests, much as Jeremiah and Isaiah protested. And he then witnesses a different kind of revelation, a small domestic miracle, but one that meant much more that flashing lights and smoke to a professional fisherman with a big temper and a bigger heart. But when Peter sees the net full of fish, he repeats the disqualification that we heard from the others: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” “I am a man of unclean lips.” “Hey, I’m just a boy!”
But, as before, the words Peter next hears are of strength and support: “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching people.” And like Isaiah, the response of all the fishermen is instantaneous and generous: “And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”
Later, of course, the disciples faltered. Discouragement, defeat, ridicule, and exhaustion always take their toll. And so it is not amazing that we all try to evade the implications of discipleship. You can expect to. God apparently expects it, and provides assurance that the task can be done and will be there to help and support. I am reminded here again of Martin Luther King, Jr., who came close to despair during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Everything seemed to be falling to pieces. But as he prayed one dark night, he felt God’s presence and heard the familiar promise: I will support you, I will give you the strength. And he, too, said yes, send me.
We may not face the same huge challenges that these great prophets had to contend with. It’s even allowed for us to want to avoid them. There is precedent there. But each of us is nevertheless invited, called to undertake the cost of discipleship in our own time and place, to speak the truth when the truth is inconvenient, to pluck up and pull down if necessary, to work hard, to fish all night and, ultimately, all our lives. And we get the same promise and are offered the same reward: God will be with us and receive us in the end. There’s no turning back, really, even if we are permitted the brief luxury of avoiding the summons until God finally lets us know that there is some business at hand that seriously needs attention. Right in front of our noses.
So let us pray that we will be able to recognize that call when it comes, for it will come, often and in small ways for most of us; so that we, too, can say, Here I am, Lord! Send me!
Maintaining consistent political rectitude is a tough chore, as has become very evident in the last few weeks, most recently with the furore over the photo that appeared in a 1984 yearbook purportedly showing Governor Ralph Northam in blackface – or possibly a Ku Klux Klan costume. The boys of Covington Catholic High School have seemingly been absolved of taunting a Lakota tribal elder at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial two weeks ago, but the governor’s political career is at stake in the latest round of political garment-rending, if not for the photo, at least for his admission of having impersonated Michael Jackson in a dance competition when he was 25. There’s undoubtedly more to the story in this instance, too.
Several things seem clear however. Racial insensitivity based on skin color has a long and troubling history in the United States, to put it mildly. Blackface is particularly objectionable, but it should be noted that redface, brownface, and yellowface betray similar prejudice. But until recently, none seemed to excite much attention in the dominant white population regardless of the hurt inflicted on minorities. In some instances, “cosmetically enhanced” portrayals were accepted and even applauded. (Black like Me, the riveting 1961 book by John Howard Griffin and 1964 film version with James Whitmore, comes to mind for exactly that reason – but was this blackface?)
Billy Crystal’s channeling of Sammy Davis Jr. in the 2012 Academy Awards provoked criticism but not outrage. He had done so many time before. Go back further and we find Laurence Olivier’s blackface performance of Othello for the National Theater in 1965 earning rave reviews. In 1951 Ava Gardner portrayed a mulatto in Showboat, Jeanne Crain did so in Pinky (1956). Long before, white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll charmed generations of radio listeners as Amos and Andy with a large support cast of comic caricatures. Before that, Al Jolsen’s “Mammy” and the antics of Eddie Cantor were somehow not considered offensive, although today they strike audiences as more than cringeworthy. (When Amos ‘n Andy made the transition to television in 1951, after more than 30 years on radio, the producers had the wit to cast a virtually all-black cast in the featured roles.)
Fast forward to 2008, when more than a few eyebrows lifted at Robert Downey, Jr.’s venture into blackface in Tropic Thunder, but in 1968 Keenan Wynn had received a pass in his portrayal of black-shifted Senator Billboard Rawkins in Finian’s Rainbow. (When the anti-racist musical was revised recently, two actors portrayed the racist senator.) It’s complicated.
Native Americans have also long endured being portrayed by white actors and well-meaning Boy Scouts, whose famous La Junta, Colorado, Koshare Indian Dancers never included a Native American so far as I know. The group still performs, clad in their own costumes. Similarly costumed college “mascots” such as the University of Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek were part of “tradition,” and were retired only after bitter disputes. Redface portrayals have long since been part and parcel of the American entertainment industry, given exceptions (themselves sometimes gratuitously demeaning). Johnny Depp’s atavistic reprise as Tonto in Disney’s Lone Ranger film was nothing short of a career low.
Perhaps the most famous “fake Indian,” was “Iron Eyes Cody” a Sicilian-American actor born Espera Oscar de Corti, who appeared as a Native American in more that 200 films. His most famous role was in the televised 1971 public service announcement as “the Crying Indian.” Hardly anyone ever questioned de Corti’s false persona until after his death in 1999. De Corti played his part with convincing dignity, but despite efforts of Native American actors from Jay Silverheels as the original TV Tonto (the radio Tonto was voiced by a white man) to the contemporary and dignified efforts of Adam Beach, Russell Means, Eric Schweig, Wes Studi, Dennis Banks, and Chief Dan George, among others, redface imposture continues. And so, evidently, do prejudice and discrimination.
Native Chinese and Chinese Americans were long treated with the same tacit and often overt contempt in entertainment media, often as villains but sometimes in positive roles. Perhaps the most famous (and to many, irritating) of these was casting a series of white actors as Charlie Chan in decades of films, primarily Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, but even Peter Ustinov had a go at it. Japanese characters fared no better until recent times. Casting Ricardo Montalban as Nakamura in Sayonara (1955) or Marlon Brando as Sakini in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) now seems simply bizarre.
Mexicans and Mexican-Americans received similar treatment, from the famous portrayals of Zorro by Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power to Guy Williams and George Hamilton (and the immensely funny Henry Calvin as Disney’s Sergeant Garcia). At least the recent remakes with Antonio Banderas got it mostly right. Other Hollywood portrayals of Mexican figures from Wallace Beery’s over-the-top performance as Pancho Villa in 1934 to Marlon Brando’s Zapata (1952) suffered from a blind eye to generations of excellent Latino actors. Even Charleton Heston got to play a Mexican policeman in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. (1958). The list is long.
Suffice it to say that changing face is an American tradition. And so is its tacit support of racist stereotyping and offence, whether intentional or not. We can do better. We must.
There are two mysteries in today’s readings, but not like those you see on television. They are connected by an “enigma,” literally a mirror in which the first reading and the third reading reflect each other. There is a further mystery of sorts, the kind that usually intrigues me as I ponder why the Church has selected these readings for today.
The second reading and the gospel follow on from last week and the week before. Not much mystery there. So the initial mystery has to do with
the first reading, which is often selected to illuminate themes in the other readings. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Today, I think it works. If I were to give a title to the collection, I would call it “The Pain of Prophecy.”
Prophecy and prophets are mentioned in all of our readings – Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and by his own word, Jesus. But it is Jeremiah who first attracts our attention. The mystery has to do with the call of Jeremiah himself, one of the most unlikely of prophets, but a model precisely in view of today’s gospel. Although we don’t read the very first verse, the author went to some pains to indicate Jeremiah’s family background and the name of his home town, Anathoth, a little village not far from Jerusalem that provides the first of several keys to the prophetic mysteries we are deciphering.
Anathoth was an ancient and sacred Phoenician town given over to Levites from the tribe of Benjamin during the conquest. During the reign of Solomon, it became the refuge of Abíathar the high priest, the last in the family of Eli, which was lingering under a curse stretching back to the days of the young Samuel. The direct line had died out, although Jeremiah might have been an indirect descendant. In any event, it was in troubled Anathoth that Jeremiah reluctantly began his ministry. And there his prophecies quickly met disapproval from his neighbors and kindred, who silenced him and even threatened to kill him. Given the tone of most of Jeremiah’s preaching, that’s not surprising.
But God promises not only to strengthen Jeremiah, but, as we read in the eleventh chapter, “I will punish them; the young men shall die by the sword; their sons and their daughters shall die by famine; and none of them shall be left. For I will bring evil upon the men of Anathoth, the year of their punishment.” [Jeremiah 11: 22- 23] A few years later, Anathoth was sacked by both the Assyrians and the Babylonians and its citizens carted off into captivity. Jeremiah’s warnings to Jerusalem similarly went unheeded. He was arrested, imprisoned, threatened with death, and eventually deported to Egypt, where, presumably he died in exile.
At least part of the mystery in today’s readings turns on a similar rejection of Jesus. He frequently alluded to the pain of the prophetic career. In today’s gospel, he seems to go out of his way to incur it. Unlike Jeremiah’s message of defeat and destruction, his is one of hope. But like Jeremiah, Jesus is spurned and threatened by angry neighbors and even family members.
Things start out well enough, as we heard last Sunday. Everyone is impressed. But then, abruptly, the mood changes, just after Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah. Mark and Matthew also describe the incident. For them, it is Jesus’ familiarity that rankles: ‘“Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.’ [Mark 6: 3, Matthew 13:55-56.] Jesus is also more direct in his response: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”
His intent is clear in all three accounts. God’s message of salvation is open to all, not merely to the respectable, the honorable, the wealthy, or the well connected, including Jesus’ own blood relatives. Worse, the promise is directed especially to outcasts, beggars, and debtors. The wrong kind of people entirely. Jesus drives home the point by recalling the stories of Elijah and Elisha, exiles from Israel, but merciful toward foreigners, even their oppressors. Then it gets even more worse, as my students might say.
The proverb Jesus next quotes is itself mysterious, and even seems out of place. But something like it was common enough to appear in the Talmud, “Physician heal your own limp.” [Genesis Rabah 23:4.] Luke, the physician, alone records it. And it is Jesus who cites it, not the townspeople. Moved by it to fury, they run him out of town and try to shove him over a convenient cliff, a grim foreshadowing of what he will suffer at the hands of the authorities in Jerusalem. But Jesus slips through and goes on to Capernaum.
Like Jeremiah, Jesus fulfills the pattern of prophecy, inciting those who should have shown him the greatest love to murderous fury, not by rejecting them, but by reminding them that God’s mercy is complete, impartial, inclusive, and particularly directed at the outcast, the oppressed, the poor, and rejected. Elsewhere, he even identifies himself, and God, with those of little worth. “Whoever feeds or clothes or ministers to one of these, does it to me.” [See Matthew 25:40 and Luke 9:48.]
The link between the prophetic pain in the story of Jeremiah and that of Jesus can be found in the second reading, which recalls the place of prophecy in the early Christian community, and, I hope, in our own.
Last week we learned that for pastoral reasons Paul ranked the charismatic gifts about which the Corinthians were quarreling, beginning with apostleship and ending with tongues and interpretation. Prophecy stood second, next only to apostleship. He has other lists, and it is not important how consistent he was, even when he introduces other items, such as the understanding of mysteries. For the one thing he is concerned about is love, greater even than faith and hope, and also prophecy.
For Paul, envy, jealousy, and suspicion create the dissension that leads to a breakdown in the community of love that must seal God’s people. Likewise, envy, jealousy, and suspicion inspired the townspeople of Anathoth and Nazareth to reject and even try to kill their own, home-grown prophets. Our normal vision, Paul tells us, is too narrow, too limited, too partial. Even the gifts may fail to overcome this partiality if they are not guided by and eventually superseded by love.
“Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.” [1 Cor 13: 8-10.]
The word now often translated “imperfect” here, meros, in fact means “part,” or “partial,” and was so translated in the older English bibles. The real contrast in these passages, just as it is in the Sermon on the Mount, is between what is whole or complete and that which is partial, incomplete, or unfinished, not yet mature. And the word for perfect, teleios, simply means “complete” or “finished.” It does not mean “perfect” in the sense that it is taken today: “being entirely without fault or defect.” Neither Jesus nor St. Paul ever said that anyone had to be physically, morally, or spiritually flawless to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus even seemed to think that sinners had a foot up on the scribes, Pharisees, and other respectable people in that regard, a habit which might understandably irritate his pious neighbors and family.
Toward the end of Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus similarly attempts to nudge the standards of his listeners a few notches higher than the conventional morality of their (and our) times prefers:
“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, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. …You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [Matthew 5: 43 – 48] For Jesus God is evidently “perfect” by treating everyone with the same measureless compassion, even the wicked and unjust.
St. Paul uses teleios in a similar way. It means “finished, mature, and full” when he writes, “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away with.” All partial visions, like all partisanship and partiality, will be swallowed up in the boundless and inclusive sweep of God’s love.
Like Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul, we might expect to experience some pain for our trouble. I read yesterday of the prosecution of a number of charity workers who left water and food in the Sonoran desert for the illegal immigrants, mainly women and children, hundreds of whom have died in the scorching heat seeking refuge in the United States.
To the extent that our compassion strives toward God’s own inclusiveness, we are becoming perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. Now, as Paul says, we see things like a reflection in a bad mirror, partial and distorted, or in his Greek, ainigmatiki, which can also be rendered “mysteriously.” But then, our vision will be clear as well as whole. We will see everyone in all their variety and diversity both bright and beautiful because then we will see them through the loving eyes of God. With God’s help, we can even start now.