The search for Paradise, or Utopia, or Heaven on Earth (pictured above as Hemel en Aarde – Heaven and Earth) has been a thing for humans for probably as long as we have been human. Certainly it has figured in every religious narrative. When Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt, it was the “promised land” for which they were destined. And for the modern day typical Benedictine Anglican Monastic, it is still a thing…
So when I saw a book titled Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman, I heard it call my name. In our modern day Utopia, where instant gratification is highly to be desired, I could download it as an ebook in no time – and I must say my gratification has been quick and significant.
Bregman caught my attention (and that of many others) by telling the assembled billionaires at Davos that they needed to be talking about fair taxation rather than philanthropy. Though he is a young man, wags are now noting that this will be the last time he is invited to speak at Davos… but it is his ideas of Utopia, not taxation, that I want to think about.
Various cultures over millennia have had a common myth that caught the attention of Carl Jung. It is the story of sailors (or other travelers) who somehow come ashore on a tropical paradise where everything they want is provided in abundance. They have no cares and no worries – and after a short time they can no longer stand paradise.
Bregman, in his opening discussion of paradise, or utopia, quotes Oscar Wilde on finding paradise, and it was a revelation for me. Wilde’s notion, as I understand it, is not there is anything wrong in paradise that makes us restless. Its that we must be looking for the next version of paradise. We don’t need to leave paradise to go home. We need to go further.
In medieval times paradise was the land of plenty – where food was abundant and lives were long. And here we are. There are still many problems in the world, including hunger, but we live in a world of great abundance. And we live pretty long lives. We have arrived in someone else’s vision of paradise. We should be grateful and we should be looking for the next paradise.
What, from our perspective, does paradise look like? Bregman drops two clues into this pot. First, he suggests that simple desires beget simple utopias. I think this could be a positive or a negative assertion. Second, the crisis is that we can’t come up with a vision
of what paradise might look like – we can’t envision something better. We surely can envision improvements, but utopia is not an incremental correction.
Utopia can be approached in two different ways. We can either find the place where the folks who make the world less than Utopia are gone. Or we can find the place where everyone can be helped in. Obviously I’m for the second option – because the first route is the path that Hitler, among others, chose. We get rid of the problems and we’ll be left with Utopia. At least that is the thought. The reality of that approach is we are left in hell.
The vision of utopia, or heaven, that speaks to me most is the description found in Revelation: The New Jerusalem, the heavenly city. It has three gates in every direction. All the gates are open by day, and there is no night. It is heaven because everyone can enter. Whatever we may have achieved by way of Utopia these days, this is a still-bigger vision.
I still have much to think about in Bregman’s book, but I am extremely grateful for where it has taken me so far. It is not a book about despair, but rather about hope. We have managed to attain, by many measures, the Utopian vision of our ancestors. Our Utopia is turning a bit dystopian – but that is as it should be. Its time to move toward the next Utopia. Our only mistake is in thinking that we are finished. The journey to Utopia/Paradise/Heaven is a journey made in stages.
When that great committee that decided what lessons we would read on various Sundays got together, it must have been it must have been a great challenge to figure out what to put in and leave out – we want scripture to be read in church, but we don’t
want too much scripture to be read in church…
Today’s reading forms a nice little nugget, but without some context its meaning is unclear. This reading is a pivot point in Luke’s narrative. Just a few paragraphs before today’s starting point, Jesus is baptized and then immediately he faces temptation. And then, off he goes for a little time at home…
But this is not rest time at home. For in Luke’s rendition, this is the middle chunk of the story – this point in Luke’s story begins Jesus’ public ministry. Today’s passage finds Jesus visiting the home town synagogue and folks who know him by family now must learn to know him as Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth is becoming Jesus the marked one – that is Jesus Christ.
If you remember the baptism story, it concludes with the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus. Though we have not read that for a few weeks, it would be fresh in the minds of Luke’s audience. So, when Luke reminds us that Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit, he is reminding us of the baptism events. It would seem like a small detail, but in Luke, there are no small details. This is a new, more power-filled Jesus. In today’s marketing jargon, Luke is giving us Hyper-Jesus.
Luke doesn’t just leave it at that – as if to underscore the point, Jesus goes to the synagogue and is given a chance to read. Isaiah happens to be the chosen scroll and Jesus happens to go to the part that begins: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”
Any chance we can miss the point? Jesus is baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, comes to Galilee filled with the Holy Spirit and then reads from Isaiah that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. Isaiah is, of course, referring to himself, but Luke is placing Jesus right beside Isaiah – a major Profit… a person who can speak for God. In this short passage, Luke is transforming Jesus before our eyes.
We know that Luke’s Gospel has a particular dedication to those who are poor and powerless – scholars call it the preferential option for the poor. That is a clinical way of saying that, unlike our world which has great affection for those who are fabulously wealthy, in Jesus’ world, the Kingdom of God, the greatest affection is reserved for those who are powerless, vulnerable, broke.
So Luke is giving us a big foretaste of what is to come in the public ministry – good news will be given to the poor, freedom will be given to those in prison, vision will be restored to those who are blind, and release will be given to the oppressed. All these good things are promised to those who are basically the dregs of Galilean society. If you think ahead, you’ll see that this is exactly what is to come to pass. We’ll hear the same list of priorities, more or less, in the Sermon on the Mount. You’ll also notice that the list lacks anything for the comfortable and powerful.
Things start off well enough. Jesus reads from Isaiah, says that today this scripture is fulfilled, sits down, and everyone admires him. That is where the reading today ends – but just as you have to know what comes before the reading to understand the implications, you also have to have some idea of what comes next.
I suspect the reason the mood in the synagogue is so good is that it takes a bit of time for Jesus’ message to sink in. There is, after all, great comfort in scripture as long as you don’t pay too much attention. But if you dig in a bit, the comfort is replaced by challenge. If the poor and needy are given what they need, if the powerless are lifted up, where will that leave me? If God loves “them” so much, what about me?
We struggle, I struggle, with the challenge of following Jesus. Jesus does not come to make things nice. Jesus comes to comfort the afflicted, but at the same time Jesus comes to afflict the comfortable. Jesus is a revolutionary.
If we continued reading past the end of this morning’s reading, within a few paragraphs we find the once-adoring crowd completely turning on Jesus. They love him right up until they hate him. They love him right up until they understand what he is saying. The comfort of some in our society is closely linked with the discomfort of others.
For those of us who live in comfort, the fulfilling of Isaiah’s prophecy is good news in the sense that it’s the Gospel, but it is also threatening. Our world will be shifted. The world of injustice will no longer do. God’s Kingdom is where we want to live. It is where our spirits are called – we just need to get our minds and bodies on board…
As Jesus begins his public ministry, he calls various people to follow him. Those who would follow me, he says, must leave self behind. Jesus calls people to leave their jobs, leave their families, even to leave their dead to bury the dead. This is not an easy call. Everyone around Jesus struggled – so it’s no surprise that we still struggle. In fact, if we didn’t struggle, it would mean that we are not following Jesus. Anybody who preaches an easy gospel is not preaching the Gospel.
We know what comes before and we know what comes after – in this portion we heard we get a good indication of our call: Bring good news to the poor. Release those who are imprisoned. Provide vision to the blind. Free the oppressed. Proclaim the Lord’s favor.
What does this mean? I don’t know. How do we do it? Again, I don’t know. Where do we start? That I do know. We start in prayer and we start in community. This business of following Jesus is a social business. In community, in church, in some form of congregation we consider how we can proclaim God’s love in word and, more importantly, in action.
And then, in the congregation of God’s children, we get about that action.
Today we remember Aelred, a sort of mid-level monastic type of saint. The Monastery at Rievaulx, near the Rye River in Yorkshire, caught his eye with its beauty and next thing you know, he was a monk…
Well maybe it was not that simple. He was from a religious family, his father was a priest (back in the day when the Church allowed Priests to marry – way before the Reformation mind you), but he seems to have started on a more political than religious path. He served in the Court of the King of Scotland and learned diplomacy and such. It was on a journey for the monarch that he passed by Rievaulx. The building at that time was stunning, even to someone used to life at court, and that really did prompt him to enter.
It is never easy to predict how someone discovers a monastic vocation – but more on that on some later blog…
It would seem on the face of it that being draw by the exteriors of the building and its location is, to be kind, perhaps a bit shallow. But whatever opens the door…
Aelred is an important voice to many today. He wrote substantially on friendship, especially friendship within the monastery and between the brothers. The model was nothing less than the Trinity – the unending circle of love between God, Jesus, and Spirit. That love – deep, unending, unbreakable – is the model on which we should strive to love.
What we don’t know about Aelred could fill a book. This leads to speculation on who he may have been and what, in particular, may have been his sexual orientation. On the one hand I want to be careful not to retroject 21st Century concerns on a 12th century monk. On the other hand I’ve seen lots of articles that suggest that he was always a faithful Roman Catholic and would never stand in contradiction of Church teaching, so he certainly had no tolerance for anything gay. But that is also retrojection. Aelred’s personal life remains a mystery.
That said, he certainly was a good and faithful Cistercian Monk and chastity was surely part of that. At the same time he encouraged the brothers to be somewhat physically intimate – encouraging them to hold hands for example. Two men holding hands in a 21st Century North American context is unusual. But here in Africa its not so strange – and not sexual. It may be that in the secular world of 12th Century Yorkshire there was more physical affection between men than we think normal today. And Aelred may simply have sought to soften the divide between inside the monastery and outside.
It seems to me that the legacy of Aelred is a more inclusive expression of love and
affection than we accept today. Part of the joy of monasticism is that it tends to de-couple sex from other things. Monks experience very passionate love – it just doesn’t lead to sex. It does lead to intimacy. Thank you Aelred.
In our contemporary culture we seen happy to couple sex with violence – at least in movies and TV. Those little NC-17 notices that slip by will often show the “offending material as “sex and violence”. Its as though there were some natural relationship between the two. But there is absolutely no time when sex and violence should go together – they should never hold hands.
The gentle spirit of Aelred of Rievaulx calls us still to be guided by the love of the Trinity – an unending circle of endless love that can not be broken. Could that love lead to greater intimacy? Certainly. Could it lead to better sex in the right circumstances? Absolutely.
Monasticism has much to share with the world – and the world needs what we have to offer. What the world needs is not some precious, otherworldly, chilly way of living. It needs Aelred – giving us permission to love.
Here we are – coming to the end of the Christmas story – the Kings, who had so much farther than everyone else to travel, have finally arrived. As a child I used to wonder, if these “wise men” were so wise, why didn’t they know to start earlier…
We are so accustomed to seeing creche scenes with kings and shepherds gathered around the manger that we don’t question them at all. But we have to realize that if we are waiting with shepherds at that creche for the kings to arrive, we will wait forever. Luke gives us shepherds, Matthew, in the Gospel we heard this morning, gives us kings, or wise men, or magi.
The problem with the Christmas Story is that there is not one story, but two. In our minds they quite easily run together. But when we trust our memories, some important details get dropped. Most of what we know as the Christmas story comes to us from Luke. Luke has shepherds. His telling of the story is particularly good for a warm and fuzzy Christmas.
But this Feast of the Epiphany directs us to Matthew – the “other” Christmas story. Matthew has wise men. And when you take away all the warm and fuzzy stuff from Luke, Matthew’s story is dark.
The Gospel of Matthew begins, more or less, by calling the roll of Jesus’ forebears, starting with Abraham – who fathered Isaac, who fathered Jacob, and so on generation after generation. It is a powerful list, full of twists and turns and illegitimate children and such. But it’s hard to imagine a happy family gathering where earnest children ask to hear yet again the first chapter of Matthew…
When it comes to Jesus’ birth, Mathew is in a “just the facts” mode. Before their marriage, Mary is found to be pregnant, so Joseph is going to quietly end the engagement. But an angel, the first character with a speaking part, gives Joseph the full story. So, Joseph takes Mary to his home and Jesus is born – at home. No muss, no fuss, no long trek to a far-away town, no stable, no details… I haven’t shortened it much because there isn’t much to shorten…
That brings us up to today’s feast – wise men, or magi, or astrologers appear in Jerusalem from the east. They were following a star, but they somehow seem to have lost sight of it. They have but one question: “Where is the infant king of the Jews?”
Ooops… This would be like walking into Moscow in the Stalin years and asking, “where is the infant who will be the new leader of the Russian people.”
Herod, King of the Paranoid, gets wind of the question and, like any truly insecure despot, begins to fight. He learns from his minions that The Messiah is to be found in Bethlehem. And so, in a touch of irony, it is Herod that puts the wise men back on the path to Bethlehem. Star back in sight off they go to meet Jesus. And this is the epiphany – the manifestation: The star points to Jesus – God in man, made manifest.
The wise men, while they’re there, open their treasure chests and give gifts to the baby – gold, frankincense, and myrrh… notoriously inappropriate baby gifts… It’s easy to assume that the purpose of the trip was to deliver gifts – bearing gifts we traverse afar, as the hymn says… But in Matthew’s actual telling, it is worship that is the prime purpose of the wise men. The gifts come almost as an afterthought.
The wise men go home, and the story gets much darker. In our calendar the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents has already come and gone, but its proper place in the sequence of things is still to come. Herod realizes that he has been betrayed by the magi. He doesn’t want to worship the new king, he wants to kill him. And since the magi have failed to identify the precise child, Herod has all the little children in Bethlehem killed. This is why Hallmark cards tend to stick to Luke’s version…
Mysterious, cold, paranoid, violent… these are the kinds of adjectives that Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus bring to mind. No cattle lowing… no shepherds proclaiming glory to God… no peace on earth… little if any goodwill toward anyone.
Matthew is so sparse with details, of course, that over the centuries we have had to invent them. First these mysterious visitors acquire a gender – they become wise men; a
quantity – there are three of them (because there were 3 gifts); upward social mobility – they become kings; they get names – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar; and perhaps most surprising – they acquire race, or least one does – one of them is black.
The good news of these mysterious wise travelers from a far is not that their journey was easy or direct, or that they were such gifted detectives – they needed the help of Herod after all. The good news is that they persevered.
It’s quite fun and heartwarming to locate ourselves in Luke’s Christmas story – we can be shepherds, or perhaps cattle and sheep, or maybe even, for a lucky few, Joseph or Mary.
Locating ourselves in Matthew’s Christmas story is less charming, but a good spiritual exercise, nonetheless. I can find myself among the magi who wander and get lost… If I’m honest I can find myself among the greedy minions who cling to Herod for power and protection, even when it calls for committing atrocities. And ultimately, I am Herod – who would rather commit unspeakable acts than tolerate Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us… God with me…
The joyful good news, the Gospel, is not that I’m prepared for Jesus in my life. The good news is that Jesus comes into our world just as surely as Jesus came into Herod’s world. Jesus comes not in spite of our failure, but because of our need. Jesus comes because our world is dark, unjust, cruel, and wicked.
In our world we know power which enforces its desire with force and violence. Jesus comes to bring an entire new way of living – a world led by authority rather than power. Jesus is the very author of life, the very word of God, who’s kingdom is built with love rather than might.
Our human instinct is, like Herod, to hang on by force. And the consequences are horrific. But following Jesus is dying to self and living to God. We don’t hang on – we surrender.
First, let me wish you a Happy New Year… since the beginning of Advent is just that – the beginning of a new liturgical year. At the end of December there will come a time that also calls itself New Year’s… but it’s an impostor.
Advent is the beginning of something, but it can feel like little more the prelude to Christmas. Everything in Advent seems to point to Christmas – whether it is candles on a wreath or chocolates behind little doors in a calendar… Advent is only important because what comes next is extremely important… And that is just not true, even though it is not false.
I’ve been reading a new book by Murray Stein. He may not be a household name, but he is perhaps the greatest teacher and interpreter of Carl Jung alive today. And not just Jung the Psychotherapist, but Jung the Theologian. In this new book Stein begins a section with a quote: “Look afar and see the end in the beginning.” Be sure to note that is IN the beginning, not FROM the beginning.
Where does this pearl of wisdom come from? Not scripture. Perhaps in Jung’s writings… maybe in some eastern source that Jung was fond of. Surely Stein is referencing some weighty source, but surprise! Stein found it in a fortune cookie. God works in mysterious ways.
See the end in the beginning. Here we are, just at the beginning of Advent. What of an ending can we see?
It would be no fun at all if there were only one ending showing itself in this beginning, but the most obvious end that shows up now is Christmas. We are waiting for the coming of Jesus – that is an end of Advent that we can see in its beginning.
As a sort of collective secular/sacred amalgam we have a social concept of Christmas. It is a happy, warm, lovely thing… all sweetness and light… all Currier and Ives and Grandma Moses paintings with young people on sleds in the snow and chestnuts roasting on an open fire… yuletide carolers outside and hot, spiced cider inside. This is what I want to prepare for in Advent. I see this in the beginning of Advent.
This is, sadly, not a very substantial view of Advent nor the reality of Christmas and Jesus doesn’t come into a fantasy world. However well we decorate, this is not a world of joy and happiness. It has great beauty, but it is also a world of sorrow, of injustice, of genocide, of prejudice, of corruption. In other words, it the same world into which Jesus was born two millennia ago.
It was a cruel and a dangerous world then as now. Jesus did not arrive in a world of decorated trees and eggnog and cozy scenes. They didn’t have tear gas then, but if they did, it surely would have been in use. Jesus arrived in a world that had no space for him at all. He arrived in a barn and bunked with animals – because the polite society (that’s us) couldn’t accommodate him – we live in the same world.
Anyone with their heart set on a silent, holy, calm, and bright Christmas night, needs to look afar and see the end in the beginning. Pay attention to Luke. In the Gospel for today, Jesus tells us there will be signs among the stars (these are warning signs) and there will be distress among the nations. People will faint from fear. It’s completely inappropriate, but I hear Bette Davis in All About Eve warning us to fasten our seatbelts… it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Welcome to Advent.
I gave serious thought to ending this sermon here… it would be dramatic and clever… but it wouldn’t be right. A message that says things are bad and they will only get worse is not the message of Advent. It is true that things are bad, and they likely will get worse. But that isn’t seeing the end in the beginning. It is only seeing the beginning
The message of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus, is not one of sorrow. At the same time, it’s not one of simple happiness. In a culture of sound bites and slogans, the complex and rich good news of Jesus too often gets simplified into one of two messages – Jesus loves you very much, so repent or you’re going to hell; or Jesus loves you very much and wants you to be very rich. Neither of these has much to do with Jesus. Neither of them is the message of Advent.
In the middle of this, according to Luke, there is a fig tree. As summer approaches, its limbs grow tender and it puts forth leaves. It does what fig trees do.
Please – could I have a much more obvious illustration…
Jesus seems to be saying that as you can tell summer is coming by watching the fig tree, so too you can tell that God is coming by watching… something…
But the fig tree doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary. It doesn’t do anything unexpected. A philosopher might say it expresses its essential “fig-tree-ness.” As summer approaches, its limbs turn tender and it puts out leaves. But it wouldn’t be a fig tree if it didn’t. And a skilled agricultural society, like the world into which Jesus was born, hardly needs a fig tree to tell them summer is coming…
Perhaps this fig tree is telling us something more complex. Perhaps its lesson is not about changing seasons, but about ways of living. It lives in the world and responds to it by doing fig tree things.
Trees turn up in a number of places in our tradition. We start in the beginning with the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The tradition is littered with fig trees. When post-apple Adam and Eve seek to cover themselves, they turn to leaves of the Fig Tree and the Land promised in Deuteronomy is filled with milk, honey, and fig trees. In the Gospels, Jesus curses a fig tree and it withers. And in this morning’s Gospel, we are asked to consider a fig tree. But the great tree reference is, of course, the cross. Jesus is nailed to the tree. See the end in the beginning.
So, this image that Jesus gives us to consider, the fig tree, is ancient and complex… Beautiful and terrible.
In asking us to contemplate the Fig Tree, I think Jesus is calling us to live in the world and be present. As the fig tree does what it is called to do, so we, followers of Jesus, are to do what we are called to do. Signs and warnings notwithstanding, we are to get about the business of following Jesus.
What Jesus calls us to do is not obscure. If we are to live our baptismal covenant with integrity, then we will have to care for the sick, the poor, those who have no power and no defense. We will have to pray and worship God and be prepared to treat the least of God’s children as nothing less than God’s children. We will have to resist the seductive call to accumulate wealth. We will have to be humble. We will have to love our neighbors and ourselves. We will have to make peace. Simple enough… Can we see these ends in this beginning?
Be on your guard, Jesus says, so that your hearts are not weighed down with drunkenness, dissipation and worries. Now maybe it’s just me, but I thought drunkenness and dissipation were the things we do to keep our hearts from being weighed down…
Being on guard is not a waiting game. Maybe this is another lesson of the fig tree. The fig tree isn’t in any way waiting for spring, or anything else. It’s just doing the right thing at the right time. This is a lesson we can well learn in Advent.
We look for the coming of Jesus, but we do not wait for the coming of Jesus. It would be nice if, as soon as Jesus gets here, then we can get to work following Jesus, but it doesn’t work that way. We stay on guard, awake in our faith… faith that must be lived. Christian faith is active. We live our lives in the faith that Jesus could return at any moment and we live our lives in the faith that Jesus has already returned, is already with us. We see the end in the beginning.
Being on guard doesn’t mean sitting around silently, pensively, nervously drumming our fingers. It means using the gifts we have been given to build God’s kingdom just as the fig tree gets about the business of being a fig tree.
This is Advent, the start of a new year. If we look afar, we can see the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end.
Is there a place in what we see for eggnog and carols… decorated trees and scenes from Grandma Moses? I surely hope so. A vision without beauty is no vision. It’s a horror show.
But if we think we have made the world beautiful because we have decorated, then we are living an illusion. In this beginning time, this Advent, we don’t just see the end, a beautiful world where justice flows like a mighty river… we become the end in this beginning. We become the healing power of God’s love in a very hurting world.Readings for Advent 1
Nothing much clever or thoughtful to post… I’m finishing packing and getting ready for a long journey back to the US. I fly by way of Doha, which may be interesting. At least its inexpensive (and long – more than 32 hours in transit with flights, layovers, and such).
How long will I be in the US? I don’t really have any way to know.
The South African government has still not issued me a visa. Of course, they don’t have to ever issue a visa. But it is a complicated story that I think reflects the state of government in South Africa. Simply put, many parts of the government don’t function. Phones don’t get answered. Email does not get responded to. Aid for education grants don’t get paid. Taxes don’t get collected. So my guess is that my visa application is sitting on somebody’s desk in Pretoria in a pile of stuff that the occupier of the desk will get to when possible.
To be clear, most South African’s that I have dealt with are competent and professional. But that does not make a government work. The new president has made it a priority to get basic government function back on line. But obviously he is starting with economic development so that there may be some jobs created. Visas for charitable volunteers are a low priority in the agenda – and to be honest, if it were me in that position that would still be true.
So I’ll be in the US while I await some answer from the South African Consulate in NY. My initial application was declined because, I gather from the information given me, someone there misread one of the supporting documents. And the appeal was filed (three times… because that is what it took for the office to acknowledge that they had received it once).
It is easy for me to feel a bit of outrage… but if I keep in mind what folks trying to get visas into the US go through, especially if they don’t happen to be white, I realize this is just frustrating. But nothing more than that.
I’ll post something when I’m in the US and I hope to continue to post.
In the mean time, any thoughts and prayers focused on the South African Home Affairs office in Pretoria would be great.
But if you want to worry about something, refugees fleeing for their lives and hitting red tape snags at our boarders are in far greater need of grace and justice.
The reading this morning from the Gospel according to Mark tells us a story of a mis-conversation, if you will, between Jesus and the disciples.
This time it’s those Zebedee brothers… They have a bit of a reputation, and true to form they begin with a request that seems outrageous. Grant us to sit at your right hand and your left… In other words, make us your number one and number two guys, your top assistants… put us in line right behind you and, to the chagrin of the other disciples, ahead of everybody else. It seems presumptuous and arrogant and oh so many other things.
It doesn’t go well. But not in exactly the way I would expect. I would expect an angry Jesus to knock them both down a peg a two… who do you guys think you are? Get out of my sight… But that is not Jesus’ response. He tells them that they don’t know what they are asking for.
There is something important behind this misunderstanding. The Brothers Zebedee are thinking in a very traditional way. In their view, Jesus is the conquering hero who has come to save all Israel – that is to say the expected Messiah. He will be the supreme ruler and he will need someone extremely trustworthy at his right hand and his left hand – the traditional seats of power next to the king. We still use the phrase “right hand man” to refer to a most trusted assistant.
The problem is that Jesus has not come to replace an old monarch in an ongoing system. Jesus has come to change the system. James and John are thinking that Jesus will just kick out the bad rulers and be a good ruler. And they will all live happily ever after.
This is not the plan that Jesus and God have in mind.
But there is more wrong in this Zebedee question.
Jesus has already told the disciples how bad things are about to get. He has told them that they are on their way to Jerusalem where he will be killed. This is not the standard Messianic vision, but it is what Jesus knows is coming. James and John are very ready to share in the glory, but Jesus knows that glory, in an earthly sense, is not in the future.
You want to be at my right hand and left… but can you drink the cup that I will drink? Or be baptized as I will be? Keep in mind that the cup Jesus’ refers to will be filled with his own blood. It is a symbol of sacrifice and suffering. And behind the symbol of baptism is the notion of drowning – of dying to life to be raised to new life. The Brothers Zebedee have visions of glory and power and Jesus has a clear vision of crucifixion and sacrifice.
But then Jesus goes on – the cup I am about to drink you will drink. And you will face the same baptism of death and resurrection. What I hear Jesus saying is you will get what you have asked for – but you won’t like it.
Time and again Jesus has tried to explain to the disciples that he is not what they want. They want a super hero who will overpower the foe and rule. That would be an improvement, but Jesus has something bigger in mind.
Br Don Bisson, a Marist Brother and scholar, thinks about change as happening on a spectrum. On one end is a notion of translation and at the other transformation.
In translation, things remain pretty much the same. For example, there was a tradition in the early church of moving the bones of a saint, when that person was recognized as a saint. So, John Chrysostom died in exile in an obscure place called Pitiunt. But decades later, when those who had exiled him were gone, his bones were returned to Constantinople, where he had been Bishop. And he was recognized as a saint. His bones were, in the proper language, translated. But they were the same bones… Just in a different place… That is the change of translation.
Ezekiel, on the other hand, in a vision, walks with God through the valley of dry bones. And God tells Ezekiel to speak to those dry bones… and the bones take on sinew, flesh, and begin to breathe. Breath, remember, is Spirit. The bones become filled with Spirit. They are transformed.
So, Jesus is working to transform the world, not translate it. But James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are lost in translation…
I am often grateful to the disciples for being kind of thick… a bit slow on the uptake… Every struggle I have in faith they seem to have had as well. There is comfort in that. Jesus didn’t trash his disciples and go get new ones – better ones… smarter ones… As thick as the disciples were, Jesus stuck with them. And I take that to mean that however poorly I proceed on my journey of transformation into the body of Christ, Jesus remains with me.
The truth is that we would all rather be translated than transformed. That is the human way. Translation is relatively safe – transformation is not safe at all.
But the story doesn’t end with Jesus interaction with James and John. The other disciples get word of the outrageous request James and John and they are not impressed. If I were one of those other disciples I’d be miffed. And at some level, if I’m honest, I’d be angry because they had the nerve to ask for what I want… The other disciples may have been more subtle in expressing their desire, but they are not more advanced in their understanding. They are still thinking in terms of a new ruler to kick out the old one. Translation rather than transformation…
It must be a great sadness to Jesus that those who know him best don’t get it. It must be a bit painful and a bit worrisome because Jesus knows his days on earth are numbered with a small number. Will the disciples get it in time?
So, Jesus gives a very direct lesson on how power will be organized in God’s Kingdom as opposed to how it works now. The version we heard this morning is fairly gentle – Jesus says the people the Gentiles recognize are rulers lord it over them…
What gets lost here is Jesus contempt for these rulers. Our very polite version does not do contempt too well… In some other instances the word Esteemed appears, which would seem to suggest great respect, except if we could hear Jesus’ tone of voice, we’d hear sarcasm. Some scholars suggest that the best translation would be “these so-called rulers of the Gentiles…”.
Jesus makes plain to the disciples that the current definition of ruler is out. And then he puts a new definition in place. You want to be a great ruler? Start by being a great servant. If you want to be leader, become a slave… Just as Jesus has come into this world to be a servant, not to be served. To rule is to be lowliest of all.
And Jesus doesn’t put a time limit on this… It would be nice, and far easier to accept, if Jesus had said if you want to rule, then for a while you have to serve… If you want to run the company, you must start out working in the mail room… If you want to be a great General, you have to start in basic training. But Jesus doesn’t say anything about service being temporary, or for the purpose of learning… He just says you have to serve, as Jesus came to serve. Forever…
The disciples struggled with this. The early church, as witnessed in the various letters of Paul, struggled with this. Certainly, in the middle ages, the church and its leaders became drunk on power and glory, not living like prices, but literally being Princes. After the reformation “fixed” all that, here we are, still struggling to understand how little power has to do with the message of Jesus.
I know how great the struggle is because it is my struggle. Like James and John, I think it would be really great to sit at God’s right hand… in power and glory…
But the place I need to sit is with the poorest of the poor and the most broken in spirit – because that is where God’s right hand is.