Friday, March 17, 2017

Lent Reflection: Jesus Embraced Human Vulnerability in order to Unite with Vulnerable Humans

As I wrote in my last post, Jesus lived a very vulnerable life and was not immune to or protected from the challenges that the people of his time confronted every day, especially those persons at the bottom of the embedded social and religious structures of Palestine. First century Palestine was a volatile place within the Roman Empire, and those on the fringes of that society who were oppressed by injustice and violence were the most vulnerable to the pains and struggles of life. 

But the idea that Jesus embraced human vulnerability raises a crucial theological question. For what reason did Jesus live as a human susceptible to the struggles of life? Did he become incarnate and face human vulnerability just so he could be a sacrifice for sin? While many Christians answer this question with a resounding yes, it seems to me that there must be more to Jesus being human than just God’s plan for him to become a sacrifice. 

When I read the Gospel narratives, I come away with the impression that although Jesus may at times imply that his death will be sacrificial, being a sacrifice for human sin seems not to be at the forefront of Jesus’ mind until that event arrives. Even when he predicts his death to his disciples, he only speaks a small number of times about his crucifixion being a sacrifice for human sin.

I am not saying that this traditional interpretation is not found in the Gospels, or on the lips of Jesus.  What I am suggesting is that we need to take a careful look at what may be the utmost reason for why Jesus faced human vulnerability. 

Jesus did not simply put on the skin of human existence and wear that skin until his crucifixion, after which he was resurrected, making everything okay. Jesus’ choice to take on human vulnerability was based on something more concrete that had a more intimate effect on those vulnerable persons around him.

His free choice to be vulnerable to everyday existence was not for the sole reason of being some sort of worthy sacrifice. His choice to take on human existence was a choice to unite with the most vulnerable of society.

To get at what I am suggesting, let’s consider one of the stories of Jesus’ encounter with one of those persons forgotten by society. For me, one of the most powerful stories that relates to the question of why Jesus chose human vulnerability is the story of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. Mark tells this story in such a way as to picture Jesus not only as a powerful healer, but also as a person who was tuned into the needs of those vulnerable people around him.
Jesus Cures the Woman who Bleeds.
Byzantine School, (6th century)
Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo
There are a number of details that help us hear the story as a story of human vulnerability. First, the character is a woman, and being a Jewish woman of the first century, she was not worthy to be in the presence of a male, much less approach that male.

Second, the woman is not named. Mark could have easily given her a name, but he leaves her unnamed to demonstrate her existence as an insignificant person to those around her.

Third, this woman has been bleeding for twelve years, which makes her ritually unclean according to the cultic code of Judaism. She is an unnamed, impure woman, who is marginalized from her community.

But perhaps most important for the point I am seeking to make about Jesus is that though the crowds press in upon him, Jesus feels this woman touch his cloak. Even his disciples, who were close to him in the crowd, were unaware of the woman’s presence, much less her touching Jesus. But Jesus feels her touch.

An easy explanation to Jesus’ sensitivity would be to say that because he was God in human form, he would have felt this woman touch him, for he had divine senses. But it seems to me that Mark’s theology leans more toward portraying Jesus as the human who is keenly aware of the vulnerability of human existence, mainly because he has experienced that human vulnerability himself. 

He is sensitive to the needs of those on the very bottom of the social and religious rung of first century Palestine, not because he is divine, but because he has embraced human vulnerability for the purpose of associating with those most vulnerable in his world.

This understanding of Jesus’ mission as the Human One must have a life-altering impact on our living as humans. If Jesus embraced human vulnerability for the purpose of associating with those who were exposed to the pains of life, how much more are we called to sacrificial living that causes us to renounce our comfort and to identify with the most vulnerable of our world? 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Lent Reflection: Jesus’ Story of Vulnerability is Our Story of Vulnerability

I find it fascinating the way in which the Gospel of Mark tells about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. In only two verses, Mark raises challenging theological questions by what the narrative does say as well as through what it does not say about Jesus’ temptation.

One interesting feature is that Mark’s account is much shorter than either Matthew’s or Luke’s, both of whom include details that are absent from Mark. I don’t have the space to rehearse all the explanations scholars propose as to why details are missing from Mark, but I can offer my own interpretation that gets at the heart of Mark’s theology.

In my view, the reason Mark’s temptation story is shorter than Matthew’s or Luke’s is not because Mark was less concerned for details. The purpose is to imply to the hearers of the story that Jesus faced temptations and trials throughout his life, and not just in a one-time encounter with Satan in the wilderness. Moreover, the shortness of Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation also indicates to the readers that Satan was not the primary tempter of Jesus. 

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was not a single event which he overcame and that was it. No, Mark shows us through the remainder of the narrative that Jesus faced trials and temptations throughout his life, and most of these did not come from Satan, but from Jesus’ closest followers, and even Jesus’ own inner struggle.

Another interesting, but I think more theologically awkward trait peculiar to Mark’s story of Jesus’ temptation is the way Jesus is placed in the wilderness. The opening chapter of Mark reaches a crescendo at the baptism of Jesus, when we hear the voice from heaven express God’s pleasure with Jesus, calling him the Beloved Son, and when the Spirit of God comes upon Jesus. Yet, immediately, to use one of Mark’s favorite words, the same Spirit that came lovingly onto the Beloved Son, casts Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted.

Baptism and Temptation of Christ- Paolo Veronese (1580-82)

While both Matthew and Luke soften Mark’s rawness by saying that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, Mark is clear to say that the Spirit of God threw Jesus into the wilderness for the explicit purpose of facing temptation. In other words, though he is proclaimed by God to be the Beloved Son, Jesus would not be protected from the vulnerability of being human, and God plays a direct role in Jesus’ experience of human vulnerability.

Whilst the traditional interpretation that Jesus had to face temptation to be the pure sacrifice for human sin might have some truth to it, and thus God allowed him to be tempted, I think the more theologically rich interpretation is that God was intentionally putting God’s future purpose at risk. 

By deliberately casting Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, God was placing God’s purposes in the hands of the human Jesus, taking the risky chance that Jesus might fail.  And yes, it was entirely possible that Jesus could have failed, and we must admit that there is a measure of scandal to God’s providence in relation to the life of Jesus.

Yet, there is one other important piece of theology I have learned from the years I have spent with Mark. While the Gospel was written to tell the story of Jesus, it was not written to tell this story primarily for historical reasons. Mark’s story is not primarily a historical writing; it is firstly a theological narrative that was written to tell the story of Jesus as a paradigm for what it means to be a disciple. It is not a story distant from its audience. It is a narrative that forces its reader to be involved.

If we pay close attention to the plot of the narrative, we find that Jesus begins his life, if you will, at the point of baptism. From that point he travels the treacherous road of human existence, facing trials and temptations all along the way, until finally he meets a tragic end at his death on the cross. Mark’s story line functions as a guidebook for discipleship, and Jesus’ story of vulnerability is also our story of vulnerability.

Jesus’ temptations and trials, and the struggles he faced all along the journey, all serve to remind us that our lives are indeed uncertain and vulnerable. If Jesus’ story is our story, then following him means that we choose to walk the treacherous road of life, facing the struggles and the trials and temptations that are a part of human existence.  Whereas we can see the future hope of resurrection, as Jesus did, and the same Spirit that came upon Jesus also gives us strength, this does not ease the struggles and sufferings we face on the road that always leads to Jerusalem, the place of suffering and death.

Jesus’ story of vulnerability is also our story of vulnerability   

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday: Reflecting on the Vulnerability of Life

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. There are many practices Christians carry out during this holy season; practices such as fasting and praying that are meant to draw us closer to God as we reflect on the last days of Jesus on this earth. But often we neglect these practices, and I think we may be particularly inclined to neglect these practices during times of stress and uncertainly like we are facing in our current situation.

Yet, now is the time that we should be considering the Season of Lent as a period in which we reflect on the vulnerability of life, as represented in Jesus’ last days on earth. The time of Lent should be a period in which we remind ourselves that life is full of uncertainty, as well as the hope of new life God offers to us.

We sometimes shy away from talking about the uncertainty and vulnerability of life, however, for when we do we think we are being distrustful and even faithless. Yet, the reality of life is that it is full of uncertainties. Indeed, to put it simply, there is a certainty to life’s uncertainties. Problems will come upon us, whether these are caused by our own choices or the actions of others and some of these problems can challenge our faith significantly.

There are several questions I think most of us who believe in God ask whenever we face life’s difficulties.  Where is God during uncertain times? How should we view life’s changes? What role does faith play during life’s changes? How do we pray through life’s uncertainties? How do we remain faithful during these times? What is God’s answer to life’s tragedies?

These are just a sampling of questions we may ask, some for which we can at least find a plausible answer, but others for which we may never find the solution. But they are important questions for us to ask, and asking them does not make us any less faithful in our belief in God than not asking them. In fact, I would venture to say that if we reject asking these questions, as if we are too pious to do so, then we are not being true to the one who faced his own doubts and fears on the night he was arrested.

As Christians, we are particularly guilty of assuming that all things should work out for us. And, when we and others encounter life’s struggles and tragedies, instead of asking and struggling with deeper theological questions with sheer honesty, we often voice standard, but hollow expressions about life and its uncertainties. We say things like, “God has everything under control,” “Everything will work out for the good,” “Jesus will take care of you,” and “God is teaching you something through this.”

These may seem to be helpful words of encouragement and advice, for they do offer some hope.  However, they also symbolize the wrong assumption we have that because we are Christian, things should work out for us. “Come to Jesus, and he will make your life better,” we often hear and say.

The reality is, however, that life is uncertain for all of us; believer and non-believer. Indeed, as followers of Jesus, why should we assume that our lives should be any less tragic than his own?  This is certainly not to say that we should be looking for suffering, as I think some often do. But we must be reminded that the Jesus we follow, the one whose last days we remember during Lent, suffered real evil, real pain, and real death. This should always remind us that suffering is a part of who we are as humans, and even God cannot always relieve our suffering.

I realize that orthodox Christianity has traditionally believed in a God who can do anything; a God who is all powerful. But when I reflect on the life of Jesus, I am inclined to believe that the traditional view of God does not seriously consider the vulnerability of human existence as represented in Jesus’ tragic death.  While we often speak about the sovereignty of God in terms of God’s omnipotence, perhaps we need to think more about God’s sovereignty in terms of God’s love; a love through which God makes it possible for God to experience our human pain.

During this particular Season of Lent, when we experience various challenges in life, and when we continue to see the suffering that happens in our world, let us be reminded that there are no simple theological answers to the problem of human pain, and providing simplistic answers is not being true to our faith. Rather, let us reflect on the suffering of Jesus as emblematic of our human struggle, as well as that event through which God has and continues to experience our sufferings.


Friday, January 20, 2017

Jesus' Inaugural Address

At one point in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus enters the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. While Matthew and Mark place this scene later in Jesus’ ministry, Luke has Jesus in Nazareth’s synagogue early in Jesus’ ministry. In Luke’s Gospel, these are Jesus’ first public words. One could say that this is Jesus’ inaugural address in Luke, where he lays out his agenda as the Beloved Son of God who brings in the rule of God.

What is interesting about Luke’s version is that Jesus actually takes the scroll, finds the reading from Isaiah, and reads that portion:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(Luke 4:18-19)

But, what is important about this reading from Isaiah is that Jesus is not going rogue here; he situates his agenda within the prophetic tradition of Israel that emphasized the eschatological salvation that God had promised to bring about; an eschatological salvation that would bring about a reversal and a turning upside down of the norms of a society that favored the rich and powerful over the poor and oppressed.

In other words, Jesus understood Isaiah’s prophetic words as coming to fulfillment in his own coming and he understood his own agenda in terms of Isaiah’s prophecy. In that sense, Jesus centered his agenda on the Jewish Scripture, but not just any Scripture, but the one that placed emphasis on the reversal and turning upside down of the norms of a world that placed authority in the hands of a few and that treated the poor, the sick, the lame, and others with disdain, suspicion, and oppression.

While we should not push Jesus’ use of this particular reading from the prophet as giving us a full picture of how Jesus read and interpreted Scripture, I do think it is important, at least for Luke, that Jesus’ reading of this particular passage and his application of the passage to himself at the beginning of his ministry tells us something about what the author of this Gospel was saying about Jesus. Jesus’ agenda would side with the poor over the rich, with the oppressed over the oppressors, and with the sick over the well.

Indeed, if we jump over a couple of chapters in Luke we find Jesus saying these words:

Looking at his disciples, he said:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

"But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-21; 24-25)

Jesus’ inaugural address at Nazareth, and his agenda that he sets forth there, challenges the powers that be. It challenges the status quo of a world that is built on authority that favors the rich, powerful, and influential and forgets those on the margins of society. Indeed, in all three accounts of this event in Nazareth’s synagogue, the people are perplexed, offended, and in Luke, enraged at what Jesus has to say.

But why? Why would they be enraged to the point of wanting to cast him off a cliff?
Perhaps the simple answer may be the one that still rings true for us when we hear Jesus say certain things. As Mark tells of the response of those who hear Jesus in the synagogue, he says they took offense at him; literally they were scandalized by Jesus. And so are we.

We may not want to take Jesus to the edge of a cliff and toss him off, and we may not speak ill of Jesus when we consider the words he spoke and the actions he carried out concerning the rule of God, for that, for us, would be sacrilegious, even blasphemous. No, we would not do these things. Instead, we just ignore what Jesus says or try to explain it all away.

What I think Jesus’ inaugural address confronts us with is our own unwillingness to take up his agenda instead of our own. Our agendas are filled with self-preservation instead of self-sacrifice. Our agendas are filled with superiority instead of humility. Out agendas are filled with power instead of empathy. Our agendas are filled with fear of the other instead of faith in God. Our agendas are filled with the Jesus we create instead of the Jesus that comes to us through the Gospels.
Our Jesus is our ally in the face of our enemies.  He is always on our side, answering our prayers and blessing us. This Jesus tells us what we want to hear, makes us comfortable, even complacent, and looks pleasingly at our self-righteousness. 

This Jesus we create in our own minds and answers to our demands and specifications. He permits us to wage unjust violence against our enemies in the name of national security. He allows us to hoard money and possessions in the name of financial security. He consents to our prejudices against people of other races, genders, nationalities, sexual orientations, and religions in the name of cultural security.

This Jesus is the one who gives us easy teachings that fail to challenge us to think outside our own insular lives. This Jesus, and indeed, this form of Christianity, settles on the simplistic answers that comfort our minds, but that fall short of calling us to authentic discipleship. Yes, this Jesus, the easy Jesus is the one we prefer; the one we can affirm and worship.

But this is not the Jesus we find in Luke 4 or in other parts of the Gospels.  

This is the Jesus that calls us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to sell all we have and give to the poor, and to take up the cross and follow him.   

This is the Jesus who calls us to reach out to others and cross the boundaries of race, religion, culture, and gender and all the other socially constructed ways we have created to divide humanity.  

This is the Jesus that dined with tax collectors, beggars, diseased, and various persons of questionable social standing.   

This is the Jesus who compels us to repent of our insular lives and to commit ourselves to work for justice, peace, and hope in our world. 

This is the Jesus who set forth his agenda in his Nazareth inaugural address; an address that set forth not his own agenda for himself, but the agenda that he called his followers to live and fulfill.

For those of us who are Christian, we must always remember that we can be both faithful to the kingdom of God and good citizens of our country; indeed we must be both. But, our ultimate allegiance must be to Jesus and his agenda of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, and setting free the oppressed.
Today, a new President of the United States will take the oath of office and take his place as the new leader of our country and the free world. He will set forth his own agenda through his inaugural address. Let us listen closely to see how much his agenda cares for the least of these, and more importantly, that his actions in the coming days demonstrate a commitment for justice- the kind of justice for which Jesus gave his life.