Monday, March 27, 2017

Lent Reflection: Prophets of God’s Justice Are Vulnerable to the Powers of Injustice

The story of John the Baptist is a familiar narrative to most Christians. We imagine John as a wild man preaching in the desert about repentance and calling people to be baptized. We also visualize John baptizing Jesus, a significant starting point to Jesus’ ministry. But when we think of John, we probably most often recall his death at the hands of King Herod. While all the Synoptic Gospels tell us about John’s death, Mark narrates John’s arrest and death in a quite interesting way that implies something deeply theological about the vulnerability of those who would dare to be prophets of God.

Readers of the Second Gospel are told very early in the narrative that John was arrested (Mark 1:14). Yet, what seems odd is that this is all the information we are given about the Baptizer’s fate at this point in Mark’s story. In fact, we may just skip by Mark’s comment about John’s arrest in chapter one and treat it as an incidental remark written as a segue into focusing on Jesus.

While the comment might simply be a transition into telling about Jesus, it is written for a very specific reason. The telling of John’s arrest immediately before the narration of Jesus going out and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is near is for the purpose of linking the arrest of John with the preaching of Jesus. By connecting the two stories at this point, Mark foreshadows that the fate of Jesus will be like that of John. And the preaching of justice will be the cause of that fate.

A similar link is made between John’s death and the sending out of the 12 disciples in Mark 6. In reading chapter 6 one would have to admit that the structure is a bit strange. First, Jesus speaks about the dishonor he is given in his home region (Mark 6:1-6), and then he sends out the 12 disciples on mission (Mark 6:7-13). After we are told that the disciples are sent out, then we are told, in a complete narrative, the details of John’s death (Mark 6:14-29). But what is interesting is that just after narrating John’s execution, Mark then tells us that the disciples returned to Jesus to report on their mission (Mark 6:30).

The structure of intertwining the sending out the disciples and then their return with the narration of John’s death sandwiched in between is a technique used by the author to tie the fate of the disciples with that of John. From a literary perspective, Mark is saying that their going out to proclaim the gospel is a risky endeavor that makes them vulnerable to the powers who seek to silence God’s message of justice.

St John the Baptist before Herod by Mattia Preti (c. 1665)

There are other passages in Mark that suggest what I am stating here (See 13:9-13), but these are enough to raise a pertinent question. How does proclaiming the gospel make us vulnerable to the powers of injustice?

To get at the answer to this question, we need to refute some common misconceptions about preaching the gospel. Many think it is simply evangelism, where the goal is to convert everyone in the world to Christianity by trying to persuade them that they “need Jesus.” This seems to me to be a very limited understanding of Jesus’ practice of preaching. For one reason, it is mainly, and wrongly I might add, intent on getting people to heaven. For another, it is very individualistic and focused mostly on the spiritual needs of people.

While addressing the spiritual needs of people has some legitimacy, proclaiming the gospel is not simply evangelism. Proclaiming the gospel is speaking the truth about what God desires for humanity- justice in all its forms. While proclaiming the gospel is a call to repent from sin, it is more than anything a call to repent from humanity’s greatest sin, injustice and oppression, whether directly or indirectly, towards those most vulnerable.

The reason that prophets of God’s justice like John, Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., just to name a few, face persecution, is that they are willing to speak truth to power, even the religious power that often sanctions the continuing oppression of the most vulnerable. In doing so, these prophets not only side with the struggles of the marginalized as a form of resisting the status quo of injustice, they also boldly proclaim that God sides with the vulnerable and against the powers that rule.

While we must identify with the vulnerable of our world through our close association with them and service to them, we must also be prophets of truth that call to repentance the powers of society that set up structures of violence and injustice that entrap the vulnerable. But becoming those prophets will set us on a collision course that makes us vulnerable to retribution from those powers.

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.