“Then he said to the crowd, ‘Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.’” (Luke 12:15)

Many Americans in the last decade or so have spoken of “Biblical values,” and have encouraged a return to “family values,” but somehow the values they have had in mind focus almost exclusively around sexuality and gender roles. One of the more remarkable aspects of Jesus’ preaching is that, if you read the gospels to try to find where he supports the “family values” promoted by these critics of popular American culture, you will hunt in vain. The “family values” Jesus promotes have nothing to do with specified gender roles, and only rarely does Jesus speak of matters pertaining to sexual morality.

James Salt’s papier mâché model of the golden calf, designed to resemble the Wall Street Bull, carried in protest by an interfaith group of supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

On the other hand, hardly a page of the gospels goes by without a comment from Jesus having to do with what one might call “financial morality” (or, in more Biblical language, economic justice). Even Jesus’ remarks on what we think of as sexual morality (e.g., divorce, remarriage, adultery) are bound up with questions of the economic status of women and children who, in ancient societies, often had to rely exclusively upon the support of a male householder (a husband or father). For example, a man who divorces his wife “forces her to commit adultery” (Matt 5:32) because, to find a means of support for herself and any children who might remain with her, she would be forced either to remarry or to turn to prostitution. Jesus’ “family values” are those of the prophets: protecting widows and orphans, sustaining those who have no other means of support. Unlike many Americans today, Jesus does not consider greed a virtue.

“One’s life does not consist of possessions.” Watch the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Is it true that such lives do not revolve around possessions? Why are lottery tickets so popular? Do people buy them because they want to support public education (which is the sales pitch that many state politicians have used to get public lotteries accepted by the voters)?
Do they want the funds for some other philanthropic purpose? Or do they buy lottery tickets because they want to enjoy “the good life,” where every amenity is within their grasp and the needs of the world are entirely obscured from view? Some people are forced to work long hours, ignoring the strain on their physical health and the needs of their spirits, simply to make ends meet. Is this because their employers are on guard against greed when they set wages, or because they are concerned only about “the bottom line”? Jesus does not say, “take care to guard against all want.” The poor have no difficulty recognizing their dependence upon God. It is the rich who prefer dependence upon wealth, forgetting Jesus’ “family values” because they do not recognize Jesus’ “family.”

How does one “guard against all greed”? Torah enjoins the tithe, the annual giving of 10% of one’s net worth in support of the poor and dispossessed (e.g., Deut. 14:22–23, 28–29). The tithe, in other words, causes a dramatic redistribution of wealth, not only liquid assets but other material resources as well. Jesus encourages giving one’s life in service with the poor, even “giving all one’s possessions” to do so. The dramatic effects of such a move on the economic system perhaps is less obvious, but it nevertheless remains a potent protest against the culture of greed and acquisitiveness that has strangled every now-dead culture in human history.

Regardless of what pop-economists and politicians may say, greed is not good—nor does true laissez-faire economic policy (as envisioned by the early theorists) give free rein to the kind of greed that has marked the fatal, classist economic policies of the Reagan and Bush eras.

Christians against Greed 30A protest at Forbes Global CEO Conference, 30 August 2005
(Photo by David Macdonald)

Some people appear to have forgotten that the USSR collapsed because of failed economic policies that illustrated the philosophy of Ayn Rand more than that which Karl Marx borrowed from the New Testament and from the example of Jesus. Jesus may not have won the Nobel Prize for economics, but John Nash did, and for proving that Jesus’ focus on the common good, not personal greed, is what makes an economic system strong.

Blaming the Hungry

23 October 2012

“Jesus was going through a field of grain on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.” (Matt. 12:1)

Matthew’s version of this story has one key difference from the other Synoptic Gospels, and that is this remark that the ones picking the grain “were hungry….” Picking grain—harvesting a field—certainly counts as “work,” which is forbidden on the Sabbath. Matthew is playing to a “loophole” in interpreting the Law when he speaks of the disciples’ hunger. As Jesus says elsewhere, the Law is made for human beings, not vice-versa. Preservation of human life is the chief value of the Law so, if the disciples are hungry, they need to eat to preserve their lives.

Are they really dying of starvation, or is Jesus pushing the boundary here? If you follow Mark or Luke, the latter is the case. Matthew “muddies the water” by presenting a legitimate reason for setting aside the prohibition of working on the Sabbath. He then has Jesus cite two precedents for his interpretation of the Law in this case: David and his army eating the offering-bread, and the priests working in the Temple (e.g., slaughtering sacrificial animals). Neither precedent is quite on target, but that is less important than the claim that there can be exceptions to this Sabbath prohibition. In his argument, it is implicit; Jesus makes it explicit in the “punch-line” when he claims that “the human person (or offspring of Adam) is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). Many Jews would agree with Jesus that it is permissible to pluck the grain if that is the only way one will be able to eat that day, but they would disagree with such a blanket statement that makes it sound like individual humans can decide which Sabbath Laws to observe and which not.

Johannes “Jan” Luyken (1649-1712) etching
from the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England.
“Works of Mercy: Feeding the Hungry”

Readers tend to overlook the disciples’ hunger or, if they do notice, they “explain” it as I just did. But why are the disciples hungry? The “Pharisees” who object are not said to be hungry. Jesus and the disciples are itinerant; they have no permanent home, so neither do they have any stable means of income. They have been living off the generosity of those who listen to Jesus preach and who are recipients of his healing ministry. If the disciples are hungry, then those who have benefited from Jesus’ ministry are not responding with generosity (cf., Matt. 11:20–24). The well-fed “Pharisees” should be offering to share their tables with the disciples; instead, having no empathy for those are hungry, they castigate them.

How many times have you heard this same attitude toward the poor today? Many people who were born to privilege claim to have “made their own success,” as if none of the advantages of race and economic class play any role in whether one goes to good schools, eats healthy food, or has access to good health care. Those who are receiving unemployment benefits are castigated as “lazy” because they are out of work, when companies actually advertise the fact that they will not consider job applicants who are unemployed. The unemployment rate in NE Ohio has declined by 25% since President Obama took office, but it still hovers around 8%, and for Gulf War veterans the rate is closer to 13% (see http://www.bls.gov/cps/). American companies rarely are criticized for exporting jobs overseas, but the thousands of Americans they lay off work then are blamed as “loafers” because they have to make use of their unemployment benefits. If the hungry were to pick grain from fields today, they’d be arrested for theft.

A homeless family living in their car.

Homeless people are blamed for being drunks or drug addicts who “deserve” to be homeless; they should just get jobs and stop leeching off the public. In fact, most homeless adults actually are employed, but at minimum wage jobs where they earn too little to afford housing, and over a third of the homeless in American are families with children under the age of ten (http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/MSNBC/Sections/NEWS/z-pdf-archive/homeless.pdf, 8).*

Some of my own (white, middle-class, suburban) students have shared with me their stories of family homelessness, when a parent lost his/her job and family finances nose-dived such that they lost their home. These kids were working long hours, while trying to go to college, so they could help their families afford an apartment. That is the face of homelessness in America. The fifty-year-old college-educated woman who has to work seventy hours a week just to barely scrape by, for whom a flat tire makes the difference between whether groceries are affordable or not—that’s the specter of near-homelessness in America today. Messrs. Romney and Ryan have never met the homeless or they would choke on the word “entitlement.” If anyone feels “entitled,” it’s the 1% who control the majority of American wealth and are trying to buy this election.

There is not a single county in the United States where someone working for minimum wage can earn enough to pay fair-market rent for a one-room apartment (Ibid., 5), yet we are expected to believe the economy will be utterly destroyed if the minimum wage were raised. CEOs have incomes over 2000 times that of their employees, and their marginal tax rates are less than those of the companies’ low-paid secretaries, yet we are supposed to believe that their taxes should be cut even more. Aside from being economic suicide, the budget plan proposed by Representative Ryan embodies this punitive approach to the poor in a way that would have been inconceivable to anyone, Republican or Democrat, just a generation ago. The dominant discourse in this country has become “me first” instead of “we together.” If Jesus were in his grave, he’d be rolling over in it.

But he is not in his grave. He is living among us today, in the poor, the unemployed, and the homeless. “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matt 25:40). Poor Americans matter. Which means that housing matters, economic policy matters, and jobs matter. When people need bread, will we give them stones instead?

*For more information on family homelessness, see http://www.familyhomelessness.org/.

Easter Sunday 2010 marked the last Mass at Historic Saint Peter Church in Cleveland, Ohio. After over 150 years of continuous use, the oaken doors of this sacred space on 17th and Superior were closed and locked. In rich irony, the building that once had been the womb of a vibrant inner-city Catholic community closed like a tomb on the very day when the Christian church around the world celebrated the feast of Christ breaking the bonds of death and rising triumphant from the grave. The official ecclesiastical act of “suppression” that closed the church building was intended likewise to roll the stone across the grave of the vibrant parish community that inhabited that domus ecclesiae. But Christians know that Resurrection happens. Easter cannot be stopped, not even by bishops.

The Pascal Candle led the recessional at the end of Easter Sunday Mass 2010,
the last before the suppression of the parish by Bishop Richard Lennon.

Almost before he set foot in the door of the Chancery in Cleveland, Bishop Richard Lennon announced his intention to close one-third of the 180+ parishes in the diocese. Sixty-three parishes were to be selected for elimination based on the criteria of declining membership and financial dependency. Not surprisingly, many of the faithful were quite disturbed at this announcement. The diocesan spokesman sought to reassure them: “We don’t close parishes; we close empty buildings.” “Alright,” I thought, “maybe this won’t be so bad as it sounds.” And at first, that looked to be the case.

As the “clustering” process progressed, however, the bishop’s actions gave the lie to this initial assertion. The case of Historic Saint Peter Church provides perhaps the most striking counterpoint to the claim: the parish was solvent; it was up-to-date on the diocesan assessments that help provide financial support to needy parishes and missions; the physical plant was in top condition due to the recent restoration work in honor of the parish’s 150th anniversary; and the parish was growing, gaining members steadily. Regardless, the bishop made it clear that the church was to be closed. An anonymous donor offered $2.5 million for an endowment fund if the bishop would keep the parish open; the chancery declined. In canonical terms, the parish was to be suppressed and its far-from-empty building closed.

The parish spent months in soul-searching, individually and corporately discerning how to respond to the bishop’s plan. Legally speaking, a bishop owns all the ecclesiastical properties in his diocese. If he wants to close the church building, the building will be closed. However, the bishop does not own the consciences of the faithful. Some parishioners shifted to other churches closer to their domiciles. Many parishioners decided to embody dissent and incarnate resurrection, creating a not-for-profit corporation named “The Community of Saint Peter” (CSP). From a church-law standpoint, the CSP is a schismatic community: it self-identifies as a Catholic community, uses the Catholic liturgy, and is pastored by a Catholic priest, but the community is not supposed to exist and the priest is no longer supposed to minister.

The Community of Saint Peter celebrates the Great Vigil of Easter (7 April 2012)
at their new “storefront” location, 7100 Euclid Avenue.

Although I have spent nearly my entire career studying heretical, schismatic, or otherwise dissenting movements in formative Judaism and early Christianity, it took this event for me to understand—on a personal and experiential level—the human dynamics of “schism.” In my research, I have discussed the significance of various theological debates and explored the various power dynamics involved. In the midst of this “thick description” of social, economic, gender, racial, political, and ideological disputes, still I did not grasp the acute disappointment with established ecclesiastical authority structures, nor the anguish involved in making the decision to dissent and resist cooptation, nor the tenacity of hope required to inaugurate and sustain a “schismatic” movement. Far from being an easy choice, schism is a community’s response to the challenge of annihilation. Like a bear gnawing off its own leg to escape an iron trap, schism arises when the only other available option is to capitulate in one’s own oppression.

My work has been driven by the conviction that contemporary believers can learn a great deal from the “heretics” and “schismatics” of antiquity. The inauguration of the CSP has taught me there is much to learn from contemporary dissenters and schismatics as well. One does not have to enjoy conflict to recognize that significant and widespread dissent arises in an environment of serious power dysfunction. Schism, as one significant form of dissent, clearly points to a non-responsive, autocratic “authority” structure that permits the pervasive abuse of power. The CSP resulted from ecclesiastical minds closing, communications closing, and finally doors closing. Divested of walls, the CSP exemplifies the “Church in the City,” intentionally making its home among the poor of Cleveland. In this season celebrating the “tenting” of God amid the human race (John 1:14), and especially among the poor of this world, this “schismatic” group challenges observers to hold to this hope with just such tenacity.

The “Tenting” God and the Tenacity of Hope, cross-posted from the “Feminism and Religion” blog, 8 January 2012.

“Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” (Matt 11:20–24)

Thus did Jesus criticize the Israelite towns of Chorazin (Khirbet Kerazeh) and Bethsaida (“House of Fish”) for their lack of response to his appeal to return to God with full hearts and ready hands. Capernaum, too, was included in this threat, even though the evangelists remember this as Jesus’ home town (Matt 4:13; Mark 9:1). Although “where most of [Jesus’] mighty deeds had been done” (Matt 11:20b) in these three towns at the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee, and although they were home to many of Jesus’ earliest disciples, they certainly caught his ire at this point.

A view of the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum

The “mighty deeds” are Jesus’ works demonstrating that the power of God is active through him; usually we call them “miracles.” Chapters 8–9 of Matthew’s Gospel contain a series of healing miracles that are set in the environs of the Sea of Galilee, one of which explicitly is said to have occurred in Capernaum (the cure of the Roman Centurion’s servant, in Matt. 8:5–13). Perhaps we are to take the entire set as taking place in the three towns rebuked in this saying.

In the scene with the Roman Centurion, this Gentile is praised by Jesus while the Jews of Galilee are implicitly reprimanded—“Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matt. 8:10). In this saying in Matt. 11, however, there is nothing implicit about the criticism. Matthew makes the shocking claim that even the infamous Gentile town of Sodom will fare better than these Israelite towns on Judgment Day. You see, the Gentiles are converting,

An artist’s rendering of the “House of the Fisher” in Bethsaida

coming to faith in the true God, because of Jesus and his “mighty deeds.” They recognize that these miraculous works are wrought by the power of God, not Satan, so they accept Jesus as God’s emissary and accept his teaching.

The Jews of Galilee, however, are not so willing as their pagan counterparts to recognize the power of God working through Jesus. Because of this, they end up in a sense changing places with the Gentiles, opposing God rather than turning toward God and welcoming this “new thing” God is doing through Jesus. If the Jewish towns continue in this way, they will end up under the kind of Divine judgment that led to the destruction of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16–19:29).

Many people misunderstand the Genesis story about Sodom and Gomorrah, linking it with homosexual practice rather than the death-dealing injustice and lack of hospitality that comprise the key complaints against these Gentile cities. However, in some ways this warning of Jesus does not depend upon a correct understanding of that Genesis story. All that is necessary to get Jesus’ point is to remember that Sodom was destroyed by heavenly fire, and Jesus is threatening that it will be much worse for these Israelite towns who refuse to recognize him as God’s chosen instrument.

Contemporary Christians who tend to point a finger at others, judging them to be less moral and threatening them with God’s wrath might take heed to Jesus’ warning. The “religious” people are not the ones Jesus is commending here, but the people others see as irreligious, idolatrous, “pagan.” A contemporary American “translation” might read, “But I tell you, it will be easier for Al Qaeda (or gays, or those who support the national health care plan, or whatever other group you most love to hate) on the Day of Judgment than for you.”

Hype about a “Wife”

28 September 2012

Professor Karen King thinks she has found an ancient text in which Jesus is presented as speaking of “my wife…,” and the media are having a heyday, ignoring her carefully framed remarks and sensationalizing the claims. Even one of the less sensationalist pieces, in the NY Times, has headlines claiming that the papyrus fragment “refers to Jesus’ wife.” That headline claims historicity for the statement. To be accurate, one must say that the text puts the expression “my wife” in the mouth of Jesus—which is quite a different statement than claiming that Jesus actually had a wife. (If you don’t follow this distinction, keep re-reading those last three sentences until they sink in. The effort will have been worth your while when you shift to parsing the claims in political advertisements.)

Fourth century papyrus fragment of a Coptic manuscript, made public
by Harvard Prof. Karen L. King, in which Jesus refers to “my wife”

What has been obscured by the sensationalist press coverage:

  1. Prof. King never claims this fragment proves anything about Jesus’ marital status.
  2. We do not know the date of the text. We simply know King’s view that the fragment reflects a later second-century text (CE 150-200).
  3. King admits that the papyrus itself has been dated to the fourth century. Her positing of a prior text is an hypothesis, not a proven fact.
  4. A truism of historical method holds that sources tend to be less reliable the further they get from the actual historical persons or events to which they attest. Hence, a fourth-century text is less likely to be reliable than first-century ones (such as the canonical gospels).
  5. We know that the provenance and pedigree of this fragment have been lost.
  6. Given #5, the question of a forgery is acute.
  7. King is persuaded the fragment is authentic. Maybe she’s right; maybe she’s not. Right now we do not have enough data to answer that question definitively—and the loss of provenance means that we likely never will. I have not seen the fragment up close, so I cannot comment on the text. From this distance, I am suspicious of the too-neat shape of the fragment. It’s not impossible, but I’ve never seen another fragment with such regular, square edges.

Who cares whether Jesus “had a wife”?

Notice how that question is framed: Did Jesus possess a woman? The hype about this possible ancient text is tedious because hype always is. However, this particular spin is disturbing because of the way it assumes and feeds the strictly gendered thought-patterns that scholars work to overcome, since those attitudes pre-determine the “answers” to any questions one might ask.

Whether or not Jesus was married, frankly, I don’t really care too much. I occasionally raise the question simply because setting someone on the quest for data one way or another poses an interesting and modestly sophisticated exercise for historical-Jesus students.

However, I DO care very much that every time this idea hits the press the speculation turns to Mary of Magdala, an historical figure who is grossly misunderstood by most people. The talk makes Magdalene important *because* she may have been Jesus’ wife. Saints preserve us, as my grandmother would have said.

No; Magdalene is important in her own right as a leader among Jesus’ disciples. Without her, the other guys would never have known about the resurrection. Her significance is eroded—even eliminated—by the way popular opinion jumps to put her into a neat little “wife” box. The poor woman is rolling over in her grave!

So, are we to “recover” the women of the early Jesus movement precisely so we can control their image and make them safe, rather than letting them rattle the cages of those who still, after fifty years of feminism, cannot imagine a woman without a man? Oh no, I don’t think so!

[Editor's note: Much of the foregoing is cross-posted with the Feminism & Religion blog article at http://feminismandreligion.com/2012/09/26/in-the-news-wives-silent-hidden-and-unnamed/#more-6268.]

Jesus’ “Family Values”

8 September 2012

Mark 3:31-38 is the startling account of Jesus’ mother and brothers made to cool their heels outside “the house” where Jesus was teaching to a crowd inside “seated around him.” In his apparent put-down of his family, Jesus, “looking around at those seated in the circle he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers.’”

But which family is “one’s own”? That is precisely Jesus’ point. If Jesus were a paterfamilias, the patriarch of a family, this statement essentially would disinherit all his natural heirs. He is not a patriarch, but Jesus’ statement still clearly disowns his family of origin in favor of his “fictive kinship” group. (Remember that Mark’s Jesus has no particular reason to trust his blood relatives, since just ten verses earlier they tried to lock him up for lunacy or demonic possession.) Jesus’ “true family” comprises all women and men who hear the word of Godand do it.

Notice that Jesus’ family is not all-inclusive. Jesus is not concerned with “political correctness”; he challenges the status quoin favor of obedience to the divine will.

Stained glass window, from St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh, Northumberland, depicting a queen (possibly Margaret of Scotland) feeding the poor.

Those who hear God’s word but do not live it are not family: hypocrites, those who “talk the talk but do not walk the walk,” who offer Temple worship but do not care for “the least of these, my brothers and sisters,” are excluded from Jesus’ family. Notice also that Jesus is not concerned with whether or not these least “deserve” help; he doesn’t do background checks or make them fill out any application forms to receive aid. Jesus’ sole concern is that his disciples do in fact meet the needs of those who have “fallen through the cracks” of society’s support structures.

Nor are those who live without even attending to God’s word (e.g., pagans, atheists) part of Jesus’ family. Ayn Rand types who assert “No God; only man” are not included. The attitude is so inimical to Jesus’ worldview that it would be pointless even to attempt a conversation. Call it intolerant if you like, or just call it prioritizing: Jesus learned his economic policy from the Hebrew Bible.

Somewhat surprisingly to us, Jesus’ family includes mothers and siblings, but no fathers. The patriarch’s power and authority interferes with hearing and doing God’s word. No one can serve two masters; no one can be bound to obey both God and a paterfamilias, for the human patermight command what God forbids, or vice-versa. Yet the traditional paterfamilias does demand this kind of authority over “his” offspring, wife, extended family members, servants, slaves, and other clients for whom he is patron. Hence, to become part of Jesus’ family, the paterfamilias must relinquish patriarchal authority, humbling himself to the level of a brother.

Promise-keepers” in Jesus’ eyes are not those who take control of “their” families, demanding subordination and obedience, but those who recognize their wives, children, clients, and slaves as siblings, equal in dignity and respect, owing obedience to God alone—and responsible for their own decisions about precisely how they will live that obedience.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

The first chapter of the Gospel According to John narrates the enlistment of several of Jesus’ early disciples from the town of Bethsaida. Andrew and Philip, disciples of John the Baptist, joined Jesus’ group by means of the ancient version of LinkedIn: they were referred by John. Jesus’ networking system continued rolling and resulted in Andrew and Philip recruiting their brothers, Peter and Nathanael (respectively). In response to Philip’s urgent and credulous invitation to come and meet the messiah promised by Moses and the prophets, Nathaniel shows himself a true skeptic. His initial reaction, according to John, was to inquire “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” As a rhetorical question, the unspoken but nevertheless predictable answer to this query should be “certainly not!” “Come and see,” his brother urges. So Nathaniel the skeptic, whether out of curiosity or a sense of fraternal duty, comes to meet Jesus and see for himself whether Philip’s enthusiasm is well-founded.

An artist’s sketch of Philip talking to his brother, Nathanael, urging him to come with him to meet Jesus.

“When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47; NRSV)

But would honesty be a main virtue of a “true child of Israel”? For Jesus, yes. For his contemporaries, not really. And for us? How many lies have you heard so far in this presidential campaign, or from church officialsa concerned in the pedophilia and parish-closing scandals, or from rich corporate executives of the me-first-and-last-and-who-cares-about-anyone-else mindset? Thank God for groups like the Nuns-on-a-Bus, or one may have been inclined simply to crawl into a hole and hibernate until Christmas.

Nathanael (whose name means “gift of God”) is the kind of person who says exactly what he thinks, without hedging. His rhetorical question in response to Philip’s invitation (v. 46) makes clear his skepticism from the start: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If Nathanael were an American, he would be from Missouri, the “Show Me” State. Not so credulous to accept Philip’s testimony without evidence, yet he is willing to “come and see.”

Once Nathanael meets Jesus face-to-face, he does “see” and, totally contrary to cultural norms, changes his mind publicly. In Middle-Eastern culture, especially for men, “saving face” is paramount, and “scoring points” or gaining leverage over another man runs a close second. Men are expected to lie and dissemble to gain social advantage. (Have politicians like Messrs. Aikin and Ryan mentally moved to the Mediterranean Basin? Have some of our prelates done the same?)

If Nathanael had been wise in the ways of the world, he would have remained stubbornly skeptical, “hedged his bets” by attributing his assertion to others (cf. Matt 16:14), or at least waited until a private moment to declare his change of mind. Instead, he clearly and simply said what he meant, without duplicity or self-interest, testifying to the Truth he now recognized: that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Israel. An Israelite without guile? From the perspective of Jesus’ contemporaries, this would have been an insult, or at best a self-contradiction. From John’s perspective, however, it is high praise indeed.

Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus is epigrammatic of John’s model of true discipleship: hearing the gospel inspires Nathanael’s search; meeting Jesus reveals the identity both of the seeker and of Jesus himself; revelation gives rise to conversion and further testimony. Note that evangelist makes Nathanael, not Peter, the first one to witness to Jesus’ true identity. Even the guileless can be used to score points.

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22; NRSV)

The first time I remember hearing this Gospel, I was about nine years old. (I’m sure that is not because it hadn’t been read in my presence before, but rather that I was not very attentive to the readings when I was a younger child.) That Christmas my parents had given me a Missal that included all the Lectionary readings—as well as the Mass prayers—in those days, with Latin on the one side and English on the other—so now I could follow everything that was happening. My translation followed the textual variant in which Jesus tells Peter to forgive “seventy times seven,” and I remember calculating in my head how many times that would be. Of course, now I realize that it is irrelevant whether Jesus said to forgive “77 times” or “490 times.” (Seriously, can you imagine keeping a log where you tote up the number of times you forgive someone?) Not meant literally, the number was exaggerated to prove the point: disciples of Jesus should be willing to forgive those who have wronged them and who have repented of their wrongdoing. That part is pretty easy to see now. Unfortunately, some other misapprehensions of this passage are at least as important to overcome but much more difficult to recognize.

Misunderstanding #1: Forgiveness should be pre-emptive, not waiting for the wrongdoer to repent of the action. The purpose of forgiveness is restoration of the relationship that was violated by the wrong action. The context for this saying of Jesus makes it clear that, if the person who perpetrated the wrong refuses to recognize that it was wrong and/or refuses to take responsibility for it, then there can be no talk of forgiveness. Six verses earlier, Matthew presents Jesus’ instructions for how to deal with one disciple sinning against another: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt 18:15-17; NRSV). Here we see that the wrongdoer who “listens” to the complaint and takes responsibility for it can be reconciled. The one who “refuses to listen,” who continues in denial of responsibility, cannot. Ostracism is the recommended response in the latter case, presumably so the perpetrator will recognize the severity of the offense and choose to restore the relationship by admitting responsibility and asking to be forgiven.

Misunderstanding #2: Forgiveness means acting as if the wrong never happened. On the contrary, forgiveness requires the perpetrator to take responsibility for the action itself and whatever consequences flow from that action. It is one thing for the surviving family members of a murder victim to forgive the murderer; it is a totally different matter to suggest that the murderer should be absolved from serving the legal penalty for that crime or from engaging in compensatory actions toward the survivors. Being “forgiven” requires the willingness to face the consequences of one’s actions. Thus, for example, forgiveness of thieves or embezzlers should include the expectation that they repay what they have stolen. Those who have caused someone physical harm should provide necessary medical treatment so the victim can recover from the injury. If recovery is not possible, then the perpetrator should be expected to provide ongoing support of the victim, including provision for whatever remedial and/or palliative care is medically advisable. Causing a permanent injury incurs a life-long responsibility. After all, if the victim will never again be free of pain, why should the perpetrator be free of responsibility? Accepting forgiveness also means accepting responsibility for any necessary reparations for the wrongdoing.

Misunderstanding #3: “Forgiveness” means the perpetrator can go back to the status quo ante, thinking and behaving in exactly the same ways as before he or she committed the offense. The Evangelist must have realized that some would skew Jesus’ saying in this way, however, because immediately following the saying we find a parable that highlights and corrects this mistake.

For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. (Matt 18:23-35; NRSV)

In the parable, the subject is forgiveness of debts, but the interpretive tradition also applies the paradigm to moral failings. The tremendous disparity between the two debts highlights the point that Jesus’ concern is not only monetary but also attitudinal: the first slave owed 10,000 talents, whereas the second owed only 100 denarii. That’s a little obscure to contemporary readers, so it is worth spelling out in more detail. One talent was equivalent to approximately 6,000 denarii, so 10,000 talents equals 60,000,000 denarii—60,000 times the second debt. One denarius was the average pay for a day laborer. If one presumes a six-day work-week, with approximately fifty work-weeks in each year, it would take twenty years to earn one talent. The first debtor promises to “pay [the master] everything,” but that would require 200,000 years for a day laborer, and meanwhile the person would have nothing to use for living expenses. Presumably this first debtor has better employment and/or investment opportunities than a simple laborer, yet his promise to the lord remains dubious at best. On the other hand, the second debtor’s promise to pay the 100 denarii, if given the chance, comes across as both sincere and reasonable. Yet the first debtor, who should have been overwhelmingly grateful for having escaped life in the mines or workhouse, instead is miserly and cruel with the second debtor. The dénouement of the story explicates that vindictiveness is the wrong response to forgiveness. The one who is forgiven is expected to show generosity and compassion toward others—in this example, forgiving another’s debts in return for having one’s own debts forgiven. Indeed, the parable suggests that forgiveness can—and perhaps ought to—be retracted if the forgiven one does not exhibit a more compassionate attitude and more generous behavior than beforehand.

Thus, the popular secular motto “forgive and forget” represents at best a very skewed understanding of Jesus’ true teaching. As Dietrich Bonhœffer insisted, such a notion of “cheap grace” is an abomination, a denial of the sacrifice of Christ. On the contrary, Christian “forgiveness” is a sort of shorthand for the overall process of conversion of a sinner, which includes at least four phases: (a) recognizing that one has sinned; (b) taking responsibility for the sin and its consequences; (c) attempting to restore the violated relationship by making any necessary reparations, and (d) changing one’s patterns of behavior to ensure that one will not commit the same offense in the future. Only then can there be true reconciliation between sinner and victim, and thereby the whole church. In earlier times, the process for the Sacrament of Reconciliation exemplified this perspective: confession came first; a penance was imposed; then that penance had to be completed before the sinner returned to receive absolution; the resolution part of the “Act of Contrition” gives voice to one’s commitment to behavioral change, although hopefully the penance is designed actually to practice it and begin to form new habits of mind and heart.

Misunderstanding #4: Forgiveness requires the victim to treat the perpetrator the same way as before the injury. I see this as the most dangerous of the common misconceptions of forgiveness, for it causes the death or serious injury of hundreds of thousands of women every year—women who are sent home to abusive husbands whom their pastor tells them they must “forgive.” Forgiveness does not mean accepting abuse or putting oneself back into a situation where such abuse might recur. Forgiveness requires recognition of the abuse and confrontation of the abuser. It also demands proof of real behavioral change—not just good intentions—before a relationship can be restored. Abusers, like alcoholics, are never “cured”; but they may enter a “recovery” phase, at which point forgiveness can take place. Even so, given the statistically high risk of relapse, this instance of forgiveness typically ought not to include the victim returning to live under the same roof with the abuser. Forgiveness does not “turn back the clock” for the one who forgives any more than it does for the one forgiven.

Lessons? What should we take away from this saying of Jesus about “how many times” to forgive? Firstly, that the question itself is wrong-headed, for it displays a miserly attitude toward forgiveness that runs counter to the gratitude that should be our response to the grace God has poured out upon us. Underlying Peter’s question, however, is a perfectly reasonable concern for guidelines concerning when and how to “forgive.” (In other words, what are the dynamics of forgiveness?) So, the second point we should learn from this set of passages is that true forgiveness does not come “cheap”; it requires repentance, responsibility, restitution, and an active resolution to change. Thirdly, forgiveness requires “conversion of life” on the part of the one forgiven, and might be withdrawn if that life-change is not clearly manifested. Fourthly, forgiveness reconciles the wrongdoer and the victim, but the result is a new relationship between them, not simply a return to the previous patterns. Finally, we must strive to recognize and counteract the ways Jesus’ saying on forgiveness gets twisted to exonerate those who perpetrate injustice and to re-victimize those who suffer at their hands. Gospel forgiveness is truly “good news”: the lowly win. True forgiveness benefits everyone, victim and perpetrator, but the victim must come first.

[This post is a revised version of Sheila E. McGinn, “How [Often] Should I Forgive?” in Catholic Asian News (March 2011): 19-23.]

Capernaum

20 July 2010

17 July 2010

Capernaum

Today we began at Capernaum (Kafer Naum), Jesus’ home base during his public ministry (cf. Mark 2:1). Capernaum is located just a short distance (about three miles) southeast of the northernmost point of the Lake of Galilee—about eleven o’clock from due north. Circumambulating the Lake counterclockwise, one comes to Heptapegon (named after its seven natural springs), Ginnosaur, and then Magdala at the nine o’clock point. Each town was about three miles from its nearest neighbors, so a one-hour walk would take you from one to the next. Somewhere along the way, although we don’t know exactly where, is the site of Jesus’ lakeside call of four fishers (Andrew, Simon “Peter”, James, and John; Mark 1:16-20) who were counted among his intimate companions for the next few years (three, according to the Synoptic tradition). At least two of these early disciples (the brothers, Andrew and Simon) made their home in Capernaum, as we know from the story of Jesus’ miraculous cure of Simon’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31).

Given that Capernaum was the first town across the border from the territory of his brother, Herod Philip, Herod Antipas invested it with a customs office and a small garrison (about 80 men) under the command of a Centurion. Capernaum thus is the setting for Jesus’ invitation to a tax collector to join his community of disciples. (Mark 2:13-14 names the tax collector “Levi”; but cf. Matt 9:9, which tells of a tax collector named “Matthew.”) Luke’s famous story of the long-distance cure of the centurion’s deathly-ill slave (Luke 7:1-10)—in which Jesus marvels at the faith indicated in the Gentile man’s insistence “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Luke 7:7-9)—also takes place, you guessed it, in Capernaum. In the course of that story, we discover that this same centurion loved the Jewish people and “built” their local synagogue (Luke 7:5). This suggests that: (a) Roman-Jewish relations in the town of Jesus’ day were relatively amicable, since the commander of the Roman garrison under Herod Antipas funded the building of the Jewish synagogue; (b) this particular centurion was likely a “God-fearer,” that is, a Gentile proselyte who had not been circumcised and therefore had not yet formally “converted” to Judaism; and (c) the Jewish community there may not have been very wealthy, since they themselves did not fund the building. So where did a lowly centurion get that kind of money? The customs officers collected tax money from Jewish merchants, and the local officials typically skimmed a sizeable portion of that tax money; graft was one of the perquisites of public office in the Roman world. Ironically, then, the centurion probably built the synagogue with funds garnered from Jewish customs taxes.…

Israel

16 July 2010

Unbelievably, I arrived in Tel Aviv with no incidents whatsoever. We’re overnight at a hostel at the Mount of the Beatitudes, with a lovely view of the Lake of Galilee. More tomorrow….

The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 364 other followers

%d bloggers like this: