The Common Good
July-August 1996

Everyday Miracles

by Jim Douglass | July-August 1996

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle A.

There’s nothing ordinary about what’s known in the lectionary as “ordinary time.” Not Christmas, not Easter, not Pentecost, but the everyday miracles of God with us, of life on earth. Everyday evil also, the ongoing oppression of God’s children, the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Everyday miracles: the human family being fed and healed, corrected and forgiven. Everyday evil: the human family starving, murdered, suffering, exploited.

Ordinary time is the time when we try to understand and live the teachings of Jesus. Nothing ordinary about that—a lifetime worth of challenges instead.

We have again alternated the Sundays, with Shelley doing the first, third, fifth, and seventh, and Jim the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth.

July 7: Children Sitting in the Marketplace
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:10-19; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I remember when my children were little, tired, and cranky. There was literally no way to please them. Whatever I did was wrong and led to tears and tantrums. Neither could they please themselves: crayons broke, shoes stumbled, books tore—all their perfect dreams came to nothing.

I could have a nightmare about it: a hot, sticky, humid day; feeling end-of-the-rope tired; knowing what I want to create—and then a stupid mistake, a word come from nowhere, and all is lost and in ruins. I could have a nightmare, but I don’t need to: It happens all too often in real life that the loving gesture hurts, the perfect gift falls flat, and the best hopes and dreams are smashed through my own blindness or lack of care. One very good reason to go slow in a good cause! “I find it to be a law that when I want to do good, evil is close at hand.”

So here I am, bearing the burden of my self, my failures, my missteps and misdeeds, nothing right, nothing pleasing. And this man walks up to me and says, “Come to me and learn from me; take my yoke; my burden is light.”

A cool washcloth over a dirty face, tears dried, a breath of air, relief. Forgiveness, pardon, healing. The easy yoke, the love that cherishes the broken vessel, and the picture where we went outside the lines. Children can sense it: We are loved. We forget it, and we judge. When I want to do good, evil is near— but love will have the last word.

July 14: The Good Soil of Iraq
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In Jesus’ time a yield of seven-and-a-half-fold was an average harvest. A tenfold yield was good. How are we to interpret, then, the harvest from the seeds sown on good soil—a hundredfold, sixty, and thirty?

The sequence of the three failures in the parable sets the stage for a shattering of expectations. The eaten, withered, and choked examples give way to the overwhelming yield of the seeds sown on good ground. The reality of God shatters anything we can expect or even hope for.

When the conclusion of this parable has struck home, it seems I have experienced only the seeds eaten, withered, and choked. Matthew’s allegorical interpretation of the failures fits my life only too well. I don’t need such examples! But what can I possibly make of a hundredfold harvest? What on earth is Jesus talking about?

I remember a church in Qarah Qosh, in northern Iraq, where I had the grace of praying this past Holy Week. In a country devastated by the world’s economic sanctions, the people in this village were desperately poor. I saw more than two thousand of them trying to squeeze into the Syrian-rite Church of the Virgin Mary. Others crowded the windows or peered over one another at the doors. On the steps of the altar, children sat watching and listening, as the priest glided among them.

Then on both Holy Thursday and Good Friday, for three to four hours the people chanted and sang the words of the gospel back and forth across the packed church, in both Syrian and their native Aramaic. Jesus was there as I had never seen him, from his very language to the pure faces of his people—a people that flowed out from the church beyond counting.

The good soil of Iraq.

July 21: Groaning for Adoption
Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

“We did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but a spirit of adoption.”

“A spirit of adoption”: to become one of the family, to be at home. There are relationships in which we’re at home, and relationships in which we live in fear. Each of us knows the difference: When our inmost self is affirmed and accepted, we are at home. When we are not accepted, we live in fear, a kind of slavery to someone else’s preference, to rules, to caprice. We do not trust because we are not loved.

Paul shows us ourselves and our world trembling on the brink of that knowledge: God knows, accepts, loves, adopts us. We tend to think of loving as hard work, but being loved is hard work, too, a discipline of trust. And knowing ourselves to be loved is a gift of grace that transforms our lives and makes us, in our turn, channels of love.

Several months ago I sat in a labor-delivery room in a Boston hospital admiring my first grand-baby. Beautiful, infinitely precious, Maddy arrived into a large and loving family surrounded by the best in medical technology. Truly a member of the family. As I rocked her, I couldn’t help thinking of the Iraqi babies Jim was seeing, children as precious as Maddy who are somehow “outside” our family, who are cut off from medical help, who die hungry.

In our world only some of us have a right to life. Wealth, education, race, gender, nationality, political expediency—all determine our membership in the family. We haven’t realized our own membership; we do not recognize our brothers and sisters. Our lack of vision orphans us.

About the gospel: I wonder if, come harvest, the servants might not discover that wheat and weeds together are culled, each for its own proper purpose. Perhaps at maturity each is seen in its own way to be part of the family.

July 28: A Parable of Corruption
Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

A dialogue on Jesus’ parable of the Leaven: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened” (Matthew 13:33).

This parable is about as digestible as leaven swallowed whole.

What’s your problem? It’s just Jesus’ hopeful vision. Like leaven, the reign of God will spread rapidly from within. Amen to that!

But for Jesus leaven was a symbol of moral corruption. In those days leaven was made by storing bread in a damp, dark place until it molded. In Exodus leaven symbolized the unholy (Exodus 12:19). Paul understood leaven as symbolic of the morally corrupt. He twice cites a proverb, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8), whose meaning by his application is the same as our own saying, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.” Jesus shows the same understanding when he warns against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (Mark 8:15). His parable begins with the common assumption: Leaven equals moral corruption.

But that’s nonsense! How can God’s reign be morally corrupt?

It’s worse than that. Do you know how much “three measures” of flour was? About 50 pounds. Enough to make bread for more than a hundred people. The leaven of God is far more corrupting than a rotten apple.

You make Jesus’ parable sound...

Subversive? Yes, like his character—a woman, probably a poor one. One of the oppressed. This far cry from a king turns one’s sense of “kingdom” upside-down.

So does this parable get still more corrupt?

Consider the woman’s action. She doesn’t just put the corrupt leaven in the flour. She hides it. She has to sneak in God’s tiny corrupting power.

You’re making a case that every detail of Jesus’ parable is corrupt and subversive. So does that mean God’s reign is corrupting our society? Spell it out, this “parable of corruption.”

How about this? The reign of God is like a tiny, corrupt substance, which a shrewd woman took and hid in a huge amount of flour, until it accomplished a transformation.

It almost makes you remember Dorothy Day...when the Catholic Worker was beginning.

Yes, not a safely dead saint but a living gospel threat—to our conscience.

What was it we used to call her?

A communist.

August 4: Jesus Had Compassion
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

What do we do when evil triumphs? When hundreds of thousands of people are killed in the first atomic explosions, what do we do? When John the Baptist is beheaded for speaking truth to Herod’s power, what do we do? Fifty-one years ago our own country used atomic weapons on human beings; since then systemic evil has claimed millions of lives.

When Jesus hears that John is dead, he tries to go into the wilderness to pray—perhaps even to realize his own impending death. But the people follow with their needs and their suffering; he relents and teaches, heals, feeds.

He has gone to pray, and 5,000 men followed (plus women and children), perhaps expecting a declaration of revolution. In a way they get it: Jesus heals and blesses them; they feed each other. The kingdom suddenly comes in the shadow of John’s death.

I’m reminded of a Quaker friend, Floyd Schmoe, who went for years to Hiroshima to help rebuild after the bombing. In the face of ultimate violence we have only kingdom weaponry: prayer, healing, bread, our lives. As we reflect on this anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, perhaps we can take stock of our kingdom weaponry, those counters to death in the world.

August 11: “Lord, Save Us!”
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Jesus’ walk on the lake, and Peter’s response in faith and doubt, mingle with my memories of a distant event.

There was once a group of believers in nonviolence who gathered along a waterway in the Pacific Northwest. A giant submarine that could destroy all life on earth was coming. The believers practiced in rowboats how they would blockade the submarine.

They developed two tactics. A first group of rowboaters decided they would be towed on a long rope by a leading sailboat. Then as the submarine approached, they would all let go of the rope. The submarine crew would see them and stop. That would be the beginning of a larger miracle of nonviolence. This was known as the mother-duckling tactic.

A second group of rowboaters also had a mother boat, a trimaran. Their tactic was that the trimaran would run directly at the giant submarine. Then the blockaders would throw their rowboats into the water. They would jump into them and row as fast as they could at the submarine as it came closer. Again the submarine would see them and stop—the beginning of the larger miracle. Some observers called this the kamikaze tactic. Others said that name applied also to the mother-duckling group.

In remembering this experience, I think all the people in the rowboats, whatever our tactics, really had the same faith in nonviolence that Peter had initially in walking to Jesus over the water.

On the day the submarine finally came, so did 99 Coast Guard boats, which the government had assigned to protect its world- destructive weapon. The Battle of Oak Bay, as a reporter called it, was short and decisive. The Coast Guard sank some rowboats with water cannons, crushed others, boarded the mother ships with drawn guns, and tied up the believers in nonviolence like pigs waiting for a roast. The submarine sailed unimpeded to its port.

When Peter became aware of the wind, he got frightened and began to sink. When we were confronted by the Coast Guard, we also experienced fear and got sunk quickly. So, a lack of faith?

I remember, too, though, that when Peter began to sink he cried out in faith to the Lord, who reached out and saved him. I think the real alternatives were posed in our case, like Peter’s, by the more enduring question of whether to surrender then to fear or to realize how totally reliant on love we were to continue such experiments in faith. “Lord, save us!” was our way, like Peter’s, to continue in the future venturing out on the water in the midst of great winds.

August 18: “I Am Joseph, Your Brother”
Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:[10-20], 21-28

One of the hardest things for me to do is to look at someone in power and see in him (or her) my brother or sister. I feel like Joseph’s siblings, unable to recognize my brother inside that powerful and alien presence steeped in a culture of wealth, making decisions that change lives.

Conversely, when I’m in the more powerful position, I have trouble recognizing the sister or brother who needs my help. I tend to see the power differential first, the kinship second. I’m tired, I don’t want to be bothered. Like Jesus in our gospel, I sometimes need a pointed reminder of my own alienation before I can see my relationship to the human family.

Power has an insidious way of insulating us from others. In its most visible form, it takes the shape of fences, weapons, guards, freeways. In our hearts and souls, it becomes apathy, indifference, fatigue. If I’m comfortable myself, I tend not to be so alert to suffering. I’d rather remain comfortable.

That’s why most of us working for peace and justice are motivated not by benignity but by pain—the discomfort caused by dissonance between our beliefs and the real world or the pain caused by suffering in those we love. What we learn from Jesus here is to put ourselves in places where our comfort can be disrupted and then to learn from those disruptions.

August 25: Pharaoh’s Threat
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

The threat: infanticide. “Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives, ‘If it is a boy, kill him; if a girl, let her live.’” The beginning of the foundation story of the Hebrew Bible.

The midwives’ response is non-cooperation with evil. They disobey Pharaoh’s command and let all the newborn live.

Pharaoh is checked but not daunted. He takes up his infanticide threat again, this time commanding all his Egyptian subjects: “Throw all the boys born to the Hebrews into the river, but let all the girls live.”

The key response is again non-cooperation. A Hebrew mother places her child in a basket on the river, which is found by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Like the midwives she says no to her father’s order of death. The fruit of her daughterly disobedience is a child saved, the future liberation leader, Moses; thus a people saved.

The theme at the beginning of our basic story of a people’s liberation is non-cooperation with infanticide by a series of determined, child-saving women.

Questions to consider:

Can those women and men who today non-cooperate with evil for the sake of the child in the womb join hands with those who non- cooperate with evil for the sake of the born child?

What would such a politically incorrect, consistent-life movement look like?

Would the modern-day pharaohs who control us all then realize their most ingenious strategy had failed?

JIM DOUGLASS is the author, most recently, of The Nonviolent Coming of God (Orbis, 1991). SHELLEY DOUGLASS, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and works at Mary’s House, a Catholic Worker community in Birmingham, Alabama.

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