Transformation at the Cross

How shall we live as disciples of Jesus the Christ? The readings for these winding-down weeks of the year all address that question. These scriptures raise painful inner and outer questions of nonviolence. Many of them deal with gospel economics, the economics of the heart and the economics of the purse. The gospel is neither solely personal nor solely political. It embraces and transforms both—at the cross.

This is our sixth and final "Living the Word." We again alternate Sundays, this time with Jim doing the first, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth, and Shelley the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth.

September 1: Exodus From Violence
Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

Does God free one people by enabling them to conquer another? The question arises from our first reading, taken from the Exodus story on which our whole Bible is based.

From the burning bush God tells Moses, "I have come down to deliver [the Israelites] from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites."

This is good news for the Israelites who will be divinely liberated from their oppressors in Egypt. But what about the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites who already live in that promised "land flowing with milk and honey"?

Is a vision of genocide implicit in the story on which our Bible is founded?

Biblical scholars say the 13th-century B.C. events narrated in the book of Exodus reached their current form eight centuries later. One school of interpretation claims the promise of the conquest of Canaan corresponds to a revolution by an alliance of peasant tribes (including an immigrant tribe from Egypt led through the wilderness by Moses) against the kings of the cities of Canaan who demanded submission and tribute.

But whether revolution from within or conquest from without, the end of the Exodus story by any reading identifies God with the winning side in a war for "a land flowing with milk and honey." Is Exodus a mythic celebration of an unending cycle in which every oppressed people is eventually blessed by God with a promised land but at the expense of new victims?

In our gospel from Matthew, Jesus breaks the cycle by making a different kind of promise: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

Jesus breaks the cycle of violence in the Exodus myth by choosing the cross instead of the sword. He invites his followers to make the same nonviolent choice. The Promised Land is voluntary suffering. Our milk and honey is love of enemies. The Good News is an Exodus from violence itself.

September 8: Bound and Free
Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149 or 148, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

Again we meditate on this saying of Jesus: "Whatever you shall bind shall be bound; what you loose shall be set free."

A triumphant, risen Jesus spoke this at Pentecost in John's gospel. Today we see that Matthew has used the same saying, putting it in the context of Jesus giving rules for the conduct of the church.

Matthew's community must be in conflict: trying to understand how to deal lovingly with breaks and tears in its own fabric as time passes and Jesus hasn't returned. How do we live when we hurt and anger each other? How do we live the gospel daily?

These readings answer that question: We maintain our common meal, our sign of unity and redemption. We love each other and follow God's commands. When relationships break down, we do our best to resolve conflicts in love: We talk to our opponent. We invite others to join in the dialogue. If all else fails, we resort not to blood-letting but to silence.

Church structure and discipline are always hard. How can we judge others? Especially when we've seen judgment so misused? How can we submit ourselves to judgment? We are reminded here that as community we are not only to nurture and affirm each other, but also to guide, teach, and remonstrate. Behind every action, however, must always be the rule of love. Love is the measure, even of our discipline.

September 15: Parable of the Unmerciful Nation
Exodus 14:19-31, Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Transposing today's gospel into our time produces the following reading:

Compare the reign of God to a financial lord who wished to settle accounts with his debtor nations. When he began the reckoning, they brought to him one who was the president of a nation that owed him $5 trillion, the United States. And as the nation could not pay, the lord ordered that austerity measures be adopted by its government. Henceforth, all government services were to be canceled, millions of employees were to be dismissed, and all health, welfare, and social security payments were to be suspended until the United States' debt was paid. Every available resource was to go toward mounting debt-service payments.

So the president of the United States fell on his knees before the financial lord, imploring him, "Lord, have patience with us, and we will pay you everything." And out of pity for him and his people, the lord of that president released him and forgave the debt.

But that same president, as he went out, came upon the president of a small African country that owed the United States $100 million. Seizing him by the lapel, he said, "Pay what you owe." So his fellow president fell to his knees and besought him, "Have patience with us, and we will pay you everything." He refused and his economic advisers forced austerity measures on the African country, whose people died of malnutrition while their own resources were used up to service the debt.

When the presidents of other debtor countries saw what had taken place, because of their great distress they were moved to solidarity. And they went and reported to the financial lord all that had happened and their resolve to stand together. "We shall not pay our foreign debt with the hunger of our people."

Then the lord summoned the United States president and said to him, "You stupid man, I forgave you and your people all that debt because you besought me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow president, as I had mercy on you? And look what you have done now! Those nations are in solidarity, and all of us who have held them in debt will be ruined!"

And in anger his lord delivered him and his nation to austerity measures and a great depression, and both president and lord then fell from wealth and power.

September 22: God's Economy
Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

God's economy is not like ours. We hoard and stockpile; we measure out the day's pay according to hours worked. God, however, simply sees that there is enough for everyone. Enough manna—but no more. A day's wages—no less.

In God's economy there is enough. In our world, which is God's, there is enough—but not if we take more than our share. What do I have that is more than my share?

In the human psyche, there is a bias against injustice. It amazes me to see how often my bias gets biased—I resent someone else's "enough" because they've worked less for it, come later, not fulfilled my expectations. Yet my sensitivity to injustice is remarkably tolerant when I'm the beneficiary of that injustice.

God in God's mercy forgives not only my greed but also my resentment and blindness. In God's economy, there is even enough forgiveness.

September 29: Faith and Terror
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Empires control their subjects by fear of death. The Roman Empire terrorized its colonized peoples by threatening their leaders with crucifixion should they be tempted to rebel.

To those first-century peoples who lived under the empire's terror of the cross, what Paul says in today's epistle is a shocker: Jesus, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, took the form of a slave, and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. And God exalted him.

The Roman Empire's means of terror became the Christian's symbol of faith. Terror was overcome by the cross on which Jesus died—and lives. Jesus' resurrection and that of all who follow him "taking up their cross" nullified the coercive power of the empire. A faith in the cross means that the power of imperial violence is over.

So why isn't it?

In our ostensibly more democratic U.S. empire, the colonized of the two-thirds world are terrorized by the sudden "disappearance" of organizers. But people of faith who have analyzed their situation understand this modern equivalent of the cross and Jesus' command of resurrection, "Be not afraid." Their faith in the transforming cross of Jesus continues.

In the United States itself, the equivalent of the imperial rule of the cross may be the politics of assassination. Since the interlinked assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, a deep politics of terror has ruled the country. This politics controlled by covert intelligence groups is supreme among those in power, and recognized by those who seriously challenge that power with truth. But because our empire's power of terror covers its tracks, stays behind the scenes, and remains unchallenged by the transforming cross of Jesus, it has not only continued but has seeped down into every American neighborhood.

Can we believe that Jesus became obedient to the point of death—even death by a hail of bullets? Can we believe that God exalted him—in Dallas, New York, Memphis, and Los Angeles?

October 6: Seeing Ourselves
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Matthew's gospel tries to explain the destruction of Jerusalem in terms of the faithlessness of the Hebrew people to Yahweh. It's important to remember that when this gospel was written, Jerusalem had already been destroyed. The question for everyone, Jew and Christian alike, was: How had God allowed God's city, God's temple, to be destroyed?

The classic answer for the Hebrew people was that destruction was the fruit of disobedience. Therefore, Matthew says, contemporary Jewish people were punished for what? For not accepting Jesus.

We need to be careful here. It was the wealthy, the rulers, who collaborated with the Roman occupation in killing Jesus, a revolutionary prophet. Jesus was himself a Jew from the long and strong prophetic tradition; he was not rejected by the people, who followed him in crowds. That's why he was such a threat!

Later Christian readers have used this passage to justify their own persecution of Jesus' own people, so it must be handled with care. The care with which we handle it should be care to direct its criticism at ourselves. What was threatening about Jesus? His love for the poor; his love for enemies. His passion for justice; his mercy and forgiveness. His simple call to sharing and serving each other. His new gospel economics. His nonviolence.

What is threatening about Jesus today? The same things. To whom? To us. Perhaps most threatening is Jesus' radical commitment to nonviolence. What would have happened if the early community that heard Jesus had accepted his counsel to revolutionary nonviolence? What would happen if we accepted it today?

If we see ourselves in this Matthew reading, we can see our own idolatry, and read our own future.

October 13: Who's Coming to Dinner?
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

What are we to make of the jarring details in Matthew's version of Jesus' parable of the banquet? Is God represented by a king who burns a city for killing his slaves, holds his banquet in the same city, and then has his servants "cast into the outer darkness" a late-invited street guest for not wearing a wedding garment that no street person would possess?

Matthew has made the first part of the parable into a morality tale, taking the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. as God's punishment upon those Judeans who "refused their invitation" to the messianic banquet. In the second part, he has added a symbolic dress code for the finally invited Gentiles, that they put on the garment of Christian life if they want to remain at the the messianic celebration.

Luke's version of the same parable offers a picture more consistent with Jesus' teaching on forgiveness and love of enemies. In his banquet (Luke 14:16-24), invitations are simply extended to "the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame," after others better off have made their excuses for not coming.

What is my response to Jesus' ongoing invitation to God's banquet table?

Am I too proud or busy to be with the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame who eat with Jesus?

October 20: God's Hindquarters
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

This Exodus reading is one of my favorites: Moses' presumption, God's patience, God's humor, God's care and gentleness. What kind of wild glory is this, that to look upon it directly is to die? What kind of wild, glorious, funny God would think of sidling by with only (his) hindquarters exposed, so that Moses could see (his) glory and not die?

How could we possibly hope to understand such a being, to capture God's image, to confine God in rules? What could we possibly do except to laugh, to rejoice, to adore this totally foreign and amazingly intimate lover of humankind?

"Whose head is this, and whose title?" asks the tested Jesus. "Caesar's," they answer. Certainly not God's! God's image could never be imprisoned. Render to God the things that are God's. What is God's? The earth. Humanity. Creation. Love, justice, truth, righteousness. Render these things to God.

And what about taxes? A pertinent question today as elections approach, promises (and threats) fly, funds are distributed, weapons are bought. What about taxes? When taxes are used to enhance human life and creation, we can pay them. When they are used to destroy it, we must seriously question. Is it right to pay for weapons systems that destroy God's image in us? Right to pay for guns? Carry guns?

If we contemplate even God's hindquarters, I think that we can learn to honor that unknowable One, and in doing so to live so that without God, our lives make no sense. Then we'll know where praise and worship are due, and render our hearts (and our money) to the right ruler.

October 27: The Truth of the Cross
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

The "Judeans who believed in Jesus" in today's gospel are a contradiction in terms. In the fourth gospel, Judeans (Ioudaioi) are by definition nationalists, and in these verses blind nationalists: "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone."

Does this unconsciously ironic claim have its counterpart in those who say blindly today, "We are Americans and have never oppressed anyone"?

For Jesus it is not ancestral, nationalist loyalties that define freedom but the truth: "If you continue in my Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

The truth hurts and transforms us. The liberating Word of the gospel is the Human Being who is "lifted up" on the cross. The painful truth of that Word will free us from the slavery of believing in a lying, murderous state as the basis of our freedom. Our freedom is not a flag but the cross of Jesus.

In our reading from Deuteronomy, just before he dies Moses goes up the mountain. And God shows him the Promised Land. Moses looks northward to Galilee, westward to the Mediterranean, and south to the wilderness of the Negev. "But you shall not cross over there," God tells the prophet of the people who will cross over.

On the night before he died in Memphis, our greatest prophet also had a view of the Promised Land. He saw it in the midst of striking sanitation workers. He saw that land of freedom not in terms of one nation but rather one people, a global people, most of them even poorer than the sanitation workers. And following Jesus, he saw the way to freedom for that whole people as the cross he was about to experience: doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And [God's] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

JIM DOUGLASS is the author 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. If you would like to stay in touch with their onging efforts to live the Word, just send them a note requesting their quarterly Mary's House newsletter, The Magnificat, at 2107 Ave. G, Birmingham, AL 35218.


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