The Agitating Word

The Bible is not always an easy companion

The Bible is not always an easy companion. The parables can be disturbing, the behavior appalling, the words strange and uncomfortable, and God hard to find, let alone grasp, within. Its multiple edges and textures render it unruly and unyielding to simple formulas, and leaves wide room for each reader, each community, each age to read into and out of it, rarely arriving at the same conclusion. Yet the Christian community is grounded in these texts we have read and re-enacted throughout our history, encountering in this shared life the living Word of God.

The gift of the lectionary is that it compels us to engage with texts we might just as soon skip over. These weeks, I encountered the word as agitating and confounding, feeling the indigestion the prophet Jeremiah describes after he eats the words of God. Watching news reports of our nation's mounting arrogance, all of those endless cycles of violence, I wanted my Christianity to console me, but it just increased my sensitivity to all that is wrong. Where I wanted Jesus to be warm and attentive, he was combative and single-minded; when I wanted to hear that suffering and pain could somehow be overcome, I heard that the kingdom requires that we enter into it. As Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote:

To each one of us Christ is saying, "If you want your life and mission to be fruitful like mine, do like me. Be converted into a seed that lets itself be buried. Let yourself be killed. Do not be afraid. Those who shun suffering will remain alone. No one is more alone than the selfish. But if you give your life out of love for others, as I give mine for all, you will reap a great harvest. You will have the deepest satisfactions. Do not fear death or threats. The Lord goes with you."

Kari Jo Verhulst, a Sojourners contributing writer, is an M.Div. student at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

September 1

The Great Paradox
Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Love, if it is genuine, vastly exceeds feeling. It engages mind and will, directing and shaping our actions so to reflect and develop that love, at times quite despite how we feel. This is the kind of love that requires great courage to allow the beloved to be, to grow, to change; courage to risk our own change, growth, and loss.

For love to grow, we have to let go of living for ourselves. The art of genuine love is expressed in the radical giving of self, which requires a radical freedom from self. We learn this in our closest relationships—those people from whom we cannot hide. The more deeply we strain to love, the less free we are to live for ourselves. This is the love that is the antithesis of control. It endures the pain of watching the beloved suffer and struggle, in a constant dynamic of embrace and release.

Can you feel Peter's heart breaking as he listens to Jesus describe the suffering and death he is about to endure? All that he has allowed himself to hope for—the meaning and energy he has found since leaving his nets behind—is about to be shattered, and so he grasps for Jesus, as he did in the water, afraid for his life and desperate at his impending loss.

Yet Jesus needs Peter to love him well enough to recognize and encourage him to faithfulness in his mission—one born of God's radical love that cannot be clung to or contained. In his desperation Peter takes on the devil's strategy, advising Jesus to play it safe, to avoid causing a stir. The love Peter proposes still clings to the self, as though our lives were in our hands.

The great paradox of the Christian life—that by dying, we live; by giving, we receive—comes into its clearest focus in the cross. In denying ourselves, we truly become.

September 8

‘It's not me; it's him!'
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

The basic human impulse when confronted with a wrong we've committed, or some way we've failed another, is to get defensive. We shut down emotionally, redirect the conversation, identify the extenuating circumstances or character flaw that caused the offense. If we don't outright deny the accusation, we shield ourselves behind justifications and explanations, trying to downplay or overturn the accusation. Through these responses we avoid accepting our impact on another.

This survival strategy plays itself out in human communities from the family to the nation-state. Throughout the crisis precipitated by the revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic church, and in the Enron and WorldCom accounting debacles, the dismaying refusals to accept responsibility have at times sounded like a 6-year-old defending herself against a smaller sibling: "It's not me; it's him!"

The biblical word on the scope of our culpability is alarmingly stringent. It makes the most ardent believers in personal responsibility sound like moral amateurs. God tells Ezekiel that he must speak the word of warning God has given to him—if he fails to do so, he will be held responsible for their inevitable judgment.

This vision of responsibility presumes that every member of the community has the authority and the responsibility to hold the community accountable, which implies that ownership and power for the whole extends to every individual, whatever their position or status. This wisdom has occasionally and graciously erupted amid the Catholic Church's scandal—lay people have stood up and declared responsibility for their church, repenting and asking the victims for forgiveness, and publicly committing themselves to make their community a more just, more accountable one.

Such exertion of authority is rarely welcomed. When the child confronts the parent, the assistant the executive, the immigrant the president, or the lay woman the bishop, the established arrangement of power is undermined. When pushed, those content with ceding power and authority to a few in exchange for exoneration from culpability for the family, corporation, nation, or church either cling fast to their hope that someone else will remain in charge or stumble forward to answer God's call and speak a word of truth.

September 15

70 x 7 = Impossible?
Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Human beings have an amazing capacity for self-protection. Our protective instinct helps us detect danger and warns us about people or situations that cause harm. This ability can over-function when trust has been betrayed or disappointed, making it terribly hard to trust again.

This survival instinct is part of what makes it so difficult to forgive. Christians have a habit of tossing the notion of forgiveness around as if it were easy and cheap, undervaluing its costliness. This awareness makes Jesus' command to forgive "not seven times, but...seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:22) overwhelming in its demand.

When betrayal, rejection, or violation cuts us to the bone, forgiveness often becomes something we desperately hope for and yet cannot find, no matter how ardently we pray for and sincerely desire it. It becomes clear that the pain and anger will run its own course regardless of what we will, and while we are waiting for release it is dangerously easy to become angrier with the anger.

This is when I most need to entrust my struggle to forgive to those who love and pray for me. I need them to take hold of my longing to forgive and to assure me that it will come, and that they will assume my prayers until I can take them up for myself. When it comes to this point, I need companions who will stand outside of my anger and pain, neither telling me to "give it up to God" (a piece of advice that only makes us feel worse) nor affirming my anger (which only increases it). Rather, they become my memory for a while, mediating for me God's promise that the gift of forgiveness will come, however slowly.

September 22

Saved by Unfairness
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

As children develop, their capacity to comprehend parity and disparity becomes more sophisticated. For example, if you give a 4-year-old two small pieces of cake, and a 10-year-old one big piece of cake that amounts to the exact same amount, the 4-year-old will surely protest. No matter how hard you try to explain to the young one that two smalls equal one big, until you swap the plates, or surreptitiously cut the older child's piece in half, she'll keep on protesting. Developmental psychologists will tell you that 4-year-olds simply have not developed the cognitive capacity to think abstractly.

Yet long after we have developed the mental acuity to distinguish between dessert portions, the parable of the vineyard laborers still strikes us as unfair. No matter that Christians proclaim justification by faith, most of us hold on to the belief that we get what we deserve. Why else would we strive so hard to prove ourselves?

The age-old resentment for those who share the bounty without putting in their time comes through with comical honesty in Jonah. He abandons his mission to Ninevah not because the people's sinfulness offends him, nor because he fears their reaction, but because he knows that God will ultimately show mercy toward them. "This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing" (Jonah 4:2).

In response, God sounds something like an exasperated parent trying to get her children to stop fighting over whose cookie is bigger. "Should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right from their left?" (Jonah 4:11).

We forget, griping children that we are, that we are saved by God's unfairness. God extends love and mercy to us simply because that is who God is.

September 29

Let God be God!
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-9; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

It is a tremendous temptation to confuse our experience of someone with the totality of their being. The longer we know someone—be it our child, partner, friend, or boss—the more we come to expect them to always be so. What we know of another (or even ourselves) might well be true, but will never exhaust the mystery of who someone is.

We confine God in much the same way. Our experiences of God revealed through our religious traditions and faith lives are surely real encounters with the living God. But to claim them as exhaustive is to confuse our images and beliefs with God, which is, quite simply, idolatrous.

Theologians describe this tension as a dialectic. Since God is ultimately beyond our grasp, every claim we make is and is not true. When we say that God is Father, Mother, liberator, healer, or sovereign, we are really saying that we experience God as such. Yet God's being is always more than any sum of our experiences.

This mystery can be pretty threatening. When other experiences or images of God call our most cherished beliefs into question, it can feel as though the ground was pulled out from under us.

Ezekiel runs into the Israelites' expectation that God is, and always will be, a God of retribution. When God tells the people that sons will no longer bear the punishment for the sins of the father, but "only the person who sins...shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4), they protest that God is unfair. But God considers their complaints presumptuous, and tells them to "know that all lives are mine" (Ezekiel 18:4).

In other words, it is God's privilege, and God's alone, to determine how God will be God. Our task when we feel so threatened is to pray for "a new heart and a new spirit" (Ezekiel 18:31)—one that loves and trusts God enough to permit God the freedom to be beyond our grasp.

October 6

A Re-created Person
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Paul's longing to "know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in death" (Philippians 3:10) is hard to embrace. It can seem to confirm the accusation that Christianity leads to a deathly repudiation of life in the world.

But the spirituality Paul is expressing is not one that abandons the world. His yearning to imitate Jesus in his great love for the world is a yearning for Jesus' freedom to love without fear. This love compelled Jesus, as it compels Paul, to identify radically with all who suffer, entering into absolute solidarity with the crucified. This is not a love of death, or a resignation to suffering. Rather it is the faith that the radical, kingdom-ushering love embodied in Jesus is ultimately more powerful than anything, including death.

It is a great irony that Christianity, whose organizing principle is God-becoming-flesh in the world, has generated so many theologies and spiritualities that abandon the world. I don't mean mystics and ascetics, who are often wrongly accused of such world-hatred. Rather, those insidious theologies that present Jesus' saving work as limited to the salvation of souls, one at a time, rather than the comprehensive restoration and resurrection of all of the world.

Paul's longing is to live as if he need not fear death. Not simply the death that comes when the body ceases to breathe, the heart to pump, but the death that comes when one is rendered a non-person. He has shed those social indicators that gave him identity and security: "a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews" (Philippians 3:5). In this death, he rises with Jesus, a re-created person free to love and live as Jesus did.

October 13

No Escape Routes
Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Matthew's version of the parable of the wedding banquet is strikingly violent. This is probably why most of the children's story Bibles and Sunday school songs based themselves in Luke's version (Luke 14:15-24). Luke emphasizes the banquet-thrower's generosity and the invited guests' ungrateful rejection, which compels the host to send his servants out to bring in the poor and the maimed who come and enjoy his extravagant spread.

But Matthew's kingdom vision is harder to celebrate. Here, the invited not only refuse the invitation but abuse and kill the slaves sent to invite them. In retaliation, the king sends out his troops to exact revenge on the murderers, burning down their cities. Here everyone found on the streets are also welcomed, but one who dares arrive without a wedding robe is bound "hand and foot and [thrown] into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 22:13).

Hard as these images are to swallow, they remind us that the kingdom's coming dramatically upsets the world as it is and challenges all other claims to authority. In other words, power does not concede without a struggle. We witness this on the political and communal levels but also within our personal struggles for transformation. Our habits and addictions are fiercely resistant to abandonment. This is why any period of detoxification is an intensely vulnerable time. The temptation to hold onto something that gives us the option of going back to our old ways is enormous.

In order to come to the wedding banquet, however, we must leave our defenses and escape routes at the door. Bringing them to the table renders us incapable of receiving the gifts at hand.

October 20

In the Name of Security
Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13); 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

In most of the civic discussion since Sept. 11, 2001, religious language and symbols have been seamlessly woven into political language and symbols. This enlistment of religious language to advance our nation's policies is tremendously dangerous, despite most American Christians' love for the full text of the Pledge of Allegiance. This fusion collapses our national security and way of life with the will of God, which makes questioning the pledge or squirming under the blare of "God Bless America!" billboards tantamount to blasphemy. But in willingly handing over Christianity in the interest of security, we forget that the reign of God always exists in tension with competing claims of authority.

The Pharisees and Herodians who ask Jesus about paying taxes are also concerned with security. They have chosen to compromise with Rome in exchange for some degree of religious and political freedom. They are not necessarily comfortable with their situation, but consider Jesus' refusal to "show deference" to anyone an arrogant failure to appreciate the complexity of their situation.

Their strategy backfires when Jesus refuses to accept the terms of their argument. His statement "give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" is not a mandate to pay (or not to pay) taxes, but an assertion of God's absolute authority. Despite the emperor's omnipresent image, his claims to ownership have no meaning in light of God's singular ownership of the world.

Can you blame Jesus' opponents for finding him exasperating? His answer provides no clear manual for what, if any, aspects of national duty to accept. But Jesus' stance ought to encourage and embolden us to refuse the terms of our nation's debate—the presumption that military and financial security are unquestionable values—even though we risk being called a friend of terrorists and a national traitor.

October 27

The Primacy of Love
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

I was religious-channel surfing a couple of weeks ago and stopped at a televangelist whose hair and make-up were mesmerizing. She was talking about how Christianity has only one law—the law of love—and how everything else comes afterward. I was pleasantly surprised at her emphasis but cringed when, to stress her point, she described Judaism as a religion of hundreds and hundreds of laws and Christianity as a religion that is no longer enslaved by the law.

This brand of supercessionism is nothing new. Very early in Christian history, Judaism was depicted as a religion of enslavement in which the law existed as an end in itself, rather than as a gift from God that ordered and directed the people's life and faith. As enlightened as I like to think my upbringing was, I still remember the shock at realizing that Jesus did not write the great commandments he cites. The primacy of love for God that the TV preacher touts comes straight from Deuteronomy and Jesus' "golden rule" in Matthew is a quote from Leviticus.

In many ways, the same desire to distinguish one's beliefs on the backs of another has characterized inter-Christian relationships as much as it has interfaith ones. Many Protestants still harbor a suspicion that Catholics worship Mary and are saved by works, while official Catholic teaching continues to insist that Protestants are deficient in their faith, at best.

We forget that the law that norms all others—the phrase God repeats throughout Leviticus 19—is "I am the LORD." Our task is to give thanks and praise—and love one another.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"The Agitating Word"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines