Talkin’ bout a revolution

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

What would it take for you to leave your nets, your boat, and your father as the disciples did?

He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. [MT 4:19-20]

He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him. [MT 4:21-22]

(Long pause while we shift uneasily in our seats and decide whether or not to continue reading)

Few conversations cause more discomfort than those that begin with unsolicited advice about changing the direction of our lives. For one, it makes us feel defensive. It also threatens our sense of responsibility. It would be ridiculous, we protest, to forsake our stability (even if it is wobbly), and relinquish our control (even if that is an illusion).

Yes, for the majority of us, it would be irresponsible to quit our jobs, abandon our homes and ditch our families. But, rather than counting off the reasons why it would simply be unfathomable in the 21st century to do as the disciples did, let’s widen the aperture of our lens so we can see the bigger picture.

But just to be clear, most of us have a lot more freedom to roam than the people living in Jesus’ day. It is not unusual for our children to head off to college in another part of the country and settle in cities thousands of miles away from home and form tight bonds with “surrogate” families. In contrast, given the centrality of kinship in Jesus’ day,[1] leaving one’s family and seeking a new way of life or livelihood would have been deemed abnormal.[2] But the first disciples dropped everything to follow Jesus.

The immediate response of Andrew, Peter, James and John to Jesus’ invitation provides valuable insight to 21st-century disciples: Jesus did not work alone: then or now.

Don’t you know? They’re talkin’ bout a revolution

Matthew’s gospel tells us “all of Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan” went to John the Baptist to be baptized. [MT 3:5-6]. Clearly, a movement was afoot. No doubt King Herod and the religious authorities were less appreciative of the odd and prickly, anti-authoritarian preacher and despised him for calling them out for their sinful lifestyle and religious hypocrisy.

Some suggest that the gospel writer exaggerated John the Baptist’s popularity by saying ALL of Judea and THE WHOLE REGION of Jordan came for baptism. The point is that huge numbers of Jewish citizens experienced a conversion—a change of heart—which may not have jibed with that of Herod and the religious leaders. They wanted him gone.

So they did what institutions threatened by grassroots activists do, and continue to do today—they tried to shut him down. They arrested John the Baptist and eventually killed him. But they did not know it was too late to stop the revolution. That caravan had already left the stable, so to speak. John paved the way, and Jesus took the lead (or lede since it’s his story, after all).

So, here we have Jesus receiving the news that the authorities had arrested John the Baptist. Jesus lived in this culture; he knew why John was silenced. But Jesus fearlessly picked up where John left off, in Galilee, walking the radical path the Baptist prepared for him—preaching the same message in the same kingdom ruled by the same king who had just imprisoned John.

Anyone else would find a safer place to preach. Not Jesus. Matthew tells us Jesus even used John’s same words “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” —except the future event to which John referred was now present in Jesus, the Autobasileia.[3]

Jesus was not the messenger, Jesus was the message.

Let’s take Jesus out of the blue sky, sunny day pasture with the rosy-cheeked children and the baby animals and get real.  Jesus’ public ministry was inaugurated under ominous circumstances in a Roman occupied territory in which political and religious leadership were inextricably entwined.

Sure, Jesus is Love. Jesus is also steely; he is brave. He does not back down in the face of opposition; he walks steadily towards it. He does not sit in his doorway drinking tea and waiting for followers; he seeks them out and prepares them to be leaders. Jesus is forthright and smart. He narrows in on corrupt practices and shows how to correct them. He liberates the oppressed and the alienated, restores the senses, embraces the outcasts, and repairs the damage human evil has wrought. Jesus speaks the Truth with words and actions that resonate in the hearts of those who are willing to follow him. He flips the tables; he turns the status quo upside down.

He’s hot Jesus. And he’s here to set the world on fire. [LK 12:49]

The truth cannot be silenced.

Make no mistake; the threat of suppression is an ongoing and present danger today, more so than in recent times. The thing about people who work for justice is that their hearts undergo a change; their capacity for love and generosity increases and with changed hearts come changed attitudes. The last thing authorities want is a rising populous of dissenters so they’ll try to shut it down either by distraction or by force. Think about it.

The disciples eventually realized that following Jesus, learning from him, and being commissioned to preach and heal also meant following him to the cross. At the end of Jesus’ earthly life some followers, literally fearing for their lives, went into hiding and abandoned him.

But not all. The job Jesus prepared his apostles for—to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth—was taken up by brave souls like St. Paul and others who brought about the early church’s extraordinary growth. This job is passed on to disciples like you and me.

We are not asked to give up our jobs, our homes, and our families to respond affirmatively to Jesus’ invitation, although we are obliged to detach ourselves from self-serving worldly loyalties and reattach ourselves to him.

“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Work for the unity of all peoples; seek the transformation of society, mirror the courage of Jesus’ and seek the confidence that inspired countless disciples throughout the centuries, and with each step draw closer to the kingdom of God, Jesus.

Readings for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

1st reading: IS 8:23—9:3
Responsorial Psalm PS 27:1, 4, 13-14
2nd Reading 1 COR 1:10-13, 17
Gospel: MT 4:12-23

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[1] Bruce J. Malina, and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Second Edition. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2003) 397-398.

[2] Malina, Rohrbaugh p414: “giving up one’s family or origin for the surrogate Jesus-group family (…) was a decision that could cost one dearly. It meant breaking ties not only with the family but also the entire social network of which one had been a part.”

[3] Autobasileia, literally auto=self, basileia=royal power. The Kingdom of God and the person of Jesus are one and the same.

Leave behind the winding roads and rough ways

2nd Sunday of Advent (C)

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son Zechariah in the desert.”[Lk 3:1-3]

The gospel of Luke provides an historical context for the start of John the Baptist’s ministry. We are presented with seven names and five regions; some sound familiar, others not so much. But who cares? Why didn’t the writer save us the history lesson and just say “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”?

Luke was a brilliant writer who wanted his readers to grasp the theological significance of the Word of God coming not to the powerhouse of governors in Roman occupied Palestine or the appointed tetrarchs and high priests in their temples, but to a poor and humble man, a seeker of truth who lived in the desert and survived on locusts and honey [MT 3:4]

What else has Luke told us about John the Baptist up to this place in the gospel? We know he was the only child of a priest named Zechariah and a woman named Elizabeth who was thought to be barren. We know that his conception was announced by an angel named Gabriel to his incredulous father as he offered incense in the sanctuary of the Lord. Luke also tells us that Gabriel informed Zechariah that his son (who Gabriel said would be named John) would be great, and among other things, “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” [Lk 1:16-17]. We know that Elizabeth felt the unborn infant, John, leap in her womb when Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, greeted her. And we know, as today’s reading tells us, that the word of God came to John in the desert, after which his mission to fulfill the heraldic prophecy of Isaiah began.

A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” [Lk 3:4-6; Is 40:3–4]

In the first reading for the second Sunday of Advent, the Prophet Baruch envisions the long-suffering, exiled Israelites returning in glory from the East and the West to a restored and splendorous Jerusalem, rejoicing because “they are remembered by God” [Bar 5:1-9]. In the verse which inspired John the Baptist’s mission the Prophet Isaiah prophesied that the way to God would be made smooth and straight, free of obstacles and barriers. John understood his mission clearly: he was to prepare the way of the Lord so that all people could follow in the light of God’s glory. For him, the first requirement was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” [Lk 3:3]

Repentance. Who likes this word? Nobody, that’s who. But it is true that many of the rough and winding roads we traverse are of our own making, and it is true that we hurt others along the way. We do damage that separates us from God. Like John the Baptist, the task of every disciple is to prepare smooth and straight highways not just for one’s own spiritual journey, but for all people so it is accessible to anyone who wishes to come along.

We’re talking about forgiveness and reconciliation here.

The desert is a place of diminished distraction. It is a place we go to get away and clear our heads. In the desert our senses are enhanced; we are acutely aware of the vastness of space and our solitude. But for the hint of critters scuttling through the sand, the desert is silent. It can also be dangerous. A desert experience, whether it is literal or figurative, is similar to a spiritual retreat. Away from the metropolis, away from the hubbub we go inward to examine, renew and rebalance ourselves. Vulnerability is central to both desert experiences and retreats and this makes both risky; without distraction we come face to face with our hopes and fears, our dreams, our failures and our losses; and the clamor of our thoughts force us to acknowledge those things we need to repent.

Although they go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing, carrying their sheaves.[Psalm 126:6]

Leave behind the winding roads and rough ways, permit yourself the freedom to change directions, to repent and forgive, and leave open a space into which the Word of God can enter. Advent offers us such an experience. Let’s take advantage of it.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

Where are you staying?

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

What is the meaning of the question asked of Jesus in today’s Gospel? Were the two disciples who had just met Jesus really interested in his accommodations? Hardly. Scholars indicate the gist of their question was something like “What are you all about?” This was the disciples’  response to Jesus’ probing question “What are you looking for?”

Place yourself in the story. John the Baptist, of whom you are a follower, points Jesus out to you and proclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God” [John 1:35-39]. Say what? So compelling is John’s statement that you depart from him  and immediately begin to follow Jesus who turns to you and asks about your heart’s desire, then invites you to come and see what he is all about. And you listen.

The scripture does not provide many details on what happens next, the conversation, or teaching, but it does indicate the time: four o’clock in the afternoon—the time of temple worship—which you spend in conversation with Jesus. Afterward, Andrew rushes off to find his brother Peter and brings him to Jesus, too.

This is how it happens. This is what it means to be an evangelizing people. Everyone who seeks Jesus needs to find out for themselves what he is all about. But when one enters into communion with Jesus they experience union with God! It’s impossible to keep something of this magnitude to oneself. It is up to us to respond to the call, give witness, and in doing so, lead others to Jesus, just like John the Baptist and Andrew did.

Today’s readings can be found here.