Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Boldness in Dialogue

 

41cqdakyurl-_sx332_bo1204203200_Rachel Carson dedicated her groundbreaking book Silent Spring (published in 1962) this way:

To Albert Schweitzer who said “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.”

Human beings have lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. And this means that we become resigned, fatalistic, accepting the reality in front of us as the only reality, feeling unable to prevent our worst fears from coming true. We see this, for example, with the climate issue. Though scientists have little doubt about the calamity that awaits the human race if we don’t do something, our business, political and civic leaders prefer to ignore the facts – let’s just make as much quick profit as we can, is their motto.

We can’t foresee, we can’t forestall, and we are losing the ability to dialogue. This was my theme last Sunday, and I focused on the Gospel passage that is our reading today: the encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28).

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The woman was a Canaanite, a pagan; she represented the pagan past of the Jewish homeland. Yet she came to Jesus. Very often people of no faith or of different faith see more in Jesus than we Christ believers do! We become jaded, complacent in our relationship with Christ, and then we see someone approach with genuine enthusiasm and desire and maybe we start questioning our own relationship with the Lord. I believe this community experienced that 25 years ago when newcomers to our city from other parts of the world showed us a level of commitment and devotion that reminded many of us of how we grew up, how our parents and grandparents oriented their lives around the church and the church calendar.

Let’s see what the Canaanite woman can teach us today and perhaps shake us out of our jaded, complacent faith.

1. She approached with fear. To fear God means that you stand in awe of God’s majesty and goodness. But true fear of God also needs boldness, and this woman was bold. The Greek word parrhesia was one of the most important words in Classical Greek and essential to the vocabulary of democracy in Athens. The tragedies of Euripides are representative of how important this word was in social discourse. So also in the Liturgy we are invited to say the Lord’s Prayer with boldness (μετά παρρησίας – translated as ‘with confidence’ in our Liturgy books; a weak a translation!)

2. She approached with faith. Jesus complimented her on her “great faith.” It takes faith to show yourself vulnerable and come out from hiding.

3. She approached with love. I picture this woman completely open to God’s healing touch. All her defenses are down. She could have reacted with anger at the apparent insult she received from Jesus. But instead, love drew her on; love for her daughter and a deepening love for the man she’s speaking to. Love, not bitterness, won the day.

She came with fear, with faith and with love. That’s the invitation we also hear at every Liturgy. With the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near. She drew near to Christ, she pressed on, disregarding everyone who tried to block her and prevent her from  contact with Jesus. Today also there are obstacles, closed doors, walls that separate people from each other and from a loving God. We lose the capacity to foresee and to forestall every time we fall for divisive rhetoric instead of engaging in dialogue – fruitful, mutually respectful dialogue.

Dialogue is the message today. Even Jesus was taught by this foreign woman from a different religion. She turned out to be a match for Jesus in sharpness of thought and argument. And he was a match for her in love and affection. He is a match for us too. There is nothing in us that prevents him from loving us. Nothing in our background; nothing in our attitude. No matter how strong the pagan pull is in us, he can overcome it. But we must approach him like this woman did: with the fear of God, with faith, and with love.       


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The Dialogue of Salvation

 

The Gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) brings us face to face with Jesus’ message of inclusion. But it also reminds us how important dialogue was in the ministry of Jesus. Dialogue is everywhere in all four Gospels. Matthew 15:21-28 is my favorite example. It reveals practically everything you need to know about the Hebrew conception of God.

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

It’s all here: Encounter, pleading, exclusion/inclusion, confrontation, challenge, insult even, counter-argument, reconciliation, healing, shalom. Salvation in dialogue! This is Jesus at his Jewish best. And this is also Yahweh God in the Hebrew Scriptures. (I try to avoid saying Old Testament. There is nothing old about the “Old Testament.” It’s as new as your daily headlines.)

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Controversy and challenging questions dodged Jesus throughout. Jesus was always in dialogue, especially with his opponents. Dialogue is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. This is a unique characteristic of the Hebrew religious tradition so far as I can tell. The Hebrew Bible is a thousand pages of constant dialogue between God and man. I haven’t studied the Quran but a quick scan showed me that the Quran has very little dialogue; it’s mostly a monologue of God issuing commandments to Mohammed.

Jesus was a Jew, and very often he engaged in dialogue concerning the Law of Moses and its application to human life. When he transgressed the boundaries of the Jewish Law, Jesus revealed his mission – to humanize the Law. This is my own phrase, but I was partly inspired by the writings of a friend in Scotland.

Jesus humanized the Law, he brought it down to earth, to the lives of real people. The religious class felt threatened and constantly challenged him. They were offended at his openness to Zacchaeus. For 2,000 years people have continued to be offended by Jesus’ openness! The church that followed in his name quickly began specializing in exclusion rather than inclusion. The church took over from the Pharisees and the Jewish religious class. Anyone who disagreed with church laws was declared a heretic or a sinner and was locked out, excommunicated. I wonder what Jesus would say to the many that the church called heretics and sinners. Maybe “they also are children of my father”? Would Jesus reject anyone? The only evidence we have by which to speculate is what’s written about him in the four Gospels – and based on that evidence it does not appear that Jesus would exclude many of the souls that the church has excluded.

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Come to Jesus. Climb up a tree if you think you’ll get a better view of him – but make sure you come down. Go out into the mountains and rivers and lakes if you can hear his voice more clearly there – but don’t become a loner. Receive his body and blood in your mouth if you are here today. See him in the hungry and the outcasts – for he is certainly there! Seek him in the wisdom and experience of our precious elders who have walked the talk of faith.

There are many ways to come to Jesus. He loves variety; and he reveals himself in a diversity of ways. You can’t miss him. He is right next to you.


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When Healing = Salvation

cleansing-of-the-ten-lepers

 

The Gospel pericope of the Cleansing of the Ten Lepers (Luke 17:12-19) usually lends itself to a sermon about thanksgiving. But today I see something different. Notice that only to the Samaritan who returns does Jesus say “your faith has made you well.” What about the other nine? What made them well? What healed them?…..


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The Language of Blessing

 

Water is a prime symbol in all religions. No surprise, since water covers over 70% of the earth’s surface. In Genesis, the earth is all water at the beginning. Then we have the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, the Jordan, etc. In the New Testament, water is again prime symbol. John baptizes in water – but asserts that Jesus will baptize in fire and the Spirit. But Jesus himself says to Nicodemus that unless you are born of water and the Spirit you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus stood and proclaim to all the people: If any one thirsts, let him come to me and drink. If you believe in me, out of your heart will flow rivers of living water. And this he said to mean the Holy Spirit which would be given to all believers.

So water is life. But it is also a destructive force. In all ancient religions, water represents chaos, the uncontrolled destructive forces of nature. Every ancient religion had powerful gods associated with the sea or the great rivers that governed their lives.

In the second century, a group of Gnostics in Egypt were preaching that Jesus had been born a mere mortal like all other men, but then received divinity on the day of his baptism, when the Spirit of God came upon him in the form of a dove. They chose to commemorate this important event on the sixth of January, on the same day that Egyptians celebrated a pagan feast in honor of the god of the Nile.

The Church opposed the teachings of the Gnostics but kept January 6th as the date for celebrating the baptism of Christ. In addition to Epiphany, the alternate name Theophany was promoted to emphasize the orthodox idea that it wasn’t a man who was made divine, but the divine second person of the Trinity became man and lived among us.

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Medieval icon of the Baptism of Christ (Click to enlarge)

Medieval icon of the Baptism of Christ (Click to enlarge)

In many icons of the Baptism, there are little humans shown in the river, along with various creatures. These undoubtedly represent the mythological figures associated with water. But now, as Jesus steps into the water of the Jordan, these mythological figures lose their power over human beings. This is the first thing that Jesus accomplishes in his baptism – he removes from human consciousness the fear of the unknown, the fear of nature, the fear of gods and goddesses. Water is once again restored to its divine mission to sustain life. Water becomes a means of sanctification – which is why we celebrate the Blessing of Water. We bless water – which means we reveal its divine purpose.

Detailed view of the bottom of the icon on the left to show the two mythological figures in the waters of the Jordan (Click to further enlarge)

Detailed view of the bottom of the icon on the left to show the two mythological figures in the waters of the Jordan

When we bless each other, we reveal our divine purpose. When we bless God, we declare God’s purposes. “Bless you” is not a little pious sentiment, a little bit of spirituality to show that we are religious. Greetings are holy acts! In Liturgy too!! No, when I say, “God bless you,” I’m saying may God reveal your divine purpose, may God speak good into your heart and soul so that you can wake up to why you are really here. Think how beautiful that is, how truly unique you are – not because some afternoon talk show tells you, but because God has a unique word, and a unique purpose that he reveals to you. And we can help each other. Next time you say “God bless you” to someone you are asking for the most transformative things that can happen in that person’s life.

Jesus restores water. He restores all creation. He takes back everything that the ancient people surrendered to gods and goddesses. Everything is brought back to its proper relation to us and to God. And everything is a blessing, a path to the divine life. Superstition should have no place in human lives. It never ceases to amaze me how superstition still rules the lives of many who call themselves Christian.

The other great symbol is light. This is a feast of light. In Greek, the feast of Epiphany is simply called Τα Φώτα – The Lights. Jesus is the light of the world. He came from light in order to bring light to those who were sunk in darkness, the darkness of unbelief and pagan superstition. He came to bring light so that we can see with clear eyesight the beauty of the world around us, the nature that is sanctified along with us. Look at the icons around us. Light everywhere. Jesus brings light to the world at his baptism; light from the mount of transfiguration; light into the city of Jerusalem and every city and neighborhood; light into the depths of Hades, the realm of death, so that death itself is freed from being our enemy = light at the death of his mother and of every mortal.

It’s all light, dear friends. Fear nothing. Evil exists and does great harm on a daily basis. But evil never endures, it is always defeated. Bless God in the sanctuary; bless God in our lives. Amen.