Saturday, March 02, 2013

Lent 3

In this election year – both State and Federal – spare a thought for the unfortunate souls who win.  You might be thinking – well, winning is what it's about, your political party wins and you're in power, you get to implement your agenda, enjoy the perks of office, how bad can that be? – except – have you ever looked at the before and after shots?  The fresh-faced pollies beaming as they make their victory speeches compared with the prematurely aged, sober-faced realists they'll become after a term or two in power when they're summarily voted out, bucketed by an ungrateful electorate, their years in office a daily reminder of the impossibility of pleasing any of the people all of the time, let alone all of the people any of the time. No matter how many elections you win, it's ultimately a journey to defeat and disillusionment.  So it seems.

Maybe if you go into politics you need a friend who counsels you right at the start: 'Just remember it's going to end badly.  Hold onto your integrity, be faithful to your ideals, work your 80-hour weeks.  But remember you're going to get dumped.  Half the people hate you already, the other half have got expectations of you that you can never live up to.  Remember that and it won't feel as bad when they turn on you'.

Jesus is on a journey – a journey that you and I know – and he himself has got a pretty good idea - is going to end with his death.  It is a journey that has attracted opposition right from the start, with Herod the Great – the father of Herod Antipas who appears in today's Gospel reading – massacring scores, or hundreds of baby boys in and around Bethlehem in response just to the rumour of the opposition that a rival might bring.  Already in Luke's Gospel, chapter four, when Jesus has returned to his own hometown, his message that God's love and desire for human liberation is perhaps wider than their own cultural and religious concerns has got him driven out of town and almost killed. [1]  Or in chapter seven, when messengers bring Jesus the news of John's arrest and imprisonment, he reacts by reminding them of John's strength of purpose, and his uncompromising habit of telling the truth.  'Well, what did you expect?', he asks them, 'a weak, vacillating man? a reed waving in the wind?' [2]  You might not think that the political parallel really does Jesus justice – many Christians seem to think that Jesus was naïve or innocent of the dirty world of politics but that just shows they haven't read the Gospels closely enough.  Jesus is well aware that his message of forgiveness and freedom, that idea that the last shall be first and that those who are comfortable and well off now might find themselves at the bottom of the pecking order, in the world where God's reign is realised – Jesus knows his good news is attracting powerful opposition, and today's Gospel story shows that he is under no illusions about where this is all headed.

There's a saying, isn't there – 'if I just knew the time and place of my own funeral – I wouldn't turn up!'?  Or – 'if I knew then what I knew now – I never would've got involved!'  The logical human thing to do – most of the time – is to take a reality check, to glance ahead, so far as we can, and convince ourselves this is going to work out OK for no. 1.  And if not, well, Plan B looks good.  Except, not always.  Sometimes we do get involved, even when the price tag seems too high, when we actually don't know whether we have the strength, or the courage, even when we know there are going to be tears before bedtime.  And invariably, that is when we are motivated by love – love of others, love for an ideal, or for truth, love of country for example.  And the surprising thing is that when we really are motivated by love, then the resources and the courage for the journey somehow grow in us, and we find companions for the journey in the least likely places.  Lent itself is a journey – a journey in companionship with Jesus, and if we don't expect it to take us to our own deaths, still, it takes us to a place most of us spend most of our time avoiding – a place we have no alternative but to acknowledge the truth about ourselves, a place of honesty about our own compromises and moral shortcuts, the truth that much of our religion and spirituality is self-serving and self-obsessed, the truth of our neglect of the needs of others – Lent leads us into an uncomfortable moral stock-take and the need for confession and repentance.  The logical destination of the journey of Lent, in fact, is death – the realisation that much of what we take for granted about our own lives needs to die, in order that who we really are – who God created us to be – can rise with Jesus on Easter morning.  And actually the only way we are able to undertake such a journey – as opposed to pretending to take the journey of Lent – is if we are motivated by love.

'Just tell that fox, Herod', Jesus snaps to his fair-weather friends, the Pharisees, his favourite sparring partners, who have come to warn him off.  If Herod, for us, represents the naked reality of political power, the collaborator with the Romans, the puppet ruler who senses the threat to his authority and is prepared to use violence to preserve his own position – then the Pharisees represent something more familiar, closer to home.  Jesus talks and argues with the Pharisees, accepts their invitations to dinner – he engages them as conversation partners, as seekers after truth, and in fact much of what Jesus has to say is echoed in the early rabbinic writings of the sect of the Pharisees.  I don't accept the line you hear so often in churches that the Pharisees are all hard-hearted, or insincere, or morally compromised by being too close to the political power of the day – or at least, any more so than we are, you or me, Jesus' favourite 21st century sparring partners.  He eats with us, too, and at the same time exposes the hollowness of our words when they are not matched by our actions.  Like the Pharisees we, also, are just a little bit too fond of being respectable and middle class or at least comfortable, and like them we substitute, more often than we care to admit, the veneer of religiousity for the real thing.  We talk the talk but fail, like them, always to walk the walk, and just like them we too would probably be counselling Jesus at this point to be a bit careful, stop antagonising Herod and go home.  We need to be a little more nuanced in how we read the Pharisees, and possibly even a little more compassionate towards them because, when it comes down to it, they represent the best and the worst of religious people everywhere.

Jesus reminds his followers and hangers-on that he is headed for Jerusalem, and there they can kill him all they want.  You can hear the sarcasm, and you can hear the steel.  He knows what he is about – and in the next words you can also hear the love.  Herod the fox, Jesus' weak co-religionists, the Temple authorities and even the Roman occupation forces – in a sense as we read this we need to recollect that they all represent us, different aspects of us, the different ways in which we use and hide behind political and economic power, the ways in which we use our religion as a mask for our own self-interest, or our weakness as a way of manipulating others – but all these, as scary and powerful or as holy or as practical as they might like to see themselves are in reality just fluffy chickens – lost and frightened and needing a pair of wings to shelter under.  Jesus is using a feminine image, an image of maternal love, to remind us that God's love isn't conditional on us being holy – or even nice – God's love is unconditional, but we do have to know we need it. 

Jerusalem is ground zero.  It represents Israel in a microcosm, where it all comes together.  The Temple, which is the heart of the cult of Israel, the dwelling place of God in the Holy of Holies, but also the centre of an economy based on ritual observance, and the heart of a political system based on patronage.  The centre of the system of cooperation between the Jewish authorities and the Roman occupying army.  Jerusalem is also the intersection between Palestinian Jews and the Jews of the Diaspora – observant Jews who come from all corners of the Empire to sacrifice and worship – the intersection between Israel and the ancient world.  It is a hotbed of barely suppressed violence and discontent, crazy zealots and freedom fighters, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, the seat of barely to be comprehended wealth and privilege.  Jerusalem is the centre of the self-understanding of the people of Israel – this journey will confront the people at the heart of who they think they are – which of course is where the journey of Lent also takes us, if we dare to undertake it.  Jerusalem represents the contradiction and turmoil, the mixture of love and self-doubt and fear that lies at the very centre of us, and that, says Jesus, is where we are headed. 

In the time-line of Luke's Gospel, it's early days yet – but a quick glance at the calendar confirms that for us, the journey of Lent is half gone.  Which route are we taking, this year?  Are we in retreat with our inner Herodians and Pharisees? Or are we heading toward Jerusalem with Jesus, toward that uncomfortable place in us where human moral complexity and divine purpose intersect?

[1] Lk 4.16ff

[2] Lk 7.20ff