Today’s readings are from Samuel and Mark. They evoke a number of thoughts.
In Samuel, David and the military chiefs of staff order a census to determine exactly how many men in Israel and Judah are fit for military service. The People of God are now paying the price for wanting to be like every other nation—an empire. In order to thrive, empires must expand and conquer others to gain needed hegemony and resources. As Francis of Assisi reminded us—if we have possessions, we must have weapons to defends the possessions. Armies are a necessary component in empire building. The prophet Gad lets David know that God is very displeased with his empire building and military conscription. Pestilence hits the land and thousands die because the king has sinned.
This is myth—a story with a point. We know that God does not directly punish; however, the myth makes the point. God is not about empire building and warmongering. The stories in our Judeo-Christian heritage are important. We need to listen to the lessons in them. If we were writing this story today, I am sure it would say something about our immoral wars for oil and hegemony in the Middle East. The myth might even reference the pestilence of terrorism which results from our warmongering conquest. The writer would say, “Let those who have ears listen.”
The prophet Gad challenged the King David. In Mark, Jesus the prophet is challenging the people in his own hometown to heed the challenges of the Gospel. Prior to this, the members of Jesus’ family think he is mad because he has set his face like flint on a collision course with the Romans and their priestly collaborators. Ched Myers notes that one put-down is to describe Jesus as the son of Mary. By referring to his maternal lineage, they may be making veiled references to illegitimacy. Jesus cannot do much about bringing in his new world order—the Kin-dom—in a place like this. The people are chalelnging his wisdom and his mighty works.
Jesus has questioned the kinship system—my brothers and sisters are those who do the will of Abba God. At this point in Mark’s narrative, Jesus has now been disowned by his family and the people he grew up with. Fortunately, Jesus’ heart was not as hard as theirs. He cured a few sick people before he moved on.
Life is about right relationships with Abba God, oneself, others and creation. When a person is disowned by family and friends because of the message they proclaim, it is the ultimate hurt. We have grown so hardened and self-righteous that it has to be our way. If you hold views that differ from mine, I will disown you. I will count you as not worthy of my love and respect because of what you believe, not because of who you are. The people in Jesus’ homeotwn lack what many people in many families and hometowns lack today—civility.
In political and social discourse, civility is but the starting point. Civis is Latin for the body politic in the city. Likewise, polis (politics) is Greek for the body politic. Civility is an absolute requirement for any group; however, the Gospel does not stop there. The Gospel is about love. We are to love as Jesus loved us. Furthermore, we are to love our enemies which includes being civil toward them.
The people questioned Jesus’ wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to see beyond surface appearances. Thomas Merton was a master at seeing beyond the surface. He had the unique ability to unpeel the onion and get to the core of matters. Without compromising his Christian values, Merton was able to understand what he held in common with Muslims and Buddhists. He understood the basic unity that holds the universe together. We are all one.
Recognizing our basic oneness, we can move onto principled discussion of solutions to problems. We can look for common solutions to problems of human misery. Health care reform is needed. In the richest country in the history of the world 37 million people lack access to adequate health care. That is the problem. We need to enter into civil political discourse about how to solve the problem. Partisan posturing on with side is counterproductive. So on for education, housing, immigration, and financial crises.
When we conscript armies of conquest and when we polarize political discourse to the point of disowning those with how we disagree, we are not acting on Gospel principles. It is easy to point the finger at others and lay blame on them. Merton says that we first need to look at the evil that lurks in our own hearts and repent. We need to turn our lives around as we grow in the Spirit. Rather, I should say, “We need to let the Spirit turn our lives around.”
Much of our uncivil discourse has religious roots. In a series of talks on Discipleship in Mark given in Australia, Ched Myers describes the divide among Christians. Some Christians are into decisionism based on dogma and denominationalism. They make a decision to answer the altar call and accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. That is all well and good and necessary; however, religious experience that rests on this alone is deficient. Jesus always demanded discipleship. As a result of our decision to accept Jesus as our Lord and savior, we must do something.
As woman in our church once told my wife, “You come in here talking about peace and justice. You come on strong. These are action words and people here are retired and do want to do.” Jesus was no respecter of age and retirement status. The call to discipleship does not end when you go on Social Security and Medicare. Jesus demands a lifelong commitment. Retired “pew potatoes” need to heed the Gospel call.
Jesus was asking the people in the synagogue in his native place to make a commitment to the new order—the Kin-dom. Jesus was givng them a synagogue call to discipleship. It is not just about their personal relationship with Abba God. It is also about discipleship—doing something to bring about a better world order based on Gospel values. Rather than answer the call to discipleship, the people questioned Jesus’ lineage, wisdom, and mighty works. When we reject the summons to discipleship, we do the same.