Azariah is in the fire because he and his kin refused to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Kosher food practices, circumcision, and the Sabbath set the Israelites apart from other peoples. These distinctive practices were seen as signs of faithfulness to Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Moses. The faithful, like Azariah, were willing to die as martyrs for their beliefs which set them apart.
With circumcision as one of the cornerstones of faith, Judaism was a patriarchal religion—only men were circumcised. This is why Paul’s argument with Peter is so significant. In Jesus the Christ, there are no Greeks and Jews, male and female. Every human person is worthwhile and equally significant in the eyes of God.
Jesus also excoriated practices which led to exclusivity. He challenged the purity and debt codes. He questioned practices related to the Sabbath.
The universe is flashing forth and constantly changing. We are changing. We move from paradigms which look toward order and hierarchy to paradox which welcomes the unexpected.
Mysticism is based on personal experience of God. Dorothee Sölle says that mysticism became the domain of women because it was non-patriarchal, non-hierarchical, non-“dogmatic.” Merton’s significant contribution, after he got over his initial post-conversion hubris, was that personal, mystical, contemplative experience of God is for everyone. Think about it. Every person can come to know God in his or her own way. Furthermore, each person’s experience of the Divine is valid. When people come to know God in their hearts and in communities that matter there is little chance that someone will go off the deep end although we have seen cults where this has happened.
My experience of God is that God created every person; therefore, God does not select or choose one people over all others. The Zionists cannot then claim that God gave them the land. Catholics can no longer claim that there is no salvation outside the church.
What then are we to live and idea for? The mystic comes to understand that all are one. We are one with God, with ourselves, one another, and the universe. We are to live and die for solidarity. We are to live and die for justice. We are to live and die to bring about an end to racism and sexism. We are to live and die for peace. We are to live and die for the end of poverty in a world of riches. The values that drive us have moved far beyond kosher food, circumcision, and the Sabbath. (Although I must admit that, in our consumer world, we may adopt Sabbath practice to counter crass materialism and show respect to the Divine.)
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus tells a story to teach us about another live and die for value—forgiveness. Love is the driving value in the new order called the Kin-dom. Love for enemies is the cornerstone. Forgiveness is a practical component of love and love for one’s enemies.
The fruit of mysticism and contemplation is compassion. Jesus had compassion. When he saw human misery, it twisted his gut. It struck him to the core of his being. The servant who was forgiven much was not compassionate toward the servant who owed him much less. Those who refuse to forgive will face harsh consequences.
Speaking of forgiveness, the favorite tool of church leaders who want to control religious experience is ex-communication. Excommunication probably worked quite well when people lived in small villages and knew everyone else. Not being allowed to participate in the sacraments was a real social ostracism. Today the “excommunicant” can just go across town to a church where no one knows he or she has incurred the disfavor of patriarchs. Oh, excommunication, where is your sting? Individuals also ex-communicate one another. “I am not going to respond to you from now on.”
Amid all this we must remember that Jesus welcomed all to the table. He envisioned a community of love where exclusion was no longer permissible. All are and were welcome at His table. We need to stop excommunicating others because we disagree with their religious or political views. We need to stop ostracizing people who challenge and disagree with institutional and organizational goals, objectives, and procedures. Excommunication does not build healthy inclusive organizations. It does not promote dialogue and mutual understanding. It does not grow organizations because today people are free and have the ability to move on to other organizations.
As the hierarchy tries to referee a game no one is playing, except perhaps the Knights of Columbus, the Legionnaires, and Opus Dei, they are challenging people to form intentional inclusive communities of faith and love. The church is renewing itself in spite of their heavy-handed patriarchal methods.