Thus says the LORD, your redeemer,
the Holy One of Israel:
I, the LORD, your God,
teach you what is for your good,
and lead you on the way you should go.
If you would hearken to my commandments,
your prosperity would be like a river,
and your vindication like the waves of the sea;
Your descendants would be like the sand,
and those born of your stock like its grains,
Their name never cut off
or blotted out from my presence. (Is. 48:17-19)
Isaiah reminds us of the two chief characteristics of religion. First, religion requires our adherence to certain doctrines. Isaiah has God teaching us what is good for us. Creeds summarize the doctrines. Second, faith is about conforming behavior. God will lead us on “the way we should go.” If we do good our “prosperity will be like a river.” And as today’s psalm says in essence, if you do these things you will prosper. It does not take long to fall into domination systems where thought and behavior is controlled top down.
True religion, perhaps better described as spirituality, moves beyond correct doctrine (orthodoxy) and proper conduct (orthopraxy) to union with the Living God. Religion has become our security blanket in the face of angst and death. When people are unsure of their faith, they seek and demand miracles. Ignacio L. Götz, in an insightful book entitled Faith, Humor, and Paradox, says, “Where miracles are not forthcoming, we often take refuge in infallibility. Roma locuta est, causa finita: once Rome has spoken, the case is closed. How many personal decisions have been forestalled by reference to the authority of the popes!” (54)
In today’s Gospel, some of the authorities thought that Jesus was not behaving properly. Misconduct or misbehavior, as defined by the authorities, will bring judgment and the fires of hell despite the fact that God knows that we are human beings in the process of becoming human. For organized religion, God is often a fierce judge who, like Santa Claus, is counting to see whether we have been naughty or nice. When I dress up and play Santa, I ask folks, “Have you been naughty or nice?” If they say “Naughty” I say “Good!” and give them two candy canes! The Living God is a God of mercy and compassion and forgiveness. The Living God is extravagant. The living God is a prodigal God.
Religion often distorts the picture of Jesus. Religion can never quite let Jesus be truly human. For us, Jesus is often portrayed as a fair skinned Northern European when, in fact, he was a swarthy Jew. That’s right, folks, Jesus was never a Christian! Nor were his followers!
Jesus came preaching, and eating and drinking with sinners. They called him a drunk and neer-do-well. How frustrated Jesus must have been when he uttered the words in today’s Gospel. He fully experienced the pain of being misunderstood, isolated, and rejected. However hard he tried, he just could not please some of the folks.
Religion is about faith and paradox. Paradox is holding two contradictory truths as true. True faith spirituality means that we embrace the paradox. Perhaps, that is what the people in today’s Gospel could not do. Could the Messiah be someone who partied with commoners and the dregs of society—tax collectors, prostitutes, etc…? Yes! Live with the paradox. Live with divine and human. Live with dead and resurrected. Live with faith which does not assure certainty.
Faith is about risk. Faith is about pilgrimage on an uncertain path. Pilgrimage is about knowing that prayers of petition indicate a certain lack of faith and trust of the Christ who lives within us and within creation. Prayer warriors think they can storm the throne of God in God’s three-tiered universe and change God’s mind. No, faith is about what is and simply being in the presence of God without making any demands. The Living God who is our deepest reality already knows what we need. God does not need words, words, words! Again, faith is about uncertainty, chance and risk rather than certitude, guarantees, and assurance. Faith is about abandoning our survival needs and transcending self in the loving service of others.
I must make one caveat about petitionary prayer. It is commonplace to say that we send out positive vibes and, in fact, we do. Prayer is a positive action which creates energy. When two or three pray, positive energy is created and released. The Christ dwelling in us and the cosmos directs this energy toward healing and wholeness. What petitionary prayer does not do is change God or God’s mind. However, I believe we must go far beyond petitionary prayer and simply rest in the presence of the Presence where “all is well and all will be well.”