The only theme that ties the reading from Daniel and the Gospel from Matthew is forgiveness. Azariah (Abednego) is the principal prayer in the apocalyptic story in Daniel. The captors changed their Jewish names to Babylonian names, a tactic often use by captors to dehumanize the victims. Apocalyptic stories focus on the present pain and speak hope of delivery in the future. Azariah, amid the flames, prays for forgiveness not only for himself but for all the people held in captivity. Matthew is a stern warning about the consequences of not forgiving.
Antiochus IV Ephiphanes was determined to Hellenize the culture to counter the spreading power of Rome. He forced the Jews, or tried to force the Jews in captivity, to adopt Hellenistic ways, including eating the flesh of animals sacrificed to Babylonian gods. The stories in Daniel are about how to maintain one’s Jewishness in a culture which has values which run counter to the Torah. This is not a problem unique to Daniel and his companions. We face the same challenges today when we try to live our Christian values in an empire that thrives on greed, violence, and perpetual warfare. How do we maintain our Christian non-violence in the face of this empire? If we do, I dare say we find ourselves very much in the same fire that Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego found themselves in. Do we, like them, trust in God to deliver us from the evils of empire or do we opt to go along to get along?
Forgiveness is foundational value in the Kin-dom. Did we opt to forgive our persecutors after 9/11? Were we supposed to? Do we readily trust in God and forgive those who wrong us? How do we forgive and work for a just outcome in any such situation? Do elected officials reach across the aisle to work for the common good or do they hold grudges based on political postures? Do we forgive our avowed enemies and look for ways to solve problems diplomatically or do we drone them to death? On another level, do we seek reconciliation with estranged family members or church members? If we are blue and live in a red state or red community do we seek common ground? Are we so wrapped in the flag, God, apple pie and motherhood that we cannot look for the good in those who challenge us?
These are the tough questions in the boiling cauldron of faith. Faith requires that we place our trust in God period, no questions asked. How difficult that is! The constant challenge to Daniel and his companions was to maintain the essence of their Jewishness. This was the challenge for the early followers of the Way—how to live Christ’s values in a Roman empire. Amazingly the church was strongest when people were willing to suffer and die rather than eat the meat of animals sacrificed to Roman gods. The church lost its clout in the world not in the 20th century but in the 4th century. Constantine co-opted the church for pure politics and it has not been the same ever since. Today most churches find ways to help people feel comfortable in empire usually by watering down Jesus’ values on things like non-violence and forgiveness. If you ask many pastors why they do not preach the Gospel in all its power, they reply that people will stop coming. The churches therefore preach a me-and-Jesus individualism where people are hell bent (literally) on saving their own souls while the rest of humanity goes to hell in a handbasket. Cutting programs designed to assist the least among us, as commanded in Matthew 25, in lieu of taxing those who can well afford to pay a little more is but one example.
Christianity has always been, or should have been about the common good. Jesus did not found a church. His early followers formed communities where they worshipped and prayed and struggled together to live the Message—love one another as I have loved you, forgive those who persecute you, care for the least among you. Many people do not realize that the meal surrounding the breaking of the bread was designed to provide food for the poor in the community. People used to get the communal aspect in the early days in America where entire communities would come together for barn raisings?
Thomas Merton wrote:
We do not really know how to forgive until we know what it is to be forgiven.
Therefore we should be glad that we can be forgiven by others. It is our
forgiveness of one another that makes the love of Jesus manifest in our lives,
for in forgiving one another we act towards one another
as He has acted towards us.
Standing in the fire today, let us ask forgiveness for not following the Cosmic Christ. Let us ask forgiveness for not being the leaven that transforms our society and culture. Let us ask forgiveness and make amends for our greedy consumerism. Let us ask forgiveness for murdering innocent human beings in the name of national security. Let us ask forgiveness for leaving Lazarus hungry at the gate to plenty.
We can conclude our prayer for forgiveness as did Azariah. Let us stand in the midst of the fire and pray:
And now we follow you with our whole heart,
we fear you and we pray to you.
Do not let us be put to shame,
but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy.
Deliver us by your wonders,
and bring glory to your name, O Lord. Amen.