Before we discuss today’s scriptures, I want to relate a brief story which illustrates why we should not always take things literally. A women member of our church returned home late Saturday night and encountered a man burglarizing her home. As he reached for his gun, she shouted, “Stop! Acts 2:38.” As the man continued to reach, she again shouted, “Stop! Acts 2:38.” The man dropped the gun and the police, responding to the alarm, handcuffed him. The policeman asked the burglar, “Why did you drop your gun? She was only quoting a scripture verse?” “Oh, I thought she was saying she had an ax and two 38s! In reading and reflecting on scripture, we often have to go beyond the literal and look for the meaning.
Paul today talks again about the wisdom of Christ crucified. Hearing this we usually go straight to saying that Jesus died for our sins. Jesus died to satisfy our sin debt to God. This was not the understanding of the church during the first 1,000 years. In the 11th century, Anselm of Canterbury wrote a book, Cur Deus Homo. Why Did God Become Man? Looking at the society and culture he knew, Anselm modeled his view of why God became human on what he saw. He lived in a patriarchal feudal society. If a serf offended the noble, the noble could not just forgive the serf. The serf had to make amends for his offense; otherwise there would be anarchy in the realm. Thus, Jesus had to satisfy our debt before God.
This theology caught on. No one asked why a loving Father God would demand the horrible sacrifice of His beloved son on the cross—the Roman symbol of capital punishment.
Before we ask why God sent Jesus, we must ask why God created in the first place. God created because God can do no other. God is love and love must pour out and empty itself. Love must be in relationship. God’s love flows forth into creation. Eckhart said, “God is in my suffering. God is my suffering.” We could just as well say, “God is in our love. God is our love.” Love is God among us incarnate as Christ Jesus.
Jesus in John 10:10 says that he came that “we might have life and that we might have everything we need.” Life and everything we need as pure gift from a Loving God flowing forth into creation and our hearts.
Jesus died on the cross because he loved. Jesus died on the cross because he stood with the poor and oppressed in his homeland. Today’s Gospel reading goes on to say that our righteousness—our justice—has to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus calls for total commitment to compassion and justice. Jesus also says that he has come to fulfill the Law.
Hence, Isaiah today:
Thus says the LORD:
Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!
If you remove from your midst
oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;
if you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
and the gloom shall become for you like midday.
Jesus fully understood that the Law and the Prophets called for justice on earth—justice as radical fairness. All people have a right to life and whatever they need to live life.
We have two modern examples of people who are for others. Archbishop Romero, a conservative bishop in El Salvador during the civil war, was made archbishop. His priest friend, Rutillo Grande was working to help poor coffee growing campesinos make a just living. This did not set well with the coyotes who were ripping off the coffee growers. After Romero continued to protest, assassins gunned him down in the chapel as he was saying Mass.
Likewise, Pope Francis was a one time a very conservative Jesuit who disciplined Jesuits who were living and working with the poor in the slums of Argentina. He then became bishop. Elected Pope to the surprise of many, Francis has emerged as a Pope who cares more about people than church niceties. He washed and kissed the feet of juvenile prisoners on Maundy Thursday, including one Muslim girl. He lives in a small apartment and not the Vatican palace. He ventures forth among the people and randomly calls nuns at a convent in Spain on Christmas day. In his initial interview, Francis was asked, “Who are you?” “I am a sinner.” He has repented for his lack of concern for the poor and oppressed.
Jesus is calling us to be Christ to the world. One pundit said, “Do not become a disciple, if you do not look good on wood.” Following Christ’s sacrificial love means that we have to have the same passion for people and their needs that he had. During the WW II era, Martin Niemöller, a German pastor challenged Hitler. He wrote about the fact that we must take a stand:
They came for the socialists and I said nothing because I was not a socialist. They came for the trade unionists and I said nothing because I was not a trade unionist. They came for the Jews and I said noting because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—there was no one to speak for me.
Like his compatriot, Bonhoeffer, he understood that there is no cheap grace. Christ followers must speak out against injustice. By the way, Niemöller spent 7 years in prison and Bonhoeffer was executed.
We can follow Christ in little things that over time make a difference. We can work in soup kitchens that feed to hungry. We can contribute to groups that alleviate human oppression at home and abroad. We can buy fair trade coffee and chocolate that helps the growers make a just living. We can refuse to buy goods that cost less but which are produced in sweat shops where workers are paid substandard wages. We can work to change social structures which create human misery. I am sure you can think of more things you do to follow the Risen Christ.
Pope Paul VI reminded us that there is no peace without justice. Merton reminds us to work for justice but first to hate the injustices within ourselves. In his book on Being Peace, Buddhist Thich Naht Hahn spends the whole first chapter talking about peace and, of all things, smiling. We have to smile and be at peace before we can be peace. He would have us add to Amos’ injunction, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God” and “to smile.”