My dear friends,
I have been up to my ears in reading of late, but it has been entirely too long since I posted anything. Mercifully it came time to do a reflection at the Catholic Center here at SU again today, so I had to produce something that I could post. Here goes:
The readings bring together two themes that we don’t often think of going together: suffering and authority. To begin, each of the readings today thematizes suffering. The first reading from Isaiah talks about the suffering of one person healing the people. This reading is the end of a larger unit that Christians usually refer to as the Fourth Servant Oracle: the “Servant Oracles” refer to four texts in the middle of Isaiah which refer to an unnamed Servant of God who is rejected, faces persecution, suffers on behalf of others, so on. Whoever the prophet had in mind, it’s fairly clear why Christians have so often seen a trajectory from these texts to Jesus. In particular the Fourth sounds strikingly like the Passion, in lines like this: “But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.” (IS 53:4-7) Sound familiar? Hebrews talks about Jesus being able to sympathize with us because he knows suffering, and of course the gospel is loaded with foreshadowing of the Passion.
On the other hand, we have the issue of authority. Jesus is a hair’s breadth from Jerusalem, he’s just predicted his passion for the third time, and James and John come looking for jobs: to sit at his right and his left, that is, to become his secretary of state and secretary of war when he beats the Romans and becomes king. Were they not listening? Mark is just pouring on the irony at this point: when Jesus says they will drink from the cup from which he drinks, they’re all excited – “Oh boy! We’re close enough to the Boss that he lets us drink out of the same cup he uses!” Oh, they’ll get it soon enough, but not like they thought. We know who will be at his right and his left in Jerusalem, and it isn’t his chief ministers. Why do the other disciples get mad at the two of them? Is it because they are frustrated that the boys haven’t been listening to Jesus or that they are thinking in too worldly or selfish a way? Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it’s because the other disciples are jealous that James and John beat them to the punch – the ten wish they had thought of it first. So, just like the last time we talked, Jesus has to sit them all down and straighten them out: other people use authority to dominate others and to make sure that their life “works” the way they want it to, but you can’t do it that way. Jesus says this is how the Gentiles are, and the gospels from the daily liturgy this past week were all about "woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites," but we know this isn't a Gentile thing, and it isn't a Jewish thing, it's a human thing. All of us are susceptible to the insidious capacity of power to push us to feather our own nests.
Whenever I read texts like this one, or the gospels we have been hearing for the past week, I get really nervous, because he is warning religious authorities about how easy it is to turn authority into domination. People from my generation tend to distrust the very word: we have seen the authority of the church, the government, business, the family, all of it fall short of what it claims to be. We’ve seen how easily authorities can smash people’s lives, whether intentionally or not, and how insidious power can be when people don’t have someone regularly pulling on their leash. As much as I don’t feel like an authority on anything, I’ve been a professional religious and a teacher for a long time, and I know that a certain amount of authority comes with that fact, like it or not. That’s why the Church says of itself, of all of us, that we are semper reformanda, always reforming and always in need of reform. At our best we remember that, but it’s easy to forget just how quickly any of us, even Church officials, can hunker down when we get to a place that’s working for us. One of my teachers used to say that we all get scripted, whether we know explicitly what the script is or not, by the story lines at play in our culture. What might that story be in the world we inhabit? In his phraseology, “technological therapeutic military consumerism.” We breathe it in all the time, and the implicit or explicit story it is telling us is that authority-as-domination can make us safe and it can make us happy – buy enough stuff, kill the right people, build enough toys, get the right degree from the right school, and you can make your life work for you. That story is a big lie. We’re here every Sunday because we think there’s a better story, but we know that we are all mightily co-opted by the big lie, so we have got to keep coming back. We’ve all heard today’s readings a hundred times, but we have a hard time hearing them and an even harder time getting them to stick, when the big lie has so much free air time. Hopefully when we do hear our story we get excited, we’re committed, we’re going to make a fresh start…but that usually works for about three minutes, and then it’s, “Hey, there’s a new IPhone app.” I don’t have an IPhone, but I took a quick look at their web page to see what’s out there – 75,000 applications – there’s one to program your DVR from long distance, another one to help you make espresso drinks at home, and something to “Shave strokes off your golf score.” And we actually expect that to make us happy.
Back to the gospel, which I know is not as flashy and won’t help your golf game. Jesus is clueing us in that authority and suffering are not polar opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. Dorothee Soelle, a German theologian, puts it this way: “Love does not ‘require’ the cross, but de facto it ends upon the cross…it must necessarily seek confrontation, since its most important concern is not the avoidance of suffering but the liberation of people.” That doesn’t sound better than the big lie, but we know what Jesus’ authority looks like when it gets played out: on the far side of the cross, it looks like new life. That’s what Jesus means at the end of the gospel when he says that he has come to give his life as a ransom for many: he isn’t buying us back from the devil, or from an enraged God. We are holding ourselves hostage, and the ransom note is the big lie; it’s what we think we want, what we think will make us happy, but what we get is authority as service, as self-giving love, which is what we as Christians know is what we actually need.