Proper 5, Year A
By the way, I'll be participating tomorrow (Wednesday) night in Open Source, a new public radio show that starts at 7:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. time, and can be heard on the Internet here. The show will be looking at how we experience God in online community, and how that changes online community and our perception of God. Online discussion for the show is already happening here; feel free to weigh in on what role this blog, Grace Notes, and other theoloblogical waystations play in your own spiritual journey!
I'm sure you've heard the expression of a "vicious circle" or a "vicious cycle." They come in many flavors.
There's the spiral of violence. In the ancient Mediterranean world, vengeance was mandated for honorable men: you kill my brother, so I kill you. If your brother is an honorable man, he avenges your death by killing me. My brother or my cousin kills him. And he kills two of my cousins, for which surviving relatives kill four ... it never stops. How different is it today? In some ways, not very. Watch this short Flash movie, released just after September 11, 2001, for a reminder of how that works.
There's the cycle of poverty. If you're poor, you're less likely to have access to the kinds of preventative care and treatment that could keep you healthy. And when you're seriously ill, it's that much more difficult to find or keep work that could give you access to the kind of care that could help you get better. In a society that doesn't care for its outcasts, for those who are sick, or very elderly, or otherwise unable to work, the only social security is children who survive to adulthood. And then there's the overlap with another vicious cycle, this one having to do with self-esteem. If you're a young woman whom nobody thinks will ever amount to anything, there's one thing you can do to see that there's someone who looks up to you, who sees you as important, as needed, and that's to have a baby. If you're a young man whose agency and potential for power is unacknowledged, there's always one thing you can do to prove that you're a real man; you can demonstrate your virility by coming up with a conquest. Or, if you're a young woman or man who feels powerless, there's no better short-term equalizer when it comes to feeling powerful than a gun.
There are other vicious cycles that may be less familiar. They don't make the headlines so often. Here's one that I think about a lot, as I commute sixty miles each way to a parish where many, if not most, parishioners who work outside the home commute at least 60-90 minutes each way to their jobs:
The city center is plagued with urban ills, so those who can afford it move further out, to a suburb where they think the quality of life will be better. When they and all they have to contribute leave the city center, things deteriorate, pushing more people and more poverty outside the city center. Urban ills follow, so those who can afford it move further out, to a new development where they think the quality of life will be better, and so on, over and over again, until people sacrifice their quality of life with mortgages far beyond what they can afford realistically (especially if ANYTHING goes wrong with one partner's health, or job, or ... ) and commute in such traffic for so long that they find it hard to spare even an hour a week to pray with friends or read the bible in community.
There's a reason we call these cycles "vicious." They're all about "solutions" that exacerbate the problem. Watch these cycles in motion in isolation for long enough, and you'll get this sad, odd kind of vertigo, this sense that everything is inevitably going downhill, and the best anyone can do is look after oneself and one's own, and try to retreat from and forget about everybody else. Those cycles draw you in until -- if you've got the energy -- you cry out:
But it isn't hopeless. Those vicious cycles don't have to go on forever. Someone, anyone, any person can declare unilateral forgiveness, remission of all debts and an end to all scorekeeping. Mercy! One person did that with his whole life, and even with his death, and so we know that it's possible; in our Baptism, we receive power from the Spirit who descended upon him at his Baptism.
That's what happens today. Matthew, not one of the chief tax collectors, but a lowly employee of someone. An empire that profited from the conquered recruited people who were just enough on the edge of community, just shut out enough, to take some small chance at profit under tremendous risk. The empire made them pay tolls and taxes up front for the whole region, which they did in hopes that they could collect enough to turn a profit. They recruited those who were even more on the margins, people who didn't have land to farm or means to work a trade, and who would take work by which they might subsist, though it would make them outcast even further from the community.
That's Matthew, someone who took a really lousy job in which he handled everybody's stuff looking for what ought to be taxed, picking up and spreading any uncleanness he encountered, someone who took a position that shut him out of respectability because he knew that nobody would ever let him in anyway.
And then Jesus invited him to his table, to his companionship, to his friendship -- even to his vocation, to come with him as a disciple. Jesus embraced someone seen as untouchable, and in doing that, he showed that oddly enough, the purity of God's people is best protected not by shunning the unclean, but by embracing them. God's perfection is shown most fully not in flaws noted and shut out or scores kept and settled, but in extravagant embrace of flawed people and the end of all scorekeeping:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-- Matthew 5:38-43
What right does any one of us have to demand of anyone else a sacrifice, if we believe what we say about Jesus' sacrifice: that it was full, perfect, sufficient? What right do we have to talk about who's deserving if we really understand the unconditional and unreserved quality of Jesus' embrace of us? Jesus' sacrifice was once and for all, but his mercy is such that it will take all of us who claim to follow him a lifetime of wild, uncalculating extension of unilateral mercy to even hint at the fullness of Jesus' love.
Mercy. As followers of Jesus, that's not a cry of despair, but a testimony of hope: we have seen the limitless mercy that is the most fundamental power in the universe, and we are empowered to extend it in the same wildly extravagant way that Jesus did in calling Matthew, toll collector and outcast, to join him as disciple, evangelist, and saint.
Thanks be to God!