Saturday, September 24, 2016

a tramp on the street

(Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

There is a theory about what is called the Axial Period in human history that took place about 500 years before the birth of Jesus, what we call the Common Era. It’s a period when some scholars think that a great shift in human consciousness took place in several different places on the globe at the same time. The major things that get listed are, for example, in Asia it was marked by the birth of the scriptures of India known as the Upanishads, and the period when Buddhism broke away from Hinduism, and the birth of Taoism in China. A little more to the west, it was the age of the rise of Greek philosophy; and in the Jewish tradition it was the period of the great prophets.

What is the shift in consciousness that is taking place in Judaism at this time? The Jewish tradition seems to be coming out of a period of mythology and historical accounts, and moving into a period of an accent on greater individual moral responsibility. In the earlier scriptures of Judaism the image of God that is presented to us is a little confusing at times: God seems to be a little capricious, sometimes even warlike. Sometimes God seems to be appeased by sacrifice, as if we could manipulate and coerce God into doing things, or that we could change God’s mind. But in the period of the prophets, there seems to be a shift. In the very first chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, for instance, God asks, ‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls…’ And then in chapter 58 he says:

Is not this the fast I choose:
loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke,
let the oppressed go free, break every yoke,
share your bread with the hungry,
bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, cover them.
Remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.

That’s the kind of fast God wants––justice. And the prophet Amos who we hear in the 1st reading today, stands at the very beginning of this great tradition of the prophets speaking of and calling for social justice in the name of the Lord God, teaching that concern for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the needy is at the very heart of the Law.

We ought to see Jesus in this lineage, this prophetic lineage, always maintaining that the greatest commandment is actually two: not only ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind’ but there is a second too that is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ These two things are inextricably linked together. Twice in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus puts himself firmly in this new prophetic Axial consciousness when he quotes Hosea 6: ‘Go and learn what this means: “It is love that I desire not sacrifice; the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”’

So in some way there is no hidden message here: Our love of God must resolve itself in also caring for those around us, in ever widening circles of involvement. Our spiritual life demands of us a moral, ethical response, and urges us to build a world of justice and peace. And I think we will be judged as a society especially by how we take care of the neediest, the poorest and the weakest in our midst. ‘Anything you did for the least of these,’ Jesus says, ‘you did for me.’

That also leads us to another layer of meaning of this beautiful story. I was taught that we’re always supposed to be looking for Christ hidden in stories in the Scriptures. This is especially true when Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures, so we try to find Christ hidden in the story of Noah’s ark, to find Christ hidden in the story of the Exodus, in the story of the 40 years’ journey across the desert, even in the story of Joshua fighting the battle of Jericho. But we should also look for the Christ in Jesus’ own parables. Jesus is often speaking in veiled reference about himself. And of course in this very story of Lazarus and the rich man too, Jesus is speaking about himself. This Lazarus is a type of Christ, a Christ figure. Jesus is not afraid to be the poor one, the humble one, the one who is cast out, even the defeated one.

There was an old country gospel song that was redone by several folk singers in America, called “Tramp on the Street.” What is interesting about the song is that whoever wrote it was actually a pretty good theologian. They really got it right, not just the moral imperative that is implied in the song––that we cannot ignore the plight of the poor in our midst––but also that Lazarus himself is an image of Christ. In the first verses we sing about Lazarus:

Only a tramp was Lazarus’ sad fate,
he who lay down at the rich man's gate.
He begged for the crumbs from the rich man to eat.
He was only a tramp found dead on the street.
(I love this part…)
He was some mother’s darlin’;
he was some mother's son.
Once he was fair and once he was young.
And some mother rocked him, her darlin’ to sleep,
but they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

And then he sings about Jesus!

Jesus, he died on Calvary’s tree.
He shed his life’s blood for you and for me.
They pierced his side, his hands and his feet,
and they left him to die like a tramp on the street.
He was Mary’s own darlin’; he was God’s chosen son.
Once he was fair and once he was young.
Mary, she rocked him, her little darlin’ to sleep,
but they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

So when we encounter the poor––and Jesus was quite specific about this––we ought to see the face of Christ; we ought to see Jesus who, as St. Paul says, though he was rich he became poor so as to make us rich out of his poverty. In another place Paul calls it kenosis, the Greek word meaning “emptying.” Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave... Jesus emptied himself, became poor, and washed his disciples’ feet. He emptied himself, and gave his life over in a ministry of bringing good news to the poor and healing bodies and supplying banquets of abundance to hungry crowds because he had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a shepherd. Ultimately he emptied himself and became poor even to the point of accepting death, death on a cross, so as to be filled with the glorious power of resurrection. As the poet Christian Wiman put it, Jesus risked “complete erasure” of himself “for the sake of something greater.”

But Paul says you too––we too!––should have this mind of Christ. What does that mean? I think it means two different things. First of all: I don’t want to romanticize poverty, obviously, but when we encounter someone who is poor we are supposed to see ourselves, recognize our own poverty in some way. Maybe that’s why the poor are at times repulsive to us: we can’t stand to think of ourselves in that condition. But there is something worse than physical poverty: there is spiritual poverty. There’s something even worse than a hungry stomach––a starving, famished, depressed, tormented soul. And that’s what I see when I walk around shopping malls and watch people’s faces as they drive by in rush hour traffic. Mother Teresa said when she visited America that the wealthy were a lot poorer than the homeless in our country.

Secondly, a deeper spiritual message: I remember visiting a monastery of Poor Clare nuns some years ago. (They are the cloistered women descendants of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare.) There was a plaque hanging on the wall next to my chair in their dining hall that had a beautiful quote from St. Clare to her sister Agnes in Italian: Ne sono sicurissima––il regno dei cieli il Signore lo promette e lo dona solo ai poveri––“Of this I am absolutely sure, that the Lord promises and grants the reign of heaven only to the poor.” A variation on that might be, the Lord promises and grants divinization only to the poor in spirit, as Jesus teaches in his beatitudes, only to those who have died in some way, those who have emptied themselves of themselves.

There is a piece of universal wisdom here, and I think that the Christian tradition articulates this as beautifully if not more beautifully than any other religious tradition, though it may be a piece of universal wisdom that is really only understood in mature spirituality in any tradition. In his famous book The Perennial Philosophy Aldous Huxley points out that in all authentic traditions Ultimate Reality is only clearly understood by those who are loving, by those who are pure in heart and poor in spirit. “[It] is a fact which cannot be fully realized or directly experienced,” he says, “except by souls… who have fulfilled certain conditions.” And he goes on to point mostly to the life of Jesus and to many Christian saints, and he quotes the famous phrase of St. Augustine: Ama et fac quod vis––“Love and do what you will.” But, he says, you can only do this “when you have learnt the infinitely difficult art of loving God with all your mind and heart”; and we can only love and do what we will when we have learned that infinitely difficult art of loving our neighbor as ourselves. We can only love and do what we will when we have emptied ourselves of all other loves and attachments and desires. That is the baptismal death we have to undergo and the baptismal pledge by which we live, and the demand of our participation at the Eucharistic Table––that we ourselves agree now to be broken like the bread and passed out, crushed like the grapes and poured out for the sake of the world.

These are good questions to ask ourselves today in response to today’s gospel: Are we willing to be poor like Jesus? Are we willing to experience complete erasure for the sake of something greater than ourselves––for the sake of the reign of God? Are we willing to shed our blood for the sake of Christ? Are we willing to lay down our lives for our friends? Are we willing to suffer persecution for the sake of justice? These are all simply the demands of the gospel. In our monastic tradition we follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and he has some very annoying, demanding chapters toward the end of his rule. It’s not a great exalted thing we’re after as Benedict teaches it; it’s on a much more mundane and immediate level: he asks if we are simply willing to support one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior with patience, in community, in our family, in our workplace; and are we earnestly willing to compete in obedience to one another, are we willing to judge not what seems best for ourselves, but always what we judge best for someone else? This too is the poverty of spirit to which the gospel calls us. It’s not enough to dress in fine robes, or have good posture or even a still mind from yoga class, or memorize and quote scripture passages and say the right prayers in the right language. We’re not going to be able to buy our way into heaven nor manipulate God. We must at some point empty ourselves completely, and sit waiting, and make ourselves totally available to the Spirit of God.

God promises and gives the reign of God––a share in divinity––only to the poor in spirit. Of this I am, and we can be, absolutely sure, sure that it is only given to the poor, but sure that it will be given to us if we empty ourselves completely as Jesus did, and wait in joyful hope for the coming of the reign of God.