I want to take you on a long detour before we get to the lectionary gospel reading in Luke 4. I begin with the strange words of the Mark 9 reading. The language and imagery is stark and unusual. Those who do harm to ‘the little ones’, the marginalised, the vulnerable, the needy, are warned they are fit only to be weighted by a concrete collar and tossed into the sea. If they want to qualify for life within the God-kingdom they must be willing to amputate hands and feet, even pluck out an eye as signs they seek to be free of wrongdoing. My first impulse over the years has been to set this reading aside as an example of outmoded thinking. But I now think these strange and exaggerated sentiments carry important meaning for those wanting to live within the way of Jesus.
Clearly the words are not to be taken literally. They reflect the cruel and vindictive type of tribal law that still persists in some parts of the world and is promoted by Islamic State leaders who regard 7th century tribal law and punishments as being true and appropriate for all time. Theft is punished by the amputation of a hand, escape from slavery by the amputation of a foot and sexual misconduct by the removal of an eye. Some scholars suggest that this, to us primitive practice, might have originally represented a somewhat progressive and humane form of punishment in an era when death was regarded as normal punishment for even the smallest of crimes against the community. A notable early church theologian, Origen, pondered on this passage and having decided that his greatest temptations were to come through his sexual organs rather than hands or feet, castrated himself with a clam shell and lived as ‘a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom’! Why did Mark include such forceful, extravagant and easily misunderstood language as part of his record of the enduring message of Jesus??
It seems to me that behind the graphic and violent language of today’s reading is a question that goes to the heart of life and its possibilities: Is there anything in life, any cause, any truth, any insight or value that is more important than our own comfort and the comfort of those we love? Is there any cause or possibility that might cause us to break ranks and challenge what others regard as proper and godly behaviour? Is their any cause or activity that we should allow to disrupt our plans and ambitions? In the imagery of our text is there anything in life more important than our sight, our mobility and the use of our hands? Jesus, it seems to me, lived from within a solid ‘yes’ to these questions. So what is this ‘ultimate concern’, this possibility that claims precedence over all that is commonly regarded as being essential to the good life?
It can’t be Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism or any of the great religious traditions. Each began as a movement of spirit and each was born from a desire to be servant of peace and harmony but sadly each has contributed more than their share of grief to the human family. None of them have remained consistently faithful to the original peace seeking impulses that brought them into being. Each religion points beyond itself to something deeper and more elemental in life. So perhaps its ‘God’ that’s more important than anything else we can imagine. But, which ‘god’, which understanding or image of the deity? Is it Allah or Yahweh, god the father, or Brahmin, god the all-powerful who creates in one powerful act or god the cosmic lover who in weakness identifies with human weakness and fragility? Disagreement over the meaning of ‘god’ as variously understood within the human family has too often been a cause of strife, even of violent persecution of those whose understanding of ‘god’ differs from those who have power.
We need to go deeper in our search for what is ultimately important and takes precedence over all else. The word ‘god’ has become overgrown with religious politics so we need to reach for the ‘god beyond god’- the unnamed impulse, the voice, the call, the event, the invitation embedded in the deeper places of life and present in everyone. Frequently obscured by the counter claims of a greedy, indulgent and self-serving society this weak and gentle voice continues to nudge and invite from the deep places of human existence. It’s like a whispered invitation to find one’s true life in a never- ending search for justice and peace, generosity and hospitality in a sadly divided and frequently violent world. It’s like a call from beyond yet also from within, emerging from humanity’s past yet directing us toward future possibility. In some religious traditions it’s described as ‘spirit’, a mysterious and silent wind-like presence, a whisper that persists.
John Caputo, a contemporary theologian/philosopher of uncommon insight suggests that we should be less concerned about god’s ‘existence’ than about God’s ‘insistence’. He refuses to attach the word ‘God” to this deep down call lest he inadvertently create a word picture that itself becomes a matter of debate or is freshly captured by creeds and systems that tend to dull human sensitivity to this insistence deep within, this invitation to share in the building of a healed world, a world where justice, peace, generosity and hospitality are embedded in the structures of life. We may have to set aside all we have been taught about God if we are to hear this insistent call to world building. It’s a voice that cannot be contained within human cleverness - it’s like a summons that emerges from the silence beyond our words. In the Christian tradition the name ‘God ’ is the nickname we have given to this insistent voice, this event, this happening, this questioning of the taken for granted, that pesters us and invites us to live within a shared search for peace, justice, hospitality and generosity. The word ‘God’ does not refer to a person- like being but to a summons, a presence luring us to go in search of whatever brings healing to our fractured and troubled world. The words and deeds of Jesus represent a response, within first century conditions, to this call deep within that takes precedence over all else, the ultimate concern around which the whole of life can be shaped. Jesus lived toward a dream he described as the God-Kingdom -a kingdom where ‘the little ones’ are taken seriously and the human world is being rebuilt around their needs. This surely is the movement and summons at the heart of life that takes precedence over every other claim for our attention.
The language of ‘amputation’ in our text seems appropriate to what I’ve suggested. To say ‘yes’, however hesitantly, to the call sensed in the depths of life inevitably means saying ‘no’ to other voices that clamour for our attention- the taken for granted values and societal ambitions that surround us like water surrounds a fish. In western middle class culture the expectation is that we will each seek after power, prestige and possessions as the driver of our living and the measure of our success. So deeply embedded are these values in the western psyche that to set them aside is like a form of amputation. We could rephrase the text: “If you seek to be a servant after the manner of Jesus you will need to cut off the search for power lest in gaining the world you lose your soul. If in your search for possessions you find yourself growing rich while others are in need it is better that you cut off the greedy impulse lest you become a toxic intrusion within the human family. If in your search for prestige and position you find yourself to be walking over the rights and aspirations of others it is better to cut off these attitudes and discover the true meaning of simplicity lest you become a harmer rather than a healer within the human community.”
A few years ago two young couples associated with the Community of Saint Luke visited Myanmar. They were drawn there by a sense of adventure and by the needs of this damaged nation. They were overwhelmed by human need and encouraged by the resilience of ordinary people in the face of hardship and deprivation. Many were hindered from a fuller use of their best gifts because they lacked access to small amounts of capital that might enable them to set up a modest village based business. A man asked the group: “Can you help us?” Two of them were law graduates, one a doctor and the fourth an economist. They discussed how they might respond to what they had experienced in Myanmar. Their initial response was to say: ‘this is a worthy project for someone else, perhaps for a government department or an international aid agency. Why us who have so many other things to do with our lives.’ Then one of the group added a new question: ”why not us?”
The question was a game breaker. Reflecting on the event in 2013 Geoff Cooper remarked: ‘This is my story of a time when I said ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’. After reflecting on the big social problems faced by our world – disease, war, environmental degradation, the socioeconomic divide and inequality – I think one of the most revolutionary things we can do in this day and age is to take a breath, grit our teeth and speak but one word: …‘yes’’.
Since then that initial group have set up and successfully operate a small bank making micro loans to people unable to gain credit from the normal banks. The work of Aotearoa Development Cooperative is flourishing in Myanmar and has recently extended its work into Malawi. Was it the ‘god beyond god’, the insistent invitation, the event that disrupts our best laid plans that they heard whispering to them in the words ‘why not us?’ In saying ‘yes’ to the insistent voice within, to the invitation to be healers and justice builders they necessarily had to set aside other ambitions that might have claimed their best gifts. Other possibilities had to be amputated.
In the spirit of today’s gospel reading we might think of the church as ‘a community of the amputated’ – made up of people who have heard the whispered call inviting them to participate in the rebuilding of our broken societies and to escape from the clutches of values and systems that contribute to greed, violence and injustice. Sadly the church across the centuries and into our own time has become compromised and rather than amputating signs of complicity with what harms life has in fact been a willing and enthusiastic accomplice, an apologist and a beneficiary of political, economic and social systems that fuel injustice. Perhaps a new church, a new expression of the Jesus way can be born in our time.
The gospel reading set down for today includes the words of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth when he declared how he intended to respond to the whispered insistence deep within, the voice that would not go away. In his three years of ministry among the villages of Galilee and constantly harassed by guardians of injustice and oppressive religion, he was determined to share good news with the poor, to release captives, give sight to the blind, free the oppressed and live within the ancient dream that God is the energy of love and the possibility of peace. It was a calling that took precedence over personal comfort and all the normal trappings of human success.