Seeing is a Challenge
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
7th Sunday after the Epiphany
19 February 2006
I am not an abuser of children. I am not a sexual abuser. I am not guilty of domestic or family violence. I am not an abuser of drugs or medication. I am a not a social ill. Nor should I be equated with such.
Yet that is what the Metropolitan Library Commission did this week. It informed the GLBT community that in their minds we are social ills that need to be segregated from everything else that is normal and good. A special section will be created within the children’s area of the library where gay themed books will be kept.
Speaking before the commission I demanded that they look at me, because I wanted them to see me, really see me. Not just use their stereotypes and prejudices to see what they expect to see, but instead to see Scott Jones. An Oklahoman. Born, raised, baptized, educated, and ordained within this state. A churchman, a loyal family person, a faithful friend, an active citizen, a scholar. But it appears that they are either unable or unwilling to see.
One of the members of the special committee kept bending over backwards to defend her actions in supporting this action, talking a lot about access and library policies. She was clearly struggling. But unfortunately she failed to understand that this wasn’t about policies and compromises. This was about insulting and offensive treatment of a segment of the population that grew even more insulting and offensive when the motion of the special committee was announced and we were equated with child abuse, sex abuse, family violence, drug use, alcoholism, etc.
Why could they not understand? What was the challenge to seeing?
As we’ve been exploring the theme of “Seeing Jesus” in the Gospel of Mark I’ve talked a lot about what blinds us. Like the disciples, we can be blinded because we are so busy focused on things like getting ahead, gaining more stuff, building our careers, etc. Instead we need to be more like the children and the other minor characters who don’t have anything to lose and so are able to stay focused on the real message of Jesus.
But there is a third group in the Gospel of Mark, separate from the disciples and the minor characters and with a unique set of characteristics. This third group is the authorities, primarily made up of the Jewish religious authorities. Before I go further in discussing this group, I want to point out that these are characters in a story. These characters are purposely portrayed as one dimensional and in a negative light. They fill a role in a story. We are not to assume that the actual persons involved in the historical incidents on which this Gospel is based were one dimensional figures. I make this caveat because we do not want to creep into anti-Semitism and mischaracterize the Jewish religion based on the portrayal of the Jewish leaders in the Gospel of Mark.
So, concerning the authorities in the Gospel of Mark, do they see or are they blind? Scholars actually disagree about how to interpret the authorities. Some consider them to be blind and lump them with the disciples. Others argue that they do in fact see, if only partially. As such you get a nice three-way division. The disciples don’t see. The minor characters see and like what they see. The authorities see and don’t at all like what they see.
The authorities appear blind early on, but quickly catch on that something radical is going on here. I do think that they understand more than the disciples understand, because pretty early on the authorities want to arrest Jesus.
Mitzi Minor interprets them as being able to see, but only partially. What they see and understand is that Jesus represents a radical change from the way they normally do business. In particular, Jesus is upsetting the standard religious practices centered around the temple in Jerusalem. In some sense this is clear from the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. John’s baptism in the wilderness for the forgiveness of sins is co-opting a ritual that has previously been the exclusive domain of the temple. Jesus participates in this baptism and it is the inauguration of his ministry.
Throughout the gospel he teaches with an authority that the scribes and elders do not have. When they come asking by what authority Jesus teaches, they want to know who his instructors were, which school of rabbinical thought was he a part of. In other words, who was your major professor? Who chaired your dissertation committee? Where did you go to seminary? Jesus is not following the accepted standards and procedures.
His healings, exorcisms, and miracles are an attack on the ritual practice as well. Remember that the diseased, disabled, and mentally ill were considered ritually unclean and were unable to participate in the sacred ceremonies of the Jewish faith. Jesus comes and includes the diseased, disabled, and mentally ill and does so in the name of God.
And he sits down to table with people who you aren’t supposed to eat with -- tax collectors, women, prostitutes, etc. Jesus has even gone into Gentile regions and blessed them and celebrated a feast with non-Jews.
Finally, Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and cleanses the temple, announcing that this is to be a house of prayer for all nations and not a den of thieves. Jesus wasn’t just casting out moneychangers. He was upsetting the way the temple functioned. What was being sold were the animals used to make sacrifices. The money being exchanged was the temple tax. The thieves aren’t simply the folk sitting at the booths; Jesus is targeting the religious authorities. They are the ones who have turned God’s house into a den of thieves; they are the thieves. And it is at this point in the story that they seek to kill him.
The authorities understand that the message and ministry of Jesus is a radically transformed society that will upend the normal religious system. In this Gospel they are portrayed as self-involved men who do not want to lose their power, position, and status. They do not want to lose their sacred traditions nor their control over them.
This is quite clear in the episode recounted in today’s gospel. When they ask Jesus about his authority, he refuses to answer unless they tell him what they thought of John the Baptist. Notice that the authorities weigh which is the best, most political answer, and can’t figure it out. Notice that they aren’t even remotely concerned with giving a truthful, authentic answer about their own real opinions on the matter.
So, my conclusion regarding the authorities is that they do fully understand the consequences of what Jesus is teaching. But what they don’t see is that Jesus is God’s agent. They don’t see God at work here. They see a political, economic, and religious threat.
Why do they not see God at work? Because it is clear that they are not concerned with truth. They only see what they want to see. It appears that their blindness is a more willful act than the disciples’ blindness. The disciples just seem clueless. Whereas the authorities are unwilling to accept what they see happening in Jesus, therefore their understanding is blocked.
And what blocks them is their religion. As Mitzi Minor writes,
Our religious service may even be a stumbling block for ourselves and others. As a result of that service we may create systems and structures for doing the work of God that we then equate with God and come to love because this God serves us well! . . . the more likely we are not to see the Spirit at work in unexpected people or places or circumstances, or if we see such work, to reject it even if it is the Spirit’s work.
The Tolstoy story “The Three Hermits” that was read earlier is a humourous, but powerful, illustration of how our religion can sometimes be the very thing that separates us from accepting God’s work in the world. Other stories convey even darker possibilities.
One of the most powerful chapters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov is “The Grand Inquisitor.” In this story Jesus returns to sixteenth-century Spain during the Inquisition. Jesus spreads mercy and grace. He is arrested by an old cardinal. This cardinal knows precisely who Jesus is. He sees fully. But the old cardinal lectures Jesus that the religion Jesus taught is not best for the people; that what the people need is to be told what to do. They need strict rules and order. The cardinal informs Jesus that the church has corrected Jesus’ work.
Many stories make us wonder if there are people in power who do fully understand but act contrary to that understanding anyway. Clearly there are political leaders who would knowingly violate the law in order to help their friends gain government contracts. Or there are CEO’s who cheat their workers and stockholders in order to acquire millions of dollars. And there are religious leaders and elected officials who would demonize some group of people simply in order to gain more personal power. We humans really haven’t changed all that much in the two thousand years since this gospel was written.
So, what does all this mean for us current day disciples of Christ?
First, power must always be viewed with a healthy skepticism. We must always listen a little more attentively to the voice of the outsider, the critic, the powerless. We shouldn’t listen more attentively to them because they are always going to be right. But we should listen because they have less of an ability to speak and less occasion to be heard than the powerful. And it might be that not only are they right, but they might be speaking some new truth that it would benefit us to hear.
Second, we Christians must always be willing to speak truth to power. We should be equally critical of Democrats and Republicans when they fail to live up to the high ideals of a beloved community. And we should oppose abuse, violence, and oppression at the hands of the powerful, whether it be in the context of the family, the corporation, or the city.
Third, we must be careful of the vices of institutionalism. I’m a pretty anti-institutional sort of person. I’m one of those folk who doesn’t like what is called “the institutional church.” Of course, it is a truism that once three people decide to meet someplace, they’ve started an institution. But that’s not what I mean when I say I’m opposed to institutionalism. Because we are an institution here at the Cathedral of Hope, and we are working hard to build an institution. But in the process I want us to avoid committing the sin of institutionalism.
What is this “sin of institutionalism”? It is when the maintenance of the institution becomes the end and not the means. When the institution’s finances, building, reputation, etc. become more important than its heart, its spirit, its ministry. I’ve known churches that were so afraid they’d lose people and money that they lacked the courage to do what they knew was right. I can speak from experience.
Among the vices of institutionalism is the tricky concept of compromise. Sometimes we are told that we must compromise. And, yes, in any political system compromises must be made. But certain things, like the dignity of a human being should never be compromised. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to this issue, he called it moderation. His words:
They are saying we must adopt a policy of moderation. Now if moderation means moving on with wise restraint and calm reasonableness, then moderation is a great virtue that all men of good will must seek to achieve in this tense period of transition. But if moderation means slowing up in the move for justice and capitulating to the whims and caprices of the guardians of the deadening status quo, then moderation is a tragic vice which all men of good will must condemn.
The fourth lesson for us today is that we must take a good long look at ourselves. Are we guilty of the abuse of power? Are we involved in maintaining an unhealthy status quo? Do we approach all people with a spirit of goodwill? Or do we despise our enemies as much as they despise us?
We must beware lest our righteous indignation lead to self-righteousness. So, what do we do to counteract the corrosive nature of such sin? We continue to practice the spiritual disciplines. We study these powerful stories that have much to teach us. We pray and meditate. We make worship a habit. We engage in genuine community with others who serves as models and fellow travelers on the journey.
But the fifth lesson is the most important of all. Jesus’ words at the end of today’s gospel were “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” He’s talking about us. Jesus will be the cornerstone of a new household, but in that household all of those who have been rejected will be included. No matter what the powerful might say or do, they cannot change the ultimate truth that God loves us. They may think we are a social disease on the level with drug abuse, family violence, and sexual abuse. But who are they?
You see, this is all really an absurd, ironic comedy. We get to pity them for their lack of understanding. They are the ones who are unable to see. They are the ones unwilling to accept the powerful good news of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
God is creating something new. We are a part of it. And it is amazing to behold.