Today is one of those days where the compilers of the lectionary have, whether intentionally or not, paired together two passages from the New Testament that I find—because of their pairing— unexpectedly arresting.
At first glance, this pairing of epistle and gospel may strike us as a bit lopsided. We hear a dense admonition from St Paul, some of his harshest words, as he decries the inclination of the community at Corinth to pursue one another with lawsuits. In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?
And then there is this bit from the Gospel According to Luke, a good seventy percent of which is but a list of names, names familiar to us now, names so familiar we might wonder what could possibly edifying about them. Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
Surely, the theological thesis of this excerpt from Luke comes at the tail end, right? They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Ah, yes, that sounds more like something a Messiah would do—heal and teach.
But I think something else is at work here if we let ourselves be pushed up against by the Spirit. For I think this pairing of epistle and gospel is all the more edifying if we take seriously the way the author of Luke has arranged his text. For we do not hear “Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. Then he went down and healed the multitude and cured them of their unclean spirits by great acts of power.”
Jesus is at prayer with God all night. All night in preparation for what? I think, for the calling together of these twelve mismatched men, these twelve seemingly incompatible personalities, and in particular, this one heart belonging to a man of the family Iscariot. Here, the humanity and the divinity of Jesus may well have, we might infer, come to something of a disagreement, something that required a night-long discourse with the Father. We can sense it in ourselves, too. Judas. The betrayer. And as this name alone can insight some of our worst tendencies, it is here that I invite us to arrest our reflexes. For the actions of this one man have arguably served as an excuse for some of the worst atrocities professing Christians have ever committed, from the wholesale condemnation of the Jewish people, to the common-place civil mandate for the torture and execution of those deemed “traitors” of crown or country or class or tribe.
It is, I believe, the reason that Paul comes across as so very disappointed in his fledgling community at Corinth and has such strong words for them. Indeed, words not just for them, but for us as well.
Around the globe, the United States bears a stereotype for its propensity for lawsuits. I was listening to a podcast recently featuring a conversation between two men, one from the UK and one from the US. So common is this trope about American culture that the participant from the UK, with no objection from his transatlantic interlocutor, was able to remark, “yes, but you all are quite subpoena-happy over there.”
This cultural quirk may amuse us, and yet at the same time deep down we feel something of its necessity. Sometimes we are simply right, sometimes this or that person is clearly a traitor, and the only way to set our sense of justice at ease is to have this righteousness duly displayed and recorded by hauling our offender into the public spotlight.
This is, I suspect, something deeply ingrained in our human need to feel justified—and it begins early. If you have ever seen a toddler react to receiving even the slightest injustice, you will know the force of this human reflex. Indeed, I can remember my own outbursts of indignation at such feelings of injustice as a child; and they were not pretty. I am, after all, one of two boys.
It is easy to lose ourselves to this reflex. And we may indeed be “in the right” when we do. Judas indeed betrayed Jesus to the authorities. So-and-so really did defraud so-and-do… at least, according to our limited perception of the intentions of others. Yet the life into which the Risen Christ beckons us seems to leave little room for this soothing of our own bruised sense of justice, not even one square inch of space for the demonstration of our rightness.
But, once we have seen this connection at work in the arrangement of our lectionary, what can be done? Is there any practice we can undertake as communities in Jesus Christ that will allow us to spend the long night in prayer with Jesus before the Father as the Father presents to us those whom we are supposed to love, those whom we know may well betray or hurt us?
I think there is. And it is deceptively simple.
One of the greatest challenges of life in community here at the monastery—indeed, in any monastery where corporate prayers are sung in choir—is the demand placed on each of us as we come together to sing the daily office; what tradition names, in the words of St Benedict, the “Opus Dei,” or “The Work of God.” This is where the aims of a monastic choir diverge greatly from the aims of a parish choir. There are many spiritual disciplines at work in the dynamic of a monastic choir, but one of the most crucial is the gradual dulling of, nay even the eventual eradication of this forceful human reflex to condemn.
As we sing together the words of the psalms and canticles, we push and pull on one another. The interpretation of one brother bumps up against the interpretation of another, the pitch and intonation of another grates on the pitch and timbre of yet another. And yet the discipline of our time in choir is not to assert ourselves, not to demonstrate the rightness of our interpretation, not to show the elegance of our pointing, not to drag the pitch of one brother into the rightness of our own. The object of our time in choir is the work of God. This phrase of St Benedict, “Work of God,” “Opus Dei,” is I think a two-fold pun. For it is at once both a kind of work as we each surrender our own claims and die—little by little—to the need to be right, and is also the work God the Spirit undertakes within the precincts of each of our hearts.
Find a place in your own community, wherever that might be, to undertake something like this Work of God—a space place where you can bump up against the will and intentions of those with whom you work or live or love. A place where you can learn with your neighbor to let go of the reflexive need to be right, to be justified, to have the scales set right.
Because when God came in human flesh, he did not come to set the scales aright. For if that had been his aim, we would each of us likely find in ourselves a figure eerily like Judas Iscariot.
No. When God came to set us free, he came to wipe away such scales; to set us at last on a different path. A path not to our own validation or sense of righteousness, but instead a path where we might be so enthralled by the love of God that the reflex of the old self and its need to be justified might fall away forever, swallowed up in love and mercy.
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