Spilling Rubies

Ezekiel 17:22-24
17:22 Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.

17:23 On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.

17:24 All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.

In this passage from Ezekiel, we hear the kind of incarnational spirituality that will inform Jesus’ thinking centuries later. “The first shall be last,” is one of the perplexing statements his disciples remember him making. In some of the non-canonical writings, we also read that the beginning and the end are the same. The trees will grow tall, but eventually fall to age or to the axes of people who want to make their own buildings. But it is in the Divine pattern to move through the cycle from sprig to old age to sprig again, ever new and ever old. Everything is a spiral. Life turns and returns but never exactly the same. To be in sync with the Divine is to understand this spiral nature and to scorn the ladder in favour of the whirling dance of spirit and prayer. In many cultures, dance is a holy act in which people are transported beyond the limits of their expectations. I remember when theologian, Matthew Fox, talked about the phenomenon of Raves. Where others were fearful about the ecstatic dancing, Fox saw a deep need for communion in body and souls, the longing for connection for transcendence of the mundane.  

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves

In the Strength of the Just and Communal Heart

“Because the purpose of law in Aboriginal society is to restore harmony within the community, not only the accused has to be considered. Other people who have been or might be affected by the offence, particularly the victim, have to be considered in the matter of ‘sentencing’ and disposition.
                       In the Ojibway concept of order, when a person is wronged it is understood that the wrongdoer must repair the order and harmony of the community by undoing the wrong. In most cases, the responsibility is placed on the wrongdoer to compensate the wronged persons. This concept of order makes the individual responsible for the maintenance of harmony within the society. Restitution to the victim or victims is, therefore, a primary consideration.” (from, http://www.ajic.mb.ca/volumel/chapter2.html)

“In practice, ubuntu means believing the common bonds within a group are more important than any individual arguments and divisions within it. ‘People will debate, people will disagree; it’s not like there are no tensions,’ said Ogude. ‘It is about coming together and building a consensus around what affects the community. And once you have debated, then it is understood what is best for the community, and then you have to buy into that.’”(from https://www.ttbook.org/interview/i-am-because-we-are-african-philosophy-ubuntu)

These two concepts of community management do not match what has evolved in Western culture. We are locked into ideas about reward and punishment, power that is not communal but codified into systems of laws, enforced by paid staff, and judged — only rarely — by peers or people who have any personal investment. This is a sharp contrast to many forms of communal organization.

Jesus also seemed to encourage a less legislative approach to community. With many Pharisees, he saw the occupation of Israel as a direct consequence of communal breakdown. The way to end this paralyzing situation was to return to a sense of communal responsibility grounded in compassion, reconciliation, and integrity. Jesus challenged injustice when he perceived it, and sheltered the vulnerable with his words and actions.

The image of the family table that he created is one where sinner and saint sit side by side, where women and men freely discuss ideas and actions, where non-violence is the practice. In that way, oppressors would be conquered, not with swords, but with resilient community. All people would share responsibility for each other, as parents and children, siblings and prodigals returning to the heart of each other. When discrimination and condemnation occur, the heart will crumble and break open to let in the power of oppression, but in the strength of the just and communal heart, no harm can break in.

Challenge and Resistance

Jesus was a Jew living amongst Jews. Many Pharisees would have welcomed his teaching, but some would have complained about the way he understood Torah. We can get a contemporary feel for this edge when we listen to our own theological debates in the church, some of which embrace new thinking and some of which resist what is perceived to challenge what is known and safe.

Amy Jill Levine remarks on her blog (http://johnshaplin.blogspot.com/2015/06/the-pharisees-by-amy-jill-levine.html) that for the majority of Jesus’ Jewish audience the Pharisees would have been respected teachers, those who walked the walk as well as talked the talk. Josephus, a priest who found the Pharisees’ voluntary organization in competition with his own inherited priestly status, mentions their interpretations of the Torah designed to make the ancient teachings relevant to the society of their day: “On account of which doctrines, they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people; and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction; insomuch that the cities gave great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also.”

The Pharisees functioned away from the Temple, in the same milieu as Jesus. Some of them would have identified with his understanding of the spirit of the law, but others would have clung to the idea of the letter of the law. This divide has allowed us to entertain slavery, sexism, gender bigotry, intelligence and physical prejudices, classism, and so on, as we argued our way to inclusivity and back to the hospitality of the followers of Jesus.

In Mark 2:23-3:6, Jesus remarks that the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for a code of arbitrary rules. This is an echo throughout the sacred story of Israel, the conflict between compassionate justice and dispassionate law. Always the story comes back to the essence of God’s will which is to protect the vulnerable and to expect more of those with authority. In the call of Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)), the boy receives a prophecy in which he will be required to call out senior priests for their abuse of their power and thus, their disrespect for the way of the Holy One.

I don’t think this is just about religious institutions. All institutions require accountability for their work and for how they do that work, for the assets they have, and how they use those assets. And the voices calling people to account may come from surprising sources: the young, the disenfranchised, the invisible citizens of a community.

So how do we hear these challenges? I think we ask ourselves the tough questions about what we are protecting for our own comfort, what we have trouble sacrificing for others (especially those whom we do not consider “ours”). Jesus told us that we, too, would be asked to carry a cross that would require courage and commitment, humility and sacrifice, concern for others whom we have yet to meet. Like the Pharisees, we have to decide to follow Jesus down a risky path, or we have to deny and resist the new call of the Holy One.