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Archive for December, 2008

Compassion?

I’m rethinking what the word compassion actually means.  Ive always thought that compassion was something that we do around the holidays for people that are “disadvantaged”.  However, I’ve changed my mind.  Now, if you feel tempted to throw a stone or a rock at me, please continue to read before you do.  I promise to be nice!  I still believe in being compassionate around the holidays but I think it means something more…

The word compassion is quite idiosyncratic.  In Hebrew, this word is usually associated with  a singular noun form which means the “womb”.  The etymology and word picture carries this sense that compassion is similar to what a mother feels for her children.  It is deep, visceral, and instinctive. This rather bizarre association between compassion and the womb insinuates, I think, a deeper meaning:  compassion is more than an act; it is an event that happens deep inside of us.

This compassion was also an essential characteristic that fueled the eschatological, messianic, religious, social, and political vision of Jesus. Compassion wasn’t something that Jesus did around the Jewish calendar; it was a dominant motif that shaped His ministry. In other words, compassion was the heart, the essence of His movement.  It was compassion, ironically, that got Him into trouble with the religious elites.  The scandal that erupted during the brief ministry of Jesus was over how to interpret the Torah.  It was, among other things, a  hermeneutical battle that got nasty really quick.  This battle, which was apart of a deeper theological quarrel, was extremely nuanced and came down to this:  Jesus was moved by compassion;  the Pharisees and the Essenes, two Jewish renewal groups in first century Palestine, were moved by ritualistic purity.  And as we read the Gospel story it doesn’t take long to see that Jesus was subverting the dominant kingdom, social, and political vision of these groups.  Jesus welcomed, invited, and healed those who were categorized as impure; those who were excluded from the religious community because of defect(s). The Pharisees and the Essenes rejected and ostracized…

The storyline of the Gospels captures this “religious” war and hints why some of the religious leaders were so upset.  Mark 5 records three healing scenarios that are connected to the “impure”:  A Greek demonized man living in a cemetery, a women that was hemorrhaging, and a little girl’s funeral.  While, Jesus healed all three( you also have to wonder if the fearful response of the hemorrhaging women was somehow tied to her guilt and awareness of being “impure”) something else was going on.  Jesus was attacking the religious system that had bought into a misguided view of purity and was also critiquing the excessive demands that were dominant during this time.  For example, the Essenes had a very demanding “purity” exam.  They would not “allow the blind, or the lame, or the deaf, or the mute, or anyone with a blemish into their community”.  There were many reasons for this but the point was clear:  according to them, only the strong were called of God.  But Jesus subverted the whole purity system of the Pharisees and the Essenes and turned it upside down through His intentional welcoming of all those who were systematically ostracized.  In short, Jesus was clearly redefining the theological rasion d’etre of the Kingdom.  More importantly, the popular kingdom theology of that day, which was leading Israel in the wrong direction, was being exposed as a sham.  I want to add that I do believe that Jesus was more than a moral reformer, he was not like a social prophet pointing out the problems within Judaism.  This  movement was  messianic and eschatological. However,  compassion was also a fundamental expression within the paradigm of Jesus that it became a dominant characteristic of the Gospels.  The point is that compassion is what clearly drove Jesus to heal the leper, send out the disciples to the surrounding villages, and I would argue what fueled His Passion.  I just don’t think compassion was meant to be a virtue that we just happen to do around the holidays.  The womb metaphor implies and I think evokes a sense that compassion was/is more than doing something very nice for people.  Rather, it was/is a feeling that lies beneath the surface, deep within the interiority of the heart.  It is intrinsically connected to everything that we are and do. Just like a mother who loves her children from her womb, so God loves His world. This is what Jesus embodied in His life and ministry.  One scholar noted that compassion means “to feel with”; that compassion is “associated with feeling the suffering of somebody else and being moved by that suffering to do something.  I have many theological disagreements with this scholar but I agree emphatically with this point.  Compassion is one of those few characteristics that  is foundational to this first century movement, not just a nice little trimming on the side .  This was unquestionably the focus of  Jesus.  It was the sine qua non of His mission. It is also ours. I believe the task that is in front of us today is to somehow embody this kind of compassion to our world!!!  Not a compassion that happens once a year at a soup kitchen or at a turkey drive.  All of these are wonderful and essential but they do not fully express the powerful semantic character of the word compassion.  What we need is a compassion that becomes the dominant trait of our religious paradigm.  What do you think?

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Lambs

In my message for this weekend I’ve decided to start with a question:  Are you lamb?  I’ve been puzzling over Luke 10 and Jesus’ brief and cryptic message:  Be lambs in a wolves world.  He obviously did not say be a wolf in a wolves world.  Nor did Jesus use, which is even more puzzling, standard Jewish symbols that evoked power or strength.  For example, he could have used a lion, or a bull, even a goat to symbolize how the disciples were to interact with the wolves. But he didn’t!  Instead, Jesus deliberately chose the lamb as a symbol that would characterize discipleship. What is even more provocative about this statement is that in the Jewish world lambs were used for sacrifice.  Theologically, they were to take the place and fate of Israel.  I find it remarkable that Jesus would choose a symbol that had no conspicuous qualities.  No superpowers!!! Lambs were the ultimate antihero in the Biblical world who had no extraordinary ability.  So, why then would Jesus intentionally use the lamb as a metaphor and symbol for discipleship?  Well, what seems to be going on is that Jesus was connecting the fate and destiny of the disciples to his own fate and destiny, albeit in a cryptic fashion. This was the path that disciples were to walk on if they intended to follow Jesus.  “Lambs among wolves” also makes a whole lot more sense when we become familiar with the storyline and the series of events that led up to this point in Luke 10.  Jesus knew he didn’t have a lot of time.  Herod was out to get him, religious leaders were plotting to arrest him, his hometown rejected him as a prophet and attempted to throw him off a cliff, and even his own family thought that he was out of his mind.  In other words, wolves were on the prowl and they were diametrically opposed to the agenda of Jesus.  They would do and they did what was in their power to remove this young prophet from the religious scene.  All of this has to make you think!  Has the world and western civilization become more tolerant of alternative points of view or has the church somehow compromised the revolutionary character of the Kingdom of God.  When was the last time that we got beat up or thrown into jail for Jesus?  For me, never!  Unless, of course, you count the time when I got beat up when I was seven but that is a completely different story.  I’m realizing that picking up ones cross wasn’t just a timeless ethical imperative passed down by Jesus.  But somehow it has been reduced to an ascetic discipline that if we get really good at we can become better Christians.  But that isn’t the point of the cross! The point, I think, is deeper:  If we follow the message of the Kingdom to it’s revolutionary end we will encounter forces that are antithetical to it’s agenda.  Thus, we must be willing to give up everything.

Why then did Jesus choose to use the lamb as a controlling symbol for the disciples?  Remember, lambs are weak not strong. And I think that’s the point!  We want to be strong but God wants us to be weak. We want to deal with the wolves in our life in our own way, on our own terms.  We like to play tit for tat and address evil by returning evil.  God simply doesn’t play that game and He certainly doesn’t address evil in the way that we would. It would never work!  The only way to overcome the wolves is by laying ones life down like the lamb.  This is what Jesus did!  This is what we are to do!

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