killing the just one
(fr Cyprian, 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
I don’t know if it’s just me (though I doubt it is), but sometimes things that are too beautiful and people who are too good can be really irritating. We don’t like to admit it, but it’s true. Someone who is more talented than us, someone who is smarter than we are, more organized, better at sports, better looking. And, God forbid, someone who seems to hold all those things together in a wondrous package! Why do they irritate us? I think it’s because they shake us out of our complacency and mediocrity. I think of the composer Salieri as portrayed in the movie and play Amadeus, who is beside himself with jealousy and self-loathing when he hears the music of Mozart, because the enormous talent of Mozart revealed him for all his mediocrity. I think this happens when we see someone phenomenally intelligent or outrageously talented or astoundingly good-looking. There is something unsettling about real beauty, real talent, real goodness––and also about real innocence.
It’s what we do with that unsettling movement, that irritation, that counts though. One reaction is simply to celebrate God’s great generosity in having made something, someone so beautiful. Another reaction is to be spurred on, inspired to achieve and assimilate the greatness we see. But another, and perhaps more common reaction, is to want to destroy it, because it is a mockery of us, of our own ugliness or of our own mediocrity. That’s why we love to eat our leaders and destroy our heroes and our celebrities in our culture. We want to level the playing field, lower the bar. The playwright in Amadeus makes the comparison to Jesus when he has Salieri say to the priest: “Your merciful God destroyed his own beloved Son rather than let mediocrity share in his glory.”
I always think that this is the image portrayed in the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2. That’s what I see in Herod, so threatened by this beautiful, innocent Prince of Peace that he has to destroy all the little innocents of the land. And I wonder if we don’t do this too to our own children. Their innocence and weakness irritates us, and so we give them that hard edge as soon as possible so that they can survive in this dog-eat-dog world, and make them as cynical as we are—twice as fit for hell as we are ourselves, as Jesus says about the scribes and Pharisees.
That’s of course what’s going on in this reading we hear from the book of Wisdom, which we also hear toward the end of Lent as a proximate preparation for Jesus’ passion and death: ‘Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us… merely to see him is a hardship for us (Wis 2).’ I heard a Jewish yoga teacher say once, after visiting a charismatic Christian preacher, “I finally figured this Jesus guy out: you either had to follow him––or kill him!” Jesus was killed because he was simply too beautiful.
As doesn’t always happen, this reading from the Letter of James gives us a good description of the difference between the innocent and the cynical. On the one hand there is jealousy and the selfish ambition that lead to our wars and conflicts, James says. And of course in this gospel passage Jesus disciples were personifying what James is criticizing, discussing along the way who is the greatest among them. On the other hand the child that Jesus pulls in their midst and embraces is the symbol of the just one who is, as James tells us, pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy, without inconstancy or insincerity. It’s very optimistic, perhaps, but Jesus is suggesting that this is what we are really like, naturally. It is sin and cynicism that are against our real nature.
Remember how often in the gospels how Jesus’ own people take offense at him, when he goes there to preach in his home town or when he cures the demoniacs by sending the demons into the swine, they are scandalized by him! They chase him out of town. It’s as if they were saying to Jesus, “Who do you think you are?!” We actually hear that a lot from each other in insidious, subtle ways. “Who do you think you are to be brilliant, kind, talented, holy?” And we believe it. That voice gets into our head. In the corporate world it’s called the “glass ceiling”; you can’t see it but you keep running into it. In religious life we say instead, “The long-stemmed roses are the first to get trimmed.” Well, remember how Nelson Mandela at his inaugural address quoted Marianne Williamson saying instead: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves: ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?” he says. “You are a child of God! Your playing small does not serve the world! There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
The most courageous thing we can do is shine! Now he’s talking about talent among a people in South Africa who had been oppressed and suppressed for generations and needed to be built up. But I wonder, can’t this also apply to virtue? We ask ourselves, “Why should I be peaceful, gentle, compliant, merciful, generous, patient? No one else is! They’ll just take advantage of me if I am. People will make fun of me, tease me, walk all over me.” Well, actually, who are you not to be pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy, constant and sincere? We were meant to make manifest the glory of God! We were meant to be prophets, priests and royalty! We were meant to embody the beatitudes!
But yes, you’re right: we must be prepared for the cross. That’s clear from today’s gospel too. Because the world does not like to be challenged out of its mediocrity and complacency anymore than we ourselves do. This is why prophets are always persecuted, especially among people who know them well, who know their fragile vessels well, who are scandalized that Divine power, that Grace who actually flow through such a seemingly unworthy vessel and vehicle.
This reminds us that we are prophets not out of arrogance, not because we hate the world, and not because we are better than anyone else. We hold this treasure in an earthen vessel to make us realize that this power does not come from us, with a thorn in our flesh to remind us that on our own, without grace, we are nothing, just frail weak fallible hypocritical bumbling humanoid bipeds, but with the grace of God we are everything––prophets, priest, royalty. We become prophets when we look around us and see that others are glowing too. We see others carrying the treasure within them, and we call it out of them as we call it out of ourselves. We start to see with God’s eyes and call the deepest truest part out of each other and challenge each other to live the promise, to live up to ou dignity. And we look out at the world around us and we do not condemn it, just as Jesus did not come to condemn it. Instead we see the glory of God being made manifest in sight and sound and smell; and we remind the world, that God so loved, of its origin and its end to participate in divinity. That’s what a real prophet is: someone who makes known the glory of God that is among us, within us. And that is what we are meant to be for each other.
And so we pray that through the grace of the Word and Sacrament today we could have the courage to take the risk to shine, take the risk to be a light to the world, take the risk to be pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy, without inconstancy or insincerity, in a world that does not always reward such things, knowing that our real selves, hidden with Christ in God, can never be destroyed but are in the image of God moving more and more to likeness.
(Image: “The Mocking of Christ” by Gerritt van Honthorst)