rejecting the saving word

There is a theory about history called the Axial Period and along with it Axial consciousness. It postulates that about five centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Common Era, a great leap in the evolution of consciousness took place all over the planet in several spots at the same time. This was a period when the great religions of the world took roughly the shape they were to have going forward. Among other things what is happening in human consciousness is that the magical-mythical mind and magical-mythical thinking are giving way to the rational mind. It’s also the beginning of understanding personal moral responsibility rather than simply reciting formulas and incantations to appease the gods. It’s also the beginning of charting an individual spiritual path, as opposed to a tribal one. (This is when monasticism is born, incidentally, specifically out of Buddhism, monasticism being the prime example of the individual, individualized, spiritual path, intentionally separating from family and progeny.)

The religious traditions that usually get mentioned are: Hinduism––this is when the Upanishads of India burst out of the Vedas; the birth of Buddhism which leaves Hinduism behind completely; the birth of Taoism in China; the rise of Greek philosophy. And most relevant to us, perhaps, this is the era of prophecy in Israel, an evolution in the consciousness of the Chosen People as well, moving from just appeasing God with sacrifices to actually being moral people. As I heard a rabbi say once, “To be moral, you must do moral things.”

There is no better example of this new consciousness in Israel––personal moral responsibility over magical formulas––than Isaiah. The middle of the Book of Isaiah is filled with consolation; but the beginning of it is not so nice. All of the areas mentioned above are being addressed early on in Isaiah––the magical-mythical thinking, personal moral responsibility, as well as the connection with the collective. God says, ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts. …Your new moon and your appointed festivals my soul hates.’ As the Book of Deuteronomy had already taught, instead‘Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart…’: ‘Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.’[1]

What does Christianity add to this Axial consciousness five or six hundred years later? For one thing it tries to ensure that this trajectory stays incarnate––but that is a whole other topic! More importantly in this context, Jesus can be seen as a continuation, even the apogee, of the prophetic tradition of Israel. Twice Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea chapter 6 in the Gospel of Matthew––as if this were a central and summarizing point of his preaching: ‘It is love that I desire, not sacrifice; knowledge of God rather than holocausts’[2] And Jesus also issues a firm corrective to the individualistic spiritual path, maybe even to monks on their individualized spiritual itinerary, not to leave out responsibility to the tribe, to the community of believers, to the Body. The love of God and love of neighbor go together.[3]

We hear also about the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah in today’s gospel passage.[4] Even the mention of Sodom and Gomorrah has such a strong impact, almost archetypal. Folks tend to focus on the prurient sexual aspect of the sin of Sodom. But even if it were that, sexual assault (i.e. rape) is usually not about sex: it’s about power, dominance, violence. I think that’s the real sin of Sodom. Sodom is actually referred to in the first chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah too, as well as in the prophet Ezekiel, and they both associate it with a lack of social justice and disregard for the poor.[5] It doesn’t sound like much, but remember also that hospitality was such a primary virtue for ancient Jews, for the peoples of the desert; and the sin of Sodom was a heinous act of inhospitality, abusing not only guests, but guests who are specifically messengers of God and the message itself. Certainly in this context in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is not talking about a sexual crime as much as he is referring rejection and persecution of God’s messengers, the “beautiful feet of the ones who bring good tidings” (to quote Isaiah again), and choosing instead power, violence and domination.

And Jesus is saying that the punishment against those who reject the gospel message of both repentance and inclusion will be even worse. This may be something akin to the sin against the Holy Spirit, the utter rejection and not only rejection but even a stifling out of the saving Word, failing to recognize the presence of God in Jesus and in his saving words and acts, the presence of God in the power of goodness, and saving power of powerlessness and of the cross, the way of kenosis and service, and so avoid having to repent. Remember the line from the Book of Wisdom, the 4th Week of Lent: Let us beset the just one, who is obnoxious to us… he is a censure to our thoughts.[6] Or as my Jewish yoga teacher said in regards to Jesus, “I finally get it: you either have to follow this guy or kill him.” We hate being challenged out of our mediocrity. We would rather deny the power of goodness. It could be broader too than the explicit gospel and the person of Jesus: failing or refusing to recognize the presence of goodness in our world, because doing so would force us to repent, to change the way we see the world and live in it, urge us out of our ways of power, violence and domination.

Let’s pray that we could recognize and welcome the prophets who are coming along in our day and age, challenging us to grow, to evolve in our consciousness, in our understanding of God and the universe; pray that we may recognize and welcome the messengers of repentance and inclusion are coming to us today and choose that way over power, violence and domination. Let’s pray that the eyes of our hearts would be open so that we could see the Spirit of God working and acting in our midst today, here and now, in ways that we would rather not recognize or acknowledge, and change of our lives, continue to repent and believe the Good News.

cyprian, 18 july 18, feast of Ss. Andrew & Benedict, OSB Cam.

[1] Is 1:11, 14; Deut 10:16; Is 1:17.

[2] Hos 6:6; Mt 9:13, 12:7.

[3] Mt 22:37-38.

[4] Mt 11:20-24.

[5] Is 1:9; 3:9; Ez 16:45-51.

[6] Wis 2:12ff.

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