welcoming the word
(13th sunday in ordinary time, cycle A)
I often find myself having these internal debates not only with the scriptures themselves, but also with the compilers of the Lectionary. It’s so interesting, the way the liturgy weaves the scriptures together. At first, looking at today’s gospel selection from Matthew,[i] I was annoyed that they left out the few verses before it, which obviously go with it, when Jesus says: ‘Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother… And then we hear the call to radical discipleship: Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy to be my disciple… and that’s when we find out that the sword we wield is actually the cross that we have to bear; and who we have to slay with it is the false self: Those who would save their life would lose it, those who lose their life would save it. As Paul explains in the reading from Romans today,[ii] that is exactly what our baptism is about: dying with Christ, but only so that we can really live with him. But there’s something else going on in these readings too, the way the Church presents them to us.
I was in India in 2006, in Tiruvanamalai, staying at Sri Ramana Ashram with our friend and former monk Michael Christian, and one day he took me to visit some friends of his, the Krishnamurtis. They were an older very dignified couple. Mr. Krishnamurti had been the head of Indian Railways for a time but he had retired and the two of them had moved to Tiruvanamalai to devote their lives now to the third asrama, the third stage of life––vanaprasta, to devote themselves to the spiritual life. As we walked in the house, before we began to eat lunch, the two of them started chanting something in Sanskrit as a kind of grace before the meal. Afterward I asked them what it was and they told me it was from the 15th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, and she said, “We always sing that when holy men come to visit.” Everyone there considers Michael to be a sadhu; he always dresses in the white of a sadhaka. And of course they knew I was a monk and a priest; I was in the khavi robes that our monks wear in India. But I found it embarrassing, to be welcomed as if I was a holy man! I remembered the teaching from the Bhagavad Gita that it’s better to be a holy householder than a phony sannyasi. These were two of the sweetest holiest people I ever met; and I was feeling like a phony sannyasi.
There are several other places where Jesus speaks of the cross and self-denial,[iii] but there is something particular going on here the way the church presents it to us. What’s so interesting to me is how out of any other passages from the Old Testament, especially from the prophets, that could have been used to talk about radical discipleship (I might have chosen something from the prophet Jeremiah), instead we get this story about Elisha and the wealthy woman who offers him hospitality, and suddenly the second part of the gospel reading, which doesn’t seem to go with the first part, starts to make sense.
That first part of the gospel is about the conditions of radical discipleship. As Robert said yesterday, you’d think Jesus would be luring disciples in with riches or pleasure or fame, but instead he offers as an incentive the most heinous form of capital punishment used in that part of the world at that time––the cross. Jesus is asking for total disenfranchisement from his disciples, absolute stripping, even from family, which was the bedrock of society in Jewish culture. And no one from the Old Testament could be more of a symbol of that kind of radical discipleship than Elisha, and his predecessor Elijah. Remember it’s from Elisha that we get the famous ‘Let the dead bury their dead’ allusion,[iv] except Elijah actually lets Elisha go and bury his dead; Jesus demands even more. Elijah and Elisha are in that line that leads up to John the Baptist (Jesus actually compares John the Baptist to Elijah), wandering oracles, on the outside of established religion, like madmen on the fringes of society, embracing total dispossession to be available to proclaim the Word of God and call people to, or back to, the covenant with God.
But that’s all in the background. Instead we have this story about the woman who offers Elisha a place of refuge, a meal, and then a lodging. In the same way, in the gospel, after listing the conditions for radical discipleship, Jesus’ tone seems to soften, and he speaks of welcoming his disciples, of welcoming prophets, of welcoming the just, and then even of welcoming little children. What does all that mean? I think it’s actually about welcoming the Word. Like the prophets in general, Elisha in particular is a vessel of the Word, a bearer of the Word, on fire with the Word. And it’s significant that Elisha the Prophet promises this woman a son. Why? Because the Word of God always brings life. Remember a little later Elisha is going to bring this same boy back to life too after he dies of a brain hemorrhage, because the Word always brings life, even where there seems to be death. In welcoming the prophet you are welcoming God’s Word into your house, into your heart, because prophets are embodiments of the Word, the Word that challenges and calls to repentance, the Word that brings life and renews even as it cuts like a two-edged sword. And, of course, Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of that Word, Word-Made-Flesh, not only the Way and the Truth, but the Life, because the Word brings life, life to the full!
I’m not sure everyone is called to the same kind of radical discipleship that Jesus demanded of his apostles and his closest disciples, his prophets and his announcers. The scriptures offer us those who bear the Word by being proclaimers of the Word––those who are called to a kind of radical dispossession and become vessels, apostles and prophets; as well as those who receive that Word, who make a home for it. Jesus doesn’t tell Mary, Martha and Lazarus to go wandering with no bag, or a second tunic or sandals or staff, no bread, no money as he tells some others.[v] But they are the best example of the other side: they welcomed the Word, they made a home for the Word, and the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus, like Elisha, brings life and resurrection to that house too, when he raised Lazarus from the dead, because the Word of God always brings life––even where there seems to be death. The prophet doesn’t just tear down; the prophet brings life!
So if someone welcomes a disciple of Jesus, they are welcoming Jesus himself and One who sent him. And Jesus promises that if you welcome a prophet, you get the reward of a prophet. You can either be a prophet or you can welcome one, and in doing so welcome the prophet’s Word. And if you even welcome the just, you get the reward of the just––and somehow share in being just yourself. But my favorite one, and the clincher for me––if you take care of one of these little ones, the poor, the thirsty, the hungry, the lonely, even just a drink of water… Well, as Jesus says in another place, ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.’[vi] You’ve received the Word. You don’t necessarily have to be a prophet, a wandering sadhu: just take care of the poor and needy, take care of the people around you, open your home and open your heart, and in doing so you too are welcoming the Word! And the Word brings Life.
So maybe there are two paths, or two movements: carrying the Word, and welcoming it, proclaiming the Word and receiving it. I was thinking how this might apply to monasticism, and reflecting on the two archetypes between which I have often felt myself torn. There is the fiery Elijah-John the Baptist renunciate in the desert, the sign of contradiction, the sannyasi or the wandering sadhu on the edge of society, maybe more like the mendicant Francis of Assisi, spreading the dharma like a bee distributes pollen. And then there is the other, the contemplative, maybe the cenobite, maybe the hermit, but the hermit with the door open––especially the door of the heart, ready to welcome the Word, ready to welcome the little ones––emptied of self, emptied completely of everything except what God the Mother Hen brings to eat. One’s not better than the other, the Krishnamurti vanaprastas or the ersatz holy men who came for lunch, because the end is the same––to be so filled with the Word that it takes over your life, it becomes like jet fuel in you that might make you an apostle or prophet, or make you like Mary, Martha and Lazarus, hosts of the Word. Actually the best example is Mary the mother of Jesus, who made a home for the Word so deep in her being that it took root and became flesh in her (the Word of God always brings life!). And then she immediately becomes a kind of apostle and prophet by going to Elizabeth, and the Word and life leaps in Elizabeth’s womb too––John the Baptist, in the spirit and power of Elijah––because the Word always brings life. And the circle is complete, the summit becomes the source and the source becomes the summit becomes the source becomes the summit… We bear and we receive and we bear and receive and bear receive bear receive…We die and rise, die and rise…. We breathe in and breathe out, breathe in breathe out breathe in breathe out….
Either way, whatever path we are called to, let’s pray for that radical dispossession today, to be so emptied of our own agenda that we allow the Word to make a home in us, and know it to be the center of and reason for our being and the very energy of new creation.
2 july 17
[i] Mt 10:37-42.
[ii] Rm 6:3-11.
[iii] Particularly Mt 16:24.
[iv] Mt 8:22; Lk 9:60.
[v] Mt 10:10, Mk 6:8; Lk 10:4.
[vi] Mt 25:40.