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Whose Violence?

Whose Violence?

Friday, December 21, 2012 — Week of 3 Advent, Year 1

Saint Thomas the Apostle

[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer)

EITHER

the readings for St. Thomas (p. 996)

Morning Prayer: Psalms 23, 121; Job 42:1-6; 1 Peter 1:3-9

Evening Prayer: Psalms 27; Isaiah 43 8-13; John 14:1-7

OR

the readings for Friday of 3 Advent (p. 938)

Psalms 40, 54 (morning) // 51 (evening)

Isaiah 10:5-19

2 Peter 2:17-22

Matthew 11:2-15

I chose the lessons for Friday of 3 Advent

I want to consider a perplexing line in Matthew’s gospel today.

First the setting. John the Baptist sends word from prison asking of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to look for another?” (11:3) The question is understandable. John has prophesied of the one to come who will fulfill the expectations of the great prophets. The Messiah will come with his winnowing fork and fire to punish the unrighteous and to reward the righteous, to restore Israel to freedom and holiness and to bring vengeance upon her enemies. So far, John hasn’t seen any of that activity.

Jesus’ answer also draws from the ancient prophets. He quotes from Isaiah’s vision for the new creation. “Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them. Happy are those who don’t stumble and fall because of me.” (11:4f) Jesus reinterprets the mission and expectation of the “one who is to come.” His mission is one of compassion, healing and peace rather than vengeance, judgment and winnowing. Then, Jesus speaks words of commendation about John, connecting him to Elijah as transitions between this age and the age to come.

In that speech, Jesus makes this assertion which caught my eye: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is violently attacked as violent people seize it.” (11:12, CEB) The NRSV says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”

It may be too much to read into this phrase, but it seems like a self-defining comment that changes the nature and mode of our relationship with God’s reign.

Throughout scripture the writers interpret certain situations as being God’s use of violence to achieve divine purposes. Today Isaiah speaks of Assyria’s military destruction of Israel as “the rod of (God’s) anger, in whose hand is the staff of (God’s) fury!” (11:5) Then Isaiah prophesies that God will judge Assyria and devour its soldiers and lands. Violent images associated with God’s activity are abundant in scripture.

But that was not the way of Jesus. And the ultimate symbol of that is the cross. Through the cross, God’s person receives the world’s violence as a willing victim, refusing to meet violence with violence. He is the peace in the center of violence. He is the ultimate coming of God’s kingdom. Instead of vengeance, there is forgiveness. “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Instead of reactive violence, there is resurrection.

The church has not been able fully to incorporate into her heart this radical peace that Jesus initiates. We have not adopted the vision of a God who spurns vengeance and judgment in favor of compassion, healing and peace. We need look no further than the past few days’ readings from 2 Peter to see some of it. Second Peter is a book with much polemic, name-calling. The writer anticipates a day when God will punish his enemies. The images and words carry a degree of violence, and the spirit is bitter and conflictive at times.

There is an important point of interpretation for Christians. Whenever there is a conflict between a principle found in scripture and the person of Jesus, Jesus trumps that principle. For Christians, Jesus is the incarnation of God. Jesus is the human face of God. Jesus shows us the heart of God. What is God like? Look at Jesus. What is God’s kingdom like? Look at the way Jesus would invite the world to be. What is God doing? Look at the deeds of Jesus.

So, go tell Isaiah and John and the writer of 2 Peter what you see: “Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them. Happy are those who don’t stumble and fall because of me.” No more violence in God’s name.

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