I think that’s why Jesus paired the two together, loving God and loving neighbor: one follows the other, and you can’t have one without the other. Maybe YOU can, but I can’t! I can’t love my neighbor on my own–not the people in my immediate vicinity or the person in need across the street–without help. Honestly, that’s one reason why I pray. I have to stay connected to God, to seek Jesus’ presence to live with an open and forgiving heart. I HAVE to cultivate my relationship with God because I cannot live compassionately or justly in the world without her grace.
There’s something subversive about Jesus’ brand of service, something that upsets the established order of things, otherwise his teachings, healings, and feedings wouldn’t have led to a cross: “Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?” I think that when greatness is redefined, so are priorities. This brings to mind a quote by the Brazilian bishop, Dom Helder Camara, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Are wealth and possessions, in and of themselves, evil? Are we to hear his words as a directive to the rest of us? Is Jesus calling all of us to asceticism, to severe self-denial, chucking all we own? Are we, like the man in this story, when faced with the choice of being inducted into God’s reign or keeping what’s within our grasp, walking away dejected?
Although most of us might not have had a mystical experience on a street corner, there are those other times. Kind of like epiphanies, but not quite. There are the times when a previously hopeless situation shines with refreshed possibility. When, out of absolutely nowhere, you have a spark of insight that arises in the midst of ordinary circumstances. Or a fleeting moment when the scales fall from your eyes and you see what is truly important in life…
That’s the thing about prophets: they’re not provocative for provocativeness’ sake. They sense a Spirit-breathed call. That’s what gives them the courage, the conviction, the stamina. Firm trust in the loving justice of God fuels ordinary people to risk telling the truth. But that’s another aspect of being prophetic: the price. There’s always a price…
We are all called, wherever we are to, by our words and deeds, point the way toward the infinite compassion and peace that we find in the God revealed in Jesus. Like Jairus, faithful leaders realize that they cannot heal the world by themselves or bring hope to others by themselves. They are the ones who push through a laughing, cynical crowd saying, “No, death and despair never have the last word… and like the woman who had the tenacity to grab hold of Jesus’ tunic, leaders of this sort lead from their own struggle to find God in the midst of pain and confusion.
[Jesus replies] The seeds are scattered in rocks, thorns, shallow dirt, and rich soil; they’re no respecters of ground. So it is with God’s kingdom– God’s radical love showers upon all without consideration for merit or response or inherent goodness. Yes, it’s true, that people respond differently to me, what I’m about, and the kind of world I’m trying to shape. There are powers that try to stamp out my kingdom at every turn, you know that. But that’s my concern. I am still going to sow wildly and indiscriminately.
We don’t welcome because WE have deemed people tolerable. We don’t accept others because WE find them acceptable. We do so because we recognize that this world belongs to God and we are not entitled to any corner of it. We do so because we, too, are broken, imperfect people in need of grace and mercy. We are or can be, on any given day, “those people.”
Naming those demons and inviting the presence of Jesus in those experiences can be healing. I’ve prayed for people who can’t seem to shake a destructive habit before along the lines of, “God, set them loose from this awful thing.” Or someone whose life is in ruins because of depression, I find myself saying, “God, free them from this weight!” So many people have stories about how appealing to a higher power has delivered them (they use that language). It seems that, through the Spirit, Jesus is still about the work of casting out such demons, releasing people from what binds them and leading them to wholeness.
It is radical enough to suggest that God donned human flesh, let alone in this manner. The messiness of Christ’s birth reveals the character of a God who is present in the stuff of real life, in lives like ours, in a world as chaotic and disordered and scary as the one we live in. God is present in the mess. God chooses to come among us in the broken, poor, and rejected, those others would discard. That is the good news in the grittiness of Christmas. That is the depth and extraordinary wonder of the love of God made flesh.