What does the gentleman in Rome who combined these two readings today hope to achieve by putting them side by side?
The story of the three youths thrown into the fiery furnace seems pretty clear—it is a test of gods. My god’s bigger than your god. King Nebuchadnezzar picks a fight: my gods, ably assisted by a fiery furnace, will knock the socks off you three and your strange invisible deity. We’ll see who has the power to destroy and the power to save. And we, who inherit the story, are glad to know our god is the winner. We have a God who can preserve our lives from anything—even a blast furnace.
Dissolve now from Babylon to Palestine… Isn’t this the same story? Those nasty Jews want to kill Jesus as a test of true paternity—who has the toughest father—the sons of Abraham or the Son of God? And John’s gospel is often read as a tit-for-tat escalation between John’s community and the Jews next door—my God’s bigger than your God.
But if that were true, what would it make Jesus? When it comes to the test—cross not furnace—where’s his angel; where’s his rescuer? Even the strange doings of the third day don’t add up to the kind of victory to convince any but the converted.
This dialogue between the Jews and Jesus can’t be the excuse for anti-Semitism it has been. And Jesus can’t be playing our games: my Dad’ll thrash your Dad. What is on trial here isn’t one god against another but the very idea of paternity, the very idea that our belonging, our fatherland, our heritage is what marks us as God’s own. God’s Own are the sisters and brothers of Jesus in every generation and every land and every religion. It is our fraternity with Jesus that is all in all to us. Jesus undoes all other belongings, un-knits all other paternities, and unravels the web of our sacrificial violence. He undoes it here in words and seals those words with his body and blood on the altar of the cross.
March 20th, 2002
There’s a peculiar feeling about that first reading. I wonder about people who think so ill of God and yet want to draw close.
I thought, at first, I was disturbed by the way they place their disaster at God’s feet: ‘he has struck us down; he has torn us to pieces’. And that disturbance is at least partly recognition—I know the dark thread of my own unfounded fear of God. But what shakes me more, is that, even blaming God for their pain, the people go back for more—glutton for punishment, like an abused wife, like a confused hostage. ‘He has torn us to pieces’, they say, ‘but he will heal us … he doesn’t mean to hurt us really … maybe if we try harder, don’t annoy him quite so much, maybe’. And I wonder if, maybe, there isn’t a trace of that in me too … or in you. ‘If I do this, if I do that, then God will stop hurting me.’ And, if there is, what I need to hear I is here in the reading …
‘What am I to do with you, Rob? What I want is love, not sacrifice; relationship, not empty offering. Love, Rob’.
March 9th, 2002
“It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the keystone.” What does that teach us?
What about this: “The Word became flesh and lived among us; He came into his own and his own did not accept him.”
Words and stones: what do we build with them but lives? Lives and poems.
Words, stones, lives, poems: each has a gravity we do well to respect. Here’s Rainer-Maria Rilke:
How surely gravity’s law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.
each stone, blossom, child—
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.
If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.
So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things
because they are in God’s heart;
they have never left him.
This is what the things can teach us:
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.
March 1st, 2002