Christian Love and Roman Totality

Worshipers at St Mark’s received a rare blessing this Sunday: two clergy, one at the 8 am service and one at the 10 am, delivering homilies on the same texts. The texts were Acts 16:16-34, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, and 20-21, and John 17:20-26. Both homilies were illuminating.

In the 8 am homily, we were invited to reflect on the historical and social context of the events in Luke-Acts, in particular the oppressive presence of Roman occupation and patriarchal domination. In the 10 am homily, we were invited to reflect on the week between Assension and Pentecost, and on the wonderful and mysterious ways that the distant God is known and experienced in the small, messy, and often confusing dimensions of everyday life. I was enriched by both homilies.


Icon of the Pentecost
Icon of the Pentecost (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet, insofar as biblical interpretation is often and appropriately an ongoing never-fully-completed midrash, the combination of the two homilies left me wondering how the oneness invoked in John’s Gospel differs from the oneness confronting the slave-girl, the jailer, and Paul and Silas in Luke-Acts. And it struck me that we may occasionally be guilty of confusing the two.

For those of you who may have skipped Sunday Mass, the circumstances of all three readings are extremely interesting. The passages in Luke-Acts and Revelation were composed in the wake of the Temple’s destruction and the slaughter of Jerusalem’s Jewish community – Revelation in nearer proximity to those events, Luke-Acts more distantly from the vantage-point of the exiled community. Neither offers a particularly rosy portrayal of the Roman occupation or Roman power. John’s Gospel, written at an even greater distance, contemplates and counsels the unity of the community faith with Christ and the unity of its members with one another. This unity and the love evident in and arising out of this unity will become a hallmark of the post-Pentecost community.

More particularly, however, Luke-Acts directs our attention to the slave-girl and to her gift, a gift of divination that has made her owners quite wealthy. All metphor aside, no imagination is required to recognize the relations of domination and submission displayed in this relationship between a gifted girl, a slave, and her owners. Nor is any imagination required for us to recognize why the jailor, seeing that his prisoners have been miraculously freed by an earthquake, would prefer to take his own life rather than face torture and certain death at the hands of his Roman masters.

In both relationships ­– the slave-girl’s relationship to her owners and the jailors relationship with his masters – we find only what we might expect to find: natural relationships of domination and submission that, however distasteful, nevertheless for centuries held the Roman Empire together. There was here – as Paul himself testifies in Romans 1-3 and 13, and as Peter concurs in 1 Peter – a kind of unity, a coherence, built on hierarchy, built on patriarchy; but, as far as it goes, completely unsurprising, normal, even natural.

It strikes me that this is the kind of unity that much of Christendom mistakes for the unity to which Jesus calls our attention in John. And, no doubt, there is something comforting, familiar, and even natural about the relationships of domination and submission displayed in the slave-girl’s relationship to her owners or the jailors relationship to his master. No imagination is required here for us to recognize the deep pathologies that cut across abusive relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, substance abusers and their dependents. Nor is much imagination required for us to recognize why individuals who feel locked into oppressive personal or economic relationships – whether they are managers, like the jailor, or mere employees, like the slave-girl – might mistakenly feel that these relations are preferable to the alternatives. Such hierarchical, unequal relationships of domination and submission are so familiar to us that they feel natural, or in any event inevitable.

The tragedy is that we ourselves may be inclined to mistake these perverse social and economic relationships for the unity to which Jesus calls us in John’s Gospel. We may be inclined to reproduce in our communities the same social and economic relationships of domination and submission that we mistake for normal, natural, or unavoidable. Paul and Peter were surely inclined to make this mistake.

And, yet, perhaps as a prefiguration of Pentecost, Paul and Silas cannot help but do the right thing, loose the chains, free the captives, and proclaim the coming of the divine community on earth.

This community is one, but it is one in a completely different way than the unity of the Roman Empire, since it is grounded not on natural differences or institutional coherence or custom. It is based on love.

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