Saturday, January 23, 2016

Blogging the sources, skipping ahead

We left off with Matthew chapter 5, in which we noticed "it begins" -- Jesus demands perfect behavior. But now we are going to skip ahead just a little, because amazingly, since beginning our project the West's sources have already shown through in two episodes, one out in the world and one under my own observation.

A word here about the name Jesus. Do you also find yourself uneasy saying or writing the name repeatedly? It seems flip, unthinking, to do so. Yet what else can one do? You may know the little joke about the Catholic priest who attends Protestant worship services for the first time with a Protestant friend. As the service goes on and the pastor warms to his sermon, Father grows more and more uncomfortable. Finally he leans over to his friend and whispers, "he could at least call him Mr. Jesus." To write "Christ" seems better, but so far in our reading of Matthew, that is not his name. What did his disciples call him? Often "Lord," as it happens.

We left off with Matthew 5. Here is the first distraction that is going to make us skip ahead: a terrible story about a young Muslim woman beaten to death by a mob last March in Afghanistan. At long last, in December 2015, the trials of her murderers and all the bystanders and all the police who did nothing for her, were finished. The results were essentially either straight acquittals or slaps on the wrist for everyone. She had been falsely accused of burning a Koran -- by "a fortuneteller" and by the caretaker of a local Muslim shrine -- and that was that. The last paragraph of the story, which Breitbart relayed from the New York Times, uncovers the real reason for the woman's lynching. "An investigation found she had confronted men who were themselves dishonoring the shrine by trafficking in amulets and, more clandestinely, Viagra and condoms."

The sources of a civilization matter. Here, in Afghanistan, is a culture whose men have no knowledge of the story of Jesus driving the moneychangers from the Temple. It's not that their knowing it would have spared this woman's life, or that Westerners don't get up rabid mobs sometimes. But if the condom-peddlers she confronted had had the story of the moneychangers in their backgrounds, they might -- might -- have reacted to her with some kind of shamefacedness. They might not have been there at all. If she had lived to press charges, her account of their unsavory practices at a holy place might have rung bells of memory and of righteous association, even in the courtroom.

The men who killed her also don't know the phrase "let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone" -- the words Jesus speaks to the mob when he saves the adulteress from stoning. Again, it's not that the murderers' merely knowing the phrase would have spared her life, or that Westerners don't get up rabid mobs. But a civilization that has that story bred into its soul has some kind of respect for life and especially for the lone woman surrounded by howling men. I don't know exactly where in the Gospels these stories occur, I could look it up in a moment and so can you; the point is, the stories are in my head and the death of Farkhunda Malikzada appalls because in my civilization, thank God, her death is offensive and not normal. My parents sent me to Sunday school. Men and women who don't have these stories in their heads, in their souls, behave in ways we still, for the moment, find shocking. (Consider. Why did a Westerner report on the condom-selling?) They think they are just.
As for the second distraction that makes us skip ahead, the one under my own observation -- well. Let's just say, you shouldn't tell people what you earn. Especially don't tell your co-workers. The reaction is going to be deeply human. Everyone is "upset," but as they lean over and share the gossip, the feeling you sense is rather a joyous and fascinated rage. Maybe it's what the Afghan mob felt, on a much more deadly scale. "He makes X dollars, and I've been here longer, and he does nothing."

And yet Jesus gave our civilization the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20). Summarized, the story tells of a landowner who hires three or four sets of day-laborers to work for him. Some he hires at dawn, some at noon, some still later. When they all come for their wages that evening, he pays them out beginning with the last-hired. They get the same money as, and for far less work done than, the men hired at dawn. These latter complain about unfairness. The landowner sensibly points out, "you agreed to your wage when I hired you. What if I choose to be generous with those whom I hired last? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?"

The point of the parable is of course something more than money -- the first shall be last and the last, first, in the "kingdom of heaven," whatever that is -- but on a literal level it's still eerie. Did Jesus, then, understand capitalism? Did he understand contract law? I seem to remember Sunday school teachers (CCD, we called it) emphasizing only that the Master was tolerant and non-judgmental, loved the poor, was long-haired and kind. Almost by definition, a '70s hippie. Or is the upshot of this story that, when you are upset, you the retail staff, you the Afghan mob -- you must nonetheless control yourself?

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