Sunday 15 December
Song of Mary
Matthew 11. 2-12
Oppression is a habit ©Sue Grimmett
Sister Margie Tuite was a lifelong advocate for civil rights and women’s equality, especially among poor women in Central America. Once when she was giving a talk, she drew stick figures on the board to represent various styles of relationship. One pair of the figures was grossly mismatched; the first one towered above the second and glared down on it. Although it was a simple drawing, it expressed a world that many women knew only too well. After the talk a woman who did not speak English came up to Margie and pounded on the board, hitting the lower figure with her fist and shouting “Me! Me! Me!”
Once when Sister Margie related this story, a member of the group said, “Well and good. But what if she gets out of the relationship. Where will she go? What will she do?” Margie was tight-lipped about this response for a while but finally answered;
Wherever there is suffering and domination, you break it. Sure, you find yourself in the dark. The problem is, you’ve gotten used to sin; you’ve gotten comfortable being a slave. Oppression is a habit. Whether you are on the top or the bottom, you are part of it. And breaking it is finding yourself in unfamiliar territory, not knowing what to do next.”1
Oppression and liberation are themes in all our readings and the longing for a breakthrough into something better can be heard clearly in these voices from the gospel text seeking after the coming Messiah.
‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ The Baptist and his disciples are looking for someone, and in this poignant question you can hear the doubt, but also the deep desires in their hearts, a longing for a Saviour that the world may be restored and healed.
Jesus, as usual, doesn’t give a direct answer, but points to the works. They would know the Messiah by the evidence in the fruit of his life; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
Sight, activity, hearing, life and dignity are being restored, breaking down the walls that divide and the barriers to fullness of life. This is hinting at a remaking of the world: in the mythology of the times this is about a return to the garden of creation before sin and human brokenness sent humankind into exile.
The deepest desire of the human heart is to be reconnected to God, the self, one another and creation in relationships of love and mutuality. Oppressive systems hurt everyone, whether, as Sr Margie stated, you are at the top or the bottom. Jesus brings the promise of this restoration and yet strangely says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”
Why should there be offence? Is this directed at John, languishing in prison and full of doubt? Perhaps- John after all seemed to favour a more judgmental agenda than the grace and healing and inclusion Jesus’ way represented, and maybe he was struggling to understand the path of this Messiah.
But Jesus did so often offend. He transgressed across social boundaries; eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, not conforming to religious traditions and laws, and reaching out and ministering liberally to everyone- women, children, different ethnic minorities, demoniacs, sinners of all shapes and sizes.
He even offended his own disciples. Judas loses faith in Jesus’ way of salvation and betrays him. When Peter realises that Jesus intends to offer himself up and walk the road of suffering, he is scandalised and tries to take him back down the road of worldly success. The crowds who had adored him turn away from his example of grace and humility, mocking him and sending him to his death.
So what is it about Jesus, this man who came bringing healing, freedom and restoration, that makes so many react with fear and violence? Why are we told that we are “blessed” if we take no offence?
Perhaps part of the answer can be found in Mary’s song we heard today.
For you, Lord, have looked with favour on your lowly servant: …You have shown strength with your arm:
and scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones:
and lifting up the lowly.
The will of God and the perfect way of Jesus the Son is to reverse the power structures which have held humanity in bondage and division; a division that plays out socially and globally between races, classes and peoples and individually and locally within relationships and families. The dignity and communion promised through the incarnation is at odds with the structures of violent or controlling power and economic or social privilege. The proud will be scattered, Mary sings with joy, and the lowly are lifted up in God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is coming on earth, and we who have been blind will see, and those who have been kept from life and full humanity will be restored. But this cannot happen while we hang on to the same old oppressive structures, and the same old petty sinful patterns in our relationships.
As bell hooks puts it, “awakening to love can happen only as we let go of our obsession with power and domination.”2 We talk a lot about love in the church, but I wonder sometimes if we truly believe it to be the only power that can transform us, or if we are relying on the same old mechanisms of self advancement we have always known. As Sister Margie said, we have gotten used to our sin, and oppression has become a habit. We cannot ever live into God’s kingdom ways unless we are prepared to allow Jesus the Christ to transform us; giving us true sight, healing us from the inside out and setting us free to love one another. But to allow this, we need to open ourselves to the mercy of God, let go of control and allow Christ to lead us into the desert where we will be on unfamiliar ground, away from all that gives us security.
No wonder so many took offense at Jesus. Everything that we have ever worked for- our economic security, our success, our moral purity, our identity, our self-importance- none of this is of any use in this upside-down kingdom.
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
Every single proof Jesus gives in his response to this anxious question is an action of compassion and healing, and they are all actions directed towards those who are cast down, excluded, oppressed or ignored. We are to know the presence of God in our communities and in our own hearts when we see this movement of mercy and justice.
John had announced that the One who was coming would bring fiery judgement. To discover that the fire is of love not of vengeance may have been hard for John to accept, and, even for us with the bird’s eye view of the Easter story, hard to take in. The expansive grace of God has always caused some to shake their heads and turn away. Jesus as forgiving victim remains a stumbling block for many.
People flocked to the desert to hear John because he was a truth-speaker; a prophet who would not be pushed around or soften his words for those in royal palaces. He called repentance, but it would be the forgiveness and compassion of Christ that brought the power of change. The harsh desert of John’s world would be transformed by the river of grace just as the prophet Isaiah said;
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
Only with this flowing of mercy can our blind eyes be opened to see the kingdom dawn. Isaiah’s description of a highway in the desert that shall be called the Holy Way is the way of forgiveness. Jesus reminds John of the promise of mercy that is for all humanity, bringing with it the only power on earth to set the captives free. Blessed are those who do not take offence. They will be able to receive mercy, shaking free the self-harming patterns of sin…the comfortable habits of oppression… to experience the liberation of the One who comes bringing healing and fullness of joy.
1 Shea, John Following Jesus, (Orbis Books, NY: 2010) p 115
2 bell hooks All About Love: New Visions (HarperCollins, New York: 2001) , p87