Years ago, while I was still adding to the thousands of comic books in my collection, DC decided to re-boot the Batman series after a year-long narrative arc called “No Man’s Land,” Gotham recovering after a devastating earthquake. They brought in new writers, even started a new title, called Gotham Knights, that focused on the inter-relationships between Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, the original Robin who had gone on to be a hero called Nightwing, Tim Drake, the third Robin, the second having met a gruesome death at the hands of the Joker, Barbara Gordon, former Batgirl and, since being paralyze,d a cyber-hero called Oracle, and a host of other minor characters. In the series’ first issue, the first major Batman work written by a woman, Batman is investigating the murder of parents who left behind a young son, so similar to Batman’s own origin story. The other characters wonder why he can’t see what they see, that the boy was not the traumatized orphan Bruce Wayne once was, but was in fact the killer.
It is the sort of gritty realism that took hold in the Batman family of comics in the 1980s. In fact, many comic books took on a gritty realism. They even tried it with the Superman series, but it just wouldn’t stick, for like a bar of soap dropped into a puddle, Superman is self-cleaning, the ultimate Boy Scout goody-two-shoes. Which is okay. Sometimes we need that sense of unblemished good, hope and purity in a time when everything feels a little too real, even if that unblemished good is in the form of a resident alien from Krypton.
Though the Superman comics, movies and television series touch on Superman’s alternative ego, Clark Kent, reporter, you don’t really get a sense of his craft. What sort of reporting did he do? Was he a good reporter? And what, we may ask, would this reporter do in an age of fake news, for we have moved far beyond the question of incomplete news to full on propaganda?
What, for that matter, are we progressive Christians to do with fake news in the gospels? We know that some variation in accounts is to be expected as different folks try to explain what just happened when what happened was so huge. Those early followers were trying to make meaning when so much was still mystery. The gospels were written decades after the events they describe and none are first-person accounts. They filter Jesus through the lens of their community, a unique set of traditions and context, Hebrew, Pauline, Diaspora…
But even if we excise the bits that are clearly propaganda, things like the elements of Matthew’s birth narrative, we are still left with sometimes difficult choices. Today’s reading, especially held in tension with last week’s reading, is a perfect example.
When asked about the Law, the 613 regulations that controlled the life of faithful Hebrews in that age, Jesus said “whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven.” This sounds incredibly legalistic, and Jesus spends a lot of time in the gospels criticizing the nit-picking legalism of the Scribes and Pharisees. In fact, later in this gospel in another story, he and his disciples are walking through a field when some of them pull the heads off of grain. They are accused by the Pharisees of a sabbath violation, of harvesting when work is prohibited. Caught out, Jesus cites an incident from 1st Samuel, where David and his men eat the sacrificial bread of the Presence. For a modern equivalent, imagine a Catholic entering the church and eating the consecrated hosts as a snack.
It is a terrible argument, this rebuttal by Jesus, but it opens the door for reinterpretation of sabbath, as the practice of sabbath would be one of the flash points in his dispute with the Scribes and Pharisees. Ironically, in engaging in reinterpretation, Jesus is doing the exact same thing as the Pharisees, who themselves engage in the act of reinterpreting the Law to match current circumstance. The key difference seems to be less the actual reinterpretation, and more the attitude. Jesus opposes the judgment, the legalism, not the effort to follow the rules of faith. We see this in so many other stories, most notable that of the woman taken in adultery. And can I just ask, where the heck was the man taken in adultery, for as they say, it takes two…
This bitter debate over how to interpret the ancient Law was very much like the debate over how the United States Constitution is to be interpreted, with opposing sides, bitter arguments, political maneuvering, but times ten, because the 613 laws of the Torah effected everything you did. Imagine if there was a constitutional clause about your horse and buggy and we were fighting over how it applied to cars. Should a faithful person adhere to the letter of the Law or to the spirit of the Law? Last week’s “neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law” argues for the former, while this week’s expansion of the Law to include our thoughts argues for the latter.
And what an expansion! Never mind the whole “thou shalt not kill” bit, but “thou shalt not be angry.” Back up the redemption train a minute, Jesus. Can we talk about that incident at the Temple?
The standard set in today’s reading is unattainable, even, if we are to trust the stories, by Jesus himself. Some may argue that given a standard we can never meet, we might as well abandon all hope and, as Luther famously said, “sin boldly.” Others might try to draw a line, saying that this impossible mark applied before the crucifixion, but since then we are all “washed in the blood,” our inevitable failures covered by Christ. Still others might speak of grace, the abundant love of that Divine Mystery we name as God, a love that moves toward us as a parent moves toward a child, we the toddler, screaming and crying in a field of debris, and this comes nearer to our approach in the United Church of Christ, for progressive Christians choose to believe in a good God, a God worthy of our praise.
What are we to make of that harsh God, a God that we find problematic today, God the metaphysical and egotistical super person, judging, bargaining, co-dependent on human kind for the payment of honor, every interaction an exchange? Retribution or restoration? Damnation or grace?
And there, in our reading from Deuteronomy, a fiction no doubt, but maybe the image we need, God giving the people a choice, the way of life and the way of death. This image was taken up by our denomination as our Statement of Faith says “You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image, and set before each one the ways of life and death. You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.”
This is what we believe about our God, a seeking God, a loving God, and none of the language in that version of the Statement of Faith is in the past tense, because it is happening now, God not only still speaking but still calling worlds into being, still creating persons, still seeking in holy love.
And before each of us, a choice between the way of life and the way of death. Which will you choose?
The image of faith as a journey, of the Way, may seem overused, but there is no better. The journey is the story, archetypal heroes in every culture, every myth, including ours. A husband and wife from Ur that gathered up their family, packed up their bags and immigrated west to the land of Canaan. The journey of Jacob and his sons to Egypt because they were starving, the flight from Egypt generations later when that once welcoming country became hard-hearted and cruel. The journey across the desert, approaching Canaan from the west this time, and generations later, again westward across the desert, make straight a highway, for we have been in Exile, once again strangers in a strange land, and we are finally going home.
So central was journey to the Hebrew faith that when the followers of that revolutionary rabbi from Nazareth had to refer to what they were doing, they called it the Way. The Way of Jesus is not the “how” of Jesus or the law of Jesus, or even, God forbid, the church of Jesus. It is the journey to God with Jesus.
If the Pharisees are right and the truth is a nit-picking God-judge, we are so screwed. But it isn’t. We dare to proclaim that God is not the angry male filled with rage and wounded pride seen in so many other theologies. Our faith is an invitation to the journey. We can’t look at text like today’s and say “I can’t do it! I can never live up to this. I might as well give up.” For the Way is an aspiration, a dream, and like Moses, like King, we will only go to the mountaintop in this life.
So how are we to handle this journey? It is dusty and tiring and some paths are steep and rocky. Some days we want to stop at the side of the road and have a picnic, so many never start again, never growing further on the Way, comfortable where they are. But God has set before you the way of life and the way of death, and life requires growth, if not in body, certainly in love, and love grows stronger with practice.
How are we to do this thing, this journey of faith, this aspirational faith, with the destination so far away? Don’t get angry? I totally want to do what Jesus did, which is to say flip over some tables and strike the self-righteous.
Let’s look at another journey, a physical journey that might inspire us, one that seems especially appropriate given the weather. A century ago, at the height of colonialism and the age of the great white hunter/explorer, two men raced for the South Pole. The stories are complex, historians have problematized later interpretations, and one expedition ended in tragedy, Robert F. Scott and his colleagues dead, discovered months later.
Motivational speakers, doing what motivational speakers do, have stripped out important details about weather and geography and leave us with this image, which, while not factual, is completely true. Scott was racing for the pole against Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, and his expedition. Amundsen’s approach was to travel a fixed distance every day. Even if the weather was wretched, they went, 15 nautical miles a day. And even if they could have gone another five, they stopped, rested, conserved energy and supplies.
Scott and his team went as far as they could possibly go when the weather was good, didn’t journey when the weather was bad. Amundsen reached the pole first, and lived. Scott got there late, and never made it home.
The Way of Jesus, like the way to an undiscovered country, requires persistence, discipline. You aren’t there yet. Jesus got angry. Gandhi got angry. Buddha got angry. We weep and we scream and we flip things over, our passions spilling out, negatively in temper and positively in art, soaring notes from the cello, yellow splashed across canvas, letters to the editor and protest signs and prayers, so many prayers, for we will journey to Gethsemane before we reach the Empty Tomb.
We will journey on the way. We will always be immigrants, refugees, like that baby from Krypton, like that babe in Bethlehem, Word made flesh, divine love with little fingers and toes.
The Way is before you, the choice between life and death, between a narrow obedience of law and a love that surpasses death, a love that sometimes requires we ignore the law. Today is the sabbath, the day the Lord has made. Get up, roll up your mat, and walk.