April 4, 2014
Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Lent: EZ 37: 12-14; PS 130: 1-8; ROM 8:8-11; JN 11: 1-45
A few weeks ago, Fortune Magazine identified Pope Francis as first among the World's "Fifty Best Leaders." President Obama did not even make the list. Bono and President Clinton were among the top ten.
Whatever the magazine's reasons for selecting the pope, it's clear that the "Francis Effect," is real. Seventy-seven percent of Catholics say they have increased their church donations since the new pope took office. Francis has brought the Catholic Church back from the dead. More importantly, he has returned to life the Jesus of the gospels whom conservatives have long since hijacked and buried -- the very one our world's poor majority needs as never before.
That's relevant this sixth Sunday of Lent where our readings have Ezekiel coining the highly political metaphor of God's "raising the dead" to refer to Israel's impending liberation from its own despair during its Babylonian Captivity. Ezekiel's metaphor reappears in today's gospel reading where John the evangelist presents his familiar parable about Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave where Jesus' friend lay moldering for more than three days.
Consider the hopelessness of Ezekiel's Israel. His sixth century was the saddest of times -- the era of his nation's Great Exile. The Hebrews had been defeated and humiliated by Babylon (modern day Iraq). Its leaders and a large portion of its populace had been abducted to that enemy state. The exiles felt as if they had been slaughtered culturally. They were far from home, controlled by foreign masters, and apparently abandoned by God.
But the prophet Ezekiel did not share his people's general despair. So in an effort to regenerate hope, he coined the idea of resurrection. Ezekiel loved that concept. [Recall his Vision of Dry Bones (EZ 7: 1-14).] For Ezekiel resurrection was a political metaphor that promised a new vital future despite appearances to the contrary. Israel, he said, would be liberated from Babylon, return home and experience rebirth. It would come back to life.
In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG), Pope Francis embraces not only Ezekiel's spirit, but that of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. To repeat, he actually revivifies Jesus and the gospel. The pope does so by rescuing them both from conservative forces whose version of Christianity has held center stage for the last 35 years. It's the version, the pope strongly implies, that has metaphorically killed the Jesus of the gospels, who proclaimed the imminent arrival of God's Kingdom which belongs to the poor, not to the rich whom the conservatives prioritize.
Like Ezekiel, Jesus made his proclamation when all appearances indicated that Israel was dead. It was entirely under the heel of Roman jackboots and there seemed no escape. Yet Jesus described a horizon of hope that enlivened the spirits of the poor who were crushed by the Romans and by their rich Jewish collaborators who headed the temple establishment.
In such dire straits, Jesus proclaimed a new future where everything would be turned upside down. He said audacious things. In God's realm, he insisted, the poor would be in charge. The last would be first, and the first would be last. The rich would be poor and the poor would be well--fed and prosperous. The powerless and gentle would have the earth for their possession. Jesus' unemployed and famished audiences couldn't hear enough of that!
So he elaborated. He told parable after parable -- all about the kingdom and its unstoppable power. It was like leaven in bread -- unseen but universally active and transforming. It was like the mustard seed -- a weed that sprouted up everywhere impervious to eradication efforts. It was like a precious pearl discovered in the ash bin -- like a coin a poor woman loses and then rediscovers. His metaphors, similes and parables were powerful.
To repeat, Pope Francis strongly implies that socio-economic conservatism has murdered the Jesus I've just described. It has done so by its "preferential option for the rich." It embraces free-market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and cut-backs in health care, education, and anti-poverty programs. Conservatives complement such horrors with huge tax-breaks for the country's 1%. All of this is was chillingly represented last week by "devout Catholic," Paul Ryan whose budget promised to sock it to the poor and middle class, while enriching military industrialists along with his affluent friends.
The Joy of the Gospel makes it clear that no one can support policies like Ryan's and claim at the same time to be a follower of Jesus.
In other words, Ryan and the pope are on completely different pages. While conservatives have buried the gospel Jesus, Pope Francis calls him back to life. He stands before Jesus' grave and shouts "Come Forth!" Even Fortune Magazine recognizes the resulting miracle.
Consider the Pope's anti-conservative incantation that brings Jesus back to life. It runs like this: