Divine Abundance: Gathering in the Spirit

by Andrew Marr OSB

I begin with a thought experiment. Imagine the great crowd of people in the countryside who came to listen to Jesus. It’s been a long day, and it’s getting close to dinnertime. There is a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish. Now, imagine that this boy, seeing the situation, starts to hawk his meager food supply to the highest bidders. This first century entrepreneur, will go home richer (though hungrier) than he was, but food will have been scarce. Few people would have been fed. Everybody would have been focused on each other as they fought over the bread and fish and Jesus would have been forgotten. The Gospels, however, tell us a different story. When approached by Jesus, the boy offered him the five barley loaves and two fish. When Jesus had distributed the food, there turned out to be more than enough for everyone, so much so, that there were more leftover scraps than there was food to start with.

A common expression says there is no free lunch, but a free lunch is precisely what Jesus handed out to thousands of people six times in four Gospels. This free lunch in the wilderness is an extension of the free lunch that Jesus, the Logos through whom “all things came into being,” gave the world at the dawn of creation. In Psalm 103, God “makes springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills, giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst. . . God causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the human heart.” The contrast between the peaceful, loving Gift of creation in Genesis and the strife-torn creation of theEnuma Elish could not be greater. Back to our thought experiment. Although Jesus desired to give a free lunch to all of the people gathered there, that would not have happened if everybody had focused on each other and squabbled over a diminishing supply of food. It is precisely the squabbling we do that causes us to forget the free lunch we all have received from the creator “in whom we move and have our being.” God’s free Gift does not cancel our human freedom; it makes human freedom possible. Like the boy with the five barley loaves and two fish, we can choose to remain immersed in the mimetic mechanism of scarcity, or we can hand them over to the God of abundance who gave us the loaves and fishes.

The deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is a free gift which shows how God continues to act as the creator through history, contrary to rumors that God is just a watchmaker. God continues to act as a creator by feeding this group of refugees “bread from heaven” in the desert, another free lunch. The enslaved Israelites had done nothing to deserve their deliverance beyond the fact that they were victims. Unfortunately, as we noted last night, the people turned the abundance of God’s deliverance into a scarcity of resources, freedom, and life by quarreling with each other.

In Jesus’ inaugural sermon, preached in Galilee, he declares a year of Jubilee, a festival prescribed in Leviticus to take place every fifty weeks of years. The Jubilee was supposed to be a time when all debts were forgiven and all slaves set free. Jesus begins by quoting Isaiah’s proclamation of the Jubilee: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The immediate context of Isaiah’s prophecy is the “second Exodus,” the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity. This deliverance was another free gift from God on a par with the free gift of deliverance from Egypt. Isaiah called the return from exile a new creation, a new creation to be characterized by abundance. In his turn, Jesus proclaimed the “year of the Lord’s favor,” the year of the New Creation of the Risen Lord.

God’s desire for abundance should not be confused with an egocentric desire for Me, Myself, and I, or, to quote the Beatles, “I Me Me Mine.” God’s desire of abundance is not for Godself, but for God’s creatures. That is, God desires abundance for others. If we are to align ourselves with God’s desire of abundance, then, we must desire abundance for others rather than for ourselves. Most likely, one of the reasons that the year of Jubilee prescribed in Leviticus seems never to have happened is because it made, and continues to make, overly heavy demands on those who have the most material goods. The more abundance we have, the more we are challenged to will abundance for others.

What is amazing beyond belief for those of us trapped in mimetic rivalry is how totally free of mimetic rivalry God is. God gives us the free gifts of creation and redemption because God has no desire to compete with us. This is what Eve and Adam did not understand when they let the serpent talk them into projecting their nascent mimetic rivalry on to God. On the contrary, God’s desire is outside of the entanglements of human mimetic rivalry. Jesus carves out such a space for his disciples and for us by placing a child in our midst and telling us that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” We need to welcome a child in Jesus’name, not our own. The same applies to feeding and clothing the “least” of God’s people. Before it is our desire to feed others, it is God’s desire that they be fed. In the space where Jesus places the child, he comes between us and every other person. Jesus is not, however, a third person added to two others in the sense that a third marble dropped into a bowl is a third marble. Jesus is a third presence who acts as a catalyst that transforms the other two persons and their relationships. Jesus is a catalyst who explodes the mimetic strife between us. If God is the only being free of mimetic entanglements, than only God can restore the space for us to enter into that freedom. The more we enter into this space, the more we desire the good of the other person, secure in the conviction that God desires our good equally as much, no more, no less. If we are called upon to welcome the “least” of God’s people, it follows that nobody is dispensable. Rather than defining ourselves by the people we exclude, Christ desires to gather all who welcome the stone rejected by the builders. This stone, a stumbling block to all who remain addicted to mimetic rivalry, is the cornerstone of God’s kingdom.

St. Benedict has much down-to-earth teaching on how to desire God’s desire for the other. The abbot serves as Christ for the community, but the sick and guests, especially the poor, should be treated as Christ. This means that the abbot’s identification with Christ is a far cry from a license to “lord it over other people like the Gentiles.” The obedience due to the abbot is the obedience due to the weakness of others. The cellarer of the monastery, who has responsibility for the distribution of material goods, is called upon to act out this obedience as a delegate of the abbot. He “should not annoy the brothers.” That is, he should not enter into a rivalrous relationship with those who need materials from the monastic stores. We know from experience how attempts to “help” other people easily fall into adversarial relationships. The cellarer should not reject an unreasonable demand with disdain, “but reasonably and humbly deny the improper request.” That is, the cellarer has the responsibility of defusing any mimetic conflict that the petitioner might initiate. The cellarer’s generosity to the true needs of his fellow monastics and guests expands the abundance of material goods. Benedict shows much the same concern for mimetic issues in his chapter on the sick members of the community. Although the sick are to be served “as Christ,” they must “bear in mind that they are served out of honor for God, and should not by their excessive demands distress their brothers who serve them.” When Christ comes between each of us, we have the space to attend to the needs of the other person, but the relationship between helper and the one helped can easily degenerate into a mimetic conflict if both are not focused on Christ between them. Benedict says that the monastics should serve one another because such service “increases reward and fosters love.” The simple discipline of taking turns attending to the needs of others is a powerful means of overcoming mimetic entanglements.

A second powerful means of overcoming mimetic entanglement is worship. We can see readily enough that corporate worship is a mimetic process. When directed toward Christ, it has the power to unite worshipers with God’s desire. It is of first importance, however, that we be conscious of where the mimetic movement of worship leads us. The movie “Brother where art Thou?” offers much insight into mimetic processes, not least those connected with worship. The contrast between a baptism at the river and a “liturgy” of the Ku Klux Klan that was to be climaxed by the lynching of a black man (who, fortunately, was rescued by his friends) is very deep. Although most liturgists cringe at overly didactic liturgies, there is no denying that liturgy is our prime teacher in spirituality. Scripture doesn’t stand apart from liturgy in its teaching function. Many portions of the Bible are liturgical texts. The Bible, in turn, provides much of the material for the liturgy. The psalter, the backbone of the Divine Office developed by monastics and the staple of Christian devotion, constantly reminds us of the victims of history in a context of penitence and praise. The Eucharist embodies the Paschal Mystery of Christ, the culmination of the divine generosity manifested in the feeding of the multitudes. Here, we are not only fed by Christ, but Christ feeds us with His risen life.

Benedict, aware as he was of the ways worship teaches us how to live, admonishes us to treat the tools of the monastery as if they were the vessels of the altar. The care we take in worship should be applied to everything we do. Attending to the world around us opens doors for mimetic entanglements to escape. Benedict, knowing the importance of correcting delinquent monastics without intensifying a mimetic conflict, warns the abbot not to rub the vessel so hard that he breaks the vessel. That is, people, too, should be handled as if they were the vessels of the altar. Benedict stresses the importance of the Our Father at the climax of the Divine Office, especially the verse: “forgive as we forgive,” because “thorns of contention are likely to spring up.” Here is a powerful image of mimetic entanglement. The word in the Rule that “contention” translates isskandalon, imported straight from the Greek into the Latin Bible and on into the Rule of Benedict so that it brings to mind Jesus’ use of the word. Thorns, a powerful image in its own right, refers to the crown placed on Jesus’ head by the mocking soldiers. The suffering of Christ is the ultimate result of our “thorns of contention.”

But the collective violence against Christ is not the end of the story. The story that liturgy embodies takes us through the violence to a new life completely free of violence, a life we are all invited to participate in. This new life is an explosion of the simple liturgical words “forgive as we forgive.” The story of Jesus’ cruel death redeemed by his forgiving resurrected life is foreshadowed throughout the Hebrew Bible. The earliest Christians saw the outline of the paschal mystery in many psalms. There are the complaints we noted last night, such as the Psalmist’s prayer that God not “let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth on me.” The suffering of the victim leads to vindictive rage, as we all know from our own experience, and we can all understand, even as we deplore dubious prayers that God will “let their table be a trap for them,” and “let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually.” Frightening stuff, but this is the voice of the victim. But the Psalmist is not left to sink into the Pit. Miraculously, the Psalmist experiences deliverance and offers Praise to “the name of God with a song,” and calls on heaven and earth to praise God. The anguish of Psalm 22 resolves into the famous line: “The poor shall eat and have their fill,” an affirmation of God’s abundance in the face of human scarcity. By complaining to God of the violence inflicted on us, we cease to be imprisoned by what has been done to us, and, in spite of the suffering, a window opens up to a new life. Now let us look at some stories in the Hebrew Bible that show us that the Paschal Mystery was in the works for a long time before the coming of Christ.

The blood of Abel cries from the ground. The rest of Genesis responds to this cry by leading us through sibling rivalry that progresses to new ways of human relating that imitate God’s desire for the other. Jacob flees from his brother Esau to save his life after he has stolen Esau’s paternal blessing. Jacob’s subsequent mimetic entanglement with his father-in-law, Laban, forces Jacob to return to Esau. Jacob approaches his homeland with trepidation, but to the surprise of everybody, Esau embraces his long-lost brother with joy. Jacob attests to God’s presence between them when he says to Esau: “Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” Forgiveness is the face of God. A comical display of mutual generosity follows, a strong contrast to the scarcity Laban tried to inflict on Jacob. But even after this amicable meeting, Jacob remained uneasy with Esau. Apparently he feared that the warm reception might not have been genuine, or might even be a trap. In the end, the two brothers settle in separate areas to avoid being too close neighbors. Accepting forgiveness didn’t come easily to Jacob.

The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most remarkable narratives in all world literature. Here, the collective violence of the brothers against one is transformed into a powerful story of reconciliation. This reconciliation did not come easily, however. Joseph did not meet his brothers with open arms when they arrived in Egypt. We don’t know what emotions overcame him that made him run out to vent them in private, but they were surely mixed and complicated. Joseph had good reason to test his brothers to see if they had reformed over the years, but the battery of trials he inflicted on them was more twisted than necessary to that end. I think it likely that, in testing his brothers, he was acting out of a lot of anger over the way he was treated so many years ago. When the brothers returned to buy more food, bringing Benjamin with them because Joseph had demanded it, Joseph’s treatment of them became even more enigmatic. There is a very real possibility that Joseph was not just testing his brothers— either assuming they were incorrigible or consumed by a thirst for revenge—but was plotting to take Benjamin away from his family. Whatever Joseph was up to, Judah’s anguished offer to be a slave in place of Benjamin turned the tide. If Joseph was testing his brothers, Judah made sure they passed it. If Joseph was scheming against them, then Judah saved the situation. After making himself known to his brothers, Joseph spoke serenely about how God had brought everything about to save his family in the time of famine. Even their evil actions were to the good in that they lead to his being in a position to counter the scarcity of famine with the abundance of careful stewardship. However, Joseph’s confiscation of the land of those who had brought in the grain during the plentiful years when they came for relief is troubling. The twists and turns of Joseph’s handling of his brothers show that his forgiveness could not have come easily. Victims of childhood abuse and other terrible crimes know this difficulty very well. Like Jacob, the brothers had a hard time believing in their wronged brother’s forgiveness. After Jacob’s death, they came to Joseph and reported that their father had asked that Joseph forgive them for what they had done. This sounds suspiciously like a lie, since we are not otherwise told that Jacob had really said any such thing, but Joseph nevertheless reaffirmed his forgiveness in their mutual presence in God.

In the middle of the dramatic mimetic conflict between Saul and David, Jonathan occupies a radically different space than theirs. Right when Saul complained about the women who celebrated a victorious battle by giving David tens of thousands slain and him only one thousand, Jonathan made a covenant with David because “he loved him as his own soul.” This is all the more remarkable because, as Saul’s heir, one would expect Jonathan, too, to be David’s rival. Instead, Jonathan gave David his own clothing. This was tantamount to giving David his very self. Paul attaches this significance to clothing when he urges us to take off the old self and put on the new. Through his generosity, Jonathan expands life and power, rather than contracting it as his father, his friend, and Samuel were doing. Jonathan’s inspiring generosity makes him something of a martyr when he dies with his father in a battle against the Philistines. In a moving poem, David praises Jonathan for his generous life and, as a gesture of reconciliation, praises Saul for his valor. Jonathan’s end, and perhaps his devotion to David over/against his own father, is foreshadowed in a troubling incident where Saul, before a battle, cursed anyone who ate food before evening. Jonathan heard nothing of this executive order until after he had eaten some honeycomb. After the victorious battle, Saul was determined to find out who had violated his oath. One can’t help but sense some tension, maybe even envy, on Saul’s part, when he says, even before the first lot is cast: “Even if it is my son, Jonathan, he shall surely die!” When Jonathan is indicated, Saul seems perfectly content for Jonathan to be killed, but the people ransom Jonathan, an example of the Spirit inspiring a corporate mimetic process moving away from death to life. Although David has gone down in history as the progenitor of Christ, Jonathan foreshadows the generosity of Christ much more deeply.

Now for another thought experiment. Imagine that everybody you knew ganged up on you, leveling incredible accusations against you and raining savage blows on your body. Your friends either joined in the persecution or slunk away, too afraid to defend you. Your attackers pressed on until they had put you to a most painful death. Imagine further that, miraculously, you found yourself alive again three days later. Having already died, you could hardly die again. You have become invincible. What would you do to the people who had mistreated you? How would you approach your cowardly friends?

Perhaps this thought experiment can give us an inkling of how amazing it is that, when this very miracle happened to Jesus, he did not retaliate, but instead, invited everybody to a big whooping party that will never end. After rising from the dead, Jesus continued to do what he was doing before he was killed, which was to gather God’s people. Jesus responded to hostility with hospitality, the same hospitality he showed to the hungry people in the wilderness. After his Resurrection, Jesus practiced what he preached in the Sermon on the Mount by returning evil with good, hatred with love. As the theologian Raymund Schwager points out, Jesus did not carry out the implied threat to the evil workers in the vineyard in his parable in any act of divine vengeance. If these workers did come to a bad end, it was only be because they remained trapped in their violence and rejected the invitation to the heavenly banquet offered by the Risen forgiving Christ. Here is the rub. The stories of Jacob and Joseph show us how difficult accepting forgiveness can be. Like Jacob and Joseph’s brothers, we may find accepting forgiveness even harder than forgiving the wrongs committed against us, and that’s saying something. Both forgiving and accepting forgiveness break down our illusions of being autonomous selves. Forgiveness only happens in relationships. It can be as earth-shattering as Jesus bursting out of his grave on the first day of the week. It can be as gentle as Jesus stepping through the wall into our room. We see this same hospitality to Jesus’ persecutors in the apostolic preaching. When Peter told the people in Jerusalem what, precisely, they had done, they were “cut to the heart” and they asked: “What should we do?” In reply, Peter extended the invitation that he and the disciples had received from the Risen Lord: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is a far cry from the response we get from most followers of a slain leader.

Baptism isn’t just a matter of sprinkling a few drops of water on the forehead. Baptism is earthshaking. The Greek word baptizmo means to overwhelm, to submerge. This is a powerful way of symbolizing the inner reality. In baptism, we are overwhelmed in two ways. First, we are overwhelmed by the violence in this world, then we are overwhelmed by the forgiving grace of the Risen Lord. This is what St. Paul was writing about when he said we are baptized into Jesus’ death so that we may be raised with Him. Before his arrest, Jesus spoke of his overwhelming suffering and death as a baptism. We, too, are overwhelmed by the violence in the world around us and (more importantly) the violence within us. That is, like Peter, we must hear the cock crow and cry over our complicity in collective violence. This baptism is a deluge, to use another biblical image. We are too caught up in the violent entanglements of society to escape them. Insofar as we experience ourselves as victims, we are overwhelmed with the pain we have suffered. However, if we are ever going to be effective agents of deliverance from the “principalities of this world,” we must feel the force of this violence. Otherwise, we will be too complacent with the status quo and will fail to see how perilous are current situation is. It is precisely because Christ has dismantled the victimary mechanism so that it cannot work, that there is no tourniquet for mimetic violence. How can we bear it? We can bear the pain only if we are raised with Christ. In Christ, we are overwhelmed with the fathomless love of the forgiving, risen victim. It is our baptism into the Resurrection that gives us the possibility of saving the planet God has given us. The deluge of food in the wilderness was only a hint of the deluge of forgiving love offered us by the Risen Christ. In his first epistle, Peter links baptism with the flood in Noah’s time. Far from indulging in a cosmic tempter tantrum, God, was delivering Noah and his family from the flood of a violent society, just as the water of baptism delivers us now.

The apostles had received the Holy Spirit on two contrasting but complimentary occasions. In the upper room, Jesus’ breathed the Holy Spirit on them, renewing God’s breath of life into Adam at the dawn of creation. Then he gave them the power to forgive sins. It is an indication of how deeply we are steeped in mimetic rivalry that we readily take these words to mean that Jesus gave the Church power to decide whether or not somebody is forgiven. True, we can refuse to forgive or be forgiven, but when we do that, we remain overwhelmed by our entanglements with rivals in the “thorns of scandal.” Gil Bailie suggests that Jesus was saying that there is an awful lot of forgiving that needs to be done, and we’d better get started doing it. Jesus called the Holy Spirit that he breathed on his disciples the paraclete. This is a legal term designating the defending lawyer, a person’s advocate. In direct contrast to the satanic victimary mechanism fueled by false accusations, the Holy Spirit is the breath of forgiveness and vindication to everybody. No exceptions. Jesus has given us the power to forgive sins, to desire what the Paraclete desires. Period. Jesus did not give the church the power to cast anybody out. This is why Jesus’ teaching consistently couples God’s forgiveness of us with our forgiveness of others. The “violent wind of fire” that overwhelmed the apostles was not so gentle, yet it brought them peace. By speaking in the tongues of all nations, they offered peace to everybody everywhere. The gathering in the Holy Spirit would not be defined by who was excluded; this gathering would be defined by the inclusion of everybody. The disciples were no longer fighting among themselves as to who was the greatest. Overwhelmed as they were by the Holy Spirit, they were inviting everybody else to be overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who overwhelms us with forgiveness. In the Holy Spirit, there is enough power and greatness to go around for everybody. There is nothing to fight about any more. What else should we expect from the One who told us the Parable of the Prodigal Son? (Better titled: The Parable of the Prodigal Father.) The Prodigal Father welcomed his son back before he expressed repentance. (Remember, the son was only regretting his sinking lot in life, not his actions, when he decided to return.) The Prodigal Father did not exact a price for a loving reunion, except insofar as receiving forgiveness is itself an overwhelming price to pay. And yes, the father threw a whooping party!

On the road to Emmaus, two downcast disciples met a fellow traveler who seemed not to know what had happened in Jerusalem, but as they talked, this stranger explained the scriptures in a way that made it clear that he did know quite a lot about what had really happened. When evening came, they stopped at an inn. When the stranger broke bread, they recognized Jesus. Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist and in the midst of our relationships is elusive. This elusiveness gives us the space to enter and be transformed. After Jesus had disappeared, the disciples commented to each other on how their hearts burned within them as he discussed the scriptures during the journey. This fire, a gentler fire than on the day of Pentecost, but a fire nonetheless, burns at a level that we can live with day by day. This is a fire within us that keeps the risen life of Jesus alive as it guides us into what scripture has said all along about human victims and divine love. Here is a fire that keeps us from being overwhelmed by our mimetic rivalries and the baptism of violence all around us and within us by giving us space for silent, contemplative prayer. This fire focuses us on what things we can do for what people among us to bring Christ’s resurrected love to them in acts of service and how to receive the same in return. This fire expands our hearts to provide God’s abundance to creation and to all of humanity.