by Fr. Jack McArdle
'Show me your company, and I'll tell you what kind of person you are', is something that I often heard during my schooldays. I always accepted that as being true. Now, however, when I apply such a criterion to Jesus, it falls completely apart! To use human language in a literal sense, the process of Incarnation was one of absolute and total humility on the part of God. I say this with great reservation, however, because, in fact, I see it as one of extraordinary love. Love will go to any lengths, and, indeed, to any depths, to give expression to its existence. Love, by definition, is always active, is always engaged, is always giving. This is attitudinal, and not always in a tangible, evident way. Adam and Eve became outcasts, when they were cast out of the Garden. Their actions resulted in this, and it was of their own doing. They had been given free-will, and they were free to leave or stay, to rebel or to obey. The consequent history of humanity after that was one of a nomadic people, without roots, wandering over the face of the earth. In our own society, unfortunately, there is a low-level of acceptance for the nomad and the restless, unsettled traveller. In some way, they are seen as outcasts, as not belonging, as being outside the pale. This is a two-edged sword. To resolve this, there must be movement on both sides of the spectrum. There must be an acceptance of the principle of 'live, and let live', allowing that each of us shares this earth with equal right. The travelling community must be allowed decide whether they want to settle, or preserve their customs and tradition, and the settled community must be prepared to respect the rights of such people to live and exist. Long long before I can be prepared to allow such people settle anywhere near where I live, I must honestly accept their basic right to exist, in the first place! Intolerance is the inability to tolerate, and it comes from prejudice, which is a word for pre-judging. It is passing judgement, without actually being in possession of all the facts. Empathy is the ability to unscrew the top of another's head, look out from there, and see things as that person sees them. I am not pretending to be so idealistic as to suggest that we should all naturally be this way! With our own human nature, this is completely impossible for us.
There is an old Irish phrase that translates as 'God spoke first'. God did it, through Jesus, and, through the Spirit, he makes it possible for us to do it. Lucifer was cast out of heaven. God, in Jesus, willingly left heaven to come down here among us. 'He did not cling to equality with God, but became as we are'. 'He who was without sin, became sin for us.' Like Hopkins' 'The Hound of Heaven', Jesus pursued us, as it were; he came into exile with us, so he could lead us back home. It is impossible for the human mind to comprehend the full implications and ramifications of Incarnation. One of the core concepts of Christianity is that, for life to be gained, it must be given away. 'Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains alone'. The grain of wheat must shrivel and die, if there is to be a new stalk of wheat above the ground. If I look at things from the perspective of the worm, I will only see dead and shrivelled seeds and bulbs, and have no idea of what that dying has produced.
We are all familiar with the idea of Upstairs/Downstairs, and of the social levels represented by both. In a society like India, the caste-system is more evident. There is a line over which some people can never hope to cross. Being born 'on the wrong side of the tracks' is one way we have of expressing this. From the moment of his birth in a stable, Jesus was outside the echelons of power, influence, and respectability. While still a child, he became a refugee in Egypt. The idea of being a homeless refugee is something that is all too familiar in today's world. He would later declare that 'the foxes have holes, the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head'. Like anyone in a lower caste, Jesus didn't own anything. Riches and wealth are often confused. Riches has little to do with money. I could possess much wealth, and be a really poor person. What I am, and what I possess are two totally different entities. In the eyes of his neighbours, Jesus was the son of a carpenter. When the power of God began to manifest itself through him, many of his neighbours were puzzled, and, indeed, downright angry. How dare he pretend to be anything other than who they saw him to be! We are all familiar with the exclamation 'Just who does she thinks she is?' The actual conditions in which Jesus lived are not easily understood, with human comprehension. Of course, he was God; always was, and ever will be. What happened, actually, was that he put his divinity totally to one side, and took on our humanity, with all the consequences that flow from that. It would be wrong to think of Jesus carrying his divinity around, under cover, until needed! I suggest that he put aside every personal claim to Godhead, and to all the strengths and powers that go with that. It was not until the Holy Spirit came upon him in the Jordan river that he had access to a Higher Power. This was very important, because it was thus that he ordained that we also should come into the fulness of divinity, when our Baptism in the Holy Spirit would take place. 'Greater things than this shall you do....'.
We are all children of Adam, and, because of original sin, we are all outcasts. We have nothing of ourselves that can change that condition in any way. Jesus went to great lengths to show his attitude towards the outcast and the marginalised. He was a friend to the natural 'enemy', whether that be a Samaritan or a Roman officer, and he touched the untouchables. Even if he had been born within the caste of respectability, he would have totally alienated himself by such actions. It was obvious that he acted in this way with full awareness of what he was doing, and the consequences of such actions. On several occasions, the leaders attempted to stone him to death, something that was the penalty reserved for such undesirables. Death by crucifixion was the ultimate shameful penalty for the most notorious outcasts. Calvary was the clearest and most definitive declaration of how the religious leaders saw Jesus, and thought of him. When the leaders and soldiers came to arrest him, Jesus said 'Am I some dangerous criminal that you have come armed with swords and clubs to arrest me?' Yes, indeed, in their eyes, he was someone who presented a real danger to them. He didn't belong. He refused to play the game their way, to conform, to know and keep his place; therefore, they had to 'put him in his place.'
When Jesus was nailed to the cross, the whole truth of his being an outcast was most evident, and most graphically displayed. Crucifixion was reserved for slaves and foreigners. It was considered not only the most painful form of death, but an annihilation of the person. The victim's name could never again be spoken without shame. At that time it seemed to Jesus that even the Father had deserted him. The apostles had run away, not wanting to share in his shame and failure. He had been mocked, jeered at, and stripped in public. All human help had evaporated, apart from a few very loyal, but helpless friends. And then, all sense of connection was severed, and he felt totally alone. At that moment, he experienced himself as irretrievably outcast from both earth and heaven. He had a sense of being hanging there between earth and heaven, as if disowned by both. 'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose' is a nice concept, while being a very frightening reality. There is no form of human agony or pain that Jesus did not experience to the limits. He was paying the price for the sins of the world, and, therefore, the extent and the depth of the struggle would be such as to be inclusive of all the ills and all the pains of humanity. Even in death he was not free from the taunts and the jeers. This came even from someone who was sentenced to die with him. The Old Testament prophesies are replete with the cries of the wounded one, the unwanted one, the outcast among the people. It was as if he had to become the greatest outcast of all times so as to reach those most alienated, and most marginalized. This was love being poured out gratuitously, and in abundance, and the world has never, and will never witness such love again.
Jesus warned his disciples. 'They have hated me, so they will hate you. Blessed are you when people persecute you, and speak ill of you, because of me.' The whole scenario and the message is so foreign to the expectations of the world, that, in the words of Paul, 'to the Jews it is foolishness, and to the Greeks a scandal'. In dressing him up in robes of mockery, and crowning him with a crown of thorns, the soldiers were meting out the treatment they saw that he deserved. He was a fool by any standards, and deserved to be treated as one. Paul speaks of 'becoming a fool for Christ's sake'. We are all familiar with the situation where people who take the gospel seriously are generally suspect, at least in the eyes of many. I'm not speaking of religious eccentrics here. The world would prefer much greater caution, prudence, and earthly common-sense. It is important to always be in control, and always be seen to be in control. To become the voice of the poor, the voice of the voiceless, is to risk persecution, and alienation. Right down to this day we know of people who have forfeited their lives, because they dared to stand up against the so-called wisdom of the world. 'In the eyes of the world, they seemed to have died, but for those who believe, they have entered into eternal glory'. The kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, and the values of that kingdom could never conform to the expectations of this world. If Jesus were to save the world, he could never become part of it. That he should be an outcast, to be seen as an outcast, and to be treated as such, all of this was part of God's plan for the redemption of the world. He joined us in our deepest darkness, and led us out into the light, into the freedom of the children of God. This is the message of the Church to the homeless, the marginalised, the disenfranchised: 'You are important, and that is why we want to help you. You may be seen at outcasts in the eyes of the world, but, because of Jesus, you are ranked among the most precious of God's children.'
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'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.