Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro

July 7, 2002


Fourteenth Sunday Ordinary Time

Zec 9: 9-10, Rom 8: 9, 11-13, Mt 11: 25-30

Zechariah 9:9-10: The prophet Zechariah came late in Israel’s history. He was among those who returned from Babylon after captivity to help rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.  He was painfully aware of Israel’s flawed and failed legacy of worldly kings.  And he was well aware there was not a living member of David’s family to carry on the royal line. And yet he also knew God promised that David’s kingly dynasty would last forever. And when God promises something, he doesn’t lie.

       Zechariah struggled with this yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of God and Israel¹s tragic history of their kings mimicking the worldly power. Taking his clues from the universalist, pacifist prophet Isaiah (see Is. 2) Zechariah envisioned a totally different kind of king for Israel in this week’s reading.  

Zech 9:9: Zechariah writes of a future victorious king’s triumphal marching into a joyous Jerusalem, only it is unlike any victory parade ever experienced. The usual victory parade is standard fare. The victorious king, or general, sends in his foot soldiers and archers before him, followed by his chariots of war. Then come the newly captive slaves and the spoils of war, followed by dancing girls and marching bands. Finally the victorious king or general enters the city upon the best chariot of war among much singing and fanfare. Not so for the future victorious king that Zechariah envisioned. Zech’s king, the king of kings, enters the city singularly; a lone figure riding upon a donkey, humble and meek.

Zech 9:10: The first decree from this "anti-king" King is to disarm Israel. He orders her chariots and bows of war destroyed. From then on Israel will stand disarmed among the nations. As hard as this is to envision, Zechariah did not see Israel like an ancient version of a modern day Switzerland; a small insignificant neutral nation, among armed and war-ready nations. No, from his position of meekness and humility Zechariah believed of this new "anti-king" king of a disarmed Israel will bring peace to all the nations and be the ruler of all peoples. Unfortunately Zechariah does not share how this peace will be made. But we do know that wars or those who prepare for war will not make this peace.

Lesson: You have got to admit, a lot is said in these two years. My thoughts go back to Jack Nelson; Pallmyer’s book Jesus vs. Christianity that I mentioned a few weeks ago on Trinity Sunday. Jack makes a good case for the need to re-envision God as being non-violent based on Jesus’ nonviolence. He maintains that all references to a violent, condemning and judging God in both the Old and New Testaments are products of our human pathologies and all such texts must be reread through the clear nonviolent unconditional loving and unlimited forgiving spirit of Jesus. This week’s text from Zechariah is an example of the true nonviolent nature of God breaking through the Old Testament scriptures.

    And even though these are only two verses from a late prophetic book, they have the most profound significance for our understanding of Jesus. Why? Because in all four Gospels, Jesus literally acts out the victory parade that Zechariah foretells. The Church calls it Palm Sunday. Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem, a week before his passion and death. It was a major street demonstration in which Jesus was hailed as the new king. Jesus entered the city riding a donkey. Two of the four Gospels directly quote Zech 9:9. This bit of street demonstration, a political demonstration must not be lost on us. In the minds of the four Gospel writers and the first followers of the Jesus way, Jesus was the fulfillment of Zechariah¹s promised peace, making him a nonviolent pacifist meek and mild "anti-king" King of Kings.

Matthew 11:25-28: This week’s Gospel from Matthew comes after Jesus went through the towns of Chorazon, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. The text says Jesus worked most of his miracles in these towns yet they refused to turn to God so Jesus told them that come Judgement Day it will go worse for them than it did for the towns of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom of the Old Testament.

     This week’s Gospel has Jesus sharing with the crowd some characteristics of who will be his followers and how they must receive his message. There are many levels to the Jesus message of nonviolent, unconditional love and unlimited forgiveness, from the personal to the communal to the national to the global.

     Taking our lead from this week’s first reading from Zechariah, I’m going to reflect on this week’s Gospel from the perspective of the political and national level on issues of war and peace. This perspective is based on my assumption that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promised victorious King of Kings that Zechariah foretold. This perspective is also based on my assumption that the means Jesus challenges us to use for this revolutionary peace-making mission is active nonviolent resistance to war and injustice through the use of unconditional love and unlimited forgiveness. So what does this week’s Gospel tell us about the political and national level of peace making through the Jesus Way?

Matt 11:25 "You have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to the childlike": Jesus was not going to let his failures to reach the people he was preaching to disappoint him, especially his failure to persuade Pharisees and Scribes, the rich and the powerful and the priests of the temple. In fact he praised his Father’s plan for he understood why the so-called wise and learned of the world could not receive his message. It is meant for only those who take upon themselves a child-like acceptance of his simple message.

     This is certainly true in the world of Christian peace-making. If we review the wars of the last century, it is the wise and learned of the world who lead us into wars. They are the ones who invented the most deadly weapons. Once a person reaches a position of power, privilege, or authority in the world’s socio-economic political and religious institutions and structures, the dear and straight forward mandates of the Gospel no longer apply.

     Pro status quo religious denominations make sure their most respected and learned theologians complicate and rationalize the clear anti-war, anti-killing message of Jesus to confuse and mislead. And in times of national crisis, leaders can always find friendly, respectable church leaders to bless any war plans they deem necessary.

     This has been the position of all the mainline Christian denominations, Catholics included, since the time of Constantine. Today, our Church teaches that it’s okay for an individual to embrace the nonviolent pacifist position of Jesus, but it can't be expected of nation states. Within this two tier morality, the personal vs. the social, the status-quo theologians invented the just war theory.

     The outcome of this watered down, diminished version of our faith has produced untold suffering and death at the hands of Christians over the last 17 centuries, culminating with the 20th century, the most war torn bloody century the world has ever had. And to the great shame of our faith, we Christians have been the best killers. We kill each other very well, and we kill others even better. This frenzy of war making has brought the human race to the brink of total annihilation. We now have the weapons in place and the intent to use them that will destroy all life. And the wise and learned call this deterrent and keeping the peace.

     Jesus never taught a two-tier moral standard, one for individuals and one for nation states. Our collective, communal morality should be the same as our personal morality. If our churches truly believed in the teachings of Jesus, we would support and follow only those who strive for peace and justice and ³self defense² through non-violent means. Sure, it looks foolish to the wise and learned of the world. Too simplistic and naive, they would say, to really be taken seriously. And yet, it is precisely what Jesus would have us do. Not in some abstract utopian world but in this messy, violence-filled, bloody, unjust world in which we live; a world that would crucify a nonviolent rebel just as easily as a violent rebel.  

     To truly embrace the message of Jesus at the political, national level you have to let go of the word games and rationalizations of the wise and the learned and take to heart the simple, straight forward command to love God and love your neighbor. Start living on every level the universal ethic of love and forgiveness and only support and cooperate with others who refuse to kill. You will be amazed how contrary and complicated your life will become, a simple way for the simple-hearted, not at all practical, and in no way easy to do.

Matthew 11:26 -Jesus says the Father knows the Son and the Son knows the Father: Here Jesus claims a unique relationship with God the Father that gives him insights into the ways of God that no one has ever had. Jesus says he wants to share this divine insight. What might this unique divine insight and knowledge of God be? I’m sure there are many sides and levels to Jesus’ unique insight and knowledge of his Father. What would that knowledge and wisdom be regarding political life of nation states on the issues of war and peace? I believe it is in this area that Jesus’ claimed insights into the nature of God that are the most radical and challenging. Jesus proclaims a Kingdom of God; a political reality. We claim Jesus' kingship of this kingdom, a king like no other king, an "anti-king" king who is meek and humble, a nonviolent peacemaker, an all-loving, all-forgiving, justice-seeker ready to be killed but not kill, who rules by invitation not by domination. Kingly ways that reflect the essence of the divine, an insight to God that only Jesus could bring to us.

When I think of all the great things we profess about Jesus: his divine sonship, savior of the world, forgiver of sins, and all the rest, I find it ironic that the one divine insight that Jesus brought that would most directly affect the way we live with each other, his radical nonviolent ways are the most ignored, neglected, and discredited teachings within his own Church.

Matthew 11:28-29: "For my yoke is easy and my burden light": Me and those two verses have some history. Back in 1990, I was locked up in the Sarpy County Jail in Papillion, Nebraska, the county in which Offutt Air Force Base is located. I was there doing a six month sentence for crossing the line at Offutt. Needless to say, most of the jail personnel were very supportive of the mission of the Strategic Air Command, many of them ex-military. By then I was a well-known SAC protestor and not well received. I must also admit I went into the jail experience with an attitude. I saw my being locked up in the same county as SAC headquarters as an opportunity to keep raising the issues of nuclear madness. I became very demanding of my support people, pushing them to organize weekly vigils at the jail. I also took a demanding attitude to my jailers who were not friendly in the first place. Predictably, my jailers started to mess with me. They lost my mail; books and magazines sent to me disappeared. The Des Moines Register that was ordered for me never got to me. They made it difficult for me to get visits. They denied me some clergy visits. They kept ignoring my request to participate in programs. I took all this harassment very personally and began to feel sorry for myself.

     I felt like every moment of the day was a battle in a war I was clearly losing. My support people got tired of my demands and my whining. My jailers enjoyed seeing me stressed and distressed. And I was miserable.

     Finally they let me be a trustee and assigned me to the laundry room. It was a job that suited me well. I was assigned my own shift, late at night, by myself, washing prison clothes. It was a great time for me to pray, sing, read and write in between washing and drying clothes. I was also doing weekly lectionary reflections for my parishes in Logan and Mondamin. I remember doing the reflection for this week’s Gospel and how struck I was by what Jesus was saying. I read it as if he was talking to me personally.  

     Jesus invites us to come to him with our labors and burdens. Well, I sure felt I had my share of labors and burdens. Heck, I was trying to save the world from nuclear annihilation. And I was doing it in one of the most pro-bomb communities in the country. And I did not feel like I was getting the support and attention I deserved. I was tired and upset with the fight, and I sure could use some of that "rest" Jesus was talking about.

      But then Jesus says we should take his yoke upon ourselves and learn from Him to find the rest He is offering. At first I did not understand what he meant. I mean I thought I was taking up his yoke. It was my desire to follow in His footsteps that landed me in jail. It was from His teachings that I got the idea to nonviolently resist nuclear weapons. Wasn’t that what He meant by "take on his yoke"? So where was the rest He’s talking about?

     Then I re-read the verses and noticed I was skipping the part where Jesus says, "For I am meek and humble of heart". Being meek and humble of heart does not come easy for me. For the better part of my adult life, I’ve been a strong, assertive, self-confident, self-possessed, white male born to do anything I pleased. And if I put my whole heart into making the Kingdom of God a reality, by George, I could do it. This self-possessed self-confidence is almost a birth right for being white, male and free in America.

      That night in the laundry room in the Sarpy County Jail, I struggled personally for the first time (but by no means the last time) with what Jesus meant by being meek and humble of heart. It’s not that the task he gave us is any less awesome and demanding. We are still clearly called to nonviolently resist the systems and structures of war and injustice. However, we are to do so in a meek spirit with a humble heart. For me, that night in the Sarpy County Jail that meant I had to let go of any idea that I had to accomplish anything. This was God’s task, not mine. We are called to be faithful, not effective. I needed to lighten up on the people around me, my support folks and mostly myself. It was only after I did this, that I began to really appreciate the meaning of, "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light".