M is for the Marginalized (an alphabet for penitents).

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. -Matthew 9:11-14

 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”-Matthew 11:19

Maybe Lent has been easy for you. You gave up something you shouldn’t imbibe too much anyway and after an initial struggle, you’ve starting to feel the freedom in new routines and habits.  But is that really the point? It is possible to keep our little rule and our little fast and fail to follow Jesus—going where he goes and loving who he loved.

Jesus’ critics called him a friend of tax collectors and sinners, indicating he had the wrong sort of friends. He loved the religious outsiders—those colluding in the Roman occupation and profiting from injustice,  and those who weren’t welcome in the temple because of their lifestyle. Jesus was a lover of the marginalized, the outsider.

He came from a tiny rural village, conducting much of his ministry in Galilee, far away from the seat of power and the religious establishment. He had friends in low places, and outside of a couple of Pharisee friends, he didn’t have strong relationships with the ‘right’ sort of people. The crowds that came to him were the poor, the disenfranchised, the revolutionaries, the tax collectors, and the sinners. These were those without hope in the socio-political world of the Roman Empire or the religious world of first-century Judaism.

What strikes me as odd, is how a season of Lent, which is all about following Jesus, has become such an insider affair. Ash Wednesday is for insiders. Religious outsiders don’t get it: “You got some grease on your head.” “Dude, wash your face!” Lenten fasting is a strange cultural artifact for the wider culture: “So what are the rules of Lent?” “You are giving up what? Why would you want to do a thing like that?” None of what we do seems to make sense from the outside, and yet the outsiders are with whom Jesus spent most of his time.

If our Lenten fasting helps us apprehend the truth about Jesus and his place in our lives, and if the season is about following him, then we need to be intentional about connecting with the margins. In our age, as in Jesus’s, this means the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. This means the neighbor who wouldn’t be caught dead in church (likely because of bad memories of the hypocrisy she found there). It means standing up for the forgotten and invisible people in the community such as the urban and rural poor,  naming injustice and being cognisant of privilege and power dynamics, and cultivating friendships with people who have nothing to contribute to our personal success. It means attending the wrong parties and hanging out with people with the wrong lifestyle.

Of course, Jesus did all this without falling into the temptation inherent in negative peer-pressure but he was denounced as a drunkard and a glutton. He was willing to risk ‘guilt by association’ to love those on the margins. You can’t follow Jesus—go where he goes and do what he does—without making some dangerous connections. If you aren’t friends with the marginalized, who are you following?

I is for Iconoclasm (an alphabet for penitents)

Iconoclasm is the wrong word if by it, we mean the destruction of religious images of any kind. In the Christian tradition, icons were windows to heaven meant to bring a soul into an encounter with the invisible God. But iconoclasm also means, “the action of attacking or assertively rejecting cherished beliefs and institutions or established values and practices.”¹  Part of our spiritual journey involves a tearing down of unexamined beliefs, practices, and institutions. If not iconoclasm, perhaps idoloclasm. 

We each carry assumptions about the world and ourselves. We come by them honestly, we are born with our racial identity and into a socio-economic class. We imbibe the values of the wider culture, we all drink from the same the well. But the journey into the land of repentance forces us to confront our most cherished beliefs about our self, our world, God.

Think about those most honored in our culture: the rich, the powerful, the successful, the talented, the skilled, the beautiful, the proficient, and those famous for being famous. Who does Jesus give special honor to? The poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the marginalized, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Here are Jesus words from the Beatitudes in Luke:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man. 

 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

(Luke 6:20-23).

The poor, the hungry, the mourning, and the hated. These are the folks most of us, most of the time try not to see. Oh, we care about the poor, in the abstract, but we are careful to not make eye contact with the homeless man on the freeway on ramp. We believe in feeding the hungry but most of us live, lives insulated from those in dire need. We want to comfort the mourners who are weeping, but it is too hard to sit in their pain. We instead distract them (and ourselves) with Netflix and retail therapy. We know bullying is wrong and want to stand with the hated and persecuted but we feel threatened by their religion, ethnic origin, and gender identity.  A culture that values the rich, the successful and the beautiful, has difficulty including the marginalized.

And yet following Jesus demands that we embody something else. Jesus confronts our cultural values. Listen to his warning for us:

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:24-26).

Jesus warns the wealthy, the well fed, the perpetually entertained and the respectable. The people our culture honors most—the wealthy, the successful, the positive, the popular—are the folks that Jesus has his harshest words for. You have your comfort already. You will go hungry. You will mourn and weep. Your behavior is exactly how your ancestors treated false prophets. 

The axe is at the root of the tree. Our societal values are called into question. Jesus the iconoclast, comes to dismantle the personal and institutional value we place on the rich, powerful and the popular. He challenges us to enter into the pain of the invisible. Spirituality that does this is prophetic because it calls into question the idols of wealth, power, happiness, success and strength. The Beatitudes remind us that if the good news doesn’t include those on the margins, it is not good news but a mirror held up to our souls. Tear it down.