The connection between popularism and white nationalism has become a staple of our daily news feed. It may seem new to us, but it has particularly deep roots in American history. The post-Civil War economic boom and bust economy was a gilded age for some people, but a time of unrelenting poverty for many more. Reformers saw this at the time and attempted to unite the poor, downtrodden, and dispossessed. They made significant progress around 1890, but ultimately failed. The rich and powerful used their influence to create divisions between native-born Americans and immigrants and especially between blacks and whites. This delayed even basic reforms for over a generation and required a major depression to finally move. (1)
I raise this not as a history lesson, but to illuminate today’s Gospel. Luke’s contemporaries would have understood the connection immediately, but we will need some background.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He has bluntly acknowledged that he will be executed. A potential disciple asks him if only a few will be saved. This means how many will enter the kingdom. The first and immediate meaning of the kingdom is the reign of God. In Christian interpretation Jesus would return, the dead would rise from their graves, the just and the unjust would be separated and he would begin the rule of God. The man is asking if he takes the risk of joining with Jesus, will he be saved and be seen among the just in the Kingdom. Jesus may seem not to answer the question, but his immediate listeners would have understood that he is clearly stating that he is the only way into the kingdom. He does not tell them to obey the law with greater devotion or fight the Romans but to have a real union with him. Group identity is not enough. Knowing about Jesus is not enough, only knowing him is enough.
Even neighbors who grew up with Jesus in Nazareth, worked with him on construction projects, or were even present at the Sermon on the mount and learned the Lord’s prayer from his very tongue but did not open their hearts to him were unknown to him. They were at best disciples in name but not in fact. As the prophets preached for centuries to be part of the people a Jew needed more than a good pedigree, he needed commitment to the integrity and role of Israel. This is a very specific reference, and Jesus and Luke assume that we know what it is and the Christian consequences.
King David unified the 12 tribes of Hebrews about 1000 BC. It was a rather unstable coalition and broke into two parts after the death of his son Solomon: Israel in the north comprised of 10 tribes and Judah in the south with 2. They had a rather strained relationship but considered themselves one people. They lived in a dangerous neighborhood and Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BC. The Assyrian colonial policy was to move conquered people somewhere else and import people from another part of the empire. The 10 tribes effectively disappeared from history. Judea held on until 587BC when they succumbed to the Babylonians. This, however, was not the end of Judea. The Babylonian colonial policy was to deport the leaders to Babylon. Miraculously in 537 Babylon was in turn conquered and the new regime offered to send them back to Jerusalem to administer it for them. Enough accepted that they could rebuild the temple and maintain a Jewish existence. This was such an unimaginable act of mercy and power that they knew the Lord could and prayed that he would unite the 12 tribes once more. At the time of the return, Isaiah wrote” I will say to the north, “Give them up, and to the south, “Do not withhold them” (Is 43:6, see full quote in #2) When this did not immediately occur, they thought that when the messiah inaugurated the Kingdom the tribes would be united. This may seem to be a particularly gross form of nationalism but there is another strain in Jewish thought also expressed by Isaiah: I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is 49:6, full quote below #3).
This was a belief more honored by tongue than deed but still Jewish belief and one Jesus proclaimed clearly and fearlessly. The people fail in their vocation as Jews when they are not a light to the nations, and they will be cast out of the kingdom. Remember the kingdom was a physical and visible reality and the proof that one had led a just life was to be seen dining with the patriarchs and prophets when the graves were opened, and all things revealed. People from the east and west north and south will be brought together thus fulfilling the messianic obligation to bring the tribes together again but vastly transforming it. Jesus built on national, class and religious identities and transcended them
He can do the same for and with us.
Cultural identities are inevitable and important. We are formed by the communities to which we belong. They help us live meaningful and satisfying lives. Yet if we did not know how dangerous they could be before we certainly know it now. However, nourishing they may be none are good in themselves and must be judged more by the light they share than the warmth they give. How are we formed by St Charles Borromeo? I hope that we are comfortable here but are we a comfort and light to others? As we prepare for the new Parish year, we must all take that question to heart.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, many American Christians allowed themselves to be divided by identities that Jesus would not have recognized and became a people he did not know. In the first quarter of the 21st, may Jesus see us and know that we are his disciples indeed.
- “The Populist Response to Industrial America” Norman Pollack (Norton; 1966) This is still the classic formulation of this idea. I first read it in High School but when I read it again years later, I realized I did not grasp its main point. As this is a very clearly written book, I realized further that it was because I did not want to understand it,
2) Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.” (Is 43:5–7)
3) It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is 49:6)