Friday, May 29, 2009

1-27-2008: 3rd Ordinary Time (A)

Isaiah 8:23-9:3/Psalm 27/1 Corinthians 1:10-13,17/Matthew 4:12-23
One of my first college experiences was taking a class in ancient Egyptian history. The professor, a very short woman with a weather-beaten face, had a Texas drawl accented by a smoker’s rasp. She conveyed an underlying excitement in what she was about to say during that first class, though she must have said it many times before. There’s one thing you should take away from your study of ancient history, she began, and that’s that there’s no such thing as a pure race. We’re all mixed.

Modern genetics has since proven her right. A recent study in Britain, for example, revealed some inexplicable anomalies. The DNA of an English school teacher, whose family tree can be traced generations back within England, possesses a strand of DNA that is unique to Polynesian peoples. And a Scottish fisherman, somewhere in his ancient lineage, acquired a gene distinctive to Koreans. But what makes us who we are: nature or nurture, that unique genetic inheritance or the family we’re raised in, a combination of both? The gospel today suggests an additional possibility – geography.

When Jesus heard of John’s arrest, the gospel relates, he withdrew to the Galilee. Translation: when things were getting a bit dicey, Jesus slipped back into the hood. The Galilee was way different from Judea, a crossroads for trade and a stop-over for those on their way to the Mediterranean. Penetrated through the centuries by various gentile populations, it was notorious as a seedbed of unrest, the locus from which arose many an uprising against the powers-that-be. Galileans spoke their own distinct brand of Aramaic which Jews from Jerusalem no doubt thought low-class. The gospels give evidence of these regional prejudices: Can anything good come from Nazareth… and the like. Yet, on his return to the Galilee, Jesus doesn’t go to Nazareth but makes his home in Capernaum, deep in what Isaiah called heathen Galilee. It’s there, amidst the mix of cultures, amid the ambiguity of religious orthodoxy and the syncretism that ran rampant, that Jesus begins to teach and heal. Jesus and his apostles were at home in the Galilee and would have been judged by those from Jerusalem as impure and impious – tainted with gentile ideas and, possibly, with gentile blood as well. The light that had been prophesied to come to the Galilee is, in fact, the light that emerged from it.

In the Galilee Jesus calls the first four of his apostles, two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, James and John. The name Andrew is Greek and betrays that heathen influence. Jesus would later provide nicknames for the others: Peter became Rock, and James and John, Boanerges – the sons of thunder. Here, Jesus might be providing the brothers with a destiny to fulfill by recalling the battle that raged in the Galilee seven centuries previous when the Canaanite king, Sisera, was defeated by the Israelite Judge whose name meant lightning.

The Jewish elite from Jerusalem sought to preserve the myth that theirs was a pure religion and a pure race, and so they resisted the Galilean movement originating among those they considered impure and impious. The rest, as they say, is history.

Richard Rodriguez’s recent memoir, Brown, seeks to unravel the myth. Rodriguez claims his Indian and Spanish heritage as brown, meaning mixed, mescla, mestizo-ed. It’s an obvious autobiographical fact, but Rodriguez offers it as a metaphor for culture as well -- and American culture in particular. We’re each of us a mixed bag: genetically, culturally, linguistically, sexually -- products of a confluence of this and that. No use pretending otherwise. In other words, none of us is pure anything.

By the way, that Israelite Judge who led the battle against Sisera back in the eight century BC whose name meant lightning – in Hebrew, he’s called Barak. I hear my old history professor saying: tol’ ya so.

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