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Readings for the First Sunday of Lent
GN 9: 8-15; PS 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 PT 3:18-22; and MK 1:12-15
(Copyright © 2015 l Education for Justice, a Project of the Center of Concern)

Repression. An act of repression and injustice precedes the beginning of Jesus’ public witness and ministry. A puppet king whose power stems from serving an oppressive empire carries out an unjust and capricious act. Herod orders the arrest of John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus according to the Gospels, possibly his previous teacher according to Christologists, a voice crying out in the wilderness of our biblical landscape.

John is arrested for his speech: his public witness disturbed Herod who reacted as despots and despotic regimes have throughout the ages. The United Nations ratified freedom of speech in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, yet to this day, many are threatened, imprisoned, ill-treated, tortured, and even killed for their speech, from Colombia to Cambodia, Saudi Arabia to Sri Lanka. In Nigeria, Ken Saro Wiwa was executed for opposing the operations of Shell Oil Company in the Niger Delta.

The unleashing of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom was preceded by Jesus of Nazareth’s personal work, unknown to us. Mark’s Gospel provides no information about the decades of life experience and action that preceded Jesus’ baptism. Christologists surmise that He was a laborer. What acts of repression might Jesus have witnessed or heard about?

Once baptized, Jesus is driven to the desert. The wilderness. A place of great beauty and great danger. There a human being is just another part of the food chain. Life and death are inextricably intertwined; life and death depend on each other.

Not only must Jesus survive exposure to the temperature extremes of the hot blazing day and the cold chilling night, he must avoid lions, leopards, hyenas, cheetahs; scorpions, adders, and vipers. Jesus did not choose to go there; He was driven by the Spirit. There Jesus found Himself accompanied by the angels, the messengers of God, but also Satan, the road leading away, perhaps as simple as a nagging “what in the blazes am I doing out here anyways?” Jesus is facing the crossroads; He must discern the way. It is naked, it is bare, it is exposed. Hungry, thirsty, faced with biting insects, thorns, jagged rocks, danger. Survival of both body and soul
are at stake.

It is reminiscent of accounts of final tests given to apprentices before they become shamans in some indigenous cultures, whether in arctic regions or in the tropical rainforest, where the apprentice must go off into the wilderness for an extended period of time and survive. While in our modern culture we do not have such a practice, we can think of analogous situations in which the terrain is unfamiliar and we must discern our way to keep our integrity aligned with God. Not so easy.

The interior work precedes the public ministry, the solitary gestation comes first, the rubber meets the road as Jesus of Nazareth embraces his calling as Jesus the Christ, a public calling bursting onto the world stage following the injustice inflicted on a friend by a clown. Absurd is Herod, like so many others, willing to benefit personally at the expense of others, trading in short-term gain at the expense of others’ suffering and his eternal soul. Herod’s awful example continues in many variants.

For the Kofan people struggling for their land and their dignity in the Colombian Amazon, Herod takes the form of those willing to negotiate away access to their land for personal gain and even have an organization set up that has specialized in this treachery over the years. For our brothers and sisters closer to home who must take two jobs in order to barely make ends meet, Herod takes the form of those disingenuously arguing that wages should not be raised, that living wages make no economic sense. Note, Herod is only the puppet that carries out the instruction of the oppressor. And yet, the ultimate human oppressor is him/herself only a puppet, but to a much more vicious master.

In order to arrest and murder John, Herod must ignore prophets, teachers, Scripture, possibly even family members. Clearly those surrounding Herod are unwilling to counsel him to respect God’s law. They benefit from this willful disobedience
and disregard. The puppet oppressor is the apex of a pyramid of many interested
in maintaining the status quo and looking the other way, at best, when evil is committed. Yet this pyramid is only a cog in a bigger machine, wholly expendable
and discarded once its useful life is over.

Like its ultimate human master. In contrast, the traditions and teachings
that Herod ignored found a welcoming home in Jesus and his followers. Jesus
referred to their spiritual inheritance often during his public ministry, presenting
novel, expansive interpretations, even reciting one of those prayers as He hung on the  cross. James Martin, S.J. reminds us that Jesus presented his teachings with the stuff of everyday life, images recognizable to his audience.

As an observant Jew of that time, Jesus’ day was likely punctuated with ritual prayer and the Gospel accounts are peppered with his parting company to pray alone. Jesus may well have used the psalms as backdrop to his prayer, as we have used them as our “School of Prayer” in the Liturgy of the Hours. Today’s psalm is like sparkles of light bouncing off a gurgling woodland stream. Given that Jesus not only survives, but comes out of the wilderness charged, able to teach “with a new authority,” psalms such as today’s might have been as vital to Him as the springs He must have discovered in the parched desert. Man does not live by bread alone. At the very least Man needs psalms and springs.

Imbued with these waypoints, embracing that approach, we can come out of the wilderness without fear and embrace Christ’s call, a fierce message of joy: repent, confront the wilderness inside (and outside), dispel the temptations, embrace God’s messengers, be not afraid of the wild beasts, and believe in the Good News. God loves you and wants to be with you at all times, to guide you to seeing, embracing,
being part of, participating in, and constructing The Kingdom.

Reflection Questions: 
• What does your wilderness experience look like?
• Who are the oppressing puppets and who are the puppet masters in our world?
• How is the discussion about the minimum wage portrayed in your local media? Is the term “living wage” ever brought up?

Prayer

Lord Jesus,
Once driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit,
Please show us the way to your call.
Open our ears that we may hear Your voice wherever it may be found.
Open our eyes that we may see You and see the Kingdom.
Temper our wills that we may be joyful laborers.
Counsel us with your psalms and Your voice
And guide our feet through the landscape:
Firm without fear,
Watchful with wisdom,
Serene with humility,
And joyful in love.
Amen.

Faith in Action

• Write to your town council and ask whether there is consideration of raising the local wage. State your position on behalf of a living wage and ask for feedback.

• Background research:
– Article on economics of living wage from Bloomberg Businessweek: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-02-13/making-the-economic-case-formore-than-the-minimum-wage
– Article on the Living Wage Movement from 26 August 2000 issue of America magazine: http://americamagazine.org/issue/378/article/living-wage-movement

• Statement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Just Wage: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/labor-employment/upload/minimum-wage-backgrounder-2014-01.pdf

• Explore the Living Wage Calculator prepared by MIT Professor Amy
Glasmeier, PhD and find out the living wage in your area:  http://livingwage.mit.edu

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