Week 6: Prey

April 11, 2017 in Lent 2017: Week 6

The Paschal perspective – which is to say, the Christian take on things – is not concerned about fiscal correctitude, the entrepreneurial prerogative of a paternalistic employer who feels digestively generous on a whim, or modern capital’s contaminated use of the minimum wage as a golden bar and not a bottom-line. Roman and Reform traditions in western Christianity have extrapolated the most unlikely economic guidelines – more Adam Smith than Adam and Eve – from commercial clues in the detail of different parables in the New Testament, and I remember a seventeenth century Salem divine (perhaps my near namesake Cotton Mathers, but you’d need to Google it) who records his incredulous mercantile amazement at the smallness of the sum paid to poor Judas by the clerical cabinet on Spy Wednesday: not only was the paradigmatic Jew a moral monster, it appears, but, contrary to satanic stereotype, he was a rotten businessman too.

Balfour, the last aristocrat to lead a British government (and the man behind the mandate in 1917, whom the Israeli state is celebrating in stamps, if not in spades, in its current centenary year) had been cradled by the ancient Duke of Wellington, his Godfather both in chrism and in cash, at the baptismal font, and therefore knew his genealogy when he remarked in later life of primogeniture and property rights that “the accident of birth is more easily defended on its naked absurdity than birth plus services”. But the parable of the labourers in the orchard has less to say about the horrors of heredity than it has about the hierarchical cruelty of meritocracy, which system of graduated demarcation is everywhere touted in our democratic world as Justice incarnate and therefore an essential algorithm of righteousness in a post-religious order. Jesus, however, contradicts our contented unanimity on this point of principle, even though meritocratic measures have long since infiltrated our official Christianity, although they are potentially as toxic and obnoxious an attempt at ethical doctrine as the Enlightenment primacy of personal autonomy.

Mind you, this may not be the subterranean seam in the story, but its ostensible and overt motive instead. The meat of Matthew here has to do, I suspect, with precedence and priority amongst the Jesus followers long after his death, when the immaterial essentials that matter most – aura and standing and reputational erections – were up for grabs among his rivalrous family. For who should be best rewarded in the pecking order? Those who came later to the cult, the second-generation Jewish converts, an occasional gentile matron and her enslaved domestic retinue, the biological grandson of an apostolic original, or, rarely but resoundingly, an unrelated recruit from a posh priestly family in the direct Levite line? And how long can the early Christian community heap deference and reverence on a demented psycho-geriatric at the end of the first century who happened to be hale and hearty in the good old Galilean days, and loves to allege in his dribbling dotage that he deloused Jesus’ hair twice or three times under an eucalyptus in Capernaum that time a desperate centurion petitioned him in pidgin Aramaic? We are all of us the mothers of the sons of Zebedee, and we are all of us her children too.

Go to Darmstadt, to the Messel pit near Frankfurt in what Tacitus, who was terrified by it and enthralled by it, calls Germania, to the eviscerated strata of the continental earth, to the bare bones of our own beginning. If the truths, the whole truths, and nothing but the truths, are written anywhere in stone, they are written there in fossil fragments, in the rubbish of Genesis, and not in the mission statements of the vulcanized entablatures in the piped music of our public places. Ask to examine, in its forty-eight million year-old bas relief, the literal limestone image of a threefold Eucharist from a period before even the paleolithic: the petrified body of a cockroach inside the petrified stomach of a prehistoric lizard inside the petrified stomach of an extinct species of snake. That is Holy Communion according to nature. That is the eschaton of the carnivore, the Jericho siren of the Stuka, the foetus, even, cannibalising its mother. It is the black and white of our nature revealed as black and blue.

There is another struggle, which is Israel, the struggle with G-d, a mirror-image of our murderous human intercourse that reads us in reverse as the darlings of fraternity and the serene, if short-lived, fools of non-resistance. This one tells us: You are not going to die. You are coming to die. That is a different thing altogether. Do so, accordingly, with as much vitality as you can muster from a narrative account of a model in miniature of the most reluctant martyr in religious history, a man who consumed life without ever engrossing it, in the complete waste of time that identifies the present absentee, eternity.

‘Many are called, but few are chosen’ is, I suppose, the bog-standard Anglophone snapshot of an epigram that is itself commissioned and decommissioned routinely in discrepant versions of the end of this gospel lection, but it can’t quite disclose the elegance of the word-play in the Greek of Matthew, in which ‘klétoi’(selected) and ‘eklektoi’ (elected, or, better still, elect) chime across a pretty parallel in the semi-demi quaver of semantic similarity), with a subtlety that was probably beyond the doggerel of Jesus’s second language, for all his heavy – and historical – punning on the name Peter, and so it reminds the reader of the mediated nature of every single sentence in scripture, its multiple removes and re-mouldings, the intricate community of its intentions over time. And, in turn, for all my undergraduate Liddell and Scott researches (‘head of the house’ or ‘landlord’ in this vineyard yarn, for example, renders the textual ‘despot’), I’m damned if we know how to render the tonal nuances of such kindly, continuous ironies from an itinerant catechist who was often, I suspect, tongue-in-cheek, tartly mischievous instead of solemnly orotund, more back-answer than bass note, more Mmm than Om.

We might even understand the adage as a subversive, almost a saucy, retort to conventional political economy, the common-sense callousness of an orderly queue understood as the social alias of realisable equality, or what Wycliffe calls “even-pence” in a line. Everyone’s included here, nobody’s excluded, and, worst of all, it’s a non-exclusive élite, a most eclectic clientele, which defeats the whole purpose of the pack mentality; for, since our species doesn’t unite (instead, it unites against), it follows that the Holy Spirit’s sociology, which is helter-skelter, stymies our Cainite culture, which is hierarchical, at its first-and-foremost source. The A to Z approach, it would seem, is the short form of the word Auschwitz. Again, we might translate the notion as context dictates, preferring the one version to the other on the spur of the moment, in much the way that today’s pendulum presiders will sometimes say “for all” in the rite of institution, if it’s only the live-and-let-live laity in the stalls, but more often “for many”, if there’s a priest, especially a young priest in the front pew, God forbid, who might report them to the third floor, watching every word over the cup/chalice like a witch-finder.