Year A – Epiphany 2

Isaiah 49: 1-7

1. Discussion

In last week’s reading from Isaiah, the text introduced a figure identified as “the Servant”, One who is God’s “Beloved” and who embodies God’s love and redemptive purpose. This “Servant” comes from God to be God’s message of hope amidst the despair and suffering of human life, especially as it is experienced by the Hebrew people during the course of their Exile in Babylon. Even though the figure of the “Servant” is ambiguous, the message of hope is clear: present circumstances will not have the final say in human affairs.

Today’s reading continues the theme of the “Servant” – with the difference that the “perspective” has changed, as it were, from the prophet speaking about the “Servant” to the “Servant” speaking about themselves. In doing so, the “Servant” becomes emblematic, not only of God’s relationship with the Chosen People, but of the widening of that relationship to the whole of humanity. Change is coming: no longer is God content to simply utilise covenant with Israel as a means to draw people into relationship: God will instead extend that invitation out into the world, and into every human reality.

The passage begins with a command for attention: not just to the people of Israel who are, as it were, “nearby”, but to the people of the “coastlands” and “far away”. Symbolically, the coastlands were distant places from the central homelands of the Hebrew people in the uplands around Jerusalem. Access to them was also often cut off by their occupation by foreigners, such as the Philistines. So the reference to “coastlands” is a reference to a distant place – this passage is being addressed, not just to the people already in covenant, but to those who are “far away” from God.

The “Servant” proceeds to describe themselves as One whose mouth is like a sword hidden in the “shadow” of God’s hand, an arrow hidden in God’s quiver. This is a reference to the difficult task of prophecy: to speak hard truths that can often be wounding to those who hear them. These are truths that often lurk in the “darkness”: either in the dark places of our own sinfulness, or in the implicit cautions contained within God’s communications with humankind. When those hard truths emerge from the “shadow” of God’s hand, or from the “quiver” containing God’s “arrows”, they can appear terrifying and destructive – and those who bear such messages are often the subject of hostility and violence. In these verses we see, not only the implications of speaking with a prophetic voice, but a premonition of the “Servant” who will become the “suffering Servant”.

The ambiguity of the prophetic condition is also articulated through the juxtaposition of the “Servant’s” declaration that they have laboured in vain but that their reward is in God. Despite being the one in whom God will be glorified, the “Servant” has discovered that they have not been able to bring the people back into relationship with God: their strength has been spent in “nothing and vanity”. Yet surely, the “Servant” declares, theirs is the cause of God. In this ambiguity we hear a dissenting voice from the conventional wisdom that declares that those who are with God will triumph and be rewarded: the experience of the “Servants” indicates that this is not always true. Yet the “Servant’s” faith that their reward is “with God” also points to hope: the present may not bring vindication, but God is not confined to the present or to human measures of legitimation.

And the freedom of God’s sovereignty is illustrated in verses 5 and 6, when God declares the new thing that will happen: the “Servant”, the One who was to return Israel to redeeming relationship with God, will now become the restorative agent for the whole world, the “light to the nations” whose illumination will reach to every corner of the earth. No longer is the “Servant’s” mission to redeem Israel, although that faithfulness to covenant still stands and will be activated; rather, the “Servant” is given as a gift to the whole of humankind, redeeming and drawing the whole of creation into the orbit of God’s grace.

And it is in this change that the “Servant” is to be glorified and associated with the redeeming glory of God. The Redeemer of Israel has declared that although despised and abhorred and enslaved because of having faithfully carried out the mission of God, the day will arrive when the “Servant’s” beloved status is recognised, and they will be vindicated as a result. Not just by the Chosen People, but by the whole earth: all the powers of the world will recognise their subordination to the “Servant”, who, through the free sovereignty of God, has been given as gift and glorified through love.

Today’s reading from Isaiah locates the task of prophetic ministry, not within the desires of individual prophets, nor within the standards recognised by humans as legitimatising and authoritative, but within the wider redemptive mission of God. As such, it may result in those who undertake such a ministry being marginalised and even actively despised or persecuted by the society of their time; but their task is not to achieve “validation” or power as these things are conventionally understood. Rather, it is to keep open the lines of communication between humanity and God so that God’s love for the world may continue to be embodied within human reality. That this love may contain difficult truths and even judgements that declare God’s “No!” to human sinfulness is part of the ambiguity of the prophetic task. But those who are called to the prophetic ministry should not shy away from it: their validation resides, not in their own power or the approval of others, but in the redemptive work of God through which everything is changed, and all the old rules and expectations are overthrown.

2. Reflection

Throughout modernity, as human labour has become industrialised, and waged labour has become the predominant form of work in human life, there have been those who have spoken with prophetic voices against the dehumanising trends which modernity’s construction of work and economy was taking. Even Adam Smith, the so-called “father of capitalism”, warned against both the corporation as an institutional form, as well as the industrialisation and over-specialisation of labour; both, he argued, would result in widespread corruption, exploitation, and oppression. And both Smith and Karl Marx, the “father of communism”, agreed on one point: the industrialisation of labour, embodying as it did the exchange of labour for wages, would inevitably commoditise the human person and alienate people from their work.

There have been other voices, from both secular and religious backgrounds, who have argued against the dehumanising trends of corporatist capitalism, and calling for a construction of economy that attended to the dignity of the human person and the nature of interpersonal and communal relations embodied in our economic structures. Often those voices have faced ridicule and dismissal; sometimes they have even been persecuted or suppressed. The emerging status quo of corporatist capitalism, utilising as it can the resources of the media and popular culture to influence public opinion and the policy settings of the body politic, has often sought to silence or sideline critical voices. In those countries where oppressive regimes have worked under the sponsorship of corporations, those voices have even been “disappeared”. Activists seeking to establish trade unions, clergy speaking out against the subjugation of the poor, ordinary citizens decrying ecological damage – all have been subject to various forms of response designed to silence the critics of the “neoliberal ascendancy” and entrench the power of capitalist ethics in society.

It is often easy for the vested interests of corporatism to label these prophetic voices as “cranks” or “extremists” or even “elitists”. In part this is because society itself is captive to the unspoken and unchallenged assumptions of capitalist ethics; any critique of those assumptions can thus be cast into a morally negative framework that automatically recruits the sympathies of the citizenry. However, it is also easy to demonise the critics because the prophetic voice often carries difficult truths: truths that will require people to make sacrifices, to give up their small self-interests and privileges in order to reshape modernity into a relational, covenantal society. Thus, those who engage in a prophetic critique of modernity’s construction of work and economy are often consigned to an isolated, marginalised “crying in the wilderness”, precisely because those for whom the message is intended don’t want to hear the message that is being delivered.

Matters are made more difficult by those constructions of both Christian community and the theology of work that conflate the spirit of corporatist capitalism with the spirit of Christianity. When the church models its institutional and community life on the corporation, assuming its structures and hierarchical relations, then it quickly becomes captive to the central myth of neoliberalism: the myth of endless growth. Thus “growing the church” becomes a matter of legitimising the church in the eyes of society by becoming ever larger, with more members, and deeper financial pockets. Of course, it also quickly assumes the culture of the corporation, both in terms of its intolerance of dissenting voices, as well as the material benefits and privileges which those at the head of the hierarchy receive. Indeed, they cease seeing themselves as stewards in accountable relationship to their faith community, but as “managers” with a “right” to order and ordain the affairs of the community as they see fit. Indeed, they become rather like the court prophets of Israel and Judah whose self-interest lay in flattering the king rather than speaking God’s word of truth.

The prophetic voice can thus often find itself in an ambiguous and vulnerable position, derided by the beneficiaries of the status quo and viewed with suspicion by the wider citizenry – or even by the members of their own faith community. From this position, those who are called to speak prophetic truths to the world can often succumb to the temptation to self-righteousness and anger, to bitterness and envy.  The frustration of not being listened to, or of being responded to with hostility, can have a corrosive effect on the character: it is hard to constantly fly against the winds of public opinion and popular perception.

Yet the prophet must always remember that their calling into ministry is never about their legitimation by society, or their acceptance according to the standards of authority within the world. Their ministry is to speak truth – even difficult, confronting truths – within the wider framework of God’s project of reconciliation and redemption. Their justification and vindication lies, not in the opinions and attitudes of others, but in God’s love that continuously calls the world into repentance and renewed relationship. Thus, the prophet must never fall into the arrogant assumption that they are “on the side of the angels” and are thus incapable of error or not in need of God’s love either. On the contrary, the prophet must operate out of an understanding of their own need for grace – and that they, too, are subject to God’s redemptive work.

Today’s reading from Isaiah foretells the emergence of the figure of the “Suffering Servant” by highlighting the ambiguity and vulnerability of the prophet’s position. But it also offers hope: not the false hope of vindication in the terms articulated and understood by the world, but in the redemptive calling of God to the world. This calling will reach into every human reality and leave no part of the human world untouched. Those who critique modernity’s construction of work and economy are called to be the agents of this project, to set aside their own desire for validation and risk ridicule and “pushback” for the sake of those difficult truths that emerge from nowhere else other than from the love of God.

Psalm 40: 1-11

1. Discussion

Psalm 40 is a hymn of praise to God in the context of the experience of suffering and hardship. God is described as a deliverer, One who redeems the sufferer from the mire of their distress and places them on the sure footing of faith and trust. This “sure footing” need not be read literally, although it is likely that this Psalm, like others, does to some extent reflect the widespread conventional wisdom that God literally rescues the righteous. Rather, the “sure footing” spoken of in this Psalm can be understood as the internal change that is caused by the realisation that we are not alone, that God dwells intimately with us in our human reality.

This new state of being is articulated in verses 3-4, in which the Psalmist describes the “new song” that has been put into their mouth, the praise to God that recognises God’s ultimate sovereignty and the freedom within that sovereignty which relationship with God grants to humanity. Trust in God is contrasted to the “false gods” of human pride and idolatry: the vanity of human acts of power and the forms in which they are manifested ultimately leads to despair. Trust in God is not the blasé assurance that nothing can happen to me; rather, it is the hope that arises from the understanding that it is God’s sovereignty which will prevail, and not any particular experiences are realities associated with my own existence.

Thus it is that the Psalmist sings of the magnitude of God’s blessings, of the fact that they cannot be counted. The horizon upon which God operates is not comprehensible to the human imagination; and yet it is also intimately connected with the reality of our experience, relativising it within the overarching promise of God’s faithfulness to covenant. Thus, although constrained by time and circumstance, we are not prisoners; our limited and provisional reality is taken up into the eternal and sovereign reality of God. What happens to us in our mortal life is significant and meaningful; but it is not what ultimately has the final word about us. That finality belongs to God.

Hence it is that God does not desire “burnt offerings” or “sin offerings”, but desires instead genuine relationship. And it is this desire for relationship that is transformative. We cease to see God as an idol who needs to be appeased and from whom we demand protection, and instead come to understand God as our companion, the ultimate reality that infuses the whole of human existence and the whole of creation.  There are times when God’s companionship and presence make demands of us for the sake of covenant and relational co-existence; but these demands are never the demands of arrogance or oppressive power. They are the constant call on us to embody within our own lives the faithfulness to covenant relationship which God manifests and exercises.

The Psalm concludes with the Psalmist’s assurance that they have declared to others the fullness of God’s faithfulness and blessings – not, it need be added, from the perspective of boasting or self-righteousness, but as a consequence of the transformation that has taken place within the heart of the Psalmist. To be in relationship with God is not to be in a state of blissful serenity; rather, it is to openly acknowledge the freedom which God’s sovereignty has granted. The praise articulated by the Psalmist is not the artificial exaltation of the attention-seeker, nor is it the tendentious lecturing of the fanatic. Rather, it is the spontaneous response of one whose trust in God is predicated, not on “results” but on the hope which is to be found in God’s enduring faithfulness and love.

2. Reflection

Modernity’s construction of work and economy articulates the myth of the autonomous individual who fashions the world and circumstances according to their preferences. The cult of achievement characterises waged labour as an act of power: through this act, humanity achieves all of its desires and bends the world to its own purposes. Work ceases being a means to the end of relational co-existence and human flourishing; rather, it becomes an end in itself, the principal determinant of human worth and legitimacy. The person who “succeeds”, who is not only “gainfully employed” but who personifies the promises which the cult of work articulates, as a moral example to the rest of the community.

Modernity’s project of making waged labour the principle measure of human value, of having it insinuate itself into every aspect of human life in service to the prerogatives of corporatist capitalism, is an idolatrous attempt to supplant the sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of human achievement. It is an attempt to deform the meaning and purpose of work in human life, to convert it from a means by which humans fulfil their existential, creative, and spiritual needs into a process by which humanity exercises dominating control over creation. In other words, it is an attempt to make work an act of power whose purpose is not to sing praise to God, but to humanity itself.

Except, of course, that the hymn rings hollow. The promises which the cult of work makes are rarely fulfilled; for the most part, the beneficiaries of the system are those who are already at its apex. The owners of capital; the class of “super-managers”; the tech entrepreneurs and the inheritors of the original generation of industrialists and media tycoons. Moreover, the exploitative control which humanity exercises over the natural world is undermining the foundations of our very existence. Far from making us “gods” and enabling our unfettered control over our own destinies, corporatist capitalism and its cults of work and achievement are delivering ever more control and wealth into the hands of the over-privileged minority; and, ultimately, may be leading humanity into its own extinction.

The bondage which modernity’s construction of work and economy imposes can only be loosened when humanity recalls the proper purpose for which work exists in human life. Moreover, we must also recall the wider framework within which that purpose exists: not to serve our own conceits and claims to power, but to give witness to and embody God’s faithfulness to covenantal relationship. Only when we do so will work become a means through which human life is disciplined, not to the self-interested prerogatives of unjust power, but to the redemptive purpose of God. This will not mean that work will suddenly cease being, on occasion, hard or dangerous; it will not institute a Utopian condition in which work is never under threat from human sin. However, it will move work toward a basis from which it can overcome the alienation which modern economic theory argues is normative for human life. Work, viewed from the standpoint of the Gospel, is something which we embrace and which liberates us; it is not something by which we are enslaved and from which we long for release.

Today’s reading from Psalm 40 reminds us that when we give praise to God as a freely offered response to the freely given invitation into relationship, we are liberated from the enslavement to which our own conceits and desires make us subject. The sovereignty of God enables us to be truly and fully human, free from the oppression of our own need to be omnipotent beings, haunted by the spectre of failure and death. Likewise, when we cease our attempts to create an idol out of work, to elevate human achievement to the status of God’s sovereignty, we will discover again the liberating and fulfilling potential of work, which is an expression of our shared humanity and calling into covenantal relationship, and not the stalking horse for our own pretensions to godhood.  

1 Corinthians 1: 1-9

1. Discussion

The letters written by the apostle Paul to various Christian communities established by him or his followers are the oldest documents of the Christian faith, predating the Gospels and providing the earliest glimpse into the communities that grew up in the decades following Jesus’ ministry and the issues with which they were contending. As such, they also provide an insight into the issues which Paul himself thought were important to the life of faith, and which he expressed through his correspondence with various communities. They also provide a certain insight into Paul himself, coming as he does from the dual worlds of strict Pharisaic tradition and cosmopolitan Roman citizenry.

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians was written to the Christian community established by Paul in the city of Corinth, at the time arguably the largest, wealthiest, and most important city in the Roman province of Greece. After its foundation, and Paul’s departure, this community had become riddled by faction and discord as various charismatic leaders vied for influence over the Corinthian church, often arguing different doctrinal approaches to questions about who Jesus was and what was his relationship to God the Father. First Corinthians was written by Paul to address these tensions and divides, as well as put the doctrinal questions into a broader theological context that stressed the Lordship of Jesus and his identity as the One who, through faith in him as the Christ, brings humankind into relationship with God.

Today’s passage begins with Paul’s opening salutation, in which he describes himself as am apostle of Jesus “by the will of God”, and in which he describes the Corinthian church as a community called to be sanctified by its faith in Christ, alongside all those who, through faith in Jesus, call on the name of God.  In doing so, Paul makes a not-so-oblique reference to his conversion, and to the fact that he was called into faith, not by an act of his own will, but through the reconciling will of God. Likewise, the Corinthian church is a community of people who respond to God’s call rather than act on their own initiative: it is God’s initiative in Christ that has brought them into relationship with God. This is the same initiative that enables all people across all societies to respond to God’s invitation into relationship.

Paul then proceeds to give thanks to God for the faithful of Corinth, precisely because they have been blessed by the grace of God through faith in Christ. Through this faith they have heard the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which in turn has endowed them with all that is required for faithful living until such time as the final consummation of God’s promise in Christ is fulfilled. It is worth noting that Paul expected this consummation to occur within a relatively short period of time, possibly even during his own lifetime. However that may be, Paul nonetheless understands the Corinthian church to be endowed with graces that enable them to live as a community of faith, for which he gives thanks to God.

Paul concludes by assuring the Corinthians of the faithfulness of God, which not only calls them into covenantal relationship, but which will sustain them as they wait for the fulfilment of God’s redeeming purpose.

Today’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians briefly foreshadows some of the themes which Paul will develop further in his correspondence: the Lordship of Christ; faith in Christ as the means for entering into relationship with God; the shared life of the church as a community of faith; and the faithfulness of God which enables Christian communities to live out their vocation.  These are the themes through which Paul will address the concerns and questions of the Corinthian church, as well as spell out the basis upon which they can heal the wounds of division and enter into shared, intentional life together.

2. Reflection

Paul’s emphasis on community life lived under the Lordship of Christ stands in stark contrast to the prevailing narrative of modernity, the supremacy of the autonomous individual. For Paul, human life was directed toward the purposes f covenant, and it was within the relational bounds of covenant that human life found its fulfilment and true flourishing. And despite his pessimistic view that the industrialisation and specialisation of labour would inevitably result in alienation, Adam Smith, the so-called “father of capitalism”, approached the whole subject of economic relations from the standpoint of a moral philosopher, and not from a technocratic perspective. For Smith, economics was about the network of mutually beneficial human relations which undergirded human flourishing; the unjust accumulation of wealth, the negotiation of unilaterally advantageous trade arrangements, the prioritisation of profits ahead of common good were all inimical to human dignity. Even Smith’s most misunderstood concept, the so-called “invisible hand” of the market, was not an a priori condition within economic exchange which predetermined the distribution of wealth and the prioritisation of social “goods”: rather, it was the product of the ways in which human societies and individuals organised their economic relations. In other words, there was nothing “objective” about the “invisible hand”: it could be a force for good or for ill depending on how humans chose to construct the features of the “market”, including aspects like work and economic exchange.

The fact that Adam Smith approached economics from a moral philosophic standpoint reminds us that the word economy was a theological term for more than 1700 years before it was appropriated by technocrats. The word itself comes from the Greek word oikos, which means “household”. An “economy” therefore is a “household” – it is a web of human relations whose construction impacts upon the dignity and flourishing of every member.  Theologians speak of the “economy of God” and the “economy of salvation” to highlight the relational nature of both God and God’s redemptive purpose: God is a relational unity of love who seeks to invite the world to share in this relationship through the covenant of faith. It is not a power hierarchy, not a top-down authoritarian structure: rather, it is a mutual indwelling, in which God and humanity meet one another in covenantal relationship. And, indeed, it is humanity who are the beneficiaries: for it is in this relational meeting that our true flourishing occurs.

The irony is that many economists today who claim to be “disciples” of Adam Smith are, in fact, nothing of the sort. Their adherence to technocratic perspectives, to formulae which claim to predict or model human behaviour, but which bear little or no resemblance to human reality, reveals their fundamental inability to grasp the central point of Smith’s economics: the mutual flourishing of all humans, not the distortion of human life through the unjust manipulation of economic, social, and political conditions. Smith wasn’t a naïve “leveller” who thought that inequality (or even injustice) could be removed from human life. Rather, and mirroring the construction of economics highlighted in the Hebrew Scriptures through texts like Ruth, Smith argued that economics was and ought to be a mechanism through which justice was delivered to the poor and the marginalised, precisely because both wealth and property had an “outward facing” dimension that tied the individual to the community. This is not the patronising giving of “charity” or noblesse oblige; rather, it was the understanding that private property and wealth existed in relationship with the community, and that the community, in the persons of the poor and the vulnerable, had a claim on private wealth which the wealthy could not ignore. This was not the appropriation of private wealth by the poor; rather, it was the understanding that private wealth existed, not for the exclusive benefit of the wealthy, but for the maintenance of the dignity of the community as a whole, because it existed in relationship with the community as a whole and not as a “stand alone” reality.

Again, this model of “relational economics” stands in stark contrast to modernity’s narrative of the autonomous individual, in which wealth and property accumulation are for the exclusive benefit of the owner and/or their designated heirs. The autonomous individual is a “stand alone” figure, one who owes no accountability to wider society, one who stands in relationship with nothing and no-one else.  They are their own end, the sole objective of their life’s purpose.  But today’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, drawing as it does upon the Scriptural witness, challenges this paradigm: we are called, not just into relationship with Christ, but with one another as well. Salvation does not exist just for my benefit, but is God’s gift to all humanity. Thus, work and economy, as features of human life, are not the playthings of the self-interested or the wealthy – they are means to the end of universal human dignity and flourishing. The existence of unjust power structures and exploitative working conditions distorts the gift of relationship, deforming the “economy” or household of human life and alienating us from God and from one another. Paul’s emphasis on covenantal community under Christ’s Lordship reminds us that modernity’s construction of work and economy may involve contracts, but this is not covenant – and if we are to return to covenantal life, then we need to change the way our household relates to one another through our reconstruction of work and economics along relational, and not hierarchical, lines.

John 1: 29-42

1. Discussion

The Baptism narrative from The Gospel According to John is remarkable for the fact that it doesn’t contain a “Baptism event”. Rather, John depicts a series of encounters between John and Jesus in which John witnesses to who Jesus is. This acts as a kind of coda, or repetition of the summary set out at the beginning of John: the Baptist doesn’t actually Baptise Jesus, but points to him as the One for whom the Baptism enacted by John is the signpost and signifier.

The narrative begins with John seeing Jesus walking toward him (presumably to be Baptised) and declaring that he is the One of whom John has previously spoken. John then describes Jesus as having come “before” him, despite the fact that John’s ministry commenced prior to Jesus’. In doing so, the passage reiterates what has already been proclaimed at the beginning of John: Jesus is the Word which was “with God” and “was God”, the Word through whom all creation came into being. John declares that he himself did not “know” Jesus, again reiterating the earlier reference about the Word coming to its own and not being recognised. But John’s Baptism has taken place in order to reveal the Word to the world: John is the one who testifies to the Word and to its presence in the world.

This duality of John being both unknowing and witness/revealer is continued through John’s declaration that it is he who sees the Spirit descend upon Jesus and anoint him as God’s Chosen One. The Spirit is not a private revelation to Jesus nor a public revelation of Jesus; in John, the Spirit acts as confirmation of the revelation previously given to John: that the One upon whom he sees the Spirit descend is the One about whom he must testify. Thus John remains unknowing and yet able to “see” Jesus when the time comes and witness to him accordingly. Here we see a presaging of a theme that runs right through John: of the difference between those who claim to see and are yet blind; and of those who are dismissed as ignorant, and yet see clearly. John humbly renounces all claim to being the Messiah, or to having any special knowledge about the Messiah; yet this humility, this lack of self-illusion or cynical manipulation, enables him to “see” and declare when the time comes.

The second part of today’s reading begins with another passing encounter between John and Jesus, and John declaring to his disciples that Jesus is the “lamb of God” who removes sin from the world. This declaration locates Jesus deeply within the sacred history of Israel, within the ritual sacrifice through which a lamb symbolised the sin of Israel and was destroyed as a mark of God’s own “forgetting” of the people’s sin. In other words, Jesus is the one who will fulfil the covenant promise of reconciliation between creation and God. But here, too, we will also find a presaging: namely, of Jesus’ own “sacrifice” in the event of the Crucifixion.  In the person of Jesus, God will take upon God’s-self the injustice and suffering which humanity experiences through sin; and in this act of solidarity, God will claim sin and death and overcome their claim on human life.

But this second encounter also reinforces John’s status as the one who points toward, and witnesses to, Jesus. Again, John is both signpost and proclaimer. This makes John radically different from other “prophets” and “messiahs” of the time – and even from the religious leadership about whom John has been so critical. One of the conventions of power is that it comes through the size of one’s following: the more followers you have, the more legitimate and therefore authoritative you must be. The more you can exercise influence. So gathering, retaining, and recruiting followers is of paramount importance. John, however, does the opposite: he points to Jesus and declares that it is Jesus and not John who is the “lamb of God” – with the result that two of John’s disciples start following Jesus, and one of them then “recruits” his brother as a follower of Jesus (“we have found the Messiah”). Viewed from the standpoint of conventional power, John’s actions are foolish; but in his role as signpost and witness, they testify to the radically different understanding about human relationships that will be embodied in Jesus’ own ministry. No longer will relationships be based on power and hierarchy and “influence”, but on the mutuality of a covenant freely issued and freely responded to. Discipleship is not about rank and seniority, but about mutuality and covenantal co-existence.

The strange “Baptism narrative” in The Gospel According to John points to the disruptive and subversive nature of Jesus’ ministry, and of discipleship to Jesus as Christ and Redeemer. The conventions of wisdom and power and authority and influence are set aside by a radical redefinition of what it means to be human, and to be in relationship with others – both God and other human beings. Just as this “Baptism narrative” contains no “Baptism event”, so John’s role as signpost and witness subverts the conventional expectations of the role of “prophet” or “influencer”. John is not one who claims to possess special knowledge, and who thus accumulates followers through strategic dissemination of this knowledge. Rather, he points away from himself and toward God in Jesus and declares: “Behold, the lamb of God”. Not for John the apex of a cult of personality: rather, his orientation to God is such that he “sees” Jesus and recognises him for who he is – and instead of trying to become the controlling gateway to Jesus, freely invites others to follow Christ, his free response to God’s freely given invitation into relationship.  

2. Reflection

One of the notable features of pop culture in modernity is its rather faddish obsession with “mindfulness”, often defined as the kind of “self-awareness” that enables you to utilise your “strengths” and cover over your “weaknesses” in such a way as enables you to enjoy success at work, influence those around you, and generally obtain those objectives that are the objects of your desire. In other words, “mindfulness” as a tool with which to manipulate oneself in order to manipulate others. This stands in stark contrast to “mindfulness” understood as an awareness of the frameworks through which we view the world and process information, in order to critically interrogate those frameworks for the purposes of honesty with self and others.

This pop culture construction of “mindfulness” accords closely with modernity’s myth of the autonomous individual, the heroic self who organises the world in accordance with our own preferences and desires. It also buys into the conventional understanding of “influence” and “authority”: that both are based one’s standing as determined by the number of people who agree that you are a person in possession of specific knowledge, skills, capacities, or resources that make you a “natural leader” or “person of influence”. This standing is itself largely understood as a product of your own charisma: your capacity to impress yourself on others in such a way as makes them willingly subordinate themselves to you. The more you impress others, the more your standing increases: the higher your standing, the higher the “legitimacy” and “authority” you are deemed to possess.

The hierarchical nature of corporatist capitalism holds out the promise that “outstanding” individuals will be able to “make it to the top” by dint of sheer hard work, charismatic energy, and their capacity to gather followers and advocates. The fact that this promise rarely comes true is beside the point: the purpose of the promise is to hide the fact that the real beneficiaries of corporatist capitalism are those who are already at the apex of its hierarchical structure. This is why entrepreneurs who are successful are lionised and celebrated: precisely in order to disguise the fact that their success is the exception to the rule. The glittering promise of success – and freedom from the humdrum of the workaday world – is the perfect disguise for the more mundane reality of human suffering and failure.

In other words, the structure of corporatist capitalism and the myth of the autonomous individual which it celebrates are rather like pyramid schemes in which those who got in at the beginning are the true beneficiaries, while those who come later expend a lot of time and energy chasing the elusive dream. This is evidenced by the popularity of “work from home” franchises in which participants are encouraged to recruit new members to the franchise in order to increase their own standing and revenue streams; they spend more time trying to recruit new participants than they do selling the products which the franchise is supposedly selling to the public. The net result tends to be alienation from family and friends, who resent being pressured to join what is essentially a cult, while those who started the business benefit from the fees and other income (usually associated with attendance at “upskilling” courses and the like) that the masses of people who joined later generate.

In the same way, the phenomenon of the “social media influencer” is another manifestation of the way in which the cult of personality and the myth of the autonomous individual are rife within modernity’s construction of work and economy. Essentially a variation of the self-help guru who once published books and now appears online, the “social media influencer” can involve anything from “lifestyle” (travel, fashion, consumerism) to “media” (technology, pop culture, music) to “personal” (medical, relationships, finances) issues. These are the individuals who, whether because of a previously existing celebrity, or because of their exploitation of emerging media platforms, have managed to gather tens or hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of online “followers” – whom they then exploit commercially in order to generate revenue. Moreover, their status as an “influencer” ensures they are able to leverage this status to “sell” their followers to commercial entities – that is to say, to position themselves to corporations as the possessor of a market place (their followers) to whom the corporation might like to advertise, for an appropriate fee.

The image of the successful “social media influencer” is like the image of the successful entrepreneur or the successful “ladder-climber” – its glittering exterior hides the fact that the success enjoyed by the “influencer” is in stark contrast to the untold number of those who have trodden the same path without anything like the same “success”. Moreover, it also hides the fact that the “success” was often the product of a pre-existing advantage – such as prior celebrity or exclusive access to a particular technology – rather than merit or substance on the part of the “influencer”. Finally, it conceals the dismal reality that the influencer’s “success” was itself frequently the product of an appeal to the lowest instincts of human nature – greed or vanity.

All these phenomena within corporatist/consumerist capitalism are expressions of the myth of the autonomous, self-realising individual, as well as indicators of the extent to which humanity is held captive to modernity’s construction of work and economy – a captivity from which we long for escape. But the fact that we attempt that escape on those terms determined by modernity as legitimate and authoritative only further enslaves us to the prerogatives of commercialism, consumption, and production. We are caught in a vicious cycle from which their seems no escape precisely because that cycle encourages us into a narcissistic view of life and being that is essentially self-referential. The end result is that we keep coming back to where we started: to our sense of alienation and our desire for release.

Today’s reading from the Gospel According to John posits a different view of human life, one which, through its orientation toward God is also oriented toward relationship with others. John the Baptist, as both signpost and witness to Christ, points beyond himself and toward the true freedom which discipleship offers. For unlike the slavish “followers” who constitute modernity’s online “communities”, discipleship to Christ involves liberating the self from the demands of the ego and entering into genuine relationship with God and others. This is not a relationship of hierarchy or power structures, but of freely given response to freely offered invitation. It does not promise glittering outcomes or even the fulfilment of our desires; indeed, by subverting the norms of conventional expectation, it offers a way of life that rejects the prerogatives of “authority” and “legitimacy”. The economy of salvation is not a hierarchy of the good and the just; rather, it is a community of the faithful who are bound by the threads of common human dignity, and by their orientation toward the redemptive purpose of God. Through this orientation, they “see” Jesus as he was “seen” by John the Baptist; and in seeing, point beyond themselves and toward the true human flourishing into which we are all called.          

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