Falling Babylon

Tuesday, November 8, 2011 — Week of Proper 27, Year One

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 992)

Psalms 78:1-39 (morning) // 78:40-72 (evening)

Nehemiah 9:26-38

Revelation 18:9-20

Matthew 15:29-39

The Liberation Theology movement that began in the 20th century articulates a vision of God’s activity on behalf of those who are oppressed. “God’s preferential option for the poor” is one of the phrases that liberation scholars have used to describe a consistent theme in scripture. We see that in spades in the vision from Revelation today.

“Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets!” cries the seer observing the judgment given against “Babylon, the mighty city!” “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

Babylon is a complicated symbol in John’s apocalypse. But her primary sin and abomination is pretty obvious — it is her great wealth and power, the seduction of her luxury and glamour. It is a judgment against luxury. “The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your dainties and your splendor are lost to you, never to be found again.”

The wealthy merchants weep for the city “clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls.” The wealthy merchants cry because “no one buys their cargo anymore.” The lists of merchandise go on and on with great specificity — “all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and human bodies and souls.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to see American commerce described. These are the things we advertise and trade in, including human bodies and souls. These luxuries are the things we love. This vision from Revelation thrills at their destruction. I am reminded of the fall of the World Trade Center. There are communities in the world who, like John, see our wealth and power and luxury as corrupting. They see the power of multinational commerce as “the beast.” Those communities saw the fall of the towers and rejoiced the same way that John celebrates the fall of Babylon.

But I am a person of Babylon. I live in luxury and great comfort. I am drawn to the “dainties” that John so decries. I am wealthy and powerful, and I live in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in human history.

My friend Jay McDainel of Hendrix College has written extensively that the competing religion of our age is the religion of consumerism. Though he has written and spoken so compellingly about the idolatry of consumerism, he says of himself that he is still not released from its grip. I too am thoroughly enmeshed in Babylon. How to let go?

We shift scenes. In the gospel today a Cannanite woman approaches Jesus for help. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting at us,” say the disciples. She is annoying, inconvenient. She is not one of us; she is a foreigner. Yet, she only asks for crumbs. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” she begs. Jesus sees her faith, and gives her her wish. The next thing he does is to go to a crowd of foreigners, and he feeds their multitudes out of compassion.

How can we embrace the compassionate generosity of Jesus and disengage from our enthrallment with Babylon?

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