There has been a tendency throughout human history, ancient as well as more recent, for groups to look at their society and culture and decide that it is irredeemably corrupt, evil and sinful. They then conclude that to remain pure and undefiled themselves, they must break away and leave and form their own "perfect society" based on the values of the group. The Essenes in biblical times fled to the desert to live a pure form of Judaism and more recently we can remember Jim Jones and his commune in South America, the compound in Waco, Texas, and even the current construction of a city in Florida which will be governed by "true" Roman Catholic values and teachings. With few exceptions, history has shown that these attempts at escapism from the world are not successful and don’t work.
Is it strange that Jesus never asked or expected his followers to leave or escape from their culture or society? He rather imagined the men and women whose lives he touched to become leaven or seeds in their world to transform the culture from within. But Jesus did tell the people who listened to him, as the crowd in today’s gospel, not to believe or buy into how society defined them. God valued them differently than the culture in which they lived. What their society held up for esteem and admiration is not what God values. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is a perfect example of Jesus encouraging people to live within, but not be of, their world. It is certainly counterintuitive to think that the rich are not blest and the poor cursed; that the satisfied and full are not favored by God and the hungry and ostracized are not forgotten and cast aside by the Father. But those are the standards of the world and are not the values of God. Jesus did not let others define him, not even the religious authorities. He did not buy into the values of his society or religion when he knew they went counter to the vision of his Father. And Jesus did not take his disciples out into the wilderness to create the "perfect" society and religious culture. Jesus stayed where he was to the end and did not try to escape even the cross. He remained authentically the person he believed his Father knew him to be.
That is our challenge also. To live life where we are, under the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but not to let others define us, whether culture, society or even the church. We are called not to escape but to remain true to the person God sees us as being.
Cathy Anthony is on the staff of St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.