In the play Rhinoceros, Eugene Ionesco, reflects a view that holds the universe to be meaningless, irrational, and absurd. The play has a series of interesting events. A rhinoceros suddenly appears in a small French town, trampling through the peaceful streets. Soon a giant wave of rhinoceroses suddenly appear; a transformation of human beings into animals. The play centers on one person who at first refuses to succumb to the crowd, but then begins to reason his way to falling into line. Berenger, the last man, remains. Ionesco leaves Berenger untransformed at the end of the play. This play is about the human condition of self delusion and absorption into the dominant culture.
The hero survives the capitulation of all to what Merton called ‘rhinoceritis’ – the tendency to run with the mob. He retained his humanity, a very flawed and less than perfect condition while the thinkers, the trendsetters and the unthinking all became rhinoceroses.
The point of the play is what makes a person a person, is it fitting in our standing out, being relevant or irrelevant, being perfect or imperfect or simply being yourself at the edges of society?
In the Gospel today we have three men who are known by the choices they made:
1 despot, 2 prophets and 2 deaths, one completed on which Mark reflects, one not yet but imminent, to which Mark points to, one that is always just off stage waiting to make it’s entrance.
Here Mark points to the fate of those who wish to live an authentic Christ life in the midst of the prevailing culture. And it’s not one of success and fulfilment, of living at the high end of town. It is one of rejection, persecution and abandonment. It is no wonder very few people are willing to embrace the life of the complete human as exemplified by Christ.
In a conversation over an end of year celebration, the government minister present why he became a politician. He answered that he did so because of the good he could do for the local community. He stopped, looked up and asked, “Do you want to know the real reason?’ We all said yes. He answered, “For the power, it’s why all politicians are in this game. Any one who say otherwise are lying.” Now, I am sure there will be someone who will argue with this, but it does pose some interesting questions for those of us who have to vote for them!
The three men in our reading are a comment on this observation. Herod lives by the art of expediency and power. Both are intertwined and interconnected. His grip on power is served by his ability to read the lie of the land and to make decisions that will reinforce his position. His first marriage, his second marriage, his feasts and pronouncements are built on expediency and power. He is a political animal and is pragmatic about having to chop off John’s head. To do otherwise would have meant he lost the respect of those who were at his table, other men driven by power and expediency. He has become a rhinoceros.
Unlike Herod, John is prophetic –he tells it as it is. Even when he is standing in the most confrontational space – in front of Herod – he tells it as God sees it. Why could he have not been so direct, perhaps being more tactful and less inflammatory with his criticism of Herod? Couldn’t he have made the same point and kept his head? It never entered his head. It is what is and John was not going to sidestep the truth just to win favour with the despot.
Jesus sides with John, and becomes a prophetic spiritual leader who avoids the expedient, despite seeing what happened to John. John was Jesus’ mentor and he set the pattern for prophetic living for the younger man to follow. Jesus would have also been aware of Elijah, Elias and others who suffered for speaking the truth into a society at odds with God. Yet there is no softening of the message, no avoiding the conflict, no attempt to barter and negotiate a win-win for all. His mission was God’s mission and God’s mission was the truth. It is what it is, and Jesus was not going to deviate to negotiate with a culture that had abandoned God.
We have in this story the juxtaposition of the prophet and the person who has succumbed to rhinoceritis.
A prophet, according to Dan Horan, is ‘someone whose life is so open to God’s Spirit that she or he cannot help but begin to see the world in a new way’…’to see the world as God sees it, prophets sees the world as it really is.’
Prophets are not about telling the future seeing reality as it truly is. The Greek word propheteia connotes the idea to speak forth, to speak into, and it happens when we are one with God, when word and sacrament imbue our lives. Here we contemplate what we read and hear in the scriptures and what we experience in the sacraments. When we so inwardly digest and align ourselves with the way, the truth, the life, we are in a position to be a prophet.
Prophets are outsiders. They live in that marginal space from which a different perspective is gained because that marginal space does not align with nor is subsumed into the predominant power system or structure of a given society, institution or place. Prophets become a nuisance to those who have vested interest in the maintenance of power or control. (Horan)
Prophets are not expedient people. They don’t play politics. They are not interested in policy, quoted positions or white papers. It is not about legislation or a win-win. It is simply about the way it is. Peter Woods suggests that “Prophetic witness and personal or political expediency do not have a good history of co-existence.”
Prophets are mirror bearers. They hold up a mirror to the world, situation, or person and ensure it is seen for what it is. The emperor has no clothes. The mirror provides the way into seeing how God sees things, not as we imagine we see them.
Prophets pay the price for seeing as God does. Emerson Powery, suggests “However one understands the relationship between John and Jesus, one thing is certain: agents of God who challenge those in power usually suffer significant consequences.”
Mark suggests, by placing the story here the disciples via their relationship with Jesus:
· Are prophetic. It is not a choice. That has already been made. It is now a vocation to be lived.
· Are to avoid the political and the expedient. They are not to get caught up in the culture and to compromise or negotiate.
· Are to tell it like it is and if people ignore them to simply shake the dust off their shoes and move on.
How does that impact upon us:
· Like the disciples, we are called to be prophets because we are one with Jesus through his death and resurrection. It is an imperative, not an option.
· To fulfil our calling we are to develop a unity with God through word and sacrament, contemplation and prayer. Here we will let go of ideas, positions, ideologies and begin to become one with God. It happens slowly and will begin to find ourselves stepping further into the margins as we let go of the expectations of our culture and society.
· To fulfil our calling we are to simply live out of that unity. We are to live our lives and by doing so our lives will speak forth God’s seeing.
This is not a safe and happiness inducing vocation – we will be outsiders, marginalised for our vocation. We will lose our jobs, be bullied and ostracised, be over looked and sidelined. This is not about ideology but about seeing the world as God does. We are to seek to live on the margins for change only ever comes from the edges, rarely from the centre.
As an individual and as a congregation we are to live prophetically, avoiding the raging rhinoceritis all around us and speak into the world through our thoughts, words and actions. A tough job, but we have to be it.