For Jesus the city was a place not of grace but of conflict. According to the Gospels, during his ministry in Galilee, Jesus avoided the cities in the region entirely. While they mention the names of numerous towns and villages that Jesus visited, the Gospels never speak of him going to either of the main Galilean cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris, both of which were easily within walking distance for him.
Jesus did, of course, visit the city of Jerusalem. The Fourth Gospel reports three trips of Jesus there, all of which are marked by conflict and violence. During the first, Jesus takes a whip and drives the buyers, sellers and money-changers out of the temple.1 While the Gospel says that after this some came to believe in him there, it adds that Jesus still did not trust them.2 Jesus’ second trip to Jerusalem is marked by constant tension, polemics and increasing conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders, who are constantly looking to arrest him and even take up stones on two occasions to kill him.3 And of course, the third time Jesus visits Jerusalem, these same religious leaders in collaboration with Pontius Pilate finally accomplish their goal of putting him to death.
In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus travels to Jerusalem only once as an adult, fully aware that he is going there to die. While he teaches in the temple the religious authorities repeatedly seek to entrap and discredit him. Such is Jesus’ distaste for the city that he elects to sleep elsewhere every night he is there.4 For him, Jerusalem is “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.”5 Telling the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard, which seems to represent Jerusalem, Jesus claims that when the owner finally sends his own son, the tenants cast him out of the vineyard and kill him.6 In the end, this is precisely what happens: they take him captive and lead him outside of the city to nail him to a cross there. For Jesus, the city was anything but a place of grace.
Such is the experience of millions in the city in which I live, Mexico City, which has grown from a city of 2.9 million in 1950 to well over 20 million today. Most of the city’s growth has come from those abandoning the Mexican countryside in search of work and better living conditions. Yet, rather than being received with open arms they tend to be marginalized and dehumanized. They generally leave close-knit communities where people look out for one another and enter into a world in which no one seems to care.
When I think about grace, I think about unconditional love. To experience grace is to know that you are valued and that, no matter what may happen in life, there is someone there for you — someone who will give you time and attention, warmth and understanding. Grace is about people caring deeply for one another just as God cares for us. It is giving and receiving generously and abundantly and doing everything possible to make sure that all have what they need. While grace is a gift, it requires time, effort, dedication, commitment, and above all a love that lays down no conditions except that one allow oneself to be loved unconditionally. That is the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, life in the city tends to be devoid of that kind of grace. This is true not only for the poor and marginalized but also for the vast majority of those who live in cities. We are always in a hurry and have no time for one another. Our conversations are short and shallow. With so many people in our lives, we can only give to and share with a few at most. Where space is limited and all thus struggle to make space for themselves, we push one another away rather than drawing near to each other — what we want is to distance ourselves from others, not get closer to them. We want to plug in our earphones and withdraw from this crowded world into a little world of our own.
Cities tend to be places where everyone wants a piece of you — a piece of your time, a piece of your ear, a piece of your income.
Cities tend to be places where people seek to use one another for their own ends. Everyone wants a piece of you — a piece of your time, a piece of your ear, a piece of your income. To open up to others and give of yourself is to run great risks — you will be exploited, violated, used and abused. You learn quickly to trust no one. The stranger is someone to be feared rather than welcomed; those who welcome strangers are only asking for trouble. Instead, you must live watching out only for yourself and your closest loved ones, exercising caution and being on the lookout for the harm that is constantly lurking around the corner. To attempt to be a Good Samaritan can be lunacy or even suicide. To show generosity only creates more problems, since it simply attracts more requests and demands that in the end become overwhelming and impossible to fulfill. And even when you do reach out to help others, you often end up feeling used and taken advantage of, not as if you have actually done good to someone.
In the context of this harsh reality, as Christians we generally feel obliged to continue to hold up as an absolute principle the biblical mandate to love one’s neighbors and help those in need, thinking that to stop to weigh the costs and risks involved would to be to compromise that principle. That often involves proclaiming a hollow ideal that most of us realize is not only unrealistic but impossible. We do need our own space. We do need to be careful and cautious, watching out for ourselves and not putting ourselves in situations in which others can harm us and our loved ones. We can’t help everyone. We aren’t really helping or loving others when we allow them to use us as objects and take advantage of us for their own ends and interests. We do have limits regarding our time and energy and resources. We must take care of our own needs. To think and live that way is not selfish. It is not something we should feel guilty about. It is not a lack of love for others. In the context of the crowded city with its never-ending demands on us, simply to proclaim the Christian ideals of love, care, hospitality and generosity risks being heard as an affirmation that faithfulness to Christ involves letting everyone use us as their doormat and take what they want from us. Then when we refuse to give to those who want to use and abuse us, we feel guilty, as if we are not living up to the Christian ideal.
How, then, do we live grace in such a context? I am convinced that Jesus’ vision was all about creating communities — alternative communities in which people are committed to the well-being of one another. That means living in grace and practicing the unconditional love we see in Christ our Lord. In such communities, we draw near to one another to walk with and care for our sisters and brothers in God’s family. We give of ourselves and receive the gifts that others graciously share with us in a spirit of communion and trust. We create a space where it is safe to open up to each other and build one another up. That is what the church, the body of Christ, is called to be.
Given Jesus’ aversion to the city, it may seem surprising that it was precisely in the cities of the Roman Empire that Christianity grew and spread. In large part, this urban growth happened because cities are places in which people seek the unique type of community that existed among Jesus’ first followers. Yet at the same time, the first believers tended to speak of the city in negative ways. Paul claimed that the city to which we truly belong is not here but in the heavens, from which Christ will return to transform us.7 The Book of Revelation associates Jerusalem with Sodom and Gomorrah 8 and calls Rome a corrupt “whore,” predicting its impending destruction.9 But at the same time, like Paul, Revelation looks to the coming of a new and glorious city in which God will dwell with God’s people in peace, joy and intimacy, free from all corruption, pain and tears.10 Similarly, after recalling how the corpses of the animals whose blood was offered to God at the tabernacle in the desert were taken outside of the Israelite camp to be burned there, the Letter to the Hebrews affirms that “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood” and calls on believers to “go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”11
We are called to dedicate ourselves to the building up of communities where people can live and breathe grace — holy spaces where all can feel safe and cared for and loved unconditionally as they learn to love others.
While all of these biblical images imply a condemnation of the city and a rejection of its values and way of life, they also express a longing for a different type of human community that, while yet to come in its fullness in the future, is to be experienced even now as people figuratively “go out” to be with Jesus at the cross. This means being willing to suffer and make sacrifices to create an “alternative city,” a community in which people give fully of themselves in love and share their life as Jesus did in order to bring about a new reality. While such a way of life entails rejection by many and conflict with those who oppose that new reality due to their desire to continue to use others as objects for their own ends, it also means reaching out to others in love as Jesus did to seek to establish spaces where all may come to know the grace of true community. Just as Jesus gave up his life to “sanctify” or “make holy” a people who would be set apart from the world, not in order to condemn the world but to save it, so we are called to dedicate ourselves to the building up of communities where people can live and breathe grace — holy spaces where all can feel safe and cared for and loved unconditionally as they learn to love others and give of themselves in the same way. We want this not only for ourselves but for everyone.
In my mind, this is how we must understand our mission as Christians in the city. It is to enable others to experience God’s grace together with us in communities where such grace lies at the heart of every relationship and defines all else. Naturally, that involves reaching out to welcome and invite others to experience that grace with us in our own communities; yet it also means working alongside others to build up and strengthen the same type of communities that exist elsewhere, whether they be Christian or not. While our own motivation flows from our understanding of Christ and the gospel, we also seek to work with all those who share our same values and commitment to the unconditional love that we as Christians associate with Jesus Christ and him crucified,12 even if they belong to other faith traditions or to none at all. This means standing up together with others to all that is anti-grace, denouncing and opposing the use and abuse of people as Jesus did, even when this involves suffering as a result, rather than caving in to those who seek to manipulate us and others on the basis of a false understanding of grace, service and love of neighbor. To care truly for those around us is not to let them treat us and others as objects for their own ends and then feel guilty when we refuse to allow ourselves be used in this way, but rather to work with them toward the construction of a different “city” — a city full of sacred spaces characterized by warmth, caring, accompaniment, solidarity and generosity.
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- ^John 2:13-25.
- ^John 2:23-24.
- ^John 7:1 — 10:39. See especially 7:30, 44; 8:20, 37, 59; and 10:31.
- ^Mark 11:19; 14:3; Luke 21:37.
- ^Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:33-34.
- ^Matthew 21:39; Mark 12:8; Luke 20:15.
- ^Philippians 3:20-21; cf. Ephesians 2:19.
- ^Revelation 11:8.
- ^Revelation 17:5-8; 18:1-24.
- ^Revelation 21:1 — 22:19; cf. Galatians 4:25-26.
- ^Hebrews 13:11-14.
- ^1 Corinthians 2:2.