From Whence the Answer Comes

Today we celebrate the Epiphany, or what some call the Feast of the Three Kings. We turn to the Gospel of Matthew, 2:1-12.

Previously, Matthew explained the lineage of Jesus, and followed that with a brief statement of the circumstances of his birth.

Now Matthew provides the revelation.

Epiphany is a Greek word ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, meaning the sudden comprehension of the full meaning of something.

And indeed, Matthew does this in an extraordinary and rather shocking way.

Herod is introduced though of course he needed no introduction to Matthew’s audience. Herod was King, yet he was propped up in his Kingship by Rome, for the religious leaders of Jerusalem never had favored him.

Soothsayers or astrologers from the East come looking for the child born under a new star, foretold to them in ages past, as harbinger of great birth. Herod hears of this and calls them to explain. What he hears “greatly” troubles him, as well it might to any king who knows his power remains on such shaky ground.

Ultimately of course the Magi find Jesus and pay him homage, and then by way of dream, they return not to Herod as promised, by avoid him as they return home.

By strangers, non-Jews, we are advised that this child IS the one, the savior. God has chosen, not Herod, not the religious leaders of the land, but strangers from the East to proclaim  that the Kingdom of God has entered into the world.

What a shock this must have been to Matthew’s listeners. How could God speak more clearly than to do something so utterly unexpected.

This should give us pause.

For we are trained to look to experts and our leaders to tell us what we need to know. We are expecting our “betters” to explain the importance of events in our lives. As children, we look to our parents and other adults. As students we look to our teachers. As workers to our supervisors. As citizens to our elected officials.

Yet God chooses not to introduce His son upon the human stage through the Jewish leadership, nor through Kings, no matter how titular. He choses foreigners, those who don’t share the faith of “his people”, if indeed we should limit God in such a way.

And we can be sure that they arrive by no simple error in reading the “tea leaves” if you will. No. We are sure God spoke actively to them for he warned them away from disclosing Jesus’ whereabouts as they had promised.

We, in our sophisticated lives have moved far away from seeking answers directly from God. We look in the Wall Street Journal for financial advice, or to PBS for political analysis of which candidate is best. We walk on by all those around, the simple people like ourselves, because we have forgotten that God moves in mysterious ways.

There are too many jokes and short little examples of how humans, in our determination to find God acting as we expect him to act, often miss his finger pointing out our direction.

What could three strangely dressed, strangely speaking men from a far-off land, have to tell me about anything we ask. Yes indeed, what could they have to tell me?

Are we listening?  Are we keeping our eyes open?

Out of the mouths of babes, as the saying goes.

 

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. . .and Pondered Them in Her Heart

We conflate the birth stories of Matthew and Luke, even though it is not proper. So hungry are we to understand this Jesus that we gather every scrap of information, and from it create a mosaic of events.

So, most all of us recall the story as a time when the shepherds left their flocks in the fields and traveled to Bethlehem to view the newborn child and when “wise men” came as well for the same reason.

Of course, the shepherds only occur in Luke and the wise men in Matthew.

Imagine Mary’s shock at these events. Would it not be shocking for shepherds to abandon their flocks at the most vulnerable of times, the dark night? And who were these wise men? Eastern astrologers, or soothsayers bringing expensive gifts to lay at the feet of an infant born in humble surroundings and wearing common course swaddling?

At yet, this is what is presented to us. Shepherds and Magi are all alerted that something extraordinary has taken place in this out-of-the-way location, and they are compelled to witness it. And yet what they witness is by all accounts, not extraordinary as we have said. A child lies in a bed of straw, dressed as a common child might, being born to a carpenter and his wife.  Nothing is said or done to mark this occasion, yet the shepherds return to their fields giving praise “for all they have seen and heard.”

And Mary? Why,

“. . .she treasures all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

As well she might, for what she saw was much the more extraordinary than the birth of her child would have appeared to be. Imagine he wondering what exactly was it that had brought them here to her and her newborn?

Yet when you think of it, her treasuring and pondering are not really extraordinary either. They are the things that every mother and father do when presented with the fait accompli: the birth of a new human being that they are responsible for. What had been a future possibility, had now become a most serious reality.

What parents do not sit and wonder at what all this really means. How their lives will change. How they will respond to the challenges ahead. But more than this. There is pondering aplenty  about just what is in store for this new life. What kind of life? What career? What loves? What heartache? What disappointments? What triumphs.

Indeed there is much to ponder.

And we sit today, on this first day of the year, pondering aplenty as well. This new year, this remembrance of new birth and the promise we live in.

It is right and good that we ponder today. We must ponder about who we have become, who we will become, what we wish to become. We must ponder if we do enough, too much, the right kinds of things, the wrong? We must ponder what others do and why, and assess its impact and value on the common good. Do we contribute to the Kingdom? Are we a stumbling block? Are we indifferent?

A thousand ethical dilemmas come our way. We are constantly weighing and balancing plusses and minuses and doing it all while holding to certain standards of evaluation. We are not always right, nor are we always wrong. We try to be more right than wrong. But we know that it is in the pondering that we come closest to our Master, for he would have us ponder aplenty.

Jesus calls us to not accept the pat answer, the easy standard, don’t think about it reply. He taught us that things are seldom what they appear to be on the surface, and the easy answer is seldom the best. He calls us to work at working out our salvation.

Mary, sister of Martha was a ponderer. And Jesus you recall, said she had the better part. Wisdom arises not from living, so much as thinking about what we have lived through, what we did wrong, what we did right, what we might have done differently, and applying it to the future.

Ponder today, as you welcome in the new year. For it will be filled with surprises, disappointments, triumphs, laughter and sadness. And in the end, what will matter most is how you responded to it. Ponder well.

Amen.

 

Choose At Your Peril

I almost never agree with anything that Governor Rick Perry has to say. But in defending his state’s program to assist kids in getting college educations, he insisted that when children are present in the state, brought there by parents as children, it is wrong for a state to deny then access to higher learning because they or their parents may not be “legally” there.

For this, his polls and support among rank and file conservative Republicans plummeted.

Speaking to conservative Christians often comes to this: Jesus no where advises that governments should take care of people. They read the bible to suggest that churches should. Unfortunately, over 2,000 years later, they have proven unable to put a dent in poverty and if anything, those living in poverty world-wide, has grown.

But clearly the Religious Right’s most serious argument is to quote Saint Paul who admonished a local house church in Thessalonica not to feed those who lazed idly around depending on the food of the rich patrons. They see this as their call to winnow out those who truly need help from those who do not.  We will leave it to another day to dispute this conclusion, which is taken wholly out of context, but the point is made–plenty of conservative Christians believe that there they have a duty or right at least to decide who is entitled to help.

Yet today’s lesson could not make it more clear that they are utterly wrong.

Today, Jesus ends his long teaching in Matthew with what is called the discourse on The Last Judgment (Mt 25:32-46).

Most Christians are familiar with the phrases repeated within it:

For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.

Some refer to this as the Great Command. It advises us that at the final judgment, this is precisely what we will be judged upon. Not upon whether we were for or against gay rights, or choice in family matters, for or against contraception or remarriage, for or against, prayer in school or universal health care. No. We will be judged on how well we cared for “one of these least ones.”

We are not advised by our Savior that we are to decide who these least ones are. No where does he give us a blueprint with a list of standards. We aren’t advised to check nationality, or physical capability, level of education, country of origin, gender identification, or family history. We aren’t told to require a tax return, or a certified copy of indigency, or pay stubs, or proof of seeking work. We are not told to ask any question at all.

We are told to heal, feed, clothe, visit, and welcome all who come before us. Simple.

And the shocking thing about this, is that Jesus makes it clear–those who had done this won’t have any clue that they have done it. For those on the “right”, the sheep, will be as astonished as the goats. They will ask as the goats do, “When did we see you hungry. . . ”

They simply did as they believed their Master would have them do. They listened to all the stories of Jesus, all the parables, all the confusing endings where those they thought would be upheld were not, and those they thought would not, were. And they realized, correctly I believe, that the Hebrew Testament writers were correct when they warned:

God’s ways are not your ways. His thoughts are not your thoughts.

And so, the sheep, tried to do the Master’s will without interjecting their poor human concepts of who that will should be directed to or for. They simply did it, trusting that God could and would judge it aright.

The goats? Oh they wanted desperately to do the Master’s will as well. But they, you see, decided that by shouting that they were chosen disciples of the Master, assumed that they were given some special abilities to judge who were worthy of the Great Command. And so sure were they, that they are astonished to find themselves on the left, ironic as that may in fact be.

So we choose at our peril when we decide to choose who is deserving of our help. We risk the very real possibility that here, as in so many other instances, we will not think as God does.

Yet we are guided in all this. We are upheld, cared for, forgiven our mistakes and given a new chance again and again. Ez 34:11-12 tells us this so clearly:

Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
As a shepherd tends his flock
when he finds himself among his scattered sheep,
so will I tend my sheep.
I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered
when it was cloudy and dark.
I myself will pasture my sheep;
I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD.
The lost I will seek out,
the strayed I will bring back,
the injured I will bind up,
the sick I will heal,

God does leave us alone ever. If we listen to that voice, calling us gently and with love, we will find peace, comfort, safety. We will be the sheep. We will not separate ourselves from the ground of our being, as goats.

Being a Steward

I never read the bible until I was an adult. I never read the bible seriously until I was in my forties. I remember vividly the first time I read the story which is today’s Gospel.

It is uniformly referred to as The Parable of the Talents, and as I recalled it, I began the story with no preconceived notion of where it would lead. I read that each of the three stewards accepted the monies deposited with them and then went on to observe their actions.

My first thoughts were that the first two had risked losing the Master’s funds but had by skill or luck been able to add to the riches entrusted to them. I thought the third fellow the smart one–he had taken no chances with the money entrusted with him, but had made sure it remained safe.

What a shock when I got to the end. The third steward was treated, not with the acclaim I expected, but rather with anger and punishment. Although I have since learned the “lesson” offered, I have never really liked this story.

Quite frankly I feel utter sympathy for the poor man who hid the talent. How can one not?

He’s already been designated as the least capable of the three, he was given but one talent to protect. His lack of ability could not have been unknown to himself surely. Most people are only too aware of their limitations. We can relate to him so easily, especially those of us who have been in situations, whether in our families or in the workplace, where we were considered “incapable” in some way.

“I always get it wrong,” a small boy might lament. “Dad never praises me for anything. I’m always the screw-up.” Is it so surprising then, that the untalented one takes the safe route and merely hides the talent, so that at least, he can’t lose the Master’s wealth?

Yet, Jesus makes it so very clear that God and he are not “hard” or “demanding” as some of the texts use. And this is the crux of the issue. Jesus tells us that we are not to approach God out of fear, but rather out of love, confident and assured that we are supported. What went so terribly wrong here is that the servant lived in fear of the Master. He probably hated the fact that he had been entrusted with anything!

We learn that if we approach our faith from fear, then we are no good to ourselves, others, nor the Kingdom. We teach incorrectly, we teach falsely, we drive people from God.

It is hard, at first,  to figure out how this passage was joined with the first reading of the day, Prv: 31: 10-13, 19-20.30-31. In those passages, husbands are reminded of the value of a good wife. The good wife fears the Lord, but not in the way that makes her incapacitated with actual fear. No, her fear, is reverence and a love that pushes her to reach out:

She obtains wool and flax
and works with loving hands.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her fingers ply the spindle.
She reaches out her hands to the poor,
and extends her arms to the needy.

Her “talents” are put to good and fruitful use, and bear fruit that enhances her family and her community.

This is the lesson I believe.

Jesus is nearing the end of his time on earth. He is trying to counter the Pharisaic model of an angry and avenging God who requires adherence to every rule and law to its most picayune point. Matthew urges his community, in including this story, to go fearlessly into the night, proclaiming the message with courage, and assurance.

We too live in frightening times. It is not time to hide under the bed, but rather to stand up, proclaiming our truth.

Are you a good steward?

Amen.

Are You Ready?

On its face, today’s Gospel reading is easy. Matthew 25: 1-13 is commonly known as the parable about the bridesmaids. As such, it reflects one of Matthews enduring themes: we don’t know when the Bridegroom will return, but we must be ready.

Clearly, in this story, some are ready and others are not. It comes as a shock to some, that Jesus issues a harsh judgment on those who are “unprepared” — they are locked out of the Kingdom!

What are we to make of this?

More importantly, what does this mean for us who like to think of ourselves as faithful Christians, awaiting the return of  Jesus?

Recently, a preacher predicted that the world would end, i.e., Jesus would return on some day in October. Before that, he had predicted that the same thing would occur on another earlier date. The man, like many others, is consumed with trying to mathematically determine this point in time. He and others apparently don’t take Matthew seriously on the issue of the return date being unknowable.

But the preacher points to a problem that many Christians have: paying all their attention to end times. You hear it quite a lot among evangelicals. You read about it in numerous books, fictional or otherwise. One preacher who has a television show, has spent his entire preaching life, urging people to “accept Jesus” because any moment now He will return. The signs are always pointing to its imminence.

Yet, I don’t think that was the point Matthew was trying to make.

It is not mere decor that the lamps are prominently featured in the parable. Light is a serious thing in the bible. Light signifies knowledge, truth, awareness, discipleship. The “good” bridesmaids, have their lamps lit. Moreover, they have prepared for a possible delay in the Bridegroom’s return, but securing additional oil. The “bad” bridemaids, on the other hand, did not prepare for a delay. They were sure that the Bridegroom would arrive quickly, and therefore they bought no additional oil. Their oil (faith) was waning, and had gone out.

Even the good bridesmaids found the delay much longer than they expected. They “drowsed”. Yet, that did not keep them from being prepared that this might happen. They trimmed their wicks and had the oil ready when the Bridegroom’s arrival was announced.

We are, most of us, pretty good at preparing for the end game. We save money to put our kids through college, we save money for new homes. We invest in 401k’s for our retirement.

But we are not so good “preparing” for the long haul of day-to-day life. We put off the diet, the volunteer work, the relationship work. We are sure there will be “time”. We assume there is “time” to take care of the environment, to address our economic inequalities. We assume that we will get to that “stuff” before we are called upon to answer for our lives.

Jesus instructs us, that the penalties for delay can be most harsh. While we are welcomed with great compassion to turn to God until the last moment, there comes a time, when time has run out. And justice will be meted out at that time.

The lesson seems to be, at least to me, that readiness means more than belief in the end times. It means more than confessing that Jesus is our hope. It entails more. It requires that we live our lives in practicing the Kingdom each day, aware that we truly don’t know the hour of the Master’s return, and that the penalty for “putting off” our obligations to the mission can be dire indeed.

Not a one of us wishes to hear: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

Amen.

 

Pastoring 101

Often it is hard to figure out why certain readings are put together. Not so today. Today we have a veritable teachers manual of what a good pastor is.

I am reminded that a week or so ago, I watched part of a “Family Values” summit here in Iowa. Of course all the major GOP candidates came to speak.

Each speaker, candidate or local politico, invoked God, acknowledging that first and foremost each and every person there looked to God as their true leader.

They then went about talking against marriage equality, and against universal health care, and against a worker’s right to unionize, and against EPA standards that protect our water and air. God

And I saw the audience nod and look to each other and smile, always reassuring each other that this indeed was God’s will–the things they were for and those they were against.

It probably wouldn’t do any good, but they, each of them, would do well to read and pray upon the words chosen for the lessons of this day.

Our good friends who see themselves as righteous and God-abiding are wont to tell us what God wants. Having talked with a good many of these  born-agains, I know the litany. Paul, they tell me,  (who oddly is quoted by the fundamentalist far more often than Jesus) makes it abundantly clear that the duty of a “good Christian” is to admonish and correct those in error. They would be failing in their duty to remain silent. Silence is acquiescence, quite simply.

When questioned as to the possibility that their truth may not be the truth, they scoff. No way! They assert with all sincerity that God has spoken quite plainly in their translation of the bible (usually the KJV). God does not hide his desires, he states them plainly. There is no need of any learned person to tell them what God says; a person of pure desire will hear the Word correctly. Learned biblical scholars, after all, have a goal: to be paid, and to be held in esteem as better than other interpreters.

Yet, a good deal of biblical space is given over to warnings about false teaching. It is this conundrum that the average fundamentalist faces: how to tell the false from the true. And the answer they have chosen is to trust their own instincts.

Of course that works fine, except that we are human beings who, so psychologists and sociologists tell us, are motivated to believe all manner of things that empirically are provably false. We chose to believe things often because it “works for us” satisfying some need that we may only be dimly aware of.

In Malachi we are warned:

 You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction; (Mal 2:8)

In Psalm 131 we learn how to approach God:

O LORD, my heart is not proud,
nor are my eyes haughty;
I busy not myself with great things,
nor with things too sublime for me.
Nay rather, I have stilled and quieted
my soul like a weaned child.
Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap,
so is my soul within me.

In Thessalonians Paul models the perfect Pastor:

We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.
With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you
not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well,
so dearly beloved had you become to us.
You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery.
Working night and day in order not to burden any of you,
we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thess 2: 7-9)

And finally, we have Jesus, the Great Teacher who tells us exactly how to be:

“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt. 23: 1-12)

If we would model the Master, we are humble, we assume that we are but children in terms of our knowledge of God’s ways, and we never presume to “teach” others. We lead by the example of our lives, giving our vision of God as we understand, but not as teacher. Rather we are fellow travelers. We don’t have all the answers, and we perceive the spark of God in all our brothers and sisters and eagerly look to them to teach us as well.

We take the warnings seriously, both those of Malachi and all the others found throughout both the Hebrew and New Testament. Things like, “God’s ways are not your ways,” “God sees to the heart” , “Care for the log in your own eye before worrying about the splinter in your neighbors”. These all reference a warning that we mere mortal humans cannot speak for God.

All we can do is to try to live honestly and forthrightly according to the pitifully small understanding we do have.If we can understand on that one thing, then we will shun any idea that we have any basis for telling anyone else what they should do or not.  Surely we have the right and duty to separate ourselves from those who hinder us by speaking things that seek to harden hearts and justify mistreatment of others “in the name of God.” But, we are on shifting sands when we take that as a license to teach others the way of righteousness.

Amen.

Why Do We Fail to Hear?

 

I watched a bit of the “family values” summit in Iowa yesterday. Most of the GOP field was there to seek the blessings of these “good Christians.”

Applause was loudest for repealing that odious marriage equality decision forced upon an unwilling electorate by “rogue” judges. Next in applause was for all efforts to make sure that “illegal aliens” were prevented from using health care and other safety net provisions of Iowa laws.

A week or so ago, Herman Cain was loudly praised for his desire to put up a 20-foot fence along the border, and electrify it so keep out the unwanted.

A few weeks before that, a gay soldier was booed when he asked would any of the GOP candidates work to undo the gains made by LGBT members in the Armed Services.

Meanwhile Rick Perry plummets in the polls for having the audacity to suggest that it would be heartless to deprive children who are citizens by virtue of birth here from college funding programs offered to non-Latino children with nary a thought.

And the folks who boo or applaud these things think of themselves as “good” Christians. In fact they revel in the fact. They sit in utter sanctimonious splendor as speakers soothe their occasional guilt, citing a verse here and there supposedly assuring them that charity begins and ends with the church and not with any government program. How else to deprive the  “unworthy” of sharing with those who are worthy.

Today’s reading from Exodus instructs us that far far back in Jewish history as recorded in Exodus, the Israelites were reminded that they owed care and concern for the aliens among them.

Thus says the LORD:
“You shall not molest or oppress an alien,
for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.
You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.
If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,
I will surely hear their cry.  (Ex 22: 20-22)

If there was any confusion on who was the alien, surely Jesus cleared that up when he taught the parable of the “Good Samaritan.”

But there is more. It is not just a matter of  “not molesting or oppressing”, as Exodus suggests. It is as Jesus suggested in the Samaritan parable and as he perfectly defined it in today’s Gospel reading:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him,
“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt 22: 36-40)

The alien is our neighbor, and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Now what does that mean?

Jesus tells us that this second commandment is like the first, which tells us to love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind.

So, we are to love ourselves in this same manner, and thus to the alien among us.

Why is this so?

It can only be, as far as I can tell, because God told us at the very beginning that all creation was “good”.

People often say that “God doesn’t make mistakes.” And I believe that is true. Whatever has been created was meant to be as it is. Thus we, as sentient beings, able and capable of discerning our Creator, must be what God intended. We must be in perfect way, loveable. We are worth loving. We are as intended.

Thus the  practice of some faith traditions of zeroing in on sin and our failings is patently wrong. We do fail to meet our own and God’s expectations, of that we can all be sure. But that should never over-ride the basic goodness within us as created beings.

And if we stand tall in our worthiness to be loved both by God, who assures us that this is true, and ourselves in recognition of that statement, then we are called to love everyone we encounter with that same fervor and certitude.

How many of us do that?

Fairly stated, we all fail miserably most of the time. We ignore most of the people whom we have no personal relationship with. We turn a blind eye to much of the suffering throughout the world, and indeed at home. We do this out of a certain sense of self-protection, since one would go mad if they didn’t keep themselves at least emotionally at some distance from the true misery that exists.

But most of us steel ourselves, we look away. We limit ourselves to a few gestures. We toss a few bucks in the “charity” dish on Sunday, and we make a big deal out of donating a few cans of food, or taking a turn now and then at a soup kitchen, or other public display of “giving”.

I’m not trying to judge what you do, versus what I do. I’m just as guilty of not doing enough as most are.

But we can surely stop this madness of lumping great groups of people together and claiming that somehow they don’t meet our standards of being worthy to be given to. We can surely stop declaring that “others” are not entitled to basic human decency because of the methodology of their arrival here.

One of the speakers at the Iowa forum yesterday was a man from Indian descent. He claimed to be a proud resident alien who had worked for his citizenship. He claimed that allowing “illegals” to gain state benefits of any kind in Iowa was a “slap in the face” to those of us who worked for our citizenship the legal way.

Well, I shook my head. Of course, he didn’t bother to acknowledge that his entry into this country illegally would have been a hard thing to pull off coming from India. He clearly had some real money to accomplish his dream of coming to America. He was not poor, with a large family barely making it. He did not face the dangers of trying to cross the border. He was not driven by poverty and the lack of meaningful hope for the future in his own country. I doubt that he was.

Yet he wishes to be one of the “ins” and separate himself from the “alien”. And, given where he was, and the group to which he spoke, I suspect he believes himself to be a “good” Christian.

Do you think God would agree?

The Good Samaritan by Rembrandt (1630) shows t...

The Good Samaritan by Rembrandt

 

Common Cause Makes for Strange Bedfellows

The Pharisees went off
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion,
for you do not regard a person’s status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
They replied, “Caesar’s.”
At that he said to them,
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.” Mt 22:15-21
 
Who would have thought. Herodians and Pharisees making common cause. But Jesus posed such a threat to each, that for different reasons they set aside their very real theological differences in order to put a stop to one man and his message.

They come to Christ and they ask what appears to be a rather simple question, clothed in flattery. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If he says no, the Herodians will report to Rome that he indeed is a rebel and can be suppressed as a revolutionary element. If he says yes, the Pharisees will condemn him as a hypocrite, and not the reformer he is becoming noted for.

Jesus, being wiser than them all, sees the ploy and deftly steps aside. Innocently, he asks to see the coin of which they speak. By producing it of course, they condemn themselves. The denarius (the coin of Rome) is not legal tender among Jews, nor is it acceptable payment at the temple. Jews coin their own money for trade between themselves. The denarius, which reflects the Emperor as “God” is blasphemous. No pious Jew should be in possession of it.

This passage is well known to the average Christian, and for that reason, people don’t think deeply about it I suspect. I surely didn’t, I know. Everyone knows the refrain, “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God, that which is God’s”. True enough. Yet we seldom examine that phrase.

Some of our Christian community uses the statement as a means of arguing to others, that we are to obey lawful authority in their “realm”, but somehow divide that from our allegiance to God and that “realm”.

Yet, this is faulty and not what Jesus said.

For what is “that which is God’s?” Is it not everything? What is not the province of God?

Is Jesus pointing out to us that Caesar (the State) represents merely “things”, all of which, like the denarius, are worthless in the realm of God. They are meaningless, and should be handed over without thought or concern.

God, controls all that is of value. And we owe God literally everything.

While his opponents place great value on money and power and who is owed what, Jesus, unbeknownst to them, laughs at their concerns and points out that they, like Martha, worry about many things.

Do we rightly discern what belongs to Caesar today?

Amen.

What More Was There to Do?

We are all of us fairly familiar with the parable of the vineyard owner who leaves his lands in the hands of tenants only to have the tenants attempt to hold the land for themselves and not return the profits to the owner.

We learn early on in our religious lives that the owner is God, the tenants are the Pharisees and Sadducees of the day, and the servants who come to collect the harvest are the prophets who have throughout the years warned Israel to turn from its wicked ways. Finally of course the Son goes to collect from the tenants and is murdered. It is not lost on the listeners that the Son is none other than Jesus himself.

The  climax is announced in the final sentence:

Therefore, I say to you,
the kingdom of God will be taken away from you
and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

Simple isn’t it. We, the Gentiles or modern-day Christians, are the recipients of the Kingdom, given to us when God “gave up” on Israel.
We can nod with a smile, and go home from church feeling pretty darn special.

We would do well not to rest on our assumptions too long however.

If parables are living words to us today, as I believe all scripture is, then we must stop and think. Are we the Pharisees and Sadducees of our day?

Jesus wisely related this story back to its source in Isaiah:

What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I had not done?
Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes,
did it bring forth wild grapes?

And we must ask ourselves? Not what more should God have done but what more we should have done. If we look upon the kingdom and find it full of wild grapes, who is to blame? God? Or ourselves? Are we unworthy tenants as well as so many of those early Israelites were? Or are we the wild grapes themselves?

Neither prospect is particularly enjoyable to contemplate.

Rather than feeling self-satisfied as the new “inheritors” of the vineyard, we should examine our lives and works most carefully. When Jesus returns to take back his Kingdom, left in our hands, lo those centuries ago, what will he find? How will he find us?

Will the books balance? Will we have cared for the land and kept it fertile? Will we have made sure that the workers are healthy and strong, able to raise future generations of good workers?

These are important questions, and no doubt not a single one of us can feel secure that we will pass the test.

But if we have read scripture with care, we know that all is not lost if we find ourselves short of our goal. God is loving and forgiving and forever calls us to begin again, to get up and try once more. If we do that with sincerity and with good heart, we can be assured that Jesus himself will join us with clippers and baskets and together we will create God’s kingdom in perfect glory.

Amen.

Readings from Isaiah 5: 1-7

Matthew 21: 33-43
 

Doing God’s Will

We live in perilous times. From our limited perspective, that is always true.

We argue and, sadly, even war about who is right and who is not just wrong, but evil, or destructive of life as we perceive it.

We condemn, we demean, we paint with broad brush those whom we see as opposed to our way of thinking.

In our readings today, we are cautioned about such a stance. “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory, rather regard others as more important than yourselves,” the writer of Philippians says.

And this is bolstered by the Gospel reading from Matthew where Jesus points out that those who actually do God’s will rather than mouth  obedience, will enter the Kingdom ahead of the breast-beating but other-acting believers.

We do well to ask ourselves in which category we stand.

We do in fact live in a time of great social upheaval. Our Muslim and Arab brothers and sisters around the globe are redefining their place in the world and how they wish their governments to operate. At home,  our ethnic and sexual tapestry is changing before our eyes.

In all this, we have differing positions as to what is right and what in fact is God’s will. Some of us think that we know, and we are prepared to act accordingly. Others of us, while not nearly so sure, at least believe that God’s will cannot include denial of rights, or actual harm to any of creation to further our perceptions.

Jesus seems to indicate that we should be most careful when we tend toward condemning those who we traditionally think of as “wrong” and sinful. They in fact, may be much closer to the Kingdom than we think.

If we think about it, we must apply such reasoning to all people today who are engaged in judgment about and against others. That includes those who of us who define ourselves as “progressive”. I certainly am not suggesting that we may be the one’s who are wrong, for I truly do not believe that to be the case, but we could be. And that should temper our rhetoric such that we disagree with a modicum of respect and Christian love.

For, if we are right in our thinking about issues involving religion, ethnic origin, and sexual orientation, we can speak those truths as we see them, without resorting to hateful and mean-spirited speech. First and foremost because when we do, we cannot convince anyone of anything, all that comes forth is the hatred, a hatred that burns up the message it attempts to carry.

But most of all, we lose whatever “right” we had to be at the head of the line. We place ourselves deliberately back with those whom we would argue are behind the prostitutes and tax collectors that Jesus spoke of.

We must speak with love and patience to those who still cannot see what we see. For in the end, it is more important to do the will of God than to enforce the will of God as we believe it to be. Since we must be ever mindful that “God’s ways are not our ways,” we can take no other stance.

Amen.

** reference Phil. 2: 1-5 and Mt 21: 28-32

 

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