2nd Sunday Ordinary time. 1-14-18
We begin our readings in the middle of the story of Samuel. Who is Samuel, how does it matter; and why is he sleeping in the temple next to the Ark of God? The answers are found by returning to the 1st chapter of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament. Elkanah had two wives, Peninnah, and Hannah. Peninnah was very proud that she had given Elkanah several children. She purposely teased and taunted Hannah and upset her by bragging about the children. Hannah was unable to have a child, a cause of social disgrace in that culture. Children were a measure of a woman’s worth.
One day Hannah went into the temple to pray. She was weeping and moving her mouth in silent prayer. The Priest, Eli, thought she was drunk and scolded her. She told him that she was not drunk, but upset. Then Eli blessed her and later she had a son, who she named Samuel. (Hannah’s desire for a child is very like the story of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.) Then Hannah prayed in thanksgiving, saying, “My heart exults in the Lord….I rejoice in thy salvation. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.” (It is a prayer that is very much like Mary’s Magnificat.)
When he was old enough, Hannah brought Samuel to the temple to stay with Eli, so that Samuel could learn the ways of God and grow up in God’s presence. The Jews of that time believed that the Spirit of God lived in the temple, and filled the Ark of the Covenant. What better place for the boy to sleep than next to the Ark?
Eli’s sons, who were to succeed him as Priest, were disobedient to God and their father. But we are told that “the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men.” (Luke’s Gospel tells us that after the boy Jesus talked with the teachers in the temple, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.”)
When Eli finally understood that God was speaking to Samuel, he taught him to say, “Speak for your servant is listening.” Those words are carried into our Psalm. In Psalm 40 we read, “Sacrifice or offerings you wish not, but ears open to obedience you gave me….so I said, “Here I am; your commands for me are written in the scroll. To do your will is my delight.” And the Letter to the Hebrews quotes Jesus as reciting this Psalm this way, “I have come to do your will, O God.” John’s Gospel has repeated instances when Jesus listened to God.
So Samuel’s story has elements that are very familiar. The Gospels draw on the stories from Jewish history to give us the message that Jesus was indeed “The One Who was to Come”. The people who first read these Gospels knew by this that Jesus was the Messiah.
So the 1st reading and the psalm prepare us for the Gospel. It is like the difference between saying to a child, “Here’s your milk”, and taking a child to a dairy farm, where they can see and touch a cow, hear it moo, and watch as the milk comes from the cow into the tubes to the tanks where it is pasteurized and perhaps chocolate added. That brings about understanding for the child. We need an understanding of some of the many ways the Jewish scriptures are not separate, but very connected to the New Testament. We see patterns that are not yet complete, and we have a sense of anticipation about the message of Jesus, the Messiah.
John the Baptist heard the message, and he foretold the coming of the Messiah. He did the will of God when he baptized Jesus and proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The next day, where our reading picks up, he said it again. It initiates a chain reaction which changed the course of history. Two of John’s disciples heard him, Andrew and John (we think), and they immediately followed Jesus. It must have been a scene permanently engraved in John’s memory, because he even records the time of day. The implication is that staying that long with Jesus is a sign that the men were dedicated to remain with Jesus. From there, the excitement spread to Peter and beyond.
This is different from the calling of the disciples in the Gospel of Luke. Remember, John is not writing to preserve a step-by-step historical record of the events as our culture might expect. John is instead writing to explain who Jesus was, to reveal the character and motive of Jesus’ ministry and purpose. Still, John’s rendering of his joining Jesus at this time is supported by Peter’s remark in Acts 2:21-22. Peter wants to fill Judas’ place with someone “who accompanied us beginning from the baptism of John.”
The verb “follow” and the directive “follow me” appear 4 times in 6 verses, and many other times in the Gospels, don’t mean to just to walk along with. It is a much deeper connection. Notice that Jesus initiates the conversation. Jesus has come to earth to save the lost. Jesus does not hesitate to get to the heart of the issue; he asks, “What are you looking for?” These men would not have been disciples of John the Baptist if they had not been seeking a fuller life with God – something deeper than just living and then dying. “Where are you staying?” is a desire to know Jesus fully. His response, “Come, and you will see” conveys that he is open to their questions and offering a challenge to their faith.
This scene introduces us to many of John’s key words. “Coming” to Jesus is to have faith; “seeing” Jesus is to understand his message. As Fr. Raymond Brown, one of the primary authorities on John, puts it, “If the training of the disciples begins when they go to Jesus to see where he is staying and stay on (abide) with him, it will be completed when they see his glory and believe in him.” All this adds to our understanding of the scriptures.
But what do we do with it on Monday? Fr. John Pilch writes that this gives us a highly successful pattern for telling others about Jesus: (1) A believer in Jesus (John the Baptist) tells someone (his disciples) about Jesus and (2) he uses a special title of Jesus (“Lamb of God”). (3) The believer shows that person Jesus (in acts or words). (4) Jesus then calls the newcomer and brings them to faith.
We, then, are to live honest and true lives for all to see. When people ask us why we act this way, we can share our faith. When people around us get discouraged or mired in bad choices and we respond with compassion, or when we are generous to those in need, we give people who watch us reason to believe what we say. When we are in conversation, opportunities arise to explain why we go to church and believe in God. We can speak of our faith with confidence and pride, and answer questions about our beliefs. The Holy Spirit will intervene with a gift of understanding and love. This has always been the primary way of sharing faith, person to person, and will likely remain the primary way for Christianity to thrive and flourish. Someone tells us, we go to Jesus, see where he is, and stay with him to see his glory.
29th Sunday Ordinary time, 10-22-17. Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Palm 96:1-10; 1Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22: 15-21
We start today with Cyrus. To help us understand this, and indeed all our readings today, we need to know who Cyrus was, what he did, and why Isaiah gives such glowing praise to him.
Here’s some history: Babylon came into prominence in ancient history about 1,830 years before the birth of Christ. But the Babylon we read about in the Bible is mostly the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BC they captured and destroyed Jerusalem, taking all the treasures from the Temple, killing many of the people, and taking most of the remaining population as captives to exile in Babylon. The military tactics of Babylon were to take everything of value and kill and burn everything else. They ruled over other nations by destroying the population centers, the culture, and the very way of life of their victims. This is why the Bible uses Babylon as a symbol and synonym for evil.
But what goes around comes around, and brutal Babylon fell to Cyrus, the Persian king, in 540 BC. Cyrus had an entirely different style from Nebuchadnezzar. He would negotiate with nations before he used force. In the end, he ruled most of Europe and Asia, and created the largest Empire in history. Cyrus respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered and is still recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy. He established a government which –listen to this!-worked to the advantage and profit of its subjects; and he repatriated the people to their original homelands, even decreeing that the Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt. Cyrus is the only non-Jew to be called “the anointed one”, the same title given to Israel’s kings, because he restored the Jewish Nation. His behavior, and by extension, his image is forever a part of Jewish history. But God is still God, and the only God.
The truth is that Cyrus acted more like God than many of Israel’s kings. The people of Ancient Israel were to understand that their true King was indeed God, not the man who sat on the throne. Our Psalm then, is an enthronement Psalm, which was to be sung at the annual feast where the king took his throne to symbolize God’s kingship over the people.
Moving on to the Gospel, it is important to start by saying that Jesus does not pull off a “smooth dodge” to a difficult question, but rather roughly confronts his challengers. They were immediately stripped of their pretense and proven to be hypocrites. Jesus won round one by the fact that they were carrying and handed him a Roman coin which proclaimed Caesar to be divine and had an image of him (considered by Jews to be a sinful and idolatrous “graven image”).
Secondly, is this about a 40/60 or 30/70 split between God and Caesar? No! Even the question of what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar is meaningless. We have missed Jesus’ point if we try to sort our lives into two piles: one for God and one for the Caesar-type God-want-to-be’s. For we were created in God’s image. If the image of Caesar on the coin means the coin belongs to Caesar and recognizes Caesar as head of the Roman Empire, then if we bear the image of God, who do we belong to? Who rules over our lives? God, of course, 100%. God ruled over Caesar and all human leaders, even the Pharisees and the Herodians. Jesus won round two when he sent a clear message of shame to them by revealing their question as a denial of God’s role in their lives. They were resisting what they themselves taught as God’s message and they were not acting as God has taught them.
Finally, Jesus is not talking about a division between church and state. That is a modern American concept, and would be unheard of in Judea in Jesus’ day. It’s not about paying taxes. That was just the cover story of the challengers. This is a confrontation regarding the teachings and authority of Jesus, and over the last few weeks we have read a total of 5 confrontations where Jesus has used increasingly strongly worded and pointed parables to shame those who challenged him into seeing their errors. We have heard the laborers in the vineyard, the two sons in the vineyard, the landowner whose tenants killed his son, the wedding feast, and now the coin question. In Matthew’s Gospel, all these stories are told during Holy Week. It is as if Jesus is pulling out all the stops to help his challengers understand, and instead they become more entrenched, angrier, and increasingly determined to silence him.
The saddest paradox of this exchange is that these Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and Herodians, have Jesus standing in front of them. This is what ultimately reveals their blindness to God. It’s painful to read about the stubbornness of those men. It’s even more painful to have people we care about in our lives who will not change their response to God. It’s especially painful to find those hidden places in our own lives that do not reflect Christ’s love, his prayers and teaching, his generosity and patience, and his sacrifice for us. To live our lives in God’s image, we can look to Christ.
But St. Paul had found, in Thessalonica, people who had chosen to look to Christ. Paul leaves us more hopeful as we read what he wrote to them, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.” The Gospel, Paul says, “…did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.” And so, we are encouraged to seek the Gospel in Word and in Power and with much conviction, with the help of the Holy Spirit, who stands ready, day and night, to bring us a constantly deeper understanding of God, allowing us to live in God’s image.
Well it seems we are back into vineyards and the business of grapes for another week. Of course Israel was an agricultural nation and grapes were important if they were to have wine for their tables. Remember too Jesus said I am the Vine you are the Branches and my Father is the vine dresser. So these parables have a sense of importance, but we have to be careful to realize they have at times been heavily allegorized and possibly stretched beyond their original intent. Keep in mind that Jesus or the early church never accused or blamed the Jewish people for Christ’s death.
A farmer in Israel as elsewhere lived off the land. They would trade and barter for the necessities they needed for farming, livestock, food and taxes and tithes and other necessities of life. In essence, a landowning farmer would be left with about 20% of his crop to look out for his family. A tenant farmer as we see in the gospel, could really not expect much more, but was obligated to pay the landowner. Now, typically, the tenants were the leaders of the people. Their lifestyle, accountability, leadership all become questionable and a need for change is seen and brought about. It these writings it would mean at the time that the leadership was passed on from the chief priests, etc to the new Judaeo-Christian Church.
To move forward through the centuries, we see the message of Jesus has been constant, and his church remains. It has looked to be different in one time or another, but like old testament times, repentance, change and renewal was always something the Holy Spirit has maintained and has kept Christ alive to the world. Our message today, is that good leadership must listen and work together with the people of God. History has proven that in all areas of spirituality the Spirit breathes where he wills. It is for the rest of us to discern the Spirit and not disparage the messenger.
In the intellectual sphere, the remarkable achievements of learning and science has advanced the world and also challenged us to clean up the mistakes we have made. If God our ultimate landowner asked for an accounting today, What would we say?