The Conundrum of a Coin

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 45:1-7 OR Exodus 33:12-23
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Some years ago I was working with a medical team in rural Honduras. We were in a village new to us, seeing many patients while assessing if the area had sufficient need and community interest to establish a permanent clinic there. It was Semana Santa (Holy Week), and there was a lot going on. The small Catholic parroquia was the center of fervent liturgical prayer and sometimes gruesome pageantry, including a Stations of the Cross procession through town on Good Friday and a bonfire on the church square to begin Saturday night’s Easter Vigil.

The medical team, however, was staying on the roomier grounds of the nearby Iglesia Evangelica, which observed the week before Easter rather more quietly. The pastor was an engaging man who worked tirelessly for the welfare of his congregation and extended great hospitality to his North America guests. Without his assistance, easygoing manner, and negotiating skills, the medical mission would have failed.

Judging from his church’s communal worship, though, Semana Santa seemed just another week, with evening Bible study and Wednesday church services that hinted at – rather than calling attention to – the significance of the Sunday to come. Even so, it still surprised me when, on Easter morning, he chose as his Sermon text the opening verses of Romans 13.

As best I could grasp with my inadequate Spanish, we were to understand the Resurrection to mean salvation was now available to anyone who put faith in Jesus and obeyed the secular government. Later that afternoon, I – along with a few others from the medical team – asked him to elaborate. Though I was again hindered by my inadequate command of the language, I managed to ask if Paul’s instruction that “every person be subject to the authorities, for there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1), was in any way qualified by what preceded it in Romans 12, or by the knowledge that those very authorities later put Paul to death.

Judging from his response, I’d hit some raw and tender nerve. He looked at me and said, “You don’t understand. The reason this country is poor and the reason there are drunks in this town is because there are Catholic churches – like the one just up the hill – with statues in them.” And that, for him, was the end of our discussion.

I share this story not to shame a good man, but to illustrate in a particularly colorful way how certain scripture texts – such as Romans 13:1-7 or this Sunday’s gospel reading – can launch some Christians off the exegetical rails. Read more

Loved for What We Have in Us

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 19:1-10

From Jerusalem, perched 2500 feet above sea level, it is all downhill to Jericho, 850 feet below sea level. That makes for a hot, muggy place, but Jericho is shaded by palm trees and watered by cool springs. Jericho produces the best fruits and veggies you’ll find anywhere. And Jericho has been around for a long time—at least 11,000 years. Jericho is a land flowing with milk and honey.

That’s what the children of Israel thought when they emerged from the wilderness and marched around Jericho’s walls. Mark Antony thought so too. He gave Jericho as a gift to Cleopatra, tossing in Arabia as an afterthought. Cleo leased Jericho out to King Herod, charging him half the yearly profits of all Judea.

And how do you suppose Herod skimmed off enough cash to pay the mortgage? Look no further than one man who had his boney fists wrapped around the throats of every workingman in Jericho—Zacchaeus, the government’s chief tax collector of the area. Zacchaeus, poster boy of the One Percent. Zacchaeus, least popular man in the Jericho Rotary Club.

Zacchaeus and his cronies taxed every orange and grapefruit shipped out of Jericho. Three little words from Luke tell you all you need to know about Zacchaeus: “He was rich!” Reviled and avoided, Zacchaeus had no reputation left to protect and few friends. Then Jesus came to town. Read more

What We Owe

Luke 7:36-8:3 (Proper 6:Year C)

At one time I taught at a Christian high school where most kids were relatively well off and for the years I taught there I always worked in a discussion on privilege. The students would assure me that they were not privileged and that their parents weren’t either. “My dad built his business from scratch,” they’d say, or “my parents have worked hard for everything they’ve got.” The lines, rehearsed and repeated, were the same every time.

I’d lead them through a series of exercises and thought experiments that would help most, in the end, see their advantages—the head start, however hard the work, they had over many others from different backgrounds and races than their own. But I’d always leave a little sad, because since this was a Christian school it should have been one saturated in gratitude. These children had been firmly raised in the belief that salvation comes from Jesus, but they’d also been taught that everything else comes from hard work and the beneficence of the free market.

I thought of that time when I read the Gospel for this Sunday. It is a passage about gratitude and the hospitality that comes from it; about debt and the jubilee release of all debts. It is a profound study in vulnerability and knowing the truth about our selves.

Simon doesn’t know that he’s in debt. He enters the scene as someone confident that he is not a sinner, wondering in his mind how Jesus could not immediately know that this woman was someone who owes a debt to God and to society. Read more

The Death of Jesus

Palm/Passion Sunday

Luke 19:28-40
Luke 22:14-23:56

Beginning with his entry into Jerusalem and culminating with his crucifixion, this Sunday is devoted to the death of Jesus. He died as part of a public execution. Until relatively recently states, governments and empires always executed their perceived enemies publicly. It was an opportunity for the powers that be to make a statement. Read more