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

All Will Be Thrown Down

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

By any measure, the Temple Jesus and his disciples visited on their Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem was an impressive structure. Commissioned around 20 BCE by Herod the Great, the Roman client King of Judea, “Herod’s Temple” was on one hand a conciliatory gesture toward the priestly class and leaders of the Temple who were deeply suspicious of the king (Herod had slaughtered a number of priests when he took power not that many years earlier), and on the other hand a narcissistic monument to Herod’s ambition to be regarded among the day’s great rulers, all of whom taxed their citizens mercilessly to fund extensive, self-aggrandizing building programs.

Herod’s reconstruction of the Second Temple employed more than one thousand priests, who worked as masons and carpenters, and although the Temple proper was rebuilt in less than two years, the surrounding buildings, courtyards, and walls were not completed until nearly eighty years later. It was a massive project, occupying the entire plateau atop the Temple Mount and reflecting in its design Herod’s affinity for Hellenism.

It must have come as something of a shock, then, when Jesus told the disciples who pointed out the monstrous stones from which the buildings were constructed, “See these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Read more

Feasting with the Saints

Feast of All Saints

Isaiah 25:6-9 or Wis Sol. 3:1-9
Ps 24
Rev 21:1-6
Jn 11:32-44

I love All Saints Day. It is one of my favorite feast days of the church year. It is a time for joyfully remembering those who preceded us in the faith, both those well-known and those known only to God.

It is one of the traditional days for baptism, too. When this happens it provides a community with a chance to look both backward to remember departed members of the body and forward with those beginning their new lives in Christ. I am also partial to the hymns for this day. This Sunday is one of those occasions when All Saints Day lands on a Sunday.

One way to focus our remembrance of the saints is to reflect on the rest and security those believers now enjoy in God. Even though they have died, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, no torment will ever touch them” (Wis Sol 3:1). They are now removed from the world in which their steadfast fidelity often led to pain and suffering. This can be a comfort to us who remain behind in this world. Most importantly, their lives should serve to encourage our own greater fidelity. Read more

The LORD Will Make You (into) a House

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 7:1-14
Psalm 89:20-37
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 50-56

This week’s First Testament text is a familiar one from 2 Samuel. David, having consolidated his reign and established momentary peace in Israel, wonders aloud to the prophet Nathan whether it is fitting for him to live comfortably in a well-built house while the Ark of the Covenant, the most conspicuous and immediate symbol of God’s presence with Israel, remains in a tent.

The subtext here is pretty obvious; David has in mind the construction of a temple that will be a proper dwelling place for God, and Nathan assures him – at least initially – that he should proceed. Nathan’s assurance, however, is short-lived. That evening God speaks to him, telling him to go to David and inform him that there is no need to build a temple, at least not now.

The explanation God offers, though terse, is theologically illuminating and indicative of things to come, not simply in this particular text, but in the subsequent history of God’s redemptive work. Read more