Listening beyond the familiar...

(NOTE: The following are my notes for this week's reflection on loving a still speaking God. If you are in town on Sunday, October 19th, please stop in at 10:30 am.)

Sometimes we have heard a familiar song – or seen a favorite movie – or listened to a part of the Bible so often that we fail to hear what is really being said. In fact, sometimes we not only miss what is really going on, but create something else entirely different.

I once heard the country singer, John Prine, tell a story about playing in a club one night when a woman shouted out, “Hey play that song about the happy enchilada.” He paused – totally perplexed – and said, “I don’t know any songs about a happy enchilada, ma’m.” To which the woman replied, “Of course you do, you’ve been singing it for years, it’s my favorite song.” So he thought a little harder only to say, “I really wish I could help you but for the life of me I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

But she wouldn’t quit and shouted, “Come on, man, quit messin’ with me, the chorus goes like this: That’s the way the world goes round, one day you’re up, the next you’re down, a happy enchilada and you think you’re going to drown, that’s the way the world goes round. Remember?” Which finally jogged the singer’s memory into recalling one of his most famous songs which contains these lyrics in the chorus: That’s the way the world goes round, one day you’re up, the next you’re down, a half an inch a water and you think you’re going to drown…

He sang – a half an inch of water – but she heard – a happy enchilada – so when this all became clear, Prine quickly said to his fan, “Oh… that song about a happy enchilada” and proceeded to sing the real words. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to song – sometimes for years – only to find that the words I’ve held near and dear are… wrong! Ever happened to you?

(Take a listen John Prine with Lyle Lovett - so sweet!)

The poet, Robert Bly, once wrote that this type of confusion can sometimes bring to birth new insights – like when you misread a person’s bad handwriting and discover a new twist on truth. But when it comes to the Bible, it’s better to start off with as much precision as you can muster and then let your imagination go wild.

And that’s particularly important with such a familiar text as this morning’s gospel lesson from St. Matthew. Those of us who grew up in church have heard this story about rendering unto Cesar what is Cesar’s and unto God what is God’s for so long that we may not even really hear what is happening. For example, I discovered three new truths about this story last week while preparing for worship. And I think they are valuable because they give us clues about what it means to love God.

First, recall the setting of this story: it is in the courtyards of the Temple in Jerusalem – and why would this be important to know? Preacher Sarah Dylan suggests that it has something to do with the money changers tables that Jesus overthrew just a few verses before in Matthew’s gospel. Do you remember that story? Can somebody review it for those of us who don’t know it yet? (See Matthew 21: 12)

So the money changers were in the Temple courtyard to take Roman coins – with the image of the emperor who called himself lord inscribed on the front – and convert them into Temple coins that could be used for a proper donation or offering, ok? And let’s be clear about this set up:

+ You may recall that in the days of Jesus, Israel was an occupied country under the boot heel of Rome: there were Roman troops all over the country, there were taxes to be paid to the conquering emperor, there was anger and humiliation in the air which gave birth to a movement to overthrow the Roman oppressors and there was collaboration between some of the chief priests and leaders of Israel and the hated Romans.

+ In fact, this whole business of collaboration is what makes the money changers so important: those who followed the way of Torah were required to bring offerings to the Lord in God’s Temple at different times throughout the year. There were burnt offerings to show submission to God, peace offerings that expressed thanksgiving and gratitude and sin offerings to evoke repentance and atonement.

Sometimes these offerings involved animals, sometimes the first fruits of the harvest and sometimes a tithe of your wages: whatever the nature of the gift, however, it had to be pure – unblemished and undefiled – because your sacrifice was being offered to the Lord. Now, coins that carried the image of Cesar were by definition unholy, right? Scholars tell us that Roman coins had an image of Cesar on the front with the words, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest" inscribed upon them. So these could not be used to pay your tithe and had to be exchanged for holy Temple money that was acceptable and unblemished.

Same with burnt offerings like doves – or pigeons if you were dirt poor – or unblemished lambs and goat. Anybody could bring their own unblemished animal offerings from home to the Temple, but before they could be used they first had to be examined to see if they were truly free from defect. And, as is so often the case throughout history with people of every stripe and religion, if a scam can happen, it will. Because of the collaboration between the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, Caiaphas, and the Roman occupation troops in Israel, guess who the people were who were hired for the routine examination of sacrificial animals and the exchange of unholy money? Right, they were all the relatives of the high priest, Caiaphas.

+ And they were instructed to discover blemishes and impurities on the sacrificial animals brought to the Temple from outside the gates. Because when this happened – when an impure sacrifice was discovered – they were rendered unacceptable and unfit for an offering.

+ So a person of faith had two choices: you could either leave without making an offering, or, you buy a pure sacrificial animal from those inside the Temple gates at an inflated price from a relative of the high priest. And with your purchase, the Romans got a kick back, as did the priests and the merchants inside the courtyard of the Temple made a nasty little profit, too.

Do you see why Jesus exploded with righteous indignation, took off his belt, whipped those greedy SOBs and committed civil disobedience by turning over their tables and chasing them away in fear? This is the background to Palm Sunday and our first insight for today: Jesus was surrounded by those who claimed to be holy, but who were actually collaborators with oppression and greed hiding under the cover of their religion. Some things never change, do they? Hence the expression, “Not everyone who cries, ‘Lord, Lord,’ ...”

The second insight builds on the first and shows us something of Christ’s true nature. Those who have gathered around Jesus have come speaking words of honor when they really want to knife him in the back. They are duplicitous: “Rabbi, rabbi,” they say, “you are sincere and a teacher of the truth who shows no deference to anyone, tell us what you think.”

But make no mistake: Jesus did show deference to people. He healed the wounded, cast out demons, welcomed the outcasts, embraced the lepers and proclaimed good news to the poor while scolding and exposing mean- spirited hypocrites. And what I think is going on here is that Jesus is showing us by example that sometimes people of faith have to take on corruption – face it down and name it – speak hard truth to power if the words of God are going to become flesh within and among the people of God.

Old William Sloane Coffin used to say back in the days of his preaching at the Riverside Church in New York City: “Public good doesn’t automatically flow from private virtue. A person’s moral character, sterling though it may be, is insufficient to serve the cause of justice… because not to take sides is effectively to weigh in on the side of the stronger.”

St. William then went on to add this: the reason Martin Luther King continues to have legs and relevance even all these years after his death is because he showed America – and the world – what it could mean to “assert your individuality in order to affirm community on the widest possible scale. He understood better than any other public figure that compassion does not exclude confrontation… noting that it was not enough to suffer with the poor, we must confront the systems that cause poverty.” In fact, Bill often said, “Martin’s message was not so much ‘I have a dream’ as you cannot set the captives free if you are not willing to confront those who hold the keys. Without confrontation, compassion becomes merely commiseration, fruitless and sentimental.”

So look at how Jesus plays this out: he isn’t snowed or distracted by those who tell him, “Oh, I think you are sincere – or nice – or well intentioned.” Rather, he asks for a coin – and we’ve heard this so often we may miss its importance – but please notice that without missing a beat one of the priests pulls a coin out of his pocket:

+ Now does that strike anybody else as problematic? Isn’t that coin supposed to be unclean – unacceptable inside the Temple of the Lord – and forbidden to a servant priest of the God?

+ Are you with me? How come this priest has one of those forbidden coins?

These were the people who were going to teach Jesus a lesson about devotion and commitment to God and they were willing to betray the heart of their faith tradition in return for a kick back. What’s more, they were so arrogant that they didn’t think anyone would notice: that’s the great moral jujitsu of the coin. With humor and clarity Jesus confronts the ugly hypocrisy of the status quo and models what it means to live into true faith.

“Whose image is on that coin?” he asks: Gotcha – busted – shame on you – thanks for playing but you are now disqualified because you only use God to advance your own selfish gain. Can’t you just imagine the sermon that came next – it isn’t included here – but more than likely it would have referenced:

+ Micah 6:8: What does the Lord require? To do what is fair and just to your neighbor, to be compassionate and loyal in your love and don't take yourself too seriously— take God seriously

+ Hosea 6:6: I desire mercy not sacrifice – love that lasts not more religion.

+ And let’s not forget the prophet Isaiah who was so clear in his poetry and challenging in his religion in Isaiah 61: The Spirit of God, the Master, is on me because God anointed me. God has sent me to preach good news to the poor, heal the heart-broken,announce freedom to all captives and pardon all prisoners. God has sent me to announce the year of true grace— a celebration of God's victory over oppression— a time of comfort for all who mourn, to care for the needs of all who mourn in Zion and give them bouquets of roses instead of ashes, messages of joy instead of news of doom, a praising heart instead of a languid spirit. We will rename them "Oaks of Compassion and Justice" planted by God to display his glory. They’ll rebuild the old ruins, raise a new city out of the wreckage. They’ll start over on the ruined cities, take the rubble left behind and make it new.

And that leads me to the third insight: for after exposing the greed and corruption all around him, after teaching and clarifying what it means to advance the cause of God rather than exploit the Lord, Jesus offers everyone – saint as well as sinner – a way to get back on the right track.

+ Render unto Cesar what is Cesar’s and unto God what is God’s – which isn’t a trick question – but a way of bringing clarity. Our tradition, grounded in the Psalms of Israel, tell us: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell here.” (Psalm 24)

+ At the start of our scripture we are told, “We were created in the image of the Creator – male and female we were created – in the very image of the Lord God we were created.” (Genesis 1) And the gospel of John deepens that for us, too, saying: “In the beginning was the Word – the idea of Christ – and the idea was with God and was God… and in the fullness of time that word became flesh and dwelt among us full of truth and grace.” (John 1)

What bears the image of the Lord God our Creator? The earth, our lives, all of creation, you and me and the rest of humanity – and here is the truly revolutionary and radical part – if we believe and live like the earth and the fullness thereof belongs to the Lord – then what belongs to Cesar?

Nothing – not a denarius or a dollar or a petro dollar or all the volatile stocks and bonds of this house of cards – nothing: “Give to Cesar what is his and give to God what is God’s,” he told us. And the Pharisees were speechless and collaborators left shaking their heads.


Black Pete said…
Ironic, too, that the Caiaphas dynasty was the first stable priesthood dynasty in several decades in Palestine at the time. Chief Priests had come and gone with chaotic rapidity over those years, which was a hardship for the Jewish faithful as well. The Caiaphan dynasty lasted an amazing 12 years, and it certainly was an object-lesson in smarmy politics.

What price stability?
RJ said…
Thanks for this insight, Peter.
delaferriere said…
Seems I've just stumbled upon my new favorite blog.

I love it when that happens.

Archives here I come
RJ said…
Hey I'm glad this stuff makes sense to you, new friend.

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