This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Thomas Irby about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 58.1-12, Psalm 112.1-10, 1 Corinthians 2.1-16, Matthew 5.13-20). Thomas is a United Methodist Pastor serving in Tacoma, Washington. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Seattle hatred, using the S-word in church, the work of the Lord, focusing on what we don’t, the social gospel, scripturally shaped imaginations, the evils of capitalism, salty Christians, and being least in the Kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Salvation Is Confounding
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
On Sunday I left church after a few meetings to swing by the hospital to meet with a sick parishioner. My mind was going over all of the details from Sunday morning as I trudged across the parking lot and was surprised to be greeted with a loud, “Excuse me, Father.” Before looking up I knew that whoever was speaking had confused me for a Catholic priest since I was wearing all black with a white clergy collar, and rather than spending the new few moments trying to explain my protestantism I just said, “Yes?” and then lifted up my gaze to meet the speaker face to face.
Starring back at me was a heavily bearded and ruffled looking man who was clearly carrying all of his earthly possessions in his ripped and stained backpack.
He said, “Could I bother you for a cigarette?”
I said, “Sorry, I don’t smoke.”
Then he said, “What kind of priest doesn’t smoke cigarettes?”
And I honestly had no idea how to respond, so I just shrugged my shoulders and started back toward the entrance of the hospital. Right before I passed through the doors I heard him yell at my back across the lot, “I wish your God had done more for me!” And by the time I turned around he was gone.
This coming Sunday churches across the world will hear some of Jesus’ most powerful words, the so-called Beatitudes. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted – Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth – Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Of all the Beatitudes, I think my favorite is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And it was that particular beatitude that I found myself saying over and over while I walked through the hospital.
We live in a world in which we reward, and are rewarded for, spiritual successes. We lift up and praise those who demonstrate their faith whether it’s showing up in church every Sunday morning, or leading those perfect corporate prayers, or even having certain Bible passages memorized. And all of that is good and fine, except for the fact that Jesus says the poor in spirit, not the strong in spirit, are blessed and the kingdom belongs to them. It’s in weakness that God’s sees strength, and in spiritual poverty that the kingdom of heaven becomes the most real.
I wish I had spent more time with that man in the parking lot, I wish that I could’ve listened to him express whatever it was that was torturing his soul, but mostly I wish I told him something that, probably, would have come as a surprise:
“God’s kingdom belongs to you.”
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Questions. Questions. Questions.
Kurt Vonnegut once said that people don’t come to church for preachments, but to daydream about God – and I think he was right. Rare is the one who wakes up on a Sunday morning thinking, “You know what, I just can’t wait to hear what the preacher is going to say about the Bible today!”
That’s not why we come to church.
If you want to humor me and inflate my ego you can certainly tell me that’s why you’re here, but, if we’re honest, we’re here because something, or perhaps someone, has compelled us to be here. It’s a feeling, and when we do find ourselves in a place like this, we come with the hope that we will learn something more about ourselves and the world on the other side.
Or, in other words, we come looking for answers.
One of the great aspects of faith is that God is in the business of providing what we need. It’s just that sometimes we ask the wrong questions.
Today, all of us are coming to the Lord with the simple question, “Is the church political?”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.
On Christmas Day, Pope Francis offered his annual address to Catholics across the globe. The message was one of hope and a call for kindness to those experiencing hardships. It was titled “To The City And To The World.”
Like a lot of sermons it was filled with the “Christianese” language that can float right over the heads of those who receive it, but some of it was far more pointed.
For example: “May the Son of God, come down to earth from heaven, protect and sustain all those who, due to these and other injustices, are forced to emigrate in the hope of a secure life. It is injustice that makes them cross deserts and seas that become cemeteries – It is injustice that turns them away from places where they might have hope for a dignified life, but instead find themselves before walls of indifference.”
This address came on the heels of Pope Francis placing a new cross inside the Vatican last week, a cross encircled by a life jacket, in memory of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they sought out a new hopeful existence in Europe.
He ended the address like this: “May he soften our stony and self-centered hearts, and make them channels of his love. May he bring his smile, through our poor faces, to all the children of the world: to those who are abandoned and those who suffer violence. Through our frail hands, may he clothe those who have nothing to wear, give bread to the hungry and heal the sick. Through our friendship, such as it is, may he draw close to the elderly and the lonely, to migrants and the marginalized. On this joyful Christmas Day, may he bring his tenderness to all and brighten the darkness of this world.”
And people lost their minds.
How dare the Pope make such a political statement on Christmas! He’s using Jesus to make his own political judgments! There’s no room for politics in the manger!
There’s a lot of criticism about the political nature of the church and many have raised concerns about the rise of political rhetoric inside of church buildings. There is, after all, the so-called Johnson Amendment that prohibits churches from supporting particular political candidates or suffer losing their tax-exempt status in the US (though it certainly hasn’t stopped certain pastors from endorsing particular individuals). And, when rightly considered, the table at which we gather to celebrate communion is one through which all divisions end, even those of red and blue, liberal and conservative.
But when we talk about the politics of the church, or the politics of Jesus, we are already in a losing battle because when we think about politics we almost always do so through the partisan politics of our country.
Or, to put it another way, the politics of Jesus are not the same thing as the politics of America.
A politic, rightly understood, is the way in which individuals relate to each other via decisions. Which, of course, has to do with things like democracy, and representation, and voting. But when we view the politics of church through the lens of our current political situation, we blind ourselves from the ways in which Jesus, and his life, death, and resurrection, compels those who wish to follow him to live under a different kind of politic.
A few weeks ago I shared how I saw a bumper sticker that boggled my mind – It said, “If Jesus had a gun he’d still be alive.” That is a political statement that carries more layers than we can look at in a worship service, but suffice it to say that the person with that on their car probably believes and lives according to a political understanding that, everyone should be entitled to having guns, and that in particular Christians should be the ones fighting for Gun Rights.
Now, it should come as no surprise to us that this creates a bit of a conundrum when conflated with the words from Jesus himself who said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” and “ love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
We live in a world in which everything is political, and therefore the church (whether she wants to or not) is inherently political as well. However, the politics of the church do not fit neatly into the binary of Republican and Democrat as is so often desired in our country (as if the two of those things are mutually exclusive in the first place). It is a far more complicated matter, and one that we shy away from all too often.
Pope Francis chose to speak forcefully about the role the church has to play in a world where refugees are fleeing from difficult and dangerous situations in hopes of a better life. And, people and institutions can claim that he was being political, or even overly political, but he wasn’t just making it up for the sake of an argument. The concern of the church for refugees is biblical.
In the Old Testament, God ordered the people Israel to “not oppress foreigners, [for] you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9) Similarly, they were told to treat the foreigners in their midst as if they were native-born and to love them as they love themselves. Care for the sojourners, for those without homes, was paramount in the community and it was central to what people had to do.
For some of us, that might feel foreign (pun intended) but it is part of the story that has become our story.
And, to make matters all the more prescient, the story we gathered to celebrate on Christmas Eve, the precious little baby in the manger, turns very quickly into a story of fear, infant murder, and migration.
King Herod, the de-facto political leader, is afraid about the one who has come to deliver Israel into a strange new world. And like all smart, powerful, and effective political leaders, Herod does what needs to be done to insure his tenure on the throne. He orders troops into Bethlehem to indiscriminately murder every child under the age of 2.
Thankfully, Joseph receives word through a dream that he, Mary, and the newborn baby Jesus will need to flee the area and make a new home in Egypt as strangers living in a strange land.
Or, in other words, they become refugees.
As Christians, therefore, we are a people whose story has been shaped by the story of One whose life was put into jeopardy by the ruling powers and principalities. We worship the One who regularly called into question the political practices of his day by flipping over the tables in the temple, and declaring that his followers needed to render the things back to God that belonged to God. We have been granted salvation by the One who, at the orders of the political powers, suffered under the death penalty and died on a cross.
The political group of people called church have come a long way through the centuries. You can tell how far we’ve come, or how far we’ve moved, by how much we bristle at the thought of politics mixing with church because that doesn’t harmonize with the ways we’ve been taught to think and speak.
And, ultimately, that’s one of the reasons we still gather together for worship. Not to listen to a preacher wax lyrical about how scripture still speaks to us today, but to develop an imagination capable of forming us into the people God is calling us to be.
It is here in church that we are given the words to speak and think Christian.
As Christians, we know that Jesus is Lord, and therefore we do not need rights and freedoms granted to us from a document written in response to the rule of monarchy to be who we really are.
We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we believe in taking care of people regardless of whether or not our political parties do.
We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we are not captivated by partisan policies geared at keeping up divisions.
For, in the end, we worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One whose arms were still outstretched even while mounted to the hard wood of the cross.
Being a Christian is not about idolatrous freedom, denying responsibility, or ignoring the plight of the marginalized.
Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that will often place us positions counter to partisan politics. Because, as Christians, we believe in loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves, which is not the same thing as being a Democrat or being a Republican. Jesus helped those who couldn’t help themselves, and that includes people like us, and people who are fleeing for their lives.
When the politics of our country become the most determinative thing in our lives, it becomes way too easy to believe the problems of the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what Jesus says: the problem in the world is in all of us. We chose to do the things we know we shouldn’t, and we avoid doing the things we know we should.
When we worship our partisan politics, it becomes harder and harder to like our neighbors and it becomes impossible to love our enemies.
When we think the church isn’t supposed to be political we forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated isn’t a Kingdom that any political party could ever create.
But it is a Kingdom.
And in Jesus’ kingdom trespasses are forgiven, grace is given, enemies are prayed for, peace is practiced, and all of our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this table together.
In the end, our personal politics might not line up with what Jesus had to say and what Jesus had to do, but Jesus was political, and the church always will be. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with John Carl Hastings about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 18.1-11, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1.1-21, Luke 14.25-33). John Carl serves as one of the pastors of Bluff Park UMC in Alabama. Our conversation covers a range of topics including story time with Bishop Willimon, throwing on the wheel, difficult verses, being known, predestination, Philemon, reading outside the text, hating the family, kingdom catching, and uncomfortable fellowship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Exegete This!
He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ Then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
It must’ve been very frustrating to be the Messiah. Hey Lord! Can you fix my bum leg? Hey Lord! We’re getting hungry, can you whip up some dinner? Hey Lord! What’s the kingdom of God like?
Everywhere he went, through all the different towns among all the different people, questions just kept coming. And, bless his heart, Jesus responds. Sure, take up your mat and walk. Sure, we can eat – anybody got any bread or a few fish? You want to know about the kingdom? Hmmm…
You know what, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
The kingdom of God is like yeast hidden in some flour.
Do either of those make sense to you?
Well, it seems like one of the disciples mulled over parabolic answers from the Lord for a few days before asking yet another question: “Jesus, will only a few be saved?”
Well, it’s like a narrow door and, believe it or not, a lot are going to try to enter and they’re not getting in. Imagine that the owner of a house has already shut the door for the night, and you go knocking loudly. He’s not going to let you in, no matter how much you can claim to have done with the owner.
Today, we live in a world in which we are always walking on eggshells. We have to be careful about what we say, and to whom we say it, and even how we say it. And specifically in the realm of the church, we do this with an ever greater degree of attention.
And can you blame us? We want everyone to know that God loves them. We want everyone to feel welcomed. We don’t want to upset anyone.
But then what in the world are we supposed to do with Jesus’ words about the narrow door? Because it sounds like whatever the kingdom of God is, it is inherently an exclusive endeavor.
One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, was once questioned about his theological position regarding universalism, an understanding of salvation such that all are saved.
And when pushed to respond his answer was this: “I don’t know if I’m a universalist, but I do know this: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”
I like that a lot – but how can heaven be crowded if, to use Jesus’ words, many will try to enter and will not be able?
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When mustard seeds get talked about in the church they are mostly known for their size. They are tiny. And it is from tiny things that great things come. That’s all good and fine. But one of things we almost never talk about is that for a mustard seed to do anything, it has to die.
It has to be buried in the ground.
The kingdom of God is like yeast mixed with flower. When yeast gets mentioned in church it usually falls into the category of its hiddenness, or its reactivity in terms of making something new a la bread. But one of the things we almost never talk about is that for the yeast to do anything, it has to die.
It has to be buried in the flour before it is baked away.
Death has been stinking up all of these parables we’ve been encountering week after week. And the more Jesus confuses his disciples, the more he mentions death, the city of Jerusalem hangs brighter on the horizon and the view of the cross comes sharper into focus.
Death is, and will be, the mechanism by which God makes all things new.
And so it is on the heels and very much among the theme of death that the question is asked, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”
Now notice: Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He just hears the question and starts in with another one of his bizarre and meandering stories.
Strive for the narrow door my friends – many will try to enter and will not be able.
It’s as if Jesus looks out at the crowds with a twinkle in his eye only to say, “You bet there will only be a few that get saved. Many of you will go crazy studying for the final exam, an exam that you will fail.”
Now, I know a lot of you well enough to know that this Jesus doesn’t square up nicely with the Jesus in other parts of the Gospel story. We like to think of Jesus as the one standing with open arms, the one who reaches out to the last, least, lost, the one who even offers Judas a spot at the table.
And even our church, it can have all the open hearts/minds/doors it wants, but it doesn’t make much of a difference if they only open narrowly.
Jesus goes on to add a little more flavor to the story with the aside about the one who refuses to open the door once it has been shut and the imagery of our exclusive Lord and Savior looks more like a divine bouncer standing outside of Club Heaven than the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the one lost sheep.
And yet the narrow door is precisely the image of the story, the one that stays with us long after our Bibles have been closed and put away.
The door is narrow friends, but not for the reasons we so often think. The door is narrow because the door is Jesus himself.
We’ve been saying this a lot over the last two months, so I apologize for banging on the doors of all of our brains with this repetitive declaration – the parables are primarily about Jesus, and only secondarily about us.
It is the Lord who makes the door what it is, with all of its narrowness, because we can’t get through it on our own. For as much as it might make us cringe – the door that is Christ is inherently exclusive because it is not for us.
Jesus doesn’t set up a long list of requirements meant to keep only the perfect inside of his grace. This is truly the only way to enter into the many mansions of the Father’s house, and it’s certainly not because we’ve earned a space or somehow gotten our name on the list with a smattering of good deeds.
We only get in to the party because Jesus is the door.
For a long time Christianity has been defined by its exclusivity – you have to do this, and you have to believe this, if you want a space at the table. It’s an inherently narrow proposition. But the narrowness of the door in the parable actually comes not from being small or difficult. It’s narrowness comes from the fact that it is so counter to everything we think and know that we are repulsed by it.
It has been my experience, and perhaps your own too, that people do not often hear what is said, but they hear what they are prepared to hear. Such that a parable about a narrow door immediately conjures up in our minds the innate difficulties of getting into the club rather than us actually listening to what God has to say.
It is so difficult to hear because it implies that this is impossible for us to do on our own, and we hate being told that something is impossible. We hate being told something is impossible because we are told throughout our lives that so long as we work hard enough nothing is outside of our grasp.
This is a particularly challenging parable because the narrow door that is Jesus lets in a whole heck of a lot of people who don’t jive with what we think the party is supposed to look like.
The whole last will be first and first will be last is actually frustrating because the lastness of the last is what makes them first in the kingdom – not because they did what was right, or because they earned all the right things. They are now first precisely because they were last.
And those of us who have done what was good, those of us who have earned all the right things by doing all the right things, we can’t stand the idea that we’ve been put at the back of the line, in fact we wouldn’t be caught dead at the back because we’ve worked so hard to be at the front.
And then here comes Jesus, who looks at all that we’ve done, or left undone, and says, “The door is narrow friends, and none of you are good enough.”
This parable sets us up to be duped and radicalized. God doesn’t want to let us into the house. No amount of banging on the door is going to do us any good. Even the desperate pleas of our self-vindication (But Lord I went to church every Sunday, I gave 10% in the offering plate, I fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and befriended the lonely), none of it merits us anything.
But that’s exactly where Jesus drops the bomb of the Good News. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you all try to measure yourselves up to a standard of your own making and design. You will grieve all of your wasted energy, and all your accounts of self-righteousness. Because the door is too narrow for you.
AND THEN, the Gospel says, AND THEN, ONLY THEN, will people come from the north, south, east, and west to eat with God.
There are definitely two ways to read the parable, and there are two ways to preach the parable. In version one we all leave church feeling pretty crummy about our chances of getting in through the narrow door. We leave with our heads hanging low as we contemplate our sins, or our problems, or our lack of faith, and we wonder if we’ll ever be good enough. There is a way to read and preach the story such that God has closed the door of grace and locked out those who do not measure up.
In version two, the door is still closed. But the closing of the door can also be read and preached in a way that the door God closes is the one that says we have to do this that and the other in order to gain eternal salvation.
While the world’s firsts, the winners by all definitions, are out there knocking their knuckles bloody on the locked door of righteousness, Jesus is quietly knocking at the narrow door of our own deaths trying to get us to let him in.
Remember, this narrow door follows the mustard seed and the yeast. All those two things have to do in order to do anything is die. They have to give up being a seed and being yeast, they’ve got to let the old fall away in order to become the new.
And yet we live by and in and world that tells us we have to do everything on our own. There are systems and norms that are largely designed to show us how we will never be good enough. And then Jesus shows up to say perhaps the most radical truth any of us will ever hear: Don’t worry about how good you are or what you’ve been able to achieve, I am the door, and I’m coming to find you.
This parable, much to the consternation of preachers and Christians who want to scare others into behaving better, is actually about the opposite; Jesus is not busily thinking up new and frightening ways to keep people out of the kingdom – instead Jesus is actively and forever committed to letting himself into our kingdoms in order to tear them down.
At the very end, Jesus says the we who are knocking at the doors of perfect living and measured morality are nothing but workers of iniquity. Our good deeds are no more capable of getting us into the kingdom than our bad deeds are of keeping us out.
Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not while we were perfect, and not even while we were repentant, but while we were sinners. There is nothing on this earth that can make God love us any more OR any less.
That’s the scandal of the Good News, but its also why we can call it good.
And lest any of us remain unconvinced of the narrow door becoming the obliteration of any door keeping us out of anything, let us end where Jesus does – the meal.
It is after the weeping and gnashing of teeth, or own refusal to live under the unfairness of grace for everyone whether we deserve it or not, its only after our lamenting of the old world, that Jesus speaks of the meal – the meal that draws people literally from all directions.
The feast is not a trickling in of guests who, after becoming the paragons of perfection get a special invitation to the party, but instead it is a flood of uncountable people who, for free – for nothing, will be drawn by the love of Christ to the ultimate party that has no end.
Or to put it all another way: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen.
When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”
The church is weird.
It is weird for a lot of reasons, least of all being that people like you and me are part of it.
The church is weird, at least according to the world, because we worship a crucified God and boldly proclaim that death has been defeated in the person of Jesus Christ.
Add to that the fact that we dump water on babies telling them they’ve been baptized into Jesus’ death and every month we proudly eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood… I don’t know if things could get much stranger.
Last Sunday was Easter which, or course, is one of the more bizarre Sundays in the church year. We looked around the sanctuary and saw people we’ve never seen before, we remembered the shadow of the cross from Good Friday, and we triumphantly sang “Christ Is Alive!”
And yet here we are, a week later, on the other side of the resurrection story. We, like the disciples before us, are experiencing the whiplash of discovering a strange new world that has been changed, for good, by Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the event that shatters all of our previous expectations and assumptions and it is the lens by which we read the entirety of the Bible.
As I said last week, if the Easter story were not included in the holy scriptures then we would’ve thrown out our Bibles a long time ago.
But now we jump back into the story, back into the ministry of Jesus. We have pressed the rewind button to re-enter the realm of the bizarre.
This act of worship through which we proclaim the Word of the Lord is often nothing more than entering the strange new world of the Bible and hoping that we can find our way through together.
Or, to put it another way, if you thought Jesus rising from the dead was crazy, just check this out…
A bunch of tax collectors went up to Peter as soon as the disciples reached Capernaum and asked, “Hey, does your guy pay the temple tax or not?” Peter said, “Yeah, of course he does.”
But then when he got to the house where Jesus was staying, Jesus brought it up before Peter got a chance to open his mouth. “What do you think Pete… Who do the wealthy and powerful tax? Do they take money from their own children or from others?”
Peter replied, “From other people.”
So Jesus said to him, “Then the kids are free to do as they please. But, we don’t want to scandalize the collectors of the temple tax, so why don’t you head on down to the sea and go fishing. When you hook your first fish, look inside it’s mouth, you will find enough money to pay for you and me.”
This feels incomprehensible. And, upon reading the story, it’s no wonder that the disciples were such a group of bumbling fools. How can we blame them when Jesus tells the chief disciple that he can find his tax payment inside of a fish’s mouth?
Over and over again in the gospel narratives, the disciples struggle to make sense of what they see and hear from Jesus. Sure they witness miracles, and experience profound truths, but they are also bombarded with a strange new reality straight from the lips and actions of their Lord.
He was weird.
The weirdness is as its fullest when Jesus comes to the realization, or perhaps he has it the whole time, that the kingdom of God is inextricably tied up with his own exodus, his death and resurrection.
The parables, therefore, are seen in their fullest light on this side of the resurrection. I have made the case before that for as much as we want the parables to be about us, they are about Jesus. That’s one of the reasons that Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone what they saw or heard until he had been raised from the dead.
Of course, upon first glance, the money in the mouth of the fish might not sound like a parable. For whenever we hear the word parable we are quick to jump to the good samaritan or the prodigal son – we conjure up in our minds the stories Jesus told.
But this is a parable that Jesus lives out.
What makes it parabolic is that it points to something greater than its parts and it leaves us with more questions than answers.
The tax collectors were out to find the temple tax, the didrachma. It was a two-drachma tax expected of all Jews and it amounted to about two day’s pay. But they weren’t simply looking to collect – they are asking a question to discern what kind of person this Jesus really was.
“Does he pay the temple tax?” is but another version of “Does he follow the Law?”
Peter, ever eager to jump in without thinking much about what he was saying, assures the collectors that Jesus in fact pays his taxes and then he returns to the house.
And Jesus, who was not privy to the conversation, questions Peter upon his arrival, “Who do the powerful take their taxes from? Their own families, or from others?”
And Peter responds accordingly, “From others.”
And that was good enough for Jesus who says, “Then the children are free.”
Before we even get to the miraculous and monetized fish, Jesus is establishing something remarkably new through the spoken truth of this parabolic encounter. Jesus and his followers in whatever the new kingdom will be are under no obligations to the old order represented by those in power.
The former things are passing away and Jesus is doing a new thing.
The children are free from taxes; they don’t have to do anything. Which, to our Americans ears starts to sound a little disconcerting. Some of us will immediately perk up in our pews when we hear the news that Jesus is apparently against paying taxes, while others of us begin to squirm when we think about what would happen if we all stopped paying our taxes.
But that’s not what’s going on here.
Jesus and his disciples do not have to do anything because they are God’s children, and only God has the right to tax God’s creatures. This wasn’t money for public school education, or for infrastructure repairs, or national defense. This was for the Temple, the religious establishment, the same Temple that Jesus eventually says he has come to destroy!
But then he moves on from words alone to the action of the parable, the part that, if we’re honest, leaves us even more troubled than with questions about our taxes.
Jesus says, “But you know what Pete, we shouldn’t scandalize the tax collectors so go catch a fish, and inside you will find a coin that will be enough.”
Interestingly, the coin in greek is a STATER which was worth exactly four drachmas, which would perfectly cover Peter and Jesus’ contribution.
And how to the temple tax collectors respond to the aquatic audit?
The Bible doesn’t tell us.
What about Peter’s response to actually catching a fish with a coin in its mouth?
The Bible doesn’t tell us.
All we’re given is the parable.
Jesus knows that his own death will be at the heart of the new order, the kingdom of God. And in this strange and quixotic moment, he shows how free he and his disciples are from the old political and religious and messianic expectations and decides to make a joke about the whole thing.
And for the living Lord this is nothing new. He was known for breaking the rules, and eating with sinners, and questioning the authorities. But now, in this story, Jesus lives and speaks into the truth of his location being outside all the programs created by those with power to maintain their power.
He is free among the dead.
He is bound to the last, least, and lost.
The coin in the fish’s mouth is the great practical joke of God’s own creation against the powers and principalities.
It’s but another version of saying, “You think all of this religious stuff is going to save you? You think your morality and your ethics and your economics are enough? Even the fish in the sea have a better chance than all of you!”
The children are free.
Free from what? The children are free from the religious forms of oppression and expectation. Whatever religion was trying to do during the time of Jesus, and sadly during our time as well, cannot be accomplished by our own religious acts but can be and are accomplished in the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The children are free.
The parable of the coin in the fish’s mouth is far greater than an episode by the sea or even a treatment on the levying of taxes. It is a profound declaration of freedom.
But herein lies one of the greatest challenges for us.
Because when we hear the word freedom we bring all sorts of our own definitions to that word. We hear “freedom” and we see red, white, and blue. We talk about freedom in terms of getting to do, and say, and believe whatever we want without repercussions.
But Jesus brings a radically different version of freedom – freedom from religion; freedom from the Law.
Religion, in the many ways it manifests itself, often only has one thing to say: people like you and me need to do something in order to get God to do something. We need only be good enough, or faithful enough, or merciful enough, until we tip the scales back in our favor. But this kind of religious observance, which is most religious observance, traps us in a game that we will always and forever lose.
It’s bad news.
But Jesus comes to bring Good News.
I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law.
Again and again in the gospels Jesus stands against what the established religious order was doing and trying to do.
The Devil offers him power over the Temple during the temptations and Jesus refuses.
Jesus rebukes the hard and fast rules of not eating with sinners, and of not helping others on the sabbath.
After he enters Jerusalem, with the cross ever present on the horizon, he marches straight into the temple and flips over all the tables of the money-changers.
And even in his death, as he hangs on the cross, the veil of the Temple is torn into two pieces.
The old has fallen away and something new has arrived in its place.
Jesus says he doesn’t want to scandalize those trapped in the Law and by religious observance but his cross and resurrection are fundamentally scandalous. We are no longer responsible for our salvation. We do not have to be the arbiters of our own deliverance.
We are free!
Truly and deeply free!
Jesus has erased the record that stood against us and chose to nail it to his cross!
Jesus has taken the “Gone Fishin’” sign and hung it over the doorpost of the ridiculous religious requirements that we have used against one another and ourselves.
Jesus has come to bring Good News.
The children are free. Amen.
Last year I tried to make the case against the liturgical practice of “ashes to go.”
It received a lot of backlash.
And I get it.
But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the community of faith does together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year.
As the popularity of something like Ashes To Go continues to rise, we lose a connection with the communal liturgical practice that sets the stage for the season of Lent.
In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon Ashes To Go has become, this is what it typically looks like: On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective local church, and a drive thru line will allow people to wait their turn for a ten second interaction where ashes are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Or a group of clergy will gather in a public space (like a park or fast food restaurant or a coffee shop) with a simple sign encouraging people to stop in for their “Ashes to Go.” Lines will development during peak hours, people will hear the right words, and they will leave with a reminder of their mortality on their foreheads.
Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. Moreover, I know people for whom the “Ashes to Go” is a sign of the church’s willingness to catch up with the times and start digging itself out of its ditch of irrelevancy. But offering ashes devoid of a liturgy in which the practice is made intelligible, is the equivalent of clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of Paul’s).
To those who love “Ashes to Go”: I mean no offense. I only want to call into question the faithfulness and the efficacy of doing so. I have heard about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens with “Ashes to Go” but I wonder if there are better occasions to share the gospel without watering down the holiness of Ash Wednesday to fit into other peoples’ schedules.
Two years ago, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge about Ash Wednesday and she had thoughts on the subject of “Ashes to Go” as well. This is what she said:
“It’s pathetic. I know people who do it (people I admire), but people don’t know why they’re doing it. There’s no message involved. Christianity is not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not enough; there has to be rectification of evil… When I grew up nobody had ashes, only the Roman Catholics did it, and we all thought it was superstitious. I personally don’t like the ashes very much unless it is done within the context of an entire worship service with a full and faithful homily. Remember: the gospel says wash your face. It’s really weird to listen to that passage on Ash Wednesday and then leave with a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”
I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a full liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the occasion is all about. Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.
And I use the term “we” purposely. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. It is a practice of the community we call church.
This year, the United Methodist Church (the one I serve) is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of a Special General Conference that resulted in doubling down on the so-called “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching, countless members are threatening to leave or withhold their giving, while others are celebrating the exclusion of LGBTQIA individuals from ordination and the ability to be married in a United Methodist Church. I think there is no better time for the church, together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?”
We can be marked with the ashes on our forehead and realize that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – thats basically the message of Lent in a sentence.
This Ash Wednesday can then become a marvelous and miraculous opportunity to discover a new way forward for God’s church.
Outside the fracturing and infighting within the UMC we also live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it our of this life alive, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the world, the individual triumphs. But according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.
Therefore, for me, “Ashes to Go” completely loses its connection with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent because it just becomes another individualized consumer driven model of the church rather than being the incarnational and rooted practice of joining together to remember who we are and whose we are.