Last week’s Gospel reading and this week’s share a common theme: what followers of Jesus are to do while they await the Day of Judgment. Last week’s reading focused on the need to be vigilant and prepared. This week’s reading has a different focus: making a profit for the Kingdom of Heaven.
To start off, I would like to offer my retelling of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. One problem with Jesus’ version is that we have all heard it so many times that it doesn’t have the impact that it would have had on its original audience. Another problem is that the world has changed quite a bit in 2000 years, and our perspective is very different. We hear this story from the perspective of a capitalist society, where the wealthy are admired. In Jesus’ day, at least among the peasants that came to hear Jesus preach, wealth was looked on as something inherently disreputable. And the rich were typically viewed as greedy and rapacious. Now, the man in Jesus’ parable was very wealthy indeed. You should know that 8 talents of silver would be worth about $5.6 million today! So, with all this in mind, let me offer my version of the parable:
In today’s Gospel reading, we get two snippets from a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. The first snippet is about which commandment in the Law of Moses is the greatest. The second snippet is about the identity of the Messiah. Let me deal with snippet #2 first.
Jesus wants to silence the Pharisees who have been plaguing him with questions. So he asks them a riddle about the identity of the Messiah. He quotes the first verse of Psalm 110, written by King David about the crowning of a future Messiah. In that verse, David refers to the Messiah as “my Lord.” Now, biblical prophecy foretold that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. Why, then, would David refer to his own descendant as “my Lord”? For in a patriarchal culture such as ancient Israel, the ancestor is usually given higher rank than the descendant. So we have a mystery: The Messiah will be a descendant of King David, but he will outrank his ancestor. How can this be? Well, the Pharisees can’t solve this riddle, and they wisely stop pestering Jesus. We, on the other hand, know the answer. As the foster son of Joseph, Jesus the Messiah is the descendant of King David by adoption and can legitimately be called a Son of David. But as the only Son of God, Jesus outranks any earthly king, including his royal ancestor.
Now, let’s turn to the first snippet from the debate. What is the greatest commandment in the Law of Moses? Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But that commandment alone is not sufficient to summarize the purpose of the entire Law of Moses, so Jesus adds a second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He tells them that these commandments are the two hinges that hold up the door of Holy Scripture. Now, Jesus is not saying that the other biblical commandments count for nothing. Far from it! But he is saying that these two commandments give us the lens by which to view all of Scripture, keeping us focused on what really matters.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a banquet. And who doesn’t like a banquet? This theme of a divine feast is a common thread tying together the reading from Isaiah, Psalm 23, and Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Feast.
Isaiah assures the people of Israel that something good lies ahead. God has something marvelous in store for them. But how can he possibly describe it? Well, it is like a great victory feast. But unlike a normal victory feast, to which only the victors are invited, everyone is invited to this feast! “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food.” And let’s not forget the exceptional wine! Now, what is the great victory that is being celebrated? Just this: God has swallowed up death forever.
Psalm 23 reprises the metaphor of a banquet. Again the banquet is a victory feast. (But here, it seems that the losers are not invited.) God prepares a banquet table for us in the presence of our persecutors and tormentors. And there is so much wine being poured that the cups overflow onto the table. One thing is clear: we will never again be hungry or thirsty.
Again, in the Gospel reading from Matthew, we get the image of a banquet. Jesus, while arguing with the chief priests and Pharisees of Jerusalem, attempts to describe the Kingdom of Heaven by using an allegory about a royal wedding banquet. The key to understanding any allegory is to know what each person, place, and thing in the story represents. In a sense, allegories are written in code. This particular allegory is quite complicated. So, let me try to decode it for you.
There is a Chinese proverb: “It is better to be a dog in a peaceful time than to be a human being in a period of chaos.” Well, folks, like it or not, we are human beings in a period of chaos. Two weeks ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a right-wing rally. American Nazis marched in the streets carrying torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” These “very fine people,” as the President called them, wish to rid the country of anyone who is not a white heterosexual of pure European descent. As you know, a woman was murdered by one of those American Nazis, and many other innocent people were injured.
Based on the Bible readings we have heard recently, you might think we were in the season of Epiphany. Last Sunday, we had two accounts of divine epiphanies, one to Moses and one to Jesus’ inner circle. Today, we get another two epiphany stories, one to the prophet Elijah and one to a boatload of Jesus’ disciples.
Let me start out by setting the scene for the epiphany to Elijah. Elijah had bested the prophets of the pagan god Ba’al in a contest and ordered the losers in the contest to be executed. Queen Jezebel, in turn, ordered that Elijah be executed. He ran away to a cave on Mount Horeb to hide and to bemoan his fate.
There, in that cave, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord asking him what he is doing hiding in a cave. Elijah complains that he is the last faithful Israelite left in the land and is now under a sentence of death. The Lord then instructs Elijah to go out onto the mountain and await his appearance. Here is where things get really interesting! Instead of instantly obeying, Elijah waits in the cave for a sign. First, there is a great wind. Elijah stays put. Then, there is an earthquake. Elijah stays put. Then, there is a great fire. Elijah stays put. In each case, we are told, the Lord was not to be found in these terrifying phenomena. Last but not least, there is the faintest of whispers, the merest of murmurs. At long last, Elijah leaves the cave to meet with the Lord, rightly discerning that the Lord has finally arrived. We are told that he covers his eyes with his cloak, lest he be struck dead by the sight of the Lord’s face. Outside that cave on Mount Horeb, the Lord asks Elijah the very same question he had asked before. And again, Elijah gives the very same answer. It is as if he has learned nothing about the power of the Lord! He is still afraid. He is still discouraged. He is still bone-weary. At this point, the Lord shows him mercy, allowing him to retire after he has trained up a successor.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord. It is one of a very few feasts that are of such importance that they take precedence over a Sunday. In the appointed readings, we hear about two epiphanies. First, we hear about a very early epiphany to Moses on Mount Sinai—the prototypical mountaintop experience, you might say. Then we hear St. Peter’s brief recollection of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Finally, we hear a somewhat fuller account of the Transfiguration excerpted from Luke’s Gospel.
In that account, Jesus is transfigured on the top of Mount Tabor in the presence of the three disciples who formed his inner circle: Peter, John, and James. And these select few are granted a vision of the Uncreated Light of God, a glimpse of Jesus’ hidden glory. We are told that his face, and even his clothing, emitted a dazzling light, just as Moses’ face shone when he came down from Mount Sinai. The three disciples see Jesus talking with two famous figures from the Hebrew Bible, Moses and Elijah, with Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets. Their appearance confirms to the three disciples that Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. He is, in fact, the long-awaited Messiah, foretold in Holy Scripture. He is, in fact, the Light of the World.
Four days ago, June Foray died at the age of 99. You probably don’t recognize her name, but you just might recognize her voice—at least if you are of a certain age! You see, she was the voice of a whole host of cartoon characters in “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” which was popular when I was a child. I bring this up for a couple of reasons. First, I was particularly fond of that cartoon. And second, “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” gives us some insight into today’s Gospel. You see, a regular feature of that cartoon was a segment called “Fractured Fairy Tales.” In it, they would retell a well-known fairy tale, but then give it an unexpected twist. You just never knew how the “fractured fairy tale” was going to end. I think that Jesus’ parables are like the fractured fairy tales of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” They all have some kind of twist to them.
Consider the well-known parable of the mustard seed. We are told that someone planted a mustard seed in his field, which according to the parable is the smallest of all seeds. But in reality, the orchid seed is smaller than the mustard seed. Next, we are told that the mustard seed grows into a tree and the birds of the air nest in its branches. This is even more problematic than the error about the mustard seed’s size. For mustard bushes simply don’t grow to the size of trees, and the branches are too flimsy to support bird nests. So what are we to make of this impossible parable? Here’s what I think: Jesus knew very well that mustard bushes weren’t trees, but he wanted his audience to suspend their disbelief for a moment…to imagine the impossible. For if we can imagine that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds and then imagine that it can grow into a large tree and provide nesting for birds, then and only then are we ready to imagine what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
Some 2000 years ago, in a backwater of the Roman Empire, something happened that changed the world. On the first Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth was executed on a cross. On the first Holy Saturday, he was buried in a borrowed tomb. And then on the first Easter Day, he was raised from the dead, as a sign of God’s love for his Son—and for us. For we are told that if we have faith in God’s saving love, we too will be raised from the dead. That in a nutshell is the Easter message.
But faith is such a tricky matter! If we watch the news coming out of Syria or Egypt or Russia or Sweden, it is ever so easy to believe in Good Friday. It is easy to believe that the world would torture and kill a gentle man whose only wrong was to teach God’s love. It is easy to believe the Holy Saturday message that this man of peace lay dead and buried. But it is harder to believe in the Easter message, that sin and death did not—and do not—get the last word.
We may imagine that ours is the first generation of doubters, but that just isn’t the case. St. John wrote the Gospel account of the Resurrection that we heard proclaimed today for one reason and one reason only: that doubters of every generation might know the truth about what God did on that first Easter Day and, believing that truth, might have eternal life. Of all the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, John’s is the most vivid and detailed—and the most convincing! In the midst of the miraculous, we get real, believable portrayals of how various disciples of Jesus reacted both to his death and to the mystery of the empty tomb.
The two boys, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, upon hearing that Jesus’ body has gone missing from the tomb, compete in a footrace to see who will get there first. The Beloved Disciple wins, but then chickens out, letting Peter be the first to enter the empty tomb. The Beloved Disciple believes, even though he doesn’t understand, while Peter is just plain confused. The impatient boys head home. And because of their impatience, they miss out on a miracle.
Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent. Traditionally, it is called Laetare Sunday from the Latin word for “rejoice.” On this Sunday, there is a lightening of the penitential austerity of Lent, and in some parishes, the celebrant wears pink vestments to mark this change. Since I’m not overly fond of pink, I’ve decided to stick with violet. However, in keeping with the lessening of our penitence, you will get a rather jaunty spiritual for the communion anthem.
Now let’s turn to Chapter 9 of John’s Gospel and the story of the man born blind. The story opens with Jesus’ disciples asking him whose sin was the cause of the man’s blindness, his or his parents. It seems a strange question to our ears. I doubt that most people today believe that their sins will be visited on their offspring. But in Jesus’ day, this idea was still prevalent. That explains the possibility of his blindness being due to his parents’ sin. But how on earth could his blindness be due to his sin, if he was born blind? The answer, of course, is that he must have sinned in the womb. According to Jewish tradition, this was possible. For example, if the mother worshiped an idol while pregnant, the fetus was considered guilty of idolatry as well.
In any case, Jesus dismisses both possibilities. The man’s blindness was due neither to his parents’ sin nor to his own. Instead, Jesus says, “He was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.” The Greek here is ambiguous. It can be translated “He was born blind in order that God’s work might be revealed in him,” implying that his blindness was part of God’s purpose. Or it can be translated “He was born blind, and as a result, God’s works will be revealed in him.” Here, there is no implication that God willed his blindness, only that good will now come of it. Needless to say, I prefer the latter translation. I prefer to think that God was pleased to bring good from a bad situation that he had not willed, rather than that God actually willed the bad in order to bring about the good. Continue reading →
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the story of the Transfiguration completes the season by bringing us back full circle to the theme of manifestation. (As you may know, the English word epiphany derives from the Greek word for manifestation.) The season started on the Feast of the Epiphany with the story of the Magi, symbolizing the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Today’s Gospel story deals with another epiphany, the divine manifestation of Christ to his three closest disciples.
This year, we hear Matthew’s account. And in some ways, his version is the least difficult. In the other accounts, it’s not clear how we are meant to understand this story. Is it real? Is it describing something factual that any bystander would have been able to witness? Matthew’s Gospel helps us here. In this Gospel, Jesus himself refers to what has occurred as a “vision.” Is it real? Yes, but on a level of reality that transcends the everyday. Would any bystander who was at hand have been able to witness this event? Maybe not. Divine visions often belong to the realm of private mystical experience.
Given that the Transfiguration story is a vision, we should not be surprised by the occurrence of symbolism that requires interpretation. And we find such symbolism in the very first words of the account. The Gospel reading starts by telling us that six days after the Confession of Peter, Jesus takes his three closest disciples to a mountain top. Now in the Old Testament, many numbers had special numerological significance. But 6 isn’t one of them. There is only one place where the number 6 has a special significance—in the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai that we heard read in the first reading. For six days, a cloud covered Mt. Sinai; on the seventh day, God spoke to Moses from the cloud. In the story of the Transfiguration, the very timing of the event has symbolic significance. It hints that what is about to happen is as momentous as the giving of the Law to Moses.