Jesus on Paying Taxes: A Deft Navigation of Empire and Kingdom

[They asked Jesus], ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said… ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:17-22)

At first, it all seems tidy and efficient, does it not? 

During a time when the Jewish people lived under the weight of an often oppressive and corrupt Roman system of taxation (which would have required them to pay large sums of money to the very empire whose rule was a daily affront to their theological sensibilities), Jesus is asked a straightforward question about tax responsibilities as they relate to the faith community. Jesus, after asking to see a Roman coin and pointing out to the people the likeness and title of the emperor imprinted upon it, responds succinctly: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Easy and clean, right? Jesus is defining an organized set of compartments. “Here’s your citizen compartment over here, and there’s your faith compartment over there. This part of your life is your obligation to the empire, and that part of your life is your commitment to God.” Problem solved. Next!

But, hold on for a minute. Think with me about the deeper layers of this moment of Scripture.

If Jesus’ response had been nothing more than a practical reinforcement of tidy social compartments (as in “Just go ahead and pay your taxes and be a good citizen—and don’t forget to pray!”), it would hardly have generated amazement from the questioners. And amazement, says the Scripture, is precisely what Jesus’ response inspired.

It compels us to ask the question—What was so amazing about Jesus’ response?

Perhaps part of the questioners’ amazement had to do the fact that the question itself was designed to draw Jesus into a conceptual no-win scenario. If, for example, Jesus had simply said, “Yes, by all means, pay your taxes to the empire,” he would have alienated a large portion of the Jewish community that had regularly experienced the exploitive nature of Roman taxation and that would have been looking for something more than institutional compliance from Jesus. Likewise, if Jesus had answered, “Absolutely not—Don’t give a single coin to this twisted empire,” he would have quickly been charged with sedition and likely arrested, which would have brought his earthly ministry to closure before its time.

Jesus offers neither of these responses to the question. Instead, he expands the landscape of the question in a manner that invites the questioners (and listeners nearby) to shift their focus from taxation to theology—from the emperor and his tax laws to God and God’s perfect sovereignty.

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

In order to appreciate the nuance of Jesus’ response, ponder this: What, ultimately, belongs to the emperor? In fact, what truly “belongs” to any emperor?

In a word, nothing.

Every emperor, ruler, monarch, prime minister, or president who has ever lived (including the one Jesus references) holds authority and power for a season, but eventually returns to dust, as does his or her illusions of control and ownership. What, then, does this Roman Emperor (to whom Jesus refers) own today, and what belongs to him?

Nothing.

By contrast, what belongs to God?

In a word, everything.

Our coins and our capabilities. Our accumulated resources and our well-developed skill sets. Our deepest allegiance and our very lives. All of what we have and all of what we are is looked upon rightly only when it is seen as being under the proprietorship and dominion of the One about whom the Psalmist writes these words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein”  (Psalm 24:1). In theological terms, what emperor could ever claim rightful ownership over a person’s taxes when the emperor’s very breath is breathed only by the sheer grace of the Creator?

With this perspective in mind, listen to Jesus’ response to the question once again, and picture how someone with strong convictions about God’s sovereignty might have interpreted it:

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

It is less of an answer to the question about taxes and more of a theological statement about who God is and who the emperor is. “Wait,” Jesus seems to be saying, “Not so fast. You are looking to force me into the trap of a straightforward answer. But try this response on for size: Go ahead and give to the emperor what ‘belongs’ to the emperor. Just don’t forget to render to God all the things over which God has rightful claim!”

Any Roman official within earshot might have muttered, “Well, at least he didn’t tell people NOT to pay taxes.”

Likewise, any person of faith might have heard in Jesus’ words nothing less than a clever affirmation of several truths: that, in the end, everything is God’s and nothing is Caesar’s; that even a tax payment comes under God’s holy proprietorship long before its absorption into the empire’s machinery; and that, even if a Jewish person pays taxes to Rome to preserve a necessary peace, s/he does so, not because the tax belongs to the emperor, but because both the taxpayer and the emperor belong to God.

What, then, do we find in this “deeper-than-we-may-have-thought” portion of Scripture? 

We find a Jesus who can simultaneously avoid a conceptual trap while at the same time calling people to grander narratives. 

We find an affirmation of the truth that any tax we pay, any vote we cast, and any allegiance we pledge to a flag is an act of God-given conviction and not the rightful property of any empire.

Most of all, we find a glimpse of a Kingdom where the reign of God in a human life defines a soul far more than an empire ever could and where God’s sovereignty over all things makes even an oppressive system of taxation seem temporarily bearable.

No wonder the questioners “were amazed…and went away.”

There may be truth in this Scripture that Christ-followers would do well to embrace or re-embrace in 2020, especially during a season that tempts us so relentlessly to align with “the empire” (in one way or another) with a fervor that borders on idolatry and a zeal that distorts the priorities of a Jesus-shaped life.

Thank you for traveling deeply into this moment of Scripture with me. I hope that it was worth the trip.

Jesus, a Canaanite Woman, and an Expanded Vision of the Kingdom of God

crumby-dog-2

 (Artwork: “The One with the Crumby Dog” by Ally Barrett)

The Lectionary Gospel for this weekend (August 16, 2020) is Matthew 15:21-28. It is a portion of Scripture in which Jesus finds himself confronted with a desperate and terrified Gentile mother whose daughter is “tormented by a demon.”

Interestingly, the same story is recorded in Mark 7:24-30. The primary editorial difference in the two iterations of the story is that, in Mark’s Gospel, the woman is a Syrophoenician, and in Matthew’s Gospel, she is a Canaanite. The common racial/sociological/religious denominator, however, remains intact in both versions of the encounter: This desperate mother is a non-Jewish female, meaning that she faces a two-fold dynamic that many in her social milieu would have been happy to highlight. First, she was a Gentile—a non-Jewish person—in a world where racial and religious categories were clearly defined, widely recognized, and fiercely maintained. And, second, she was a woman—a non-male—in a world where gender defined both social positioning and agency.

In the story, the Gentile woman begs Jesus to provide deliverance and healing for her daughter. Jesus, at first, ignores her, offering her the pain of agonizing silence in the midst of her maternal anguish. Had she expected the silence? Perhaps. After all, her gender, race, and religious identification were all wrong for the scenario. She was a non-Jewish woman, living on the other side of a covenant community’s line of demarcation. It may have been that Jesus’ silence was all too familiar to her, like a stale but recognizable air that she had to breathe in yet again.

The disciples, no doubt taking their cue from Jesus’ initial silence, implore him to send her away. It is the nature of discrimination, I suppose, to identify the outsider, label her, and work for her dismissal. This is precisely what the disciples do: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” We do not normally like to think of the disciples of Jesus as perpetuators of discrimination or rejection. But discrimination and rejection are exactly the response that they offer to this hurting woman.

Those of you who are parents, imagine being treated so dismissively and disrespectfully if you were seeking help for your hurting or troubled child. Allow the pain of that imagined situation to become one of the hermeneutics that you bring to this Scripture.

But, no worries, right? Because Jesus is there. Surely Jesus will immediately rebuke the disciples for their discriminatory proclivities and hard-heartedness. Surely Jesus will immediately speak up for this hurting woman, thereby redeeming her suffering and restoring her beloved daughter to health. Surely Jesus will quickly manifest the love of God’s heart toward this woman and her daughter. Right?

Well, not exactly. At least not immediately.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus says to the woman when he finally emerges from his initial silence. (Translation: “I was sent only to a particular people, and I’m afraid that you and your daughter are not a part of the people I was sent to save.”)

Again, utilize your imagination so that the gravity of this moment is not too quickly sidestepped. Ponder what it would feel like to be met with abject rejection from a healer about whom you have heard so much, simply because you were not a part of his preestablished theological itinerary.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The woman, stunningly, refuses to leave. She kneels, daring to show respect and reverence in the face of abject rejection. Then she speaks, with an even greater sense of urgency: “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds to her by moving from the already-articulated rejection to a pointed insult: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Translation: “Since I was sent specifically to the Jewish people, it would be inappropriate to take their designated salvation and offer it to ‘dogs’ like you and your daughter.”)

By the way, I am not exaggerating or distorting the text. This is Jesus. The One whom Christians embrace as Messiah. The One in whom the fulness of God was pleased to dwell. The One who gave his life for the world but who, in this moment, seemingly dismisses and insults a heartbroken woman who is kneeling before him on behalf of her hurting daughter.

What would you have done if you were the woman who had just been called a “dog” by the healer from whom she had come to seek help? Personally, I probably would have been looking for a quick exit out of the encounter. If the rejection had not already inspired me to head for the door, the insult would have completed the task. Personal dignity is at stake here, not to mention the dignity of her daughter. This woman’s sense of urgency, however, seems to be far greater than her vulnerability to rejection. Instead of leaving the presence of the man who had just insulted her, she finds her voice and speaks directly into the insult: “Perhaps you are right,” she essentially says to Jesus. “Perhaps I am just a dog. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Remarkable, is it not? This Gentile woman, dismissed by the disciples, insulted by Jesus, somehow finds her voice, pushing back against the very insult that still permeated the air around her. She takes hold of the imagery that Jesus places before her and expands it so that she and her daughter might have a place in it: “Perhaps you are right, Jesus. Maybe I am lowly in the scheme of things. But do not even lowly animals deserve some crumbs and scraps from the table so that they do not starve?”

When Jesus recognizes that he has been met heart to heart and word for word by this woman whose determination seems to be every bit as deep as her concern for her daughter, he transitions from rejection to embrace, from insult to affirmation: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” We are told that, instantly, the woman’s daughter is healed.

Thanks be to God for the miraculous healing and the transformational grace of Jesus that it illuminates! But, what about the strange and painful journey it took to get there? Yes, Jesus ultimately restored the woman’s daughter to health. But what do we do with a Jesus who initially ignores, rejects, and insults?

Like many of you, I have experienced several sermons that have taken great pains to tidy up this moment of Scripture. I have probably even preached some of those sermons. “Jesus was only testing the woman, helping her to arrive at a faith response that she would not have been able to generate had he not put her through rejection and insult.” Or, “Jesus intended to heal the daughter all along. He simply had to drive the woman into a deeper desperation before the healing could be fully realized.” Or, “Jesus didn’t really mean the rejection or the insult. He was simply helping the woman to access a deeper sense of belief in the healing power of God.”

Perhaps one or all of these interpretations is accurate. Perhaps Jesus was simply leading the woman into a painful but important test, helping her to join him on the sacred ground upon which he is already standing. If you embrace such a reading of the text, I certainly will not divide with you over it.

What must be taken seriously, though, is that the text itself does not suggest such an interpretation. Nor does the text itself imply that Jesus was offering to this woman something other than an authentic, if spontaneous, response. Beyond this, even if this were a test to which Jesus was subjecting the woman, would it lessen our discomfort at all to think of Jesus testing a suffering woman by means of a rejection and an insult that would have seemed all too real to her, even if they were not “real” to Jesus?

When we think of Jesus’ Incarnation, his mystical journey into human flesh, we tend to make some assumptions. We sometimes assume, for example, that, as the Son of God, Jesus came into the world already holding the totality of his Father’s expansive and comprehensive worldview. We assume that Jesus never had to experience any growth, any change, or any development. If that is the theological assumption with which one approaches this Biblical story, the only alternative is to conclude that Jesus’ dismissive insult toward the woman is indeed nothing more than an elaborate, albeit hurtful, test, offered en route to his hidden and redemptive agenda.

But, what if (and, please, bear with my prayerful exploration)…

…What if the Son of God came into this world fully prepared to expand his vision and understanding of his own ministry? What if Jesus’ Incarnation is not only a glorious event (which we rightly celebrate at Christmas) but also a progressive journey, impacted and shaped by every one of his encounters, including this encounter with a Gentile woman? What if the Word becoming flesh required the vulnerability of growth—vulnerability in which a Jesus (as human as he was divine) allowed himself to learn through experience that the Kingdom his Father sent him to inaugurate was even more expansive than what his disciples (and perhaps the Gospel writers) had originally believed?

In other words, what if Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is less of a calculated test and more of a kairotic moment in which Jesus experiences a genuine and existential confirmation of a more expansive vision for his mission and purpose, triggered by the brave prompting of a Gentile woman who simply would not go away?

If that were at all the case, then Jesus, in his stark encounter with this desperate woman, calls to mind the very church that is built upon his Lordship and governed by it. Every day, the church, like Jesus with the woman, is confronted with the challenge of reconceptualizing pre-conceived categories in order to manifest more fully a divine love and grace that stubbornly resist categorization. The church’s long and ugly history with racism and bigotry bears witness to how frequently we have been content with distorted vision and malformed worldviews. In practice, the church has often bailed out of the story at the point of insult and rejection instead of joining Jesus in the work of embracing the “other” and seeing the world differently.

It makes me all the more grateful for this Canaanite woman, who dared to see past the boundaries that the people in her world were all too eager to enforce. Her voice speaks God’s very heart into a painful moment, reminding even Jesus of what he was coming to understand more clearly in her presence—that there are no mutts in God’s ever-expanding Kingdom (or Kin-dom) and that no one is excluded in the salvation that God is envisioning for this world and offering to it.

If you have read this far, you might be at the point of saying, “No way! The Jesus I love and worship wouldn’t have needed to change or grow. It was just a difficult test for a woman who needed precisely the hard push that Jesus was providing.”

Perhaps you are right.

Personally, I am intrigued and strangely comforted by the thought of a Jesus who loved us enough to enter fully into every portion of the vulnerability of the human condition—including the vulnerability of having to grow and learn. And, when Jesus found himself confronted with the possibility that his mission was even more wide-ranging than the people around him had initially assumed, he did not blink or back down. Instead, he stepped beyond the well-enforced boundaries in order to bring salvation to a Canaanite woman and the Gentile world that she represented.

I am praying that the church never forgets who its Jesus is, especially in an age when the work of dismantling sins like racism and bigotry is more urgent than ever. Like Jesus, may his church dare to engage with the “Canaanite women” (marginalized and desperate souls) who are standing somewhere nearby, wondering if there are any “crumbs” for them from the tables we hold sacred. Like Jesus, may we hear the Word of God in their voices. May we sense the calling of God in their outcries. And may we discern the very face of God in their freshly illuminated countenances.

Over the Top and Under the Knife

Chagall, Abraham ready to sacrifice his Son dv 1960-6

If you are interested at all in wrestling with Scripture, I invite you to spend some time with me in the struggle. It will take some time. Struggles normally do.

I have been reflecting recently on this weekend’s lectionary reading from the Old Testament—the harrowing story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14).

While God’s saving intervention at the end of the story comes as an enormous relief, the fact that God calls for such a sacrifice at the beginning of the story remains a deeply troubling reality. Who would ever want to worship a God like this—a deity who demands the ritualistic killing of a beloved child?

We moderns, who are inclined to rebel bitterly against even the simplest of resented inconveniences (such as wearing a mask to preserve the common good) blanch at the story. A God who demands extreme sacrifice to the point of suffering and grief?! Preposterous! Absurd! Unacceptable! A violation of our rights!

But perhaps therein lies the revelation. Perhaps the entire point of the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is to provide a confrontation with a scandalous and outlandish God who dares to demand a trust that accommodates the obliteration of our preferred courses of action and a faith that abides even when what we love most is taken away from us.

Yes, God intervenes. Yes, God ultimately prevents the sacrifice (thereby revealing that our God, unlike many of the deities worshiped in that time, will never require the ritualistic destruction of our families—a truth that contemporary church leaders would do well to remember in regard to their own families). But Isaac’s father, Abraham, does not know the end of the story at the story’s beginning. He only knows that he is being called by God to do the unthinkable and to trust God enough to believe that even the grief of losing a child will not take him beyond what God can heal, redeem, and restore.

If this Abraham/Isaac moment were the only moment of Scripture that we had, we would be in serious theological trouble. Thankfully, the rest of the Bible provides for us the full truth about God’s heart. God is neither a cruel and ruthless fiend who devises our distress nor a sadistic tyrant who orchestrates our misery. Rather, God is the Provider of deliverance and redemption; the Author of good and salvific stories; the One who, in the fullness of time, stepped out of eternity and into our history in Jesus; the Savior who walks and weeps with us, who breaks and bleeds with us, and who crawled onto a Roman tree in order to make the very sacrifice that he would not allow Abraham to make.

This is our God.

And, when we interpret the Abraham/Isaac chapter through the lens of the entire God-Story, we can live with the chapter’s pain and preposterousness. Why? Because we know God’s trustworthy heart. So did Abraham. So did our Jewish siblings who maintained their faith during the barbaric and dehumanizing horrors of the Holocaust. So did our African-American siblings who sang their faith through decades of slavery. So do we, even when it seems like God has forgotten about us or taken away what we love the most.

We know God’s heart.

It is a heart that holds us in our most traumatic anguish.

It is a heart that loves us relentlessly, weeping over our suffering, even as we are called upon to endure it.

It is a heart that demands nothing less than the holistic surrender of everything we have, not because God is a tyrannical megalomaniac, but because God knows that surrender is the only avenue to the saving intimacy that God longs to experience with us.

It is a heart that asks us to remember that, even in our most debilitating and heartbreaking moments of loss or sacrifice, we live in the tender embrace of a devoted Parent who will not allow the knife to be the end of the story.

Truth be told, it is easy to dismiss or demonize God in the story, just as it is easy to dismiss or demonize God in the midst of our most unfair hardships and sacrifices. Then again, perhaps God understands what we do not—that, in a world of radically disordered priorities, only a willingness to sacrifice and surrender will reorient our scattered minds and hearts to the things of God.

(Artwork: “The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Marc Chagall)

Redemptive Weeping and Wondrous Resurrection

jesus-wept-jordan-douglas

(Artwork: “Jesus Wept” by Jordan Douglas)

 

Some preachers this weekend will focus on John 11:1-45.

Check out the story. It is a stunning illumination of the heart of God.

Lazarus.

Death.

Weeping.

Jesus.

Life.

What does Jesus do when he finds out that his friend Lazarus has died? Well, to put it as simply as Scripture does, he weeps. We weeps over the sadness that death causes. He weeps over death’s unparalleled ability to silence voices and to break hearts. Jesus…weeps.

And please, do not overlook or minimize these tears. The tears matter. They reveal the nature of the Divine Heart.

Jesus, after all, is the incarnation of the God we cannot see. In him, we are told, all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. If we have a Jesus who weeps, then we must also have a God who weeps. Not a God who orchestrates misery and then watches our pain and death and cancer and quarantines from a safe emotional distance, but a God who enters with us into the depths of our suffering and who allows divine tears to commingle with ours.

That is why the tears of Jesus are so vital to our understanding of God. They saturate our deepest consciousness with the compassion of a God who takes everything we experience personally and feels it all deeply. Everything. In Jesus’ tears, we find a God who has invested so completely and so passionately in our journey that this God cannot help but internalize the joys and sorrows of our vulnerable pilgrimage. When we grieve, the heart of God grieves. When we suffer, the heart of God suffers. When we weep, the heart of God weeps.

Where is God in the face of COVID-19? God is right here, in the mess of it all. God is in the anguish of the addict who is desperate for community in a time of social distancing. God is in the despair of the grieving widow who cannot experience the physical embrace of loved ones in her loss. God is in the fear and dread of those vulnerable souls who have grown weak and weary with a sense of isolation.

Where is God? God is right here. Closer to us than our own breathing, more intimately connected to us than our own thoughts. That is who God is—a vulnerable, scandalously-intimate, deeply-feeling Parent who does not cause our suffering but who enters it, embraces it, and weeps over it.

But the weeping is not the end of the story. It never is with Jesus.

“Lazarus, come out,” Jesus shouts. And the dead man, leaving death behind, comes out.

Yes, God tenderly weeps. But this God also resurrects and restores! It is the story of Lazarus. The story of Jesus. The story of the church. The story of a hurting people who are heartbroken over a nation quarantined.

God is weeping, and God is resurrecting! Weeping over our devastation, but resurrecting us into bold new hope. Weeping over our sorrow, but resurrecting us into unexpected joy. Weeping over the rhythms of death, but resurrecting us into a grand and glorious newness of life.

So, be encouraged, friends. You are not weeping alone. There is One who cares about your pain more than you do who embraces you in the midst of it and weeps with you in a lifechanging intimacy. Best of all, when the weeping is finished, this same One will bring you forth into a new life where viruses lose their governance and where death itself relinquishes its authority.

Seriously, check out the story. It is a stunning illumination of the heart of God.

Lazarus.

Death.

Weeping.

Jesus.

Life.

A Blind Man, COVID-19, and the Good Heart of God

The Healing of the Man born Blind. Museum: PRIVATE COLLECTION. Author: Russian icon.

This weekend, many of my preacher friends (in their online and technologically reconfigured worship experiences) will be focusing on a pivotal moment in John’s gospel (John 9:1-41).

Jesus and his disciples encounter a blind man—blind from birth, in fact. The disciples ask a question that emerges from their long-established and deeply-held way of looking at the world:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The question reveals a starkly equational way of looking at things, and the equation goes like this: If people experience hardship or suffering (like blindness; or cancer; or Alzheimer’s disease; or MS; or natural disasters; or COVID-19), it must be the result of God’s punishment for some transgression. In this equation, the man’s blindness is not merely the result of malfunctioning eyes. It is an existential penalty assigned by God to a sinner. Likewise, according to the equation, something like COVID-19 becomes the blunt instrument of a God with a substantial ax to grind.

The disciples were not halfwits, by the way. They were espousers of a theological system that was undergirded by a long and painful history. (Check out the chapters of the Old Testament book of Job if you need evidence of that history.) In this worldview, suffering has to have an initiator, a causal agent. And that causal agent is none other than our sovereign God, orchestrating suffering as a means of divine punishment for the sins of the past and present. The disciples, in this moment of Scripture, are not asking IF the man’s blindness is a punishment. They are simply trying to identify the guilty party:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question is something beyond what the disciples are prepared to envision or receive in the moment. It is the kind of disruptive response that begins to alter the trajectory of the church’s understanding of the world and its suffering:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus says. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

What?! What are you saying, Jesus?! Are you asking us to believe that human suffering is something other than divine punishment? Are you suggesting that this man’s blindness—or this woman’s cancer; or this child’s heart condition; or this world’s coronavirus—is something other than the work of a retributive deity? Are you really putting before us the idea that our suffering is not a penalty that God initiates but rather a brokenness that God willingly engages and eagerly redeems?

Jesus eventually heals the blind man, to be sure. But I do not believe that the blind man’s healing is the most profound miracle in this story. Rather, I believe that the most profound miracle is Jesus’ transformation of the disciples’ inadequate system of thought. Jesus incarnates a new worldview in their very presence—a worldview in which blindness and cancer and coronavirus and tornadoes and hurricanes can be looked upon, not as God’s means of punishment, but as the groaning of a world that yearns for a restoration not yet realized. In such moments of suffering, God is not the orchestrator of our hardship but its redeemer—not a punisher with questionable aim, but a compassionate Parent who vulnerably walks alongside a hurting human family, all the while providing the kind of healing and sustenance that bear witness to the goodness of the Divine Heart.

My sense is that people are asking deep and important theological questions about God’s relationship to COVID-19 (whether they realize it or not). I hope that the church will respond to those questions, not with manufactured platitudes and inadequate equations, but with the assurance of God’s good and gracious heart—a heart that heals suffering instead of causing it; a heart that will not rest until every portion of suffering finds its redemption.

The Blessing Beyond the Scandal

1*gzGCI__36We_9kzbhsZcWw

I had planned to read more of Matthew’s Gospel than I did this morning.

One  verse, though, unexpectedly captured my contemplation in a manner that prevented me from reading past it. It was this verse:

“[Jesus said] And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6).

The phrase “takes no offense” is one way of translating the Greek word σκανδαλισθῇ (skandalisthē), from which we derive the English word “scandal.” (This verse, by the way, is part of the reason why I am so often inclined to describe the grace of God as “scandalous.” It is a grace that can offend the sensibilities of those who wish to evaluate it by typical metrics.)

There it is, then. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at Jesus and who does not see his countercultural priorities as a stumbling block. The richest blessing of God, in other words, is to be found in a refusal to be scandalized, offended, or put off either by the grace that Jesus incarnated or the discipleship into which he calls us to live.

Matthew 11:6 took me back in my memory to a small newsstand in Grove City, Pennsylvania where I would often stop with my mother after church to pick up a Pittsburgh Press for my dad and a comic book for me. As we walked into the newsstand, I would be carrying both a Bible (which I had just spent time reading at church) and a spirit of eagerness, both of which were weighty in their own ways. On our walk home from the newsstand, as I carried both the Bible and the new comic book at my side with one hand, I remember intentionally putting the comic book on the outside and the Bible on the inside (closer to my leg) so that the Bible would not be easily visible to anyone who saw me.

Why? Why would I make such a choice? And why do I remember it so clearly today?

I am not certain that I can answer those questions definitively. But I suspect that my effort to conceal the Bible had something to do with the fact that, even as a 7-year-old, I had already learned that there was something scandalous about the life of Christian faith and the Way of Jesus. Even at that age, I had learned that risky love is often ridiculed; that the church is often perceived as foolish; that peacemakers are often marginalized; that pursuing a holiness that honors God is often seen as weakness; and that those who walk alongside outcasts are often criticized or dismissed.

Even at that age, I had come to understand that it was far safer to hide my deepest Story beneath a comic book. 

Decades later, I am less inclined to hide my Bible. This morning’s experience with Matthew 11:6, however, compels me to consider the very real possibility that I am concealing my discipleship with a more sophisticated methodology. How often, for example, do I hide the work of speaking truth to power behind a safer contentment with maintaining a superficial peace? How frequently do I  conceal much-needed repentance behind a narcissistic self-righteousness? On how many occasions do I bury the often-subversive priorities of Jesus beneath the more comfortable impulses of my personal preferences?

I may no longer conceal the Bible behind a comic book (at least on most days). And yet, I cannot help but wonder how frequently I am so “offended” or put off by Jesus’ call to a scandalous and comprehensive discipleship that I choose to hide the life to which he calls me behind the life that I am content to live.

Still, God is patient and gracious with me and makes certain that these words of Scripture resonate with power in my consciousness:

“Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

I long to experience that blessedness more deeply this Advent. It is the blessedness of a grace that brings beautiful new life to those who refuse to be offended or scandalized by the truth that Jesus illuminates—specifically, the truth that a person’s best achievements and self-reliance are not the means by which we will be saved.

For proud and independent souls like us, such an idea is almost offensive.

Even scandalous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Outraged Jesus

Artwork by Bernadette Lopez)

(Artwork by Bernadette Lopez)

It is an unsettling image, isn’t it?  I am speaking of the image of Jesus cleansing the Jerusalem temple, turning over the tables, and chasing out the moneychangers. Here is how Scripture describes it:

In the temple, he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple…and overturned their tables. (John 2:14-15)

Throughout my years of ministry, whenever people, particularly men, have approached this moment in Scripture, they have often seen it as the one time in the Bible when Jesus became a real “man’s man.” I call it the (Sylvester) Stallonification of Jesus. I once heard a man put it this way in a Bible study:

If I saw this kind of Jesus more often in the Bible—you know, the kind of Jesus who roughs up his enemies instead of telling us to love them all the time—I’d find it a whole lot easier to follow him.

The danger in this sort of thinking, of course, is that it can lead a person to use a Scripture like this to justify his own oafishness and his own bad manners. “Look, Jesus got angry! So can I! Jesus turned over the tables in God’s house, so why can’t I throw the ottoman through the window in MY house!”

What a dreadful thing it is to reduce a Scripture like this to nothing more than a justification of unhealthy anger or a validation of distorted masculinity. Jesus, after all, did not need this moment of dynamic anger to validate his personhood. His wholehearted identity as a man was already fully on display throughout his life and ministry. Never is Jesus any more of a man than when he willingly suffers and dies on a cross for the sake of a fallen world; or when he tenderly weeps over the death of his friend Lazarus; or when he desperately cries over the city of Jerusalem and its sin. Never is Jesus any more of a man than when he welcomes the children to come to him; or when he speaks words of life to a spiritually hurting Samaritan woman beside a water well on a hot afternoon; or when he wraps a towel around his waist and washes his disciples feet as a tangible demonstration of the fact that a new kingdom was in place—a kingdom in which servanthood is valued over power and where humility is valued over advancement.

Jesus’ anger in the temple is not a validation of Jesus’ status as a tough guy. It is rather an indication that some of the accepted rhythms of temple life inspired outrage in the very heart of God—a heart that Jesus represented and incarnated.

At what accepted rhythms was Jesus so angry?

The overarching sin to which Jesus seems to be responding in the temple is not the sin of buying and selling per se. Rather, Jesus seems to be angry about a much bigger issue: specifically, the ease with which people of faith conform to the principles and priorities that govern all the other parts of our fallen world. What does Jesus find when he walks into the temple? He finds business as usual. He finds a superficial (and, presumably, corruptly dehumanizing) commerce between merchant and customer, masking itself as service but fueled by the same kind of interplay that one could find just as easily in the marketplace.

Jesus’ anger reveals his demand that our temples and sanctuaries—both the literal temple of one’s place of worship and the metaphorical temple of the human heart—be transformed through sanctification, in order that they might become settings in which people practice a way of life and community that is unlike anything else the world has to offer. In the sanctified temple, sharing and sacrificial generosity take priority over buying and selling; repentance and forgiveness eclipse manipulation and exploitation; and the shared penchant for profit and pecking order begins to give way to an agapic and Christocentric communion.

Perhaps Jesus’ anger is grounded in his heartbreak over his realization of how frequently God’s people resist the call to function by a different economy, a different set of practices, and a different arrangement of priorities. In the “house of prayer” that God desires and that Jesus came to incarnate, people relate to one another, not as potential buyers and sellers (customers and merchants), but as redeemed spiritual siblings who have been liberated from social and economic hierarchies in order to be able to experience a new and often countercultural engagement (in Greek, “koinonia”).

I am inspired to personalize Jesus’ anger. What about the temple of my heart disheartens Jesus when he walks into it? What about the temple of my life inspires righteous anger in Jesus when he sees how frequently I have settled for attitudes, priorities, and patterns of behavior that dehumanize the very people he loves?

It is not a hateful anger that Jesus practices. It is an anger emerging from his heart of indefatigable love for this fallen world and its misguided people. It is an anger over the very things that should make me angry.

The question is, will I allow Jesus’ righteous anger to inspire manipulative denial or authentic repentance and redirection?

A Prayerful Litany About a Good Shepherd

JN798_LordIsMyShepherd

While preparing to preach on the 23rd Psalm in recent days, I was inspired to create this litany.  Even when praying through the litany on my own in solitude, it helps me to become more deeply available to the beautiful nuances of the Psalmist’s proclamation about the goodness of our Shepherding God.

A Prayer of Centering (based upon Psalm 23)

Leader:  The Lord is my Shepherd.

People:  No, wait!  “Shepherd” is no longer an image that works for us!  It is an outdated reference to a bygone vocation.

Leader:  The Lord is my Shepherd.  I shall not want.

People:  We don’t want to hear about shepherding.  We are proud and self-sufficient people, not pathetic and needy sheep.

Leader:  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures and leadeth me beside still waters.

PeoplePerhaps we are too arrogantly fixated on our own agendas to be led and fed by One who dares to claim the authority of a Shepherd over us.

Leader:  He restoreth my soul.

People:  Now you’re getting personal! Our souls are broken, weary, stained, and scarred.  We long for a restoration that we, on our own, cannot generate.

Leader:  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

People:  Hold on!  We much prefer the smoothly paved roads of convenience to the often-rugged and dauntingly-demanding paths of righteousness.

Leader:  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.

People:  The shadow of death is all around us.  We cannot seem to escape it.  The shadow makes its presence known in the evening news, in shattered lives, and in our private lamentations.  Bring to us a renewed sense of conviction that, because of your steadfast presence, the evil of this shadow will never hold dominion over us, nor will it ever be given the final word to speak.

Leader:  Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

PeopleAlthough we desperately attempt to perpetuate the illusion of self-sufficiency, in our heart of hearts, we know that we are entirely dependent upon the sturdy rod of your guidance and the protective staff of your holistic grace.

Leader:  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.

People:  This is too much for us!  We like to define ourselves by the enemies that we make and keep.  We want you to destroy our enemies, not entertain their presence. Equip us with new eyes, so that even our enemies will begin to look different to us.

Leader:  Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

People:  We have grown weary of living under the anointing of the various oils that we have endeavored to place upon our own heads.  The oil of upward mobility.  The oil of personal achievement.  The oil of self-righteousness.  In these moments of stillness and worship, bring us under the anointing of your Holy Spirit, that the cup of our
life might overflow with the joy of being in right relationship with you.

Leader:  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

PeopleOur life depends upon your goodness.  Our hope depends upon your mercy. Overcome us now, and occupy us inwardly by your Spirit, that our entire life might become your home—a home in which we joyfully and abundantly dwell.

Zestfully Clean!

What do we find in Acts 11:1-18? Many things. An Apostle named Peter. A bitter division between portions of humanity. An unsettling vision of animals, deemed “unclean” by long-obeyed laws, gathered together in a sheet coming down from the sky. Then a voice from heaven, articulating the unthinkable: “Go ahead and embrace these animals. For what I have created to be clean you must not call unclean.”

As I spend time with Peter’s vision, it has never been clearer to me that it is less a vision about animals than it is about people. Divided people. Hurting and broken people. People who have come to believe that they are “unclean” or “unseen” or “untouchable” or “unloved.” The vision is God’s way of announcing to Peter, to the church, and to us, that Jesus has transformed the human network of relationships and reconfigured the “clean/unclean” dynamic so that we are now free to look upon every single person we encounter as a precious and beloved image-bearer of the divine heart whom God created to be (zestfully) clean, whether the person is honoring that cleanness or not.

It is a vision that gives me hope for my life, for a fractured world, and for a divided church. When I am most tempted to demonize, disparage, or dismiss the person on the other side of the issue or argument, or when I am closest to consciously or subconsciously categorizing someone as unworthy of my compassion or attention, Jesus invites me to make the redemptive journey back to Peter’s revolutionary vision and its new way of conceptualizing the world and its people: “What I have created to be clean you must not call unclean.”

vision