September 1, 2016 - Unearned Abundance

After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon,
“Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
Simon said in reply,
“Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.”
When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing.
They signaled to their partners in the other boat
to come to help them.
They came and filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said,
“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Luke 5:1-11

We all know God forgives sins but we can never leave it at that.  We always hedge a little:

God forgives, but you separate yourself from God when you sin.
God forgives, but you have to repent.
God forgives, as long as you believe in Jesus.
Baptism removes sin, but doesn’t remove the sins you commit after that.
Recently, I read an author who insisted that sinful people condemn themselves to hell – they volunteer to be there.

This passage indicates that Peter thought he had to achieve moral perfection to walk with the divine, but he was wrong.  Peter is the recipient of divine abundance despite being incapable of earning even a paltry catch during a whole night of hard work. Paul will affirm the same thing in Romans (5:8) stating that Jesus died for us, “while we were yet sinners.”

God does not seem overly concerned with sin, and yet we consistently make it the centerpiece of faith.

August 31, 2016 - Consolation

At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place.
The crowds went looking for him, and when they came to him, they tried to prevent him from leaving them.
But he said to them, “To the other towns also
I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.”

Luke 4:38-44

This passage is remarkable in that Jesus summarizes his purpose in just a few words - to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God.   Notice that he is evidently proclaiming something that has already been accomplished - not a warning, not a program of moral self-improvement – just a message of consolation so compelling that his listeners didn’t want him to leave.  

Video: Duck Harbor Beach, Wellfleet, Massachusetts

August 29, 2016 - John the Baptist

Herod was the one who had John the Baptist arrested and bound in prison
on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married. 
John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him.

Mark 6:17-29

The contrasts between John and his cousin, Jesus, are remarkable.

John wears a camelhair shirt, eats locusts and requires his disciples to fast and abstain from wine.  John’s disciples pointedly ask why Jesus’s disciples eat and drink so freely (Lk 5:33).  Jesus himself, we are told, drinks so copiously he is considered a drunkard by some.  John’s stridency finally gets him killed in a pretty silly dispute.  He criticizes the Roman-installed governor, Herod, for marrying his sister-in-law and she arranges his execution.  Jesus carefully avoids entanglements with the Roman occupiers and actually winds up pointing to some Roman centurions as examples of righteous Gentiles.     

Jesus both admires John and criticizes him: “Of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is.”  He goes to John to be baptized, and he clearly mourns his death, but Jesus has a different message and finally, while John merely prepared the way, Jesus embodies the Way.

Photo: Herodias by Juan de Flandes (1496)

August 28, 2016 - The Humble will be Exalted

On a Sabbath Jesus went to dine
at the home of one of the leading Pharisees,
and the people there were observing him carefully.

He told a parable to those who had been invited,
noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,
do not recline at table in the place of honor.
A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him,
and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say,
‘Give your place to this man,’
and then you would proceed with embarrassment
to take the lowest place.
Rather, when you are invited,
go and take the lowest place
so that when the host comes to you he may say,
‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’
Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.
For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” 

Luke 14:1 7-11

Its unlikely God became incarnate to offer advice on table manners or the advantages of humility. 

In all likelihood the key to this passage is in the last line: “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  This sounds suspiciously like the theme from last week: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”  

Jesus is again warning that God’s economy of grace is unlike anything we’re used to - and we’re likely to reject it.  We strive to be the most moral - and that is good – but we should not expect to receive a bigger reward than sinners as a result.  

August 19, 2016 - Lord, I Believe.

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus answered, “This man didn’t sin, nor did his parents; but, that the works of God might be revealed in him. I must work the works of him who sent me while it is day. The night is coming, when no one can work.  While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva, anointed the blind man’s eyes with the mud, and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means “Sent”). So he went away, washed, and came back seeing. The neighbors therefore, and those who saw that he was blind before, said, “Isn’t this he who sat and begged?”  Others were saying, “It is he.” Still others were saying, “He looks like him.”
He said, “I am he.”  They therefore were asking him, “How were your eyes opened?”
 He answered, “A man called Jesus made mud, anointed my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went away and washed, and I received sight.”
Then they asked him, “Where is he?”
He said, “I don’t know.”
They brought him who had been blind to the Pharisees.  It was a Sabbath when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  Again therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and I see.”
Some therefore of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because he doesn’t keep the Sabbath.” Others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” There was division among them.  Therefore, they asked the blind man again, “What do you say about him, because he opened your eyes?”
He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews therefore didn’t believe concerning him, that he had been blind, and had received his sight, until they called the parents of him who had received his sight, and asked them, “Is this your son, whom you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
His parents answered them, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but how he now sees, we don’t know; or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. He is of age. Ask him. He will speak for himself.”  His parents said these things because they feared the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that if any man would confess him as Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue.  Therefore his parents said, “He is of age. Ask him.”
So they called the man who was blind a second time, and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.”
He therefore answered, “I don’t know if he is a sinner. One thing I do know: that though I was blind, now I see.”
They said to him again, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
He answered them, “I told you already, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? You don’t also want to become his disciples, do you?”
They insulted him and said, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses. But as for this man, we don’t know where he comes from.”
The man answered them, “How amazing! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God, and does his will, he listens to him. Since the world began it has never been heard of that anyone opened the eyes of someone born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
They answered him, “You were altogether born in sin, and do you teach us?” Then they threw him out.
Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and finding him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of God?”
He answered, “Who is he, Lord, that I may believe in him?”
Jesus said to him, “You have both seen him, and it is he who speaks with you.”
He said, “Lord, I believe!” and he worshiped him.
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, that those who don’t see may see; and that those who see may become blind.”

John 9:1-39

I have generally led an extremely lucky and privileged life, but in at least a couple of instances, I have been decidedly unlucky.  On one occasion, someone stood at the foot of my hospital bed and told me with a raised voice and a wagging finger that I brought my misfortune upon myself.  On another, it came later. They meant to be helpful, but they laid responsibility for my bad luck squarely at my feet.  People don't like to think bad things can happen randomly. They'll make any adjustment to the narrative they need to in order to make every punishment fit a crime.

This passage is perhaps the most beautiful and most illuminating in all of Scripture.  The story is about a man blind from birth.  Jesus’s disciples (his disciples!) assume either the man is responsible for his bad luck or his parents.  They ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  There is no other option in their world view. Bad luck doesn’t exist – just bad karma.  The man's parents hedge under pressure. The Pharisees insist that his responsibility is obvious.  They say, "‘You were altogether born in sin, and do you teach us?’ Then they threw him out.”   

Who  is his only defender?  Who alone affirms that God loves him just as much as anyone else? Who alone contradicts every cultural expectation in his time and ours to defend him?  Who insists that blessed are the sick, blessed are the poor?

Jesus Christ.

Reason enough to be Christian.  

Lord,I believe.

August 23, 2016 - Faith and Religion

Jesus said:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin,
and have neglected the weightier things of the law:
judgment and mercy and fidelity.
But these you should have done, without neglecting the others.  
Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You cleanse the outside of cup and dish,
but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence.
Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup,
so that the outside also may be clean.”

Matthew 23:23-26

The Pharisees are often the arch-villains of the New Testament. But to envision them as invariably evil is just too simple.  St. Paul, whose letters are most often the second reading on Sunday, affirmed that he was born and remained a proud Pharisee (Acts 23:6).  Jesus exhorted his followers to obey the Pharisees and respect their authority, but not to follow their example (Matthew 23:3).  In fact, the Pharisees were quite popular within the Jewish population of Palestine and successful evangelists among Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean (until Christianity ate their lunch).

But Jesus never confused religion with faith. 

Faith is inevitably a personal encounter with God.  Buber’s “I/Thou”, Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith” or “Single One”, and St. Paul’s Damascus road experience all demonstrate that faith does not occur seated in neat rows or standing in an orderly line.  Faith is strictly between the individual and God.

Religion, on the other hand, is the expression of faith in community.   We are a social animal and everything we value we share.  Before the numinous sovereignty of God, we can’t help but experience our “creatureliness” and the mysterium tremendum of His Presence, as Rudolf Otto described it.  If we understand the majesty of God, we naturally want to approach as a group, choreograph our actions, words and songs, and offer our best.  Spirituality without religion is possible, but I suspect it never achieves its full potential.

Jesus did not tangle with the Pharisees and the Sadducees because he preferred certain denominations over others.  He didn’t endorse any particular denomination.  Rather, he objected when people treated religion and faith as synonymous.

Photo: The first chapter of Genesis written on an egg.  Israel Museum

August 21, 2016 - The Last Shall be First

Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”

Luke 13:22-30

The people around Jesus were always pestering him to confirm that they were the favored, the saved, the blessed, the chosen, those who would be permitted to sit at his right and at his left.  They never like his answer.

An often-repeated theme of Scripture is that God forgives all and loves all.  Just as often repeated is the theme that universal salvation is unacceptable to us.  The elder brother is piqued that the prodigal son’s return is celebrated.  The vineyard workers who started at sunrise are upset when those who started at sunset get equal pay.   We marvel that a woman would sweep all day to recover a dime and a shepherd would leave his whole flock to find one lost sheep.  The story of Jonah is not a story about a prophet who refuses to do God's will and gets brought to heel by a whale, but a story of a prophet who wants to reserve God's love for his people and not share it with the Assyrians of Nineveh.  But there is enough of God's love to go around with extra to spare.  It does not have to be rationed, as Jesus and Elisha demonstrate in the stories of multiplication of bread to create abundance from apparent scarcity.[1] 

God loves the arrogant, the greedy, the mean spirited and the unrepentant and that should be ok with us.  As the master says to the unhappy vineyard workers, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Take that which is yours, and go your way. It is my desire to give to this last just as much as to you. Isn’t it lawful for me to do what I want to with what I own?  So the last shall be first." (Matthew 20:13-16) 

In this passage, the inhabitants of Jerusalem's suburbs expect Jesus to confirm that they, not the nasty Gentiles, will be saved.  But he defies their expectations again.  Here he declares that the Gentiles may well be first – a message that had nearly gotten him killed in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30).  Elsewhere he insists the poor will have priority over the rich, the sick will have priority over the healthy, and the spiritless will have priority over the spiritual.[2] At a time when poverty and sickness were thought to be divine retaliation for sin, and wealth and health were a divine blessing to reward good behavior, this was apostasy. 

Universal salvation is really good news, unless you insist salvation must be earned and rationed.

[1] 2 Kings 4:42-44; Mark 6:31-34; Matthew 14:13-21; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15.  
[2] The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-12); The Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-22)

August 18, 2016 - Indiscriminate Love

Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and the elders of the people in parables saying,
“The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who gave a wedding feast for his son.
He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast,
but they refused to come.

A second time he sent other servants, saying,
‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet,
my calves and fattened cattle are killed,
and everything is ready; come to the feast.’
Some ignored the invitation and went away,
one to his farm, another to his business.

Then the king said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready,
but those who were invited were not worthy to come.
Go out, therefore, into the main roads
and invite to the feast whomever you find.’
The servants went out into the streets
and gathered all they found, bad and good alike,
and the hall was filled with guests.

Matthew 22:1

A certain man made a great supper, and he invited many people. He sent out his servant at supper time to tell those who were invited, ‘Come, for everything is ready now.’ They all as one began to make excuses.

The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please have me excused.’  Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I must go try them out. Please have me excused.’
Another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I can’t come.’

The servant came, and told his lord these things. Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor, maimed, blind, and lame.’  The servant said, ‘Lord, it is done as you commanded, and there is still room.’
The lord said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. 

Luke 14:16-23

Matthew’s parable of the wedding feast includes a discordant verse at the end about a wedding guest who failed to wear the appropriate wedding garment and is rejected.  Biblical scholars generally agree that this was a separate story haphazardly attached to the first.

Here, I have reproduced Matthew’s story without the last verse and also Luke’s corresponding story.  Note how meeting a moral standard is not a prerequisite for receiving an invitation.  The “good and the bad alike” are invited.  Those who the theology of the day assumed were sinners and cursed by God – the poor, maimed, blind, and lame – even those with no relationship to the Master at all - are to be compelled to join the feast.  This is a message of totally indiscriminate and universal salvation.  You need serve no purpose nor achieve any goal to receive God’s love. 

August 17, 2016 - The Vineyard

When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,
‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and ending with the first.’
When those who had started about five o’clock came,
each received the usual daily wage.
So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
‘These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’
He said to one of them in reply,
‘My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’

Matthew 20:1-16

This is a classic example of God’s economy of grace. 

Whether we are secular or religious, we generally want people to be rewarded for their good behavior and be punished for their bad behavior.  But that’s not how God’s grace works.  He “makes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust (Mt 5:45)” 

Jesus knows this is not palatable to us.  Time after time he predicted the rejection of his message and his eventual execution. He was not executed by evil men who objected to his advocacy of love, humility, and service to the poor.  It is the idea that faith is not about moral codes that got Jesus killed.   

We should avoid the temptation of thinking that the workers who showed up at five o’clock represent deathbed conversions or last minute repentance.   There is every indication that workers who never show up at all receive the same love.    

August 16, 2016 - The Eye of the Needle

“Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
“Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For men it is impossible, but not for God.
All things are possible for God.”

Matt 19:23, Mark 10:24-27

I admire the apostles’ reaction to Jesus.  They don’t assume that Jesus is condemning only the 'one percent' or the tax bracket immediately above them. Even as itinerant preachers they are more wealthy, healthy and socially accepted than the widows, lepers and Canaanites they are encountering on their way. 

But Jesus’s reference to the “eye of the needle” reveals his meaning.  It is likely a reference to an ancient Jewish midrash or commentary on The Song of Songs.  In the biblical text of The Song of Songs, God speaks to us as a heart-sick lover: “I sleep but my heart waketh, it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh: Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove.” (Song of Solomon 5:2) This was interpreted and expanded upon in Jewish commentaries that may well have been oral tradition at the time of Jesus: “The voice of my beloved, the Holy One, Blessed be He, is calling: Open to Me an opening no bigger than the eye of a needle, and I will open to thee the supernal gates.” [1] 

This is finally not a story about money at all.  It is an affirmation that no one can earn God's love, but God gives it freely.  He exploits any excuse, however small, to do so.  That is grace.  


[1] Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man, p. 146 Quoting Midrash Rabba, The Song of Songs 5:2 and Zohar, vol. III, p.95a 

August 14, 2016 - Set the Earth on Fire

Jesus said to his disciples: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.

Luke 12:49

Is Jesus is saying there will be violent resistance to the moral example he is providing?  Or, worse still, that violence is justified to advance his message?

It seems to me that Christianity’s influence is waning in part because it presents itself as a moral example that few really need.  Non-Christians are often just as moral, humble, and charitable as their Christian counterparts.   The central tenets of what we typically think of as a Christian moral code is not particularly divisive because it is identical to a secular moral code.  No one killed Jesus because he advocated love, kindness or charity and no one is killed for those values today.  They are universally accepted.

Jesus’s real message is not a moral one, but an amoral one.  He seems to say God is not in the business of moral judgment, reward and punishment.   God loves the unrepentant sinner just as much as the unblemished saint (in fact, more so).  But that message is divisive.  We naturally like to see evil punished and good behavior rewarded.  We want God to ensure no one avoids justice – defined as retaliation – and that every wrong is righted.  We want God to pay those who worked in the vineyard from dawn more than those who arrived at dusk or never arrived at all.  But it is that desire runs counter to the true Christian message.

When the prodigal son returns and is forgiven by his father even before he can finish his rehearsed apology, the elder son is incensed. A message of universal salvation does not necessarily bring peace. 

August 10, 2016 - Whoever Loves His Life Loses It.

Whoever loves his life loses it,
and whoever hates his life in this world
will preserve it for eternal life.

John 12:25

We readily, and perhaps even reflexively accept that ‘loving life’ in this context means being too focused on the accumulation of wealth and stuff.  The happiness from these things does not last and often the things themselves don’t last.  We might also note that career advancement, beauty and fame don’t last either.  

But physical fitness also doesn’t last.  Memories don’t outlive us.  Neither does our education or efforts to achieve wisdom.  The effect of charity may persist for a while, but just as often as not, it also fades.

I don’t think Jesus is advising us to abandon acquisitive practical goals in favor of non-acquisitive practical goals.  The message is more radical than that. I think it is more likely that Jesus is stating the obvious fact that everything we do to achieve practical benefits is in vain, as Quoheleth states in Ecclesiastes.  

Christianity is not a moral code. Rather, it invites us to think existentially. It invites us to see ourselves as more than just what we can do for each other or for God.  It invites us to see God as more than just what He does for us.  The answer to the question, “what is faith for”, is, “nothing”. But faith still has extraordinary value.

To accept Jesus’ message requires more than acceptance of a different idea.  It requires a different way of seeing.  But, like the classic drawing of the duck head, once you see the rabbit head facing the other way you cannot un-see it.   Others can say angrily insist that you are self-deceived if you think you see something they don’t, but you know the truth.


August 7, 2016 - Bipolar Parables

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,
for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.
Sell your belongings and give alms.
Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven
that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

“Gird your loins and light your lamps
and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.
Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. 

Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself,
have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.
And should he come in the second or third watch
and find them prepared in this way,
blessed are those servants.
Be sure of this:
if the master of the house had known the hour
when the thief was coming,
he would not have let his house be broken into.
You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.”

Then Peter said,
“Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?” ...

Luke 12:32-48

This Sunday’s long form Gospel is divided into two parts: a parable by Jesus, which I have reproduced above, and his explanation of what it means, which I have left out.  This structure follows an unmistakable pattern in the New Testament.  The parable is principally concerned with describing God’s morality and it is inevitably loving and characterized by limitless abundance:  “Your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom”, “…an inexhaustible treasure in heaven”.  God is a thief that gets around our best defenses to serve us

The explanation of the parable that follows it contradicts this message and is principally concerned with our moral obligations - the limitless abundance of heaven must suddenly be rationed and only those who are deserving will get some.  In this case, there is the rationing of food, and the beating servants severely or lightly depending on their culpability.  “Be not afraid any longer, little flock”, seems like bad advice.

The parable of the sower and the seed follows this pattern too.  The parable seems to acknowledge that what we will accomplish in life is largely determined by the kind of soil in which we are planted.  But when Jesus is called on to explain the parable, Satan makes an appearance, personal culpability is emphasized, and punishment – being thrown out into the darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth – is the result of human shortcomings.

The stories of the Tower of Siloam and the Galileans executed by Pilate initially sound like Jesus is ready to forgive anything, but then he suddenly demands repentance and threatens punishment if he doesn’t get it.

"The good and the bad alike" are invited to the wedding banquet, but if you show up without your wedding garment you are thrown out into the darkness where again there is wailing and gnashing of teeth - an image that only appears in these contexts.

I offer two observations: 

First, the explanation portion of the reading is very likely to get the most attention from homilists this Sunday and from the casual reader.  It appeals to our desire for measurements and comparisons – rewarding good behavior, rooting out laziness, negligence and evil and holding them up for criticism.  We also like this because it is so much easier to talk about and accept than limitless abundance given to the good and the bad alike, whether they started work in the vineyard early in the day or moments before the end.

Second, the explanation portion of the reading is probably not something Jesus said but an editorial added by a well-meaning scribe who sought to explain the parable to his readership. Suffering from the same human impulse to judge, the scribe offers a harsh, judgmental explanation and inadvertently changes the meaning entirely.   How else can we explain the obvious contradictions?  Why else would Jesus speak in parables and state that he is deliberately leaving the listener mystified only to offer an explanation immediately thereafter?

Faith is not about human moral obligations, it is about the God’s decision to love without comparison, rationing or condition.  This remains as hard to accept today as it was in Jesus' time.

August 3, 2016 - The Not-So-Nice Jesus

At that time Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But he did not say a word in answer to her.
His disciples came and asked him,
“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
He said in reply,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
He said in reply,
“It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters.”
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
“O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And her daughter was healed from that hour.

Matthew 25-21-28

This story was probably intended to how that Jesus was accepted by non-Jews in fulfillment of the prophecies that described how the messiah would be received.

But it reveals something else too.  Jesus is no moral hero in this story.  He is no soft-hearted wonder-worker teaching love and sharing.  He is outright heartless towards a woman whose only ambition is to save her tortured daughter.  He is only responsive to her need when she demeans herself. Jesus seems caught up in the bigotry of his day.

If the authors of the Gospels saw Jesus as a moral teacher, this story would not have been included.  It is a signal to us that Jesus was more than just a saccharine example of good behavior.  We have to look deeper.  Faith is more than just being a good person.  It is much bigger than that.

August 2, 2016 - Walking on Water

Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side of the sea, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Matthew 14:23-36

This story is not intended to make us believe that Jesus was capable of magically walking on water.  Nor is it intended to make us believe that we are capable of magically walking on water if we just believe it hard enough.

Here, as is the case throughout Scripture, a body of water represents chaos (The Deep of the creation story, the Flood, the Red Sea, the Jordan River, etc.) and faith in the divine helps control chaos and restore order and calm.

This story is another example of a recurring theme in the New Testament: the benefits of faith are not conferred by God - they are simply claimed by us.  When Jesus heals someone he is always careful to give them the credit – “your faith has healed you.”  The story of the hemorrhaging woman appears to be solely dedicated to the proposition that healing and forgiveness are not conferred by Jesus, but are simply available to be acknowledged by those who know to seek them.  It is a virtual tautology: faith cannot give you any comfort if you do not have faith.  You cannot feel what Paul called the peace beyond all understanding if you dismiss it as a fantasy.  Ask and ye shall receive, but if you do not know to ask you cannot receive.  I am convinced that this is what Jesus meant when he said the poor will become poorer and the rich shall become richer.   If you are not inclined to believe, no one, not even God, can turn that around for you and you will become spiritually poorer still.  But if you are inclined to believe, you will know to pursue the divine and become spiritually ever richer.  God does not make you poor or rich.  You do.