Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Luke 20:27-40

Writing and pondering this story in the run-up to Valentines Day, I suppose it's not surprising that the biggest contrast I see between Jesus and his detractors (in this case, the Sadducees) is love.

Ironic, isn't it, that the Sadducees' question is built around marriage. But their approach (besides the fact that they are simply using this hypothetical situation to entrap Jesus, and so love is out the window from the get-go) is legalistic, rule-bound, wooden. There's no pathos in their storytelling. There's no concern for the specific people in the situation. There's no compassion. It's exactly like the "lifeboat" ethics problems that were popular a generation ago -- there are five people on a lifeboat, but the lifeboat can only hold two. Who will you throw overboard?

I've been reading Bob Goff's book, Everybody Always lately. Goff does a great job of pointing in his homespun way back to Jesus' command that we should love one another. Always. Almost without exception, our rules and principles get in the way of love rather than empowering it. Beyond the basic expectations of human decency that are reflected in the most elementary structures of justice, we fine-tune our systems to decide who is in and who is out, who measures up and who doesn't, who is worthy and who is to be discarded. There's also a serious irony here. Perhaps more than anything else, we focus these systems on ourselves and not surprisingly, find ourselves wanting. We fall short. We are broken. We have sinned and continue to sin. We don't look like the airbrushed models in the ads. We've gained a few pounds. We binge-watch Netflix. We find the most creative ways to shame ourselves, to draw circles that exclude us from being accepted, from being loved.

Without doubt, the most systematic of the New Testament writers is the Apostle Paul. He carefully reasons out the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Jesus' death and resurrection, and if anyone is willing to draw hard lines, it's Paul. Yet, when he's summing up the implications of what Jesus did, Paul over and over again says it comes down to drawing bigger circles that include us all. My favorite summary of this position comes at the beginning of one of my favorite chapters in the Bible, Romans 8. Paul writes, "There is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus" (emphasis added, though it's fair to say that the entire New Testament was written in ALL CAPS in the original Greek, which is kind of funny when you think of it through the filter of today's social media conventions). No condemnation is another way of saying there's no shame. There's no possibility of being excluded. As Paul says at the end of that same wonderful chapter, there's nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus. Nothing.

We can certainly turn away, rebel, exclude ourselves, and most of us do. But the upshot of this brilliant message is that when we allow God to turn us back to himself, we find open doors and open arms. The tragedy (as C.S. Lewis so strikingly portrays in his excellent book The Great Divorce) is that so many of us choose separation from God and condemn ourselves, in spite of God's superabundant love.

So the Sadducees lay a trap for Jesus, and Jesus responds with something like, "Don't you get it? It's about love, and you've completely missed the point." Human love -- even the greatest human love like that in an excellent marriage -- is an arrow pointing toward the real source of love, God himself and his love for us. Why would you keep the treasure map when you find the treasure? Though I suppose you might tack the treasure map up on the wall as a nostalgic reminder of the journey and what an adventure it was. In a similar way, maybe our imperfect human loves will be nostalgic reminders in heaven of God's love and how we began in imperfect, partial ways to know him and his measureless love for us.

The last point to make is this: Jesus' response to the Sadducees, though it seems harsh, was exactly what love looked like in that situation. He was confronting not their surface question, but the assumptions that kept them from knowing the living God in his fullness. The last line of the story -- that from that point on they no longer dared to ask him any question -- is hopeful not because questioning God is wrong, but because questioning God from a position of arrogant superiority is foolhardy. One can hope that their silence came from humility and a sense of having their eyes opened to the love standing in front of them.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Luke 20:19-26

This brief story points out exactly how the world treats Jesus, and exactly how Jesus treats the world.

Note, to start with, that the religious leaders understand (v. 18) that Jesus has publicly called them out by telling the previous parable. He has named them as unfaithful tenants in God's vineyard. Their response? They could have repented, but instead they sent spies hoping to catch Jesus in words they could later use to convict him. Note also that they have increased the stakes in the game: They're no longer just trying to smear Jesus in the court of public opinion, but their question is specifically about how to deal with the Romans. They want to get Jesus not just disgraced, but executed.

The heart of their question: Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not? The people hated their Roman overlords, and popular sentiment would immediately answer, who cares if it's lawful -- we need to rebel! The Jewish leaders who sent these spies, however, were colluding with the Romans to maintain a relatively stable political climate so they could maintain their power base.

Jesus takes his answer, again, to a new level. It's not just a question of taxation, he says, but of identity. Show me the coin. Whose image is on the coin? (Jewish coinage, by the way, never included a human form like Roman coins did, because of the Old Testament prohibition against graven images.) Caesar's image is on the coin, they said. So Jesus, knowing that these spies as well as everyone else in earshot will get the allusion, says they should give to Caesar the things that bear his image (i.e., the coins -- pay your taxes) and to God the things that bear his image.

No listener would have missed this: In Genesis 1, God said he was going to make human beings in his own image and according to his likeness. So even in the face of this seemingly niggling question about taxation, Jesus points to the ultimate authority of God and challenges his hearers toward repentance: You are made in the image of God. Therefore, pay your coins to Caesar but give yourself to God. Stop worrying about self-preservation and render your heart to God, then see where he leads you.

It is not very hard to transpose Jesus' comments into our own era. We who tend to be so consumed with the matters of costs and benefits, of ownership and acquisition: Whose image do we bear? And are we giving ourselves, heart and soul, to God, living as his reflections, his image, in this world?