Holy Tuesday Reflection: Evil Tenants, Absent Guests and People Who Are Pretty Much You!

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Over the course of my lifetime I have become increasingly wary around war metaphors when it comes to theology.  I grew up singing, “I’m in the Lord’s Army” complete with hand motions and now my daughter sings it as well.  But I also grew up in the post 9/11 era, watching everybody from terrorists to politicians use religious metaphors to describe their desired war efforts.  I am often not sure if they are using religion to promote war or war to promote religion but I definitely know both make me super uncomfortable.

However, when you react against something you often embrace all the errors of the opposite.  So in reacting against a God of War many of us have found ourselves over embracing a God of passiveness, a God who is unaffiliated with our world, unfamiliar with the true evils that lurk among us and who wants to just go around handing out Pepsi’s to riot police and protesters without acknowledging the deep evils that lie under our world.

In such a view, we remake Jesus into a kindhearted, compassionate do gooder.  He never raised his voice and never said anything remotely offensive.  And of course they crucified him for no apparent reason.

In reading Matthew this week, I have come again to realize Jesus was nothing of the sort.  There was a true conflict going on between Jesus and the authorities and he stoked their ire quite deliberately.  They were perpetuating grave evils and he did not mince words while calling them out.

The parable I wrote about yesterday was just the warm up act.  Jesus follows it with two more stories which are more cruel and far more deliberate in their attempts to stoke their anger. (See Matthew 21:28-22:10)

The first, sometimes called “the Parable of the Tenants” has to do with a landlord trying to collect rent from his tenants.  The tenants want nothing of it, beating and killing every money collector sent.  The story climaxes when the landlord sends his son who is then also killed.  These tenants are not just evil but also stupid.  Killing the servants is not going to guarantee the landlord will stop trying.  Killing the son is not going to guarantee them the inheritance.  In fact, the Chief Priests correctly use the word “wretched” to describe them.

But then Jesus turns that on them.  “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produces its fruit!”  It is almost like he was saying:  You are evil and stupid and wretched!

The second parable, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, makes a similar point.  A King throws a wedding banquet and all the honored and invited guests refuse to show up.  So the King ends up letting everybody come.

These parables are not quite “war” stories or metaphors and yet words of violence saturate them.  There are beatings and mockings and killings.  There is gnashing of teeth and people being captured and tied up.  These are hardly stories describing a passive, almost apathetic God.  This God cares about the fruit and the land that produces it.  This God cares about people.  This God cares about the servants.  This God cares about the rejected.  And this God is angry at those who do not care, especially when they are the Chief Priests who wear God’s name and claim to act in God’s best interests.

Yet notice how God deals with the situation?  Yes, he ousts the tenants but then he gives the farm to others.  And when the guests of the bridegroom refuse to show, God goes out and invites others in.  Both these parables end the conflict with inclusiveness.  People are welcomed who were earlier rejected.

Both these parables point to the cross, that moment when Jesus is completely rejected by the religious establishment but then God throws open wide arms of mercy to invite all sinners in.  God wins the conflict not by conquering or by killing but by inviting.  Those the chief priests and elders rejected become the children of the King!  God’s wonderful kingdom gets bigger.

Yes there is a conflict.  Yes God is at war with the corrupt and the uncaring.  But God wins the war by throwing open the doors of the kingdom to everybody who will believe and repent.  So too, the church wins our various conflicts when we take up our crosses, throw open our arms  and open our doors to the tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, the greedy, the manipulative, the battered, the poor and the broken.  Only in so doing will the reign of love increase!

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Why Lent? Why Fast? Part 2: Spending Money

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There is a delightful story in the gospels about the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus with a question about taxes.  (See Matth. 22:15-22)  The question sounds deceptively simple, “Should we pay taxes?” but underlying it is a layers of historical and emotional nuance.

Still, Jesus simply tosses them a coin and says, “Whose image is on the coin?”  They say, “Caesar” and Jesus replies, “Then give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and then give to God that which belongs to God.”

Jesus’ answer is much more meaningful than a first glance might tell.  After all Caesar’s image was on all the money, not just the taxes and God’s image is written on all our bodies.  By referring to the imago Caesar, Jesus was also referring to the Imago Dei (image of God).  He was making a statement that metal coins (or even paper money) are the currency of the worldly kingdoms and should just be thrown back to the world.  In turn, our bodies are the currency of God’s kingdom.

Caesar’s image isn’t on our money today.  We have our great Presidents for that.  And in fact our money even gives a nice little shout out to God in the phrase, “In God We Trust.”  But I still wonder if money is one of those things the kingdoms of this world use to capture and enslave us to sin.  For this reason I am always incredibly inspired by Christians who truly have sold all they have and given it to the poor and chosen to live a very modest, almost beggar’s life.  I have met a few and I envy them most days.

Now I live in a suburb of a major metropolitan area.  Our suburb is know for having the nicest indoor mall around and I have it on good authority that 1.3 billion dollars in retail sales happen every year here.  Some weeks I think that my family supports at least half that amount!

A year ago I lived in a small rural town with almost no economy and still some temptation to spend money foolishly.  Since moving here that temptation has quadrupled!  A year ago the best grocery store was 20 miles away and grocery shopping could be a 2 hour event.  Now we have one just down the street and it is even home to a Starbucks!  If we forget to thaw some meat for dinner, we can now just order a pizza.  The mall has free indoor playgrounds and toys for my kids so I find myself going in there and window shopping once a week.  There is the Home Depot and Lowe’s which sell the coolest gadgets for home improvement.  We have fancier upscale restaurants as well as fast food.  And the Wal-Marts and Targets sell anything else we might need.  But if I am still too lazy to leave my house, I can always open the Google Play app and buy some movies, TV shows or music.  And all it takes is a couple of clicks.

For this reason I gave up spending money for Lent this year.  The stated goal was to, “Not spend money on myself by myself.”  I hesitated to do it, not for any spiritual reason, but because the words, “on myself, by myself” were incredibly vague and I don’t think vague goals succeed.  However, this fast has actually proven the most enlightening.

The fast means I have to stop and think before every purchase I make.  I ask myself the question, “Why am I really spending this money and who am I spending it on?”  A few times this Lent I have opened up the Google Play store, only to realize, “there is nothing here I can purchase or even need to purchase right now.”  At the beginning of Lent, I went to buy a shirt at Costco only to realize that is definitely spending money on myself.  I have walked into certain stores, only to realize there was no reason for me to be there.  I have driven past many a Starbucks and thought, “I have a moment to buy a Latte” and then realized, “Nuts!  That violates both the coffee fast and the spending money fast.”

I wouldn’t say I long or even desire to spend money.  I do not have a hoarder problem, I don’t think.  But I do desire some of the things of this world that only money can buy.  I desire the convenience of fast food, the enjoyment of movies, and the freedom that comes when you realize, “I totally have the money to pay for this!”  Sometimes I just enjoy the freedom of walking into a hardware or electronics store and looking around feeling like I belong there and that these products on the wall are the true life givers.

Of course they are not.  And of course after a month of not spending money during Lent, I realize that there is very little I even need to be spending money on, at least for myself.  I have done just fine without the shirt, the movie, the game, the convenient fast food and the latte.  No, I take that back.  I miss the Lattes!

But the most profound thing that happened this Lent was at a conference a couple weeks ago.  During the dinner break, I watched my friends and colleagues pair off and leave, only to realize that by the terms of my fast, someone had to invite me out to eat or else I would have to go hungry.  I spent the last half hour of the session praying I would be able to find a dinner partner and coming to grips with the reality that my fast meant I would have to starve.  There was a certain painful loneliness to that but in the end I grew desperate enough to accept the invitation to dinner from someone I would never have otherwise joined.  Wee had a wonderful and delightful conversation over pitas.  It was an inspiring conversation I would have missed if I had just gone out to eat by myself.  And in the end he even paid for the meal!

I would like to think that conversation with an unknown ally and friend was the true currency of God’s kingdom.

Come oh Easter!