Category Archives: parables

Jubilee

Zacchaeus

To some degree, I suppose I inherited it – my aptitude for business, that is. After all, my father was known as a shrewd businessman who always seemed to be able to come out on top regardless of the economic conditions. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to make him proud.

And make him proud I did, especially when I won the tax-farming contract. I instinctively sensed that more could be squeezed from these peasants, these workaday people who were obviously not as smart as we were. If they were, would they be living in those little huts? Listening to those high and mighty religious leaders; stupid enough to give them their money. Idiots.

Dad threw a party in my honor when I won the contract, recruited a hoard of tax collectors, revenue men, and assigned them territories. Everyone who was anybody was there.

“Ingenious,” dad called me in his toast, because the ways and means of taxing everything seemed to pop into my head spontaneously. Once I got on a roll, the ideas came in spurts day and night, even in my dreams – tax them to travel the roads – any road, all roads; tax income, tax land, tax trees, tax the carts, the donkeys, the grain for planting and the harvest when reaped; tax their houses; penalize them for not making repairs, then tax the repairs; tax goods on their way to market and goods bought at market, goods imported and exported, inherited and bequeathed; tax the clothing they made, the clothing they sold, the clothing they bought, the wool they spun, the goats they milked, and the sheep they sheered. I had them coming and going. We taxed people to protect them from the authorities, to guard their businesses, to safeguard their homes. They couldn’t breathe without being taxed by one of my guys.

And I got a cut – I won’t say what percentage, but it was sizeable – of every tax levied and collected.

If they didn’t pay? Well, let’s just say, all of a sudden, some homes and businesses would be broken into, the residents roughed-up, and their possessions stolen. Or maybe suddenly the authorities would start harassing some uppity cheapskate. Sometimes, every now and then, a person would turn up dead or a house would mysteriously burn down. The fear of God, you know. 

Pretty soon, I did nothing but collect the money. Once in while, one of my taxmen would try to cheat me and I would bribe a couple of soldiers to make them disappear.

Huge mansion – everything money can buy. But lonely. Everybody hated me. They feared me, but they despised me. Oh, sure, there were plenty of sycophants who kissed up and fawned over me, flattered me, but it was obvious it was all fake. They too hated me. Behind my back, they mocked me. Their eyes betrayed their real feelings.

The area was all abuzz. A miracle-working rabbi traveling the land – healing the sick, even raising the dead. I dismissed it all as plebian nonsense, but the reports kept piling in, even from people who normally don’t make stuff up. Then I heard he was headed this way.

Everybody, and I mean literally everybody – young, old, sick, well, women, children, men – they were all surging out to where he would reportedly be passing by.

My curiosity got the best of me. But as I headed out with the crowd, people threw me those looks, bumped into me hard when I wasn’t looking, cursed me under their breath. To be honest, I started to be afraid that the mob would kill me, trample me under foot and deny having ever seen me. 

Outside of town was one of those huge, broad-leafed sycamore trees. I’m short, so I likely couldn’t see over the crowd anyway, and, frankly, I just wanted to see him without being seen, so I scrambled up and hid in the leaves, safe, nestled in my perch.

Shit! He’s coming towards me, the crowd surging along. Did he spot me? If so, I’m a goner. He’s a rabbi. He’ll quote some Bible verses to condemn me, demand some sort of surrender, and turn me over to the mob for stone-justice.

He does see me. He’s looking right at me. My heart is beating in my throat.

He calls me by name. How did he know my name? I guess the crowd told him. I guess one of them spotted me climbing up, told him the notorious tax-farmer was treed, and sicked him on me. How am I going to get out of this one? Should have stayed in the villa behind the locked gates with the bodyguards.

Did I hear right? Am I seeing things?

He is smiling at me all friendly like. Says he wants to eat dinner at my house!

You know the custom – when a prominent rabbi visits a town, he eats dinner at a communitywide banquet in his honor with all the religious people and the important officials. If he comes home with me, he will insult them all. Not that he hasn’t already insulted them simply by not publically condemning me. They never would have shown him where I was sequestered in my tree if they had known that. 

Something snapped inside me. Maybe it is because no one – not my father, not my employees, not my siblings, not my mother (whom I barely knew before dad threw her out) – no one was ever this kind to me. He never condemned me. Never judged me. Never spoke an unkind word. Didn’t browbeat me with Bible verses. And, he really seemed to enjoy the dinner. He drank my wine with gusto, helped himself to seconds, told stores and laughed at jokes.

And those eyes – there was something in his eyes. I know it now – divine, everlasting, unconditional, nonjudgmental love and acceptance. 

I had never before known joy. I had never before felt a light heart, danced spontaneously, or felt empathy for anyone, but now I felt what they felt and longed to join them in their huts and around their fires. 

He moved on.

It was a delight, a genuine joy, to give away fully half of everything I owned. The people were suspicious. I don’t blame them. I had quite a reputation. They thought I was drunk or insane when I went to the poorest of them and gave away bags of gold. I paid for weddings, for barrels of wine and olive oil, for cemetery plots and burial expenses. I bought new clothes for the tattered. 

Then, I went through our records. I kept impeccable accounts. I deeded land to widows, contracted to have houses built for the homeless, purchased livestock for the peasants, and tried my best to figure out who I had defrauded, at least those I had most defrauded, because, God knows, I probably defrauded almost everybody. As best I could, I made restitution to those I had cheated, not by repaying them, but by quadrupling what I had taken.

And, most significantly, I quit my job and moved into a very modest little house where I set up a little business advising people on how to pay only as much tax as they had to.

I can’t describe the feeling! Freedom! Jubilee! 

FREEDOM

Freedom 

Mark 12:41 [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (NRSVUE)

Such amazing freedom this impoverished widow had – 

Clinging to nothing, but rather,

Freely giving all to God, knowing

God would take care of her.

As free as the birds of the air and

The lilies in the fields.

In times past, I pictured her old, bent, in rags,

Walking with a cane; but now I see her as

Ageless, happy, joyous, stepping lightly with

Sparkles in her eyes, full of peaceful contentment.

I like to imagine the women who were always with

Jesus rushing to her with love, embraces, and joy – 

Taking her into the fold – this widow now joining the

Disciples at Jesus’ feet, learning and loving; with

Him at the Passover Seder, aghast at the mock trials,

Weeping at the scourging post and the cross;

Dancing with the risen King,

Aflame in the upper room.

a film review

A Film Called First Reformed

My son turned me on to a deep movie. All really good art lends itself to a variety of interpretations. The film First Reformed is one such work of art. 

Trigger alert: It is dark, at times surreal, and contains a graphic suicide scene. It’s also brilliant.

The Plot: 

First Reformed is a 2017 American drama film written and directed by Paul Schrader staring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and Cedric Kyles. 

It’s the story of a divorced, bereaved, isolated, 46-year-old pastor of an historic colonial era Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York.  The church building is well-preserved, but has become not much more than a museum.  The pastor, a former military chaplain who talked his son into joining the army only to learn he was killed in action a few months later, is struggling with probable gastrointestinal cancer and self-medicating his pain with alcohol. 

The surrounding countryside is stark, cold, and bleak. Old gravestones, barren trees, dirty cars, empty spaces. The soundtrack is often more the moan of a dying creation than lyrical. Traditional hymns about the comfort and transformative power of Christ are interspersed.

First Reformed church is supported by a megachurch called Abundant Life that is itself buoyed by the large donations of an industrialist who denies climate change and pollutes the environment. Abundant Life never challenges the sins of its financiers. 

Mary, one of only a handful of congregants at First Reformed, is pregnant and married to an environmental activist who is filled with existential angst over humanity’s destruction of the planet. A central theme: “Will God forgive us for destroying his creation?” In despair, Mary’s husband commits suicide in spite of the pastor’s counsel. 

Later, she and the pastor share an out-of-body experience in which they see the beauty of creation and what humans have done to it. It is beautiful and surreal, transcending space-time. 

The combination of his struggle with the relevance of his faith in the light of human greed, his physical sickness, the loss of his son and then his marriage, leads the pastor to the brink of destroying himself and the church at the church’s 250th anniversary celebration, which is attended by the industrialist, the governor, and the megachurch pastor, among many others. Seeing Mary entering the building, he quickly decides against mass destruction and opts for intense self-flagellation. Mary enters, they kiss passionately, and the screen goes black.

Some Thoughts: 

The lead pastor of the megachurch is a good man. He wants his church to do good things to help people. But, to keep it solvent, he compromises truth so as not to offend his biggest donor.

Abundant Life is huge and modern, but in the film, is never abundant. Its choir has four members; its youth group has maybe a dozen. When we see it, it is always mostly empty, just like its theology.

Mary’s husband is kind, caring, and brilliant. Everything he researches and reports is well substantiated. He sees no hope for humanity, no hope for the planet. 

The protagonist is struggling with existential anguish. He is grieving the loss of his marriage, feels guilty over the death of his son, is sick with probable cancer, and is alone. He hates being nothing more than a docent, and longs to be relevant in the world. He reads Thomas Merton and G.K. Chesterton, and keeps a journal. The parsonage in which he lives is almost void of furniture. It is dark and empty, like him.

Mary is pregnant, like the Mary in the nativity stories. She alone has hope. She agrees with her husband’s conclusions, but still wants to bring her baby boy into the world. Like the Virgin Mary, she brings light into darkness, hope into despair. At the very end of the film, her love saves and redeems the pastor.

So many lessons:

  • Speak truth to power. Ignore the budget.
  • Stand for justice. 
  • Steward God’s creation.
  • Eschew violence. In the end, it accomplishes nothing.
  • Let yourself love and be loved.
  • Love is redemptive.
  • Love brings hope.
  • Love conquers despair.
  • The industrialist lost his way through greed.
  • The megachurch pastor lost his way through success.
  • Mary’s husband lost his way by abandoning hope.
  • The pastor of First Reformed lost his way through grief.
  • Mother Mary never lost her way.

Discernment

Soft, warm, gentle, long-lasting,

First rain of Spring, soaking, softening the

Hard and cracked soil as 

Earth takes a long, slow, deep

Drink and her flowers, grasses,

Bushes and trees absorb water and minerals.

Life. Soon, leaves, buds, flowers, fruit.

So comes the good spirit.

Blasting wind, icy torrents slicing, biting,

Snapping weighed down branches.

Shingles fly, villages lose power,

Topsoil washes away as

Creek banks cave in and 

Basements flood.

Death. Destruction, chill, ruin.

So comes the evil spirit.

Life as we know it ends. Mark 13 audio

Jesus vs. Religion. An audio lesson on Mark 11-12

Following Jesus Changes Everything: an audio teaching on MARK 9:42-10:34

A Divine Intimate Touch: an audio teaching on Mark 7:1-8:9

An audio study on Mark 3:13-5:20. Who is this Jesus?

Religion & Empire: A Bad Mix. An audio teaching on Genesis 4-11

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