Sunday, October 15, 2017

Who You Look Like

And they brought him a denarius. "They" are those Pharisees who were trying to trap Jesus. Someone pulled a coin out of a pocket, and everyone leaned in to take a new look at what was probably a reasonably familiar object. That's the moment in the story when everyone holds their breath waiting to see what happens next. That's the gospel reading for Proper 24(29)A/Pentecost 20A (Matthew 22:15-22).

Jesus neatly answers the Pharisees trick question. If it looks like Caesar, it belongs to Caesar. If it looks like God, it belongs to God. The image on the coin looked like Caesar. All the Caesars marked their rise to caesar-hood by putting their own image on the coins of the realm. And don't forget that Palestine in the time of Jesus was very much in the realm of the Roman empire. 

If the coin looks like the emperor, then it belongs to the emperor.
For more on the Mount Zion Archaelogical Dig, see this blog by one of the dig's directors and this site about the dig.
In the fall of 2016, a rare gold coin (above) was found in an archaeological dig in Jerusalem. The coin, dated around 56 or 57 CE, bore the image of the Roman emperor Nero, best known for his cruelty, tyranny, and being emperor when Rome burned. It was Nero who sent Vespasian to Jerusalem in the year 67 to squash a rebellion. Only a couple of years later Nero would commit suicide, and Vespasian would be the last one standing in a year that saw four Roman emperors. Emperor Vespasian would send his son Titus to oversee the military campaign that ended in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Those are the things that look like the emperor...and therefore belong to the emperor.

Several things are especially remarkable about the finding of this coin. First, its location is known and documented. Knowing the coin's location helps piece together the story of the journey of the coin. Second, because the coin is gold it has not decayed. This image of this emperor is still visible today, millennia after his death.

So now the things that look like God...well, they belong to God. And just what is it that looks like God?

When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture (Exodus 33:12-23), click here.

For thoughts on the epistle reading (Thessalonians 1:1-10), click on the Facebook link below. To see the FB link, you will need to go to the blog post.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Of Myrrh, Peace and Rejoicing

The peace of God which passes all understanding. That's what is promised to those who do not worry about anything, but by prayer and supplication let their requests be made known to God [Philippians 4:1-9, Proper 23(28)A/Pentecost 19A]. One of the phrases that may be the most meaningful to us today is "which passes all understanding."

After all, the idea that we could look at today's world and not worry seems beyond understanding. Neighbor is taking up - if not always sword - then certainly verbal weapons against neighbor. God's good creation is suffering from neglect and abuse. There is refusal to bear one another's burdens (and sometimes the refusal to bear our own burdens). As Jesus stood and looked over Jerusalem and wept, so we look over our world and weep. For what has already been lost, and for what is being lost right now.

People are often in situations that seem to be incongruent with celebration when they are told to rejoice in scripture. Rejoicing in such situations requires a knowledge - a faith - in something beyond what is visible. And it might be knowledge - faith - that is hard to help someone else understand.

The Orthodox liturgical calendar includes Holy Myrrhbearers Sunday. A hymn (kontakion) for that day includes the text: When you said to the Myrrh-bearers, "Rejoice!", O Christ our God, You ended, by Your Resurrection, the lament of Eve, the first mother. And, You commanded Your Apostles to proclaim, "The Savior has risen from the grave."

Imagine the women going to the tomb, bearing spices so that Jesus would have the honor of a full burial. The image below is by Robert Anning Bell shows six women led in procession by Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the tomb. The cool blue tone of the painting and the frozen movement of the women emphasize the somberness of the scene. For this day, for these women, there are no bright colors, no warm sunshine. At this moment there is seems to be no prospect for rejoicing.
Robert Anning Bell. The Women Going to the Sepulchre. 1912. Collection of the Royal Academy, London. For more information, see:
Many followers of Jesus have seen days where they could not imagine rejoicing. And yet Paul commands the Christians in Philippi to rejoice in the Lord always. He even repeats the instruction: "Again, I will say, Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4). Can we do as Paul instructed, even as we look at our world? Can we Rejoice in the Lord...always? Even when we are carrying myrrh? Can we continue to, by prayer and supplication - even "battering the gates of heaven" with our prayers, let our requests be made known to God and then live in a peace that passes understanding? It may be one of the harder things we are to do as followers of Jesus the Christ.

For thoughts on the Exodus passage about the golden calf, click here.

Which is more embarrassing...dressing incorrectly for a wedding or manhandling a guest? Click on the Facebook link below to see a possible interpretation of the Gospel reading for Proper 23(28)A?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Paul Says 'Not This'

The Epistle reading for Proper 22(27)A/Pentecost 18A is a familiar section of Paul's letter to the Phiippians (3:4b-14): Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

It's a truth that saying 'yes' to one thing means saying 'no' to other things. If we say 'yes' to Paul's example, then (I regret to say) we must say no to emulating one in the pantheon of Roman gods. Paul's focus on the goal that is ahead renders us unable to follow the model of Janus, the two-faced god who looks forward and backward. While there are often equivalents in the Greek and Roman pantheons, the Greeks had no parallel for Janus.

Usually shown with two faces - with one he looks forward and with the other he looks back - Janus is the god of transitions and beginnings. January has a linguistic root with Janus, though the question of  whether the month is named for the god has not been definitively answered. Nevertheless, January, the first month of our year is at a moment of transition.

The presence of ceremonial gateways (jani) throughout Rome reinforced the opportunity to make favorable beginnings by walking through these janus gates. A shrine to Janus was located in the Roman forum. The two doors to the shrine were open when Rome was at war and closed when Rome was at peace.

Italian Renaissance sculptor Donatello included a two-faced, Janus-type figure in one panel of the so-called Passion Pulpit in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. The pulpit is covered with bronze relief images of the episodes of Christ's passion. In this panel Christ appears before Pilate. As Pilate sits on his raised throne, the servant offers him a bowl of water with which to wash his hands of Jesus. The figure may symbolize Pilate's inner conflict or perhaps it is a reminder that Pilate will not be able to separate past and future: his reputation in the future will, for Christians, be defined by his actions here. Jesus said it before - no one can serve two masters - but perhaps Pilate is trying to do just that.

Paul is having none of this. Forgetting what lies behind, Paul presses forward, his eyes only on the goal of the call of God in Christ Jesus. There is no room for Janus in Paul's faith.

Top image: Janus head on Roman Republic coin. 225-214 BCE. Gold. Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.
Second from top: Bust of Janus. Vatican Museums.
Bottom two images: Donatello. Christ Before Pilate (full panel and detail of area in white circle). Relief sculpture from Passion Pulpit. 1460-1465. Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 22(27)A, click here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page: a look at vineyards in Israel. Click on the link below.