Year A, Pentecost, Proper 24
The texts this week hold strong images of God as a fierce God, of a God not to be taken lightly. And Jesus, in God’s image, is not to be taken lightly either!
The mysterious sovereignty of God is present in each of the texts though made manifest in different ways. These texts invite us to stop and simply sit in the mystery of this God who we find in these scriptures – the Creator of all, giving hidden treasures from the riches of darkness, at once more mighty and more forgiving than we can imagine. This is a God who knows our names, knows our fears and foibles, who is a lover of justice and the wisest of guides. God leads the people, speaking from the mystery of a cloud and through the messages of prophets and apostles. God’s words and deeds transform individual lives and whole communities. God’s tremendous glory is ever-present and yet we can only, with Moses, take in a glimpse of God. In our humanity we cannot comprehend the fullness of God’s face, the immense abundance of God’s complete presence.
In Jesus, attested to in the gospels as Word of God made flesh, Son of God, we glimpse God in a human form like ourselves. Jesus has so embodied the love and wisdom of God that he is a full expression of God’s image that we can take in and still live. In I Thessalonians (our earliest extant Christian text) Paul testifies to the transforming power of Jesus who was “God with Us” for the salvation of the world. He reassures the struggling church in Thessalonica that he has seen this power at work in their lives as they welcomed the message brought to them by Paul and his companions.
Jesus also brings God’s larger than life love and challenge to live in God’s ways through the gospel writer’s report in Matthew of Jesus’ words to questioning skeptics. “To live in this world as one of God’s people what does God require,” they ask. “Being creatures of flesh and spirit, do we split our allegiance between the demands of the empire we live in and the demands of God? Can we satisfy both and live well, free of conflict and consequences?” Jesus replies that it is good to pay to the empire what it is due and to God what God is due. Is this a mandate to pay our taxes and also tithe well to the church? Or is it more like a Zen koan that we are to ponder? If God is the unimaginably powerful sovereign mystery described in all our other lectionary texts then what is God due? Is there anything left for the empire or is all our allegiance due to God who is the larger than life, loving, mighty, delivering Creator of all? If so, how then do we live our lives of flesh and spirit in a world that demands allegiance to ways that are not the ways of God?
There are two tales from the Sufi tradition that speak to the questions above. Both can be found in a collection by Idries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes; Teaching Stories of the Sufi Masters over the Past Thousand Years (Penguin Group, 1967.) I have also located them on-line.
The first is called “The Oath.”[i] In this story a man – could be a woman – makes a vow to sell his house when all his problems are solved and give all the money to the poor. When this comes to pass, he gets cold feet and doesn’t want to part with all his money. So he sells his house for one silver coin. But with the house comes a cat that costs 10,000 silver coins. A buyer is found. House and cat are sold. The man give the one silver coin to the poor and pockets the 10,000 silver coins.
Where was the man’s true allegiance?
Children have such an innate sense of fairness that I am wondering if this could be turned into a children’s time story with the right framing. They would see immediately the injustice and falsehood of the person selling their house. It could be that the protagonist becomes a child promising to sell their bicycle or dollhouse or another favorite toy.
The second story is called “The Bequest”[ii]. A rich man dies far from home and sends back with the rest of his will a bequest for the distribution of his land. “Let the community where the land is situated take what they wish for themselves, and let them give that which they wish to Arif the Humble.” The community elders do not find Arif a suitable heir since he is very young, poor and not educated. Years pass and Arif grows up to become a wise and able leader. He goes to the community elders for his inheritance. They are entirely resistant to part with the land until they are challenged by an unknown person in the community to look again at the original language of the bequest. “Let the community where the land is situated take what they wish for themselves, and let them give that which they wish to Arif the Humble.” Since the man died so far from home and could not give personal instructions, the property was entrusted to the elders to be held for Arif the Humble who would eventually know how best to use it. By keeping the land for themselves, the elders had betrayed the intentions of the man leaving the bequest. Finally they accept the truth and justice prevails in the community.
What questions does this story ask about rightful ownership? How does it resonate with Jesus’ instructions to the skeptics to give God what belongs to God?
Blessings on your story journey,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Photos and commentary may be reprinted with permission only. Please find and tell the stories!