“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2:1)
How many magi were there? Certainly the Gospel of Matthew never mentioned the names or numbers of those travelers from afar. Three is the traditional count, but modern magi math is based on the gifts offered to the child.
Did any unnamed and unnumbered sojourners really give those now-familiar treasures to Jesus and his family? Every first year seminary student knows they were symbolic gifts, somber references to impending greatness and inevitable death. And I can’t help wondering if Matthew’s author would’ve reconsidered those metaphoric presents if warned about a future of Black Fridays with its 40% discounts on the newest phones or fashions?
Many of us, myself included, put the bewildered shepherds and road-weary magi near each other on the mantel. The ceramic (or plastic or glass) figurines blankly gaze at the Christ child, where the infant is situated between old Joseph and young Mary. A host of heavenly angels—in my case, it’s a solitary angel—hovers nearby. But every regular attendee of ye olde Sunday school classes could identify the annual mantel miscues. Luke’s sheepish herders and Matthew’s wise guys were from different stories and appeared at different times.
First century Herod was grim and devious. He, like the twentieth century’s lying loser Richard Nixon or the vicious Joseph Stalin, had hidden agendas within hidden agendas. Can the one who has the power ever be trusted? We, the reader of Matthew, are glad for the dreams that warn the magi about Herod’s manipulations. It’s always better to take the long way home and still have your head properly attached to the neck. Continue reading →
Matthew 25:31-46 – The Reign of Christ, Final Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, November 23, 2014
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matthew 25:40)
In Matthew’s Gospel, the future reckoning of the “good” and the “bad” hinges on actions in the present moment. With agrarian imagery familiar to his first century believers, Matthew’s Jesus declared the “good” sheep will be saved and rewarded and the “bad” goats will be abandoned, left out.
The bright dawn of Holy sorting is near for the good sheep! Those goats that live alienated from God, those goats that pander to the false gods of greed, avarice, deceit, and selfishness, will soon be cast into darkness.
And yet, doesn’t it always seem like the end times?
Were the Christian crusaders of the Middle Ages, with their menacing swords and fervent faith, the “sheep” or the “goats” as they attacked the “infidels” in the Holy Land? Both sides claimed God’s side. Didn’t their world feel as if it were on the verge of ending then, regardless of which side a soldier’s arrow was launched from?
In recent news, a 22 year-old Union soldier earned the Medal of Honor 151 years after he died trying to thwart Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Both the Union and the Confederacy claimed God’s side. Didn’t their world feel as if it were on the verge of ending then, regardless of which side squeezed a trigger or launched a cannonball? Continue reading →
Matthew 20:1-16 – The 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, September 21, 2014
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard…” (Matthew 20:1)
What’s your favorite Bible passage?
My childhood response was Proverbs 14:34. Look it up, if you want. I’d found it on the inside page of a Bible at my grandparents’ house and memorized the words. Whenever I quoted that verse as “my favorite” in Sunday school classes, teachers looked befuddled. Why hadn’t I chosen the popular John 3:16 (like other kids did), instead of an obscure Old Testament verse? As a kid, I didn’t know what the Proverbs passage meant, but I enjoyed the odd reactions.
I’d bet few claim Matthew 20:1-16’s story about a landowner hiring workers as a “favorite.” In the parable, a landowner was desperate to harvest his Zinfandel and kept driving his dented Ford F-150 to the nearby town. He needed workers, lots of workers, because a good Zin waits for no one. Any card-carrying union workers? Bring ‘em. Any undocumented workers? Bring ‘em. Any slow, fast, inexperienced, and veteran vine dressers? Bring ‘em. Back and forth on the dusty roads, with newly hired hands crowding the truck’s bed, the landowner tried to meet his grape need.
The workers were hired early and often. The workers were promised payment. For some, “the usual daily wage.” For others, “whatever is right.” For a few, there were no promises other than work. Continue reading →