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Posts tagged ‘pharisees’

Losing and Finding Sheep: Empathy

Luke 15:1-10

empathyEmpathy. Do you practice it? Do you experience it with others? What is empathy to you? For me, a simple definition of empathy is when I can imagine what another person is thinking or feeling—not like reading their mind, but just imagining what they think and/or feel, even if I have never experienced such thoughts or feelings myself.

So empathy, in my view, requires imagination.

Currently in this world [and historically too] we as human beings have struggled to empathize with others who are different. Case in point—throughout history certain people have been afraid of other people just because they looked different, ate different foods, wore different clothes [or no clothes], spoke different languages, etc., etc. Today is no different. People fear other people. How else can you explain the horrible attitudes that way too many people have about skin color, that some cannot even say or hear the words BlackLivesMatter? How else can you explain why certain people are afraid of Muslims? Or transgender people? Unfortunately, there are still far too many people in the world who fear other people.

And obviously, this fear leads to scapegoating, oppression, prejudice, and discrimination. After all, if you are not willing to even imagine what another person thinks or feels, how do you expect to see them as humans just like you? So for me, empathy is way more important than all the other things we try to promote so as to create a more just and “equal” society. Those other things aren’t working; can’t you tell? But I think empathy does work. But I need clarify, with the help of psychology and sociology researchers, that there are two kinds of empathy. Affective empathy is when we experience sensations and feelings in response to another’s emotions. It’s like mirroring. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is perspective taking. We have the ability to identify and understand someone else’s emotions.

Empathy, most researchers suggest, is in our DNA. You can observe empathy in animals as well—dogs, primates, etc. Scientists say that empathy is associated with two different pathways in the brain, and they speculate that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, those cells in the brain that fire when we see someone do something much in the same way we would do it. So the research and biological history suggest that empathy is part of our genetic makeup. The problem is not how we are wired. The problem is that we are capable of enhancing or restricting our natural empathetic abilities.[1] So, the difficult thing to face here is that we can choose to empathize with certain people and we can choose NOT to empathize with others.

Disclaimer: I am aware of the reality for certain individuals who are bipolar, autistic, etc. who actually struggle with empathy or who appear to not be able to read another’s emotions at all. There is a lot of research being done on this subject and I by no means am ignoring it. Friends, family members, and colleagues of mine who work/live with children with autism or bipolar disorder experience state that empathy can be taught, though it is more difficult due to difficulty in social communication.Feel free to add your comments below.

All this leads us to two short parables of Jesus of Nazareth, told to a less-than-empathetic crowd of religious elites. Here is the Twitter version of my take:

God looks for those called “lost” by society and simply finds them, no questions asked. Those who make others lost or try to keep them lost are really, truly lost.

The backdrop is that Jesus was being called out by these religious leaders for his tendency to hang out with “sinners” and the “unclean.” You see, for the religious elites, everything boiled down to repentance and redemption, reward and punishment. If you followed the religious rules and remained “clean” in the eyes of God, well, you were okay. If you didn’t, you were outside of God’s realm and pretty much untouchable. Jesus of Nazareth, in this Luke story, seems to be tired of explaining to these religious people why it was so important to see the outcasts and the marginalized as whole human beings who were worthy of love, respect, and community. For Jesus, it was never about repentance or reward and punishment. It was simply about God seeking out and finding those who society ditched. They weren’t lost because they were bad people. They were only lost because society lost them, called them sinners, pushed them away.

And Jesus, in the two parables of the sheep and the coin, refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, namely Ezekiel 34 and the story of the shepherds of Israel who didn’t feed their sheep because they ate all the food themselves. This is a direct shot at the Pharisees and other religious elites who just kept on ignoring the marginalized. They had no imagination. They showed no empathy.

So in the parable, the lost sheep is found. That’s it. That’s the point. The lost sheep is found and welcomed back. No questions asked. Just found. Same with the parable about the lost coin. A woman, the representation of God, lights the lamp, sweeps the house, searches diligently for the lost coin until she spots it. And when she finds it, she celebrates. The coin, like the sheep, is simply lost and then simply found.

And so, in my view, God is an empathetic figure in every way. Neither the shepherd or the woman are concerned with religion, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other category we use as an excuse to not empathize. They just search and search for the lost and then find and find. They can imagine what it’s like to feel lost. They can imagine what it’s like to feel shut out or to be called lesser or unclean or weird. So the real question is: will we imagine? Will we empathize?

I think one of the major problems of “religious” people is that we strive to be “good” or “righteous” and so we do “good” or “righteous” things. But we do these things for some kind of religious reward, in many cases, heaven or the afterlife, i.e. God’s favor. This is a problem, because for all this “good” we try to do we don’t do it out of compassion or empathy for someone’s situation. We do things for a reward. We do things to look good or religious or because we believe some god will favor us. Again, this is a problem, because then those “others” we claim to be “helping” are just a means to an end. They are not really part of our social circles or friendships. Why? Because to be considered “good” you have to hang out with others who are “good” or who are doing “good.” This is why you see so many religious fanatics avoid hanging out with certain kinds of people. This is what the Pharisees were doing.

I think striving to be good or righteous is not what we ought to do.

I think we ought to imagine more.

Imagine what it’s like to be Black in America, to feel heavy stares of mistrust, to feel lesser, unheard, and undervalued; imagine what it’s like to be non-binary, to have to explain oneself to co-workers, friends and family members again and again that gender can be fluid, that being oneself is more complicated and nuanced than just man or woman; imagine what it’s like to be Muslim, to hear and see the comments online or in person, claiming that you are a terrorist, shouting that you should go back to wherever you came from; imagine what it’s like to be a person feeling empty, lost, and alone.

What would happen if we stopped trying so hard to be good and we just imagined some else’s situation and empathized? What if we just did that and acted out of compassion?

[1] 2016 The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

What Do Our Tears Mean?

Luke 7:36 – 8:3

Frederick Buechner[1] wrote:
You never know what may cause tears. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not… God is speaking to you through them—of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you, to where you should go to next.

Do you cry easily and often? Or do you struggle to cry?

What do our tears mean?

cryingAccording to Michael Trimble, British professor at the Institute of Neurology in London, and author of Why Humans Like to Cry, tears are necessary to keep the eyeball moist, and contain proteins and other substances which maintain the eye healthy and to combat infection. Trimble writes: “Humans cry for many reasons, but crying for emotional reasons and crying in response to aesthetic experiences are unique to us.”[2] He goes on to say that tears of joy or sorrow, in other words, the tears that are highly emotional, tell us a lot about ourselves. Emotional crying can help us highlight what’s important and what we need to focus on, says Dr. Lauren Bylsma[3], at the University of Pittsburgh, someone who has conducted various studies about tears and crying.

Tears
I’m sure you probably already knew that there are different types of tears. According to Dr. Bylsma and her co-author Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets, of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, the first type of tears is basal tears. Basically, we cry to lubricate, nourish, and protect our eyes. This can happen involuntarily, of course. The second type of tears is reflex tears. You cut an onion or if you are allergic to things like smoke, pollen, or ragweed, and well, you tear up. Lastly, the third tear type: the tears that we shed after fighting with someone close to us, getting treated badly, empathizing with someone who is suffering, or crying for help. These are emotional tears.

Truthfully, researchers haven’t quite figured out why we cry. They have theories, of course. Some scientists, according to Vassar psychologist Randy Cornelius,[4] say that emotional tears were [and are] ways to signal distress without making noise. You can make others know you are vulnerable by crying, even if you cannot speak a word. Thus, over time, according Dr. Bylsma, humans have developed a purpose for emotional tears, which is to signal that there is a problem or to ask for comfort or support from another.

vulnerableAnd the research shows that crying can be valuable in a cathartic way. If someone cries in a social situation in which the people are accepting, that person is more likely to feel better after crying. In fact, we will feel better than other social situations in which we held back tears, because we felt unsafe, in danger, or embarrassed. Furthermore, other researchers suggest that emotional tears contain stress hormones that the body can physically push out while we are crying, therefore making us feel calmer. And finally, the difference between happy and sad tears is not very big. Dr. Bylsma states that after crying the body returns to “a state of homeostasis after being aroused—whether positively or negatively.”[5]

I’m fascinated by this. I myself do not cry a lot, but when I do, I can say that the majority of the time I feel better afterwards. And, I can also say that if I cry with people who care about me and accept me, the feeling is not unlike euphoria. So what of the crying woman in Luke’s story?

It all took place in Simon the Pharisee’s house, which should tell us something. The Pharisees were mostly in opposition to Jesus of Nazareth’s teaching, and were certainly not happy with Jesus hanging out with the so-called unclean, marginalized, and sinful. Keep in mind, though, that we cannot make the Pharisees out to be the “bad people” because many times in the Gospel stories, the readers [you and I] are supposed to put ourselves in their shoes. Anyway, the story is not about Pharisees as much as it is about a brave woman who was already shunned and who came into the house [she was completely unwelcome] and brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She came from the city, but it is not said that she was a prostitute, as some interpreters say. Clearly, though, in the eyes of Simon, she was a category and not a person. She stood behind Jesus crying her eyes out, and then she covered his feet with tears and tried to dry them with her hair. She then kissed his feet and anointed him with the ointment. Of course, the host Pharisee mumbled under his breath: If this guy really were a prophet, he would have known what kind of woman this is. She’s a sinner.

Jesus then addressed Simon by name and told him a parable. That was, after all, the purpose of such a meeting at the house—debate and discussion. The parable of the two debtors is pretty clear. Both people owed a lot to a money lender; both were forgiven. Who would be more grateful? Logically, the one who owed the most. Simon got it. Would he get that this woman was a human being, capable of love and not just a category?

Once again, in Luke, Jesus turned. Big deal! He turned toward the woman. Then, he said to Simon: do you SEE her? Yes, that’s the climax, folks. Her tears, her love, her expression of sorrow, were all accepted and embraced. She showed hospitality. She had no more debt. She was forgiven. And her tears told that story. What do you think?

Teaser for next week: Luke 8:26-39: what binds you? In other words, what are the things that keep you from being your whole self? What would it feel like to be unbound, free?

[1] Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words
[2] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-humans-like-to-cry/
[3]
http://www.pitt.edu/~bylsmal/
[4]
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129329054
[5]
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/10/tear-facts_n_4570879.html

The Subdued Entry and a Path to Peace

Luke 19:28-40

Peace sayings from various traditions

Hindu tradition
Oh God, lead us from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.  God’s peace, peace, peace to all.

Buddhist tradition
May all beings everywhere be happy, Peaceful, and free.

Jain tradition
Peace and universal love is the essence of all the teachings.
Forgive do I creatures all, and let all creatures forgive me.

Confucian tradition
First there must be order and harmony within your own heart.
Only then can there be peace and harmony in the world.

Native American tradition
Give us the wisdom to teach our children to love, to respect and to be kind to one another that we may grow with peace in mind.

Muslim tradition
Praise be to the Lord of the Universe. Who has created us and made us into tribes and nations, that we may know each other, not despise each other.

Have you ever heard a story that you thought you knew so well, only to discover that you really didn’t know it at all?

It happens all the time, actually. We remember events or moments in our lives and tell stories about them. But often the details of those stories change, according to the new experiences we have had in life and because we’ve had time to interpret what happened. This is very, very human and actually helps us to grow as people and to develop new perspectives and worldviews.

So Palm Sunday, at least the idea of it, is all about a story and how we tell it. Honestly, I understand why some Christian traditions do not observe Palm Sunday, because they are taking the stance that it has become an institutional holiday and not something that inspires us to develop our spirituality or to serve others. Perhaps in some cases that is true, but you could say that about most if not all of Christian traditions. A tradition is only worth something if its purpose is to inspire us to be better people and to treat others better. Otherwise, it’s just a story that we keep making up to serve our own purposes.

So let’s look at the story we always read on Palm Sunday, this time in Luke’s Gospel. Alert: though we’re looking at Luke, we’re really looking at Mark. The Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel written and so the other Gospels often borrow from Mark’s story. In this case, Luke borrows a lot of Mark’s original version of Jesus finally getting close to Jerusalem. There are a few subtle changes, though, that are worth noting. First, I have mentioned before that Luke uses the word “journey” in some way shape or form many, many times. So here again, Luke changes the story to say that Jesus was journeying ahead and going up to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the climax of Luke’s story and the author of Luke refers to Jerusalem more than any of the other Gospels. But before Jerusalem, Jesus journeys through Bethphage-Bethany-the Mount of Olives. Though geographical markers, these places were also significant symbols. In the OT book of Zechariah, the Lord approaches Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives [14:4]. So right away, we get some king and lord references.

And it continues. Jesus sends two of his pals to a village nearby to find a little donkey that has not been ridden. Yet another reference to Zechariah: Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he; humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey [9:9]. So they do find the colt and bring it to Jesus and then they put their cloaks on the colt. Again, Luke says that Jesus is journeying—this time on the donkey.

Along the way, people start spreading their cloaks on the road. Another royal kind of sign. Notice there are no palms in Luke’s version. We’ll get to that in a moment. The people are shouting things, but not hosannas.

Luke has them shout out a portion of Psalm 118, though Luke changes it. The people don’t say, as the Psalm does, blessed is the one, but they say: blessed is the king who comes in the name of the lord. So now that Jesus is journeying towards Jerusalem, Luke finally acknowledges Jesus as some sort of king. And just in case we have forgotten Luke’s story that we read at Christmas, Luke calls the cloak throwing crowd a “multitude of disciples” rejoicing and praising God in a loud voice for mighty works, and in heaven, peace, and glory in the highest!

Cue Linus.

linus-van-peltCue Gloria in Egg-Shell-Seas-Day-O

Cue Christmas carols that you know you don’ t want to hear EVER again….

r-LOUD-NOISE-large570

Luke’s entry to Jerusalem seems happy. A little TOO happy?

At least, for one brief moment. Luke adds verses 39-40, as they don’t appear in Mark’s story.  Some Pharisees speak. They call on Jesus to make his disciples stop their affirmation of him as king.  Jesus responds: “I say to you, if they will hold their peace, the stones will cry out.” The use of the future tense here indicates Jesus’ role as a prophet. This is consistent with Luke’s story, for Luke presents Jesus as a prophetic voice much more than a king or religious ruler. In this story, those who follow Jesus are speaking joyfully of the peace they have found in him. If Pharisees or anyone else try to silence that joy and peacefulness, nature itself will chime in.

I hope the details help you discover some meaning in the story or at the very least, they help you see another perspective about this think people call Palm Sunday.

Because maybe buying palm branches and waving them around sanctuaries, taking them home and pinning them up until they rot and then throwing them away isn’t leading us anywhere special. Maybe we should pay more attention to the people who spread their cloaks and coats on the ground, and even on the back of a donkey. Perhaps they were “all in” for this peaceful and joyful journey in a world that was not so peaceful and joyful.

For there were no trumpets or choral anthems or pretty palms. Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem with the sounds of only a few enthusiastic people. The rest were skeptical, angry, jealous–even violent about this idea of breaking down the walls of separation to create peace within people and peace around the world. And yet, that was this prophet’s wish and all he taught and lived asserted this path to peace.

To close, here these words from Frederick Buechner:

That is what the palms and the shouting are all about. That is what all our singing and worshiping and preaching and praying are all about if they are about anything that matters. That you and I also, each in our own puny but crucial way, will work and witness and pray for the things that make for peace, true peace, both in our own lives and in the life of this land. Despair and hope. They travel the road to Jerusalem together, as together they travel every road we take – despair at what in our madness we are bringing down on our own heads and hope in the one who travels the road with us and for us…approaching every human heart like a city.[1]

May we continue to journey towards peace—peace within ourselves, peace with others, peace around the world.

 

[1] Frederick Buechner, “The Things That Make For Peace” from A Room Called Remember:

Calling All the Prodigals

Luke 15:11-33

From the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures:

To practice forgiveness is fasting, good conduct and contentment.
Dispelled is anger as forgiveness is grasped.
Where there is forgiveness,
There God resides.

HugProdigalPerhaps there is no more-recognizable story from the New Testament Gospels than the story of the prodigal son. You could make a case for the parable of the Good Samaritan, but I think the prodigal story is right up there. In my view, the worth and appeal of a good story is that it can be viewed from various angles. Each time you hear the story, you may notice or feel is somewhat different. This story is like that.

The prodigal parable is a reiteration of the same theme in two other parables: one about a lost sheep and another about a lost coin. In both cases, something is lost and then it is found. Simple enough, right? But we will need to notice the narration in Luke’s Gospel story before the prodigal parable begins. It goes something like this:

Tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. Some Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about that and saying, “This guy welcomes sinners and even eats with them!”

You have to pay attention to that lead-in. In Jesus of Nazareth’s life, he was dealing with people—real people who were treated like dirt and dehumanized. They were called names like tax collector, sinner, leper, etc. And then at the same time, Jesus was dealing with his religious colleagues, the Pharisees and scribes. Don’t assume that this is a clear-cut good vs. evil thing; it’s not. The lost-and-found parables all present the same picture:

The lost were the outcasts of society; the dehumanized; the marginalized.

They were always found and embraced as being priceless.

Those already “found” were the religious elites, the rich, the powerful.

In the end of the story, they ended up lost.

So let’s revisit the story.

The father in the parable ends up giving all his assets to his two sons. The twist is that the younger son asked for his share prematurely, because according to the culture and time period, he was supposed to wait to collect his inheritance. But the younger son oversteps his bounds and asks his dad for the money up front. The dad obliges and splits his assets in half for both sons. It doesn’t take the younger son long to start blowing the money—a couple of days, in fact. But even after he spends it all, he’s still okay being far away from home. That is, until the economy goes in the tank. No food. So he gets a job feeding pigs. He is so hungry, in fact, that he envies the pigs and what they are eating! So they must have been Iberian pigs.

Iberian01Mmmm…..herbs and nuts….

But one day he sort of wakes up and realizes that the people who work for his dad eat pretty well. So why not go back home and work? That way he would at least have food and a better life. So he concocts what he will say to his dad. It is a real dramatic speech, for sure. But as he journeys back home, his dad is already waiting for him excitedly. The son doesn’t even get a chance to give his great speech. His dad runs to him, embraces him, and kisses him. He gets to wear his best robes and there is a huge party. The lost son is now found. The older brother, however, skips the party and sulks out of anger.

A quick observation:

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that the younger son repented.

Perhaps he was just being practical. Read the story carefully. It wasn’t until he ran out of food and realized that working for his dad wouldn’t be so bad that he came up with a speech about being sorry for what he did. One of my professors from Princeton, the late Dr. Donald Juel, shared some insight about this: he suggests that younger siblings like the prodigal son have the advantage of waiting, watching, and learning how to manipulate their parents. In this case, the younger son knows his dad and therefore convinces him to give up the inheritance earlier. He also knows that his dad is a big ‘ole softy and so his speech about not being worthy to be a beloved son but instead a servant would have indeed landed.

This view certainly makes the story more challenging, doesn’t it? Yes, but also more authentic, if you ask me, because forgiveness and showing grace to someone is messy.

Sometimes welcoming a prodigal back with open arms doesn’t lead to repentance or transformation. In fact, showing grace to someone often will not result in a reward and certainly not a big party.

Once you show someone grace, it is up to that person to do something with it.

We don’t know if the younger turned his life around after the party.

This parable, though not a true story, is representing real life. So the younger son represents the so-called tax collectors and sinners who were coming to Jesus. The angry, older son represents the scribes and Pharisees who grumble and complain about those who hang out with Jesus. But all that really matters is that the lost [prodigal] is found and those who are already found [older son, Pharisees, scribes] are lost in their anger and resentment. They miss out on the party.

It’s a story about forgiveness.

Forgiveness. One of the most difficult things to make a part of your lifestyle. I hear it all the time. So I thought about the many obstacles to forgiveness. Here are some quick thoughts about that, some of it from Dr. Thomas G. Plante, in his article the 7 Rules of Forgiveness:[1]

One obstacle is that we sometimes think that forgiving means forgetting completely. That’s certainly not true in the case of someone who is abused, neglected, or victimized. No one should be told to forget the trauma he/she experienced.

Another obstacle to forgiveness is thinking that forgiveness makes a person weak. I think it’s the opposite, actually. When you forgive, you show great strength, because forgiveness takes time and energy and character. The people I’ve known in my life who have forgiven people, even when it was most difficult, were so strong and courageous.

The Weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
-Mahatma Ghandi

And lastly, possibly the biggest obstacle to forgiveness is anger. People find it very difficult to let go of anger. One of the reasons for this is that sometimes we assume that we should feel angry because we hope that the person the anger is directed at will accept our anger and as a result feel sorry for what they did. We assume that this gives us power. It’s the opposite, actually. The more you hold onto anger and resentment, the more you are victimized by it. Psychologists who work with patients who have been severely traumatized note that those who are able to let go of anger feel freer than ever before and also do not feel like victims any longer.

So yes, there are obstacles to forgiveness, but I think that this prodigal story helps us work through them, because the story shows us that forgiveness does not depend on the other person apologizing or accepting your offer of forgiveness. The father forgave the son even before he had a chance to apologize. The younger son does not repent at all and there is no indication that he felt sorry for what he did, because that’s not the point of Jesus’ parable.

The Pharisees, scribes, and even some of Jesus’ disciples wanted fairness in forgiveness. They wanted reward and punishment.

Oftentimes we want fairness in forgiveness, too.

The characters in the story felt that some deserved to be lost and others to be found. But Jesus rejected such a notion. Instead, he argued that the prodigal was found by forgiveness, not repentance. Moving forward, the younger son would then have to choose what he would do with that forgiveness.

Yes, this story is complicated, but it’s good news, too. Who doesn’t need forgiveness? Who wouldn’t appreciate a little grace now and then? The key is to realize that God doesn’t differentiate between prodigals. Whoever is lost is meant to be found—wherever they are on their journey. Forgiveness and grace don’t come in neat packages; they are extravagant actions. They know no boundaries or categories; they just are.

So whether today you find yourself feeling like quite the prodigal—marginalized, lost, left out—remember that you’re worth being found. And when forgiveness is offered to you, do something with it. Pay it forward.

And if during this part of your journey you feel that you’re not a prodigal, remember that we’re not made to just hang out with the people who seem “together” or “found,” whatever that means. Instead, we are supposed to seek out and befriend those who feel lost, or hurt, or pushed to the margins of society. Why? Because they deserve to be treated as the human being they are. So be lavish in your forgiving and grace giving to others. Don’t hold onto anger. Let all the prodigals, including you, experience the healing and transformation of forgiveness.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/do-the-right-thing/201403/7-rules-forgiveness

Money, Religion, and Politics—Oh My!

Matthew 22:15-22

Lions and tigers and bears—oh my!

But in this case, it’s money and religion and politics—oh my!

Yes, that’s right. It’s time to talk about these SCARY things. It IS almost Halloween, after all.
Let’s talk about money, first, which leads to politics, which leads to religion!

Jesus of Nazareth probably wouldn’t be invited to anyone’s Thanksgiving dinner, because apparently he really liked talking about money. He talked about it a LOT. A whole lot more, in fact, than he ever talked about sexual orientation—or sex in general.

Oh wait—he didn’t talk about sex.

But money—well…

Money and taxes were reality in the 1st and 2nd Century for the people of Israel and Palestine. Some may argue that things have not changed much. Well, I will beg to differ, because it was different back then and over there in that part of the world. Let’s give culture and history it’s due here; let’s look at money and taxes in this particular context.

Jews like Jesus in first century Palestine paid numerous taxes: They paid temple taxes, land taxes, customs taxes, and even more. But the “tax” that Jesus is asked about in this particular story is the Imperial tax paid as tribute to Rome. This tax supported the Roman occupation of Israel.

Um, sad, no? The Romans occupied Israel [not their land], but Israelis had to pay taxes to their oppressors.

But of course, as in every situation, some sided with the oppressors.

There were Jewish folk put in power by the Romans and they benefited from the occupation. So obviously, they supported the tax.

One more layer to it: those who were religiously devout [think about the Pharisees] had to pay this Imperial tax with a coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius; this picture was a proclamation of his divinity; having the coin itself would mean breaking the first two Commandments of Mosaic Law. So by paying this tax, the religious leaders were in fact honoring Caesar as a god. Obviously, the temple authorities were ultra-sensitive about this issue. And then Jesus started making them more sensitive about, it because…

Jesus taught that the Roman imperial system left out certain people.

Jesus said that the last should actually be first in God’s world. He told a story just before this episode about a wedding reception hosted by a king. Many rich people and dignitaries were invited, but they ignored the invitation. In the end, the king ended up inviting anyone he could find even from the streets, and they filled his banquet hall.

The injustice of the social systems mixed with the apathy of the religious leaders had put things out of balance.

But the Pharisees could not see that in Jesus’ message, for they were far too worried about, you guessed it—

Money, religion, and politics…oh my!

So they asked Jesus a trap question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? No good way to answer that.

So Jesus asked them a question.

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.
Whose face is on the coin, and whose title?

How quickly the Pharisees produced said coin which was a symbol of Roman oppression and a sure sign that these very religious leaders were actually compliant in this unjust system. They eagerly showed Jesus the coin and told him that it was the Emperor’s face on it.

And while they considered the sad irony of all this and held tightly to the Emperor’s coin, Jesus quipped:

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s.

This was Jesus asking them to wake up and notice that they were contributing to the injustice. None of their religious piety mattered, because it was empty. They cared more about the coin with the face on it; they cared more about their precious religious laws than they cared about the poor, the lonely, the oppressed, the forgotten.

So who were they? Were they Caesar’s subjects, or God’s children?

It’s a sharp question—and one we often avoid.

Because political affiliations [or lack thereof] tend to be very personal; we don’t like to talk about it. But many remain very loyal to said affiliations. And the way we spend and earn money is nobody’s business, we say. But meanwhile, we often measure ourselves [and others] by how much money we have or how many material possessions we own.

And then there’s religion. We say we don’t want politics or money mixed in with religion. But sadly, many churches are full of poisonous politics and gossip and people vying for control; churches even favor certain people who have more money and listen less to those with very little money.

So like the Pharisees, we often miss the point.

We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about money, religion, and politics. They are part of life. We should not fear such things.

But they cannot be how we define ourselves.

Who are we? Are we subjects in an empire, loyalists to faces on a coin? Are we limited by our material wealth and boxed in by politics?

Or, are we children, created equally with the capacity to love and to show mercy, and to be impartial as the Creator is?

I’ve always felt that faith communities ought to inspire this kind of positive identity in people. Faith communities should be teaching and telling people that they are created in the image of God and all equal—with gifts to share, with purpose and potential; with the tools to love and to make a difference.

Churches [and people in general, for that matter] should never define people by their politics, religion, or how much money they have.

Instead, what if the coins with the faces on them did not matter so much to us? What if our religious and political affiliations also mattered less?

What if our behavior—how we live our lives and how we treat people, mattered the most?

The Pharisees are meant to be examples. We are supposed to walk in their shoes. Because like them, many of us have found ourselves getting too caught up in the politics of power, the pursuit of material wealth, and the imperialism of religion.

Unfortunately, a lot of people are members of churches only because their parents forced them to go or because it’s the status quo or merely because a particular church aligns with their political or social worldviews.

But I think that more and more people in this world want to commit only to things that make a real social impact in the world. More and more people of all ages and backgrounds want to find something like a spark or a light within themselves. And they want to join their light with others to make an even brighter one.

So friends, let money, religion, and politics, be what they are. Don’t let them define you.

Instead, be defined by the beauty and light given to all living creatures. Be defined by how you love and care for others.

Mercy and Compassion Come Out!

Matthew 15:10-28

This week I was taking with a guy I know who works in a store that I shop in frequently. He and I always have funny or interesting conversations. This time, we were joking about his nickname and his favorite superhero, and then, he told me an unexpected story that I will now paraphrase. He said:

When I worked in another store, I used to wear my stocking cap down over my hair. And, you know, since I am not as “black” as other African-Americans, this guy who worked with me kept staring at me and then finally he said to me:

What are you? Are you Puerto Rican or something?

I then took off my hat to reveal to him my hair, which I assumed would show that I was indeed black.

Oh…

He said.

You are one of those good-looking blacks…

My friend, as he finished the story, said that he didn’t curse out the other individual, but simply remarked about how shocked he was, and also how inappropriate the comment was.

Truthfully, it makes me sick to my stomach to think that we still do this to each other.

What are you?

Oh, you are one of those good-lookin’ blacks…

And yet, this is all too real.
Racism. Prejudice. Discrimination.

Words many Anglos avoid using.

But they are more than words to many, many people who are black or brown; very real to people who are discriminated against or mistreated simply because of the color of their skin, their cultural or national background, or their religious background.

Of course, after my friend told his story, we started talking about Ferguson, MO and Mike Brown and racism in the U.S. and white privilege. Many people choose not to talk about these things because they are too heavy or maybe because the topic makes them uncomfortable or maybe because they prefer to live in isolation from what is really happening in the world.

But the thing is, we have to talk about how we treat people.

We have to be aware of prejudice and stop denying its existence. And those who have privilege and never have to look over their shoulder in a store because someone might think they will steal something; or who never have to fear police officers in particular neighborhoods or immigration officers and the TSA in airports; or who never have to put up with ignorant, offensive comments about their skin color, nationality, or language—those with privilege need to accept that much of society is built upon prejudice systems that favor only a few and push down many others.

If we ignore that, we are compliant.

And all people—not just people of faith—should care about people in Ferguson, MO; in North Philly; in Central America; in Iraq; in Gaza. They are our neighbors and we must remember that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. So said Martin Luther King. And so hatred and violence against anyone due to the color of their skin, their nationality, or their religious background should matter to us.

Even if it does not happen directly to us.

And now to the Matthew story.

Jesus of Nazareth leads with this:
Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.

Apparently, this was an inflammatory thing to say, because the disciples were worried. Why?

The Pharisees were offended; this scared the disciples because they obviously cared more about appearance and pleasing people than they did about the truth of what was going on.

The “what was going on” part has to do with rules, once again. The Pharisees, the disciples, and others were more concerned with what people ate and drank, what they read and studied, what they put “into” the mouth [or mind], rather than what actually came “out” or in other words, how they behaved.

Jesus was getting impatient with his own disciples.
What goes into the mouth goes into the stomach and into the sewer.
What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.

People’s hearts inspire them to do evil, hate, murder, steal, lie, etc.
But if someone doesn’t wash their hands, in other words, if he/she does not follow your specific rules, that doesn’t make him/her a sinner.

And then, the disciples are tested, and they fail the test miserably.
They are in Tyre and Sidon and a Cannanite woman starts shouting:

Have mercy on me! My daughter is tormented by a spirit.

The disciples get impatient.

Let’s go, Jesus. Send her away. She’s annoying us.

The woman [and her daughter] do not count. They are unimportant to the disciples.
Wasn’t Jesus supposed to help the people of Israel first?
Shouldn’t he give his teachings and his healing and his time to them?
The disciples thought so.

So nobody listened to the Canaanite woman.

But the woman was persistent and came to Jesus of Nazareth and knelt before him.

Help me.

She was called a dog and not worthy to eat at the table with everyone else.

But what came from her heart impressed Jesus.
The mere crumbs would be enough. She was not a dog, but a human asking for healing. She deserved to be heard, to be treated like everyone else; to be afforded the same opportunities.

And so the healing happened.

The story is relevant for today.

Many times, Christians are just like the disciples and just like the Pharisees. We argue and argue about religious rules, cultural norms, and who is clean or unclean. We crave attention for ourselves and wish none for others. It’s about me, me, me or us, us, us and we forget about her or him or them.

We focus too much on appearance; we focus too much on the outside.
We ignore what comes from the heart—real human behavior.

And in doing so, we ignore and disenfranchise others; we say they don’t count.
We don’t listen to them; we send them away.

Friends, the story cuts deep, does it not?

I wonder how much good we could do in the world if we focused less on the surface and more on the behavior that comes OUT of people. What words do we say? What actions do we perform? And…most importantly, how do we treat other people?

The Matthew story is a challenge to anyone who thinks that believing in Jesus or God or religion is enough. The disciples said they believed. But then they were still worried about appearance and wanted to push away a woman asking for healing.

Where was the mercy and compassion that was supposed to come out of their belief?

Where is our mercy and compassion that comes out of our belief?

In Ferguson, Missouri; in Gaza; in Iraq; in Syria; in West Africa; in Central America; in Philly and in Warminster.
Where is our mercy and compassion?

Perhaps this is a lament more than anything else.
I’m saddened and maddened by how poorly we treat each other in this world.
And how people are ignoring Michael Brown’s story, and the story of others who have been attacked because of their skin color.

Are we listening to their stories?
Or are we pushing them away?

It is sad that Twitter has to explode with #dontshoot for people to pay attention.

Howard University students shouldn’t have to do this to get people to listen to the cries of those who suffer discrimination every day in this country.

howardunivPrayers are fine but not enough when teenagers are shot out of fear.
This doesn’t need to happen.

The appearance that we live in an accepting and open country is a fallacy.
Prejudice is alive and well once you move past the surface.
There are imbedded systems that are built on prejudice and give advantage to a certain few while pushing down others.

So people of faith [and no faith], let’s stop being silent about it.

Stop justifying it.
Stop ignoring the real stories of those around you.
Listen to them.

And when you see or hear this kind of prejudice, don’t stand by and watch it happen. Don’t be a bystander.

Any of your friends, family, or neighbors who make prejudice comments—challenge them; call them out. Don’t put up with it, because you care more about the heart and aren’t fooled by the surface.

Be friends with people who are different than you. Stand up for anyone who is pushed down.

May the behavior that comes out of your heart be more important than any appearances you try to keep up.

Let mercy and compassion come out!

P.S. I have permission to share the following comments from one of the members of the church I serve:

We haven’t mentioned anything to our daughter–she’ll be 10 next month and probably at that age where we should talk to her about these things, but she is so naive and innocent still. We want her to stay that way for as long as possible. 🙂

We believe in setting a high bar for these girls to reach, because they will reach it. We believe in teaching them to be kind and thoughtful first and foremost. We believe in showing them how to set a good example for others to follow.

And in doing those things they will SHOW people that maybe their initial judgment of them, based on skin color, was incorrect and maybe teach someone something without even realizing they were doing so.

That is our hope.

I know some day they are going to get awakened to racism and pre-judgment. But I hope when they are, they are strong enough to know who they are and don’t let it define them. 

Is Sin for Real?

John 9:1-41

 adam.eve.serpent.jpegThe Temptation, Hugo van der Goes, 1470

 What is sin?

Man, what a complicated question that is!

Of course, there is no way to address such a question in a short time.

But it will be helpful to start with the English word itself and work backwards.

So let’s do some etymology of this modern English word sin.

It derives from the Middle English sinne from Old English sinn, which means injury, mischief, enmity, feud; sin, guilt, crime. In Proto-Germanic language it is truth and excuse. Put them together and it’s truly non-excusable.

Anyone feeling really, really guilty yet?

Okay, but of course, English is only one language and those words I just mentioned come from somewhere else. Let’s go a lot farther back in history. Let’s look at ancient Hebrew and Ancient Greek.

In Hebrew, the most common word used for the English word sin is chata’ah.

This means: to miss the mark, to be absent.

Chata’ah

 חֲטָאָה

This is not the only word for sin, but it is the most commonly used.

In most Jewish thought, humans are said to have inclinations towards both good and evil. There is no concept of “original sin.”

I like this explanation from Rabbi Yalkut Shimoni, in the Midrash on Psalm 25:

He describes a sort of “panel discussion” in which the question “what is sin?” is asked to four different authorities — Wisdom, Prophecy, Torah and G-d.

According to Wisdom sin is a harmful deed.
According to Prophecy it is death.
Torah sees it as folly.
And G-d sees it as an opportunity.

Now. Let’s turn to the NT Koine Greek. The most common word for sin is:

ἁμαρτία, hamartia

It means basically the same thing as chata’ah–to miss the mark.

Of course, like in ancient Hebrew, ancient Greek has various words for what is translated “sin” in English, including: forgetting, making an unintentional mistake, being ignorant, or intentionally crossing a line/going too far.

Overall, in ancient Greek thought, sin was looked upon as a failure on the part of a person to achieve his/her true self-expression; a state of ignorance or an action that failed to preserve his/her relationship to the living beings all around.

So…no original sin quite yet.

In fact, you’ll have to wait until the end of the fourth century C.E.

The Original Sin Greatest Hits Compilation CD that you can buy for only $19.99 and receive a free half-eaten Eden apple—was made popular by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Ah, what would we do without the guilt soundtrack?

guilty girl comic

It is of course the idea that all humans have inherited the weakness and sinful, fallen nature of Adam [who apparently was dumber than Eve]. According to the concept of original sin, you and I are all doomed to follow the path of sin, personally condemned and guilty from birth.

And this, for Western Christians, became the reason why Jesus died on the cross.

If everyone is personally and corporately guilty, someone has to pay the price to make us all feel a little better. So enter the idea of atonement or substitution—that Jesus needed to suffer and die in order for sins to be forgiven.

Anyone feeling guilty yet?
Look, this is just the short, short version.

This brings us to 2014 and how we define sin.
For younger generations, the concept of sin is less relevant. But basically everyone is familiar with the term and for the most part, people equate sin with morality.

Each culture around the world determines what is “right” and what is “wrong” and the “wrong” thing becomes “sin.”
Lest you think that we are drifting into moral relativism, let me show you what I mean.

There have been countless surveys related to morality and what people think is acceptable in a particular society.
Ellison Research [Phoenix] found that 87% of U.S. adults believe in the existence of sin, which they define as “something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective.”

The Pew Research Center has done various projects, studying what people think about morality around the world.[1]
They began by asking: must people believe in God to be moral?

pew1.jpeg
And then, should homosexuality be rejected or accepted?
peworientation.jpeg

 Or what about issues like abortion or stem cell research?
pewmoralassessments.jpeg

And finally, look at this recent Gallup poll: U.S. Perceived Moral Acceptability of Behaviors and Social Policies.
gallupmorality.jpeg

And…not making an appearance in any of these polls:
killing people
invading a country
taking people’s land
eliminating a culture or language
getting as rich as possible by any means necessary
creating monocultures for growing food products
oppressing people for reasons of gender, sexual orientation, religious background, or ethnicity

Go ahead and add your missing sins…
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Is sin for real?

I mean, today sin is simply morality codes. Sin is completely tied to particular cultures and societies—what people determine is “right” or “acceptable” and what is not.

But I want to challenge you to dig deeper and to think deeply.

We’ve used our own moral rules in society to single out others based on their different behaviors.

We’ve even gone so far as to say that our moral rules come from God and are superior to other people’s moral rules.

See, this sin thing is about separation. Many cultures around the world [including the Hebrew and Greek communities] understood this separation to be going missing, falling asleep, mistaking our true identity.

So we need to hear this story about a blind man, because it screams at us to just stop judging others in the way that we still do.

For just like in the story, we have used things like illness, oppression, poverty, gender, sexual orientation, language, nationality, skin color, religion—to be “sins” that separate us from our humanity.

In the 1st and 2nd Century in Israel and Palestine, many thought that illnesses were caused by sin. Those who were blind, deaf, disabled physically or mentally—were typically left on the edges of society and marginalized.

Reminds me of this powerful Frida Kahlo painting, Sin Esperanza.
sinesperenzaFrida.jpeg Sin Esperanza, Frida Kahlo, 1945

This marginalizing of so-called “sick sinners” did not sit well with Jesus.

According to him, the blind man in the John story didn’t sin and neither did his parents. Jesus didn’t judge him but instead spit on the ground and made clay out of his saliva and then rubbed it on the blind man’s eyes. Then Jesus told the man to go to the pool of Siloam. Siloam means sent. The man went, washed the spit-clay from his eyes in the pool of Siloam, and he came back.

But he came back seeing.

Many love to take any healing in the Bible as literal, but before you jump to that conclusion, consider this:
Total blindness is the complete lack of form and visual light perception. Clinically, it is often written as NLP:

No Light Perception.

Not that’s curious, don’t you think?
No light perception?

Well, Jesus of Nazareth just happened to teach a LOT about light and perception of light, and just about everyone he healed experienced some sort of en-light-ening. This is one of those cases in which the meaning is very clear. Be reminded of John’s Gospel beginning in chapter 1:

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.[2]

If we choose to wake up and see the meaning of the story:
Healing does not have to be literal.
Healing does not fit into our categories.
Blindness or any kind of sickness is not about sin.
And when someone is healed, we ought to just celebrate and not judge.

In the story, the people who knew the former-blind man wanted to know HOW he was healed. What did he do to pay for his sin? None of his answers sufficed.

So they brought him to the Pharisees on the Sabbath day. Not supposed to work on the Sabbath, right? So Jesus messed up, right? But…how could Jesus be a sinner, if the blind man was healed? The ideology of sin equaling illness or punishment was falling apart. People started to doubt.

That’s what happens when you start asking questions about all these rules we make up;
that’s what happens when we question this concept of sin.

But in the story, the Pharisees [and others] just couldn’t accept a world in which they couldn’t point to certain people and say: Sinner!

Without that ability to judge others, what did they have left?
They might as well kick this guy out of the temple. And so they did.

But outside the temple, the now-seeing man met Jesus again. See last week’s [Leaving the Church to Find God]. Jesus asked him: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” This phrase was well-known. It’s an ancient phrase, Semitic in its origin. Jews, Greeks, Romans, others knew it. It does not mean Messiah or Savior. Son of man appears in the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] and 80+ times in the NT Gospels. Son of man means human.

Jesus said: “I am human—a person, just like you.”

And just in case we STILL don’t get it, Jesus continues:
I came into this world for judgment so that those who don’t see may see, and those who do see may become blind.

All those who claim to see and judge others as sinners or blind are actually the ones who don’t see.

Do we see?

Defining sin can limit what is possible; we can worship our rules & morals.
We want explanations, formulas, linear answers, concrete solutions, and strategic plans for life’s problems.

And yet, healing is not restrictive.
Our humanity is not restrictive.

Jesus of Nazareth did not see sin as many of us do. People were not blind, crippled, poor, hungry, or marginalized from society because of something bad they did. And the light and healing of God was not restricted to so-called “good” and “moral” people.

Light was and is available to all.

Healing is available to all.

Light can wake us up, make us more present, help us to recognize our humanity, help us to see.
Those who claim to “know” who is sinning and who is not are completely blind, asleep, missing the mark…absent from reality.

Friends, what would it be like if we stopped focusing on sin?

What if we stopped pointing fingers and embraced everyone’s humanity?

What if instead we focused on our true humanity: our ability to love, to heal, to help, to forgive, to be truly alive?

May we wake up, be present, and open our eyes to this.

[1] http://www.pewglobal.org

[2] John 1:4,5,9, NRSV.

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