What really scares you?

The Readings for the 30th Thursday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Certus sum enim quia neque mors, neque vita, neque angeli, neque principatus, neque virtutes, neque instantia, neque futura, neque fortitudo, neque altitudo, neque profundum, neque creatura alia poterit nos separare a caritate Dei, quae est in Christo Jesu Domino nostro. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

JMJ

All right, yes. It is All Hallows’ Eve; in fact as I write it is after first vespers. But this reading at Mass this morning made me cry. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. I’ve been thinking about this all day. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. And yesterday’s reading said all things are working for our good. Follow st. Paul’s argument in this chapter:

The flesh is weak. We are born in the Flash and we are tempted by the flesh. Yet through adoption in Christ, we are children of God, Children of the spirit. And in this adoption in this Grace we are victorious. And so everything that was bad before now only leads us closer to God. Everything that was a threat before now is completely destroyed. Paul, of course, is not saying that we cannot be hurt by the sword but he is saying the sword cannot hurt anything important.

You may remember Orwell’s 1984. I don’t remember a lot of it, but Room 101 sticks with me. In Room 101 the state applied torture to the worst traitors. The torture was the thing the traitor most feared: “the worst thing in the world.” For the hero of the book, Winston Smith, the worst thing is rats. He is tortured (by fear – not by physical pain) into saying that his lover, Julia, should be fed to the rats instead of him. That’s all it takes: giving up of his love: making his own avoidance of pain to be of more importance than her experience of it. Once he had thrown Julia under the bus he didn’t need to be tortured anymore. He was let go.

I wrote yesterday, if I lose Jesus, literally nothing else matters. If I gain Jesus, literally nothing else matters. Paul, today, tells us as long as we walk forward through anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword, death, life, angels, principalities, the present, the future, powers, height, depth – forward always in faith – we will be victorious. Paul knows that the flesh will chicken out at any one of those things, or pride might make us “buck up” despite our fear. Paul wants us to know that the Love of God in Christ is the only thing that matters.

What scares you? I don’t mean, are you scared of heights or Stephen King movies. What really scares you? What conversations make you feel backed into a corner over your faith? What scares you the most about having to be a confessional Christian at some point? Losing your job? Losing your home? Losing your ability to support your family or yourself? Paul was writing to a people who could lose their life – and did – by the hundreds. And he was telling them that, yes, you could die. But that there was a more important victory gained by that death. I think he would say the same to us: yes, all that you fear is possible – and more. But so what, he would continue, you still have Christ!

Tomorrow’s feast of All Saints can be called the feast of all those who didn’t give a fig for things that scared them. I’m not saying they didn’t get scared, mind you, but they went forward anyway. Sometimes that can just be war or a social injustice. They picked up their cross and manfully strode forward even though they knew, in the end, on that cross they would be nailed down.

It’s All Hallows’ Eve: a night filled with scary things that shouldn’t scare Christians at all. But there are many things in this world to be afraid of. Still: not worth a fig compared to the glories yet to come. What have we to be afraid of that Jesus has not already conquered?

Salvific Synergy of SIn

If everyone gets in, God wins. I call it the God Wins Law.

En to Pan

The Readings for the 30th Wednesday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Domine, si pauci sunt, qui salvantur? 
Lord, will only a few people be saved?

JMJ

As with other questions, this one is transparently not what it seems and Jesus sees through it. Notice how Jesus instantly goes from “will only a few people…” to “you must…” Jesus knows that the question will only a few people be saved is really a coverup for, “How little do I have to do?” the man that’s not wondering if his notoriously sinful stepfather will actually get into heaven. The man thinks “If my notoriously sinful stepfather can get into heaven I don’t need to worry about it.” This often becomes the God-Win’s question: God’s going to let everyone in – including Hitler – so why bother? If Hiter can get into heaven then it’s ok. Or: if even Hitler can get into heaven, then this is all a load of fewmets striking windmills.

Domine, si pauci sunt, qui salvantur? We’re asking is there hope for me? If it’s only a few, there’s really nothing to be done, let us despair and fall into grave sin. Jesus puts it back on us: Contendite intrare per angustam portam : quia multi, dico vobis, quaerent intrare, et non poterunt. Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. This is the same lesson as “a camel passing through the eye of a needle”. It’s hard enough for this thing to happen – with all the things of this world, with all the pains, distractions, joys. I saw a four-box comic today in which a cat is looking at autumn leaves and comments, “Life is transitory… but so enchanting.” That’s all of us: we become enchanted by the things of this world. We struggle for a little while, but then we fall back into watching the world and being enmeshed by it.

Scimus autem quoniam diligentibus Deum omnia cooperantur in bonum. We know that all things work for good for those who love God. This line from St Paul is the hinge, on which these two readings turn. For really, omnia (the Greek word is πᾶν pan) means “all”. All. ALL. All things. If you love God, then all things are working for your good: Paul’s Greek phrase is πάντα συνεργεῖ panta synergei. If you love God, then your past sins are not wiped out (as I heard in a sermon on Sunday from the Master of the Dominican Order). God doesn’t forget (God can’t forget), rather God repurposes. By the grace of God in the sacrament of confession – even your sins are turned into stepping stones towards heaven. All things. All means all. Even the things that you have to dredge up in a life confession, even the things from high school that make you blush.

There’s great comfort here in realizing that I am the only sinner I will ever know. No one but you knows what you’ve done (even if you tell me, I can’t look into the state of your soul when you were doing it). I am literally the only person I can look at and say, “I knew that was wrong. I knew why it was wrong. And I dismissed all that and did it anyway.” I don’t need to rewrite your sins – or even know them, they don’t exist.

Other things work for our good too – all things – that abusive parent, the job that objectified you and fired you for illegal reasons (but you can’t prove it), the sexual partner that ruined your teen years, the accident on the freeway that made you late for work, the wildfire that destroyed your house, the wind that sent you to Oz, the wardrobe that sent you to Narnia, the rocket that exploded in midair and made you afraid of flight. The job that opened your eyes to new careers, the teacher that changed your mind about world history, the baker that gave you free coffee, the priest that makes you laugh in confession. The cat, the computer, the laundry, the bus that breaks down in the middle of the Californian desert so you can’t get to a wedding on time… all things work for our good. There is only one good, though: entering through the narrow gate.

Passing through the narrow gate, I want only to hear one thing: Wow, you made it. The crown of heavenly witnesses may only gasp and let out a sigh of relief, but I pray to hear Wow, you made it.

If I lose Jesus, literally nothing else matters. If I gain Jesus, literally nothing else matters.

SNAFU

Our greatest boons become our greatest banes. The more we prop up, the more falls down. Yet we continue, refusing to listen.

The Readings for the 30th Tuesday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Scimus enim quod omnis creatura ingemiscit, et parturit usque adhuc. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;

JMJ

Have you ever had a bad manager or a boss who couldn’t lead? Hopefully, this is not now! If you remember, a broken leader ruins everything. Man was intended by God to have the place of kingship in Creation; to rule in God’s name (and some think, possibly, in God’s power) over the world. But man fell. Paul says all of creation suffering s because of us: the fall of man broke everything. This doesn’t mean that plants and animals are stained by original sin but rather that the management is so dysfunctional that everything else sucks.

What’s that mean for us? We can’t know. Everything is broken – even the tools we have available to us (as of perception and expectation, experience and knowledge) are all disordered. What we see, what we find out, what we can know is limited not by our ability but by our broken perception. Life feeds on life now – not just animals, but humans as well, and when we die our bodies compost and rot and our souls depart. This is not as it should be: we don’t know what it should be, but we know it’s wrong. Our very heart cry out – even watching Wild Kingdom we know that the cute animals are going to get eaten. Yet, we know the predators have to eat as well. We can’t reconcile this. Could we have if we had been the rightful kings of creation?

Even when we try to fix things we make things worse. What have we done in the last half-century to fix things? What has not made things worse? Recycling seemed like a good idea, but it’s not working unless shipping all our plastic to China seems like a way to save oil. We’ve tried to save plants and animals by carving out tiny strips of their homeland, like reservations on which they can be trapped in dwindling populations. We find more and more ways to do things we don’t need: like travel, shop, consume luxuries, and be offended. Yet we do so at great expense to our world and yes, I know I’m saying this on a computer.

Our greatest boons become our greatest banes. The internet is a warehouse of porn and child abuse. Airtravel destroys our atmosphere. Cars ruin our lives. Electricity starts fires, kills birds, and ruins our sleep cycles. Our ability to produce huge quantities of food has resulted in nutritional deficiency, addiction to sugar, and perhaps even genetic damage. Our technology destroys older cultures, habitats, and our own jobs. Our democracy elects demagogues. Our freedoms become license. Our liberty becomes hate. The more we prop up, the more falls down. Yet we continue, refusing to listen.

Softly Jesus whispers about the kingdom, Simile est fermento, quod acceptum mulier abscondit in farinae sata tria, donec fermentaretur totum. It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened. Take it from a San Francisco baker: Jesus wasn’t talking about a packet of yeast, but rather sourdough. Jesus knew from his Mother how to bake bread. You have a pinch of yeasted dough from the last batch that you keep. You put that into the new batch and the whole thing turns into yeasted dough. Take a pinch of dough and save it for next time. We are that pinch of dough, Christians. A little leavening in the societal dough results in the whole thing rising.

What are we doing about this?

This Line Runs Through the Human Heart

I know the Pharisee is the Bad Guy: but how we end up praying like him is important.

The Readings for the 30th Sunday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Oratio humiliantis se nubes penetrabit, et donec propinquet non consolabitur, et non discedet donec Altissimus aspiciat. Et Dominus non elongabit : et judicabit justos, et faciet judicium : et Fortissimus non habebit in illis patientiam, ut contribulet dorsum ipsorum. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.

JMJ

These two get their own Sunday Feast in the Byzantine liturgy. We’re reminded to be not like the Pharisee and to be rather like the Tax Collector. Still, Sirach says that God listens to everyone. But he leans on the side of the weak, the poor, the orphan, the widow. We want to make sure we’re on the right side, of course, and although the Just will be heard, regardless of who they are, the poor get heard first. So, it’s entirely possible that God will hear the Pharisee in the Gospel today when he prays. But we want to be on the right side. It’s easy to see where Jesus was going: this dude was doing it right. That dude didn’t even do it. That said, a parable is not a 1:1 correspondence. It’s not a story about all Jews are bad (the Tax Collector was a Jew as well) nor is it a story about Pharisees (who were, actually, the liberal party in Judaism at this time). It’s not a story about Rabbinic Judaism, nor is it a thing about the social outcasts.

The Greek doesn’t even say that the Pharisee is praying properly: the Bad Guy is, in Jesus words, praying πρὸς ἑαυτὸν pros heauton “towards himself”. The Pharisee starts out with a traditional prayer within Judaism: “Blessed are you O Lord, Our God, King of the Universe, who has made me a man…” and then gets lost ruminating. The Pharisee is doing what many of us do when we get to Mass, really: an attempted prayer becomes a falling down a rabbit warren inside the heart, planning lunch for after, thinking about shopping lists, or what happened on the way to Church this morning. The Rosary goes from “meditating on the passion” to “thinking about that guy I hate at the office” rather suddenly. My evening prayers seem to always get taken over by thinking about moving the furniture.

The Tax Collector can’t remember liturgical prayer and says only what’s really on his heart: ἱλάσθητί μοι hilastheti moi. (This not the origin of the Jesus Prayer, which is a different verb.) Be propitious to me, or even propitiate for me. He sticks with something short and sweet. He doesn’t brag. He just asks God for help.

Honestly: we are both of these things, right? It matters not if one is a rigid Trad or a floppy Mod. One can be lost in ruminations and pride, or one can be praying from the heart. We can read from a book or make it up as we go along. But either way, if we’re’ not careful, we might find ourselves thinking “Whoa, where did she get that dress?” or “Dang, I really need to get denture tablets on the way home.”

Who or what triggers your Pharisee moments? When do you go from talking to God to talking to yourself? When do you catch yourself – or do you not? Is it a moment of lust, or of envy? Is it a moment of judgment? Do you find yourself lamenting the aging soprano that can’t keep up with her section, or does the altar server in sneakers drive you bonkers? Maybe you make it your business to know all the folks who are in cohabitations, or the same-sex couples that are actually couples. Does Father have some liturgical ticks that suck all the blood out of your face or do his homilies leave you wondering about the possibility of having him replaced by a simplex priest? When you get ready to pray is it work that you end up thinking about?

In a podcast I listen to, a priest admitted that sometimes his prayer consists of running into the chapel, placing both hands on the tabernacle, and screaming. Thus the spirit, with cries and groans, prays through us! It would seem by today’s Gospel that such a prayer is more effective than sitting with a prayerbook, finding the prayer, reading the prayer, and closing the prayerbook. I know the Pharisee is the Bad Guy: but how we end up praying like him is important. How can we pray more like the Publican?

Pro Invicem

JMJ

The Readings for Tuesday in the 30th week of Ordinary Time (B2)

Subjecti invicem in timore Christi.
Being subject one to another, in the fear of Christ. 

Paul opens up this passage with a command that gets lost in the shuffle of modern political readings of scripture. Focus on the command not on the elucidation. Serving… being subject to one another. How does that seem to us today?

Evidently, when two powerful males are introduced, the games of power mean that whoever extends their hands first means they are being subservient. Also evidently if you let someone go ahead of you on the Highway, you are indicating that you know you are blocking traffic. I’ve read (on twitter) that letting a woman enter a door before me is actually a sign that I am in control: I’m not being polite or subject to the other party.

Silly psycho-political games we play.

And yet, Jesus does say that whoever would lead… must be the servant of all. To use our broken ideas of Psychology, then… while Pope Benedict (above) washes the feet of folks on Maundy Thursday… Pope Francis must be making quite the power play by washing the feet of prisoners:


Or, perhaps, humility is a thing in itself and we should not let modern political babble confuse us.

We are to be servants of each other.  We are to be subject one to another.

This can be harder than it sounds. Social norms are as hard to navigate as white water rafting at night. Trying to figure out who’s in a room is enough for me: placing myself at the service of the least in the room requires figuring out who they are. I blurt out questions when it’s not my turn, don’t know when to jump into a conversation, can’t remember names to save my life, and (to be honest) struggle with other psychological issues that are not commonly acknowledged outside of certain Church documents but arise from the sins with which I struggle. So it’s a safe thing for me to just say to everyone in line, “you go first”. 

Our culture, on the other hand, wants everything to be “fair” by which they mean mostly “as long as I get mine…” Why should I come early and stay late? Others will do that. Why shouldn’t I get promoted at work before others? Why would that poor slob win the lottery when I need it more?

I remember reading a story of a pair of Orthodox nuns visiting a parish. You’ll need to know that in many modern Orthodox places monastics can be viewed with suspicion. This can be helped by some anti-monastic bishops… anyway… these two nuns were visiting a parish and were at coffee hour socializing with everyone else and suddenly a woman pointed at them eating and having a good time and said, “See, they are hypocrites. They come here to ask for charity, but then they take our food like a member of the parish and just laugh.” One nun stood up and and was offended. The other prostrated herself at the feet of her accuser and asked forgiveness. 

The second nun was subjecti invicem in timore Christi.

I love the stories of the Christian Martyrs whose faith was discovered because they were visiting Christians already in prison to bring them food or messages from home. When Christians actually do “Pro Invicem” we get in trouble. Christians get arrested for feeding the homeless, for sheltering Jews, for ignoring unjust laws, for hiding slaves, for helping refugees. We’ve been getting in trouble for this since Paul was hiding escaped slaves, emotionally bullying their masters into manumission and using the Church to subvert cultural paradigms all over the empire. As government and societies today are trying to force us back into slavery to pagan ideals of nationalism, immorality, and racism, I hope we stand firm.

But I hope we do so by subversion, by pro invicem… we must remember to love our enemies… because we don’t have any. Literally every political thing in the world is here to distract us from God, and it is supposed to look like “our enemies” are doing it  – so we blame the other humans – but we forget the only enemies we have are demons? Literally every political or “social justice” thing is a false flag op.

That person over there is not a demon, is a living icon of God. They may be wrong… they may need to be opposed or voted out of office or imprisoned for crimes, but they are also to be served by us. By serving them we will win them for Christ. We will win the world that way.

My Face Hurts…

JMJ

The Readings for Monday in the 30th week of Ordinary Time (B2)

Fornicatio autem, et omnis immunditia, aut avaritia, nec nominetur in vobis, sicut decet sanctos : aut turpitudo, aut stultiloquium, aut scurrilitas, quae ad rem non pertinet : sed magis gratiarum actio.
But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not so much as be named among you, as becometh saints: Or obscenity, or foolish talking, or scurrility, which is to no purpose; but rather giving of thanks.

The NABRE takes a dodge here… it says “Immorality or any impurity or greed” which is not what the Latin says, nor is it what the Greek says. The Latin refers to “Fornicatio autem, et omnis immunditia, aut avaritia”. That first word is fornication. We’re not talking about “immorality” in general but about sexual sins. The Greek is even more direct. The word used there is πορνεία porneia. It is the origin for our word “pornography” but its meaning is derived from the verb “to sell off”. We trade off our sexual morals for other things – money, yes, but also acceptance, entertainment, self-gratification. This is made even more clear by the words selected in the next verse (which are not so obscured by the NABRE) obscenity, or foolish talking, or scurrility make it all very clear, and also eliminate about 80% of the internet and 95% of comedic content since WW2.

Why is St Paul so opposed to us having fun?

Matushka Frederica Matthews has this great line in one of her books, I honestly forget which one, discussing our cultural abuse of irony and making everything funny, she says, “Can we stop smiling now? My face hurts.” As a culture we make a joke of literally everything. This has gotten worse in successive generations – what was once sacred is now ribald humor. And as this area gets burned over, we move on to the next one… we can now joke about literally anything religious, because no one cares about it – and those who do don’t deserve our sensitivity. Only in jest can we talk about such things.

Paul is warning us against doing that to one of the most sacred acts God has given for humans to do – to participate in God’s creative generation of space and time by bringing a new human soul, enfleshed, into the world. Making jokes about this cheapen it.

But there is a second reason as well. We are spiritual athletes. We are in training. There is a time and place for everything. Yet there is never a place for baseness, or scurrility. We have no reason to “keep in practice” for the things we used to do.

A friend of mine called me out for using as a self description a word which has become synonymous with a sexual subculture. I hadn’t realized how important that word had become to me. I may not use “gay” to describe myself, but I have a “totem animal” anyway, right? Why? Do I need that? Do I still need that word to be part of me? Do I still need to get all those in jokes? Those brain cells might better be left from something else, I think.

Chrysostom reads both of these meanings

Have no witticisms, no obscenities, either in word or in deed, and thou wilt quench the flame—“let them not even be named,” saith he, “among you,” that is, let them not anywhere even make their appearance. This he says also in writing to the Corinthians. “It is actually reported that there is fornication among you” (1 Cor. v. 1.); as much as to say, Be ye all pure. For words are the way to acts. Then, that he may not appear a forbidding kind of person and austere, and a destroyer of playfulness, he goes on to add the reason, by saying, “which are not befitting,” which have nothing to do with us—“but rather giving of thanks.” What good is there in uttering a witticism? thou only raisest a laugh. Tell me, will the shoemaker ever busy himself about anything which does not belong to or befit his trade? or will he purchase any tool of that kind? No, never. Because the things we do not need, are nothing to us.

Moral. Let there not be one idle word; for from idle words we fall also into foul words. The present is no season of loose merriment, but of mourning, of tribulation, and lamentation: and dost thou play the jester? What wrestler on entering the ring neglects the struggle with his adversary, and utters witticisms? The devil stands hard at hand, “he is going about roaring” (1 Pet. v. 8.) to catch thee, he is moving everything, and turning everything against thy life, and is scheming to force thee from thy retreat, he is grinding his teeth and bellowing, he is breathing fire against thy salvation; and dost thou sit uttering witticisms, and “talking folly,” and uttering things “which are not befitting.” Full nobly then wilt thou be able to overcome him! We are in sport, beloved.

There is a counter point, I think. One that is important for us in this age – that was not so important for Paul. While everything is funny – because it’s meaningless – everything is also taken far too seriously. CS Lewis and others have noted this tendency in our media, to stir up excitement for things that happen hundred and thousands of miles away while ignoring the things right out side. We get anxious over meaningless things about which we can do nothing, and then make light of things that are actually important.

So what would life look like if we took everything only as serious as it warranted, and yet took everything exactly as serious as is needed? What would life look like if one lived as if one’s salvation in Christ was the most important thing? Mindful that St Paul says that salvation entails a lot of things: obedience, humility, civic responsibility, passivity before abuse, charity, etc. What would life be like to live in that way?

Continuity and Rupture

In the last two weeks of the Lectionary, Weeks 29 and 30 of year A, we’ve had this story (in two parts):

The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them,”Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:15-21, 29th Sunday) 

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40, 30th Sunday)

There are, in addition, several other moments in the Gospel stories where Jesus is seen in discussion with the religious leaders of the people. It is a homiletical commonplace to use these to say, “Jesus was offering a different vision than the Jews had hitherto.” In fact, it can be tempting to do so because so may have done so. That such often arises from a covert Anti-Semitism, especially among the more liberal, is dangerous. The approach is, generally, “The legalistic religious experts were wrong. Love is the Answer”. We place a homiletic rupture between the Good Jesus and the bad Jewish elders. Specifically, it’s right up there with the Jews killed Christ in terms of misunderstanding what’s going on here.

A cursory reading of Jewish Culture will recognize what’s going on here: rabbis debate. Rabbis debate with their students to understand the law. Rabbis debate with each other to sharpen their skills. Rabbis debate with each other to correct errors. This debate can be rather calm and contemplative, or it can be heated. We see all types of this discussion in the New Testament: Jesus at dinner parties, Jesus on street corners. Now, to be clear: Jesus is God. To disagree with his point is sin – and it’s the trump card for Christians. But on the streets of the Jewish Communities in the Roman Empire of the 1st Century, AD, this was not a thing. Jesus was God using the cultural tools available. Rabbinic Debate was the way to be. Jesus’ actions are in continuity with the actions of those around him. We must read the Gospels in this hermeneutic.

Dealing with the second Gospel story first (because it’s what made me grumpy) we have to know the history behind Jesus’ response. The greatest commandment is one that pious Jews recite three times a day as part of their daily prayers. It is the obvious answer. The second one, like unto the first, though: there’s a story behind that one. I’ve heard two versions of this story – and I will cite the one I don’t like first. It’s not the first one I read, though, which is the same all the way through except the punch line. It is the one that comes with a citation, though.

One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this–go and study it!”

(The cited text backs up this version.)

The second version of the story, the one I read first, has Rabbi Hillel respond thus: The main idea of the Torah is ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Although the text of this second story is not backed up by the Talmud as such, the Rabbis tie that text with love of neighbor as self throughout Rabbinic debate.

Jesus would know this story about Hillel. Jesus would know this context. Jesus was not putting the Pharisees in their place with a new teaching, but rather taking a side in an existing Rabbinic Debate.

Specifically the question should be heard like this: Rabbi, some of us say that all the laws are equally important. But others say some are more important than others. How say you?

Then Jesus – God in the Flesh – gives a shoutout to Hillel.

That’s a much better sermon! In another Gospel passage recounting the same story, the querent responds with “you have answered well…” Jesus is agreeing with a certain party of Pharisees.

The first Gospel Passage, with the Herodians, is beyond funny. Jesus is still debating with others, but in this case, he’s debating with Herodians. They are fans of the established political order. They don’t rightly care what the religious folks do as long as the Herodians get to stay on top of the secular pecking order. They are, basically, successful, secular Jews in our modern understanding. They are as closely aligned with the political power structure as the pro-Israel lobby is in the US today.

So, on the coin, whose image is this? In Greek Jesus asks, “Whose icon is this?” The answer is correct: it is Caesar. But, brothers and sisters, Whose icon is Caesar? Every human being is created as the icon of God!

When the Herodians, not even thinking religiously, hear “Render to Caesar…” they are pleased.  Yet Jesus says something even more shocking: and much more in keeping with the Hebrew Prophets. Jesus says whatever political authority you have… This is part of God’s icon, part of God’s plan. This is the root of St Paul saying that all authority is God-given and that the King is God’s instrument. This is right in line with the Hebrew Prophets saying God has used Persia to save the Jews (even calling the King of Persia “Messiah” at one point!)

Jesus says, “You’re right… but not enough. You’re drawing distinctions where there are none to draw.”

We, friends, must stop drawing lines of rupture between Jesus and his culture. God in the flesh decided the time and the place of his incarnation. The culture, the people, the politics, the family structure, the class war, these are not accidents. Nor are they necessarily divinely ordained for all time, to be clear. But they are the choices God made for making points.

If we rob the Gospel story of those points, the rest falls apart and becomes a nice story about a hippie with a leftist political agenda… but that’s only for us, today. Another party could rob Jesus of his Judaism and make him out as a hatemonger. (Failing to invoke Godwin’s law would be an error here: Nazis said there were no real differences between Jesus and Hitler. Right wing hate groups today make Jesus out as a white supremacist. Although conservatives often have Anti-semitism in their works, I say “liberals” because they often drive this point home to toss out all the Jewish Law, including teachings on sex and morality. Also the “Jesus Seminar” and their ilk,  eliminates anything from the sayings of Jesus that other teachers were saying at the time… so that Jesus becomes almost entirely disconnected from his Jewish conversants. This idea that the Jewish Scriptures are so filled with error that we toss them out is a heresy condemned by the Church.