As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.
~ Luke 23:26
I grew up thinking Simon of Cyrene was a white man. Why wouldn’t I, considering that it is only the very rare artistic representation of this scene that portrays him otherwise. And anyway, I thought Jesus was white, too. He’s got blue eyes and blond or light brown hair, right? At least that’s how he looked in the pictures they showed me. Now I know better. Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew, and Simon came from a city in the North African country we now call Libya. Neither was a European white man.
If you’re white, you might wonder why this matters. I would say that if in your mind’s eye you picture the Gospels populated by men who look like the figures in the religious art that’s most familiar to us, you might easily misunderstand. Christianity isn’t a white religion that generously invites others to come in and join us. We’re part of something much bigger than that. Esau McCaulley, author of a book titled Reading While Black, says the idea “that Christianity is fundamentally a white religion … is simply historically false. The center of early Christianity was in the Middle East and North Africa. But deeper than the historical question is the biblical one. Who owns the Christian story as it is recorded in the texts that make up the canon?”
Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
~ Luke 22:19
These past weeks have been filled with rich memories as images of my parents, my childhood, and the house where I grew up have been popping into my waking thoughts and filling my dreams. No doubt this flood of scenes from the past has been provoked to some extent by having our little granddaughters with us this month as we prepare for Christmas. Looming as it does as a reminder of my own mortality, Covid-19 has also surfaced thoughts of relatives now gone. So many of them lived through the flu pandemic of 1918, though they never spoke of it to me.
Our memories make us who we are, both in church and in the world. Memory forms our identify. Recalling the stories about where we came from provides a matrix for making sense of who we are now. These stories remind us that we’re connected to something greater than ourselves, that we’re part of a bigger story. There’s a difference between honoring past memories and living in the past, because our remembering brings the past alive in the present. My parents will be with me when I fill the stockings and place the presents under the tree on Christmas Eve. In my mind I’ll always hear Luke’s Nativity story in the voice (and New York accent) of my childhood pastor.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.
~ Luke 21:34-38
I don’t spend a lot of time in dissipation and drunkenness, but across the centuries I know Jesus is still talking to me. Be on guard. Be alert at all times. What he’s saying here is to pay attention to the things that really matter in life. Don’t let yourself be distracted by unimportant things. For “dissipation and drunkenness” I could substitute my own list of distractions: email, social media, playing games on my phone. Your list will no doubt be different from mine.
Don’t let life pass you by while you’re not paying attention, or not paying attention to the things that count. These words take on particular meaning in this time of pandemic. Everything seems different now, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that life hasn’t come to a halt. Good things are still happening. People are still finding joy in ordinary pleasures. We’re still preparing to celebrate Christmas. It won’t be like last year, but we’ll manage.
The legal experts and chief priests were watching Jesus closely and sent spies who pretended to be sincere. They wanted to trap him in his words so they could hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. They asked him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are correct in what you say and teach. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ Since Jesus recognized their deception, he said to them, ‘Show me a coin. Whose image and inscription does it have on it?’ ‘Caesar’s’ they replied. He said to them, ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’ They couldn’t trap him in his words in front of the people. Astonished by his answer, they were speechless.
~ Luke 20:19-26
Jesus is days away from his death. The religious authorities have ramped up the plot against him. They’re desperately looking for some way to trip him up in public so can arrest him without provoking an uprising among the crowds who follow him everywhere. They ask him this question about taxes, thinking he’ll be wrong no matter how he answers, but he comes back with a question of his own. Show me a coin, he says; whose image does it bear?
The coin he’s handed is believed to have looked much like the one in the picture, which shows the emperor Tiberius and bears the inscription “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” His challengers respond with the obvious answer – the emperor’s. Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, Jesus says. In other words, pay your taxes. Do what the civil government requires.
As he came near and saw the city, Jesus wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.
~ Luke 19:41-44
Way back in early spring, hunkered down in isolation and still hoping it might all end by Easter, we started looking for new places to go walking in our area and found this overlook. This view was both familiar and brand new; I’d never before seen my town from 400 feet up. We could see so much from up there, looking down on familiar landmarks laid out side by side for miles. But what we couldn’t see was the people. I couldn’t see if the virus had arrived among us yet. I couldn’t see the divisions that bring people to talk about each other so cruelly on the community Facebook pages, as if they were enemies at war rather than small-town neighbors. I couldn’t see the poverty that I know is there, too. All of this filled me with a kind of sadness. Life is so beautiful, and sometimes it’s so hard – and some of what hurts the most doesn’t have to be.
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
~ Luke 18:9-14
I think of grace and mercy as closely related in the life of the spirit. I’m writing now not as a practitioner of the formal discipline of theology, mind you, but simply as someone’s who’s trying to live that life. Grace to me is the lived experience of God’s love. It falls on me like the warmth of sunlight and gives me strength to go on when I think I can’t; it illuminates the path ahead when I’m having trouble finding my way. Mercy is the divine patience that keeps that love alive for me even when I forget to care about it. Touched by grace, eventually I’ll remember.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
~ Luke 17:20-21
The challenge that launched this series of reflections was the suggestion to spend the run-up to Christmas reading Luke’s Gospel a chapter a day, starting on Dec. 1. Since there are 24 chapters in the book, that would bring you right to Christmas Eve. We’re just over halfway through now, and this passage seems a good place to stop and look back at the big picture in what we’ve read so far, which means today’s entry will be a little longer than usual.
So who is this Jesus you get to know in reading straight through the text? Born under unusual circumstances to a religious family, he takes his time emerging into the public eye. He’s baptized by John at the age of 30, gathers a small band of followers, and begins a career of itinerant teaching and healing. There’s a promise of reversal of social hierarchy that runs through his preaching, foreshadowed at the very beginning by his mother’s song of praise:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (1:52-53)
The rich man called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.
~ Luke 16:24-25
Nobody likes people who act entitled, as if they deserve to be treated better than anyone else, and that’s just the type of selfishly oblivious person we see in this story. The rich man who feasts on delicacies and ignores the suffering poor man at his door in life continues to regard him as a servant of sorts when both have died. The rich man, in torment in Hades, still doesn’t bother to speak directly to poor Lazarus, who is taking his rest at the side of Father Abraham. Instead he looks up and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him as much as a cool drop of water, or to go back and warn his five living brothers what will happen if they fail to live righteously. But Abraham says no, the rich man had his chance, and he blew it.
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
~ Luke 15:11-16
I was raised in a church-going family, and a regular part of the Sunday-morning ritual for us was listening to my parents critique the service on the car ride home. My dad usually had something to say not only about the sermon but also the Gospel it was based on. He liked some people in those stories (Peter, dumb but good-hearted) more than others (“the beloved disciple” in John, who was so sure Jesus loved him best). In this story, the one we call the Parable of the Prodigal Son, he had a lot more sympathy for the jealous older son than his profligate brother.
I’ve heard this parable so many times by now that my mind jumps right to the point without really noticing the details. The most important character in this story isn’t either of the sons, it’s the father whose love is so immense he forgives all and keeps on loving. As the writer Henri Nouwen says in his book titled The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, “For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. … Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not ‘How am I to find God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be found … How am I to let myself be loved by God?'”
When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.
~ Luke 14: 13-14
Here we are in another chapter of Luke’s Gospel that seems to be all about food. We see Jesus sharing a Sabbath meal with a leader of the Pharisees. We hear a story about not claiming the place of honor at a wedding feast, and another about invited guests who were told to save the date but still sent their excuses when the time for a great banquet arrived.
Today I want to share a poem by Joy Harjo, citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Poet Laureate of the United States. Harjo understands that there’s something holy about coming together around the table, even or maybe especially when it’s just a humble kitchen table. The commonplace details she sets out one after another converge to suggest that everyday life is sacred. That’s also an implicit message of the Incarnation, the great gift we now prepare to celebrate: God is with us in all the ordinary moments of human life.