Monday, January 24, 2022

Reading the Book

The scriptures referred to are Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10.

I don't know what age I was but I was having trouble with long division. And my mom taught me how to estimate the answer first. Using common sense I could figure out at least the range of numbers in which I could expect to find the answer and use that to narrow the possibilities and zero in on the right number. And of course, estimating is a useful first step in many tasks in life. I am grateful she taught me that.

Most people, when they are having trouble with something, are grateful for helpful tips or answers. And you can distinguish between a truly helpful and an inane suggestion, sometimes by immediately recognizing that it is right when you are shown it, but more often by putting it into practice and seeing how well it works.

A lot of non-religious people think faith is not useful in real life and actually makes it worse. If so, why does it survive? Why do 85% of the world's population hold some sort of religious belief? Why do 72% of the “nones,” the people who claim no religion, still believe in God? They must find it helpful. And a large body of scientific studies have found that religious people tend to live longer, have lower blood pressure, have stronger immune systems, are less prone to depression, are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and even go to the dentist more often! Religious faith correlates with greater optimism and hope, self-esteem, sense of meaning and purpose in life, self-control, and social support. Faith in God is not a mistake; it works. Especially faith in a God who loves us.

So why are the people hearing Ezra read the law of Moses crying?

After the exodus from Egypt, the event that has most shaped Judaism is the exile to Babylon. The deportation of all but the poorest Jews to Babylon began in 597 BC. In 586 BC Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. When Babylon was in turn conquered by the Persians, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland after 70 years in exile. They started rebuilding the temple but didn't get very far. Around 458 BC Ezra the priest returns from Babylon and works on restoring the religion of the people, while Nehemiah returns around 444 BC to rebuild the city's walls. Our passage from Nehemiah tells us of how Ezra, in renewing the covenant with God, starts by reading the Torah. We are not sure if he reads all 5 books of Moses or maybe just Exodus, Leviticus and/or Deuteronomy. But it takes 5 or 6 hours. And as the people stood to listen to Ezra read, to this day Jews stand for the reading of the Torah, just as we stand at the reading of the Gospel. After the exile, Jews become people of the Book. As are Christians. We both derive out beliefs and behavior from the Bible.

The Levites “who taught the people” are said to have read “with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (vv. 8-9) One comment on my blog years ago was a criticism, not of how I interpreted the Bible, but that I interpreted it at all. It came with a link to the critic's blog, where I found not merely quotes from the Bible but his comments on them. I pointed out that his comments were also interpretations of the Bible. I never heard from him again.

Anyway, here we have Biblical validation of interpreting scripture. The real issue is how to interpret it properly. One sign of a cult is that they elevate obscure parts of scripture, or attach bizarre interpretations to them, and ignore the parts that contradict their interpretations. For instance, Fred Phelps and his family's Westboro Baptist Church took the 7 passages on homosexual acts and prioritized them as the worst and, he said, unforgivable sins. That's despite the literally hundreds more verses about idolatry or murder, as well as the more than 50 condemning slander and spreading rumors. That's despite the fact that all the commands to love one another in the New Testament alone outnumber all the references to homosexuality in the entire Bible. (John 13:34, 35 and 15:12, 17; Romans 13:8; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 1 Peter 3:8 and 4:8; 1 John 3:11, 23 and 4:7, 11, 12; 2 John 5, etc) Phelps' website said God actually hates gays and had a counter keeping track of how many people were going to hell every second. (How he calculated this is a theological puzzle.) I wondered how he reconciled all this with Jesus' total lack of mentioning homosexuality and his commands to love everyone, including our enemies. (Matthew 5:43-48) Or the fact that God is love (1 John 4:8) and does not desire the death of anyone. (Ezekiel 18:23, 32) And then I read Banished, Lauren Drain's memoir of growing up in that church and then being expelled for asking those very questions. It turns out Phelps simply ignored any parts of the Bible that would cause him to rethink or revise his interpretation. He made himself, not God, the final authority.

Shakespeare said, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” It's easy. Translate it badly. Take it out of context. Disregard the history or culture behind it. Treat a verse either literally or metaphorically, whichever suits your purpose. Pretend you have no biases that you might be reading into it. And, of course, ignore the rest of scripture. So to properly interpret the Bible, you do the opposite.

First, it helps if you look at different translations of the passage you are examining. There are several good translations of the Bible and no perfect ones. Not even the King James, whose translation of 1 Timothy 6:10 says that the love of money is “the root of all evil” rather than the more correct “a root of all kinds of evils.” And modern translations have access to the literally thousands of ancient manuscripts discovered in the last 2 centuries, like the Dead Sea scrolls and Codex Sinaiticus, which give us a text that is closest to the original documents.

But as anyone who speaks more than one language knows, you can't always capture precisely all the nuances of an expression and translate them into another language. So I use multiple translations of the Bible which I access on my phone and check them against the Hebrew or Greek to make sure I know what the Bible is actually saying. I love the translators' notes in the NET Bible, which set out the various ways difficult passages can be translated and why they chose the one they did. Though even they don't get 1 Timothy 6:10 completely right. Again, no translation is perfect.

Next it really helps to know the context of the passage, which includes the history and culture of the time. When Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a sewing needle than for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God,” he is not just dumping on the rich. In fact the reaction of the disciples is an astonished “Then who is able to be saved?” (Mark 10:25-26) Why? Because in that culture it was thought that riches were a sign of God's favor. So if the rich can't make it, what will happen to the poor? Jesus replies, “With humans it is impossible but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27) Jesus is teaching that no one has any special advantage with God; nobody can save themselves, no matter how powerful they are; we are all, rich or poor, dependent on God's grace. The proper response is to be humble and trust God's love and forgiveness.

It also helps to notice if a verse or passage is intended to be literal or not. Even people who say they take the Bible literally do not do so when it comes to part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says that we should pluck out our eye or cut off our hand if it causes us to stumble. (Matthew 5:29-30) What he's doing is using hyperbole to emphasize that we must get rid of sinful habits and attitudes even if they seem to be a part of who we are. Nor do literalists think that a sign of the end of the world is when an actual beast with 7 heads, 10 horns and 10 crowns comes out of the sea. (Revelation 13:1) They get that the passage is using symbolism.

Yet people want to make metaphorical, or at least less real, verses obviously meant literally. Jesus literally meant to not resist the evildoer and to turn the other cheek and let them have your clothes and go with the soldier who forces you. (Matthew 5:39-41) Because he literally does these things. He goes willingly with those sent to arrest him. (John 18:7-8) He tells Peter to put down his sword when he tries to defend Jesus (Matthew 26:52) and heals the man whose ear is cut off. (Luke 22:50-51) The soldiers hit him and he does not retaliate. (John 18:22-23) He carries the cross given to him and goes with the soldiers to Golgotha. (John 19:16-17) They take his clothes and gamble for them. (Mark 15:24) Jesus literally does these things for us. So why do we think we are free instead to fight back when someone offends us or takes our parking space or plays their music too loud?

And in Christ's parable about the Last Judgment, are we not to take the moral literally--that how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned and the resident alien is how we treat Jesus? (Matthew 25:40, 45) If not, then what was his point? As his brother James says, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,' but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16) That's about as helpful as sending “thoughts and prayers” to people suffering from a disaster. As John writes, “But whoever has the world's possessions and sees his brother or sister in need and closes up his heart against him, how can the love of God be in such a person? Little children, let us not love with word or tongue but in action and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18) We are to provide real, physical help to those in need.

We also must beware of our own biases. Some people say that God will punish this nation for things like, say, allowing abortion, something never mentioned in the Bible, and ignore that in Jeremiah God gives his criteria for such judgment: “'...their houses are filled with the gains of their fraud and deceit. That is how they have gotten so rich and powerful. That is how they have grown fat and sleek. There is no limit to the evil things they do. They do not plead the cause of the fatherless in such a way as to win it. They do not defend the rights of the poor. I will certainly punish them for doing such things!' says the Lord. “I will certainly bring retribution on such a nation as this!'” (Jeremiah 5:27-29) He is predicting the fall of the kingdom of Judah and the exile to Babylon.

God's Word comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. And maybe that's why the people were crying as Ezra read them the Torah. They could see how they had fallen short of what God expected of his people. And indeed in the next chapter of Nehemiah the people confess their sins and those of their ancestors. They pray, “Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the warnings you gave them.” (Nehemiah 9:34) They realize that they did not act with justice or mercy. They did not love God with all their heart and soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5) or love their neighbors as themselves. (Leviticus 19:18) They turned away from God. The Jews came to see the exile as God hiding his face from them and letting them suffer the consequences of not being a just and compassionate people.

But I wonder if some of them were crying because they were hearing for the first time proof of what a loving and merciful God they had. They were hearing how God was not only concerned for the poor, the widow, the fatherless and the resident alien but had put provisions into the law of the land to protect and help them. (Exodus 22:21-24) They heard how every seven years debts were forgiven and debt slaves were to be set free. (Deuteronomy 15:1-18) Women heard that they weren't to be subjected to incest. (Leviticus 18:6-18) The people heard a vision of how the kingdom of God should work on earth. I wonder if some of the tears were tears of joy.

If not, maybe that's why Ezra sent them home to eat, drink and share with those who had none. Yes, they had sinned. But if they turned to God, they would find him there welcoming them back. Our God is a God who forgives us, who restores us, who transforms us. Every second we have on this earth is a second chance for us to turn to God. Because not only do we believe in God, God believes that we can do this—if we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection, if we are united to his Spirit, if we are united to each other as the embodiment of Christ's love. So even when we fail, we confess our sins, we ask his forgiveness, we learn from our mistakes, and, filled with his Spirit, we deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him again.

No matter how bad things look in the present, remember the whole story of the Bible. We know where it's heading. We've read the last chapter. In the end good will triumph; love will win. God's kingdom will come on earth. Crying and mourning will be no more. And he will wipe away every tear with those nail-pierced hands. (Revelation 21:1-4) So as Ezra says, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Hallelujah!

Monday, January 17, 2022

One in Many

The scriptures referred to are 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.

The first Captain Marvel was not owned by Marvel comics, nor by DC comics, but by Fawcett comics. You may remember that the original Captain Marvel is really a boy who, when he says the word “Shazam,” becomes a man with the powers of 6 ancient heroes and gods. The magic word is an acronym for Solomon's wisdom, Hercules' strength, Atlas' stamina, Zeus' power, Achilles' courage and Mercury's speed. In other words, he can do just about anything. At one point he was more popular than Superman, possibly because in addition to his physical powers he had greater wisdom. The owners of Superman, another hero with every power you could wish for, sued Fawcett for copyright infringement and eventually got the rights to him. But while he is now owned by DC comics, Marvel comics, by cleverly exploiting an oversight by DC, was able to copyright the name “Captain Marvel” and use it for their own superpowered character. So today the original character is simply called Shazam.

These heroes are the ultimate in childhood fantasy characters. They are virtually all powerful. So the problem for the writers is how do you generate any suspense when your hero is superstrong, invulnerable, shoots beams of energy and can fly? I think I know why the creators of the Superman radio show invented Kryptonite as his weakness and why the comics and films picked up on it. Otherwise, practically any Superman story would be over in 5 minutes. He's too powerful for most villains to pose any real threat. And most stories need some kind of conflict or difficult obstacle to your protagonist achieving his goals. Which is why my favorite heroes were generally ones with few or no superpowers.

In the real world, nobody can do everything. Nobody knows everything or has every conceivable skill or talent. But some people think they do. They will claim an expertise in anything you bring up. What surprises me is that they can always find people who believe them. Keith Raniere who created Nexivm, L. Ron Hubbard who created Scientology, and other cult leaders have claimed to possess genius level skills in multiple fields of knowledge. Most cult leaders are self-proclaimed polymaths. Just don't dig too deep into their resumes and educational records.

In reality, we all have both strengths and weaknesses. Einstein understood physics to a degree beyond many of his scientific peers. They are still testing his predictions and finding them correct. Einstein also got lost in Princeton so often that the local police were used to having neighbors call them to pick him up and drive him home. (That would be a great weakness for a superhero. He can solve any problem...if he can just remember how to get there. Or is that Doctor Who?)

We so love the individual hero who can do everything that we have convinced ourselves they exist in real life. So we have conveniently forgotten people like the legion of scientists and engineers employed by Edison to come up with inventions credited to him. Or Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray crystallography enabled James Watson and Francis Crick to discover the structure of DNA, for which they and not she won the Nobel Prize. Or Tenzing Norgay, the Nepalese Sherpa who was one of the first persons to climb Mount Everest but did not get the same recognition that Sir Edmund Hilary did, though one wonders if Hilary could have done it without Norgay. They say that behind every successful man is a woman. But often it is a lot of women and men who did the lion's share of the ground work for which one person received all the credit.

In the church at Corinth everyone wanted every possible spiritual gift. In today's passage Paul points out that the Spirit of God gives different gifts to different people. He says, “All of these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” Paul doesn't say why God does this but there is a clue in verse 7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” In other words, the distribution of the gifts to various people is for everyone's good. If one person had all the gifts, there would be great temptation for him to use them for his own benefit. If you were Superman, wouldn't you become the world's benevolent dictator? And since no one could stop you, how long could you stay benevolent?

Often churches think they can find a person who is a Superman and can do all these things. They call that person a priest or pastor. And inevitably they are disappointed when he or she can't do it all.

Not even Paul could do it all. (2 Corinthians 10:10) He mentions people like Apollos who were better preachers. (1 Corinthians 3:6; Acts 18:24) His letters often end with lists of people who help him in the churches he planted. (Romans 16) Plus he suffered some kind of affliction. He writes, “Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me—so that I would not become arrogant. I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) Paul doesn't say exactly what it was but I think it was a vision problem because of remarks he makes about how the Galatian Christians would have gladly given him their eyes (Galatians 4:13-15) and the fact that he had a secretary actually write down his letters (Romans 16:22) and he signed them using big letters (Galatians 6:11). And if Paul had trouble seeing, he would not be able to be as independent as he'd like but would have to rely on others. Paul was not a Superman.

The “Great Men” way of looking at history has bled over into the way we see figures in the Bible. But they were not self-sufficient individuals doing it all on their own. Moses had the support of men like Joshua and Caleb and his father-in-law. David had his corps of mighty men. Jeremiah had Baruch, his secretary. Jesus had the Twelve to help spread his message. Paul had people like Silas, Timothy, Luke, Titus, John Mark, Aquila and Priscilla. Overall he names at least 40 people involved in sponsoring his missionary work. God doesn't endow nor does he want Lone Ranger Christians.

As in Corinth, people today are really drawn to this list of spiritual gifts, to the point that they ignore Paul's other list of gifts. In Romans he says, “And we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. If the gift is prophecy, that individual must use it in proportion to his faith. If it is service, he must serve; if it is teaching, he must teach; if it is encouraging, he must encourage; if it is giving, he must do so with generosity; if it is leading, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy, he must do it with cheerfulness.” (Romans 12:6-8) These are not as flashy as the spiritual gifts but they are all functions necessary for the common good.

God is love and a key part of love is sharing with and helping one another. Ideally in the church people use their gifts to help the whole community. Every church needs people who can preach and people who can teach. They are NOT the same gift. For that matter the ability to teach adults, the ability to teach teens and the ability to teach kids are not the same gift. We need people who can sing and people who can play instruments and people who can lead the music. We need people who can organize and people who can empathize. We need people who can keep the books and people who can make wise money decisions and people who make sure the money is also used to in compassionate ways to further the mission of Jesus. We need people to maintain the church and people to reach out to the wider community. We especially need people who can bring the good news to others and who can bring people into the church.

These are all different activities which require different skills and thus different people. But they must all be done in the same Spirit, the Spirit who empowered Jesus in his ministry. Paul was probably emphasizing the fact that one Spirit distributes and activates all these gifts because in a polytheistic culture, people might think different spirits like the various gods presided over separate matters. That's not exactly a problem in today's culture but even within the church people can act in accordance with other “spirits.”

There is the spirit of competition. Some people think different churches are rivals or even enemies, rather than our brothers and sisters in Christ. The main differences between most churches are not in the basics of what they believe but in interpretations, in emphases and in polity. For instance, most churches recite the Apostles Creed, a baptismal creed that summarizes the basic beliefs of Christianity. So they agree that, say, Jesus died for us but their explanations of how exactly this worked might be different.

Churches also differ in which doctrines they emphasize more than others. Lutherans emphasize grace. Episcopalians tend to emphasize the Incarnation. But they agree on the importance of both. Again Lutherans mention baptism in just about every worship service. Episcopalians emphasize the Eucharist. But neither church neglects either sacrament; both are valued as vital to church life. It's kind of like how individual workers may differ in which tool is their favorite. But no one would use a hammer when a screwdriver is called for or throw away their wrenches.

Finally, there are differences in how churches are organized and what you call the local clergy and the officials who oversee larger districts. I'm not saying all the differences are trivial but that doesn't make us enemies. Remember what Paul says about varieties of services and activities and manifestations of the Spirit. We serve God in different ways and the Spirit reaches people through various means.

Another spirit that we Christians should not serve is Mammon or money. Of course, the church needs money to function and do ministry and pay staff and bills, but making money is not its primary purpose. When the bottom line becomes your top priority you have inverted your mission. And we have seen lots of scandals involving churches and preachers and misuse of money. Paul famously says, “For love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:10) Notice it is the love of money that is condemned, not money itself, though it affords a powerful temptation. And notice that this translation accurately reflects Paul's original Greek: love of money is a (not the) root of all kinds of evils, not of all evil. There are other roots of other evils. But, sadly, an obsession with wealth, just like the 1849 gold rush, has caused a lot of people a lot of grief and has lured people from the true and lasting riches of faith in Jesus.

There are other spirits out there—patriotism, capitalism, liberalism, conservatism, any ism—that some churches, maybe not consciously, try to unify around instead of or in addition to the Holy Spirit of the God who is love. Our allegiance is to Jesus Christ alone and it should not be conditional on whether we think he would support our intellectual, economic or political ideas. First we commit to following the one who demonstrated the love and justice, mercy and transformative power of God in his teachings, life, death and resurrection. And then guided by his Spirit we use our various gifts to express his grace in all we think, say and do, working together for the common good.

We must stop trying to either be Superman or find one among mere humans. We have someone who is all powerful: God. And he has chosen to work through each of us using the gifts his Spirit has distributed. We are all part of the body of Christ, with distinct functions and abilities, working in unison to bring his good news in both word and deed to a world obsessed with the fantasy that someone can do it all by himself or herself. We can't. We keep trying and we keep failing. But working together in the Spirit of God's love we will find we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Two Kings

The scriptures referred to are Matthew 2:1-12.

The whole thing was Melchior's idea. He, Caspar and Balthazar were all involved in the calculations of the emergence and then the observance of the new celestial phenomenon. It was Melchior who approached the king of Persia about the star (the simplest way to explain it to a layman) to get the king to fund the trip. It was also Melchior's idea to have Caspar select the gifts they would bring. Balthazar questioned putting Melchior's protege in charge of choosing what they would present to the new king. And, sure enough, Caspar chose gold, a solid if uninspired gift, and frankincense, a royal perfume, and...myrrh!? That's an ointment for preparing a body for burial. In what universe would that be an appropriate gift for a newborn?

It was also Melchior's idea that Balthazar accompany them. The magi tried to beg off. He was too old, too achy and too cranky for a long trip. It would take them at least a couple of months to make it from Persia to Jerusalem. And maybe longer, seeing that they would need a considerable escort of soldiers to protect them and their valuable gifts. And Balthazar didn't travel well. The number of foods he could eat these days was limited. He could no longer sleep on the ground in a tent as he did when he was younger. And riding camels was bad for his back. In fact, with all the rocking and lurching, he often got camel-sick. He would not be good company to travel with. He didn't even like his own company. He came up with a million reasons why he should be left behind. But then Melchior pointed out that Balthazar was their language expert. He could speak and understand the tongues and dialects they would encounter as they traveled through Arabia. And it was especially important that, upon reaching Judea, they have someone fluent in Aramaic and Hebrew. After all, it was Balthazar who connected the celestial phenomenon with the prophesies of the Hebrew scriptures. He had to accompany them. Balthazar knew he was right. He would come, he said. But he wouldn't enjoy it.

As it was, by the time the whole expedition was prepared it was nearly 2 years since they had seen the sign in the night sky. Even Balthazar had to admire Melchior's persistence in working with the Persian bureaucracy to make this a reality. He hoped that young Caspar would by now be too bored by the delay to go. But the idea of a road trip excited the young man and he was only too willing to take off for an exotic foreign land to see a king. And so, at last, they set out.

Balthazar almost immediately regretted it. Though assured by the stable master that the camel he was given would provide a smooth ride, the animal was wayward and headstrong. It was reluctant to kneel so he could get on it. And it could spit with great accuracy, something he discovered when he was trying to get the beast to stand still so he could get his possessions off its back. Caspar thought this was hilarious. Melchior offered Balthazar a handkerchief to clean the sputum from his face and beard.

He had to admit Melchior had done a great job planning each leg of the trip. He even tried to include some interesting sights for them to visit along the way. The reason for this was, at least partly, to keep Caspar entertained, or so Balthazar suspected. The youngest magi was easily bored. He constantly asked how long would this take and were they there yet? With Melchior doing the navigating and consulting the maps and the sun, it fell to Balthazar to keep Caspar's mind occupied. He told him stories. He invented games like “I spy” though this rarely worked since they were often traveling through featureless deserts. He tried to tell jokes, which even Balthazar knew he was not good at. He tried to get Caspar to sing songs to make the time go by. But Balthazar soon regretted teaching Caspar to sing “A hundred goatskins of wine on the wall.” When he got to zero, Caspar simply started over. It turned into the song that never ends.

In addition, Balthazar was sleeping badly. It wasn't just the hard ground and the cold nights. He was troubled by what he had gathered about King Herod from travelers they met at each oasis. Everyone knew Herod was ruthless. Well, that was pretty much common with kings. They didn't tolerate rivals. But Herod had killed his own wife, her brother and at least 2 of his sons. And things weren't looking too good for Herod's heir to make it to the throne. In fact, it was reported that the Roman Emperor Augustus himself had quipped, “It's better to be Herod's sow than his son.” Would the magi be doing the new king a favor by drawing the tyrant's attention to him? Balthazar began having dreams about babies being killed. They were horrible.

At last they saw a shining gold and white temple perched on a hill and knew they had reached Jerusalem. They had, of course, sent messengers ahead to alert the king of their arrival. It wouldn't do to enter a paranoid ruler's territory unannounced. They were welcomed and put up in sumptuous apartments. When they were ushered into the throne room, they bowed low. Struggling to rise, Balthazar greeted Herod with appropriately hyperbolic praises. They presented him with gifts fit for royalty. In view of the monarch's age, Balthazar made sure that myrrh was not one of them. Herod in turned graciously accepted their accolades and their gifts and invited them to feast with him that night. They did so and were treated like royalty. Caspar was open-mouthed at the splendor of the palace and the extensive menu they were served. But they noted that while Herod introduced them to his remaining sons by his—was it 10 wives?—none was the right age to be the one foretold by the star.

The next day they met with Herod again in his throne room and Balthazar said, in his most elegant Hebrew, “We thank your majesty for your gracious hospitality. And your sons are most handsome and intelligent men. But do you have a younger one whom we have not yet met? For we were wondering: Where is the one born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Immediately Balthazar was sorry he had said this. Herod stared at them and not in a pleasant or even neutral way. He obviously was hearing this for the first time and it disturbed him. The king's council, sensitive to Herod's mood swings, also saw this and looked frightened. Then Herod, with great effort, put on a not very convincing smile and said that he too would love to know about this new king. He would consult the chief priests and teachers of the law and get back to them. After some very stiff and awkward formal praises and thanks, the magi withdrew.

They didn't dare speak as they were escorted back to their apartments. But when they were served their midday meal, they conversed in a regional dialect of their native Parthian tongue, sure than none of Herod's servants/spies would understand them.

He was not happy to hear what you said,” observed Casper, stating the obvious.

We shouldn't have alerted him to the existence of a potential rival,” said Balthazar.

But what were we to do?” asked Melchior. “We assumed it was Herod's son. If not, then how can we find the child without the help of Herod's advisors and scholars?”

I should have spent more time studying their scriptures. Maybe I could have worked it out,” Balthazar said regretfully.

An unknown king? How could you have known? And how could we have planned for this? We had to go through official channels,” Melchior said.

If it is God's will that this child become king, he will take care of it,” said Caspar simply. Though said with youthful optimism and faith, the two older magi accepted Caspar's pronouncement with resignation.

After an anxious couple of days, the magi were summoned to see Herod again. But not in the throne room. He met them in a side chamber away from his advisors and nobles. In fact, only one aged man was with the king. Balthazar thought he must be a rabbi, since he was not dressed as a priest. Herod said to the man, “Tell our visitors what you discovered.”

The old man said, “In the prophet Micah, it is written, 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'”

That sounded vaguely familiar to Balthazar. Wasn't Bethlehem the town the Jews' great king David came from? He would have to look it up to see if he remembered it correctly. But even so, he would have disregarded it because they assumed the king would be born to Herod, who did not live in a backwater town like Bethlehem, nor was he descended from David. He wasn't even considered a true Jew by his people because his father was an Indumaean, descended from Edomite converts to Judaism. Though raised as a Jew, Herod was ethically an Arab. Small wonder he was not loved by his subjects.

Herod then moved closer to the magi and said in a low voice, “Just when did the star that marked his birth appear?”

Balthazar seriously considered lying to the king. But surely he had his own astrologers who could confirm the magis' observations. So he told him how 2 years ago they had observed the phenomenon in the East. As he told Herod, Balthazar wondered why the king's own astrologers had missed it. The interpretation was subtle but if Persians could figure out it portended the birth of a Judean king, surely Jewish stargazers would have. And then he noticed what the old man standing next to Herod did. Or rather what he didn't do. His face did not register surprise or curiosity or indeed interest in this sign from the heavens. He was deliberately impassive. Except his eyes which could not help but steal a glance at the magi. Balthazar's and the man's eyes locked for a second.

He knew! Of course, he knew, realized Balthazar. But he dare not tell this homicidal monarch that a rival king was born. The king's astrologers and scholars kept it from him.

Herod was speaking. “Go and search carefully for the child,” the king said. “As soon as you find him report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” Herod was all smiles.

As was Balthazar. “Of course, O great king,” he said, trying to sound as sincere as he could. And after more empty pleasantries, the magi were dismissed.

It turned out that Bethlehem was only about 3 hours ride south from Jerusalem. Well, 3 hours if they took the caravan. They seriously considered heading out the next morning but Balthazar did not want to give Herod time to beat them there. They must go today. As it was, by the time they were ready to travel the sun was getting low in the sky. And there was another problem.

How do we identify which child in Bethlehem is the one?” asked Melchior.

How indeed? It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

The sun set as they rode to Bethlehem. And it turned out to be a stargazers' worst nightmare: the sky was solid with cloud cover. They couldn't even see the moon, let alone the stars. Their task was now like searching for a needle in a haystack in the dark!

Well, at least we need not worry about Herod,” said Caspar. “If we have trouble seeing, so will he and his men. He will probably wait till daylight to come for the child.” True, thought Balthazar. His respect for his younger colleague was increasing.

They saw some faint lights that seemed to be in the right place for the little village. Melchior told the escort to wait for them outside the town. No reason to make their presence too obvious.

The 3 magi entered the village. There is nothing like wandering through a strange town in the dark looking for some house you don't know. Balthazar was almost in despair of finding the child. Then in the dark street shined a light. There was a break in the clouds. A shaft of moonlight fell on a small house on the outskirts of the village. They took it as a sign and hurried to the place.

Melchior gestured to Balthazar to knock. He knew the language best. He knocked and after a moment heard someone coming. A man opened the door, looking suspiciously at the three fancy foreigners on his doorstep.

Balthazar realized that simplicity and directness were the best approach in this circumstance. “Greetings, my good man. We come from the great king of Persia in the East. We observed a special star arise and came to greet and give gifts to the new king its presence revealed. Is he here?”

The man looked at the three but instead of showing any sign that he thought them to be mad, he blinked a few times and then turned to someone inside and said, “Mary, we got kings this time.”

Not kings,” said Balthazar, “but, uh, wise men who watch the skies for signs. I take it that others have preceded us.”

Shepherds originally,” said the man, moving in an odd manner. He turned and the magi saw a donkey pushing against the man's hip. He shooed it away and invited them in. They walked up the short flight of stairs from the animals' quarters to the family room where they saw a young woman setting a dish with a meager amount of food on a low table. The man said, “I am Joseph. This is my wife Mary.”

We just sat down to eat but, please, accept our humble fare,” she said. She looked down at a boy of about two, clinging to her dress, staring at the strangers intently. “Jesus, get some dishes for our guests.” The boy ran to get some dishes from another low table.

No need, madam. Rather let us share our provisions with you,” said Balthazar. “Caspar...,” he said, but already the young man was bowing as he exited the house to get food from the caravan.

They ate and shared stories and Caspar made faces and did simple magic tricks which delighted the boy. After the biggest and best meal the family had ever eaten, the magi bowed to the ground before the boy, offering their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. As his colleagues arose, Balthazar again had trouble getting up off the floor. “I help,” said the boy, grabbing the old man's gnarled hands with his two chubby ones and pulling. Balthazar laughed but it did help him get to his feet. He smiled at the boy and tousled his hair, quite forgetting that you shouldn't do that to a royal child without permission. But with this little family in this little house in this little village it was hard to see anything regal in the traditional sense. But then Herod was regal in the traditional sense. The world had quite enough of that.

Before they left, Balthazar shared with Joseph the fact that Herod said he would like to see their child. Joseph's face showed that he fully understood what that meant. Warning received.

They returned to their camp and lay down and went to sleep. But within hours Balthazar was awake. He ran to Melchior's tent. He was up. “You, too?” Melchior asked.

A dream.” Balthazar said. “Warning us to leave immediately. And take a different route.”

Caspar and I had the same dream,” Melchior said.

Where is Caspar?”

Warning the family.”

Just then the young man returned panting. “They're gone. The house is empty.” The other men looked alarmed. “But not ransacked. And the donkey is gone, too.” They let out sighs of relief.

Thank God,” said Balthazar.

We must go as well,” said Melchior as he went to wake the escort.

They were on the road by first light. Melchior was revising their itinerary on the fly and griping about not having had enough time to do it properly. Caspar was quiet for once. Balthazar was lost in thought.

Of the two kings he had met on this trip, he knew which one he had liked best. But they all start as a child. To become a king is a bloody business. He hoped that whatever happened to the boy, he did not become like Herod, using his power to intimidate and terrify and spill the blood of others. If only he could retain his innocence and desire to help.

And that's when Balthazar realized his joints and back didn't hurt anymore and his stomach had settled down. Even though he didn't get much sleep that night, he felt refreshed. He tried to pinpoint when exactly he began to feel better.

He decided that from now on he would talk to travelers more often and collect any news he could from Judea. He was very interested in what kind of king Jesus would grow into.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

What's the Deal with Christmas?

 The scriptures referred to are Luke 2:1-20, John 1:1-18.

Sermon writing is hard, especially when you must preach on the same events every year, like Jesus' birth, death and resurrection. What can I say that is neither obvious and needs no repeating nor simply a repetition of what others have already said over the last 2000 years and probably said better than I could?

My sermons tend to consist of 3 parts: What?, So What?, and Now What? In other words, what is our topic, why is it significant and what should we do about it? Which is why Christmas is particularly difficult to preach about. Jesus Christ, God's son, was born. It's there in the gospel texts. There's the “What?” and it doesn't need that much elaboration. You can do a bit more with the “So What?” part, delving into the significance of God becoming a human being and how he chose to do so, by being born into a poor family. But the Sunday after Christmas, you have pretty much exhausted that. The real problem is the “Now What?” part. Jesus is born. What is your response? Say “Happy birthday?” Pass out cigars? Tell others about it? But in this day and culture, pretty much everyone knows that Christmas celebrates Jesus' birth. So if that news was going to elicit a response from people, it already has.

Some of the response is sentimentality. People take the elements of the nativity story and make pictures, TV shows, Christmas cards, figurines, etc. that are cute or even appear reverent but which miss the point of the significance of Jesus' birth, aside from non-specific platitudes about love or peace. I am not against these things but let's face: there is a whole industry out there that churns these things out, not for the sake of the gospel but to make a buck catering to people's sentiments.

And, of course, that industry realizes it doesn't even need to deal with the hot potato of God Incarnate but can do equally well or better churning out elves and reindeer and candy canes and Batman tree ornaments and ugly sweaters and nostalgic Christmas specials and romantic movies set during the holiday season in which women fall in love with someone who in some cases turns out to be Santa Claus. And all this stuff obscures the true nature of Christmas. There is a hilarious speech in Doctor Who in which an historical tour guide from the future tells people about a Christmas that he has reconstructed from the fragments of our culture that survived to his time. He says, “I shall be taking you to Old London town in the country of UK, ruled over by Good King Wenceslas. Now human beings worship the great god Santa, a creature with fearsome claws and his wife Mary. And every Christmas Eve, the people of the UK go to war with the country of Turkey. They then eat the Turkey people for Christmas dinner, like savages.” And the Doctor listens to this garbled version of secular Christmas with increasing alarm. But, let's be honest, that's how it might seem to a stranger who only knows of the Christmas-adjacent trivia under which we have buried the real Christmas.

Some respond by deconstructing the story. They look at each part of the narrative and do lots of research—and speculation—to figure out the year and the time of year of Jesus' birth, the exact place where he was born, the historicity of Herod's slaughter of the innocents, the nature of the celestial event that the magi observed and more. And, again, I don't mind these. I love learning more about the period and the culture into which Jesus was born. But, like the sentimental elements of the narrative, they can get people sidetracked from the point of the story, the good news of what God did in Christ. Folks get so absorbed in the details of each brush stroke that they don't see the whole picture.

Some respond by making their yearly or semi-yearly pilgrimage to church. They sing familiar hymns and listen to familiar stories and feel they have done their duty to God. They might bring their children or grandchildren, thinking that, like homeopathy, exposure to a tiny bit of something, in this case religion, will do the job that regular doses were designed to do. And part of that is thinking that faith is a nice extra to life, not something vital to a robust spiritual life. If I treated my physical therapy sessions that way, I would still be unable to walk. If we want to walk with Jesus, we need to keep coming to where 2 or 3 are gathered in his name and he is in their midst. We are to be the body of Christ, not independent agents with a side gig.

I was surprised to learn that for the first 350 years the church didn't have a holiday commemorating Christ's birth. The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus was the center of the faith. Because if they hadn't happened, there would be no church. A person being born is not earth-shattering news. A person returning from the dead is. Only in retrospect did the church feel it was important to celebrate Jesus' birth as well. And it wasn't to replace a pagan holiday that December 25th was chosen. It was based on the ancient idea that a person's death took place on the day of their conception. If Jesus died in the spring, at Passover, he must have been conceived around then 3 decades earlier and therefor born in the winter. Since March 25th was considered a probable date for his death and thus conception, December 25th was chosen as the likely day of his birth. It had nothing to do with taking over the pagan holiday of Saturnalia or Sol Invictus or the winter solstice.

As we said, Jesus' resurrection from the dead is the real news, the good news. It showed that Jesus was not just a prophet or a Messiah wannabe but the Lord of life. It was so unexpected that the disciples had to rethink not only who Jesus was but the nature of God as well. And only then, looking back, did they realize that for the Lord to die for us he had to be born as one of us. And that shows how much God loves us.

Let's say you were really into an endangered species that lived primarily in a area that would be flooded soon due to global warming. And let's say you knew of a better safer habitat where they could live if you could just get them there. But they are shy of human beings and run from you and hide. How can you get them to safety? What if there was a way you could become one of them and gain their trust and lead them to their new domain? Would you do it? Would you do it even if you knew you would have to die to get them there? If so, it would mean you really loved them.

Christmas is not about angels or animals or a manger or a star but about God loving us enough to give up his prerogatives and privileges as divinity to take on our humanity. And in doing so, he knew that life would be hard and end in a brutal death. He knew all that going in. And he did it anyway. That's love. That's incredible love. And our response should be to share not just that story but that love with everyone we meet. And to keep coming back together to celebrate that love with others who are of the same mind and spirit, and to give and receive encouragement and knowledge and support and wisdom and spiritual refreshment and, yes, to sing songs about the God we see in Jesus, the baby, the man, the sacrifice, the risen Savior.

Friday, December 24, 2021

A Little Out of Ordinary

The scriptures referred to are Luke 2:1-20.

People sometimes scoff at the infancy narratives in the gospels. There are only 2 but they are different, which some take as contradictory. They can be reconciled without great effort. Matthew concentrates on what happened before Jesus' birth and what happened as many as 2 years after. Luke focuses on what happens at the actual time of the birth and a week later. And as any cop will tell, when 2 or more people have absolute agreement on all the details, it means they cooked the story up. In real life, different people notice different details and tell the story a bit differently. Ask a married couple about their wedding and honeymoon. Both were there but one will always add something the other doesn't remember or even dispute some details their spouse mentions. The fact that the church didn't revise the 4 gospels to be exactly alike shows they took them all to be authentic if separate accounts.

Some say the infancy narratives are too mythological to be real. Seriously? The goddess Athena sprang fully formed from Zeus' head. Hercules strangled 2 snakes in his cradle. In modern mythology Superman was super strong and invulnerable from the beginning.

To be sure, there are apocryphal gospels that give us some truly amazing stories of Jesus as Superbaby. In the Gospel of James, touching baby Jesus' head heals the withered hand of the midwife who was punished for doubting Mary's virginity. In the Syriac Infancy Gospel Jesus' diaper heals people. In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas the author really lets his imagination go to town. Jesus makes birds out of clay, breathes life into them and they fly. He is also a true enfant terrible, striking dead a kid who accidentally bumped into him and then striking the boy's parents blind when they complain to Mary and Joseph. But that's okay. He resurrects the kid.

I've said it before: the apocryphal gospels read like bad fan fiction. No wonder the church rejected them.

In the canonical gospels Jesus does nothing other than be born. He is not born from Mary's head but normally. He doesn't strangle anything but presumably just yawns, cries and suckles. He isn't invulnerable; he gets circumcised on the eighth day. And the people around him rejoice, as anyone does when hearing of a baby being born. It's just that some of those rejoicing are angels.

Mary gives birth in less than ideal circumstances but that happens to a lot of people. In her day there were no hospitals or ambulances. You gave birth at home, as many in the world still do. As did Mary, actually. Due to a bad translation, people think Luke said there was no room at the “inn.” The word is better rendered “guest room.” As Kenneth Bailey points out in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, if Joseph was from Bethlehem and had property there he had to register for the tax census, he probably had relatives there as well. They wouldn't let him and his wife give birth in a stable. With the guest room already occupied, Mary would have delivered in the main family room. It would have been a few steps up from where families kept their animals at night. The manger or feeding trough would be on the edge of the floor of the main room, where the animals on the lower level could get it without getting into the family's living area. Less than ideal, as I said, but not, I'll wager, without precedent then or even today.

What is really remarkable about Jesus' birth is how low-key it is. God's son is not born in a palace or mansion. There are no attendants there to wait on the mother as you would expect at the birth of a king. There is no celebratory feast. The guests are not dignitaries and diplomats, just family and some shepherd boys. The shepherds are the only ones who saw angels, by the way. And artists have added halos to the holy family; they are not there in scripture.

If you dropped in to visit, you would see a very ordinary young family: a sleeping baby, a besotted new father and a very tired and sore new mother. Thus does God enter his own creation. Through birth, something commonplace and at the same time miraculous.

We want Hollywood special effects, though. We want things to glow in a supernatural way when something miraculous happens. But that's not what we get. When Jesus heals someone he just touches them. Or spits in the dirt and covers the person's eyes with mud. Even when raising Lazarus, Jesus just speaks. There are no fireworks.

And he refuses to do flashier stuff when people ask it of him. Even when he was under arrest and could have saved himself by wowing Herod Antipas, he wouldn't do it.

If you went to the crucifixion, you would simply see 3 men dying slowly, a sadly familiar occurrence then. The clouds covered the sun and there was an earthquake. Not that unusual for a country with a fault line running through it.

The angels do return at his resurrection. But they basically do what they did the first time he took on life: tell some witnesses what is going on. After all, the Greek and Hebrew words for angel both mean “messenger.” They are there to underline the significance of the event, not do magic tricks.

But sure enough, people are more interested in Jesus' miracles than his words. Because you can just observe miracles. You can accept them or reject them. But they don't demand of you what Jesus' words do.

Angels singing in the sky? Beautiful. It makes a lovely Hallmark special.

But...

“Turn the other cheek.” Hmm.

“Give to all who ask of you.” Ooo; I'm not sure about that.

“Forgive others.” Nice thought, but what about...?

“Love your enemy.” That's going a bit far.

“Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” Do I have to?

As Ben Franklin said, “How many observe Christ's birthday! How few, His precepts! O! 'tis easier to keep holidays than commandments.”

You know, Jesus didn't get any gifts on his birthday. The wise men came as much as 2 years later. So you know what would be a great gift for him? For us to actually listen to his words and put them into practice. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things for God by just doing what he says we should. And if you do, you will see your life transformed as well as the lives of those you touch.

Give Jesus the gift of your life and he will give you his life: abundant, eternal, ever new.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The World Upended

The scriptures referred to are Luke 1:39-55.

One of the most beautiful Christmas songs of recent years is “Mary, Did You Know?” sung by the acapella group Pentatonix. In haunting close harmony the group sings, 

“Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you?”

There are more verses. I highly recommend you look it up on You Tube and listen to it.

But the internet being what it is, someone has supplied another verse, that goes like this:

“Mary freaking knew that her baby boy would one day rule the nations.

Mary freaking knew that her baby boy was Lord of all creation.

Yes she knew! Read Luke 1, you fool, she sang about it then;

It helps if when you're reading you listen to the women!”

Personally I love the original song but the sassy additional verse has a lot of truth to it, as we see in today's gospel and canticle.

Luke's gospel is the only one that records that people moved by the Spirit burst into song. Does that happen in real life? Not in a Hollywood musical way but I once heard a sermon turn into a song. The pastor at an African American church was preaching in the call and response manner, with the congregation filling his dramatic pauses with “Amen!” “Preach it!” and “Hallelujah!” As the preacher became more rhythmic and poetic, the people picked up on that and tailored their responses to fit his rhythms. Then the choir started to sing their responses, and the organist began to play and the whole thing began to transmute into a spontaneous song. The preacher realized it was getting away from him and tried to halt it but the people kept singing and he finally said, “Let's just praise the Lord!” and they did so for several minutes till it faded away. And I was blown away. I thought, “Wow! That never happened in any church I belonged to.”

Little kids sing spontaneously till we make them feel embarrassed about it. In the same way we make fun of something we have all done at some point, which is sing along with the radio while driving alone. And yet don't we love it when a choir infiltrates a public space and does a flash mob rendering of the Ode to Joy or the Hallelujah Chorus? Which of us, at moments when we are alone and overwhelmed by strong emotions, has not found joy or solace in a favorite song?

What strong emotions would Mary have had that caused her to suddenly improvise the song we call the Magnificat?

First, we need to ask why Mary was visiting her relative. Elizabeth and her husband, the priest Zechariah, lived in Judea. The distance to there from Nazareth was roughly the same as from Key Largo to Key West but with mountains and valleys thrown in. It would take her at least 3 days walking. That's quite an undertaking for a young girl. Seeing as she was poor and pregnant, it doesn't make sense that she did it as a lark.

But her condition is an important clue. Luke tells us she was betrothed but not married to Joseph when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her she was to bear God's son. (Luke 1:26-27) From Matthew we know that Joseph did not take the news of Mary's pregnancy well. He was considering breaking the engagement, which was so binding it required a divorce. (Matthew 1:18-19) We don't know how long he was contemplating divorce but Luke tells us “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” Why did she go with haste? It wasn't like Elizabeth was about to go into labor. Her baby wasn't due for another 3 months. It must have been on Mary's end that haste was called for.

It wasn't that long ago that women pregnant out of wedlock were sent out of town to have their babies in secret. In an honor/shame society like the ancient Near East, Mary's pregnancy would be scandalous. Worse, she could be accused of adultery and stoned to death. Which is why Joseph wanted to divorce her quietly. So it makes sense she would be sent away on the excuse that she was helping her relative with her late-in-life birth.

Women then were raised for one purpose: to be a wife and mother. With Joseph making noises about divorcing her, Mary was looking at a life of disgrace and extreme poverty. Who would marry her? Who would help her raise her son? If she had to do it alone how would she support them both? All of these questions would have been eating at Mary during the long trudge to Judea. Her anxiety would have been off the charts. And what would she tell the priest and his wife? An angel told her she was bearing the Messiah? She would have sounded at best mad and at worst a terrible and blasphemous liar.

So when Elizabeth called her the “mother of my Lord” and mentioned how her own miraculous child leaped for joy in her womb, Mary must have been flooded with relief and gratitude. And later she would learn that an angel had appeared to mute Zechariah. These people believed her! She wasn't crazy and she wasn't alone. God was at work here.

And so the words just poured out of her! She cannot praise God enough. He has taken notice of this poor girl. The Greek word translated “lowliness” could also be rendered “humiliation.” And Mary's unwed pregnancy would be considered a humiliation in that culture. But God will turn that around and the girl sent out in dishonor will be honored by untold future generations.

God has a tendency to turn the values of this world upside down. And that is the theme of the song of Mary: God is turning the world we know topsy-turvy. The proud and the arrogant will be scattered. The powerful will be brought down from their thrones. The rich will be turned away empty of the spiritual blessings given to the humble.

We might even consider this song prophesy. Pontius Pilate, who had her son Jesus crucified, was recalled from his position as procurator of Judea in 36 AD and died in obscurity and disgrace. Caiaphas, the high priest who made the political calculation that it was better for Jesus to die than to possibly trigger the wrath of Rome, was also deposed that very same year. Tiberias, the emperor when Jesus was executed, is reported to have been killed by his successor Caligula in 37 AD. Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist beheaded and did nothing to save Jesus when Pilate sent him to be interviewed by Herod, was exiled in 39 AD and possibly killed by Caligula as well. These powerful men were all brought down less than a decade after Jesus was crucified.

On the other hand, Mary sings that those who fear God, who have a healthy respect for him, will receive mercy. The lowly will be lifted up and the hungry filled with good things. These themes echo the song of Hannah when God enabled her to become the mother of the prophet Samuel. (I Samuel 2:1-10) God is reversing the order of a world that typically rewards those who have plenty and penalizes those who have little, that believes that might makes right and that the weak must serve the strong. We like to think our civilization is a meritocracy but Mary and Hannah show us what it would look like if people really got what they deserved. It doesn't look like the one we see on the news, does it?

You know who really noticed the disparity between the kingdom of God Mary sings of and their society? The Nazis. They realized that Christianity was not compatible with their ideals. So in addition to discarding the Old Testament, because it was all about the Jews, they rewrote the New Testament. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blesses the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers. He tells his followers to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies, to not indulge in anger or hate. (Matthew 5-7) All that had to be taken out. The Nazi Jesus was not meek. He was an Aryan warrior who hated Jews. For him there was no peacemaking, no showing mercy, and definitely no loving enemies. Weirdly, you can say that while they were dishonest about what Jesus said, the Nazis were not hypocritical about their own values. And so they tried to remake Jesus in their own image. People still think if you don't want to change yourself, try changing God.

Many so-called Christians in the free world don't alter the words of Jesus; they just ignore them or explain them away. Jesus didn't really mean what he said about the rich being like a camel squeezing through the eye of a sewing needle, or that how we treat the poor, the sick, the imprisoned or the immigrant is how we treat Jesus, or about the woes he pronounced on those well off. (Luke 6:24-26) He didn't really mean that a rich man would be punished for neglecting a poor sick man at his gate. (Luke 16:19-31) He really didn't mean that those who come first in this world will come last in the next. (Luke 13:30) He really didn't mean that we should invite the poor and those who are disabled and those who can't repay us to our dinner parties in the assurance we will be repaid at the resurrection. (Luke 14:13-14) If he did, then our nation isn't really Christian.

If you think the world's priorities on who gets what they need and who gets justice is basically correct, then you will have problems with Jesus. But if you think we are only stewards of God's gifts and thus are expected to share them equitably, then you understand why Jesus commands us to live differently than the world does.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus said that the kingdom of God was prepared for the righteous, ie, those who treated the disadvantaged as they would Jesus. (Matthew 25:31-46) And the Greek word for “righteous,” as well as the Hebrew word, means “just” or “equitable.” They are related to the words in each language for “justice.” We tend to think of “righteous” as meaning merely “holy” but it means more than that. It means someone who treats others fairly.

And treating people equitably isn't the same as treating them equally. If, as a nurse, I put a bandage on the finger of not just the person who cut his finger but also on the finger of everyone who comes to me for any ailment, like a broken leg or a sucking chest wound, technically I have given everyone equal treatment: ie, a bandaid on their finger. But I have not treated them equitably; that is, fairly, according to their actual need. Justice requires judgment, deciding the matter on the basis of the actual factors involved, not arbitrarily or with a one-size-fits-all solution.

That's why we make accommodation for the disabled. Not everyone can climb stairs or can hear or can see. That doesn't mean they should be denied the rights that able people have no problem exercising. To ignore people's different needs would not be fair.

And, yes, accommodating the disabled and the disadvantaged can be inconvenient. It can be expensive to help and care for them. Which is why they were the first group that Hitler had murdered. They started with physically and mentally disabled children, starving them or giving them lethal drugs. The Nazis considered them “unworthy of life” and “useless eaters.” This is the ruthless pragmatism of psychopaths.

Nobody is useless in God's eyes. We are all created in his image and he doesn't care if accommodating those who are disadvantaged is inconvenient. As it says in Leviticus, “You must not curse a deaf person or put a stumbling block in front of a blind person. You must fear your God. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:14) We must supply what the needy lack. (Deuteronomy 15:11) We are to be just and fair to all, no exceptions.

At the time of her song, Mary is a poor pregnant unwed mother-to-be. Even after the angel came to Joseph and told him to marry her, you just know the tongues of villagers in Nazareth wagged about how she was pregnant before they got married. And then Jesus' family fled Herod the Great's murderous purge of the boys in Bethlehem and went into Egypt, making them refugees. And when they returned to Nazareth years later, Jesus was a stranger with, probably, a strange Egyptian accent. He was the new boy in town with rumors about the circumstances of his conception and paternity. When Joseph died, as is evident by how he drops out of all the gospels after Jesus' childhood, Jesus was responsible to making a living to support his widowed mother and 4 brothers and we know not how many sisters. (Mark 6:3) Which is why from the cross Jesus arranges for his mother to be taken care of by his beloved disciple. (John 19:25-27) Jesus and his family knew poverty and how hard life can be. Which means God does too, firsthand.

God has always championed the underdog. (Deuteronomy 10:17-18) Through his son Jesus he knows what it's like to be one. And he promises that in his kingdom that will change. The first will be last and the last will be first. The meek will inherit the new earth. Those who suffered in this life will be consoled and rewarded and made whole. We can either be onboard with helping the destitute and the disabled and the disadvantaged as an expression of God's love, or we can go on blithely ignoring the plight of others. But remember in Jesus' parable of the last judgment it's the neglectful that get condemned. It's those who help Jesus by helping the least of his siblings who are called righteous—just and fair—and who go on into eternal life.

If we truly believe in Jesus and in his word, we will ask for the grace to change and to be like him: one so guided by the love of God that he thinks not of how helping others will negatively affect him but how not helping others will negatively affect them. Jesus on occasion would forgo a nap or a meal to help others. He even gave up his life to save us all. We have made a fetish out of convenience and comfort and are loathe to give them up. But Jesus is calling us to love and treat fairly all people, as he does, regardless of the cost. And he cost him more than we ever can pay.

We cannot bring the kingdom of God about by ourselves. Only Jesus can. But we can lay the groundwork. We can prepare things for him. We can plant the seeds and help establish little outposts of his kingdom that create networks of love and caring. And we can show the world that it is possible to have a community in which might does not make right, where those who deviate from the norm or from the ideal are not discarded, where people are not valued for their usefulness, like machines, but whose value resides in the fact that God loves them and created them in his image and that Jesus died for them. So let us with Mary magnify the Lord and let our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.