“Is God among us or not?”
This screeching lament
from the freshly escaped slaves
encountering the down-side of freedom,
is not to be confused with the opening refrain
of our Eucharistic Prayer from Kenya:
“Is God present? God is here;
Is Christ among us? God is here;
Is the Spirit moving? God is here.”
But honestly, there is not much distance
between proclamation and lament.
Take an acclamation of faith
or declaration of hope, like, “God is here,”
and add a pinch of severe thirst
or extreme discomfort,
or any kind of fearful deprivation,
and the declaration becomes a curse.
The distance from light to darkness,
hope to fear,
satiation to deprivation
is measured in seconds and even nanoseconds,
because that is how fast our situation can change.
Our attitudes toward God are likewise as vulnerable –
that is just who we are.
There is almost no point in apologizing for it
or pretending to repent,
because our attitude can turn on a dime
and even if we aren’t acting surly and hostile now,
we will, or would,
should circumstances become altered.
In all fairness to the people in the Exodus story,
if you have ever been in the desert with limited water,
then you know the panic of thirst.
Ironically, thirst is akin to running out of air under water.
Thirst in the desert
causes the walls of your mouth
to become like dust,
and you become desperate to gulp,
and all you want is to drown your tongue and throat.
“What the heck am I supposed to do with these people?”
Moses grimaces to God, and
it is more of a statement than a question.
To Moses’ people, it is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately
kind of story.
I knew a guy who owned an international business,
a high-end, boutique kind of manufacturing enterprise
that was recognized as the best of its kind around the world.
Still, the competition was fierce.
Business being business,
his customers were driven by their bottom line,
and it mattered little that he had filled their need last year.
The question was always what he would do this year,
and for how much?
It was a one-way relationship
in the sense that he was always catering to their needs
and never the other way around.
So in the Exodus story,
when the people are thirsty,
it is of little consequence to them
that God has just performed panoramic miracles
that totally altered the face of the geopolitical landscape.
Even though God literally picked up thousands of slaves
as a lioness carries her cubs by the scruff of the neck,
to those thirsty people it was: “what have you done for me lately?”
I mean, really, who has ever done enough for you?
We are voracious,
and we are made that way.
If we eat too much, our stomach stretches outward
and the next time we’re hungry
we’ll want even more than before.
That story from Exodus is as much about us
as it was about those thirsty dust bunnies in the Bible.
It never ceases to amaze me,
that a three-thousand-year-old story
can deliver a crystal clear snapshot
of our own human character,
that has finally brought us global climate change
and a toxic environment.
We are “never enough” kind of creatures,
and on top of it, “never good enough” people;
and apparently it has always been that way.
As that delicious Paula Gunn Allen reading says about stories,
Biblical narratives tell us who we are,
where we came from,
and occasionally, how we got to be this way.
Of course, in our materially-driven,
twenty-first century mindset,
those stories get dismissed as fairy tales
while stories from Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky
are allowed to retain truth.
But I digress, sort of.
What has authority to speak truth
pops up in the gospel story too –
yet another narrative that offers us a mirror.
The religious authorities in Matthew’s story,
know who and what their authority comes from
and they quiz Jesus about his authority.
The religious authorities operated on coercive power,
as presidents, and generals, and
CEOs do in our world.
Coercive power was and is,
the ability to force people to act a certain way,
or manipulate, move, and
restrict certain resources
as deemed appropriate.
The religious authorities in Jesus’ day
were granted authority by birthright –
being born into one of the reigning priestly families.
By birth they were given the resources and responsibility
to operate the Temple,
which was considered to be the one and only place
from which the power of God was exercised.
Today we would call that a monopoly.
As the story goes, the religious authorities
test Jesus with a question.
It is actually not a real question,
because by asking it, their intention is to belittle Jesus.
They know how much authority they have
and in comparison, anything Jesus tries to say,
will seem anemic.
“So little man, what’s your authority?”
But Jesus is smarter than to simply answer tit for tat.
When you are smaller and weaker than the bullies,
you have to get fast and agile, and sneaky.
You see, John the Baptist
was far more popular than Jesus,
and the person-on-the-street
believed John the Baptist had been a messenger from God –
In short, John had the authority of God
while the religious authorities only had coercion.
That is why King Herod had John beheaded,
because the authority of God was too powerful
and threatened the King’s power.
So, if the Temple priests diminished John’s authority
they would have less credibility and therefore less authority,
in the eyes of the people.
If they confirmed John as a prophet,
then they would have the wrath of King Herod
down upon themselves.
So Jesus won’t answer their question
but he will tell them a story.
There it is again – the power of story.
So the point of Jesus’ story is a hot poker for us too.
As I have said before, the religion of Jesus’ day
was all about purity.
Even John the Baptist was all about purity,
he just challenged the Temple priesthood’s monopoly
on the ability to forgive and heal violations of purity.
The religion of Jesus’ day orbited around the question
of how to remain pure
when the slightest violation of purity rules
made one unclean.
To be clean was the moral and religious task at hand,
and was enormously important.
If you were not clean,
and if you did not do anything to purify yourself,
then you could not remain in association
with those who were righteous.
And remember, the covenant with God
was communal not individualistic.
Individualism had not appeared
on any scene in human history yet,
and the idea of personal salvation would not show up
for another thousand years or so.
So an individual needed to remain in communion
with the community of faith.
But eat the wrong food,
or eat the right food at the wrong time,
or eat the right food with the wrong person,
or any combination of the above,
and you became unclean.
But purity and impurity
were scrupulously delineated by more than consumption.
Touch, ever so slightly,
a woman while she was on her menstrual cycle,
and you became unclean.
Touch a dead body, and you became unclean.
Enter the house of a gentile, or any unclean person,
and you became unclean.
Have a blemish on your skin – even a simple zit –
and you were unclean.
Touch someone who was considered diseased,
and you were unclean.
And the size or degree of your violation
did not really matter –
impurity was impurity regardless of degree.
The nature of rehabilitation and recovery
varied by the degree of violation,
but not the requirement to get treated
before being allowed to return to communion
with the religious community.
There was nobody more unclean in Jesus’ day
than tax collectors and prostitutes.
Matthew uses them as a metaphor for the worst of the worst.
Both tax collectors and prostitutes
worked with Gentiles –
they were collaborators with the Roman oppressors
and to do so, they had to violate the rules of separation
Tax collector did not refer to the big money guys
who owned and operated the structures of taxation.
It referred to the middle men,
the agents of the big money guys.
They were the people hired to collect the taxes
and they were commissioned with whatever they could gouge
from the people they collected taxes from.
In other words,
if someone owed a 2% tax on their flock of sheep,
the standard rate by the way,
then the tax collector might charge them 4%.
They were racketeers and extortionists,
the bagmen for the taxing authority.
So tax collectors were considered extremely unclean
and morally diseased.
Prostitutes, besides engaging in sexual activity
that was expressly forbidden,
did so with Gentiles – who were likely their primary customers.
Roman soldiers and civil servants
were the principle people with money
and so they were the target market of prostitutes.
Tax collectors and prostitutes were considered, ‘as Gentiles.’
They were permanently stained
by their despicable service
to the Romans and other unclean populations.
So, the idea of eating with tax collectors and prostitutes,
not to mention a wide variety of lesser
but still obvious violators of purity laws,
was an interesting one-upmanship on John the Baptist.
You see, John had subverted the Temple monopoly
by using baptism to cleanse people of their impurities.
Instead of depending upon the Temple,
with its expensive means of reconciliation –
requiring as it did the purchase of sacrificial animals
or payment to the clergy –
John offered baptism that cost nothing
in terms of money and time.
It was a brilliant sabotage of Temple authority.
But Jesus went a step further.
By hosting an open table
to which all manner of people were invited,
tax collectors and prostitutes included,
he seemed to be saying that people were forgiven
even before they asked for it.
Jesus offered acceptance and community to the unclean
even before they acknowledged their guilt.
The festivities to which Jesus invited the unclean,
or in which he participated as a guest,
were not dour, begrudging, dinners with relatives.
They were parties.
They were feasts.
They were festive celebrations.
Unclean, toxic people yucking it up with Jesus –
that is what it would have looked like
to those watching from the outside.
So we have these stories
that hold a mirror up, and
in which we can see ourselves more clearly.
Old stories, smudged by time
and discredited by our twenty-first century,
one-dimensional thinking, as Marcus Borg says it.
They remind us of our propensity to judge God and
the goodness of the world around us,
by the current state of our own comfort and satiation.
In other words, we evaluate good and bad
on the basis of extreme self-interest.
And these stories also push us to see God,
not as the source and means of meeting our needs
and insuring our self-interest,
but rather, as a lover of souls with an open embrace,
one who invites us to do likewise.
So we can put up barriers and restrict access
to people from other parts of the world;
and we can insulate ourselves by class, ethnicity, and race;
but we cannot do those things
and still claim to be faithful followers of Jesus,
or that we are upholding the spiritual practice
he commended to us.
Stories tell us who we are,
where we came from, and
how we got to be this way.
That is the power of story.
And biblical stories, perhaps even especially
the Jesus stories,
remind us who we are
and whose we are;
and they also show us
when we have strayed far away
from the truth and love we claim.