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November 18, 2009
At morning prayer, a fragment of the gospel according to Matthew that we don't encounter on Sundays: the hardly-ever-read story of how Jesus, apparently in arrears on his temple tax, sends Peter to the sea to catch a fish with a coin in just the right denomination in its mouth.

A perfectly charming tale, but we don't read it. Why? I suppose it's because it's a little embarrassing -- too folkloric, too magical, too much like encouraging people not to pay their taxes, or even to play the lottery as a means of making ends meet.

There are other stories like that, stories from the BIble we usually don't read in church. Back in the day, a child could count on a smirk or two during the annual reading of the one about Baalam's ass, gone forever from our Sunday mornings since the 1979 prayer book took them over. I, for one, miss it, although it's not like there aren't still plenty of talking asses.

And then there's the one in which Jesus, peeved because a fig tree does not bear figs out of season -- duh -- curses it, causing the tree to wither and die. We do still read that one on a Sunday here and there, and it's challenging to preach on -- it's always hard to preach on Jesus when he doesn't make much sense. Times like that are when we must all remember that these ancient books were written and copied by ordinary people, and that the transmission of the ancient words has made some interesting detours along the way from them to us. We can't hold Jesus responsible for everything we read about him. Reading the Bible can be an immediate and soul-satisfying comfort, just the face value of the old words at this very moment speaking to the heart in need of them at this very moment. But it is also a more considered thing, a subtle and demanding art, which is why it's so good to do it in company with others and to learn as much as possible about it, including how it came to be the way it is.

There is a spirit abroad among us these days which demands that everything be simple. It is a spirit suspicious of learning and of serious thought, a spirit that equates the pursuit of excellence with elitism and snobbery. It asserts that leadership is nothing more than representation of the majorit opinion, that our leaders need to be just like us, nothing more, when the truth is that leaders need to lead, and leadership often requires something extraordinary. This spirit maintains that the equality that exists among human beings in the sight of a loving God means that nobody really needs to learn anything. It contents itself with superficiality. It confuses the God who really does accept me just as I am with one who doesn't want me to grow and change. Yes, God loves me as I am. But God also wants me to be all I can be. Which is more than I am right now.


Here are the three Bible stories I mention above.

Jesus and the fish with the coin in its mouth

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, "Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?" "Yes, he does," he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. "What do you think, Simon?" he asked. "From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?" "From others," Peter answered. "Then the sons are exempt," Jesus said to him. "But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours."
-- Matthew 17:24-27

Balaam and his talking ass

And the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. And when the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pushed against the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So he struck her again. Then the angel of the LORD went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam. And Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?" And Balaam said to the donkey, "Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you." And the donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?" And he said, "No." Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. And the angel of the LORD said to him, "Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live."
--- Numbers 22:22-33

Jesus and the fig tree

Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" they asked. Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
--Matthew 21:18-22 (a slightly longer version of the story appears
in Mark 11)
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