John Bennison Words and Ways | Show Me The Money, or What? Advent III

Show Me The Money, or What? Advent III

 A Commentary for the Third Week of an Advent Journey

[To read and/or print a pdf version of this commentary click here.]

The Text, for Context

 When Yohanan heard in prison what the mashiah was doing, he sent his own students to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?”

 And Yeshua answered, saying to them, Go and tell Yohanan what you see and hear.  In the words of our prophet Yeshayahu: The blind will see again and the lame walk, the lepers are made clean and the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor hear the good news.  Blessed is the one who has not stumbled because of me.

 As Yohanan’s students were leaving, Yeshua began to speak to the crowd about Yohanan, “What did you go into the desert to see?  A reed shaken by the wind?  But what did you go out to see?  A Man dressed in soft robes?  Look, those who wear soft clothing are in the houses of the kings.  What did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and he is more than a prophet.  He is the one of whom the prophet Malachi wrote: ‘See, I send you my angel messenger before your face, who will prepare the way before you.’

 I say to you, no one risen among us born of women is greater than Yohanan the Dipper.  Yet who is least in the kingdom of the skies is greater than he is.”

Translation by Willis Barnstone, The Restored New Testament

Commentary

It seems the hottest debate dominating the news this last week was how Washington was going to overcome more gridlock, and resolve what seems to be our biggest looming problem: How best to renege on a promise we made to ourselves eight years ago when we were in clover; and decided we could afford to give everybody a temporary tax break, while still providing the fundamental services of government to the people, and for the people.

So eight years later when things aren’t so rosy, we’ve decided this time we can’t afford anything but lower taxes again; so there’ll be less tax revenue with which to provide some of those same government services, when the need is considerably greater with fewer resources.  Some of those services included continued unemployment benefits to the massive numbers of out-of-work Americans, in what most economists predict remains a long, painful (and some say jobless) recovery.  Bluntly put, the thinly-veiled threat and ultimatum went something like this: If the previously agreed-to tax rates for millionaires resume, then the bread lines go away.

There’s been a lot of criticism over Obama’s compromise with the opposing party as mere capitulation, and just another bailout for billionaires.  Disillusioned, some have even begun asking themselves, is Obama still “the one, or should they look for another?”

The President himself defended his pragmatic approach to governing, likening the situation to a hostage crisis.  He could not sit by and refuse to negotiate, he said, when too many citizens were being harmed by the intransigence of legislative captors.  In another context such hostage takers might be called terrorists.  But in Washington, such opponents are simply referred to colloquially as “my friends and colleagues on the other side of the aisle.”

This is all meant to be more than mere editorial opinion.  Regardless of the differing positions on issues such as extending tax cuts for some, or all, how best to stimulate the economy, revitalize capitalist free enterprise, encourage job creation and growth, and rescue millions of fellow Americans facing a less-than-merry holiday, the President, his critics and opponents all share the same goal.  They all want to be able to justify their actions, arguments, policies and latest round of legislative maneuverings when the electorate again tells them all what they already know is coming: Show us the money!

Where is it?  Where’s it going to come from, how much will we get to keep for ourselves, and how soon are we going to have enough of it to feel right again about what we euphemistically envision to be the American dream?  That’s what’s pitched as the solution to all our problems.  Presumably, it’s both the end game, and the means by which we’re able to get there.  At the end of the day, it’s money that’s the means by which we tangibly measure our strength and stability, security, national prowess, wealth and personal wellbeing.

On the other hand, how we measure our generosity, compassion, passion for peace, a hankering for what’s just plain right, and the health and wellbeing of our neighbor — including the alien in our midst — is a subsequent matter of affordability. The general sentiment seems to be these are luxuries we can ill afford, if we “dis-incentivize” those who may (or may not), decide to spend the extra bucks they keep; all in the hopes they’ll offer jobs to those we otherwise won’t help any further.

We’ll add $900 billion to the growing federal deficit, if it means lower taxes for those who have taxable income.  But further benefits for those with no income to tax should be pay-go items.  To get out of debtor’s prison, the message seems as clear as it is confusing: Show us the money.  Then use the money we’ll save with a tax-break extension, and we’ll pull ourselves out debt with our consumer spending.  It’s a dizzying game of dollars and cents.  Or is it dollars and sense?

Meanwhile, some private investment entrepreneurs in Kentucky have taken matters into their own hands, and answered the call to make sense of it all by casting a lifeline to some of the locals in Grant County who’re drowning in red ink.  Backed by a ministry known as Answers in Genesis, they’ve recently announced the proposed construction of a full-sized replica of Noah’s Ark.  It’s been touted that it will stimulate the local economy, creating jobs and giving a big boost to a less-than-booming tourist trade in that region.  With a slight digression, I’ll try to come ‘round to my same conclusion.

Built on a scale of biblical proportions (literally, according to the specs outlined in Genesis 6:15), the so-called Ark Encounter project has been billed as a “historically themed attraction,” that would also feature a Tower of Babel and a first-century Middle Eastern city.

The developers of the Ark Encounter say they expect to spend $150 million, employ 900 people and attract 1.6 million visitors from around the world in the first year. With the so-called Creation Museum only 45 miles away — where the “facts” of the Bible are used to debunk evolution — they envision a Christian tourism corridor that would draw busloads from surrounding churches and schools.  It’ll be a perfect combination, providing an economic boon and religious revival, all at the same time.

According to the official website this is not a mere amusement park. “It’s our opportunity to present accurate, factual biblical information to people about a subject that they’re really interested in,” said Mike Zovath, a senior vice president of Answers in Genesis.

While they don’t plan to have a pair of every living creature on the face of the earth onboard, Mike says, “part of our mission … is to show the feasibility of how Noah would have been able to take care of animals for an extended period of time.”  Mr. Zovath then strays from the literal text a bit, and does a little speculating of his own.

“We think that God would probably have sent healthy juvenile-sized animals that weren’t fully grown yet, so there would be plenty of room.  We want to show how Noah would have taken care of them, taken care of waste management, taken care of water needs and food needs.”

The Answers in Genesis group doesn’t explain why those answers aren’t found in the original texts.  Some other “factual” questions with which Mr. Zovath may have difficulty might be how Noah calculated the duration of the critter’s needs, not knowing when the waters were going to recede, or when the rainbow covenant appear in the clearing sky.

Most important, also left unanswered by the Answers in Genesis group was how Noah came up with the equivalent of $150 big ones for his 450’ cruise ship.

After all, he didn’t have Kentucky’s Tourism Development Act, where tourist attractions can get back up to 25-percent of their development costs over 10 years from sales tax generated at the facility. Ark Encounter stands to receive $37.5 million — a quarter of its investment.  We think we got economic challenges today?  Noah had only to rely on a wing and a prayer, before the dark and ominous cloud rolled in over his horizon.  And there’s the rub.

Critics of the proposed Ark Encounter argue government backing for an enterprise that promotes religion violates the First Amendment’s requirement of separation of church and state.  While a bit unclear about this stand on creationism, Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear dismissed the constitutional argument as being of considerably less importance than the primary objective.

“The people of Kentucky didn’t elect me governor to debate religion,” he said at a recent news conference. “They elected me governor to create jobs.”  At the end of the day, the governor knows what matters most: Show me the money!

Well, I’d all but cancelled my springtime trip to Paris this year (just kidding), opting for a historic biblical tour of northern Kentucky instead (again, just kidding).  But then I read where the French have just discovered a fresh collection of works by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Picasso. With the possibility of viewing this new treasure trove, it’s a toss up; and my vacation plans are up in the air.

It seems a retired electrician who’d once worked for the grand master was rummaging around in his garage, and came across the stash he’d been hoarding for some as-yet unexplained reason.  Standing outside his modest home in the town of Mouans-Sartoux, just north of Antibes, Pierre Le Guennec told reporters the 271 pieces of artwork were, in fact, a gift from the artist’s second wife.  His own wife, with her unsophisticated eye, referred to them as mostly just scribblings by the artist; but

 Picasso’s estate estimates the collage and eight other pieces alone are worth $40 million Euros (over $52 million).

Facing recent health issues with their advancing years, the retired couple claimed they were simply doing what many do at their age; sift and sort their accumulated belongings, to minimize the kinds of unresolved issues they might otherwise leave behind.   But Picasso’s family isn’t buying the story.

Picasso’s heirs say the elderly couple approached them in September, with a request to authenticate the undocumented art.  In response, the family filed suit for illegal possession of the works.  The collection is now held by the French agency that deals with illegal trafficking of cultural items.

Exactly why the old pair had waited so long after the alleged heist to make their move remains a mystery.  But the artist’s family wants the thieves thrown in jail, convinced the retired tradesman’s only interest in the loot he’d inexplicably neglected to cash in for decades was its monetary value.  If it wasn’t the money, what else could it be?  Was it the money, or what?

If it wasn’t the money, what else could it be?  Was it the money, or what?

 

 The Commentary, in Context

When we read the gospel story from Matthew, appointed for this part of our Advent journey, we find John the Baptist has been thrown in the cooler; presumably for his rabble rousing, which the religious and jurisdictional authorities have found too irksome and threatening.  The gospel writer and his audience of early Christian believers would already have known the Baptist’s eventual fate; losing his head on a platter, in order to placate a passing whim of the power elite.

Despite what would be the eventual outcome to John’s own predicament, it seems his ultimate concern is clearly directed elsewhere.  Though he has less chance of posting bail than would, say, WikiLeak’s Julian Assange these days, sitting in his London jail cell, John isn’t looking for a bailout.  Instead he sends his own followers to essentially inquire of Jesus, “Show me what you got!”

The correspondence between a religious/political prisoner and his cousin on the outside — the itinerant rabbi who’d find himself condemned as a religious/political prisoner soon enough – is all about Jesus, not John.  Matthew’s listeners would be looking back at this exchange with the perspective of the full storyline already played out.

There’s plenty of biblical precedent for God’s unlikely appointed and anointed to pop up in the least likely of places.  So earlier, on the edge of the wilderness, along Jordan’s banks, John had spotted Jesus emerging out of the crowd.  John had subordinated himself before the one he’d proclaimed would come and show us what’s what.  With such a God who seems to have a penchant for the least and unlikeliest, Matthew wants us to wonder the same thing and draw the same conclusion.

John the Forerunner got himself in hot water because he placed all his bets on this long shot.  So understandably, this John really wants to ask this Jesus (the Hebrew Yeshua’ meaning “Jehovah saves”), “Are you really the One, or what?”  After all, in those days the capitol was filled with false and would-be messiahs, who’d say what the people wanted to hear, and claim to know the way.

“Go and tell Jesus what you see and hear,” is the confirmation John must have hoped to hear from this or-what messiah.  And it is precisely this or-what that Matthew wants us to see and hear, as well:

In the power and presence of Jesus, a reordering of the same old wearisome world and its problems is made manifest in new and transformative ways: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the poor — who (still) seem to only get poorer — instead get some good news for a change.   That would be news.  These days, that really would be a change in the way we listen, look, walk and talk.

It is precisely this or-what (kind of messiah) Matthew wants us to see and hear…: In the power and presence of Jesus, a reordering of the same old wearisome world and its problems is made manifest in new and transformative ways.

 

I’m reminded Noah only had room for two of everything; which works out okay, I suppose, if you’re willing to leave quite a few critters behind when the floodwaters begin to rise. But contrary to popular belief (including some economic theories), a rising tide does not necessarily lift all boats.  And it just may be we don’t need another ark, a bigger ark.  Even the Titanic had steerage class.  It just didn’t have enough lifeboats. Now what?

When I look for an answer in Genesis, I look ahead to the Promised Land; not back to the watery abyss of creation from which our life emerged.  It just seems likely to me that the Creator had more in mind than simply bobbing forever on the surface of some unfathomable depths.

Then I look to the ancient prophet’s oft-repeated vision of a way to get to that place, where the crooked ways are made straight and the rough places smooth.

Then I listen to hear the expletive John the Dipper exclaims, “Land of mercy!”  Exactly.  And his question, “Are you the one?”

In answer to the question, show us what you got? Jesus approaches the same old seemingly unfathomable problems from a very different place.  That place is what this Jeshua, this religious/political rabble-rouser, goes on to describe for us as a different kind of kingdom and reign of God.

The tricky part – frankly because it’s directed a little closer to where I live in my fine house, in my soft robes — is to be found in the last line of the reply to John’s question: And “blessed (or happy) is anyone who takes no offense at me,” or “has not stumbled because of me.”

The alternative “or what” to the “show me what I get” is about a reordering of the seemingly-intransigent way things are; and what’s going to come at a cost one might ask if we are willing to make.  These days, it seems, we are not.

In the debate raging both within and out, I hear the words “compromise” and “shared sacrifice” bantered about, as if they were the same thing.  They are not.  If there’s a stumbling block in all this, I am inclined to think we are tripping over ourselves.  But that’s not all.  There is also this nagging or-what kind of place.

I am also persuaded we are also drawn to stumble forward and ask about this “what else?”  Look again at the rest of this text.  Following Jesus’ reply to John’s inquiry, that’s what he turns and asks us about.  “What did you bother trekking out to the wilderness to see?”  Jesus asks.  What could we possibly hope to encounter in our wilderness?  Certainly not the rich and powerful, who wear soft clothes and live in fine houses.

Instead, we are drawn to journey to the unlikely and inconvenient places, in hopes we might run into the “angel messenger,” who still announces the advent of that still-unwelcome, alternative “or what.”  A lowly place where cherubim and seraphim, fools and wise men, thieves and royals would all be inexplicably drawn.  A place where we still long to sing, the “hopes and fears of all our years are met in thee tonight.”

Matthew leaves us to assume John got back the answer to his question, “Are you the one?” before his numbered days came to an end.  Jesus pays him a backhanded compliment, likening him to the great prophets of old. His brief ministry served as a bridge back, once again, to that yet-unfulfilled vision of a future “or what” time and place.  After all, as we know all too well, it’s still advent.

Even so, Jesus also dubs his cousin John to be “least” among those who would ever be a living part of such a time and place; if only we might keep from stumbling along misbegotten paths, and see what else is emerging even now, in the midst of this passing, present age.

 

© 2010 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

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2 Comments

  1. “Go tell what you see and hear” if applied to Congress would yield a predictable condemnation. Ditto the Episcopal Church. Both institutions are dysfunctional in my view. There would seem no greater hypocrisy than to pretend to worship the Prince of Peace while conducting a cruel war in Afghanistan and spending trillions of dollars to maintain a worldwide military establishment. We need to turn off the ceaseless singing of the herald angels and engage in some quiet introspection during this made-for-retail holiday season. How am I contributing to this madness? What does God want me to do to reveal I belong to another world not present in power but found in acts of bravery, forgiveness, love, and self-denying generosity?

  2. Your ability to weave current events with a long past age as reflected in the biblical stories never fails to fascinate and intrigue me. I look forward to each of your commentaries as I once looked forward to your weekly sermons to make me think more deeply about the meaning of life today.

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