Saturday, February 27, 2016

Passion Voices: Pilate

Bring me a basin.


What do I do with this man? I don't see that he's broken any real laws--Roman laws I mean--and what do I care about all their religious falderal? Sabbath? Passover? Phalacteries? What is all that to me?

"Are you a king?" I asked him.

"I came to bring the truth."

Truth? What is truth? Does anyone know? Is that Jewish truth? Roman truth? Your truth? My truth?

And then my wife sends me a message, saying "Don't have anything to do with him. I had bad dreams about him." 

Bad dreams? Am I the sender of dreams? Why is all this on my head?

Then I thought I had the answer. It was brilliant, really. The mob was screaming for blood--so I would give them Barrabas. It was one of their stupid traditions, after all--to release one prisoner at Passover.

Barrabas--a piece of work if ever I saw one. A murderer caught red handed. No question about his guilt. Surely they would rather put him on a cross.

No dice! The Pharisees have got them all worked up. They've got to have Jesus-Jesus-Jesus and nobody else. I just don't like this whole business.

It's their voices screaming. It's their decision. Let it be on their heads! After all, that's what they said. "Let His blood be on us." Well then, so be it!

Where is that basin? I want to wash my hands of this mess! 

More water! Hurry!

No good! No good! Why won't my hands come clean? 

It's not my fault!

Photo Credits:
     Pilate with Jesus, by Nicholai Ge
     The Message of Pilate's Wife, by James Tissot
     Christ in front of Pilateby Jacek Malczewski  
     detail of Pilate Washing his Hands), 1533-34, fresco, 
             Church of Santa Maria della Neve, Pisogne (BG), Italy

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Passion Voices: Peter

His words surprised me.

"You will all fall away because of me this night," Jesus said last night at the Seder.

Not me, I thought. Hey, I'm the rock.

"Though everyone else may desert you, I never will." I said it and I meant it. I had to speak up. I wanted Him to know He could count on me.

He looked at me, and I will never forget those eyes of sadness and love. He said that before the rooster crows, I would deny him three times.

"No, no, never." I said. That's what we all said. But everything was happening so fast. Things were spinning out of control, and I was dizzy with fear.

He went to the Garden to pray. He took just the three of us--me and James and John. The sky was pressing down so hard, I couldn't stay awake. He woke us, but we all fell asleep again. Just when he needed us most!

Then the soldiers came with Judas to arrest Jesus. Why was Judas doing this? He was one of us. I didn't even stop to think. I grabbed my sword and cut off the ear of one of the guards. They had no right.

No right!

Again Jesus rebuked me. "Those who live by the sword will die by the sword." And He bent down and picked up the severed ear and placed it back on the soldier's head.

When they took the Master away, I followed--but not too close. I didn't want to get arrested too. But what I saw was terrible. They whipped Him and drove thorns into his head. What had He done to deserve this?

Then a woman pointed at me and snarled through crooked teeth. "He's one of them. He was with Jesus." I was terrified.

"No," I said, "I don't even know him."

Another one looked at me and said, "He was with them."

"I tell you, I don't know him!" 

Later some other bystanders said that I must be a disciple too. They said my Galilean accent gave me away. I was furious. These people were trying to get me killed. I cursed and screamed, "No, I don't know this man."

Just then, the rooster crowed.

Someone said this morning that Judas hung himself last night. Why, oh why, didn't I do the same thing?

I am so ashamed.

Photo Credits:
     Peter, by Masaccio
     Detail from the Last Supper, from the Netherlands

     Agony in the Garden, by Andrea Mantegna         Jesus Arrested, by Giotto
     Peter Denies Christ, detail from a mural
     The Rooster Crows, by A. L. O. E.
     The Repentant Peter, by El Greco

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Passion Voices: Judas

I don't want it! Not any of it! I gave it back. I threw it into the temple, but it just keeps rattling and rolling and clang-clang-clanging on the tiles. Please make it stop!

A payment of thirty silver coins. But I don't want it.

I gave it back! 

Caiaphas and his cronies were only too anxious to pay me. All I had to do was to lead them to Jesus, just let them know which one he was. Easy money.

I think it started with that crazy woman. When we were eating at Simon's house, this woman comes right up to the table and puts ointment on his feet. Then she rubs it in with her hair. What a spectacle and what a waste! A year's wages. She could have fed the poor! She could have put it in our treasury, and I could have put it to some good use.

So tonight at the Seder, he gets down on his hands and knees and washes our feet. Our dirty, smelly feet! Is that any way for a king to act? He has the nerve to say that one of us will betray him. I think he's looking right at me. But when he dips the bread in the wine and hands it to me, I know what I have to do. I just suddenly know. It's like I've always known. I ran out of there in a hurry. I had to get some air.

"Seek ye first the kingdom of God," he was so fond of saying. Talk, talk! "The kingdom of God is like a seed. It's like a pearl." Talk, talk, talk! "It's like a lump of yeast." Who cares about these cute little stories?

When we went marching into Jerusalem with shouts and waving palm branches, I thought this is it! This is when he's going to quit talking and start doing. I thought he would drive out the oppressors right then and there. I couldn't wait to see their fat Roman rumps running for their lives, leaving behind all their valuables. Ka-ching, ka-ching! Spoils of war.

You have to understand, I put my faith in him. I thought he came to save us. I thought he would be king. But he disappointed me. He disappointed us all. But I didn't mean for this to happen. He doesn't deserve what they're doing to him. I deserve it--all of it!

Are those bells ringing? No, it's just that sound that won't stop. Coins just rolling and clanging like metal pots over and over again. Make it stop! I just want to go back and start this day over again. I'm sorry, I'm sorry! Be quiet!

Oh, please, just make that noise stop. Make it stop!

Photo Credits:
    Denarius Serratus, by Wolfgang Meinhart
    The Kiss of Judas, anonymous painting of the 12th century
    Pottery, by Hartmann Linge
    Parable of Sower, by Sulfababy of
    African palm, by Artimari
    Christ Pantacrator, by Vmenkov
    Judas hangs himself, by Jean Fouquet

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Law and Mayberry

I grew up with The Andy Griffith Show, a 60's sitcom set in the sleepy town of Mayberry, North Carolina. We watched every Monday night on our family’s black and white tv as Andy and his son Opie walk down to the fishing hole while Earl Hagen whistles the catchy theme song. But back then, the theology of Mayberry went right over my head.

Re-watching it now, I find it to be deeply theological. It's all about law and grace.

Sheriff Taylor’s deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts)—whose catchphrase is “Nip it, nip it in the bud”--represents the letter of the law. Barney wants to play by the book and keep every jot and tittle of every nit-picky city ordinance. One day, while Andy was out of town, Barney locked up just about every citizen of Mayberry, including the Mayor and Aunt Bee.

But easy-breezy, pickin'-and-grinnin' Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) is willing to cut people some slack—good guys and bad guys alike. He represents grace and mercy.

In one episode, a state inspector is outraged to find that Andy’s jail is furnished with handmade doilies and fresh flowers and that the deputy is forbidden to keep a bullet in his gun. Why doesn't this bumpkin sheriff take the law seriously? The inspector goes ballistic when he finds out the officers are throwing a birthday party for their prisoner—Otis, the town drunk.

But when Andy’s relaxed police procedure is put to the test, he always gets his man, and the snooty-patooty nay-sayers are always put in their place.

Because in the town of Mayberry, pride goes before destruction (or at least before a good come-uppance). Conflicts are solved with forgiveness. Neighbors help each other, and Good Samaritans abound. Musicians gather on the front porch to make a joyful noise. And many times, a little child leads them. It’s all very biblical. This show hearkens back to a simpler time with timeless values.


Mayberry makes us homesick for a day when social interaction happened not with memes on screens but in living rooms and soda shops and porch swings and barber shops, on creek banks and at choir practice  and county fairs. It makes us yearn for a place where quirky characters are cherished, where freckle-faced children say "please" and "thank you," where prodigals are welcomed home, and the supper table is spread with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and hot, buttered biscuits. Pies are cooling on the window sill, and nobody ever heard of cholesterol or body mass index.

Come to think of it, the Bible does describe such a place. It's called Heaven! A place, incidentally, that we law-breakers enter only by grace.

In one of the most popular episodes, Barney arranges for a Russian-American summit meeting to take place at Andy's house. (Willing suspension of disbelief here.) The politicos are at a standstill until they all wind up in the kitchen late at night, raiding the icebox. While feasting on Aunt Bee's delicious goodies, they manage to achieve world peace--or at least share some pickles and a few laughs.

In an episode called "The Christmas Story," Andy lets all the prisoners go home for Christmas. But the curmudgeonly Ben Weaver insists that Andy arrest Sam Muggins for making moonshine. In a brilliant counter-move, Andy brings Christmas to the jailhouse. Andy arrests Sam's family and puts them in the cell with Sam. Then Andy, Barney, Aunt Bea and Ellie celebrate the holiday at the jailhouse too. Now Ben is jealous, since he obviously has no Christmas waiting at home. While Andy and Ellie sing "Away In a Manger," Ben looks through the window and sadly sings along.

Sam, Ben, and the moonshine

Ben then tries repeatedly to get arrested so that he can join the party, but his plans are continually thwarted--until Andy gets the message that Ben is lonely. Then Andy arrests Ben, allowing him to stop by his department store to pick up presents for everybody.

We the viewers start out being mad at Ben, but then we feel pity for him and are happy when his Christmas wish comes true. It reminds me of how God brings Christmas to our imprisoned souls.

And if that isn't grace, what is?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Uzziah and the Low Priest

Well. . .what are you staring at?

I'm a harmless old man now--a brown, curled leaf that clung to the twig all winter, only to fall away in the first sigh of spring.  I'm the dried husk of a locust or the skin shed by a snake, bearing the shape but not the substance of a man. I'm an outcast from the fine houses of my friends, from the holy house of God, and even from my own house, the palace. For yes, I'm also the king of all Judah--except when I'm taking a nap or am otherwise indisposed.

Hear ye, Far Isles, and tremble!  The great King Uzziah roars--like a house cat--and raises, with a stump that used to be a hand, a trowel for a scepter.  

They kicked me out of the castle seven years ago when I lost my health and set me up here in the gardener's shed.  My son Jotham rules as prince regent in my stead.  I'm still the brains of the operation, you understand.  But I'm scarcely in a state to entertain foreign dignitaries.  

My amusements are few.  Listening to birds.  Smelling the earth after rain.  I used to have a small flower garden, but I had to give it up.  It's too dangerous for me to use the tools because I can't tell when I've been cut.  And then there are the visits from the priest.  He's usually good for a laugh, though I doubt he would return the compliment.

I met Isaiah--the Low Priest I call him, just to aggravate him. He'd like to be high priest when he grows up, but he'll never make it.  He has other fish to fry, if I'm any judge.  Anyway, I was saying, I met the low priest because I sent for a priest, and he was apparently the one they could most easily spare. He wasn't happy to come, because every time he left me, he had to go through a tedious purification ritual, and there was a waiting period before he could work in the Temple again. 

But even if I am a leper and a doddering old fool besides, I am the king.  And he came.  You bet your sister's sweet virtue he came.

Old Testament lepers

I sent for a priest because I wanted to tell my story, to have it set down for all who come after me.  A man's story should not die with the man.  And more than that, my story is the story of a nation.

"Write down," I told him, "that when I was sixteen, my father Amaziah was assassinated, and I ascended to the throne. By popular demand as well as by right of succession.  I may be a dry leaf now, but once I was a fig in full bloom.  Consider my accomplishments, I said to the fire-haired young priest.
"I pushed back the borders of Judah almost to where they were in Solomon's time.  I opened new trade routes.  I flattened the filthy Philistines into flapjacks and raised cities of Judah from their rubble. The chicken-hearted Ammonites gladly paid tribute just to keep me at a safe distance. My fame spread clear down to Egypt.

"Set down, Priest," I told him, "that I Uzziah built the fortified towers, dug the cisterns, dressed the vineyards, tilled the fields. For me the Promised Land finally kept its promise. I turned the barren Negeb into a garden, and now I can't be trusted with a spade. Write that too," I commanded,"and there's more to tell."

Isaiah, by Raphael

"I was afraid of that," he said, his hair falling in his eyes. 

"Write that I surrounded Jerusalem with spandangled machines of war that could shoot arrows and sling boulders. And that my foreign policies brought peace." 

"Peace?" he interrupted.

"Peace and prosperity. During my reign, coins clinked in the coffers, silks rustled in the markets, and wine ran like the Red Sea over Pharoah's army. I once knew a nobleman who had a solid gold statue of a goddess--stark naked!"

He shook his head in disaproval.

"But, the problem was," I continued, "the problem was that the serfs who worked his land were naked too. And hungry. The system isn't perfect, I'll admit, but times have been pretty good."

"For whom?" asked the cheeky young prophet, his face still red about the goddess.

"For most people," I bellowed.

That was the end of our session. Nothing wearies a man so much as the recounting of his own glory.

Old Testament battle

One day, Isaiah came and found me confined to bed, where I've been ever since. "The time grows short," I told him. "Write down the story of my pride and my fall."

He tried to make me more comfortable, but seeing that was impossible, he just wrote what I told him. How that one day seven years ago, when I was at the pinnacle of my power--and probably drunk as well--I decided to make an offering to the Lord.  "All by myself," said I, "bypassing the priests and Temple turkeys. I put on the vestments of a priest and stormed through the gates of the Temple, right on into the altar of incense. I took hold of the golden censor."

Isaiah look mortified, but I continued.

Isaiah, by Michelangelo

"Azariah the high priest and a clucking, cackling brood of low priests, maybe eighty of them, came charging in to oppose me. There's always been a power struggle between the priesthood and the monarchy, and they were hot for a confrontation. 

"'Leave the sanctuary,' they cried. 'You have broken faith. You are cut off from the glory of God!'

"Well, that did it. I figured the only thing I had broken was their pride. I've always thought they were a bunch of pompous, prune-faced fools, and I opened my mouth to tell them so. 

"But somehow the words thickened in my throat, cutting off my air. The earth stopped in its track and everything seemed to be happening underwater or in a dream. I felt a sting on my forehead like the strike of a serpent. I watched the look on their faces change from anger to fear, and to a man they backed away. 

"Then the earth shook and fell open like a great wound. The heavens thundered. Some said later that God spoke, but I doubt it. There wasn't much left to say.

"I put my hand to my head and felt the scab of a leper. 'Unclean!' shouted the high priest.

"'Unclean, unclean!' shouted the low priests. I fled from the Temple as one stricken by God. And stricken I have remained."

Isaiah silently cried as he wrote the story he knew so well but had never heard from me.

I never sent for him again, but in a few months he returned. In these seven years, it is the only time anyone has come without a direct command. He happened to find me at home, rather than out leading a military campaign or building a tower. 

His hair was still in his eyes, but he looked taller. He had come to tell me a vision, a vision that is the end of my story and the beginning of his, if I'm any judge. But that is of no importance.

The angel cleanses Isaiah's lips
Seems he was serving in the Temple not long ago, alongside the half-deaf Josiah and the half-wit Amos. Josiah was offering prayers--rattling on and on like he does--and he never saw a thing. But Isaiah saw the Lord God sitting on a High Throne, his skirts trailing through the Temple. And smoke, smoke everywhere--and the doorposts knocking like the young priest's knees. Great winged angels cried, "Holy, holy, holy" to the One who sits shining on the throne. Wonder was the lad didn't faint at the sight.

Then a dragon took a coal from the altar with tongs and touched it to Isaiah's mouth. And God told the low priest to go and prophesy to this people, "DESOLATION!"

"How long, Lord?" cried the low priest.

"Till cities lie desolate, till the earth is wasted."

"How long till what?" shouted Josiah. And the vision vanished.

Oh, my cities!  My strong towers and vineyards! My people! We had come full circle, he and I. It was Isaiah's turn to tell the tale and mine to weep.

And what of this One, I asked him, this One who sits on the High Throne surrounded by dragons? Is this the sweet shepherd our father David sang about? Is this the tender vinedresser? Is this the one we placate with tithes and offerings and burnt rams? What if we don't know Him so well as we think? Before this High King, the kings of the earth are but insects. What if Yahweh Seboath turn against us in wrath? Will we shoot arrows at the heavens or sling stones at the stars?

But if I tell Judah to repent, they won't listen. He is a curled leaf, they will say. He is the skin shed by a snake. See, on his deathbed the old geezer hallucinates. You must go, Low Priest. You must turn their hearts. Tell them your vision. Tell them of the High Throne, the dragons, the tongs. 

Tell them that in the year poor old Uzziah died, you saw the Lord.

Photo Credits:
    Snakeskin, (C)opyright / PlazacCameraman
    Hezekiah, by Rembrandt
    Old Testament lepers, by Roger McLassus
    Isaiah, by Raphael
    Old Testament battle, by the art Bible, Princeton Theological Seminary
    Isaiah, by Michelangelo
    angel with live coal, Greek Catholic icon
    dried leaves (sawtooth oak), by Ram-Man
    Judgement--stained glass, detail, at Eichstätt