Foxholes and Bird Nests and Wandering Arameans

Arctic Fox glaring

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Luke 9:51-62

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” Jesus said to an unnamed would-be disciple. It must have been discouragement enough. We hear no more of whoever it was.

Arctic FoxIt’s an interesting saying, recorded also in Matthew’s Gospel, though not in the other two. Luke records two more strange sayings, one about letting the dead bury the dead and another about putting one’s hand to the plow but looking back, like Lot’s wife. None of the three sayings are quite as simple as they sound.

The words about foxes and birds together with the stories of Jesus walking up and down the countryside—the quintessential peripatetic teacher—form the basis for the notion that Jesus was homeless. Somehow we modern folk tend to view homeless people as having less to offer, while we buy into the idea that Jesus being homeless enhanced the gospel message. There is a double standard at play that we should drag out into the daylight and reject.

At the same time, there is another aspect to the image of a homeless Jesus: it does not jive with the rest of what we hear about him in the gospels. The earliest gospel written, Mark, plainly speaks of Jesus being at home in Capernaum—try reading the chapter two, and try to keep an open mind. Mark tells us that Jesus was at home when men famously came bringing an invalid on a stretcher and, by way of bypassing an insurmountable crowd, tore open the roof of the house and lowered the man on ropes to where Jesus sat. Nobody in the story complains about the roof or the mess, most likely because the house belonged to Jesus himself.Arctic Fox Walking Away

Why does it matter? It highlights whether we are reading scripture and paying attention to it or merely looking for confirmation of what we already think it says. God can knock loudly when God chooses, but the Spirit still requires an open heart and mind to be heard.

Elsewhere when Jesus makes extreme statements and hyperbolic exaggerations to make a point—pluck out your eye, cut off your hand—we get it. We understand that those sayings were meant to illustrate his meaning. Point out, as I have just done, that it is far more likely that a first century adult male Jew with education and training, family and standing, did have a home, as the plainest reading of Mark indicates, and you may find yourself facing hostile believers quoting Luke and Matthew.

We do not like anyone messing with our ideas. It makes us anxious, uncertain, and ornery.

While we’re messing with ideas, let’s look at another one that has to do with wandering, from Deuteronomy 26:5—My father was a wandering Aramean…

These words, built into Jewish religious observance and ritual, are a reminder of the humble origins of their people. Jacob, and his grandfather Abraham, came from generations of semi-nomadic people of the ancient Fertile Crescent region. In a real sense, these people, the ancestors of the Jews, had no place to lay their head but under their tents and the stars above them. These people, the spiritual ancestors of all of the peoples of the book, were not above sleeping on the ground, a stone for a pillow.

Arctic Fox SideMany of us buy mattress toppers and shop for starter mansions, or at least we spend our free moments watching the people on television buying houses most of us cannot afford, splurging on makeovers of homes most of the world would think already palaces. What will our descendants say about us? My ancestors were idle consumers…

There is something nearly Buddhist about the three admonitions Jesus speaks. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head… Let the dead bury their own dead… No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

He is talking about attachment. He is talking about being present. If Jesus were using the language of Zen, these would be koans. What use is a house in the palace of God?

We hold onto our belongings and our habits as though we will live forever, and in holding on, we loose our grip on everything that is eternal. Whether our pillow is as soft as goose down or as hard as a park bench, it is good to reflect on another Jesus saying that is found only in the Gospel of Luke: The kingdom of God is within you.

Arctic Fox glaring

Pity a Poor Demon

Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 8:26-39

They got into a boat and rode across the great lake called Gennesaret or Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee. As soon as Jesus stepped on the shore, a crazy man ran out to meet him, threw himself on the ground and started screaming for mercy.

It’s not something you see every day.

Jesus casts out demons. Stained glass, Strasbourg Cathedral, 13th century.
Jesus casts out demons. Stained glass, Strasbourg Cathedral, 13th century.

Luke tells us that the man was possessed by so many demons that they identified themselves as “Legion” — thousands, a multitude, an army. Today we tend to view tales of demon possession as superstitious stories used to explain medical maladies, or as the inventions of an ignorant people, or simply as stories we tell to scare ourselves.

We love to be frightened, it seems. Stephen King, H P Lovecraft, and many others have proven it, much to the delight of their readers. We watch horror films, revel in halloween costumes, and say “boo” to one another for the same reasons. We like the stories, and we like the chilling thrill. It is just that we do not want the demons to be real, though we are secretly afraid that they are.

We hear things that go bump in the night. We see something behind the eyes of a neighbor, just for a moment, that frightens us. We learn of the horrific things people sometimes do to one another—the ovens of Auschwitz, piles of skulls in the killing fields of Cambodia, a man with a gun in Sandy Hook or Orlando—and we realize we have gone past the bleeding edge of psychology. Beyond here there be demons, something inhuman, waiting to engulf us in waking nightmares.

The Temptation of St Anthony. Engraving, Martin Schongauer, c.1480. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The Temptation of St Anthony. Engraving, Martin Schongauer, c.1480. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

It is interesting what we accept and what we dismiss. We will accept that there are probably more species of insect in the world than we will ever discover. We listen as scientists play for us an audio conversion of the vibrations of gravitational waves coming from the collision of black holes deep in space, and while the sound is brief and unimpressive, we are astonished by the discovery. (You can listen here on NPR.)

But demons, we ask? A life form capable of acting as a sentient, controlling parasite within a human being? Rubbish.

One might point out that every human culture on earth appears to have developed a belief in the existence of demons, but Carl Jung gave us a plausible explanation, didn’t he? Demons are merely archetypes of the collective unconscious, aren’t they? After all, the psychological explanation agrees with Jesus’ teaching that evil comes from within our own hearts.

Whatever we think about demons, the man in the story fell to the ground screaming for Jesus to have mercy on him. That is how the gospels (Mark and Matthew have versions of the same encounter) tell it. We may not accept the story at face value as the original first century audience likely did, but we still have the same narrative.

The demons begged to be sent into a heard of pigs rather than into the abyss—apparently just what it sounds like, either the cessation of being or incessant torture. Jesus agreed and sent these demons to possess the pigs, who promptly stampeded into the lake and drowned. That may be the element that disturbs us the most—all those pigs plunging to their death. We perceive the demons as evil, but not the pigs. Even though pigs are ritually unclean to observant Jews, the point is moot—nobody claims that this man or the pig herder were Jewish, and the pigs are still pigs, right? Allowing the pigs to be killed and the pig farmer to lose his herd, all for the sake of showing mercy to demons, bothers us.

Never mind whether we believe in the existence of these demons. For the moment, let’s just go with it.

The other thing that makes us uneasy is not our qualms about the pigs. It’s summed up in a Rolling Stones song—we have no sympathy for the devil.

Jesus does. While you may explain away this story, and the floating porcine carcasses, as leading to the psychological catharsis of an insane man, the dead pigs being a symbol of the end of his affliction, that is not the way the story is told. We are told that Jesus had mercy on a legion of demons.

By the way, arguments that Jesus cleverly tricked the demons to destroy them don’t hold up. For one thing, nothing here says a demon dies when the creature it possesses dies. For another thing, such a motivation is simply not part of the story. Elsewhere in the gospels (Luke 11:24, Matthew 12:43) we read that exorcised demons wander deserted places looking for another host, an interesting and frightening thought, though this also could be explained in purely psychological terms—who hasn’t heard of a relapse being worse than the original affliction?

Meanwhile, back to the story we have.

tote_beige_vertical_printfileIf Jesus had compassion for demons, even placing their well being above that of the lives of animals and above the economic well being of a pig farmer, what does it mean? Simple. As Jesus did, so must his followers do.

We were afraid that was coming, weren’t we? It is why we look askance at this story of demon possession. Whether we consider the possibility of possession literally or as a way of understanding the mind, we fear it may happen to us or to our loved ones. We fear it has already happened to us, for which of us has no demons? At the same time and despite our own personal demons, we do not want to show mercy and compassion toward the demons around us. It disturbs our cultivated sense of right and wrong, good vs evil.

We like a clear line dividing us from the bad guys. Evil is there, on the other side of a line we draw in our minds. Being on our side of the line reassures us that we are right.

We do a fine job job of drawing lines these days. We draw them everywhere—in society, in elections, in religious tolerance or intolerance. We push all of those people, the ones not like us, over to the other side. Not satisfied with disagreeing, and not wanting to join in dialogue, we demonize people. We demonize plenty of people, because demonizing them makes it easy to judge them (and to approve of ourselves.)

Jesus pitied the poor demons. He listened to them and had mercy on them, even though they were making a man’s life a living hell.

Jesus did that for a multitude of demons, and for the man they were tormenting. We can do it for the people around us, even when they are wrong, even when they are different, even when it costs us something, even when they are strangers.

One of the most pervasive moral and ethical imperatives of scripture is expressed in how we treat the stranger, the other, the foreigner.

And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

That is from Deuteronomy 10:9. The idea is so foundational that it is repeated over and over, in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, echoed throughout the prophets. It is an idea held sacred by all three faiths of the People of the Book—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is central to the teaching of Jesus—love your neighbor as yourself.

There are plenty of demons within us, and plenty of demons tormenting our neighbors. We don’t need to make more.

Have mercy. Show compassion. That is how the kingdom of God comes to pass.

Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee
Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. c.1900. Anonymous. Library of Congress.

Harlots and Other Holy Folk

Luke 7:36-8:3 | Harlots and Other Holy Folk

A whore of a woman crashes a dinner party, starts crying, and begins washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, bathing his feet in perfume, even wiping them with her own hair. It’s not something you see every day. It’s an awkward scene, and some details are missing.

Mary Magdalene, by Jan van Scorel, c. 1530. Mary Magdalene was often misidentified as the harlot who anointed Jesus' feet with perfume
Mary Magdalene, by Jan van Scorel, c. 1530. Mary Magdalene was often misidentified as the harlot who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume

For instance, how does this strumpet know Jesus anyway? Assuming first century whores didn’t go around with alabaster jars of perfume stashed in their robes, the story as Luke tells it implies some preparation on her part. There must be a history between Jesus and this woman for her to feel so strongly. Here’s another oddity — Simon the Pharisee, uptight rule follower and holier-than-we, knows her, just as she knows who’s coming to Simon’s get together. It makes you wonder.

Take a look at the end of this story, at the list of folk following Jesus. We find the twelve, no surprise though they don’t get their names listed, and there are also Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. Three more women, who have been cured or otherwise helped by Jesus, are listed by name and credited with supporting him from their own means. The twelve only get credit for following him. Just as at the tomb, when it appears things have gone irrevocably badly, it is the women who are responding, giving, offering more than an empty hand.

Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Christ. Anonymous. German, 16th century.
Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Christ. Anonymous. German, 16th century.

Women get treated shabbily by some of the characters in the gospel stories, but never by Jesus. He is not always friendly or even kind — think of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7, where Jesus calls her a dog before agreeing to help her. (Those who speak harshly are not always our enemies; those who speak softly are not always our friends.) Simon, in Luke’s story, calls the woman a sinner unworthy to touch a prophet. One thinks of John’s Gospel and the woman caught in the act of adultery and brought, alone, to be stoned to death. How she managed such a singular sin as adultery without a partner is unexplained. Perhaps the man escaped, but it seems the first century audience were more inclined to condemn a woman than a man. Some things never change.

In fairness to the gospel writers, a few men are named sinful. Herod comes to mind. There is also the sinner at the temple, the one whom the self righteous man points out to God in prayer as an example of spiritual decrepitude. Still, if you want weeping, or stoning, or infestation by seven demons at once, it’s a woman you’ll find center stage.

Magdalena, by Gregor Erhart, c. 1515. Louvre.
Magdalena, by Gregor Erhart, c. 1515. Louvre.

Why do we want to see the worst in others, to point out their failings and their magnitude relative to our own small sins? It’s spiritual schadenfreude, taking joy in the measure of another’s destruction, reassuring ourselves of our relative position of moral superiority. We’re whistling past our own graves.

Better we repent of our own sins, and leave our neighbors free to repent of theirs. Who knows, being forgiven, perhaps forgiving ourselves, we might even feel grateful, like the harlot who only cared what Jesus thought of her. The grace described in the gospels is like the perfume in her alabaster jar. Once you break it open, it covers everything.


Penitent Magdalena. Tintoretto c.1598-1602.
Penitent Magdalena. Tintoretto c.1598-1602.

When the Dead Speak


Luke 7:11-17 | Third Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus tells a dead man to get up, and he does. Luke writes it that plainly — the young man was dead, and he sits up and starts talking.

It was an uncommon experience, even in those first century days when miracles were often reported. The crowd, witnessing this resurrection, were astonished. We would be, if we saw a thing like this.

IMG_2703We live in an age of wonders and of amazing invention, astonishing discoveries. We have modern medicine, science, centuries of art. We read about space travel on hand held computers, and we watch entertainments on flat screens of digitally enhanced glass, but we are somehow bereft of miracles. No one is healed with a touch, and those who have died, no matter how much we love them, are not given back to us.

The dead do not speak to us. At least, they do not speak to us the way this young man rose and spoke to his mother. Still, sometimes, we hear them.

Perhaps the trick is not to look for the miracles that are described in these gospels. We do not have them — prophets healing our sick, a messiah raising our dead. We may have miracles, though. Different ones. Miracles we do not notice or that we take for granted, because they do not meet our expectations of the sort of thing a miracle is.

We think miracles are a break with the natural flow of the universe, and perhaps that is so. We think that the laws of nature are immutable, therefore there can be no miracles, and maybe we are right to say so.

No miracles, we say. Not any more. Maybe we have no faith, that we should receive a miracle, some say, or maybe there never were any such things. Are we children, believing in fairy tales? Let us believe in what we have seen with our own eyes, that which our hands have touched.


It seems to me that there is a natural law that I forget things — where I put something, the day of the week — and so when I remember, is it a miracle? And sometimes, in my memory, when I hear the voice or the laughter of someone I loved but who is no longer alive in the way that you and I are alive, is that a miracle?

At my parents’ home there is a pond, and from time to time a mated pair of ducks, or geese, will come and stay for a season. We first noticed such a pair shortly after both of my father’s parents were gone, and it seemed to us that these birds had come in their place, to remind us of them, in some way to be them, so that my grandparents were still with us. They are birds, of course; they are not my grandparents. Still, in some way that eludes the mind and makes sense to the soul, they are the people we loved, and as they waddle and splash and talk to one another in their bird honks and hoots and chattering, we hear the voices of people who loved us.

And it is a miracle.

No one is raised from the dead, no one is healed of a terrible disease. The water in the pond remains water, not wine, to the relief (or maybe disappointment?) of the fish. If we find comfort in the quacks and honks of waterfowl, it is a small enough miracle, you say.

Still, for us, it is miraculous. It is healing. And perhaps it is all the miracle required, and it does whatever it is that a miracle is sent to do. That is something worth considering. We think that a miracle is when we get something we want, but maybe that is wrong. It could be that a miracle is receiving something God needs for us to have.

Fishing on the Pond