Dancing past the Birdcage

What's the connection between Jesus, The Cat Empire, and an impoverished widow? Oh… and even the Melbourne Cup?

This week, churches worldwide are exploring a story where rich folk are pouring money 'by the bucket' into the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. Probably lots of corporate sponsors as well. And Jesus pans them, and instead draws attention to a desperately poor widow, whose two copper coins, he says, are more than all the rest.

This story, and all the stories in the New Testament are fundamentally answers to the question, "Who is Jesus?" Here are two visions which answer that question.

One vision says he is the son of God; when you see him, you see how God would look if God were one of us. He shows us how to live… do what he did and God will accept you…. No, no, no!— that's a heresy! God already does accept you and always did. God is love and you are loved… and forgiven. It's all about living like Jesus did and being opened to a life which is full and fulfilling.

People have often seen a call to duty in this understanding of Jesus. We are implored to respond to the great love of God, to give fully of ourselves, like the poverty stricken widow in the temple. But it too often translates into the poor being the ones who fund the parading of the rich. And nothing is done about the injustice of it all.

Such an understanding of Jesus is not a short read. It's not something you click on the 'net and internalise in a few seconds. It's more of a language, something you have to live in to learn fully, and appreciate, and benefit from. And it has more wisdom than you'd expect, given the sometimes stuffy nature of church. It's why old grannies, who've been in church for most of a century, so often have a peace and calm about things which others of us can't quite yet grasp.

But this is an ancient view. It has baggage, and if you haven't grown up with it, it sounds like Gregorian chant when your favourite band is The Cat Empire.

For all its joy, Cat Empire's "Waltz" is a serious song, but it wouldn't work with plainsong— well, actually Cat Empire just might make it happen!

… this is a song I discovered instead
The song about living before we are dead
And by living I don't mean perfection like gold
Cos living my friends is the sweet unresolved… (Waltz onThe Cat Empire CD: Cities)

So is there another vision of Jesus for those of us who sense a "sweet unresolved" beyond the shallow glitz of life,  and who "born with a smile[, want] to die with a grin?"

The second vision goes something like this: The story of Jesus enables us to see into a life of spirit which goes far beyond us: the story of Jesus "opens a window to the soul." It lets us see the deeper realities of what life is about. The Jesus story "is the secret life of us… a story about the life of the human soul." (This last quotation is David Tacey in Beyond Literal Belief pp63)

The Jesus story is our story. It's about how to live life for all it's worth. This view of Jesus has echoes of the old paradigm. It's not so new— living always has been, as the song says, an unresolved mystery, and the holy people of all times and places have known this. What the new song about Jesus does, is take an old truth and set it to the music of our time so that we may dance with it.

In this new dancing out of the story, the widow is another Christ figure. She is making a worthless donation to a lost cause— at the time the Gospel of Mark was writing this story down, the Temple in Jerusalem was either destroyed, or its destruction was an inevitability. She is a Christ figure because she is giving all she has — the original Greek text says something like "her whole life" — to something which will be destroyed.

This is what Jesus does in the same story. He gives his whole life to a way of being, a way of living, which he called Kingdom of God. It was a life based in radical justice and peace for all people. Life lived fully in the presence of the Mystery we call God, and lived in a way that dignifies all people, because it sees that they are also a part of the same mystery. So it treats them with the same love and respect it desires for itself.

And of course, Jesus gets killed for that. You can't have people like that around, upsetting the status quo and the comfort of the rich and powerful. So his life was a worthless gift too. He gave it to a lost cause. Everyone knew how it would end. I mean, why bother? The rich will never let go. As a teenager we can have ideals of equality and justice, but isn't the old saying true: "if you're not a socialist by the time you are 20, you have no heart, but if you're not a conservative by the time you are 40, you have no brain?"

Jesus should have grown up and made the best of it.

Except that the first Christians, back before they were taken over by Rome and too often became an instrument of Empire, saw it differently. It's in the wholesale giving of self, in the sort of love that's as "mad as they come," (Cat Empire again) that we find real freedom and fulfilment.

We can bet that the character whose words Felix Riebl sings, knows all about grief and dissatisfaction. But there is something in his refusal to package his love.

Like a dove in the kitchen with a note that says
Make sure you scrub well and plan and prepare everything
Affection as clean as a triangle ting
But love it or not love's as mad as they come
Oh it's sly and it's wise and it's wonderfully dumb
And while some might still say 'No it's pure like one'
My love it is wild and not mild and on the run… (Cat Empire: Felix Riebl)

There is something here which enters into the essence of the spiritual. In the old language we might say we receive an unwarranted grace if we decide to love; that is, even a little genuine love leads to a disproportionate healing and freedom in life.

Jesus doesn't magically give all the answers. Working out how to model his life opens  us to one way into a deeper life, and a living through its problems and griefs. And one suspects that when the little woman came in to give her two copper coins, she had that same visible integrity and wholeness as many of today's old grannies— wholeness that showed the fakery and the shallowness of all that showy giving in the Temple birdcage.

The Text

38 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.43Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ 

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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