Sunday, November 24, 2019

Matthew 3.1-12: And You're Missing It

John's message is very clear: Repent because the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Matthew 3:2) What seems more implied is that the people are missing this close encounter with the kingdom of God. Repent. The kingdom of heaven has come near and you are missing it! The ax is at the foot of the tree. All it will take is one blow, and you don't even see that it is there. Repent!

Hard to imagine, we might think. Hard to imagine that there is Jesus walking around and folks are missing it. They are going about their lives, trying to survive in the face of an occupying army. Trying to make a living, find enough food for their children, get through each day. Their attention is on other things, and so they miss Jesus, who looks like all the other people they see every day.

It's easy to miss what might be in plain sight. For example, the paintings here. Do you know them? Recognize them? Are they related in any way?
(Left) Leonardo da Vinci. Last Supper. 1495-1498. Milan: S. Maria delle Grazie. 
(Right) Vincent Van Gogh. Cafe Terrace at Night. 1888. Otterlo, Netherlands: Kroller-Muller Museum. 

Maybe. Depending on what you see.

According to some scholars (and viewers), Van Gogh is paying homage to the Leonardo on the right. On the cafe terrace are twelve figures in and among the tables. The central figure (wearing white) has a window behind his head. In the Van Gogh painting, the window pane lines form a cross behind him. The figures are seated at tables on a terrace, rendered in one-point perspective. Those things are also true of the Leonardo. Is the evidence convincing to you? Is it there and we've been missing it all these years because we see a cafe terrace at night and are satisfied with that?

The Leonardo on the right has been studied and copied and referenced for five hundred years. It is the prototype of last suppers. Figures at a table. One-point perspective. Window behind the head of the central figure. Easily read. But maybe there is something that we aren't seeing. What if there were music in the painting? What if we've been walking by, staring, studying this painting for half a millennium...and we've missed it?

Jesus looked like everyone else. He lived like everyone else. But despite appearances he wasn't like everyone else, and many of the people around him missed it. John was trying to help them. By letting them know that the kingdom of heaven was not to be missed.

For thoughts on vipers (Matthew 3:1-12) see this week's Art&Faith Matters on Facebook

For additional thoughts on Isaiah 11:1-10, click here.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Matthew 24.36-44: Surpris!

No one knows the hour. Or even the day. Life will be going on as always...dinner parties, weddings, family reunions. And then...surprise! The Son of Man will be here. (Matthew 24:36-44) The follow-up in Matthew's gospel has to do with surprise after surprise after surprise. So stay awake, the gospel writer says, because you never know when it might happen.

That kind of day - when God enters the world and changes the world - is a thread throughout scripture. The prophets spoke of it (Isaiah 2:12, Amos 5:18, Joel 2:32), and not always with images that are comforting.

Be awake. Be aware. Be ready.

Henri Rousseau's painting below tells a tale of unexpected things. Originally titled Tiger in a Tropical Storm the painting shows a tiger, crouching, with teeth bared, as a streak of lightning splits the sky and rain streaks through the painting. That original title was changed after the painting was rejected by the jury for the 1891 show of the Academie de Peinture et Sculpture. Rousseau renamed the picture Surprised! (in French, Surpris!) and showed it instead in the Salon des Independents, a show that was unjuried and open to all artists.
Henri Rousseau. Surprised! 1891. London: National Gallery 
The newer title is ambiguous. Who is surprised? The jurors who rejected the painting and assumed it would never be in an art show? The tiger who was taken unaware by the storm and lightning strike? Or the prey just out of the picture space who is getting ready to be surprised - and not in a good way - by the tiger? 

Whatever way, something unexpected has happened or is about to happen. Had the tiger expected the storm and strike, it would have made plans to be safe at home. Had the prey known the tiger was coming, it would have taken a different path.

And we also must be ready.

For thoughts on Isaiah 2:1-5, click here.
For thoughts on Matthew 24:41, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Luke 23.33-43: King and Kin

Remember me when you come into your kingdom. That's the request made by one of the thieves being crucified with Jesus. Jesus' response is a promise that the one thief will be with him in paradise. Not at some unknown time in the future, but that very day. (Luke 23:43) It is a promise that clearly shows who Jesus is. Even in this moment, Jesus offers the gift of relationship to the thief. With me, Jesus says.

But you'd never know that from most of the images of the crucifixion. In most images, three crosses, each with a human figure, are separated completely from each other. Sky, clouds, or other background elements are clearly visible between either the outstretched arms of the cross or the bent arms of the thieves. This separation clearly reflects the relationship between a king and the residents of the kingdom. Royalty does not mix with common people. Remember Lerner and Loewe's King Arthur sitting around wondering, "What do the simple folk do?" Pietro Lorenzetti (below left) captures the distance between Jesus and the thieves. His perspective seems to indicate that the two crosses are behind Jesus'.

But the text tells us that Jesus is reaching out to those around him. In that, Jesus is acting more like kin than king. He will not be separated from people who reach out to him. The icon fragment (below center) gives a hint of that.
(Left) Pietro Lorenzetti. The Crucifixion. 1430s. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Center) Crucifixion with Two Thieves. 8th century. St. Catherine Monastery, Sinai, Egypt. (Right) Hans von Tubingen. Crucifixion. c. 1430s. Vienna: Osterreiche Galerie Belvedere. (currently unable to connect link)
The thief at Jesus' right in the icon fragment (above center) is placed literally under Jesus' hand. The blood from the wound in Jesus' hand seems to be pouring onto the thief's head. It might even be that in this moment, the thief is being "washed in the blood of the Lamb," becoming part of the family.

The Hans Tubingen painting (above right) places Christ's hand above the thief on his right, but there is distance between hand and head, and there is no blood tying the thief to Jesus. However, the head of the thief on Jesus' right leans his head toward Jesus insuring that his head is (at least in the picture space) under Jesus' hand.

In this painting, though, we see what is happening with the other thief, and what is happening is a complete rejection of Jesus. Though Jesus' hand is placed so that it could be in a visual relationship with the head of the thief on the left, the artist has curved that thief's torso over the top of the tau-shaped cross. He appears to be leaning back as if to move himself as far away from Jesus as possible. Rejecting Jesus as both king and kin.

For additional thoughts on the reign of Christ, click here, here, here, or here.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

2 Thessalonians 3.6-13: The Story Sounds Familiar

And now...a few words about your behavior. Specifically those of you who aren't contributing members of the community. You didn't learn that from us. We were busy and working when we were with you. We could have expected you to provide us with room and board, so we didn't have to do work ourselves, but that wasn't the lesson we wanted you to see and learn. But we hear that some of you there... That's a paraphrase of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13. And a problem that crops up in almost every community.

Remember what we said: Whoever doesn't work, doesn't eat. Everyone needs to be contributing to the health and survival of the community, not expecting to live off the work of others.

Jerry Pinkney. The Grasshopper and the Ants. NY: Little Brown, 2015.
It reminds me of Aesop's fable about the grasshopper (in the original it is a cicada) and the ants. Boiled down, the story focuses on a grasshopper who, in late autumn, stops to talk to a group of ants who are drying grain that they had gathered and stored in the summer. The grasshopper was hungry. He had been so busy making music during the summer that he didn't think about taking time to put food by. The ants refuse his request, suggesting that he can dance the winter away.

Even the writer of Proverbs (6:6-9) spotlights the industriousness of the ant:
Go to the ant, you lazybones;
consider its ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief
or officer or ruler,
it prepares its food in summer,
and gathers its sustenance in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O lazybones?
When will you rise from your sleep?

If you don't work, you don't eat. There is a time to work and a time to play. Of course, the ants might have shown a little grace. 

For thoughts on wolves and lambs (Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19), see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook
For thoughts on Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19, click here.