A Tale of Three Coins


Most of us have some of them.  Those little pieces of stamped metal are in our pockets, purses, dressing tables and in jars stuck aside for “who knows for what.”  Coins are part of our everyday life.

It is because of their familiarity and their perceived value that they made the perfect tools for Jesus to teach lessons about hypocrisy.

In Mark 12:13-17 (RSV) we find “[that] they sent to him [Jesus] some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to entrap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a coin, and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.”  Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at him. 

Okay, fair enough no one likes paying taxes.  But, it was not what was really at issue here. They were not concerned with whether they should show proper respect to those who rule (Romans 13), but rather can we get Jesus to fall foul of either His followers (“Yes, pay the hated Romans”), or with the law (“No, show civil disobedience”). Jesus sees their hypocrisy, the text tells us, so responds to their trap in a way no one could object to.  He uses the simple coin to teach a real spiritual truth.  Money is of the world, devotion is of heaven.

Later in the same chapter (12:41-44), Mark relates an event in the Temple. “And he [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny.  And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” 

In her there was no hypocrisy.  She made a gift of the heart. It was not an opulent display of her wealth, but the humble offering from her poverty.  While Mark does not expand on the circumstances of the rich’s offerings, Jesus comment makes one wonder if they [the offerings] were of the hypocritical sort He speaks of in Matthew 6:2-5: “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (RSV).”

There we have it, three coins revealing God’s wisdom.  Two pieces of copper, and a disk of silver showing even greater riches.  Avoid hypocrisy. Let your true aims be revealed. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.

There’s my two cents’ worth (or mites if you rather).


Sustained and Strengthened


In Isaiah 40:28-31(RSV) it says “Have you not known? Have you not heard?The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary,his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

We are frail creatures.  We have weaknesses.  Even the strongest of us, needs to sleep, to rest, to recover.  Most of us, need even more help.  I face daily trials.  I have the usual workplace pressures, the concerns for loved ones who suffer various infirmities, and my own mental and physical exhaustion.  God is not so.

Yes, He has concerns for the world (wow, what a workplace), concerns for his loved ones (we are all His children); but He never suffers fatigue.  Better still, he shares this super energy with those who trust in Him!

Weary we may be, but He will strengthen us to face all that is before us.  All we need do is rely on Him.  1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us there is no temptation we cannot bear if we trust in Him.  In Philippians 4:13, Paul says through Christ’s strength there is nothing he can’t accomplish. Psalm 23 assures us that God restores our souls, leads us into places of refuge, and prepares sustenance for us.  And, in Ephesians 3:16 our inner being can be strengthened by His spirit.  He is our sustainer and strengthener.  The ultimate recharger.

Take that Energizer Bunny!


History, Faith, and “Brotherhood”


I had a discussion with a colleague recently, in which we had a chance to catch up and share some thoughts.  While our initial discussion was on some immediate issues about student attainment, and misconceptions that students often have about understanding the place of faith in lives of people in bygone eras; it soon turned to our own backgrounds and beliefs.

He is a Medievalist, and I am an ecclesiastical historian and theologian.  The Medievalists and religious historians are in many ways inseparable. It is difficult, if not impossible to understand the mind set of  Europeans in the Middle Ages without understanding their belief in God, the church, and of the real presence of evil. I specialise in religious history generally, but in Early Modern/ Reformation history in particular.  The Bible is essential reading to understand this era as well.  Allusions, quotations, and paraphrases from scripture abound in the literature, letters, and even the news and political pamphlets of the day.

While this level of religious fervour (Medieval) and biblical literacy (Early Modern) is in many ways to be celebrated, it is also not without its historical woes.  The Crusades, The Inquisition,  The Thirty Years War, and even to a lesser degree The English Civil War, all are in part the results of the same fervour and literacy.

So what is my point?  It is that our religious devotion must be tempered by a focus on God, not on “religion.” Our biblical literacy needs to be in our hearts and not just in our heads.  We need to search the scriptures and devour them – yes; but more importantly we need to understand them and live them. If not, we face the same failings as the past.

This is the true challenge to the ecclesiastical historian and the theologian: to study and teach the truth, as well as the history and the philosophy.  To encourage understanding of what is beneath.  It was this that made that conversation rewarding to me – we moved beyond academic discipline to a discussion of a shared faith – we were brothers not just colleagues. Christians and not just historians.

It reminds me of an event when I was at university.  We had a professor who insisted on being addressed as “Doctor” explaining he had worked hard to earn the title.  One day the chancellor of the university visited the class and addressed the professor as “brother.” Before “the doctor” could object, the chancellor interjected: “It is a higher title, Christ died to give it to you.”




Yada, Yada, Yada

Yada yada yada in modern parlance is used to denote a rambling on with unnecessary explanations.  However, Yada is also the Hebrew for “to know.” Depending on its context it can have several connotations, but it is in the form of to “know, have understanding of, and relationship with,” in which it has its greatest power.

It is in this context that Hosea speaks in chapter 4:1:   “Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land (KJV).” It is not that the people of the northern kingdom didn’t know there was a God.  It was that they didn’t understand Him.  This lack of knowledge of what He is truly about is shown by their lack of truth and mercy.

They in fact, because of their lack of true personal knowledge, committed spiritual adultery by also worshiping  Baal.  Again, they knew about God, but they didn’t know God. Hosea is therefore instructed by God to live a metaphor.  He was to marry Gomer (the symbolic figure of Israel) and suffer her unfaithfulness.  Then when she had fallen into disgrace, and destitution Hosea (the loving husband [and symbolic God-figure]) was sent to redeem her.  This example, truly shows a “knowing” of God.  He wants a relationship. He wants to be personal with each of us as individuals. He is willing to suffer our unfaithfulness, He is (and has) been willing to buy us back with a price!

How well do you know Him today?  Is it with your head, or with your heart?  Is your knowledge about Him, or is it through Him?  What we need is yada, yada, and yes, more yada.


Cana (A Case Study in Belief)


The Gospel of John records Jesus’ first public miracle.  It is one often joked about in the modern world, as He turn water into wine.  It is the circumstances of the event that make it also one of the most believable of the entire canon.

Looking closely at the event we see that Mary (Jesus’ mother) has been invited to a wedding, and Jesus and His disciples as well.  While the scripture does not elaborate on this, it is easy to find some inferences.  Why would Mary, a woman from Nazareth, be invited to a wedding in a village 10 kilometres or so away (a considerable distance in the day)?  The answer would be that it was a wedding of a friend or family member.  So why Jesus?  Here again, common sense can prevail.  Joseph is not mentioned, and seeing that Jesus is 30 by this time, Mary may well be widowed.  Jesus was therefore her escort to the event.

Weddings in ancient Israel could last days, and the entire village would be invited.  It is not surprising that the wine gave out.  It is this that gives us some more clues, to the story’s authenticity.

Even today, we make it a matter of pride to put on spectacular weddings.  Who today, would tell the guests “Hey folks, sorry we have run out, so the bar is closed.”  It is not something that many of us would do.  So why would the shortage of wine be known to Mary?  The answer again is she is a close friend or relative.

So lets develop this even more.  The groom cannot leave the celebration, or the immediate family of the bride or groom, without drawing notice.  If you look closely at John 2:1-11 you will see Mary goes to Jesus and tells him about the wine situation.  If Mary is a close friend she may well have been trusted with this news.  Can’t you see the mother of the bride going to her girlfriend and saying “Can you send your son, and his mates to go get more wine?”

In fact, Jesus’ response to the news hints at this: “Woman,why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. Remember at this point Jesus is yet to do a miracle, so miracles are not likely to be in Mary’s mind when she informs Him about the wine.  So Jesus’ continuation of “my time has not yet come” seems to suggest, He knew His abilities but did not feel it was yet time to manifest them.  This much like His refusal during His temptations to make a spectacle of Himself at the temple pinnacle. 

What he does, however, is low key.  He instructs servants to fill six purification jars with water, and draw some out for the master of ceremonies.  When they do, the water has turned to wine.  A good wine as well, 120 to 180 gallons of it.  

There is the scenario.  Jesus shows power over nature, shortage, and quality – all in one act.  He does it low key, but it is marked by those present.  It is recorded by the disciple “who Jesus loved” – John.  It has come down to us, and like most of scripture was not refuted by Jesus’ enemies. If it had not occurred might not his detractors found witnesses from Cana to deny it?  After all archaeologists have referred to Cana as a “modest sized” village and as such would not have had that substantial a population. Add to this that Mary,  The Twelve, servants, the master, and the groom all would have been easy enough to find and cross- examine.  Yet, it does not seem to have happened.  

Instead Jesus’ critics rather than denying popular and witnessed events, use attack instead (see Matthew 12:24, John 11:45-47).  The leaders of Israel seek to denounce, and then destroy, but not deny. Josephus continues in Antiquities to affirm: “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man.  For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks.” See how, this Jewish historian closely mirrors John 11.  

So the story lives on, low key but remembered. Jesus often told people to keep things quiet (Mark 5:43, Luke 8:56), but the story was too remarkable to keep quiet.  Cana to me is a case study of belief.  It is in the end a question of whether the scripture is trusted by the reader.  I do believe.  I have tried here to give some rational argument for those who doubt, but in the end “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb 11:1).”  If you can see the merit of the Cana account, however, build on it – “[for] many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name (John 20:30-31 KJV).”



Turn Around


There have been many parents over the years, that in their instilling of moral values to their children have used the enforced “sorry.”  Mum: “You should never take your sister’s things.  Go say you’re sorry.”  Daughter with a doleful, but half-hearted voice: “Sorry.”

I see it with my students as well.  A student will arrive five minutes late to class, and with a nonchalant tone, say “Sorry.”  But, does saying the word, make it right?  Does going through the verbal motions make a difference?

Jesus when asked by the disciples how often should someone forgive, replied with “seventy times seven” times.  His message was that our willingness to forgive, should not be rationed.  But this still begs the question of what it means to seek forgiveness.  Is it an attempt to “get off the hook,” or is it a heartfelt appeal from the depths of the soul to restore relationship.

At its core forgiveness and apology are both about relationship.  This is as true of us and God; as it is with our fellows.  Sin, the transgressions of God’s will, separates us from Him. Slights and wrongs in our daily relations, separate us from those we encounter.  So how do we fix it?  The answer is repentance.

Repentance is more than an empty “sorry.”  It is a true, honest attempt to right the wrong.  It is a sincere admission of our failing.  It is also the deliberate pursuit of changing what we did wrong in the first place.

The Greek term μετάνοια means to change one’s perception.  It was used as a military command in a phalanx.  It was similar to the American “about face,” or British “about turn” commands. It means to turn around, to go another direction.  True repentance is changing direction, following a new path.

I am not suggesting it is easy.  It does not come naturally to turn away from habits, vices, or just simple selfishness.  If we turn, however, it will aid us in building relationships.

Is it your turn to turn?



The Law of Love


Paul in his epistle to the Romans produces a very long discourse on the son-ship of Israel, and the in-grafting of the gentiles into the spiritual family of Abraham.  He discusses the Law of Moses, and human weakness.  He notes that very Law which should bring life, marks our failings and sins because of our human weaknesses.  He then continues with a handling of power of love. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13 NIV).”  

I have previously written about the two great commandments of the Bible, to love God, and to love your neighbour. Romans reiterates this.  We can spend our time jot and tittle-ing, or we can show practical concern for our fellows.  I like Paul’s reassurance that “love is the fulfillment” especially when it is clear that rule keeping is not our strength.  We humans only had one rule to follow in Eden, and look how that worked out. And, we didn’t stop there.  1 John 1:8 reminds us that we are sinners, and we can deceive ourselves by thinking we are better at “being good,” than we actually are.  But love frees us from the checklist approach to righteousness.

We love because we are loved.  And God so loved the world He sent Jesus to die for us.  So what shall we do, make new checklists of practical manifestations of our ability to love?  “I said a kind word, cool 1 point.”  NO.  We just need to let God’s natural love to flow through us.  According to Cole Porter “Even over-educated fleas do it.” Let’s just love.

Ἡ φιλαδελφία μενέτω (Heb 13:1)




Today is Remembrance Sunday, and the theme in the family worship was heroes of faith. Pastor Rich used Hebrews 11 (sometimes called the Honour Roll of Faith) to illustrate that God uses His people despite their shortcomings, if they have the faith to be so used. Brother Paul, later spoke of perseverance and growth, and how  ordinary people, can (and do) do great things for God via His strength.

There are many unlikely heroes in the scripture.  David the shepherd who would topple giants, and lead a nation; Esther who by prayer, fasting and quiet persuasion – rather than rants influenced a king and saved a people.  Gideon who while hiding from adversity, came to be a Judge for God.  The list goes on.

The apostles, Peter and Paul, were also unlikely champions. Peter an uneducated, emotionally driven fisherman; and Paul the hyper-religious (but misguided) adversary of truth – each came to lead men, and change lives because of the One that changed theirs.

I have to admit, some of these heroes of faith are not necessarily people I would like if I knew them personally.  Sampson was self-willed, and Abraham seemed always to hedge his bets.  But if we are honest are we any different?  It is in our weaknesses that God’s strength is manifested.  The twelve disciples included at least 4 smelly fishermen, a tax-collector, and a politician. Who but God would seek to change the world with such “popular fellows?”

Thanks to God, He did.


Beyond “Church”

We often get caught up in to the place of worship rather than the worship itself.  Our language even betrays us.  We talk about “going to church,” and often we are speaking about the building.

The ecclesia, or assembly, is the the term most commonly used in the New Testament, and refers to the people rather than the place.  It also has a connotation of a gathering with a special purpose. We can meet as an assembly anywhere.

Jesus taught in the Temple, and in at least one synagogue.  He also taught from a boat, and on a hillside.  In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them (NIV).”  We need to think beyond buildings, and remember that we are gathered to worship, in His presence, with our fellow brothers and sisters.  It is not bricks and mortar; but flesh, blood, and most importantly spirit.

I hope you will find your way to the latter, be it in a building or by the wayside.   I hope that you will find fellowship, and find the comfort of the body (which is the true “church”).


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Worship Service Prepared in Rice Paddy


I spent the last lesson, un-teaching the nativity story to students who have based their entire understanding on childhood nativity plays rather than the scripture.  I have had to deal with Joseph as a step-dad not as father; indeterminate numbers of wise men, rather than 3 kings; the issue of multiple inns; pigs in the barn; and did the shepherds bring a lamb.  It is easy to see that some of these are misconceptions based on adding tradition to the biblical account, and yet others on teachers trying to find a role for everybody.  The result is the same, however: an ever decreasing level of biblical literacy.

So with the 25th of December (or whatever Jesus’ actual birth date) approaching, lets look at the Word for our understanding, and not rest on assumptions, in this area, or in life generally.