At one end of Matthew, Jesus goes free. At the other, cruel, ritualized slaughter befalls him.
An emphasis on the decision character of faith has a long and deep history in the American psyche going back to our Puritan and evangelical ancestors. From Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney to Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and their successors, faith, as encountered in the idiom both of born-again revivalism and of religious “progressives,” has served as shorthand for “I have decided to follow Jesus.” But the biblical meaning of faith cannot be reduced to individualistic voluntarism.
Next to the window in my study, where I can’t but see it every day, there’s a framed cartoon from an old edition of the National Lampoon. It’s a spoof of a Medici rose window from the cathedral in Florence, and depicts a laughing camel leaping with ease through the eye of a needle. The superscription reads: “a recurring motif in works commissioned by the wealthier patrons of Renaissance religious art,” while the Latin inscription on the window itself is “Dives Vincet,”or “Wealth Wins!”
In these days of Enron, Martha Stewart and wars waged over phantom weapons, we know better than to defend dishonesty. Then why would Jesus offer a parable lauding it? Upon closer inspection, however, this parable is just one in a long line of stories that Jesus tells about how to handle wealth.