“First Things, First: In Jesus’ Name”

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One of the classic films of our time (right up there with Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman) that really nails our human condition – in all of its angst and superficities of self-centeredness – is Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). A subplot in the story surrounds a stressed-out, Rolaids-popping, high-powered TV producer, who lives in Manhattan. His name is “Mickey.” As a big-time hypochondriac, Mickey has convinced himself that: “I’ve got this brain tumor the size of a basketball!” When his bluff is called by his doctors in ordering a brain CAT scan, Mickey tries to calm himself by saying: “Hey, everything’s going to be OK. I mean, you’re in the middle of New York City for heaven’s sake. This is your town. You’re surrounded by people and traffic and restaurants.” But the dark humor here is that these things are not all that reassuring. Mickey then embarks on a crazed quest to find true and lasting meaning in life. His job and the big bucks and all kinds of stuff just aren’t cutting it.

For the person watching the film, there’s the realization that the need for meaning is not a biological need. Neither is it a psychological need. It’s a religious need; a matter of ultimate concern in our lives; of what finally and truly matters most; where our first priorities ought to be. It’s a thirsting of the soul. The poignancy and dark humor (much like something out of a Flannery O’Connor novel) reach their climax in Mickey’s New York apartment – where he’s just returned from shopping …

The camera lens closes-in … on a darkened kitchen area … where Mickey slowly begins to unpack a brown paper bag – setting each item gently on a small table. The first thing he unpacks is a crucifix, looks at it and then sets it down. Next, he reaches in the brown grocery bag and pulls out a Bible. But before one can even ask the question: “Maybe Mickey has found the answer to his search for lasting and true meaning …” He pulls out a huge jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise from the bag, and then quickly tops-off-the-pile with a loaf of Wonder Bread (cf. John 6:35). As you can well imagine, at this point in the film, the audience is rolling in the aisles with laughter. However, in spite of all the humor, this is a very serious and telling commentary about us modern folk. Right?

Now … the voices that challenge Jesus in our Gospel text for this coming weekend, from Matthew 22:15-22, are the same kind of angsty, nervous voices that seek to entrap and entangle us; voices of 21st century Pharisees and Sadducees. Voices of legalism and authoritarianism recouched in terms of conditions and success. “You must do this, first. No! You must do that, first!” Jesus silences such voices by pointing-out all the Wonder Bread and Mayonnaise of worldly things that we’ve piled on top of what is most important – that which is most needful (cf. Luke 10:42), namely, God’s Word for us. Come and hear this Word anew, for you, this coming weekend at worship.

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor