Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 10:1-24) transports me to a small airfield in the obscure island country of Tijera, south of Honduras, where mystery man Vince Ricardo has roped his son’s prospective father-in-law, mild-mannered dentist Sheldon Kornpett, into an escapade to try and thwart a plot to undermine the U.S. currency. It’s my favorite scene of the classic movie, The In-Laws, where Peter Falk’s shady character Vince, who turns out to be a CIA operative, keeps getting Alan Arkin’s innocent and naive character Sheldon (Shelly) into one fix after another. In this scene, they land on the airstrip, exit the plane and walk toward the person they are there to meet, General Jesús Braunshwieger, a member of the Tijera legislature who is going to help them uncover the plot. Jesús is abruptly shot and falls to the ground; more shots ring out from the assassins hidden on the hillside. Vince and Shelly, who have also hit the ground, lay there looking at the General. Shel asks if he’s dead, and Vince responds, If he’s alive he’s putting on one hell of an act, eh? The plane takes off without them, and Vince informs Shel that their only hope is to make it to the car. As the bullets hit the ground around them, Vince instructs Shelly to serpentine, and the two run around in snakelike fashion to avoid the bullets. They finally make it to the car, only to find that the keys are not there, so Sheldon volunteers to go back and retrieve them. He’s almost back to the car when Vince reminds him how to dodge the bullets, Serpentine, Shel, serpentine!, and Sheldon obligingly goes back and starts the snakelike maneuvering again, making it back to the car, which then takes off down the runway, weaving back and forth in snakelike fashion.
I’m not sure Baylor religion professor Ralph Wood had Peter Falk or Alan Arkin in mind when he wrote The Comedy of Redemption, but I do appreciate his insights into the essential comedic nature of the gospel story. In our passage today, scriptwriter Luke presents his audience with another character named Jesús, from another obscure fringe country. This time the mystery man is roping not his dentist, but a gang of working class grunts to join him in an escapade to undermine the most powerful empire the world had ever known. Not only are these clowns from the most marginalized of imperial occupation lands, but General Jesús further deprives them of whatever resources they might have had at their command. Take nothing with you, he instructs as he gives them their marching orders. Cast yourself totally on the compassion care and hospitality of strangers, and if they don’t oblige, keep on moving. The naive and innocent band returns, with good news. They apparently dodged bullets, but not by running around in circles. They report that they had discovered superpowers on their journey, enabling them to defeat the demonic, the forces of destruction and discrimination and violence and greed that had been holding sway for so long. Jesús responds that he was behind this new-found power; he had given the followers authority to trample on the serpents and overcome all enemy powers. Perhaps they had engaged in some serpentine maneuvering after all, by pursuing and catching up to the slithering forces of seductive evil and stomping the life out of them. I can just hear Andrew shouting to his brother – serpentine Simon, serpentine! If any of this had reached the halls of Roman power, such superpower claims from the margins must have struck the Caesar’s ears as ridiculously funny. Jesús reassured his followers that these king-types were blind and deaf to the truth of this kind of power, and the joke would eventually be on them.
My drinking buddies and I watched The In-Laws a lot back in my high school and college days. We would often leave a party or bar, and one of us would go into Vince mode, yelling for the others to serpentine!, and we’d all start running around the parking lot in snakelike fashion, dodging imaginary bullets hitting the ground around us. As you might have ascertained, my buddies and I fairly well plumbed the depths of adolescent boyhood idiocy. When I think about it, though, I wonder if the work I have been engaged in throughout my relatively sober adult life is any less idiotic. My work is based on faith in the power of love and grace, in the redemptive worth of the addicts and mentally anguished of our world, the prisoners and ptsd victims; such faith often feels misplaced in an imperial society where those values can be so marginalized. I believe the communities of faith who trust in this love and grace have been given some incredibly ridiculous marching orders and powers – to dodge bullets and trample on the forces of destruction and greed slithering through every sector of our land. In essence, we have the audacity to believe that acts of mercy on the margins will ultimately sabotage and undermine global empires. Serpentine, people, serpentine!
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.