Barbie & Jesus
Year A, Proper 25, RCL, Track 2, Matthew 22:34-46
A few months ago, I saw the live-action Barbie movie. The movie takes us on a journey of what the inventor of the Barbie doll intended. How Mattel got it wrong. And how the company, in part through its patriarchal system, damaged a young girl’s self-image. In this movie, the original Barbie’s journey, reestablishes the meaning of Barbie. She is to be a strong female role model for all people. This is one of the underlying messages that many people may not see. The more overt message is about male toxicity that exudes throughout Western culture. Another powerful theme. By the way, as if you can’t tell already, I’d recommend people of all ages see the movie, even if this means you take your grandchildren for cover. In this movie, we have a portrayal of life around us. It demonstrates a view of the cultural milieu in which we live.
We don’t necessarily notice the harmful effects of our culture for we are used to it. We grew up with certain ways of doing things and have not known life without them. These types of cultural issues are not new. If we look at first-century Palestine, Jesus points out similar effects brought on by some of the people in the two main Jewish sects, the Pharisees and Sadducees. These two sects usually do not agree on anything. They have vastly different views, scriptural interpretations, and beliefs about how the world should operate. Yet Jesus points to flaws in both groups.
On this day, in our story, there have already been six exchanges between Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Using the Laws in sacred scripture, Jesus defuses each trap set for him, making the opposing party look foolish. Each parable Jesus tells paints these leaders in a light that makes them look as if they don’t follow the laws they strongly espouse. If the Barbie movie took place in 1st Century Palestine, Jesus would be the original Barbie.
Much like Mattel, the Sadducees' and Pharisees' intent wasn’t bad. They were so enveloped in their cultural milieu that they didn’t recognize where their message may diverge from its original meaning. As time moves on, our current cultural influences, and how we interpret the past, change. The meaning of words change or are altogether lost. What was offensive to them is no longer to us. Other things not offensive to them have become offensive to us. This change happens slowly, from one generation to the next, decade after decade, century after century. To the point that we no longer understand why we do what we do.
For example, Professor Tom O’Hare from the University of Texas at Austin offers us a story with similar effects. He says the US standard railroad gauge or the distance between the rails is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built trains in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates.
Why did the English people build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways to hall coal, and that's the gauge they used.
Why did they use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.
Okay! Why did the wagons use that odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagons would break on some of the old, long-distance roads because that's the spacing of the old wheel ruts.
So who built these old rutted roads? The first long-distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The roads have been used ever since.
And the ruts? The initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for or by Imperial Rome they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.
Thus, we have the answer to the original question. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman army war chariot built more than 300 years before Christ.
Someone else added an interesting extension to the story. When we saw a Space Shuttle sitting on the launch pad, there were two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are the solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs were made by a factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line to the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. And thus a major design feature of what was the world's most advanced transportation system was determined by the ancient Roman chariot makers.
Like the spacing between chariot wheels, cultural norms can also have lasting unintended effects long into the future.
One of Jesus' missions is to force people to see how their thoughts of God and scripture have moved off-point. God sent the prophets and Jesus to open our minds and eyes so that we can see our relationship with God in a new light, or maybe the original way that God intended. I believe Christ asks us to constantly reexamine our ways of thinking, believing, and interpreting scripture in light of his central message.
Jesus clearly says that loving God is key. And to love one another and ourselves equally is only second because God is supreme. This is where I struggle, and I’d imagine most of us do as well. Do I actually put God before myself, my family, my parents, my kids, or my grand-kids? I can honestly say I do not always put God first, maybe not even most of the time (though my family may disagree). Do I prioritize my neighbors, those people I meet each day, as much as my family… as much as myself? I can categorically say no. I do not.
When I deeply reflect on these Commandments, I feel I could be part of a 12-step program. Hi. My name is Steve. I’m a sinner. I cannot keep the two great commandments. It’s not that I don’t have good intentions – for I do. But I just can’t seem to do it.
Through our walk in faith, there are many things we are called to do that are impossible. From chapter 19, just three chapters earlier in this gospel, we hear that “when the disciples heard [about a rich man being like a camel going through the eye of a needle], they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”[i]
This sounds like some trope, for we seldom do the impossible even with our faith in God. But this isn’t actually about the impossibility of fitting a camel through the eye of a needle, or actually loving all people as ourselves. It's about being aware of our shortcomings. Accepting that, to fully live out the perfect Christian life is impossible. But acknowledging that we have a God who is forgiving, who seeks for us to turn to her whenever we fall short. I believe It’s not so much about being perfect but being aware; aware of the world around us so that we can become more empathetic, more supportive, and more engaged with those who struggle so that we may gain the ability to help those whom we do not see or are unwilling to engage. It’s not so much about success and failure, sin and righteousness, but our attempt to follow God and Christ with all our hearts, minds, and souls.
Thomas Merton, a modern mystic, Trappist monk, and scholar of comparative religion wrote a prayer that gives me great hope and insight into my life in faith. And I will leave you with this excerpt.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you…”
[i] Matthew 19:14-25