Archive for Pompey

Pirates, Pompey, and the Common Good

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2016 by timtrue



Bust of Pompey

Luke 17:5-10

How about a story? It comes to us from Roman engineering history; from that great military general Pompey, who was for many years a friend of Julius Caesar; and then an enemy.

So, in 66 BCE, about a hundred years before Jesus Christ was ministering in and around Judea, Pompey was given a charge: rid the Mediterranean Sea of pirates; and, especially, protect the eastern borders of the Empire—not far from Judea.

Pirates had been a terrible nuisance in the ancient world since at least the fourteenth century.  They preyed upon coastal towns, often exacting tribute from fearful town leaders or kidnapping residents and selling them into slavery.  Many Greek cities were founded inland, as a matter of fact, to be out of reach of pirates.

It didn’t help their cause at all—if one could say they had a cause—that in the year 75 Cilician pirates ended up kidnapping Julius Caesar himself.  The early historian Plutarch says that Caesar’s kidnappers initially held him ransom for a price of twenty talents of gold; but then raised it to fifty at Caesar’s own request: he was worth at least that much, he said, if not more.

And now, a few years hence, Caesar charged Pompey with the task of ridding the Mediterranean of this menace.

During his campaign to end piracy, Pompey determined to build new harbors in the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and the Black Sea.  There his engineering crews faced the challenge of digging away rugged, difficult terrain—tall cliffs, whole mountainsides, often lined with the durable and hardy mulberry tree.

Soon, one of Pompey’s chief engineers discovered a way to accomplish this challenging task—in relatively short order too!—by spreading mustard seeds wherever the digging was to occur.  The mustard seed planted easily, grew quickly, and spread invasively, sucking nutrients and moisture from the soil.

So effective was this annual plant’s invasiveness that after only a few months an entire hillside, mulberry trees and all, could be dug away and shaped into the harbors Pompey envisioned.  On occasion, digging wasn’t even necessary: records tell (so I’ve heard) that a few hillsides infested with the mustard plant simply crumbled and fell into the water.

Now, why do I tell this story about Pompey?  Because all this happened a century or so before Jesus tells today’s parable about the mustard seed.

Pompey was a very famous Roman military general.  He had spent time in the Palestinian region.  His engineering crews had discovered a way to make fast work of erosion to their great advantage using the mustard plant, so invasive that it could uproot the hardy mulberry tree; or command a mountain to be cast into the sea.

So: do you think anyone who heard Jesus that day might have remembered Pompey?  Pompey’s challenge was how to make new harbors when hardy trees and even mountainsides stood in the way.  For most people, this would have seemed an impossible task.  Yet Pompey believed he could bring it about; and he did.

And his belief—his faith—was about the size of a mustard seed.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

The apostles heard this and—I’m certain!—immediately thought of Pompey and his amazing accomplishment.  We hear this and—I’d be willing to wager—we don’t.  Show of hands: how many of you thought of Pompey’s pirate-ridding accomplishments the moment Pat read today’s Gospel?

Instead, don’t we tend to think of our faith in terms of quantification?  “Lord,” we say with the apostles, “increase our faith!”  We then think that surely our faith must be small, smaller than even the itsy-bitsy mustard seed, for life is difficult and we rarely get what we feel should be coming to us; but, as we see in today’s passage, even if I had a little faith I could do incredible things.

Now, in fact, there’s a whole branch of modern-day American evangelical Christianity that promotes this message.  If you are sick, they say, pray and ask Jesus to heal you; then just believe.  If you stay sick, they say, then it’s only because you don’t have enough faith: you must pray for more.

The argument is just the same with money: if you’re poor, they say, it’s because you don’t have enough faith.  Pray and believe; name it and claim it; and if your faith is large enough, why, anything you can dream of will be yours.

Faith is quantifiable, they want us to believe.  And the more money you send to them, they tell you, the more faith you will possess.

When the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith,” and Jesus answers, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”—what we hear Jesus saying is, “Oh, if only you had even a little bit of faith; but as it is, you really don’t have any.”  The result is that we hear this parable in a modern, American, evangelical, prosperity-gospel, consumer sort of way: faith becomes an individual possession, a kind of talent or skillset that makes me an expert when I find out how to obtain it, to be envied by those who haven’t yet figured it out.

But, instead, when the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith,” Jesus’ response is really more along these lines: “Oh, don’t you know?  You already have faith.  Don’t you remember Pompey?  He believed he could move mulberry trees and indeed whole mountainsides in order to make his harbors.  And he did!  If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and indeed you do!—you can throw this mulberry tree into the sea too!”

With the apostles, we cry to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  And the Lord replies, “Oh, but you already have faith.  And with it you can move mountains!”

So why don’t we?

There’s no shortage of mountains in our world.  You all know this.  Right on our doorstep, for instance—right here in Yuma County—we have one of the lowest percentages in the country of high-school graduates who go on to college.  We also have one of the highest rates of unemployment.  Trader Joe’s won’t even open up a store here.  These are big problems.  They can feel like mountains.

But Pompey moved mountains and cast mulberry trees into the sea and thus built his harbors with a faith the size of a mustard seed.

How so?  He didn’t rely on himself—his own knowledge and talents and expertise or whatever.  Instead, he called on his chief engineers—to think creatively, to experiment.  And also he relied on his army—his employees, if you will.  This was his community.

And why did he do it?  To rid the Mediterranean from the pirates that controlled it, for the sake of the common good!  This was his mission: the common good.

And so, Plutarch writes, “Thus was this war ended, and the whole power of the pirates at sea dissolved everywhere in the space of three months” (Dryden’s translation).

But—and I think here is where we find our answer—Pompey’s faith was not our modern-day, American, evangelical, consumer understanding of faith.  For Pompey—and, more importantly, for Jesus—faith was not understood as something to be individually possessed; a thing to be stocked up, hoarded, and stored away as some kind of commodity; so that if we’re ever sick or suddenly encounter financial ruin we can somehow pull it out as a spiritual antibiotic or divine debit card.

Rather, Pompey understood the mission set before him; and he knew he couldn’t accomplish it on his own.

Jesus Christ understood the mission before him; and he knew he wouldn’t accomplish it on his own.

Jesus came to earth as God incarnate; and lived and died and rose again.  But he didn’t ascend to the right hand of the Father until after his disciples understood their mission.

And their mission is our mission.  We have been called to transform this troubled, confused, mixed-up, bewildered world into the very Kingdom of God, for the sake of the common good.

And how is this mission ever going to go forward if our focus is on our individual selves and how much of a consumer-faith we can acquire?  Or not!

Instead, we must bind together, put our heads together, call on our chief engineers to think creatively, to experiment with new ways of thinking; in order to rid our seas from the pirates that now control them.  For the sake of the common good!

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed—and you do; you do!—you can move mountains.


Overwhelming Faith

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on October 6, 2013 by timtrue

Luke 17:5-10

Why the mulberry tree?

Apparently Jesus is trying to quantify faith here—to place some concrete, tangible measurement on it.  “Increase our faith!” the apostles pleaded.  And Jesus likens their faith to a tiny mustard seed in contrast to a mulberry tree:

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus says, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

But if size were the main issue at hand, wouldn’t it be better to use the same contrast found in St. Matthew’s Gospel?  There Jesus said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move” (Mt. 17:20).

As for sheer volume, without a doubt the mountain wins over the mulberry.  So, why didn’t Jesus say mountain here in Luke’s Gospel?  Why the mulberry tree?  Something other than sheer volume must lie behind this contrast.

The mulberry is a strong, hardy tree indigenous to the Mediterranean region.  It grows near bodies of water—along the banks of rivers and lakes, even along sea beaches.  In fact, it is arguably the most durable tree of the Mediterranean region: mulberries are the oldest trees as well as some of the hardest and tallest.  Even their big leaves convey strength and sturdiness.

The plant that grows from the mustard seed, on quite the other hand, looks small, fragile, and by all appearances temporary.  Birds nest in its branches, Christ tells us.  But this is only so that they can eat the seeds, and only at a certain time of the year: just before the plant dies and falls to the earth.  Mustard plants are annuals.

Yet somehow our faith, when it is as fickle as a mustard seed, is actually more durable than a mulberry tree.

But how?  Another example from biology illustrates.

Are you familiar with the aspen tree—sometimes called the quaking aspen?  It is a tall, thin, straight, and somewhat delicate-looking tree.  It grows abundantly in parts of North America, including the Rocky Mountains, where there is a well know ski town named after it.  Its paper-thin leaves rustle in the slightest breeze, offering a sort of shimmery, surreal appearance and sound—a “quaking” experience, if you will.

I used to do a lot of backpacking.  One of my favorite things to do on a backpacking trip was to find a grove of aspens on a sunny afternoon—after setting up camp, of course, and taking care of chores in preparation for the darkness to come.  There, beneath the canopy and the warm sun, I’d stretch out to the sound of aspen leaves rustling in the breeze and the sight of shady light dancing on the backs of my eyelids—an activity that almost always resulted in a nap.

Anyway, what a contrast to the mulberry!  For the outward appearance of the aspen suggests tender youth, softness, and fragility; not the gnarly durability of the mulberry.

But if we were to look beneath the forest floor, we’d see an entirely different story.  For underneath an aspen grove there is an ever-growing and spreading root system.  And as the root system spreads, baby aspen trees spring up at the system’s edge.  In fact, this is how the trees propagate.  Or I should say, rather, this is how the tree propagates.  For that grove of aspens I napped under when backpacking was actually a single organism.

That’s right!  Those beautiful, shimmering, delicate-looking trees are really just part of the same, single, much larger organism.  If a forest fire decimates a grove of aspens, no matter!  Saplings will soon emerge from the root system.  That’s why, too, when you’re in the middle of an aspen grove, you’ll see no other trees, only grass and ferns with short root systems that are not choked out by the much larger (and deeper) aspen root system.

In fact, it is thought that an aspen grove named Pando, found in Fishlake National Forest in Utah, is the most voluminous—the heaviest—living organism on the planet, weighing in at over 6,500 tons.

So much for Utah.  Let’s now return to the ancient Mediterranean.

In 66 BCE a certain Roman leader was given a charge to rid the Mediterranean Sea of pirates.  He was also given a charge to protect the eastern borders of the Empire, not far from Judea.  This leader’s name was Pompey.

Because of internal unrest in Jerusalem, in 63 BCE Pompey besieged the city for three months, eventually capturing the Temple.  He then put the Jewish factions to rest and essentially let Jerusalem get back to business as usual.  Point is, Pompey figured prominently into the recent Jewish history of Jesus’ day.

During Pompey’s campaign to end piracy—which he succeeded in doing rather quickly—he built new harbors in the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and the Black Sea.  His engineering crews faced the challenge of digging away rugged, difficult terrain—tall, durable cliffs lined with mulberry trees, for instance.  But a certain engineer discovered a plant with a root system like that of the aspen.  It planted easily, spread invasively, and grew quickly, sucking nutrients and moisture from the soil.  So effective was this plant that occasionally an entire hillside, mulberry trees and all, would simply crumble and fall into the water.  Building Pompey’s harbors came easily after that plant had done its work.  That plant, by the way, was mustard.

Do you see now how mustard contrasts with mulberry?  No doubt, with Pompey’s infamy, Jesus’ apostles saw the contrast too.  Easily!  With enough faith—as Pompey’s engineer showed—even a tiny mustard seed can overwhelm the mighty mulberry tree.

Are you like the apostles?  Do you want the Lord to increase your faith?  Faith starts out small.  But in time it can grow into something that seemed impossible only a short time ago.