Thursday, October 29, 2020

On the Sacred Right - and Duties - of Voting

Yesterday my husband and I voted. Perhaps fittingly we had gone to cast our early vote at the Marks Street Senior Center, a beautiful century old Mediterranean structure right downtown that had once been a school, the perfect place for a retired fourth generation educator to vote.

The line was not too long, even with social distancing being observed. We were admitted into the voting site within 20 minutes and out 10 minutes later. It was a pleasant day in Central Florida to stand in line outside in the low 80s and not too much direct sunshine under the sheltering oak trees there. 

As we stood in line, those who had completed their voting ahead of us were streaming out the side door of the Center, most bearing their “I VOTED” stickers to remind their fellow citizens to do the same. One of the voters was a young man wearing a chest harness to which his baby was securely strapped.

Suddenly a host of memories from my 67 years on this planet, most of them spent in this state, came flooding back.


“Pull that lever, Son…”

When I had just turned seven, my Father called me into the living room one afternoon  and had me plop down in front of our black and white television with its snowy images coming out of a station 50 miles away in Tampa. “This is history, son,” he said.

I watched as two men in suits standing behind podiums took turns answering questions from a third man sitting at a table in front of them. I wasn’t sure what I was watching but I remember distinctly feeling a strong sense of attraction to one of the men as well as a strong sense that the other man was not a very good person.

As it turns out, I was watching the first presidential debates in U.S. history between Democrat John Kennedy, the winning candidate that I was instinctively drawn to, and Republican Richard Nixon whose depravity would eventually be revealed in a scandal that would drive him from the White House. 

Even as a child, my intuition was on target.

Days later my Dad would take me by the hand as we walked down to the Women’s Club in downtown Bushnell and we would stand in line just as this father and his child had done yesterday here in Orlando. The poll worker would check the list of registered voters, my Dad would be asked to sign the registry next to his name (no ID was required in those days) and very quickly we would be ushered over to a voting booth.

I remember it being a bit claustrophobic, a response which intensified when my Father pulled a big lever at the bottom of the board in front of us that closed curtains behind us to provide for a secret balloting. Just above my eye level was the ballot with smaller levers by each name. Daddy picked me up and said, “Son, pull that lever,” and so I reached out and pulled the one he had told me to pull. 

Thus from my earliest childhood, I have been a voter. I would only discover years later that I had involuntarily voted for Richard Nixon, the man who struck me as a crook on that snowy television screen that afternoon. And within three years, the man I had intuitively admired in that debate would be dead from an assassin’s bullet along with the dreams of many of us young Americans waiting our turn to serve Kennedy's New Frontier.

Old Enough to Die, Old Enough to Vote

In 1972, the 26th Amendment to our Constitution had been ratified which lowered the voting age to 18. It was a time when an entire cohort of young men slightly older than myself had disappeared into the arms of a “selective service,” some of them never to return from foreign lands with names like Vietnam and Cambodia. Of those that did return,  many came home with lingering damage to their bodies and their psyches, very different human beings from those who had left their families, homes and communities just months before.


The reasoning that prompted the lowering of the voting age was simple: A man who was old enough to die for his country was old enough to vote on the leaders who would make the decision to draft and deploy him.

I was draft age in 1972 and had dutifully registered with the selective service on my 18th birthday. I would later sit up with my buddies from community college all night watching lottery numbers being drawn from a roulette wheel that determined our draft order. I was lucky. My number of 261 meant I would never be called up. And within months, the debacle in Southeast Asia would be over, at least for the Americans who were able to flee the sinking ship they were unable to prop up any longer.

The selective service office in Bushnell was across the street from the supervisor of elections office. So when I finished at the first, I walked over to the second to become a registered voter. In Fall of 1972 I cast my first vote and have never missed an election since that time.

I voted for Democrat George McGovern in the presidential election that year. I knew he did not have a prayer of winning. But I also knew that his opponent - the man I had instinctively distrusted as a child  - was still not trustworthy and within months his depravity would reveal itself in an office complex named Watergate.

When my Father asked me for whom I had voted, I simply said that I rectified the error I had involuntarily made in 1960 and cancelled out that earlier vote for Richard Nixon. He shook his head in dismay, saying “I can’t believe you did that.” But, in truth, I was simply being the man he had raised me to be.

The Dark Side of Democracy

I grew up in a family that was well read, well informed and expected you to hold your own in the sometimes-heated political discussions at our dinner table. My parents did not always agree on any number of subjects nor did their children. But we were expected to be able to say why we thought as we did and articulate those reasons when challenged. It would be many years before I would realize that this familial pattern was not normative for every family.

Those expectations would serve me well as an undergraduate student of history and political science at the University of Florida and later as a law student at the same university. It was in the process of studying about the operations of our democratic republic that I came to believe in the fundamental values of this form of government and, correspondingly, in the sacredness of the right to vote.

Over the years as a practicing attorney and a college instructor of American Government, I came to know both the virtues and the dark side of our democratic republic. I came to realize that democracy was broader than a mere majoritarianism in which those with power in a society always had the potential – and often operated out of a sense of entitlement -  to tyrannize the minority and deny them their full seat at the table. The Tyranny of the Majority that thinkers from Madison to De Tocqueville to Mill have decried is always the potential Shadow side of democracies.  

As an attorney, I came to realize the pathologies of the  power element that underlies legal positivism. This approach to law presumes the validity of laws duly passed by legislatures or acts engaged by executives regardless of their clear arbitrary content (like the ongoing denial of former felons’ right to vote in Florida) or their deleterious impact on the powerless segments of the population. In the process I painfully discovered over and over in my practice as a public defender that might does NOT make right, it simply provides power to its holders which, if abused, results in tyranny.


Nowhere is that tyranny more evident than in the politics of voter suppression. I have seen this first-hand in my time spent as an international election observer in El Salvador. There, amidst a countryside scarred by napalm dropped from U.S. provided helicopters and the ruins of churches and homes destroyed by U.S. funded and trained paramilitaries, I watched peasants stand in a tropical sun for four and five hours to vote, many of them for the first time in their lives. Their determination to participate in their own self-governance was incredibly humbling to an American whose fellow citizens have a spotty record at best in meeting their duties as citizens.

Because many were illiterate, each would come to the registry table, state their names, stick their finger into the bottle containing a purple ink and then leave their fingerprint on the page where the registrar told them their name appeared.  All of this would occur under the watchful eyes of those of us summoned from around the world to observe the process and in the shadow of the automatic weapons borne by United Nations peacekeepers.

I learned two things from that experience. First, voting is a right, not a privilege. Our Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Constitution recognize that. While it can be denied the powerless by the powerful, it never stops being a right. To the degree that voting represents the uniqueness of the individual casting their ballot and participating in communal decision making, voting is sacred. Like the unique image of G_d each of those voters bears, their votes express their uniqueness and must be respected in a healthy, principled system of governance.                                                              

The second thing I learned very quickly is that when the trust that all governments must command to retain their sense of legitimacy with the populace has been damaged by their willingness to abuse their power, it does not come back quickly. Indeed, it was in El Salvador that I learned a troubling new concept: 

Impunidad. Impunity. 

Even as those peasants cast their ballots that day, they expressed to me their distrust of the tallying of those ballots and the results that would come from it. 

                                                              MS 13 Gang, El Salvador

Sadly, legitimacy has never been able to be completely restored in many of the countries in Central America where U.S. foreign policies serving global economic interests destroyed infrastructure along with the ability of the people to trust their government. That failure of legitimacy is readily observable in the instability in post-Contra states marked by armed gangs and the flood of refugees seeking asylum at the borders of the country which played such a large role in their implosions.

 In My Own Backyard

 But one doesn’t have to cross borders to find examples of the desecration of the right to vote. In my retirement my time has been largely occupied in working with the Alliance for Truth and Justice (ATJ), a local organization affiliated with Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Rights Initiative which is dedicated to commemorating the victims of lynching. Our local organization was formed to commemorate the events surrounding the Election of 1920 here in Orange County.


On the year when the denial of the right to vote based on sex was ended by the Nineteenth Amendment, Florida's white Democratic establishment, many of whom were not-so-secret members of the Ku Klux Klan, was intent that African-Americans would not exercise their right to vote. And when they tried in Ocoee, Florida, even in the face of threatened violence, the result would be a massacre of the African-American community there.

Though this had all occurred a mere 10 miles west of this city where I have spent the majority of my life, I did not know this story until the late 1990s when a play entitled “The Whirlwind Passeth” was performed at a local theater. It brought to life the massacre in Ocoee, a horrific chapter of our collective history. 

A century later, on November 2, the city of Ocoee will finally dedicate a state historic marker in its civic center plaza,  due in part to the efforts of the ATJ, recalling that awful night which began with the denial of the sacred right to vote. But it was amidst my work for the Alliance that a chapter of my own family history that marked a victory for that right suddenly came into focus. 

For about 20 years my family employed an African-American woman named Henrietta to help my working parents raise my baby sister. Henrietta was a part of our family living in our home during the day and her own home at night. We all loved her. In retrospect, I see her as one of the essential wisdom figures in my own life and, at a time when our local society was desegregating, that wisdom was sorely needed.


On Election Day 1968, my Dad asked Henrietta if she planned to vote that day. “Oh, I don’t know, Mr. Coverston,” she replied, hesitating. Many employers of black workers refused to give them time off to vote and the stories of poll “watchers” who actively harassed black voters to prevent them from voting were legendary.

My Dad said, “Well, I’m going to vote this afternoon and I can take you by on your way home.” And so that afternoon, my Dad would stand in line with Henrietta until both had voted.

At the time it didn’t mean much to me. My Dad was a considerate man and, like the rest of the family, loved Henrietta. But there were a lot of unspoken concerns being communicated in their exchange. Henrietta did not want to be harassed at the polls and very possibly turned away without voting. My Dad, on the other hand, was intent that this would not happen. By his mere presence there he communicated to the townspeople of this small town where he had been born and raised that this woman’s right to vote would be respected.

It was a silent but highly effective way of resisting tyranny. And the struggle against that tyranny continues a half century later in the work his son is now doing.


“I think I’ve seen this movie before…”

Because voting is a right, it comes with a duty to others in its exercise. Thinkers from Aristotle to Jefferson have spoken of the requirements in a healthy democratic society for its members to become educated, inform themselves and participate in the process with an eye to the common – and never merely the individual or mere tribal – good. I am heartened by the level of engagement I am seeing in this election. It appears clear to me that many of us recognize the existential threat to the very soul of our nation at stake here.


But I am also concerned that the pattern of voter repression and intimidation is not a mere aspect of our nation’s history. When I hear of armed “poll watchers” or voters being denied registry because they have not paid undisclosed “fees” or closing of polling places in neighborhoods to create backups at those which remain open or plans to disqualify ballots on technicalities, the alarms go off in my head. Seems I have seen this movie before. This is a page right out of the playbook of the Klan violence riddled Election of 1920 which UF historian Paul Ortiz has called “the bloodies day in U.S. Electoral history.”

In a democratic system in which the right to vote is sacred, these are all acts of desecration. They represent often blatant behaviors to tilt the playing field by those who fear that their ideas and candidates cannot prevail in a fair election.

What effect they may have on next Tuesday’s vote is yet unclear. But what it does signal to those of us who would venerate and protect the sacred right of and duties to vote is that we have our work cut out for us. That begins with educating our populace about their government and catechizing them in the sacred rights and duties of responsible citizenship. And it will mean restraining the depravities of those governments that would act (or fail to act) to that desecrate the same.

May that work begin the moment the last ballot is counted.




Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

   © Harry Coverston, 2020



Monday, October 26, 2020

Anything But Supreme

Anything But Supreme

I am resigned to Amy Barrett being confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court today. The Republicans who control the Senate are determined to get their last round of stacking the deck before they lose face the possibility of losing control of our national government in just eight days.

At some level, this is a mere continuation of a pattern of zero-sum politics that has marked the party since the rise of its Tea Party faction in the 1980s. They have willingly ignored the established procedures of the confirmation process, some of which they themselves created, and have rushed through a series of federal and state court appointments based almost entirely on political ideology.

A number of their cronies have been so lacking in qualifications that their nominations ultimately had to be withdrawn. Others were promoted to the federal judiciary despite the fact they had no real experience on either side of the bench. And then there have been those whose character was so tarnished that their mere presence on the federal judiciary brings it shame. Brett Kavanaugh is the poster boy for such paucity of character not to mention white male entitlement.

Amy Barrett’s nomination is as blatantly political as the Bush v. Gore decision which placed another entitled white male in the presidency was 20 years ago. Everyone knows this even as some make half-hearted attempts to deny it.

While Barrett appears to be intelligent and has a record as a capable professor at the Notre Dame University law school, her nomination was not driven by those factors or by her virtually non-existent experience as a federal judge. Rather, she is simply the latest of a series of nominees who passed the ideological litmus test generated by the Koch Brothers funded Federalist Society. In short, she is being placed on the bench not because of her qualifications but rather because of her willingness to serve the interests of those who have made her nomination possible.

Ironies Abounding

There is no small irony that this pattern of nominations would arise from the folks who have been the most outspoken about “political correctness.” What could be a better example of political correctness than restricting appointments to courts to only those with approved views insuring that the politically correct understanding could be imposed on all of society through the power of the courts?

There is also no small irony that this last-minute confirmation on the eve of a general election in which the nominator stands a fair chance of losing his presidency would also be the work of those who so loudly scream about the potential for court packing by that president’s successor. What could be a better example of court packing than the flood of new judges who have passed the Koch Brother’s Federalist Society litmus test regardless of their experience or qualifications, much less their disposition toward impartiality, and with little more than a wink and a nod toward serious screening by the Senate?

Finally, there is no small amount of depravity in this behavior of Republicans - who for the moment still control the Senate - to rush through a confirmation to stack the Supreme Court. It is troubling that the agenda here is possibly the very purpose of delegitimating an election which appears increasingly likely to reject the current occupant of the White House who named this woman to the Court. She could be his ace in the hole to prevent being dethroned.

Surely our countrymen and women cannot be this unobservant or indifferent.  

The Republican leaders of the Senate had previously stated as “principle” that no SCOTUS nominee should be considered by the Senate on the eve of a national election. It was unprecedented, a departure from historical practice at the time. As a result, Barack Obama’s highly qualified nominee, Merrick Garland, never even saw the interior of the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting room. But a default to principle was never even momentarily considered in the rushed process to stack the courts with yet another ideologue this time.

Clearly, principle means little to those lacking in the same.

But a repudiation of principle can have impacts beyond the current exercise of expediency. A court system stacked with ideologues could well mean the retardation of any kind of evolutionary process a country desperately needing to leave behind a fading paradigm might need. An ideologue stacked court which protects the interests which created it quickly loses any sense of legitimacy. At a time when our nation and world is facing existential crises, what we need from our courts is wisdom, not political skullduggery. 

In principle I have long opposed expanding the Supreme Court or limiting terms of justices, especially as a means of pursuing political goals. But that presumes an even playing field on which competing ideas could be heard on their own merit. It presumes a system in which principle is valued. Sadly, it’s been a long time since that was the case. And today’s confirmation only digs the ideological wounds of a once venerable court system even deeper. Whether we can repair this damage remains to be seen.  

The court system I had so admired as a child, studied as an undergraduate and had gone to law school to serve bears little resemblance to the politicized system I encounter today. And sadly, it is but one aspect of a massive poisoning of our democratic system. 

The power of dark money has been able to destabilize our electoral system and stack the decks in state governments and federal agencies. Now it is poised on brink of a coup de grace, the placement of yet another Federalist Society ideologue on the SCOTUS which will protect the interests which generated that dark money with a controlling majority on the Court.

Arguments from the Bubble…

I have to confess, as a man who has given my life to serving this country, I find this new reality almost incomprehensible. But it did not arise in a vacuum. This week I received two communications on social media that provide me with some idea as to how this happened.

The first came from a long-time friend whose private message to me began:

An elected official has the obligation to take advantage of his entire term and use his best judgment on issues as mandated by the citizens who chose him to lead or represent them. Why then, should any elected official abdicate that responsibility during the last two three four or five months of his duly elected term?... Do you in your heart of hearts think that if the current situation were reversed that the Democrats would not also do all they can to get their person on the SC?

Of course, the language itself is somewhat revealing. Why should elected officials “take advantage” of situations in which tradition and established procedures – not to mention honesty and integrity - dictate restraint? Does such taking advantage include violating promises made by these same ostensibly based in “principle?” If that’s the case, what does “principle” even mean in such a situation? And what does such a willingness to violate principle suggest about the soundness of the judgment of those who violate it by confirming partisan judges?

Moreover, does the elected official sitting in the Oval Office only represent “the citizens who chose him to lead” (Read: His “base”) ? In the case of a Supreme Court justice, does he have no duties to ALL the citizens who will be impacted by the justice’s decisions? And what duties to the integrity of the judiciary with its mission to be impartial?

In all honesty, I do not know what might have happened had the partisan tables been reversed here. That has been increasingly unlikely since the Citizens’ United ruling tipped the political balance in this country into the hands of folks like the Koch Brothers whose judges now sit everywhere from our federal benches to our local school boards. 

I fear the Democrats may also have acted out of expediency rather than principle under the circumstances. What I do know is that the pattern of behavior that we will see playing out today in the confirmation hearing in the Republican dominated Senate is entirely predictable given their behavior over the past couple of decades.

The second communication came from a friend from my childhood in the form of a meme on Facebook. It draws a false analogy between Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) and would-be justice Amy Barrett. There are at least two problems that arise from this.

First, the comparison is very revealing. Ilhan Omar is a congresswoman. Her job is to advocate for her constituents and the best interests of the country. We anticipate that she will be partisan, given our two party, winner-take-all electoral system. In the legislative branch of our government, that’s how they do business.

 But the woman at the top is being considered for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Where the congresswoman is elected in a partisan manner, a justice is expected NOT to be partisan. While it is tempting to see this entire process in zero-sum terms of power, the judiciary has a function that was designed to be different from that of the other two branches. It is deeper in function and broader in scope.

Moreover, a non-partisan judiciary is central to public perceptions of legitimacy. If there is to be even a semblance of justice in a heavily contentious society, courts with impartial judges are the only place that can occur.

That is why the second aspect of this comparison is so troubling. Ilhan Omar is a Muslim. But she is not a fundamentalist. While she has been painted as such by right wing pundits, Omar is as likely to be critical of her own tradition as she is defensive when it is presented in stereotyped caricatures. 

Such is not the case for Amy Barrett in either her personal or her professional lives. Barrett belonged to a fundamentalist sect of Roman Catholicism for many years that emphasized patriarchal values. This is particularly troubling in the light of the powerful, inspiring and brilliant woman jurist whose place Barret would take on the Court.

A toxic patriarchy plays out in many ways from denial of abortions regardless of the circumstances to antipathy toward LBGTQ families and transsexuals. Worse yet, in a time of pandemic, a Koch Brothers’ justice might well be preparing to cast the deciding vote to take away the Affordable Care Act’s limited protections of America’s weakest links, this in the midst of a pandemic that threatens the very soul of our nation.

If it were just her religion, that would be problematic enough. But Barrett, who apparently has a decent mind and is seen by many of her students as a good professor (though a number of her Notre Dame colleagues have opposed her nomination), is an adherent to the legal ideology of originalism. Popularized by the brilliant ideologue Antonin Scalia, for whom Barrett clerked, originalism is ultimately the phenomenon of fundamentalism (which underlies the sect of which Barrett is a member) as it expresses itself in the legal profession.

Originalism would freeze American jurisprudence in the world context of its Framers, much like biblical fundamentalism freezes religious teachings in the context of the 10th BCE to 2d CE writers from the Middle East, complete with all their worldviews and values. In doing so, it ensures an ongoing protection of the privileges of those whose interests were enshrined in the original constitutional framing.

Originalism operates out of the “Father Knows Best” mentality of patriarchal fundamentalism which privileges males and demands the obedience of everyone else. There is a presumption that the assertions of these forebear males are somehow unquestionable because they are constructed as deliverers of pure truth unimpeded by human frailty or contextual considerations.

Consider: “The Word of the Lord!” “The Word of the Framers!”

Much like the writers of texts that eventually would be included in the canon of Christian scripture, there is no indication that our Framers anticipated their own circumstances would be the context for all future incarnations of U.S. government or that their understandings would come to be seen as revealed truth impervious to question by future generations. Indeed, the process of judicial review written into the Constitution itself evidences their belief that their words would be eventually interpreted by future generations in the context in which they present themselves.

Fundamentalism of any stripe is harmful enough on the members of the bodies where it prevails as the rate of runaway kids and abused spouses in such families readily demonstrates. But when this ideological framework becomes the basis for constitutional interpretation, the entire nation will suffer.

It’s hardly surprising that the kind of mediocrity of character necessary to produce the debacle that will play out today in the placement of yet another ideologue on a court designed to be impartial occurs in a nation whose citizens know so little about its governance. We are not well educated or informed, the prerequisites of a democracy that thinkers from Aristotle to Jefferson have insisted upon. We live within our little bubbles created by social media and cable news as the comments from my friends above readily illustrate.And, sadly, we stopped considering the common good in our decision making ever since Ronald Reagan seduced us with his 1980 siren song, “Are YOU better off than you were four years ago?” 

But ignorance is not bliss. Increasingly, at a very basic level, it poses an existential threat to the very country that so many of us claim that we love.

Best Wishes and an Early Retirement

That said, there is little point in beating one’s head against the brick wall. After several rounds, the wall remains unfazed and the head that’s been used as the battering ram is broken and bloody.

The court system that I once held in great veneration and believed to be the path toward an America gradually realizing its own ideals will go the way of the dinosaurs this day. Ironically, I was less than a year from graduating from law school when the tide turned in this direction. I knew all bets were off when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. And sadly, that intuition has not proven to be false.

I pray that we have reached the nadir of this regressive impulse. It’s going to be a long, hard struggle to recover from this dark night of the soul in America. I have come to accept the reality that I may well not live to see the day when the light reappears at the end of the tunnel. But I remain hopeful for a New America.

This day I wish Justice Barnett the best. But most of all I wish her an early retirement.



Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida


If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either.Mahatma Gandhi

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

   © Harry Coverston, 2020


Sunday, October 11, 2020

How Big is Your G-d?

“For many are called, but few are chosen.”


The parable of the wedding banquet is familiar to many of us, appearing in two of the canonical Gospels as well as in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. What biblical scholars recognize in stories which appear in multiple places, each with slightly different presentations, is that there is a common source from which this story was developed. 

That source, which the writers of Matthew and Luke begin with, is sometimes called Q, short for the German word Quelle, or source. The way that the Q material is presented in any given gospel can offer us some clues as to who the historical Jesus actually was on the one hand. But they also tell us even more about the early Jesus movement which preserved these stories and the way a given community used those stories to write the gospels they produced.



 Very Different Reactions by a Rejected Host

In Luke’s version of this parable, which scholars believe is the closest of the three to the original story,  the giver of the feast is not named but it is clear he is wealthy enough to plan a big dinner and invite many guests. As in Matthew, the invited guests turn down the invitations one by one, some for business reasons, others for personal reasons. When the master of the house hears his invitations have been refused by his guests, he instructs the servants to go out into the streets and invite those they encounter to come and eat this festive dinner.

At a basic level, the writer of Luke is reflecting one aspect of the growing Jesus movement at the end of the first century. It is a movement that has largely been rejected by those of means and high stature. But it has proven to be good news to those on the margins, those whose very existence suggested that they had no value to Caesar’s empire or to the Temple cult  of Judaism from whose worship they were excluded by virtue of their poverty. As in many of the parables that appear in Luke, the expected order of the Judean world is reversed: the last become first, the first become last. 

In today’s Gospel, Matthew’s writers have taken this story in a very different direction. Matthew begins by asserting that the parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven and thus the king of the parable is a stand-in for G-d. As in Luke, the story begins with the plans for a big wedding celebration for the king’s son. And as in Luke, the special guests refuse their invitations, preferring to focus instead on their businesses and personal lives. Some of them go so far as to kill the slaves sent as messengers.

In response, the king sends armies to kill the murderous invitees. But his wrath and vengeance do not simply punish the wrongdoers. His armies burn their entire cities. All the residents of those cities will suffer regardless of whether they were involved in this wrongdoing or not. It is only then that the king sends his slaves into the streets to invite whomever they could round up. But the king’s anger is not complete spent yet. When he notices a guest without the proper attire for the party, he confronts him, kicking him out of the party into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.


Leonard Gaultier, “Parable of the Talents (The Worthless Servant Cast into the Outer Darkness),” c. 1576/1580

Truth be told, I’ve always loved that line. It has a real ring to it. I used it regularly when I taught undergraduates at UCF and Valencia. Trying to assure them of the seriousness of an impending deadline for writing assignments I would warn them that if they waited until the last minute to get down to business and missed the assignment deadline, there would be great weeping and gnashing of teeth.


But Matthew is dead serious here. Emphasis on dead. And he ends his version of this parable with the assertion that “Many are called but few are chosen.” 

It’s pretty clear that in both Luke and Matthew versions of this story, the wealthy party giver is a stand-in for G-d. But it’s important to note that each of them present a very different vision of G-d. And it is my observation that how one sees G-d makes a great deal of difference in how one sees themselves, how one treats other people and how one relates to the larger world outside themselves. 

A Notion of Chosenness That Leads to Tragedy


Today’s reading only makes sense when one sees it in its historical context. It’s important to recall here that the community out of which Matthew’s Gospel emerges found itself in a very difficult place at the end of the first century. On the one hand, the Jesus movement had been targeted by the Roman Empire for persecution that began with the crucifixion of Jesus himself and quickly martyred a number of the disciples.

Francesco Hayez, "The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem" 1867

Matthew is also writing in the period after the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans. We hear an echo of that tragedy in the king’s burning of the city. A Judaism which had previously centered around sacrifice in the Temple had now become much more localized in synagogues led by Pharisee leaders now called rabbis

But the Romans are not the only concerns for Matthew’s community. Matthew’s Jesus followers have been expelled from the synagogues that once were their spiritual homes because of their insistence upon seeing the Way of Jesus as their way of living out their Jewish faith. There is an awful lot of anger and resentment in Matthew’s Gospel toward their former coreligionists often expressed in references to “the Jews, the Jews, the Jews.”. And so it’s not surprising that Matthew’s version of this parable develops a very thinly disguised theological motif called supersessionism. 

The logic of supersessionism, also called replacement theology, goes like this: 1. G-d sends Jesus to save the world. 2. Though Jesus is Jewish, his own people reject him as the Messiah. 3. Thus G-d rejects the Jews as the chosen people and 4. G-d now chooses the Christians. Thus Christianity supersedes the Jews as the chosen people.

Listen again to the ending of Matthew’s lesson today: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” It doesn’t take much imagination to see where such thinking can take you. The theology of supersessionism is the foundation for a very long history of antisemitism of which the Holocaust is merely the worst incident. It is a tragic flaw that lies at the very heart of the Christian tradition which is only now being fully realized and will take even longer to repent for. 

Clearly theologies of chosenness are incredibly self-affirming. To believe one has been chosen by G-d above all others and punishes those who have persecuted you is  a deeply satisfying endeavor.  But this is tribal thinking at its most basic and the god that is portrayed in such thinking is the inevitably the god of the tribe.  



The implications here should trouble us. If this god is the god of our tribe, by definition it means that everyone else is outside the purview of the holy. And if the tribal god has no obligations to recognize their humanity, neither do the chosen people. The tribal god of Matthew’s wedding banquet burns downs entire cities when his honor has been impugned and shames and expels those who do not meet the banquet dress code into outer darkness. Whatever else that understanding of god may be, he is not the G-d of all creation that we find in the book of Genesis. And he is decidedly not the merciful Father whom Jesus says makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.

A Deity Who Embraces All

Clearly not all visions of G-d are the same. Indeed, in today’s lessons alone there are two visions of G_d that I suggest stand in complete contrast with one another. The lesson from Isaiah this morning depicts a very different deity:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,

of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

And he will destroy on this mountain

the shroud that is cast over all peoples,

the sheet that is spread over all nations;

he will swallow up death forever.

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces


It’s important to note the universality of this vision of G-d. The word that is repeated over and over in this passage is the word “all.”  Unlike the insecure tyrant of Matthew’s wedding feast, this G_d creates a feast for everyone. His loving generosity casts away the shroud of sorrow of all the peoples. Even death itself is swallowed up by this G-d after which he wipes the tears from every face.

This is the G-d whom Paul Tillich would call the Ground of All Being, whom John of Patmos would call the Alpha and the Omega. This is the G-d from whom all of Creation flows in Genesis over a six day period at the end of which G-d assesses it all as very good. This, I believe, is a construct of G-d that is worth taking seriously.

So, How Big IS Your G-d?

French philosopher Voltaire once said, 'In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.' At a very basic level, all of us construct our own images of the deity. So I ask you to consider this day, how big is the god you worship? What does your understanding of G_d reveal about the way you see yourself, the way you see others and the way you relate to the world?

Many of us have heard Anne Lamott’s adage that “'You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.' Who are those your vision would cast into outer darkness to weep and gnash their teeth?  Where are the places your concept of G-d serves your own interests rather than the other way around? How big is the G-d you serve?


These are tough questions but I believe they are central to our spiritual lives. And so I close with a prayer that many will find familiar but hopefully can hear in a different way after this morning. Let us pray:

 Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.


A sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL, October 11. 2020.

19th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 23

 You may view a live version of this sermon at the St. Richard’s Facebook site:

 The sermon begins at 22:30.              


Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

  If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

 Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

 For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

 Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

   © Harry Coverston, 2020