On November 21, 1931, the passing of Zeke Marks was noted in the Weirton (WV) Daily Times. He was 75 years old, and a father of 9. Described as a “short man with a drooping moustache,” Marks is reported to have died of bronchial pneumonia. His obituary would ordinarily have appeared in the back section of the newspaper, but it was a feature story on the front page because Zeke Marks was King of the Gypsies.
Today, we use the more precise word Roma, or Romani, as “gypsy” is considered hurtful. But in his own day, Zeke Mark was known as the “Gypsy King.” More than 10,000 Roma flooded Weirton, WV for his funeral observance. They came from all over the United States, and a small West Virginia town which knew little of Romani culture got a rare glimpse inside their closely held traditions.
According to the Daily Times, Zeke’s mouth was tied with a red bandana – lest he rise from the dead and reveal the secrets of the underworld. His hands and feet were bound lest he wander away. In one hand he clutched a $5 gold coin – his fee for safe passage across the river Styx. Under the other arm was a jug of wine from which mourners swigged as they passed his casket.
All his earthly possessions were placed at the foot of the bronze casket, into which Zeke Marks was placed un-embalmed. Prominently displayed atop his possessions were the bills for the funeral, cemetery plot, monument, and suit of clothes – all marked “Paid.” According to mourners, this was to show that Zeke Marks “left the world a square man.” *
We do not scruple at debt the way past generations have. I remember the old folks saying, “owe no man a dollar, ask no man a dollar.” My grandparents’ generation was uncomfortable with any kind of debt. Now everyone from teens with their first job to the Federal Government gladly runs up deficits.
Doubtlessly, individuals and nation states would enjoy more, and longer lasting prosperity if they borrowed less and saved more. Usury (loaning money on interest) is forbidden in the Law of Moses (Leviticus25.36). But even if our financial house is in impeccable order, and all our bills can be displayed on our coffins marked “paid,” none of us, on our own, leaves this world a “square” man or woman.
The wages of sin is death. Romans 6.23a
Each individual sin incurs a debt of death. If I could live my life and sin only once I could, theoretically, die for that sin and square myself with God. But the single-sin life is just that – theoretical. None of us live a single-sin year, or even a single sin day. We thus amass an enormous debt which we are incapable of paying.
Fortunately for us, Jesus pays our debt. Jesus died that we could each leave the world “square.”
The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6.23b
Despite all the plans we make for our parting – all we hope to leave those who will survive us - we are, ourselves, powerless to do the one thing which will square us with the Only and Eternal God. Thankfully, Jesus does it for us. In Christ we leave the world square. Comfort is the legacy we may leave behind for our beloved ones (I Thessalonians 4.13-18).
Every week we remind ourselves that Someone else paid our debt. As we celebrate Jesus’ death each Lord’s Day, is not the accounting and tallying of our debt, of our being made “square” the measure of our “correctly discerning the body of Christ,” and “examining ourselves? Will we remain “square” if we neglect the accounting of all we have been forgiven?
In so many passages (I Corinthians 15.8-10, Philippians 3.4-16, I Timothy 1.12-17 for example) Paul expresses how he is personally empowered by the tallying, by remembering Who paid the check. We will be similarly empowered – we will feel loved, and free, and focused if we continually remember how much we owe, and who pays the bill.
- Barry Bryson
*“Death of a Gypsy King,” by Jane Kraina and Mary Zwierschowski in Golden Seal, Winter, 1998.