Category: Looking Lectionary

Looking Lectionary: Proper 27A/Ordinary 32A/Pentecost +23

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A look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.


Reading: Matthew 25:1-13

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ Matthew 25:9 NIV

“There may not be enough.” We usually read this parable as an indictment of the unprepared virgins. They had more than enough time; they knew the Bridegroom was on his way; and as they hurried off to buy more oil, we see a lack of resources wasn’t to blame for their situation, merely unpreparedness. But Jesus loved telling stories inside of stories, and I think we find a deeper, more complex message here than “just” “you know the day and the hour”. This parable isn’t just about the five unprepared maidens, but about the five “prepared” ones too.

In the months leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, I was “friended” to a popular prophetic account on Facebook. I’d say that 95% of the people on that page were pro-Trump, and one of the reasons they gave was that Trump would be God’s “trumpet” – that he’d herald the beginning of the end, bring on the glory of the Lord and the final judgment. Quite a few of these people seemed to understand that Trump would be a terrible president, but – to their way of thinking – that would only hark on the end of the world all the more quickly.

I’ve never understood this obsession Christians have with the end times. Some people are literally excited that Jesus is coming to judge and cast all unbelievers into fiery damnation. This has got to be the epitome of insider mentality. I mean, whose fault is it that so many people are unsaved? We love to lay all the blame at the door of unbelievers. “We brought enough oil,” we say. But would we still be so excited about the day and the hour if we admitted our culpability in the decline of the Christian religion? If we faced the fact that people leaving the faith or not wanting to join in the first place isn’t God’s fault, or their fault, but ours?

We’re such schmucks, Christians. You just have to cast an eye over the news to see the often viral evidence of our failings, not just as Christians, but as human beings. In the parable of the ten virgins, can we really say that the five “prepared” maidens acted in a Christ-like way? If our salvation is secured (and it is, when we believe); if we are new creations in Christ (which we are, whether it feels like it or not); if we are living in a state of grace, mercy and love (check, check and check) just what are we so afraid of losing if others, lost as we ourselves once were (and often still are) get to experience the saving grace that we do? Why so afraid, Christians?

I do believe that the day and hour will come. I don’t look forward to it, because – graced as I am – I know I’m guilty of others’ loss. But maybe if I’m more willing to share my most undeserved “oil” with others (by giving them the benefit of grace, for instance), on some day, at some moment, someone will share their undeserved “oil” with me in turn, and we can go into the Feast together.

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Looking Lectionary: Reformation Day

 

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Reading: John 8:31-36

I won’t lie, despite being a Presbyterian, historical Reformation stuff doesn’t exactly set my very soul on fire, and I don’t feel I know enough to write a big old post about it. But I did have a thought – just the one, and just as well! It’s not particularly novel. It’s simply this: today’s Christian religion is as much in need of Reformation as the church in the sixteenth century. 

I know, I know, I write about this a lot; it’s the whole point of departure for my Looking Lectionary series. I believe the church is called to better the world, to be Christ’s hands, feet and heart, and that’s a hard feat to accomplish when we’re generally so compromised on the institutional level. We sell our indulgences as freely and happily as the Catholic church in Luther’s day did, trading our support, approval and censure for power, influence and wealth. Sure, the evangelicals who supported Trump are the easiest example to cite, and I often do! But all of us bear some responsibility in some way. If there’s a problem in the institutional and ecumenical church, it’s because we – the folks in the pews, or not in the pews – have accepted, cultured or allowed it. 

We often talk about needing a revival, but I sometimes wonder just what it is we want to revive. The general trend of Westen Christianity the last few decades has been down, not up, and that’s rooted in its own subset of symptoms. Luther didn’t set out to reform; he set out to revive and considered himself in line with Catholic church polity. But you can’t revive something so troubled, and his beliefs and teachings eventually led to a schism: a reformation for both Protestants and Catholics.

I’m reminded of a scene in one of the first few episodes of Preacher. Jesse, imbued with unnatural power, commands a brain-dead girl to open her eyes. She does so, but there’s no life in them, and she’s as vegetative as ever. I think we’re a lot like Jesse in this sense. We try to “revive” our churches, which is really just a way to try to attract new people to old traditions we’re reluctant to part with. The idea of revival is closely tied to the idea of resurrection, but resurrection and revival are not the same things. Jesus wasn’t revived as human/Son of God, he was resurrected to the Son ascendent. Perhaps the reason revival has been so thin on the ground in most places is exactly because we don’t need revival, but reformation and resurrection.

I couldn’t say what this would look like on an ecumenical level, but maybe we can think about some ways to do it on the personal level. My first thought is that we’ve become much too church-centred. We still see “church” as the building we go to, and we separate it from fellowship and the rest of our lives. We know on some level that believers are Christ’s church. Trying to figure out how to live this should be a priority. I can’t help but think that recognising God’s grace as Luther did on an individual level will reform how we think of grace in a communal sense. If we find ourselves in God’s grace, we’ll be emboldened to live that grace out wherever we go. That is church.

It’s only once we centre the locus of control on God and his grace that we’ll be able to reform the institutional church. How could we possibly reform the institutional church when we use it to anchor our faith, rather than building a personal relationship with Jesus and living that relationship relationally with others? Church used in this way becomes a golden calf we’re willing to compromise for and to defend even when it breaks from the heart of grace.

My second thought is that, counterintuitive as all this may seem, it’s only once we’ve claimed back responsibility and agency and individual faith that we’ll be able to reform our churches. Reformation begins with Jesus: who he is and what he has done. Reformation then asks us what we believe about Jesus, how we relate to the Godhead and how that relationship changes us and the world. It begins with our own resurrected/reformed lives. Believers preceded the institutional church by decades, but especially lately there’s been an antagonism towards individualistic faith. The fear is probably that left to our devices and without doctrinal standards and bodies of authority to castigate us, we’ll run amok. But it’d be foolish not to recognise that much of this kind of attitude could also be construed as the institutional church trying desperately to remain relevant and powerful, rather than the more benign motives usually attributed.

I believe we have a very real responsibility to take back “church” from the institutional church. It’s what Luther did in his day, and his task remains: as long as there’s an institutional element to the Christian religion, it will be in need of reformation. We love to say that “church is a hospital for sick people”. By virtue of what it is, the church is most susceptible to “catch” the disease of sin. We need Luthers who through love for the Lord, dedication to a relationship with him and neighbour have faith lives strong enough to diagnose and withstand those diseases when they pop up in the power structures around our churches.

As I wrote earlier, reformation begins with Jesus, and it continues when we become active participants in responding to his call to resurrection and reformation. This is not an easy journey or a short one. It’s the day-to-day faithfulness of individual believers that leads to the 500th anniversary of an event that changed the world, the church and all believers forever, and for the better.

Have a good Reformation Day!

Looking Lectionary: Proper 24A/Ordinary 29A/Pentecost +20

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A weekly look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.

Reading: Matthew 22:15-22

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (v21)

The tax the text refers to was one levied on non-Roman subjects. It was basically an “oppression tax”, and one that most Jews (and certainly many of Jesus’ followers) were staunchly against. It was certainly an issue the Pharisees and the Herodians were divided on. The Pharisees were nationalists, if you’ll bear with that word: they believed in throwing off the Roman yoke and living by (their interpretation of) God’s law. The Herodians were aligned with the Jewish rulers, who in turn were aligned with the Roman oppressors. The Pharisees and the Herodians were natural enemies, and came together only to try and quell Jesus, a man who threatened both their ideologies, by trying to trick him into isolating his base of support – the oppressed peasantry.

I think it’s interesting that Jesus asked them to hand him a coin before he gave them his answer. He asked specifically for “the coin used for paying the tax”: a denarius that bore Caesar’s image and a legend hailing him as the son of God. That Jesus asked them for a coin is significant for three reasons:

  1. Jesus owed Caesar exactly squat. Everything belongs to God, and in separating “worldly stuff” from “God stuff” Jesus was drawing attention to this foolish notion we have that anything exists outside of God. He is the creator of the world.
  2. His actions highlight the fact that few people had money to spare for this tax, and that both the Pharisees and the Herodians were corrupt and complicit with Roman oppression in their own ways. They exploited the peasantry.
  3. Finally, Jesus knew his sacrifice on the cross would pay the ultimate price. Caesar’s money was, therefore, useless in comparison.

A common interpretation is that Jesus was placating his followers to the rule of law. I don’t believe that’s the case here. I think Jesus was zeroing in our our tendency to pander to broken systems of power when we benefit from them. The Pharisees, for example, while extremely pious, used religion to bolster their positions of power so they could continue to benefit from the vast, poor-as-dirt peasant class. Jesus was making an incisive statement about pooh-poohing to materialism and injustice and power over and above God’s mandate to serve him, and in service to him loving our neighbours and doing right by them.

The question to ask ourselves is simply this: to whom or to what are we paying dues? What is the “tax” levied on us to keep ourselves in positions of privilege? To what are we indebted – maleness, whiteness, heteronormativity? Money, privilege, position?

In the sense that he’s paid our dues, our “oppression tax” for sin, we owe Jesus nothing. He levies no tax against us, though he has the most reason to do so. But the fallen world wants wants wants, needs needs needs. It’s how it sustains itself and its unjust principles. In contrast, Jesus gives gives gives. It’s how he’s hoping to change the fallen world and to resurrect it. But we can’t pull the fallen world out of the grave if we refuse to bury it in there in the first place! That is our task.

Looking Lectionary: Proper 22A/Ordinary 27A/Pentecost +18

 

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A weekly look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.

Reading: Matthew 21:33-46

“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” (Matt 21:43-44)

In many ways the gospel of Jesus in an invitation to be crushed. Accepting Jesus into our lives means signing up to have our sins, our skew view of the world, our judgmentalism, our legalism – the very worst of us, really – pummeled against “the rock” of God and our relationship with him. Our sinful natures rarely hold up well to this kind of treatment, which is why we struggle to stay the course: secretly we really like our “flesh” and don’t want to part with it.

It’d be great to heckle the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus’ parable, but it’s such a close reflection of us that laughing at them would be disingenuous. Again and again, Jesus tells them, Father has tried to save his people from themselves and their flesh-coddling inclinations. And here you are, worst of the worst! – indulging prideful piety and legalism, shirting the message of the law and oppressing others! It was the shitty behaviour trifecta, and when Jesus beat it against the hard truth of who God is, the Pharisees became furious.

Jesus continues to crush our idolatry, pride, hate, selfishness and immorality against “the rock” of the revealed God, and these things continue not to hold up well. Much like those erstwhile Pharisees however, we continue to miss his point because we’re so busy judging other people for failing to meet the hard rock of our false religiosity, our conceit, our disdain, anger, rejection and fear.

There’s only the one cornerstone, though, and it’s not us or our particular theology, ideologies or political views. It’s definitely not our churches. Jesus is the cornerstone. The best thing to do in light of all this is to allow those nasty things of ours to be crushed, freeing us up for good use in God’s kingdom, rather than being the rock crushing others.

Looking Lectionary: Proper 20A/Ordinary 25A/Pentecost +16

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A weekly look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.

Reading: Matthew 20:1-16

There are a few ways we can look at Proper 20A’s Gospel reading. The general interpretation is that in Matthew 20:1-16 Jesus is speaking about entry into the Kingdom of God. Salvation isn’t reserved for the Jews but for everyone who believes, and even the people who are “saved last” (ie the Gentiles) will have the same reward as those who entered first. In a way, the last ones are even better off, for the Gentiles never had the law to guide them as the Jews did. A second interpretation is that Jesus is speaking here about grace in a more overarching way: God’s grace is the same to everyone who believes, regardless of their works, because in Christ our righteousness is equal. A final interpretation is more prophetic in nature. Jesus used the reality of unemployment and poverty in first century Palestine to school his audience in the Jubilee nature of the Kingdom of God. In this interpretation, practical (read: monetary) matters don’t fall outside the scope of God’s Kingdom. The wealthy and powerful don’t get a free pass to do with their finances as they please (a common enough situation in the society Jesus lived and taught in); their affairs are as subject to God’s Kingdom as the rest of them. In fact, in view of the workers’ resentment of equal wages, everyone should be careful not to idolise money. Of course these interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive. I want to focus on the kernel in each interpretation, which is this idea of “entry”–everyone gets to come in: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

Time and time again Jesus taught that the only requirement to salvation (and through salvation the full participation in his family, his Kingdom and its work) is repentance. The only sin we need repent of to be “allowed in” is our unbelief. The process of sanctification is a result of this repentance, this metanoia or “turning around”, and as such its lack isn’t enough to deny our salvation, our entry into God’s Kingdom.

This is pretty basic, but I think it’s important to remember this in our “churchified” societies (in the Westernised world, at least). In many churches, entry into God’s Kingdom is wrongfully equated with the process of sanctification itself. It’s a works-based mentality that demands “evidence” of our salvation, when the only evidence needed is our salvation itself. God’s grace is in full evidence in our salvation, regardless of what we do with that salvation. The old objection, “So I can give my life to Christ and go on sinning till the day I die?” actually holds true. You could. That’s grace.

But, we Pew Fillers object, that’s unfair! And if we see grace as something that’s earned through our comparative goodness or obedience or God forbid, church attendance, then yes, it is unfair! It’s outrageous! But if we see grace as an undeserved gift – one the Giver, Jesus, can do with as it pleases him – then we realise that no, it’s not so unfair. The parable Jesus tells in Matthew 20:1-16 makes clear that the amount of work done has nothing to do with the wages paid. The “wage” of grace is always the same, it’s always complete and it’s always free because it isn’t a wage at all, but a gift. We cannot earn it.

The reason I wanted to discuss this particular interpretation is because any discussion of how unearned grace is must be encouraging. We cannot earn grace. This should be a relief whether our week has been filled with good deeds or bad ones, because damn it all, our effort or lack of it has nothing to do with what we get. We get it all. That’s been established. When we “continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), it means simply realising again and again that we have been saved. It’s happened. “It is finished,” Jesus said. That’s the beginning and the end of it. That’s why grace is freedom from sin and death: it breaks their rules. It breaks their cycle. It changes the world.

Who we identify with in this parable will tell us a lot about our faith, and in what, or whom, our faith is. Do we identify with the labourers who’ve been at it since morning? Are we the ones who showed up later still, or last? Are we still standing around at the marketplace, waiting? Grace tells us clearly that it doesn’t matter which of these “workers” we are. Our gift is the same: it is inclusion, it is grace, it is life, it is God looking at you and saying, “Yes, yes, yes.”