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.”

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Looking Lectionary: Proper 19A/Ordinary 24A/Pentecost +15

 

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

Reading: Matthew 18:21-35

In Matthew 18:15-20, we saw that Jesus took the very human impulse to shun outliers from fellowship and urged his disciples to treat them as “pagans and tax collectors” – which seems harsh until you remember how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors! In this week’s reading, Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus’ teaching becomes more explicit as he first tells Peter to forgive sins “seventy times seven” (an infinite amount) and then cautions his disciples via the parable of the ungrateful servant to forgive as they’ve been forgiven.

Theoretically, we Christians should be great at this. We’ve experienced first hand (and daily continue to) the love, mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Yet it seems like we’re often the worst of the worst when it comes to mercy! We erroneously assign ourselves as the gatekeeper to the sheep pen rather than as sheep under the guidance of our Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and use this “gatekeeper” mentality to try and put up walls between people – imperfect people, people who don’t look, act or think the way we do, people we feel threatened by or superior over – and Jesus. It’s the height of arrogance, and I think it’s rooted in a very simple misconception: we think the debt is ours to forgive.

In the parable of the unforgiving servant, we learn that the servant owes a huge amount of money to his king – ten thousand talents, a talent being equivalent to twenty years of a day labourer’s wage. It’s an insurmountable debt. Jesus was using hyperbole to demonstrate how ludicrous the repayment of such a sum was and to show how much was being forgiven.

When the forgiven servant finds another who owes him a hundred denarii, or the equivalent of a hundred days’ of a labourer’s wage, he flies into a rage. But if we read this attentively, we realise that the money the forgiven servant was demanding back probably wasn’t his to begin with. He’d lent it from the coffers of his own fraud. That he’d demand back stolen money as if it was his own makes his cruelty and ingratitude all the worse.

Christians often act the same way. When we see people whose “sin” we don’t agree with (or aren’t guilty of in our own estimation) we put on the brass knuckles to pummel them…”for God”. Whenever we move into God’s judgment seat or attempt to take the reigns of his wrath, we’re laying claim to a debt that was never to us or ours to begin with. Like the ungrateful servant, we go around demanding back what doesn’t rightfully belong to us: God’s grace.

The Nashville Statement is a good example of this. A body of Christians used their brand of theology to “defend” God’s righteousness and salvation against anybody who doesn’t look, act or think the way they do. Rather than use the enormous gift of grace they received themselves to shine the beacon of freedom in Christ, they’ve used their reprieve to withhold reprieve from others.

Friends, how arrogant are we when we behave this way! The Nashville Statement is a very visible example, but opportunities to act as a debt collector for a debt that isn’t ours – to steal, in others words, much like him of the thieving and destroying – are everywhere. Proper 19A’s narrative reading is a great time and place to remind ourselves and those around us just what we have in God’s grace, and that our calling is to humbly enlarge this circle of God’s light, not to patrol its borders with exclusionary theology, fear and judgment.

Looking Lectionary (Proper 18A/Ordinary 23A/Pentecost +14)

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

Reading: Matthew 18:15-20

It bothers me no end that some folks are going to take a look at Proper 18A’s Gospel reading, nicker to themselves and preach a sermon on church discipline full of emphasis on church authority and covenental relationships and probably as a bonus, gender hierarchy. Because hey, why not? This is Jesus speaking, and Jesus is saying folks should be “subject to” those “above” them; moreover, the church is necessarily more powerful because “where two or three are gathered…”

Shall we tread the same path as these folks? Is Jesus really padding the case for the church-centric theology so popular nowadays?

On a superficial level I suppose we can interpret this snatch of Gospel as Jesus prophetically injecting the future church with credibility and moral authority overs it members. Could he have foreseen the challenges of the church at the time Matthew’s Gospel was composed, several decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection? Yessir. So a straight reading wouldn’t be far off the beaten path.

But then this is Jesus we’re dealing with. Jesus, who so often said things to catch his disciples out in their assumptions, and who used irony as a way to weed wheat from chaff. This Jesus told his disciples that those resisting church discipline should be treated as “pagan[s] and tax collector[s]” (v17). The superficial reading cries: “Cast them out!” But when you’ve gotten accustomed to the tenor of Jesus’ ways in the New Testament, you’ll remember how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors. You’ll remember the Roman soldier’s servant he healed, the prominent (and short-statured) publican he dined with, the Canaanite woman’s daughter he exorcised, the Samaritan woman at the well. You’ll remember that Jesus’ harshest criticism wasn’t reserved for the cast out, but for the let in: the ones “let in” who were so keen to police the gates.

If that isn’t enough to ween you off the superficial reading, the easy one that affirms traditional nexuses of power within the church and society, then run an eye over the stories before and after these few verses, specifically the parable that follows: that of the unmerciful servant. Far from commanding his followers to cast out those they deemed unfit to belong, Jesus, I think, foresaw the temptation of power churches so often fail to resist; the temptation of “group think” and spiritual abuse, of tradition and fear of change. It’s us he’s speaking to in these verses, the ones who would use a superficial reading of his words to bully. And he’s telling us to love the broken, love the broken, love the broken.

All that said, this “Jesus perspective” won’t be as easy to preach about as a more superficial reading. The leadership won’t like that their authority is being threatened, and you betcha there will be folks in the pews thinking that this excuses them from accountability for their harmful actions. The uncomfortable truth is that both leadership and errant congregant may be right. In his letters, John the Elder wrote, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” The Church tends to err on the side of power when it comes to love; we call it authority. But – oh dear – what if we err on the side of servanthood when it comes to love, and call it grace? Our churches will be messier, for sure, but might they not be more alive to the Spirit?

That Jesus post scripted his rumination on confronting sinful church members with verses 19-20 (“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”) is instructive. In treating each other the way he treated pagans and tax collectors, we leave much more room for His Spirit to work in them and ourselves than when we treat them the way we want to.

Looking Lectionary: Proper 15A/Ordinary 20A/Pentecost+11

 

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Reading: Matthew 15:10-28

Let’s get something straight right off the bat: the Canaanite woman and her situation in Matthew 15 were never the issues; the disciples’ hearts were. In Matthew 15:10-20 Jesus taught them that, unlike the prevailing understanding at the time, being “clean” proceeded from one’s heart, not the religious leaders’ (often ridiculous) external “cleanliness” standards: “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles” (v18). I’m sure the disciples heard this and nodded their heads along thoughtfully (or self-righteously – looking at you, Peter), but when the theoretical met the practical, their continuing ignorance was betrayed.

In Matthew 15:21-28 we read about a Canaanite woman – female and Gentile, a double whammy in the Sucks To Be You In First Century Palestine Sweepstakes – who followed Jesus and his disciples, crying out for help. Not just any old help either, but help with a daughter afflicted with a demon. Perhaps sensing a teaching opportunity for the hapless band of apostles, Jesus ignored her cries. His disciples weren’t well pleased and asked him to dismiss her: this foreign, completely “other” person and her foreign and “other” problem.

The conversation that takes place between Jesus and this unnamed woman in v24-28 is fascinating. I’ve written before about my irritation with this particular passage; Jesus calling the Canaanite woman a racial epithet being a shitty thing to do under most circumstances. But I’ve since come to believe that he was saying what the disciples and probably even the woman herself expected him to: playing up to the self-righteous rabbi image. This image was apparently common enough that his frequent deviation from its model perplexed, offended and popularised him in turn, depending on the audience. In any case, like an actor – a hypocrite, something he was fond of accusing the religious leaders of – he recited some lines to affect his audience: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (v24, 26).

The woman surprised him with her ready answer: “Even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs that fall from the table” (v27). Isn’t it quite telling that she had such a ready answer and that it played so well into the first-century Jewish elitist sentiment we see so often in Jerusalem’s upper crust? There’s no record of the disciples’ reaction, but look, let’s be honest: they were probably shocked and offended, not being big fans of women breaking moulds and taking names.

Yet (I imagine) to their immense surprise, Jesus, going off-hypocrite-script, praised the Canaanite woman’s faith: “Woman, great is your faith!” This was a compliment Jesus reserved for a rare few. In praising her faith, Jesus also indirectly praised her resistance to the kind of “clean/unclean” mentality that stilted the disciples’ understanding of God. In daring to ask the (Jewish) man she called “Lord” to heal her daughter, she expressed greater faith than the Jewish men following Jesus. An outsider excelled over insiders, and intent triumphed over ritual religiosity. The Canaanite woman understood the parable she had never even heard.

That’s all fine and well, but how do we sermon this story? Preaching is sharing the good news – what’s the good news here? There are probably a few angles we could take. What “pits” (v14) are we falling into headlong because like the first-century disciples, we can’t make head or arse of faith versus works? We could ask who our personal, congregational or communal “Canaanite woman” is: someone crying out for Jesus, only to be chased off or shunned by us (Who do we think of when we think “impure”: prostitutes, criminals, people who are HIV+? Gay people, the poor, the marginalised? Supporters of opposing sports teams? You get the idea.) A specific question to ask would be what’s coming out of our hearts. What “defiles” us?

The central message, though, should be about the fact that neither Gentile nor Jew nor outsider or insider has to make due with “crumbs from the master’s table” (v27). Through our faith in Christ – an internal justification rather than an external reward – we each have full access to the bread of Christ’s body broken for us…and thus to his heart.

Jesus is enough

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For a religion that’s centred around grace, Christianity has a curious failing: we’re particularly susceptible to a starvation mindset. Afraid that we’ll never have or be enough, we hoard our things and our selves, living close-fisted lives. We see this in many churches. They either over-invest in showmanship, as if to say, “We sure have enough!”, or they hold on to “tradition” as if to declare, “Because we don’t have enough, we have to look after ourselves.”

I’ve been on more than one diet in my lifetime and let me tell you, nothing ramps up hunger than imagining going without. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has started a diet by eating everything “bad” so that it won’t tempt me later on! Similarly, few things threaten God’s grace more than thinking there isn’t enough of it to go around in the world.

Jesus knew this. In Matthew chapters 14 to 17 he addressed the “starvation mentality” so rampant in his time. He did this in a few ways:

He fed the crowds

Jesus’ ministry rarely divorced the practical from the spiritual. His disciples urged him to send the crowds home after he had taught them (Matthew 14:15), but feeding their physical hunger was as important to Jesus as feeding their spiritual hunger. In doing so he demonstrated a very basic truth: that his “bread”, his body broken on the cross, would be enough for the multitudes under the power of sin.

He fed “the dogs”

The story of the Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman (Matthew 15:21-28) has always puzzled me. Here we see a Gentile appeal to Jesus for help, only to be called a “dog” by Jesus – a racial slur. But Jesus used this encounter to turn people’s assumptions on their head: his disciples’ assumption that the Canaanite woman didn’t deserve help or healing for her daughter because she was a Gentile; and her own assumption that she wouldn’t receive help (or salvation) from a Jewish rabbi. Her faith bridged the prejudice behind both assumptions, and so her daughter was freed.

He “Transfigured” people’s need for Moses and Elijah

There’s a sad echo in Matthew 17:1-13: after Jesus’ transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, Jesus returns to “normal” – a dusty, itinerant teacher, nobody worth erecting a shrine over (v4). Yet I believe it’s this nondescript moment after his transfiguration that carries the most weight: it showed that Jesus incarnate was enough. He far superseded the old laws and the old ways because he had chosen to live as a human and to die for the sins of humanity.

He paid the temple tax

In Matthew 17:24-27 Jesus paid the temple tax on his and Peter’s behalf, saying as he did so that “children owe nothing”. Jesus demonstrated on a small scale what he would achieve on a global scale: he would “pay the debt of the law” for every person who calls on him. Interestingly, the amount Jesus paid was actually more than he owed, another sign. Far from being stingy with his sacrifice, Jesus’ death paid more than what was due.

All of this is to say that Jesus denounced false nourishment. In Matthew 16:5-12 Jesus warned his disciples against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. This yeast of theirs – that there wasn’t enough, and that only being holy by the standards of the law would grant you God’s forgiveness – would continue to threaten the gospel message among the disciples, both when Jesus was alive and after he had ascended.

The same yeast continues to threaten the Good News today. Rather than living as if we have more than enough, we try to hoard God’s immense grace, mercy and love in our personal, congregational and communal lives. But Jesus asks us, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread?” (Matthew 16:7 NRSV). Just as he easily fed thousands physically, he feeds us spiritually with the same abundance. In Jesus we not only have enough; he is enough.