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

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.


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

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



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

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.”

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

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.