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

 

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Banksy. Image source.

 

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.

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

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Image source.

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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Image source.

 

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.

A prayer

A prayer for our times; for the people we don’t like or agree with; but most especially for ourselves:

“Arise, Lord, do not let mortals triumph…” (Psalm 9:19a NIV)

#CoffeeTimePrayer: God’s freebie

 

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Source.

 

Growing up, I watched a lot of Oprah. My favourite episodes were the ones where she gave stuff away. Who doesn’t like freebies? As the years progressed and her show gained in popularity, the freebies escalated too. I remember in one show everyone got a car. The audience lost their minds.

Funnily, nothing brings out the worst in people like the prospect of a freebie. It either turns us into starry-eyed dreamers who show up for free toasters or microwaves and end up buying dubious timeshares, or we become staunch cynics with jaundiced eyes who don’t believe any good can come of anything. There’s no middle ground.

In Matthew 20:29-34 we read the story of Jesus healing two blind men. It’s outside of Jericho, and Jesus and a big crowd are coming past. The men had probably heard about Jesus – calling him, “Son of David,” presumes some knowledge of him – but whether they actually believed the rumours we can’t say. Still, a supposed healer and holy man coming through the neighbourhood? What did they have to lose?

Jesus turned aside to their calls and asked them, “What can I do for you?” I’m sure Jesus knew what they wanted. But did they? Would they ask Jesus for what they wanted or, faced with the prospect of a “freebie” healing, would they lose their heads like an Oprah audience or regard the opportunity as suspect at best?

Looking at the story’s conclusion – both men are healed and choose to follow Jesus – it’s easy to see that Jesus’ motives were pure. He didn’t confront the two blind men with an ultimatum before feeling compassion for them and curing their blindness. The “freebie” was a genuine, no-strings-attached miracle.

How do we approach Jesus when faced with the opportunity for “freebie” grace? Do we go mad with it, “squandering” it on ourselves with little to spare or care for anyone else, or do we decline it because we’re afraid there are Ts and Cs or hidden costs we don’t want to pay? Either is a waste of a wonderful miracle – a continual second chance with God!

Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you for the miracle that is your grace! Help me to be generous with it, both with myself and the folks around me. Amen.