Archive for the 'Matthew' Category

For Feb. 18, 2015: Ash Wednesday

The Reading                                                 Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

In the year 400 BC, hard times have come upon Judah: locusts have ravaged the crops. The prophet Joel sees this calamity as a sign that the Day of the Lord’s judgment is right now. Joel calls for repentance—not just by individuals, but by the people gathered together, that the Lord may bless all the people.

The Response                                              Psalm 103:8-14

Joel pointed out the Lord’s judgment against the Lord’s people and called them into solemn assembly to repent. Psalm 103 follows up on Joel’s promise of the Lord’s mercy and readiness to remove our sins from us.

The Epistle                                                   2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Like Joel in today’s first reading, the apostle Paul is convinced that the day of the Lord is right now. For Paul, however, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation—and a day in which those who love God serve gladly in every way possible as the ambassadors of God’s great love to the whole world.

The Gospel                                                   Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Joel advised the people to tear not their clothes but their hearts: torn clothing without repentance is no better than a costume. Jesus makes a related point: public piety and almsgiving run the risk of being theater rather than theology, if the praying and giving fail to flow from and lead back to love of God and of God’s children.

 

Further thoughts

Using ashes as a sign of penitence goes back to the Old Testament. The tradition of Ash Wednesday for all seems to originate in the seventh century. In a homily composed more than a millennium ago in what the scholars call “rhythmic prose”—prose that has some of the steady beat and alliteration of Old English poetry—the great English cleric Ælfric of Eynsham explains:

On þone wodnes dæg wide geond eorðan
sacerdas bletsiað swa swa hit geset ís
clæne axan on cyrcan and þa siððan lecgað
uppa manna hæfda þæt hi habban on gemynde
þæt hi of eorðan comon and eft to duste gewendað
swa swa se ælmihtiga god to adame cwæð
siððan he agylt hæfde ongean godes bebod:
“On geswincum þu leofast and on swate þu etst
þinne hlaf on eorðan oðþæt þu eft gewende
to þære ylcan eorðan þe þu of come
forðan þe þu eart dust and to duste gewendst.”
Nis þis na gesæd be manna sawlum
ac be manna lichaman þe for-molsniað to duste
and eft sceolan on domes dæg ðurh ures drihtnes mihte
ealle of eorðan arísan þe æfre cuce wæron
swa swa ealle treowa cuciað æfre on lenctenes timan
þe ær þurh wyntres cyle wurdon adydde.

Here is a translation that conveys, a little, both the sense of Ælfric’s words and the rhythm.

On that Wednesday, widely around Earth,
clergy bless, just as is commanded,
clean ashes in church and those then lay
on the heads of mankind, that they may have in mind
that from earth they come and after to dust they go,
just as Almighty God to Adam said
after he had gone against God’s bidding:
‘In struggle you live and by sweat you eat
your bread on earth until you after go
to the selfsame earth that you came out of,
because you are dust and to dust you go.’
Nor is this said of people’s souls
but of people’s bodies that decay unto dust
and after shall at Doomsday through the might of our Lord
all arise out of earth that ever were living.

For Jan. 4, 2015: Epiphany

The Reading                                                              Isaiah 60:1-6

Isaiah 60:1-6 proclaims, in the midst of terrifying darkness, an outbreak of light at the hands of God. Nations shall see the Lord’s glory, all the children of God will come home, and the treasures of the nations will stream in as gifts of hearts grateful for God’s graciousness and, finally and fully, unafraid.

The Response                                                           Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Psalm 72 calls down the Lord’s blessings on a newly crowned king and the king’s people. This is a portrait of the ideal monarch, who blesses the lives of all the people like rain after long drought, who has the very land in his care, to whom great gifts come because he rescues the helpless and the lowly.

The Epistle                                                                 Ephesians 3:1-12

Saul of Tarsus may have been the very best Jew ever—till a light like the one Isaiah described burst upon him and made him Paul, apostle to the Gentiles. In Ephesians 3:1-12, Paul shares the light: through Jesus Christ and by God’s design, salvation is for all the world.

The Gospel                                                                  Matthew 2:1-12

The only gospel to tell the story of the wise men visiting the Christ Child is Matthew’s. These men were astrologers, at a time when astrology was astronomy; it is Psalm 72:10 that has us call them kings. The prophecy that the scribes quote in verse 6 is adapted from Micah 5:2.

 

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Epiphany are the same for each of the three liturgical years. There is much to be said for rereading them, but it is vital that we read them freshly and that we see them in the here and now.

Neither Isaiah nor the psalmist is speaking of heaven or the hereafter. Isaiah’s great light and great joy arise not in heaven but through the thick darkness that covers earth and peoples in verse 1. And if the King’s Son of the psalm is dealing gently and righteously with the poor, the needy, the oppressed, and those who suffer violence, it follows that there still exist those who flaunt their worldly wealth, exploit the poor, tread on the oppressed, and savage and ravage whoever they can.

The Epiphany story shows us the opposite number to the King’s Son and a much more familiar portrait of power and its misuses. What Herod hears in the wise men’s report of the wondrous birth is a threat to his own power that he simply cannot countenance. Matthew 2:16-18 tells us what Herod does when the foreigners escape his clutches without telling him exactly where and when to find the infant usurper: he attempts to subvert the prophecy by sending troops to slaughter all of Bethlehem’s male infants and toddlers. As far as we know, neither his generals nor his advisers seem even to have tried to suggest that the order might be wrong. Instead, they just do their jobs, as generations of humans have done in similar circumstances and continue to do.

But the scandal of the gospel that Paul preaches, from experience, is that no one—no one—is too foreign, too lowly, too wicked or merely too wrong to be beyond the reach of God’s love. Furthermore, if violence is not God’s way to counter violence, as we know from the cross, then it is up to me to stop resorting to violent thoughts, words, and deeds (yes, even on the freeway). Speaking truth to power, even respectfully, may and probably will still earn me violent responses. But how else is my little corner of the world to learn the ways of God’s peace if I myself neglect to live it? And how else shall the darkness lift, unless I do my part?

 

For Nov. 23, 2014: Christ the King, Year A

The Reading                                                      Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

As Ezekiel prophesies, six centuries before Christ, the Temple is in ruins and the people scattered and kingless. Now God promises to gather God’s sheep back home to be fed and healed and strengthened. (“David” means David’s descendant.) The fat, strong ones who butted and scattered the weaklings, however, will face judgment.

The Response                                                    Psalm 95:1-7a

The rousing Psalm 95, which celebrates the reign of the Lord God, appears twice in the lectionary: a selection on Christ the King Sunday and the whole psalm on the third Sunday of Lent. It includes a call to shout with psalms. Let us make a joyful noise, if an Episcopally decorous one!

The Epistle                                                         Ephesians 1:15-23

In the book of Ezekiel, the Lord God promised to gather and shepherd and heal the scattered sheep of Israel. Ephesians 1:15-23 tells how this promise is fulfilled and more than fulfilled by the power of God working through Christ the risen Head of All.

The Gospel                                                          Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46 follows two difficult parables in which people in power shut doors in the faces of those who are struggling. Jesus’ story here sounds a different note: this King is in the business of opening doors to the needy and the outcasts, and to those who tend the needy and the outcasts for their own sakes.

 

Further thoughts

Some years ago, Leona Helmsley earned the sobriquet “The Queen of Mean” for her vicious, grasping, mean-spirited reign as head of the Helmsley hotel empire. She reportedly fired employees on little provocation and, though phenomenally wealthy, nitpicked the large bills she ran up with contractors. When she finally fell, people laughed at her—but she got away with it for years, because, as the saying goes, “Power corrupts.”

The readings for Christ the King Sunday give us a head-spinningly different way to understand power as it is seen by God. On the one hand, Psalm 95 gives us the mighty Creator whose mere word suffices to bring into being all the wonders of the universe, before whom all knees bow, and Ephesians 1:15-23 reminds us that all of God’s authority is in the hands of the risen and victorious Christ. On the other hand, this supreme God, CEO of CEOs, doesn’t emerge from the corner office solely to enlarge his empire and abuse the staff. No: as Ezekiel tells it, this CEO looks after the needs and dignity of every last housekeeper and busboy, and is preparing scathing performance reviews for the middle managers who haven’t done likewise. Moreover, in the words of Matthew 25:31-46, this CEO sees his own likeness in the throng of humanity outside: the dispossessed, the disheartened, the suffering, even the criminals are worth tending and encouraging. And this CEO trains and encourages everyone on staff to see their likeness in him and to act accordingly in his name.

The analogy stops here: what CEO ever died for the employees? But this too is what the working of God’s power through Jesus truly means. What if we were to choose, in each interaction, to crucify our need to win and wield power in favor of recognizing and encouraging the power of God in each other?

For Nov. 16, 2014: Pentecost 23, Proper 28, Year A

The Reading                                                            Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

In the late 7th century BCE, the rich and powerful of Judah tolerate idol worship and plunder the poor, yet expect the Lord to do nothing about it. The prophet Zephaniah says otherwise. For the sacrifice that the Lord has prepared, these complacent ones are not on the guest list: they are on the menu.

The Response                                                         Psalm 90:1-8, 12

In the face of Zephaniah’s denunciation of human complacency and promise of divine retribution, Psalm 90:1-8, 12 might be among the few sane responses. We have so little time to do the good God would have us do…

The Epistle                                                          1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Zephaniah warned the complacent not to expect to gain from the day of judgment. Paul’s Thessalonians believed that Jesus would return, ending the world as we know it, any day. He advises them—and us—to watch out, to protect ourselves through faith, hope, and love, and to help make each other better.

The Gospel                                                                Matthew 25:14-30

Chapter 25 of the gospel of Matthew follows up the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids with another difficult story in the parable of the talents. The word talent seems to have acquired its meaning ‘special ability’ from this parable: in Jesus’ day, it simply meant a great deal of money.

 

Further thoughts

On the next to last Sunday before the end of the church year, the readings for Proper 28 look toward our own end and the end of all things, although they are not unanimous in the conclusions they suggest.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 offers excerpts from a jeremiad that combines forceful denunciation of the complacent with a description of the day of judgment that is terrifying enough to have inspired the medieval Latin hymn Dies Irae (‘Day of Wrath’). He is emphatic that all their silver and gold will buy the rich no relief whatsoever. This is quite consistent with Jewish law, which forbade usury and commanded generosity toward the poor, and Jewish custom that frowned upon amassing wealth for the sake of amassing wealth.

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, taken at face value, is astonishing and a bit shocking. To each of three slaves a man entrusts a substantial sum of money; in Jesus’ day, the word talent—from Greek talanton ‘scale or balance’—denoted a large mass of silver worth 6,000 denarii, or 20 years’ work at the daily wage of a denarius. The slaves whose wheeling and dealing doubles the money are praised, counter to Jewish cultural expectations, while the slave who simply saves the money because he fears the rapaciousness of the master loses what he has and is condemned as worthless. It is traditional to interpret the monetary talents as standing for the special gifts and abilities given to each of us by God; on this reading, the parable is a call to make the best possible use of these gifts for God, which seems straightforward—but the master must then represent God, and how can the descriptors “harsh” and “reaping where you did not sow” possibly fit? Under a more recent view, the first two slaves are guilty of buying into the master’s greed and hardness of heart, the third slave is the hero of the piece for refusing to go along, and the master’s condemnatory words are cited by Jesus not for honor but for censure.

Whether the third slave is right or wrong, he is certainly not complacent and he certainly is awake, as the letter to the Thessalonians advises. That letter also counsels believers to put on faith, love, and the hope of salvation as protective armor, to remember that our destiny in Christ is not damnation but salvation, and to encourage one another. Could that mean that our armor is shared?

What if the point is that we can’t hope for salvation without Jesus—and each other?

For Nov. 9, 2014: Proper 27, Pentecost 22, Year A

The Reading                                                  Amos 5:18-24

Amos 5:18-24 asks a quelling question of people who take their own well-being, even at their neighbors’ expense, as a sign of being God’s favorites: “Why do you want the day of the Lord?”—and explains why they will not: sacrifices and solemn ritual do not interest God in the absence of justice being done. Verse 24 resonates in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Response                                               Psalm 70

If Amos 5:18-24 can be read as one side of a coin, perhaps Psalm 70 represents the other: this is the voice of one beset by those who believe they know better. Strikingly, its call for the enemy to be disgraced is followed by a plea that those who gloat rethink and repent.

The Epistle                                                     1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The Thessalonians struggled to reconcile the gospel promise of eternal life with the painful truth that some of their nearest and dearest in the faith are dead; are they lost? No, Paul says: those who have died will be first to meet the triumphant Christ, and all will be with the Lord forever.

The Gospel                                                     Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13 compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding in which half of the bridesmaids get left out because their lamps are running out of oil. Are the wise bridesmaids truly wise in the kingdom for refusing to share their oil? Jesus’ parables tend to be difficult, and this one is no exception.

 

Further thoughts

Taken at face value, the readings for Proper 27 don’t play very well together. In Amos 5:18-24, the Lord pronounces against those who practice religiosity but fail to ensure justice in this world; that goes well with Psalm 70, in which the psalmist clearly expects the Lord to act in the psalmist’s favor, and Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is explaining to his bewildered flock that their beloved kith and kin won’t be shut out of heaven for having had the bad grace (or something) to have died before Jesus’ return. So far, somewhat inclusive.

But then there’s the parable of the bridesmaids or virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. Imprudent bridesmaids didn’t bring extra oil; prudent bridesmaids refuse to share; when the imprudent ones do their best to remedy their lack, they get shut out of the wedding party altogether.

And, Jesus says, this is what the kingdom of heaven will be like.

Most interpretations of this parable over the centuries take it as a prescription, a forceful reminder of the perils of not being sufficiently prepared for Jesus’ coming and a prediction of what will happen to those who are unprepared. The theocracies of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and the Massachusetts Bay colony operated on the principle that this preparedness could and should somehow be legislated.

A newer set of interpretations goes in a very different direction. In these interpretations, the “wise” bridesmaids’ refusal to share their oil is not a kingdom virtue and the lord who locks the door isn’t Jesus; the “foolish” bridesmaids’ error lay not in running out of oil but in running out on the party because they thought they could buy their way in by having the right stuff after all.

Which set of interpretations is correct? I don’t know—but I suspect the answer may vary depending on where I am in my walk with Christ when I read the parable. Sometimes I need the forceful urging that it is time and past time to prepare: salvation is through grace, but I do have some responsibility. At other times I need the reminder not to hide outside the door because I’m feeling more than usually unworthy.

And what if part of the point is how readily we insiders can hurt people who are outside with what is supposed to be Good News?

For Oct. 26, 2014: Proper 25, Pentecost 20, Year A

The Reading                                                           Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18

By some counts the book of Leviticus issues 613 commandments that specify how God’s people and priests are to behave. Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 cuts to the point: rather than judging unjustly, slandering, profiting at a neighbor’s expense, or bearing grudges, we are to behave in love toward all.

The Response                                                   Psalm 1

Psalm 1 contrasts those who follow the way of the Lord with those who are wicked. It reinforces the message of Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 as it carries forward the message of Psalm 23: those who follow the way of the Lord will be blessed by bearing fruit that endures.

The Epistle                                                          1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was brief and controversial; detractors accused him of dishonesty and trickery and then drove him and his group out of town. In 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 he reminds his readers what made them believe the gospel he brought: it was spoken to please God, without impure motives, and in tender love.

The Gospel                                                               Matthew 22:34-46

The gospel of Matthew moves inexorably toward Good Friday as Jesus is challenged by the religious authorities. In Matthew 22:34-46, the Pharisees try a trick question and get an answer they were not expecting. Then Jesus asks a question about the Messiah to which they have nothing to say.

 

Further thoughts

Almost fifty years ago, up to 100,000 mostly college-age baby boomers in love beads, tie-dyed T-shirts and bell-bottomed jeans began converging on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district for the counterculture live-in known as the “Summer of Love.” Participants were sure it was going to transform the world. It fell short of expectations, unsurprisingly: the movement hasn’t been invented that human beings can’t screw up, sometimes literally. But the Beatles’ deceptively simple “All You Need Is Love” was a smash hit of that summer of 1967 for good reason: it resonates, as the readings for Proper 25 do more profoundly, with the fact that we humans are wired to crave love, just as we are wired to be our most God-true selves when we deeply give love. As “All You Need Is Love” puts it, “There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made / No one you can save that can’t be saved / Nothing you can do but you can learn to be you in time / It’s easy / All you need is love.”

Love isn’t easy, of course—Paul brags a little to the Thessalonians about the effort he has put into approaching them in love, and Jesus’ staggeringly self-emptying sacrifice on the cross is even more stupendous if the identity of the Messiah means that the crucifixion is true not only for all time but in all time. Love in Jesus’ and Paul’s terms is certainly not just “the feels”, as one sees it on Facebook, and Lord knows our feelings can as often lead us to reject the love we need as to refuse to give the love we should. And only the Lord, through our fellow humans, can help us out of the swamps of despair that fester there. But what if, giving the glory to God, we invert the ’60s mantra from “If it feels good, do it” to “If it does good, feel it”?

For Oct. 19, 2014: Proper 24, Pentecost 19, Year A

The Reading             Isaiah 45:1-7

Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah tell of the time when the people of Israel were already in exile in Babylon but their deliverance was imminent. The instrument of their deliverance, the anointed one whom the LORD calls by name and promises treasures and secret riches, is Cyrus—king of the decidedly pagan Persian empire.

The Response         Psalm 96:1-9

Psalm 96 is an enthronement psalm that dates to roughly the same time as Isaiah 45. The psalmist calls on all peoples to sing to the LORD and declare the LORD’s glory. Verse 8 is familiar as one of the sentences that may be read in an Episcopal church as the Offertory begins.

The Epistle             1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

The first letter to the Thessalonians is probably the first written book of the New Testament. Paul writes to a church he founded in an important Roman city in Macedon, north of Greece, that he has had to leave suddenly. He begins this letter by commending the mostly gentile converts for their joy and perseverance in the faith.

The Gospel           Matthew 22:15-22

Matthew 21:23-22:14 follows Jesus after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem as he tells a series of parables that make the political and religious rulers squirm. To discredit this troublemaker, the Pharisees and the followers of Herod join forces and confront him with a loaded question about paying taxes to Rome.

 

Further thoughts

“Politics makes strange bedfellows”, as writer and humorist Charles Dudley Warner noted in 1871, when private deal-making in smoke-filled back rooms birthed both shady laws and shining ones.

The strange bedfellows in Matthew are the Pharisees, upholders of Jewish racial and religious purity, and the Herodians, who are aligned with Rome via the figurehead Herod Antipas. Each group despises the other, but Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem has both groups worried, so they work together to trap him. If Jesus calls Roman taxation lawful, word can be spread that he’s a traitor to Jewish autonomy and much of the Palm Sunday rabble will turn on him; if he doesn’t, word can be spread that he’s a traitor to Rome and the Palm Sunday rabble will turn on whatever the Roman legions leave of him. Jesus spurns the trap. The government that provides the coinage earns the tax, he indicates, as one of God’s multitude of tools for getting things done.

Isaiah, for his part, hails Cyrus of the Persians as not only God’s instrument but God’s anointed ruler over Israel—though Cyrus is neither Jewish nor of the house of David. And the Cyrus that Isaiah prophesies is pretty nearly the Cyrus of history: an overthrower of kings, to be sure, yet notorious for treating his vanquished opponents’ former subjects with mercy and generosity. Cyrus finds out what the Judeans need to restore Jerusalem; he helps them back on their feet to do God’s good work, and this constitutes real kingship.

And then there is Paul of Tarsus, Pharisee and yet apostle to the gentiles. He commends the Thessalonians not for imitating him as Jews but for imitating him as followers of Christ and doers of God’s good work among their fellow gentiles.

What if doing the will of God means making less of differences and making more of listening and love?