Archive for the 'Matthew' Category



For Oct. 12, 2014: Proper 23, Year A

The Reading                                                                         Isaiah 25:1-9

Isaiah 25:1-9, written as disaster and deportation to Babylon loomed for God’s people, gives a startling series of images: the city ruled by foreigners lies in ruins, the poor have shelter from rain and heat, the Lord throws for all peoples the party of all parties, and death itself will be no more. What an invitation!

The Response                                                 Psalm 23

Psalm 23 can be read as following on Isaiah 25:1-9: it depicts the Lord as shepherd and protector of the psalmist’s soul, providing for the psalmist even in the face of the psalmist’s enemies and guiding the psalmist even through the valley of the shadow of death.

The Epistle                                                                 Philippians 4:1-9

The epistle to the church at Philippi, after requesting help to reconcile the feuding church ladies Euodia and Syntyche, ends with encouragement and challenge. The Philippians are to do three important tasks—rejoice; become notorious for being gentle; instead of worrying, pray—and to be open to the peace of God.

The Gospel                                                                    Matthew 22:1-14

Matthew 22:1-14 is the fourth of Jesus’ parables in response to the chief priests and the elders who have demanded that he tell them by what authority he was teaching and healing. It is hard to reconcile this king who readily slaughters and abuses the noncompliant with the view of God in the other readings for Proper 23.

 

Further thoughts

Three of the readings for Proper 23 are easy to discuss. Isaiah 25:1-9 describes the celebration at the end of time to which all God’s children will be welcome, at which all will be fed, and in which all our griefs and shames will be redeemed for all time in the presence of all peoples. The much-paraphrased and much-sung Psalm 23 personalizes the vision for the future while reminding me that God my loving Shepherd is with me in the trials of the present. Philippians 4:1-9 gently concedes human frailty while focusing us on the practices of rejoicing, gentleness, and prayer. What beautiful portraits of the surpassing goodness of God!

But then there’s Matthew 22:1-14: the parable of the king, his invitees having disrespected his servants, who salves his wounded pride by burning down a whole city and then having other servants frog-march all comers to fill the banquet hall; when one poor schlock thus corralled up shows up without the right clothes, the king humiliates him before throwing him into what clearly amounts to Hell.

Over the centuries this parable has been taken as proof of God’s demand for purity; it has been used to justify shocking behavior against Jews, infidels, non-Europeans, and even fellow Christians on the other side of a doctrinal dispute. Some recent analyses propose, however, that this parable is not about God at all. As Paul Nuecheterlein and D. Mark Davis tell it, Jesus is describing the kingdom as his audience of chief priests and Pharisees sees it: a place where the accepted response to any perceived slight against those in charge is violence and more violence. But consider how the Son of God actually acts in the world. Tempted to show off, he declines. Faced with humiliation and the most brutal of deaths—the worst that his enemies can throw at him—he spurns the vengeance that will justify their brutality by taking it seriously. Instead, in the words of Psalm 23, Jesus chooses not to fear their evil, and in so choosing he ends in himself the cycle of retributive violence.

What if we were to live out our trust in Jesus by making the same choice?

 

Nuechterlein, Paul J. 2008. “When a squirrel is just a squirrel.” Sermon. Web. http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper23a_2008_ser.htm. Consulted 8 October 2014.

Davis, D. Mark. 2014. “The Kingdom of the Heavens vs. the Kingdom of a Human King.” Left Behind and Loving It. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-kingdom-of-heavens-v-kingdom-of.html. Web. Consulted 7 October 2014.

For October 5, 2014: Proper 22, Year A

The Reading                                                                           Isaiah 5:1-7

Isaiah 5:1-7 begins in Isaiah’s voice as a love song and praise of a promising vineyard. At verse 3, the voice is the Lord’s: the carefully tended vineyard produces nothing worthwhile, and so it is to be destroyed. The last verse returns to Isaiah’s voice: the bad vineyard is God’s people, producing bloodshed rather than justice.

The Response                                     Psalm 80:7-14

Rather like Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-14 begins with a promising planting by the Lord of hosts. The vine out of Egypt is Israel, flourishing from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River—but now its grapes are plucked by all comers and its leaves are animal fodder, unless the Lord turns and saves it.

The Epistle                                                            Philippians 3:4b-14

In Philippians 3:4b-14, Paul is more than usually forthright: though the Jews are God’s chosen people and he the best Jew by birth and accomplishment, all of that is a steaming pile of skubalon (‘rubbish’ is a very polite translation) when it comes to earning righteousness and (better yet!) knowing Jesus.

The Gospel                                                                 Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21:33-46 tells of another lovingly built vineyard; this time it is not the vine or the fruit that is faulty, but tenants who choose not to uphold their end of a bargain and use violence to keep what is not theirs. This is much less a story to shame “the Jews” than it is a warning against self-righteousness.

Further thoughts

It is easy and tempting to take readings like those for Proper 22 as indictments of the wickedness of the Jews as a whole. It is even more tempting to do so in challenging times, and the history of the world makes all too plain that Church and people have succumbed to that temptation with shocking regularity in the past two millennia.

But that misses the point of all the readings. First, the vineyard owners devoted all that effort to their respective vineyards precisely because they had reason to expect the best results from land and vines: that is, if anyone is producing good fruit of the Spirit, it will surely be the people who are and have been in covenant with the Lord. Second, up until the advent of modern democracy it was understood that a nation is no better than its leaders: the rant in Isaiah is aimed not at ordinary Jews but rather at the religious and governmental authorities that have led them astray. Similarly, with the parable of the vineyard Jesus targets the group of those who by virtue of more rigorous upbringing, deeper training in Torah, and higher spiritual discipline should have been better placed than anyone else to recognize who Jesus really is and what is at stake—but did not.

Paul makes the point more personal. The list of attributes with which Philippians 3:4b-14 opens is there to establish him as very much a Jew—in fact, the cream of the crop of Judaism, and perhaps the very most observant Jew ever to walk the earth. But even all that righteousness got him absolutely nowhere without the overflowing grace of God.

Having said all this, however, he is determined to let his life be his thanks by bearing the best possible fruit for all peoples in the kingdom of God. What if you and I were to go and do likewise?

For Sept. 21, 2014: 15 Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A

The Reading            Jonah 3:10-4:11

The reluctant prophet Jonah has finally followed instructions and preached destruction to the wicked Assyrian capital, Nineveh; when the citizens, from the king on down, repent in sackcloth, the Lord is moved to spare the city—and Jonah is outraged.

The Response            Psalm 145:1-8

Psalm 145’s 21 verses each begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, making it a wisdom psalm as well as a psalm of praise that transcends time as generations and individuals proclaim the Lord’s greatness, works, power, splendor, might, goodness, righteousness, and compassion. Fairness, however, is not on the list.

The Epistle            Philippians 1:21-30

Whether he liked it or not, Jonah was sent by the Lord to help save the Assyrians of Nineveh. In Philippians 1:21-30, written in the last years of his life, Paul explains that heaven beckons, but in the meantime it is both duty and privilege to labor and suffer in this life so that gentiles may see themselves as God’s people.

The Gospel            Matthew 20:1-16

In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, which is unique to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus compares likens God’s way of doing business to a landowner who pays casual laborers just as well for working only one hour as for working a full day.

 

 

Further thoughts

If a “sore loser” is one who pouts at someone else’s win, a “sore winner” could be one who pouts when someone else fails to lose by a big enough margin. Are Jonah and the early laborers merely sore winners? Well, maybe.

Jonah’s pique isn’t wholly without merit. To begin with, Nineveh is in the far north of Mesopotamia, well over five hundred miles of dusty desert road from Jerusalem. Worse, Nineveh is pagan and the capital of the same Assyrian empire that in the mid-8th century BC has both Judah and Israel well under the heel of its hobnailed sandals. Why on earth wouldn’t Jonah regard Ninevites en masse as his enemy and therefore God’s enemy?

For the laborers, “the usual daily wage” is a denarius, about 18 cents—a very minimal wage, in a day when economic disaster is at least as close to the poor as it is today. Why shouldn’t they seek every possible penny?

But here is the kingdom of God. The odd-sounding “persons who do not know their right hand from their left” reckons up Ninevites who cannot be to blame for the empire’s misdeeds: the infants and toddlers, whom it pleases God to regard with all their elders as fondly as Jonah regards his shade bush. Laborers should accept the wage they agreed to but shouldn’t have to sell themselves short, and the businesses and economies that offer steady work at good wages with decent benefits are doing God’s will. And if God can be patient with Jonah’s guff and the laborers’ grumbling, God can certainly endure ours: as Anne Lamott suggests, in God’s ears, even “I don’t believe in You, and You’re not being fair!” seems to count as a kind of prayer.

What if I build the kingdom of God whenever I’m not being a sore winner?

For Sept. 7, 2014: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18

The Reading            Ezekiel 33:7-11

At chapter 33, the book of Ezekiel begins to turn from warning of Israel’s conquest by Babylon to prophesying comfort to follow. In Ezekiel 33:7-11, the speaker is the Lord God: the first three verses lay out the penalty if Ezekiel fails to warn the wicked—but the last reveals the Lord’s yearning for the wicked to repent and live.

The Response            Psalm 119:33-40

Psalm 119 is a psalm of 176 verses divided into 22 stanzas; the verses in each stanza all begin with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Verses 33 to 40 begin with the letter ה (heh) and beg the Lord to keep the psalmist following the torah—that is, God’s statutes, law, commandments, decrees, and judgments.

The Epistle            Romans 13:8-14

Psalm 119:33-40 implored God’s help in keeping torah, the Law. Romans 13:8-14 reminds us that the God’s Law is summed up as “Love your neighbor as yourself”—and advises us that it is high time that we do just that.

The Gospel            Matthew 18:15-20

In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus explains how to respond when a member of the church does ill: first speaking with the member privately, then bringing in one or two witnesses if needed, and confronting publicly only as a last resort.

 

Further thoughts

A friend of mine, one of the quietest adults I know, must have been a wild toddler. Whenever he wasn’t within earshot, his mother learned to tell the family servant, “Find Paul, and tell him to stop.”

Ezekiel is a sentinel with a similar job: keeping watch on God’s people and, when the word of the Lord says so, warning them to stop. The Lord’s stated goal is that Israel not die but live, like the child who thrives under a good parent’s rules. Psalm 119:33-40 celebrates the loving Parent’s rules, the torah, and begs God’s help in obeying them. Love motivates the rules; as the letter to the Romans notes, love is what we owe each other—and communicating in love about what is wrong can be a powerful act of healing.

Matthew 18:15-20 is sometimes taken to mean that a churchgoer who feels wronged by another is permitted or even required to shun the other, have the other excluded, and expect the Father to follow suit in heaven. As D. Mark Davis notes, however, in his blog Left Behind and Loving It, the Greek text can support a different reading. First, the topic of Matthew 18 as a whole is the “little ones” and our duty to put no stumbling blocks in their way. Second, though the NRSV translates ἔσται δεδεμένα and ἔσται λελυμένα as ‘will be bound’ and ‘will be loosed’, these phrases are more accurately if less idiomatically ‘will have been bound’ and ‘will have been loosed’, which suggests not that earthly binding causes binding in heaven but the other way around. Third, Jesus’ own approach to the despised Gentiles and tax collectors is to heal (15:21-28) and feed (15:32-39) them, associate with them (9:9-10, 11:19) and even make disciples of them (10:3).

Who do I regard as a Gentile and a tax collector? Is that who I need to love as Jesus loves?

Davis, D. Mark. “The Power of Reconciliation.” Left Behind and Loving It, 2 Sept. 2014. Web. 3 Sept. 2014. <http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/&gt;

For August 31, 2014: Twelfth Sunday in Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A

The Reading            Jeremiah 15:15-21

A jeremiad is a scathing denunciation of bad faith, in any of several senses. In Jeremiah 15:15-21 the prophet, who has proclaimed God’s word and been rebuffed, turns his anger and disappointment on God Almighty. The Lord chides Jeremiah, reminding him not to stop speaking precious words, but promises strength and comfort.

The Response            Psalm 26:1-8

Unlike Jeremiah, the composer of Psalm 26:1-8 seems not to have a bone to pick with the Lord. It is clear, though, that the psalmist is challenging the Lord with his integrity, trust, faithfulness, and innocence.

The Epistle            Romans 12:9-21

In the first reading, Jeremiah complained of being persecuted and insulted for speaking the words of the Lord, and the Lord promised him vindication and deliverance. Romans 12:9-21 takes a different tack, counseling Jesus’ followers to live in harmony with all and to overcome evil with generosity.

The Gospel            Matthew 16:21-28

On announcing that Jesus is the Messiah, Simon was renamed Peter and receives rabbi-like power to bind and loose in the kingdom of Heaven. In the verses that follow, he takes initiative, rebuking Jesus for predicting a horrible death—and Jesus calls him Satan. This kingdom must not be business as usual.

 

Further thoughts

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus stated that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church. Hades is not Hell, the place in which the wicked are punished eternally for their bad deeds. In fact, the ancient Greek concept of Hades comes close to the early Hebrew Sheol, where all souls go when they die. Like Hades, Sheol is a place of oblivion and obliteration: in the stark King James translation of Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, “The living know that they will die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” Death cuts us off from life and the living and consumes our work and those we love, inevitably. And we can’t help but feel death as a cutting off from God, for the most compelling metaphors for faith and closeness to God all invoke life and breath: the word Spirit itself derives from the Latin spiro ‘I breathe’.

So Simon, newly named Peter and steward of Jesus’ life’s work, sensibly demands an end to Jesus’ talk about dying—and gets called “Satan” and “a stumbling block”. One wonders whether it’s that Peter is really so culpable in saying this, or perhaps that his plea to stay safe hits Jesus right where his own human body’s fear of dying intersects his divinity’s revulsion that such a waste as death even exists.

Yet, Jesus has already said, unstoppable death will no longer have the last word, for not even the prospect of death will stop him from laying himself down to conquer sin, separation, and death for the world he so loves.

He calls us to follow—literally, to come behind him. Does that mean dying exactly as Jesus did? For most of us, no. But what if Romans 12:9-21 sketches out the path? What if the task for me is to live, day by day, as though other people’s hopes and fears matter as much to me as I like to think I matter to God?

For August 24, 2014: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 51:1-6

Isaiah prophesies hope in the daunting days after the return from exile in Babylon. Just as the Lord raised Israel from barren Abraham and Sarah, so also comfort and new life are coming to the Lord’s people and light for the peoples; even after the world ends—or we do—salvation and deliverance will come to stay.

The Response            Psalm 138

Psalm 138 is a psalm of thanksgiving to God for deliverance from trouble. The psalmist praises the name of the Lord: mighty enough to be praised by kings, yet nevertheless preserver of the lowly, and whose love is for always.

The Epistle            Romans 12:1-8

Isaiah 51:1-6 opened with a call to those who pursue righteousness. Romans 12:1-8, sketching out that pursuit, responds to the frictions between Jew and gentile in the church at Rome: we all bring to God’s table the gifts of God, and the gifts that each of us brings are all precious to our common good.

The Gospel            Matthew 16:13-20

After healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter near Tyre and Sidon, Jesus and the disciples travel to the Roman city of Caesarea Philippi, well north of Jewish territory. It is there, near a grotto and spring sacred to the pagan god Pan, that Jesus asks the disciples who it is that people say he is.

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Proper 16 are full of surprises.

Isaiah, in the rubble and desolation of post-exilic Israel, sings God’s promise to transform the ravaged land into the Eden that God designed it to be. That’s surprising enough, but then God will use Israel as a beacon of hope to draw other nations—pagans—to salvation and deliverance that will outlast even heaven.

The psalmist chimes in: the big shots on earth—who, as history shows, tend to be as supercilious to those they outrank as they are defensive toward anyone more powerful than they—will be so transformed by listening to the Lord that they sing the praise of the Lord for protecting the lowly from the big shots’ machinations.

Jesus chooses, of all places, a pagan shrine well outside Israel as the place to ask the disciples who they think he is. When Simon blurts out, “The Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus renames him and gives this rough fisherman the job of rabbi in deciding who and what is in or out of this new thing called a church.

Then the epistle instructs us to make of ourselves living sacrifices. That sounds messy enough—but the analogy of the body and its parts makes me wonder uncomfortably whether this means all of me. For all of me is not just the nifty attributes that I hope will make God and everyone pleased with me, but also the fears and the scars and the wretchednesses that I try so hard to hide.

What if it is God’s good pleasure to hallow and accept all of me that I place on the altar? And what if the salvation that outlasts even heaven, that humbles the mighty to praise, that brings all God’s children in, lives in the space where admitting my need blesses us both by giving scope for your gift from God to shine?

For August 17, 2014: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 56:1,6-8

By the time Isaiah 56 was composed, in the late 6th century before Christ, some people exiled to Babylon had returned to begin rebuilding Jerusalem. Isaiah’s powerful words recall God’s covenant with Israel—and this time, says the Lord, the door of the house of prayer is open not just to the Jews but to all peoples.

The Response            Psalm 67

Psalm 67 tells much the same story as Isaiah: God’s saving health is for all nations, as is gladness in God’s judgments, and all the peoples to the ends of the earth are to praise and stand in awe of God.

The Epistle            Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

The short but rich epistle passage builds on Isaiah’s proclamation and the psalmist’s rejoicing. The Jews’ rejection of Jesus cannot make God repudiate them—but, through God’s mercy, it opens the door to a wider definition of “God’s people” that embraces and accepts the Gentiles.

The Gospel            Matthew 15:21-28

Isaiah, the psalmist, and Romans all proclaim welcome to Gentiles as God’s people alongside the Jews. In Matthew 15:22-24, however, Jesus ignores and even disparages the Canaanite woman’s desperate pleas for healing for her daughter. Might even Jesus in his lifetime have needed to be startled into learning and growth?

 

Further thoughts

Three of the four readings for Proper 15 abound with comfort to those of us who need mercy but can’t trace our physical pedigree back to Abraham. The gospel, however, starts out disquietingly different. When a woman begs Jesus to have mercy on her little girl’s torment, at first he doesn’t even bother to shrug. Next he tells the disciples that her kind aren’t on his agenda. Then, though she abases herself before him, Jesus blows her off with an analogy that casts her and her daughter as kynarioi or ‘little dogs’—this in a society in which dogs aren’t cosseted pets but barely tolerated scavengers. (Translating with “the b-word” might not be too strong.)

Commentators over the millennia have dealt with the disquiets in this story by explaining either that Jesus was joking gently with this woman or that he was testing her faith. I’m not comfortable with either possibility, partly because of the dehumanization in “little dogs” and also because no other story in the Bible has Jesus being this determinedly rude unless someone’s hardness of head or heart clearly merits a comeuppance.

A different possibility is advanced by Grant LeMarquand. He notes that Matthew makes a point of identifying this woman not merely as a gentile but as Canaanite: a descendant of the idol-worshipers from whom the Israelites wrested the land of promise and for whom Deuteronomy 7:1-4 explicitly commanded total extermination without mercy. Canaanites are the worst of the worst, and Jesus’ scorn follows from the Torah and his cultural conditioning. But when the woman turns his analogy on itself, it changes his thinking and his reach, and he moves to fulfill the prophecy of God’s mercy extending to all nations.

If the Son of David can rethink things, why shouldn’t I? And what can I do to extend God’s mercy to all?


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