Proper 21, Year A: Matthew 21:23-32: A Question

Jesus portrait on fresco of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, from 4th century in Mtskheta, Georgia. UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Source: iStockphoto.com

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 21, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

Jesus has returned to Jerusalem. While Jesus is walking in the Temple area, some religious leaders come up to him and ask him what authority he has to do these things (these things meaning his main activities of teaching and healing and forgiving).

As he so often does, Jesus responds to a question with a question. There’s a nice teaching tip for teachers out there–challenge your students with a question in response. It’s what my favorite professor often did.

“I will ask you a question too. If you answer me, then I will tell you what authority I have to do these things. Tell me: When John baptized people, did his authority come from God, or was it only from other people?” 

Matthew 21:24-25 (Easy-to-Read Version)

The leaders didn’t know how to respond. They knew if they said that John’s authority was from God, he would ask why they didn’t believe John, but if they claimed it wasn’t from God, the people would be angry because they revered John.

Tricky question, so they said they didn’t know.

So Jesus tells them that he won’t tell them who gave him the authority.

 

Jesus follows this up with another vineyard parable. This one has a vineyard owner with two sons. He tells one to go and work in the vineyard. At first he refuses to go work, but later he goes. Then he tells his other son to go and work in the vineyard. That son says he will go work, but he doesn’t go. Jesus asks which of the sons obeyed their father. The religious leaders responded that it was the first son.

Then Jesus slams him with some hard truth. (This is the kind of story that really makes me love Jesus.)

“The truth is, you are worse than the tax collectors and the prostitutes. In fact, they will enter God’s kingdom before you enter. John came showing you the right way to live, and you did not believe him. But the tax collectors and prostitutes believed John. You saw that happening, but you would not change. You still refused to believe him.” 

Matthew 20: 31b-32 (Easy-to-Read Version)

 

Jesus is comparing them to the outcasts of their society. They think they are the most correct and religious, but they are actually worse than the worst. In fact, those they think are the worst are closer to God than they are, because they believed in John and repented, while the leaders would not change.
How is this relevant to us today? Don’t be caught up in your religious trappings and believing your way is the best way. Be open with your heart and open to change from God.

Proper 20, Year A: Matthew 20:1-16: The Last First

Vineyards on a hill overlooking the Mosel river

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You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 20, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

In this passage, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who hires people to work in his vineyard.

He hires some first thing in the morning, some more around lunchtime, and more in the late afternoon. Then when the day is done, he has them line up to be paid, starting with those hired last. He ends up paying them all the same amount, even those who had only worked a short time.  It should come as no surprise that those who started first thing in the morning complained that they were paid no more than those who worked only an hour. But the landowner insists he is being fair–he paid them exactly what he had offered them when he hired them in the morning. He says he can do what he wants with his money and they shouldn’t be jealous because of his generosity.

Jesus ends by saying, “So those who are last now will be first in the future. And those who are first now will be last in the future.”

This story seems pretty easy to understand. God’s grace extends to those who do very little to “earn” it (that’s why it’s grace) as well as to those who work day and night to serve him. The true follower of Christ does not seek to be first but serves in love. The grumpy first-comers probably represent the religious leaders who opposed Jesus and didn’t understand grace. They promoted themselves and their own goodness, failing to comprehend the love of God extending to the lowest people.

May we spend our days serving and not seeking to be first.

Proper 19, Year A: Matthew 18:21-35: Radical Forgiveness

Stained Glass - Sacrament of Penance or Confession

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You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 19, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

In this story, Peter asks Jesus how many time he should forgive someone who keeps doing wrong to him. He says, “Seven times?” and Jesus replies that he should forgive them even if they do wrong seventy-seven times. This does not mean you should be keeping a tally of all the wrongs and when you hit exactly 77, you stop forgiving. It’s just an example of a large number to show we must always be forgiving.

Then Jesus tells a parable about a king who forgives a servant a huge debt, but later hears that the servant will not forgive a much smaller debt of another servant. The king becomes very angry because he had been so forgiving and the servant couldn’t in turn be forgiving to someone else.

Jesus ends with:

This king did the same as my heavenly Father will do to you. You must forgive your brother or sister with all your heart, or my heavenly Father will not forgive you.

Matthew 18:35 (Easy-to-Read Version)

Jesus is taking a position of radical forgiveness. Forgiveness beyond what is expected. Forgiveness like that practiced by the families of victims of the Charleston church shooting. That’s the forgiveness and love of Jesus Christ.

Our rector, Father Owen Thompson, had beautiful words on that in his homily on this passage:

Imagine a world where forgiveness is where we live and move and have our being. jesus says you don’t have to imagine. It can be real if we live our lives that way.

Proper 18, Year A: Matthew 18:15-20: Community and Conflict

Paper cutouts of colorful people holding hands in a circle

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You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 18, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

This is some very practical teaching about community from Jesus. The Kingdom of God is all about being in relationship with God and with others.

Here’s a great breakdown from a lesson found on the Episcopal Digital Network:

Remember the steps to Conflict Resolution:

  • Step One: Go directly to that person.
    • Remember the Greatest Commandment – Love the Lord your God and Love your Neighbor as yourself.
    • The Golden Rule – treat others how you would want to be treated.
    • Be Respectful and responsible.
  • Step Two: Bring along another person or two.
  • Step Three: Bring the situation to the church (or this may mean to your school, work, or community depending on the situation.)
  • Step Four: Walk away from the situation and take a breather. Continue tocommunicate with the person and when they are ready to come into the community, welcome them.

We can use this kind of advice in a lot of situations, not only within church. I have been in situations where someone had a problem with me or what I was doing, but instead of coming to me with their concern, they seemed to tell other people and it got back to me. I admittedly can think of situations where I complained about another person’s actions without confronting them about it. It’s good to remember that the best choice is to talk directly to the person first (unless they are physically abusive and you need protection from them–in which case you should seek help and not confront someone alone).

 

The Kingdom of God is the community of God–people working together to love their neighbors as themselves.

Proper 17, Year A: Matthew 16:21-26: Lose Yourself

Saint Peter Painting

St. Peter – Source: iStockphoto.com

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 17, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

Jesus tells his disciples that he has to go to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and be killed, then he will rise from the dead. Wow, can you imagine how that came across?  How do you think you would have reacted to that? Well, we know Peter’s reaction: “God save you from those sufferings, Lord! That will never happen to you!” 

Jesus rebukes him harshly, “Get away from me, Satan! You are not helping me! You don’t care about the same things God does. You care only about things that people think are important.” (These quotes are from the Easy-to-Read version here.) Ouch, he called him Satan! I don’t think Jesus was implying Peter was literally possessed by Satan or anything, but more that he is speaking against God and what God wants at this moment. Remember that just last week we read about Peter being called the Rock on which the church will be built. What a change to this story! It happens to all of us–faithful and loving one time, failing and wrong another time. Meanwhile he just wants Jesus to not die, which doesn’t seem so awful to our human eyes. It seems Peter understand Jesus was the Messiah, but not all that might mean. 

Jesus goes on to say the following:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Matthew 16:24-26 (NRSV)

I love it when Jesus speaks in paradoxes. Maybe that’s weird of me. Lose your life to save it. Amazing. What does this mean to you? What are you giving of yourself today? How are you following Jesus?

Proper 16, Year A: Matthew 16:13-20: The Rock

Rome - Mosaic from st. Peters cathedral

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You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 16, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

Our next passage comes after the disciples have been traveling around with Jesus, watching him heal and teach and work miracles. At this point, they’ve spent a lot of time with him.

Then he asks them, “Who do people say I am?”

They answer that people think he’s one of various prophets or John the Baptist. Then he asks, “And who do you say I am?”

This moment is key. They should have an idea at this point that he’s not an everyday teacher.

And now it’s Peter who answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus tells him he is blessed, that no one had to teach him that, but that his Father in heaven taught him. He says, So I tell you, you are Peter. And I will build my church on this rock.” 

He says the power of death will not defeat the church and that he gives Peter the keys to God’s kingdom. Imagine! The keys to the kingdom! And it’s true, the church went on in the hands of Peter and other followers after Christ’s death and ascension. They drove it forward from there. They took up the mantle of leading the future of Christianity and spread the gospel around the known world (and it’s gone around even more of the world since). This seems like a significant moment. They have seen all that Jesus is and what he is teaching; they must recognize his power and vision and carry it on.

We also must recognize his power and vision and carry on his truth into our current world. We can be a rock of the church as well–we can carry on the work of healing in the world that Jesus began.

 

Proper 15, Year A: Matthew 15: 10-20, 21-28: Inclusiveness of Jesus

Jesus and the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15), published in 1877

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You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 15, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

Today we hear more of Jesus’ teaching. He says,  “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” This is important because of the culture Jesus was within–a culture that had very detailed rules about cleanliness and purity. There were specific rules about what foods were eaten and how to prepare them, etc. 

So his disciples asked him about it, saying that the Pharisees were offended (Pharisees were huge on following those rules). He says they are blind leading the blind. Peter asks for further explanation. Jesus seems incredulous that they still don’t get it. He says that what goes into the mouth, goes to the stomach, and then out to the sewer,  but what comes out comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”  So what comes out of the heart, which reveals what’s within you, is more important than what goes in. Many Christians today are still obsessed with purity and following rules, usually of a sexual nature–but is it as important as what comes out of their mouths? Is it more important than the fact that these same Christians often condemn others rather than showing love?

In the second part of the reading, Jesus comes across a Canaanite woman (so, a foreigner, not Jewish), who calls out to him to have mercy because her daughter is tormented by a demon. His disciples want him to send her away and he does not answer at first. And then his first response seems harsh: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and when she continues to ask for help he answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She says that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table. He then tells her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed. This seems like he is almost testing her, and teaching his disciples at the same time. We know that Jesus came for more than his own Jewish people. He often reaches out beyond them in other interactions (with the Roman centurion who has a sick servant, with the Samaritan woman at the well, for examples.) The Bible is continually about expanding the love of God; it is a story of inclusiveness–as God’s love reaches out to the whole world. Even in the Old Testament, when men try to hold their faith tight, God reaches out to the rest of the world–as with Ruth, as with the people of Nineveh Jonah doesn’t want to save, and in many other stories. Jesus’ love is meant for all. If your faith teaches you to be exclusive and reject others, it’s not really the faith Jesus taught–it’s more like the faith of the Pharisees.