A Provocation: Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost: October 22, 2017: Matthew 22:15-22

Matthew 22:15-22
22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.

22:16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.

22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?

22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.

22:20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

22:21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

A Question or Two:

  • So, IS IT allowable to pay tribute, or is it not?
  • Are you really sure?

Some Longer Reflections:

This contest scene is kind of fun.

The basic elements are unexceptional: Jesus and the Pharisees are jousting.  The joust concerns the duties and responsibilities of people of faith in a world dominated by Rome.  Jesus amazes them.  This is all pretty ordinary.

But the specific details of this joust are not at all ordinary.

First of all, the Pharisees make common cause with the Herodians.  This is more than odd.  The Herodians are allied with the Empire.  The Pharisees are most definitely not.  The Pharisees send their students to the Herodians and they cook up a test that could get Jesus in trouble with the Jewish people.  Apparently they want their students to pass for Herodians, for collaborators with Roman power.  Maybe they wore costumes.  They would probably have to, since the Pharisees dressed like observant Jews and the Herodians wore what are called elsewhere “gorgeous clothes.”  So, up walk the Herodians, with a bunch of disguised students (think of them as graduate assistants) in their midst.  They ask their question.

Why did they need to be masquerading as Herodians?

That was so that Jesus might be suckered into playing up to Roman collaborators and saying that it was acceptable to pay tribute to the foreign dominating power.  Or maybe he would give a fire-and-brimstone refusal, and that would anger the Herodians and get him in trouble with Rome.  Either way, Jesus loses.

Except that the graduate assistants aren’t as good at passing for Herodians as they could have been.  Jesus sees them right away and calls them “play-actors” (that’s what ὑποκριταί means, after all).  And it’s important to translate it that way.  The line is hilarious.  Jesus is telling them that they need a better costume department.  Or they need more practice talking with the accent of a Herodian.  Or that their attempts at method-acting are a little weak.  Let the line be as funny as it really must have been.

So he asks for a coin.

At that point, two things could have happened.  Maybe the Pharisee-graduate-assistants-posing-as-Herodians actually had the idolatrous coin in their pockets, at which point they found themselves called out as posers.  Or maybe they did not, in which case I can hear them cursing their props department for not thinking about what Herodians would need to have in their pockets before sending them out on stage.

Either way, Jesus plays with them.

The storyteller does not say that Jesus took the coin.  He just looked at it.  “Whose head is that, I wonder?”, says Jesus.  “It’s the emperor,” the poor graduate assistants say, thus revealing that they not only have an example of idolatry on their hands (literally!), but that they are holding the coin of collaboration.

This is masterful.  They are SO caught.

Jesus then says something cryptic about giving to the emperor and giving to God.  The general meaning is clear enough, but the complications are where the lesson is lodged.  Is he actually advocating paying tribute?  Or is he saying that anyone who has the coin of collaboration might just as well pay tribute?  Or is he saying that, since they all have to pay tribute in any case, they should pay while remembering who it is that called them to be Jews?  Or is it more complicated than that?

As is the case with most decent teaching, the complication and the pondering are more important than the answer.



A Provocation: Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 15, 2017: Matthew 22:1-14

Matthew 22:1-14
22:1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:

22:2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.

22:3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.

22:4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’

22:5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,

22:6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.

22:7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

22:8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.

22:9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’

22:10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

22:11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,

22:12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.

22:13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

A Question or Two:

  • Would you invite people like that to your child’s wedding?
  • Would you GO to a wedding like that?

Some Longer Reflections:

This parable makes no sense.  At the very least, it is offensive.  The king has time to launch an attack on the city of his unworthy guests, kill them all and burn their city, all between killing the fatted calves and serving the appetizers.  Really?  And before that, the unworthy guests kill the messengers that invite them to a feast?  Seriously?  And the substitute guests, gathered off the street randomly, are expected to be wearing tuxedos?  And the one guy who is not so attired is bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness?  So now we have the death penalty for the dress code?

There is nothing proportionate or balanced here.  If this is meant to be a picture of how God deals with Creation, this is not a God worthy of the name.

I mean it.

This scene (and many others like it) are what convinced me to pay closer attention to the way Matthew tells his story of Jesus, the messiah who escaped genocide.  I sketched this interpretive line in this blog last week.  And I made the argument at greater length in my book, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary.

You can read my argument in those places if you would like.

This week I am fixated on this strange parable.

If we are meant to decode parables by figuring out which character is God, which is us, and which is our opponent, this parable is dangerous, and for obvious reasons.

But parables are not coded allegories, and Adolf Jülicher taught us that roughly a century ago.  Parables, Jülicher taught us, are focused stories that make a single point.  This was a good lesson.  Even when parables seem to make more than a single point, still the parable itself is a crafted story, and works the way any well-told story works.  Stories, even very short ones, project worlds in which the story takes place.  These worlds stand in tension with the world we think we live in.  This is true for every novel, every story, but it is especially true for parables, which are (as John Dominic Crossan taught us 40 years ago) world-disruptors.  Until you have felt the earth shaking, you have not discovered the real force of a parable.

There are other interpreters of the parables whose work we should read, but Jülicher and Crossan will give us a place to start with the parable in this preaching text.  Following their lead, there are a few questions we should ask:

  1. What is the world created by this little story?  It is a world with kings, and therefore it is a world with subjects.  It is a world structured hierarchically, a world in which power holds things in the place that kings want them held.  That goes a long way toward explaining one oddity in this little story: it starts with an occasion of joy (“a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son”) and ends in murderous rage, which is acted out by both the subjects and the king.  The rage reveals that the joy is a veneer, a light coat of paste wax over the crude working of the machinery of power.  The subjects attempt a rebellion and the king destroys their city.The rage is also revealed in the king’s response to the guest (compelled to attend) who did not have a wedding garment.  You can invent any number of explanations for this odd reaction if you somehow need to make the king look justified.  Interpreters have done exactly that for centuries.  But the king’s violent and disproportionate reaction is best read as a revelation of the raw power that makes the world of the parable what it is.

    In that world, the king fails at controlling his subjects and his failure makes him insecure.  Worried monarchs are dangerous monarchs: they are likely to erupt in rage.

  2. What makes the earth shake in this parable?  

For the king, the answer is easy: the king’s world is shaken by his inability to command respect.  When his world is shaken, he erupts in destructive rage.  Even if we judge that the murder of his son is what set him off, still his rage is destructive and unreasoning.  He destroys an entire city.  He throws a man into the outer darkness (bound hand and foot) for not wearing a tuxedo.  When the king’s security is shaken, he reveals that everyone else’s security is an illusion.

For the audience for the parable, the question of the cause of the earthquake is somewhat more complicated.  If the king’s violence offends the audience, then the violence itself is the earthquake, especially when the parable is presented as if we are to identify the king with God.  In that case, the audience is shaken by what the king does, and out of being shaken emerges a resistant interpretation.  Which is unsettling, even for people who have learned to ask hard questions of biblical texts.

But the earthquake is even more unsettling when the audience is NOT offended by the king’s actions.  Then they approve of the anger; then they are sucked into sharing the anger.

On the one hand, sharing the king’s anger will offend people around the audience.  Anger reinforces itself.  That seems true enough.  But anger also divides, splitting communities into groups of Us and Them, with Us standing in sharp opposition to Them.

As a result, anger also isolates.  The edges erode around the group of Us that is defined by our anger at Them.  Having already concluded that there is no possible connection between Us and Them, it is distressing to discover that the group of Us grows smaller, and thus more isolated.

And this increases Our anger at Them.  People leave Us because they begin to conclude that anger is destructive.  This also causes an earthquake.

Eventually, a small hardcore group of Us is left, united only by the purity of their anger, and they have to decide whether pure anger, and angry purity, are enough.

This is exactly the situation that I think exists at the end of Matthew’s story, and the last person to abandon Us is Jesus himself.  When he accuses God of abandoning him at the moment of his death, Jesus exhausts his purity.  When God raises him from the dead, his anger no longer operates.  Given the chance to split his final audience into a group of Us (the remnant of believers) and Them (those who, the storyteller informs us, doubt), Jesus abandons both anger and purity and sends the whole mixed crowd out to train people in grace and forgiveness.

This may be the biggest earthquake of them all.


A Provocation: Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 8, 2018: Matthew 21:33-46

Matthew 21:33-46
21:33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

21:34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.

21:35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.

21:36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.

21:37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

21:38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”

21:39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

21:40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

21:41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

21:42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

21:43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

21:44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

21:45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.

21:46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

A Question or Two:

  • What is the connection between this parable and its apparent interpretation?
  • Are you sure?

Some Longer Reflections:

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard….

Thus begins the parable.  And here ends, too often, interpretive attention to the parable itself.  The scene concludes with a clear and obvious attack on the Pharisees and the chief priests.  Interpreters understand that part of the scene well, and they often limit their reading to that attack.

When the parable is read at all, it is used to provide indictments-after-the-fact to justify (somehow) Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees and chief priests.  How did they know that Jesus was speaking about them?  According to customary interpretation, it was because they knew they didn’t produce the “fruits of the kingdom.”  It was because they saw themselves revealed as the murderers of the owner’s servants.

Before preaching on this passage, take a little time to untangle the actual history of the situation.

  • Why attack the chief priests?  They were forced to collaborate with Roman authorities, to act as the “organ of liaison” to manage the population on Rome’s behalf.  As such, they were resented.  They were also well-paid for their work for Rome.  For this, they were also resented.  And all this resentment served Rome’s purposes very well, indeed.  It diverted attention, and resentment, away from Rome to Jewish officials.  When Matthew’s storyteller attacks the chief priests (in a story composed in its present form after Rome crushed the 1st Jewish Revolt), the storyteller is speaking against Rome and against collaboration.
  • Why attack the Pharisees?  They were middle class business folk who believed Torah observance should shape all of life.  Christians seem to have believed that, too.  Certainly they disagreed about details and patterns of practice.  Disagreement was not, and is not, unusual in such matters.  Linking the Pharisees with the chief priests seems at least awkward, and mostly unlikely.  The Pharisees’ strong support of the Bar Kokhba Revolt against Rome (132-135C.E.) makes them unlikely collaborators.  And they (unlike the Sadducees, the priestly group) survived the Revolt against Rome because they were not so tightly tied to the Temple.  But because they survived the Revolts, as did the Christians, they (and the Christians) were among the factions accusing each other of causing the loss of the Temple.  Later rabbis, asked what led to the loss of the Temple, answered that it was factionalism.  When Matthew’s storyteller attacks the Pharisees, it is evidence of one part of the inter-group fighting the rabbis were talking about.
  • The charge that the “tenants” rejected, killed, and stoned the owner’s servants interprets the chief priests and the Pharisees as the modern-day killers of the prophets.

Stop right there.

Are you as weary as I am with week after week of Jesus dividing the world into angels and demons, us and them, the “saved” and “those wretches [that deserve] a miserable death”?  Even if you aren’t, I am exhausted.


This last instance is dangerous, and it is long past time for us to say so publicly and clearly.  For one thing, dragging in the “killers of the prophets” is (I would say) a little like painting every opponent as communist or a fascist (depending on your own political preferences).  Pretty soon everyone who didn’t already agree with you quits listening.  That is a rotten outcome, and is evidence of poor thinking and cheap analysis.

But there is a worse problem.  Jesus strongly implies that the priests and the Pharisees are prophet-killers.  The storyteller tells us that the people judged Jesus to be a prophet.  And since Jesus dies near the end of Matthew’s story, readers are being set up to imagine priests (custodians of pre-70C.E. Jewish faith) and Pharisees (leading figures in post-70C.E. formative Judaism) as killers of the Christ.

Stop that.

The Christian faith may never recover from the damage that was done by people who have believed such vicious theologies.

Vicious theologies have many different roots, but Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as rigid and willing to send his opponents to “the outer darkness where people wail and gnash their teeth” provides one set of those roots.  Naïve readings of Matthew’s story, therefore, has led to odd situations: Christian interpreters (who think they are following Jesus) blast Pharisees for being rigid and rejecting, and the Christians gladly (and absolutely) reject them for that.  Christians end up as rigid as their imagined opponents.  Weird.

I have advanced a very different reading of Matthew’s story in my book, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary.  You can read it for the long version of the argument.

But the heart of my re-reading is in my noticing that Jesus regularly divides the world into the perfect and the damned throughout the story.  Whenever he meets a crowd, he discovers imperfect people in that crowd and sends them to the outer darkness where the fire never goes out.  This pattern suddenly shifts in the last scene in the story.  Jesus meets a crowd after being raised from the dead.  The crowd is made up of those who believe and those who doubt.  In any other scene, doubting would be an imperfection that earns damnation.

Not this time.

This time Jesus sends the whole mixed group out to baptize and teach.

Anytime a character changes, there has to be a reason.  I argue that it was the resurrection that changed Jesus.

Read the book.  See if you agree.

For now, though, stop feeding images of a Jesus who always blasts his opponents.  Just stop.

A Provocation: Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 1, 2017: Matthew 21:23-32

Matthew 21:23-32
21:23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

21:24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.

21:25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

21:29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

21:30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

21:31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

21:32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

A Question or Two:

  • Why do the chief priests and the elders of the people ask their question?
  • Are you sure that is the reason?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is another of the many conflict scenes in the gospels.  This time, Jesus is in a debate with the chief priests and the elders of the people.

Conflict (whether in stories or in regular life) needs to be handled wisely.  It is easy to make things worse.  In a hurry.

So, some general suggestions for handling conflict:

  1. Pay attention to people.
  2. Pay attention to detail.
  3. Work to solve the problem (whatever it might be), and don’t just fight to win the argument.

So, first pay attention to people:

Who are the people in this scene?  Well, Jesus, of course.  This is not a surprise since this is a scene from a gospel, and in a gospel Jesus is in nearly every scene.  But it is worth noticing what happens to Christian interpreters when Jesus walks onstage.  Immediately we defer to him.  We begin with the assumption that our job is to submit to his authority and meekly agree with whatever he says.  It is worth noting that the gospels themselves do not require this of characters who encounter Jesus.  To cite one important instance, the Canaanite mother who met Jesus in chapter 15 challenged him directly, and did so with the approval of the storyteller.  So even though we know how the scene for this Sunday ends, perhaps we ought not drain all the tension from it by submitting too soon.

And in this scene we meet the chief priests and the elders of the people.  By now we have all learned to recognize that the priestly authorities had been made to cooperate with Roman rule, whether out of greed and boorishness (á là Victor Tcherikover), or out of forced collaboration (á là Warren Carter).  This has been a good thing to learn.  It is clear that the gospel storytellers do not approve of the priestly authorities and cast them as unfaithful opponents of Jesus.  It is important to recognize that tendency.  But if we are to take the conflict seriously, we cannot approach it as if all we need are simple heroes (always Jesus) and obvious villains.  Paying attention to the people requires that we ask what is at stake for the chief priests and elders when they ask Jesus about authority.

So, why might they be concerned about authority?  If they have been charged (by Pilate, for Rome) with the task of keeping the peace by reporting troublemakers, then their question has a sharp edge.  They clearly see Jesus as a potential troublemaker.  If he claims the right to make trouble for sociological or political reasons, they have a pragmatic responsibility.  If, however, he claims a theological justification, then they face a more serious problem.  Either way, they may well have to turn him over to the Roman authorities to prevent Pilate from randomly killing Jews in order to remind people that he was in charge.  But the fact that they ask the theological question means that they (at some level, anyhow) share the expectation that God will anoint an agent (sometime, somehow) who will finally turn the world right-side-up.  But they ask because it is foolish to waste this old, passionate hope on someone who will fail at the task.  Such failure would be devastating.

If you pay attention to the people in the scene, you see that they are asking a question that SOMEONE has to ask.  Faith is too important to waste on a fool who can only fail.

Next, pay attention to detail:

Jesus is challenged not just by priests and elders, as serious as that would be.  He is challenged by the CHIEF priests and the elders OF THE PEOPLE.

Because they are the CHIEF priests, it is clear that they are tightly tied to the Temple, the center of the Jewish world that provides focus and stability in a chaotic world.  That is why they are concerned not to undermine the structures that have kept the Jewish people safe.  That is also why Roman carefully suborned the chief priests and forced them to serve as its organ of liaison, its tool of domination.

But of even greater importance is the storyteller’s choice to identify the elders as the elders τοῦ λαοῦ.  The word, λαος, is not a name for an indiscriminate crowd, nor does it name people in general.  The word refers to the congregation of faithful people.  The storyteller did not have to use this word.  It would have been enough to simply mention the elders.  By bringing in the word tied to the people who trusted the promise that made them Jews in the first place, the elders are tied to faithfulness, and this means that we, the audience, are expected to take their question seriously.  Even if they turn out to be incorrect, they offer their challenge on the basis of faith, not unfaith.  

And, finally, work to solve the problem:

This probably lands in our lap (more than in the lap of the storyteller) because we are charged with advancing readings of this scene that connect with our surrounding world.

Conflict has become the most obvious characteristic of our contemporary scene.  We have a president who fires up his base supporters by throwing them stereotyped calls to arms.  “Don’t you just want to watch football without having to think about politics?,” he shouts.  The answer is a resounding, “Yes!”  “Aren’t you sick of the way liberal sissies have wrecked the manly game of football?,” he growls, smashing his fists together to suggest that what we need is more thrilling head-to-head collisions.  The answer is a visceral howl, “Yes!!”  The next call to arms is a dripping mash-up of dog-whistle flag-patriotism, glad racist insult, and “fearless” profanity.  (Somehow it made him feel all good inside to call the protestors “sons of bitches.”)  “Hell, yes!,” screams the crowd, forgetting that they were supposed to be the good Christian people who just want to bring back public morals and good conduct.

It is easy to yell, and howl, and scream in response to their yelling and screaming.

It is even exactly what we were set up to do, because if we scream back, the good-Christians-who-just-screamed-“Hell, yes” will feel justified in having used crude profanity.  After all, “that’s what happens when you push a good man too far.”

Could we just stop for a moment?

It is easy to make things worse at such a moment.  Just ask Kim Jong-Un.

Too often the present moment feels like we are all Slim Pickens in the movie, Dr. Strangelove,” jostling the atomic bomb loose and riding it, whooping, all the way to the ground and nuclear annihilation.

Could we just stop?

In the scene for this Sunday, Jesus asks a question, a question that reveals to his challengers that he understands their quandary.  As a result, what could have turned into a street fight ends in reflection and puzzlement.  The chief priests and the elders of the people really do NOT know what to make of the movements around John the Baptist and Jesus.  And they say so, publicly.

And the scene ends.

Of course, they will act against Jesus a few chapters later, and Pilate will crucify him as a result.  There are no magic words, no silver bullets, no get-out-of-conflict-free cards.  Sometimes everything goes to smash.  It just does.

Sometimes.  BUT NOT EVERY TIME.  Sometimes when conflict is stopped it is also defused.

It seems to me that just now is a good time to try to defuse the situation, just in case it works.

Just in case.



A Provocation: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 24, 2017: Matthew 20:1-16

Matthew 20:1-16
20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

20:2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

20:3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;

20:4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

20:5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

20:6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’

20:7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

20:8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’

20:9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

20:10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.

20:11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,

20:12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

20:13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?

20:14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.

20:15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

20:16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

A Question or Two:

  • Are the workers angry because the boss is generous?  Really?
  • Or are they upset because he is generous to some, but not to others?
  • Does it matter?

Some Longer Reflections:

Notice that there are people standing idle.  Why?  And what do we think about idle people?  And, again, why?

This scene hands us some choices: do we take shots at the lazy people who are not working though there is clearly lots of work to do?  Or do we take shots at people who are clearly not property owners, clearly not accomplished or hard-working?  Or do we notice that the economy is clearly not working well if there is work to do and no sure way to connect labor with need?  It matters.  And that is only the first round of choices.

We will have to think a bit about who it is that harvests the fruit (for one thing) in our fields.  We will have to notice how it is that our economy uses undocumented people.  But that will require that we actually study how it is that our economy uses undocumented people.  Ideological rants will make things worse, no matter what part of the ideological spectrum they emerge from.

And we will have to know something about the economy of ancient Galilee.  There are good studies available.  One thing that emerges from reading those studies is that traditional landowners were being pushed off their family land by newcomers with wealth and connections to Roman political power.  Read from this angle, this parable introduces us to people who stood idle in the marketplace because their farms and vineyards had been confiscated by these newcomers.

So, what if the master in the parable is one of the Jewish landowners who had not (or, at least, not yet) been pushed off his land.  Why does he pay most of his workers more than the customary wage?  Perhaps the master is trying to make things right by hiring people who have been dispossessed.  That might be the force of “pay you whatever is right.”  The “usual daily wage” is what it would take to feed a family.  Those who were not hired would have nothing to feed their children, so the master decides to pay them all enough to feed their families.

Notice that the workers first hired grumbled against the landowner, who might have been trying to help people who were dispossessed.  So, maybe we are to reflect on a basic fact of life: it is not simple to try to make things better than they are, and you should not expect to get cookies for your efforts.  Sometimes you will get insults.  And sometimes the insults will be correct.   Or at least helpful.

Of course, the master could be one of the newcomers who was, in fact, hiring the people who formerly owned the vineyard he was sending them to harvest.  That would complicate everything.  The workers would feel the sting of being hired  (at a low wage) to bring the fruit of (what had been their own) land to the one who had stolen what was theirs.  The master might be playing with them, taunting them, even, when he pays them different wages, knowing that they would have to accept whatever he gave them.  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?,” he says, thus reminding them that he owned the land that God had given to their ancestors.  That does put a twist on things.

No matter where you look, economic and political complications raise their hydra-like heads.

Perhaps the point of this little scene is that we all have some research to do.  It is easy to take cheap shots at the workers or at the master, and it is easy to beatify one or the other, but the complications of the parable will twist any such interpretive effort.

No matter how you understand the politics and economics of this parable and of the world around us. do your research, or this parable will bite you.

A Provocation: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 17, 2017: Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35
18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

18:22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

18:23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.

18:24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him;

18:25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.

18:26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’

18:27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.

18:28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’

18:29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’

18:30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.

18:31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.

18:32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.

18:33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’

18:34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.

18:35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

A Question or Two:

  • If you were Peter, would you have said “Seven times”?
  • Would you have guessed a higher number?
  • Or lower?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is another well-known, well-worn scene that delivers an important bit of advice: forgive each other, forgive each other, forgive each other even more still.  As with most of the scenes like this in the gospels, the advice good (but worth analyzing) and the text has been the base for many, many basic sermons.

And like most scenes like this, there are always oddities.

In this scene, the oddities start with the basic advice:

Peter asks a good question: How many times is just too many?

If he is asking how many times he has to forgive minor annoyances, then seven times is a ridiculously small number.  Even 77 times is not too many times to be bothered by someone you encounter frequently.  And so you have to wonder if Peter is one of THOSE people who keeps score and remembers EVERY time you did or said something they didn’t like.  Jesus should have told him to get a life.

But if Peter is asking about real offenses, then forgiving seven serious hurts is in itself already odd and surprising.

How many chances do YOU give people before you just write them off?  I’ll tell you the truth: if the hurt is real, I cannot imagine giving a co-worker 77 chances to inflict pain.  I can imagine giving up on such a person; I can imagine ceasing to take them seriously and thus denying to them the right to hurt me.  But that is not the same thing as forgiving them.

And what if Peter is intending to ask whether we are obliged to be punching bags?

If Jesus’ answer to all of this requires that we absorb abuse and then forgive, and forgive, and meekly forgive, then Jesus gives a bad answer.  As a professor and as a pastor I have heard stories of abuse from my students and parishioners and I have not, do not, and will not tell them that they ought to accept abuse.  Forgiveness may indeed set them free, but not if it comes as a demand that perpetuates the abuse.

But the real oddity comes in the parable that Jesus tells.

Its basic narrative structure is ordinary enough: a king forgives a huge debt, the forgiven slave refuses to forgive a smaller (though still significant) debt.  Don’t be that guy.

But this parable is more than its basic narrative structure.  The debt owed to the slave is sizeable: a denarius was the wage earned in a day by a common worker, so 100 denarii approaches four months wages.  That is a lot for anyone, though it is not a crushing debt.  It is worth asking how a slave (who is NOT paid for his work) would ever pay off even THAT debt, but that is another matter.

The REAL oddity is the size of the debt owed to the king.  The parable says that it was 10,000 talents.  Historians give different answers as to the value of a talent, and it will always be difficult to translate ancient money into contemporary amounts.  The economies are basically different, and currency exchange rates must suppose a basic similarity.

But no matter how much a talent was worth, exactly, the amount is huge.  One source imagines that a talent, as a measure of weight, was 130 pounds of silver.  That would mean that the slave owed the king 13,000,000 pounds of silver.  At the current price of silver, that would add up to something like $2,782,000,000.  That debt is oddly large, strikingly enormous.

It is a good practice when interpreting parables to follow the oddities.  The oddities tend to lead to the heart of the story.

So the question is: how in the world did a slave (who does not own even his own body) come to owe such an astronomical amount to the king?

Not on his own.  No matter what the real answer is supposed to be, the slave would not have been able to fail on such a level had the king not enabled him to do it.

The king set him up.

Maybe the king put him in charge of the royal investment fund and imposed a contract under which the slave would receive a percentage of the gains and (oh, by the way) bear the losses, but “In an economy as strong as this one, what could go wrong?”  Maybe the king did this in, perhaps, late 2007.  And then came September 29, 2008.

Or maybe the slave heard the king and his over-privileged buddies telling lies about their success in the stock market.  The king (who was successful, tremendously successful, and really very rich) gave the slave a hot investment tip, and lent him the money (“Can’t miss!  What could go wrong?”) for the investment.  Of course the slave did not have a daddy with money to bail him out of financial failure.  And thus the slave owes the king over $2 billion.

However the debt came about, the king had to be complicit.

Perhaps this what the oddity in the parable wants us to notice.

But, if so, what, exactly, are we supposed to reflect on?

Interpreters generally leap from the enormity of the debt to the idea that human sin creates an infinite debt to God.  This sets up a theological reflection on some variation on the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement, which is a theological construct that begs the question: “How could a good God create an economy that can only result in every creature failing and falling into infinite debt?”  I know that there are Christians who really like the Satisfaction Theory, and I am sure that they can come up with any number of justifications for their continuing to hold this medieval theory.  I have played those justifications through to their conclusions.  I am not impressed.  In the end, God is either poor at creating, or abusive in governing the Creation.  In the end such theories plant a terror in the heart of faithfulness and thus undermine even joy at the fact of forgiveness.

What if we are to direct our interpretive attention to the king’s complicity?

What if the key interpretive question were: “How out-of-touch IS this guy?”  Or: “What was the king thinking when he through the slave into prison until the debt is paid off?”  Let’s just say that the imprisoned slave earns what an inmate earns in my state (South Dakota): $.25 per hour.  That comes to $10 per 40 hour week, or $500 per year.  That means that the imprisoned slave would work off his debt in a cool 556,400 years.  Which is over twice as long as modern humans have been on earth.  What was the king thinking?

No matter how you answer that question, the king appears to be either a petty dictator who first causes the slave to fall into bottomless debt and then dismisses him by “forgiving” him for falling into the debt into which the king dropped him, or the king is simply incompetent and does not bother to do the math that would allow him to understand his effect on his subjects.

But that would make this scene, and this parable, even stronger, even more incisive.  This is not simply a command to forgive more.  It is an indictment of ANY system that sets God up as the one who keeps score.  Such theological structures, even when they are used to encourage us to forgive and grant release, train us to keep score and preserve the patriarchy.  That is maybe why the slave went out from the presence of the king to whom he owed the debt and demanded payment from his fellow slave.  Perhaps he, too, even intended (after threatening imprisonment) to forgive the debt, just as he had been forgiven.  I suppose we could stop short and say that the parable says that the slave didn’t go far enough, didn’t buy into the system of debt and release deeply enough.  But I’m starting to think that the problem is a twisted focus on debt which (not so) subtly preserves the hierarchy that keeps us apart.  When forgiveness is pictured as the act of a king who counts up, and then eliminates, a debt (a debt, from the parable, that he is free to recall and re-impose), then God models hierarchical domination for us, and we will follow suit.

This parable is a warning against that way of thinking of God, the world, and each other.  Maybe it’s time we started taking the Incarnation seriously, and stopped thinking about “salvation” as the payment of a large debt.  Maybe it’s even time we quit heating ourselves up over “salvation” at all.


A Provocation: Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 10, 2017: Matthew 18:15-20

Matthew 18:15-20
18:15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.

18:16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

18:17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

18:18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

18:19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

A Question of Two:

  • Why are two or three witnesses important?
  • Why does Jesus’ “Father in heaven” need two or three witnesses(verse 19)?
  • Does this mean that human solidarity is important, even in the face of the Deity?

Some Longer Reflections:

First, some obvious things:

  • People disagree and people hurt each other, even when all the people involved are good-hearted and aiming to do right.
  • This is true in any and all communities, including congregations.
  • When people have been hurt, they talk to other people about it.
  • When we have been hurt, we generally talk to close friends who will commiserate with us, and then we talk to not-so-close friends who will agree with us, and sometimes we even talk to people who are nearly strangers.  It hurts to be hurt.
  • This scene in Matthew’s story aims to short-circuit what generally happens: Jesus directs members of the community to talk first to the person who caused the hurt, alone, when it is just the two of you.  This does not necessarily rule out close-friend-commiseration, but it does cut off the cycle of gossip.

All of this is obvious.  And probably useful.

But obvious.

But notice what this little scene requires of us.

Jesus requires witnesses.  Two or three of them.

What do you suppose happens when the person who feels wronged first speaks to the two or three who might serve as witnesses?

There are several possibilities.

  • The person seeking witnesses might begin by going to people who are likely to take their side.  Did the witnesses actually witness anything?  Or are they expected to simply serve as “wing-men” who will back any play the their friend attempts?  At that point, this becomes a matter of integrity.
  • If the people who are approached did indeed witness the event in question, they will surely have seen it from their own perspectives.  And they might, therefore, see it differently than does the person who feels wronged.
    • Maybe they saw the offense as even more serious than the person who felt wronged.
    • Maybe they didn’t see an offense at all.
  • If the witnesses saw no offense, the situation becomes deeply complicated.
    • The witnesses might be correct, which will be (at the least) awkward for the person who feels wronged.
    • Or, the witnesses might be (to sound an echo that goes back 40 years) “un-indicted co-conspirators.”
      • How many women have reported being harassed, only to discover that men who witnessed the abuse tell them to “just get over it?”
      • How many subordinates are abused by bosses and then discover that their co-workers see this as an opportunity to gain an advantage over them?
    • Dominators of every sort exert their power (and do their damage) by creating a system in which subordinates believe that it is to their advantage to take the side of their abuser.  That is the conspiracy.  That is the real abuse.  Those that refuse to be witnesses may not be “indictable,” but they are surely part of the plot, deeply implicated in the abuse.  (For a large and insightful analysis of this phenomenon, see Domination and the Arts of Resistance by James C. Scott.)

That is what is not, at least to me, immediately obvious in this little scene about making and breaking peace.

Though it may not be obvious, it is crucial to the interpretation of this scene.

When peace is broken, even the protocol that is set for making peace can be a tool used by oppressors.  And, perhaps even more important, the act of attempting reconciliation can catalyze the deep recognition of systemic abuse.  The very act of asking people to bear witness reveals that the harm goes farther than anyone had imagined.  In such a system, there is no integrity, and no peace, only more abuse.

I find myself reflecting at this point, not on the Ezekiel passage paired with this scene in Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary, but on the indictment offered by Jeremiah (chapter 6).

13 For from the least to the greatest of them,

everyone is greedy for unjust gain;

and from the prophet to priest,

everyone deals falsely.

14 They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,

saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.  (NRSV)

Jeremiah is not simply calling out deceitful trading practices.  Jeremiah is naming systemic abuse and the way it makes co-conspirators of us.  It is time we ceased treating the wounds of our sisters and brothers carelessly.  It is time we acted with integrity when called to bear witness.  And it is time that we actually started making peace and ceased pretending that there is peace.  Far too often and in far too many situations, there is no peace, there is only silence.


A Provocation: Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 3, 2017: Matthew 16:21-28

Matthew 16:21-28
16:21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

16:22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

16:23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

16:25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

16:26 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?

16:27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.

16:28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

A Question or Two:

  • My family belongs to Holy Cross Lutheran Church.  What does the word “holy” mean in that sentence?
  • “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  The Princess Bride

Some Longer Reflections:

You may have guessed by now.  I am weary of conventional religious answers, and distrustful of much of what passes for religion and religious practice.  Too much of it is too holy, too gladly separate from regular life.  And regular life is the only life we really live.

I am weary of conventional religious readings even when those readings have generated powerful theological understandings.

Consider, for instance, the matter of cross-bearing.

“”If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” says Jesus, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes The Cost of Discipleship and generations of Christians learn new and productive lessons about religious practice that knows the difference between cultural Christianity and actual faithfulness.  Bonhoeffer’s contribution to Christian self-understanding and to religious practice are immense.

And most of the sermons I have heard on The Cost of Discipleship and cross-bearing are religious.  And conventional.  And they are conventionally religious in ways that Bonhoeffer would (I think) find puzzling.  Christians, desiring a more energetic, more authentic faith have courted suffering in the name of carrying the cross.  Theologians, desiring to respond to Jesus, Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther (not always in that order) have crafted theologies that focus on how the death of all things human (strength, righteousness, hope, intelligence) must precede our receiving life from God.  Some even have gladly proclaimed that God kills us (gladly) in order to raise us.  The problem with all of these reactions is not simply that they are masochistic (though that is a REAL problem).  The problem is that they are religious.  And conventional.  And they make of Jesus’ words a metaphor.

In the world that Jesus knew, crucifixion was not a metaphor.

People were actually crucified, and all of his hearers knew that.  Jesus’ words are not advocating religious athleticism.  His words establish a connection with a world that suffers, a world that is tortured.

Jesus’ words foster honest awareness that there is no path through life except one that involves suffering.  Crucifixion is not a fetish, it is a disturbingly common fact of regular life.  There has been no generation without war, not generation without disease or famine.  Imagining a privileged freedom from suffering and sacrifice is revealed as a pointless fantasy.  Jesus’ words call out both privilege and fantasy, and reveal them for what they are: escapist and irresponsible.

This must be considered carefully.  I suppose that we might, someday, construct a world in which people do not torture people.  I can suppose that we might construct such a world.  Someday.  But we have scarcely begun work on that project, and there are highly placed officials who have learned that it is politically expedient to feed revenge fantasies by calling for people in law enforcement and the military to be free to torture people.  Jesus’ offensive, shocking words about carrying a cross do not allow us to imagine a world that is easy or simple, or better than this one. We are not allowed to forget the parts we want to ignore as anomalies.  Torture, pointless suffering, slavery and it’s aftermath, all these things are real parts of the regular world.  Can’t we just get past that?  No, actually, we cannot.  Not even maybe.

So we need to re-translate, and re-hear, Jesus’ words:

  • No one can be my follower unless you are beaten on the street.
  • No one can follow me unless you are shot while carrying a bag of skittles.
  • To believe that the Messiah is turning the world right-side-up, you have to be charged with resisting arrest without actually resisting,
    • or pulled over because of the color of your skin (or the allegedly broken tail light),
    • or seen the officer throw down the gun that you will be charged with having in your hand (though you did not).
  • No one can claim the name of Christian unless you have been pimped to men who wanted to masturbate in your vagina.
  • No one can claim to believe in social justice until you have been driven out of business by a corporation that had no interest in your or your community.

The list can go on.  If you are not offended by items on this list, I have not done my job as an interpreter of the words of Jesus, because crucifixion was an obscenity in the ancient world, and everyone knew that.

“This must never happen to you,” said Peter, and his words seem to make more sense now.

“Get behind me, Satan!,” says Jesus, his words now revealing that our dream of comfort and easy equity is a dangerous temptation to which we gladly give in.


A Provocation: Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost: August 27, 2017: Matthew 16:13-20

Matthew 16:13-20
16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

16:17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

16:20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus ask the question he asks?
  • Why do people give the answers that they do?  Why John the Baptist?  Why Elijah?  Why Jeremiah?

Some Longer Reflections:

A simple question: what does it mean that Peter says that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God?”

The easy answers suppose that this is an identification question, and that Peter gets it right because God revealed it to him.  The easy answers suppose that Peter is commended for passing the ID quiz.  Yay, Peter.

The more complicated answers are more interesting.  And more important.

“Messiah” is not an identity.  It is not even an office.

“Messiah” is an analytic, a diagnosis, a considered judgment on the state of the Creation and on a particular moment in time.  To say that Jesus is the messiah is, first of all, to confess that the world is upside down.  If it were not, there would be no need for a messiah, for an agent anointed to turn the world right-side-up, which is what a messiah does.  By the time Jesus was born, the Jewish people had been without an anointed king for several centuries.  By the time Jesus was born, what had originally been a simple hope for a return to the monarchy and the independence that had existed before the Babylonian Exile had gathered to it all the hopes and prayers of people who saw injustice and pain, disease and abuse, and refused to believe that God had intended this to be the proper state of the universe.  By the time Jesus was born, “messiah” was a protest against a world out of whack.

Such a protest is easy to understand if you focus on obvious injustices, if you look (in Matthew’s story) only at Herod’s genocidal attack with which the story begins.  That is too easy, and easy understandings of “messiah” are, in fact, evidence of deep MIS-understandings.  To confess that the world is upside down is, then and now, to confess that the basic structures of life are wrong and need to be rebuilt.  “Messiah” calls for a basic change, not just some tinkering around the edges.

If you want to feel the impact of Peter’s confession, read (slowly and carefully) some of what is currently being written about the matter of white privilege.  Don’t argue, don’t resist, don’t refute.  Just read, slowly and carefully, and reflect.

“Messiah” does not preserve privilege, nor does “messiah” make everyone privileged.  Such fantasies are economically impossible; they are idle imaginings founded on a desire to be free from responsibility for each other, free from connection and community.  Cain hoped for such freedom, and you know how that turned out.  Abel paid with his life.  “Messiah” creates community and connection, and fosters responsibility amongst the members of Creation.

A classic description of “sin” names it as the condition of being “curved in on oneself,” being concerned first with how all things affect me.  This description suggests that we are properly created to be concerned first with each other, with the health of the entire Creation.

That means that a reaction to discussions about “white privilege” that worry first about how I might be dis-advantaged by such discussions reveals itself as a sign of how the world is broken, upside-down.

Reflect on this.  Analyze it.  When Peter says that Jesus is “Messiah,” he is confessing that the basic structures of privilege and access to resources that govern the world are broken.  This is the sort of confession that will need to be revealed by God, and given as a gift.

This gift has a second characteristic, as well.  Peter’s confession not only means that the world is upside-down.  For Peter to tie the word, messiah, to Jesus, Peter has to believe that it is possible to turn the world right-side-up.  He is saying that the person standing in front of him is the one actively engaged in making that happen.  This insight into the significance of the present moment is also a gift from God, and separates Peter’s analysis of the need for change from mere complaining, simple despair.  Peter is confessing that hope is possible.  Anytime this happens, God has given us a gift.

But the most important moment in Peter’s confession comes when he calls Jesus the messiah who is the child of the “living God.”

This way of speaking of God means two things simultaneously.

First it means that God is the “God of life.”  This is the right way to translate the Hebrew phrase behind this confession in the Greek Testament.  That means that Peter is confessing that, no matter how privilege is presently structured, God working on the side of life, of justice and equity.  In actual fact, this means that God must be the God of resurrection, because nothing less will be required if the world is to be turned right-side-up.  Too many radical reactions to the brokenness of the world contribute only reactive violence, and thus advocate that we all jump into the meat-grinder together.  Only death comes out of following that advice.  To confess that God is God of resurrection is to dare to hope that life is possible, and that hope is not simply a pleasant illusion.

And Peter’s confession also means that he expects that God is lively and active in the present moment.  God is not, according to Peter, a sentimental vestige of a past world in which people believed in such beings.  God is not a static symbol for generalized hopefulness.  God is an actual, active participant in human history.  Peter is claiming that God is working to bring life into a world that has been regulated by death.

Jesus says that his Father in heaven has revealed this to Peter.

This vigorous hope and expectation is the foundation stone for Christian faithfulness.

That is worth thinking about, especially these days.

But what I don’t know is why Jesus commands them NOT to tell any of this to anyone.  The easy answers are not satisfactory.  Reflect.




A Provocation: Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost: August 20, 2017: Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
15:10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand:

15:11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

15:12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”

15:13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.

15:14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”

15:15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.”

15:16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding?

15:17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?

15:18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.

15:19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.

15:20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

15:21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

15:22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

15:23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

15:24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

15:25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

15:26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

15:27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

15:28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

A Question or Two:

  • That which goes into the sewer doesn’t make a person unclean?  Really?
  • Why does Jesus call the mother a dog?  What would your mother say if you did that?
  • The mother said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  How did she hold her head when she said this?  How did she hold her shoulders?  Try a few different possibilities.

Some Longer Reflections:

There hadn’t been Canaanites in centuries.

Read that sentence again.  There had not been people who were properly called “Canaanites” for centuries.  So why does the storyteller refer to the woman in this scene as a “Canaanite?”

Do not answer this question too quickly.

This is a question to contemplate, not to dispose of with a snap answer.

Why does the storyteller have Jesus interact with a Canaanite?  In the parallel version of this scene in the gospel of Mark, Jesus meets a Syro-Phoenician woman, not a Canaanite.  That identification marks her as an inheritor of political, social, and economic power from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, that enemy of the Jewish people remembered for his cruelty (described in the books of Maccabees).  That identification makes Mark’s story a confrontation with a well-remembered historic enemy.  The scene in Mark is marked by sharp conflict (though it is often obscured by translators): Jesus’ words to the mother when he relents are best read as harsh (“For saying this, Go!”), and when the mother finds the daughter, she is “thrown on the bed, the demon gone.”  Why is she “thrown” (and why do translators cover this up)?  There is no answer.

But in Matthew, the scene is harsher at the beginning.  Jesus wants nothing to do with the mother, and she follows after him, shouting.  Jesus does not answer her at all, and his actions make him look like one of the Ultra-Orthodox (in any faith group) who angrily refuses any kind of contact with a woman, especially a foreigner.  The disciples are no better.  They are at least trying to drink the Ultra-Orthodox Kool-aid.

But at the end of the scene, Jesus is quite amazed, and genuinely changed.  “Great is your faith!”, he says.  He had no idea!  “Let it be done for you as you wish.”  His sharpness is gone.  He is converted.

And the woman is called a Canaanite.

That means that she is being identified as one of the people marked for extermination in the book of Joshua, who shares a name with Jesus, by the way.  At the beginning of the scene, Yehoshua (Jesus) adopts the stance of his namesake from the distant past.  At the end, he is different.

So, what is going on here?

Maybe the storyteller is giving us a glimpse of a rigid Jesus, Ultra-Orthodox in his inclinations, who is changed.  If so, this scene is a foreshadowing of what I think happens in Matthew’s whole story.  For my developed argument for this interpretive line, see my commentary, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew (The Pilgrim Press).

Of course I like this possibility.

But I think that there is even more here.

The storyteller is calling into the story, not just a mother, but also a memory, a remembrance, even.  The storyteller is staging a remembrance of the slaughter carried out by Joshua when they invaded the land.  This is not idly done.  This remembrance makes this a scene of historic repentance: the Canaanites are shown to be capable of real faithfulness, and as such, should not have been slaughtered.  The entrance to the Land of Promise (this remembrance implies) ought not to have been accomplished through genocidal slaughter, and the argument for that slaughter (they will lead you away from true faithfulness) is revealed to be false, at best mistaken, and more likely ignorant and inexcusable.

If that is what the storyteller is doing, this scene offers a pointed reflection.  I live in South Dakota (a state that carries the name of the people who lived in harmony with this land before European-Americans arrived and dispossessed them.  I live not very far from the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.  I have friends who teach at, or graduated from, universities that were constructed, in part, by the labor of people who were held as slaves, again by European-Americans.

What would it take for those of us who are descended from those European-Americans (for starters) to engage in a similar act of remembrance?  What would it take for us to say, with Jesus, “Great is your faithfulness!”

That’s a good question, I think.