A Provocation: Second Sunday of Advent: December 10, 2017: Mark 1:1-8

Mark 1:1-8
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does John eat locusts and wild honey?
  • Notice that this diet makes him independent and free.  The Creation itself feeds him, and he doesn’t have to ask anyone “pretty please.”
  • What does telling the truth have to do with asking “pretty please?”

Some Longer Reflections:

John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, strangely dressed and passionate, and he proclaims a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  I have been working with actors to perform this scene for a long time, nearly 20 years, in fact.  I have seen women and men perform this scene, old people and young, pastors and sophomores at Augustana, where I teach.  In almost every performance, John the Baptist shouts.  Sometimes he foams at the mouth.  Most of the time he resembles a revivalist preacher, whether or not he adopts a phony Southern accent (it is especially bad when he does).

You can see why this happens: the storyteller repeats the thing about repenting of sins, and the thing about being baptized as part of that repenting.

But this common way of playing this scene ignores how John is invited into the story.  The storyteller weaves the invitation out of memories from Exodus, from Malachi, and from Isaiah, and calls the whole thing (at least in a broad, and reliable set of ancient manuscripts) a word from the prophet, Isaiah.

Go look at the source material in Isaiah (it is the First Lesson for this Sunday).  It comes from Isaiah 40, and it does not anywhere mention repentance.  It does not foam at the mouth.  It does not even shout.

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says God.  “Speak tenderly.”

Stop and think about that.

Speak tenderly. 

Isaiah, especially the later chapters of that prophet, was well known.  Any imaginable audience for Mark’s story would have recognized Isaiah 40 as soon as the storyteller opened her mouth.  The audience would have known that the prophet is speaking comfort, tenderly.

So why do we shout?

We appear to believe that people will only change if we scold them, preferably loudly.  I have worked for managers like that.  In my experience, they are bad at their jobs.  They may get short-term results: people will (at least at first) do almost anything just to stop the shouting.  Chaotic bosses who manage by being loud and unpredictable may succeed in putting themselves at the center of everything, but they stir resentment and resistance.  People work AGAINST them as much as they work FOR them.  And they never work WITH them.  A moron with power is still a moron.

If John the Baptist had been a shouting moron-with-power to convince people that they needed to jump when he said jump, his movement would have ground down to nothing after his death.  Notice that in Mark’s story, John’s movement flows directly into Jesus’s movement.  The people who come out to John continue to work with him, and with Jesus after him.  You don’t get that by yelling at people.  That just leads to resentment.

So, a suggestion: Speak tenderly.

When you read John’s words to the crowds who came out to him, speak them as words of comfort.  Imagine the words about repentance as tender, kind, loving, and comforting.  John is offering people a chance to be done with all the things that have bound them to anger and resentment, an opportunity to be free from sin.  That will lift up every valley, and smooth out every wrecked road.

Speak tenderly, and then the glory of the God whose Name is Mercy will be revealed.

A Provocation: First Sunday of Advent: December 3, 2017: Mark 13:24-37

Mark 13:24-37
13:24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,

13:25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

13:26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.

13:27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

13:28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.

13:29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

13:30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

13:32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

13:33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

13:34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.

13:35 Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,

13:36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

13:37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

A Question or Two:

  • Which apocalyptic movie will you watch as you prepare to celebrate Advent?
  • Skip the Left Behind nonsense, or anything made by that crowd.
  • Try Harry Potter.  Try The Lord of the Rings.  Try Band of Brothers.  Try White Christmas.  Yes, seriously.  (Sort of.)

Some Longer Reflections:

Real end-of-the-world stuff this week.

And almost all of the customary notions about this miss the point.  Sometimes really badly.

All of this goes sour when somebody pops up with the Rapture, and the threat of being “left behind,” and pretty soon we’re all doing the backstroke in the lake of fire.  Oh joy.

A bit before my parents were born (early 1920s) Lutherans in North America got together and decided to suspend preaching on the second coming and the end of the world.  They judged that such preaching was doing more harm than good and that they would do better to give it a rest.  A long rest.

I am sometimes really thankful so such a decision.  Speculation about dates and times and heavenly signs leads to mischief.  Only mischief.  But as a result of that decision both my parents and I grew up with almost no acquaintance with apocalypticism.  That meant I was spared the hellfire-and-damnation theology that generally goes with it.  I’m fine with that: as a result of missing out on hellfire, anger has always seemed to me a dangerous intrusion in theology, not a major key to play in.  But also as a result of that decision, my whole generation was ill-prepared to deal with the apocalyptic times in which we grew up.  We fell victim to the various galloping apocalyptic schemes (some religious, some not) that burst on the scene in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Kent State Massacre.  We swallowed the Jesus Movement (for good and for ill), some of us much more than others.  Perhaps we would have been spared some of the excess (wretched and otherwise) of that era if we had developed critical theological skills around apocalyptic.  Perhaps.

That is the last century.

This is now.  It is another apocalyptic time, in some ways as excessive (and as dangerous) as the late 60s and early 70s.

This is maybe a good time to look closely at apocalyptic texts and trends, and to think critically about them, whether they are religious in origin or not.

The first thing to notice is that the celestial events listed in Mark 13 begin after “that suffering.”  This is no time to fire up old rants about “the tribulation.”  That is NOT what Mark 13 is talking about, no matter what TV preachers will tell you.  “That suffering,” for any imaginable audience of Mark’s ancient story, would have called to mind the horrors of the crushing of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.  Ancient sources say that something like 1 million Jews died.  The disaster came to its climax in the siege of Jerusalem, which was horrifying.  This catastrophe left marks on the Jewish faith (and the Christian faith) that are visible still.

(See David Carr’s Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins for a fine exploration of this and other generative catastrophes.)

Notice that it is AFTER that suffering that the powers of the heavens are shaken.  Rather than speculate about how the stars can fall from the sky, imagine what such events would have meant for the first audience of this story.  The sun rules the day, says Genesis 1, and the moon rules the night.  The stars are for the marking of the regular and reliable seasons.  Even during the darkest days of the siege of Jerusalem the sun always rose in the east every morning, and set every night in the west, reliable and regular even in disaster.  The moon walked through its phases, week by week, moving from new moon to full, and back again, every month, every year.  And the North Star was always steadily in the north, with all the other stars spinning around it.  For these guarantors of regularity to be knocked from their places would have meant that all reliability, all predicability, was gone.

I imagine that these images named quite precisely how Jews felt after the Revolt was crushed.  After that suffering, there was nothing left to count on, nothing to trust, nothing to hope for.

Mark’s storyteller takes the feeling of deadly vertigo that comes at such moments and makes it into a sign that the END  of the suffering is near.

This is not a scene about the “end of the world.”  It is a scene about the end of suffering, the end of hopeless desperation.

The storyteller goes on.  After “that suffering,” after the loss of so many friends and family members, God will gather all of the lost and scattered Chosen People “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”  The roots of this notion go all the way back to an earlier trauma, the destruction of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) by Assyria in 722 BCE.  At the end of that horrible period, all surviving members of the Northern Kingdom were hauled into Exile and scattered.  Ever since that disaster, any promise of restoration had to account for those who were lost.  Now in the aftermath  of the First Jewish Revolt (already seen for the gospel’s audience, but not yet for Jesus’ audience), with the orienting stars and ruling sun shaken and unreliable, Jesus promises that when the sufferings end, the lost and scattered will return.

How soon?  “This generation will not pass away,” he says, but “about that day or hour no one knows.”  This is an important collision of ideas.  Consolation is close, he says, but not so close or so readable that you could put it on a calendar.  This last unreadability is perhaps another result of the sun, moon, and stars being knocked loose.

It seems to me that apocalypticism that is too sure of itself gets angry and impatient: impatient with God’s delay, and angry with Them for living less-than-faithful lives (presumably the cause of the delay).  Impatience is risky and anger is destructive.  At least that’s how it seems to me.

So, we live in an apocalyptic world.

Again.

Again we have groups that believe that the cycle of the aeons is about to turn and the world will change.  Some of those groups are convinced that the election of the current US president is the sign that their sufferings have ended, though it is beyond me how the Obama administration, with its long, steady climb out of the Great Recession, could be characterized as suffering.  (Unless it was having a black man in the White House! That must be the cause of their “suffering.”)  Again we have groups who have taken up arms, threatening armed rebellion if Their president should fail at getting re-elected, just as they threatened revolt if he had failed at getting elected the first time.  Are the threats real?  Are they planted by foreign entities?  Who knows?  It comes down the same either way: there are armed people who plan only to accept election results of which they would approve.  Every once in a while they drop a hint that they are heavily armed.  Heavily.

In the last apocalyptic age that I lived through the politics were very different, but the armament was the same.  The Weather Underground (no, not the weather forecast app) was armed, and intended rebellion.  It promised violence and it meant what it said.

In the apocalyptic age that the gospel of Mark knew, it was the Zealots, likewise armed, and likewise set on violence.  Apocalypse is always a favorite of the violent.  The two seek each other out.

So, beware.

Keep alert.  Look out for impatience and anger.  It is easy to make things worse, and slow work to make things better.  “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”  No matter where you land on the political spectrum, you likely agree that there is work to be done.

That is, you likely agree unless you are one of those who is playing with the idea of armed violence.  So long as that is your plan, you are the problem.  You are the danger.  You are the cause of the present sufferings.

If you are one of those who is playing at threatening armed revolt, you won’t like the changes that are coming.  Do you remember how many women turned out for the Women’s March last year?  Have you been following recent elections?  You’ve had your turn, and the rest of us (regardless of our political party affiliation) are tired of you.

The changes that are coming will be disorienting for all of us, and disheartening at times.  But “this generation will not pass away” before the changes start.  I don’t know when.  Maybe the mid-term elections.  Maybe 2020.  Maybe later.  But the changes will come.  I will not like all of them.  Neither will you, no matter where you land on the political spectrum.

But no matter the shape and nature of our political commitments, we likely agree that things have to change.  Perhaps we could even find ways to work together on some of the changes.  The people who need to threaten others with their weapons, however, they can stay home.

A Provocation: Reign of Christ Sunday: November 26, 2017: Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46
25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

25:32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

25:33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

25:34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

25:35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

25:36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

25:37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

25:38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?

25:39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

25:40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

25:41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;

25:42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,

25:43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

25:44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

25:45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the Sovereign of the Universe talk about “the least?”
  • Are you sure?

Some Longer Reflections:

Another story of division in Matthew.

This one, however, has some odd little elements.

First of all, the story starts out as a story about the coming of the “son of humanity,” but then shifts to speaking about a king making divisions.  That works well enough I suppose, but the seamless shift is worth noting.

Then the storyteller informs us that this dividing is part of the judging of “the nations.” That also works well enough, but now we have to decide whether to translate τὰ ἔθνη as “the nations” so as to imply that all human communities are included, since all humans are part of one nation or another, or whether τὰ ἔθνη this time means what the Hebrew word for “nations” (goyim) implies: Gentiles.

Since most readers of this blog are, in fact, Gentile (I think), it may not matter: no matter how we translate, we are included.

But it is worth thinking about, still.  If this story is just about assessing Gentiles, that implies, I suppose, that Jews are expected to already know all of these criteria, and that Jews are expected, in addition, to live lives of Torah observance.  In such discussions, it generally emerges that the expectations are simpler for Gentiles: the commandments given to Noah will suffice.  Those commandments come down to this: don’t worship idols, don’t commit violent acts, don’t be an idiot, and set up a functioning legal system.  The standards set in Matthew 25 can fit thematically into those commandments.

The situation is not much different if Jews are included in this act of dividing.  Still the expectation is that human beings will treat the people around them (especially the weakest among them) with respect and kindness.  These expectations echo the expectations set in Micah 6: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.  Even when the Jewish discussion turns its attention to the details of Torah observance, still it all boils down to serving God and loving neighbors.

It IS worth noting that nothing is said about “believing in Jesus.”

That doesn’t mean Jesus is unimportant, but it may mean that Christians who refuse to imagine Jews being “saved” unless they say “Jesus” three times with feeling, those Christians might want to think again.

This is not as revolutionary as you might think. If the reason Jesus is crucial is because Jesus works God’s grace for human beings, and because grace has to come first, then this little story makes sense to both Jews and Christians. Jews have always known that grace comes first.  Even Torah itself is a gift of grace, and Jews have never assumed that we buy God’s favor by impressing God with our good deeds.  And Christians, likewise, know that it all comes down to grace, but that does not mean (and never HAS meant) that we are free to act like idiots so that God will have more to gladly forgive us for.

All of this matters.

But what catches my attention is that neither the sheep nor the goats thought they had seen the Sovereign of the Universe hungry or sick or naked or in prison.

Neither.

The goats appear to be planning to sue the Sovereign since, if they had known they were supposed to look for God in the smelly people living under the bridge, they surely would have.  Or at least would have sent a servant to look for God there.

The sheep also never saw the Sovereign.  They just saw people who needed to be fed, or protected, or visited, or respected.  They just saw people and treated them like people.  It never occurred to them that they should be looking for God.  And they are commended for that.

Think about that slowly.

This is not a story about seeing the divine in the “least of these.”  This is a story about seeing people as people.

That seems so simple.  It is.

A Provocation: Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost: November 19, 2017: Matthew 25:14-30

Matthew 25:14-30
25:14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;

25:15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

25:16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.

25:17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.

25:18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

25:19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.

25:20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’

25:21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

25:22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’

25:23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

25:24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;

25:25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

25:26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?

25:27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.

25:28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

25:29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

25:30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

A Question or Two:

  • Why is the master going on a “journey?”
  • Do the slaves think he is coming back?
  • Are you sure?

Some Longer Reflections:

A man is going on a journey.  This man has slaves, slaves that belong exclusively to him.  This man also had property.  Listen to that word, “property.”  Inside that word in English is the word “proper.”  That is not an accident.  “Property,” in English, is that which properly belongs to a person.  When a person has property, it is not just that they have possession of a thing.  The relationship is closer than that.  The property belongs to them, and they belong to it, properly.

The same thing is true in the Greek of this scene.  This man with slaves who is shifting his domain to foreign places (also implied by the Greek) commits his property to those slaves.  The phrase in Greek is τὰ ὑπάρχοντα αὐτοῦ.  The participle that is translated as “property” is ὑπάρχοντα, and it refers to those things that a person has sole control of, sole responsibility for, and sole ownership of.  The man going on a journey “owns” the things he has “own-ership” of.  Again, notice the interwoven English words.  That which is his ὑπάρχοντα is more than just stuff that he has; it is his very own, his substance.  

And the Greek says that he handed ALL of it over to his slaves, each according to the unique ability of that slave (ἑκάστῳ κατὰ τὴν ἰδίαν δύναμιν).  That means that the first slave was judged to have the power to manage five talents, which some authorities estimate would have been equal to about $6.25 million.  

Remember that this is a slave, a person who does not even properly own (again, those words) their own body.  People who are held as slaves will have had remarkable abilities, to be sure, but they will not likely have had too much experience handling $6.25 million.

This parable, like all parables, is odd.

The first slave was given $6.25 million.  The second slave is judged to have the power to manage $3.75 million, which is less than $6.25 million, but still a remarkable amount.

The third slave is put in charge of a single talent, about $1.25 million.  It is worth noting that this is still a tremendous amount of money for most people.  Bankers may deal with such amounts on a regular basis, and venture capitalists may through a million or two at this project or that, but most of us hope to have that kind of money in our retirement accounts, or wish that we did.  But we don’t think of those amounts as walking-around money.

Everyone knows that when the master returns (after an indefinite period only named as a “long time”) the slaves are called to account for the money they were handed.

There are a few things to be noted here.

First, the storyteller does NOT tell us that they were ordered to invest the money.  They weren’t given any orders at all; they were just given the money.  It was just handed over to them.  And while the English translations tell us that the master was going on a “journey,” the Greek tells us that he was shifting his domicile, which could mean that he was leaving forever.  Return is not implied.  So the first two slaves might well have assumed that when the property was handed over, it was likely to stay in their hands.  They might well have assumed that the master was gone for good.

If that is the case, then the the third slave was the only one who thought the master was coming back.  Interpreters usually beat up on the third slave because of the things he says about the master: he’s a harsh man, he reaps where he does not sow, he lives off the hard work of others.  The master clearly doesn’t like him: he calls him lazy and wicked.  But his actions reveal that he clearly expected the master to return.  And he was ready when it turned out that he was right.  We have had plenty of parables about being expectant and ready.  It’s almost like the third slave has been listening in as the other parables were told, and plans accordingly.  And for that he is called lazy and wicked.

Did I mention that this parable is odd?

It gets odder.

As I noted in my commentary, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary, the Talmud also addresses this kind of situation.  When a master leaves a subordinate (over whom he has power, even the power of life and death), the Talmud advises that a subordinate ought “Take no risks.  Bury the cash in the ground.”  This advice recognizes the reality of the power differential between master and subordinate.  Masters often require subordinates to take risks that will get them fired if things don’t work out.  Have you ever worked for a boss like that?  I have.  Ish.

The Talmud’s advice is even better when you consider this odd little parable.  We are told that the master handed over to the slaves his property.  It does say that this is SOME of his property.  It may just imply that this is ALL of his property.  We ought, therefore, assume that the third slave watches as the situation develops and knows what to expect from the first two slaves: they will play the market, they will feel rich, they will gamble with someone else’s money.  Playing the market makes you look like a genius.  Unless you lose.  Perhaps the third slave knows that the first two won’t think of that.

If this is what is going on, he looks at his (measly) single talent and sees in it the last of his master’s fortune.  And he concludes that someone has to be the backstop for this crazy scheme.  He buries the money so that even if the other two lose everything, the master will still have $1.25 million to start over with.  That doesn’t sound lazy or wicked to me.

In the aftermath of his return and the settling of accounts, the master demonstrates that the third slave had estimated his character pretty accurately.  He was indeed harsh: “…from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” he says.  He seems to have thought that living off the work of others was a virtue, not just a fact of life: “…to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance,” he says.  And then, to cement our impression of the harshness of his character, he throws the third slave into the outer darkness, where he will learn to weep and gnash his teeth.

In the aftermath he also reveals the truth of what often seems true of the over-privileged in any century: he says to the slave who had been given $6.25 million to play with: “You were trustworthy in a few things….”  For almost all of us, 6.25 million of ANYTHING is not “a few things.”  Only the uselessly wealthy would even think to say such a thing.

I have to say it: if there is someone in this parable who is lazy, it would be the one who makes his living by reaping what others sowed.  If there is someone who is wicked, it would be the one who takes from the poor the little that they have.  And if there is anyone who is worthless in this parable….  Well, you get the picture.

 

 

If this isn’t an abusive parable about God’s absolute right to cast slaves into the outer darkness, then the point of this parable (thank you, Adolf Jülicher) appears to be: Don’t expect the return of the master.  We would appear to be on our own, whether the master returns or not.

I must have mentioned, sometime or other, that this parable is odd.  I must have.

A Provocation: Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost: November 12, 2017: Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13
25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.

25:2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.

25:3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;

25:4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.

25:5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.

25:6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’

25:7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.

25:8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’

25:9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’

25:10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.

25:11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’

25:12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’

25:13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

A Question or Two:

  • Why are there so many stories about weddings?
  • Why are people always excluded in those stories?

Some Longer Reflections:

How odd.

All parables are odd.  That’s what makes them parables.

But Matthew’s parables are really odd.  And in that odd bunch, this one stands out:

  • there is a clear hierarchy of power, with a male holding ultimate power and being addressed as “lord,”  κύριε in Greek;
  • in this clear hierarchy, there is a group of women, identified in English as “bridesmaids” and in Greek as παρθένοι (which means virgins), without power who ask for admission, and are refused;
  • there is another group of women, also παρθένοι, that is not excluded;
  • the first group of παρθένοι is characterized as being μωραὶ, which is weakly translated into English as “foolish,” but means something more like “morons,” a much harsher word;
  • the other group of women is characterized as being  φρόνιμοι, translated as “wise,” which implies to my ear depth and breadth of knowledge, moral virtue, and piercing insight, but the word in Greek is  φρόνιμοι, which means something more like “prudent,” which only means (for sure) that they were good at planning ahead;
  • being  φρόνιμοι apparently does not imply that they are kind or generous, since when the other women discover that their lamps are going out the φρόνιμοι refuse to share with them;
  • as further evidence, both of their lack of influence and their lack of generosity, when the μωραὶ return after buying oil sometime after midnight (quite a feat in a world without 24-hour convenience stores), they do not intercede on behalf of their sisters to help them gain admission to the marriage feast;
  • the “lord”  (κύριε) tells those who have hunted for oil in the middle of the night, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

This is odd.  It is entirely possible that he does not know them, especially if he is the bridegroom and they are “bridesmaids,” since this would imply that they come from different clans.  But why, then, does he not ask the bride to identify them?

Of course, as Jülicher pointed out in the last century, parables make a central point, and they will move heaven and the narrative earth to do this.  So the unreasonable act of exclusion is what allows the storyteller to give Jesus his final line: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  This final line implies that we ought perhaps to be thinking about the “feast that is to come,” and not just some average wedding feast.  But that makes things worse, not better, since now inclusion in the Dominion of God is determined by a gatekeeper who locks the door against those who are not sufficiently prudent, against those who asked for help and were refused.

This is not the first wedding feast in the gospel of Matthew with a master who retaliates, but the last time the invited guests were murderous brutes.  This time the people excluded are little girls.  If women typically married at around 13 years of age, as many sources suggest, then the μωραὶ in this story could be 10 or 12 years old.  Even in a world that expects full adulthood to emerge at 13, this is unreasonable.  

Prudence is a virtue, but this goes too far.  

I am sure that interpreters will, this year as every year, find a way to justify this narrative structure.  Perhaps this is really about the abruptness of the arrival of the Reign of God, so abrupt (they will say) that it seems random, both in its long delay and in its unexpected appearance.

Sure.

Or perhaps this will be about a wider meaning of prudence, one that includes a long-established practice of Torah observance, and this, not the arrival of the Reign of God, is the real point.

That could work.

Or perhaps this is a parable about how a life well-lived is a life that experiences every instant as being charged with the electricity of the aeon.  Read this way, the parable urges a kind of apocalyptic mindfulness.

I kind of like this last option.

But when I finish hearing the parable, I still notice that it does its work by separating and excluding.  The women are separated from each other (by the amount of oil in their lamps) and they do not offer aid to each other.  Those who arrive late have the door shut in their faces, this though it is the middle of the night and they are alone on the street.  Beyond that, this story of separation and exclusion aims its energy at women.

I am suspicious of such stories, and have come to distrust them.  There is danger in narrative schemes that only work if women are made to be morons.  There is danger in any theological structure that imagines that separation and exclusion are the essence of faithfulness.  It is time we pointed these dangers out.

I notice (as I have written before) that at the end of the story Jesus no longer does his work by separating and excluding.  When he appears to his gathered disciples, some “wise” enough to worship, some “foolish” enough to doubt (Matthew 28, only three chapters from this scene), he does not slam the door in the face of the doubters.  Instead, he sends the whole mixed group out to baptize and teach, and he explicitly promises to be with ALL  of them, wise and foolish, worshipers and doubters, throughout the aeon.

I wonder if he apologized to the little girls that he called morons?

 

A Provocation: Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost: November 5, 2017: Matthew 23:1-12

Matthew 23:1-12
23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,

23:2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;

23:3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.

23:4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

23:5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.

23:6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,

23:7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.

23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.

23:9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven.

23:10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

23:11 The greatest among you will be your servant.

23:12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

A Question or Two:

  • If we are not to be called instructors, what are we supposed to call kindergarten teachers, or chemistry professors, or drill instructors?
  • What does it mean that Messiah is our instructor?  Think about this question slowly.

Some Longer Reflections:

It is so easy to think of people who “do all their deeds to be seen by others.”  It is easy to convince myself that this is because they so obviously intended their deeds to be easily seen.

You see it all the time.

Of course, I do find myself wishing, briefly perhaps, that they would have noticed what I was doing, but I also notice the creepy irony of this development.

But then I notice how people at the mall or on the streets or at public seem to have no ability to walk in crowds.  No one makes room for anyone.

But only then do I remember that the crowds I walk in, for the most part, are on the campus where I teach.  People on campus respect professors, and crowds part like the Red Sea for us.

Even if I don’t wear a broad phylactery or long fringes.

Jesus’ words in this little scene hold up a mirror that I keep wanting to transform into a window.  I want to look through this window and see how other people are doing it wrong.

Whatever “it” is.

But every time I try to look through the window, I see my own face looking back at me.

It would be simple to use this scene to support a theology that spends its energy discovering, over and over and over (and over), that we are inescapably sinful.  That is a simple enough truth.  If “sin” means “missing the mark,” then that is something that we all do.  Some of this “mark-missing” is dull and ordinary, the sort of thing that everyone does everyday.  Some theologies spend their energy requiring us to lament our “most grievous sin” when all they are talking about is our ordinary failings and common clumsiness.  Martin Luther was afflicted by a theology that saw such failings as the cause of divine hatred.  God, he believed, hated every sin, and burned with anger at our faults and failings.  His contribution to the Reformation was built on a rejection of this self-hating theology.

And some of the “mark-missing” that we face is much more serious.  Recently, I was talking with a friend, a physician.  He was describing the skill of one of his colleagues.  A procedure required this physician to insert a large gauge needle into a growth dangerously near to a major artery.  “He was fast.  He was sure.  He was exactly on the mark,” said my friend.  “That’s courage.  That’s real skill.  If he had missed the mark, the patient would have bled out right there on the table.”

Not all serious “missing of the mark” involves needles.  But some does.  And life often hangs in the balance.

This sort of “mark-missing” requires a different sort of theological reflection.  While it is true that our small acts are organically connected to our large acts, to equate everyday failings with life-and-death errors trivializes both the crimes we commit and (from a very different angle) the risks we require people to take for our sake.

Trivializing crimes leads to demands that we forgive them as easily as we dismiss slights and insults.  This leads us to deep misunderstandings of our life together.  We harm each other in big and small ways, and imagining that it is all the same to God leads to the (I think, inevitable) conclusion that God is too far away to understand our life.

And imagining that it is the same thing for me to make a mistake while teaching a class as it is for a physician to make a mistake with a large gauge needle is simply foolish.  We ask physicians to dare to hold life in their hands.  We ask people in the armed forces to learn to kill, and to learn not to.  We ask firefighters and people in law enforcement to run toward danger, not away from it.  All of this comes with a cost, to the individual person and to society.  And when such people “miss the mark,” the outcomes are sometimes terrible.  A physician who handles life carelessly commits a great wrong, as does a military leader who wastes the lives of those under his command.  And a police officer who brutally beats a citizen during a traffic stop destroys our ability to live together and trust each other.

Any decent theology will shine light both on the fearsome responsibilities we ask people to take on and on the ways small sins and large crimes grow out of the same root (when they, in fact, do).

And any decent theology will train us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the God who loves the whole of Creation, us included.  This may be what the Messiah is instructing us to discover.

 

 

A Provocation: Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost: October 29, 2017: Matthew 22:34-46

Matthew 22:34-46
22:34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,

22:35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.

22:36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

22:37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

22:38 This is the greatest and first commandment.

22:39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

22:41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question:

22:42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.”

22:43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

22:44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”‘?

22:45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”

22:46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

A Question or Two:

  • What makes the world work?
  • Is your answer the same as the one Jesus gave?

Some Longer Reflections:

It is time to stop punishing the Pharisees for testing Jesus.  If he is to be the messiah, he should be tested.  When I go to see my physician, I want her to have been tested.  I want the same thing when I call an electrician.

Why would you want less for the messiah?

And this test question is the friendliest possible question.  If anything, it is too simple.  But is radically simple.  If Torah is the logic that holds the universe together, the lawyer (read that: Torah expert) is asking about the internal logic of the Torah.  He is asking Jesus to identify the most basic principle at the heart of everything.  This is an important question.

Jesus gives an important answer, and a very good one: “Love the God whose Name is Mercy, love the God who made heaven and earth, love God with your ethical decisions, Love God with your life, love God in all your efforts to make sense of a crazy world.”

He does not stop there, and that matters.  Religious fanatics often assert that they love God.  In fact, they are often sure that they love God more than you do, more than anyone else CAN.  People who love God like that are sometimes ready to burn the world down for the love of God.  Jesus does not stop with loving God.  “Love your neighbor,” says Jesus, which will make it impossible to burn the world down.

Matthew’s storyteller does not tell us how the Pharisees reacted, but history does.  Jesus’ answer is the same one given by rabbis of his own era.  Matthew’s audience will have known this, and we ought to interpret the storyteller’s silence as acknowledging this.  The Torah expert asks a good question.  Jesus gives a good answer.  Everyone in this scene agrees.

Now Jesus asks a question.  This, also, is a simple question.  The Pharisees give a good answer.  “The Messiah is the son of David,” they say, making it clear that they, like Jesus, expect the Messiah to correct the wrongs done in the world back to the time of the Babylonian conquest.  Every promise of God hangs on the mission of the Messiah.  Both the Pharisees and Jesus expect a great deal from God and Divine Promises.

Now Jesus asks another question.  This one is a complicated question: “How can Messiah be both son and lord of David?”  The interpretive principles and practices that make Jesus’ reading of Scripture acceptable are worth reflection.  For the best discussion, see Donald Juel’s Messianic Exegesis.  What catches my eye right now is how large a claim the storyteller has Jesus making.  For Jesus’ argument to work, it is not enough for “lord” to begin with a capital letter (“Lord”).  Jesus’s claim depends on “lord” being spelled with ALL capital letters (LORD).  Messiah, Jesus is claiming that Messiah deserves the “Name that is above all names,” to bring Paul and the Christ hymn into the game (Philippians 2:6-11).  That means that Jesus has just identified Messiah with the Mercy Attribute, the name of God that is used whenever God acts to save, choose, forgive, and bless.

The storyteller informs us that this was the end of people questioning Jesus.  It is not surprising that, in a gospel story, Jesus wins the questioning contest.

But it is worth noting that the Pharisees, just because they cannot answer, do not disagree about the nature and work of the Messiah.  The question that remains for the Pharisees is whether Jesus enacts the saving, choosing, forgiving, and blessing work that has always been central to God’s mission in the Creation.  They will watch Jesus to see.

And our neighbors will watch us to see the same thing: does our mission to be the “body of Messiah” extend God’s kindness?  Or do we devote our energy to burning the world down?

It is a serious question.

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.