Proper 25(A): The Meaning of Life

Proper 25(A): The Meaning of Life

Matthew 22:34-46

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

Matthew 22:34-46 is the last in a string of questions the Pharisees and the Sadducees have been asking Jesus. Earlier on in 22:15, Matthew says that the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said, meaning they wanted to get him debate them with the goal of getting himself into trouble by saying the wrong thing (politics and religion have changed so little). They pursue this with the Sadducees, who have no real affections for Jesus either.

First up to bat are the Pharisees, who ask Jesus a question about taxes, to which Jesus responds with the famous, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s (or something like that). Later on than this, but still before Proper 25’s focus text, the Sadducees come and ask him a complicated question about levirate marriages in order to get him to, in a roundabout way, admit that there is no resurrection (because the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection). Jesus wasn’t having much of that either. So he responded, then sent them on their way, leaving the crowd astounded.

To me, the Pharisees and Sadducees here always come across like the magicians in Pharaoh’s court in Exodus, trying to go toe-to-toe with Moses, but can’t quite squeeze a win out of it. Now, we get to our focus text and the last of the tricks up the local leaders’ sleeves. In their final quip here they ask Jesus which commandment of the Law is the greatest. I’m always reminded here of Conan the Barbarian who was asked a similar question: “what is best in life? Conan responded something like: “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” The Pharisees and Sadducees seem to be more in Conan the Barbarian’s camp rather than Jesus the Messiah’s. Jesus responded very differently. He went for two quotations from the Hebrew Bible. He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The first bit about loving God comes from Deuteronomy 6:5, which says, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all soul, and with all your might. In Deuteronomy’s context it is the establishment of the requirement of loyalty to the LORD, the God of Israel (whom readers have just been informed is one and will later be told how to do this). The second bit of the Law which Jesus commends as greatest has to do with people and comes from Leviticus 19:18: “you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. Jesus goes on to say that on this hangs all the law and the prophets. All of the big, important stuff about God and people and the relationships among these respective parties can be boiled down to a threefold love—love of God, love of neighbor, love of self.

It was hard to argue with this, even though the Pharisee who asked was a lawyer, so it seems as if they just let it go. What stands out most to me in all of this is that as Jesus is winding down his ministry (this comes after his entrance into Jerusalem) he is getting to the point. He is also done with taking a bunch of trick questions and dealing with the same old antagonism from the same old folks. He goes on after this to give nothing less than a scathing criticism of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees and Sadducees just wanted to play games. They wanted to use theology as a weapon against Jesus, and Jesus wasn’t having it. He gave constant deflections and in the process let us all know what is best in life, and it isn’t war or defeating one’s enemies (sorry Conan!), it’s love.

There are a lot of times in life when a lot of folks will turn this commandment of love into another kind of Pharisaic trick. I know that in my own experience as a queer person I’ve often been given the false choice of loving God or loving myself.  Plenty of folks tried to convince me that I could love God and hate my sexual orientation, or I could love my sexual orientation and hate God. Theological entrapment.

Another example of this comes from the congregation in which I work. It is about half African American. A lot of the older black folks in the congregation recall having the Bible used against them as a weapon too, with white preachers and local leaders harkening to Scripture to twist and turn it, trying to wring out of it a definitive statement that people of color were less than whites, and to justify their segregation and marginalization, much as their white forebears did in defense of the institution of slavery.

In both the case of the social oppression of the queer and black communities (both of which have had a lot of media recent media coverage due to the Nashville Statement and the violence in Charlottesville respectively), people want to use God as a weapon of oppression or hurt, trying to entrap people in it rather than letting them be liberated by it.

A final thought on what speaks to me from the text today is that I really relate to Jesus’ position here. I can’t tell you the number of times that people have approached me to “just discuss” the issue of queerness and religion in order to basically entrap me. What offers a lot of hope to me as one who still continues in this kind of struggle is that when Jesus was cornered and confronted with religion in this way, his response was ultimately that loving God and loving one’s neighbor and loving oneself is the highest calling in life. The hope here is that he did not let the struggle with the local leaders break his spirit or distract him from the core of his message. This threefold love is the measure against which all Christians must measure their lives. It is the core of the Gospel. It is, more or less, not just what is best in life, but perhaps even the meaning of life itself.

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The Rev. Caleb Tabor

The Reverend Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Carrboro, North Carolina where he lives with his husband Logan. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.

Proper 24(A): Show Me the Coin

Proper 24(A): Show Me the Coin

Matthew 22:15-22

By: The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo

It is clear they are setting up Jesus. If Jesus states that taxes are lawful, he would lose the attention of the poor and the crowd who have been oppressed by the Roman’s tax system. However, if Jesus speaks against the Roman taxes, the Pharisees would have Jesus’ head served on a platter. Aware of their malice, Jesus replied to them: “Show me the coin used for the tax.”

All of us, or at least a great majority of us, pay taxes and pay our dues to our government. However, I always wonder about what belongs to God. Are we aware and do we understand what we should give back to God?

According to the book of Genesis, God is the creator and master of all. The first paragraph of the first book of the Bible says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (New International Version). Such depiction is mirrored in the first few prayers that are found in the Eucharistic Prayer C of the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer: “At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home… From the primal elements you brought forth the human race…” (BCP, p. 370)

In my tradition (the Episcopal Church), we proclaim that we are a sacramental church. By “sacramental,” we mean that we observe the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist as well as the sacramental rites: Confirmation, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, Reconciliation of a Penitent, and Unction. These practices remind us that life in itself is sacred, divine, and holy. Life comes from God and therefore life is sacred.

As I have written in previous essays for Modern Metanoia, my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Tester, and I just gave birth to our first son, Ezekiel (Zeke). Early on during the pregnancy, Zeke was diagnosed with Spina Bifida (SB), a birth defect in the baby’s spinal cord. As we were told about Zeke’s diagnosis, I was deeply saddened. I felt lost and disappointed. I could not comprehend how a sacred life could be born with SB. I paid my dues to “Caesar,” I paid my dues to God, and yet Zeke was going to be born with SB.

Hours after his birth, while standing in the NICU a nurse asked me if I wanted to hold Zeke. Unsure how to hold him without hurting him and causing him discomfort, I put my arms around him and took a good look at his big blue eyes. For a second I remember Victor Hugo’s line from his famous novel Les Misérables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Regardless of my disappointments and frustrations with his diagnosis, as I embraced him I realized how much I loved him and I realized he was perfect, he was sacred, and he was my Zeke.

As this realization set in, I remembered another line from Genesis: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). At that moment, I realized that Zeke, Elizabeth, and I belong to God.

We are to pay to Caesar what is due Caesar, for the image printed in the coin is Caesar’s, but we also are to give to God what is due God. In the face of every individual we encounter in this world, we encounter the image of God. In the same way that we are to pay our taxes to Caesar, we are also to pay God by loving our neighbor, by respecting each other, and by forgiving and asking for forgiveness. Give to Caesar what is due Caesar, and give to God what is due God. Zeke is now 5 months old and he is a constant reminder of God’s love for us.

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The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo

The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo is an Episcopal priest serving at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin (Diocese of Milwaukee). Oscar is originally from Bogota, Colombia and moved to the U.S. in 2004. He now lives in Wisconsin with his wife, The Rev. Elizabeth Tester, their 5 month old son Ezekiel (Zeke), their puppy Amos, and kitty Batsheva.

 

Proper 23(A): I Do?

Proper 23(A): I Do?

Matthew 22:1-14

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Sunday wedding announcements in The New York Times have been the focus of both starry-eyed romantics and caustic parody writers for much of its 166-year history. The chronicler of blue-blooded love matches has a reputation for featuring only card-carrying Mayflower Society members and the most accomplished Ivy-Leaguers. Despite its exclusivism, the Vows section is filled with the color commentary one would expect from the American daily. While the Times has not shied away from so-called controversial weddings especially in recent years, it’s hard to imagine how reporters would depict the marital union of the king’s son told by Jesus in Matthew 22:

FOR BETTER OR WORSE? WEDDED BLISS BEGINS UNDER CLOUD OF SUSPICISION, INSULT AND MURDER

Jesus skips over details of what the bride was wearing. In fact, the couple in question are only a minor footnote in the tale of offense and violence. However, given that the wedding involves the son of a king, the Times would surely be compelled to feature such a national story. It would be akin to coverage of Prince William and Princess Kate’s ceremony in 2011 which included even the International Space Station orbiting Earth in its global coverage. Needless to say, it’s important to realize the epic preparations that would be underway for a feast of this magnitude.

According to The Knot’s 2016 wedding statistics, fall has overtaken summer as the most popular wedding season, with 40% of couples planning ceremonies after summer. The lectionary could not have picked a more appropriate season to park a story of wedding nuptials. Although once they hear this story, it’s unlikely that churchgoers in mid-October will be filled with lovebird envy.

Jesus was a skilled storyteller who used parables from everyday life to effectively convey his message and meaning. They are the hallmark of Jesus’ teaching. The Gospel of Mark puts it this way:

With many such parables he continued to give them the word, as much as they were able to hear. He spoke to them only in parables, then explained everything to his disciples when he was alone with them (4:33-34).

Few of these private explanations have been preserved in our record, the Bible. In Jesus’ time, the crowds listening to Jesus’ stories had to figure out their meanings, and we, too, must discover ours. I think this is a good thing, ultimately. It is, as systematics professor Don Goergen, O.P. has said, that sometimes, you have to let parables get you. It’s not so much about hearing them as a mystery in which you must solve the riddle, but as a wisdom tale that teaches us something about ourselves.

The word parable comes from the Greek para, which means “alongside or together with” and balo, which means to “cast” or “to throw.” These two words seem to be contradictory. To come alongside and to throw are opposite actions. Even in its name, the parable is teaching – no single import can ever be determined, no single metaphor or simile can be restricted to its meaning. Therefore, no interpretative method should be restricted from your theological toolbox when it comes to your reading of parables.

In some ways, it’s actually a relief to read this parable as allegory. Just allow it to be a judgment tale where God picks sides against the blessed and the cursed. You can find plenty of theologians – both ancient and modern – who have drawn the story as a map of those who are in and those who are out. Here’s one from Martin Luther who was said to have hated preaching on this particular text, but did it anyway (God bless him). But, maybe you are like me. Someone who has trouble imaging an eternal God who has such a short wick even when sung in the cheery lyrics of songwriter American Medical Mission Miriam Therese (M.T.) Winter’s “I Cannot Come to the Banquet”:

Now God has written a lesson for the rest of the mankind;

If we’re slow a responding, he may leave us behind.

Ugh. I think I’m with Luther on this one. So, what if we don’t read it as allegory? A parable is, after all, talking about one thing in terms of another. What if we read it at face value and assume Jesus was speaking to the oppressors here on earth? Jesus was brash to say the least. This is the third and fourth controversy story (vv.11-14 is likely a separate parable) he has shared in Matthew in front of the religious authorities. The Gospel writer says, the chief priests and Pharisees “realized he was speaking about them” (21:45). Maybe Jesus’ story is only pretending to use the literary form of a King-Mashal (that is, a Jewish parable in which the main character is a king, who always stands for God) in order to provoke the religious elite once again. Such a reading might invite a modern congregation to consider where are today’s entitled kings (ahem, Trump) being rejected by their subjects (political insiders, titans of business) while the proletariat await the second, or third, or fourth invitations only to be insulted by the host (ex. Navy sailors, boy scouts, everyone)?

The Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine says: “Parables should incite action…They are complicated and open to multiple interpretations. They served to indict and correct behaviors while including a little bit of humor (‘profit with delight’) or even, absurdity.”[1] In this light, the wedding banquet story is a little more palatable. It names a truth only possible within storytelling that still indicts our own sin. Parables seem to be most helpful when read through that lens. It is like American essayist Adam Gopnik describes:

…a real, unchangeable difference does exist between what might be called storytelling truths and statement-making truths—between what makes credible, if sweeping, sense in a story and what’s required for a close-knit metaphysical argument. Certain kinds of truths are convincing only in a narrative. The idea, for instance, that the ring of power should be given to two undersized amateurs to throw into a volcano at the very center of the enemy’s camp makes sound and sober sense, of a kind, in Tolkien; but you would never expect to find it as a premise at the Middle Earth Military Academy. Anyone watching Hamlet will find his behavior completely understandable—O.K., I buy it; he’s toying with his uncle—though any critic thinking about it afterward will reflect that this behavior is a little nuts.[2] [emphasis mine]

Perhaps the best way to preach any parable, even ones we think we fully understand, is to point out the questions they raise. Jesus’ entire narrative arc, including this story, suggests that we might live today as if we already had one foot in the kingdom of heaven. I suggest inviting modern congregations to consider what does this story provoke in your own life? What is your interpretation and response? How does this story teach us something about ourselves? What is the response of our community? For believers, we can choose this very moment to begin living as if we had one foot in the kingdom of heaven. We could respond to Jesus today. May it be so.

 

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The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Annual Conference, Boundaries, Communications, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, Lay Servant Ministries and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA, and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Amy Jill-Levine, Live lecture in Cambridge, England, Westcott House, Cambridge Theological Federation, May 2012. Notes in personal journal.

[2] Gopnik, Adam. “What did Jesus do? Reading and Unreading the Gospels.” The New Yorker, 24 May 2010.

Proper 22(A): Pissed Off Jesus

Proper 22(A): Pissed Off Jesus

Matthew 21:33-46

By: Casey Cross

If I were to choose a bible study for my youth group, or choose a creative writing project, or meditate on a passage day and night as devotional prayer, I would not choose this passage. This is one of my least favorites and one of the more difficult of Jesus’ parables to understand. It feels hopeless. It feels like something we should leave to the people of its time. What could we possibly have in common with it today? It’s a passage we can easily leave to scholars to explain the role of the Pharisees, the Temple etiquette, Greek exegesis, historical landscape, etc. Though I am not a scholar in any of these areas, I still feel drawn to try to explain the background as though that would somehow help us understand it today. That is certainly a rabbit hole we could fall into as we research and try to find the right words, but don’t. Don’t let the confusing storytelling and colorful cast of characters drive you to the busy-ness of explanation and away from the more personal ways this story and scene can tug at our lives even today in 2017.

We can relate. While this parable may be one of the least accessible to us, relating to Jesus is probably more accessible here than anywhere else in the gospel. Jesus is pissed and he’s not taking it anymore. We don’t see pissed off Jesus very much, but here is, cursing fig trees, flipping tables, speaking truth to power.

Have you ever been so restless that even a bird chirping nearby annoys you? Or the struggling plant in your backyard catches your eye and after months of trying to give it life you’re finally done with it and you pull it up from the root to throw it in the trash (or compost bin)? Have you ever gone to church because you just needed some soul food and quiet prayer, only to be bombarded by sign-up sheets and 20-minute sermons on “giving” and sound that’s up too loud and and and allllll of it? Have you ever watched the news to see yet another black teenager shot to death because of whatever excuse there was to shoot a child and people went on to argue about if it was legal or not but a child is laying there in the street and no one is talking about HOW WRONG IT IS THAT OUR CHILDREN ARE BEING SHOT TO DEATH BY THE PEOPLE SWORN TO PROTECT THEM? Have you ever stood at the steps of your city capital shouting, “Water is life!” to the beat of holy drums and wonder why protecting the world that literally gives us life is somehow counter cultural and in question at all?

It makes me want to scream. Just writing this has got me pissed off. Stuff just isn’t right. No wonder so many of us are easily stoked to anger these days. There’s a lot to get us riled up. Anger is not wrong or bad, but what happens when that anger is manipulated by those in power? What happens when angry people are given a message founded on empty promises and half truths?

A wise man[1] once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” How have those in power lived up to their responsibilities to their country, the world, and each other? How have we, individually and collectively, recognized our power and acted on our responsibilities? We see these questions answered in Jesus’ parable, the response to the parable, and the response to Jesus himself.

We are living in a time that Neil Howe and William Strauss[2] call a “Fourth Turning,” also known as a “crisis era.” This generational turn is made of four parts: the catalyst, regeneracy, climax, and resolution. While the life of Jesus happened in a different country and thousands of years before generational theory was even an idea, it is hard not to find resonance between the era that Jesus walked the earth and now. Rather than seeing this week’s gospel reading as hopeless, perhaps we can find hope in the midst of turmoil as Howe and Strauss have in the explanation below.

As America moves into a Fourth Turning, this will be a time of great national trial and upheaval. Yet seeing this on the horizon is not a prophesy of some horrible tragedy. A Fourth Turning also could be a time of triumph. Just as the risk of war is great in a Fourth Turning, so too is the possibility of accomplishing things that in other eras would be impossible—particularly in the areas of government, institutions, and infrastructure. It’s important to remember that Fourth Turnings have occurred many times before in American history. Each has been an era when America felt good about itself as a society and a nation, a time when big problems have been solved, when businesses ultimately emerged prosperous, and when people came together with a new ethic of community and consensus.[3]

Pissed off Jesus had a right to be pissed off, just as we do when we see what happens when power is abused and our world feels hopeless. Though we may be quick to condemn ourselves, as those did in response to Jesus’ parable, God’s plans do not end in condemnation. That is not the end of the story, just as pissed off Jesus or dying Jesus isn’t the end of the story. The real story, the whole story, is the turn to life and the Good News. Even times of upheaval and death can be transformed into times of life and prosperity. This transformative power is who God is and what God does. So keep on keeping on. Get angry, but let that anger energize you to stand with and for your neighbors, raise your voice for justice, and empower you to enact peace, even when it seems you are surrounded by violence. Keep your eyes on the prize hold on. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZWdDI_fkns

[1] Uncle Ben, a fictional comic book character that appears in Spider-Man

[2] Authors of Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 pub. 1992 William Morrow Paperbacks

[3] http://www.lifecourse.com/about/method/where-we-are-today.html

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Casey Cross

Casey Cross is serves as the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. Check out some of her other writing at http://caseykcross.wordpress.com.

 

 

 

Proper 21(A): The Perils of Power

Proper 21(A): The Perils of Power

Matthew 21:23-32

By: The Rev. Jacob E. Pierce

In my tradition, the Episcopal Church, authority is an important component of our polity. Clergy of all orders, deacons, priests, and bishops, take vows of obedience at their ordinations. “Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?” (From “The Ordination of a Priest” in The Book of Common Prayer, p. 526).

Most Episcopal clergy learn quickly, either in seminary or in the parish, the boundaries and limits to their own authority. All rectors know they have absolute authority over music in worship, yet a wise rector will consult and delegate musical choices to a talented church musician. While every rector has the authority to dramatically change the worship of a parish, a rector who chooses to make significant liturgical changes might quickly be reminded of the vestry’s authority over the parish budget and payroll. In my role as associate rector, I am aware that I have no authority in the parish, except that which is delegated to me by the rector.

It seems to me that healthy congregations are accustomed to shared and delegated authority. While clear boundaries protect the polity and decision making of a denomination and its congregations, delegated and shared authority create opportunities for new insights and new growth. But I suspect that many of our congregations are not actually equipped for shared authority or decision making. We like our rules, our ways of doing things, and our sacred traditions. Shared authority can seem threatening to lay leaders in a congregation, but most especially to clergy.

This essay isn’t about whether clergy should delegate authority or how it can be shared. This essay is simply a reflection on the gospel appointed for Year A, Proper 21, of the Revised Common Lectionary. But, when I read the gospel appointed for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, I find that I am more like the Pharisees questioning the authority of an outsider, than I am like the tax collectors or the prostitutes who have seen and believed.

The question in this gospel is one of authority. When the chief priests and the elders enter the temple and ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things,” they are questioning not only his teaching, but his actions of the day before. Omitted from our lectionary this cycle is Jesus’ cleansing of the temple earlier in Matthew chapter 21, when Jesus drove out the money changers and overturned the tables of those selling doves.

The parable that follows is clear: those who do God’s will are more obedient than those who agree but do nothing. But shocking is the following admonition that those who believed in John and his call to repentance, specifically the tax collectors and prostitutes, will enter the kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests, the elders, and the religious authorities.

As clergy, and as lay leaders, it is tempting for us to assume authority is given by virtue of our ordination, our membership in the Church, or our proximity to the cultural favoritism shown towards Christianity in American society. But this admonition from Jesus should make us aware of the difference between authority and power, which are not the same. Authority is given, power is obtained and wielded. Our credibility and authority as Christians comes from our proximity to those Jesus cared for: the outcasts and downtrodden in society, the sinful and broken world in which we live, and the entire creation for which he gave his life. Just as Jesus flips the tables in the temple, Jesus is flipping the expectations of the religious and political elite, and he is flipping our expectations as well. The Kingdom of God does not look like the pious favored of our culture, but the repentant sinner who sees and believes when they hear God’s good news.

Preachers who engage this text might encourage their congregations to think about the ways we assume authority as religious people. Common in many congregations is the snickering and gossip towards those who only grace our doors at Christmas and Easter. But what if our engagement with such individuals shifted from judgment to welcome? What if we shifted our concerns towards hospitality and welcome of others, no matter how often they attend or how much they give? Preachers might encourage their congregations to think about ways to be in closer proximity with those outside the fold, those who are often excluded and ridiculed in their own communities. Who are these people in your community, and how might your congregation get to know them, welcome them, and be among them?

May Jesus continue to flip our expectations, so that we may follow him into the way that leads to life. Happy preaching!

 

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The Rev. Jacob E. Pierce

The Rev. Jacob E. Pierce is an Episcopal priest and the associate rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jacob served churches in North Carolina and Washington, D.C. before receiving a Master of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in 2015. Jacob enjoys reading, collecting Marian folk art, and playing with his very energetic dog, Hamlet.

 

Proper 20A: The Walk of Privilege

Proper 20A: The Walk of Privilege

Matthew 20:1-16

By: Jay Butler

In our society, finding or discovering things first is highly valued. In some ways, that is a very good thing. When a doctor first discovers a cure to a previously untreatable disease, he or she is praised for their intellect and outward thinking. When a baseball scout discovers a young pitching talent in high school and they become an All-Star, the scout is praised for their vision and gut instinct.

However, in some ways, it’s incredibly annoying. Have you ever discovered a musical artist or band, and one of your friends says, “Oh I’ve known about them for years! Their early work was so much better.”? Their pompous response prompts me to give an over-the-top eye roll. People who get in on the ground floor of some trend or idea tend to look down upon the people who find out at a later time. Their attachment to something grants them the right to judge. This brings us to the Gospel reading for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

In this reading, Jesus is illustrating the Kingdom of Heaven in a parable. He likens the Kingdom to a landowner of a vineyard and the workers he hired. This parable goes on to illustrate that no matter how long you work for God in the Kingdom, you will get the same reward, which is eternal life and a life spent with God. At first glance, there are some great insights that are not mentioned in the text.

First, it doesn’t say how hard each of the workers were working. For all we know, the workers that were hired at the beginning of the day were lazy, incompetent or prideful. The workers subsequently hired throughout the day might have been more productive than them. Just because someone has been hired to do a job first, doesn’t mean they are the right person for the job. Second, the landowner casts no judgement towards the people who have not found work the entire day. The landowner has a need, and finds people to fulfill that need. Simple as that. Finally, how do the early workers respond to the landowner’s chastisement? Have they changed their way of thinking or opinion? That’s why I think this parable does a great job of setting up a conversation of social justice and privilege.

We can’t help but be aware of what’s going on in our world, and the onus is on us to take sides in these conflicts. The problem lies with how we react when people join a certain cause. Our increasingly connected world allows to see injustices at a lightning-fast pace. What were once rumors and anecdotes of purported violence towards a marginalized population have been substituted with cell phone footage and live tweets that leave no doubt of incidence of discrimination towards a group of people.

One of the charges leveled at Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign was her supposed “flip-flopping”. She originally voted for the war in Iraq as a United States senator in 2003, and was initially an opponent of same-sex marriage. She later said that she regretted voting for the war, and is now a strong supporter of LGBTQIA rights. Critics lambasted her for her change of heart, myself included. However, this is an unfair judgement of a person. People change, their exposures change, and most importantly their hearts change.

Hearts change for many reasons. When a person is presented with a harsh reality, it can often cause them to consider their views differently. One of the most significant ways that happened to me was during my second year of seminary. We played a game called “The Walk of Privilege” in my prophetic preaching class. In this game, people are placed in a side-by-side line, and are given a certain set of questions that determine how much privilege they’ve been given. They either step forward for privilege given by society, or stepping backwards for privilege taken away by society. When the game was over, I realized I was the farthest forward in my entire class. It shook me. I was not guilty for the things I’d been given, but I was guilty that I had not used them for greater good in the world. This is what the landowner does for the workers in the end of the parable. He holds a mirror up to their own privilege.

“But what about if that person causes harm with their opinions and judgements before they changed their heart?” That is a very real possibility, and that’s something that should not be taken lightly. However, what if that person who’s had a change of heart has apologized and works to correct the imbalance they’ve caused? Do we as people of faith need to still judge them for the past? Does Christ do that towards us?

There is not a time limit for joining a justice movement. God’s desire for us to bring Heaven to earth does not expire. This is displayed in the parable. The landowner treats all of the workers equally. Maybe those later workers didn’t deserve to get paid as much. Maybe those first workers worked their tails off in the hot sun. No matter when they started working, and no matter how hard they worked, the thing to remember is that all of the workers accepted the invitation to be with the landowner. The landowner gave them enough to live, whether they deserved it or not. God gives us enough to live for eternity, through the death and resurrection of God’s son, Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter when we start working for good in the world, nor does it matter when we figure out what God wants for this world. However, when we answer the call from God to accept God’s help, and to do God’s work in the world, then we can be justly rewarded with eternal life.

 

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Jay Butler

Jay Butler is Minister of Youth and Discipleship at Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church, in Durham, North Carolina. He loves his job because he can pick on teenagers…but in a loving, Christ-filled way. He loves his dog, baseball, the theatre, and convincing you why college football is better than college basketball.

Proper 19(A): It Ain’t About Math!

Proper 19(A): It Ain’t About Math!

Matthew 18:21-35

By: The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell

So how many is it?! How many times are we REALLY supposed to forgive someone who has wronged us? Is it 77 times (as the New Revised Standard Version has it)?  Or is it “unto seventy times seven,” the literal translation of the Greek εως εβδομηκοντακις επτα, which comes to 490 pronouncements of forgiveness? Christians everywhere are dying to know, Jesus! What are we supposed to do?!

This is the question that seems to pervade the hearts of so many of the Christians I know. It’s a kind of militarism that approaches faith not as a relationship with Jesus, but as a task that has a check-list of dos and don’ts, and so long as we stick with the dos we’ll be fine. It is especially symptomatic of parishes—particularly dying ones. In these cases, the priest stands in for Jesus, and time after time the people frustratingly shout: JUST TELL US WHAT TO DO!! It’s not about grace. Not about love. Not about relationship. It’s about just getting by and doing what we’re supposed to do.

My militarist brothers and sisters hear Jesus’ words and figure they’ve got it figured out.  Jesus says to forgive 77 times—or 490—so that’s what I’ll do, and I’ll keep a running count just to make sure I get the number right.

Sorry, folks, but it ain’t about math! And it ain’t about the logistical kerfuffle of doing what we’re “supposed to do.” It’s about the very nature of forgiveness and the way that we approach our relationship with Jesus and our neighbors.

Peter thinks he’s being generous—like, super generous—when he wonders if he should forgive up to seven times. The rabbinical custom, after all, was to forgive up to three times, and then punishment would befall the individual were he or she to sin a fourth time (this is referenced in both the first and second chapters of Amos). Peter not only doubles this expected number, but he adds one to it, perhaps knowing that seven is considered the “perfect number” and is the number associated with God. Good ole Peter, always going that extra mile to please Jesus!

Yet in response to this seemingly logical question, Jesus throws out εως εβδομηκοντακις επτα, which as stated before is not even quantifiable! It could mean 77, or it could mean 490. Poor Peter just wants to know what he’s supposed to do, like so many of us. That, Jesus points out, is not the question you should be asking. To illustrate this point, he tells a parable (because this is Matthew’s Gospel, so of course he does!).

In the parable, a tyrannical king is owed 10,000 talents by a servant. That sounds like a lot, right? It isn’t a lot. It’s an impossibly ginormous astronomically absurd lot! A single talent was the equivalent of 15 years’ wage in first-century Palestine! The amount this servant owes is the equivalent of 150,000 years’ worth of income! The folks hearing this parable would have literally LOL-ed at such a comically high amount. Of course the servant can’t pay it! Thus, when the servant asks for forgiveness from the king the ludicrous amount is forgiven.

But then the servant runs into someone who owes him 100 denarii and demands he pay what he owes. You may be expecting now that this is a teeny tiny amount, right? Not so. A single denarius was worth a day’s wage, thus the amount the servant is owed is just over three months’ wages, which is not an insignificant amount. Yet when compared to the 10,0000 talents that he owes the king it seems next to nothing, meaningless. The king, therefore, reneges on his offer of forgiveness, and because the servant does not show mercy as he did, the servant is sent away to be punished.

To Peter and other militaristic folks who think that faith is about doing what we are “supposed to do,” Jesus is offering another reality. Stop asking questions like how much I should forgive! Because one who is counting the number of times he or she says, “Yeah, you’re forgiven” isn’t actually forgiving anyone at all, but is just biding time until Jesus offers the reward! Furthermore, the parable isn’t saying that we should just keep forgiving and forgiving without even thinking about it; after all, how can our heart truly be in it if we just keep hitting that “forgive” button? The entire exchange with Peter and subsequent parable are part of an invitation into a new way of being.

Peter thought seven was a pretty high number. The servant thought the 100 denarii was a pretty high number. Neither means anything in comparison to the 10,000 talents—the allegorical image Jesus uses to illustrate the magnitude of everything we owe to God. We squabble over matters we think are huge, but in the context of God they are tiny. We scream at the young man in the McDonald’s drive-thru who messed up our order and demand a refund. We refuse to speak to someone because of a petty squabble from years back. Meanwhile, we have the nerve to ask Jesus, “How many times should we forgive?  What are we supposed to do?” We don’t get it. We never have.

But Jesus offers us the chance to get it. Even now he still offers that to us. He offers us the chance to think of forgiveness not as something of which we keep track or something we just keep doing without thinking but as something we should do in the context of our relationship with God. If God loves us so much that God continues to forgive us whenever we ask it, can we not to do the same?

But Peter and the militarists cry out that folks don’t deserve that much forgiveness.  Take a lesson from the recently released (and AMAZING!) Wonder Woman film. As she battles Ares, the god of war, who tells her humanity does not deserve her protection, Diana of Themyscira tells him, “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love!” God doesn’t measure forgiveness in what we deserve but in love. Why can’t we?!

So let us move away from this outdated and false paradigm of quantification and the question of whether a person deserves so much forgiveness. If we are truly in relationship with God, a relationship built on love, then we will forgive as God forgives, not as humans forgive; which is to say, with conditions and a calculator. Love doesn’t work that way!

As C.S. Lewis put it: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” One can’t go wrong with ending on a quote from that guy!  May our forgiveness be grounded in the love and forgiveness God has shown us.

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The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell

The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.