Friday, October 28, 2011

Reflections on the Parable – Matthew 22:1-14

Ok, Back to Parables for the last four weeks of the church year. All of these four parables have been classified as “Parables of Judgment.”  And, to make matters more complex, this week we have the first of two Wedding Banquet parables.  So – wedding banquet/judgment = all rolled up into one parable.
Read the text of the parable here: Matthew 22:1-14

This parable comes in the middle of Jesus’ contentious debates with the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and others who are trying to undermine Jesus so they can get eliminate this troublemaker once and for all.  But it is not so easy.  Jesus is clever and quick witted and, not only that, but he knows the law backwards and forwards.  Besting Jesus in a debate is not working out so well.  And to make matters worse Jesus has picked up a large crowd of followers who are hanging on every word! This raises the stakes as well and also threatens riot.  So into this highly charged atmosphere Jesus tells a parable about a King who has invited all of the nobility to the wedding feast of his only Son, but those who were invited reject the invitation twice! And the 2nd time they mistreat the servants, even to the point of killing some of them! So, the King sends retribution against them and sends his servants out to the highways, the town squares, the streets of the city to round up everyone else – “the good and the bad” – who are invited in place of the original guests.  It does not take a brilliant exegetical mind to see that Jesus has cast his opponents in the role of the 1st invitees who have rejected the invitation and murdered the servants (Jesus and the prophets!).
First a couple of historical notes: To be invited to the wedding of the King’s son was the greatest honor a citizen could have expected to receive.  If such an invitation arrived it was a circle the date and do not miss this event.  In a poor agrarian society the regular diet would have consisted of mostly grains and bread, olives, leeks and so on.  Meat was saved for special occasions – notably religious festivals and weddings! That these 1st recipients would have refused for rather mundane things would have provided some chuckles. Who in their right mind would refuse an invitation to a wedding feast of a King where there would be free food (meat!)?  But the sending of a 2nd invitation would have also brought nods of recognition.  Sometimes an invitation would have been put aside in order to wait to see who else is going to be there.  After all, if you are going to a major society event you want to know that the celebrities and big names in the society are actually going to be there. The beating and murder of the servants bearing the 2nd invitation would have provided the shock. And the retribution that follows would not have raised eyebrows.  Of course the King had to respond to such an affront to his honor.  But equally shocking would have been the King’s extending the invitation to everyone else –people of a lower social class – both the good and the bad!
So the King fills up the hall with guests – the poor, the outcasts: losers of various stripes and flavors. And wedding garments were provided.  There was a superstition that was very common in the entire Mediterranean region that concerned itself with a jealous or envious wedding guest putting a curse on the new couple by means of an “evil eye.”  To counter this danger the host would provide special wedding garments that could disarm the curse and protect the couple.  So when the King finds a guest who is not wearing the wedding garment that had been provided it is seen as more than just a fashion faux pas. This was an affront, an insult and a threat. No wonder the King has this guest thrown out into the outer darkness (the “Suburbs of Hell” as one writer calls it).
In closing some thoughts about the application of this parable.  It is on the one hand a judgment parable.  We cannot pretend that it is not simply because we don’t like to think of the judgment side of God.  But note, first of all the original invitees brought the judgment upon themselves. The King does not send violence after the first rejection instead he sends another invitation.  He really wants these folks to come to the Banquet.  It is only after they beat and murder the servants that they bring this judgment down upon themselves. 2nd, it is the King who is in charge of judgment.  The King, who went out of his way to invite folks to the great wedding banquet, and who opens up the invitation to all.  So, if we begin to see ourselves as the invitees we also need to recognize that whatever judgment may be in the future is up to God and is not delegated to us!
On the other hand, this is a parable to Grace. The King really wants these folks to come to the wedding banquet and goes out of his way to send two invitations to try to get them to come and then when rejected the King extends the invitation to all – the good and the bad. The only expectation is that we accept the invitation, that we humbly put our self-centered need to be in the center of our universe aside so that we can put on the white garment of Baptism and come to the banquet. And guess what? It is free. The gift of God’s love, grace, forgiveness is free. The garment is even free, the food at the banquet is free.  What a deal!!! The invitation has arrived. How will you respond?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Reflections on the Gospel – Matthew 22:15-22 – “The Icon/Image of God”

Read the Gospel text here: Matthew 22:15-22
Reflections on the Gospel – Matthew 22:15-22 – “The Icon/Image of God”
What no parable?  We are taking a break from parables for the next couple weeks.  But fear not we still have a few of Jesus’ most challenging and wonderful parables to examine before the end of November.  But today and for a couple weeks we find ourselves standing in the Courtyard of the Temple listening in as Jesus is challenged and verbally attacked by various groups – scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees (just to name a few).  In the text for today the questioning attackers are trying a new tactic: flattery, manipulation and seduction.  “Oh teacher, we know you are so holy and teach God’s way in truth and purity, please tell us the answer to this important spiritual question… blah, blah, blah.”  Jesus does not fall for it, but it certainly would be easy for others to be snagged by this.

The question itself seems innocent enough when it is posed: should we pay taxes to the Romans or not?  What is the right thing for a devout and spiritual person who desires to keep God’s law?  Except that the question is a trap.  If Jesus were to say – “no, you should not pay taxes” – then he would be in trouble with the Romans; and if he were to say “yes, you should pay taxes” – then he would be in trouble with many of the more radical elements of his followers (the Zealots, etc…).  This question is a no win question for Jesus.  But Jesus does not fall into the trap, instead he turns it back on the questioners by using a very common Rabbinical practice of his day – he answers the question with a question: “Can you show me a coin?  Whose image is on the coin?”  Jesus need not have said anything else after this.  For the simple act of producing a Roman coin within the Temple was enough to discredit and undermine the credibility of the questioners. 

Roman coins had more on them than just the head of the Emperor (Tiberius in this instance).  There would also have been an inscription that would have read something to this effect: The Divine Caesar, Son of God.  For a devout Judean to produce this coin, or have possession of this coin, especially inside the Temple compound was a blatant breaking of the 1st commandment – it was blasphemy.  To possess this coin was tantamount to acknowledging another god besides the one God, Yahweh.  With this in mind then Jesus’ final, famous, line takes on new meaning: “Render/give to Caesar what the things of Caesar and render/give to God the things of God!”  And what actually are the things of divine Caesar who claims to be a son of god – nothing!  By contrast, the God and Father of Jesus is the God who created everything that is – so the things of God’s are simply everything that is!

Sometimes this passage is used to justify a division between church and state or a theology of two kingdoms.  This is not what this text is about.  The text is really all about the image of God.  In verse 20, this translation has Jesus ask, “Whose head” in on the coin.  But the Greek word (for head) is actually the word – IKON – which should sound familiar.  This Greek word has been taken into English as the word ICON which means IMAGE.  The question then is “whose image is on the coin?” – Caesar’s.  But, whose image is reflected in creation? Whose imagine are we created as reflections of?  The image of the one true and almighty God – that’s who! (Genesis 1:27 – So God created humankind in His image; in the image of God were they created; male and female were they created.)  And so, if we are made in the image of God what does that say to us about our loyalties and our priorities; what does it say to us about how we are in relationship with others, who are also created in the image of God?

This text is about loyalty and about commitment’ It is about making decisions and setting priorities; it is about recognizing that not only are we made in God’s image but the cross of Jesus is branded on our foreheads in Baptism and so we are an icon or image of Jesus in the midst of this world.  And does this make any difference?  It should – it should say a lot to us about the way we live and spend our money and schedule our time and so on.  So in what ways is your life an icon or image of Jesus?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Reflections on the Parables - "The Parable of the Wicked Tenants" - Matthew 21:33-46

Read the text of the parable here: Matthew 21:33-46
Something for Nothing - The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
We have been looking at parables now for a while – since the beginning of July to be exact.  One thing that has been mentioned in passing is that some of the parables have long interpretation traditions that color and influence our reading of them.  In some cases this is a good thing; in some cases, not so much.  The parable for this morning is one of these latter.  The parable of the wicked tenants has a long, sad and violent history as being a proof-text for anti-Semitic activities.  This interpretation suggests that the Jewish people, like the wicked tenants, have destroyed the servants (prophets) and the son (Jesus) and because they are guilty of killing Jesus they should be put to the sword and persecuted. This is NOT what this parable is about.  That interpretation completely misses the mark and, more than that, is thoroughly anti-Gospel.  So there is no misunderstanding: I completely reject that interpretation! 
As we have seen from the other parables they focus either on God (the land-owner in this case) and/or on US.  WE are the wicked tenants.  WE are the ones who have rejected Jesus, and killed the servants and the son.  WE are the ones who are always trying to get something for nothing (see ELW hymn #349 – verse 2!).  God, the landowner, has called us to work in the vineyard of the world.  But we decide we want the fruits of the land for ourselves and we refuse to give back to God that which is rightfully God’s.  And we beat and mistreat and murder those who would call us to be responsible.  And what does God the landowner do in response?  God keeps sending servants, until finally God sends God’s son.  In other words, God never gives up on us.  This is the amazing part of the story, and the part that is too often missed.  Certainly the attitude of the tenants is hair-brained.  Do they really think they can get away with this plot to take over the vineyard?  But the landowner’s constant efforts to establish a relationship with the tenants and never giving up, no matter how many servants are badly treated..  Well, that is kind of crazy too.  That’s the thing about God’s grace – it isn’t sensible, it isn’t logical – it just is – abundantly!
So, after all that they do how should the landowner treat the tenants in the end?  “They should be put to the sword and utterly destroyed!”  Now, who says that?  The Pharisees and scribes who are listening to Jesus tell the story.  Jesus doesn’t say that!  And in speaking those words of condemnation the Pharisees and scribes condemn themselves! And…
“…that's part of Matthew's narrative brilliance, I suspect, to have his opponents voice their own condemnation. But it invites us to consider a different question: not what will that landowner do, but what did that land owner do. And to that question we have Jesus' own answer: the landowner sent his son, Jesus, to treat with all of us who have hoarded God's blessings for ourselves and not given God God's own due. And when we killed him, God raised him the dead, and sent him back to us yet one more time, still bearing the message of God's desperate, crazy love.”  Dr. David Lose, Luther Seminary - "Crazy Love"
This parable is, like the others, about the abundant and extravagant grace that God has for us!  In this parable Jesus is illustrating how God goes to extravagant and excessive, even illogical and crazy extents to shower this love and grace upon us.  And no matter how many times we reject God, God keeps at it.  God keeps working on establishing a relationship with us!
This parable is paired in Matthew, with the Parable of the Two Sons (from last week).  Jesus’ words of interpretation that conclude that parable make it clear that ultimately it is about faith (see 21:32).  So too does the Parable of the Wicked Tenants point us to issues of faith.  A loving, patient and forgiving God freely and abundantly showers God’s grace upon us.  How will we respond? Will we accept this gift?  Will we respond to the gift with faith and trust that leads us to act in responsible and generous ways towards God and others?  Or are we content, like the tenants, to assume that we can get something for nothing?