Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Crushing Gripes and Grapes...



FOR THE Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost we encounter a gospel lesson that includes the Parable of the Vineyard. This reading brings a historic record to bear on the evangelical productivity of the earthly church, and our proclamation of the gospel message today.

“Hear another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
  When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
  They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
  Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
  Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”
  When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46)




Counter-Productive Mission?
Our gospel writers of both Matthew and Luke apparently retrieved an earlier lesson that had been  given in record by the church of Mark (see Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19). Therefore we can see that this text reflects in no small way, early tensions in the church. In this text, we hear that Jesus had previously used the symbolism of the vineyard while upbraiding temple authorities for their lack of faithful productivity for the kingdom of God. At that time, our Lord reached into the Hebrew scriptures and harvested great relevance. For this, he used the commonly held symbolism that Israel was the vineyard of God. The prophetic scripture told the historical fate of past Hebrews who had not been faithful. From the prophet we read…


And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry! (Isaiah 5:5-7)

 Using this image, therefore, our Lord told those who were present of their leadership shortcomings. In so many words, he said that the appointed watchmen were not doing what they were called to do… and the result would be the same as before… either death or exile into foreign lands. We note that the original agreement with the owner and vineyard keepers was not that they were owners or employees, but rather were simply tenants. In this we note that as tenants they were to keep a share of the harvest and relegate to the owner what had been agreed upon. This last was thought to be a good faith contract made between the owner of the vineyard and the workers of the fields. This had long been translated into representing the relationship that existed between God and Israel.
 However, as we see in Jesus’ telling, the servant workers in the parable saw a chance to reap greater profit by keeping that which belonged rightly to the owner. The servants went as far as boldly killing the owner’s son. Asking his audience of temple leaders then, Jesus challenged those who were in charge of keeping the vineyard in his own day.

 After finding them in agreement about what should be done to the evil servants, Jesus warned that Israel’s watchers had not been on fervent watch. They had allowed thievery to occur. Here, to emphasize how onerous was the offense, we note that the text reads that Jesus described that the owner would “miserably destroy those wicked men” (in the Greek - (κακούς κακῶς ἀπολέσει αὐτούς)
 Having secured agreement from his audience about the offense, we see Jesus took a symbolic leap from the agricultural to the mechanical… to the harvesting rock that crushed the grapes... the object that was intended as the wine press. Thus it was that the wine press of the vineyard, unused and made of stone… became the next crucial symbol. The wine press… one which had a channel cleaved in it for drainage… was not producing the fruit of the grape.

 Jesus stated that the rock once rejected and unused by Israel for the Lord’s harvest, was to become the cornerstone. From that cornerstone God would so provide. The sum point was that Creator would cast out the unfaithful worker and useless device and pass the task to a new generation. By placing the stone or rock as central, Matthew focused his church on the Rock which is Christ our Lord. Further, Matthew echoed that Jesus had stated emphatically that this was the Lord’s doing and it was indeed marvelous! At once, Matthew thus told them… that even amid betrayal and death… life would emerge. Therefore with subtle nuance, Matthew related to those who would remember for an untold age to come... an image of Jesus’ death and Resurrection.

Harvest in a Bounteous Kingdom!
Please know this! We too often read this text simply as a condemnation of the priests and legal authorities of the temple, but to do so is to make an error in interpretation and thus we miss proper application. Many scholars initially offer that our author simply appropriates the earlier-penned witness and added only minor explanation, but I consider it as reflecting upon the emerging Christian church. Note a minor change in the wording of the story from Matthew,
 In Mark, the sequence of persecution of the owner’s son (Mark 12:8) is that he was killed, then cast out. In Matthew, however, the order is reversed. The son is first cast out, then killed. Though this may seem a minor point, the difference I consider as quite telling. Because of the re-ordering of these words, it seems that Matthew wanted to clearly apply the identity of the son, the one killed and cast out… as the one cast out and killed.

 Matthew was pointing to not just the owner’s son, but God’s only begotten Son. The identity of the son in the parable becomes more sure! Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ… whom the Father had sent into his vineyard was the one Son wrongly persecuted. It is he that is the cornerstone. Therefore, Matthew used the text concerning Jesus’ condemnation of Jewish authorities... to give warning to his own Christian community.
 We may say that it seems Matthew wished to press church leaders toward reflection and serious examination of their inherited tasks. Since they walked in the footsteps of the Son and were baptized in the Spirit, they had rightly accepted God as the owner of the Vineyard, and they were its tenants as they separated from the parent synagogue.
 As proof of this emphasis for the early church, I offer the words of Luke’s community, as passed along comment from an earlier apostolic witness…
 

 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.
                                                                                                       (Acts 13:46-47)


  Thus I see that Matthew sternly warned his people against rejection of the gospel message and misappropriation of the fruits of the kingdom. This he did in concert with earlier witnesses.
 We must then ask, “How are we to apply this lesson today?” As we look about at the table of the Lord, where the wine of the kingdom is poured out as the true saving blood of our Lord, we who are unworthy and sinful servants might reflect upon our work. If it were not for our sin and sloth, the wine skins of God might be already full, having openly gathered all.
 Take note! Our Lord Jesus warned the leaders of the temple and thus also warned Matthew’s church… and long historic shadows loom for ourselves. We are given a task of harvest that is not being accomplished. In Matthew’s time, some factions of the Christian community were splintering to follow Paul, others Peter, and others the teachings of John. This may have been the strife that made Matthew refocus the gospel message. Highlighting that Jesus was first cast out then killed, he thus struggled to clarify proclamation and unify the church.

 I note this to you as we see dwindling attendance and participation in many churches across the globe. I contend, that if we do not change our sinful, squabbling harvest method, especially those of us in traditional, mainline expressions who are now scrambling for membership and stealing scriptural profit… we too shall succumb to the penalty of poorly prepared land and bad seed being cast out. We shall go the way of the unfaithful.
  What shall we do brothers and sisters in Christ? I say, remember the lesson of the vineyard! As we plan, first let us prepare fertile soil in the world by using the proclamation of both Law and Gospel. Once the Law has been cast forth to prove our mutual human stench, let us fertilize our guilt before the table of grace and cause germination in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, once having been forgiven through the waters of baptism for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord and not our own meager harvest, we must determine to walk side-by-side to cast the Word of God rightly interpreted.

 Certainly, if jealousies arise from within or against any denomination… causing distress that would uproot the right work of God’s people… let us strive to weed out scriptural misinterpretations and ensure proper pruning. Remember! We must not seek personal profit or attempt to justify our own philosophical crop. Instead, let us pray for the true hearing of the Spirit that produces fruit for the kingdom of God.
 Finally, know for sure that we are but tenants, and know who it is that really owns the Vineyard. To God be eternal glory.












Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Authority in Word and Deeds

WE CONSIDER the gospel lesson for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. The text challenges those who fail to turn to God when faced with questions of divine, ultimate authority. Within the gospel reading our Lord contended with persons who wanted to judge those whom God sends to call us…

And when he (Jesus) entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you a question; and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?”
And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we are afraid of the multitude; for all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”
And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They said, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him.  (Matthew 21:23-33)


Words and Deeds?
The temple powers asked by what authority did Jesus do the astounding things that occurred during the last week before his crucifixion. Jesus, just the day before, had completed a dramatic act during the cleansing of the temple. He drove merchants from the courtyard. The dramatic words and deeds done then by our Lord are recorded by all of the gospels, and not just by Matthew.
 Jesus challenged the principalities and powers. Therefore a question bubbled up in a heated froth  from temple authorities, about whether he was the Messiah. They wondered with malice it seems, “Was this Jesus the Sent One of God?” (see Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8, and also John 2:18-22).
 Remember! Jesus is the man who had entered Jerusalem on a donkey, in the manner of ancient Hebrew Messianic leadership.
 In this text we read that he returned to the temple courts. Once there, he was confronted again about the source of his authority. Why was he doing such radical acts? Jesus answered the question of authority with a question. Using a technique that goes back to the primal confrontation between Job and God (Job 40:1-14), he challenged them concerning the authority of John the Baptist. By doing so, he caught them amid a power struggle of their own making. If they answered that John’s authority was authentic, Jesus could then ask why they had not listened. If they answered that his authority was groundless, they would glean the wrath of some people who were listening, who yet held John in high esteem as a prophet. So they decided to politically beg ignorance… and Jesus therefore dismissed their challenge. If they could not answer, he indeed would not.
 Given that this lesson appears at length within the context of Matthew’s church, I consider that we may view that the writer of the gospel is contending with similar issues. Could the authority of Jesus have been yet an issue even four decades after the crucifixion? If the listeners believed the report of the Resurrection, was the Judaic penchant for establishing hierarchical power and authority harmfully affecting the early church? We may consider, "Are we any different?"
 Or if some doubted the Resurrection, was this thrust answering those powers within the synagogue community who still favored John the Baptist as a peer to Jesus in stature? Would not this latter argument give them a favorable position for theological attack… a power argument against those pesky Christians?
 Considering these questions, I believe that since this text is in evidence across all of the gospel records, both arguments noted here may have been at work in all early Christian communities… and therefore the challenge existed and had been carried over from the earliest church writings. From early on, we have evidence that Jesus' authority was an issue! We read from the earliest canonical writing within the New Testament, from the pen of Paul (circa. 45 A.D.)…

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
  I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.  (Galatians 1:3-10)

  We see that from the time before the crucifixion, and through the days of the early church and continuing even unto this day… the authority of Jesus has been challenged. Though for Paul the contention was over a different issue, of circumcision of the Gentiles... the authority issue of Christ was being laid over against the tradition of the elders. It is thus important that our lesson today shows that Jesus had declined to answer the challenge, for the “chief priests and elders of the people” had already declined to hear the opposing argument in rather stiff-necked fashion. Resistance was high against Jesus, therefore, throughout the diaspora community of Israel for decades and centuries to come.

Proof in the Turning...
Then taking creative opportunity for a teaching moment, Matthew described that Jesus showed the continuity between John and his own mission. The deeds needed for salvation first called for by John were being completed by Jesus. Our Lord thus told the parable of the “Two Sons”. In this telling we find that our Lord said the proper response to his gospel message must be measured by the evidence of repentance. However, the word repentance ( Greek – mεταμέλομαι ) used here indicated a turning by which one’s mind is irretrievably changed. Herein the law and the gospel respectively, first convicts the listeners... and then secondly saves those who eternally remain of unchanged mind.
 John had come out of the wilderness and asked for repentance... and those who knew no power, but wished salvation… would obey wholeheartedly and see the kingdom. And those who tried and yet try to hold on to faint powers in this fallen world do not.
 We ask then, "Why are we sinful humans so resistant?" We are reminded that Matthew had just recorded that Jesus taught…

And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.  (Matthew 19:23-26)

  We thus receive the wondrous gospel message given to the disciples. Then, should not we who realize the poverty of our sin by the witness of the Holy Spirit, accept this call to repentance? Shouldn't we turn to God and beg forgiveness?
 We are freely given forgiveness and retain eternal life for sake of Jesus’ death upon the cross. Remaining in the world as Christians then, we persist in our right work of proclamation through both Law and Gospel. These, beloved of God, are the tasks for those who accept that they shall enter the kingdom, not by their doing, but by God’s doing!
 This is the message of our gospel reading today. If we look for security in the world by holding vainly to power and position in either our civil or religious societies, rejecting the exclusivity of salvation through Christ alone, we do great insult to the gift of eternal life that our Lord offered upon the cross. When we diminish this gift by lowering Christian claims of Jesus' power and authority, causing them to rest among those religions whose adherents strive in works for power and position, we walk bold-faced in concert with the one who deceives.
 As believers then.., know that we too shall be persecuted for our voicing in the public or temple court. But also know that we are counted among those who shall be raised up to be accepted like the first Son. Indeed, we too shall be numbered among those who hear and obey… and we shall inherit a place in the kingdom of God. So let be it done as you wish, gracious Lord God!




Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Economy and Grace...



FOR THE Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, we hear of the rightful tension that exists between the Law of Moses as provided to Israel, and the grace that is given to us through Christ Jesus our Lord. This we have from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew through the Parable of the Vineyard. In the telling, Jesus explained to his listeners that the grace of God often moves counter to what we humans think of as fair measure…




“For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went.
 Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.
 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
  And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.
  Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
  But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)


Man’s Economy
This parable told by Jesus brings closing thoughts to a topic that had been presented in Matthew’s previous chapter. There the initial question asked of our Lord was.., “What good deed do I do to inherit eternal life?” In that prior scene the Son of God had ultimately answered the rich young man’s query. Jesus said to him..,

 “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:21-22)

This question focused persons within the early church of Matthew upon rewards. The rewards for fair acts humanly done by a person during their lifetime… good things which are to be accomplished… for all persons... would come in judgment before God.
 However, the initial response Jesus gave addressed worldly position. The disciples inquired about their own reward. They boldly reminded he who needs no reminding that they had left everything to follow him. Jesus answered them concisely, by teaching that all things would unfold properly in the kingdom of God. . .

           “But many that are first will be last, and the last first. (Matthew 19:30)

 The query from the disciples gleaned an clear answer from our Lord. Rewards would be given. For this, Jesus required faith from his followers. The issue prompted the illustration presented by today’s parable.
 Whether the parable’s inclusion here in Matthew’s gospel, a text not found in either Mark or Luke, is recorded because of ambition on the part of the entire original twelve or simply noted a particular disturbance that had run solely through Matthew’s church in Antioch… is difficult for us to know. However, we ask.., “Was it that both Mark and Luke wanted to avoid painting their early church communities as internally contentious, seeking after power, position or wealth? If true, because it is discussed here, was there already in the infant Matthean church by the time of the gospel writing... a pronounced hierarchy tumult that arose between Jewish elders, Judaic proselytes, and Gentile Christians?”
 I offer to you that Mark likely did not include this parable because the story belongs to a source not known at that time by his Christian church… for many authorities believe that gospel was written at least fifteen years earlier than Matthew and Luke’s telling. On the other hand, Luke’s gospel was written during the same decade as Matthew. However, evidence can be made that there they chose to ignore this tumult, because the topic addressed something that was not an issue for their communities. They possibly did not use it because its portrayal would consume too much manuscript length.
 In any case, we in today’s churches may rightly look to Matthew because the parable addressed human sinfulness... a folly that may be found in every historical age. Note that the parable states that whether rich or poor, small or large, urban, suburban or rural… we in the church of these latter days too often ask our Lord, “What are we to do to inherit the good stuff? What shall our payment and position in the kingdom be? Who shall sit at the head of the table? The parable answers the attitude that human works are often seen as our earning a good seat in heaven. Therefore Jesus challenges our worldly concept of fairness, as reflected over against God’s wondrous grace.
What is very striking about this parable is how it portrays an ethic that differs from our customary human economy. Today, we have an understanding that a person should be paid according to work output and also be paid on time. We have in the Hebrew writings and traditions prescribed law that demands accounting, whatever the sums, must be immediately settled fairly between employers and day laborers. We read…

 “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns; you shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it); lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)

 Therefore, in the parable our Lord Jesus agreed with the earlier tradition for person-to-person commerce. He called for wages to be fairly settled at the end of the day. This was in agreement with the Law of Moses. As Christians then, if we consider ourselves as workers in the kingdom of God... the end of our lives may be thought of as the end of the day... the idea of how much is “earned” for the “day” becomes an eternal issue.
 In light of this last thought, since the workers described in the parable were brought into labor at various hours of the day, those persons hired first factored wages on a tilted scale. Thus as a householder or corporate enterprise, we see that a division occurred when the vineyard owner chose a different course.

God's Grace!
 Since Matthew chose to include this parable, may be evidence that similar conversations were pronounced in his church. In the parable we hear that many workers thought the vineyard owner should vary the wages according to the measure held by the workers. Those who had worked earlier, and longer… should be paid more. And since some of the apostles were first... well, you get the point. Thus we see that the “works seniority” measure became the issue. When payment was made as the parable unfolded, however, we see that the owner of the vineyard wronged no one. He simply chose extend greater generosity to those who had been hired later in the day.
 We in today’s society should not apply our economy rules, taking this as either an endorsement or rejection of such things as trade guilds or modern union bargaining. Rather than imposing our own human concepts on scripture, consider that according to Jesus and the witness of Matthew, the intent of this parable was to portray grace as the generous sovereignty of the Father.
 We may consider that our Lord's response to this adverse human reaction should be judged according to what is best described and summed by a variant Greek translation. You see, a variation exists for a latter verse in our reading. We find the divine challenge laid out in the vineyard owners words…

 ”Or are you envious because I am generous?” … which is also interpreted properly by some Greek language scholars as… “Is your eye evil because I am good?

 Thus we get the full import the message that God is God! The parable asks the hearers to examine themselves about their own motivations. When payment does not meet our expectations…. when lives do not work out as expected… who do we consider ourselves to be… gods? Is it that we sinful human beings shall judge not only ourselves and our economy, but our God as well? Or shall we more rightfully praise our graceful God?
 Subsequently, within our modern environment we hear from Matthew an important message concerning our salvation. I argue that we are called to see that our God has worked in response to the fallen state of humanity. Almighty God, who is the Father of Jesus Christ, is not respectful of human measures concerning gained position, inheritance, nor seniority. Of this, we see that Saint Paul reminded the early church in Rome…

For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also?
                                                                                              (Romans 3:22b-29)

Surely then, amid our jostling and grumbling using our family ancestry claims, class jealousies, worldly possessions and denominational allegiances… it is with humility that we are called by the Spirit to remember our true poverty. We are prompted to confess our sinfulness, and mutually accept the very graceful gift of forgiveness and salvation that is given. As Christians, the worldly rich and poor are both dealt with justly... but only for the sake of Christ Jesus.
 Remember! We are asked to corporately recognize that we are those who were caught as last in our sinfulness and should rightly sit in outer darkness … and who are now gracefully placed as chosen. For us and for our salvation our Lord Jesus accepted the hurtful and dreadful payment for our sinfulness, and we are gracefully rewarded instead. He that is the firstborn of God, and was God at the beginning of all things, accepted the final punishment... the payment for sin... knowing that he would be considered as the last.
 Indeed, Jesus as the Son of God, who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end… is the Righteous one that gave himself... and even yet gives generously through the Holy Spirit. It is the obedient Son whom God raised from the dead. Through him, Jesus the Christ, we who were deservedly last... and deserve to be placed far removed… are forgiven and given admission to the vineyard. We find ourselves as standing among those put foremost by God’s eternal love. This was, and yet still is the happy exchange… the divine economy… thanks be to God!