October 1, 2017 - Prostitutes Are Entering the Kingdom Ahead of You.

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: "What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, 'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.' He said in reply, 'I will not, 'but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order.  He said in reply, 'Yes, sir, 'but did not go. Which of the two did his father's will?" They answered, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”

Matthew 21:28-32

Today’s Gospel continues last week’s theme that those who expect to be last will be first and vice versa.  

Jesus is speaking to the chief priests and elders – those who were certain they would be first in line to get into the kingdom.  Jesus overturns their expectations and tells them the tax collectors – the hated accomplices of the Roman occupiers - and the prostitutes, would get in first!   We’re ok with the poor, the meek and the sick getting in ahead of the rich, the arrogant and the healthy, but it requires great deal of mental adjustment to believe the immoral will get in ahead of the moral.  But, of course, this is the message of the Prodigal Son.  The Prodigal Son was demonstrably the less moral of the two brothers, and yet he was singled out for most of God’s attention.  Last week, there was no question the vineyard workers who started at the break of dawn were the moral superiors of those who started five minutes before the work was over, and yet they all got the same wage.  The elder brother and the harder workers objected, but the God figure always answers the same way -  He is doing us no harm by doling out His attention equally.

We inevitably look for the moral lesson and we will find it whether it is there or not.  Th parable of the vineyard workers is most often interpreted as a warning that you must repent before the final whistle blows or face punishment. Today's story is often interpreted as a warning to have a correct belief system or face punishment.  But we cannot be commanded or threatened to genuinely believe something we are not otherwise inclined to believe.  What distinguished the tax collectors and prostitutes from the priests was that they believed John (not believed in John) and were thus open to the comfort found there. 

September 24, 2017 - The Last Will Be First, and The First Will Be Last

Jesus told his disciples this parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.  Going out about nine o'clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.' So, they went off.  And he went out again around noon, and around three o'clock, and did likewise.  Going out about five o'clock, the landowner found others standing around, and said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day? They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard.' When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.' When those who had started about five o'clock came, each received the usual daily wage.  So, when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.  And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day's burden and the heat.' He said to one of them in reply, 'My friend, I am not cheating you.  Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what is yours and go.  What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?  Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?  Are you envious because I am generous?' Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last."

Matthew 20:1-16

This is not a parable about the importance of repenting before the final whistle blows. 

In Jesus’s time, it was thought that being poor or sick was a curse from God in retaliation for something you or your parents did (See John 9).  Being wealthy and healthy indicated you had been blessed by God as reward for your good behavior.  Jesus spends more time debunking this idea than any other, and asserts over and over again that those who expect to be last will be first.  Unfortunately, all the parables directed to this purpose are usually misinterpreted to be a command to repent or face the music. 

In the Beatitudes, Jesus states that the poor are blessed and says the rich are to be left out, in contradiction of the theology of the time.  In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus mocks the idea that the rich man was blessed in his lifetime and says he has used up all his good fortune by the time he dies and winds up in (Greek) Hades.  In the parable of the prodigal son, the elder, obedient son is shocked that his jerk brother gets rewarded.  And, of course, we are shocked that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep for the one that wandered off.  The story of Job is often assumed to be a story about heroic faith in the face of calamity, but it is really a vociferous rejection of the idea that God rewards and punishes behavior – Job’s three friends who advance that theology are cursed by God.  Finally, the story of Jonah is often assumed to be a story about a resistant prophet who needed to be swallowed by a fish to be brought to heel, but that’s just the opening, and it is really a story about how much Jonah resents God’s regard for the Ninevites.  Job, the first-arriving vineyard workers, the elder son; each stand for the people who insist God is a moral scorekeeper.

So Will My Heavenly Father Do To You Unless You Forgive Your Brother.

His master summoned him and said, "You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you? Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart."

Matthew 18:35

Well, so much for an unconditionally loving God!

In his revolutionary 1963 Harvard Theological Review article entitled, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Krister Stendahl asserted that the Scriptural notion of “sin” may not match the modern idea of it as some specific behavior that we feel guilty about.   St. Paul demonstrates incredible moral arrogance in Philippians: “I was blameless as to righteousness – of the Law that is.”[i]  But Stendahl contrasts this against Paul’s insistence in Romans that no one can keep the Law:

What then? Are we better than they? No, in no way. For we previously warned both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written,
“There is no one righteous;
no, not one.
There is no one who understands.
There is no one who seeks after God.
They have all turned away.
They have together become unprofitable.
There is no one who does good,
no, not so much as one.”
“Their throat is an open tomb.
With their tongues they have used deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood.
Destruction and misery are in their ways.
The way of peace, they haven’t known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”[ii]

Stendahl suggested that these two concepts - the possibility of individual perfect obedience to the Law and yet nonetheless somehow falling short - should be interpreted as being consistent with one another.  The solution is to see Paul’s idea of sin as being something shared by Jews, Gentiles and finally the entirety of the human family rather than something we each do or don’t do.  This may be why the word “forgiveness” does not appear in any of the epistles attributed to Paul and he instead uses the terms “justification” and “remission.”[iii]  Theologian Joseph Fitzmyer came to a similar conclusion: “The confrontation of the Ego with sin and the law is not considered by Paul on an individual, psychological level, but from a historical and corporate point of view.”[iv]  Fitzmyer equates Paul’s concept of sin as shared shortcoming with an Essene text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls:

As for me, I belong to wicked humanity, to the assembly of perverse flesh; my iniquities, my transgressions, my sins together with the wickedness of my heart belong to the assembly doomed to worms and walking in darkness.  No human being sets his own path or directs his own steps, for to God alone belongs the judgment of him … in His righteousness He cleanses me of human defilement and of human sinfulness … as for me, I know righteousness belongs not to a human being, nor perfection of way to a son of man.[v]

Our fundamental human shortcoming is not the accumulation of less-than-perfect behaviors, but our lack of dignity as creatures so insignificant that we should be utterly beneath God’s notice.  But God becoming one of us, taking the form of a slave,[vi] as Paul puts it, becomes our atonement and covers our profanity, because we are forever after identified with the divine. This is a story of immense power and beauty.  When God becomes human, the soul feels its worth and a weary world rejoices.

It is easy to allows one’s eye to focus on the torturers in today’s reading. As the journalistic advice goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  In fact, Jesus is highlighting the hypocrisy inherent in accepting your status as a child of God, but not accepting someone else’s.  

Image: Aleksander Gierymski, The Feast of Trumpets (1880)

[i] Philippians 3:6, quoted in Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” Harvard Theological Review Vo. 56, No. 3 (July 1963). 201[ii] Romans 3:9-18[iii] Stendahl, 202[iv] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans, A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary by Joseph A. Fitzmyer , The Anchor Bible Series. New York: Doubleday (1993) 465 See also, Gunther Bornkamm, Paul. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (1995) 123; and Raymond E. Brown, et al The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. p 1408 and Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament.  568[v] Fitzmyer, Romans. 465, quoting Hôdāyôt (Thanksgiving Psalms) from Cave 1[vi] Philippians 2:7. 

September 10, 2017 - Treat Your Brother As You Would a Tax Collector

Jesus said to his disciples: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

Matthew 18:15-17

In stark contrast to, “turn the other cheek,” here Jesus lays out a process for mediation that ends with treating someone who has hurt us and refused to make restitution as an outsider or even as an accomplice of the Roman occupiers. 

This is scandalous only if one reads the exhortation to turn the other cheek as a command intended to improve social order.  In all likelihood, Jesus intended it as a spiritual exercise – one that demonstrated to the disciples that retaliation and anger leads to self-diminishment.  Similarly, when Jesus sent out the disciples with no change of clothes and no money, requiring them to beg for their daily bread, he was emulating (perhaps consciously) the discipleship program of the Buddha as it was then being practiced at the far reaches of the area conquered by Alexander.  For both spiritual leaders, this was not an economic program – it was a spiritual exercise of self-denial and reliance on community.

In my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation, I make the scandalous observation that Jesus never commands anyone to give up their possessions or wealth to change the economic circumstances of the poor.  Rather, it is always an exercise in self-denial or living simply.

One objection I hear quite often is that the Beatitudes require care for the poor.  But do they?  Is Jesus saying, “bless the poor with alms so that they will no longer be poor”? Or is he saying the poor are already blessed in some way?   In all likelihood, Jesus is rejecting the idea, prevalent at the time and still prevalent today, that God metes out reward to the good and punishment to the bad.  Wealth, Jesus was saying, is not a sign of God’s favor and, in fact, God’s attention rests far longer on the poor.  The poor are not cursed by God, but are blessed by His sympathy.  This was very good news for the poor, but in direct contradiction to the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ theology.  Jesus makes precisely this point again in Chapter Nine of the Gospel of John.

We often take Jesus's exhortations as demands for moral behavior, but Jesus's intent is far more often spiritual exercises.  What's the harm in seeing Jesus as a moral cheerleader and moral example?   Well, first, we have a responsibility to understand Scripture as it is and not as we want it to be.  Second,  secular values and the values we attribute to faith are practically identical (be nice, give generously to charity, develop your talents, etc.).  If faith is indistinguishable from secular concerns, then it becomes insipid and irrelevant. 

Of course, Jesus preached love.  But clearly, he intended that we really love each other – not just act like we love each other to receive divine reward or avoid divine punishment.  This is not a moral exhortation, setting out what is prohibited and what is obligatory; but an emotive one, setting out what we are to one another and to God.

Image: Red Nebula