There is perhaps no other parable that offends us as much today, especially in America, as it did Jesus’ original audience as this one.
- The parable of the generous Landowner and it’s parallels in the parable of Jonah
- Why Jonah couldn’t rejoice over God’s generosity towards others
- How God’s grace extends even to an isolated and resentful Jonah
- How Paul’s example guides us to receive and share God’s grace
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” So begins a parable unique to Matthew. The Landowner hires Day Laborers throughout the day: at 6 AM, 9, 12 PM, 3, and finally at the 11th hour, (5 PM), with 1 hour left in the work day. He pays them a denarius, the subsistence wage for a family. According to Old Testament law governing the economy of the poor, the Laborers must be paid at the end of the day. The Landowner pays everyone what they need to support their family, what we would call a “living wage.”
The first hired Laborers grumble. They’ve worked all day in the heat. The Landowner recognizes that they have an “evil eye,” which means they viewed him with resentment and accusation of unfairness, and their fellow Laborers with envy.
Jonah had the same view. He was miraculously saved by big fish and delivered to Nineveh to proclaim repentance. When the people repented and God did not punish them, it made Jonah “very displeased.” Jonah would rather die than give up his bigotry.
God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” This is the precise question to ask an angry person, because it forces us to examine our hearts. But it is also the hardest one to hear. Jonah is so angry he doesn’t even answer God, but flees again. He heads “East,” which is the Bible’s way of saying he departs from God’s presence (remember the Garden?), and watches to see what will happen. He still wants Nineveh to be judged.
Jonah builds himself a booth, a little shelter from the elements while he watches. And here we get an insight into his core problem. Jonah is too self-reliant. He wants to be recognized for what he’s done, and he wants others to be punished for what they haven’t done. Jonah is preoccupation with rewards—who has them, who doesn’t. This blinds him to the presence of grace (remember the fish?) in his life. Because of this, he can’t accept the presence of grace in the lives of the Ninevites.
Think about this: Is there anyone who, if they end up in heaven, it would make you mad? Standing next to this person, would you accuse God of injustice? Or back in this life, how do you respond when things go well for others? Do you rejoice with them, or are you envious, resentful, watching with an “evil eye”?
The good news is that God doesn’t abandon Jonah in his anger. Or to his self-reliance. God provides a shade tree for a day, a shelter better than the one Jonah has made for himself. The next day, however, God removes the shade tree and sends an extra hot sun and wind. Finally God asks again, “Is it right for you to be angry?” God returns to Jonah in his isolation and resentment, and invites him back to God’s grace—a grace that includes Nineveh.
Likewise, the Landowner speaks to “one” of the Grumblers—interesting because up to now the Landowner has dealt only with groups of Laborers. As God is gracious to the 120,000 Ninevites (and their animals!), he is gracious to the lone petulant prophet on the Eastern hill. The Landowner addresses the one Grumbler as “Friend.” He invites him into the generosity of grace. In paying everyone the daily living wage, he reminds the Grumblers that God provides what we need, not what we deserve. We need daily bread; but so does everyone else.
Paul and Jonah make an interesting study in contrasts. Both are commissioned to proclaim the good news of God’s grace. Both at one point preferred death. Jonah wanted to die because he was resentful of God’s grace; Paul because he desired to be in the fullness of God’s presence. The irony is that because Paul shared God’s grace with others, he already enjoyed God’s presence. But because Jonah would deny God’s grace to others, he was already dead.
How do we live like Paul and not Jonah? How do we live in God’s grace? Paul’s example teaches us that it starts by (1) being grateful, grateful that we have been called. Grace is that, whether at 6 AM or in the 11th hour, that the Landowner came looking for workers. Grace is that, when we flee from God, he comes looking for us. Gratitude for God’s grace helps us to (2) be content with what we have. Out of this gratitude and contentment, we are able to (3) rejoice with others over God’s generosity towards them. And finally, Paul teaches us to (4) find a way to serve others with our lives.
If we follow Paul’s example we’ll discover like he did that it’s better to die in God’s service, than to die in our resentment.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Share a time when you had the “evil eye,” a negative attitude towards God’s generosity towards others. How did that make you feel? How is your relationship with that person? What affect does this attitude have in your relationship with God?
- In what ways are you building your own sanctuary “East” of where God is residing? How are you trying to do things on your own instead of depending on God? Knowing that God comes looking for us, how might you make it easier for God to find you?
- Who are the people which, when you think about God judging them, it gives you a sense of satisfaction? What do you suppose God’s attitude is towards them? What would you do if you ended up on the same floor in God’s heavenly house?
- What are some ways God has been gracious to you? Do you spend time in grateful prayer for this grace? How might meditating on God’s goodness to you help you be more gracious towards others?
- Paul found purpose in serving others. How are you serving others, out of gratitude and while on this side of death?
If young adults’ perception of the church is accurate, then we are under God’s judgment. What can we do to fix this?
- A parable about judgment: future or present?
- Three key perspectives on forgiving others
- Final comments on welcoming others
- Questions for discussion or reflection
According to the book Unchristian, young adults—both those who attend church and those who do not—rank “judgmental” as their 2nd highest impression (“anti-homosexual” is #1). This despite Jesus’ specific teaching, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)
The parable of the unforgiving slave is a memorable one if not the most comforting. A king wanting to settle accounts with his slaves calls one in who owes him 10,000 talents, that is 150,000 years of wages for a laborer. Obviously the slave cannot pay it, so the king will settle for whatever amount the sale of the slave and his family will garner. The slave pleads for mercy and the king forgives the entirety of the debt—no sale! As he is departing, the slave encounters another slave who owes him 100 denarii, or 100 days of wages. When the second slave pleads for mercy, the first slave refuses and has him thrown into jail.
When the king finds out, he reinstates the first slave’s debt and has him thrown into prison. “And so,” Jesus concludes, “my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Is this a parable about the final judgment in the afterlife? Is this really what God is like? God knows better than anyone how difficult it is to forgive. Will God send us to hell for not forgiving someone? Doesn’t it matter how grievous the offense was?
Forgiveness is a path; it’s a journey. Sometimes the journey is a short one—if the offense is small, if the relationship is solid, if we’re in a good place spiritually. And sometimes the journey is a long one—if the offense is traumatic, if the relationship is weak, if we don’t have the spiritual resources.
Obviously Jesus wants us to forgive one another. I think the threat of divine judgment has more to do with experiencing God’s forgiveness in this life—whether we truly understand God’s forgiveness determines whether we forgive others. And since Jesus appears to assume that we can forgive others, let’s find the resources by which to do it.
Here’s what the lectionary passages today teach us about forgiveness.
The first step in forgiving others is to recognize that God and only God is qualified to judge. When the king finds out the first slave judged the second one, he intervened and reasserted his sole authority to judge. The parable depicts the king’s absolute authority. Likewise, Paul asks the factious groups in Rome, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” Both the vegetarian and the Sabbath keeper are servants of the same God who is God over the meat-eaters and the non-Sabbath keepers.
Later Paul reminds them that, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” To deny God the sole place of judging is to deny that Christ is Lord.
Joseph had learned this. When his brothers came to him in fear, pressuring him to forgive them, he responds, “Do not be afraid; am I in the place of God?” Joseph was free to forgive his brothers because he had learned to trust God to be just.
So when Peter asks how many times we are required to forgive others, Jesus answers every time. The fastest path to forgiveness is not to judge in the first place. So the first step in the journey of forgiveness is to recognize that God alone can judge.
A second step is to recognize we’re all in the same boat. The king reinstates his judgment out of shock that the first slave does not forgive the relatively minuscule debt of another slave. The first slave forgets that they’re both debtors who require forgiveness. Likewise Paul says that, “We all stand before the judgment seat of God.” In other words, the vegetarian and the meat-lover both fall short of being who God wants us to be. We can all be more faithful in SOME way.
Whether we owe 10K talents or 100 denarii, we’re all in the same boat. So the second step is to make forgiving others easier by starting with compassion.
A third helpful step follows naturally, and it is to focus on our own situation. Had the first slave taken time to be grateful, had he wondered in gratitude over the grace he had just received, there’s no way he could have judged his fellow slave.
Likewise Joseph, throughout his ordeal, practiced gratitude, focused on his vocation, and thus became a forgiving person. His brothers did not practice gratitude, and they became anxious about being judged. Gratitude paves the path of forgiveness. Paul says the vegetarians and the meat-lovers “honor God” because “they give thanks to God. Only,” Paul continues, “let all be fully convinced in their own minds.” In other words, work on your own issues.
Paul starts the chapter by telling the Roman churches to welcome people of different opinions, but not for the purpose of quarrelling with them. We’re not to welcome people as a bait-and-switch technique to try to change them. We welcome people because they are brothers and sisters in Christ.
This is helpful as we think about those people we would quarrel with, judge, exclude, or change. Instead, we should be grateful that they are here, because God has welcomed them. And if God has welcomed them, even those whom we would judge, then we can be assured God has welcomed us.
Let us remember that the king in the parable wants to forgive the slave. He calls in the slaves in order to settle accounts. He’s willing settle for much less, even to forgive the debt entirely. How much more, when we actually ask for mercy, is God, like the king, likely to be merciful?
So let’s leave the judging to God, have compassion for our fellow sinners, work on our own faithfulness, and welcome all whom God has called.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- In Matthew 6:14 Jesus says, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” How do you interpret this? How do you apply this? How does it relate to this sermon?
- This message recognizes a close relationship among forgiveness, judgment, and welcoming others. How do you see these dynamics at work in the church? What do you think about the impression of young adults that the church is judgmental?
- What affect would concentrating on the three steps (trusting judgment to God alone, seeing yourself in the same boat, focusing on your own calling) have on your attitude towards others? What effect would it have on your own emotional and spiritual well-being?
- What is the relationship between your inability or unwillingness to forgive someone and your experience of God’s forgiveness in your life now? Do you think God’s forgiveness is dependent upon yours?
Some churches are just too nice. We’re conflict avoidant, choosing instead a thinly veiled bitterness and resentment—all because we don’t know when or how to confront sin.
- What Matthew has to teach us when someone in the church sins against us
- The crucial discipline Ezekiel exemplifies when confronting sin in others
- How Psalm 119 prepares us to confront sin in others
- The simple test Paul gives us to use in these situations
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Pastors find themselves in conflictual situations quite often. Sometimes it’s trying to discern with someone or a couple of people some kind of resolution. It might be receiving an unkind and unconstructive criticism or we learn that someone has taken exception to our work or words. We can ignore, avoid, or gloss over these situations. Or we can look for guidance on how to proceed. Each of the texts from this week’s lectionary readings gives us such guidance.
What do we learn from the Gospel of Matthew? Matthew is sometimes called the “Jewish Gospel” because it presents Jesus and his followers as kind of “super Jews.” Form its Jewish roots, Mathew’s Christian community maintained a strong sense of covenant community, which means they believed God had called them to they belong to one another. The Jewish identity shows up, for example, when Jesus endorses the standard of “two or three witnesses”—it’s straight from the Old Testament.
Matthew offers us very helpful advice when dealing with conflict in the church. Jesus refers to a situation when someone “sins AGAINST YOU” (some early manuscripts don’t have “against you,” but I agree with those translators who retain it). It’s important for church health for two reasons. First, it’s unhealthy for us to take on someone else’s offenses. We can and should caringly listen when someone sins against another in the church. We can even facilitate a conversation between those two. But then we have to release it. I think this is the wisdom behind Jesus’ words that what we “loose” on earth is also loosed in heaven. “Trust God, let it go,” Jesus is saying.
We also shouldn’t take on God’s offenses. God has the Spirit to do the convicting work for him—God isn’t relying upon us to do it. Beyond the Spirt, Jesus himself, in the passage before this one, depicts himself as the Shepherd who goes to get the 1 lost sheep of the 99. It isn’t our job.
What IS our job is to recognize that when someone sins AGAINST US, they are ALREADY lost, because they have broken the unity of the Body of Christ. Our motivation in confronting sin should be “regaining” what is lost (vs 15)—out of love for Christ and the church. We should not confront sin out of our own sense of satisfaction or justice.
Another bit of guidance from Matthew is to be sure what you’re taking offense at is actually sin. We have to make sure it’s not just a slight, or a difference of opinion, or an abrasive personality. Not everything that bothers us about someone else is a sin.
To help us discern whether something is in fact sin, we get some guidance from Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet to the Exiles, a community experiencing the consequences of their sin. They had begun to have some conviction about this—their awareness was dawning. They needed a prophet to come speak the truth.
It is instructive that God has to encourage, even threaten, Ezekiel to speak into this situation. God says, “If I call to the wicked and you do not warn them, they will die but their blood will be on your hands.” (vs. 8) It’s important because it suggests Ezekiel’s reticence to speak up, and this suggests a need for deep discernment. Before we speak, we must have prayerful certainty that our motivation is right and that our understanding of the situation is accurate.
To help us with our motivation and accuracy, we gain guidance from the Psalm. Each of the 176 verses in Psalm 119 praises God’s Law, commands, ordinances, instructions, precepts, etc., and offers prayers to learn and follow them. For example, “I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life” (vs 40)
Before we judge someone else’s sins, we are wise to judge our own. Jesus taught that we can’t presume to remove the speck from our brother’s eye when we have a log in our own. (Matthew 7:3-5) Pursuing personal holiness with the same diligence and devotion as Psalm 119 helps us to discriminate between the minor irritants people are to us and their real sins against us. And it will help us to be compassionate when we do have to address sin. We won’t judge and condescend because we’ll realize we’re both in the same boat.
Paul gives us a simpler test. Remember that he was proudly righteous according to the Law, but that in his encounter with Christ he realized that righteousness is actually determined according to love. He wrote “All the commandments are summed up in this, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Romans 13:9) So the real question to ask is less “Is this a documentable sin?” and more “Is this the most loving way?” And the passage from Romans 12 from last week is among the best places to go to answer that question.
So some conclusions about conflict in the church from these passages from the lectionary. First, we sin against one another, even in the church, and it needs to be dealt with. Second, not everything we think is sin, is sin. So third, we have to practice discernment, check our own motivations and then act or not act accordingly. But when we do act, fourth, we must always and only do so out of love. If we follow these guidelines, we’ll be more faithful disciples of Christ, and we’ll be a healthier church.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Do you have a high standard for regulating your feelings about others’ “sins” against you, or do you sometimes confuse ordinary discomfort in human relations with sin?
- How often do you find yourself emotionally upset about something that isn’t really your business? How many “offenses of others” do you unnecessarily carry?
- Before talking to someone, or even investing emotionally in the relational dynamic between you and someone else, do you practice discernment like Ezekiel? Do you agonize over possibly having to call someone to account for actual sin, or do you rush headlong into the conversation knowing you are right?
- How often do you delight in God’s righteousness? When’s the last time you submitted to an examination by self, Spirit, or someone in the church regarding how you fail to live up God’s calling? What impact might such discipline have on your feelings towards others who bother you?
- What if you governed your life and your interpersonal interactions by Paul’s distillation of the Jewish and Christian faiths, namely that it all depends on what is loving, rather than conformity to the Law?
- Is there a relationship in the church that needs your attention along the lines of this message? How can you begin to mend that relationship?
It’s hard to imagine so abrupt a reversal in the spiritual life, except when we realize it happens all the time to everyone.
- What will your funeral look like?
- Five sentences of Jesus that can transform your life
- A list of small next steps
- Questions for discussion and reflection
In last week’s reading, Peter the spokesperson declared that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. For this, he is renamed the “Rock” and the truth of his confession becomes the foundation of the Christian church. Now this week, Peter pulls Jesus aside to correct him on what it means to be Messiah, and Jesus renames him yet again as “Satan.” Bam!
Stephen Covey in his Seven Habits book invites us to the following exercise. Fast forward to your funeral where four people will speak: a family member, a professional co-worker, someone who shares your hobby, and a member of your church or spiritual community. Each of these people can offer a unique perspective on your life. The question, of course, is, “What do you want them to be able to say?”
We do this vision exercise to help us prepare for the abrupt reversal. Everyone experiences abrupt reversals, and not just at the end of their lives. New parents are warned, “It goes so fast! Enjoy it while it lasts. You blink and they’re leaving for college.” That’s true.
As a pastor, I witness abrupt reversals on the threshold of death. In hospital rooms and gravesites, I see the abrupt reversal manifest sometimes in a yearning nostalgia, sometimes in guilt-racked regret. Every life faces reversals, because every life faces the same question: “What did you do with your life?”
In this brief scene from Matthew’ Gospel, Jesus gives us insight on how to live so that we can go with the flow when life reverses. In verse 23 he says, “Set your minds on the things of God, not human things.” This is what Peter didn’t get. But in another reading for the day, Jeremiah did get it. He was honest in his complaints, but God promised to deliver him through the prophetic task.
Jesus goes on in verse 24: “Whoever wants to be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” By saying “whoever” Jesus is saying that anyone can do this. Being Christ’s disciple can be boiled down to simply denying oneself and following Christ, even at the risk of taking up a cross. The “cross” is a critical part of following Jesus because of the difficulty of ego-sacrifice.
Our biological imperative is self-preservation. Our cultural messaging is self-promotion. All these powerful forces set our minds on human things, not divine things. So like Jesus, we need God’s help to sacrifice ourselves.
Jesus explains in verse 25, “Those who want to save their life will lose it; those who lose their life will find it.” We have so many ways we try to “save” our lives. When we are children, it is being the winner. When we are older, it is having the most. When we reach middle age and we realize we’re not going to win or have the most, we save ourselves by saying, “Well, at least I’m better than . . .”
These things don’t save because they are part of the human mindset. They are the “stumbling blocks” Peter tried to put before Jesus and which Jesus had to avoid. We have to avoid them also because they distract us from God’s path.
For Jesus said in verse 26, “What will it profit you to gain the whole world, but lose your life? What will you exchange for your life?” This is THE question of the abrupt reversal. What are you exchanging for your life? That exchange is happening right now: this day, this week, this year. We received life as a gift; every day we are exchanging it. And someday we will face a judgment on our exchange.
In this passage Jesus is inviting us to face that judgment now, so that we can survive the final judgment later. For Jesus, the time is now because, “Some standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (verse 28)
Jesus wants us to live now in such a way to survive the abrupt reversal later—the abrupt reversal at the end of your career or marriage, at the death of a loved one, and finally at your own death.
So how do we set our minds on the things of God? The litany from Romans 12 provides a great place to start. Just pick one imperative, one direction, and turn it into a concrete step: add a name or an activity and a deadline. Then take that step this week, and pray over the rest of the list. Little by little, one step at a time, you’ll retrain your mind to be set on the things of God, and you’ll have fewer stumbling blocks on the pathway to divinity.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- Share some of the abrupt reversals in your own life—times when you thought you knew what you were doing only to find out later you didn’t. What did you learn from those experiences? What can you learn from the abrupt reversals of others?
- Did you do the Covey exercise? Who spoke at your funeral? What did they say? What do you need to do today to make that possible?
- What are some of the “human things” you have your mind set on? What are some “divine things” God is calling you to focus on?
- In what ways are you “taking up a cross” and sacrificing your ego in order to follow Christ?
- What concrete step from Romans 12 are you taking this week? What’s the next step going to be?
While what Peter said didn’t make him the Pope, it is foundational for the Christian church.
- Peter’s preeminent leadership in the Gospels and what it teaches us today
- The understanding and application of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God
- Common misconceptions about Jesus then and now
- Four lessons unique to Matthew for the church of his time and ours
- Some tough observations and a word of hope
- Questions for discussion and reflection
We have to give Peter his due. He was the one who walked on water and thought to build shrines on Mount Tabor. He is the one who cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant when Jesus was arrested. And it is he who answers correctly the question Jesus asks, “Who shall you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” For this answer, Peter is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, but it doesn’t make him the first Pope.
The Papacy is part of a beautiful church polity that has served Christendom well. It isn’t the only way to organize the wider church, as the Protestant Reformation proved (too many times, actually!). The general understanding is that when Jesus renames Peter, which means “rock,” and then proclaims that, “On this rock I will build my church,” he established the Papacy with Peter as the first Pope.
What is lost in translation from Greek to English is the fact that petros, from which we get “Peter” and petra, upon which Jesus builds his church, refer to two different though related things. “Peter” refers to a rock, and petra refers to something like a cliff, something like a quarry from which a petros may be taken.
So Peter, universally recognized as the sometimes impetuous spokesperson for the disciples in the Gospels, is the spokesperson also for the church. He is the exemplar, the symbol, even a sacrament of sorts of the church. It is what Peter the Rock says that points to the cliff upon which Jesus builds his church. It is namely his confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of Jewish longing and divine promise, and that God is so present with us through Jesus that he is rightly understood to be the Son of God.
This is the church’s confession. It is contrasted in the preceding passage by the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” which refers to their teaching. They are mistaken not to recognize who Jesus is, so Jesus asks the question of the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” Apparently in Matthew’s first audience, there was some confusion about Jesus identity. Is he a reincarnation of John the Baptist? Is he the prophetic forerunner to the Messiah, that is, Elijah? Is he a prophet like Jeremiah or the others? These are the answers the disciples offer on behalf of others.
Today still there is confusion in the church over who Jesus is. Probably the greatest misconception about who Jesus is is that he is “my Savior.” It is confusing because the reason Jesus is anyone’s Savior is because he is everyone’s Savior. That we get this confused is evident when we casually identify who’s “in” and who’s “out.” It is evident in the way we treat those we deem “out.” That Jesus was known for not judging others and his church is known for being judgmental is proof we are still confused about his identity.
As important as what Peter confesses about Jesus, it is perhaps even more important to recognize what Matthew is teaching us through Jesus’ response to Peter. Only in Matthew does Jesus say four things, each of which is meant to remind us of what it means to be his disciples.
- “This was revealed to you by my Father.” The cliff upon which Jesus builds his church isn’t something we recognize on our own, in our “flesh and blood.” To see Jesus as Messiah and Son of God requires God Spirit revealing it to us. This is what we understand grace to mean.
- “Upon this rock, I will build my church.” As a pastor and church leader, I think about building the church all the time. I often get impatient and feel like a failure in this. Here Jesus reminds us that he is the one who builds the church. It doesn’t mean we have nothing to do (see below), but it does mean we don’t have to feel like a failure all the time. Here again is an example of what we mean by grace.
- “The gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” It is a fascinating depiction Jesus offers. What is the church’s relationship with the powers of death? On one hand, they will not prevail against us, which suggests we’re being attacked. On the other hand, the church is supposed to be right outside the gates, which suggests we’re the ones attacking. Given this dynamic, we shall not lose hope despite the presence of the powers of death on one hand, and we shall confront these powers in all their forms on the other.
- “To you are given the keys of the kingdom.” Here Jesus is referring to the church as the kingdom of heaven, and gives the keys to this kingdom to Peter, the church leader. What is more, Jesus promises that whatever Peter binds here will be bound in heaven, and the same for whatever he loosens. The church is the foretaste, or preview, of heaven. What we say and do here as the church should reflect what is true of heaven.
An example of this is whom we welcome in worship or at the table. Actually, “welcome” is too passive a word. Jesus told us not to “welcome” people to worship, but to go and “seek” them.
This causes me to wonder: Are we taking our ability to loosen and bind seriously? I think about this often in conversations with parents and grandparents: Why are so few of our sons and daughters and grandchildren no longer attending worship? Or why are there so few of people living near this building attending worship here? Or why are there so few of your neighbors, classmates, and workmates attending worship? If we say with Peter that Jesus is Messiah and the Son of God, then why are we not loosening and binding?
As Isaiah urged, we must not forget the quarry from which we are hewn. We cannot forget that God uses small things like an old childless couple to build big things, like descendants more numerous than the stars, one of which will be the Savior of the world. We must not forget that even a small act of kindness, the offer of service, or a simple invitation to worship can be used by God to build his church. In the process, we must not forget also that Jesus desires to build his church, and that the gates of Hades will not prevail over the church. But let us also not forget that we should be knocking on those very gates.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Do you believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God? Do you find in Jesus as Messiah the fulfillment of God’s promises and your longings? Do you sense God’s presence with you in Jesus as the Son of God? What difference is this making in your life?
- If this is the confession upon which the church is built, are you participating in the building of that church? Do you offer hope in Christ the Messiah, and comfort in God’s presence through Christ the Son, to those around you? If no, why not?
- In what ways do you see Jesus’ identity being misunderstood in the church today? In what ways might you be misunderstanding who Jesus is? Are you open to being surprised by the person of Jesus?
- Do you get that you, like Peter, are a rock? You’re a part of that great quarry that is the church. In what ways, however small or big, can you be used by God to bear testimony to God’s salvation of the world through Christ and the church’s ministry?
Jesus once asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” If the answer is yes, what does such faith look like?
- What faith doesn’t look like
- What faith does according to Isaiah
- What faith doesn’t do according to Jesus
- How the Canaanite Woman exemplifies the faith Jesus looks for
- Questions for discussion and reflection
When Jesus returns, what kind of faith will he look for? (Luke 18:8) We can be sure what it doesn’t look like: Pharisaical ritual observance. The Pharisees had just criticized Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands before eating. (Matthew 15:1-2) When Mark tells the story, he says the Pharisees took pride in washing cups, pots, and vessels. (Mark 7:4) These, they say, are the “traditions of the elders,” and Jesus should follow them.
In the reading from Matthew today, Jesus redefines what it is that defiles. It is not these things that enter our bodies and pass through to the sewers. Rather it is what we do that defiles us. So the question is, What shall we do?
According to Isaiah, those who do certain things will be welcomed by God into the kingdom. These include those who join themselves to the LORD: they seek God’s ways and follow in them. It includes those who minister or serve God, which is to say, they are concerned to live according to God’s values. They also keep the Sabbath, which is very interesting because what we’ll learn in a few verses is that these people are not Jews. So keeping the Sabbath must mean something like attending to spiritual truth in the midst of worldly living. And they will hold fast to the covenant, which must harken back to a covenant that is more universal than the Mosaic one, since again these are not Jews. It could be the covenant with humanity at creation which calls us to good stewardship of the earth.
These are the things God looks for in ancient Israel, and for which Israel is judged when they fail. But God also finds them outside Israel. Isaiah suggests that they are all forms of prayer, for God promises that his house will be “a house of prayer for all the nations.” God says the sacrifices of the nations in keeping with these criteria are acceptable on God’s altars. These criteria are the bases of “being gathered” in God’s kingdom.
According to Jesus, there are indeed things that defile a person, but they are not failing to keep the traditions of the elders. Instead they are the behaviors that manifest the “evil intentions” of the heart. He lists them as: murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, bearing false witness, and slander.
Note that all these are transgressions of justice. They are violations of a person’s divine right to life without fear of being killed, to marriage without fear of intrusion, to ownership without fear of theft, and to having a good name without fear of slander.
People of faith, according to Jesus will pursue this kind of justice, not justice as retribution, but justice as preservation of life as God intends. Wherever God finds these just qualities—among Jews or Gentiles, whether Pharisee or disciple of Jesus—God gathers. When the Son of Man comes, this is what he’s looking for, not religious traditions, but the maintenance of a just society.
The disciples didn’t quite get this. According to Matthew, when a foreign woman seeks Jesus’ help, the disciples want to send her away. It’s much like they wanted to send the crowd of 5000 men away. They didn’t want to feed the hungry, and they don’t want to care for the foreigner. But faith on the earth, that is to say the maintenance of social justice, does seek to feed and care for strangers.
So Jesus engages the Canaanite woman. First he denies her. Then he insults her. But she surprises him with a smart response and he recognizes her faith. Finally, he answers her prayer.
So faith on earth also looks like the preservation of social justice, but it also looks like the Canaanite Woman. She came to Jesus, even when the church said “no.” She pleads with Jesus in the most simple way: “Lord, help me.” Her prayer even takes on the character of an argument. She may very well exemplify the kind of prayer that qualifies in Isaiah’s vision of God’s “house of prayer.” From this perspective, the words from the Psalm come to life: “May God make his face to shine upon us, that his ways may be known upon the earth.”
In Romans 9-11 the faithful Jew Paul is wrestling with the fact that not all faithful Jews followed Jesus. He comes to his conclusion through the great theological truth that, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” In other words, all of us have the same need for a savior—Jew and Canaanite alike. This is good news for anyone who wants to have faith when the Son of Man returns. God is merciful to all.
So even if one’s faith is small, even if one’s faith has been misguided, even if one has been imprisoned in disobedience, God is merciful. All of us are called to be those who pursue justice and to be those who pray. These, we are assured, will see the salvation of God.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What are some of the “traditions of the elders” in the church today—those things that some people assert we must do in order to be righteous before God?
- What are some of the other things that truly defile us, transgressions of justice that make us unrighteous before God?
- How is maintaining a just society an expression of faith? What are some ways we can do better with this?
- Have you ever thought about praying like the Canaanite Woman? Can our prayers be so simple, determined, even argumentative? Do you agree that this is an expression of faith?
- How does God’s merciful disposition to all people imprisoned in disobedience free you to a deeper faith? Do you believe that God is merciful even to you?
I saw a mentally ill person talking to himself last week and I wondered, “How many people in my congregation view me the same way on Sunday mornings?”
- Reformed worship, the mentally ill, and preachers
- When God tends to speak to me (and Elijah, and the disciples)
- Four additional suggestions when listening for God’s Word
- Questions for discussion and reflection
In the Reformed tradition, the Word has primary place in worship. By “Word” we of course mean the Bible, but more, we are referring to an encounter with the risen Christ, the Word of God incarnate. We listen for the Word, respond to the Word, and re-incarnate the Word in our lives.
Seeing the mentally ill person last week got me thinking: there is a paradox in Reformed worship, that we come in order to listen, but we don’t really expect to hear. I mean, do you really want me to tell you, as others do on televised Sunday morning worship, that “I heard God say . . .”?
As a professional listener and proclaimer of God’s Word, I’m nonetheless skeptical when people say to me, “God said such and such to me.” I can only remember one person claim to have heard an audible voice, one that could be recorded (another one told me about such an experience yesterday, actually). But for all the others, they refer to something else: a “sense, feeling, leading, prompting.”
As for me, I can only tell you about my own experience of “hearing God’s voice,” and illustrate with some examples from the Bible.
I can tell you that God tends to speak to us when we’re tired, at the end of our rope, totally spent.
Elijah had just defeated the prophets of Baal and as a result, the evil queen Jezebel threatened him with his life. He runs 100 miles from Mt. Carmel to Beersheba where the text says, he abandoned his servant and continued a day’s journey more where he’s fed three meals and told to sleep. He then takes forty days and nights to go to Mount Horeb, probably fasting and praying as he goes.
He has traveled a total of 280 miles from Carmel to Horeb and ONLY THEN God’s Word “came to him.” “Came” sounds to me like a “sense.” The question Elijah “hears” is, “What are you doing here?” It might just as easily have been a thought Elijah had as a voice he heard: “What AM I doing here?”
Elijah answers twice with the same words, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Between answers, God makes an appearance, but not in the typical theophanies of wind, earthquake, or fire—but in silence. In that silence, which Elijah “heard,” the question came again.
We don’t know how he answered the two times. Was the first time an angry accusation against God, or was Elijah resigned? Was the second answer given more as a lamentation? We can’t tell from the text; we have only the words. But what the Scripture tells us is that Elijah was tired, and that God spoke to him in many ways.
The disciples also were tired. They had just spent the day feeding 5000 plus people. And that night they spent in a boat struggling against a storm. They had worked a double-shift! Besides being tired, I imagine they might also have been angry: Jesus can feed everyone else, but now he goes up in to the mountains to “pray” and leaves us all alone!
Between 3 and 6 AM, Jesus finally comes to them, walking on the water. Tired, angry, and trying to explain his absence, maybe the disciples thought Jesus had died, and maybe they felt a little guilty about all these feelings, because when Jesus shows up, the disciples are terrified and cry out, “It’s a ghost!”
Peter, true to his impetuous nature, asks to walk on the water also. Jesus invites him out, but when Peter sees the strong winds, far from confusing this with the presence of God as Elijah might have done, Peter panics and begins to sink. He cries out to Jesus who reaches out and saves him.
Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Here again, we don’t know how Jesus delivered this. Was it a deep, judging “God voice”? Was it disappointment? Did Jesus find the whole thing a little funny and deliver these words through laughter? Again, having only text with no stage directions, we don’t know. But the point is this: though God is always speaking, even when we’re not tired, it’s still a good idea to listen ESPECIALLY when we’re tired, exhausted, spent, or at the end of our rope.
Drawing some more from these texts, here are some other guidelines for listening for God’s Word.
First, start by being honest. Here remember Elijah’s need to answer God’s question twice. And remember Peter being true to his character. In worship, we offer a prayer of confession and receive assurance of pardon which is our way of being honest about who we are and who God is. We need, and God is, a savior. We also pray for the illumination of the Holy Spirit when we read the Bible and hear the sermon. Without this help, all we have are words. So start by being honest about your feelings, who you are, and your need for the Spirit’s help.
Second, listen for God’s Word in the form of metaphors. God delights in surprising us by how he uses words. This is why Jesus’ favorite teaching method is the parables. We also see God using action-reflection (for example, Elijah), twists, double-meanings, and even paradoxes. God does speak to us in Scripture, but in experience also. God does speak in fire, but also in silence. So listen without prejudice (as George Michael would urge).
Third, it’s important to always return to and listen in community. Matthew tells us, as Peter and Jesus return to the boat, that those in the boat believed. He seems to contrast their experience with that of Peter’s. We know that Peter eventually came back to the boat—he became the first great preacher. We see time after time how God speaks both to individuals and to communities, and to individuals in communities. So it’s important to listen for God’s Word personally, but also to listen in community. Alone we’re quite at risk of getting it wrong; together we’re better assured of hearing God accurately.
Fourth, to hear God’s Word, maybe stop trying so hard. Paul reminds us that the Word of faith, the Word of salvation, isn’t in heaven to be brought down, nor is it dead in the abyss, needing to be brought back to life. He says it is near, on our lips, even in our hearts. The elementary message of grace, and thus of Christianity, is, “stop trying so hard.” Or better even, “stop trying.” God is speaking; just listen.
Psalm 85 says God’s salvation is near to those who call upon him. Our voice may not be very loud, but then again, neither is God’s necessarily. God speaks to us in many ways. Whether we are tired, whatever our condition emotionally, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, the promise throughout the Bible is that, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” May that be so for us.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Have you ever had an experience of “hearing” God’s Word to you? How do you describe it? What were the circumstances? Is there a discernable pattern in your life where God “speaks” to you?
- If it’s true that God tends to speak to those who are at the end of their rope, why might that be?
- When you listen for God through Scripture and prayer, do you start by being honest about yourself? What might that look like?
- How might allowing more metaphorical and experiential “readings” of Scripture and prayer enhance your receiving of God’s Word?
- In what ways do you “try too hard” to hear God’s Word? What would it mean for you to “stop and just listen”?
- Has God ever spoken to you through another person? Have God ever spoken to someone else through you?