This is one of Jesus’ most powerful sound bites. And like all sound bites, it is easy to misunderstand.
- When the alliance of religion and politics tries to trap Jesus
- The dangers of trying to keep religion and politics separate
- The proper relationship between religion and politics
- Questions for discussion and reflection
It was a trick question designed to alienate Jesus from the popular masses. By popular masses, of course we mean the poor and overtaxed. His stunning one-liner response covers questions regarding taxes and church and state, but so much more also.
It came from the Pharisees and Herodians, an interesting alignment of both the religious elite and political players. Their opening approach is characteristic of the manipulation you might expect from such a partnership: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
If Jesus says no, he is treasonous; if he says yes, he alienates the populace. His memorable escape? “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”
Some people are tempted to hear a simple “yes” with this answer—pay your taxes. If it is this simple, then it seems there are two kingdoms—an earthly one and a heavenly one. We remember that Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray that they eventually become one: “Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.”
If this is the case, then the two kingdoms are separate. So we are to pay our taxes in the earthly kingdom, and worship God in the heavenly one. We find other applications of this “two separate kingdoms” mentality throughout Christian history. For example, slaves, submit to your owners in the earthly kingdom, and worship God in your slave communities. Or politicians, get the job done by whatever means throughout the week, and worship God on Sunday. Or patriots, support war, and worship God. Or you rich, pay a higher income tax, and worship God. Or you poor, be content with your wages, and worship God.
The “two kingdom” perspective works out pretty well for the politically powerful and the religious elite. Both get what they want. And if you’re part of both groups, you get a double benefit!
But Jesus’ answer isn’t a simple “yes,” and the Pharisees and Herodians knew it. That’s why they were stunned into silence and retreat. Today we also shouldn’t hear a simple “yes” with all the troubling implications that accompany it.
Remember Jesus requests to see a coin. There were two coins in circulation at Jesus’ time: the imperial coin and one allowed by Rome for use among Jews. The imperial coin included an inscription and image of Caesar. Pious Jews wouldn’t carry imperial coins, because they wouldn’t carry something with a graven image. But when Jesus asks for a coin, the Pharisees produced an imperial coin.
Jesus publically asks, “Whose inscription and image is this?” And already the debate is won. The coin is inscribed, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus” and it has Caesar’s image. Jesus doesn’t have to say it, because the crowd would already have been scandalized by the coin, but he does anyway: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Clearly the point isn’t a simple, “yes, pay taxes.” Instead, this episode asks an uncomfortable, revealing question: Are you giving to God what is God’s? Are your priorities right? In the conflict between spiritual values and material ones, which set wins?
For Jesus, the coin belongs to Caesar because it bears Caesar’s image. But we belong to God because we bear God’s image. So the question is, Are we giving ourselves, our whole selves, to God? Of course we are not. So the question narrows to, What are we holding back?
Jesus’ answer, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” reminds us of a truth his audience would already have known: All things belong to God. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” In all things, we are stewards in this life—everything belongs to God and we are merely taking care of them for a time.
So Jesus is instructing us to good and faithful stewardship of all things: Our time—including Sunday morning; our strength—including what it takes to serve others; our financial resources—including our charitable offerings. And including our taxes.
This is the good of taxes: We are forced to remember that what we call our own, is not our own. Every paycheck and every April 15 reminds us we belong to the United States. And every Sunday, every sacrifice of time and resources reminds us that we belong to God.
Jesus refused to allow the politically powerful and religious elite to co-opt his message of God’s reign in this world. He refuses to allow us to compartmentalize his Lordship in our lives. When we withhold from him areas of our lives we think belong to us, he wants to deliver us from the tyranny of trying to be our own lords. For wherever we do not have Jesus as Lord in our lives, we do not have him as Savior there either. So give to God, the things that are God’s.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- In what ways have you been living with a “two kingdom” mentality, as if there were parts of your life that don’t belong to God? How can you better bring God into those parts of your life?
- Metaphorically speaking, are you carrying “imperial coins,” getting things done using dishonest or less honorable means? How might you align your life with the values of God’s kingdom?
This is not a parable about God’s blessing the Christian church, but about God judging the church’s leadership.
- The metaphor of the vineyard in the Bible: three views
- The three audiences of Jesus’ parable about the unfaithful tenants
- How Faith Presbyterian Church intends to be faithful tenants: five directional goals
- Questions for discussion and reflection
The (complementary) Lectionary today gives us three views of the vineyard. Throughout the Bible, the vineyard represents the people of God, and often includes intimate romantic overtones. See the Song of Solomon as a concentrated example. This intimacy is apparent in the first view which comes from Isaiah. It is actually a preview, and shows us the vineyard from God’s perspective.
God joyfully envisioned and labored to create a vineyard. He had hopeful expectations regarding it. God looked for justice and righteousness but instead found bloodshed and cries from the oppressed. In the following verses and chapters, Isaiah identifies some of the problems with the vineyard: unrestrained accumulation of wealth, feasting without gratitude, bribery, and perversions of justice. Giving this, God promises to cease cultivating vineyard, allowing it to suffer the consequences of nature.
The postview comes from the psalm, and offers us a perspective from within the vineyard after God’s judgment has come. It recalls earlier times of deliverance and blessing that have been replaced with judgment. It pleas for deliverance, not on the basis of its own righteousness, but because God is the owner of the vineyard.
Matthew gives us the long view. Jesus parable summarizes the life cycle of God’s people using the metaphor of the vineyard. The cycle is that we receive blessings, but withhold appropriate and active thanks. God continually invites us to be a thankful and generous people, but we ignore God’s many invitations. In the graphic description of the parable, we beat, kill, stone the servants of the owner and refuse to do right. Eventually the owner sends his son, whom we also kill, and Jesus promises that the landowner will evict the present tenants and bring in others who will bear the “fruit of righteousness.”
Whenever we read the Gospels, and especially the parables, we have to remember that there are really three audiences: Jesus’ first audience, the writers’ audience, and us.
Jesus’ first audience, when they heard this parable, would have immediately had Isaiah and the other Older Testament references to the vineyard in mind. They would recognize God as the landowner and the vineyard as themselves. And when the landowner sends his son, they would have identified him with the king, for the Older Testament often refers to the king as God’s son. They would have wondered about the tenants, however, since that is a new layer on the metaphor introduced by Jesus.
Matthew’s first audience would make the same connections as Jesus’ original audience, except that they would recognize the son as Jesus. They would see the new tenants as themselves, the Christian church. And because Matthew says so explicitly, they would understand the old tenants as the chief priests and Pharisees. It’s helpful to know that Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish Christian community, Jewish followers of Jesus whom other Jews criticized.
As we receive this parable today, as Matthew’s second audience, we realize that this is not a parable about God transferring his blessings from Jews to Christians. The vineyard is the same—the people of God. The expectation is the same—justice and righteousness, or as Jesus calls it, the “fruits of the kingdom.” This parable is about the stewardship of the vineyard. In other words, it’s about church leaders.
Who might this include? In a Presbyterian church, it certainly includes ministers of Word and Sacrament, the ordered ministries of Elder and Deacon, paid and unpaid Staff, and Volunteer ministry leaders. But because of the priesthood of all believers, everyone is implied also. One of the ways we talk about membership in our congregation is the move from being a “receiver” in the church to taking “responsibility” for the church. So this parable about church stewardship addresses a lot of people.
The Session has the responsibility to “discern and govern” a congregation. We’re the “first line” stewards of a particular vineyard. So it’s up to us to articulate how our congregation will grow Jesus’ “fruits of the kingdom.” In our congregation, we have identified five directional goals to help us do this. They are:
- Bible knowledge: we should know generally what’s in the Bible and how to apply it to our lives
- Prayer, personal and public: we should know how to give thanks to and trust God regarding our own circumstances, and be able to pray for others when called upon to do so
- Community: we should have friendships within the church in addition to the friendships we have outside the faith community
- Service: we should be a people who naturally seek to meet needs in, through, and beyond the church
- Worship: we should understand and appreciate the value of what we do together in worship
We believe that God has invested in this church, loves this church even as the scripture depicts in the metaphor of the vineyard, and hopes our church will produce justice, righteousness, and the fruits of the kingdom. We believe these five directional goals will help us be good tenants.
As God has invested in this church, we invite our congregation to invest in it as well. But producing the fruits of the kingdom requires more than money. It requires more than the leadership of Session, Deacons, paid and unpaid Staff, and Volunteers. It requires all of us—we’re all stewards of this vineyard, and God will hold us accountable for it.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- In what ways have you seen “fruits of righteousness” present in your congregation?
- How would you judge the stewardship of the tenants of your congregation, beginning with the leadership, but also realizing that you are a tenant?
- In what ways are you involved in helping your congregation achieve the five directional goals?
According to this parable, there are only two kinds of people who attend worship. Which kind are you?
- The two sons, chief priests, elders, tax collectors, prostitutes, and us
- Why religious people especially are so judgmental
- That God is patient in the present, and forgiving of the past
- How Jesus frees us to be less judgmental and to live more faithfully
- Questions for discussion and reflection
There are two sons in this parable of Jesus, and in his own interpretation he suggests that one of the sons represents upright religious folks. The other son represents tax collectors and prostitutes. When the father asks both sons to work in the vineyard, the first says “no” but eventually goes; the second says “yes” but does not go. When everyone agrees that the first son, though initially saying “no,” is the one who actually does the father’s will, Jesus tells the chief priests and religious elders that the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before them.
So which son are we? Either we think we deserve to be in the church because we’re believers, or at least we’re religious. Or it’s because we so desperately want what Jesus preached to be true. We’re sinners and we know it. We screw ups, broken, and lost.
In Jesus’ parable, everyone gets into the kingdom. Of course this makes sense given what Paul says, that because of God’s exaltation of Jesus, every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that he is Lord. At the end of time everyone—chief priests and elders, tax collectors and prostitutes, religious and sinners alike—enters in. The difference is that the sinners get it now, and get in early, while the religious folks are busy judging others.
Judging others is in our nature. It started out as blame: Adam blamed Eve who blamed the Snake. But once religion gets introduced, we stop blaming each other and start judging instead. The question is no longer “who sinned first” but “who’s still sinning.” And the easiest measuring stick is religion.
The challenge is that Jesus came to heal sinners, to find the lost, to save the irreligious. He lets the religious keep trying to save themselves. But since he knows they’re sinners also, he keeps inviting them to follow him nonetheless.
Imagine the father’s initial reactions to the responses of his sons. I suspect he was delighted with the second son’s response, “I will go.” And it’s reasonable to assume he was displeased with the first son who said “I won’t go.” But I wonder what else went through his mind. Did he feel like a failure as a parent? Did he plan to introduce some regimen of discipline for the first son? Did he feel like giving up on the first son as a lost cause and investing more in the second?
We don’t know how the parable ends, whether the father rewards the first son who ended up doing it and punishing the second son who only says he’ll do it. The first point of the parable seems to be not how it ends, but what the sons do in the meantime. It’s the contrast between lip service and hand service. Do we just say we’re following Christ, or are we actually doing it?
Another point of the parable seems to be the father’s patience with the sons. He gives them time to change their minds. The father is big enough to be patient, to allow the sons to change, to grow. Or to use religious language, to “repent.”
If we may infer something about God from this parable, it is that God is also patient, allowing time for our change of mind. One of the ways God allows repentance is that he doesn’t judge us according to our past. At one point the people of ancient Israel cried that “the way of the Lord is unfair” because they were being judged according to their ancestors’ misdeeds. Their despair likely led them to think they may as well not even try anymore.
Sometimes we have the same despair. We remember the line in Wordsworth’s poem, “The child is father of the man.” For Wordsworth, this was a pleasant realization—as the child loved rainbows, so the man does also. But if our childhood was traumatic or just negative, or especially if our youthfulness was sinful, we might be tempted to despair like the ancient Israelites and think, “I’m doomed, there is no hope.”
But God responded to the people, “Forget that Bible verse that says I will punish the children for the sins of their parents. Instead, you get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” God reorients us to the present and invites us into faithfulness, regardless of the past. According to the psalm, God is mindful of his mercy and love, and does not remember the sins of our youth. We learn that God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, so he calls us now to “turn and live.”
Not only is there time for repentance in God’s patience, but Paul says that, “it is God who is at work enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” So God gives us time and power for repentance. This divine work in our lives is the definition of grace. We can’t do it ourselves, so God does it with us.
Jesus is Lord because he is the second son who did the will of his father. We said, “we’ll do it” but then we didn’t. We didn’t because we couldn’t. Jesus said, “I’ll do it” and then he did. He was obedient to death, and so, Paul says, God exalted him and opened the kingdom to everyone. Now, in the power of the Spirit of the resurrected Christ—a power we receive in baptism—God enables us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Because Jesus is Lord, and the kingdom is open, and because God allows and empowers repentance, we are not allowed to judge anyone. We can’t tell if they are first or second sons. They may appear as chief priests and elders to us, or they may appear as sinners. Right now, we’re in the middle of the parable, and we don’t know who’s going in first and who has to wait until his religion is purged out of him.
In the meantime the one person we can judge is ourselves. Are we first or second sons, first or second daughters? Are we saying it but not doing it, or are we living according to God’s will? Only we can answer that for ourselves now.
And thank God that only God, who is patient and faithful, who is mindful of mercy and love, answers that question for us later.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Which son are you and I—church going, sermon summary reading Christians—more likely to be? How would you feel if the sinners you know enter the kingdom ahead of you?
- Are you someone who judges others on the basis of religion? How does this parable invite you to change? How can you grow in grace enough to cease being so judgmental?
- How do you respond to the understanding of grace that says God is patient and forgiving and empowers us to live according to his will?
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?