November 29, 2020 Digital Worship Services

Contemporary Service and Extracted Sermon are at the bottom of this post

First Sunday of Advent
November 29, 2020 Traditional Worship Service

One of the best known customs for the season is the Advent wreath. The wreath and winter candle lighting in the midst of growing darkness strengthen some of the Advent images found in the Bible. The four candles mark the progress of the four weeks of Advent and the growth of light.

Advent Wreath Prayer

P. Blessed are you, God of hope, for you promise to bring forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse who will bring justice to the poor, who will deliver the needy and crush the oppressor, who will stand as a signal of hope for all people. As we light these candles, turn our wills to bear the fruit of repentance, transform our hearts to live in justice and harmony with one another, and fix our eyes on the root of Jesse, Jesus Christ, the hope of all nations.

O people of hope, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Amen.

Sing first verse of Light One Candle

Blessed be God, Father, ☩ Son, and Holy Spirit,
whose forgiveness is sure
and whose steadfast love endures forever.
Amen.

Together let us honestly and humbly confess
that we have not lived as God desires.

Loving and forgiving God,
we confess that we are held captive by sin.
In spite of our best efforts, we have gone astray. We have not welcomed the stranger;
we have not loved our neighbor;
we have not been Christ to one another.
Restore us, O God.
Wake us up and turn us from our sin.
Renew us each day in the light of Christ. Amen.

People of God, hear this glad news:
by God’s endless grace
your sins are forgiven, and you are free—
free from all that holds you back
and free to live in the peaceable realm of God.
May you be strengthened in God’s love,
☩ comforted by Christ’s peace,
and accompanied with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Verses 1, 3 and 5 of The King Shall Come

Greeting:

L: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
C: And also with you.

Prayer of the Day

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9

1O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. The word of the Lord.

Psalm: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

1Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim. 2In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, stir up your strength and come to help us. 3Restore us, O God; let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved. 4O LORD God of hosts, how long will your anger fume when your people pray? 5You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink. 6You have made us the derision of our neighbors, and our enemies laugh us to scorn. 7Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved. 17Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one you have made so strong for yourself. 18And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your name. 19Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The word of the Lord.

Gospel: Mark 13:24-37

[Jesus said:] 24“In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” The gospel of the Lord.

Sermon: Pastor Neil White

Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

PRAYERS OF INTERCESSION

Let us pray: Loving God, we lift up this world that you love. Renew your creation and give wisdom to all your people who share in your responsibility to care for the world. Give wisdom to the leaders of nations, states, and cities to care for your people and the world. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of peace, where there is conflict bring a just peace where all people can flourish. Protect and bless those whose calling involves protecting and guarding our freedoms, including: Ben, Cal, Christian, Clayton, Dillan, Haden, Lindsey, Luke, Michael, Richard, Spencer, Steve, Sydney, Tyler B. and Tyler G. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Healing God, give us your strength as we care for those in need. We lift up before you today: Alex M., Alex W., Becca, Betsy, Bill, Bob D., Bob S., Carol, Cathy, Charles, Christa, Christi, Cliff, Craig, Darryl, Dave, David, Debra, Doug, Faith, Gary, Jamie, Jan, Jason, Jeff, Jerry, Jim, Judy, Julie, Pastor Kenneth, Marie, Matt, Maureen, Michele, Mike B., Mike S., Patrick, Pete, Rebecca, Renee, Robert, Sal, Scott, Shirley and Vim. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Lord, we pray for the ministries of the ELCA and the Northern Texas – Northern Louisiana Synod, we also lift up in prayer today: St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Hurst, Bethel Lutheran Church, Avoca and ELCA Disability Ministries. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Leader: In trust and hope, we commend to you, O Lord, all for whom we pray. Amen.

Highlights/Sharing of the Peace

Offering
(offering can either be mailed to Rejoice (12000 Independence Pkwy, Frisco TX 75035 or there is the opportunity for electronic giving on the website http://www.rejoicefrisco.com)

Invitation to Communion

Even as we watch and wait, Christ is here. Come, eat and drink.

Words of Institution

*Lord’s Prayer: Please Sing

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer

Gracious and abundant God, you have done great things for us, and we rejoice.
In this bread and cup you give us life forever. In your boundless mercy, strengthen us
and open our hearts to the world’s needs, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Blessing

The Creator of the stars bless your Advent waiting, the long-expected Savior fill you with love, the unexpected Spirit guide your journey, ☩ now and forever.

DiscipleLife

L: As God has claimed us as his own in Christ, we seek to follow Christ with these marks of DiscipleLife:
▪Praying Daily
▪Worshiping Weekly
▪Studying the Bible
▪Serving Others
▪Building Spiritual Friendships
▪Giving to God and our Neighbors in Need
▪Engaging God’s Mission

Dismissal: “Go in peace. Prepare the way of the Lord.” Thanks be to God!

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Matthew 23: 1-36 Woe to the Blind Hypocrites

James Tissot, Woe Unto You Scribes and Pharisees

Matthew 23: 1-36

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hellas yourselves.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ 19 How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21 and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; 22 and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup,so that the outside also may become clean.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30 and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. 33 You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35 so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.

I am taking the majority of this chapter as a long unit both because this is a section of Matthew that many modern Christians are uncomfortable with, especially looking back at the way Christians, when they became the dominant religion in many areas, treated their Jewish neighbors. The paradox of the way Matthew has been read is that while it is the most Jewish of the gospels, it also has passages that have been read to paint Judaism as a whole in a judgmental and harsh light. The language of Matthew 23 would be very familiar to those who have spent any time studying the prophets in particular and the Hebrew Scriptures in general, but since most Christians have little familiarity with how to read the scriptures we share with our Jewish brothers and sisters we misunderstand Matthew, the scriptures, Christianity and Judaism.

If you’ve read through these reflections on Matthew, you will not be surprised that judgment is a part of the coming kingdom of heaven for those who resist it and prevent others from hearing about or accepting its approach. Matthew is an extremely gifted scribe who is able to pull from a wide range of the scriptures (the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament) as he is attempting to narrate the story and teachings of Jesus, but in a world where copies of the scriptures were both rare and controlled by those in religious authority the Pharisees and scribes would be the ones with both access to these scriptures and the ability to proclaim them to the people. The Hebrew scriptures in the law, narrative and prophets is very hard on rulers and those with religious authority because they are the ones who will shape the actions of the people because they have access to these sacred writings that reveal God’s will for the society they are to construct.

One way to read this section is to allow it to be a mirror to compare one’s own practices to. Jesus is speaking to his disciples and the crowds, not primarily the Pharisees (as they are represented in Matthew) here. As Anna Case-Winters can state:

As we read these sharp edged texts today we are tempted to let them rest in the past as a condemnation of a particular subset of the Pharisees. We locate ourselves among the righteous and know that Jesus is talking not about “us” but about “them.” What if, instead, we took the texts as an occasion to examine our own religious life and practice to see if the things Jesus speaks so heatedly against are to be found there? Those who are religious leaders might look particularly closely at what is condemned here. These texts are surely a cautionary tale instructive for religious leaders and all “would-be” followers of Jesus. (Case-Winters 2015, 263)

The Pharisees and scribes become an example of those who do not practice what they preach, who focus on the wrong things, who are judged here because they in positions of power have judged or misled others. Throughout Matthew the followers of Christ have been pointed towards a completeness, a wholeness, in how they embody the law mercifully in both inside and outside. The reinterpretation of the commandments in the sermon on the mount is designed to create a community which can be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill and a light to the nations. In our modern, individualistic readings of Matthew we may find it hard to reconcile the rigorous obedience of Matthew with mercy and forgiveness but that point to the ways our readings have become more like the Pharisees and less like Jesus as Matthew presents him. For Matthew, mercy informs what this obedience looks like and transforms this from a project of individualistic perfection to a community where the needs of one’s neighbor are central and righteousness is not practice for the approval of others in the community or society but before one’s heavenly Father.

It is also important to realize that these texts, as difficult as they can be to hear, are also spoken with the desire that the hearers will change their course. While Matthew may believe it is unlikely that the Pharisees and the scribes will repent and change their ways, at the right time the seed of this difficult word may take root even among these who are resisting this proclamation of the kingdom of heaven. It is also important to realize that these Pharisees represented to many hearers a compelling alternative to the practices of these early Christians. They did occupy positions of influence and authority and their practices, while easily discernable to the observer, provided a piety which could be observed and practiced. Jesus has always called for practicing something deeper than piety, practicing righteousness. The wearing of phylacteries or fringes on one’s clothing are not lifted up as wrong, it is the practice of enlarging the phylacteries (which carry a copy of Deuteronomy 6:4-9) or lengthening one’s tassels[1] to be noticed by others. It is the desire to be noticed and acclaimed by others based on places of honor, honorific greetings, or specific titles which form the basis for the actions of these Pharisees Matthew portrays which form a contrast to the relations as ‘brothers and sisters.’[2] All the disciples of Jesus stand in the same relationship as siblings of the one heavenly Father, and are all those who are taught by Christ. They are the opposite of the characterization of these Pharisees who seek positions of honor and power and, as throughout the gospel, the greatest are servants, and the humble ones are lifted up.

As we look at the seven woes, we encounter themes that have been present before in the gospel. The first woe sets the stage for why Jesus is so hard on the Pharisees and scribes, they are actively doing harm to others by denying them entrance to the kingdom of heaven. They are so opposed to what Jesus is doing in proclaiming and enacting the kingdom’s presence that they impede and actively work to convert others to their way of reading scripture. Their work to create converts who share their certainty and makes these new Pharisees children of Gehenna[3] who continue to work against the children of heaven. While followers of Christ are not to swear on anything (5:33-37), Jesus criticizes these Pharisees who are willing to delineate between which oaths are binding and which oaths are not based on what is sworn upon. This practice of delineating which oaths are binding may go back to Number 30 which deals with oaths made by women, which can be overruled by men in Numbers, but if this is based on actual practices it would be an innovation which would make the taking of certain oaths meaningless. For Jesus’ disciple their words and their faithfulness to those words, whether under oath or not, are central to being a community of truth.

Ultimately the practices, while not wrong, place the focus on the wrong place. Slavish obedience to weighing out a tithe of spices that detracts from the weightier demands of justice, mercy and faith misses the mark, as does washing the outside of cups or making beautiful tombs without changing what is inside the individuals.

Jesus’ accusation of the Pharisees and scribes is that they are both blind and hypocrites. As in 15:14 their blindness is dangerous because they are the blind leading others who are blind to fall into a pit. Hypocrite is a word used more by Matthew than any other gospel, and it is a word which originates talking about stage actors who pretend to be something they are not. To Jesus, the Pharisees are those who act like they are righteous and yet it is a role they play rather than a reality they inhabit. They continue the resistance to the servants of God who have been sent again and again to God’s people, and yet they are in a position where others watch their actions to understand what righteousness looks like. To Jesus their actions and their resistance are not only dangers to themselves but to the others looking for leaders that point them to God. As those who may control access to the scriptures and who occupy positions of power they are judged more harshly.

There is a long tradition of warnings in the scriptures about the cost of being unfaithful. They may be toward the people in general like the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28, or they may be directed specifically at leaders like Ezekiel 34 and many other places. The language may be harsh and polemical, but it is also to try to open the possibility of repentance. Sometimes it is the language of a people who have been broken by the movement of foreign empires crying out in pain to God, like Jeremiah 46-51, and asking for God’s judgment on the nations. Here, Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition, like those sent before, to Jerusalem and Israel crying out to the people about leaders who have failed to embody the coming kingdom of heaven and have resisted its messenger. It is a plea for the people to hear even when their leaders have been deaf. Still today it is a call to reexamine our own practices of righteousness and to examine if we have been blind guides and hypocrites who are a danger not only to ourselves but those who rely on us to understand God’s will.


[1] In Matthew Jesus wears tassels on his clothing which is noted in the story of healing the woman with a flow of blood in 9:20 (NRSV translates this same word as fringe)

[2] What the NRSV and others translate as ‘students’ is the Greek adelphos which is brothers, which can be expanded to ‘brothers and sisters’ since women would be assumed to be a part of the community.

[3] The translation of Gehenna as ‘hell’ places a lot of baggage around this term that would not have been there at the time of Jesus’ ministry. See my discussion on Gehenna, Tartaros, Sheol, Hades and Hell

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Matthew 22: 34-46 The Heart of Scripture

By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007, 00.159.143_PS2.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10195994

Matthew 22: 34-46

Parallel Mark 12:28-37; Luke 10:25-28, 20:41-44

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 “What do you think of the Messiah?Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spiritcalls him Lord, saying, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ‘? 45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Many of Jesus’ conflicts with religious leaders throughout Matthew’s gospel rotate around the interpretation of the law and prophets and Jesus’ identity. This final challenge from a religious teacher followed by Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees and sets the stage for Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees in the following chapter. Although Jesus’ declaration of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 being the central commandments of the law is not unique among Jewish readers of scripture, this passage forms a final lens which clarifies Jesus’ teaching and way of understanding scripture. This is one of the reasons I believe many readers misread the Sermon on the Mount, because they fail to read it through the lens of loving neighbor and instead understand it as an impossible burden of moralistic perfectionism. This way of reading scripture centered on loving God and neighbor allows us to read back through Matthew’s gospel and see how love and mercy become central to Jesus’ teaching and allows the disciple to hold the call to be complete in their living out of the law and the forgiveness of sinners together.

The translation of the questioner as a ‘lawyer’ (Greek nomikos) in our culture places us in the judicial sphere with a professional nuance that is not present at this time in history. Instead this is a person coming from a religious group with a particular way of reading scripture and this expert in the law is a scholar of the Torah (the first five books of the bible). (Sigal 2007, 21) The question, which in Matthew is asked as a test or temptation rather than Mark’s more positive portrayal, asks Jesus for clarification on how he reads scripture. In Luke’s gospel Jesus turns the question back to the questioner, but in Matthew and Mark it is Jesus who gives us this central way of understanding the law and the prophets. The addressing of Jesus as ‘teacher’ combined with Matthew’s statement that the question is ‘to test him’ and the lawyer’s association with the Pharisees prepare us to expect that the questioner will not respond to the answer in the openness of faith. Yet, like the previous conflict with the Sadducees, the answer will silence this questioning ‘lawyer.’

The question of how to interpret scripture rightly is an important one in any generation, and Matthew’s gospel has slowly been opening the law and the prophets to the attentive reader throughout. Central to Jesus’ ministry has been a merciful reading of scripture where Hoses 6:6, ”I desire mercy and not sacrifice” has been used multiple times (9:13, 12:7) to point to a different way of understanding scripture than Jesus’ opponents use. Now this double love commandment that, in Jesus view, form the foundation that all the law and prophets are built upon also highlights why this particular verse from Hosea can demonstrate Jesus’ merciful and prophetic way of reading scripture.

The Pharisees, as they are portrayed in Matthew, are operating from a different way of reading scripture, and although Jesus’ answer may not be something that they could dispute they still are not in harmony with Jesus’ way. Yet now Jesus turns to them and asks how they read scripture and how they understand the Christ (Messiah). Matthew has used the Son of David title for Jesus throughout, most recently in the entry to Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple (Matthew 21), but Matthew is not content to use this or any other title on its own to describe Jesus. Son of David may be a part of Jesus’ identity, but something greater than David is before these Pharisees. Psalm 110, for early followers of Christ, is frequently used to provide language to help explain who Jesus is[1]. Jesus reads these words as David speaking prophetically, which would not be an unusual way of thinking about the psalms, where the LORD the God of Israel speaks to ‘my lord’ and Jesus argues that one who David calls lord must be greater than David. These parables and conflicts in Matthew all occur in a day that begins with the chief priests and the elders questioning Jesus’ authority (21:23) and although Jesus’ has continually alluded to the answer, once more Jesus links the title of Christ/Messiah to one greater than the Son of David. Now that the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the rest of the religious teachers are silenced for the moment, Jesus is about to proclaim judgement on both the religious leaders and the temple.


[1] For example, the book of Hebrew picks up on Psalm 110:6 in Hebrews 5-7 referring to Jesus as a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

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Matthew 22: 23-33 One Bride for Seven Brothers

By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007, 00.159.143_PS2.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10195994

Matthew 22: 23-33

Parallels Mark 12: 18-27, Luke 20: 27-40

23 The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection;and they asked him a question, saying, 24 “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. 26 The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. 27 Last of all, the woman herself died. 28 In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.”

29 Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angelsin heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.

The second conflict story in this pattern of three shifts opponents to the Sadducees. This is the second time in Matthew the Sadducees are mentioned as challenging Jesus, previously they were mentioned with the Pharisees in Matthew 16:1-4, but now in Jerusalem they act on their own. Their question uses the practice of Levirate marriage and a story of one bride for seven brothers to mock the idea that both Jesus and the Pharisees apparently preached of the resurrection. Even though this is the only time the Sadducees are explicitly mentioned in the final week in Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders were probably composed mainly of Sadducees, and the silencing of the Sadducees before the crowds contributes to their desire to end the words of Jesus.

Just as the Pharisees and the Herodians can work together for mutually beneficial purposes, the Sadducees have maintained their power in the temple through their relationship with Rome. There is an old Christian saying that Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, so they were sad-you-see, and while this is a catchy play on words it misses the point of who the Sadducees are. The Sadducees, like much of the Hebrew Scriptures, do not have a concept of the resurrection and their belief that God’s blessings are a part of their experience in the world is probably confirmed in their minds by the more affluent priestly positions they occupied. Their faith centers on the first five books of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and particularly their actions as the cultic leaders for the temple.

The story that the Sadducees use focuses on the practice of Levirate marriage (the term comes from the Latin levir meaning husband’s brother, not Leviticus) which is outlined in Deuteronomy 25:5-10

When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out in Israel. Deuteronomy 25: 5-6

This practice is active in both the stories of Tamar (Genesis 38, Matthew 1:3) and Ruth (Ruth 4, Matthew 1:5) and was to ensure security for the widow by providing her both with a household and children (who will take care of her in old age), The story of seven brothers and one bride takes the practice to a ridiculous end, which is intentional, as the Sadducees attack the belief in a resurrection which they found contrary to their reading of scripture.

Jesus claims they have been led astray (Greek planao) in both their knowledge of scripture and their understanding of God’s power. Jesus answers first from God’s power to transform humanity in the resurrection where the values of securing one’s future through familial ties and reproduction are no longer important. In challenging the Sadducees’ reading of Moses, Jesus returns to God’s initial call of Moses where God refers to Godself as: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3: 6) Even though the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob died millennia earlier, Jesus refers to this ancient self-titling of God to point to both an ongoing relationship between God and these patriarchs and that the promises God made to them have not been broken by death. As Richard B. Hays, following J. Gerald Janzen, can state:

ust as God delivered and saved the patriarchs, so he will do for his people in their plight in Egypt. Furthermore, if God acted to deliver his people from the “death” of slavery in Egypt, surely he will do so again in the future—not precisely in the same way, but in ways that are recognizably analogous. Consequently, Jesus’ use of Exodus 3:6 in support of the resurrection—that claim that God will finally save his beloved people from death—is nothing other than a metaphorical extension of the Exodus theophany claim. (Hays 2020, 59)

Jesus’ claim and repurposing of the title God claims as the God of Moses’ father, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob places the resurrection of the dead alongside God’s work to fulfill God’s promises to God’s people. The language of raising up seed (NRSV childless, the Greek is sperma where we get the English sperm) which is used frequently in the Hebrew scriptures in the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The failure of the seven brothers to ‘raise up seed’ for the first one corresponds to the misunderstanding of the scriptures and the power of God that the Sadducees have in their inability to believe God will raise the dead. In a manner, Jesus points to a sterility in their claims which matches the sterility in their story. Only a God who can raise up children for ones as good as dead and who can raise the dead can open their eyes where they have been led astray. In Matthew, Jesus comes out the victor in the eyes of the crowd and the Sadducees are silenced. Yet, the conflict between Jesus and those in religious authority will continue until his death.

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Lost Dreams

Child by fabii from http://www.deviantart.com/art/child-61251692

Sometimes I imagine you running through some unending shopping mall

Realizing that somewhere along the trip you lost hold of me in the crowd

Perhaps you stopped to gaze at some curiosity in a shop window for a moment

And I was gone, moved on by the crush of the crowd’s unending, unfeeling flow

Tears streaming down your cheeks for the companion no longer there

As both our futures were severed by forces beyond our control

 

Like a parent who came to a new country seeking hope for their family

Only to find that family ripped asunder at the border, children caged

Fighting bureaucrats and their cold, unfeeling mountains of paperwork

Fanning the embers of hope for some eventual reunification

Only to find out that you are gone, given to a new family to foster

Just a dream who has hopefully found a new father to be cherished by

 

Some part of me won’t accept that dreams die when reality shatters them

When life moves on, when circumstances change, when new dreams are born

Something makes me hope that they find a new heart that beats with theirs

Someone who cherishes them the way that I did as they grew and changed

That they have a future beyond the fracture, and that they find joy and love

That you may be the dream that another person raises up for the world to see

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Matthew 22:15-22 Rendering to Caesar and God

Roman Denarius Depicting Caesar Augustus

Matthew 22: 15-22

Parallels Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Three parables are followed by three challenges of Jesus’ authority as the Pharisees and Sadducees attempt to respond to Jesus in this charged situation. The Pharisees, which have been in conflict with Jesus from early in his ministry, now reemerge as those challenging his authority and putting him to the test. Jesus’ response to their question, which is often lifted out of its context and used with a couple other texts, particularly Romans 13:1-7, by many conservative Christians as a basis for a church/state theology where being a Christian means being serving those in political power, but for those who listen to Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ message should understand that something much greater lies underneath these words and the way Jesus skillfully answers the question that is designed to either alienate Jesus from the crowds or to give the religious leaders a way to paint Jesus as an insurrectionist to the Romans.

Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of heaven presents an alternative to the bloody peace of the pax Romana, and yet throughout Matthew, Jesus often subverts the way of Rome from within. Jesus’ presence has resulted in reaction from those with political power since his birth, and yet Jesus has not sought out direct conflict with those in power but has instead modeled a way of peacemaking that is an alternative to the ways of the empire. This is the second time Jesus has been asked about taxes in Matthew and, as in 17:24-27, Jesus finds a way to grant to temple or Caesar what they claim without impinging on God’s claims. It is also important to remember the audacious claim of Israel’s faith: that their God is not merely the God of Israel, but the God of all the nations and God can use the nations, whether they are aware of it or not, to be forces of judgment and blessing for Israel. In the revised common lectionary this text is paired with Isaiah 45:1-7 where God anoints Cyrus the Great for God’s mysterious purposes. The prophet Jeremiah dealt with people who withheld tribute from Babylon, an unforgivable move from not only Babylon’s perspective but also in Jeremiah’s understanding, of God’s. As Rabbi Binyamin Lau can state:

Jeremiah keeps returning to his most deeply held principles: God controls geopolitics, and He has chosen Nebuchadnezzar to rule the world at this time. The decision cannot be revoked, and anyone who rebels against it is in fact rebelling against God. (Lau 2010, 141)

In the parable which precedes this question, it is probable that Matthew understands Rome’s destruction of the temple and the city in 70 CE as God’s working through Rome in judgment of the leaders refusal to accept the invitation to meet the bridegroom (22:1-14) or present the harvest as in the second parable of the series (21:33-46).

I’m writing this at the end of a contentious election cycle in the United States, and while many Christians may tacitly acknowledge that God is the ruler of all the nations, there is an amazing propensity to try to turn that God into a tribal god who is primarily concerned for one group or nation and to align religious and political power in unhealthy ways. We know that in Jesus’ time there was significant political unrest in Galilee and Jerusalem with the Roman rule and occupation, but there was also coordination between political and religious authorities for mutually beneficial purposes. IAlthough very little is known about the Pharisees as a group in Jesus’ time, and the two primary sources we have: the gospels (where the Pharisees are continually in conflict with Jesus and his disciples) and Josephus, who writes in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, must be read closely and at the same time critically. I have attempted to limit the Pharisees, as they are portrayed in the gospel, to a group Jesus was in conflict with and allow the story to illustrate the nature of that conflict. What we can point to is the Pharisees, as portrayed in Matthew coordinate with the Herodians, presumably those allied with Herod Antipas who is ruling in Galilee, and with the Pharisees’ presence in conflict with Jesus in Galilee it is reasonable to assume that Matthew sees some alignment between the Pharisees and Herod Antipas’ desire to assume the mantle of his father, Herod the Great. Narratively it would make sense that the Pharisees alignment with power in the person of Herod and the Sadducees alignment with Pilate would be a continuation of their struggle for power among Israel. I have also suggested that John the Baptists’ and Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees may be linked to the accommodation they’ve made with these powers.

Any question of what is permissible is bound to be contentious, and this has been a frequent part of the challenges Jesus has encountered from the Pharisees (12:2,4,10; 19:3), it was how John the Baptist challenged Herod Antipas’ relationship with Herodias (14:4) and how Jesus, in a parable, challenges those unhappy with the ‘housemaster’ paying each worker the same. (20:15) The question is framed to entrap Jesus as either in rebellion against Roman authority or being viewed by the crowd as sympathetic to Rome. Jesus’ answer, which uses the imagery and inscription of Roman coinage, coinage which would not be accepted in the temple because of the image and the claims made by the inscription about Caesar being a ‘son of a god’, both accepts and qualifies Roman authority. Rome may demand the coinage they mint, and yet God’s claim on the disciples is far greater. There may be times where to resist authority is to resist God who is in control of geopolitics, but even when the empire doesn’t know the God of Israel its authority is contingent upon God’s sometimes mysterious work in the world and the nations.

Christians of every time have had to navigate between when they can accommodate the practices of the empire and when they must prophetically resist. When it comes to taxes to the temple (17:24-27) or Rome, Jesus points to a way to render to Rome and temple what belongs to them without losing one’s primary allegiance to God. Much of the New Testament involves the early Christian church navigating their citizenship of the kingdom of heaven within the world of the Roman empire. Two thousand years later, Christians still have to navigate their primary allegiance to God and the often bellicose demands of nation, culture and one’s political tribe. As St. Paul would say in Romans, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18) while at the same time insisting that followers of Christ are not to be “conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of you minds, so that you may discern the will of God.” (12:2) Just as Jesus reframed the question of the Pharisees, so modern Christians will often have to reframe the questions the culture asks them based on their understanding of the will of God.  

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Matthew 22: 1-14 The Call of the King

By Bernardo Strozzi – Own work, Daderot, 2013-09-25 11:42:46, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33266293

Matthew 22: 1-14

Parallel Luke 14: 15-24

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

This final parable continues to be challenging for many modern readers of Matthew who struggle with the wrathful king’s judgment on both those who reject their calling and on the improperly attired guest. Many scholars who view the versions of this parable in Matthew and Luke coming from a common source argue that Luke’s easier to reconcile version is closer to the parable that Jesus originally told as a way of distancing themselves from the portions of the parable which make them uncomfortable. Yet, Matthew’s version uses several prophetic motifs which are probably unfamiliar to many modern readers of the New Testament which are worth slowing down to engage and hear. Perhaps Matthew has something to teach our communities about the way we attempt to eliminate God’s judgment because it is uncomfortable for people living in peaceful, affluent communities very different from either Jesus or Matthew’s time.

Matthew groups parables together in a way that they build upon one another in a group of three. In hearing this parable, it is important to place it alongside the previous two vineyard parables (two sons and wicked stewards) as Jesus uses a new image, that of a wedding banquet. While there are images in Israel of people being invited to a great feast prepared by God for people, perhaps the best known coming in Isaiah 25: 6

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged-wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged-wines strained clear.

Yet, the idea that this feast is a wedding celebration is unique to Matthew and there is not an echo of God throwing a wedding banquet that I am aware of in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Apocrypha. Yet, Matthew has used this image previously in 9:15 with Jesus referring to his disciples’ conduct during his presence among them:

And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will mourn.”

This image of a wedding celebration will also link this parable to the first parable in the next and final set of parables in 25: 1-13. The parable links both images of the feast of rich foods prepared by God for all people and with the identity of Jesus as the bridegroom and son of the king in Matthew.

Yet, the story turns upon the rejection of the call of those who are called. The Greek work kaleo (to call) occurs frequently throughout this narrative as the king sends his slaves to call the ones ‘having been called.’ In our culture we think of invitations as optional, but these who have been called to appear by the king and snub that call by extension reject the authority of the king to summon them. As Warren Carter notes, “Refusing the king’s invitation is tantamount to rebellion.” (Carter 2001, 434)  This is heightened by the action of those who seize, mistreat, and kill the slaves sent[1] who like the vineyard workers in the previous parable invite, and in the answer of the hearers of the previous parable require the ‘housemaster’ and now the king to “put those wretches to a miserable death.” (21:41)

The wrath[2] of the king is perhaps difficult to many modern readers who are used to thinking about God as unemotional or immovable, but these modern conceptions of God are based more on Greek philosophical ideals rather than the God of the scriptures. A God who sends his loyal slaves over and over with the hope of a harvest or the invitation to the celebration of the wedding of his Son, only to see these slaves mistreated and killed is compelled to act on behalf of the slaves. If, as most interpreters assume, Matthew is using this parable as an explanation of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome in 70 CE (destroyed those murders and burned their city) they seem unable to reconcile this God who invites with the God who destroys. Yet, perhaps this says more about our unwillingness to stand under God’s judgment or our desire to take judgment into our own hands. That God’s troops would include the Roman legions which destroyed Jerusalem, who like Babylon and Persia previously had served God’s purposes without knowing it, should not surprise, nor should the experience of  God’s people receiving judgment for being unwilling to respond to God’s continued call.

I am not a fire and brimstone preacher, as a Lutheran pastor I’d rather focus on the grace of God, but I’ve also come to understand that the wrath of God or anger of God is not the opposite of God’s grace. God is angry because God care: God cares about the slave sent to carry the message, God cares about the wedding banquet which they have been invited to, and, although it may seem strange to modern ears, God does care about the called ones. The God of Israel may be patient and slow to anger, but this God will not be taken for granted. God continues to desire repentance and is willing to continue to send those precious to God to seek a change, but eventually God’s patience becomes too costly for those who carry God’s message, and like the saints under the altar in Revelation 6: 9-11 they cry out,“Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth.

That Jesus, and Matthew, understand God at work in the movement of the nations is a part of the bold claim of the faith of Israel that their God is not only their God, but the creator of the world and the Lord over all nations. This may be challenging for modern believers who have separated the spiritual world from the political world and who may be slightly embarrassed to suggest that God can be at work in the world in strange and mysterious ways, but that also highlights the way culture has changed our faith. The early followers of Jesus could trust that God’s kingdom would come into the world, that God’s will would be done on earth just as they assumed it was done in heaven. This is faith was an openness to perceive the ways that God was at work in the world, an awareness of the time they found themselves within with the bridegroom, and a trust that while God will is ultimately good for them, for the people of God and for all the nations, God the creator of the world should neither be tamed or domesticated into a household god that served the desires of those who called upon the name of the Lord.

There is a common strand with this parable and wisdom literature where the character of wisdom is not heeded:

Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you ignored my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and you calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me, but will not find me. Proverbs 1: 24-28 (see also Proverbs 8:35-36 and Jeremiah 6:16-17)

There is an call from their God (or from Wisdom on behalf of God) which is refused, and although the call is extended with the hope that the called ones will finally turn (or repent) the continued reality of rejection is not met with indifference by God. Yet, this rejection can also be used in strange ways to extend the invitation to others. In the parable now the slaves are sent to the crossroads or the roads leading out of town to gather everyone to the banquet, both good and bad, filling the wedding celebration with guests. Just as the tax collectors and prostitutes heard John the Baptist’s message and turned even though the Pharisees and Sadducees did not (21:31) now those on the streets find themselves in the wedding hall.

The final scene of this parable, unique to Matthew, with the guest not wearing the proper attire has also caused distress for many readers for the same reason as the earlier judgment, and again many scholars want to view this as an addition to the original parable of Jesus, but before we pass judgment on it, perhaps we should hear it out. Just as the rejection by the ones called to the banquet was tantamount to rebellion, so is being present in a way that is disrespectful to the host. We often assume referring to someone as ‘friend’ assumes intimacy, but in Matthew’s gospel, and in ancient cultures, it can imply a power differential or distance between the speaker and hearer. (20:13, 26:50) The fact that one is invited later does not give one permission not to heed counsel or ignore reproof, and as Matthew’s gospel has focused on building a community of Christ where the actions of the individuals in the community matter, just as the original invitees can find themselves encountering their king’s wrath, so can the newly invited.

One final word, Matthew’s gospel paradoxically is viewed both as the most Jewish and the most hostile to the Jewish people, since these parables and many other things we will encounter in these final chapters have often been read in a supersessionist way by Christians.  I will continue to address this as we move through these final chapters, but it is important to note that in this parable those invited are still a part of the king’s original people, not from new nations, and throughout these parables what are sought are more responsive sons, tenants, and subjects, not a new people. Much of Jesus’ conflicts will be with the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, the Sadducees and the Pharisees and not with the people as a whole, and Jesus’ life from the beginning of Matthew is to, “save his people from their sins.” (1:21) That Jesus, like the prophets (or in the parables slaves), who went before him challenges the leaders of the people is a part of the reason the people are able to see him as a prophet, and like the prophets his calls often fall upon ears that cannot hear. Yet, I think Matthew would echo Paul when he says to Gentile Christians who came to be a part of the community of Christ:

But if some branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Romans 11: 17-21


[1] The word for sent is the verb apostello where we get our English apostle (sent ones).

[2] This is the Greek orgizo, which is the verbal form of orge, which often is used to refer to the wrath of God in judgment against God’s people (for example in Exodus) or upon those in continued rebellion in Revelation.

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Matthew 21:33-46 The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007, 00.159.139_PS2.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10957416

Matthew 21: 33-46

Parallel Mark 12: 1-12; Luke 20: 9-19

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

The imagery of the vineyard in this and the preceding parable, combined with the fig tree in the prophetic sign prior to the parables and the great banquet in the closing parable of this trilogy all work together in ways that reinforce Jesus’ answer to the chief priests and the elders. Even if the hearers of the previous parable did not catch the imagery of the vineyard representing Israel, now Matthew (and Mark beforehand) include the references of digging a wine press in it and building a watchtower which show that Isaiah 5 provides the imagery for this parable:

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. Isaiah 5: 1-2

Yet, even as the imagery of Isaiah 5 is used, some important transformations are made which recast the imagery into a new image to fit the context of Jesus’ interactions with the chief priests and elders in the temple. Into the midst of the space between the beloved (the LORD of hosts in Isaiah) and the vineyard (Israel in Isaiah) the parable introduces workers responsible for the care of the vineyard of the ‘house master.’[1] Many modern commentators have missed the point of this parable by assuming the that the ‘housemaster’ is neglectful of the vineyard, and this is not helped by the NRSV and other translations adding ‘to another country’ which is not in the Greek. The ‘housemaster’ merely departed on a journey after hiring workers to care for the vineyard during the time the ‘housemaster’ is away.[2] The imagery in this parable, pulled from Isaiah, explicitly links the vineyard as Israel and God as the master of the vineyard (Isaiah 5:7), and even though in the Hebrew Scriptures the LORD is the God of Israel, the LORD is not only the God of Israel but the God of the entire earth and who watches over the Gentiles (the nations) as well. The people of Israel’s relationship with the land is contingent upon their relationship with their God, and they are reminded:

the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Leviticus 3:23

While the people of Israel are ‘aliens and tenants’ on land that is owned by God, here Israel is also the vineyards and the ‘tenants’ or ‘vinedressers’ are the leaders. Jesus stands in a long prophetic line of criticizing the leaders of Israel (both political and religious) who have led the people away from the way of the LORD. One example of this is both Jeremiah 50: 6-7 and Ezekiel 34 criticizing the ‘shepherds’ who have led the sheep astray. The language that Jesus is using is understood by the chief priests, elders, Pharisees as well as the crowds who are present with him in the temple. The slaves of the ‘house master’ who come to collect the fruit in this parable and who invite to the banquet in the following parable are the prophets and messengers of God who have come to Israel and have often been abused or killed. Jesus tells this parable in Jerusalem, a city whose leaders have often not heeded the prophets when they came. The parables follow the question of the chief priests and the elders about the authority of Jesus to do these things, and now, in parable form, the answer is presented by his identification with the son of the ‘house master’ who the ‘house master’ believes the tenants will respect but whom they see as a hindrance to their continued control and possession of the fruit of the vineyard. The ‘house master’ has shown incredible forbearance with these recalcitrant tenants who have abused and killed his servants, but with the death of the son outside the vineyard the response of the ‘housemaster’ is given not by Jesus but by those he is speaking to.

Irony is at work in the scene as these religious leaders call for the condemnation of the ‘tenants’ speaking their own condemnation, much like the scene where king David condemns the man in the prophet Nathan’s telling only to be told, “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:1-15) Yet, for David there was repentance and mourning after his condemnation but for these leaders their desire is to remove this pesky prophet. Instead of being righteous who are “like trees planted by streams of water, who yield their fruit in its season”(Psalm 1:3) they find themselves in the place of the wicked who “will not stand in the judgment,”(Psalm 1:5) Throughout scriptures the desire of God is for repentance, just like the ‘house master’ who continues to send slaves for the harvest even when they have been met with hostility in the past. Just as the religious leaders were unable to acknowledge God’s work in the ministry of John the Baptist, they remain unable to acknowledge their positions as ‘tenants’ before the son.

Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 118:22 changes the metaphor from tenants and slaves/sons/’housemaster’ to builders and cornerstones, but the central point remains the same. The leaders are charged with rejecting that which is central, and while they have been a stumbling block preventing others from recognizing the kingdom of heaven’s work in their midst, now they will stumble over this stone they rejected. The chief priests and the Pharisees, now introduced to the Jerusalem narrative, perceive that they are the targets of these words, but they are constrained by fear of the crowds who have gathered around Jesus.

Although this has often been used to support a reading where Israel is bypassed for the Gentiles, that is not the intent of Matthew. In the parable it is not Israel, the vineyard, who is replaced, but rather the leaders, the tenants. While, ironically, they can realize they are the focus of Jesus’ parables, they also speak their own judgment. If, like most scholars believe, that Matthew is written after the war with Rome in 66-73 CE it is apparent that Matthew understands the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome in 70 as a part of God’s judgment on these leaders who have not produced the fruits of the vineyard. But the ‘house master’ is seeking better sons to work in the vineyard, better tenants to produce the fruits at the appointed time, and as we will soon see in the final parable those who respond to the summons to the long awaited great banquet.


[1] This is the Greek oikodespotes which links this passage with the parable in 20:1-16 and Matthew is the only gospel which titles the owner of the vineyard as a ‘house master.’ See the fuller discussion of oikodespotes in my comments on Matthew 20:1-16

[2] The Greek apedemesen is depart on a journey, the addition of to another country attempts to harmonize this telling with Luke’s version of the story, but the departure for another country is not there in the Greek in Matthew and Mark.

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Matthew 21: 23-32 Authority and the Parable of the Two Sons

A.N. Mironav, Parable of the Two Sons, CC by SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:The_Two_Sons

Matthew 21: 23-32

Mark 11: 27-33, Luke 20: 1-8

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The fatherwent to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two didthe will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Jesus re-enters the temple after the night in Bethany. He has already upended, at least temporarily, the business of the temple and once again his presence brings conflict with the religious leaders in the temple. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he has evoked conflict with the religious leaders in the area he works, primarily with the Pharisees in Galilee and now with the religious elite of Jerusalem. Like the prophets who clashed with religious authorities before Jesus, it is helpful to remember that Jesus’ words, actions, and presence is unsettling to those with religious and political authority in his world. As Richard B. Hays can state:

Jesus’ message was controversial and threatening to the established institutions of religious and political power in his society: the message carried with it a fundamental transvaluation of values, an exalting of the humble and a critique of the mighty. The theme of reversal seems to have been pervasive in his thought. (Hays 1996, 163)

This conflict which opens a series of parables about reversal is a conflict between two perspectives on faithfulness. The chief priests and the elders represent the voice of the established order of the temple and in a reductionist way the priestly voice speaks to orthodoxy (right prayer/worship)[1] while Jesus, John, and the prophets have generally focused on orthopraxis (right actions). The authority of the chief priests and the elder comes from their position in the temple, but they do not have faith which allows them to see how God is at work in the things Jesus does and says.

The prophets and the psalms frequently criticize the people who continue to worship God in the temple but who fail to live in accordance with the covenant. Both John and Jesus have, in their own way, attempted to call the people into the ways of righteousness and have been resisted by the religious and political leaders in their proclamation and work. Jesus is now doing this work in the temple, and the chief priests and the elders say to him, “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus is doing the work, which included healing and teaching as well as the work of driving out the moneychangers, and especially with works like healing the authority must come from somewhere. The primary question is not whether Jesus has the authority to do what he is visibly doing, but where the authority is coming from. Previously Jesus was accused by the Pharisees of deriving power from Beelzebul (12:22-32), and while Warren Carter is correct that “the question is not about his identity but whether they will recognize it.” (Carter 2005, 423) Yet, from Matthew’s perspective the issue is not the ability of the chief priests and the scribes to acknowledge Jesus’ authority as proper but rather will the chief priests and elders have faith to recognize the works, the baptism of John, and John (and Jesus’) way of righteousness coming from heaven.

Politicians are famous for not answering the question that is asked, but I do not believe that is what Jesus is doing here. This scene sets up three interlocking parables, but Jesus’ question helps the reader (and has the potential to help the religious leaders) understand the first question better. Matthew links the language of Jesus and John the Baptist throughout the gospel[2] and so a question about the things John does gives the answer to the authority for the things Jesus does. If the authority of John is from heaven, the works that Jesus does are authorized by heaven, but if one cannot see the baptism of John and the transformation it brought into the lives of those who came to John as an action of the kingdom of God then one will not have the faith to understand how God is at work in the things Jesus does. Throughout this passage what the NRSV renders ‘believe’ is ‘have faith’[3] but even though Jesus does not directly answer their question, the first short parable gives them the answer.

Entering this and the following parable, it is helpful to understand that just like the fig tree the vineyard is a representation of Israel. Probably the most familiar reference to Israel being the vineyard of the Lord is Isaiah 5 where the LORD does everything possible for a vineyard to be fruitful, but it only bears wild grapes:

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness but heard a cry. Isaiah 5:7

It is important to note that in these parables of Jesus the vineyard is not destroyed, instead better sons (in this parable) and faithful stewards (in the following) parable are sought to work in the vineyard. It is not Israel that is the primary problem but the leaders who resist the will of the father. In this parable the father goes to the first son who states “I do not will/desire to go[4] but this son repents[5] and does the work of the father. The second son in contrast declares “I am, lord” but does not go. The inclusion for the second son of lord (Greek kurios) which can mean ‘sir’ but missing that this means ‘lord’ misses the connection with Matthew 7:21:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

The one who repents and goes into the vineyard does the will of their father, just like the sinners that observed John’s coming in the way of righteousness and had faith in him by repenting and changing their life did the will of God and enter into the kingdom of God. The religious leaders have seen the change in others but have resisted both John and Jesus and could not see God’s kingdom at work in the things they do.


[1] Orthodoxy is normally understood as correct beliefs, but the word itself means ‘right praise/prayer.’ The high priests and the elders are primarily concerned (as they are portrayed) focusing on the proper operation of the temple in its worship of God.

[2] Compare John’s message in 3:1-12 with Jesus in 4:17 and 10:7

[3] This may seem like semantics, but faith in Matthew’s gospel is an openness to where God is at work in the things Jesus (and John) are doing. For more on this see my discussion on Faith in Matthew’s gospel.

[4] The Greek thelo is the act of willing or desiring, so the action is not merely declining but stating it is not the desire of the son to do what the father asked.

[5] Greek metamelomai which means regret or repent.

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Matthew 21: 18-22 The Fig Tree and the Mountain

By Maahmaah – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21625760

Matthew 21: 18-22

Parallel Mark 11: 12-14, 20-26

18 In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”

The symbolism in this scene is so rich, and perhaps the disciples miss the mountain for the fig tree but so have most modern readers. Although this can be simply read as a story about the power of faith, a reader immersed in the language of scripture and who has some awareness of location in the narrative will see how Matthew (and Mark beforehand) is tapping into a rich prophetic language of the conflict between the religious leaders of the temple and the prophets declaring God’s judgment on the temple. Perhaps a fig tree is simply a fig tree and a mountain merely a mountain in the narrative but with Matthew’s (and Mark’s) careful use of the language of scripture this is unlikely.

The fig tree is one of the central images for Israel. It can be used as an image of what prosperity in Israel looks like when Israel is faithful to God:

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees. Deuteronomy 8:7-8[1]

But figs and fig trees are also frequently used by the prophets as images that reflect judgment:

Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered, after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; the is no first ripe fig for which I hunger. The faithful have disappeared from the land, and the is no one left who is upright; Micah 7: 1-2a

When I wanted to gather them, says the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them. Jeremiah 8:13[2]

Fig trees typically are harvested in June for early figs and in fall for mature figs. Although the Passover (in March/April) would be early for figs, the green figs which will develop will be on the tree. Yet, the symbolism of the fruitless tree, a tree which is an important image in Israel,which is cursed and withers is more than just Jesus reacting in hunger. This is a symbolic prophetic act, especially sandwiched between two times when Jesus enters the temple. The language of this action is also tied to the upcoming parable of the vineyard where the tenant refuse to provide the ‘fruits at the appointed time.’ It is possible that the disciples miss the significance of this action and are caught in the wonder of how Jesus did this action, but Matthew (and Mark beforehand) have crafted their narratives in ways that show that they understand this action as a, “symbolic act of one coming to judge those who do not bear fruit.” (Case-Winters 2015, 253)

Matthew places Jesus and the temple in conflict. The conflict between Jesus and the authorities in the temple as well as the talk of the coming destruction of the temple (and Jerusalem) will consume much of the next four chapters. Jesus stands in a long prophetic tradition which condemns the way the temple and its worship has displaced the covenant life desired by the God of Israel. It is also significant to understand the location that Jesus is speaking from, the mountain he is moving towards is the temple mount and when Jesus says “even if you say to this mountain” it is not a generic mountain.

Faith in Matthew is an openness to what God is doing, and for Matthew and his community they expect God to be at work in the world bringing about the kingdom of heaven. A recurring theme in the next chapters will be the resistance, or lack of faith, among the religious leaders in Jerusalem. While Matthew views the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem by Rome as a judgment from God, much as Jeremiah would view Babylon’s destruction of temple and the city in his time, he also sees in this the beginning of God doing something new. Although I will note it frequently in the coming chapters, it is worth saying up front that Jesus’ primary conflict is with the leaders and not with the Jewish people. Matthew’s community is trying to figure out how to make sense of a radically transformed world where Jerusalem and the temple are no longer present and where they are trying to live faithful lives among the nations. Too often the texts that come at the end of Matthew have been used to justify the persecution or exclusion of the Jewish people, but Matthew, being the most Jewish of the gospels, calls for a much closer reading in light of the law, prophets and the psalms. That Jesus stands with a long line of Hebrew prophets who have condemned the actions of the temple and who call the people to a different vision of embodying the covenant should not be surprising, the crowds all seem to understand Jesus as a prophet. It also shouldn’t be surprising that Matthew’s community, living in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as most scholars believe, would remember words and actions of Jesus that help them understand the destruction of temple and city. The followers of Jesus will need faith to understand how they can move beyond the temple and Jerusalem to find their identity in the community of Christ. Faith may move mountains, but it also helps the disciples understand how to live their life once mountains have been moved.

[1] see also Numbers 20:15, 1 Maccabees 14:12 as well as 1 Kings 4:25, Micah 4:4 and Zechariah 3:10 which I mentioned when discussing Matthew 20: 1-16

[2] See also Isaiah 34:4;Jeremiah 24: 1-10, 29: 17; Hosea 2:12, 9:10; Joel 1:7,

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