Matthew 21: 12-17 Turning Tables and the Temple Upside Down

By Andrey Mironov 777 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24847288

Matthew 21: 12-17

Parallel Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19: 45-56; John 2: 13-17

12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem culminates at the temple in Matthew’s gospel, and Matthew’s narration of this scene adds a lot of rich symbolism to the way Mark and Luke narrate this brief scene. Like the previous scene, many people remember this scene the way John narrates it with Jesus making a whip of cords to drive the moneychangers out of the temple (and John’s location of this event near the beginning of the gospel), but in Matthew, Mark and Luke this begins the direct conflict between Jesus and the temple authorities. Matthew in particular highlights many Davidic and prophetic themes in this purification of the temple.

Jesus has entered Jerusalem in a way that models Israel’s vision of an ideal king, and the rare good kings in Israel and Judah were responsible for bringing about reform in the temple. For example, Hezekiah’s repair and reform of the temple is narrated:

Hezekiah said, “Listen to me, Levites! Sanctify yourselves, and sanctify the house of the LORD, the God of your ancestors, and carry out the filth from this holy place. For our ancestors have been unfaithful and have done what is evil in the sight of the LORD our God; they have forsaken him, and have turned away their faces from the dwelling of the LORD, and turned their backs. 2 Chronicles 29: 5-6

The connection between this scene in 2 Chronicles and Matthew is strengthened when you realize that in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) the word translated ‘carry out’ in 2 Chronicles is the same word translated ‘drove out’ in Matthew. The Greek word ekballo, which is used in both places, is more commonly translated in Matthew ‘cast out’ and is the term used when Jesus exorcises demons. While Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus is purifying the temple, he may also be communicating that Jesus is performing an exorcism on the temple. The action is further explained by joining together two pieces of scripture in quotation. The first is Isaiah 56:7:

These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Isaiah 56 combines a vision of an expansive hope where foreigner and eunuchs once excluded from the temple are now included while the ‘sentinels and shepherds’ (Israel’s leaders-both religious and political) are condemned for their blindness. This is joined to Jeremiah 7:

Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD. Jeremiah 7: 8-11

Matthew is the only gospel when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” to specifically include the prophet Jeremiah as a portion of the answer (16: 14) and Matthew’s narration of the conflict between Jesus and the temple and the temple authorities echoes Jeremiah’s conflict with the temple and its leaders in his time. Both temples will be destroyed (the temple in Jeremiah’s time by Babylon, about 30 years after Jesus’ death the temple will be destroyed by Rome). Matthew will transition rapidly between prophetic and kingly allusions for Jesus throughout the crucifixion narrative, but this is not new in Matthew’s gospel. Just as the crowds in Matthew 16:14 (and entering Jerusalem in the previous section) could understand Jesus in terms of a prophet, Peter in 16:16 can highlight that ‘Messiah’ is an appropriate title for Jesus, and the crowds (as well as a foreigners (15:22) and the blind (9:27, 20:30)) can understand Jesus as the ‘Son of David.’

The moneychangers and dove sellers are replaced in the temple by the blind and the lame. Although Jesus is well known for his healing of the blind and the lame, this action is also symbolically rich when contrasted with David’s story. In 2 Samuel 5, the Jebusites who David conquers to take control of Jerusalem taunt David saying: “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”  (2 Sam. 5: 6) and when David conquers Jerusalem the phrase is now turned around to exclude the blind and the lame from Jerusalem and David’s house (perhaps excluding those Jebusites who were maimed in the battle). Yet, Jesus entering the temple makes space for the blind and the lame, and just as Isaiah 56 expanded the house of God to the previously limited eunuchs and foreigners, now the blind and lame are now made whole and enter into the temple of God with Jesus. Children are also present, just as they have been present throughout the section immediately prior to entering Jerusalem (18: 1-9; 19: 13-15) speaking the words the crowds shouted upon entering Jerusalem.

Jesus has upset the sacrificial system in the temple and has directly overturned the world of the chief priests and the scribes who are responsible for the temple. They are indignant (I translated this term as resentful earlier with the disciples (20:24) and indignant or resentful work here as well).There is probably an element of political danger with the proclamation of Jesus as ‘Son of David’ that may endanger not only Jesus, but they may feel, justly, that anyone acting like a king could be a danger to not only themselves and their followers but to the temple and the city as well. Yet, their conflict with Jesus will often ignore the actions of Jesus (both the symbolic and the healings) and focus on authority. Yet, Jesus invites them to wonder at what is happening in their midst and to hear scripture in a new way. They hear in the crowds proclamation danger, instead of hearing Psalm 8:3

Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’[1]

which helps the attentive reader understand that this is a time for praise because God is at work in the world and in the temple. Matthew quickly ends the day by taking Jesus and his followers outside Jerusalem to Bethany where he spends the night before returning to the temple again the following day.

[1] This is Psalm 8:2 in English/Hebrew, Matthew follows the Septuagint’s wording rather than the Hebrew text behind the NRSV and other translations. The versification in the Septuagint is different from most English translations in the Psalms, here it is only one verse difference but in other places it can be off by a chapter.

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September 27, 2020 Traditional Worship Service

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 27, 2020 Traditional Worship Service

Confession and Forgiveness
We are gathered in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Amen
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Most merciful God, we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen

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
God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen

First Reading: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

1The word of the LORD came to me: 2What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? 3As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. 25Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 26When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 27Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. 28Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 29Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 30Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. 31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live. The word of the Lord.

Psalm: Psalm 25:1-9

1To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. 2My God, I put my trust in you; let me not be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me. 3Let none who look to you be put to shame; rather let those be put to shame who are treacherous. 4Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths. 5Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. 6Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. 7Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your steadfast love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD. 8You are gracious and upright, O LORD; therefore you teach sinners in your way. 9You lead the lowly in justice and teach the lowly your way.

Second Reading Philippians 2:1-13

1If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself ,taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. The word of the Lord.

Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32

23When [Jesus] 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?” 24Jesus 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. 25Did 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?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So 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.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the 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. 32For 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.” 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, Bianca, Denise, Julie, Mike, Priscilla, Rachelle and all teachers and administrators, Those who are at high risk for Covid 19, Alex, Bob D., Bob S., Carol, Charles, Christa, Cliff, Craig, Darryl, Dave, Ella, Faith, Gary, Jeff, Jerry, Judy, Julie, Lee, Marie, Matt, Maureen, Mike, Patrick, Pete, Rachel, Rebecca, Renee, Robert, Sal, Scott, Steve, and Vim and the friends and family of Merrye Dalluge. 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: First Sagrada Familia, Garland, Our Abiding Grace Lutheran Church, Southlake and ELCA Conference of Bishops. 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)

Instructions for Communion

Words of Institution

Lord’s Prayer
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 trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer
A: Let us pray. Lord Jesus, in this sacrament you strengthen us with the saving power of your death and resurrection. May these gifts of your body and blood create in us the fruits of your redemption and grace in our lives, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Blessing

Verses 1, 4 and 5 of All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name

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, serve the Lord. Thanks be to God” Alleluia!

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Matthew 21: 1-11 The Entry into Jerusalem

Matthew 21: 1-11

Parallels Mark 11: 1-10; Luke 19: 28-40; John 12: 12-29

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The entrance to Jerusalem, celebrated at the beginning of Holy Week in liturgical churches, is often viewed as a triumphal procession, which in one way it is, but this rich prophetically symbolic event is sometimes lost amid the palm branches and joyous songs. The entrance to Jerusalem initiates the final section of the gospel which narrates the time between the entrance to Jerusalem and the resurrection. This even is narrated by all four gospels, but only in John are the branches mentioned to be the palms which give the liturgical celebration of Palm Sunday its name. Even though this initiates a new section as Jesus enters into conflict with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, Matthew as a skillful editor and storyteller weaves in numerous threads that connect this scene and the coming conflicts, parables, events and ultimately the crucifixion and resurrection to the teaching, parables, healings, and conflicts that have been a part of the ministry in Galilee and the approach to Judea.

The first connecting thread which ties this scene to the preceding narration in Matthew is the continued presence of doubling. Just as in the previous section where two blind men are healed (and this links the final scene of the narrative prior to entering to Jerusalem to scenes throughout Jesus’ ministry) now in this initial scene of the Jerusalem narrative we have two disciples sent to retrieve two animals. Just as Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy which ties the gospel to the story of Israel, now Matthew begins his narration of the events that lead to Jesus’ death by connecting it structurally with the narration of Jesus’ ministry.

Throughout this journey through Matthew I have linked Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven with the vision God intended for Israel as an alternative community to the ways of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and now Rome. This insight helps hold together both sides of Jesus’ action of coming into Jerusalem on ‘a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ While David Garland is right to identify Jesus’ action of riding a donkey into Jerusalem with this action by previous claimants to the throne of David[1] and with the expectations of the actions of the awaited messiah (Garland 2001, 213) but Warren Carter is also correct that this act is “making an ass out of Rome” in entering Jerusalem in a way that is a parody of the Roman triumphs, victories and arrivals of a governor or emperor. (Carter 2005, 413) The vision of what a king of Israel is to be, according to the law as outlined in Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 ,is the opposite of the ways the kings and rulers of nations like Egypt and Rome acted. The problem Israel experienced is that the kings of Israel often imitated the kings of the empires rather than the vision of God for Israel. Even the disciples of Jesus will struggle to understand what it means for Jesus to be the Christ (messiah) as they think of ‘earthly things’ rather than ‘heavenly things.’ Jesus’ birth caused Herod to be frightened and all Jerusalem with him, and now his entry the city is shaken (this is the Greek seio, where the English seismic comes from, this will also be used for the earthquake at the death and resurrection of Jesus) by this act of approaching on a donkey and a colt, surrounded by the crowds that have approached Jerusalem in his presence. The people of Jerusalem, the urban center where now Pilate sits as the emissary of Caesar instead of Herod and they understand the prophetic significance of the actions and words of Jesus and his followers.

Matthew makes explicit what Mark implied about the biblical symbolism by weaving together Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9. While most readers probably assume Matthew’s use of scripture is merely predictive (pointing to texts from the Hebrew scriptures which demonstrate how Jesus fulfills scripture) but Matthew’s rich weaving of scripture can, for the careful reader, help illuminate a deeper engagement with what Jesus’ actions mean. As we begin this section of the story in Jerusalem Isaiah 62 and Zechariah will be two of the texts which help provide language which can explain what Jesus’ actions and eventual death will mean in this final section of Matthew. Isaiah 62 is a song of the restoration of Zion, and although Jesus’ actions will challenge the religious authorities in Jerusalem, this approach is ‘for Zion’s sake’ (Isaiah 62:1). This passage in Isaiah talks about the ending of Israel’s long exile and captivity to other empires. The specific verse which begins this intertwined quotation (the portion Matthew uses is underlined) is:

The LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to daughter Zion “see your salvation has comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense is before him. (Isaiah 62:11)

Matthew is a careful editor, when he quotes scripture and brings together verses it is intentional rather than a scribal error. Matthew seems to have access to the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the New Testament) as he is writing this and is very skilled in reading texts. The remainder of this text comes from Zechariah 9:9 which Matthew slightly modifies (again what Matthew uses is underlined):

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king is coming to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Matthew leaves off the note of triumph and victory from this quotation, even as he carefully includes the two animals (which again works in Matthew’s doubling pattern). Zechariah will continue to echo in Matthew’s narration of the passion narrative, especially in the Lord’s Supper where both the language of the blood of the covenant and striking the shepherd are rich echoes of Zechariah.

This blended quotation also allows Matthew to reintroduce the adjective ‘meek’ when referring to Jesus (NRSV humble, the Greek praus is the same term used in 5:5 and 11:29). Jesus’ actions help us understand this important term for Matthew, it does not mean silence or temerity but rather it refers to those who wait upon the Lord to deliver them rather than rising up in resistance. If there is a triumph here, the triumph belongs to the Lord, the God of Israel, rather than any king. But for Matthew we have God’s action on behalf of Israel and the ‘God who is with us’ in Jesus blended together in a way that defies easy categorization. Jesus may embody titles like savior (which may be why the beginning of Isaiah 62:11 is used), messiah/Christ/king, Son of David, and prophet, but none of them adequately describe the totality of Jesus in Matthew. Each may illustrate some amount of openness to God’s work in Jesus’ presence, but they also remain open to misinterpretation.

The crowds who enter with Jesus can declare Jesus as ‘Son of David,’ ‘one who speaks in the name of the Lord’ and ‘prophet’ which illuminates that they understand in part who Jesus is, unlike Jerusalem which quakes at his approach. Although Matthew does not specify, this crowd which enters Jerusalem with Jesus is probably not the same crowd that calls for his crucifixion. It is likely that it is the crowds from the urban center of Jerusalem who do not, at the urging of the religious leaders in the city, embrace Jesus’ words and actions. It is possible that some of the approaching crowd become disillusioned with the way Jesus embodies these titles, like Judas Iscariot who moves from a disciple to one who betrays. This scene probably reflects those who have journeyed with Jesus to Jerusalem in this festival season who enter as outsiders to the city. The people of Jerusalem may have heard stories of Jesus’ ministry and work, but in Matthew this is the first time and only time that Jesus comes to Jerusalem.

Unlike in Mark, where Jesus withdraws to Bethany after arriving at the temple late in the day, we will see Jesus immediately move from one symbolically rich action in the approach of the city directly to the symbolically rich action of clearing out the money changers and animal sellers in the temple. From a perspective where this action parodies the Roman practice of a victory parade where the conqueror proceeds to the temple to offer a sacrifice, we see Matthew joining the action on entry together with the action in the temple. But from the prophetic and Jewish perspective there is the action of Jesus embodying what a king is supposed to be. For Matthew’s narration of these linked scenes the figure of David will stand in the background of the narration as Jesus is acclaimed as Son of David, and particularly in the next scene there are some clever allusions to David’s capture of Jerusalem. But hauntingly the people entering with Jesus describe him as a prophet who is entering a city with a reputation for rejecting prophets. While David was often thought of as a prophet, especially as he is attributed with many of the Psalms, we see in Jesus one who brings together the role of prophet and king in a way not seen in Israel, with the possible exception of Moses.

[1] Absalom is riding a mule in 2 Samuel 18:9 when he dies during his rebellion against David, Solomon rides a mule to is anointing in 1 Kings 1: 33

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Reflection on C. S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956)

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 50: C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950)

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

If you have read Lev Grossman’s the Magicians, it should clear of the influence of the Chronicles of Narnia on his writing since Narnia is slightly modified to become Fillory in his trilogy. I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child and have read it multiple times both as a child and as an adult. Although it is a children’s story and can be read, on one level, as a simple fairy tale where four children find themselves in a magical world that they enter through a wardrobe, it also has moments of real profundity.

Since I own the Chronicles of Narnia I plan to add a brief reflection on each volume as I complete it:

The Magician’s Nephew:

Although it may be the sixth book written in the series, it is the beginning of the Narnia narrative. This is a creation story for Narnia and explains the origins of several features of the world and the entrance of the witch into Narnia. I listened to the audio version with Kenneth Branagh which is very well done. This is a well-done prequel to the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

This story of a magical world and a conflict between good and evil also in a fable like manner touches in an allegorical way (whether C. S. Lewis intended or not) on many themes of Christianity, which C.S. Lewis also writes about explicitly in many of his other works. Even after many reads it is still an enjoyable story with many great images which I have been able to pull from at various times.

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Growing a Story

By FASTILY (TALK) – I created this work entirely by myself., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6850324

Growing a Story

Some kernel of truth was planted in the fecund imagination
And as the new shoot broke from the warm moist ground
Spreading its initial leaves to breath in the air in a new world
As an alien sun showers the cotyledons of the seed with radiation
And the roots begin to drive into the soil feeding on the detritus
So many things can happen to this new seedling over its maturation
The environment it emerges into may be too toxic for it to endure
Animals and insects may eagerly devour its first green leaves
Or weeds may grow up around it choking its access to the sun
Drought may deny it the nourishment it needs or flood may overwhelm
Subterranean pests or diseases may devour the roots it sinks
But sometimes, against all the odds, the roots delve deep
The plant spreads its tender branches towards the heavens
And the story slowly grows, struggling to reach maturity
Putting forth leaves, flower and fruit and delighting the eye
Yet no story grows unchanged by the world it enters
The knots and gnarls that give it character as it grows
Some branches have to be pruned carefully by its author
As it takes its place among the orchard that invites the hungry
To walk among the collected trees and to taste the fruit
Which provides the seeds for the next generation of stories

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Matthew 20: 29-34 Opening Eyes on the Way to Jerusalem

Jesus Healing the Blind From 12th Century Basilica Catedrale di Santa Maria Nouva di Monreale in Sicily.

Matthew 20: 29-34

Parallel Mark 10: 46-52; Luke 18: 35-43

29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

Matthew is a careful narrator bringing together the pieces of Jesus’ story in a way that illustrates connections across the gospel and bringing enhanced meaning to each individual scene. The first disciples called to follow Jesus are two sets of brothers, (4:18-22) and the last who follow are two blind men enabled to see. Just as the request of the demons possessing two men make a request of Jesus (8: 28-34) is closely followed by the previous healing of two blind men (­9:27-31) so this healing of the two blind men is preceded by the formal request of the mother of James and John (see previous section). This pattern of twos provide clues to the oral structure underlying Matthew’s narration and provide signposts that allow the hearer to pay attention to commonalities in the stories. This narration of healing the two blind men outside of Jericho closes the gathering of Jesus’ followers in Galilee and on the road to Jerusalem. Its use of the Son of David title for Jesus recalls the previous usages of this title in the gospel[1] and prepares us for the crowds proclamation of this title as Jesus enters Jerusalem.

Jesus begins his final approach to Jerusalem making his way up from Jericho and a great crowd is with him. The crowds, like the disciples with the children, are a barrier for these two blind men to be in the presence of Jesus, but the use of both ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’ in their address to Jesus prepare us for Jesus’ eventual granting of their request. Previously when Jesus healed two blind men he ordered them to be silent, but instead they go and spread news about Jesus to the surrounding district. Here, the great crowds attempt to silence the two blind men only results in the blind men shouting greatly for mercy from the Lord, the Son of David. Matthew uses Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” as a key to understanding a merciful interpretation of scripture,[2] and just as the merciful are blessed and will receive mercy, Jesus responds with healing to numerous requests for mercy.[3] Jesus responds to this request for mercy with compassion.[4]

In contrast to the previous scene where the audacious request of the mother of James and John for a position of honor for her sons is met with a paradoxical partial fulfillment which points to James and John suffering, in this scene the request for mercy is met with healing. The response of Jesus to both the mother of James and John and the two blind men is and identical “What do you will (Greek theleo). There is irony in these two stories placed next to one another where disciples are unable to see what they ask, where these blind men are aware of their blindness and ask to be able to see. Despite the attempts to silence them by the crowds, they are invited into the presence of Jesus, touched by him, and have their eyes opened. Unlike the previous healing of blind men where faith was a primary portion of the story, the question of faith is unaddressed but assumed by both the titles used and the persistence of these blind men who become followers on the road to Jerusalem. Ironically, the words that the crowds attempt to silence from these two blind men becomes their shout as they surround Jesus to enter Jerusalem.

[1] The two blind men in 9:27 and the Canaanite woman in 15:22 use this title asking for healing and the crowd wonders could this be the Son of David in 12:23. For a fuller discussion of the use of the Son of David title see Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man Titles in Matthew’s Gospel.

[2] See 9:13 and 12:7

[3] 5:7 in the Sermon on the Mount; healings after requests for mercy: 2 Blind men (9:27-31), Canaanite woman (15: 21-28), Father of the moonstruck son (17:14-21) see also the request for mercy in the parable of the unforgiving slave (18:30-32)

[4] Previously Jesus has had compassion for the crowds (9:36, 14:18, and 15:32) but not for individuals. Compassion also is the expected action of the unforgiving slave in the parable (18:27)

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Matthew 20: 17-28 Greatness in the Kingdom

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

Matthew 20: 17-28

Parallels Mark 10: 32-45; Luke 18: 31-34, 22: 24-27

17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19 then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Central to the organization of the last three chapters of Matthew’s gospel has been a response to ‘greatness’ in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not a Messiah (king) like the kings of the nations but instead is one who comes to serve instead of serving. The world imagined by the kingdom of heaven is an alternative to the worldview of the nations of the earth, and in this world reoriented has drastic implications for these disciples of Jesus as they consider the shape of their own lives. Even as we stand at the threshold of closing Jesus’ ministry of teaching and prepare to enter the narration of the final week in Jerusalem the disciples and those around them continue to require a conversion of their imaginations (to use Richard B. Hays’ terminology) to embody this new society as an alternative to the ways of the nations.

The section begins with the final foretelling of Jesus’ coming betrayal, condemnation, humiliation, and crucifixion. Two previous times[1] (three if you count the words spoken to Peter, James, and John after the Transfiguration) Jesus has foretold the events that will occur in Jerusalem and been met with resistance, distress and now misunderstanding. As people who are able to read and hear this narrative repeatedly and who understand the narrative in light of the resurrection it is easy to become judgmental of the disciple’s inability to understand a crucified and resurrected messiah, but the disciples, like all the other characters of Matthew’s gospel, attempt to make sense of Jesus’ identity, actions, and words from within the worldview they inherited from their society. Perhaps one of the reasons that Matthew’s gospel is more charitable to the disciples than Mark’s is a pastoral understanding (in the sense of the responsibility for the forming of a community) of the need for patience as the kingdom’s worldview slowly begins to transform the engrained ways of the nations.

In Matthew’s gospel it is the mother of James and John who makes the request rather than the two disciples themselves. This, perhaps for Matthew, provides a little space between the disciples in the narrative who have just heard for the fourth time (since James and John were at the Transfiguration) about the upcoming death of Jesus. The mother comes and prostrates herself before Jesus which may be simply ‘bowing down or paying honor’ but within Matthew’s continued usage of the Greek proskuneo it is also used at times in an ambiguous way where ‘worship’ is implied and there is a revelation of Jesus being ‘God with us.’[2] Regardless the mother of James and John shows some openness to who Jesus is, but she and her sons continue to construct that identity in terms of the rulers of the nations. She comes to ask ‘a certain thing/something’ of Jesus (translations often translate this as a favor but this ritualistic request has a greater weight than asking for a favor) and Jesus responds to her request with “What is your will/desire?” (the Greek theleo is often translated as wish, but wishing in English is more ephemeral than this term for willing something to be) Her request for positions of high honor in the coming kingdom of Jesus for her sons shows both insight into a portion of Jesus’ identity and a misunderstanding of greatness in the kingdom of heaven. A ritual request for a declaration is a powerful and binding thing, and so if Jesus makes this statement he, as a king, is bound to it.[3] Jesus could deal with her, her sons, and later the disciples in a harsh way, but Jesus instead uses the moment as one more opportunity to talk about greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus addresses the request by trying to help James and John understand the request that is made. In the context of having foretold his own death in Jerusalem we are introduced to the idea of ‘drinking the cup’ that Jesus is about to drink. This will be resonant image in both the Hebrew scriptures and in the passion narrative that will begin in the coming chapter. In the Hebrew Scriptures drinking the cup (particularly the cup of the LORD) often used in the prophets as the language of suffering[4] but as Warren Carter notes it can also denote the LORD’s provision or deliverance.[5] (Carter 2005, 402) It may seem paradoxical that suffering and salvation are joined together in an image, but this is after all a kingdom where those who ‘want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ (16:25 emphasis on life is intentional, see below) In the coming passion narrative the cup will feature in both the last supper (26:27-29) and a Gethsemane. (26:39-46) Ultimately Jesus, after asking if they are powerful enough to drink the cup he is to drink, partially grants their request in an odd way. James and John will share both the suffering and the life that is to come, but their ability to fill the spots to the left and right of Jesus in his kingdom are not his to grant. Matthew’s linkage of this scene with the crucifixion is also echoed by the placement of the bandits who are crucified with him, “one on his right and one on his left.”

The response of the remaining ten disciples to James and John is often translated as ‘angry’ or ‘indignant’ which are typically used to translate the Greek aganakteo, but I am going to risk using a more precise word ‘resentful.’ While indignant may be a word that expresses anger or annoyance at unfair treatment, I think it is a word that is outside most of our emotional vocabulary. I do think we need to work on teaching the skill of “labeling our emotions with a nuanced vocabulary.” (Brackett 2019, 19) and anger is a large emotion which covers many of what Marc Brackett describes as low pleasantness high energy emotions. Resentful is a word in English that most people understand that captures the anger or annoyance at unfair treatment that the older indignant represents. I also think that it is an understandable emotion in terms of the requested honor and partially favorable response that James and John have received. All of the disciples are still viewing Jesus’ message from within the worldview they inherited from their parents and the society around them, and even now Jesus continues to patiently reorient them to the very different values of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus directly engages the worldview of the nations and their perceptions of greatness and contrasts them to the values of the kingdom of heaven. Instead of the values of the nations where the rulers lord it over their followers and the great ones exercise authority over (this doesn’t have the negative implication in modern English that tyrants does: the Greek is a conjunction of the prefix kata (according to) and ekousia (authority)) the great in the kingdom of heaven are servants and the first is a slave. Throughout this section the disciples have been told they need to be humble like a child placed in their midst (18:4) instead of a rich young man (19:16-30 a person who has every advantage in that society) who would need to give away his possessions to embrace the kingdom. Jesus embodies these values for his disciples and his serving instead of being served will be the model for them to emulate.

Early in my ministry I once caused a minor controversy in a class I was teaching when I stated that Mark (and Matthew) by extension did not have any atonement theology where Christ died for our sins to redeem us. Ultimately Matthew and Mark do not have any type of atonement theology like Anselm of Canterbury talks about in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man one of the classic texts of medieval classic atonement theology) but here in 20:28 we do have the only introduction of the idea of ransom in Matthew (and its parallel in Mark). In the Hebrew scriptures the idea of ransom is often used in the context of freeing the people of Israel from their captivity under other nations (Exodus 6:6; Isaiah 43:1-7; 44:22) and while this may be connected with the sins of the people which led to their exile, this is not an individualistic salvation from one’s sins. Throughout Matthew, from the beginning when the angel of the Lord tells Joseph, “he will save his people from his sins” (1:21) I have written about this in terms of Jesus bringing about the end of the exile of the chosen people. Although Stanley Hauerwas comments on this passage are an interesting place to begin discussion:

Rather, he has ransomed us from the very temptations he resisted in the desert, to make possible our participation in the only politics that can save us. He has brought to an end our slavery to the politics based on fear of death, making it possible for us to be servants to one another and the world. (Hauerwas 2006, 179-180)

The temptation to define power in the ways of the nations of the world is to fall into the devilish temptation that Jesus avoided. Jesus’ kingdom does not involve the death and destruction of his enemies, but for those he has patiently worked upon to transform their values and worldview it is the beginning of a new way of understanding power. The great in the kingdom of heaven are the servants of the world, the first are slaves. Or in Martin Luther’s famous paradox from the Freedom of a Christian:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all (Luther 1989, 596)

What the Son of Man uses in ransom in his psuche which is normally translated elsewhere as ‘soul’ but as I discussed in 10:39 and 16: 25-26  in Hebrew thought the soul is not detachable from one’s life but is the very essence of it. There is no body/soul duality that would become engrained in later Christian vocabulary. To give up one’s psuche is to give up everything of oneself. Just as the disciples earlier could state they gave up everything in following Jesus while thinking of their possessions and relationships, now Jesus demonstrates a world where one’s entire being is placed completely in the service of God. As Paul could say in his letter to the Romans:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Romans 12: 1

[1] Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23 (17:12)

[2] See the fuller discussion in Matthew 14:22-33

[3] At least in terms of the rulers of the nations: think for example of how the words of King Ahasuerus throughout the book of Esther bound him or how King Darius in Daniel 7 is bound by his own ordinance. These stories would be a part of the worldview of both the mother and the sons in this story.

[4] Isaiah 51: 17; Jeremiah 25:15-38; Jeremiah 49:12; Ezekiel 23: 32-34; Habakkuk 2: 15-16; see also Psalm 75:8

[5] See particularly Psalm 16:5 and Psalm 116:3

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Matthew 20: 1-16 The Good House Master

the Parable of the Vineyard,by Andrey Mironov, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24843092

Matthew 20: 1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This parable, which is unique to Matthew’s gospel, expands on Jesus’ paradoxical proverb about many who are first being last and the last being first. In Matthew, this parable is the final parable prior to entering Jerusalem and is preceded by the parable of the lost sheep and the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18. The world imagined in the parable is jarring for those committed to the capitalistic worldview of our time or the worldview of the nations in Jesus’ time. Each of the three parables in Matthew 18-20 are told specifically in answer to the disciples’ questions about greatness or forgiveness and unlike earlier parables are not explained by Jesus. We are invited not only into the worldview of the disciples of Jesus, but into these short stories which are designed to challenge their assumptions as they begin to embody a different kind of society amidst the nations.

I am making several translational choices that make the story less readable to a casual modern reader but highlight some of the different assumptions and values of the world Jesus spoke to. Our imagination around land and time are different than the ancient world, especially for those who dwell in cities and whose primary place of income is a workplace that is no longer connected with agriculture. For most of history the home was the primary place where economics occurred, and the ‘house master’ was responsible for the stewardship of the economics of their land. What many translations render as a ‘landowner’ is the Greek oikodespotes (oikos- home, this is the word at the root of the modern idea of economy and economics and despot-where our modern word despot comes from, meaning ruler, lord or master) I am rendering more literally as ‘house master.’  Jesus has been referred to himself a ‘house master in 10:25 when he states, “If they have called the master of the house (oikodespotes) Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” This term will also appear in Matthew 24:43 in the context of Jesus warning his disciples to stay awake like a house master who does not know when a thief is coming.

While the house master is responsible for both household and land, this does not indicate that the house master will be wealthy or elitist. We may think in modern terms of a person with land and property as the master of an estate with servants to do their bidding, and while that might be the case of this house master we need not assume that it is the case. We only hear of one person who works directly for the house master in this parable, and while many interpreters assume that the house master is wealthy and going into the marketplace to hire workers would be below him, that is an assumption that the house master oversees a large household with many servants or slaves that work for him. It is worth remembering that a part of the Jewish hope is for everyone is to live securely in their own land. Whether 1 Kings 4: 25 is accurate that under Solomon everyone had their own vine and fig tree, the prophetic hope resonates with this image:

But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. Micah 4:4, see also Zechariah 3: 10

Regardless of the whether the house master is wealthy or merely owns a vineyard, we will see in the parable that this individual acts in a way that is very unusual in the disciples’ worldview and in ours.

In the modern western culture we imagine time in the way we measure it on a clock, watch or cell phone with the day broken into precise hours, minutes and seconds, and while many work hours outside of the eight hour, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. we often think of the forty hour week as a standard for work. The workday in the ancient world is constructed around daylight hours, and here in the world of this parable we have an approximately twelve-hour workday. The house master goes out during the fourth watch (before dawn) into the marketplace to find workers, and while some translations smooth the agreed upon wage to ‘the usual daily wage’ I believe most readers can understand the agreement for a concrete price, a denarius, even if they may not be able to precisely fix the value of this payment in modern equivalents. The agreement for a specific payment by both the house master and the workers is important to this story. To render the times when the house master returns to the market place as nine o’clock, noon, three o’clock and five o’clock assumes our precise relationship with time and can give the illusion of something resembling our normal workday, the more literal third hour, sixth hour, ninth hour, and the eleventh hour, reminds us that the workday is long and it may remind us that time was not measured by clocks, but by the movement of the sun.

A vineyard, unlike grain crops sown in a field, require constant tending. Most commentators assume that the house master has gone to bring in workers for the harvest, but that may not be the assumption of those in Jesus’ time hearing this parable. The reality that there are workers throughout the day who are without work (most English translations place a value judgment on their translations on the laborers when they state they are ‘standing idle’ but the Greek agroi literally means without work) the laborers answer that no one was hiring along with the quick agreement on a wage may indicate a time where the supply of workers exceeded demand. Also, as Amy Jill-Levine notes, “The householder continues to go to the market, but the parable makes no explicit mention of the need for more labor.” (Levine 2014, 226) Perhaps, something very strange is happening with this house master who continues to bring more workers into their vineyard to work. The harvest may indeed be great, or the house master may indeed be generous.

Sometimes this parable is quickly allegorized to talk about grace and ‘salvation’ or the assumption is made that those who are in the vineyard early are the Pharisees and/or Sadducees but reading the context of the story I want to suggest two different frames for this story. All of the parables in Matthew 18-20 are in response to the questions of the disciples, and this parable follows Peter’s question, “What then will we have?” so likely Matthew is not concerned with groups outside the followers of Jesus, but precisely the imagination and actions of those whom Jesus has called from the fishing boats, marketplace or wherever they have come from to follow him. But it is also helpful to remember that Jesus is using a commonly used image for Israel, the vineyard (see Isaiah 5, Jeremiah 7) to tell a very Jewish parable. Christians may be conditioned to continually question ‘what thing we might do to have eternal life’ (see my discussion of this question in the previous section) but rather than spiritualizing the parable to concern the afterlife, what if it is concerned with how members of the kingdom of heaven relate to one another. As Dr. Levine can again state insightfully, “To those who ask today, “Are we saved?” Jesus might well respond, “The better questions is, ‘Do your children have enough to eat?’ of ‘Do you have a shelter for the night?’” (Levine 2014, 216)

I am going against the grain assuming that the ‘house master’ is good, since many would side with the workers in the parable around issues of fairness or justice. When the parable is spiritualized to be about the afterlife is removes the scandal from the parable, but it also misses the fruit that is hanging from the vines to be gathered. When the house master orders his steward to pay the workers at the end of the day he is acting in accordance with the expectations of the law (Lev. 19: 13, Deut. 24: 14-15) and Deuteronomy 24: 15 is particularly worth noting in this context:

You shall pay them (poor and needy laborers) daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the LORD against you and you would incur guilt.

In our capitalistic worldview a person who works longer should receive a better payment, and the first should not be treated as equal with those who came last but should receive better compensation for more time spent in labor. When the lord (and the Greek here is kurios which is normally translated lord) of the vineyard calls his steward to distribute payment beginning with the last and going to the first we receive a verbal cue that something is about to be turned upside down. Those who the house master sent into the vineyard at the eleventh hour receive a denarius setting up the expectations of earlier workers and the listeners of a greater reward for those present from early morning. Yet, there is something different in this house master who acts according to the vision of the kingdom of heaven, and who can claim to be good (this is the Greek agathos which is translated good twice in the previous story and the translation of generous in many translations obscures the linkage with the character of God, see previous section) This parable invites us into a world where the lord of the vineyard, which is now closely linked to the LORD the God of Israel (who is good) models a world where a house master goes continually in the marketplace looking for workers to ensure they have work that pays in a timely manner and ensures that children have enough to eat and workers can find shelter for the night. Perhaps this kingdom of heaven is about a world where all the laborers can have enough to eat, and God provides sufficiently for all instead of a world where laborers are only satisfied in the afterlife. When we hear a person address another as ‘friend’ we may assume intimacy, but in Matthew’s gospel the term ‘friend’ is used in a setting of formality when another has acted improperly. (see also 22:12, 26: 50) What is smoothly translated ‘are you envious’ is the phrase ‘or is the eye of you wicked/evil’ and the ‘evil eye’ in ancient cultures was to curse or wish harm on another, but here the house master declares that this action, which in opposition to the good, is uncalled for. In the values of the kingdom of heaven, where the last are first and the first are last, the master of the house goes out to ensure that as many workers as possible receive the opportunity to work, to provide for their families, and to have shelter for the night. Until a time when all can rest under their own vines and fig trees the house master works to provide out of their goodness for the laborers in the marketplace.

We live in a society that is very defensive of its individualistic and capitalistic values and is quick to label things that value the needs of the society above the individual or the workers above profit as socialist, communist, or Marxist. Ultimately the values that Jesus points to are older than either capitalism or Marxism, or the individualism that evolved from the Enlightenment. Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven conflicts with all of the ways we are used to framing our identity in our post-Enlightenment, modern (or postmodern) secular age. It does not fit neatly into our labels and titles but instead invites our imaginations into a new way of viewing our world, our society, and our neighbors. Although Jesus does point to a reality beyond this world, his teaching and parables are mainly concerned with how we live in relation to others within life. Jesus’ suggestion of a house master who provides out of his goodness for the laborers in the marketplace conflicts with our ideas of fairness. Yet, the richness of these short narratives that Jesus tells is the way they poetically challenge our imaginations to conceive of the world in a new way, with a different set of principles and visions. Disciples who look at the world hierarchically have to be reoriented to a world where the last are first and the first are last. Disciples, ancient and modern, have struggled with their inability to embrace the world imagined in the kingdom of heaven.

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Reflection on Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret (1970)

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels
Book 7: Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret (1970)

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

I had read several of Judy Blume’s books as a child and read several of her books, particularly the Fudge Books and Pickle Juice to my own children when they were younger. I had never read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret prior to this, but I remember seeing it as assigned reading for some of the gifted and talented classes when I was in middle school. I knew it was a coming of age story of a young girl but was surprised that a story for a younger audience was on the list.

It is a very quick read and Judy Blume does a great job introducing you to the world of a preteen girl named Margaret, the social network of girls and schools she is transplanted into, a complex family narrative which is revealed as the book progresses, and the struggle for identity in the midst of competing forces. For its simplicity there are some deep themes that underlie Margaret’s story, particularly in attempting to define who she is in relation to her friends and classmates and in religion. Margaret’s parents move her immediately before sixth grade from New York City to Farbrook, New Jersey. Her father continues to commute into the city to work while her mother stays home, which is reflective of the society of the late 1960s, early 1970s white suburbia where the story takes place. Margaret is quickly brought into a circle of girls who become important in her quest for belonging in this new environment but who also set boundaries around who is acceptable to be friends with and who is not. Margaret never fully ‘fits in’ with this group of girls and one of the differences is that she does not belong to either a church or synagogue due to friction in her family between her parents and her grandparents. Margaret’s father, who grew up Jewish, and Margaret’s mother, who grew up Christian want her to choose a religion for herself when she grows up, but this is a source of struggle for Margaret as she seeks exposure to both worlds. As the story continues it reveals both the continuing wound that both parents have with Margaret’s grandparents and the way this continues to impact their relationship with their children, their spouses, and their grandchild.

I enjoyed the book, it is designed for younger readers but it also addresses some important questions of identity, of discerning what is true and navigating peer relationships, attempting to find a place for one’s relationship with God amid different religious options and pressure from family and friends. It is a coming of age book for girls and so questions of body image and early curiosity about sexuality are present and form the background of issues of jealousy and exclusion.

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Bradford Pear


Bradford Pear Tree After a Storm, Own Picture

They put me in this ground because I grow up fast
Spreading out my arms full of foliage in the hot sun
On summer days, I appear strong and full and healthy
My shallow roots shoot through the brown clay
Like a spider web gathering all the water from the ground
My heavy green crown provides a deep shade for the earth
Roots and crown absorb all the sun and water of heaven
Suffocating any life that may want to grow in my shadow

Yet, trees like me are notorious for shattering in the storm
Every branch goes back to a single point on my trunk
My long, heavy laden, branches too firm to bend in the wind
And my crown breaks in the spring and fall rainstorms
The wind snapping my arms and dropping them on the ground
Blocking paths and roads, waiting to be cut up and taken away
I grow up fast and I look like a king only to dethroned by the elements

My query about things that we expect to grow up too fast
Who learn how to rely on a single point of strength in the sun
Who may at times appear full, healthy, strong and immovable
Perhaps sheltering others in their canopy absorbing the heat
Or absorbing all the light and water suffocating those nearby
Why we’re surprised when they break leaving destruction around
When their lives are short and they are more brittle than they seem
When their roots are shallow and the storms of life are too great?
And we clear away the fallen limbs and foliage, the broken crown
Making space for another Bradford pear tree to grow up in the space
As their ancestor’s memory is ashes and smoke in the firepit of history

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