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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Afterlife, Eternal Life and the Life of the Kingdom

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

When most people who grow up in a Christian church talk about eternal life they are talking about ‘going to heaven’ or what happens to the ‘soul’ after death. Many Christians who faithfully come to worship each week do not realize that this is not the primary direction of Christian hope, instead most of this idea comes from the interaction of Greek philosophical worldview and the language of Christianity. Unfortunately, this focus on the soul’s ascent to be with God in heaven has transformed the profoundly grounded hope of the early followers of Christ into an otherworldly escapism which is often disconnected the horizontal dimension of faith which involve my neighbors and the world.

The Jewish covenantal understanding of their faithful relationship with God and their neighbor is the foundation upon which Jesus builds his vision of life under the kingdom of heaven. Despite Matthew’s frequent use of the kingdom of heaven, instead of the kingdom of God as predominant in Mark and Luke, what Jesus is referring to is God’s kingdom coming to earth. The entire direction of the New Testament’s hope is God’s coming to dwell among God’s people on earth. This is not unique to the New Testament, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there is in the tabernacle and the temple a place where God can dwell among the people, the prophets dream and the psalms sing about the transformations that will come into the world when God reigns not only among Israel but among all the peoples. Just as the people of Israel were to be an alternative community among the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Rome, these followers of Christ were to be an alternative community with alternative values to Rome or whatever society they found themselves within. When Paul, for example, in Philippians 3: 20 can state that, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” He is talking about living as person of an alternative community, the kingdom of heaven, and embodying those values within the space of the Roman empire and teaching others to do the same. Paul’s descriptions of the future glory in Romans 8: 18-27 beautifully dreams the interactive way that the unveiling of the children of God, those who are living under God’s calling and have been transformed for the sake of the world, is precisely for the liberation of the creation (not an escape from it). It is also why Paul ends 1 Corinthians, with the exception of the final travel plans and greeting, with a long discussion about the implication of the resurrection of Christ for the resurrection of all people. Paul is specifically arguing against a ‘non-bodily’ and ‘non earthly’ resurrection, even though many in the Hellenistic (Greek speaking) world would have embraced the idea of the ‘salvation of the soul’ willingly and viewed this bodily resurrection as scandalous. The book of Revelation is often thought of as the destruction of the earth, but what it narrates is the final coming of God to earth and the last but futile resistance of the forces aligned against God’s coming kingdom.

When the gospels speak of ‘eternal life’, the phrase that is translated is the Greek zoe aion. Zoe is where we get the feminine name Zoe from and it means ‘life.’ Aion is where we get the English word ‘eon’ from and while it is often translated ‘eternal’ but when most Christians think of ‘eternal life’ they think of life in heaven. For another perspective on how to think about the term ‘eon,’ it occurs as a noun at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” While some might argue that Jesus really is talking about being with the disciples for ‘eternity,’ what I believe Jesus is telling the disciples is, “I will be will be with you to the end of this age” which will end when the kingdom of heaven/God comes to earth.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke when zoe aion is only used when either the rich young man (all three gospels) or in Luke when a scribe asks (Luke 10:25) Jesus always points them back to the commandments of how they are to live in this life. In both cases the question is not about how to get to heaven, but how to participate in the life of the kingdom of God in the present and Jesus’ answer reflects that earthly reality. John’s gospel uses this term more than the other three gospels combined, but John has long been associated with a ‘realized eschatology’ where the promises of God’s kingdom are already being realized. For example, in John 17 Jesus can state,

since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17: 2-3)

“Eternal life” in John’s gospel is already realized in knowing Jesus and the God who sends Jesus. This life is revealed by participating in the faith and life of Jesus

While the New Testament can use a diverse set of language to talk about the approaching of God’s kingdom to this world, the movement is always God’s movement towards the world instead of the escape of the soul to join God. There are at best hints of some immediate experience of an afterlife and they often come in parables (like the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel) or when Jesus (again in Luke) tells the bandit on the cross “today you will be with me in paradise.” Portions of the church in the last several decades have begun to rediscover the centrality of the resurrection and the coming of God to dwell among the earth instead of the otherworldly focus of much of the church in the previous centuries. It is a subject that pastors and teachers have to approach delicately because it is a drastic change to the imaginations of many of the faithful, but it also invites the faithful into a closer relationship with the world and with the neighbors God has placed within it. In Paul’s rich language it is a call to join in the groaning labor pains of creation while we and the world await the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:23)

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Matthew 19: 16-30 The Life of the Coming Age

Matthew 19: 16-30

Parallel Mark 10: 17-31; Luke 18: 18-30

16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

27 Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

This encounter with the young man with an abundance of possessions provides a rich opportunity to reconsider several elements of Matthew’s gospel in a fuller light. Unfortunately Matthew’s usage of the kingdom of heaven in many places and what many translations render as ‘eternal life’ combined with the long history of the church’s proclamation about heaven being a place where one’s soul departs to after death makes this passage sound like it is primarily concerned about life after death, but that presents a stumbling block to hearing what is at stake in the dialogue between this young man, Jesus, and the disciples. All of the gospels are primarily concerned with life on earth, and while Jesus’ teaching does have an element of judgment and reward beyond this age it is, Jesus never focuses on Gehenna or heaven as destinations but is instead focused on the kingdom of heaven’s approach to earth. It is the interaction between the alternative values of the kingdom of heaven and the values of the empires of the earth that leaves both the wealthy young man and Jesus’ disciples perplexed.

The someone who approached Jesus, who we later learn is a wealthy young man, asks Jesus about what ‘good he might do in order that he might have the life of the coming age.’ There is a lot in this first line that needs unpacking and perhaps much acquired baggage that many modern Christians must leave behind so they might enter into a richer hearing of this interaction. The young man’s addresses to Jesus as ‘teacher’ should alert us that the young man’s understanding of who Jesus is comes from the perspective of how he views him within the structures of society and not with eyes that are open to who Jesus is. In Matthew’s gospel the term teacher[1] prepares us that this young man will leave unsatisfied even though Jesus will extend the invitation to this man to follow him. The question about ‘what good I might do’ (many translations limit this to state what good ‘deed’ he might do, but the question is broader than a single good ‘deed’) ‘in order that I might[2] have the life of the coming age.’ This young man has seen something of the life that Jesus and his disciples are living and he comes seeking a way that he might share with them in their experience of the kingdom of heaven’s approach. Before we encounter Jesus’ answer, let’s examine this idea of the ‘life of the coming age.’

When most Christians hear this story they think the young man is asking Jesus what he needs to do to get to heaven, but what this young man sees is the life that Jesus is partaking of now and he is asking how he can partake of it. The primary reason I render this ‘the life of the coming age’ is that our understanding of ‘eternal life’ often obscures what the New Testament is talking about (see Afterlife, Eternal Life and the Life of the Kingdom). This young man knows there is something missing in his own life, and he has come to Jesus who he sees as a teacher who can give him the answer that will fill the emptiness that apparently his possessions and current life are not.

Jesus’ initial response to the young man both points back to the center of the Jewish faith but also invites the hearer question Jesus’ identity beyond being only a teacher. The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) is the central confession of the Jewish people where they confess “The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (or alone as the NRSV renders) and the Psalms and the prophets often link the LORD as the one who is good.[3] While the young man is called to center of God and God’s commandments as the revelation of goodness, we have also seen throughout Matthew’s gospel the continual drawing of Jesus’ authority and God’s authority close together and so the question of “Why do you ask me what is good?” also asks “how do you see my words and God’s words linked?” The young man is still viewing Jesus through the lens of a teacher, so he focuses only on the keeping of the commandments by asking a clarifying question of “which ones?”

Jesus’ answer joins Leviticus 19:18 to the commandments dealing with one’s relationship with others, emphasizing the communal nature of this life that the young man is desiring to enter into with the interesting omission of the command on coveting. The young man still realizes something is missing and desires what he is lacking, and this is where the command of coveting enters the discussion. Jesus’ final words to this young man are, “If you will/desire (Greek thelo) to be whole/complete (this is again the Greek telios[4]), go…” Will/desire has a stronger force than simply wishing for wholeness, there is an active element of the heart (the instrument of will in Hebrew thought) working towards that end. Again, we often think of perfection in terms of an individualistic moral perfection which would be alien to biblical thought which is communal. The term wholeness or completeness better captures what Jesus is offering this young man. The young man realizes something is missing, but what he fails to comprehend is that finding this new treasure will mean giving up all that he owns to possess it like the one who finds a treasure in a field or the merchant who finds a pearl of exceeding value. (13:44-46) The command to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and having a storehouse in heaven echoes the Sermon on the Mount when it talks about possessions (6:19-21) but it also is accompanied by the calling that the disciples received (4: 18-22) The lure of wealth (13: 22) perhaps chokes the seed of this calling to follow Jesus and the young man departs disappointed and the disciples remain perplexed.

As the young man departs, Jesus turns to his disciples who even though they have left behind their lives to follow him still remain bound to thinking in the terms of the empires of this world. If a person who is young, wealthy, Jewish and male has great difficulty entering the kingdom of heaven, a person who in the eyes of Judaism has every privilege, then how can a humble child? The values of this kingdom are truly upside down: where the last are first and the first are last. The saying about the camel passing through the eye of a needle is not about some mythical gate where a camel must be unburdened and kneel down to pass through (that is a story about a gate that never existed and obscures the meaning of the image) but instead the image points to an impossibility. A camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle, nor do a rich men give up their wealth and privilege without divine intervention. Yet, with the advent of the kingdom of heaven God is at work making incredible things possible.

Peter, on behalf of the disciples, asks what their reward is for what they have given up. Peter still thinks in the value system of the world and is focusing on what he and the other disciples have left behind instead of what they have gained. I do not say this as a critique of Peter, few if any followers of Jesus completely unlearn the values of the world they grew up with, but Jesus points Peter and the disciples to the ‘renewal of all things’ where they will have positions of honor and the investment they made in the kingdom of heaven will be revealed as they participate in this life of the coming age. But being the greatest in the kingdom is like being a child (18:1-5) or a servant  or slave (20:26-27), it is the upside down values of a kingdom which approaches the earth, of a Lord who serves, where the first are last and the last are first. This vision of the kingdom taps into the hope for the regathering of all of Israel, but as we will learn at the end of the gospel it will continue with the spread beyond Israel to all the nations.

[1] In Matthew when someone refers to Jesus as teacher it often indicated either that the person is challenging Jesus’ authority or that their insight into who Jesus is (faith) is not open to the answer he will give them (8: 18, 9:11; 12: 38; 17: 24; 22:16; 22:24; 22:36).

[2] The verb is an aorist (undefined) subjunctive which is the mood of possibility often expressed with ‘may’ or ‘might’ (Mounce 1993, 282-283)

[3] See for example Psalm 34:8; 100:5; 119: 68; 135: 3; 136:1; Jeremiah 33:11; Lamentations 3: 25, 28 and Nahum 1:7

[4] I’ve written about telios in both Perfection and Blamelessness in the Bible and when I discuss Matthew 5:48

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Barren Seeds

A close picture of soil in my gardenl

The soil was turned, the weeds and rocks removed
Seeds placed at the proper depth and thoroughly watered
So many have cast their seeds into the waiting earth
Seeing the germination, the growth and the eventual fruition
The earth giving birth to another healthy harvest

Sometimes after germination pests come and root in the garden
Floods and winds damage the plants or drought dries the roots
Struggling against the elements to shield the tender shoots
Yet, what can be done when plants miscarry before they can emerge?
The seeds rotting in the dirt, disintegrating in nature’s womb

Perhaps they are dust, and like the sower who sows, to dust they return
Some unknown problem with seed or soil, parasite or pest
Birds may have come to consume the seed on the ground
Rodent may have rooted in the fecund earth for the precious seed
Sun may have baked the seeds and made the ground infertile

With the termination of the germination the ground lies barren
The hopes reserved for this season are buried in the earth
Never to rise again. For the season’s seeds have been sown
The storehouse sits empty and the store shelves are bare
Until a new season emerges when new seeds can be sown
When the soil is turned again, and the seed placed lovingly inside

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August Petrichor

Petrichor-a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a period of long, dry weather

The land has languished for months amid the annual summer drought
And the cracked clay which bakes beneath the brutal blast of a Texas sun
Awaits the agonizingly slow approach of the autumnal wind and rain
The heat saps the energy from flora and fauna, man, and beast and field
Desiccated air absorbs the last trickle of water from the earth’s skin
Creeks and streams that flowed in the spring are sun bleached limestone
The inflamed soil longs for relief as it sinks exhaustedly into a summer siesta
 
But on this August day there is the earthy smell of petrichor as the wind shifts
Thunder rumbles in the distance as the baked earth prepares to receive
The bounty of the heavens as the clouds open and deposit their liquid life
Cooling off the sunburned skin of the earth and giving the soil a sip
A small foretaste of the feast that will come as the seasons turn
The earth sings and dances in this brief shower which dances on its body

 

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Matthew 19: 13-15 Infants of the Kingdom of Heaven

By Carl Bloch – The Athenaeum: Home – info – pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25991809

Matthew 19: 13-15

Parallels Mark 10: 13-16; Luke 18: 15-17

13 Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

This beloved passage is often taught in Sunday schools to demonstrate Jesus’ care for children and when I was growing up was often accompanied by the song ‘Jesus loves the little children.’ While the sentiment of Jesus caring about children remains true, the placing of this story in Matthew’s gospel also highlights the barriers that adults often place between families seeking blessing for their young children and Jesus. The question of divorce and relationships naturally flows to the question of children and their place within the community. As we saw in Matthew 18:1-5, even when Jesus is directly addressing the disciples the crowds and the presence of children is never far away from Jesus and those with him. Communities of ‘little faith ones’ are to be places where ‘little children’ are welcome, for the kingdom of heaven is for them as well.

In this kingdom of heaven where the first are last and the last are first a rich man has a difficult time entering the kingdom (those who in the society have the highest value) but infants (the Greek paidion is an infant or very young child) are those who belong naturally. The disciples are still learning how to discern the boundaries of this community and become the very stumbling blocks Jesus mentions in the previous chapter when he places a child in their midst. The disciples don’t merely ‘speak sternly’ to the crowd, the Greek epitimao is rebuke. This is what Jesus does to the wind on the sea (8:26) or to cast out a demon (17:18), or when he orders crowds not to make him known (12:16). Perhaps more directly it is what Peter does to Jesus when Jesus foretells his death (18:22) and what the crowds will do to attempt to silence the two blind men crying out for Jesus’ intervention. (20:31) The disciples are attempting to silence these infants and those who bring them, but Jesus’ voice overrules them. Matthew removes the indignation that Jesus’ expresses in Mark, and perhaps for Matthew we see Jesus continuing to model and teach for his disciples the way they are to embody. Little ones are not to have barriers placed before them, disciples are not to become stumbling blocks (see 18: 6-10) and babies and young children have a place in this kingdom.

This community of Jesus is an alternative to the ways communities that formed the imaginations of the crowds and the disciples. Children become an example for adults of what the kingdom of heaven is like and the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is like a humble child (18:3), lost sheep are sought after while the rest of the herd is left on the mountain (18:12-14), sinners are sought after multiple times with the chance of reconciliation and those who exclude others invoke their lord’s anger (18:15-35). It is a community where women are protected in relationship at the cost of formerly assumed rights by men to dissolve a relationship (19:1-12) and children have a place in the kingdom while rich, able bodied men find it impossible (outside of God’s intervention) to enter. It is a strange place where those who renounce their maleness (as eunuchs do) and who are separated from the normal path of marriage and procreation have a place in this kingdom of heaven, and those who renounce family and fields will receive a hundred fold and encounter the life of this new age.

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Matthew 19: 1-12 Relationships and the Kingdom Revisited

James Tissot, Sermon on the Beatitudes (1886-96)

Matthew 19: 1-12

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he cured them there.

3 Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

10 His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

Even though chapter nineteen begins with the notation that ‘Jesus had completed these words’ which normally signals the end of a block of teaching and the movement into narrative, there is are several strong links in chapters nineteen and twenty to the teaching in chapter eighteen. These next two chapters continue to have Jesus help the community to discern the values they are to embody in the world while narratively moving Jesus into position for the final week in Jerusalem. While chapter eighteen is directed to the disciples, even though the crowds are not far away as evidenced by the presence of a child who can be pulled into their midst, but now the focus expands to the large crowds which are back and with them comes the Pharisees. Jesus continues to heal and teach and embody the kingdom of heaven as he moves through this region of Judea beyond the Jordan. Jesus’ ministry continues to be to the lost sheep of the house  of Israel as he bypasses Samaria on his journey south. Jesus only mention of Samaria and the Samaritans in Matthew is his command for the disciples not to go to them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10: 5-6)

The test of the Pharisees provides an opportunity for Jesus to teach the crowds, the Pharisees and his disciples how to read scripture and to interpret the law. This is not an idle question, but as Warren Carter can identify, “Questions of marriage, divorce, and remarriage are life-and-death matters, as John the Baptist found out (14: 1-12)” (Carter 2005, 378) In Matthew’s gospel we will later see the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians to attempt to entrap Jesus (22: 15-22) and as I’ve alluded one of the reasons both John and Jesus probably find themselves in conflict with the Pharisees (and Sadducees) is the way they have accommodated themselves to the political powers represented by the Herods and Rome. The placement of the Pharisees now asking a question to entrap Jesus about divorce opens the possibility that they also informed Herod Antipas of John’s condemnation of Herod’s relationship with Herodias.

Matthew’s gospel has already stated Jesus’ beliefs on divorce, which are rearticulated here, in the Sermon on the Mount (5: 31-32) and it is probable that the Pharisees are aware of this position, and select this question of whether it is ‘lawful’ for a man to divorce his wife for any reason expecting him to restate this position and perhaps alienate many men who are following him. Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 is the one place in the law where divorce is discussed for the general population of the people of Israel:

Suppose a man enters into a marriage with a women, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; Deuteronomy 24:1

Divorce is, in Deuteronomy 24 and in the position of the Pharisees in this narrative, an assumed option of any man who has a wife who does not ‘please him.’ We know that there are various perspectives within Judaism about what would provide justification for a man to divorce his wife, but in the question the Pharisees are testing Jesus with a question where there assumption is that it is ‘lawful.’ Jesus previously has quoted Deuteronomy 24 but then goes on to say to those listening:

But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (5: 32)

Here Jesus goes back to the creation narrative for his answer referencing both Genesis 1:27 where God made them male and female and Genesis 2:24 where a man leaves father and mother and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh. These Pharisees interpret the law differently and point back to the commandment of Moses which they believe gives them permission to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce their spouse for any cause. Jesus’ attributes this to Moses’ accommodation to the ‘hard-heartedness’ of the people and continues to point to a community where divorce is only an option for men in rare circumstances.

As in 5: 31-32, The Greek term porneia which is translated unchastity by the NRSV is open to debate about its exact meaning: illicit sexual relations with a person other than the spouse, premarital unchastity (this is the assumption behind Joseph’s initial decision to quietly divorce Mary prior to the angel of the Lord, and Joseph is considered a righteous man (1:18-21)) or even (in relation to Leviticus 18) being married too closely in family relations (an incestuous marriage in the eyes of the law). In Greek this term is a general term relating to sexual misconduct, but it is a different term than moicheoo which is translated adultery in this passage. I’ve assumed throughout these reflections that Mark’s gospel is older than Matthew’s and the addition of the “except for unchastity” between the two gospels demonstrates (along with Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians about Christians married to non-Christian spouses whose spouses choose to divorce) demonstrates that even within the formation of the Christian cannon there is already a deliberation and adaptation about the prohibition against divorce.

What the disciples’ reaction highlights is the manner in which Jesus’ reframing of marriage alters the renunciation of rights for the male involved in the marriage. Marriages in the ancient world were primarily economic relationships where women were dependent upon men for their status, their linkage to the land and their property, and when men dissolve this relationship it places women in a challenging position of being isolated from their status, land and home. There is a costliness for husbands in committing their life and resources without reservation to one individual. I don’t say this to ignore the sacrifices that women make in relation to marriage, but instead I want to highlight the leveling of the relationship by Jesus and others who argued for a restrictive view of divorce in the ancient world. This renunciation of a man’s right to request a divorce on their terms is enough for his disciples to contemplate celibacy as a better economic option. We know that at least Peter is married (Jesus healed his mother-in-law in 8:15) and presumably other disciples were as well. Jesus’ appeal to eunuchs is also another place where Jesus challenges this perception of masculinity. Eunuchs are viewed as emasculated men, people who have lost a fundamental part of their identity and do not fit neatly into the category of male or female. Eunuchs, in Deuteronomy 23:1, are prevented from being a part of the assembly of the Lord and from the priesthood (Leviticus 21:20). Yet Isaiah 56:4-5 includes the promise for eunuchs who hold fast to the LORD’s name a place within God’s house. Jesus, siding with Isaiah, announces that there is a place within God’s household for those who by birth, by being made a eunuch by others, or who renounce marriage (and procreation) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, but that is not the path for everyone. For those who choose the path of marriage and procreation there is a renunciation of the privilege of maleness to terminate that relationship, except in extreme cases, because one’s partner does not ‘please them.’ Jesus’ reinterpretation of the commandment goes to the heart of God’s intent in creation where the creation of male and female are both the image of God and their joining together in marriage is a joining of their identities in the eyes of God. Yet, for the man there is the choice to renounce their maleness, through celibacy, as another option in pursuing the kingdom of heaven.

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Matthew 18: 21-35 A Forgiving King and Community

By Domenico Fetti – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=150920

Matthew 18: 21-35

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This parable is unique to Matthew’s gospel but is well known as the parable of the unforgiving servant (or slave). In the individualistic culture of modernity it is natural that we focus primarily on this one slave who has an incredible debt forgiven, but the placement of this parable within a chapter that is focused on forgiveness and reconciliation within a community setting should alert us that something beyond an individualistic interpretation which neglects the surrounding community is insufficient. In Matthew individual actions and communal responsibility go together just like forgiveness of sins/trespasses and the forgiveness of economic debts. We have already seen Jesus model for the disciples in Matthew 6: 12-15 where in the Lord’s prayer the disciple asks for God to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtor.” And follows this with, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” In response to Peter’s question about forgiveness these statements are given narrative form in the parable.

Peter’s question, narratively prompted by the practices of reconciliation with a member of the community of Christ who sins against another member, about the limits of forgiveness and Jesus’ response about the expansiveness of forgiveness provide the foundation for the world of the parable. Peter’s question of limits is a practical one in discerning when a fellow member of the community is beyond redemption, when a lost sheep should remain lost of a fellow member be perpetually condemned as a Gentile and tax collector. Jesus’ answer invokes the figure of Lamech and stands in direct opposition to Lamech’s way of retaliation:

Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech listen to what I say: I have killed a young man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4: 23-24)

Lamech, the descendant of Cain, responds to violence with greater violence, Jesus responds to sin and violence with the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. As David Garland can state, “Under Lamech there was no limit to hatred and revenge; under Moses it was limited to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life; under Jesus there is no limit to love, forgiveness, and mercy.” (Garland, 2001, p. 197)

Entering the parable, we have the kingdom of heaven placed alongside a king settling accounts with his slaves. Although the slavery imagined in this parable is different from slavery as it was practiced in the United States, the people ordered by the king are not merely servants who are bound by an economic arrangement that either party could terminate. The slave, their relationships and their property are ultimately the property of this king who has the power, as we will see in the parable, to dispose of as he sees fit. On the other hand, this king delegates incredible economic authority, and presumably power as well, to the first slave in particular. In settling accounts (literally settling words) with the slaves of the king only one debtor is significant enough to bear mention for the story. We can become fixated on how to communicate the value of 10,000 talents, but both the word for 10,000 is like seventy times seven, a number too high to account for and the unit of measure, a talent, is too large for most of Jesus’ hearers to ever possess. As M. Eugene Boring can state:

A talent is the largest monetary unit (20.4 kg of silver), equal to 6,000 drachmas, the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. “Ten thousand” (mupia,j myrias, “myriad”) is the largest possible number. Thus the combination is the largest figure that can be given. The annual tax income of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. The amount is fantastic, beyond all calculation. (NIB VIII: 382)

For Matthew debt and sin are closely related and so it is a short jump from a question of forgiveness of sin to a narrative where an unpayable debt is owed and forgiveness is granted on account of compassion and mercy. In the narrative the king is entitled to sell of the slave, his family, and his possessions to regain as much of the impossible amount that this slave is unable to pay back. The slave prostrates himself and asks for patience, the king responds with compassion and grants a release from the loan and from the impending punishment of himself and his family.

The first slave forgiven the impossible debt then encounters another slave who is indebted to him for a realistic and repayable amount (1/600,000 of the forgiven debt if one wants to be literal). The violence of the forgiven slave’s action towards the debtor where he grabs him and is choking him as he makes his demand for repayment stands in contrast to the king’s summoning. While in the world of court political intrigue where the forgiven slave is attempting to reassert power over his subordinates may make sense in a normal kingdom (Carter, 2005, p. 373) it is anathema to the kingdom of heaven. It is helpful to remember that a parable is a narrative world based upon but not dependent upon a concrete reality, a real king or an earthly kingdom. The forgiven slave claims a power the king did not use initially, the power of violence and threat, the power to imprison and demand. The still indebted and choked slave responds to the assaulting slave with the exact stance and words used before the king, asking not for forgiveness but time. Yet, this former debtor shows no patience or mercy to the current debtor. Instead he imprisons him, perhaps to demonstrate his own power or to sooth his own ego. Regardless of the reason it impacts the community of those who serve the king.

The community knows what has happened in its midst, it grieves exceedingly the violence and injustice done to one of their own. In their grief they report it to their lord, hoping that their lord will intervene. The slaves of the king are heard and noticed, and this type of activity within the king’s reign, especially in light of the previous forgiveness, is unacceptable. The king’s will is to show mercy and to have mercy shown (perhaps a strange king but what normal king is like the kingdom of heaven). It is necessary to forgive others as one has been forgiven in this community. The forgiven slave may have a claim on the slave indebted to him, but the king of both has the final claim. The king finally responds to the previously forgiven slave in the same manner he responded to his debtor.

Some modern interpreters and many modern Christians are troubled by a God who judges. We may either believe in the distant god of modernity which is an unmoved mover, or we may imagine a god whose love excludes punishment of any kind. Neither of these gods are the God we encounter in scripture. God does take sides and God does judge and this is a corollary of God’s love for God’s people and the creation not in opposition to it. A community committed to reconciliation and doing the hard work of advocating and including lost sheep, Gentiles and tax collectors and debtors is an alternative to the ways of power in the world. The kingdom of heaven is not like a regular king, but a forgiving one. At the same time, it is still better for a millstone to be hung around the neck of those who place barriers for the little ones of the kingdom for God judges what the community cannot. The community of Christ may have the hard work of binding and loosing on earth, and God values that work, but it is always directed towards a community of forgiveness and mercy. Just as Christ is present where two or three are gathered, so the community’s cries when an individual or group does not practice forgiveness are heard by their heavenly Father. There is an edge to God’s dwelling with the community that does not practice the life God calls them to. This is the edge in the prophets’ voices as they spoke to Israel when they did not live in accordance with God’s covenant for them and this is the edge of the parable when a community or individual does not forgive as they have been forgiven.

 

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