I’m privileged to participate in a weekly preaching text study with a group of lay preachers. I prepare some textual notes for each session, so I’ll share them here as well. I’m so glad for the chance to grow in this way.
Gospel Text, Matthew 21:23-32
Let’s track the plot in Matthew 21. Jesus enters Jerusalem in a mock royal procession. On the one hand, he makes it clear that the Davidic expectations held by many are not those he will fulfill. On the other hand, he puts a thumb in the Roman eye by performing the role of the king of peace. Is it any wonder the whole city is “in turmoil” (verse 10)?
Jesus enters the temple and attacks the commercial system that undergirds the institution. Jesus attacks “bad religion,” the institutional collaboration, cowardice, and corruption at the heart of the temple system and his critique of that system. At the same time, he heals the blind and the lame—the least, the lost and the little ones, the last in the earthly kingdom. It was the song of the children (please notice that!) which put the authorities over the edge. Were they angry at his hubris or because the song of the children would cause the Romans to respond with violence? We can’t be sure. Likely, it was both. In any event, we come to the passage that serves as the basis of the proverb, “Out of the mouths of babes…”
The cursing of the fig tree the next day takes on different tones in the various gospels. In any event, the fig tree represents Israel in some way. The cursing is an illustration of Jesus’ power and authority. It is also a symbol of the failures of the Jerusalem leadership to bear fruit for the Reign of God. Jesus promises that the disciples could have the same sort of power and authority with adequate trust in God.
Jesus returns to the Temple for further teaching. He is accosted by the authorities who have had a chance to develop a strategy. Since he is not officially a rabbi and does not represent a particular “school,” they test his authenticity (assuming that he has none). Jesus outflanks them with his question about John’s baptism.
Jesus turns the question against them and puts them in a difficult political and theological bind. He exposes their “bad religion.” He follows that up with the little parable of the two sons (as opposed to the big parable of the two sons in Luke 15). Jesus takes another swing at the last who are first, and the younger son who precedes the older one. It is important up front to make clear that this is not in any way “anti-Jewish.” Please remember that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew! Please make it clear to people that this is not an opening for anti-Semitism. It has been used that way far too often. This is a critique of any religious system that puts its survival ahead of the truth of God’s reign, that puts power, privilege, and position ahead of humility, service and compassion. So this text is as much a critique of the church now as it was of the temple system then.
“In first-century Mediterranean society, the lying son who says, “I go, sir,” but does not go, is the son who makes his father feel good; he is behaving properly, a good son. But he does not do what pleases his father (which is Jesus’ question). Rather, the second son, who infuriates his father by saying no, but then does what his father wants, in fact does what pleases his father. Tax collectors and harlots rank with this second son, who initially says no, while Jesus’ Temple opponents are like the first, who says yes, but does not do what pleases God.” (Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (p. 132). Kindle Edition.)
Jesus then continues with the parable of the vineyard, which is really much more of an allegory than a parable. We will pick up that text next week.
AJ Levine reminds us that this parable (and its sibling in Luke 15) reverberates with echoes from the Hebrew scriptures. Adam had two sons, and the younger gave an acceptable offering to God. Abraham had two sons, and the younger was the child of promise. Isaac had two sons, and the younger tricked his way into birthright and blessing. Joseph had two sons. David was the youngest. Solomon was the youngest with Bathsheba. There might be a pattern.
Jesus’ listeners would know how a story like this is supposed to turn out. In the process, all sorts of shenanigans go on: fratricide, abandonment, cheating and lying, just to name a few. The younger sons make the tax collectors and prostitutes look almost virtuous. So, perhaps the Jerusalem leaders indeed ought to follow them into the Reign of God. It seems that this is God’s preferred modus operandi.
Even Jesus seems like a younger son in relation to John the Baptist. The outsider, the trickster, the little one—this one is the key to finding a place in the Reign of God. What unexpected outsider, what overlooked little one, is showing us the way into God’s Reign?
In our willful blindness, our enslavement to our pet assumptions, what are we missing? Can we take off our blinders long enough to consider that someone else might have gotten it right? This takes us back to Matthew 18! And this is precisely what Jesus says in verse eighteen of our current chapter. Out of the mouths of babes comes the wisdom of God.
One issue is the willingness to see correctly. In verse thirty-two, the accusation is clear: even after you saw John, you didn’t believe him. So, what do we refuse to see? What are we missing because we’re looking in the wrong place? If you haven’t come across it before, check out the “invisible gorilla” experiment as an illustration of our blindness to things right in front of us. Here’s a link: https://www.livescience.com/6727-invisible-gorilla-test-shows-notice.html.
Let me come at this another way. The Jerusalem leaders are what we might call “triumphalists,” what Martin Luther would call “theologians of glory.” Douglas John Hall gives a definition of triumphalism in his book, The Cross in Our Context. “Triumphalist,” he writes, “refers to the tendency in all strongly held worldviews, whether religious or secular, to present themselves as full and complete accounts of reality, leaving little room for debate or difference of opinion and expecting of their adherents unflinching belief and loyalty” (page 17).
Like all triumphalists, the Jerusalem elite expect the first to be first and the last to be last. They expect God to ratify and underwrite their power, position, and privilege. And they will do whatever is necessary to keep it that way—including cooperating in the judicial murder, first of John the Baptist, and then of Jesus. The whole program of Matthew twenty-one is to ridicule and disrupt and subvert their closed, triumphalist system. Triumphalism is always fundamentally authoritarian and violent. Hall points to this aspect, “namely, the need to buttress any such system with the mechanics of authority, to shore up alleged truth with power, potentially absolute power” (page 17).
The parable moves Jesus’ subversive program forward. Note that Jesus uses the tools of resistance in this chapter. He makes fun of authority. He uses public and symbolic civil disobedience. And he tells pointed stories. Oldest sons were awash in inherited, unmerited, and assumed power, position, and privilege. The parable is told against the privileged Jerusalem elite, and they know it. Tax collectors and prostitutes collaborated with the Romans and took their money in small ways. But they seemed to listen and to repent. Go back to Matthew 11 for some detailed commentary on their responses to John the Baptist and then to Jesus. The privileged Jerusalem elite also collaborated with the Romans and took their money in very large ways. Those with power, position and privilege refused to listen.
The opposite of the theology of glory (triumphalism) is the theology of the cross. Hall is a primary commentator on that theology in the last fifty years. James Cone comes at it from another direction, especially in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. “The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol,” Cone writes, “because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last” (page 2). Cone understands that white supremacy is the predominant form of triumphalism in our culture. “The claim that whites had the right to control the black population through lynching and other extralegal forms of mob violence was grounded in the religious belief that America is a white nation called by God to bear witness to the superiority of ‘white over black’” (page 7).
Remember that all of this is headed toward the parable of the great judgment in Matthew 25. In that parable, Jesus is present in the least, the last and the lost. Jesus calls them his sisters and brothers. The first move of faith is to see myself as one of the least, the last, and the lost—and to trust that by God’s grace in Jesus, I have been made first, that I can embody Christ, and that in all of this I can be one of the found. Let me share how N. T. Wright puts it in his commentary.
“The challenge of this passage for us today is partly this: to make sure we are responding to Jesus, allowing him to confront us at any point where we have been like the second son and said ‘Yes’ to God while in fact going off in the other direction. That’s important, but it’s not the only important thing. What we should also be asking is this. What should Jesus’ followers be doing today that would challenge the powers of the present world with the news that he is indeed its rightful Lord? What should we be doing that would make people ask, ‘By what right are you doing that?’, to which the proper answer would be to tell, not now riddles about John the Baptist, but stories about Jesus himself?” [Wright, N.T.. Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 75-76). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.]
The parable indicates in the background that changing one’s mind is indeed possible. The second demonstrates that possibility. That’s very good news indeed. One could explore what makes it possible to consider such a change. What makes it possible is trust in the goodness of the father. Why would the second son risk such a change if he did not trust the father’s forgiveness? After all, his disobedience, while remedied, could not be erased.
When this is mapped on to the establishment and the outsiders to the system, we can see that the second son also represents those with less to lose by challenging the status quo—the tax collectors and prostitutes. The first son represents those who need to say the right things to stay in power as it is currently constituted. What does this have to say about life in the church, and change in the church?
Second Reading, Philippians 2:1-13
It is important to recall the overall background of the letter. Paul is responding to his favorite congregation as they find themselves embroiled in a conflict between the two leaders of the community, Euodia and Syntyche. It appears that the conflict has collapsed to the point of factional divisions in the community. Paul’s “solution” to the conflict is to seek the “higher ground” of the “mind of Christ.” He begins making a plea in verses one through four to seek that “mind.” He uses the Greek word for mind that refers to communal cognition, the way of thinking that results in reconciliation. Notice that all the second person pronouns are plural—a distinction that can be lost in English readings of the text.
That “mind” is the mind of Christ—meaning the mind that informs the Messiah’s words and work. That mind is described in the words of a hymn which was familiar to the Philippian congregation. It’s not clear if Paul composed the hymn or if he learned it from the Philippians. Nonetheless, Paul uses it to make his point.
The hymn breaks into two equal parts in the Greek, except for one phrase. The phrase “even death on a cross” in verse 8c breaks the rhythm and structure of the hymn. I think it was an existing hymn and Paul intentionally uses it to jar the thinking of the Philippians. Key to the hymn is the idea of “self-emptying” (the Greek word is kenosis) for the sake of life together. The result of that self-emptying is the fullness of life as the Lord and Messiah, described in verses 9 through 11.
Many readings would stop at verse 11, and the section titles in the NRSV encourage that. However, that’s not helpful. I’m glad the lection continues with verses 12 and 13. Paul has a “therefore,” and it’s best to pay attention to the “therefores” in Paul’s letters. In light of verses one through eleven, Paul says, get on with the work of reconciliation. This is not an argument against justification by grace through faith. This is what it means to put that justification to work in community life.
Lest we think that’s a human accomplishment, Paul then makes clear that God is at work in the Philippians. Here we see the root of Luther’s principle that God will not work through you without you. The Holy Spirit takes no hostages.
First Reading, Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
The exilic community seeks to distance itself from the sins that have produced the Exile. Ezekiel is having none of it. In the omitted verses, the prophet goes through cases where the plea has been made and refuses to allow the self-absolution the congregation desires. The path to reconciliation requires confession, forgiveness, and repair before there can be reconciliation. That being said, reconciliation is possible. That’s the good news in verses 31 and 32. Things that have been chosen can also be unchosen.
Wright, N.T.. Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 75-76). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (p. 132). Kindle Edition.
Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003.
Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.