Saturday, October 21, 2017

Shamed by the Shema

The controversy narratives have continued in Matthew, but now are coming to a climax.  The Sadducess have been silenced, so the Pharisees try one more time to test Jesus, asking him a question which they believe might spark a dispute that they can win.  They are wrong.  To these religious leaders who begin each day with the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4f), Jesus quotes the Shema.  In Matthew 22:34-46, the gospel lesson appointed for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Jesus silences his opponents.  They have nothing to say in reply.  All that is left now is for his enemies to plot Jesus' death.  They will not be reconciled.

(The following questions have been formulated to bring to the surface concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive in themselves.  For a  more complete understanding of these concerns, as well as this genre of preaching, you may see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this case Jesus, functions to silence his adversaries, thus a function of Law.  Whenever we need to be silenced by Jesus, we are being rebuked, and the function of the Word is to reveal to us our sin, i.e. our need for Jesus. 

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Once again, as is common in these late chapters of Matthew, there is no word of Gospel, no word that shows us the love of God shown us in Christ.  We will need to look elsewhere for this Gospel word, perhaps in the First Lesson appointed for this day:  Jeremiah 31:31-34:  "This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, after those days, says the Lord:  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Here is a rare opportunity:  We can identify with those who have been silenced by Jesus.  We can identify with those who attempt to test Jesus and cause him to stumble, who are instead caused to stumble.  We might want to ask, when have we been silenced by Jesus?

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  In one sense, the entire first half of this text is a call to obedience.  Love God. Love people.  There is no simpler call to obedience.  It is what we do in response to God's love for us in Christ. We love because God first loved us.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Without the Gospel present here, we have to use our imaginations to come up with a couplet.  Here are some ideas:  silenced/freed to testify; unlovable/ loved unconditionally.

6.  Exegetical work:  The extended article on love (agape) in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is very helpful in thinking about the love command in this text.  Here are a few highlights:   "[Jesus] demands love with an exclusiveness which means that all other commands lead up to it and all righteousness finds in it its norm.  For Jesus, too, love is a matter of will and action.  But he demands decision and readiness for God and for God alone in an unconditional manner which startles his hearers." (TDNT, Vol. I, p. 44)  "Jesus frees neighborly love once and for all from its restrictions to compatriots.  He concentrates it again on the helpless man..." (Ibid., p. 45)  Kittel also offers an insightful analysis of the term for neighbor (pleision):  "[Neighbor] carries with it the element of encounter..." "One cannot say in advance who the neighbor is, but that the course of life will make this plain enough."  (TDNT, Vol. VI, p. 317)  Augustine, in his Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, offers much wisdom:  "For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves." (Chapter CXVII).  "We love God now by faith, then we shall love Him through sight.  Now we love even our neighbor by faith; for we who are ourselves mortal know not the hearts of mortal men." (Chapter CXXI). 

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Jerome Bruce does an outstanding job of showing how Jesus 'strikes out the side' in this controversy with the Pharisees.  Jesus proves to be 'unhittable.'  Finally, however, the 'home run' that Jesus hits is one whereby even those who have 'struck out' are enabled to 'run the bases.'  Go to crossings.org/text study to see the complete analysis - one that goes perfectly with this being World Series season!

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Hypocrisy Exposed

Two-faced is what we sometimes call it.  There are other names as well:  duplicitous, double-dealing, fraudulent, phony.  In Matthew 22:15-22, the gospel lesson appointed for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Jesus calls it what it is:  hypocrisy.  This controversy story is only the first of several which will end in Jesus' march to the Cross.  His willingness to expose the religious leaders for the frauds they were eventually cost him his life.  How will we react when Jesus shows us our hypocrisy?

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at the some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are part of a method I more fully develop in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions here as pure Law.  It does the task of holding up a mirror to those who would rather not see whom they really are.  It "breaks the rock in pieces" as Luther said, exposing the sin beneath.  There is no holding back in this controversy between Jesus and the disciples of the Pharisees.  He rails against  them with their polite phoniness:  "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?"

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There are few texts as bereft of a gospel word as this one.  Jesus is taking on the powers of this world.  He will die for the sins of all, but there is no word here which declares the gift his death will be to the world.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  As always we must identify with the ones whom the Word addresses.  This means that here we must identify with these self-serving hypocrites.  This is a tough place to put ourselves, but this text challenges us to ask, "How have I been phony, two-faced, and hypocritical?  How have I declared a self-righteousness which is at odds with how I actually live?  How have I tried to play the polite questioner of God, when in my heart of hearts I am dismissive of all God stands for?  Tough questions indeed.

Note:  It is so easy to read these texts and think of others whom we imagine this word addresses.  We so easily think of public examples of misconduct (e.g. politicians, clergy in misconduct, etc.) whom exemplify hypocrisy and fail to embrace this text as a mirror to ourselves.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  In addition to its function as Law, this text also functions as a call to obedience in that we are invited implicitly to live authentically as disciples of Christ.  We are called to throw aside our penchant for false living, and live humbly and faithfully as disciples of Christ.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since the gospel word is absent here, we need to use our imagination to come up with couplets.  Some ideas:  hidden lives/open lives; self-righteousness/Christ's righteousness; two-faced/whole-hearted.

6.  Exegetical work:  It is noteworthy that the use of the word translated "put to the test" in verse 18 is a word Matthew only uses for the work of Satan and the work of the Pharisees.  Satan is the tempter and the Pharisees are his disciples.  This is consistent with the way Jesus portrays the religious leaders throughout his gospel:  they are irredeemable.  In Matthew there are no good examples amongst the Pharisees.  The term "hypocrite" is also a favorite term for the Pharisees in  Matthew's gospel.  Out of the 20 times this term is used in the NT, 15 of them occur in Matthew.  Chapter 23 is the place where Jesus really unloads.  According to Kittel's analysis, "The [hypocrisy] of the adversaries [of Jesus] consists in the fact that they are concerned about their status with men (sic) rather than their standing before God.  They thus fail to achieve the righteousness which they pretend to have."  (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VIII, p. 568)  Severus of Antioch, 6th century bishop, gives this insightful analysis: Those who "don't know where [this] one is from call him 'Master'."  Those who were calling him deceiver say, "We know you are truthful."  Those who were saying, "He has a demon," witness that he teaches truth.  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 149)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice was a champion of the shared story of the listener.  He felt that a preacher's main task was to connect the story of the text with the story of the listener.  In this text it is worth pondering how our own experiences of hypocrisy connect with those whom Jesus confronted.

Blessings on your proclamation!



Thursday, October 5, 2017

Dangerous Feasts

The wedding feast described in Matthew 22:1-14, the gospel text appointed for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, is a feast that one wonders if we would want to be invited to or not!  Some who are invited and fail to RSVP properly are destroyed and their city burned.  Another poor soul who obeyed the call to come in from life on the streets and join the party is suddenly informed that wedding garments are required and he finds himself thrown into "the outer darkness."  Is this parable, as some scholars have argued, provided to show us a way contrary to the way God deals with us, or is this a warning to us who presume we have been invited to the feast?  That will be for us to decide.

(The following questions are an attempt to address some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions come from the method I have developed in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  No matter how you understand this parable, as one showing us the way of God or showing us a way contrary to God's way, the Word functions here as Law.  In the first line of the chapter Matthew tells us that "once more Jesus spoke to them in parables."  "Them" refers to the chief priests and Pharisees identified at the end of the previous chapter. (21:45)  The parable then goes on to lift up the outrageous behavior of wedding guests who have been invited to the banquet of the prince, but who show, not only complete contempt for the king, but even go so far as to seize the king's messengers, mistreat them, and finally kill them.  This early portion of the parable announces clearly, "Beware of this king!  He will judge those who act as these scoundrels did!"

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little Gospel here, any word that proclaims what God in Christ has done.  One could argue that the announcement that "both good and bad" were called into the feast is a Gospel word, but even that word is overshadowed by the last piece of the parable.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are called to identify with the chief priests and Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking.  This parable functions as the Law often does, as a mirror, showing us our sin.  "We have Abraham as our father," was the line of the Pharisees.  We might substitute any number of other presumptuous lines ourselves:  "We have Luther as our forbearer."  In any case, presumption will not do.  We also, in our self-righteousness, might bristle at the thought that "both the good and bad" are invited to God's banquet table, not celebrating the generosity of God.  In many ways this parable is fashioned to lead us to repentance.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The final piece of the parable has been seen by many commentators as a call to obedience.  The necessity for a wedding garment is once again a warning to us of any further presumption we might have regarding God's expectations of the elect.  We have been chosen to attend the feast.  Good.  Now, be dressed in a manner worthy of Christ.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  With little evidence of a Gospel word here, we are left to our imaginations regarding couplets.  We might try:  uninvited/chosen; outside the feast/called to the feast; unclothed/clothed.

6. Exegetical work:  Any number of commentaries on the parables of Jesus are helpful with this text.  David Buttrick reminds us that "Behind the parable of the Feast is an image of the great messianic banquet, a symbol of worldwide salvation. [from Isaiah 25]." (Speaking Parables, p. 158)  Luise Schottroff argues that this parable must not be read ecclesiologically but eschatologically.  She rejects the idea that Matt. 22:14 means "salvation for a small, elite group and rejection of the rest of the world." [Rather] "The genre of Matt. 22:14 is "praise of God who has called and chosen, and thus has given a task to both the many and the few." (The Parables of Jesus, p. 47-48)  A number of ancient commentators have centered on the final piece of this parable, notably Augustine:  "The garment that is required is in the heart, not on the body, for if it had been put on externally, it could not have been concealed even from the servants.  But what is the wedding garment that must be put on?  We learn it from these words, 'May your priests be clothed with righteousness.'"  And later Augustine more precisely identifies this righteousness as "charity" as defined by St. Paul.  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 147)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry insists that we must always move our listeners from equilibrium into disequilibrium and then out again.  This parable is an excellent vehicle for this, for this follows the story line quite closely.  The difficulty will be to make the gospel sing when it is all but hidden in the story itself.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What Will He Do to Those Tenants?

The final paragraph of Matthew 21:33-46, the gospel lesson appointed for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, announces that the bad news continues for the enemies of Jesus:  "When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them." (vs. 45)  But the question remains:  "What will the owner of the vineyard do to these wicked tenants?"  That is the question we too must ponder.

(The following questions follow a method I have developed to bring out some fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  If you wish to know more about Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The primary function of the text is to lift up the wickedness of the tenant farmers.  This is certainly the Word functioning as Law, calling into judgement those who would destroy the ones sent to collect the fruits of the vineyard rightly the property of the landowner.  Another function of the text, however, is to lift up the absurd patience of the landowner.  Who is this landowner who continues to send messengers to this murderous bunch, even naively sending the heir?  Could this be the word of the Gospel, hidden, that God's patience is beyond our understanding?

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  One could argue that the hidden word of Gospel mentioned above is overshadowed by the later verses in which Jesus declares, "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to people that produces the fruits of the kingdom." (vs. 43)  This verse indicates that God's patience does have a limit.  I would lift up the fact that the answer to Jesus' question about the fate of the wicked tenants comes not from Jesus' mouth, but from those of his hearers.  They say, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death..."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have two choices, it seems.  We can identify either with the chief priests and Pharisees, or with those who answered Jesus' question, if we assume they are not the same persons.  According to the last verse, the crowds were present as well, so perhaps it was them who answered Jesus' question.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text is not a call to obedience, but a call to repentance.  As St. Paul says, "Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Rom. 2:4b)  The picture we have here of an endlessly patient landowner is a good image for us of God's infinite patience with God's people.  The call to obedience, the Word functioning to invite us to live in response to the Gospel, is not present here.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The text as a whole does not suggest a couplet, but if we think of what God calls us to here, our couplet is:  rebellious/repentant.

6.  Exegetical work:  Joachim Jeremias, in his classic analysis of the parables of Jesus writes this:  "The whole parable is evidently pure allegory.  Nevertheless this impression undergoes radical modification when the different versions are compared." (The Parables of Jesus, p. 70) Jeremias then proceeds to show how the three synoptic versions of this parable, as well as the version in the Gospel of Thomas, bring us to different conclusions about the allegorical nature of this parable.  David Buttrick also warns us about concluding too quickly that "the other tenants" to whom the vineyard is leased are the Gentile church to come.  Buttrick writes: "Certainly preachers will not want to historicize the parable - Israel has been the wicked vinedressers and now the vineyard is turned over to us responsible Christian tenants.... Besides, any preacher who supposes that 'Christian nations,' by contrast, welcome prophets and are faithful to God's will have failed to notice the Holocaust or the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr." (Speaking Parables, p. 81)  What Buttick further lifts up is the fact that the most interesting character in this parable is the owner of the vineyard.  Is it not true that the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with stories of God's unending patience with God's people, and our own journey with God is filled with our experience of God's patience?  Do we not come to God again and again in confession, and each time God forgives us and "cleanses us from all unrighteousness?"  It seems to me that the correct answer to Jesus' question following this parable is not "He will put those wretches to a miserable death," rather, "In light of what we know about this landowner, he will continue to have mercy on them."  This parable is called "The Wicked Tenants."  I would rename it, "The Merciful Landowner."

7.  Consider the insights  of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?   Fred Craddock always insisted that our listeners must experience the text.  What would it be like if our listeners experienced themselves answering Jesus' question, and then heard from God a different answer to the question - one of grace?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Things of God and Things Not

Matthew 21:23-32, the gospel text appointed for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, is a fierce condemnation of the enemies of Christ.  We are left no doubt about the trajectory of this story:  the enemies of Jesus will now stop at nothing in order to accomplish Jesus' death.  The triumphal entry is behind them, the lament over Jerusalem and Good Friday are on the horizon.  What is the warning to us?

(The following questions have been developed as part of a method for Law and Gospel preachers.  This genre of preaching has several fundamental concerns which this method attempts to deal with.  For more on Law and Gospel preaching see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is little doubt that the Word functions here as Law.  The enemies of Jesus are portrayed as dishonest cowards, who finally will reject the Christ and call for Christ's death.  They will not answer Jesus' questions, nor will they admit their own sins.  Repentance is far from them.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little word of Gospel here.  I suppose that if the tax collectors and prostitutes were overhearing this conversation they might find some good news here, but there is no evidence that they are present.  This is a stark reminder of what we have read earlier in Matthew:  "The first shall be last, and the last first."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We must, even in this text, identify with those whom the Word addresses.  Since the Word addresses the chief priests and the elders, we must assume their position.  We are the ones who refuse to answer Jesus' questions.  We are the ones who are condemned by Jesus.  We are the ones called to repentance.  This is not a comfortable place to be, but this text is an opportunity to reflect on our own hypocrisy, dishonesty, and fear.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience, the Word functioning to invite us to live in response to God's work, is not present here.  The call to repentance is not the call to obedience.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  In the second half of the passage, when Jesus tells the parable about the two sons, he gives us an obvious couplet:  disobedient/obedient.  We might extend that further:  unfaithful/faithful, unbelieving/believing.  The fact that the first son "changed his mind" is the fulcrum of these couplets.

6.  Exegetical Work:  A good exercise when considering this text is to use the analytical method outlined by Mark Allan Powell in his book, What is Narrative Criticism?  In this method Powell has us consider the events, characters, settings, and overall interpretation of this text.  In the appendix to his book Powell outlines his method and asks many helpful questions which bring insight to the scene described in the text.  Also Powell is helpful in his analysis of Matthew's portrayal of Jesus enemies:  "In Matthew's story, antipathy for the leaders is the rule.  There are no exceptions in this story - no wise scribe, no ruler of the synagogue whom Jesus helps, no member of the council who comes to bury Jesus.  Matthew's characterization of the leaders is consistent:  they are evil, they are aligned with Satan, and everything they do, say, think, and believe is wrong."  (What is Narrative Criticism?  p. 64)  Douglas Hare, in his commentary on this text, reminds us of our tendency to behave as the chief priests and elders did:  "As religious leaders, they claim to be faithfully obedient to God, but they are blind to the fact that authentic obedience includes responding in faith to the new things God is doing."  (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 247)  We would do well to heed this warning:  God is always doing new things.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Timothy Hoyer, in his analysis, centers on the question of authority which is at the crux of the debate between Jesus and the leaders.  Who's in charge?  is the question.  Hoyer suggests that there are several answers to this question, but when we decide Jesus is not in charge, we, like the leaders, find the tax collectors and sinners entering the kingdom of God before us.  How much better if Jesus is in charge.  See Hoyer's entire analysis by going to crossings.org/text study.  It is archived under the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 2015.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

God's Agreement? Or Ours?

The workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16, the gospel lesson appointed for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, are a varied lot.  Much speculation has been done regarding their laziness or industriousness, their availability or unavailability, and other traits.  One group, the ones who are hired early in the morning, are the only ones who speak.  We often identify with them. What if we identified with those who were hired at the 11th hour?  How might that change our reading?

(The following questions bring to the fore some central issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are meant to be used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions which get at other issues.  To learn more about Law and Gospel preaching, you may see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This word generally functions as a rebuke, or as Law, since we most often identify with the workers who are hired early in the morning and grumble when they learn that those who worked only part of the day will receive the same wage as them.  The landowner points out that they have made an agreement with him which he is merely keeping.  We too, often may be accused of reducing God's actions to an 'agreement' we have made.  This leads to all sorts of problems.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Word functioning as Gospel is hidden in plain view once again in this text.  Although the landowner seems to be a tough customer, at the end the landowner reminds the workers of the generosity shown in the equal pay given to all.  Is this a gospel word?  Perhaps not, if we identify with the workers who believe  they deserve more than the others.  Is this a gospel word for some?  I would argue that it is, especially for those hired at the 11th hour.  I think of the repentant thief in Luke 23.  The word to him that he would be in Paradise with the Lord even as he hung dying on a cross was certainly a word of grace.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This, for me, is one of the crucial questions in this text.  Because the context of this passage appears to be Peter's question just prior to this story:  "Look, we have left everything and followed you.  What then will we have?" we are naturally drawn to identify with the workers hired early in the day.  In that case, this text is a warning to our tendency to self-righteousness and to making deals with God about what is "fair" and what is not.  But if we identify with the workers hired later in the day, especially with those hired at the 11th hour, all of a sudden our perspective changes.  Suddenly the landowner's actions are welcome.  This text then becomes a text about God's generosity and how we stand ever dependent on that generosity.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is not present in this text.  That call is the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work in our lives.  We will need to look elsewhere for such a word.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Couplets depend on the tack we take in this text.  If we identify with the grumblers, then a couplet might be: grumbling/thankful.  If we identify with the other workers a couplet might be: fearing the worst/receiving the best.

6.  Exegetical work:  Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is often a treasure trove of insight and this text is no exception.  In the extended article on misthos, translated "wage" or "reward", we read:  "Because God is understood quite absolutely in the greatness of His being and the incomparability of His generous love, because He is in no way dependent on or conditioned by human action, the idea of merit is left behind and in no human action is there any place for counting on divine or human reward.  There is a reward only in so far as God in sheer love, which is unintelligible to mere justice, draws human obedience, for all its limitations, into the power and glory of the kingdom of God." (TDNT, vol. IV, p. 719)  Bernard Brandon Scott, in his commentary supports this reading with these words:  "The parable's strategy is not unlike Paul's argument that with God there is no distinction, that justification (making right) is through gift (Rom. 3:22-24)." "To insist, as the parable does, that invitation, not justice, is the way of the kingdom radically subverts the kingdom of God as a reward for a faithful and just life." (Hear Then the Parable, p. 297-298).

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Paul Jaster, in his analysis of this text for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost in 2015, writes of how dangerous it is when we count ourselves among the "firsts" believing we are better than the "lasts."  We become, as Jaster says, the grumbling ones, the ones with grudges against all those who have not "earned" God's favor as we have.  This finally leads to our growing mistrust in the goodness and generosity of God, and his final word to us is not a word of grace, but "Take what belongs to you and go!"  Thankfully Christ takes the burden of day upon himself, and rescues us from ourselves.  See crossings.org/text study for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Mercy in the Air

Matthew 18:21-35, the gospel text appointed for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, has a clear message:  Now is the time to forgive.  Now!  We may discuss the various identities of all the characters in the parable, but the clear message remains.

(The following questions are provided in order to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, foremost, "How does the text function for the hearer?"  If you'd like to explore the genre of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text has a strong word of Law, encapsulated by the master's rebuke of the unforgiving servant in verses 32-33:  "You wicked slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?"  The text ends with a warning:  "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The word of Gospel is hidden here, although it is in plain view.  The Gospel word is that God is like the master who forgave the slave his entire debt, a debt that was far greater than anything he could have ever paid back.  Indeed, this complete forgiveness of the entire debt is wholly unexpected, bringing to mind the words of St. John, "If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (I Jn. 1:9)

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?   This is an interesting question.  Looking at the context of this parable, we might assume we are represented by Peter, the one asking the question about forgiveness.  If we identify with Peter, then we would be the unforgiving slave in the parable: the one who though having been forgiven everything, will forgive his fellow slave nothing.  This is certainly an appropriate way to go.  But we might try identifying with the other slaves in the parable.  What if we identify with the one who experiences the merciless action of his fellow slave?  Or what if we identify with the other slaves who tattle-tale to the master the sins of their fellow?  It might be interesting to explore our own self-righteousness by stepping into that perspective.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Living mercifully, the theme of this parable, is a call to obedience.  Like any call to obedience, this is one of the ways we live in response to the gospel. We do not forgive in order that we can be forgiven, but because we have been forgiven.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The theme is clear; couplets that describe it are innumerable:  unforgiving/forgiving; merciless/merciful; indebted/debt-free.

6.  Exegetical work:  There are any number of helpful commentaries on the parables of Jesus, and I would recommend the serious preacher avail him or herself of copies of each.  David Buttrick's Speaking Parables is particularly insightful in this parable.  He notes how this parable lifts up the fact that "if we refuse to forgive a neighbor, we are violating the merciful context of our lives." (p.111)  This suggests that we, like the unforgiving slave, often fail to see that as forgiven sinners, mercy is in the air we breathe, and when we fail to recognize this, our lives violate the context of  our life.  Luise Schottroff agrees with Buttrick's assessment and offers a rabbinic parallel to Matthew's teaching:  "Forgiveness between human beings is a sign of the presence of this God:  'Let this be a sign in your hand:  As often as you are merciful... the Almighty has had mercy on you.'" (The Parables of Jesus, p. 201)  "The content of the Gospel of Matthew is very closely related to the later rabbinic idea about the necessity of forgiveness between human beings and its basis in God's promises." (Ibid., p. 202)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under Gospel A for 2011, Eric Evers reminds us that forgiveness is essential not only in personal encounters, but even more essential in our communal life in this post-9/11 world.  He speaks of the violence in our hearts that causes us to 'seize others by the throat' and demand they return to us what they owe.  Evers reminds us that if this is what we want, God will finally agree to this, which will in turn lead to our demise.  See the whole analysis at crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!