Saturday, September 23, 2017
(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
(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
(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!
Saturday, September 2, 2017
(The following are from a series of questions which get at some of the fundamental issues for Law and Gospel preachers. They are not meant to be exhaustive in themselves. They come from 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? Jesus is clearly instructing the future church on its life together. This is a classic example of the call to obedience. This is instruction in how to live in response to the gospel. The Law is present in this text as the need for such instruction implies that church members sinning against one another is part of our life together, and so forgiveness must be part of our life as well. A word of Gospel comes right at the end as Jesus promises that the Father will work on our behalf whenever we agree together, and Jesus himself will be present whenever we gather in his name. These are powerful promises.
2. How is the Word not functioning in the text? There is no explicit word of Law and Gospel in this text since the main intent of the text is to instruct. A word of Law here would be a clear word regarding our need for Christ, and a word of Gospel would be a clear word about what God has done for us in Christ. Neither is present here.
3. With whom are you identifying in the text? We are members of the worshipping community. It is we who need forgiveness from one another, we who need to seek reconciliation with those who have sinned against us, we who will stand with those who have been sinned against in the body. This text is addressed to any who are members of a faith community.
4. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text? The text gives us language for several couplets: sinned against/regained into fellowship; not listened to/reconciled with the body; bound/loosed from sin.
5. Exegetical work: The words translated "bind" and "loose" have a rabbinic background. They are terms used "to declare forbidden or permitted, thus to impose or remove an obligation. Hence to impose or remove a ban, to expel from and receive back into the congregation." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, p. 60f). These terms may suggest that if you ban someone from the congregation on earth, that person is banned in heaven from the assembly of God's chosen. And if you admit one, or permit someone to share the assembly on earth, it will be so in the kingdom of God. (Ibid.) Augustine, in his writing, reminds us of our continual need to show mercy and charity to those who have sinned against us: "Therefore, when any one sins against us, let us take great care, but not merely for ourselves. For it is a glorious thing to forget injuries. Just set aside your injury, but do not neglect your brother's wound." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 77). Augustine continues, reminding us that even when a person refuses to be reconciled by any means, our duty is still to love them: "[When one has refused to be reconciled] we don't consider him now in the number of our brothers. But not even is his salvation to be neglected. For even the heathen, that is, the Gentiles and pagans, we do not consider in the number of our brothers, yet we constantly pray for their salvation." (Ibid, p.78) I appreciate the perspective Douglas Hare shares in his commentary on this passage: "There is a sense in which verse 20 interprets not only the immediately preceding saying but all the verses of the paragraph. The risen Christ is 'in the midst' of each stage of the procedure of verses 15-17, and it is he who has conferred on the congregation the responsibility of binding and loosing. If the Christian fellowship is to survive the strains imposed by human failure, it will be only because the risen Lord sustains it." (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 215)
Blessings on your proclamation!
Saturday, August 26, 2017
(The following questions are a way of getting at some of the fundamental issues for Law and Gospel preachers. They are not meant to be exhaustive, but simply supplement many other fine sets of questions available to preachers. For a more extensive discussion 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? There is a strong word of Law in this text, starting with the rebuke of Peter: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!" The Law is also active as we are challenged to consider what we will gain if we forfeit our life. Finally, Jesus announces that "the Son of Man will ... repay everyone for what has been done." These words announce to us our need for confession and repentance.
2. How is the Word not functioning in the text? A Gospel word is absent here - a word that proclaims what God has done in Christ. Of course, the presence of the Cross is felt throughout, but in this passage that presence is not felt as Gospel.
3. With whom are you identifying in the text? It is always important to identify with those who are being addressed by the Word. In this text that is first, Peter, who is rebuked, and then the disciples, who are challenged. The preacher may choose to identify with one or both, but not with Jesus, who is giving this rebuke and challenge.
4. What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text? There is much in this text which is a call to obedience. Indeed this is what the call to discipleship is. The call to deny self and take up our cross and follow is the classic call to obedience. It is what we do in response to God's work in Christ.
5. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text? Perhaps we can imagine several scenarios that would lead to a gospel ending: rebuked/forgiven; stumbling block/building block; setting the mind on human things/setting the mind on divine things.
6. Exegetical Work: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic Cost of Discipleship, had much to say about this text: "To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life."(p. 95f) Miles Stanford, another writer on the theme of discipleship, writes that we will do anything to "bypass the death sentence" of self. (Principles of Spiritual Growth, p. 52) We are very adept at trying to convince God that "self-improvement" rather than self death is the way to go. Stanford lays out seven alternatives to self death, including self-mortification, self-conquest, self-training, revivalism, and religious busyness. We barter, we bargain, we plead with God, "Just leave my life intact, and I'll follow you." (Ibid, p. 61f) Martin Luther, in his Heidelberg Disputations, also addressed this call to suffering: "He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls 'enemies of the cross of Christ,' (Phil. 3:18) for they hate the cross and suffering, and love works and the glory of works." (Luther's Works, Vol. 31, p. 53)
7. Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic? Henry Mitchell always reminded us that celebration is part of any preaching of the gospel. This will be a challenge for the preacher this week as this text is bereft of a gospel word. We will need to bring into play the results of Christ's cross to bring celebration to this text.
Blessings on your proclamation!
Monday, August 21, 2017
(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but meant to lift up some of the central concerns of Law and Gospel preachers. For a more extensive discussion of this genre of preaching, you may find helpful 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 as pronouncing blessed anyone to whom the Father has revealed the identity of the Son. If you recognize Jesus as Messiah and Son of the Living God, you are blessed, says Jesus. You are blessed because God, in mercy, has revealed this to you. "Flesh and blood" has not revealed this - in other words, we have not figured this out ourselves, nor has another person convinced us of this, but rather the Father has had mercy on us. This announcement of blessedness is a gospel function.
2. How is the Word not functioning in the text? I don't see the Word functioning as Law here, that is to say, the Word lifting up our need for Christ. There is mention of the gates of Hades, but it is clear that Christ has overcome them, so no threat is forthcoming in this text.
3. With whom are you identifying in the text? We are Peter. We are the ones who are called blessed because of our confession. We are the ones who are given authority to forgive one another. We are the ones who are given the secret of the Messiah. How blessed we are!
4. What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text? This is a strange text in that the one who is confessing is called blessed, but then at the end of the text, we are commanded not to be confessors. It seems to me that being confessors is part of the call to obedience, a call we should follow.
5. Exegetical work: If we compare the Markan and Lukan versions of this story, we will note immediately that Matthew alone contains the blessing of Jesus following Peter's confession, and along with it, the announcement regarding Peter's unique place in the church. In Mark and Luke we simply have the confession of Peter followed by Jesus' charge to tell no one that he is the Messiah. Scholars commonly point to this extended saying regarding Peter as evidence of the beginning of the Christian community in Matthew's day. In 18:18 we have further instructions regarding loosing and binding, so this seems likely. For our purposes, this beatitude bestowed upon Peter is crucial for it is one that we, as God's people, may claim for ourselves. Without it we are left with a confession followed by a prohibition and nothing else. Theodore, 5th century bishop of Mopsuestia, understands Jesus' words to Peter as we Protestants generally have: that it is Peter's confession that is the rock which the church is founded on: "Having said that his confession is a rock, he stated that upon this rock I will build my church. This means he will build his church upon this same confession and faith." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p.45)
6. How does the Crossings Community model work with this text? Ron Starenko, in his 2011 analysis of this text, shows how contemporary this text is. We are in crisis because we have been duped into believing that 'flesh and blood' can reveal all things to us. Christ confessed is the antidote to our madness. Christ is the crux of our crisis. Christ is the only true God who can truly deal with our God-problem. See crossings.org/text study archived under Year A Gospel for complete analysis.
Blessings on your proclamation!
Saturday, August 12, 2017
(The following questions attempt to unearth some of the themes essential to Law and Gospel preachers. These questions are not exhaustive; they come from the appendix 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? This is a unique text in that the Word - in this case, Jesus - functions, first as Law and then, finally, as Gospel. At the outset Jesus resists the woman's claim to his favor, announcing that his favor is reserved for the children of Israel. After she refuses to take no for an answer, he relents and announces God's mercy. The whole story is a dialogue between one who cries, "Have mercy," and the One who will say, "Let it be done for you as you wish."
2. How is the Word not functioning in the text? Again, the way the Word functions changes here. That's what makes this text so unique. It is as if the writer is showing us the gradual unfolding of God's grand plan in our Lord's mind. So in the end the Word does not function as Law, but as Gospel. God's mercy is as wide as the world when all is said and done.
3. With whom are you identifying in the text? Usually it is important for us to identify with the ones whom the Word addresses, but here it might be important to identify with the disciples, for they are the ones who insist on excluding persons from the Lord's favor. Like in the previous gospel story, (14:13-21) the disciples' words are "Send her away!" If we are honest, this is also our tendency, to want to reserve God's favor for those we approve of. It might be important to identify with both the ones who want to send the woman away, and the woman herself, announcing that it is God''s wide mercy that includes even us.
4. What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text? The call to obedience is implicit in this text. The underlying message is, "If God has had mercy on you, then you are called to have mercy on others. If God has forgiven you, then you are to forgive others. If God has not excluded you, then you must not exclude others from God's grace."
5. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text? Several couplets readily come to mind: rejected/accepted; excluded/embraced; condemned/forgiven. This is a Law/Gospel story.
6. Exegetical work: If we look carefully at the details of this story we see all kinds of surprises: 1) Jesus goes to the district of Tyre and Sidon. If we look at the Hebrew Scriptures we see that all the prophets condemn these two cities, especially Ezekiel, who declares that Tyre and Sidon would drink to the dregs "the cup of the Lord's wrath"; 2) A woman from a strange country would approach Jesus. Women had no clout, no status, no voice, and yet she insists on being heard; 3) This is a Canaanite woman. The Canaanites were the poster children for what Israel was to avoid - idolatry, lewd worship practices, and the like; 4) Jesus does not answer the woman's cries. Note that this would not have surprised anyone present, or anyone hearing this story. Jesus was under no obligation to even acknowledge this foreign woman; 5) When Jesus does answer her, he says that God's favor is not extended to her. Again, this would not have surprised the first century Jews - this is what they believed. We, however, are surprised by this; 6) The woman persists. This really surprised the disciples; 7) Jesus announces that she is no better than the dogs. Again, this would not have surprised the witnesses of this event; 8) The BIG SURPRISE: Jesus announces that God's mercy does extend to her. He announces that she, even she is a person of faith! Wow!
7. Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic? Fred Craddock always insisted that our job as preachers was to bring the experience of the text to the listener. What a wonderful experience for our listeners if they could hear the words as addressed to them: "Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish."
Blessings on your proclamation!