Saturday, November 11, 2017

Dreadful or Wonderful Piety

The second parable in Matthew 25, the Parable of the Talents, is the gospel lesson appointed for the 24th Sunday of Pentecost.  This Sunday is also called the 3rd Sunday of End Time, Saints Triumphant.  Like the parable that precedes it and the one that follows it, it is clearly a parable about the return of Christ.  Here, however, the relationship that the slaves have with their master is lifted up.  The question for us seems to be, What characterizes our relationship with the Master?  Dread or wonder?

(The following questions try to address some of the central concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more about this unique genre of preaching, please 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?  This text is lifting up faithfulness and condemning unfaithfulness.  Because it is clear that the unfaithful are judged harshly, the Word is functioning as Law, reminding us of the ways that we "bury" God's gifts to us.  The example of the unfaithful slave also lifts up the relationship of dread he has with the Master.  Clearly he lives in fear of what the Master will do to him if he fails.  Somehow, although he lives in the same home as the faithful slaves, he fails to trust or have faith in the Master and so his fear controls him.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  At first glance a Gospel word seems hard to find in this text, but if we take careful note of the faithful servants we catch a hint of Gospel.  Noting the bold, adventurous, fearless actions of the faithful servants we might ask ourselves, how is it that they can act with such abandon?  Answer:  they have an absolute faith and trust in the mercy of the Master.  They do not fear losing the Master's money - they know the Master to be generous and forgiving.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the slaves; which one we shall identify with is up to us.  We might ask ourselves, "Which attitude characterizes my relationship with God?"  Do I dread God's wrath?  Or do I have confidence in God's mercy?  Am I able to do what Luther advised:  "Sin boldly, but believe even more boldly still"?

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  It could be argued that this whole parable is a call to obedience, a call to live faithfully, anticipating the Lord's return.  How we serve, after all, is a response to God's grace, not what we do to gain it.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The contrasting attitudes of the faithful and the unfaithful provide us much fodder for our imagination:  living in dread/living by faith; fearful/trusting; hoarding gifts/living with abandon.

6.  Exegetical work:  A narrative critical analysis of this parable reveals that the place where the most detail is shared is in the section about the unfaithful slave.  Two verses are devoted to the conversation between the faithful slave who received five talents and the master.  Similarly, two verses are devoted to the conversation between the second faithful slave and the master, with that conversation being a repeat of the first.  In contrast, four verses are spent on the conversation between the unfaithful slave and master.  This suggests that the key to the parable is here, which I believe it is.  By the unfaithful slave's description of the master we see why he has acted as he has:  he views his master as cruel, unscrupulous, and worthy of fear.  Thus his decision to bury his master's money.  And so we are warned, as Chrysostom did, that "it is not only the covetous, the active doers of evil things and the adulterer" who are condemned, "but also the one who fails to do good."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. Ib, p. 221)  As Douglas Hare points out, the unfaithful one's sin is not merely that he fails to use his gifts faithfully, but his failure to see the gifts as precious and, most importantly, his failure to know his master.  (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 287). 

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell was a master of celebration in his sermons.  Perhaps a challenge we could take up here is that of finding a way to celebrate the Master's entrusting us with God's gifts, and celebrating those who throw caution to the wind in investing those gifts for others.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

A Word to the Wise!

In the midst of two chapters exhorting us to readiness for the coming of the Son of Man, we have this interesting parable.  It ends with a message much like those preceding and following it:  "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."  The divide amongst those in the parable, however, is unlike the other parables in that they are not labeled "trustworthy or worthless" or "blessed or accursed," but rather "wise or foolish."  This parable suggests that wisdom is part of discipleship.  Perhaps we have overlooked this.

(The following questions are an attempt to get at some of the foundational concerns for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are intended to be used in conjunction with other sets of questions which have other concerns.  They were developed as part of 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?  It is clear that this parable is a call to readiness.  Similar calls in the preceding chapter provide the context.  It is a call to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man. It is a call to those who have already been invited to the wedding feast - to those who are known by the bridegroom.  That is why the final word, "I do not know you," is so startling.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There seems to be a lack of Gospel in this text.  We are exhorted to be ready for Christ's coming.  We are told to be wise and prepared.  We are told that there are some who have been invited to the feast who have finally been left outside.  None of this sounds like Gospel, telling us what God has done in Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are, of course, the bridesmaids, either wise or foolish.  We are those to whom the message comes, "Be prepared.  Bring oil for your lamps. You know neither the day nor the hour."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  It could be argued that this entire parable is a call to obedience.  In other words, this text invites us to respond to what God has done in Christ by living wisely as we await the coming of the Son of Man.  We might look at the passages immediately preceding this one to see what living wisely entails.  These preceding passages suggest that working faithfully at our callings is the best way to be prepared.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Without gospel content we must use our imaginations to create the couplet.  Possible examples:  left out/invited in; having no oil/having an inexhaustible source of oil.

6.  Exegetical Work:  There has been a lively discussion down through the ages as to the allegorical identity of the various pieces of this parable.  Augustine argued that both the wise and the foolish maidens were members of the Church, but that the wise maidens - the ones with oil in their lamps - were the members of the church who practiced an enduring love.  He thought that the foolish maidens were those who were interested primarily in mere appearances, and they were even foolish enough to believe that works of charity could be purchased.  They were foolish mainly then, because they believed that the appearance of charity was all the Lord required, rather than an enduring love.  Augustine's entire discussion can be seen in the helpful collection Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. 1b, pp.214-220.  Luther, not surprisingly, argued that the oil in the lamps was faith.  According to Douglas Hare, the most popular suggestion regarding the oil is that it represents good works.  He believes this comes from Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount, "Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."  (Interpretation Series, Matthew, p. 285) In all cases, whatever the oil represents, it is considered essential in order to be admitted to the heavenly feast.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Cathy Lessman, in a very clever analysis, also picks up on the oil in the lamps as a central element, highlighting the "energy crisis" we all share.  She shows how Christ comes amongst us as the one who takes our place as one unknown by God.  Our energy source is restored and we are freed to share our energy with others.  See crossings.org/text study for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Shareholders in the Kingdom

Matthew 5:1-12, the gospel lesson appointed for All Saints' Sunday, is one we are all familiar with.  Like Psalm 23 or the traditional Lord's Prayer, it flows off the tongue in an easy rhythm.  What these familiar words announce are the identity of those who are shareholders in the time of God's reign.  What might surprise us is the solidarity we are called to with all those who are called blessed.

(The following questions are designed to unearth some of the fundamental concerns for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but to be used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions which open up the text in different ways.  They have  been developed as part of 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 announces God's favor to any number of people who would not expect to be counted as blessed.  This is a gospel function.  Those whom the world views as cursed, unlucky, and pitiful, Jesus announces as blessed.  Similarly viewed are those who stand with these blessed ones.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?   Unlike the woes announced in Luke 6, this account of the sermon does not contain a word of Law.  There is no word which expresses our need for Christ, only the announcement of blessedness.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is always an interesting question when approaching this text.  We cannot identify with everyone whom the Word addresses simply because we are not likely to be enduring at all times all those things listed here.  Perhaps we have been poor in spirit, or have been in mourning, but we are no longer.  Those whom we can identify with,  however, are those who are actively living under God's reign:  the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The second half of the text implies that we are to pursue a life under God's reign, showing mercy, longing for righteousness, seeking peace, and willing to be persecuted for righteousness' sake.  To do these things is to live in response to the blessedness that Jesus announces.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  Without a word of Law, we will have to imagine the first half of each couplet.  Some ideas:  outcast/embraced; orphaned/called heirs; rejected/favored.

6.  Exegetical work:  It has long been agreed by scholars that Jesus' announcement of those blessed under the reign of God is a reversal of the customary evaluations given in the world.  What has not been agreed on is if blessedness is a result of misfortune or virtue.  More than one attempt has been made to force all of these beatitudes into one pot or another.  Mark Allan Powell, in his book, God With Us; A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel, offers a way out of this dilemma.  He first lifts up the pattern of the beatitudes which resembles Hebrew parallelism.  He also notes that both Matthew 5:3-6 and 5:7-10 contain exactly thirty-six words, "the proteses of 5:6 and 5:10 both conclude with the word dikaiosyne, and 5:3-6 exhibits internal alliteration through the naming of groups that begin with the letter p:  the poor (ptochoi) in spirit, those who mourn (penthountes), the meek (praeis), and those who hunger (peinontes) and thirst for righteousness." (p. 121)  Powell then goes on to show how the first stanza may be thought of as announcing blessings on the unfortunate, and the second stanza as announcing the same blessing on the virtuous.  Finally, Powell shows how the concluding verses offer a way of tying together these two stanzas, as Jesus announces God's favor upon those who because of their virtue (stanza two), experience the struggles of those in stanza one.  Noting the shift to second person in the concluding verses, Powell writes that "Matthew's readers are expected to realize that continued empathy with the disciples means adopting a perspective that leads to identification with those whom Jesus has declared blessed." (p. 140)  I highly recommend picking up Powell's book and reviewing the entire analysis.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Eric Evers, in his analysis, provides an interesting tack.  He show how fruitless it is to try to establish our own blessedness.  The end of this is only self-righteousness.  How much better to be called blessed even though unrighteous.  See the entire analysis at crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Mesh God Made of Us

The Church can certainly be a messy place, so witnesses the gospel lesson for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 18:15-20.  Here we have words attributed to Jesus that have found their way into many a church constitution, which speak to the need for church discipline.  But the passage ends hopefully with the promise of our Lord's presence whenever we come together in his name.  What would that mean - to gather in Jesus' name?  There is probably more there than we first think.

(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

Throwing Away Your Life

Matthew 16:21-28, the gospel lesson appointed for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, has been called a "hinge" passage in the Jesus story.  In other words, the door has now been swung open towards Jesus' death.  All that came before this has prepared for this moment, and all that will follow will lead to the Cross.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so famously said, discipleship means "adherence" to this One who is going to the Cross.  It is our decision every day as to how we will live out this call.

(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 Rock of Christ

Matthew 16:13-20, the gospel text appointed for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, contains perhaps one of the most memorable confessions of all time:  "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God," the confession of Peter the disciple.  Immediately following this, Jesus announces that Peter is blessed because the Father has revealed his identity to Peter, and Jesus declares that upon this confession the Church will be built.  Our question is:  "Is this our cornerstone yet today?"

(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

Surprise, Surprise!

We say that we like surprises, but do we?  Especially when it comes to the subject of whom is admitted into the kingdom of God.  Perhaps the story of the Canaanite woman from Matthew 15:21-28, the gospel lesson for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, has more to teach us than we know.  It might also reveal to us surprises that come to Jesus.

(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!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Overwhelmed by God's Love

Matthew 14:22-33, the gospel lesson appointed for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, is almost as well-known as the preceding lesson, the Feeding of the Five Thousand.  He "walks on water" is a phrase which has made its way into secular parlance for someone who is noticeably virtuous.  The real message of this text is not, however, that Jesus walks on water, but that Jesus reaches down to save us who don't.  This story is filled to overflowing with good news.

(The following questions are those that may be fundamental to Law and Gospel preachers.  There are many other fine sets of questions which attempt to unearth other concerns.  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?  This text is full of good news:  1) Jesus comes to us in our distress, amidst the chaos of this world; 2) Jesus makes himself known and tells us, "Do not be afraid"; and 3)  Jesus reaches out his hand when we falter in faith.  These are all gospel functions.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Like the preceding story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, even though we are made aware of the disciples' faltering faith, we do not hear Jesus casting judgement on them for it.  Peter is called "you of little faith" but there is no condemnation in that, but mercy.  Even when the disciples fail to recognize Jesus and call him a phantom they are treated with love and compassion.  There is no word of Law here, which means as preachers we are also not called to berate our listeners for their lack of faith, lest we be untrue to this text.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Undoubtedly we are the disciples.  We are the ones forced to "get into the boat".  We are the ones who find ourselves  terrified in stormy seas.  We are the ones who doubt, who falter, who call out to Jesus, but who finally fall down in worship saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."  This is a story about God's people and the Lord who loves them.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The message in this text is clear:  "You can trust Jesus."  The call to trust Christ and fall down in worship is certainly here.  Beyond that we will need to go to other texts to discover what our call is as people whom Christ has saved.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There is only one that is obvious:  Terrified and anxious/At peace, safe, and assured.

6.  Exegetical work:  It is noteworthy that only Matthew's account of this event includes Peter's adventure on the water.  John has a brief account of this story (John 6:16-21), and Mark 6:45-52 includes a version close to Matthew's, but neither include Peter's wobbly faith.  If Peter is a symbol for the people of God, this story might well be a reminder to the early church of their need to reach out to Christ when all seems lost, and be assured of his ability to save.  One piece of this story that is common to all three accounts of it is the phrase, "It is I; do not be afraid."  A look at the original texts reveals that this is an "ego eme" moment, sometimes translated "I am who I am." It might be interesting to consider this as a response to the disciples' fears: "I am who I am; do not be afraid."  Another word which is present is translated "Take courage" by both Mark and Matthew.  This word is used sparingly in the NT, but when it is, it always signals good news:  To the paralytic,"Take courage, your sins are forgiven." (Matt 9:2)  To the bleeding woman, "Take courage, your faith has made you well." (Matt 9:22).  To the blind man, "Take courage, he is calling you." (Mark 10:49).  To the disciples, "Take courage; I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)  Augustine, in commenting on this story, sees the boat as the Church of Christ.  His advice when stormy days assail us?  "Stay inside the boat and call on Christ."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 12)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Our Scarcity or God's Abundance?

The story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is a story that has been heard and preached countless times throughout the history of the church.  In the lectionary, in the year of Matthew for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, it is found in Matthew 14:13-21.  It bears close resemblance to the same tale as told in both Mark and Luke. This story lifts up two contrasting views of the world:  scarcity or abundance.  Which is the lens through which you look?

(The following questions are an attempt to unlock some of the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this genre of preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available at wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions here mainly as Gospel.  The Gospel proclaims the simple message, "Here is Jesus," and here the Word is doing just that:  "Here is Jesus, the one who has compassion on the sick and injured, the one who feeds the hungry, the one who takes the little that we have and multiplies it for the sake of the world."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is tempting to lift up the attitude of the disciples in this story as they tell Jesus to send the hungry away to fend for themselves, and to use this occasion to scold our congregation for their lack of compassion.  There may be texts which function this way, but this is not one of them.  Jesus does not scold the disciples.  Even when they insist that they have nothing to give the hungry crowds, Jesus does not scold them, but simply says, "Bring [your loaves and fish] here to me."  The upshot is:  there is no word of Law here, no word which lifts up our need for Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have two choices:  the disciples or the hungry crowd.  The Word addresses the disciples, but the Word (i.e. Jesus) also feeds the crowd.  If we choose to identify with the disciples, then we will need to deal with our lens of scarcity.  If we choose to identify with the hungry crowd, our posture may simply be one of awe and praise.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience comes in two short statements:  "You give them something to eat." and "Bring them here to me."  These two statements encompass our call to serve the hungry and the method by which we do that: we bring our gifts to Jesus and let Jesus multiply them.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Taking the view of the disciples, several couplets come to mind:  scarcity/abundance; doubt/faith.  If we take the view of the crowd our couplet, of course, would be:  hungry/filled.

6.  Exegetical work:  Douglas Hare, in his commentary (Interpretation series) reminds us that this is the only miracle story which appears in all 4 gospels. (Matthew, p. 165)  In looking at the original language it is noteworthy that the vocabulary and grammar used are very close to the same, especially in the Synoptic versions.  One place where the language is nearly identical is the account of the distribution of the loaves:  "Taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds."  One wonders if this language was so close because it was an early liturgical formula for the eucharist/love feast.

The presence of numbers in this story has always puzzled me.   Why five, and two, and twelve, and five thousand?  Fourth century bishop, Hilary of Poitiers, interprets these numbers allegorically:  "We are invited to explain things by reasoning according to types.  It was not granted to the apostles to make and administer heavenly bread for the food of eternal life.  Yet their response reflected an ordered reasoning about types:  they had only five loaves and two fish. This means that up to then they depended on five loaves -- that is, the five books of the law.  And two fish nourished them - that is, the preaching of the prophets and of John." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol 1b, p. 7-8)  "The leftover fragments of bread and fish, after the people had their fill, amounted to twelve baskets.  Thus... an abundance of divine power, reserved for the Gentiles from the ministry of eternal food, was left over for the twelve apostles." (Ibid, p. 9)  "The same number of those eating proved to be the number of those who believed. As noted in the book of Acts, out of the countless people of Israel five thousand men believed." (Ibid, p. 9).

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steve Kuhl does a superb job of lifting up the mindset of the disciples - futility - in the face of the needs of the world.  He points out how an attitude of futility makes us of little use to the world, and finally strangers to God.  Christ, however, breaks into this futility and sets us free for fruitfulness.  See the entire analysis, archived under Year A Gospel, 2011, by going to crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Weeds Galore!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, the gospel lesson appointed for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, is the second of the parables in this chapter which offers, alongside it, an allegorical interpretation.  Like the first parable in chapter 13, the accompanying allegory to this parable centers on God's judgement not God's patience.  Scholars have long argued that the allegorist was not Jesus, but rather, Matthew, representing voices in the early church.  If that is so, it might be helpful to lift up how quickly the church turns to concerns about "who's in and who's out" while Jesus seems unconcerned with that.  Wisdom for today?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but offered as a way to lift up some of the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For a further understanding of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide to this genre, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Like the first parable in this chapter, the way the Word functions in the parable and the way it functions in the accompanying allegory are quite different.  In the parable the emphasis is on the forbearance of the Master:  "Let them both grow together until the harvest." This is certainly a gospel function as we are given a full view of the scandalous grace of the Master, when we, like the servants in the parable, wish to pluck up the weeds.  The Word functions as law, however, in the allegory, as the emphasis there is on judgement: "The Son of Man will send his angels... and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."  Even the assurance at the close, that "the righteous will shine like the sun" does not have a gospel ring to it; rather, it seems assuring only to those who can manage to live rightly.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The answer to this question will, of course, be tied to how we answer the first question.  If we center on the forbearance of the Master, then the Law is downplayed, even though, at the close of the parable Jesus makes it clear that the weeds will be collected and bound in bundles to be burned.  If, on the other hand, we center on the judgement in the allegory, the Gospel is downplayed, indeed it is hard to find at all.  A balance is needed.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the servants in the parable, who ask the Master how the weeds came to be in the field, and who, upon learning that an enemy has sowed them, ask, "Then do you want us to go and gather them?"  We are people who are concerned about the "weedy people" in our churches.  We are the self-righteous ones who so easily assume that we are the wheat and others are the weeds.  We are the ones who somehow insist that we are capable of separating the good from the bad, and seeing which people ought to be allowed to continue in Christ's church and which ones ought not be.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  If the call to obedience is the Word functioning to instruct us in the best ways to live in response to the Gospel, then it might be argued that this whole text is a call to obedience.  We are to bear fruit, according to the first parable in this chapter.  This fruit needs to be "wheaty" not "weedy".

5.  Exegetical work:  The word translated "weeds" in this passage has been more precisely translated as "darnel".  Darnel is an ancient grain that looks very much like wheat in its early stages, and reportedly was almost impossible to distinguish from wheat until the harvest was near. (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. IV, p. 826)  This would explain why the Master was reluctant to have the slaves attempt to pull up the weeds before the harvest.  David Buttrick, in his excellent guide to the parables of Jesus, speaks to the dilemma with which this text deals:  "[This parable addresses] a concern of the church: How can the church be morally pure and yet live in the worldly world?  If we try for purity, we lose our evangelical touch with the world.  If we give ourselves to attracting the worldly, we can become morally lax and lose our souls.  A perennial problem."  (Speaking Parables, p. 94)   Augustine has a solution to this problem, suggesting that perhaps people are not permanently either weeds or wheat:  "See what we choose to be in [the Lord's] field.  See which of the two we will be at harvest time... Let the one who is wheat persevere until the harvest; let those who are weeds be changed into wheat...  In the Lord's field, which is the church, at times what was grain turns into weeds and at times what were weeds turn into grain; and no one knows what they will be tomorrow."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1a, p. 277)

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry always emphasized the need to move the listener into disequilibrium and then back to equilibrium.  This text might lend itself very much to that, as a preacher lifts up the discomforting thought that, while we easily assume we are wheat, we can readily see that we are not.  Similarly discomforting is the fact that we are not able to distinguish the weedy folk from the wheaty ones in our midst.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Prodigal Sower

Jesus' description of a sower sowing the seed is nothing if not the picture of a prodigal.  How else to explain the extravagance that describes the sowing, as well as the abundance that finally results, albeit with considerable losses as well.  This parable, found and explained in Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, the gospel lesson appointed for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, challenges our view of God.  Could God be that prodigal?

(The following questions are meant to ferret out concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are meant to supplement many other fine sets of questions that exegetes might use for their discovery.  For a more thorough 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 considerable debate amongst scholars as to the answer to this question.  Some argue that this text is Law, in that it warns us, especially in the allegorical interpretation, not to be those who choke off or neglect the Word in our lives.  Others argue that this parable is pure Gospel, reminding us that God is sowing seed everywhere, - even in places where growth seems unlikely - and finally abundance results.  I prefer the latter interpretation.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Obviously, the answer to this question will depend on our answer to the first question.  If we choose to see God the Prodigal Sower, then the focus is not on our fitness as soil, but on God's ability to overcome our unfitness.  If, on the other hand, we choose to focus on the voice of the allegorist, then the Word is functioning primarily as Law, and our unfitness to be "good soil."  In this latter case, the Gospel is not heard.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are certainly the hearers of this parable.  We are the many listening on the shores of the sea.  How will we hear this?  that is the question.  One important note:  The parable itself focuses on the sowing of seeds, the allegory focuses on the "one" who is good soil or not.  This is important to note as we consider our place in this story.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This parable is about God's Word being sown in the world.  It is about God's abundance, and our response to that abundance.  In a word, it is about grace, or conversely, faith.  Obedience, in the sense of what is an appropriate response to living in God's grace, is not addressed here..

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets come to mind which may lead in fruitful directions:  scarcity/abundance; doubt/faith; failure to understand/ understanding.

6.  Exegetical work:  Luther, in his explanation about what draws us away from God, often referred to the triumvirate that we traditionally renounce at baptism:  "the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin that draw us from God." (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 229)  It is worth noting  that these are precisely the things that the allegorist mentions in this pericope:  "the evil one comes and snatches [the Word] away", "such a person has not root" (i.e. is drawn away by sin), and "the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word."  It might be fruitful to reflect on the fact that all of us are besieged by such enemies; there are none who are born "good soil", but in fact, it is God's grace that enables us rocky, thorny, hardened sinners, to hear the Word and believe it.  It is God's grace that makes us good soil.  One of the classic commentaries on parables I  appreciate is that of Joachim Jeremias.  His words regarding God's persistent sowing speak to Jesus' confidence in the power of the Word:  "To human eyes much of the labour seems futile and fruitless, resulting apparently in repeated failures, but Jesus is full of joyful confidence.... Consider the husbandman, says Jesus; he might well despair in view of the many adverse factors which destroy and threaten his seed.  Nevertheless he remains unshaken in his confidence."(The Parables  of Jesus, p. 150-151)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Joseph Justus Van der Sabb, in his extensive analysis, archived under Year A Gospel, 2011, argues that the verses which have been omitted from the pericope (vss. 10-17) are key to understanding this passage.  They provide the real life context.  In his analysis Van der Sabb shows how we are "soiled" by our complicity with the powers of this world.  Finally this leads to our death:  "I gasp. I sputter.  I wither.  I die."  Christ comes to "fertilize" us to life.  Christ takes our gasping, sputtering, withering, and dying upon himself, and in his death we are given new life. See crossings.org/textstudy for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!