Thursday, September 28, 2017
(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
(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!