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 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 study.  It is archived under the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 2015.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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