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 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 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 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 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 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 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!