Kingdom Parables | Proper 12

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

31 He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32 It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.”

33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. 46 When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, they pulled it to the shore, where they sat down and put the good fish together into containers. But the bad fish they threw away. 49 That’s the way it will be at the end of the present age. The angels will go out and separate the evil people from the righteous people, 50 and will throw the evil ones into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

They said to him, “Yes.”

52 Then he said to them, “Therefore, every legal expert who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest.” (CEB)

Kingdom Parables

The parables of Jesus don’t always make perfect sense, but they’re interesting. There are often several interpretations of each parable—most with merit, and some not so much. I’ve said before, they’re not straightforward.

The first two of the five parables in our text might point toward the humble beginnings of the kingdom: one man, Jesus, was born of a young, humble, virgin in a stable in Bethlehem turns out to be none other than God incarnate. The next two parables might deal with the great worth of the kingdom of Heaven. The fifth parable might be about judgment.

But they might have other meanings, too. In past sermons, I’ve mentioned how most people interpret the parables of Jesus as though they are about us, but I tend to believe that the Scriptures are telling stories about God, not necessarily us. It’s no surprise, then, that when we look at the parables more closely, things tend to get a little more complex, even difficult.

The first parable is full of exaggeration. A mustard seed is indeed very small, but it is not the smallest of seeds. Neither does it grow into a tree so large that flocks of birds can nest in its branches. Jesus was probably cracking himself up when he compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a lowly mustard bush. In Old Testament imagery, mighty kingdoms are compared to great and strong trees. The book of Daniel compares the kingdom of Babylon to a mighty tree standing majestically at the center of the earth, with its top reaching to heaven. “Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living things were fed” (Daniel 4:12 NRSV).

Great kingdoms are supposed to look like the mighty Cedars of Lebanon, towering Sequoias, great oaks, or grand beeches. Just imagine what the people listening to Jesus were thinking when they heard him say, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard bush…” They were probably thinking, Mustard bush? Mustard bush? Are you kidding? What kind of wimpy little kingdom is this dude preaching? What kind of kingdom is like a mustard bush?

But I think that’s exactly the point Jesus is trying to make. The kingdom does not come in the form we want it to, or expect it to. We don’t sing, “A Mighty Mustard Bush Is Our God,” we sing, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” We think that everything about God is supposed to be BIG, POWERFUL, STRONG, UNBENDABLE! But in this parable, Jesus hints to us that the Kingdom of heaven is breaking into our world in a disarming and, for many of us, a disenchanting sort of way. It isn’t what we expected. It isn’t what we wanted. It isn’t the way we think about God or imagine how God is supposed to act. No wonder so many Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, and it’s no wonder that so many people still reject Jesus. Most Jews expected the Messiah to be a conquering hero who would re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, but instead the world got Jesus: a guy who taught radical stuff like peace, love, nonviolence, generosity, acceptance, and praying for enemies. God does not act according to our paradigms and expectations. And that is what Jesus teaches us in this parable of the mustard seed.

The parable of the yeast has a similar twist to it. It might seem like little more than a cooking illustration, but it’s much more than that. In Jesus’ day, yeast was a popular symbol for corruption. In Matthew 16.6, Jesus says, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” He was warning the people to beware of their corruption. To say, “A little yeast leavens the whole loaf” is like saying, One bad apple spoils the barrel. For Jesus to say that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, is like describing it as a virus or rust: something insidious that works in hidden ways that we can’t see, at first, to corrupt what we thought was strong and healthy.

To emphasize that point, in the Greek text, the word used to describe what the woman in the parable does with the yeast is ἐνέκρυψεν [enekrupsen] which means “hid.” She didn’t innocently mix in yeast with the flour, she hid it! People don’t know what they’re getting when they eat this stuff any more than they know what they’re really getting into when they become a Christian. What’s more, her action of hiding the yeast in the three measures of flour is going to affect a lot of people. Three measures are equal to about 50 pounds of flour, which will make enough bread to feed 100 people.

If the kingdom of heaven is like yeast hidden in three measures of flour, it’s going to touch a lot of people and they won’t even know it until it’s too late. In this parable, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as a hidden force working silently to “corrupt” the world from its evil disposition to good. The kingdom of heaven works kind of like the Dark Side of the Force, for those of us who are Star Wars fans. Not that it’s evil, but it works in secret and silence right under the eyes of the Jedi. It pervades the whole world, secretly infecting and affecting everyone who comes into contact with it. It’s the righteousness of God’s kingdom that sneaks in and corrupts the evil of the world into righteousness. When the kingdom’s covert work of fermentation is complete, the ordinary flour is transformed into the bread of life.

The parable of the yeast is a story about how God works. John Wesley called it prevenient grace: the kind of grace that works on us and in us before we even know it. Suddenly we realize that God has been working in our lives from the beginning. There has never been a time when the kingdom of heaven wasn’t working on us, breaking into our lives in covert and sometimes imperceptible ways. That’s how much God loves us!

Then we come to the parables of the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great value. And I think they are less about us and every bit about God. They can suggest just how far God is willing to go in order to possess us. In God’s eyes, we are the treasure hidden in a field, we are the pearl of great value for which God was searching; and God has given everything, even his own Son, to make us God’s own possession. We have been bought with the very blood of Jesus Christ. And it might just surprise us that God sees so much value in us, that God could see a treasure or a precious pearl in something so despicable and wretched as us. But that is how God sees us. We were lost treasure, and God found us. We were a priceless pearl for which God had been searching, and we have been found. We are God’s priceless treasures, and God has sold everything to buy us, to come close to us, to be God with us, and to make us God’s very own possession. Think about that for a minute. God’s love of us is incalculable and amazing.

Then, there’s the parable of the net. It’s as much about the kind of evangelism the church ought to be doing as it is about judgment. It tells the church what kind of evangelism we ought to be doing because it primarily tells us what kind of evangelism God has been doing. We sometimes forget that salvation is about God, not us. God has adopted an open and uninhibited approach to evangelism. “The kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says, “is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” When a fisherman casts a net into the sea he or she doesn’t know what kind of fish they’re going to catch. The net could be filled with any kind of fish: meaty fish, bony fish, good fish, bad fish, bottom feeders, top feeders, whatever—they’re all gathered up in the net. No fisherman hesitates to cast the net because they’re afraid of catching the wrong kind of fish. They cast the net deep and wide and haul everything in. The sorting of the good and bad fish will take place later.

So it is with the kingdom; so it ought to be with the church. God’s net is cast deep and wide in order to bring in an abundance. Regarding this parable, Will Willimon wrote: “A dragnet is hauled into the boat full of creatures both good and bad. Should the catch be sorted? No. The Master is more impressed with the size of the haul than with the quality of the harvest. One day, not today, it will all be sorted” (Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, 36).

Our church doors are open to all. Our church programs are open to all. Our net ought to be cast deep and wide. Sometimes the church gets people who are deeply serious about the things of God. Sometimes the church gets people who are looking for a pretty sanctuary in which to get married. Sometimes we get people who don’t have anything better to do on a Sunday morning. Sometimes people show up because they are hungry to do righteousness. Some people show up because their spouse said they were coming whether they like it or not. The life of God’s people is wonderfully nondiscriminatory. Everybody is welcome to come along for the ride and, hopefully, each of us is encouraged to grow in our faith in God, deepen our love of God, and expand our love and care for other people along the way.

The job of sifting and separating the righteous from the evil, the serious from the frivolous, the authentic from the fraudulent, is left to the angels on another day. The job of sorting—of judgment—is not left to us. In the meantime, the grace of God flows freely and hopefully because, who knows whether the fish that any one of us might have hastily thrown back after little more than a quick glance will, in time, turn out to be the best catch of the day? That is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that salvation is God’s story, not our story. God is the main character, not us. And that’s a good thing! If it were our story, we’d look at all those fish and start sorting right away. We’d start tossing what we would judge to be “bad fish” back. Whereas God might see a bad fish and say, let’s keep this one and see if it doesn’t grow into a whopper. No story of any saint ever had a perfect beginning. We too are fish, after all. God is the fisherman. We’re just a part of the haul brought in by the net. And thank God the net of the kingdom has been cast so deep and so wide. If God’s net wasn’t big enough to catch the whole world, some of us who are sitting here might have been left out. This parable, like all parables, is about God, not us.

After teaching all these parables, Jesus asks his disciples a simple question, “Have you understood all this?” And they answer, “Yes.” The true disciples of Jesus Christ are like scribes who have been trained for the kingdom of heaven.

That kingdom—God’s kingdom—is like a mustard seed sown in a field that doesn’t always come the way we expect it to come, or look the way we expect it to look.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast hidden in flour that works in our lives and throughout the world in ways we don’t realize or readily see.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, like a merchant in search of fine pearls where God searches for us and sees in us immeasurable value: a value so great that God has risked all and given all just to possess us as God’s own.

The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea in that the kingdom is open to anyone and everyone regardless of how others might judge them because judgment isn’t our job, it’s the job of the angels on another day.

These things are what the kingdom of heaven is like, and we—as the church—are scribes in training for this kingdom: a kingdom that might not be exactly what we expect precisely because it’s more than we could ever imagine.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

A Sower | Proper 10

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

1 That day Jesus went out of the house and sat down beside the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he climbed into a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the shore.

3 He said many things to them in parables: “A farmer went out to scatter seed. 4 As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. 6 But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. 7 Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. 8 Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. 9 Everyone who has ears should pay attention.”

18 “Consider then the parable of the farmer. 19 Whenever people hear the word about the kingdom and don’t understand it, the evil one comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. 20 As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. 21 Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. 22 As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit. 23 As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce– in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.” (CEB)

A Sower

I love watching sports with my wife. I mean, we don’t watch often. It’s the occasional Duke basketball game, Notre Dame football game, or Detroit Tigers baseball game. But when we do sit together and watch, she inevitably cracks me up with the way she mocks the sportscasters. Two of Joy’s Spiritual gifts are mockery of the inane and sarcasm in all its forms. Sports commentators offer some of the best material for both of her gifts to flourish. As soon as a commentator asks the inevitable question, “How do you win this game?” Joy is off to the races.

“Well, Bob, it’s really complicated, but here’s what we’ve got to do: we’ve got to score more points than the other team. Basically, our team needs to score a bunch of points and make sure the other team doesn’t score as many points. We know for certain that if they score more points than us, we’ll lose the game. So, to prevent that from happening, we need to score a lot of points and keep them from scoring any. Or, at least we need to keep them from scoring as many. And that’s our strategy for winning. So, to summarize, we are going to score points and keep them from scoring points.”

Sportsing

That’s actually every sports interview, ever. There’s really nothing to add, but people talk and talk and talk as if there’s something really new to add, some valuable insight that no one ever thought of before.

Which is kind of like this parable. This is a first for me. I’ve never preached on this text. I’ve avoided preaching on this text because sermons are, in part, about interpreting the Scriptures. The difficulty with this parable is that Matthew follows it a few verses later with an interpretation. So what more is there to add? What can a preacher do with it when the interpretation that breaks the parable down is right there, included in the lectionary reading? It’s a little intimidating, to the point that I considered reading the parable, and the interpretation Matthew has Jesus provide, and have my whole sermon be three words: “What he said.”

Then, I got to thinking about parables themselves. They’re grounded in real life stuff, so they’re fairly concrete, not theoretical or abstract. And, they’re not very straightforward or direct. A parabola is a curve, and parables tend to behave the same way. They curve in and come at things from the side, and there are always multiple interpretations and vantage points.

This parable is sometimes called the Parable of the Soils, or the Parable of the Seeds, or the Parable of the Sower. In the interpretation Matthew provides in verse 18-23, the meaning is very straightforward. It’s about how different people receive the Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Those who hear the news and don’t understand it have what was sown in their heart snatched away by the evil one. That’s the seed sown on the path. The seed sown on the rocky ground are those persons who hear the news and receive it with joy, but fall away when trouble comes because they don’t have deep roots. The seed sown among thorns are those who hear, but the cares of the world or the lure of wealth choke the news out so it doesn’t yield anything. The seed sown on good soil are those who hear, understand, and grow in the news of the kingdom. They bear fruit and yield bountifully.

We typically interpret the subjects of Jesus’ parables as us. I mean, we do that with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We think we’re the Good Samaritan, but we might be the guy who got beat up and was lying half-dead on the side of the road. God might be the Good Samaritan who comes to us and offers healing and care at God’s own expense.

In this case, we might be the sower casting seeds to those around us, meaning we’re the evangelist sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven with others. In Matthew’s day, the early church struggled in Judea. They were a minority group. And while they had some amazing gains at various times, it wasn’t always easy to be a Christian in first century Judea. So, with this interpretation, it’s about perseverance when preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven because, while many will reject the word or fall away or be choked out, a few will accept it. Those few will bear their own fruit and start sowing their own seeds.

Or, in another interpretation, we might be the soil receiving the seed, and the state of our hearts and minds will determine how the seed cast upon us and sown in our hearts will grow or not. My problem is that the state of my soil seems to change. Sometimes the seed seems to fall flat on a hard path and I don’t understand things. Sometimes my soil is a little rocky, and my growth seems stunted. Sometimes my soil gets a little choked with briars and weeds because life happens and I end up worrying about my family’s well-being. This past school year, for example, my youngest missed over 30 days of school mostly due to a fever of unknown origin. Her temperature always registered from 100 to 101 degrees. Always. And no one could figure it out. The doctors finally decided it must be her tonsils, so she’s having them removed in a few weeks. It’s not a guaranteed fix, but that’s the best they can determine as a cause. And, her surgery is on my birthday. So yeah, I can confess that my soil has been a little choked lately, for that and other reasons.

While those are perfectly valid interpretations of the parable, what if we dropped our anthropocentric airs for a moment and looked at the subject of this parable as God? While the interpretation in verses 18-23 is important, most scholars agree that it’s a later interpretation provided by Matthew for the sake of the early church not necessarily an interpretation that Jesus gave. Let’s look at the parable by itself, without the interpretation.

“A farmer went out to scatter seed. As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. Everyone who has ears should pay attention” (Matthew 13:3-9 CEB).

If God is the farmer who is sowing seeds, I imagine God’s generosity is such that some of those seeds would be purposefully thrown onto the path just so the birds could get something to eat. There’s nothing in the parable itself to suggest the birds eating these seeds is a negative thing, nor is there any suggestion that the seeds were thrown onto the path accidentally, or that the farmer is being careless in his sowing. We’re simply told that some fell on the path and the birds ate them. At the risk of getting a little gross, when the bird passes the seed in a dollop, it can take root in the strangest of places. It’s possible that the farmer meant to throw some seed on the path.

The text which the lectionary provides from Isaiah suggests this very thing: “Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky and don’t return there without watering the earth, making it conceive and yield plants and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater, so is my word that comes from my mouth; it does not return to me empty. Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend” (Isaiah 55:10-11 CEB).

God scatters seed extravagantly and with varying results. Some of it takes root in shallow soil but doesn’t last, some of it takes root in hostile places among thorns that threaten to choke the life out of the seedling. Others take root in good soil and grow as they’re supposed to grow. Why would Jesus tell us a parable like this? Somehow I don’t think it’s so we can make the connections to the different kinds of soils as mere observers and say, Yep. That sure is how it is, and walk away holding that little nugget of insight in our hearts. Jesus was a practical guy, and the Methodism of the Wesley brothers was practical divinity. Faith requires action or it doesn’t count as faith. Understanding means that we get it and get to work.

What if the reason Jesus told this parable was to show all of us that there’s still some groundwork that needs to be done? God scatters seed and gives growth, but we’re the tenants of the garden. We’ve been the tenants of the garden since Adam and Eve. That was God’s first commandment to the human race in Genesis 1:28. Got told us to take charge of creation. If some of the seed God sows is falling on unprepared ground, maybe it’s because we haven’t cleared and tended the soil as we ought. Maybe we’ve got some work to do. Maybe we need to step into those rocky and choked places of the world and get our hands dirty until even that soil can support life to its fullest potential.

With some effort and hard work, we can turn rocky soil into something fertile. We can clear out the thorns and weeds that hinder growth of the seed God has sown. There is a lot of rocky and thorn-choked soil out there, my friends. You can walk out any door of this building and see it. You can drive down any street of this city and find it. “Everyone who has ears should pay attention!” (Matthew 13:9 CEB). There is ministry to be done. God is already sowing seed in every heart we’ll ever encounter. Our responsibility is to love those hearts so fiercely that the rocks and thorns are cleared away and all that’s left is good, fertile soil and the potential for a mighty harvest.

~Pastopher

Dance | Proper 9

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

16 “To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17 ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you’ve hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have shown them to babies. 26 Indeed, Father, this brings you happiness.

27 “My Father has handed all things over to me. No one knows the Son except the Father. And nobody knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wants to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. 29 Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. 30 My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (CEB)

Dance

I was a little skeptical. Okay, I was incredibly skeptical. When my wife told me about the ballroom dance lessons she wanted us to take at Miami University of Ohio, I was skeptical. I thought I would make a fool of myself. I thought it would be a waste of time and money. But she really wanted to learn to dance, and she wanted to learn to dance with me. So, I agreed. We learned East Coast Swing and Waltz. For a guy who can’t even do the Macarena correctly (and there’s video proof of that online), I had more fun with Ballroom Dance than I can adequately describe. We had so much fun that we took another class when the teacher offered one in Rumba, Salsa, and Mambo. We loved it! And to think that I almost refused to join in the dance.

Jesus uses a simile to describe his own generation of Jews. Children would often play in the marketplace when their parents were shopping for goods. Sometimes, those children would pretend that they were participating in a wedding or funeral procession. This may seem odd to us, but it’s no stranger than my children pretending Mom and Dad are bad guys and pretending to spy on us and attack us with plastic light sabers. Wedding processions were elaborate community-wide events with music, dancing, and all-around celebration. Likewise, funeral processions were large events, where professional wailers would be hired in order to get the crowd into a mournful disposition. So, children would play and pretend they were flute players, or professional wailers.

Part of the game might even be to get some of the adults to play along by dancing to their pretend flute playing, or pretending to mourn with their wails. If no adults joined in the make-believe fun, the children might call out to them, “We played the flute and you did not dance,” or “We wailed and you did not mourn.” Sometimes we adults forget how to have fun. You can imagine Jesus teaching in a marketplace and watching the children play these games. Then, using the image as a lesson. Jesus’ simile describes “this generation” as the adults who refuse to join in on the children’s games.

This text marks a rather dark time in Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist has been thrown into prison, and the people of three prosperous cities, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, have not listened to his teachings. People didn’t seem to be catching on to the message that the Kingdom of Heaven was coming near. It’s kind of the opposite of that “The Far Side” cartoon, in which two demons are watching a guy walk by them, joyfully pushing a wheelbarrow through the fires of hell while whistling a happy tune, and one demon says to the other: “We just aren’t getting through to that guy.” People weren’t getting this whole Kingdom of Heaven thing. They were refusing to join in the games.

John the Baptist and Jesus both came to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, but they did it in different ways. John was a wailer. He was an ascetic, and cried out for people to repent, to be mournful for their sins. John came “neither eating nor drinking,” but this generation refused to repent and mourn. They derided him and said, “He has a demon.”

Jesus, on the other hand, was a flute player. He came with joy to share the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven, and compassionately ministered to the people who would be his future bride as the Church (Revelation 21:2 & 21:9). His was the wedding procession. He came with merriment, eating and drinking with all sorts of people: Pharisees, sinners, and tax collectors alike. But “this generation” would not dance. They scoffed at him, saying, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

The people did not accept John or Jesus. They managed to make an excuse by finding a fault in how they dressed, the food they ate, or the people with whom they associated. It isn’t that “this generation” did not want to be redeemed. They all expected that the Messiah would come. But neither John nor Jesus measured up to their expectations of what the Messiah ought to be.

Jesus knew that this was the issue, so he told them a proverb, “Yet, wisdom is vindicated by her course of action” (Matthew 11:19c, my trans). In other words, the proof is in the pudding. The truth of John and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven is in the action: what is happening in the world through Jesus. Just as Jesus told John in the first verses of chapter 11, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:4 NRSV). Jesus is saying to the people, sit out the dance if you want to, but this is the right music to kick up your heels and dance.

Jesus then offers a prayer of thanksgiving to the Father. The theology of this passage is rather complicated. At its heart is the deep, mutual, and intimate sharing of everything between Jesus and the Father. No human being knows with all completeness who Jesus is. For, “no one knows the Son except the Father” (Matthew 11:27 NRSV). God the Father is only fully known by the Son, yet the Father wants to be known by all people. This is the mission of Jesus. It is the Son who has come to reveal God to us in all fullness by proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven and what that kingdom looks like. Jesus taught us the values of that kingdom, which are God’s values.

Jesus’ statement, “and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” may sound as if Jesus has a secret knowledge about God, and makes independent decisions about choosing which people he will let in on the secret. But this is not the case. God the Son and God the Father are joined together in so intimate a relationship that a decision of the Son is an expression of the Father’s will. In the same way, the will of the Father is incarnate, enfleshed, embodied, in the life of the Son. This is a model for how we are supposed to live. We’re to be so intimately joined with Christ that the will of God is expressed in our very words and actions.

For us, there’s also a clash between the ancient and modern ideas of logic and philosophy. People back then thought differently than we do. Even today, people in the East think differently than we in the West. We would think that if God wants to be known, then why does he hide “these things from the wise and intelligent?” We would think that if God wants to be known by everyone, he would reveal himself to the wise and intelligent. And if God has “hidden” these things from some people, how can they be blamed for rejecting Jesus? While we tend to pit human freedom and God’s sovereignty against each other, Matthew and his contemporaries believed both that people were free and responsible, and that God is in complete control of human history.

The fact is, Jesus had revealed the truth to the wise as well as the lowly. While the common masses tended to accept Jesus because of his actions and teaching, the wise thought that, no matter what Jesus did or taught, he did not fit the Messianic paradigms they had gleaned from Scripture. Or, at least, their interpretation of Scripture. The Glad Tidings of Jesus Christ are proclaimed openly to all, but there will always be people who refuse to accept the Kingdom of Heaven. There will always be people who refuse to dance. And sometimes, it’s us religious folk who already have our ideas nailed down with our hats hung on them. So when Jesus tells us he’s got a new dance move, we are liable to cross our arms and say, That’s not how I learned to dance.

Jesus then appeals to the weary and burdened to come and find rest in him. However, what Jesus offers is not a hammock on the beach. It’s a yoke. In Judaism, the yoke was a symbol of obedience to the law and wisdom of God. Rabbis often spoke of the “Yoke of the Law of Moses.” The Law was a yoke which the Jews gladly bore because obedience to the Law meant obedience to God. Likewise, Jesus’ yoke is obedience to his commandments: a willingness to serve others with humility and mercy, to love your enemies and pray for them, to deny yourself, to seek good for others. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.

Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light not because there is little to do or because the way is safely paved. On the contrary, there is a cross to bear, and the world is full of wolves. The yoke of Jesus is easy and his burden is light because God is with us along the way. Obedience to the commandments of Jesus means obedience to God. When we follow the way of God we find that it is profoundly satisfying to our souls. Jesus’ yoke is more demanding, but it is much more rewarding because it is the work of the Kingdom. It feels good to be nice to people and take care of others. Have you ever noticed how infectious something as simple as a smile or a kind word can be?

Of course, scowls and meanness are infectious, too, but the way to overcome those things is by loving others with the love of Jesus Christ.

Jesus came into the world in order to reveal God to all people. He came, not so that we could refuse to mourn our sins or refuse to dance for joy at God’s salvation. Jesus came so that we could join in with the children’s game and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. Jesus came to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus calls us to dance with him in the joyous Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. Don’t make excuses as the generation of Jesus’ day did—and as it is often our very nature to do. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” and we are invited to participate in the Kingdom, take the yoke of Jesus, and dance!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Welcome | Proper 8

Matthew 10:40-42

40 “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me. 41 Those who receive a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Those who receive a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” (CEB)

Welcome

A United Methodist pastor family I know used to live in a parsonage next door to the church he served. That meant they often had people knocking on their door, and often late in the evening. One such encounter had a Hispanic man show up with his teenage daughter and son. The father actually waited by the church steps so as not to alarm the pastor’s family. This father didn’t speak English well, so his children translated as the two families sat together on the front steps of the church to talk. The father was on his way to Michigan where he had gotten a job, and they were fleeing a bad situation with an abusive mother in their former location. The man showed the pastor all of his court paperwork, showing he had custody of his children and the documentation of his job offering up north.

After listening to their story, the pastor invited them into his family’s home. They talked some more, shared some food, and invited the travelers to stay the night with them and their toddler and newborn. The man didn’t want to impose that much on the pastor’s family so, instead, the pastor’s wife made some calls and put them up in the only available bed & breakfast in town. The man looked at the pastor and his wife and said through his children, “You aren’t from here, are you?” To which the pastor and his wife responded, “No. Why?” The man said, “Because everyone else in this town has given us dirty looks. Even at the gas station when we filled up, people looked at us like they hate us. You’re different. That’s how I know you’re not from here.”

I like that story for several reasons. First, it’s a great example of hospitality to strangers. Second, it begs the questions, How do others to perceive us, and how do we want others to perceive us?

Admittedly, when taken at face-value, this text doesn’t appear to be one that has a whole lot of direct relevancy for most modern congregations. These words are the last of Jesus’ missionary discourse where he sent out the apostles like sheep among wolves (10:16), without money, a backpack, extra clothes, or a walking stick (10:9-10). These words are about those who will potentially receive the apostles on their missionary journey. If we take the text as is within its context, if the apostles come to your door, then make sure you welcome them. Then again, if that were to happen, then it likely means the Day of Resurrection is upon us and there might not be much to worry about because all Heaven is about to break loose.

We know Jesus is talking about hospitality, but the meaning of the Greek text and the English translations is a bit of a pain. First off, where the Common English Bible translation says, “as a prophet” and “as a righteous person” the Greek is literally, “in the name of [εἰς ὄνομα],” which is how the New Revised Standard Version translates it. But what that means in Greek and how we’re supposed to render that meaning into English isn’t clear. In addition to “as” and the more literal “in the name of” it could also mean “because.” Whoever welcomes a prophet or a righteous person simply because they are those things will receive the appropriate reward.

The “reward [μισθὸν]” part isn’t clear either. In fact, the Greek word has a more neutral connotation. It simply means recompense, or remuneration for work that has been done. It can be either reward or punishment depending on the work or deed. It’s kind of like getting your just deserts. And, what is the reward? When is it given? Is it some future thing like heavenly treasures, or do you get a sticker or a sucker right away like my kids do when they go to the doctor? You were good. Here, pick a sucker out of the basket.

Neither is it clear what is meant by “a righteous person [δίκαιον],” especially in regard to the sending of the apostles. Do these labels, Prophet and Righteous Person, apply to all the apostles? And, who are the “little ones [μικρῶν τούτων]”? Many scholars say it’s a reference to the apostles because it’s a part of the Missionary Discourse. To me, however, there appears to be a theological connection to the “least [ἐλαχίστων]” in the parable of the sheep and the goats. (Matthew 25:31-46). In that sense, we could interpret this as a reversal of the expected hierarchy. If a prophet or a righteous person came to town, it would be expected that they would be properly hosted and shown hospitality. They would probably receive multiple invitations to be hosted by many families of good standing, and they could take their pick.

But these “little ones”—whether they are the apostles or anyone of low status—wouldn’t necessarily have a significant social or religious standing. If these words are connected to the “least of these” in Matthew 25, then Jesus means to tells us that giving a cup of cold water to a little one would result in the highest reward.

There’s also the fact that our point of view as the readers of this text seems to change multiple times. In some instances, we’re the apostles who are being sent out, we’re the ones to whom the apostles are sent, we’re the ones called to give a cup of water to the little ones, and we are the little ones to whom the water is given.

For only being three verses in length, the words of Jesus sure do bring up a lot of questions. So, here’s what I propose. Instead of having to choose whether the “littles ones” are the apostles or someone of low socio-economic or religious status, it might behoove us to read it as inclusive of both. I think that’s how Jesus would want us to understand it. And, despite the apparent lack of direct relevancy for modern congregations that I mentioned earlier, there is something incredibly—profoundly—relevant for us to get from this. Even if these words were meant specifically for the apostles in that moment of being sent out, the Gospels were written for us.

And, the kind of hospitality Jesus expected his apostles to receive is an extension of a larger matter of hospitality that is rooted in God’s very nature. God is love, and that love surrounds us whether we’re worthy or not, whether we’re righteous or not, whether we’re religious or not. God is the one who hosts us every day. Everything we can sense belongs to God. Even the stuff we can’t sense was created by God. We are the recipients of God’s immense hospitality, and we are meant to show we are grateful by showing hospitality and welcome to others no matter who they are, what their story is, or where they come from.

Across the Old Testament, God commands that we show hospitality and welcome to people. Exodus 22:21 says, “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt” (CEB). It’s pretty straightforward. Don’t mistreat or oppress people who are different from you. Then, Leviticus 19:34 gets a little more specific. It says: “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (CEB). In fact, twice in Leviticus 19, God tells the people, “you must love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18 CEB). Love is the primary characteristic of the Christian.

That call to love our neighbor is taken up three times in Matthew’s Gospel. “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:43-48 CEB).

Our job is to love others: even our enemies! Our job is not to be the gate. Jesus already has that role covered, and this is what he says on the matter. He likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a net that people cast into the sea to gather all kinds of fish. They hauled it ashore and started to separate the good fish from the bad fish. Then, he says it will be like that at the end of the present age. The angels will separate the good from the bad. Not us. We, the church, are the net. We’re to fling our arms open wide and welcome anyone we can. If there’s any separating that needs doing, God’s angles will take care of that. We don’t.

If God’s hospitality is offered to everyone without limitation, then ours should be, too. When it comes to welcoming prophets or righteous people, we can’t tell who they are by looking at them. Our call is to welcome people with simple, basic acts of kindness. With each opportunity that presents itself, God invites us to extend genuine hospitality to each other. This kind of compassionate welcome is how we approach one another through the love of God. When we put the grace-filled hospitality of God’s love at the center of our lives and our relationships—even the difficult relationships—we are living into God’s expectations of discipleship. When we do that, when we live into showing hospitality, we are often the ones who feel rewarded.

That pastor family still remembers the Hispanic man and his children who visited them that night. To them, it wasn’t merely an opportunity to host a poor man and his two children who were passing through town. That night, they hosted Christ, and that will stay with them forever. “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher