The Sheep and the Goats | Proper 29

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.” (CEB)

The Sheep and the Goats

This last of the four Advent Parables in Matthew tells of Jesus’ return and the ensuing judgement of the world. Christ the King Sunday gives us permission to hold an early celebration of the universal rule and reign of God and the coming Kingdom of Heaven. I say it’s an early celebration because, while the kingdom is here in part, the kingdom is not yet here fully. While no earthly power can match the power of the reigning Lord, we’re reminded that much is yet promised. Right now, we live in a sort of interim—a time between the times.

The surprising thing Jesus teaches here, which really shouldn’t be a surprise for those who’ve been listening, is that the King of Kings is revealed to us among the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. That notion still tends to surprise us even though Jesus was notorious for welcoming prostitutes and other stigmatized sinners into the kingdom of Heaven and telling those who presumed themselves to be righteous that they could go to Gehenna. The judge who sits on the throne surprises because the judgments of Jesus are unlike ours.”

One thing that strikes me every time I read this Great Judgement passage is that neither the blessed nor the accursed realize anything about what they had done or failed to do: they’re all surprised! When Jesus calls the blessed into the kingdom and tells them, “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matt. 25:35-36 CEB), their response will be one of surprise, “Lord, when did we see you?”

When Jesus commands the accursed to get away from him he’ll say, “I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me,’” (Matt. 25:42-43 CEB). The response from those who are accursed also will be one of surprise, “Lord, when did we see you?”

How is it that neither the blessed nor the accursed came to realize what they were and were not doing? I think part of the answer has to do with habit. When a practice becomes habit we often fail to realize that we do the practice. When I’m lost in thought I often pick my lip with my finger. Sometimes, when I unconsciously raise my hand to my mouth in an act of deep contemplation, my thoughts will be suddenly interrupted as Joy smacks my hand away from my mouth and says, “Stop picking your lip.”

When children are learning to tie their shoes they often begin with difficulty, but with practice they can learn to tie their shoes without even thinking about it. When was the last time any of you tried to tie your shoes and had to think it through? It’s just habit: something we can do with our eyes closed.

It seems as though the accursed became so hard, so callous, so indifferent, and their religion so apathetic, that they never recognized the fact that Jesus identifies with other people in love. The accursed closed their ears to Jesus’ command that we act toward others in sincere deeds of compassion—that we take care of each other. The people who were among the goats were not necessarily ignorant concerning Jesus, but they were surprised to discover—just as the blessed were surprised to discover—that they had met Jesus many times along the way and didn’t recognize him in the faces of the poor, downtrodden, and rejected.

Again, the difference between the blessed and the accursed was how they acted toward others. Apparently, the accursed had never developed their faith or love of God beyond their first confession of believing in Christ. Their faith became an empty and dead faith—empty ritual and correct creed—instead of a full and living faith. And while there’s nothing wrong with ritual or creed—which can be wonderful and deeply powerful expressions of faithfulness—there is a problem when we separate Jesus from what we do: when ritual and creed—when faith itself—become empty and removed from Jesus Christ. A citizen of Heaven must be more than this.

For the blessed their habit was doing. Their habit was living out their faith so that it permeated into every part of their being. In Matthew 13:33 we’re told, “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” (Matt. 13:33 CEB). A little yeast permeates throughout, and leavens the entire loaf. As Christians, as citizens of the Kingdom our faith cannot merely be viewed as a part of our lives. Our faith must become our life! Our faith must permeate throughout every part of our being. It should affect us in all that we do, and cause the practice of our faith to become our habit. This habit, however, can only come about with practice.

Practice forms habit. The two go hand in hand. We have to practice our faith in order to allow it to work its way into every aspect of our lives, or we will end up like the accursed do and allow not doing to become our habit. Doing nothing, after all, is the easiest habit to form. It is called sloth.

Some people have taken what Paul said about Justification by faith and twisted it a little too much. We need to understand that Paul was saying that we’re justified by faith, not works of the Jewish Law. He never wrote against the loving, mercy-giving, and justice-seeking works we Christians ought to be doing. If he had, he would have been teaching something in direct opposition to Jesus.

Paul was saying that circumcision, sacrifice, and dietary customs—some of the concerns of the Law of Moses—will not save you. Sometimes we fail to make this distinction between those specific works of the Law and works of love, mercy, and justice. It’s not unheard of for Christians to accept a lazy theology in which we think that because we believe in Jesus and have faith we’re all set. Anyone who falls into this kind of thinking misses the point of being a Christian: serving God through being servants of each other and the world, loving God and neighbor. Our faith is missional by design.

After Jesus washed the feet of the disciples he commanded them to wash each others’ feet. When Paul wrote down those words about how we’re justified by grace through faith in his Epistles to the Galatians and the Romans, he wasn’t sitting on his couch. He was out ministering to an empire! Paul went on three missionary journeys that we know about as Luke recorded in The Acts of the Apostles. He traveled almost Ten Thousand miles preaching the Gospel throughout Asia Minor, Greece, Cyprus, and Italy. He mentioned in one of his letters that he would like to go to Spain to preach Christ there.

Paul’s the one who said, “I’m in trouble if I don’t preach the Gospel,” (1 Corinthians 9:16b CEB). He knew that if he wasn’t living out his faith in what God had commanded of him then he wasn’t living. This is why James wrote, “As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead,” (Jas. 2:26 CEB). Or as the late Rich Mullins once wrote, “faith without works is like a song you can’t sing… it’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”

Our faith grows and is built up not by saying ‘I believe,’ but by what we do with the Gospel, this rich treasure that God has given us. Faith grows out of our experience. Saying ‘I believe’ is only the beginning of faith, not the end. If we have faith in Jesus Christ our actions should be those that please and honor God—by doing no harm, doing good, acting out of love and charity, working for the sake of mercy and justice. It’s when we do these things that we’re proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our actions.

Jesus Christ tells us, in no uncertain terms, that he identifies himself with the poor. Christ places himself among the least, the poor, the marginalized, the needy, and the oppressed, even prisoners justly convicted of crimes. In other words, we should recognize Christ in people who are on the fringes of society because that’s one place where Christ, undoubtedly, is.

We see this throughout the Gospels as Jesus touches the untouchables, loves the unloved, and gives hope to the hopeless. Jesus came into this world as a poor Jew. He lived among the poor and oppressed every day. He suffered among them. He was judged by them. He shared in their pain and agonies. In Matthew 25 Jesus says, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me,” (Matt. 25:40 CEB).

What we do to and for others is what we do to Christ because Jesus identifies with each one of us, and especially with the poor. In the same way, when we fail to do for others, we fail to do for Christ.

How different would the world be if every time we saw a person we recognized Jesus in that person? How would the world be different if every professed Christian saw his or her Lord in the face of every person they encountered in their every day? “Lord, when did we see you?” “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matt. 25:40 CEB). This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

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

The Valuable Coins | Proper 28

Matthew 25:14-30

14 “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. 15 To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

16 “After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. 18 But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

19 “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

22 “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

24 “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. 25 So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? 27 In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. 28 Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. 29 Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. 30 Now take the worthless servant and throw him outside into the darkness.’

“People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth. (CEB)

The Valuable Coins

This is the third of the four advent parables in Matthew. This parable, like the previous ones, also emphasizes in its own way the delay of the Kingdom of God. Jesus really wanted people to understand that, while the kingdom of God is indeed coming, the time of its arrival is completely unknown to us. We, therefore, need to be ready for it to come immediately, but also be prepared for the possibility of delay.

It is important to note that the valuable coins, often translated as a talent, is a very large sum of money: about fifteen years’ wages for a typical worker. It is perhaps unfortunate that it’s been called a talent for so long, because it tempts us to confuse this with the ordinary definition of talent and leads to a common misinterpretation of this parable.

Often times, this parable is taken as an encouragement to discover what gifts and talents we all have, and to use them for God. Taken this way, the parable teaches that everybody has a talent; some have many, others have a few, but all of us have at least one. Maybe one’s talent is playing the piano, or perhaps it’s the gift of hospitality or the skill of organization, or playing quarterback, or point guard. Regardless of how many talents we may have, and whatever those talents may be, God wants us to use them wisely and not waste them. So goes the conventional interpretation.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the idea of using our talents to glorify God. Indeed, we ought to use our God-given talents in that way. But that idea alone is much too tame for this parable. The parable is not a gentle tale about what Christians should do with our individual gifts and talents, as helpful as that may be. Really, it’s a disturbing story about what Christians do or do not do with the gospel—the Good News of Jesus Christ—as they wait for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The first two servants are called “good and trustworthy” because they set out immediately to work with the treasure entrusted to them. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this treasure is the gospel—the teachings of Jesus—and these two “good and faithful” servants symbolize all wise and faithful disciples who hear Jesus’ words and act on them. The third servant is called “evil and lazy” because he’s a living embodiment of Jesus’ warning that “everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built his house on sand,” (Matthew 7:26).

The reason it’s good and faithful to act on the gospel is not simply that Jesus said so and the disciples need to learn to be obedient and to follow orders. Living out the truth of the Gospel—living lives of mercy, peace, and forgiveness—is wise because the future belongs to God. Mercy, peace, and forgiveness are the values of God’s kingdom. The master will return. The promised Kingdom is coming. And its advent will render all the false values of this age—the accumulation of power, wealth, status, and possessions—obsolete.

Sometimes we look back on the anger, the harshness, the indifference toward others in our past and say, if I had only known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have treated anyone like that. One purpose of this parable is to say that we can know now what we will know in the future. What will stand at the end is the gospel. One might call it true wisdom to live out God’s future, today.

So, the parable is about wise and foolish disciples—those who live the gospel now, and those who don’t. But the parable also cuts in another direction. It is not only a story about the moral character of disciples, but also about the moral character of God. What kind of God do we serve? The voice of the one-talent servant is trembling and full of fear: “Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid,” (Matt. 25:24-25 CEB).

The thing is, at this point in the parable there is no basis whatsoever for this kind of depiction of the master. Quite to the contrary, the master has entrusted his servants with vast sums of money, not just for a night or two but for an extended period of time. Moreover, in a culture where servants were expected to do their duty without receiving praise, pats on the back, brass plaques, or trophies, this master astonishingly gives them extravagant tribute, increased authority, and apparently, with the words, “Come celebrate with me,” he welcomes them into his home as members of the family. There’s even the implication that he lets them keep the money entrusted to them along with all the profits they made.

In other words, everything in the story leads us to see the master as an extraordinary person—trusting, welcoming, generous, and benevolent. That’s the way the first two servants view him, otherwise they wouldn’t have been so free to risk and act, and that’s the way the master conducts himself. Clearly the one-talent servant has badly misjudged the master, distorting the master into a tough, uncaring tyrant, and has acted accordingly.

When the master finds out that this servant has buried the money entrusted to him and why, the master responds, “You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest,” (Matt. 25:26-27 CEB). This reply exposes the one-talent servant even more. Even if the one-talent servant missed all the trust, joy, and generosity in his master, he could still have done a little low-risk investing.

However, the man’s problem with the master goes deeper. He viewed the master as evil, not just tough. In this servant’s twisted mind, the master is so pernicious that there’s no room whatsoever for freedom or responsible action; only paralysis. He’s so afraid of this terrible master that the only choice left to him is to shove the talent back as soon as possible and have nothing to do with this master that he perceives as a spiteful tyrant.

We may know people like this. I remember that one of my fraternity brothers thought God was out to get him. He thought God was some big ogre in the sky who was trying to send everyone to hell. I don’t know that I ever convinced him otherwise, but I sure tried to talk about the loving God that I know whenever he would listen.

The tragic news of this parable is that the one-talent servant pronounces his own judgment. He gets the master he believes he serves; he gets only the master his tiny and warped vision can see. In theological terms, he gets the peevish little tyrant god he believes in.

The story is not about a generous master suddenly turning cruel and punitive; it’s about living with the consequences of one’s own faith. If we trust the goodness of God, we can boldly venture out with eyes wide open to the wonder of grace in our life, we can discover the joy of God’s providence everywhere. But to be the child of a generous, gracious, and life-giving God and, despite this, to insist upon viewing God as oppressive, cruel, and fear-provoking, is to live a life that is tragically impoverished.

There is a kind of theological economy at work here. For those people who live in the confidence that God is trustworthy and generous, they find more and more of that generosity everywhere they look; but for those who run and hide under the bed from a bad, mean, and scolding God, they condemn themselves to a life spent under the bed alone, quivering in needless fear. Verse 29 sums up the whole parable, “Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them,” (CEB).

God is a God of deep love, generous beyond measure. We’ve been given a Gospel—Good News—about salvation through Jesus Christ. This isn’t something we bury in the ground, but something we shout from the mountain tops. God has given us a great treasure—God’s only Son—so we could be redeemed from the power of sin and live forever with God. It’s something we ought to joyously celebrate and share with everyone we know.

When our master returns, what will we have to say? Will we dig up our talent and say, I didn’t want to bother with all this, here’s your gift back. Or will we say, Here’s what you have given me, and I’ve made this much more!

We don’t know when our master will return, and it’s not our job to worry about the timing of Jesus’ Second Advent. The kingdom may come before our worship service is finished, or it may not come until my great-great-grandchildren are all in their 90s. Our job isn’t to worry about when. Our job is to work for God’s kingdom until the master returns and we finally see our trusting, welcoming, generous, and benevolent master face-to-face.

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


The Things That Are God’s | Proper 24

Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed. (CEB)

The Things That Are God’s

I don’t know many people who like paying taxes. I mean, yes, we all benefit from what taxes provide, but I don’t know anyone who appreciates how much money the government wastes and misuses. There have been studies released on that waste, and it’s kind of ugly.

Personally, I think that if God only asks for 10 percent, what’s the government to demand more than the creator of the universe? And, why make them so complicated?

Have you ever seen clergy taxes? The federal government can’t decide what to do with us clergy. The IRS says we’re employees, so we get a W-2. But the Social Security Administration says we’re self-employed, which means we have to pay the full 15.3% of self-employment tax ourselves in quarterly installments. So, I’m an employee and I’m self-employed for doing the same job.

For Jews, paying taxes paid to Caesar was a theological problem. If they paid taxes, then they were essentially complicit in the activities of the pagan Roman government which had occupied and annexed their previously independent Hasmonean Kingdom in 63 BCE.

The team of Pharisees and Herodians who ask Jesus this first question is an unlikely alliance. The Herodians were a priestly group whose power base in Israel was founded largely on an alliance with the occupying Roman government. The Pharisees, by contrast, were a lay group within Judaism who tried to obey the Law of Moses to the letter.

For the Pharisees, compromising or partnering with the pagan Romans would have been theologically unthinkable. Only a mutual distaste for Jesus could have brought these two parties together in an attempt to trap and discredit someone they saw as mutually problematic.

The exchange begins with a bit of flattery, which functions as a setup for the trick question that follows. The effect of their praise is to say, Okay mister smarty-pants, let’s see what you do with this one. The question has to do with the religious legality of paying taxes to the Roman emperor. For a quarter of a century, the Jews had been forced to pay a head tax to the Roman government in Roman currency. Some Jews rested easy with Roman rule and supported the tax. This group of supporters was in the minority, and probably included the Herodians.

Most citizens of Judah, however, reacted to the idea of paying money to the pagan emperor with distaste ranging from mild provocation to seething insurrection. In fact, when the tax was established in A.D. 6, there was a small-scale armed revolt. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the tax, which amounted to a denarius, was most often paid with the common denarius coin. This coin was minted with the image of Caesar Tiberius and carried the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus and high priest.”

The inscription, alone, was an offense to Jews who believed the Lord alone is God. Not to mention the fact that the coin had an image on it, which was quasi-forbidden within Judaism. So they had to pay a tax to their occupiers—the Romans—whom they hated, and they were forced to pay it with a Roman coin that claimed that the Roman Emperor was a god and high priest.

And the Romans wondered why that didn’t go over well.

So, to raise the question about paying taxes to the emperor was to pull the scab off of a political and theological wound, which is exactly what Jesus’ questioners did. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” They intended to put Jesus into a precarious position.

If Jesus were to say, No, according to the Law of God it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then the Roman government would move in on him as a dangerous political agitator and enemy of the Roman State. Then again, if Jesus were to say, Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then he would have lost all credibility with many of the people who paid the tax, but did so against their will because they saw the tax as an illegal act of an oppressor government and a moral affront to their religion.

This was a great question for the Pharisees and Herodians to ask because it seemed to be a perfect catch 22. They could discredit Jesus with either answer he gave. This was also an important question for the people to consider, and the people in the crowds were listening. What would Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, say?

Jesus was aware of the intended treachery of his questioners, and he cleverly sidestepped their trap. First, he asked them to show him one of the tax coins, which means that he didn’t have one of the coins on his person, but at least one of his questioners did! (Brilliant move. First point goes to Jesus).

He asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In other words, Jesus says, The coin has Caesar’s image and inscription on it, so give the filthy thing back to Caesar.

There are two ways to understand Jesus’ statement: a mild way and a more radical way. The mild way interprets Jesus’ words to mean the tax is not the issue. You pay the tax with Roman coins, and they bear the emperor’s image and belong to the emperor. So give the emperor his little coins back and get on about the weightier issue of rendering your lives to God. The coin is created in the emperor’s image, but you are created in the image of God; so give the stupid little coin to the emperor, and give your whole self to the God who owns you.

The more radical way is that Jesus refuses to answer the question and actually turns the tables on his examiners, showing them up as two-faced hypocrites. The question they posed to Jesus was designed to allow Jesus two equally bad alternatives. In effect they ask Jesus, “Are you a foolish, uncompromising revolutionary whose allegiance to the kingdom of heaven is actually a political revolution in disguise, or are you a smooth-talking street preacher who stirs people up with persuasive speech of God’s majesty, but who underneath advocates a policy of “let’s just get along” with the Roman Gentile pigs?

Jesus responds to this trick question with a tricky maneuver of his own. When he asks them to show him a tax coin, they unsuspectingly reach into their own purses and withdraw the evidence that exposes them—not him—as deceptive and hypocritical compromisers with Rome. They are the ones carrying around Caesar’s money, not Jesus. They are the ones who have the emperor’s image in their pocketbooks. They are the ones who have already bought into the pagan system.

In this more radical interpretation, Jesus’ words mean, that everybody has to decide between Caesar and God. No one can serve two masters. The Pharisees and Herodians seem to have already made their decision by what they carried in their pockets. They had forged their convenient compromise between their duty to God and the Roman State. But what about their obligation to God? Jesus says, “Render to God what belongs to God.” Choose this day whom you will serve.

What Jesus suggests is that, although we may have to live under this or that Caesar, and we may have to pay this or that tax, we ourselves never belong to Caesar. We belong, body and soul, to the Living God, and we are to render to God what belongs to God’s. To render our lives to God means to give up our own will and desires for the will and desires of God. It means uncompromising obedience to the God who created us, and created all things.

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s. What God desires is us, but we have to give ourselves to God through loving obedience. Part of the way we do that is by recognizing that we belong to God.

We define ourselves in many ways and are usually proud of those definitions. It’s usually pretty easy to spot a Cameron Crazy (a Duke Basketball fan, for those of you who aren’t sports nuts), and you’d better not mistake a Buckeye for a Wolverine unless you’ve got a death wish. People take pride in being American, Canadian, being British, German, Irish, or Polish. What do we think of as our most defining characteristic? Belonging to God is the only defining characteristic that really matters: not the color of our skin, not the work we do, not which city we’re from, not which state we’re from, not our national citizenship, not our level of education, not our annual income.

God is love, and God’s love is our most defining characteristic, both to ourselves and to others. There will come a day when all of humankind will stand before their God and creator, and the only characteristic that will matter at all will be that we belong to God. Once we recognize that we belong to God, we begin to recognize that everything we have belongs to God as well.

Give to God the things that belong to God. What does God want? All of us. Every last bit of every one of us.

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


Into the Vineyard | Proper 20

Matthew 20:1-16

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion, he sent them into his vineyard.

3 “Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ 5 And they went.

“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. 6 Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’

7 “‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.

“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ 9 When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. 11 When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’

13 “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ 16 So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.” (CEB)

Into the Vineyard

In this parable, Jesus overturns the normal values of culture. He takes fairness, as our culture would see it, and throws it out the window. At the end of chapter nineteen Jesus tells his disciples that the kingdom of heaven will be radically different than they would expect or perceive. This parable continues that theme.

First, I suppose it would be helpful to explain what this parable is not. This parable isn’t about economics. It’s not a lesson on how employers should treat their employees. No company could survive if they paid their employees in this way. Besides, any company that paid employees hired in December the same amount as those who work a full twelve months would soon have trouble finding anybody in the office from January to November. In the same way, any teacher who gave an A to a student who registered for the class on the last day would find themselves in the midst of a revolt on the part of the students who showed up for class and handed in the required assignments all through the semester. The parable is intentionally impractical so that it forces us to think in a new way about ourselves, other people, and God.

The parable it is to be interpreted as a sort of poetic allegory. Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.” (Matthew 20:1 CEB). We’re to understand this householder, in a symbolic way, as God. And we are to understand ourselves, in a symbolic way, as the laborers in the vineyard.

The landowner in this parable seems more concerned about the workers than he does about his crop or profit. We’d expect the story to say that the landowner hired some harvesters early in the day, but when he found out that the crop was bigger than he expected, and that the job was bigger than the first workers could handle, he went out to round up enough workers to get the job done. But this is not what happened in this parable. In this case the landowner went out and hired more workers simply because the unutilized labor force was standing around waiting to be hired. The landowner is motivated by the needs of the people. If anyone is out of work, the landowner will invite them to come work in his vineyard, not necessarily because he needs them, but because they need him and the work he is able to provide so that they, in turn, can provide for their own families.

At no point does the landowner say to the workers standing in the marketplace, Why are you standing around? Go get a job you lazy slackers! Nor does the landowner say to the workers, Well, I wish I could use you but I already have a full crew. No, every time the landowner goes out into the marketplace and finds workers standing idle he invites them to come work in his vineyard. This landowner hires even those persons whom all other employers have neglected, rejected, ignored, or in any other way refused to offer a job. These are the people who are like the kids in a gym class that are always picks last to be on the kickball team. These are those whom the world rejects, yet they are beloved by God.

If we’re to understand ourselves symbolically as the laborers in the vineyard, this parable forces us to rethink how we relate to God. We can’t help but notice that the different groups of workers are operating under different agreements with the landowner. The first group of workers made an agreement with the landowner to work for a denarius, which at that time was the normal daily wage for a worker. This is a clear contractual agreement. The second, third, and fourth groups agreed to work for “whatever is right,” (Matthew 20:4) thus placing their trust completely in the landowner to give them a fair wage for their time of work. They had no specific agreement with the landowner.

The fifth group was not even told that they would receive what was fair. They had no agreement whatsoever with the landowner. They were simply told, “You also go into the vineyard” (Matthew 20:7 CEB). At the end of the day, the landowner says, “Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first” (Matt. 20:8 CEB). Each labor gets a denarius, a full day’s wage for their work. Everyone gets enough to live on.

There is, possibly, a dramatic contrast between the first hour workers and the last hour workers. The last hour workers were desperate and needy, and they knew it. They had waited all day for a call to work and gotten none. They would have stood idle and useless all day had it not been for the benevolence of the landowner. Those who, in joy and in trust, responded to the command of the landowner to go into the vineyard are given sheer grace: a full day’s wage, which for them is the sustenance of life. It’s what they can use to feed their families.

The first hour workers are also given grace, although they don’t readily recognize it. They’re the contract workers. Maybe they’re bargainers who think that life works according to deals and negotiations. Maybe they try to strike bargains with God, counting up good deeds, checking their timecards, and measuring out their devotion with cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons. They might see themselves as entitled in that they deserve what is rightfully theirs. If we interpret the parable this way, the contrast between these workers could hardly be more dramatic. The first crew, the bargainers, are working for a denarius. The latecomers are working for the landowner, for God, and both get what they are working for.

As I mentioned before, a denarius was the typical daily wage for a worker. But this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. What is a daily wage in the kingdom of heaven? In the previous chapter, Peter said to the Lord, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you. What will we have?” (Matthew 19:27 CEB). Jesus replied to the disciples, “I assure you who have followed me that, when everything is made new, when the Human One sits on his magnificent throne, you also will sit on twelve thrones overseeing the twelve tribes of Israel. And all who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or farms because of my name will receive one hundred times more and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:28-30 CEB).

One way to interpret this parable is that, at the end of the day, everyone who has labored in God’s vineyard, everyone who has served in the work of the kingdom—even those last-second converts—will be given a wage that will give them life.

Now, to be clear, this is a parable. It’s not direct language, and I doubt Jesus is suggesting that we can earn our way to heaven. In fact, the way the parable is pieced together, it seems clear that what is given is more closely related to God’s generosity than to what we have earned. At the same time, every time the Scriptures mention judgment, they say we’ll be judged according to what we have done, what we have failed to do, or what we have said.

The fact that the last-minute workers get the same wage as those who worked all day shows us the true poverty of those who started their work first. Everybody in the parable is offered the same wealth of the kingdom. God gives everyone a daily wage so extravagant that no one could ever spend it all. A deluge of grace descends upon everyone; torrents of joy and blessing fall everywhere. It’s inundating, overwhelming, super-abounding. And these pitiful first hour workers stand drenched in God’s mercy with an ocean of peace running down their faces, clutching their little contracts and whining that they deserve more.

The reply of the landowner to one of the workers at the end of this parable speaks to the point. The landowner says, “Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?” (Matthew 20:13-15 CEB).

The literal translation of this last sentence from Greek is, “Or is your eye evil because I’m good?” The language recalls the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. Therefore, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how terrible that darkness will be!” (Matt. 6:22-23 CEB). In other words, when the landowner says to the first hour workers, “Or are you resentful because I’m generous?” he kind of saying, “Does my generosity expose the darkness of your soul?

What we see of God in the world colors how we live in it and how we interact with others. If we see only scarcity, partiality, unfairness, and selfishness, we might start to act that way, too. If we see God’s extravagance, impartiality, fairness, and generosity, we’ll start to imitate those things.

The message of this parable is that God is generous. God’s generosity is overflowing, and surges mercifully over the landscape of human life. We may need to consider whether we are serving for the reward or because we love God. Either way God is merciful. But those who rely upon grace see grace more clearly. Jesus invites us to open our eyes and see that all is grace. All is providence. And everything is from God.

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


Defiled | Proper 15

Matthew 15:10-28

10 Jesus called the crowd near and said to them, “Listen and understand. 11 It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person.”

12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?”

13 Jesus replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be pulled up. 14 Leave the Pharisees alone. They are blind people who are guides to blind people. But if a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch.”

15 Then Peter spoke up, “Explain this riddle to us.”

16 Jesus said, “Don’t you understand yet? 17 Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. 19 Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. 20 These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight.”

21 From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” 23 But he didn’t respond to her at all.

His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”

24 Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”

25 But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”

26 He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”

27 She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”

28 Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed. (CEB)


The latter portion of this text raises questions about prejudice and whether or not one race or people can be superior to others. It raises questions that were lived out on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. When anyone thinks of themselves as superior to another, the results are appalling and inexcusable.

The difficulty of this text is that it has Jesus call a woman a dog because she is from a different cultural and religious background. It’s one of those moments where we read Jesus’ words and cringe. Let’s unpack the scene a little bit. Jews of Jesus’ day and earlier viewed themselves as superior to the peoples around them. It was, apparently, common for Jews to refer to Canaanites and Samaritans as dogs. Many Jews believed these people were unworthy of a decent thought. Why? Because Jewish tradition said Jews were the chosen people of God. They had displaced the Canaanites in the land under the leadership of Joshua and the Judges, and the Samaritans were essentially half-breeds from the former northern Kingdom of Israel who had intermarried with people of other backgrounds when their tradition forbade it.

Really, at the key to understanding this matter is mercy. Who is worthy to receive mercy? Who is worthy of ours and who is worthy of receiving God’s? And how is one worthy or unworthy?

The heart of the argument is the role of tradition in Jewish life. In fact, the first 15 verses of Matthew 15 show us a disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees about tradition. Tradition can mean anything from the order of Sunday worship, to some dusty relic in a closet, to the potato salad recipe at the pitch-in dinner.

I mean, Potato salad without mustard is blasphemy. By golly if it doesn’t have mustard in it, someone might just get a beat down. God ordained that potato salad shall have mustard because that’s the way my 5th great-grandmother from Dublin made it when she invented potato salad!

That’s the level of nonsense to which these arguments about tradition can descend when people start in on them. We know we’re supposed to love each other because that’s what God told us to do. But we end up loving tradition (meaning our way and our stuff) more than each other. And we wrap that love of tradition in the guise of holiness. Jesus argued the Pharisees were doing that. In the first fifteen verses, Jesus argues that the Pharisees ignored the commandments of God by adhering to human tradition. The commandment to honor your father and mother meant that you took care of your parents in their old age. The Pharisees got around that because tradition said they could tell their parents that, whatever they were going to give to their parents for their care, they’ll give to God instead. So, they ended up not honoring their father and mother, and thought they were doing something holier than the very thing God commanded them to do. They disobeyed God to fulfill their human tradition and wrapped that tradition in the guise of holiness.

Tradition in and of itself isn’t bad. It can be a good thing. It can ground us solidly in our faith and life. Our order of worship comes from tradition. Praying the Lord’s Prayer comes from tradition. Singing hymns comes from tradition.

But tradition can also work to achieve the opposite of solid grounding, especially if we use tradition to fence people out. When we honor tradition more than people, we’ve squeezed the life out of tradition. We’ve hardened it into irrelevance. Tradition cannot be inflexible. It cannot be held up as more important than people. Our tradition is not the object of our worship. When it is, we’ve turned tradition into an idol. A pastor from Texas once told me that the first thing their congregation does when they put in new carpet is to eat on it. They have a meal in that room knowing someone was going to spill gravy. But they do it so people won’t make an idol of the carpeting. (Sorry, Trustees, if I’m making you cringe a little). People are always more important than our sacred cows.

In our text, Jesus takes up the tradition of ritual cleanliness as an issue. The Pharisees argued that if you eat with unwashed hands, you’re defiling your food and, therefore, yourself for eating it. Their tradition said that you were actually offending God by eating with unwashed hands. Now, most mothers I know will probably start preaching this to their kids before lunch today. (For the hundredth time, wash your hands or God will be mad at you!). But we aren’t going to offend God by not washing our hands before we eat. (Sorry moms. Let me fix that). Kids, honoring your father and mother also means doing what you’re told. So wash your hands when mom tells you to.

Twice before this dispute with the Pharisees over a matter of tradition, Jesus had quoted Hosea 6:6, which says, “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings” (CEB). That word translated as “faithful love” is חֶסֶד (hesed) in Hebrew. It can also mean obligation, kindness, and mercy. Jesus, twice, tells us what God wants of us, “I want mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7 CEB). Over and over Jesus preaches that it isn’t the tradition that matters to God. It’s how we treat other people that matters to God. It’s our relationships that matter to God. That’s why Jesus calls the Pharisees blind guides. They don’t see that people are more important than human tradition. They don’t make the connection that following their tradition actually leads to disobedience to God’s direct commandments to honor their parents and love their neighbors.

What defiles isn’t what goes into our mouths, but the words that come out of it. I love Jesus’s image. It’s incredibly kid-friendly. What goes into our mouths—whether we washed our hands or not—goes into our stomach and we poop it out. It all goes into the sewer. But what comes out of our mouths comes from our heart. The evil of our hearts is what defiles us before God. Those are the things that contaminate us. If our heart is full of evil thoughts and intentions, murder, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults, those are the things that are going to come out of our mouth. Our mouth reveals our contamination just like fruit tells us what kind of a tree we’re looking at.

Some parts of tradition, at least the way the tradition was interpreted by some, also said that certain people were outside the scope of God’s care. Tradition suggested certain people didn’t deserve God’s mercy. So, when Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a land inhabited by Canaanites, he’s met by one of these very people and the arguments he has just made are put to the test. When we read what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, who only wants her daughter to be healed, we cringe. She begs Jesus for the very mercy he’s been preaching and, at first, he ignores her. Then he tells her he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Then, he calls her and her people dogs.

None of this sounds very Jesus-like. It sounds like he’s living out of the very tradition that he was preaching against just a few verses before. What comes out of a person’s mouth is what defiles them because those words proceed from the heart. It sounds like Jesus is demonstrating an incredible amount of prejudice against this woman who’s coming to him asking for mercy for herself and her daughter. She’s not an Israelite. She’s not a Jew. Yet she knows something of Jesus and his reputation as a healer. She even addresses him as “Son of David,” which has Messianic implications. She knows Jesus has come from God, and she seeks God’s mercy.

Some scholars think this is a moment when Jesus is caught with his compassion down. But what I think is happening here is a demonstration of the argument Jesus has just had: that God desires mercy not sacrifice, compassion not tradition. Of course we can’t know for sure, but I would like to think Jesus knew all along that he would heal this woman’s daughter. But first, he lists the excuses tradition would give any Jew for not showing mercy to an outsider. Tradition says the Messiah is a Jewish thing, not for other people. Tradition says the people of Israel are God’s chosen and elect, not other people. It was an idea that had become a doctrine of favoritism and exclusion in the hands of the very religious leaders who criticized Jesus. It was a doctrine that allowed people to hold contempt for non-Jews and even for Jews who were born into poverty, or born with physical maladies and ill-health.

The woman’s response is perfect. She doesn’t object to God having mercy on the chosen of Israel. On the contrary, she makes God’s mercy for Israel the very grounds of her request for mercy. “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:27 CEB). She understands the very thing about God that Jesus has been teaching, that God is merciful. The way God acts as God toward the human race is through mercy.

When Moses asked to see God’s glorious presence, God said, “I’ll make all my goodness pass in front of you, and I’ll proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD.’ I will be kind to whomever I wish to be kind, and I will have compassion to whomever I wish to be compassionate.” (Exodus 33:19 CEB). God’s mercy extends to everyone. We Christians should know that very well because, by and large, we are not biological children of Abraham. We are God’s children by adoption because God had mercy on us. God’s mercy overflows even to people like us: the dogs of the house whom some interpreters of Jewish tradition would have excluded. That’s us, you know. We’re the dogs. (Which is one of countless reasons why white supremacists ought not think so highly of themselves).

The only claim we have, no matter who we are, is the overflowing mercy of God. When I read the last verse of this text, I can only hear amused delight in Jesus’ tone when he said, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish” (Matthew 15:28 CEB).

One more thing to note here is that the word mercy in this text is a verb in Greek, not a noun. Mercy is something we do. It’s the compassion we show, the love we give, the kindness we offer, the charity we provide to and for others. God’s mercy is for everyone. There is no us against them. There is no limit to the mercy of God. Since we have received God’s mercy, what can we offer to others but mercy?

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


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!


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.”


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.