Monday, September 29, 2014

Nine Weeks in a Row

As Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary is nearing its end, we’re also approaching the end of Matthew’s gospel account. Regarding chapters, we’re up into the 20s, and we’ll stay there until Advent starts (unless you observe the readings for All Saints’ Day on November 2). Yesterday’s lesson (Matthew 21:23-32) comes on the heels of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple. That means that every Sunday from now until November 30 will have a gospel reading that comes from the last few days of Jesus’ life. It’s kind of like nine weeks of Lent and Holy Week—heightened emotion, increased conflict, and impending doom. I’m not sure we can handle it.

This coming Sunday’s reading (Matthew 21:33-46) is a continuation of yesterday’s lesson. When the Pharisees’ question Jesus’ authority with regard to the cleansing of the temple, Jesus responded with a short parable of two sons—one who refused to help his father’s request for help but helped anyway, and one who agreed to help but then neglected his duty. Although the images were tangential at times, the overall message was clear: those in the kingdom of God serve the Lord with their actions not just their words.

Just in case they (we) missed it, Jesus tells another damning parable. This time, it’s the story of the owner of a vineyard who leased it out to some pretty wicked tenants. When he sent his slaves to collect his share of the produce, the tenants attacked them, giving them nothing. So the owner sent his more slaves, but they were treated in the same way. Finally, the owner sends his son—the heir—thinking that the tenants will respect them, but, of course, they kill the heir, dreaming that they might keep the vineyard for themselves. We know how it ends—with a violent overthrow of the tenants and a reappropriation of the vineyard.

We’re in the middle of a series on fruitlessness. Here’s a breakdown of Matthew 21 & 22:

  • Jesus enters Jerusalem to a cheering crowd, which exclaims the messianic line, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Can this be the one we’re waiting for?)
  • Jesus heads straight to the temple, where he overthrows the religious apparatus by turning over the tables and chasing out the money changers. (Is this a sign that God’s anointed has come to reform the worship of God’s people?)
  • Jesus sees a fig tree but finds no fruit (Psst! spring isn’t the right season for figs), so he curses it, and it withers. (What else might Jesus find that is bearing no fruit?)
  • Jesus’ authority is challenged by the Pharisees, and in reply he asks them about John the Baptist’s baptism—is it heavenly or earthly?—but they refuse to answer. (What will it take for the religious authorities to align themselves with God’s true work in the world?)
  • Jesus tells the story of the two sons. (Are we serving God with our lips or our lives?)
  • Jesus tells the parable of the tenants in the vineyard. (Are we bearing fruit for ourselves or for the kingdom of God?)
  • Jesus tells the parable of the wedding feast—those without the right garment are thrown into the outer darkness. (What does it mean to be “dressed” for the kingdom? Are we prepared to enter God’s banquet?)
  • The Pharisees try to trap Jesus on the issue of paying taxes to Rome, and the Sadducees try to trap Jesus on the issue of resurrection, and then the Pharisees try to trap Jesus on the issue of whose son the messiah really is, but Jesus silences them all. (What is our response when confronted with the kingdom of God? Do we push back?)

It’s hard to hear this message of the kingdom over and over and over. It’s hard to come to church each week and be beaten up by Jesus, who continually questions whether we’re fit for the kingdom—whether we’re bearing fruit. It’s an important message, but can we hear it for two months in a row? It’s only week two, and I’m already looking for a new angle.

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