Jesus asked the Pharisees a clever question. “What do you think of the
Messiah? Whose son is he?” The Pharisees knew the obvious answer.
“The son of David.” (Mt. 22:42)
But Jesus had a not-so-obvious point to make using a very close reading
of a fairly obscure passage. But here’s the main thing. Jesus made
his point not as a statement but as a question. He tossed the ball back
to the Pharisees: “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his
son?” (v. 45) He invited engagement.
What interests me most is that the Pharisees were apparently trying to
test Jesus in some way. Jesus, though, attempted to engage them in a
conversation. He posed questions. Questions invite further
conversation. Unfortunately, the Pharisees cut the conversation off.
“No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone
dare to ask him any more questions.” (v. 46)
I think the mistake the Pharisees made was concentrating on the
answers. Answers have a finality to them. That’s the answer and that’s
that. Or, as we sometimes hear where I’m from: “God said it. I
believe it. That settles it.” Questions invite further engagement and
ongoing conversation in a way that answers just do not.
Jesus is much more about ongoing conversation than answers because
ongoing conversation is fundamentally relational. To be in conversation
is to be in relationship. That matters a lot more than answers.
The Pharisees, like the Sadducees before them, stopped engaging. That
doesn’t leave much room for relationship. And there is no salvation
outside of relationship. Not even Jesus can work with those who refuse
to engage. We don’t have to have the answers. All we have to do is
engage the question.
When you’re a bishop you get a lot of interesting mail. Some of it is
angry. Some of it is humorous. Some of it is angry and unintentionally
humorous. This is about a letter of the last sort.
I can’t remember what I said that set my correspondent off. Something
heretical about grace or the unconditional nature of God’s love, or I
suspect, God’s call on the church to respond with unconditional
acceptance and inclusion of everyone, absolutely everyone. Someone who
didn’t see it quite the same way wrote me what was intended to be a
rebuke. “If the Kingdom of God is as inclusive as you say it is,” the
email read, “why would anyone want to be a part of it?” I guess some
people would rather just stay home if the wrong people get invited.
Well, there you have the basic problem. It is one Jesus addressed in a
parable about a king who gave a wedding banquet (Mt. 22:1-14). The
invited guests responded badly. Some made flimsy excuses. Others
ignored the invitation. Still others responded violently. (It’s
interesting that invitations to God’s banquet not infrequently result in
violently negative reactions.)
When the original guests failed to accept, the king was not deterred.
He sent his messengers into the streets to invite everyone and anyone
they could find. They did so, to both good and bad, and the wedding
hall was filled with guests. I guess the original invitees wouldn’t
have wanted to be there anyway, especially if they knew who eventually
But then, as Matthew tells this story, there’s one more curiosity.
Among the guests was a man who showed up not wearing the proper wedding
garment. With this, the king was not so pleased and has the man cast
Scholars will tell you these two parts of the stories were completely
separate sayings as Jesus actually told them, and that Matthew put them
together simply because they both involved wedding banquets. Who am I
to argue with scholars, and I have no doubt they’re right.
Still, if we’re lucky enough to get an invitation, I think it would
behoove us to show up with our party clothes and dancing shoes on.
Otherwise, we might as well have stayed home, and in that case we
deserve to get thrown out.
The parable Jesus told about a landowner who planted a vineyard and
then leased it out to tenants (Mt. 21:33-46) appears to be about
judgment. I have begun to question that.
The landowner planted a fine vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a
wine press, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants.
When the time of the harvest came, he sent his slaves to collect the
produce of the vineyard as rent. But the tenants killed the slaves and
did not send the produce. He sent more slaves. The same result.
Finally, the landowner sent his son to collect the produce. He also was
killed. Jesus asked his hearers what would be the natural result of
this sort of behavior. They replied, “He will put those wretches to a
miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give
them the produce at the harvest time.” Sounds like judgment to me.
There is another story in the Bible about just such a vineyard, and it
happens to be one of this week’s options for an Old Testament reading
(Isa. 5:1-7). The parallel is uncanny. It is about another landowner
who planted a vineyard. He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted
it with choice vines. He built a watchtower in the midst of it. He
hewed out a vine vat in it. Still, despite all the effort, it yielded
inferior grapes. And then Isaiah goes on to pronounce judgment on the
vineyard, the removal of its hedge, the breaking down of its wall, its
trampling down, its wasting away. It would sound like judgment were it
not for the way Isaiah begins his story: “Let me sing for my beloved my
love-song concerning his vineyard.”
It is a song of love and a broken heart more than it is a prophecy of
judgment. It is a song of God’s wooing of the people as if a landowner
tending the most beloved and cared for of vineyards even if it ends in
Perhaps Jesus’ parable bears looking at again in light of the love song
that its original hearers would have had in mind when Jesus told it to
begin with. Immediately after the answer that the tenants will no doubt
be put to a miserable death, Jesus quotes Psalm 118 with reference to
the son of the landowner who had been killed in the story and no doubt
with reference to his own imminent death. “The stone that the builders
rejected has become the cornerstone.” And then he goes on to refer to
that stone again in the very next verse after our reading for this week
ends. It is this. “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to
pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Sounds like
judgment, but is it really?
If we take the rejected cornerstone as a metaphor for Jesus, Jesus is
not judgment. Jesus is love. Jesus came, he said, not to judge the
world but that the world might live. In Jesus, we are not broken by
judgment. We are broken by love. And over and over, when we fall on
the rock solid love of Jesus, what is broken are our own hearts. What
is crushed is not our spirits or our lives but our hardness of heart.
It takes the rock solid cornerstone to break the stone cold hardness of
our souls. If there is judgment in this parable that Jesus told, and in
the love song that Isaiah sung, it is the judgment of love, which is
perhaps the hardest judgment of all to face, and also the softest.
Jesus tells a little parable in this week’s gospel reading, Matthew
21:23-32, that rings true to me as the father of two sons. I doubt it
would be different if I were the father of two daughters. At any rate,
Jesus’ choice to make the characters boys hits home.
A father told his sons to go and work in the vineyard. The first
defied him, but later changed his mind and went. His intentions were
not good, at least at first. The second complied, but then did not go.
We do not know whether he, like his older brother, also changed his
mind, or whether he deceived his father from the beginning, so we can’t
be sure what his intentions were. I don’t think Jesus cared which it
was. It’s because the only thing we can be sure of is behavior.
The point for the father was the working in the vineyard, and not what
was in the heads of his two sons. As a dad who has needed more than
once desperately to get some yard work done, this also makes sense to
me. There is no indication that he held the older son’s defiance
against him, which speaking as a father, I know is hard to do, but in
the end, getting the work done matters more. The point is the eventual
behavior—that the boy went and worked in the vineyard.
Likewise, there is no indication that the father cared whether the
younger son lied or changed his mind, only that he did not go and work
in the vineyard. Maybe that’s because fathers would have time for
little else if they got bent out of shape every time they got lied to.
What matters, once again, is the behavior and not that the younger son’s
intentions either to go (in which case he just changed his mind) or not
to go from the very beginning (in which case he was lying). What
matters is his behavior, or lack thereof.
There are other occasions for dealing with the relational consequences
of not telling the truth. For now, the point is that behavior is what
matters. Intentions, for good or for ill, are not nearly so important.
After the Hebrew people were liberated from slavery in Egypt, after
they crossed safely through the Red Sea and escaped Pharaoh’s army,
after all the ways God had cared for them, there came a time when they
grew weary of it all and longed for the days before their liberation.
whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron
in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died
by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the
fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into
this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex. 16:2-3)
The story of the Exodus is one of the world’s great stories of
liberation. Liberation, though, no matter how marvelous it may be, is
still change. And change is hard. Liberation is particularly hard. It
means taking responsibility. It means being at risk. It means paying a
price. Freedom does not exist without cost, and the cost of freedom in
ongoing. The temptation as old as humanity itself is to trade freedom
for slavery in order to avoid paying the price.
In the story from Exodus, God provided manna for the people to eat, but
there was more to God’s provision of bread than met the eye. Doing so
was not simply a gift for the hungry people. Nor was it just a way to
get them to stop their complaining. It was a test.
“I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people
shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test
them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.” (v.4)
I’ve never noticed that detail before, that manna from heaven was not
only a gift; it was a test. Liberation from slavery and deliverance
from Pharaoh were not only given to the Hebrew people by God; they were a
Freedom is a test—a test to see what we will do with it. So what will
we? Are we up to the responsibility? The risk? The price? God makes
great promises. Even promises must be accepted. Big promises must be
The Exodus from Egypt. It may be a pretty central story to the story
of God as told in the Bible, but it is a pretty disturbing story
nonetheless. It is not only the story of the deliverance of the Hebrew
people from slavery. It is also the story of the destruction of Egypt.
Last week’s lesson (Ex. 12:1-14) was about the Passover, surely a
central theme not only of the Jewish people, but of the Christian. It
is the beginning of the story of deliverance. It contains the
instructions for remembrance, remembrance in a deep sense, remembrance
in a sacramental sense that makes the recalling of the great event of
the past real and experienced in the present. It is the story of the
Seder. It becomes the story of the Eucharist.
But even last week, the coming of deliverance was intertwined with
death and destruction. On the night God passed over the houses marked
with the blood of an unblemished lamb, God also took the lives of all
the firstborn of Egypt, animals and humans alike. As the Hebrew people
prepared for their liberation, plagues descended not only upon the house
of Pharaoh, but on the houses of all Egyptians.
This week’s lesson (Ex. 14:19-31) is similar. The waters were parted
and the Hebrew people walked through on dry ground. The waters were
rejoined and the army of Egypt was drowned. Not a single person
It paints a picture of God that is at one and the same time marvelous
and terrifying, hopeful and vengeful, life-giving and death-dealing. It
is a dramatic story. It is a disturbing picture.
I admit that I do not know quite what to do with that. I cannot quite
bring myself to see God in precisely the way described in Exodus.
Perhaps, I fear, that is because I have an easier time looking through
the eyes of the Egyptians than I do through those of the Hebrews, an
easier time identifying with the oppressor than I do, the oppressed.
And while I cannot quite bring myself to see God taking the firstborn
of the children of the Egyptians nor calling the water back to cover and
drown such a multitude in the Red Sea, I can recognize that my own view
of oppression, wherever it is found, and my response to it, puts me
squarely on God’s side or its opposite. Life is in one. Death pervades
the other. The story of the Exodus says this in quite a dramatic way,
even a horrifying way. Still, it gets at something important. Whether
we walk through the sea on dry ground or are drowned in the chaos may
have less to do with God’s vengeance and much more to do with how we
respond to oppression.
The earliest beginnings of the Christian community experienced conflict
among believers. Jesus himself provided for it. “If another member of
the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of
you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that
one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with
you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three
witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the
church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let
such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Sin even by one
believer against another, disappointing though it is, is not new.
Here is what is new. Sin by one member of the community against
another is not a matter just between them. Sin within the community may
not surprise us. What may is that “That’s none of my business” has no
place within the community. We’re in this together.
Sin by one against another weakens not only those two and the
relationship between them, but the whole. The Christian community is
only as strong as the weakest relationship within it.
Jesus also said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be
bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in
heaven.” What I think it means is that we either all go into heaven
together bound by our conflicts or we all go into heaven together
liberated from them. I’m afraid that sin in the kingdom of heaven is
community property. I’m encouraged, however, that so is righteousness.