Matthew 21:23-32 23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
This week, Pastor Intern Andi Lloyd gave the sermon, Change of Heart. To read the sermon, click the button below.
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
Matthew 20:1-16 Recently, a computer program developer named George Davila Durendal created an artificial intelligence algorithm using the King James Version of the Bible. Dubbed “AI Jesus,” Durendal hoped to develop a program that would speak on contemporary topics using King James English and inspired by the words of our sacred text.
The program digested the King James Version and learned to mimic its style and vocabulary. Then Durendal, sensing the near-apocalyptic nature of the world these days, asked AI Jesus to speak on three different topics: ‘The Plague,’ ‘Caesar,’ and ‘The End of Days.’ Complete nonsense came out:
“The Plague,” says AI Jesus, “shall be the fathers in the world; and the same is my people, that he may be more abundant in the mouth of the LORD of hosts.”
“And the ships,” continues AI Jesus, “that was [sic] before the temple and he said, ‘Thou shall not cause to be cleansed.”
Of course, these sayings and as well as others have a twitter handle, so we get to read these confusing creations, like this one, “Power and godly, and have commanded the children of the world, and will set my face against thee, and thou shalt be called the people.”
I think this is a really interesting and kind of silly project. Preaching and teaching in the Christian tradition is mostly about making the words and actions of Jesus come alive and relevant to our lives today. In some ways, what Durendal is attempting isn’t that much different.
But I also feel a little wrong about this project. The teachings of Jesus found in our scriptures are difficult enough to understand without these nonsensical creations. It makes me wonder if folks will look at AI Jesus as another example of how the lessons of our faith are confusing, silly, or not worth the effort.
Take today’s parable. There’s enough here to be confusing with wealthy landowners, day labors, vineyard work, weird hiring practices, and enigmatic endings. At least we can kind of imagine this one.
It’s harvest time, and the grapes are ready for picking. The landowner, like the wealthy elite in Jesus’ day, owned enough land that day laborers needed to be hired to harvest. So this landowner sends his farm manager, called a “vintner” in this case, to the market to hire folks.
This was a common practice in Jesus’ day. Day laborers, those who do not own land, and are not tired by social contact or servitude to another landowner, met in the market every day to look for work. Wealthy folks that needed extra help would come down to the market and hire people, usually for the going wage, which was one denarius for a day’s work.
Like last week’s gospel reading, understanding the unit of money is essential to the story. The crowd that Jesus told this parable to knew the value of a denarius. A denarius was just about enough money to live on for one day. It was enough to cover food, housing, and incidentals for you and perhaps a small family with nothing left over. The reference in the Lord’s prayer – “Give us today, our daily bread,” is a nod to the many folks that Jesus encounters that live day today.
So, what if you showed up early at the market, looking for work, but no one was hiring that day? You didn’t eat. What if you worked, but were stiffed at the end of the day by the landowner? Your family faced eviction. What if this was a Friday? You didn’t eat for two days because of the Sabbath. The margins for survival for folks that surrounded Jesus were so slim.
So in his story, Jesus talks about how the vintner returns to the market throughout the day bringing workers in, and at the end of the day, everyone gets what they need, enough payment to go on for another day, regardless of the hours worked.
Now, because of the way we are taught to think about issues like work, merit, fairness, and economic systems, we come preloaded with questions for this parable. How is it fair that everyone gets paid the same? How is the employer able to do this? Who are the workers that are still at the market later in the afternoon? Are they lazy or something? Is Jesus condemning a good day’s work?
The parable is silent on much of the details because that’s not the story Jesus wants to tell.
Instead, Jesus acknowledges that people have come to work. Whether they are there bright and early or still there later in the day, their need is the same, survive the day. Provide for your family. Hold onto your dignity. The landowner in Jesus’ parable understands this and allows this human concern to govern his bottom line.
I think Jesus has a much more expansive idea of what the kingdom of heaven, God’s alternative way of ordering life, looks like, and we give him credit for. It isn’t just about personal responsibility, piety, and being a nice person—God’s way of ordering life changes everything. The way we build community, the politics we practice, and the economic systems we adopt are all part of this divine shakeup.
In God’s economy, human dignity and wellbeing are the outcomes. People are more important than profits. The prosperity of talent, planning, hard work, and the land's bounty is seen as gracious gifts of God rather than unconditioned human endeavors. The harvest in our story, then, is not measured in the amount of wine made that year, but in the number of families and individuals in the community that eat, had shelter, and participated in God’s abundance.
Likely this message is as difficult for our modern ears as it was for those workers that labored all day in the hot sun and felt cheated. In this regard, we might hear the complaints of the elder son in the more familiar parable of the prodigal son. How are we, mostly privileged people, who have worked for a lifetime and scraped and saved to look at this story? Maybe we see our ability to work as a gift. Maybe we see our chance to scrap and save as a form of God’s grace. Maybe we think less about comparing our lives to others. Maybe we understand that folks have different talents and varied capabilities. Maybe we realize that we all do well when we all do well.
Today, we might question the morality of our economy when we measure it only by the stock market. Today, we might probe why housing has become unaffordable according to the standard metric in all fifty states. Today we might work to end hunger because it’s totally possible if we wanted to. Today, we might consider the human impact of our choices, from buying local, hiring new folks, and voting in this year’s election.
See, Jesus’s words are confusing enough. And challenging enough. And pretty controversial enough. And also, relevant and timely, and needed.
May we hear this challenging parable of Jesus and not turn away. May the work we do individually and as a faith community be grounded in stories like these. For the sake of the world and all in it. Amen.
“The Unmerciful Servant” by Sir John Everett Millais, 1864. From a collection of twenty images inspired by the New Testament Parables of Jesus.Public Domain.
Matthew 18:21-35 New Revised Standard Version
21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
Matthew 18:21-35 Lamech is one of the Hebrew Bible's lesser-known characters, and maybe not a very nice one by what our Scriptures say. The great-great-great-grandson of Cain, Lamech, has a little song in Genesis chapter 4:
And Lamech sang this to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, here my voice: You wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, A young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
This is the Hebrew Bible’s first poem, and it describes an escalating spiral of revenge.
If I am honest, revenge is one of my favorite themes when I read and watch movies or television. I doubt I am alone on this. There is something deeply satisfying, and troubling, in watching a tragic protagonist carefully plan and implement payback on the bad guy. The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, and Kill Bill are all famous revenge movies. The Princess Bride is one too, and if you’ve seen it, you probably remember the oft-repeated line, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Sometimes, stories like No Country for Old Men and Gone Girl blur the lines between those that are good and those that are bad. Regardless, in revenge stories, it seems that no one escapes without being touched by some violence, corruption, or at least a guilty conscience.
It is interesting, then, that the first poem of our Scriptures is about revenge. We even get the sense from Genesis 4 that Cain’s family line has become more violent, warlike, and generally awful. And likely, this small poem from Genesis 4 serves as the context for Jesus’ remarks about forgiveness and subsequent parable.
After a few weeks off, we are back in the gospel of Matthew. We recognize Matthew’s gospel because we get another parable. We also recognize it because the gospel writer is threatening torturous hell again, a frightening ending added to many of Jesus’ parables in Matthew. Previously, Jesus is depicted advising about how to handle someone in the early church that’s caused an issue. He lines out a procedure that works diligently to restore the offending person to the community. But, if there is no confession of wrong and no forgiveness, the person is to be avoided.
In our story, Peter has been thinking about this advice from Jesus and what it might look like practically, specifically if the offensive person continues to offend.
“How often should I forgive an offensive person, like seven times?” It sounds pretty generous.
“Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus says. And he realizes that this conversation has gotten pretty abstract. So, he tells a story.
A king is settling accounts with his servants, and one of them owed him ten thousand talents. Again, we know this is a parable from Matthew because Jesus is describing a silly situation. One talent of gold equaled about fifteen years of work for a day laborer. In a very general estimate, the total debt in today’s money would have been around four and a half billion with a “B.” Simply put, the debt was so significant that is was a silly number. Perhaps during Jesus’ time, a debtor could be sold into servitude to help recover a portion of the debt. But the king doesn’t do this. Instead, the king waves the debt entirely and sends his servant on his way. As the servant leaves, he runs into a buddy that owes him 100 denarii – still a lot of money, maybe around $12,000 by today’s standards, but nowhere approaching the astronomical number he had previously owed. The buddy can’t pay now, and instead of making arrangements or even waving the debt as the king had done for him, the servant has his buddy thrown in jail. Once the king hears about this, the cancelation of the debt is rescinded, and the unforgiving servant is sent to the dungeon to be tortured for the rest of his life.
The apostle Paul, as he writes in Romans 14, has something to say about a form of forgiveness, something that looks like graciousness or inclusiveness. He is quick to remind the early Christ-followers in the Empire’s capital Rome that attributes like forgiveness, nonjudgment, unity with diversity, and tolerance for others are hallmarks of Christian community. This early community, he exhorts, should be a space that feels safe enough for a diverse group of people who have different dietary practices, political stances, and holiday observances. Much of those differences, Paul contends, is between the individual and their Lord, whether that be earthly lords or heavenly ones.
It makes sense too that Jesus talks about forgiveness right after a section on the early church. Conflict and transgressions seem inevitable as humans rub against each other in families, working groups, and wider communities. The sharp corners of our personalities irritate and scuff against those with whom we interact regularly. If you happen to be doing this whole COVID thing with others in your household, you might be able to relate to the idea that people, even the ones you love, have sharp corners. Likely though, you are also aware of your own shape edges, the ones that can make living together difficult. So, we forgive. We forgive a spouse for little offenses and sometimes major ones because we value our relationships and wish to see them continue. We forgive others because it is essential to keep community, and family, and friends. We forgive because being without community is really difficult. We forgive because we know what it’s like to be forgiven and the relief we’ve felt. And we forgive because we know what it’s like not to be forgiven by friends, family, or co-workers and how awful that feels.
As I read this passage, though, I think there might be one big asterisk to Jesus’ teaching, and perhaps one great hope, a kind of foundational hope of our faith. It seems that both asking for and offering forgiveness makes us vulnerable. Vulnerability is a virtue in our Christian faith and practice. It is modeled by God and especially Jesus, in our gospels. But our faith also carries a core practice of protecting the vulnerable. There are times when parts of forgiveness, like the restoration of an offender to the community, is not easy or might be impossible. Forgiveness, then, is a mechanism for personal healing and should never be a way that perpetrators can continue abusive actions and behaviors.
That said, I see a great hope of our faith in these words of Jesus. Remember Lamech, the great-great-great-grandson of Cain. His quest for vengeance escalated. He kills for a minor slight and considers himself more wrath-filled that his more famous ancestor. Unchecked, this level of aggression is not sustainable, coercive, and destructive. I would have loved to read in the following verses that his wives Adah and Zillah, responded by telling their husband Lamech to sit down and chill out. But we see the cost of retaliation, payback, and revenge in this world, and how escalating tensions can cause the end of relationships or jobs, and in the social sphere, violence, and death.
I think back to the parable. Think of the gift given the servant. An unpayable debt was canceled. What if the king's graciousness had so moved him that he offered the same graciousness to his buddy? Where might it go from there, in a pay-it-forward sort of chain reaction? It makes me wonder if God is looking to counteract the escalating tensions in this world by a set of escalating practices of forgiveness, reconciliation, and graciousness. What if we dared to be more forgiving in our families? Would we see a different wave of goodwill and love grow? What if we practiced being more gracious when we consider others, whose experiences are not our own? Would a little humility make our communities and country safer for all people, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, age, and income? What if we tried to reconcile with an old friend or adult child? It would be hard work, and there would be no promises of a positive outcome. But wouldn’t it make all the difference in the world. May we be inspired to forgive often, be gracious to one another, and do the hard work of reconciliation. For the sake of God, and our communities, and ourselves.
Matthew 16:13-20 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
It is generally agreed among Biblical Scholars and historians that the epistle 1 Thessalonians was the Apostle’s Paul’s first written and surviving letter to a church he had founded or visited. Much of the letter is deeply personal and instructive. Among the primary concerns that Paul sought to address was how to be faithful and remain in community during a time of persecution. The Thessalonians experienced anxiety and fear, grief, and loss during this dark time, and Paul’s words provide comfort for the afflicted and a challenge to continue to live a life of value and joy. His letter ends with a final exhortation to:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
I’ve been deeply moved by Bill Schubart’s relationship with the Brooklyn street preacher Rev. Baybie Hoover and her deaconess of music, Virginia Brown. As you will see shortly, Baybie’s life was difficult and nearly every metric, yet, the spirit of joy and gratitude pulsed through her in every note she sang and message she delivered.
Our collective experience of 2020 could be characterized as difficult by many metrics as well, but my hope is that Babyie’s story will inspire us to see the joy that we have, the love that surrounds us, and how God can speak to us even today. Perhaps during the long days of this pandemic year, we too might hear the age-old exhortation: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.
“Haystacks: Autumn” Jean-François Millet (ca. 1874). Public Domain.
Matthew 15.10-20, 21-28 New Revised Standard Version
10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13 He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ 15 But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ 16 Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24 He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26 He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27 She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28 Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15.10-20, 21-28 New Revised Standard Version
Our gospel reading this morning deals with prejudice. The writer, E.B. White, tells us tongue-in-cheek that,
“Prejudice is a great time-saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts.”
The poet Maya Angelou says with more seriousness that:
“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”
And the 20th century Evangelist Billy Graham says that:
“Racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart.”
What are we to do, then, when a woman, a foreign woman, approaches Jesus with a great need and responds by calling her a dog, and ethnic slur in his culture? Hmmm. Let’s back up a little bit.
Jesus has been arguing with religious leaders for most of chapter 15 in the gospel of Matthew. They have thrown shade his way because his disciples do not follow certain religious norms, precisely, that they do not wash their hands before eating.
And while not following these religious norms might be disgusting (I’m sure that after the encounter Jesus pulled his disciples aside and said, “folks, don’t be gross. Just wash your hands before you eat please”). Jesus moves the conversation in a different direction as he talks about how folks treat one another.
“Isn’t how we treat one another more important for faith than these little rituals? Isn’t how we treat our parents in their old age more important than our mealtime routine?” He says at the beginning of the chapter. “Aren’t the words and actions that flow out of us more important than following particular dietary restrictions.” He argues in verses 10 through 20.
Apparently, this conversation wasn't working for the religious leaders and perhaps sensing that he and his troupe were no longer welcome, he fled to the region of Tyre and Sidon, an area north of Galilee – an area considered outside and gentile – or not worshipers of the God of Israel. And in this outside land, a woman calls to Jesus for help. She has a very sick daughter. Jesus ignores her. But she persists. And she continues to cry out. And the disciples step in and try to get Jesus to send her away. And Jesus tries to blow her off, saying, “Sorry, I’m only here for my people.” But she persists. And she falls at Jesus' feet. And he says, “It’s not right to take the food from the children and give it to the dogs.” Jesus’ people being the children and the outsiders, this woman and others in this region being the dogs in this analogy. But she persists. And says, “even the dogs get crumbs that fall from the table.” And Jesus declares that her faith is great and heals her daughter from afar.
“Prejudice is a great time saver.” Said E.B. White. “You can form opinions without having to get the facts.” We know what relations between 1st century Jews, especially 1st century Jews from Galilee like Jesus and Canaanites or Syro-Phoenicians, were not good. 1st Century Galilean Jews lived in the country. They were often poor. People from the regions of Tyre and Sidon were city folks. Some, at least, were very wealthy. 1st Century Galilean Jews were day laborers and farmers. Folks from Tyre and Sidon were merchants and dye makers. 1st Century Galileans worshiped the ancient God of Israel – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Folks from Tyre and Sidon were Greek – they believed in and worshiped many gods. Gentiles like these were despised. They were city folks that worshipped the wrong God. By calling them Canaanites, Matthew draws the reader’s memory toward the Hebrew Bible – where the Canaanites were the enemies of God’s people. In fact, for the purpose of our story, some have argued that this woman is an outsider in three ways: She is not a Jew, she is not from Israel, and she is a woman. And as is so often the case, with outsiders, she is shushed and shooed, interrupted, and asked to leave. She is told that her needs are not important. And still, she persists. She fights for her daughter through indifference, excuses, and prejudice. Indifference, excuses, and prejudice from our Lord no less.
Some scholars have called this passage one of the great scandalous passages of Jesus. He certainly doesn’t come off well. Some have said that Jesus here, has been caught with his compassion down. And here – his prejudice, those ways of talking about “those” people growing up, the way people in his town referred to gentiles as “dogs” when he was little, the times he was told to stay away from Tyre or Sidon when he was a boy – all of this is showing.
“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”
And yet, something changes. This woman changed Jesus. For in this experience, Jesus encountered not a stereotype but a fellow human being that longed for healing, longed for hope, and had faith that healing was possible. Jesus grew that day. And the tent, God’s tent that holds all God’s people, got bigger that day.
So, who are we? Where do we enter this story? Are we the woman? Is our homework this morning to persist? To continue to pray to a God that too often feels silent when we call out for our daughters and sons, our parents or friends, or our nation that struggles to name our deep prejudice or acknowledge racial inequalities? If so, let us persist. Let us continue to call out to a God that is able where we are not able. And let us not grow weary of keeping our prayers, writing our representatives, and supporting those organizations that confront hate.
Are we Jesus in this story, realizing that we need to get woke? That all of us, even the author of our faith, carry prejudice because it’s been woven into the very fabric of our nation, communities, and families of origin. And that, to be like Jesus, we must confront those prejudices within ourselves because, "Racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart." If so, let us grow. It is difficult to wrap our heads around an issue like white privilege, challenge our prejudices, or even acknowledge that we carry prejudice with us in the first place. But, because Jesus is our model, we must become aware of those places inside us where we hate. And we must allow ourselves to be changed.
I wonder if we might also be the religious leaders from our story. They are the deeply religious that hear Jesus’ provocative words about genuinely caring for others. These words make us uncomfortable, and we are too fragile to feel uncomfortable these days, so instead of allowing real change to take place to take place in our communities and in us, we focus on the incidentals, like the best ways to wash our hands or what foods to avoid. If this is us, let us not chase away a Christ whose words are sometimes difficult and challenging. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is difficult, and it goes against our tribal wiring. We will be called to be vulnerable and might even make mistakes. But the love Jesus calls us to practice is worth every bit of our energy.
This gospel story is a deeply human one, and if I’m honest, I feel closer to the Jesus in this one than the lessons that include heavenly beings and personal devils. Jesus has good words about virtuous living but struggles to live by those words. He resists when challenged, a few times even, but has a moment when he gains insight into how God has woven all of humanity together. And then he does the most good he can. I aspire to be this type of Jesus, who has the humility to grow and learn from other people with other lived experiences of God’s grace.
Anything is possible with God. We know this to be true. Let us be persistent. Let us grow and let us focus on the things that matter most. For God’s tent is bigger than we think, and there is plenty of room for everyone.
“The Calm Sea” by Gustave Courbet (1869). Public Domain.
Matthew 14:22-33 New Revised Standard Version 22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Matthew 14:22-33 New Revised Standard Version One of the pleasures of this summer has been finding a great swimming hole not too far from our house in Starksboro. It is usually not busy and is both safe and challenging for our children. On those especially hot days this year, it’s been the place to go to cool off.
For many, swimming during hot summer days is a valued childhood memory. I was in elementary school when my mother would take me with my brother and three cousins and to a nearby camp for lessons. I remember the strong smell of an over-chlorinated pool, and I remember hanging on the side of the pool and learning how to kick. A year or two later and I remember diving for rings at the bottom of the pool. While I did not become a great swimmer in those few years of lessons, but I did learn how to swim.
Today, some of us aren’t huge fans of swimming, but find being close to water restorative. I think water is a marvel and awesome to be near. When Leah and I lived close to the ocean, we would go out during storms to watch waves hit the beach. Several years ago, I had a friend whose husband received a bad diagnosis. They moved to the coast for the summer, right on the water in a quiet part of Maine while undergoing treatment. She believed that the being that close to the ebb and flow of the world – the constant sway of the ocean water, the smell of the fresh ocean air, had a hand in his treatment being successful.
Personally, I’d rather be near the water than in the water or floating above it. I’ve never felt that confident outside a swimming pool and have a touch of anxiety now whenever I am on a boat. In this way, I guess I resonate with today’s gospel reading takes place on the water and in the water. It deals with a range of essential tenets of our faith, like the unique nature of Jesus of Nazareth, fear, and comfort, and having faith in Jesus to call us out and save us. But I think we need to spend a few minutes on what water meant to people in first-century Palestine.
Imagine that you are a native Galilean living at the time of Jesus. You can’t read, but most people around you can’t read either. Maybe you are likely a day laborer, working with stone or in the fields. Perhaps you make goods like clothing or tents, or you might be a baker, kneading dough and tending the village oven.
Most likely, you are afraid of open water. You remember your stories. In the beginning, the Spirit of God swept over the waters, what Genesis calls the “face of the deep.” In this story, God created the world out of the chaos of the deep, making land, plants, animals, humans, and the like. But the open water is still considered a place of chaos. Unlike your cultural neighbors, the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Cretans, your people stayed away from the water, except those daring fishers who paddled around the Sea of Galilee. But even they would only go as far as they could see the coast.
Likely you did not know how to swim. Nobles perhaps were taught, likely by someone from another part of the world. Maybe fishers learned the basics. But you would have been a land lover, one who enjoyed the sight of the Sea of Galilee but had no interest in getting out there. If you were a disciple of Jesus, and he told you to take a boat over to the other side of the lake, out of sight of the coast, your anxiety level just when up, even if you’ve been fishing these waters all your life.
Our gospel text this morning picks up where last week’s left off. Jesus shares an incredible meal with thousands of people. It’s a meal that challenges the murderous feast of Herod Antipas and expresses the kingdom of God where people receive what they need in community.
Of course, Jesus is still grieving the loss of his cousin John, and while he dismisses the crowds, he sends his disciples ahead of him in a boat. They have more work to do in Gennesaret, on the other side of the lake. It appears that Jesus is still looking for some time to be alone, to grieve perhaps, to consider all that happened that day, and to pray.
Meanwhile, on the sea of Galilee, a storm hits, and the disciples are thrown about in their boat. Remember, water is scary. Maybe Peter and Andrew and James and John were okay out there. They were fishermen after all and had seen this before. But the others? The land-loving day laborers, a tax collector, a doctor, and a few makers from Galilee? They would have been in a panic. So, as our story goes, Jesus walks out to them, and in their stressed-out minds, they think it is a ghost. But, as Jesus says many times during the gospels, he replies, “Do not be afraid; take heart, it’s me.”
Peter’s not entirely sure it’s Jesus, so he asks that if it is him, that he be able to come out of the boat and walk with him. And he does for a little while until he takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to sink. When I was little, I remember hearing this story in church and thinking about the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. The Coyote would often be tricked into running off a cliff, but he wouldn’t fall until he noticed that he had run off the cliff. Is that what’s happening here?
As Peter begins to sink, he calls out to Jesus. And Jesus saves him. And Jesus says something about “You of little faith,” which we often interpret as Peter’s lack of faith until we realize that Peter was the only one to leave the boat, and Jesus talks about having little faith like faith the size of a mustard seed as a positive thing. Once everyone is in the boat, including Jesus, the storm calms, and the disciples worship Jesus, calling him the Son of God.
I’ve sat through many sermons on this passage. And for those of you who have as well, many a preacher's refrain is, “If we only keep our eyes on Jesus, we can do miraculous things.” Sometimes it’s put negatively, “We struggle in life when we take our eyes off Jesus.” But I think that there’s more to it than a simple call to faith or a dangerous way of describing why we face struggles. Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience that would have a similar background to these native Galileans. They also saw water as something primordial, something chaotic and dangerous. Psalm 69 is a great hymn that uses the imagery of drifting out at sea to describe life’s peril:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God… But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me… For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds. Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them.
Perhaps, we can relate to this feeling. There are times in our lives, or maybe during this pandemic when we’ve felt like we’re drifting, treading water, and wondering if we’ll see land again. Perhaps we’re even getting a little tired, and we’ve become worried that we’ll sink. This is how one ancient Psalmist described the feelings of being overwhelmed and entering into a new territory of uncertainty, anxiety, and danger. And yet, the lament doesn’t end without hope. God hears the needy and doesn’t forget them. And because of this, even the sea, which is causing all this trouble, praises God.
Back in our gospel, we often focus on Peter and what type of faith he expressed in the story. He has enough to step out and surf with Jesus but loses it at some point when he’s standing on the water. Recently, theologian Mitzi Smith argued that his lack of faith happened in the boat when he asked, “Jesus, if it’s really you, let me come out.” Perhaps, Smith argues, Peter should have stayed in the boat with the other disciples because that is where disciples belong. And especially Peter, the skilled fisherman. When he left the boat to surf with Jesus, the boat lost one of its best leaders, one who had real experience handling storms on the water. Sometimes, faith is seeing the boat for what it is, a shared experience and opportunity to lean on one another, to encourage each other in the storm while waiting on God. But Peter was eager to leave his shipmates and to join Jesus, rather than to wait for Jesus to join everyone in the boat. In this light, maybe we need to leave the walking on water to Jesus because our role is to stay in the boat and work together, to support one another with our gifts and wait on the miracles of God.
One of my greatest temptations during the ongoing pandemic is to forgo my own faith community. These are the clergy groups and valued relationships with fellow colleagues that I learn from and support – my fellow shipmates. Like others, I often struggle with the technology needed to remain connected and feel that our video chats, texting, and email threads are poor stand-ins for being with others in person. Like some, I’ve taken to more time in personal prayer, and study, seeking out more quiet time alone.
Our faith has a long history of folks that try to go it alone, to retreat to the hermitage of personal spirituality and study, who find something valuable in being alone with God, a few good books, and some work to do. Maybe there will be a time for all of us when we are ready to venture out of the boat and go surfing with Jesus – to develop that connection to the divine that pulls us out of the constraints of this life and into something only the mystics of our faith have begun to describe.
But right now, we probably need all hands on deck. Every person on board in a faith community is essential, especially during this stormy time. We need the faith, talents, and experiences of one another to keep the ship afloat and weather the storm of this pandemic so we can reach our destination. Communication is harder right now, but we do have tools. Connection feels different these days, but it is still possible to feel connected to one another. Community feels lost right now, but it really isn’t, it’s too much of a necessary thing to really go away.
May God give us patience enough to stay in this boat together. May God be gracious with is when we struggle to stay afloat. And may Jesus not take too long in reaching us.
The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” by Jacopo Robusti, ca 1545-50
Matthew 14:13-21 New Revised Standard Version 13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves."
16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."
17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."
18 And he said, "Bring them here to me."
19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Matthew 14:13-21 New Revised Standard Version
Try to imagine yourself in our gospel scene.
You heard the news about Jesus and his disciples when you were at the market this morning. Jesus of Nazareth is in the area, teaching, and healing. He had come back to his hometown of Nazareth just down the road after all these years, and do you know what they did? They ran him off. “Oh well,” someone standing next to you says, “A prophet is never welcome in their hometown.” I guess that seems about right, you think.
But you’ve heard that Jesus is a pretty incredible teacher. You don’t know about the healing stuff. There have been many charlatans in these parts coming through with different tinctures and cure-alls. They all seem to fall flat, in your opinion. But you’ve heard good things about this Jesus and his teachings.
“And you heard about that wild prophet John,” one of the vendors piped up. “Herod Antipas threw himself a feast for his birthday, and he invited all those other wealthy rulers and governors. And there, on his birthday, he had John beheaded. Can you imagine? I knew he didn’t like the guy, but he could have just left him in prison.” You sigh. These things happen, you think. Dissenters always seem to meet an end like this.
“They were cousins, you know,” The man continued.
“Who?” You ask.
“John and Jesus were cousins. I think they were close, both prophets and all. Several of John’s followers began following Jesus after John was arrested.”
“Yeah, they were close, I think,” said the vendor’s assistant. “My cousin just got in from fishing, and he said he just saw Jesus in a boat, sitting in the middle of the lake by himself. He must be really torn up.”
You are curious. You’d like to hear what Jesus has to say. You’d like to see if he can heal people. You would like to listen to him speak. Will he speak out against Herod Antipas? Will he lead a rebellion to avenge his cousin? There are already a lot of people on the road and at the market from out of town.
You decide to walk toward the water, and as you get closer, you see even more people. They are gathering at the water’s edge in a cove off the beaten path. Some are calling out to Jesus. His followers are doing their best to manage the crowds.
You can see a faint silhouette of a solitary man in a small boat out on the lake. But as folks continue to gather, a massive crowd for this deserted place, you see that he begins to row back to shore.
His disciples have to hold back the crowds, so he has a place to land his boat. And they are pressing in. There are sick people here. And injured people. And starving people and curious people. There are dangerous looking people, and there are your neighbors. There are people from foreign lands and people of all ages, the very young and the very old. And there, at the shore, Jesus gets out of the boat and begins to heal people. You can’t really find the words for what you are seeing. It just seemed like everyone who came to Jesus received the healing they needed the most. Sometimes it came in the form of kind words, other times a compassionate touch.
And you sat down and watched all of this happen. For hours, you sat there, watching, listening, until it was getting dark. Around dinner time, Jesus’ followers, those closest to him, pulled him aside. They looked nervous. They showed him some food. He said something that bewildered them. They just looked at one another in confusion. So, Jesus asks the crowds in groups. When all were sitting and quiet, he took the food that the disciples had brought him, some bread and some fish, and he gave thanks to God for it, and he blessed it. He then divided it among the disciples, and they began to pass it around.
Now you didn’t have much to eat with you—a few dried fish and some bread that you picked up from the market earlier that day. But you notice something happening. As the disciples walk around the seated crowd, folks are pulling food out of their bags. Now, not everyone brought something, but the people who did, shared it with those who did not. And if a group had extra, they gave it to the disciples to pass along if a group did not have enough to go around. As the disciples get to your group, you break your loaf of bread and put it in one of their baskets, and you share the rest with the people sitting in your group. During dinner, your group talked about Jesus. Some had been following him all through Galilee. Others spoke about losing John, and you couldn’t help but think about how this meal was probably so different than the feast at Herod’s Birthday. His meal celebrated himself. There were only a select few. It was lavish, and someone was murdered at it. This meal was held because of a common need. There were several thousand at it, most poor folks. It was simple but filling, and people were healed at it.
As folks finished eating, the disciples placed baskets with extra food at the front for people to take home if they needed it. The disciples rowed away in the boat, and Jesus said his goodbye to the crowds.
I don’t know if this is how the story happened. It doesn’t really say. But the story is important. It’s shared in all four gospels and was a favorite of the early church. Some early communion liturgies retell this story. The story is simple enough.
Jesus is grieved by the news that this cousin, John the Baptist, has been murdered by Herod Antipas, the regional governor. He tries to get some personal time away by rowing out to the middle of the lake, but the crowds call out to him. Moved by compassion, he comes ashore and heals the sick. As evening approaches, the disciples worry about feeding everyone. They ask Jesus to release the crowds, but he says that they’ll figure it out. They worry that they do not have enough. But Jesus seats the crowd and blesses what they have, and somehow, everyone eats and is full, and there is some left over.
There are many reasons why this story is one of the most celebrated gospels' stories. It speaks to Jesus’ compassion toward others. It highlights Jesus’ ability to heal. One of its themes is abundance. And it stands against Herod’s banquet. In Jesus’ world, the Kingdom of Heaven, the poor are not exploited but have what they need. It’s a message that runs against how the kingdoms of this world work, where the wealthy dine extravagantly and harm people with impunity.
But I want to focus for a few minutes on the role of the disciples. Jesus’ disciples are more involved in the action of the story In Matthew’s gospel, than in other gospels. They are the ones that bring the initial gift of fish and bread to Jesus. They are the ones that pass out the food. And they are concerned that they will not have enough. After all, how will a few fish and a few loaves of bread feed thousands? Yet, miraculously, for no matter how we think it happened, it is a truly miraculous story, everyone had more than enough.
I wonder when we face the needs of the world, we, as a church or as individuals, respond like the disciples, saying, “We don’t have enough.” How can we meet the needs when the needs are so great? It makes it seem like the few things we do have, a few fish and five loaves, a few hours and five bucks, can’t even put a dent in the problems. Sometimes, because we feel the need is too great, we don’t offer our own meager gifts, but instead, ask that the need be sent away, out of sight for others to handle.
Yet, for us, for people of faith, what we have is important. And those few hours and those five bucks are blessed by God. They are made holy. And they are added to the gifts of others.
When it was still possible to visit folks in the hospital at UVM, I always walked back to my car through the second floor because there was an excellent quote on the wall. It read, “Individually we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”
The way I imagine this story shows that people can be an ocean – a force of compassion and generosity. It may take prompting, and it may require inspiration and modeling. But people can be an ocean. And oceans are mighty.
Our work is not to cure the world of all its ills. It’s to participate in the movement of healing and generosity. When we hear the word movement, think waves. Waves of healing. Waves of compassion. Waves of Thoughtfulness. Waves of generosity. Because of us, and countless others, doing our part to lift the tide.
May the God of abundance and generosity bless how we give to make this world better, especially now during these uncertain times.
Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52 New Revised Standard Version
31 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
33 He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 52And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’
Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52
As many of you know, the pandemic we are all experiencing is the result of an outbreak of a specific strain of coronavirus called the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2. As far as viruses go, COVID-19 is considered a large-sized virus, approximately 120 nanometers or 1/200th of an inch in diameter. The virus is thought to be natural and has an animal origin. At some point in 2019, the virus crossed over to humans for the first time, making it a novel, or new virus. The earliest recorded human infection happened in the Hubei province of China at the end of November 2019. Because of its novel nature, we humans do not have pre-existing defenses in our bodies to COVID-19 that help us identify and fend off the infection. This makes the virus more contagious and more dangerous than the common cold or seasonal flu.
At the end of July, there were over 16 million recorded cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and nearly 650,000 have died as the result of the disease. Meanwhile, our lives have changed dramatically, all because of a virus, 1/200th of an inch in size.
Today’s gospel lesson might ask us to consider what other things, more positive, transformative things, might have their origins in what seemed little, insignificant, novel, or new.
Today we are wrapping up an important section in Matthew where Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven through parables. In previous weeks we’ve explored the context of this section. Jesus is speaking to a gathered crowd of farmers, day laborers, fishermen, and domestic workers in a rural area. John the Baptist has been arrested, and his followers are in the crowd, possibly hoping that Jesus is some type of guerrilla leader that can help them break John out of prison. Meanwhile, Jesus is now gathering large crowds of disenfranchised people, so religious and political leaders are watching him.
Jesus must tread carefully, proclaiming a message of hope while disarming those in the crowd who are looking for a revolutionary leader. And he has to do this while showing those in power that he isn’t a threat, at least not yet.
So Jesus begins telling stories about the Kingdom of Heaven. I like how the Biblical Scholar F. Scott Spencer describes Matthew’s therm "Kingdom of Heaven":
“In Matthew, ‘heaven’ stands for ‘God’ (as in the English idiom, ‘heaven help us’), and ‘kingdom’ represents the orbit of God’s dynamic activity.
It’s fair to say then, that whenever Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew, he is describing the principles, work, and culture of God’s radical building plan for a better world.
The parables in today’s lesson give us additional insight into what’s being built.
The parable of the mustard seed speaks to the inconsequential beginnings of God’s activity, it’s incredible growth, and its ability to be inclusive, sheltering many different “birds of the air.” We might think about the real place Galilee and Jerusalem held at the time of Jesus in the broader world of the Roman Empire. It was a backwater, a place you didn’t go to visit. The originator of this movement was a peasant from Galilee with questionable paternity and a habit of sneaking away to be alone. This doesn’t sound like the origin of great things.
The parable of the yeast sounds similar and might even hit home. During the pandemic, with so many folks at home and with a little more time on their hands, many have taken to breadmaking, especially experimenting with sourdough. In fact, Vermont’s King Arthur Flour Company has seen sales skyrocket by 2,000 percent in 2020. I’ve been in the grocery store many times now when there is a limit on how much flour one can buy, or there’s no flour at all. There’s something really cool in being able to make bread out of a little flour and water and the natural yeast floating in the air.
We might even come to the same conclusion in this short parable as we did with the mustard seed, that something incredible can come out of something small and unassuming. But understanding the unit of measurement is vital in the story. Three measures of flour come out to about 110 pounds, making enough bread for 150 people. This parable does not describe the regular practice of making bread for one’s family. This parable describes God’s activity as providing for the wider community.
And there are other parables too, that describe the quirky and beneficial nature of God’s dynamic activity in the world. The parables of the hidden treasure and the valuable pearl describe the precious nature of God’s alternative way. Searching is necessary, but upon finding it, folks are willing to make sacrifices to hold on to the world God is bringing about.
In startling ways, it’s odd to read these parables, Jesus’ imaginative, subversive illustrations of God’s new way, against the backdrop of 2020. Along with the pandemic, we’ve seen aspects of humanity at its worst: the killing of unarmed people of color, the hoarding of resources, corruption, our government using violence against peaceful protestors, an escalating cold war with China, and the incredible, unequal ways this pandemic affects the world’s poorest.
And yet, there are stories of neighbors getting to know neighbors for the first time.
And other stories about communities banding together to organize volunteers, mutual support, and endeavors like our Little Free Pantry.
And we’ve seen positive changes as the result of protests that have led to the band of chokeholds in several major cities, the passing of a Hate Crime Law in Georgia, and the expansion of hate crime laws in the state of Virginia. Meanwhile, companies, institutions, and organizations are examining their own bias and reviewing their hiring processes, changing recruitment procedures, and making antiracism a part of leadership training.
The pandemic wasn’t put in this world by a god that wanted to teach us valuable life lessons at the expense of all this suffering and loss. But our God has a way of bringing about good things even in times like these, when all seems lost, twisted, gloomy, and confusing. Out of our present crisis, little conversations have created real change, little free pantries have provided lasting hunger relief in our communities, and the atrocity of an unjust death has brought about a better world.
I’m thankful that God has this pesky way of reminding us that good is still being done, even when the world seems pretty awful. God’s dynamic activity in this world is always at work to create an inclusive, non-violent society, and that work doesn’t stop because of some pandemic.
There is enough light and good in this world, even now. We may have to search for it. It may look tiny and inconsequential. Likely it will require some sacrifice. But we will find that that light and good is more precious than anything else in this world. And it will be enough to get us through these difficult times.
May God guide you in your search. May God grow goodness in this world. And may we all find comfort and solace in our God, who transforms death into life, violence into peace and hate into love for the goodness of all creation.
“Wheat Field with Cypresses” by Vincent Van Gogh. 1889. Public Domain.
Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
24 He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?'28 He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?'29 But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." 37 He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
As many of you know, my family and I moved last fall to a 10-acre homestead in Starksboro to live closer to the land, grower bigger gardens, and keep more animals. Because we moved in the fall, we missed most of the growing season at our place, so this spring, we’ve spent a lot of time deciphering the landscape and figuring out where previous owners might have planted plants. We were smart not to mow certain areas right away because lupine popped up in one place, and a small, forgotten bed of other perennials in another. But even now, Leah and I are still training our eyes. Some perennials that we might want to keep can look like weeds before they flower. Right now, our yard is spotted with the occasional bit of tall weeds that Leah insists is Phlox, to the point that it’s becoming a running joke. We call any bit of tall weeds we find on the land Phlox and joke about not cutting it down, just in case.
Overall, our gardens are doing well, and being attentive to the land has been a helpful reprieve from the anxiety of the pandemic. Others are also turning to their gardens during the pandemic, and spend a little extra time in the dirt. Some are even starting a garden for the first time this year. There are countless articles written these days about growing membership in community gardens, how garden supply stores are running short on inventory, and how many folks are expanding their gardens this year because of food insecurity brought about by the pandemic. Of course, one of the regular tasks of gardening is weeding.
Today’s gospel reading is the parable of the “Wheat and Tares” or “Wheat and Weeds.” And it falls in a really interesting part of the gospel of Matthew. In this section, which begins in the middle of chapter 11 and runs to the end of chapter 13, Jesus tells several parables to those that have gathered around to hear his message. We can imagine that Jesus is speaking in a rural setting because most of these parables are agrarian stories – stories about farming and gardening, planting and harvesting, fishing, and catching. Several of these stories are also told humorously, using irony, exaggeration, and unlikely scenarios to convey a message.
But this section is also a little tricky because of the surrounding context dealing with John the Baptist. At the beginning of chapter 11, John the Baptist’s disciples visit Jesus to ask him a question. If you remember, John the Baptist was a cousin of Jesus. At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, John is living the vocal and ascetic life of a prophet, in the tradition of Israel’s great prophets, in the wilderness near the Jordan River. John had gathered a following, and people from all over the region ventured into the wilderness to hear his firebrand message. He openly condemned the corruption of the ruling political families in the country and blamed religious authorities for making life impossible for the people they were supposed to be shepherding. In a cleansing ritual, he baptized those who came to him, marking a return to God through corporate confession of sins. He even spoke about a coming messiah, a leader that would be just and holy.
John wasn’t very subtle, though. Calling leaders names, pointing out their corruption, and advocating for a different administration to an ever-growing group of followers got John in hot water. When his disciples come to ask Jesus a question, John is in prison.
With John in prison, many of his disciples began following Jesus, which added size and legitimacy to Jesus' cause. And we can see some continuity between Jesus and John. They both denounce corruption and abuses of power and work to give voice to the oppressed. Even John’s favorite insult, “You brood of vipers,” which he uses in chapter three, is adopted by Jesus in chapter twelve and twenty-three.
But Jesus has to be careful now. The forerunner of his message is in prison. This movement is growing, but it contains followers who are angry that their former leader has been arrested. And mixed in the crowds that come to hear him are religious authorities. To put it plainly, Jesus is under surveillance by powerful people. He has a message to tell, but if he is too confrontational, he could rouse a violent revolt, or end up like John, who immediately after this section, is executed.
So, Jesus spreads his message by telling stories. These are stories that his rural audience would have related to, and some would have understood the underlying message. But by spreading his message through parables, Jesus made it difficult for religious and political leaders to accuse him of treason or sedition.
Take today’s parable. A field of wheat is planted. But sometime during the night, the devil sneaks over the wall and sows the field with weeds. As the wheat grows, so do the weeds. The Greek word for weeds here, zizania, is the word for darnel or false wheat, a type of Eurasian rye grass. Ancient writers outside of the Bible have described it as looking like wheat before the ear appears, and it shares the same production zone as wheat.
The humor of the story lies in the devil’s actions. If you garden and go away for a week during the summer to return to a garden brimming with your plants and a new batch of knee-high weeds, you might jokingly remark, “who put all these weeds here!” Perhaps outside the devil, no one goes to the trouble to so weed seed in a neighbor’s field.
But we also notice that the devil isn’t the concern in our story. “What should be done with the field?” This is the question. Some want to cultivate the field. But doing so will only endanger the wheat by disrupting the root systems. We also know today something about darnel that our ancestors only observed. Wheatfields that also contained darnel had fewer insects. Darnel is often infected by an endophytic fungus that produces a natural insecticide. Having darnel present in a wheat field can actually protect the crop. The story ends with the landowner telling his workers to leave it be. The harvesters will sort it out when the time comes.
The explanation Matthew’s Jesus offers his disciples is interesting. Likely, Jesus’ movement is growing, and his followers, many of which think that he is a type of guerilla leader, want to make their move on the corrupt political leaders, their Roman occupiers, and heavy-handed religious leaders. An armed rebellion is on their mind. But Jesus is challenging their sense of method and timing. Moving right now with violence will cost a lot of good, innocent life. The good will be torn out with the bad, and then there will be nothing left to harvest, and thus, no celebration.
So, what do we have here? Jesus has just spoken to a mixed crowd. Present are some of Jesus’ original followers, John’s followers who are angry at his arrest, oppressed peasant farmers, and spies for religious and political leaders. The rebellion is growing, and some may want to move now, maybe even to break John out of prison. And Jesus looks out on the crowd, knowing he is being watched, and he communicates the strategic message, “Not yet.”
It would have been interesting to be there, to hear this humorous story in a crowd on edge. I wonder if we could watch the mood change as chuckles turned into the realization of what Jesus was really saying. “Don’t turn to violence. Innocent people will die too. Then we will lose the harvest we are fighting so hard for.” Did his words defuse the crowd? Did his humorous story disarm them, maybe literally? Did it change their understanding of violence, and the costs that come with it? Is this where Jesus’ followers began thinking of a different way, a nonviolent way of making lasting change?
There are so many ways we could think through this story and what it might mean for us. There’s something in this story about making premature judgments and being patient, not pulling those plants before we know what they are, or burning bridges with friends of family too early. Maybe we can consider this story as one about difference. The wheat and darnel and both given life under the sun and nurtured by the ground and rain. Michael Pasquarello writes this beautiful reflection, conceiving of a world where
The created goodness and dignity of all humankind is ultimately deeper and more enduring than our political, intellectual, cultural, and social differences. Rather than seeing the mission of the church as ‘fixing’ itself or ‘cleaning up’ the world according to our passionately held agendas, we are free to proclaim and live the good news of God’s reign for the sake of a messy world that appears for many to be a hopeless cause.
Or, we might just remark at the power of stories. Jesus calmed a crowd with this one. He managed to keep the authorities away a little longer too. What stories do you have, family stories, life experience stories whose sum is more than their parts? Is there a story the illustrates an inner kindness or strength? What about a story of resiliency or overcoming grief or a story that speaks to justice or equality? Would you even be willing to share one of those stories? We could undoubtedly draw on these stories now.
If you have a story to share, write it up, and send it to the united church of Hinesburg email, firstname.lastname@example.org, with the headline, “Parable.”
This week, may you reflect on the stories of your life, and what they’ve taught you about faith community, love, goodness, work, resilience, and justice. And may you hold onto these stories. They are more powerful than we can ever imagine.
“Saint Christopher and Saint John the Baptist” Jorg Glockendon, ca. 1480-1490. Wood cut and hand-colored. Public Domain.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 New Revised Standard Version
[Jesus continued speaking to the crowd, saying] 16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, 17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’
25 At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’"
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Today’s gospel passage is a fascinating one that has something to do with criticism and confidence, doubt, and conviction. A little background helps us understand what’s happening here.
If you remember, there is a character in the gospels called John the Baptist or John the Baptizer. He was a cousin of Jesus, and at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, John is living a vocal and ascetic life in the wilderness near the Jordan River. In Matthew’s third chapter, John is described wearing clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. Modern analogies are awkward for a person like John. Still, we might imagine him as a vegan who actively campaigns for animal rights or an off the grid environmentalist who chains himself to bulldozers. John was thoroughly committed to his cause, which had something to do with a return to God through corporate repentance of sins, ritual washing, and pious living. People from the regions came to John in the wilderness to hear his message.
The image we get from our gospels is that John was not a very “subtle” orator. He was highly critical of religious and political leaders calling them names and pointing out areas of corruption. He is deeply concerned for the impoverished and marginalized in Israel because they suffer most under bad leaders. But John is not all doom and gloom. He imagines and proclaims a coming leader that will be just and compassionate, a leader that will shepherd the people of Israel and lift up the let-down.
Calling leaders names, pointing out their corruption, and advocating for a different administration to an ever-growing group of followers go John in hot water. By chapter 11, John is in prison. At the beginning of our chapter, Jesus sends out his closest disciples to extend the reach of his ministry. They go about Judea and Galilee healing the ill, helping the troubled, and proclaiming an alternative way of life that stressed compassion, an end of oppression, and a closeness with God. While in prison, John hears about the work of Jesus, specifically that the movement is growing, so he sends some friends to find out more. In verse 2, they approach Jesus, asking, “Are you the Messiah, the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus’ answers,
“Tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
The answer is direct and tangible. Actual people are being transformed in physical, social, and spiritual ways because of Jesus and his followers. Change is really happening. This is the message that John’s friends take back.
As they leave, Jesus addresses a gathering crowd regarding John’s message and affirms a connection to his imprisoned cousin. After offering a commendation that feels a little like a preemptive eulogy, Jesus tells a strange little parable about children in the market place.
“This generation is like children who sit in the marketplace. They call out to one another, saying, “We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song for us, but you didn’t mourn.”
The parable imagines children musicians gathered in a market place playing songs for one another. We might think of a bustling city center where street performers play for crowds. Sometimes we’ve stopped and listened, even throwing a few dollars in the till, while other times, we’ve walked past, off on the next errand. But the street musicians in Jesus’ parable are doing something a little different. The joyful music they played was for a wedding. The sad music they sang was for a funeral. Weddings and funerals are taking place in the streets, but no one is stopping. These reverent markers of life and death, joy and sorrow, go unnoticed or unwanted by the crowds.
“You see,” Jesus continues, and I am paraphrasing a little here, “John lived a godly, Spartan, self-disciplined lifestyle and called others to do the same, and people called him a ‘demon.’ I settled into our culture, eating and drinking, and folks say, ‘look a glutton and a drunkard who keeps bad company.’ But the wisdom in all this will be proved right by our actions.”
Jesus understands his mission and John’s as one and the same, even though their styles were very different. John is the bug-eating wilderness prophet, while Jesus does much of his work over grand meals with shady company. John wears scratchy shirts on purpose, while Jesus wears expensive perfume. John addresses his audience as a “brood of vipers,” while Jesus opens his most famous speech with a blessing. And while the two are wildly different in style, the reception is the same. Rejection. John is too strict, pious, and demanding. Jesus is too inclusive, compassionate, and worldly. Whatever John and Jesus are, they are too much.
Today's passage is the first time that Jesus addresses mounting criticism in the gospel. And it’s helpful for us to see the way he handles it. First, he acknowledges that there will always be critics. This hasn’t changed, even after two-thousand years. Much of our media is built on criticism. One of the few remaining things I miss about living in Boston is sports talk radio and how the hosts could still find ways to pick apart the Red Sox even if they had just won by ten runs or spend two hours criticizing the New England Patriots play calling after a Super Bowl win. It was entertaining to listen to in a silly, obnoxious sort of way. Likewise, politicians in this country can actually do their jobs really well and still face rabid criticism from the other side.
Alluding to those that walk by as the wedding march or funeral dirge is performed, Jesus also points out that the sources of criticism are complex. The music wasn’t bad; people were preoccupied or not interested. I know that I am most critical of others after I’ve had a rough day. In those moments, my words or actions are really spreading around the misery and not about being analytical. I’ve also noticed that I become overly critical when I binged on too many news stories in the day. Last year the comedian Patton Oswalt described how a family member was experiencing “Fox News Poisoning.” When the family member had the news channel on all day in the background, steeping in awful stories of human nature, non-stop criticism, and vitriolic tribal language, he was a big jerk. Conversely, Oswalt could tell when the television had not been on that day because his family member was the person he remembered, kinder, and compassionate.
While Jesus acknowledges that there will always be critics, he doesn’t blow off criticism in total. “Wisdom is vindicated by her actions,” Jesus says. The actions and outcomes of his work matter. What he does and how he goes about it matter. And he is willing to make changes when his actions do not line up with his mission. In a few weeks, we get an interesting passage where Jesus talks about the importance of good speech and then calls a Canaanite woman and ethnic slur. The Canaanite woman calls him on it, and in doing so, changes Jesus.
Feedback is our friend if we can hear it and allow it to sit with us for a while without getting defensive. Sometimes, once the energy of receiving criticism disperses, there is something helpful.
There’s maybe one more insight that the Swiss theologian Ulrich Luz mentions when reviewing how this passage has been read and interpreted throughout the centuries. Many have written about having similar experiences as Jesus, being unjustly criticized or rejected. But Luz was unable to find a single sermon, devotion, or theological treatise where the writer related to “this generation.” For Jesus, “this generation” has become so callused to life that it critiques style at the expense of content, all the while passing by truly momentous life events like the start of a family or the death of a community member. There’s a heaviness to this insight, perhaps a historical blind spot in our reflections on faith.
I wonder where we would go if we pulled on this thread a little. Can we read a good news story without feeling cynical these days? Can we be inspired by the stories of people working for social justice, prison reform, or a better healthcare system if they are from a different political party, race, or ethnicity? What metaphorical and literal weddings and funerals have we missed because our criticisms of family members, friends, and neighbors, broke relationships? Finally, are the criticisms we levy against churches, communities, states, and nations thoughtful analysis spoken to make life and community better, or do they come from projecting our own inner sadness, loss, or hatred on others? The thoughtful follower of Jesus will be self-reflective enough to examine the sources of criticism when they well up and resist breaking others because of our own brokenness.
We are all pandemic-ing together, and after several months of anxiety, altered schedules, and constant change, work-life and family life can get a little strained. I pray that your people are gracious with you this week, and I pray that you can be gracious with your people, knowing that our God is always gracious and loving.