Silver Denarius of the Emperor Tiberius, commonly referred to as the Tribute Penny. Early First Century, CE. Public Domain.
Matthew 22:15-22 15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Sometimes I wonder if we lose something when we read our gospels as Scripture. Granted, they are, and as such, the gospels have been mined through the centuries to help us humans figure out how the world works, how to be good to one another, and how to connect with God. As Scripture, though, our gospels are usually read one short section at a time in our personal or group studies, or during worship services. Often, we return to our favorite parts and sometimes disregard the more difficult parts.
But what if we read the gospels more like stories, with beginnings, middles, and endings, with villains and heroes, allies, and conspirators? What if the main character showed development and growth throughout the story and faced down some great evil in some climatic series of pages that, like a really good novel, we aren’t able to put down until we figure out what happened? What if seeing the entire story was part of the gospel experience? What if, by reading more broadly, we might challenge the way we read and apply those gospel nuggets we learned in Sunday School growing up or saw on a bumper sticker or road sign?
Today’s gospel reading, where Jesus is asked to give his opinion on paying taxes, really doesn’t stand alone. Instead, it takes place in the latter part of a story, as the conflict between Jesus and the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem is escalating. If this story was a modern novel, we might notice ourselves reading a little faster right now, connecting earlier elements with these climatic events. We might be closer to the culture and society that our story was written and understand the context of these events without any explanation. And we might come to different conclusions about what it means to be faithful to God when we think about our own politics because this story is a political thriller of sorts. But, because it’s also Scripture, it informs how people of faith might think and act politically.
So, to get us caught up, here are the notes we need to help is today.
From the very beginning of our gospel story, we know that Jesus is special. As an infant, he was visited by foreign dignitaries who offered him royal gifts. The local ruler, King Herod, hears of this, and, fearing that his rule will be usurped, murders infants in the town of Bethlehem. Meanwhile, Jesus and his parents escape to Egypt, where they live as refugees until King Herod passes away.
At some point after Herod’s death, either at Jesus’ birth, according to Luke’s gospel, or when Jesus was a child, a census was held in the region so the Roman Empire could count everyone and tax them accordingly. While not mentioned in our gospels, but written about in other Jewish and early Christian writings, Judas the Galilean led a revolt against Rome because of this census, arguing that by submitting to being counted and paying taxes to Caesar, the Jewish people were submitting to another master, other than God, which was forbidden. And as this movement grew, Galilean Jews who submitted to the census were attacked, a Roman armory was captured, and political assassinations became common. To add fuel to the fire, Emperor Tiberius had coins minted with his image and the words, “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus, and High Priest.” These coins, which bore the image of the emperor who declared himself the son of a god and the religious leader of the Jews, were to be used to pay taxes. The Galilean countryside where Jesus grew up flared with regular fighting between the empire and rebel leaders. This backstory was common knowledge to the early readers of our gospel story.
As Jesus reached adulthood, a prophet named John began gathering a crowd of dissenters in the neighboring region of Judea, just outside of Jerusalem. People, a lot of people, were attracted to John’s message because he’s naming the abuses, corruption, and violence they face in their everyday lives because of their leader’s greed, quest for power, and authoritarian control. Further, he offered a story of hope, proclaiming that God is about to do something good, and the corrupt rulers will be held accountable.
Inspired by John’s message, and having been baptized by John in a miraculous event, Jesus returned to Galilee and began working as an itinerant sage, healer, and leader. Mostly, he attracted the disenfranchised, local peasant fishermen, a couple of loud and brawling brothers, a recalcitrant guy named Judas with his own revolutionary ideas, and a reformed tax official named Matthew, the gospel’s namesake. And he spent a great deal of time with these guys, teaching them a different way to live with greater generosity, love, and faith. Above all, he argued that ordinary people like them could make change possible through direct action. He then sent them out to spread the good news and help those in need.
Sending the twelve apostles out is a turning point in our story. The success of their mission brought a lot of attention to Jesus, and folks came in the thousands to hear Jesus speak. The size of these crowds had the attention of local leaders. Soon after the apostles return from their travels, Jesus is confronted by those same religious and political leaders John spoke about in Judea. And then Jesus receives news that John has been arrested and then killed by a local governor during a drunken birthday bash. Jesus inherits John’s followers, many of which are angry at the needless death of their leader and are ready for open revolt.
At this point, Jesus’ message, and the way he tells it, change. He’s no longer a wandering holy man with a handful of non-descript followers who performs miracles for a few individuals. He gathers large crowds wherever he goes. And some in the crowds are ready for a fight. He’s become a popular leader to the disenfranchised, the poor, and all those treated poorly by those in power.
So, knowing that his crowds are on edge, and seeing representatives from local leaders watching his every move, Jesus begins to teach in parables. These parables are stories Jesus tells to make a point about the corruption of the system, or God’s alternative way, called the kingdom of heaven. These stories serve as a buffer of ambiguity, so those watching Jesus, and hoping to nab him like they did John, have nothing of substance to report. These parables also calm the crowds, as most stories do, and give Jesus time to teach a message of hope that doesn’t include a violent uprising.
But this new style only buys Jesus so much time. Conflicts and disputes with authorities are now commonplace by the time Jesus gets to Jerusalem for Passover. There, folks in the city usher him in like a victorious king, or a conquering one. He goes to the temple and, using the power of his gathered crowd, chases out the officials who were running a racketeering scheme. The next day, he issues a threat, telling the angry officials that their power is about to be taken away.
So now, in chapter 22, Jesus gets three trap questions, one about taxes, one about life after death, and one about the greatest commandment. These are all questions posed by religious leaders who hope to get Jesus to say something they can arrest him for, either against the Roman occupation, or blasphemy against God.
Jesus knows they are feigning genuine appreciation when they begin by saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. So tell us, is it appropriate to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
These folks know that Jesus has been teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, an alternative way to order life that challenges both Roman occupation and religious corruption and complicity. Perhaps they thought that Jesus was like Judas the Galilean, another ruffian from the sticks that opposed Roman rule and taxation. If they can get Jesus to say “don’t pay the tax,” the case is open and shut. Anyone aligned with Judas’s movement was arrested by Roman authorities and summarily executed.
But, if he says “pay the tax,” then Jesus loses some of his most devoted followers, folks who agree with Judas the Galilean but seek a more peaceful way of sluffing off foreign rule.
It’s wonderfully calculated. Either Jesus is arrested for sedition, or he loses his audience.
Calmly, Jesus asks to see a coin used for the tax. And someone pulls out a silver coin.
And Jesus asks, “Whose image is this, and whose title?”
And his opponents say, “Caesar’s.”
“Give to Caesar, what is the Caesar’s,” Jesus says. “And give to God, what is God’s.”
It’s a mic drop moment. Even his opponents are amazed at his answer.
But why are they amazed? And while this has been a fun summary of the gospel of Matthew so far, what does any of this matter to us today?
So, there’s an election coming up in two weeks. And here in the US, it’s an important one. And a divisive one. And the outcomes will affect how our country recovers from the pandemic, practices health care, works with other countries, and funds education. This election will affect our economy, our use of energy, and how we care for the environment.
And for some, faith leaders and faith communities should stay quiet and never talk politics. In fact, this passage, the “Render to Caesar, what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s” passage was used by Martin Luther in the 16th century to argue for his “Two Kingdom’s Doctrine.” In it, politics and religion are two separate kingdoms that should not meddle one with the other. Jesus was in charge of the Heavenly Kingdom, and Earthly monarchs in Luther’s time were thought to be ordained by God and rightful leaders of their servants, regardless of competence. While Luther does this, in part, to discourage 16th-century monarchies from interfering with church life, the inheritors of Luther’s “Two Kingdom’s Doctrine” have often described the life of faith and political life as two self-contained worlds that can be separated from one another. In this way, the words of Jesus about peacemaking, healing the sick, or holding leaders accountable can be applied only as spiritual or religious ideals, and do not carry weight when it comes to our politics.
But I offer one observation about this position and one word of encouragement. The gospel story of Jesus Christ is a political thriller. It’s other things too, but it is also a story about a man whose life was affected by the politics of his day. When leaders behaved in abusive and self-serving ways, Jesus drew attention to it. More importantly, when Jesus met with people who had no healthcare, who had been discriminated against, and who had experienced injustice at the hands of a corrupt and unstable administration, he felt it. He felt pity and compassion and frustration, and anger for the people that were hurting. And he taught a new way, a different kingdom option, one that confronted the powers that be. When he challenged this system, he was arrested, tortured, and put to death on charges of sedition, a political charge. To dismiss the political story of our gospels, as some do, leave us with some really cool sayings about being nice to our neighbors and being loved by God, but skirt any political responsibilities we might have to make the world a better place by voting, lobbying, and advocating for politicians who tell the truth, work for the common good of all people, and place the health and wellbeing of a diverse nation above quarterly profits.
And I think all of this because of the zinger in today’s story, “Give to God, what is God’s.” What isn’t God’s? That’s Jesus’ entire point, and the reason his opponents left awestruck. Jesus isn’t describing two separate kingdoms, one run by an earthly emperor and one by himself, but an entire cosmos that belongs to and is sustained by a gracious creator God. If we believe in a God like this one, and if we turn to this God when a loved one is ill when we lack discernment and direction in our personal lives, and when our own broken moments need divine reconciliation, why wouldn’t we consider the teachings of our faith as we cast our ballots this November? How might our faith remind us to be less cynical, more trusting, and mindful of our political responsibilities? How might we act more like Jesus when it comes to the politics we practice?
Folks, we are created in the image of a loving, compassionate, and faithful God. As image-bearers, we work to make this world more loving, compassionate, and faithful with all of our powers, including our political power. May we prayerfully consider the votes we cast in the coming weeks. May we pray for those officials responsible for our voting system. May we pray for peace and clarity at the polls. And may we vote faithfully, doing our part to make this world better for all God’s creation. Amen.
“The Shepherd’s Song” by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1891). Public Domain.
Philippians 4:1-9 1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
“What do we do now, knowing what we know?” This question was my favorite professor’s refrain every time our class stumbled across some great insight about faith, community, or doing good.
“What do we do now, knowing what we know?”
So, we are about six months into the 2020 pandemic. As of today, about 35 million people have contracted COVID-19, and over 1 million have died from it. Millions upon millions have faced insecurity in housing, food, employment, and child care.
In the United States, communities struggle to address the embedded inequalities and violence aimed at people of color. Statues of slave-holders have come down, bigoted CEO’s have stepped down, and protests have continued. Violence and property damage have occurred in some places, carried out by a few opportunists or right-winged extremists.
Wildfires on the West Coast have displaced over 200,000 people and thanks to the second most active hurricane season on record, thousands more in the Gulf Coast.
We cannot forget, of course, that 2020 is an election year.
2020 has been a dumpster fire of a year, and it’s not over. No wonder some of our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters of faith have seen apocalyptic overtones in 2020, hailing these days to be the last days.
“So, what do we do now, knowing what we know?”
But there’s an additional problem.
A few weeks ago, my sons Simon and Miles brought home information about town soccer. But the problem was, the K-2 soccer team in Starksboro did not have a coach. I got a call that very night by another parent asking if I would co-coach with him. K-2 soccer.
Now I’ve never played soccer or coached, but that’s why we have Youtube. And wanting my boys to participate in a fall sport after spring sports were canceled, I said yes and then went to my computer and googled “How to coach soccer.”
Luckily the other coach didn’t know a thing about soccer either, so, at our first practice, one of our drills was an army crawl, a technique I have yet to see us use in a game. We did study up on the pandemic precautions for youth soccer, and now have a good set of drills to keep us busy. But it was good to hear from a more veteran coach that this age group is a lot of fun, and coaching kids this age is a combination of keeping a positive attitude and herding cats.
And I’ve had a blast doing it.
And then, last Friday, at our game in Bristol, I realized that I was full of joy. If you haven’t been to a K-2 soccer game before, imagine a small field with one ball and 47 legs trying to kick that one ball all at the same time. Goals are being scored mostly by accident while defenders find worms, throw grass at each other, or catch bugs. There’s a lot of little boy energy on the team, so kids waiting to go in on the sidelines mostly practice karate or talk about Minecraft.
But because my brain never seems to stop these days, sometime toward the end of the game, I was reminded that we are in the middle of a pandemic, social unrest, political distrust, wild fire-y and hurricane season. Am I even allowed to feel joyful these days?
“What do we do, knowing what we know?”
In some ways, Philippians attempts to answer this question.
In the early 60’s CE, the Apostle Paul writes to the first church he founded in Europe at Philippi in modern-day Greece. Paul has spent time among the community, and there is evidence of mutual support. We also know that Paul is writing this letter from prison, awaiting sentencing in Rome. He has likely been held in confinement for over two years. And yet, the tone of the message is overwhelmingly positive. In today’s Scripture reading, Paul is attempting to mend a fracture in the community. Two leaders – Euodia [U – O – DEE – A] and Syntyche [SIN – TIE – KEY] have been disputing, either with each other or with Paul. Paul reminds these two leaders that they are on the same team and encourages the congregation to support these women through whatever rift there is.
Then Paul does something interesting; it seems as if he changes the subject. He calls on this faith community to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” and to “let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Further, he calls on the community to “Not be anxious, but to go to God in prayer and be thankful.” These practices will, he claims, bring this community peace.
Finally, Paul drives home his point by calling upon the community to think about those things that are beneficial for living together, being truthful, honorable, justice-oriented, pure, beauty-seeking, worshipful, and excellent in a Bill and Ted sort of way, I imagine. This, too, focusing one’s thinking on good things, also brings peace to the community and everyone in it.
Are we allowed to feel joyful during 2020?
There is so much illness, disaster, and distrust in the world right now.
And yet, for the Apostle Paul, as he sits in prison and pens a letter to one of his struggling faith communities, he writes about joy. He calls the Philippians his joy, even when all is not well. He’s even optimistic, hoping to be released soon, excited to send his partner Timothy to help them, and expecting to visit soon.
It seems to me that the Apostle Paul’s position on the matter is that joy is something we choose and practice. It does not dismiss the problems and conflicts people of faith encounter. Instead, it fully acknowledges them, openly and also prayerfully. In fact, practicing joy looks something like taking our deepest concerns to God, trusting that God is working in our lives and in this world for good things.
Being joyful then has something to do with trusting God. As we know, trust is a practice, something that takes time and energy, and devotion. This type of joy perceives that even in the challenges and turmoil that this world has to offer, God is actively working in concrete ways to change the story. Joy is our response to this reality. To have joy is to practice imagining what good is possible, over and above what is, to focus your attention on what God is going through us and through others throughout the world.
“So, what do we do now, knowing what we know?”
The poet Rumi writes that “sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
Even in 2020, we can be joyful. We can see our children and grandchildren grow leaps and bounds. We can be thankful for victories in our lives and in this world, both big and small. We can imagine all those that continue to work hard to find a vaccine, officials, and community leaders that have worked together for social equality. We can also be thankful for firefighters who risk their lives to contain wildfires and the countless workers and volunteers that help those displaced by the recent hurricanes.
And we can be hopeful that regardless of judicial appointments and election outcomes, good people are working in our communities and states and nation to make life more tolerable for everyone. They tell the truth. They fight corruption. They promote freedom and responsibility. They use their words wisely, decline the photo op, and stand up for those on the margins.
And most importantly, we can trust that God continues to bend the history of our human race toward something loving, and caring, and just. Our God hasn’t taken 2020 off or walked away from this mess. Rather, our God is more active, present, and available to us now than many of us have ever experienced.
We are allowed to be joyful in 2020. Practicing joy would probably make us a little healthier, inside and out, and would bless those around us during this troubling time. So, consider the good around you. Take your concerns always to God. Watch a little kid’s soccer game. And practice trusting in our good, loving, and always active God. Amen.
33 ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’
42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Every three years during the season of Fall, our Sunday morning gospel readings consist of a series of insightful, sometimes challenging, often violent, Parables from the gospel of Matthew. This Sunday is no exception.
Jesus has already entered Jerusalem for the final showdown in Matthew and has committed a revolutionary act—he has thrown out the corrupt officials who ran a racketeering scheme at the temple. This action caught the attention of the poor, who had been overcharged and swindled for years by these officials to complete their required religious observances. They seek out Jesus because they wonder if he is bringing lasting change. But this action also caught the attention of temple leaders and the Roman occupying force. His actions are seen as treasonous and unsanctioned.
So, we can imagine the scene taking place in today’s parable. Jesus has reentered the temple complex the next day. The corrupt officials who are buying and selling and exchanging money wonder what they should do. Everyday religious folks have gathered around him. And the religious elite, ruling families that have benefited from generations of scamming the poor, have pressed to the front of the crowd to question Jesus. All this while Roman soldiers look on. It’s a tense setup.
So Jesus tells another story, perhaps to defuse the situation, or maybe to pour gasoline on it. Unlike other parables where the meaning is ambiguous enough, Matthew’s Jesus leaves nothing to the imagination by the end of this one, suggesting that he sees this time as ripe for change.
In this story, a Vineyard owner creates an impressive Vineyard, leases it out to tenets, and goes on a journey. When harvest came due, the owner sent representatives back to collect the harvest, which was agreed to at the beginning of the partnership. But the tenets, wanting to keep the entire crop for themselves, beat, stone, and kill a series of representatives until the landowner decides to send his son, who he assumes the tenets will respect. But they don’t and kill him as well. Jesus then asks the crowd what the landowner should do when he returns.
“He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants that will give him the produce at harvest time.”
Turning to the religious elite, Jesus then says, “In this way, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to leaders that will produce a just harvest to God.” Jesus has just confronted the most powerful people in the land and told them that their reign is over.
Our scriptures report that they wanted to have Jesus arrested, but could not do so because he had the people on his side.
In many ways, this is one of Jesus’ saddest parables. In it, God is the creator of everything, and all of creation belongs to God. God then shares the work of creation with stewards; caretakers tasked with caring for this creation and ensuring that it produces things like justice, compassion, mercy, love, and right relationships. God trusted that these folks would be good stewards, that they would take care of one another and the land, but seeing the potential for profit, they misuse God’s creation, even resorting to violence to protect what they see is their property. This parable serves as an indictment on any leader that uses and abuses resources that harm people and abuse the land for profit. It also serves as a reminder for all of us that God calls us into this collaborative effort of co-creating a just and peaceful world. We can take up this work as good stewards of God’s creation in practical, down to earth sort of ways, like the work that takes place in a vineyard. Checking in on folks, ensuring that our neighbors have enough to eat, keeping one another safe during this pandemic, and being fully present in community life are tangible, hands-in-the-dirt actions that good stewards do.
But the warning of our parable is also difficult. God is willing to move on when the stewards cannot be rehabilitated. God’s love for creation, all of us creatures, and this big beautiful planet, is too dear to God to be mismanaged for long. When we fail to address income inequality, accessibility issues, racial injustice, coercive state violence, and corrupt public officials, God will move on. When we actively work against green energies, degrade farmlands and waterways, and trash our world’s oceans, because it is convenient or cheaper, God promises to find another solution, and we might not be a part of it.
This troubling parable reminds all of us that we are stewards of God’s creation and that God expects good things from this creation. It calls on us to keep high standards in our lives, our faith communities, and our societies, standards of love and justice, compassion and mercy, hospitality and inclusion, and hope and faith. It calls us to consider how our words and actions affect something bigger than ourselves, this wonderful, messy, sometimes confusing, always surprising cosmos. We get to play in it. We get to tend some corner of it. We get to share in the life of a creating God.
May we celebrate how cool it is to be stewards of God’s creation. May we also take this role seriously, caring for one another, and caring for the spaces around us. For the glory of God, for ourselves, and for future generations of stewards. Amen.
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.