Mark 1.9-13 | The First Sunday in Lent B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark

9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

The Gospel of the Lord

It was the 1st year of my formal biblical studies and I was a much more assured novice than I am now. I was enrolled in a Gospel’s class. The instructor framed the class around what is called a “harmony of the Gospels”. This is a presentation of the life/ministry of Jesus compressing the four Gospels into a proposed single, chronological/historical biography. Well I’ve always been something of an independent minded fellow. So enter stage right – my prodigal youth in rock’n roll music. We recognized that sound was everything to live and recorded performances. Which meant the monophonic and stereophonic of our parent’s listening had too many shortcomings. We discovered what at that time was called quadraphonic, that is, sound from four sources. And now you might be asking “how does this relate to the Gospel of Mark?” Well in this way, the “harmony” of my Gospels class was actually a reduction in sound from quadraphonic to monophonic. The unique four voice sound of the Gospels was reduced to a single, chronological/historical sound. In reflection, my all too frequent objections were all too insistent and annoying to be sure. My final grade wasn’t affected but I did get one of my many cautions from the academic dean.    

So ace novice that I am now, how does this relate to our lesson from Mark’s Gospel? Today is the first Sunday of Lent and for at least nineteen centuries, each Lenten year begins by joining the baptism/testing stories of Jesus.  Sentences from our 5 sentence text have been read already this church year – specifically Epiphany 1, “the baptism of our Lord”. Today we get the follow up to the baptism – wilderness. Now it’s not uncommon to hear explanations to what Mark means here by reference to Matthew, Luke. As I implied a few minutes ago, when you enter into the hearing of each of the Gospels you’re entering a world of special sounds, unique and emotionally moving sounds. What I am going to attempt is let Mark speak his theological song without cross referencing the others.  You be the judge whether I pull it off or not.

So please turn in your Bible to Mark 1. In the ancient world writers frequently prepared an introduction to explain the scope or purpose of a text, giving guidance how the hearers should listen as the story is read to them. Our Gospel lesson’s vs. 9- 13 conclude the densely imaged introduction. One of the things that is so compelling to me about Mark is how vocal it is. For example, the narrator proclaims his intention in a title “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the messiah, the son of God” (vs. 1). OK, Copy that. Mark then dials up some prophetic voices to proclaim after years of hoping and waiting the promised messenger is here. He’s at the Jordan wilderness preparing the way for a new Exodus, a new return from Exile (vs. 2-3 ). Mark then wraps his head around the intriguing messenger’s stunning humility in a sound byte “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (vs. 4-8). The next voice, from an ancient speaker – YHWH himself, is evocative, familial “It’s you who are my beloved son, it’s you I am well pleased with” (vs. 11). After this Mark speaks up to tell us about the wilderness testing of this “beloved Son” (vs. 12-13). So in a few swift strokes of his stylus, our attention is focused precisely on Jesus. And all this without Jesus speaking a word! 

In vs. 9 Jesus steps into the flow of the story in two brief scenes – a baptism and a 40 day wilderness stop over . Mark’s brief statement regarding Jesus’ baptism is a way of accenting Jesus’ association with the coming Kingdom. Notice how Mark has set us up. He told us the Baptizer told us to expect a change from water to Spirit baptism. Listen how Mark splits them. First the water. John’s baptism program was a first “faith” step for the arrival of the kingdom. Judean and Jerusalem folk were publicly committing themselves in anticipation of the coming king and his rule (vs. 5). In his baptism Jesus joined himself to these folk: acknowledging their change of allegiance, supporting their hope in looking for the coming king who has the authority to put right all that is wrong in Israel (vs. 9).  

Then Mark soaks up the baptismal water with the Spirit. Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit is the event identifying him as the messiah-king, the son of God, the one in whom the Spirit resides. Mark will give us three verifications of this identity:  the sound of the barrier to divine revelation being ripped apart, the fluttering descent of the dove-like Spirit and the verbal endorsement of YHWH (vs. 10-12).

Standing with John in the Jordan river wilderness, the borderland between Galilee, Judea, Jesus dips “into” the Jordan. Rising up out of the water, Mark makes us “insiders” telling us what only Jesus “sees/hears” not the Baptizer or the others. The sound of the water dripping off Jesus is drowned as the barrier to divine revelation is removed being heard as the sound of the sky above ripped ferociously apart. The ferocity of the scene is then tamped down. The renewal of revelation is now heard as the fluttering down of a dove-like Spirit “into” Jesus.  The return of the Spirit was a familiar Second Temple experience that begins the messianic age (Ezk. 10.15-19; 1 Enoch 49. 3; Ps. Sol 17.42; T. Levi 18.7; T. Judah 24.2; b.Hagig 15a; m Berak 3a). Mark wants us to take all this in: The Baptizer’s proclamation is true. The days of the Spirit famine have ended. Revelations’s barrier has been removed. Jesus is the intersecting point of revelation and the Spirit.

Voices from heaven aren’t everyday occurrences. The classical prophets’ “this is what YHWH says” was merely an echo in the Second Temple period, but the voice identifying Jesus as “my son, the beloved.” is unmistakably YHWH’s. May I suggest “well pleasing” or “beloved” is code for obedience, for messianic authority. The Wilderness test will be “proof” he is worthy of divine endorsement. 

YHWH doesn’t put bubble wrap around the beloved son. We’re not to be taken in by the seemingly docile dove-like image used to describe the Spirit (vs. 10). The determination to validate Jesus’ Messianic identity is verbalized for us. Jesus is yanked away from the Jordan river and thrown farther out into the wilderness! (vs. 12). Being the messiah will be a good thing. It just won’t be an easy thing. It won’t be a safe thing. 

A bit of a stretch about the Spirit from C.S. Lewis, if you will allow. “Susan Pevensie has just gotten a shock: Aslan is a lion, not a man, as she had originally thought. “Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, p. 72)

Notice Mr. Beaver doesn’t tell us Aslan is “safe,” rather he tells us Aslan’s power and authority aren’t intended to be safe but virtuous and just.  May I say to you, like the beavers, Mark imagines something similar in his wider Gospel regarding the power and the authority of the Spirit. The Spirit is not safe. The Spirit, however, is holy, just and good.

Mark writes no details about Jesus’s experience in the wilderness.  All he gives us are two abrupt sentences: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him”. We don’t learn what the specific tests over the forty days were or how Jesus responded to them. Although he names who is there we don’t know what is really going on, how the cosmic-earthly test is waged. The implication of the forty days is that it takes time to come to grips with it all. It’s not easy to work out identity and authority.

But naming Jesus, the messiah, the obedient beloved son closely linked by the words “forty” and  “wilderness” sets the hearers up to identify Jesus with Israel’s story. Like others of Israel’s story – Moses, Elijah, David and the Nation itself, “forty” and “wilderness” have strong associations with deliverance, revelation, faithfulness, testing and identity. For example, Israel could look back on its Wilderness experiences as sometimes high water marks and also sometimes low water marks. Especially in the Exodus-Covenant narratives, the wilderness was for Israel the place of revelation, identity, testing, sometimes obedience, sometimes disobedience. Looking back it could be said Israel had been tested and had failed the test. Looking back the prophets looked forward to another experience where YHWH would once again reveal himself and deliver his people. Israel would once again be obedient sons and daughters. For Mark, in Jesus, in whom the Spirit resides, obedience is revealed.

“The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.” is one of the phrases teachers use in the Sunday school program “Godly Play”. As for me, the “Satan” who opposes Jesus in the wilderness is a real person, a real evil person. We may not choose to personalise Satan in our time, in our secular world view, but, may I say to you, I believe we take a real risk by ignoring him and evil. It’s not a fantasy. Again C. S. Lewis “Evil is a seizure, an unjust tyrannical occupation. We are living in a part of the universe occupied by the Rebel. Enemy occupied territory that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say, landed in disguise and is calling all of us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage” (Mere Christianity, p. 36).  Unless terrorizing ruling powers are met head on, evil cannot be dealt with. The Lord doesn’t bring deliverance by remote control, pushing buttons and directing action from distant light years. What the Lord does through the Spirit in Jesus in the wilderness is mix it up with evil.  In Mark’s account, you hear no dialogue and that, in part, underscores the victory of Jesus. He has silenced Satan in principle at least.

It is now generally accepted that the center of Mark’s gospel is instruction about following Jesus or discipleship. In other words, how we are to be instructed emerges out of Jesus’ experience.  So I want to direct your attention to how Mark weaves ideas for his central theme into our Gospel lesson. I summarize his proposition this way: Jesus’ baptism involves an identity disclosure that engages the Spirit from which Jesus then engages both spiritual and environmental dangers in establishing the kingdom. I propose that sequence can be, is to be, ours also.

Baptism with the Spirit and wilderness challenge us to embrace a new way of living. In our society, -isms have arisen identifying individuals with groups/tribes: neo-marxism, genderism, atheism, neo-racism, christian nationalism, evangelical exceptionalism, political progressivism along with many, many others. These -isms, their platforms, their programs are incompatible with authentic biblical truth because they put people into categories based on political power. They reflect deep, deep conflicted antagonisms being sewn into our society’s tapestry. They are flawed politically, culturally, humanly but most importantly, for us, spiritually. They reject the Bible’s complex understanding of life and its moral scale of purity. Raised fists lack humor, scorn forgiveness, grace, hope, stopping well short of kingdom redemption.  Baptism with the Spirit is the only -ism that transforms identity making peace, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation and moral integrity possible. For the christian, then, there is no other -ism. Christians are not partisan players. We are listeners, advocates, reconcillers for the needs of all our neighbors in every community. Baptism with the Spirit allows us to confront spiritual opposition and cultural dangers in the wilderness with identity and purpose, up close and personal.

May I say quite boldly then – a believer’s identity, like Jesus’ identity, is grounded in baptism with the Spirit. It incorporates the truth of the vitality of faith, repentance, the active presence of the Spirit and the utterly revolutionary identity transformation of a person. It incorporates the Father’s voice: “It’s you who are my sons and daughters. It’s you who are my beloved”. We are set on the path toward holiness by realizing we are sons and daughters of a holy Father.

Becoming Christian through faith and baptism with the Spirit, we are transformed to have a different understanding of our place in the world. Why is Jesus at baptism and at testing so enormously important? It’s because in these two events Jesus divests himself of power, position and authority to stand compassionately in our place. The Lord in Jesus loves us so much that he stands with us in our place of repentance and forgiveness – baptism; in our place of everyday struggle – the wilderness and although we have yet to hear in this Gospel, Jesus stands with us in our place of redemption – the cross paying a priceless price for us. 

Lent has always been that period of reflection upon what contemporary life is about and where Jesus is leading us in our time. It makes Lent rather serious, don’t you think?

John 1.43-51 | Epiphany 2B

John M. Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” 50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you all, you all will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

The Gospel of the Lord

Welcome to the 2nd Sunday in Epiphany and the 3rd time in Year B our Gospel Lesson is from the 1st chapter of the 4th Gospel.  Are you still with me? Well our return requires some orientation to the place our eleven sentence lesson has both in theology and in the narrative.

Notice that the Lesson draws us in by referring to the “next day” (vs. 43). Well, this just isn’t the first time “next day” has been used in the first chapter to get us moving with the story line. It’s the 3rd time. This morning’s “next day” tells us about Philip’s witness to Nathaniel about Jesus in Galilee. In a previous “next day”, the Gospel’s witness about Jesus involved brothers Andrew and Simon Peter without a map reference (vs. 35-42). In the 1st “next day”, the Gospel’s witness about Jesus involved his baptism by John on the other side of the Jordan river (vs. 29-34 ). 

Now all this “next day’ in different locations is not merely putting x’s on a calendar and drop pins on a Google map. It conveys some brilliant theological thinking. Go back with me to the opening words of the first chapter: “In the beginning was the Word.The Word was with God. And the Word was God”. (vs. 1). This is the declaration of a divine relationship outside of the restrictions of the “next day”. It’s timeless, eternal. This is followed by an eye popping: “The Word became flesh and lived among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only son” (vs. 14). The timeless, eternal has become time bound.  The Gospel’s witness about the “Word became flesh” is that Jesus is bound into real time and real places. So these three “next days” move us forward in describing/realizing how this timeless divine person lives out a time bound life. The narrative conveys a sense of urgency – the hours on the clock are ticking off as Jesus gets on with his ministry. 

Not only will our Gospel lesson be influenced, as we have noted, by the first chapter, it will also be framed by a larger purpose. We will look at that briefly in ch. 20.31 where we read “but these (signs) are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name”. So it is no misreading of that purpose that we hear Philip describe Jesus as the messiah – the one who Moses and the prophets wrote about (vs. 45), followed by a flurry of titles from Nathaniel “Rabbi, Son of God, Israel’s King (dba “Messiah”)” (vs. 49). All these precede Jesus’ favorite description of himself “Son of Man” (vs. 51).  

We’ve already heard the Baptizer’s witness regarding Jesus “Look, the Lord’s Lamb” (vs. 36) and how Andrew went looking for Jesus responding to his “come and see” (vs. 39). He joins up, then goes off and brings his brother Simon Peter to the “messiah” (vs. 40-42). Now it’s Philip’s turn to respond to Jesus’ “Follow me” (vs. 43). Like Andrew, he joins up and brings someone – Nathanael to Jesus (vs. 44-46). Surely, in this Gospel, these are calls to discipleship and the function of discipleship “witness” dominates these two scenes. So here is the proposal I want to make to you about this theme in this Gospel. Discipleship begins at Jesus’ initiative (vs. 39, 43). Disciples who are called are to invite people to “come and see” Jesus for themselves (vs. 41-42, 46) and join up with others into a community.This text tells how it works: Christian faith and discipleship is passed from person to person. It’s always person-to-person.

The Baptizer, Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathaniel appear in the chapter with Melchizedek’s abruptness “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life” (Heb. 7.3). Philip will reappear in the Gospel (ch. 12.20ff). So here, he joins up at Jesus’ invite “Follow me”.  And then explained his choice to his friend Nathaniel. But his friend Nathaniel isn’t impressed with Philip’s identification of Jesus as son of Joseph,  “the one Moses and the prophets wrote about” or his neighborhood – Nazareth.  “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asks bluntly. With messiahs popping up here and there in the Second Temple period, Nathaniel is wise to be cautious. After all, “Jesus son of Joseph” doesn’t seem messianically Mosaic or prophetic at first glance. Likewise, why would any messiah come from prophetically meager Nazareth?

Philip responds simply to Nathaniel’s over the shoulder question, “Come and see for yourself.” Come and see. The words are both simple and warm, issuing an invitation not only to see something, but also, like him, to join with others. To come along and be part of something. In spite of his questions, Nathaniel goes off with Andrew and his life is about to be forever changed by an encounter with Jesus from Nazareth.

As Nathaniel approaches, Jesus comments  “Here comes a forthright person, an Israelite, who says what he thinks about messiahs.” In other words, Nathaniel isn’t prepared to take what seems to be false and make it seem like it’s true. Nathaniel voices his surprise in a question “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answers “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you”.  Referring back to ch. 1.31, the Gospel tells us the Baptizer explained his ministry as designed to reveal Jesus to Israel. Nathanael, in this scene, is representing Israel. On the one hand, reference to “sitting under a fig tree” highlights a traditional image for Israel’s “good” life – every person living in peace in the Land. On the other, Nathaniel is face to face with something “good” from a place as different from Nazareth as it could possibly be. He is face to face with the Word who came out of eternity to become flesh, who knows, sees and calls, presenting Israel with the only messianic way to the “good” life.  

So Jesus’ “knowing” Nathaniel (vs. 48) isn’t some “seeing around the corner smoke and mirrors” trick but an indicator of divine insight. Nathaniel gets it and quickly acknowledges Jesus to be a teacher – Rabbi. Not surprising! Then the flurry of significant titles “Son of God, King of Israel. Jesus is the messiah (vs. 49). Nathaniel is all in. By the end of the first chapter, the Fourth Gospel has piled on Jesus no less than seven titles: the Word, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the Messiah, the one Moses and the prophets wrote about, the King of Israel and the Son of Man. Words convey meaning. In case anyone was wondering, this Gospel believes that in all his humanness Jesus embodies divine presence. He is the Chosen One who represents YHWH and will rule over Israel.

Nathaniel had seen Jesus do a great thing “divinely seeing him under the fig tree”. But “he ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”  Altering a Bible story that clearly would have caught the attention of anyone in Israel who knew their Bible from scroll to scroll, Jesus promises him “you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (vs. 51). Clearly a reference to the dream in which the patriarch Jacob saw angels moving back and forth between heaven and earth on what seemed like a staircase (Gen. 28.10-22). In this Gospel though Jesus pushes the staircase aside. “No one has ever seen God, but God the only son who is at the Father’s side has made him known” (1.18). Communication between the divine and the human is now realized fully and only in Jesus. 

My 2nd year of Bible school was also my 1st year of seminary when Campus Crusade launched its “I Found It!” national evangelism program. Messages for five chapel services the week before the program started lifted their theme “Come and See” from our lesson. It was honorable, well intentioned evangelism and as far as 4 naive seminarians were concerned it springboarded us into a church plant in SE Portland. The following years of study and American evangelism experiences slowly developed for me some perspectives on consequences that I believe were unintended at that time. It seems to me, brushing my thoughts in a wide splash, the invitation, in the words “Follow me”, “Come and see” has now spun off into an individualist, personal salvation slogan “accept Jesus so you can go to heaven” in revival stadium performances and/or the idea that a person can choose salvation as if it was a Souplantation buffet with a money back guarantee.  As the scene discloses, however, our entire perspective changes or should change when we read this scene both closely and in its narrative setting. When we do that we acknowledge that Jesus’ invitation to Andrew (vs. 39), then  Philip (vs. 43), his “before Andrew… I saw you, Nathaniel” (vs. 48 ) and his escalator of “greater revelations” (vs. 51) has the upperhand. In other words, the Lord made known in Jesus is the Lord who is in a position to judge, to test, to evaluate, to call to discipleship. It is to him, we are called to “follow”, to “come and see”.    

The “follow me” call from Jesus and the invitation to “come and see” are not marketplace slogans or lapel pins. Embedded in the narrative, “Follow me” and “come and see” are intended to lead to discipleship, not simply being saved. “Being saved” isn’t about individuals devoid of anything resembling the living Jesus in their lives. These are invitations to a life changing, life transforming encounter with Jesus. An invitation to come and see what the Lord  is still doing in and through Jesus and in the community of disciples who have chosen to follow him. Discipleship is an active recognition of Jesus’ identity, actively participating in his transformation of us in a community, actively seeing greater revelations of him. 

You probably know as well as I do that the key factor influencing someone to attend a church, a Bible study, a home fellowship meeting for the first time is a personal invitation from someone like Andrew, like Philip, like you or me.  So “come and see” would seem to challenge us whether we have anything to show people about Jesus in our words and practices and that we are able to name and share that. Well, we know our nation is broken – it’s not the pandemic only nor even partisan political/cultural  upheavals. It’s everything because Americans are just like all the rest of humanity–sinners. When we don’t live up to our own ideals, whatever they are, we should not be surprised, only a little amused at ourselves for thinking we would be able to. This broken nation is why Jesus is here. It’s why we’re called, why we’re here, it’s why we’re sent – “to do the work he has given us to do to love and serve him as faithful witnesses of Christ the Lord”. The observation that whoever marries the spirit of the age will be widowed in the next has a barb for faithful communities. Historically Christianity has stood the test of time. May I say to you, a church, any church that sought or seeks to engage in self-justification with the spirit of the age rather than stick to its character and integrity, such as found in our lesson has not/will not survive. I know the future of the church/ a church is without a doubt in the Lord’s trustworthy hands. The future of faith communities, our faith community, will, I believe, be greatly determined by a willingness, our willingness, to invite our network of friends personally and say to them “I found Him, Come and see. Follow Him”. 

Now Beloved by the Lord, Don’t ever assume that nothing good can come out of Tustin!

Matthew 1.18-25 | Advent 4B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

 The Gospel of the Lord

Miriam, Hey, Miriam. there’s someone at the gate. Can you see who it is? I’m starting to fit a plow together.  Matthew, a tax collector, you say. Tell him to come back next month. I’ll have finished the roof and stairs in Sepphoris and have some money then.  What? not a tax collector. Oh, Matthew,  it’s you. Sorry, don’t you know tax collectors, and all that. Please. Sit there while I finish up. There’s some water for your hands and feet.

Oh gosh, Matthew, where to begin.  I’ve had a lot of years to think about that time in my life.  Well, Ok, this is my view on how the events around Jesus’ birth unfolded. 

In those years Nazareth was a small, poor village like so many others in the Galilee.  But because it was close to Herod’s Galilean capital Sepphoris with its roman garrison, our village supplied skilled labor for the building projects. I was apprenticed in the family construction business. Through construction work our family and others in the village were working more than we had been in a long time. Although, as you well know, Roman taxation practices required exhausting, physical labor merely for survival. Everyone here experienced varying levels of poverty and bad health. But it was also a time to strengthen ties between the village’s clans. The elders and relatives of our families negotiated the first steps of the marriage and made the betrothal arrangements for Miriam and me.  While our families come from the same village, we only saw each other on occasion. Really not much opportunity to get to know each other.   I would begin the process of constructing a room in the family house and she would remain in her father’s household. But in the intervening months, before I could get a room built I had no idea how much things were about to change. 

I could and did visit Miriam from time to time. On one of those times she was standing behind me. I whirled around so fast I lost my balance. Our conversation was stopped short.  You’re what? – pregnant! pregnant by YHWH’s spirit! It swept me off my feet. I didn’t know her very well. I didn’t have a reason to distrust her.  Did our families take too much for granted? Did we get our signals crossed? Please – tell me the truth. I tried to listen to her. I tried not to blame her. But that one word built a wall between us. Something had been lost. I felt that my undivided affection with Miriam had been stolen. Not another word was spoken between us that day.  Things weren’t going as planned, not as I had planned anyway, and not as things were supposed to go. Boy, oh boy, did that one word ever change things and set in motion a most improbable, dare I say, miraculous series of events.

Look around this workshop, as you can see, I’m a tradesman, poor and someone of no consequence.  Yet when I think back on that time, I realize I was being led by the Lord in a way that would transform my life in ways I would never have imagined.

It’s safe to say that my days and nights were filled with anxiety and exhausting flights of emotion. I was out of my mind. Night after night as I lay in the dark, as I pulled the blanket up over my head – I hoped that in the morning it would all be gone- just a bad dream.  But I woke up every morning with a headful of ideas that were driving me insane. Could I take the risk? How do I remain faithfully obedient to the Lord? What kind of person will I become? What will others think of me? I don’t know if I can do this Lord. I need some help here.

On the other hand, should I leave her to deal with the unborn child?  Would she be driven to despair, feeling abandoned? As I was thinking over Miriam’s explanations, what if they were true?  Do any decisions need to be seen in a different way? What if Miriam came into the family?  Could I let this child be raised as if he/she were my own?  Admittedly, there were more than a few moments when I believed she had been unfaithful but it took another event (more about that in a few minutes) and years of reflection to gain a more even-handed understanding of Jesus’ birth.

And then,  there were the questions, so many questions:  Do I risk disobedience, becoming an outcast to the  family? How should I tell the elders? What would they decide? Should I have a plan to present to them? Culturally, there’s not a lot of wiggle room. The religious traditions are simply too strong. Upon such a revelation, a response is required. The betrothal had been damaged, a violation of trust. It is a matter of personal/family honor and shame. This pregnancy, well, it’s proof that this marriage was a wrong decision. Understandably some in the family, on both sides, were outraged and would have kicked her to the curb. But I had to find some way to repair the family boundaries, to put off feuding and an endless getting even.

And do I risk  becoming an outcast in the village?  Will word of the pregnancy burn like a wildfire through our village?  If I went ahead with the betrothal, then folk would think I had gotten her pregnant. That might be a lot easier. The town folk would have fewer reasons  to question our commitment to each other. I was trying to handle this with a minimum of damage. A public divorce would  bring shame and dishonor.  It would have been messy. If I decided it would be simpler to break the betrothal privately then only two witnesses would be required before the elders. Although nothing is ever really private in a small village!  I figured that for the rest of our life, we will be surrounded by scandal if we followed through with the betrothal. I realized I was juggling how to set things right for the child and his/her upbringing in the village. I was trying to shield him/her.  I was hanging onto every bit of hope that I could muster that I could put up with the sideways glances and the gossip. I would try to protect her and the child from what I could. I would try to protect myself from what I could.  Maybe I would just be angry about what has happened and maybe I would  just let people talk.

I have  always  been careful to faithfully observe Torah and by grace I will continue. But how could I be faithful to Torah and be righteous in this situation? Leading with my heart, caring about Miriam’s vulnerability, I decided to break the betrothal privately. Ah, but that decision didn’t settle things. I still yearned for assurance that what I decided was the right thing among Torah’s options. Now all that was about to be turned upside down. Honestly, Matthew, sometimes I do lose sight of my faith.  But the Lord is always there, waiting for me to come to him with my weaknesses. 

But the Lord didn’t wait for me this time. He intervened with a luminous dream, cutting short the nightmare visions of accusation and estrangement playing in the theater of my dreams – unveiling the truth, – speaking to the depths of my heart, – revealing what my reasoning had failed to grasp, – plunging me back into the village.

The angelic messenger instructs me to do something more daring than a private or public dismissal of Miriam. He tells me to embrace Miriam’s pregnancy as an act of YHWH’s spirit. It’s a boy, Joe Davidson. And you will name him Jesus. Although not the father, as a Davidson, I’m to name the boy so he can take up his place in king David’s ancestry. I’m to parent this child who is the divine presence in Israel.  I’m to commit myself to participating with Miriam in YHWH’s plan.

YHWH certainly is the Lord of mystery. So this is how the messiah would slip in among us – wrapped in a scandal, wrapped, also, in a miraculous act of the spirit. Through Miriam, the messiah’s destiny was set in motion. Wrapped up in Jesus, hope and deliverance came to Israel. He would not be a political or military ruler but an antidote to sin,  the spiritual and moral virus which infects everything, of all the – moral, emotional, physical, intellectual – stuff in our lives and culture that just doesn’t work. He gained his power by embracing the failures.

The angel called me Joseph Davidson in the dream and that pushed me to go back and climb up my royal family tree.  I found four branches, each of them, a woman, who had something of the same honor/shame shadow cast over them that makes their inclusion in Davidic ancestry extraordinary. In David’s monarchy, itself, there is Bathsheba who sprouted a branch under circumstances viewed by many as unsuitable to the dignity of royal lineage. Then there was David’s great-grandmother, the Moabite, Ruth who sprouted Jesse – the royal branch itself. And at the conquest of land, a Canaanite prostitute, Rahab was grafted in becoming Ruth’s mother-in-law. Lastly, way up in the canopy,  the honor/shame incident with the patriarch Judah, himself, and Tamar, the Aramaean.  To the participants in these ancestral events, things must have looked like a scandal, but when I look back now, YHWH’s hand is visible, steady and sure.

These weren’t the only women or times in my family’s royal history when events remained outside the hands of human management.  I hope this isn’t too subtle. But think back with me for a moment, Matthew, to consider an event in the monarchy of Ahaz, the 10th king of Judah. Threatened by the armies of Syria and Assyria, Ahaz needed to learn that fortified cities don’t protect. Sooner or later they’re smashed down. YHWH points out a young woman to Ahaz. A young woman whose imminent birth of a Davidic princeling named “God with us” will offer Ahaz a sign of hope that the dreaded kings would be put down. 

“God with us” Now I want you to consider for a moment the profound meaning cascading down upon me in that name.This child, Jesus, conceived in a virgin, Miriam, by YHWH’s spirit, is “God with us”, the real presence.  Although merely a description for Jesus “God with us” is the sign of hope that underscores the surprise, the excitement, the wonderful mixing of the miraculous, the unexpected, the divine, the human. This child, Jesus, “God with us” sets in motion the accomplishment of YHWH’s saving act in his death, as a ransom for people from every clan and nation,  by his resurrection and reaches its climax when he sits beside the Ancient of Days to judge Israel and the nations.

So I finished building the room in the family house. The child was born. I held him ever so lovingly in my arms. Miriam completed her mothering ritual. At his circumcision he was named Jesus.  By naming the child I became his legal father and he sprouted his branch in the royal family tree. After a road trip to Egypt we returned to Nazareth and Miriam brought all her belongings to set up our household. I fed him, walked him around the room until he fell asleep on my shoulder. He squeezed my finger tightly as he took his first steps. I took him to the synagogue on the Sabbaths. I apprenticed him into the building trades. I listened to his hopes and dreams as we worked side by side. And then, one day – he was gone.

And may I say to you, Matthew,  you know more about that part of his life than I do.

Now, my beloved, may the word of the Lord richly dwell in us in all wisdom. Amen

John 1. 19-28 | Advent 3B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

The Gospel of the Lord

Please find a pen or pencil and a sheet of paper. Y’all knew it was only a matter of time before this moment when I succumbed to the dark side of my teacher-ly instincts. Well here it is. It’s time for a pop quiz. Question 1: fill in the blank: Who did Jesus mean when he said “truly, I say to you, among those born of women, there is not anyone greater than __________?” And Question 2: short answer: write about John the baptizer in less than 200 words.

By the time you reach the NT, there have been any number of strange characters in Israel’s history. Perhaps the strangest of all is John – the forerunner of Jesus. In a good cop/bad cop game plan, Temple officials sent Priests and Levites across the Jordan River to where John was baptizing folk. In a probe/jab interrogation, they were determining whether he was the Messiah or someone who could, at the very least, show them the coming Messiah (vs. 19-22). Notice he tells them who he isn’t.  John isn’t the Messiah, isn’t Elijah (Mal. 4.5) and isn’t Deuteronomy’s prophet (18.15).  He just isn’t the right answer to their questions. Perhaps, like them, we drift more naturally, looking for  someone like a Moses, the deliverer, or like a David the rugged, humbled king or a Daniel the statesman or an Isaiah with his vast prophetic landscape. Notice, however, he does tell them who he is “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord:.  They weren’t listening for Isaiah’s curious voice echoing across the Wilderness (40.3).

Now the Lord sent John as a witness so here’s the theme I want to propose to you in the Gospel’s characterization of John this morning-  like John, you and I are most successful and attractive when we attach the loyalty of others to Jesus rather than to ourselves. The only way for an increasing Jesus is a decreasing self. The Lord sent John to teach us this.

Let’s stretch out a bit and move to the other Gospels. Luke tells us John’s parents – Zachariah and Elizabeth- belonged to Israel’s priestly clan, living in a one stop sign village – Bethlehem.  They were elderly and childless. Can we not suppose that during their lifetime they held the children of others so lovingly, so longingly in their arms? Long past childbearing, suddenly, into the shadows of their unfulfilled hopes, their desires, into their barren arms came their own child sent by the Lord (Lk. 1.5-25, 57-59). Wonderful, miraculous, yes, but more than that. It’s overpowering. To hold your child in your arms for the first time is the kind of experience that brings a lump to your throat, that brings you to your knees, brings healing tears to your eyes. 

And that child was sent to Israel also. Luke tells us John spent his time in the Wilderness not the Temple. It wasn’t Palmdale or Palm Springs. It was rugged, a place of self-denial, sparseness not something sought out by most folk. Luke tells us John in the Wilderness “grew and became strong in spirit” (1.80). In that environment the Lord gave him the vision and words for his baptism ministry.  And Luke tells John’s Wilderness development was being paralleled by his cousin Jesus in Nazareth’s village “and he (Jesus) grew and became strong, he was filled with wisdom and the Lord’s favor was on him” (2.52). Matthew and Mark  tell us when this son of priests did appear, was he ever different from the clergy of his day. He was dressed in an itchy, three piece camel suit held together with a wide leather belt. He had a crunchy diet – locusts washed down with honey. He was lean, leathery like the Wilderness (Mt. 3.4; Mk. 1.6). And note this carefully, he could get away with beginning his sermons “you brood of vipers”. Y’all got off easy with a pop quiz! He spoke in images gleaned from the Wilderness. He came to Israel as a “voice” to announce the Lord’s coming (Mt. 3. 3. 7; Mk. 1.2-3).

Let’s return to the Fourth Gospel, especially to the first chapter. John was a man sent by the Lord to Israel as a witness (1.6). He had a common name but he was far from ordinary. Remember, although priestly, he was embedded in the Wilderness not the Temple. But he didn’t blend into either one. He looked like a survivalist more than a priest but he preached like a revivalist. John knew that no one received ministry except from the Lord (1. 31). He had a ministry – a repentance baptism done in the Jordan River. Now water is powerful. It can sweep over the land, wash things away,  break things down. So John’s water baptism, making a public repentant profession, was regarded as a sweeping away in order to participate in a renewed allegiance to the LORD’s kingdom. But Jesus was about to appear with something far and away more sweeping – a baptism with the Spirit that led to being born again (1.33). 

John did not have the first place but he did have a place. There would be no competition between him and Jesus. Light is coming. Darkness is already here. In the darkness we cannot see the Lord. We stumble around. To see Jesus in the light is to see the Lord.  Jesus not John is the light but John was going to hold out the light (1.6-9).

John would say clearly he was sent for a witness.  A witness is one who has personal knowledge and uses it as evidence. He declared of Jesus “ I have seen and I witness that this is the son of God” (1. 34). He came so that another might shine (1.7-8, 15). He said “I am a voice crying in the Wilderness….” He was not the Word who was with God in the beginning (1.1ff). The sound of his voice was limited (1.19-24). He was not Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet and he didn’t present his priestly credentials. Outside the traditional channels, he is just a “voice. John had no illusions. Too often people are attracted to a lamp or voice and not the Light or the Word. In her book “Through the Gates of Splendor”, Elizabeth Elliott reproduces one of her husband Jim’s prayers. In the spirit of the Baptizer, he prayed  “Lord God, forbid that those who hear me would confuse my words as though they are yours or take your words as though they are mine.”  

John never said he had no purpose. But he was not indispensable. He had a firm grasp on his ministry – Jesus must increase, I must decrease (3.30). He came to clear the path, remove the obstacles in Israel’s mind to the coming Messiah. He was a one man road crew filling in the potholes, picking up the litter, trimming the trees. All this so people could see the Messiah. And it is here we see the most significant aspect of his ministry – he needed to get out of the way. He wasn’t part of the procession. He stood to the side with stunning gracefulness. Advertising one’s ministry as a way to improve behavior or status just makes someone one more religious person handing out self-help flyers in the spiritual marketplace. Polishing one’s celebrity is nothing special. However, admitting as John does “among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” is.  You don’t have to look very far in church settings to see that very few people can handle success or planned obscurity like John (1.25-28).

His joy, satisfaction came from obedience to his ministry not from fame, honor, celebrity. Farther into the Fourth Gospel, we hear John draw on a familiar event – a  wedding – to develop further his supportive role as a witness. Weddings in the Second Temple period were mega-affairs – laced up tightly with honor codes. The “friend” of the groom was a “witness” for the couple and the community. It was an important and delicate job to certify that the marriage had been consummated. John’s humility calling attention to Jesus not himself is captured in this declaration “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete” (3.27-30). 

But remember, here’s the tension. He doesn’t look or act like we expect. Up close, we might not like him. And aren’t we sure we wouldn’t hire him as a managing editor or media image consultant. And don’t we have our doubts he’d fit in well on a faculty or be a rector. He probably wouldn’t get to a mission board’s discernment weekend. He just doesn’t fit the mold. We’re not convinced we can figure him out. When you can’t figure someone out you kinda want to hit the delete tab. But take note. This is the very person who preceded Jesus. (1.29-34). All this is to say he was balanced. He had both feet on the ground. He wasn’t the Light but he could hold out the light. He wasn’t the Word but he had a voice. He wasn’t the groom but he was the friend. He said “Look, the Lord’s lamb. He’s the One. Take a good look at him” (1.29). 

So let’s revisit the theme I proposed to you in the Gospel’s characterization of John –  like John, you and I are most successful and attractive when we attach the loyalty of others to Jesus rather than to ourselves. The only way for an increasing Jesus is a decreasing self.  Like John, you and I have been sent. We have a ministry. Like John, you and I, sent by the Lord, are not insignificant. We’re not the Word, but we have a voice, We’re not the Light but we hold out the light. We’re not the groom but we stand as a witness for the groom.  Like John, you and I, sent by the Lord, have a ministry of promoting Jesus not ourselves. Like John, you and I, sent by the Lord, should rejoice when Jesus has first place in our ministry.  Like John, you and I,  sent by the Lord, in committing others to Jesus should be committed to gracefully surrendering the spotlight. 

Thus endeth the quiz, Beloved

Psalm 95 | Christ the King Sunday Year A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

1    Come, let us sing to the LORD;
                   Let us shout to the Rock,  our Rescuer.
2                 Let us come face to face with a thank offering
                   Let us extol Him with song.

3    For the LORD is the great God,
                                      the great King above all gods.

4    His hand holds the earth’s caverns,
      The mountain peaks belong to him.
5    His is the sea,  He made it,
       His hands formed dry land.

6    Come, let us bow down in worship,
                   Let us kneel before the LORD our creator;
7    For He is our God
       and we are the people of his pasture,
                             the flock he guides.

      Here and now,  if you would…. Hear his voice:

8   “Do not harden your hearts as in the day of complaint – Meribah
                                                           as in the day of trial in the wilderness – Massah
9   when your ancestors tested me;
      when they tried me, even though they saw my mighty saving acts.
10 Forty years I felt frustration with a generation;
      I said ‘They are a people whose hearts wander,
                   they don’t know my itinerary.’
11 So I made an oath in my annoyance,
    ‘They will never come to my rest’.”

Psalm 95

Psalm 95 has been a regular visitor to daily prayer formation since the rise of monastic  communities in the 3rd century. If you have been a regular visitor to Anglican morning prayer since Cranmer you have heard the first seven verses said or sung as the canticle Venite, then during Lent, the psalm is heard in its entirety. 

In ancient Israel’s psalms, moods were united in impressive artistic expression.  The conceptually rich, precision in choice of words, tone and style – the agony of one psalmist; the sheer joy of another – draw hearers/readers into the powerful twists and turns of faith and practice. 

Psalm 95 stands within that tradition. Psalms like all poetry can be hard to button hole. Psalm 95 sometimes appears with psalms focused on the reign of YHWH as a Great King. Other times the Covenant lawsuit wording of vs. 8-11 sort it into the prophetic cubby. A number of years ago I made this opening statement to a gathering of psychologists and therapists: “When I read the Bible I hear voices. lots of voices”. Probably not the best way to start a conversation with a group of therapists!  But without doubt one of the best ways to approach the psalms and this morning’s psalm especially. On this, the last Sunday of the Year – Christ the King Sunday, I thought the theology spoken by the psalmist – the presentation of YHWH as the Creator King, Who becomes the Covenant-Shepherd King of the Exodus-Wilderness followed by YHWH speaking about the rejection of his guidance and care – might prove insightful.

The first thing we notice is the psalmist’s enthusiastic rush of words: “Come, Let us sing, Let us shout, Let us come face to face, Let us extol” in vs. 1-2. Translations can’t reproduce the lyrical sound of the Hebrew verbs but we still get the strong sense of the psalmist’s cadence pushing us to gather together.  Worship in the covenantal relationship is congregational, public, crowded together in groups that haven’t been quarantining, meeting in cautiously limited ways. Worship in the covenantal relationship is vocal, loud, not behind Lexan, muffled by a mask. Worship in the covenantal relationship has YHWH alone as its source and its subject. So in the covenantal relationship, worship is personal, practiced  in the phrase “face to face” (vs. 2).

When we hear the psalmist image YHWH as a  “Rock” we picture something along the lines of massive, strong, stable. This will certainly be supported in vs. 4. But words from a poet’s stylus are like chameleons to a psalm. They keep changing meaning from line to line. The phrase “Rock, our Rescuer” is a parade ground example, the first of many indications that this is an Exodus/Covenant/Wilderness themed psalm.  But not until we hear the words “complaint”, named “Meribah” and “trial” named Massah” in the Wilderness context of vs. 8-9 does the psalmist fully unpack the imagery. There he deliberately calls up the Wilderness “Rock” that gushed thirst quenching water rescuing Israel (Ex. 17.1-6; Num. 20.1-13; Dt. 32.13). Here the psalmist wants us to shout to the rock not strike it with a shepherd’s staff like Moses.

In vs. 3-5, the psalmist says his reasons for gathering folk together in the Temple: YHWH is an incomparable great God, great King. The Exodus narrative gives us the first scenery for the declaration. After YHWH’s defeat of Egypt’s “no gods”, Miriam leads Israel in song “Who is like you among the gods, O LORD? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders?” And the shouted answer “No one!” (Exod. 15:11). And the covenant at Sinai gives us the naming of YHWH as a great king (Ex. 19.3-6). But vs. 4-5 take us a step further back to another scene. In this scene,“hands” imagine YHWH engaging in a building project like all great kings in the ANE. But in the psalmist’s picture – it’s creation being formed. Playing with the “rock” image in vs. 4 YHWH’s hands form Earth’s unsearchable, deep rock caverns and it’s inaccessible, rocky  mountain peaks. Then looking around, the Psalmist sees other materials “sea and dry land” being handled in the building project (vs. 5).  It’s all hand made. The psalmist emphasises that YHWH has, in the words of the African American spiritual, “the whole world in his hands”.

In vs 5, the Psalmist’ poetic skill is at play in the reference to “sea” and “dry land”.  These words are a theological echo from the Exodus narrative – the parting of the Reed sea and its drying land so Israel could pass over “all that night the LORD drove the SEA back with a strong east wind and turned it into DRY LAND. The SEA was divided,  and the Israelites went through the SEA on DRY LAND (Ex. 14.21-22). YHWH handily created a way of escape for the Hebrew refugees. The psalmist sees YHWH exercising creative control and He becomes Israel’s Rescuer. But the theology of creation is about to take another turn.

At first, “Come” in vs. 6 sounds like repetition of vs. 1-2- the call to gather for worship. The imagery of YHWH as creator now spins off to YHWH as Israel’s creator (vs. 6). The psalmist is directing the Temple crowd to focus on YHWH, Israel’s great Covenant King. Notice the aerobics of posture – bowing down low, bending the knees -are characteristic of approaching royal presence (vs. 6). The psalmist further uses the theological echo in vs. 5 to swing us toward realizing that while creation is “hand made”, Israel is “hand guided” – we are the people of His pasture, the flock He guides (vs. 7ab). This is poetic code to say Israel through the Exodus deliverance and the covenant making at Sinai has been created into a mission community, a holy nation (Ex. 19. 4-8, Deut. 32. 6, 15, 18; Isa. 44. 2; 51. 13; 54. 5; Ps. 100. 3; 149. 2). The deep, resonant notes of the Covenant are heard in the shepherd imagery: YHWH, the Great Shepherd King, delivered Israel from the hand of a murderous Egyptian shepherd king. Israel will never be without his guidance and care.

In the third line of vs. 7, the psalmist makes a third call, an appeal, an invitation. Pause for a moment. “here and now, if you would….Hear his voice”. This is not mere hearing like when my parents said, “LISTEN TO ME!” btw, they only ever said this to my sister, never me. This is “hearing” that leads to obeying. Here, then, is another swinging door connecting Israel’s past to the psalmist’s present. The psalmist implies like ancient Israel, this Temple crowd gathered at worship is prone to indifference, blindness to what is in front of them, going through the motions day after day, week after week, year after year without real heart/head engagement. Oh, No. Not us. May it never be. Well listen to this.

The psalmist’s voice now gives way to the LORD’s voice speaking to those gathered in his royal presence ( vs. 6-7). His declaration in vs. 8-11 is a retelling of a crisis – a reflection from his past experiences told in words of frustration, anguish and distress captured in ….they tested me….they tried me….they saw….I felt frustration….in my annoyance….they’ll never. You get the point. All this is intended to be taken in by the Temple crowd. His past experience is arced – framed in two incidents: one at Rephidim shortly after the exodus (Ex. 17. 1-7) and the other at Kadesh Barnea some 40 years later (Num. 20.1-13).  Geography had changed, time had passed, a generation had drowned in the deep waters of disobedience but the problem has remained the same. Recognizing the mosaic of Israel’s lawsuit language in “complaint” (Meribah) and “trial” (Massah) (vs. 8) and the verbs “tested” and “tried” (vs. 9) is relevant. In both incidents Israel put YHWH into a courtroom trial, prosecuting him, preparing to pass a guilty verdict …. Listen to their words in Numbers: There was no water for the community so they gathered together. They complained to Moses saying, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this evil place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” (Num. 20.2-5). Water has run out. As thirst turns into panic and panic into fury, Israel begins picking up rocks to build a road back to Egypt paving over  Moses— and by extension, paving over YHWH, the Rock, their rescuer.

Now listen to the LORD’s response at Rephidim.. “The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will stand there, face to face, by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah – trial and Meribah – complaint because the Israelites quarreled and because they tried the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17.5-7).

The Lord sums up these two courtroom trials saying “even though they saw my mighty saving acts” (vs. 9). He implies, at the very least, their apathy and indifference to his rescue and sustaining provision. But the summation also highlights his response both times with displays of “Exodus power”. In the end, He will discipline them but not extinguish the covenant relationship. And now we realize “Rock our rescuer” in vs. 1 has been theologically enhanced to portray YHWH as satisfying as a “Thirst Quencher”(Ex. 17.1-6; Num. 20.1-13; Dt. 32.13). 

For the Temple crowd YHWH is worthy of worship because he is satisfying, trustworthy,  faithful and, importantly,  present (Dt. 32.4). The main message in vs. 10-11, then,  for the temple crowd can be stated as “Don’t repeat their mistake! There are consequences”. Notice the play on travel themes in vs. 10 with “whose hearts wander” and “ my itinerary”. It’s important to note that YHWH led Israel like a shepherd to Rephidim and to Kadesh Barnea. Israel’s misguided theology of prosperity, notwithstanding, the LORD who gave water also gave the Wilderness wandering. It’s not a matter of the living conditions in “this wilderness….this evil place” (Num. 20.4-5). “Hearts wandering from my itinerary” comments on a deep disorder – a heart dehydrated in the winds of rebellion, stubbornness and  preference for its own itinerary. The Wilderness places of courtroom complaint were holy places not evil places. And the circumstances they thought pointed to LORD’s absence were the very ones revealing his presence most richly. Only in following YHWH’s itinerary can they hope to be moral. They refused to stay on the faithful Covenant path and strayed.  On the one hand, the Temple crowd knows the reference to “rest” is Israel’s failure to inherit the Land promised to Abraham (vs. 11). But, on the other, “They will never come to my rest” replays the verb “come”from the psalmist’s invitations to worship (vs. 1, 6). The last line here plays out as YHWH’s closing caution to the Temple crowd “Be aware, heirs of the LORD’s saving acts. Don’t be on the wrong side of the road. I was offended then and still can be”.

In the wilderness, Israel’s complaint “Is the LORD among us or not? is answered by YHWH  “I will stand there, face to face, by the rock”.  At stake was his presence in the details of their lives: is the LORD with us here in the desert, in this temple? Is he among us when we thirst, when we bow down, bend our knees? Is the LORD still for us to guide us, care for us? “I will stand there face to face,” YHWH promises, knowing that what Israel and the Temple crowd needed wasn’t only water, but his real presence. In the frenzied mad dash toward the gushing waterfall, over the jostling knees and elbows, did anyone look, did anyone catch a glimpse of the Great Shepherd King? He says He was standing there.

I’ll end with this – one of my cherished Annie Dillard observations supporting the eloquence of this psalm: Why do people in church seem like cheerful tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may lead us to where we can never return.” Annie’s point, like the psalmist’s and YHWH’s, is: anyone who has experienced the saving acts, care and guidance of the LORD should tread lightly.

So Beloved, heirs of the great Shepherd King’s saving acts, care and guidance, Even here and now, the trek toward the LORD’s presence at this table passes by Massah/Meribah where hearts may wander. 

Matthew 22.34-46 | Pentecost 21 Year A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
    under your feet.”’

45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

The Gospel of the Lord

Now concerning the Gospel Lesson: Location, Location, Location.  This well-known real estate advertising banner has application to this morning’s Gospel lesson.  There are three distinct locations. So I have hired the wonderful Dr. Who and his English phone box time machine, the Tardis to take us to each one. For our first journey, he will take us back in time to Moab – modern day Jordan – on the eastern side of the Jordan river valley.

On our trip,  allow me to make some introductory remarks about interpretation. In the late 1970’s currents in Biblical Studies about Judaism that had been trickling since the early 1900’s suddenly gained volume flowing rapidly and bursting banks in some places. There was now space to develop the long sweep of  Israel’s literature and theology for its own message and meanings. This has been a game changer. My British education navigated the whitewater rapids of those currents, the outworking of this new perspective. Candidly, what I am about to say about Ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism reflects some of the leading ideas.

Location #1  Setting coordinates from the Gospel’s quotation, the Tardis sets us down at the Moab location and into the primary writings in Israel’s library – Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Together these documents describe for us YHWH’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Exodus), YHWH’s provision of a covenant relationship at Sinai (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) and YHWH’s  fatherly guidance in the Wilderness (Numbers) after Israel’s refusal to enter the Land.  Now 40 years after that refusal, the clans have gathered in Moab. Watching the Jordan flow past, expectantly preparing to enter the Land, they listen to Moses (Deuteronomy) retelling in prose and poetry, how they had uniquely experienced YHWH’s deliverance, the covenant ceremony at Sinai and the raw, visceral reality of Israel’s horrifying rejection of that deliverance and its covenant relationship. 

Some careful distinctions need to be made. Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s question comes from the central feature of the Exodus-Wilderness experience- the Sinai Covenant. In Israel’s perspective the Sinai Covenant is not some unbreakable tyranny, something clamped down on the neck of a prostrate Israel. Rather the covenant intends to build up Israel’s imagination to live a holy life, not an isolated one, through instructions, stipulations, precepts and commands that frame their society.  

The Sinai covenant names Israel as a community that is called upon to “Listen and Obey, Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength”. (Deut. 6.4-5).  The covenant calls Israel to exclusive allegiance, to a single relationship “I am the LORD your God. you shall have no other god in addition to me” (Ex. 20.3). No other path, no other value, no other authority can be substituted or require the same level of devotion to distract, deter or derail Israel from the unique relationship with the LORD who delivers. Clothed in the covenant’s ordinances, precepts, instructions and commands the stature of a person’s life is measured by “‘Love your neighbor as yourself”. (Lev 19.18). Close reading of Lev. 19 underscores the interpersonal dimensions of Israel’s conduct emphasising that individuals are to be holy as YHWH is holy. Note carefully the rich list of neighbors inhabiting ch. 19: widow, orphan, poor, immigrant, resident immigrant, hired servant, blind, deaf, etc. Covenant love, then, is having committed allegiance to the LORD, to holiness and to the well being of others.  In the covenant’s wider perspective, then, it’s not possible to imagine the One kind of love without the other. In short, the LORD has something to do with everything in Israel’s life. Or at least he should!

Now may I suggest to you the Sinai covenant’s intention concerns mission also.  It is a definitive salvo in YHWH’s program to redeem creation. Not as an aside but as a fact, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus the Messiah is the definitive salvo in YHWH’s plan to redeem creation and Israel. Back to the covenant, however. What do I mean by mission? Well, the Sinai covenant intends Israel to turn the Canaanite culture right side up, not affirm it  “you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 18.3b-4). And may I add quickly, any other culture Israel comes into contact with.  

A careful reading of the details of the covenant reveals it as an unblinking confrontation of cruel and ruthless indifference so clearly part of Canaanite society. In that ancient setting the covenant is a counter action against ideas that are known threats to life and limb. The Sinai covenant is a course of action and thinking for Israel to preserve its faith in an intolerant society, the groundwork for resistance to that culture’s progressive correctness in its streets, marketplaces, schools, temples. Without doubt Israelites are to be holy people embedded in an unholy society.

By remembering their own enslavement and by modeling the actions of their holy and gracious Deliverer, who was attentive to them in their time of need, Israel will extend covenant love toward everyone in their midst. The Exodus thus functions as a lens for understanding the requirements for societal flourishing in a broken world, generating concern by the covenant people for the needy or marginalized. The experience of the Exodus and the stipulations of the covenant ground Israel’s cultural/religious/political structures to properly function, protecting, providing for, and nourishing everyone.

Location #2 With this wider covenant perspective, lets’ pile back into the Tardis and zoom ahead to set down in Jerusalem’s Second Temple where Jesus has just ridden in for a bumpy landing – an unpermitted palm parade, a mostly peaceful protest against money changers and a change to the city’s landscape’s design (ch. 21.1-22).  Only a few days away from being arrested, Matthew winds up Jesus’ ministry over a single day recording challenges disputing his messianic handiwork from Temple officials-Sadducees, Scribes, Chief Priests, popular leaders-Elders, Pharisees and their disciples (ch. 21.12- 23.39) and the always unpopular Herodians (22.15). Matthew brings the day’s challenges to an end with  four questions: three by the various leaders – one about taxes to be paid (22.15-22); one about widows, remarriage and the resurrection (23.23-33), one about Torah’s premier teaching (23.34-40) – our Gospel lesson and then in a turnabout Jesus questions them about the Messiah’s identity (23.41-45) which discussion leaves the leaders speechless (23.46) – again our Gospel lesson.

We have learned in the last 40 years to reshape our understanding of Jewish leadership in the Second Temple period. It’s been all too routine to make Jewish leaders black-hat guys in an ancient hiss-and-boo soap opera.  What we now know is that they were—in the opinion of most people back then— the guys in the white hats, the good guys. Weaknesses and faults exposed in the Gospels specifically relate to their interpretations attempting to over-regulate the generalized and specific details in Torah’s varied contexts. They have come to regard their regulation as of the same cloth as the Torah itself. But Jesus in the Gospels regards these “regulations” for what they are – the teachings of men. Jesus’ scorching critique of the Pharisees in the next chapter (ch. 23) is about their imposition of regulated behavior to indicate faithful obedience.

The four questions collected by Matthew represent theological controversies across the various groups. Three questions are set forth as attempts to force Jesus to take a position for or against established answers. This would enable the leaders to identify Jesus as a follower of someone whose position on this or that question he supported. This would mean that his authority was derived from that school of thought.  The question of our Gospel lesson is not an unfair question.  This was a common question among the various charter schools. Some argued for equality across the Covenant’s stipulations; others argued for gradations. 

It is for these reasons Jesus’ answer is so important. Simply on the face of the question and answer, Jesus and the Pharisees agree that there is a kind of priority in the Covenant’s precepts. For him to answer wisely will be a confirmation of his teaching authority.  His answer draws all these leaders into recognizing and realigning themselves with the Covenant’s intentions. The Covenantal reference is Jesus’ attempt at bringing unity to the trenches, flattening differences among the leadership groups. It doesn’t deny meaningful differences but the quote is an indication there is a commonness across any divide. We stand together. Regrettably they do not. 

It’s subtle but notice when they ask him: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” “Teacher”–respectful, at a minimalist level, though clearly inadequate by Matthew’s theological standards. We know already the idea that Jesus is more than a teacher is gaining traction – he’s being evaluated as the messiah. 

The texture of Matthew”s theology appears as Jesus shifts from defense to offense directing a question to the Pharisees concerning cherished nationalistic hopes – the emergence of the Davidic messiah. Jesus wants to see who they’ll side with. These leaders know their theology; they understand what he has asked them.  Technically the Pharisees were not wrong to say the Messiah is “David’s son”. Matthew has called Jesus “David’s son” in the opening verse of the Gospel.  The Pharisees were “right” in the wrong way.  They call the Messiah “David’s son” because that was the theological orthodoxy.  Messiah is the definitive salvo in the LORD’s plan to redeem Israel and creation. But the implications of Jesus’ interrogation startle them. There is a moment of silence as it begins to sink in—  one of those bottomless, grace filled opportunities for profound reassessment.  Standing in their midst is the messiah – Jesus. The rejection of him is on the same scale as Israel’s ancient rejection.  Jesus is the Messiah even if he ends up looking different than the tradition had come to expect. Jesus did not make many obvious claims to being the Messiah.  But for those with eyes to see and with ears to hear, he did so here.

Location #3 One last time into the phone box as Dr. Who blasts forward through time’s corridors stopping at our Prayer Book’s eucharistic liturgy where we read again the words of our Gospel lesson. 

May I suggest to you by its placement following the Collect for Purity, the words of our Gospel lesson, called the “Summary of the Law”, intertwine the standards for self examination in preparation for communion. Certainly together they assert confession of sin, repentance, moral/ethical behavior are benchmarks for graceful participation in the community of faith. Certainly together they unite us in an act of humility admitting that we are not as we would wish. Certainly together they show us what we need to proclaim, where we need to act, ordering our values and priorities to remain loyal, faithful. 

The “Summary”, then, is as life shaping for us as for Israel, Jesus, Temple officials and Pharisees. The definition of covenant love Moses and Jesus are working with involves commitment, holiness, faithful, obedient behavior.  Love for the LORD and neighbor is demanding and risky. For Israel, for us, being holy, moral, ethical is learned when we develop the capacity to put ourselves into the neighbor’s place and that is a skill only learned by engaging with the neighbor face to face, side by side. This love is a lot more complicated because it’s interdependent not separated. It requires us to expand our whole selves – striving for holiness in all we think, do, say. The Summary “hangs” us together in fellowship, in common ground, in shared mission.  For us “love” is demonstrating to the society around us what matters, what is important and what makes our lives compelling so that others are drawn into that community. In the end, Covenant love is something you don’t want to be caught without.

Now my beloved the words of St. Paul to Galatian churches “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. For the entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Matthew 21.(23-27) 28-32 | Pentecost 17

John Michael Guiterrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ 29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

The Gospel of the Lord

The first year Sunday lectionary lessons after Pentecost have focused on episodes from Jesus’ ministry providing us a compass in the direction of discipleship. As this lectionary year draws to a close, the Sunday lessons will feature Jesus’ most recognized teaching form – the parable. The point of view in Matthew’s selections gives us glimpses of Jesus’ thoughts about the transforming nature of the Kingdom at work in Israel, in the believing community and in the world. 

The literary/theological context for this morning’s parable begins in chapter 21 with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. It is set into the unfolding events that lead to his crucifixion.  Upon his arrival, Jesus made his way to the Temple where, in a messianic act, confronting the corruption, he flipped the tables of the money changers declaring the Temple to be a “den of robbers” no longer a “house of prayer for all peoples”. Note carefully, he is not arrested so he leaves the city to stay the night in the village Bethany

The next day, Jesus returns to the scene of yesterday’s unpleasantness.  Vs. 23 begins the context for our Gospel lesson. The Temple’s leadership, Chief Priests, Elders, ask Jesus the money question “By what authority have you done this in the Temple?”  The real questions they’re asking: “What right do you have to interfere with the Temple’s financial base and rulers”? and “Are you really claiming to be the Messiah”?  If this Galilean country bumpkin is going to engage in messianic actions, then he had better be able to prove that he has the authority. They’re ever so sure he can’t provide it, so they try to force him to make claims he can’t substantiate. 

Jesus moves the authority conversation to first and goal, asking about John the baptizer: “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from the Lord, or of human origin?” (vs. 25). Before his imprisonment and murder (ch. 14.1-12), John had been preaching a message of repentance and baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins (ch. 3.1-5). John was calling for humility.  Repentance is a visible “about face”, an obvious “change in direction”, an act of reorientation in the Sinai Covenant’s geography. And note this development, his message and baptism only set the stage. Something more powerful was on its way: a cleansing/filling/washing by the Spirit (ch. 3.11-12). In this Second Temple period both these ‘charismatic’ experiences were clearly outside the control of religious authorities.

Jesus’ redirected question puts the officials in line for considerable religious/political/financial embarrassment. On the one hand, cleansing ritual was ordinarily in the hands of the Temple’s priests. While there was technically nothing covenantally wrong with John’s ministry, in the eyes of the priestly elite, it amounted to a maverick enterprise. On the other hand, the question trades on the popular regard for John. It suggests there is something lacking in the Temple’s teaching/practices, something questionable.

So over their shoulders we don’t hear them discuss a genuine answer, only cost-benefit calculations:“If we say, ‘From the Lord,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we’re afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet”. (vs. 25b-26).  Clearly the costs are high. The problem is the Templars are not prepared to entertain that Jesus’ messianic act was done with the “Lord’s authority”. What began as an interrogative attack on Jesus quickly became an exercise in damage control. So they bluff:  “We don’t know” (vs. 27).

Jesus escalates the scene’s tension with a barbed “So what do you think”?(vs. 28).  He intends to call their bluff and to push them further. Quickly he recites a parable about a father, two sons and a vineyard. Images drawn from Israel’s cultural/ theological traditions. In first century Israel, family life rotates around the father who is responsible for the family’s well being. Children are dependent on the family and their active support is important. In this story, the father wants his sons to work in the vineyard. The father approaches the first son for his help. He refuses, “Forget it, Pops! I’ve got things to do, people to see, places to go. Then sometime after his father walks away stunned by the shame to his honor, the son’s sense of family obligation gets him to change his mind and he heads out to the vineyard. (vs. 29).  The father finds the second son to send him to their vineyard. This son says “You got it, Dad! I’m on my way”. The father walks away from this exchange feeling good that at least one son knows how to treat the old man with respect. But then, this son stops at the pub for a quick pint with his friends and never goes into the vineyard (vs. 30). 

Jesus questions the Templars again “Which son obeyed the father ”? The way the story is told we suppose the Templars will probably choose the son who said “no” but later obeyed. And we’re right but we also suppose they admit it through clenched teeth (vs. 31). They have played right into Jesus’ hand. Jesus is about to flip their tables identifying them as the second son – the religious authorities who said they would guard the way of justice in YHWH’s temple, but then did not. Jesus points to those who recognize and believe John’s “temple” work “Truly I tell you, the toll collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not trust him, but the toll collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you still did not repent and trust him (vs. 31b-32). These folk have made a genuine change of direction responding to the Lord’s grace. Notice the religious elite are not excluded. Only the order is reversed. They come in second.

This scene is framed to highlight the issue of the failure of religious authority and position in Israel’s temple. Their failure was maintaining the integrity of the temple’s intentions – “a house of prayer for all people” teaching people, leading them in obedience. Jesus isn’t just throwing eggs, rotten tomatoes. It takes real courage for the temple officials to come to grips with the way of justice and face-to-face with position, power, authority, choices and failures. That’s why this scene is grounded in covenant Wisdom literature. This parable’s characters and storyline have multiple points of resonance with Israel’s narrative. Fathers, sons/brothers is a theological storyline laden with shame/dishonor, envy, betrayal, disobedience, struggles for power, and sometimes reconciliation starting all the way back with Adam, Cain and Abel and forward through Abraham and Issac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Aaron and Moses, and David and his sons and on, and on. “Sons” of Israel” and “vineyard” are stock characterizations of YHWH’’s sometimes rebellious, sometimes repentant community. Jesus is, therefore, not asking the Templars merely to comment on fictitious brothers, but to locate themselves within Israel’s covenant story.  This parable is an attempt to show the religious leaders what they’ve done, giving them a chance to change, to repent, to restore the Temple’s covenant intentions.

Now parables present Wisdom in multiple ways. At one level, Wisdom involves intelligence or shrewdness. At another, it is about good sense, sound judgment, and moral understanding. At still another it is receiving instruction and responding obediently. This is Wisdom Literature so no one gets off the hook. In the parable both sons have made errors in judgement, violations of norms, acted disrespectfully and shown self willed arrogance. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Temple’s officials have made errors in judgement, violations of norms, acted disrespectfully and shown self willed arrogance.  

Now the scene might seem hard for us to believe it applies in a direct personal sense. Maybe we think of this parable as a handy moral tale parents can employ to make their boys feel guilty for not taking out the trash. But as good Bible readers we should step inside a scene to see what’s what. On the inside, the parable is about position and authority and how one responds. Although the chief priests and elders have been skeptical of John and Jesus, their continued rejection was their downfall.

So may I remind you what I said earlier that while this scene is framed to highlight the issue of religious authority and position in Israel, it applies also to the community of faith. And remember also in Wisdom literature no one gets off the hook. Wisdom always wants to know “Am I teachable”? So in Matthew’s teaching intention, disciples, you and I, need to come face to face with the parable’s examination of authority, errors in judgement, violations of norms, disrespectful acts and self willed arrogance.  The parable’s point is “It’s all very well to say I believe, but it means nothing if I’m not teachable, if I don’t live it out”. The difference between the sons is not what they say, but what they do. Such an unvarnished parable addresses the stark realities of self-willed disobedience and the inherent need for repentance. Now the temptation might be to identify with the first son like the temple officials. But the disciple is confronted as the tables are flipped by Wisdom literature. In Matthew’s thinking disciples are both these sons. At times we’re the second son: “Lord, Lord. Yes, yes. Sure, sure.” I’m good. And then we disappear. And at times, we’re the first son: “Ah, no, thanks, I don’t think so…/ leave me alone!” And when neither of these works, perhaps, we roll this spiritual excuse off our tongues “The dog ate my homework so I can’t”.

Now here is where it gets personal. I’ll close with some thoughts on the parable’s points about obedience/disobedience, trust, authority and discipleship. I’ll disclose some of Wisdom’s table flipping in my life and encourage you to reflect on yours. Matthew has laser focused on issues of religious position, authority and discipleship in this Temple scene. His questioning of position and authority led me to ponder seriously what I’m doing right now – a sermon. Here, I suggest, is Matthew’s underlying principle: Authority/position in discipleship and community is tested, proved, earned, lived. So the back and forth dialog in this week’s lesson reminds me that neither position nor authority should be taken for granted. Although a position with a history of authority is occupied, it doesn’t mean that authority is granted. It can be rejected, sometimes with good reasons. A preacher is granted a measure of authority. But it seems to me sermons have no authority if they do not compel a community to live their faith in a fundamentally different way, to tell others what matters, what is important, and what makes our lives so compelling so that we draw others in. The message of biblical faith teaches that we live in a disordered world. The problem of evil is a heart problem – a deeply embedded moral problem. The infusion of any social justice ideological chemotherapy will not eradicate that cancer. Gospel proclamation of the “way of justice” teaches transformation, holiness in living. Only Spirit infused biblical truth can awaken repentance in a broken heart. Only Spirit infused biblical truth has healing power. Do you see then the position, the authority to proclaim biblical truth is sacred. And I mean that. To deliver a sermon I have been invited into a pulpit that is holy. As soon as I think I deserve to be here, I have violated that space. The fact is I have been invited in by an authority that exists outside of me – a community of faith. And the burden on me is to earn the trust to be heard. Authority is derived from serving the community. This is why biblical position and authority is so different from what happens in a secularized culture. Secular authority isn’t built on trust or serving. It’s framed on power given to a defined position, on power out maneuvering the other side. And that’s why it is so devastating to the Temple, to a faith community when secular forms of authority/position creep in.  

And here is where it gets really personal. Discipleship is vineyard work. Discipleship involves obedience to the Father’s instruction. Discipleship begins in the vineyard of the household of faith. Discipleship in the vineyard is first and foremost about people. All too often discipleship in the vineyard involves common grace work, compassion work, mercy work, experiencing helplessness and suffering with others work. Here is where I teeter totter between the wisdom parable’s two sons. Perhaps I’ve said “No” too many times because I’m weary. At times during 50 years of ministry, the work has seemed overwhelming, life’s been too full of woundedness, the vineyard has seemed too difficult to care for. Perhaps I’ve said “No” because I take for granted that the Father will find someone else, that someone else’s “Yes” will meet the need to do the work. Perhaps because of my indifference I’ve taken for granted that harvest will come regardless. Perhaps because of my indifference I’ve taken for granted that the vineyard has no need for my labor – my mercy, my love, my caring. Or perhaps it is because I forget that the life I inhabit is also where work is needed, that I am part of a vineyard: I’m in need of nurture, in need of cultivation, in need of the pruning of Wisdom. Whatever the “perhaps…”, whatever the reasons, may my “No” become “Yes”, and my words become deeds. For I’m the Lord’s “Yes” – Jesus’ caring in action, Jesus’ presence in the vineyard which the Father so loves and is bringing to harvest.

Now my beloved may Jesus flip my/your views of responsiveness to discipleship of the Crucified, so that I/you work wisely in his vineyard.

Matthew 16.13-28 | Pentecost 12

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

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?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[c] in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. [ 21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. 28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”]

The Gospel of the Lord

Names and name changing are all the rage these days. Not to offend – too much – and in the spirit of political incorrectness here’s my examples from sports. I have micro-aggression about references to Native Americans and persons of color. Let’s ditch Washington Redskins (done), but what about Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns. Obviously, Carolina Panthers were named for the 60’s Oakland, CA militants. New York Yankees offend the South. Do we have a Confederate team name? No! Well. I’m offended by the preference for Roman Catholics over Protestants: New Orleans Saints, San Diego Padres. Then there are team names that glorify toxic male aggression: Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Pittsburgh Pirates! Finally, what about those teams that clearly send the wrong message to our children. The San Diego Chargers promote irresponsible spending habits and long term debt. New York Giants and San Francisco Giants promote a growing childhood epidemic – obesity. Cincinnati Reds promote drug addiction. Milwaukee Brewers. Wrong message to our children.

As my clumsy raid on political incorrectness demonstrates the point isn’t to focus on the name. It’s about the underlying issues. And that’s the point in our Gospel lesson this morning. Our sustained immersion into Matthew in year A brings us this morning to one of the additional episodes giving this Gospel an intensity and power not found in the others. Vs. 17-20 is that well known addition: Peter’s naming play on words. But it’s a matter of narrative context. If we only consider the lectionary’s surgical cut, vs. 13-20 then we will miss the naming interplay in the wider narrative. And that’s why you’ll notice the reading is, 16.13-28, to widen the episode’s theological  boundary. Matthew’s 4th teaching section, ch. 13.54-18.36, narrates pivotal, climactic events in Jesus’ Galilean ministry as he turns toward Jerusalem and the cross. In previous scenes through Jesus’ teaching and healing Matthew prompts disciples, crowds and us to form opinions about this one called the Son of Man. In this 4th section as Jesus interacts with the disciples, ordinary folk and the religious leaders, Matthew condenses and compresses the issues of faith, discipleship, leadership and ministry. Why? Well, the Jewish-Chrisitan community to which and for which Matthew was writing needed to know that their ministry authority had a divine foundation. But they were still vulnerable to missteps. Discipleship and leadership are sometimes “rocky”. Disciples and leaders have their ups and downs. It’s part of discipleship, leadership. 

In the first scene,16.13-20, Matthew has Jesus question all the disciples. The effect is to show us that they are engaged in the hustle/bustle around Caesarea Philippi. They’re tracking with the events and listening to the various conversations. Initially he asks them “what’s the buzz about me, the son of man? (vs. 13-14). 

In answering, the disciples name only positive opinions, like Israel’s prophet Elijah, who did miraculous deeds, who stood toe-to-toe with kings.  For these folk, even the Baptizer, who stood toe to toe with Herod Antipas, was a prophet (Mt. 11.14). Previewing the second scene (vs. 21ff), it is Matthew who inserts Jeremiah, the rejected, suffering prophet, the intercessor for Israel (2 Macc. 15.12-16). Jesus says, “OK, that’s the talk at the village gate and the synagogue, but what do you think? Surely you can do better than this. You’re close to me”. Jesus is asking for an account of what they’ve said, not an answer to a pop quiz. 

Matthew’s Peter has multiple roles: as an individual, as a stand-in for the 12 and as a representative of a wider Jewish-Christian community.  He is an example of Jewish “corporate solidarity” in which a leader represents a group, e.g., the king or high priest representing Israel before YHWH. So we’re not surprised when he takes the lead and speaks up.

The NT’s Peter has multiple names. In the 4th Gospel Jesus initially knew Peter as Simon Cephas. Simon, Hebrew after the patriarchal ancestor, and Cephas, Aramaic for “rock”  (Jn 1.35-42). Eventually the name Peter, Greek for “rock,” ( Mt 10.2) was used routinely by all Gospel writers. Notice Matthew uses the full name Simon Peter (vs. 16) just before Jesus uses the full name Simon Jonahsson (he fishes in Norway in the off season!) (vs. 17). The double name signals to us the seriousness, the gravity developing in the dialog. 

Peter identifies Jesus as “Messiah, son of the living God” but the more nuanced meaning has yet to be revealed in the second scene (vs.21ff). It is one thing to perceive a messianic identity. It is quite another matter to know precisely how it will be lived out. In our lesson, Jesus makes it clear that the prompt for Peter to identify him and his mission was of divine origin. This prompts Jesus to create a word play about Peter’s identity and mission. It sounds like this “You Petros – rock are petra – rock and on this petra – rock, Petros – rock,  I will assemble my assembly” (vs. 18a). The off the top reading of the word play is that “rock” refers to Peter himself. Peter is the person who steps forward, the corporate solidarity representative, confessing a profound identity of Jesus. Upon this “Peter”, Jesus will build his congregation. Continuing the rock metaphor, Peter becomes the first foundation rock upon which Messiah, the chief cornerstone, will build (see Eph. 2:19-20). So Peter has a foundational role. This is recorded quite effectively in Luke’s second vol. where Peter is the initial preacher about Jesus’ accomplishments to Jewish and almost Jewish folk (ch 2), to Samaritans (ch. 8) and Gentiles proper (ch 10). Here is what we can say with reasonable confidence from the NT writings – Peter had a prominent position among the 12 and after the ascension he was a prominent leader in the Jerusalem community during its earliest years (Gal 2) and was also a prominent leader in the Jewish-Christian mission.  Peter is given recognition for being the receiver of revelation but he is still only one “rock” among many. 

But there is a word play here. Word plays are always slippery.  Community and kingdom are bound in Matthew’s conception of Jesus’ mission. The necessity of something unified – a rock – in the newly forming community involves wider recognition. So Jesus begins outlining the authority for the last days messianic congregation. Only after the resurrection/ascension will the community be fully formed, sent on its mission and death’s grip be broken. The “gates of hades” was a common euphemism for death. It’s gripping power.  I realize we often take this to mean that death cannot assault the church.  Gates, however, in the ANE are defensive, protective when closed.  So what Jesus’ resurrection/ascension means here is: the locks on death’s gates have been picked. The gates have been flung open and the Son of the Living God has rushed in to liberate captives. Where once there was the fear of death, there is now life – triumphant resurrection life.

So confessing Jesus as Messiah, son of the living God, not only changes names. It is a world-changing reality. A synchronicity has formed between what happens on earth and what happens in the Lord’s presence. “Keys” and “Binding what has already been bound” and “untying what has already been loosed” in a Jewish context refers to Wisdom’s guidance in discerning the effectiveness in instructing, passing on, interpreting Jesus’ teachings in the congregation. Peter is a “key holder” (Mk 13:34) but he is neither “master” nor “Father” (cf. a close reading of Isa. 22; also Mt 23:9). Staying in my lane, speaking as a licensed contractor, I consider Peter’s role foundational. In a construction project, a foundation is laid down one time and once the forms are removed and the building is constructed it is no longer seen. So I suggest, as a licensed contractor, that Peter’s role is the foundation’s concrete rock pour, so to speak. And staying with the building imagery, keys are to lock and unlock a building property. Once the certificate of occupancy door is unlocked there is no need to keep keys (vs. 19). It’s up to the new tenants.  At the tip of Matthew’s stylus, Peter is disciple, spokesman for the disciples and an integral person to the development and formation of Jesus’ last days community. 

In the second scene, 16.21-28 Matthew again shows us the disciples are engaged with Jesus’ conversations. His ministry is swinging around toward Jerusalem. So He begins to speak about the road ahead “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life” (vs. 21).

A little further in the narrative vs. 24 “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. Followed by the famous paradox vs. 25  “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it”. The high point of acknowledging Jesus as Messiah (vs. 16) is now muddied by his talk of dying – everybody dying. Matthew has arranged this scene to follow the previous one in order to shatter any imagined messianic triumph with the difficult path that lies ahead. The disciples fail to perceive any way YHWH’s will could be accomplished by death. For Peter it doesn’t fit easily with his revelation – mysterious, clouded, even contradictory. So great is his astonishment, he recoils rebuking Jesus “May YHWH prevent this from happening” Like a lightning bolt, Jesus rejects Peter’s refusal to accept his understanding with the same forcefulness he had to use in the Wilderness test in ch. 4 (vs. 1-11) “Get back, who appointed you, my adversarial opponent Satan”? This time there was no divine, no revealing prompt from the Father or if there was – he didn’t hear it.

As I’ve noted word plays are always slippery. So Matthew tempers Peter’s dependable role in the first “rock” word play (vs. 18a) with a rock slide. Jesus’  “you’re a stumbling block” can be translated as “stones “(vs. 23). Peter has become loose, slippery gravel on the road to the cross. Whatever the merits of Peter’s revelation – and there are many- vs. 21ff makes clear it is incomplete without consideration of the Son of Man’s, the Son of the living God’s suffering, death and resurrection. Notice the naming set up in the puzzling “son of man” questions (vs. 13-14) has now arched over to scene closing naming – the “ son of man coming as judge” (vs. 28).  But note carefully it is the “suffering Jesus” (vs. 21) that is the linchpin between the Messianic son of man (vs. 13, 16) and the reigning monarch (vs. 28). Messiah was a nationalistic term implying making Israel great again – economically, politically, militarily. Messiah was David’s anointed heir. But this Jesus, this ”son of man” is not a new, improved David, a more powerful political, military king. No, this messianic son of man is the “son of the living God”  “Living” is applied only to YHWH in Israel. Only YHWH has life in and of himself (Ex. 3.14-16). This “son” stands with, shares “living” so completely that in his suffering, death and resurrection he can assure the congregation he is organizing that even death will be pushed back (vs. 18b)

“If anyone wants to follow me….” Jesus wants complete allegiance, loyalty to his kingdom (vs. 24-26).  Disciples must give themselves up, dying to a self-directing life. No more “What’s in it for me? I’ll do it if it doesn’t interfere with family or my own interests” All self-interested paths are to be closed off. The gate to a cross kind of discipleship opens to a narrow path.  

The two questions that Jesus poses  – “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” are questions that everyone who would be a disciple has to face at some time in their lives. They are questions that we have to keep returning to as we learn more – and change throughout the course of our lives. Matthew’s point for disciples: they/ you/I should be teachable, that is, open to a divine prompt, a new direction, a new instruction, and correction – sometimes. This episode shows every disciple that Peter and the others are wrapped up in limitations and understanding, which in itself is not a negative thing, just a normal thing, a disciple thing.

Like Peter and the others, we still hear all sorts of things about Jesus. Eventually, everyone will have to decide what they believe. Biblical faith involves getting things right about him. Certainly things change and grow as we change and grow – indeed, they should. Biblical faith begins, however, by confessing Jesus as the “son of man, the messiah, the son of the living God, who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; who suffered death and was buried: who on the third day rose again according to the Scriptures: who ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father: who will come again in glory, to judge both the living and the dead; and whose kingdom will have no end. That is solid rock! Anything else is a millstone that drowns you or grinds you to powder. Who do you say Jesus is?

May the Lord richly bless your confession, my beloved.

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-50 | Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

John Michael Guiterrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds[a] of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The Gospel of the Lord

I’ve been fortunate in my academic life to have two mentors- one American, one British – willing to take me from greenhorn to experienced cluelessness –  a far better teachable state. A few words, appreciative ones, about the American who started me down a road I’m still on. In hindsight, it was calculated exposure to the literatures, languages, backgrounds and interpretations in Biblical studies. I was his research and teaching assistant for 4.5 years.  But it started off rather awkwardly – for me, at least (although in reflection I suspect he planned it all along). In the week before I began, he handed me one of his ever present 3 x 5 cards with his home address and a date/time – Saturday 6am – with the directive “Don’t be late!” I arrived on time. Gwen directed me down to the study library where Ed was waiting with another 3 x 5 card. Handing me the card, he said  “I need to know how this fits into Biblical studies”. I looked at the card – it was written in Hebrew. Rather meekly, I observed it’s Hebrew. Right, says he. I don’t know Hebrew. Right again, says he. I don’t know how it fits into biblical studies. Right one more time, says he. He then motioned at his library saying “To the degree you don’t know your Hebrew Bible, to that degree you won’t know you’re NT; to the degree you know your Hebrew Bible, to that degree you will know your NT”.  And so it began like a deer in the headlights. It seems to me the mastery of Biblical Studies is beyond what one can achieve in the normal span of a life. I have dared to hope that where expertise has eluded me, responsible incompetency has not.

Little did I realize how Ed’s axiom about the interplay between the Hebrew Bible and the NT would play out for me. Guided deep into investigating the Judaism of Jesus’ day I became aware of two of Israel’s convictions: 

First, YHWH through the Passover/Exodus and Sinai covenant has acted on Israel’s behalf like a father loves a child. The Sinai covenant is YHWH’s written communication of his love, blessing and continued faithfulness, binding individuals into a community. And the Covenant’s institutions with their reasonably detailed instructions regarding obedience/disobedience are intended to make Israel “wise” (Dt. 4.5-8)  

Second, the long, slow historical arc revealing Israel’s jarring, habitual covenantal disobedience – note the cautions leading into our lesson about Solomon this morning (1 Kgs. 3.1-14) – pushed some among them to consider what is holding Israel back from being obedient, being wise. Wisdom Literature in Israel – its proverbs, parables, riddles, poetry, narrative – is that outworking conveniently expressed in the motto “The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom” (Pro. 9.10 et alii.) To be “wise” is to be an obedient steward of YHWH’s covenantal kingdom. To be “wise” one should live obediently for the long run, that is, without making foolish choices or taking foolish risks. To be “wise” is about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in the labyrinth of life to identify the paths actually taken. But the Sages recognized wisdom’s obedience is hidden just enough to require alertness, openness to understand – note again the cautions in the wider Solomon narrative (1 Kgs. 3.1-11.43). That’s why parables, Wisdom Literature in general, are oblique. They’re written as a way of seeing into obedience so differently that it can’t be grasped without everything else being turned upside down. Admittedly, Wisdom in Israel is elusive but it’s not code to be decoded. Rather what it means is what it says – teasing the hearer, at times, refusing to answer, at times, thus requiring thinking, silence, meditation before action. Becoming wise in Israel assumes active engagement with covenant instructions. Rich in life experience, wisdom is always cautious. Life learning does not always guarantee wisdom just like graduation does not guarantee education. 

Covenant and Wisdom themes, then, are written large into Israel’s library. The dual aims of Covenant and Wisdom are to put obedience to YHWH’s oversight into working clothes, into the marketplace. 

In our Gospel lesson this morning, we come to Matthew’s  third teaching section “the kingdom’s presence in society” ( ch.11.2-13.52) for the third successive Sunday . In ch. 11 readers get instruction on the claims and character of Jesus as messiah.  In chapter 12, readers get a blunt glimpse of the varying reactions and growing opposition to Jesus as messiah. In ch. 13 readers hear Jesus’ role as “kingdom teacher” featuring Israel’s Wisdom Literature. Generally speaking, Jesus’ parables draw on daily urban and village life, stock character types, and everyday political, social and religious situations. Chapter 13 is Matthew’s arrangement of some of Jesus’ parables in order to explain YHWH’s presence, Jesus’ hiding place in the kingdom, kingdom character and activities and the nature of discipleship.  As a group, these edited sayings picture for us the invasive, exaggerated, hidden presence of YHWH. They lean in the direction of the surprise and delight we should experience when we discover, even stumble upon the hidden kingdom. Wisdom’s wild card in Matthew’s collection: he hopes we ponder our readings, our misreadings, about the kingdom.

This also highlights Matthew’s authorial skill. He has placed two kingdom comparisons next door to each other: the wheat/weeds (vs. 24-30) and the leaven (vs. 33). With similar and yet artful differences he skilfully asks us to read, to reflect, to catch a glimpse of wisdom. Last week we walked through a weed infested wheat field. This morning we find ourselves in an everyday kitchen after a harvest. 

Initially Jesus’ one line parable might read like a run-of-the-mill domestic scene. Baking leavened bread is an image that everything is ordinary, workaday. Nothing unusual here. Ah, but it’s wisdom literature. So there’s more to say. It’s important to Matthew’s authorial intention that we read Jesus’ actual verbal maneuvers carefully. It is important to restore the translated yeast to “leaven” in our language “sourdough” and the translated mixed to “hid” and calculate the triple recipe- 60 lbs. The parable’s point is to overstate the reader’s understanding of “everyday” expectations of things. So score a touchdown for wisdom. Jesus’ verbal maneuver is not about the woman but about bringing leaven and what she does – hides it – into close proximity with the Kingdom. Leaven and kingdom – there’s words with theological baggage in Israel.  Unleavened dough replacing leavened dough at the Passover/Exodus was a mark, a sign, a remembrance for Israel of its redemption, its break from workaday enslavement (Ex. 13.1-10). The Passover/Exodus set in motion the parade ground example of YHWH’s acting on Israel’s behalf. And notice, instead of the expected “kneading” the leaven is concealed, like its counterpart “weed” spread at night by the enemy (vs. 25). It will have its effect. Disappearing into the dough it puffs up everything. 

Now what has “hidden leaven” to do with wheat/weeds? Well quite a lot. First, in these Kingdom parables Jesus teaches that there is another way to tell Israel’s story. What many folk in Israel, including the disciples, were expecting was the triumph of YHWH’s kingdom. That nothing would be hidden. But what they got in these parables was the intermixing of the kingdom. YHWH’s saving acts in Jesus seem to be hidden into everyday life. But, second, notice so thoroughly was the kingdom mixed into culture the differences weren’t clear. Here’s the subtle difference in the two parables. The wheat is the kingdom’s presence in society. Weedy-ness, secreted into the culture, looks a lot like the kingdom. But it’s a demonic, counterfeit, intended to confuse and corrupt YHWH’s kingdom’s character and mission. In the one liner, the dough is the society and the hidden leaven is the kingdom’s character puffing up the culture’s character. Jesus, the hidden leaven, breaks the everyday of the culture with his theology of the cross reigning in weakness, bringing resurrection out of vulnerability and death. One stealth act deserves another! That’s WisdomLiterature for you.   

Now what has “hidden leaven” and “weed infested wheat” to do with us? Well quite a lot. These parables are incredibly insightful descriptions of how cultural corruption and the kingdom often interact and, even at times, seem to be fed in the same soil or dough. But it takes wisdom to figure out how they are different. These parables invite us to consider the complexity of a society’s weedy and doughy -ness and the Kingdom’s presence. So it seems to me it is very timely that we have read these parables, especially the one-line Leaven/Kingdom comparison. 

Politics and cultures come and go. Certainly as Christians, you and I can occupy a place anywhere in the rough terrain of cultural and political life in Tustin,  California, America. We are – every one of us- being faced increasingly with the question of being a good citizen.  To say it another way, we are living in a time of serious clash of fast forming ideologies  – political, sexual, religious. Here’s an observation I gleaned from the Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul: to truly understand a worldview, an ideology, uncover its roots, trace its conclusions. 

Insofar as the community of faith is concerned, from the Right we are confronted by a secular utopian political power that has become adept at using religious words and rhetoric. We must listen carefully because someone mentioning “God” or “prayer” or quoting from the Bible doesn’t mean it’s the same way we use them. And the Right seems to have overlooked the observation that economic actions, questionable displays of authority and power, at home and abroad, militantly rejecting political compromise are susceptible to a prophetic criticism.  

At such a time as this, Christians must understand that the progressive Left’s routes to utopian political power go through race, gender identity, social justice or antisemitism. Careful investigation reveals the progressive Left’s Pandora’s box opens from the wrong side of Biblical truth – neoMarxism. We should not at all be surprised when we hear shrill, loathing scorn for all things Christian: YHWH as a loving father, Jesus dispatched as a savior, a Holy Spirit,  a person’s real identity, support for marriage and family. The progressive tricolor flag – inclusion, diversity, tolerance- is anything but. Progressive activists don’t know how to change the human heart. They have no words for repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation or sacrificial love. The driving forces of progressive ideological politics is political power, the threat of wrongthink, the chilling tyranny of conformity. At some time, in one way or another, each Chrisitan will be handed the drink of progressive kool aid – dissent or hesitate – it puts a target on your back. 

Cautious partisanship, then, for the political Right or Left by a Christian is not that bad of an outcome. This is not Christianity’s first rodeo. As the early church Fathers amply document being a good Christian sometimes meant being a bad Roman. There was a price to pay. Historically, Christian faith has not flourished when occupying the halls of power or when enveloped by the fleeting blessings of a culture’s commercelized materialism. The fact is Christians lose their ability to prophetically address a culture on vital issues. From the early church onward, Christianity has done some of its best work in the face of opposition.  It’s because Biblical faith doesn’t deal with forces driving cultures in the same way. Jesus’ disciples are a priestly community pursuing holiness with Kingdom loyalty and allegiance first. As Christians, we are to love the Lord our God with heart, soul and mind. In the 4th cent. Augustine made an insightful observation. Created in the Lord’s image, every person is sacred. So there is a homing beacon in the heart of every human. Because the “heart’s” true identity can only be formed by a loving Father, a savior Son and a transforming Spirit, everyone will be restless until they find their heart, their love with them. Only in their presence, is there real power.  And we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. When someone fails to love their neighbor, we don’t shame them, cancel them. As Jesus’ disciples we are to leaven America, California, Tustin with good news of sacrificial love, renewed hearts, forgiveness, Spirit transformed personhood. As Jesus’ priestly community we are to help people grow and walk in holiness through some really difficult and complex issues. We are to “leaven” Jesus into sensitive areas of life. We are to help Jesus reach people beyond reach, to rescue people who can’t be free and renew people who are weary and beaten down.

May we, at St. Stephen’s, “leaven” our neighbors long before politically induced, utopian worldviews. It’s a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of love. It’s a matter of holiness. As a community of faith, a priestly community in the 21st century we have challenges different from Matthew’s. But here’s Jesus’ wisdom’s question to us: How many triple recipe leavened loaves of bread will we bake using the Trinitarian resources of the kingdom?

May the Lord grant us ears to hear, wisdom to obey, loving hearts, renewed minds, courageous wills and gracious words so that we might “leaven” our society.

Matthew 10.34-42 | Pentecost 4

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36     a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ 37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. 40 “Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

The Gospel of the Lord

One of the proven benefits of the prayer book tradition is its generous incorporation of Bible texts into all liturgical services.  Especially beneficial is the prominent place given to readings from the Gospels. This is the third Sunday we have read from Matthew 10. I know what you’re thinking after reading this morning’s rather alarming lesson though “it’s only the fourth Sunday after Pentecost so I hope he preaches from the Psalm!” And your right. As recently as this week I’ve said that to myself too “Don’t be a fool. Preach the psalm.” There is another reason for not being a fool, a personal one. This was the Lectionary reading for our wedding.  But here’s two thoughts that I’ve come to understand over the years. First, the lectionary stops me from approaching the Bible, our wedding and you all as if we were all eating in a cafeteria buffett. We don’t get to pick and choose lessons according to taste. The lectionary’s historical rooted-ness guides us in christian formation. This is specifically the issue when we have a lesson such as this morning’s. We don’t want to pass-by, that is, blunt Jesus’ carefully expressed statements. But we do want to put them into Matthew’s teaching context about discipleship. Second, faith, biblical faith, is a transformative gift. And that faith has its path in the biblical text. When the Bible is studied and voiced, faith is repeatedly given in a person’s life. Never separated from its loving Source, faith sets about busily transforming lives.

When you step back and look at the literary- theological architecture of Matthew’s Gospel, you note there are 5 teaching sections tethered by repeated transitional statements (7.28-29; 11.1; 13.53; 19.1; 26.1). Our Lesson sits in the second grouping, ch.8.1-10.42, where Jesus’ teaching about mission unfolds what life is going to be like for disciples once they commit to “gospeling” on his behalf.  I have identified 4 points in ch. 10 that lead up to and help us to hear the “teaching” intention in this morning’s lesson. One: Chapter 10 begins with naming 12 – 1st round draft picks (vs. 1-4). They’ll soon be suited up for their most important role – modeling what a discipleship vocation looks like. As the Gospel expands so does the circle of disciples; so their discipleship opens up to all who would be disciples. Vs. 7-42, pinpoint Jesus’ insistence that discipleship as a vocation and its mission tasks challenge one’s self-identity, integrity, faithfulness. Discipleship is a “sending” vocation. Discipleship as a vocation is not private but necessarily involves others. But Two: Vs. 5-10 are ground zero for Jesus’ teaching. Initially the 12 are sent to “the lost sheep of Israel” under the authority of Jesus (vs.5-6). Eventually, 18 chapters later, the disciples will be  given the go-ahead to “make disciples of all nations” (28.16-20). This is the thematic back and forth in Matthew’s Gospel we as readers need to maintain. For example, vs. 40 gives us a thumbnail of their/our commission “Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the One (YHWH, the Father) who sent me”.  Discipleship vocation is to faithfully represent YHWH the Father and the Son. In this commission Matthew’s Jesus is not simply another avenue but the only authorized way to the Father – then and now.  So Three: Disciples are to announce a hope-filled message “YHWH’s new management is coming soon” “Get on board. Get in on the ground floor” (vs.7). YHWH’s lordship is where Israel’s identity, its vocation is defined. Their message is a gracious “peace” invitation, a call to live in a way that will honor YHWH as Father (vs. 12).  That’s why we hear in vs. 8ff. it matters, how they dress, how they carry themselves, how they speak. Jesus sends the disciples out travelling light -under-packed, under funded, reliant on the hospitality of random households (vs. 8b-10). They are stepping into a new pair of sandals, to carry themselves in a very distinctive way. They leave any advantages they might have to get alongside folk in the community. And Four: Discipleship is a “speaking” vocation.They’re entrusted with a peace message. It’s not in their job description to be argumentative when the going gets tough.  If people don’t like what they say, then they are to move on, simple as that (vs. 13b-14). But what Jesus achieved with  “whatever village….if anyone will not welcome you or hear your words ….leave that household (vs. 11-14) was to call attention to a need for a decision for or against the message. Opposition arising in verse 14 comes then from resistance to the message not the messenger, although it can play out as “roughing up the messenger” (vs. 16ff). Make no mistake, then and especially now, the Gospel message provokes opposition, sometimes violence. Do not be deceived. In our culture, the goalposts keep moving.  If you do not conform completely to the latest social demands, you will be reviled, cancelled. May I say to you, faithful biblical proclamation doesn’t buy into secular driven diversity or tolerance. Faith formed around Jesus is neither inclusive nor exclusive. To the contrary, it’s particular, specific. Christian faith could only be inclusive/exclusive if other religious programs say “you can come to the Father by us”. Fact is not one religious or secular program invites you anywhere near a father. It seems to me they don’t want to talk about fathers/fatherhood, family and certainly not Jesus the son as the only way to the Father. But a faithful gospel message says you have a problem with the heart and disobedience. Jesus says he is the only way to the cure, the solution: YHWH the Father, the creator of all things visible and invisible. He’s a father who pays the price, who forgives and who transforms. As far as I know, at the start of our service this morning, Jesus was still the forgiving, savior of the world. You want another solution, then you must go find it.  

So Matthew has edited details about mission and message into ch. 8-10 to bring us to this morning’s theme: While mission in discipleship provokes opposition in the wider culture, the choice of whole-hearted commitment to Jesus and his message sometimes provokes opposition from the most unexpected, most difficult of settings – one’s family members (vs. 21, 35-39).  

If we were to read this morning’s lesson isolating it from chs. 8-10 then we could propose Jesus is weakening family structures while elevating individuals and their choices. That might have legs in some churches. And I suppose we all might agree these sentences are not ones usually quoted when trying to attract people to discipleship or send a couple off happily on their wedding day. But we do well to remember in ch. 10.7-42, what we hear is Jesus teaching those whom he thinks already have the potential to be totally committed to his mission.

Now, what about reading Jesus’ “family values” dictionary from vs. 21 forward? Set in the narrative of ch. 8-10, vs. 21, 35-39 suggest this line of interpretation to me.  It seems to me Jesus’ dictionary “betrayal to death, sword, opposition, enemy, disown, “loves more than me….” cutting across family affections dares us, begs us not to look the other way, not to sanitize these words into merely poor behavior or misconduct. They’re chilling. They’re meant to challenge a disciples’ discernment. Remember, disciples are always to be on the lookout, to be peace-bearers (vs. 12-13). Peace-bearing may touch, even soften hearts. But it might not. The one thing peace-bearing does ensure is that you will not – even with a knee on your neck – have made the mistake of closing any personal doors from your side. So I am suggesting here this narrative actually uncovers matters of the heart, some of the escalating struggles, hurt, tragedy that can be experienced in families – on both sides. The intention, then, is to teach disciples from this “family” example that message and mission should never be separated from/distanced from such awareness. Especially when they are pitched into a struggle for those they love who continue to reject Jesus and his message. The words are intended to be shocking, yes,  but we should be aware of reading too much or too little into them. The point is to focus on the teaching topic in the chapters – choosing mission responsibility sometimes has a dividing, sometimes a disastrous effect. So Jesus is definitely not dismissing violence, not disaffection either and certainly not disbanding the family.  There is no doubt for Jesus – family is fundamental to a disciples’ identity. Jesus’ kingdom message wants to reconcile us to a father, to experience family life. Jesus’ view of family values here is not to diminish but to redirect a disciples’ responsibilities.  Family is no longer regulated only by biological/cultural ties but is now redirected by a disciples’ mission vocation. This is the mission challenge that Jesus lays out – not to elevate a family of origin above discipleship mission so that it distorts and disrupts commitments to Jesus and to other disciples. From my own experience sometimes it’s not easily worked out. 

Mission integrity is now intensified.  In vs. 37ff. Jesus turns to “C” in the dictionary. For the first time in Matthew’s gospel, the cross is mentioned and it’s a disciple’s cross not Jesus’. “Bearing one’s cross” is not about displaying one’s personal problems or life’s difficulties or putting a piece of jewelry around one’s neck- as all too often promoted in our culture. In that Roman political-military setting you don’t speak about a cross in the abstract. I suspect conversations become hushed around the darker reality of its violence. It must have been deeply uncomfortable. But for Jesus it is important to speak plainly, truthfully. Discipleship is not an abstraction. Mission and message will come through the cross. It is a call to faithfulness, responsibility, to self-denial – indeed a “dying to self”.  And that certainly crosses across our culture, where individual autonomy and self-recognition are commercialized as moral imperatives. Jesus says “Whoever does not lift up a cross and follow me is not “worthy” of me. (vs. 38). It seems to me a clearer understanding of “worthy” here and vs. 37, would be ” not measuring up.” or “not useful”. Jesus says in vs. 24 “a disciple is not above his master”.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sets the bar high – suffering for the kingdom. Such a fate comes to a disciple (vs. 32).  Responsible disciples will walk the Calvary road.  If they do not, then, they are not measuring up to the Lord.  If following Jesus meant some of us had to give up eating cheese instead of being perched on a cross or losing one’s family ties, then discipleship would be very easy! The central point of discipleship involves considering the cost of following Jesus. A disciple measures up to Jesus when he is placed ahead of family relationships, even when they become stormy and hostile. It’s a heartache. Jesus doesn’t deny the deep love or obligations between parents, children, relatives, he just requires a clearcut choice for his message and mission. The discipleship road is costly, individually and corporately. So choose wisely.  “Get on board. Get in on the ground floor”

May the Lord richly bless you my Beloved