Sermon of the Week:
Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Keywords: Prooftext, Authority, Context, Interpretation, Honor and Shame, God is Love, Wonderfully Made. #pcusa
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So let’s talk today about a biblical story and its context.
Sometimes it feels like the stories we tell at church
come out of nowhere, really.
I mean, last week we were talking about fairness and generosity and payment for a day’s labor.
This week we’ve got authority and fear of the crowds and how sons obey or don’t obey their parent.
It can feel a bit disjointed.
If you’re a regular participant in our worship, it might feel less so,
because you’ll hear the rhythm of the sermons over time,
maybe see how they fit into a particular sermon series
or the flow of the passages that are recommended by the lectionary.
For instance, we’re going to spend October here in this section of Matthew
and they’re part of a broader story,
a more complicated narrative,
a context that we can miss if we just read ten verses as if they were isolated
and try to listen for what God is doing just through the four corners of the text.
I think that’s why I’ve never really understood the practice of proof texting,
which is where some people like to argue what “the Bible says” by sharing a phrase here and there
this sentence from Ezekiel, and then this one from Titus, and then, for good measure,
something from Ephesians.
These stories don’t work like that.
The bible doesn’t work like that.
Once when I was a teenager
I remember sitting in a coffee shop
and watching two guys over yonder ‘debating’ religion.
Why is it always two guys, and always in a coffee shop?
One of them was claiming to read everything literally,
saying that this is the only way to REALLY follow God
to REALLY believe in the Bible.
And the other guy wasn’t having any of it.
This went on for a few minutes,
and then they agreed:
The second guy would randomly open the bible to some page
and the first guy would have to follow.
So the grand experiment was underway
and the second guy dramatically positioned the book in between them
and covered his eyes
and opened the book and pointed…
Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven;
then come, follow me. (Luke 18:22)
Trust me, this little exercise could have turned out far, far worse for the guy
who, I’m sure, was wearing a shirt with a few different kinds of fiber in it
and had a couple tattoos on his arms
and was likely drinking milk in that coffee of his while eating his ham sandwich
mixing dairy and meat together…
And I remember the first guy getting flustered and saying something unintelligible
before packing up and leaving…
Why do people do this sort of thing?
Well, because for those of us who are captivated by the story of God
as seen through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ,
we turn to Holy Scripture to help us learn something about that God, and about us,
to help us see the movement of that God in our world,
to listen for what we call The Word of God, who is Jesus himself.
The Bible helps us do that,
and we further believe that scripture is unique and authoritative in its ability to help us do that.
But not in the way that we just described.
You can’t just open any page and point and run with it,
not without some broader understanding of what is going on there, on that page,
in that chapter,
as part of that larger section,
which itself makes up just a segment of the larger book,
of which there are 65 others,
all of them in some way, we believe, helping us learn about God.
Proof texting is more about reading into these stories what you want them to say,
than it is trying to listen for what is happening, challenging you, pushing and prodding you
as you read it and try to understand it as part of a larger whole.
Instead, faithful reading happens best over a lifetime,
in a community with friends who are working on this with you
where you can learn from them and they can learn from you
where you can consider the way that people have approached these texts over the centuries
and you can reflect on new insights from science and anthropology and archeology and so on
all a reflection of the tools of reason and observation that God gave us…
where you can pray and reflect and ponder deeply what is going on
so that maybe the movement of the Holy Spirit can guide you to see something new happening.
Isn’t that what Jesus’s father Joseph experienced,
when reflecting on what to do
when he heard that Mary was with child,
even though they hadn’t married yet…
Isn’t that what the Apostle Peter did,
when he had that dream about a smorgasbord of oh so tasty but forbidden food
and what it meant for extending the gospel to the gentiles…
Isn’t that what Jesus himself did,
whenever he was confronted with someone in need before him
had to choose to feed on the sabbath,
or touch someone’s arm, someone “unclean” with leprosy,
or to forgive the sins of people weighed down with guilt?
These examples aren’t proof texts.
These are particular stories
brought together to give some sense of a bigger pattern, a broader picture
that still need to be applied to the specific thing that we’re looking at,
with some explanation as to why they’re relevant, why they matter.
And the point is that the scriptures themselves try to help us
with developing eyes to see what God is doing in the world.
And that takes some time and effort,
some faith and some prayer and some humility and some study,
and some willingness to change and grow and adapt along the way.
What it does not let us do is just point to the words on the page and say:
The bible says it; I believe it; end of story….
Because it is almost always far more complicated than that.
I can think of maybe one or two places in the entire Bible
where I think you’d do ok if you tried that exercise
and happened to land there.
God is Love would be one, for instance.
Because we can make a case for why you see that,
almost everywhere you look in scripture
and particularly in the life and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
That’s another, because we have a broader context for affirming all people
made in the image of God
a context where God works through Jesus to reach those pushed to the margins
and affirms their worth, their blessing.
Most of the time, though,
we need to work at least a little bit to see what’s going on,
to tie the stories to other lessons we’ve learned over a lifetime
to see that these books are sometimes written in a way where how we understand them shifts.
So, again, most of us are ok wearing cotton polyester blend shirts, or getting a tattoo,
or eating bacon wrapped shrimp
even though pointing to some of the passages in Leviticus might put you in conflict with all of that.
Now, there’s a lot to unpack here,
with ramifications for a lot of what Christians debate about these days
from stewardship of the environment to human sexuality to how we treat foreigners in our land,
and, for all of these things,
it’s pretty clear to me that we do better when we seek a broader context
and we try to listen for what God is doing
by understanding who God is (God is Love, remember)
and who we are (we are God’s beloved creatures, wonderfully made,
each seeking the fullness of life in the realm God is making happen all around us,
through acts of justice and peace and reconciliation)
So maybe the first place to start
when we hear a story like the one before us today
is to ask ourselves where it fits within the larger narrative
and what might be going on that can better explain what’s happening.
First, let’s recap:
Jesus is at the temple,
and some important people come to him,
the chief priests and some elders,
and they want to know who authorized him to be “doing these things”
and from where he got that authority.
And, in good rabbinical tradition,
particularly when someone is asking a trick question,
Jesus answers the question with another question,
one that reveals that the important people have a problem…
Jesus brings up the beloved John the Baptist,
who didn’t have their clearance to go out to the wilderness and baptize everyone…
They didn’t like it, but they also knew that the people connected with John,
that John was electric,
but more than that,
that John never made it about himself,
but always pointed to God, to the coming kingdom,
to Jesus himself.
Where did John get his authority? We don’t know, Jesus.
Well, neither will I tell you about where my authority comes from then, is Jesus’ reply…
and then he tells this short but odd story
about the two sons
who had a dad that wanted them to get off their iphones
and to get out in the fields and work
and one said “nah, I don’t wanna…”
but he gets up and heads out to work
and the other one says “I go, sir”
(That’s what the text actually says, and I point that out because it will be important in a bit
He said: I go, sir)
but he doesn’t actually go…
and Jesus asks them
Which of the two did the will of the father?
and they answer the first one,
the one who eventually went out to work, just like he was asked
regardless of what he said.
And then Jesus says to them:
listen well, chief priests and elders.
Tax collectors. And prostitutes.
They’re going to get into the kingdom of God before you.
They believed John.
You, you did not.
That’s the story.
What is going on here.
What might it have to do with us?
To help us begin to understand a bit more deeply,
I want to suggest two important pieces of context
that will make a big difference
in how we understand what is at stake here.
The first is where this story fits within the larger flow of the Gospel of Matthew.
Stepping back just a little bit, you immediately notice
that this story happens just a bit after Jesus has entered Jerusalem, humble, on a donkey
that day we call Palm Sunday,
and, unique to the Gospel of Matthew,
the very next thing Jesus does
is Jesus goes to the temple
and he causes a scene.
You might remember that Jesus sees all these faithful people from all over Israel
there in Jerusalem for the holy days
at the temple to offer sacrifices to their God…
but in order to do that
they needed the right animals,
and they often didn’t have the right animals, so they had to buy them
but they could only do that with special temple currency
so they had to exchange their money
and they were being taken advantage of.
And Jesus saw it and he turned over their tables and kicked the money changers out of the temple.
Jesus caused a scene at the injustice that he saw
when ordinary people just trying to be right with their God
were being taken advantage of.
And then Jesus leaves for the night.
This is how Holy Week starts, in the gospel of Matthew.
And the very next day, we have this story.
And Jesus has returned,
he’s back, at the temple,
when he’s confronted by the Chief Priests and the Elders.
So, one thing to note is that they aren’t just pushing him out of the blue.
Something that challenged them and disturbed them.
They were concerned about the chaos, the disruption.
It was the busy season, after all.
Jesus was endangering their bottom line.
Maybe they thought that Jesus was keeping the people from doing what God told them to do
well, what THEY thought God told them to do, namely, to sacrifice the right lamb or pigeon.
By what authority, Jesus? What gives?
We can maybe better understand that question
when we put it in the broader frame that stepping back just a bit offers us.
The second bit of context that comes to mind
is an understanding of the culture of the Mediterranean world
at the time of the New Testament.
Cynthia Jarvis, a fellow Presbyterian pastor,
reminds us that we need to pay attention to what she calls
a culture oriented not toward guilt and innocence but shame and honor.[i]
Jarvis tells the story of a friend who, after years of living in the Middle East,
started to notice how a society oriented around shame and honor values things differently:
“Everywhere I moved in the Middle Eastern Culture” Jarvis remembers him recalling
“there were things that pointed to honor or shame.
What chair I chose to sit in,
who entered the door first…
the very way I walked and held myself,
all communicated to others around me ‘my place’ in the world.”
And this dynamic helps to explain a lot of what we read in the gospels.
Jesus entering Jerusalem “humble, mounted on a donkey”
the stories about the disciples asking to sit at his right hand, or his left
again, acts of healing the “unclean”…
each of these stories, Jarvis suggests,
challenges the assigned places of people in society;
each episode shames those who presently occupy places of honor.
So, when we listen to this story
and we see two sons engage their father,
one of whom dismisses the father with disrespect
the other who says “I will go, sir”
there is a clear answer for which one acts appropriately.
It is the latter,
the son who shows respect
the one who “defers to authority”
in this case, the place of the parent.
But Jesus doesn’t ask them which son acted “appropriately.”
He asked which one did the will of the father.
And for that, they can only answer: the impertinent kid,
that disrespectful boy…he got up and did what was asked,
even if his dad was shamed due to the disrespect of the son.
And if you read further, you’ll see that it was THIS episode
among a few others, that led the chief priests to seek Jesus’ arrest and eventual execution.
We have here a little story
where Jesus continues to push the boundaries of an honor and shame culture
that would allow some people to be seen as less than, unworthy, unredeemable
people like, well, tax collectors, and prostitutes,
some of the very people that John the Baptist would speak to
to whom John would say “You. You have worth. Repent.
Believe the good news. God has a place for you in the Kingdom…”
And for a people who had long been seen as less than
THAT is a powerful message,
that is a hopeful message,
that they, too, are wonderfully, beautifully made,
that they, too, deserve love, because God is love.
The authority for that message, whether for John or for Jesus,
or for us, when we claim it as our own,
comes from God,
from the one who teaches us new ways to understand an old, old story
and helps us apply it to our lives, to our time.
So we can note that, on this National Coming Out Day,
that God loves all people as God made them
and no matter who they love.
And we can affirm that those who seek justice and welcome and inclusion
regardless of color or class or creed
are walking the same path that Jesus walked
because we can see it as we read these holy texts
and understand the context that it was written in
and compare those ancient stories to what is happening around us today.
And if we approach these texts with a humble heart
seeking answers, following Jesus
we’ll find ways of expanding the circle of welcome…just like Jesus did
speaking truth to power…just like Jesus did
trusting God to help us work out where God is leading us…just like Jesus did
so that God’s love might win.
So may we, my dear friends
continue to listen deeply to these faithful stories
open to a new word, rooted in a timeless word,
that points to Jesus the living Word
the authority for our life of faith.
May it be so.
[i] Cynthia Jarvis, “Theological Perspective” for Matthew 21:28-32 in Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2, Chapters 14-28 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2013) 170-175. Jarvis cites the story of Roland Muller, “Honor and Shame in a Middle Eastern Setting,” http://nabataea.net/h&s.html (accessed August 11, 2012)
Image: The Baptism of Jesus, by He Qi.