Friday, October 16, 2020

Gospel Reflection: Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. Matthew 22:15-22

The following questions may be helpful in interpreting this passage.

Who am I going to serve
The tax in question in Matthew 22 may have been a census, or a “head” tax. The tax was the equivalent of a day’s labor per year. The Herodians would have been supporters of Herod Antipas and his colossal building projects of Sepphoris and Tiberius (which required a heavy tax burden). The problem for Jews was not the amount but that the coinage used to pay taxes was considered idolatrous and a breach of the Second Commandment: "You shall not make for yourself an idol..." Coins to pay taxes were stamped with the Emperor’s “divine” image.  

In 2020, we in the U.S. may be quick to read this passage as  Jesus' endorsement of the separation of church and state. That is a 21st Century construct (actually 18th Century) imposed on First Century Palestinian Jews living under Roman rule. The core of the Jewish identity begins with the Shema: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:4-5  The question for believers, then and now, is- who are you going to serve? Or, as Jesus claimed, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." Matthew 7:24.

Who tells me who I am?
Another fly in the ointment for Jews in Jesus’ time was that foreigners (Romans) occupied the land covenanted to ancient Israel by God. Yet, the people were subjects of the Emperor. In the Exodus, Hebrew slaves became God's own people, a holy nation.  A yearly festival, the Passover, served as a continual reminder of that freedom. Being set free and being God's covenant people are one and same. A sign of freedom in Roman times was for Jews to recline at table instead of waiting tables, hand and foot. 

Jesus' teaching in Matthew 22 suggests that, while taxes may be necessary, the real “tribute,” if there is any to be paid, belongs to God.  The coinage came from Rome and to Rome it returned. Human leaders like Tiberius claim to be super- human, but in the end, they all will pass away. God alone lives and reigns forever: "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish." Psalm 146:2

To Whom do I belong?
Giving to God what is God's means that everyone and everything belongs, now and forever, to God: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it…” Psalm 24:1 All that I am and all that I have belong to God. I am on this earth for a season and a reason: to steward and share the gifts God has given me, as long as I live and breathe. Shortly after I was confirmed and joined the church, my Mother gave me a small wall poster which read: “What we are is God’s gift to us; what we make of ourselves is our gift to God.”  

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Gospel Reflection: The Tenants in the Vineyard


Matthew 21:33-46
‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ 

Exploring the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, the last verse of Psalm 19 rings true: “Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.” The definition of insolent: “showing a rude and arrogant lack of respect.” The tenants were responsible to the landowner for delivering the fruit of the harvest.  Their response to the servants who are sent to collect the harvest is incredibly reckless and wicked- not just insolent. After the tenants torture and kill the first group of servants, why doesn't the owner throw the book at these murderous evil doers? Instead, the owner sends another group of servants to receive the harvest.

The owner’s persistence and patience with these wicked tenants is dumbfounding! The tenants get a second chance and they senselessly enact the same brutality to the second group of servants. Incredibly, the owner gives the wicked tenants a third chance! He sends his own son as the power of attorney to act on the father’s behalf. The tenants arrogantly and witlessly assume that they will somehow steal the son’s inheritance by grabbing him, throwing him out of the vineyard and killing him. In Matthew's setting, the last week of Jesus' life on earth, the parable is a clear reference to Jesus' passion and crucifixion.  After being given three chances, the tenants meet the same end they themselves perpetrated on the servants and the son. 

The parable is a story telling how the people of God have treated each other. It is told by Jesus and addressed to his own religious leaders, the same ones who will soon turn him over to the Roman authorities. The prophets of Israel and the church were harassed, maligned, and martyred, often by their own people. From Elijah to John the Baptizer to Stephen the Deacon, the words of Jesus teach us that faithfulness like that of the prophets has the final word: Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12 

The tenants are supposed to steward the harvest! Instead, they let it rot. Daily, God asks us to use our gifts, one of which is to gather the fruit of God's vineyard, God's Kingdom. This is the realm where God is the owner, and where God reigns. God gives his people the gift of working the harvest.  

In Matthew’s retelling, the story is also addressed to  me, for I am one who often claims the name of Christian, saying “Lord, Lord,” but then refusing the invitations of God’s kingdom.  At an early age, I learned the importance of measuring my life by the dictum: “early to bed, early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise.” This parable challenges me to measure my life by the teachings of Jesus Christ- and bearing the fruit of God's kingdom. By the hour, I can welcome the opportunities to gather the fruit of God’s kindness and mercy.  

Oldies but Goodies