Day 72 – March 18th, 2013 – Matthew 13:13-36

Woe. Jesus is, uh, having a feeling. It is at this point that the lid seems to have blown for Jesus. He has had enough and is no longer couching his teachings and challenges in clever parables. This is straight “woe to you, hypocrites, brood of vipers, children of hell” kind of talk. I think there are a number of things that this anger coming out of Jesus could stem from. I, of course, see it directed towards the Pharisees’ exclusion. Throughout this Gospel, Jesus has been reaching across the boundaries toward the outsiders, while also directly confronting those trying to protect those borders. Jesus is, as we’ve said, breaking the Kingdom of God wide open. In this passage he lays it all out very clearly. There will be no more “tests”. In this passage, Jesus has said all that he needs to say to get the Pharisees to plot against him and work towards his arrest.

Here’s my question: Where are the disciples in this scene? What are they doing? Can you imagine being one of the disciples at this point? How would you respond? Might you be a bit frightened? Or would you be excited? Confused? All along Jesus has been relatively controlled and tame, but here he comes out like a roaring lion. This is a far departure from “infant holy, infant lowly”. How do we feel about this Jesus? Looking at the harshness of his words, are we comfortable with this Jesus? Put yourself in the position of one of his followers. How would you respond?

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Day 71 – March 17th, 2013 – Matthew 23:1-12

If you’ve been following along on this journey, it’s no secret that I struggle with the condition of the Church in America today. In many ways I think we fall right into that against which Jesus warns us. Gonzalez asks, “do you think the church will be praised for having humbled itself, or will it be humbled for having exalted itself?” (Three Months With Matthew, pg 128). Two things about that question: One, I think we’re somewhere in between. When I look around at my denomination I see a lot of self exaltation. I see clergy looking for and celebrating their titles and accolades. I see us donning our fancy robes, stoles and scapulars at ordination services, separating us from the “common folk”. I see us spending a lot of time grappling with titles like “ordained”, “commissioned”, “licensed”, “pastor”, “deacon”, etc. In verse 23:7 Jesus says about the Pharisees, “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the  marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi”. We fall right into this at our ordination service at our annual meeting as the best seats are reserved for the clergy who parade in donning our robes, stoles, and scapulars. We then go through an elaborate service that I do find beautiful, but also clearly marks which clergy are at which levels and deserving of certain titles. I cannot help but imagine that if Jesus were there, he wouldn’t be there. He would be somewhere else, loving a hurting person down the block.

At the same time, many of those same clergy will go back to their churches and humbly, authentically, and holistically engage with their congregation and community. They will set up food shelves in their church basements, work towards racial reconciliation in their neighborhoods, and help all who cross their path to discover their belovedness of God. It is, to be sure, a mixed bag. The second thing is that I think Gonzalez’s question is a dangerous one. To ask it can lead to a church or person striving to be humble for the purpose of being exalted. This, I believe, is counterfeit humility. It looks real, but it is not. We must never strive to be humble so that one day we will be lifted up. So let’s cast the question out, and simply seek to do what is right and good for the sake of the betterment of humanity and our world. Let us not ever worry about being lifted up, getting our due or being rewarded, and simply pour ourselves out for our fellow humans.

Day 70 – March 16th – Matthew 22:32-46

“Love God and love your neighbor”. Why is this so hard? We say it all the time. Preachers mention it and congregations nod their heads. Speakers say it to large gatherings of church leaders and they nod their heads. We talk about the need to simply “love God neighbor” but we struggle to do it. So we justify ourselves by the occasional outreach project in which we engage; we put together some kind of program, good programs that should not be minimized, and we pat ourselves on the back for loving God and neighbor.

Loving God and neighbor is not a strategy, program or even a ministry. It’s how we are to live. It is a way of life. It is the kind of life we are to live every moment of every day. Sometimes I think our programs, strategies and ministries actually impede a life of loving God and neighbor rather than fostering such a life, because they teach us that loving God and neighbor has a specific context, location and start and end time. Our programs do to our spiritual lives what I feel like the over programming of our kids does to them. Kids don’t know how to play anymore. They don’t know how to go outside and make up a game and just run around the neighborhood anymore. They don’t know how to gather the neighbor kids and play stickball in the street with the corners as bases, a frisbee as the pitcher’s mound and timeouts for cars. They need  a programmed organized team. This is what has happened to loving God and neighbor, I feel. we don’t know how to do it. We know how to show up for a worship service and an outreach project, but we don’t know how to really love God and neighbor. We need a program and structure to tell us how to do it. Why can’t it be messy, organic and something impossible to report to the Annual Conference? I think our programs have taught us to move past our literal neighbors to engage with our church friends in a church project or event, and yet we wonder why the church is growing increasingly irrelevant in the non-church world.

Day 69 – March 15th, 2013 – Matthew 23:15-33

“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Another translation says “whose image is this, and whose inscription?” The Greek word for image/head here is εικον (icon), and is defined as, “an object shaped to resemble the form or appearance of something”. The coin has been shaped to resemble the form of Caesar, the emperor. His image is on it, therefore the coin belongs to him. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He follows it up with “…[give] to God the things that are God’s”. What Jesus doesn’t clarify is exactly what belongs to God. So the natural question is “what does belong to God?” The answer to that question lie in the question, “what bears the image of God?” Answer: Humanity. We are created in the image of God. Give your coins to what ever image it bears. I believe that does mean that as we approach April 15th, don’t fret about giving your “George Washington’s”, “Andrew Jackson’s” and “Abraham Lincoln’s” to whom they belong. But more so, this means give yourselves to God. Give your entire self over to God. This is a radical statement, for Caesar demands ultimate allegiance. Jesus essentially says, “give him your money, but don’t give him yourself.” There are two tough teachings in this one statement. One, you don’t need money. Release it. It doesn’t define you or sustain you. Two, don’t give yourself, or, dare I say, don’t “pledge your allegiance”, to anything but God, because that is to whom you belong.

Jesus masterfully takes a question about taxes that is meant to trap him and spins it around to trap us. He forces us to answer the question, “In whom or what do you trust? To whom or what are you giving yourself, pledging your allegiance?” This is a difficult thing. We Live in this beautiful nation of freedom, but, friends, it is not where our ultimate allegiance lies. Our allegiance is to kingdom of God, not to any kingdom of this world. God created us to resemble the form or appearance of God. God created us in God’s image, to actually be God’s reflection in the world. So may we enter into the journey of growing more fully into just that- the image of God. An image which transcends all borders, boundaries, and banners. We live in a great country, but this country is not, as many politicians will claim it is, the “hope of the world” or the “city on a hill”. No, the hope of the world is the triune God manifested in the world through the Body of Christ, which is the “city on a hill”, and which spans across the entire globe, knows no borders and has no limits. May we grow more and more to reflect the beauty of this triune God, the one whose image we bear.

 

Day 68 – March 14th, 2013 – Matthew 22:1-14

I’ve read this parable many times in my life, and I’ve just never quite gotten it. I still don’t. It’s one of the few passages that I would like to go “Thomas Jefferson” on and just cut out. But, lo, I cannot. I don’t have to like it, but I have to do deal with it. I suppose the reason I don’t like it is that no one seems to win. Is the king God? Because this king seems self absorbed, angry, controlling, manipulative and downright narcissistic. I don’t like this King and, quite frankly, I don’t want to go to his party, nor does it seem does anyone else. And its ending “moral” of “for many are called but few are chosen” is also a mystery to me. It paints God out to be a game player, inviting us in and then playing some game for which we don’t know all the rules to see who will be the survivor in God’s great cosmic reality TV show. I need to do some further exploring on this one. I fully believe that we must respond to God’s invitation to the banquet, but I think of it more in the flow of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. There the son comes home and enters into the party just as he is. He doesn’t have a robe and the father gets him one, rather than throwing him back out with the pigs. And the elder is not at the party simply by his own choosing. As I read this parable in Matthew 22 in the context of chapter 21 I cannot help but think there is more to it than what we read. Is the King God? Or is the king the Temple system? Is Jesus exposing the unfairness and rigidity of the temple system? I don’t know, but it may be worth exploring. What do you think is going on in this passage? I’d love some feedback on this one. I must dig more deeply to come to an understanding that I can reconcile with what I feel the Spirit  telling me and with the broader picture of Matthew’s gospel. So to digging I go…

Day 67 – March 13th, 2013 – Matthew 21:23-46

These are some harsh teachings of Jesus and I think fall right into the flow of yesterday’s passage. At this point, Jesus seems to me like a pot of water at that moment where it is about to boil but it isn’t doing so just yet. Can you feel that? It’s as though he could break at any moment. Jesus has been working along toward the destruction of the Temple system, and the time to do it is drawing near, but not quite here yet.

He clearly says, “truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom ahead of you”. This is not just a radical statement, it is a literal reversal of the current system. There was an order to things, expressed in the temple court system, and Jesus is turning it on its head. In Three Months With MatthewGonzalez seems to take it home to personal application, which is good, but, once again, he looks at it as though Jesus is talking about the individual. While that is certainly an appropriate application, rooted in the text, I think Jesus is talking not so much about the individual as he is the corporate temple system. He’s not calling out the sin of the individual as much as he is the sin of the system. When he says, “will enter the Kingdom ahead of you”, it sounds like there is some kind of individual sin that is keeping them from entering first, but I would submit that it’s not as much as personal sin as it is a sin-broken system. If there is a personal sin in this, it is in their marriage to a broken and corrupt system. It’s as though Jesus is saying, “this system is no more, so as long as you cling to it, you will enter last.” He’s saying, “trust me that you can break apart this system and still be ok. Marry yourself to God, not the system you’ve created to connect to God”. It is their marriage to the temple system that has caused them to not follow through on their commit to God and God’s commands. It is their marriage to the temple system that keeps them from adhering to the “weightier matters of the law”. The idol for the scribes and pharisees, their “golden calf” is the temple itself. They think that through the Temple they worship God, but Jesus is calling out that they are indeed worshiping the temple. Just as Moses burned the golden calf to powder, Jesus must tear down the temple.

I believe one of the most important questions The Church must ask through the ages is, “have we married ourselves to our systems of connecting to God more so than we have married ourselves to God and God alone?”. That is, “are we more concerned with how we worship then whom we worship?” The Church must be in a continual assessment of our systems and our relationship to them, for our “temple system” right now, is not above the reproach of God.  And by “how we worship” I don’t mean merely style. I’m talking about system. Is God doing a new thing to the degree that “church as we know it” will be torn down? And if so, how would we feel about that? Are there flaws in our system of worship and being a community that may soon demand total reconstruction? It’s happened many times over in the past. We are not immune to it. Who are we, intentionally or otherwise, keeping out, about whom God might say they will enter before us? I believe we must seriously ask these questions, and seriously step into their murky, uncertain waters. These can be uneasy and frightening questions for many, but we must ask them knowing that while “church as we know it” may be passing by, the “church as we have yet to know it” is on the horizon.

Day 66 – March 12th, 2013 – Matthew 21:12-22

This story is strange in both its placement and its context. We have just come off of the Triumphal Entry and are headed toward the road to the cross, when suddenly this story of the fig tree enters in. It seems like a strange place for it, but it would also be a bit strange no matter where it was placed. Why is Jesus suddenly so frustrated with a tree? I believe this story is actually rich with meaning, and perfectly placed. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, every few chapters or so, a metaphor about fruit shows up. Jesus has just cleansed the temple and now the fruit metaphor shows up again. Jesus is concerned about his “father’s house”, and he is looking at it and seeing no fruit in it. It has outlived its usefulness, and when he curses the fig tree it is as though he is beginning to shut down the Temple system, a work which, I believe, began at his birth and will be completed as he breathes his last and the veil tears in two. It is not the end of God, but the end of this system.

What it calls out for me is the need for us as children of God and now followers of Jesus to be constantly assessing the fruitfulness of the system by which we love, serve and worship God. The question I would ask based off of this story is not what fruit do I have for Jesus, but what fruit does The Church have? Has our current system outlived its usefulness. Perhaps it is not a “den of robbers” but what is it? What would Jesus say if he were to look at the Church today in the way he does the temple in this scene? I like the way Mark records it. When Jesus enters the temple the night before the cleansing, Mark says he “looked around at everything” (Mark 11:11). If Jesus were to look around at everything in the Church today, what would he see? And are we at a point where he might find a fruitless tree, curse it and force us to start all over? I’m not sure, but I think we owe it to ourselves, to God and to the world that God loves and for which God called us to care to ask that question.