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Get the important things ‘rightish’

A friend of mine, Cal Zehr, recently said, “Everyone has a theology, strive to have a good one.” I like that. This is how I understand and practice Cal’s words:  I  don’t strive to have THE ONLY RIGHT AND CERTAIN theology that everyone else must agree with or else they are heretics. I do strive to have a good theology. To me, a  good theology is like a good person.  A good person is not a perfect person who gets everything right, but a kind person that gets the important things ‘rightish’, knows they make mistakes and doesn’t take themselves so seriously that they can’t say, “I messed that up, I was wrong on that, I’m sorry for…, will you forgive me….” and so on.

Be a good person with a good theology, because in reality you will never be a perfect person with a perfect theology. You won’t even be a good person with a perfect theology. You’re not that smart (or more to the point, God’s not that dumb).

Will the real “wretches” please stand up…

 Matthew 21:33 – 46

Beginning in Matthew 21:23 Jesus is teaching in the temple and the chief priests and the elders of the people engage him in a discussion about authority. He asks them some straight forward questions and then tells them some parables. Last week we explored the parable of the two sons. (you can read both articles online at metmenno.org). The thrust of Jesus argument is (1) they know where Jesus’ authority comes from but they will not admit it and (2) they are like people who say “Yes” to God’s call and then don’t follow through. In Matthew 21:33 – 46, Jesus sets a trap that reveals that he’s right about them.

The trap comes from the interplay between two levels of meaning in the parable. The first level of meaning is a common business practice which was “legal” but against the Law and God’s intention for his people and the land.[1] The second level of meaning comes directly from Isaiah 5:1 – 7. So he is also talking about God and Israel and the Kingdom of God.

Here’s a brief window into the situation. Legally, the absentee landowner owns the vineyard, but he shouldn’t because he is a foreigner. That land used to belong to a Jewish person, who somehow, lost the land. The kicker is that God gave the land to His people as a means of providing for them, economically. They would work the land and the land would yield fruit. So, the tenant farmers have a legitimate complaint. They are working the land, which should be theirs, to the profit of a foreign land owner who shouldn’t even own the land, to begin with. The whole situation hinges on the priests and elders of the people who make this business arrangement possible.

So Jesus sets the trap: There is an absentee landowner who “owns” the land and plants a vineyard. The tenant farmers work the land and are expected to give the profit to the absentee landowner. They stage a rebellion, trying to recover the land and all the fruit for themselves. They kill the absentee landowners collection agents, even his own son.

Here’s Jesus’ question, “When the landowner comes, what will he do to the tenants?” They answer in vs. 41. They refer to the tenants as wretched. They support the absentee landowners right to kill them and rent the land to other tenants. In other words, they support a business practice that is both against God’s intention and against God’s people. This is a big problem (see Isaiah 5:7). It fully reveals the hearts of the chief priests and elders of the people.

This comes full circle when Jesus turns their own answer back on them. If the landowner has authority over the vineyard and the hired help are required to bear good fruit for the landowner, what does that mean for the chief priests and elders? In their very act of supporting an exploitive labor practice against God’s people, the chief priests and elders of the people are revealing that they are not producing the kind of fruit God demands of them. That fruit is the fruit of justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7). For that reason, Jesus tells them that the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to people who will produce good fruit.

Often times, it is the things that we take for granted as being normal, everyday, routine practices that reveal the truth in our hearts. It is the bloodshed and injustice all around us that we don’t even see or acknowledge that convicts. In the everyday course of life the chief priests and elders of the people supported a practice that was contrary to God’s intent for the land and for the people. It was their inability to see how they participated in something so very wrong that was their undoing, according to Jesus.

May the Spirit reveal to us the normal, everyday, routine practices that we have accepted that ought not be.

[1] I owe much of my thought on this to Parables As Subversive Speech by William R. Herzog. Even though I don’t quote him here his work on parables has become a part of my thinking about them…

[this piece was originally published in the October 5 edition of The Weekly for Metamora Mennonite Church]

When you can’t tell the truth…

In Matthew 21:23 – 32, the chief priests and elders ask Jesus two direct questions. “By what right are you doing these things?” and “Who gave you this right?” They are questions about authority. In the religious system of Jesus’ day, the chief priests and elders of the people had authority to speak on God’s behalf. Jesus wasn’t a part of that system. Yet, the things he did and taught had all the marks of the authority and authenticity and liberating power of God. This made the religious system anxious. After all, what if the people decide that they don’t need the religious system and follow after this upstart, Jesus? What seem like good questions (especially to people in authority) are more statements for public consumption. In essence they were saying, “Jesus, you have no authority!”

Jesus responds the way good rabbis often responded. His question, when answered honestly, does answer their questions. He asks, “Where did John’s baptism come from? Was it from God or from this world?” Jesus wants to know how they understand John’s authority – is it from God or earthly systems of power?

This puts the chief priests and elders in a bind. If they say from God then Jesus will rightly ask why they didn’t believe him and participate in what John was doing? If they say from earthly systems of power (i.e. not God) then the people will turn on them. The problem is that it was pretty clear that John’s authority came from God. Everybody understood that – even the chief priests and elders. They just couldn’t admit it without loosing a bit of their own power and control.

Some say that Jesus put the chief priests and elders between a rock and a hard place. I would say that Jesus asked an honest question that they were unwilling to answer truthfully. Jesus didn’t put them between a rock and a hard place, they put themselves there. The reality is, that is where they lived because they were unwilling to be honest and forthright about something they could’ve clearly answered.

To claim you are leaders of God’s people – and not be able to do the one thing God requires of you (i.e. point out when and where God is at work) is like a son who says, “Sure, dad, I’ll do the work you ask of me” and then ignore that work. The chief priests and elders could’ve easily said that John’s baptism was from God. But in answering truthfully, they would have also had to say that Jesus’ ministry was from God as well.

In an ironic twist, those on the margins – the tax collectors and prostitutes – had no problem being honest about John’s authority and Jesus’ authority. These are the ones that, from all outward appearance, had said “No” to God. But had they really? In the end they were the ones who had the courage to tell the truth – to believe and bear witness. They did what the Father wanted.

As you think about questions of inclusion and exclusion; God and culture; “sinners” and the church; insiders and outsiders remember this text and Jesus’ message to those who were certain they were right and the truth revealed by those who, while being told they are wrong, none-the-less were ready, willing and able to embrace what God was doing in their midst.

[originally published in the 9/28/2014 edition of The Weekly, Metamora Mennonite Church]

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Go and sin no more

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”

“No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

- John 8:1 – 11, NLT

I love this story. I don’t love the way it is often used in debates/discussions – especially ones dealing with sexual sin.  One side will say, “See the way Jesus treated the woman caught in adultery? He was kind and loving and didn’t condemn her.”  The other side is quick to respond, “Yes, but notice he also told her to go and sin no more.”

This one story is dissected into two morality lessons which are then pitted against each other. Each side picks the morality lesson they believe supports their position. Both sides miss the larger point.

What exactly was Jesus saying in this encounter?

He is not saying that adultery is not a sin.  That’s why he said go and sin no more.

He is saying it is never right to kill someone because of adultery. Jesus actually takes it a step further.  He is also saying it is never right for some sinners to judge other sinners and then stone those other sinners for being sinners like them.

Instead of making this story about the woman, her sexual sin, and Jesus’ disposition towards her, why not take his message to the crowd to heart? It is never right for you, a sinner, to judge another sinner and then condemn that other sinner for being what you, yourself, are, too. I’m not sure who said it, but it has been said that while we do not all sin alike, we are all alike, sinners.  Better to step in, like Jesus, put a halt to all the condemnation, and point out the path that leads to life in and through Jesus.

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Quote of the Day

‘Politics’ affirms an unblinking recognition that we deal with matters of power, of rank and of money, of costly decisions and dirty hands, of memories and feelings. The difference between the church and state or between a faithful and unfaithful church is not that one is political and the other not, but that they are political in different ways.

- John Howard Yoder, Body Politics