Sunday, September 24, 2017

MT 21: 23-32 
Matthew in the Margins… 17th S. After PentecostRevised 2017 

The question of Authority keeps raising its head in Scripture & Church, Hebrew, then Christian. Suzanne de Dietrich1 wrote: ‘True authority isn’t proved by arguments; it is recognised, it authenticates itself.’ Has there ever been a more authentic person than Jesus? How’s our authenticity in comparison with His?

In Jesus God shows how His Rule works from the bottom up; so it happens ‘on earth as it is in Heaven’. Authority must be recognised & exercised, tested to see if it’s consistent with God’s; in communion with God. The authentic God, though, isn’t to be found locked up in the pages of His own book. Lock God up in there, & we lock ourselves in there too - on the wrong page! On the wrong authority! As is happening here.

It’s just after Palm Sunday. The religious heavies are alarmed at what Jesus is up to: riding into Jerusalem as He does with adoring followers; healing the blind & lame; &, shock, horror, cleansing the Temple itself! "By what authority....?" They ask Him. He looks them straight in the eye, &, in effect, says, ”Well, my own actually!" He may be playing them along, but He’s deadly serious!

It’s no use us saying ‘Yes’ to God if we don’t do that yes. Make our ‘Yes’ happen. Make God’s will happen. Jesus has the ‘authorities’ over a barrel & they know it! Instead of showing Jesus up, all they’re doing is showing themselves up as unable to discern God’s authority, Jesus’ authority, any more than they discerned the Baptiser’s!

Jesus is fond of vineyard metaphors. He doesn’t call Himself the ‘True Vine’ without good reason. No doubt He passes many vineyards on His travels. All have some story attached to them. As do all the vineyards of our lives. Versions of this story differ, with the two sons responding to their father in different ways. Evidence of a story being passed down by word of mouth & being modified in the process. 'Chinese Whispers' we used to call it. A warning to literalists! What’s Jesus’ point for us today? How can we bring that out of the Book & into the realities of our own ‘vineyards’, including our congregation? 

To accept God's Authority, God’s Rule the Lord’s Prayer speaks of in its beginning & at its end, means accepting that earthly ways of looking at things need to change. And, change is possible. Like the brothers in the story; even like those who work in fields that may raise our eyebrows &, maybe, our hackles today. To despair of change is contrary to all Jesus is, & all He’s on about. All he stands for. True branches of the True Vine always have a future for God.

1 St. Matthew, SCM, London, 1961 p.110

Monday, September 18, 2017

MT 20: 1-16 
Matthew in the Margins… 16th S. After Pentecost…Revised 2017 

In this passage Jesus repeats the lesson & punchline of Ch.19 : the last will be first & the first last. It’s also an extension of His teaching about ‘little ones’. He’s not really on about new converts to faith being welcomed & rewarded as much as ones who’ve always been faithful. There are other aspects to consider. 

At heart, today’s parable isn't about money, work practices, labour relations, or any of that kind of thing. It’s bigger than that. It’s about, Jesus is on about, the topsy-turvy World we’ve made out of what YHWH God created; & the topsy-turvy way God rules this world. What God is out & about looking for round the clock are faithful workers living according to God’s topsy-turviness rather than the world’s ways. Even when we don’t understand; when we may not agree; when we don’t want to obey! I see three qualities of God’s Rule here: i) God is maddeningly Generous. ii) God is mind-bogglingly Just. iii) God's Generosity & Justice are inescapably Present Tense. God is always the God of Now, never yesterday, or even tomorrow. 

Jesus’ own life reflects an ongoing struggle with all three of these issues. Who better, then, to be our Guide through the vineyards of life? But what about those who’d love to live in reach of a fruitful vineyard where they could work for a living, but instead are condemned to survive in slums, on rubbish dumps, take cover in war zones or live under plastic sheeting in refugee camps? Or those trafficked by their own or other countries along life’s way? Those always at the mercy of disease & poverty & human predators?

Jesus doesn't use the word 'compassion' in this story, yet it underlies the whole tale. The compassionate God is always out & about, one way or another, looking in one place or another for those who’ll work for Him. Work His way for Him. We know the Good Shepherd is always out & about looking for sheep that have strayed. Jesus, though goes so far as to be on the look out even for sheep no-one else wants. Those that others pass by, pass over, pass up on in the queues of life. Most of us think of there being four directions: North, South, East & West. Celts think of five: the above four plus  Here! And ‘Here’ is where God is, just as God is always ‘Now’ time-wise! 

So the Good News is not only that even those late out of the starting blocks can be winners, but they are, we are, winners Here & Now. God's Rule isn't competitive. Everyone who genuinely wants to, comes first, Here & Now!

Monday, September 11, 2017

MT 18: 21-35 
Matthew in the Margins…15th S. After Pentecost… Revised 2017

Forgiveness & arithmetic don't make good companions. The unimaginable sum owed by the first servant & the trivial amount by the second, are exaggerations on the part of the Master Story Teller. Jesus knows how to put a point across! But the question remains: do we 'get it' any more than Peter does? Than the first servant in Jesus’ yarn does? Even after what God has done for us in Jesus? Do we know, have we forgotten, or are we just blase about just how much God has forgiven us? In the face of which, anything someone else ‘owes’ us, & asks forgiveness for, fades into insignificance. 

Do you ever despair, as I sometimes do, at what can seem an over-emphasis on sin & confession in our liturgies. Is this simply a hangover from medieval days, or is there something of the ‘sinister’ lurking here? After all, in Jesus we’re forgiven people! Are we still not convinced forgiveness sticks every bit as much as, more, even, than sinning does? Do we need to re-emphasise that we’ve been forgiven & live in a state of forgiven-ness? One symptom of how confusing this can be is an odd practice that once cropped up in our part of the world, i.e. that after confessing our sins, & being assured of God’s forgiveness, we were then launched into the Kyries too! Liturgies need to be a celebration of forgiven-ness rather than a constant, nagging, reminder that in some cases the church doesn’t get today’s parable either!

The forgiving king is one of only three people apart from Jesus (all three are parable figures) of whom the word compassion, 'being moved in your gut' is used. The other two are the Forgiving Father, & the Good Samaritan. It’d be great to be counted along with them, not as parable figures, but real life ones. Little Jesuses so ‘moved in our gut’ at the plight of the hurting & unforgiven that we go in to bat for them whatever it takes.

We can only experience God's Rule where forgiveness is the expected norm, as ‘we forgive those who sin against us’ as Jesus puts it in His prayer. When there’s no forgiveness on our part, we remain alienated from the Forgiving God. Loved, still, but alienated. Trapped by our own not-doing on the flip-side of God’s compassion when there’s no reason for us to stay there!

One last word - by Jesus Himself: Forgiveness is from the heart, from the depth of our being; or it isn't forgiveness at all! 

Monday, September 4, 2017

MT 18: 10-20 
Matthew in the Margins…14th S. After Pentecost…Revised 2017

Guardian angels are, in a sense, boundary riders where heaven & earth overlap. In Jesus God reaches out to us across all the boundaries we set to embrace ‘little ones’ trapped in systems that put them down & keep them down. Jesus' inclusiveness, & therefore, God’s, extends to children & all the other ‘little ones’ overlooked & excluded by our societies. If we believe in guardian angels (I do!) let’s join their ranks as honorary members. Take the risk, as Jesus does, of crossing boundaries to make ‘as it is in heaven' a reality on earth, too. 
A heaven that’s only ‘up there somewhere’ can simply be an escape clause, an escape hatch. Leaving God’s 'little ones’ & God-self stuck with no way out! 

God operates on the ‘ from the bottom up’ principle, not from the top down. Otherwise, Jesus would have come as a very different Messiah! Might even have got Himself elected! Had His statue erected all over the place - not just in churches that have such things - till someone decided it was time to pull Him down & move on!

Still on the subject of guardian angels, Jesus’ train of thought extends to shepherds - of four & two legged sheep! There are many ‘sheep’, ‘little ones’, lost & gone astray out there in today’s margins. Mind you, Jesus may need to revise His arithmetical figures with regard to the numbers of losts & founds today!

Being a disciple means being at the same time a faithful sheep, & an under-shepherd to the Good Shepherd. Carrying the Christ in people, lost or not, across boundaries standing in the way of God’s inclusiveness. There are many issues dividing us today. Depending on where we’re fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to live. Issues, boundaries such as biblical & other forms of  fundamentalism, same-gender marriage, sexual discrimination of all kinds, jobs & their availability, health cover, adequate social security…the list goes on & on. When Jesus rebukes Peter for ‘thinking as humans think, not as God thinks’ [last Sunday, in MT 16:23] He means us to learn Peter’s lesson, too. We need to discern God’s mind as Jesus reveals it by His Spirit before we shut others out from being pushed or kept outside the boundaries of society. Binding & loosing powers are all about boundaries. We need to take the time & invest the spiritual effort required to discern which are of God’s scheme of things, & which are of the way we ourselves think or feel. As well as discerning how God might think about issues, we also need to discern how God feels about people! 

When she doesn’t want to talk about a subject, my grand-daughter will sometimes say to me “Don’t go there, Grandad!” I take her to mean, ‘Don’t go where angels fear to tread!’ But do let’s be alert to their footsteps & footprints, & do let’s tread in them! For God’s sake.

P.S. Suzanne de Dietrich in one of her writings some years back wondered if the bit about treating someone like a pagan or a tax-collector might be dominical humour; meaning such persons need even more mercy & compassion! Interesting? Provocative?