All posts for the month October, 2002

The 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

October 27, 2002

Exodus 22:20-26 + 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10 + Matthew 22:34-40

We must consider Mark’s earlier use of this story to understand what Matthew may be doing with it. Matthew changes the questioner, because in Mark’s version, it is a scribe who asks the question and is impressed with the response. In Matthew there is no room for this friendly question and the compliments that arise from the conversation. In Matthew, a question asked earlier has dismissed the Sadducees, and these Pharisees have, in a sense, rolled up their sleeves and said: “We’re the “pros” at this. Let’s go after him.” As a contest of wits, it’s a draw. Jesus does not answer the question. They ask for one commandment, he gives them two.

In the end, what we inherit here and what we proclaim today is not about them, Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, or Jesus. It is about us, and it is about what is asked of us.

The story of this encounter reveals just how theology and ethics have integrated. When the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel says that Love of God and Love of Neighbor are “like”, he reveals how much the relationship with God (call it “theology”) and the relationship with neighbor (call it “ethics”) have in common. The relationship of the divine creator and created is the stuff of theology, while the relationships between the created is the stuff of ethics. For followers of Jesus, these two relationships integrate into a balanced and focused way of life that is profoundly spiritual and consistently ethical as a consequence of their integration. The inter-relationship of these two commandments is an issue here. To enter into the mind of Jesus on this matter, think for a moment of how he treated the Sabbath Law. Remember how he insisted that human need took precedence over the legal requirement. That is the integration to be found in followers of Jesus. He did not come to replace the law, but to fulfill the law – a fulfillment to be found in the ethical behavior of his followers in their relationship to one another. Love for neighbor teaches us how to love God. Then Jesus goes a step further and radicalizes this love of neighbor to include enemies. It only makes sense to those whose love for God empowers them to imitate the generous, inclusive love God has for all creation.

But the story of this encounter also raises the question of commandments. If a commandment is the requirement or the prohibition of some kind of behavior, then we have to wonder if “love” can really be commanded. At this point, we must deal with the word that carries the idea. “L.O.V.E. in English is not a good tool to communicate what the Sacred Scriptures are revealing as God’s Will or God’s Command. That four letter word is simply inadequate. What is asked of us by God’s command has nothing to do with warm feelings either of gratitude toward God or of affection for others. In fact, the Biblical concept of Love bears little resemblance to romance, affection, and warm feelings of intimacy. It looks more bull-headedness, stubbornness, and unwavering commitment. It isn’t nearly as much fun, and when the Bible speaks of love, rather than violins playing, drums should be pounding.

Commitment, unwavering, immovable, unbending, teeth gritting, jaw set commitment is what this is all about. Nothing else, and commitment can be commanded. And so, commitment to God as a commandment means there will not be any other one, and no created thing nor any created person will take that God’s place before us. Such commitment is observed in obedient behavior and a determined effort to fulfill the will of God, as it is known. Commitment to neighbor, says Jesus, has nothing to do with liking the neighbor, nor with warm and affection feelings. For followers of Jesus Christ, love of neighbor means imitating God – which translated into human behavior means taking the neighbor’s needs seriously. It means seeing the needs of the neighbor as though they were one’s own. Where there is need for Justice, it is not someone else’ responsibility. Where there is hunger, homelessness, loneliness, or any other need, it becomes my need because that is how God sees it.

It is the risen Christ who speaks in this room today revealing as always what God asks of us. It is commitment. It is single hearted, pure intentioned loyalty. When commitment is given without condition, every other relationship is affected. What God takes seriously, we take seriously. What God plans, we plan. What God does, we do: from giving to forgiving, from finding to seeking, from suffering to dying, and from binding up to setting free.

There is reason to rejoice here today and throughout this week because a commandment is given – not as a burden or as a way to limit or restrain us, but to set us free to be ourselves in the image of our creator and to love without limit, without condition, and without end. That is the essence of the covenant we share and renew at this altar: bound to God and to each other we are here in holy communion.

The 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

October 13, 2002

Isaiah 25:6-10 + Philippians 4:1-9 + Matthew 22:1-14

For Jesus it was a parable that left people wondering and asking questions of themselves. He jump-started their imaginations, and he left those who listened with questions about how the Kingdom of God might be like that for them. For Matthew it was an allegory that interpreted their own history in light of their relationship to God and what was revealed to them. For us it could be either, but if we choose to take the allegory, we run the risk of interpreting it to justify ourselves leaving things as they are.

The parable Jesus told probably ended with the banquet hall being filled. The scholars propose that Matthew added the visit of the King to the banquet hall and his inspection of the guests. Matthew was concerned with things eschatological – anticipating the end of time. So our best option is to take this a parable and include Matthew’s conclusion and have our imaginations stirred up and raise a few questions about the Kingdom of God might be like that for us.

The last verse is the point at which our wonder begins: “Many are called. Few are chosen.” In the context of the story, it begins to suggest that none of us can hide in the group, slide in on the coat tails of others, or escape some accounting for our own stewardship when the time comes for the King to enter the banquet to which we have been invited. This is not a saying intended to forecast the proportion of the saved to the lost, nor frighten us with the thought that the odds are against us, but simply encourage vigorous efforts to live in accord with the teaching of Jesus. The garment we put on is Christ Himself: clothed in mercy and compassion, kindness, love, and forgiveness. It is garment of generosity and gratitude that never allows the wearer to forget where they are and where they came from.

The call of God is not something we respond to once and then sit secure and confident until it’s all over. Each of us hears the call every day in the unique events that mark our individual lives, and the parable invites us to take a look at how we are dressed — at how we have put on Christ. Jesus knew that everything he had came from the Father. Expressing that truth was the heart of his prayer and the motive of his life. It made him servant and it made him obedient. It made him grateful and it made him faithful.

It’s autumn now. The days are growing darker; the last of the harvest is in the barns. The north winds and early nights speak to something deep within us about change and readiness for what is to come. The parable today leaves us to wonder about what we have put on for this feast of God’s Kingdom, and how we shall look on the Day of the Lord. There is some higher calling revealed in this Gospel. Just being here, taking up space in this church is not enough. Something more is required of those who come, and today is as good a day as any to ask what it might be.

The 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

October 6, 2002

Isaiah 5:1-7 + Philippians 4:6-9 + Matthew 21:33-43

Back in the vineyard, a parable invites us to wonder about something, and I want suggest that its focus is God. The easy way with this parable is be threatened by the behavior of the tenants so that we do not act like them, or to see an image of the Passion of Christ in the owner’s Son. All of these work at one level or another, but if we stay with our level and raise the issue of what this parable says about God, something different happens. We are then left to wonder – to wonder about God, and that’s a good place to be today.

There is a historical way of looking at this parable that excuses the behavior of the tenants. If we knew anything about their condition and the customs of the time, their revolt might be justifiable. There is another level that gives us reason to consider this son and his relationship both with the father and with the tenants. Finally there is the level that leads us to realize that the one constant in all levels and in every episode of this story is the landowner.

If we stay at our level of this parable, we can maintain our focus on the landowner and do some serious wondering at which point the living Word of God brings us to life. It is a story about being entrusted with a role in the vineyard by God. It leaves us to wonder what happens when those entrusted with something try to possess it and keep it as if it was their own. The gift turns to greed, and service in the vineyard to violence. Something is wrong here, and we need to wonder about it.

If you read very carefully this story of the heartbreaking betrayal of God and of terrible violence toward his slaves and his son, there is no suggestion that God is violent nor that God responds violently. That idea comes from the betrayers themselves. They are the ones who suggest that God will be angry and violent, not Jesus nor Matthew. So full of their own violence, so permeated in mind and heart are they, that they cannot imagine a God who is any different from them. They suggest the ending to this story, and Jesus never says it’s the right ending – he simply talks about rejected stones and insists that those who produce fruit in the vineyard will come into the Kingdom of God. So as always, wondering about God leads us to understand something about ourselves.

This is a parable that says a great deal and raises a lot of questions in a violent nation that looks to violence as a greed driven solution; to a culture so permeated with violence that it no longer can conceive of any other option to conflict; and to a people who continue to shape the image of God in their own likeness. It is a parable that gives wonder to anyone who has forgotten their role in the vineyard and has begun to think of possessions as their own and consider ways of making it so. The persistence and the eventual victory of God’s plan is clearly announced by this parable with the hope that their hearts of stone will be turned into the cornerstone; something that would be wonderful to behold and to celebrate. We are left to wonder when and how it shall come to pass, and what we should be doing in this vineyard to produce this fruit.