Sermon Seeds: Going Ahead
Sunday, October 1, 2023
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Proper 21 | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 • Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Psalm 25:1-9 • Philippians 2:1-13 • Matthew 21:23-32
The Vineyard (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
On occasion (like daily), I get distracted by watching reels–short videos on social media. Some demonstrate cooking, others platform comedians and their acts, and others show dance challenges. There is also an entire genre of videos by people sharing advice on a variety of topics, including productivity, health and wellness, and relationships. These are not my favorite, and I often wonder what credentials or background qualifies the speaker to render their advice with such conviction. My attitude toward these reels tends to be dismissive or even disdainful depending on the nature of their content.
That appears to be the same way that religious leaders react to the teaching of Jesus. They directly question his authority. Of course, at this point in the gospel narrative, Jesus has been ministering and teaching for a significant time. They have heard his teaching before, and it’s worth noting that they never question the content of the teaching, just the person conveying it. Their objection, however, is to both, but they do not have an argument against the claims that Jesus makes that are deeply rooted in the Law and the Prophets. He knows the sacred texts better than they do for reasons obvious to those who follow him but oblivious to those who hold an adversarial attitude towards him.
Jesus and his teaching threatens them. They question his authority because his message undercuts theirs. The priests and the elders have lost their way, forgetting that the role of religious leaders is to facilitate the faithful functioning of the community, not to hold power over but to share power with those entrusted to their care. Jesus cuts through their rules and barriers, regulations and boundaries in order to be with those seeking an encounter with the Holy One. There’s no need for an intermediary when the Creator comes to creation.
The hostility toward Jesus rises as Matthew’s gospel moves into its final phase leading to the conclusion of the earthly ministry of Jesus, which will usher in a new era. Naturally, the conflict between Jesus and the religious rulers heightens correspondingly. There is no inherent conflict, however, between Jesus and the Jewish people. He and his earliest and closest followers faithfully practiced the faith. In the early church, it was common for followers of Jesus to keep Sabbath on one day and to gather for Christian worship and fellowship the next. It is important to remember this reality as this passage, among others, has been used to denigrate Jewish people and to justify violence against them. Not only is that harmful, it’s not faithful to the good news of Jesus. Both Warren Carter and Anna Case-Winters speak powerfully to this:
Such interpretations of Christian Scriptures constitute a long, shameful, and tragic tradition of anti-Jewish attitude and practices among Christian groups that should not be forgotten, but should never be replicated. Such readings pose an ongoing challenge to Gospel readers. Has God forever abandoned Israel, revoking covenant with God’s people? Has God withdrawn love and grace once and for all? It is both tragic, given the history of interpretation, and hopeful, for a different future, to recognize that these supersessionist or replacement readings are not inevitable or necessary. They can be interrupted.
There is a troubling (supersessionist) turn in some commentaries when they work out interpretations of these two parables. They take them to mean that the church now “supersedes” Israel in God’s work of salvation. In the parable of the two sons they associate the disobedient son with Israel and the obedient son with the church. In the second parable, they associate the evil tenants with Israel and the “other” (new) tenants with the church. Quite apart from the way in which such interpretations could promote supersessionism and its attendant abuses, this is a distortion of the plain meaning of the parables. Jesus’ “target” is the religious leaders, not Israel as such. It is unlikely that Matthew or his (predominantly Jewish) community would have promoted this idea, setting Jew against Gentile in their shared community of faith. Matthew maintains a privileged place for Israel in God’s salvation history while opening God’s blessing to all the nations. The inclusion of the nations was part of the traditional Jewish eschatological hope. There is much more reason to believe Matthew is associating Israel with the vineyard itself (as in Isa. 5:1–7). It is a change in the leaders that is needed; replacing the unfaithful with faithful leaders.
Jesus responds to the leaders’ questions with his own. It’s a rhetorical tactic that he employs frequently in his teaching and interactions. He guides them to a position of supporting his argument. The leaders recognize the potential trap as they confer with each other and feign ignorance. As they claim not to know the answer, they expose the cowardice beneath the bravado. Bullies inevitably retreat when their attempts to dominate and destroy are met with resistance. Jesus is not playing their game, and refuses to answer as they refuse to answer. The difference is Jesus is upfront that although he knows the answer, he will not continue to engage on their terms when their actions reflect a lack of integrity.
Then, he turns to a story–another favored rhetorical response. It’s interesting how much theological and public discussion among Christians centers around so-called commands found in the Bible when Jesus responded to such inquiries with a story. Even the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures focuses on remembering the story of God’s acts in human history. For Jesus, the way to truth comes through exploring a pithy story with powerful and simple meaning. This story, or parable, speaks to integrity, grace, and relationship.
But with marvelous brevity, beauty and simplicity, Jesus uses these stories to crack our eyes and ears open to the wonder of God’s grace—and the danger of rejecting it. These…stories encompass more than our personal salvation or our personal relationship with Jesus. In Jesus’ context they also focus on how God chooses a community of people who will reflect his character as they work to restore a broken world. And yet because God’s kingdom is both big and little, global and personal, we can apply these stories on a personal level as well.
Ultimately, the leaders want Jesus to submit to their authority. In other words, they want to control him and his message. Control always leads to diminution and restriction. That’s not the way of Jesus, which progresses through invitation and attraction rather than coercion or compulsion.
The leaders reject Jesus just as they rejected John the Baptist. Those who receive the invitation with glad, halting, or even uncertain acceptance will receive the harvest and assume their position in the kindom. The least will attain the most, and the power seeking will be disappointed. Those in need of the most grace will receive it, and those who withhold it from others will not find it for themselves. The outsiders will be chosen to go ahead of the insiders who refuse the leadership of Jesus the Christ.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
Greeting my second or third cousin, the new baby’s grandmother, on the tiny front porch, I mentioned to her what I was going to share this time around. I told her why we needed to do things differently, how everyone needed to know why we had been gathering and performing this ritual for generations.
With much patience and wisdom, she imparted a measure of God’s grace to me in that conversation on the front porch. She told me gently that the ninety-plus-year-old woman inside probably did not need the musings of newly minted PhD, whose ink had not even dried on her diploma. She noted that I seemed eager to have this moment conform to an arbitrary standard I had developed in my own mind without accounting for the generations of accumulated wisdom that made this act meaningful all by itself.
Argumentative in that way that only a new assistant professor can be, I kept making my case to her about African rituals and retentions. Why was there no African name given to the new baby? Why were there no sacred objects or clothing presented to the newborn? Why did our baby ritual seem like a budget version of the ones I had read about in graduate school?
She, in her experience and love of God, made the case for a sacrament: an ordinary sign of God’s grace. Most of the parents who present their babies to our matriarch, she explained, are entrusting their newborns to someone else’s care for the first time. They see a pair of frail hands and a fragile body, but they must have trust for those few moments that their child is in the hands of someone who will never do them any harm. The grace of God, she continued, is believing that, despite what you see with your natural eyes, a loving and silent Power will never do you any harm. The grace of God is believing that this ancient Presence sees you in your most vulnerable state. This ritual, this sacrament, she argued, was never about the baby but always about the new parents. It was about new, scared parents who needed to learn to trust God like never before.
And that was the moment I knew, without a doubt, that although I had learned so much in over twenty years of formal school, I had been surrounded all my life by gifted Black women theologians, even if the academy never knew of their existence.
—Yolanda Pierce, In My Grandmother’s House
For Further Reflection
“This wasn’t prayer anyway, it was just argument with the gods. Prayer, he suspected as he hoisted himself up and turned for the door, was putting one foot in front of the other. Moving all the same.” ― Lois McMaster Bujold
“My father taught me that you can you read a hundred books on wisdom and write a hundred books on wisdom, but unless you apply what you learned then its only words on a page. Life is not lived with intentions, but action.” ― Shannon Alder
“Authority without wisdom is like a heavy axe without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish.” ― Anne Bradstreet
Carter, Warren. “Matthew.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Woodley, Matt. The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Consider the stories of your faith community. Has there been a meaningful moment or movement toward being more expansive and embracing of outsiders that you can highlight as a community?
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (email@example.com), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 • Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Psalm 25:1-9 • Philippians 2:1-13 • Matthew 21:23-32
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=161