Ayn Rand, Cheap Grace, and the Tea Party – Proper 13, Year A

Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Matthew’s parable of the workers in the vineyard is a harvest story, dealt with by the Elves around the time of the Fall Equinox.  (See the original Revised Common Lectionary blog.)  As usual, Matthew’s pious comment at the end (“The last will be first and the first last”), while it seems to be Matthew’s favorite quote, has nothing to do with the point.  According to the Jesus Seminar commentary in The Five Gospels, the parable is not about the reversal of fortune for the greedy or the self-righteous (“the last will be first and the first last”) but about frustrated expectations.  Conventional fairness in the imperial marketplace certainly does get turned upside down, whether from the point of view of the rich proprietor, or the poor workers hired throughout the day.  But Jesus is talking about more than frustrated expectations.  Jesus is illustrating how in God’s realm the reward is bestowed whenever the program is joined.  That is the nature of God’s Covenant.

Read superficially, this feels suspiciously like “cheap grace.” …

Jesus said WHAT? – Proper 12, Year A

Matthew 19; 1 Corinthians 7

For his chapter 19, the writer of Matthew rewrote Mark 10, which is well covered by the Elves in Year B, cobbles together rules for divorce; the admonition not to prevent children to come to Jesus; the plight of the rich young ruler who was reluctant to give up his wealth; and the aphorism about camels squeezing through the eyes of needles. The chapter is a hodge-podge tour de force worthy of the Elves themselves, especially considering Jesus’ observation about “men who castrated themselves because of Heaven’s imperial rule [eunuchs],” which Matthew alone tosses into the mix.

In the later years of the first century, Matthew was struggling with the reality that Jesus had not yet come again, and the temple was destroyed.  Surely God must have been getting ready to act soon to deliver God’s people from oppression and death.  But meanwhile, did Jesus really expect people to give up sex, mutilate their bodies, and throw away their possessions?  Origen – considered one of the founders of the Christian religion in the late second and early third centuries – is said to have castrated himself because of Matthew 19:12.  While that legend may have been invented by Origen’s detractors, it nevertheless is a cautionary tale for those inclined to take everything in the Bible literally.…

Debt and Forgiveness: Proper 11, Year A

Matthew 18:15-35

While the Elves are playing catch-up, anyone reading straight through Matthew can see that the part of the story considered last week leads directly from the tricks and traps of civilized life to the need for forgiveness.  Matthew recommends to his community that if someone does you wrong, first sort it out between yourselves, then if that doesn’t work, bring in two or three witnesses.  If the perpetrator persists in denying wrongdoing, bring the whole case before the entire community.  If that doesn’t work, treat that person like a pagan or a tax collector – i.e., throw the bum out.

But Matthew modifies this practical recommendation for collective cooperation by reminding people that whatever they bind or release on earth is bound or released “in heaven.”  He also declares that “wherever two or three agree on anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  In fact, wherever two or three are gathered together, I will be there among them.”  All of these aphorisms were either made up by Matthew, or were part of the common piety of first century Judaism.  The Jesus Seminar scholars opine that “Nothing in this relatively long complex can be attributed to Jesus.  The Q community’s rules of order are being reported and modified by Matthew” (The Five Gospels, p. 217).

Unfortunately, because these sayings have been thought to be Jesus’ words, they have been removed from Matthew’s context and taken literally for two millennia.  As a result, well into the twenty-first century, in the face of post-enlightenment rationality, they reflect a kind of magical thinking that is comforting, and seems empowering.  Anyone can point a finger at someone and “bind” the demon that is causing the problem.  Any three people can band together and pray “in the name of Jesus,” and bibbity, bobbity, boo! the money to build the church is found; a parking space opens up; the cancer goes into remission; miracles happen.

But Matthew is not talking about overturning the laws of physics.  He is talking about forgiveness. …

The Millstone Trap – Proper 10, Year A

Matthew 18:1-14

This section of Matthew’s gospel is never considered by the Revised Common Lectionary, probably because it is thoroughly covered in Year B when considering Mark’s vignette about children being prevented from interacting with Jesus.  Matthew seems to be attempting to run with some kind of metaphor about evil people who cause children to be lost to God’s saving grace.

He starts with a straw man who asks “Who is greatest in God’s domain?”  He then has Jesus declare that “if you don’t do an about-face and become like children, you will never enter Heaven’s domain” (Five Gospels translation).  That seems reasonable, depending on how the phrase is interpreted.  Either Jesus expects his followers to be as trusting of God and God’s covenant as children are of their parents, or as innocent of the wicked ways of the world as children are romantically assumed to be.  But he follows this with several non-sequiturs: “Therefore those who put themselves on a level with this child are greatest in Heaven’s domain. And whoever accepts one such child in my name is accepting me.”  But he ends this with a clear threat: “Those who entrap one of these little trusting souls would be better off to have millstones hung around their necks and be drowned in the deepest part of the sea!”

During the Presbyterian wars of the past several years over the ordination of GLBT parishioners, the image of tying millstones around particular necks in the progressive ranks appeared fairly often.  Such language might be seen as prophetic hyperbole, until it becomes a call for literal action.  Sharon Angle’s “Second Amendment Remedies for the Harry Reid Problem” comes to mind.…