Monday, October 27, 2014

Matthew 23:1-12 – Be Humble

Lesson Focus:
Teachers and religious leaders are to be humble servants of the people. 

Catch up on the story:
Matthew has just finished telling us a series of controversy stories that took place between Jesus and Israel’s religious leadership.  The religious leadership sought to entrap Jesus so that they either might discredit him with the people or entice him to say something that would bring him into conflict with the political establishment.  At each turn, Jesus has met the religious leader’s attempts to trap him with indictments against them. 

This first part of chapter 23 acts as both a conclusion to the previous section with its controversy stories and an introduction to Jesus’ final sermon in chapters 23-25.  Jesus’ words here in chapter 23 takes place in the Temple area.  Jesus has been speaking here for the last few chapters.  At the beginning of chapter 24 he will finally make his way from the Temple.  The audience, however, has changed slightly.  Rather than addressing Israel’s religious leaders directly, Jesus now addresses the crowds and his disciples. 

The Text:
Jesus begins to address the crowds and his disciples to warn them about the scribes and the Pharisees.  The scribes (see Important Terms), are the officially ordained keepers of the law, while the Pharisees were laymen who were very serious about being obedient to the law.[1] Some scribes would have been Pharisees.  Pharisees, later after the fall of the Temple, became the dominant theological force in Israel.  This was certainly the case by the time of Matthew’s writing.  As we have said often before, Jesus is chastising Israel’s religious leaders because they have failed to be and teach, as they should have.  At this point in the narrative, Jesus becomes more specific in his critique of Israel’s religious establishment. 

Jesus begins by describing how the scribes and Pharisees sit on “Moses’ seat.”  It was a tradition in Israel to believe that God built a chair on Mt. Sinai for Moses to sit in while he received the law.  Moses then handed down the law to Joshua and from there to the elders and the prophets until the current day.  There is some evidence that a Moses seat would have been present in contemporary Synagogues, but teachers would not have sat in it.  It would have been reserved for holding the scrolls that contained the books of the law.  It is likely that the phrase had been used as a metaphor for those who occupied respected positions of teaching within Israel.[2] So, the scribes, Israel’s ordained teachers, and the Pharisees, who helped flesh out what faithfulness looked like for Israel, rightfully occupied places of leadership in Israel.  Jesus says, because these men are authoritative, listen to what they have to say.  They are after all, walking copies of the law; they know it by heart.  Contrary to our current day, not everyone would have had access to the Scriptures in book form or on their personal electronic devices!  Everyday people had to rely on learned individuals to tell them what God’s word said.  Jesus admonishes the crowds and his disciples to listen to what they have to say, to hear the words of God, but in the next breath he tells them not to do what they do. 

In one way, Jesus is legitimating the scribes and the Pharisees as repositories for the law, while at the same time, condemning their interpretation and (lack of!) application of the law.  They do not practice what they preach.  Instead, Jesus tells us, they place the burden of the law on the people’s backs and then do not help the people figure out how to carry it. 

The image here is probably meant to remind Matthew’s readers of Jesus’ words in 11:30, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Nolland suggests that, “The imagery is probably not of helping to carry the load…but of moving the load around to produce a better weight distribution and center of gravity.”[3] In other words, the scribes and Pharisees have imposed this weight (namely, an extremely detailed list of laws), but have not offered effective or practical ways for the people to live their daily lives under it.  What good is the law if it only oppresses and never allows one to live life fully as surely God’s law intended?        

Then, in verse 5-7, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter.  The scribes and Pharisees love the attention and respect they get from their position as teachers.  All of their deeds they do so that they can be seen by others.  Now, Jesus makes reference to “phylacteries” and “fringes” in verse 5.  “Phylacteries,” used only here in the New Testament, literally means “a safeguard, a means of protection.”  In the larger Greek-speaking world the word was used to refer to an amulet or charm that was worn.  Most scholarship, however, believe that “phylactery” was used to translate the Hebrew word tepillin, or small leather box which contained selected passages of Old Testament scripture in them. Exodus 13:9 and Deuteronomy 6:8 both called faithful Israelites to bind God’s command to their hand and to their forehead.  These boxes would have been worn during times of prayer.  The charge of making these boxes broad may have been reference to the boxes being large so as to contain larger script, or it may have meant that these religious leaders would wear the boxes at times other than prayer.[4] Either way, it would have been a way of showing off one’s religious devotion.  The fringes, to which Jesus refers, were blue and white tassels that served to remind the wearer of God’s commands.  Longer tassels would have served similar purposes as the broad prayer boxes.

In addition to drawing attention to their religious rigorousness, the scribes and Pharisees delighted in being given the best seats at dinner parties, at religious services and in public.  These religious leaders go so far as to instruct people to address them with terms of respect.  Rabbi comes from a Hebrew word that means “great” or “greatest,” but in later times came to be used as a term of respect for those who taught the law.  The scribes and Pharisees expected to be greeted with the respect that was due their position as religious leaders. 

Jesus turns, in verse 8, from detailing the infractions of these religious leaders to explaining why it is that people should not act like them.  In three statements, that all sound rather similar, Jesus makes a case against over using terms of respect for teachers.  Jesus instructs those listening, the crowds and specifically the disciples, that they are not to be called rabbi because they have only one teacher and that is God in Christ.  They are not to call anyone father because they have only one father in heaven.  At this point I don’t believe that Jesus is making a case against calling your earthly father, father.  Finally, Jesus says that you are not to be called instructor, because they have only one instructor and that is the Messiah. 

Jesus is expressing equality here among those who would follow him.  Those who would follow him are all in need to the teaching and guidance that only God can provide.  Those, like the scribes and Pharisees, while they know the law, are failing to represent it in a way that does not take honor and glory from God.  Certainly, Jesus is not forbidding titles and established forms of instruction and education within the church.  After all, at the end of this gospel (28:16-20) he will commission the disciples to go out into the world to make more disciples and to teach.  The commission, however, states that the disciples are to teach people to “obey everything that I have commanded.”  In other words, the disciples as teachers commissioned by Jesus are to point directly and unceasingly to Christ and what he has commanded us to do.  The scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, have failed to do this with the Jewish law.

Jesus ends this introduction to his final sermon with a phrase with which we are probably familiar, “The greatest among you will be your servant.  All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (23:11-12) In its immediate context this passage speaks directly to those who are in religious leadership within Israel.  It also carries with it a future tense.  Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.  Those who humble themselves will be exalted.  Jesus is here speaking about the final judgment in the kingdom of heaven.  The scribes and Pharisees, who have exalted themselves, will find that their overly zealous commitment to the law will leave them as one of the least in God’s kingdom.    

Important Terms:

The scribes were recognized experts in Jewish law (canonical and traditional laws and regulations).  Only those who had qualified for ordination and mediated by succession would be considered to become legitimate members of the guild of scribes.  These scribes maintained a high reputation among people because of their expert knowledge of the Law and oral tradition.[5]

So What?
This passage speaks to us directly today as teachers and leaders in Christ’s church.  Indeed it speaks to anyone who might serve the church in some capacity.  The passages warnings are twofold.  First, as teachers and leaders in the church, is what we teach and preach overly burdensome?  Do our interpretations of scripture pass the test of Jesus’ double command to love God and our neighbor?  Rather, do our interpretations of scripture result in long lists of rules that are difficult for people to live out??  Secondly, it warns us against letting ourselves get in the way of Jesus’ commands.  Those who teach, preach and even serve in other types of leadership are called to examine ourselves regularly. Are we using our place within the church to exalt ourselves?  Those whom God has called, both as clergy and laity, do well to seek to humble themselves as they attempt to serve so that Christ’s way might be followed.    

Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?   
a.     The emphasis falls again on the humble nature of the kingdom of heaven.  Our King, who is Jesus, humbled himself so that all might find reconciliation, therefore we should humble ourselves as we seek to point the way to Christ. 

  1. What does holiness look like in this text?
    1. Holiness looks like serving in humility, not letting ourselves get in the way of our service, teaching and preaching. 

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. The church is not an appropriate place to seek personal exaltation or advancement.  Our attitudes towards our own service within the church need to be examined in the light of the nature of the God of the Universe who humbled himself, becoming like one of us, so that we might be saved. 

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
1.     What is the “Moses’ seat” to which Jesus refers?  What might it mean that the scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat?
2.     Why does Jesus instruct his hearers to listen to the scribes and Pharisees but not to do what they do? 
3.     Phylacteries (little leather boxes with specific scripture written inside) and fringes were part of devout Jewish garb.  Why would the scribes and Pharisees wish to have broad Phylacteries and long fringes?  What are some things that we sometimes do to display our religious devotion before others?
4.     In verses 8-10 Jesus warns against using specific titles such as “Rabbi,” “father” and “instructor.”  Why do you think Jesus gives this warning? 
5.     Jesus says that those who exalt themselves will be made humble and those who humble themselves will be exalted.  How might we be tempted to exalt ourselves as we seek to serve and lead the church?  How might exalting ourselves get in the way of the purpose and mission of the church?  

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 432.
[2] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Bletchley: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005);
[3] Ibid., 924-25.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 544; Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 741.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Matthew 22:34-46 – The Greatest Commandment

Lesson Focus:
Loving God and loving neighbor are inseparable. We can love God and neighbor because Jesus is the messiah.

Catch up on the story:
This passage is the third of three questions that the religious leaders of Israel put to Jesus. The first question was about paying taxes to Caesar, the second was a question about the future resurrection. This final question, along with the previous two, are all attempts by the religious leaders to trap Jesus into saying something that will either get him in trouble with the political authorities or cause him to loose credibility with the people. These questions have come from both ends of the religious establishment. Both the Pharisees, who tended to lean more toward the revolutionary end, and the Sadducees/Herodians, who favored a more pro-Roman stance, questioned Jesus. This final question comes from the Pharisees who are delighted that Jesus has confounded the Sadducees in the previous section.

The Text:
The text begins with Matthew noting that the Pharisees approach Jesus to test or trap him because they say that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees. Literally, Jesus had "muzzled" the Sadducees with his response to the previous question. We will hear no more from the Sadducees in terms of questions. In fact, at the end of this chapter, the Pharisees will no long attempt to trap Jesus in his teaching either.

One of the experts in the law approaches Jesus and asks him a question. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" The exact way in which the expert in the law asks this question is important. Poia in Greek is often translated as, "what kind of?" in distinction from "which." The distinction is important. The lawyer is not seeking to know which one law is the greatest, but rather what class of commandments deserves to be elevated above the rest.[1] In other words, the lawyer wants to know what law is most comprehensive and thus the most significant commandment.

Jesus responds that what is most important is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Here, Jesus combines two commandments from two different books of the Old Testament into one over arching command. The first part of the command comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and was a particularly important command for Israel. Devout Jews every morning and every evening of their lives would have prayed it.

This command to love God is the first and greatest command. But notice that this is not just a mere command to love an impersonal and distant God. Rather, Jesus situates this command in the midst of Israel's history. The command is to love the "Lord your God." That is, the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who, with a mighty and outstretched hand, brought you up out of Egypt. It is a command to love the God, who out of his love and grace did not destroy Israel when she rebelled at Mt. Sinai, or when she refused to take possession of the Promised Land. The command to love the "Lord your God" is to respond to the great saving love that God has shown for Israel throughout the generations.

How are we to love this God who has first loved us? We are to love him with all of our heart, soul and mind. At this point, I am not sure it helps us much to parse out different meanings for heart, soul and mind. The point Jesus is trying to make is that we are to love this God who has first loved us with the entirety of our being. The Hebrew word for heart, lev, can be compared to what we would call our "center."[2]  Our love for God flows out from the core of who we are, because we have first been transformed by God's love for us. If we are honest with ourselves this kind of total and systemic love for God is hard to achieve. Jesus will give us some help with this in a minute.

Jesus then places this command at the forefront of everything. This command to love God is the greatest and first command. Above anything else we might find in all of the law and the prophets, this command is the one that trumps everything. Jesus could stop here because throughout the law and the prophets God has given us plenty of examples of what it looks like to love God. Almost always these commanded expressions of love for God find their foundation in God's previous actions for Israel (and us). For example, Israel is commanded to care for the widow, orphan and alien. Why? Because Israel were once widows, orphans and aliens in a strange land and God, in his love for Israel, cared and provided for them. God seeks nothing less than our imitation of him in his care for humanity.

Jesus moves on and gives the second part of this double command. This second command, to love our neighbors as ourselves, Jesus says is just like the first. The "and a second is like it" is more than just Jesus' way of creating a casual connection between love of God and love of neighbor. The Greek word for "like," hominia, more fully means, "equal to" and "of the same nature."[3] In other words, loving our neighbor is equally as important as loving God. We cannot love God without loving our neighbor.

At different times and places, the church has separated these two commands. If we honor the first command to love God with all of what we are, but neglect the second command, we all too often fall into the trap of religious legalism. Love often gets worked out as keeping to a strict list of dos and don'ts. We do read our bible and pray because that is what God would want. We
attend worship services regularly because that is what God would want. We don't use foul language, or watch entertainment that promotes immoral behavior. We don't engage in premarital sex or extramarital sex because that would not be how we show love for God.

In the same way as concentrating on loving God without loving neighbor is dangerous, loving our neighbor without loving God is dangerous as well. When we concentrate too much on loving our neighbor we tend to forget the individual moral aspects of Christianity. We think that as long as we are caring for our neighbor we can engage in other acts that would be displeasing to God.
In combining these two commands, Jesus stresses the connection between God’s love for us and our subsequent love for our neighbors. We are compelled to love our neighbor because we have been loved first. Love for neighbor is the best response to the love we have received.

Who is our neighbor and how might we love him or her? Matthew, in this passage, does not give us a direct answer. But we have Jesus, in other places, like Luke's gospel, proclaiming that our neighbor is everyone. More specifically, our neighbors are those whom we walk by and come in contact with every day. The needs of our neighbors might vary from day to day. It is our job to constantly ask our selves what it looks like to love our neighbor.

At times, loving our neighbor looks like providing them with food, clothes and water. It might mean providing comfort and support in times of loneliness or mourning. At other times it might mean that we confront our neighbors when they engage in wrongdoing. This command to love our neighbor comes from Leviticus 19:18 and includes the admonition to reprove our neighbor when they need it.

After Jesus gives us this double command to love God and our neighbor, he states that the entirety of the law and prophets hang on these two commands. Imagine, for a moment, that you have a coat rack mounted to your house's entryway. There are two pegs on that coat rack. Maybe you have a heavy backpack that you don't want to touch the ground, so you use both pegs on the rack to support the bag. Jesus is saying that this double command to love God and neighbor are those two pegs on the coat rack. Together they support the rest of the law and prophets. Or, another way to look at it is that the double command to love God and neighbor provide for us a set of lens that we are to use to view all of scripture. We must have both lenses in order to rightly see and interpret scripture. Using only one of the lenses, or perhaps shutting one eye will yield a distorted view of scripture.

Verses 41-46 might seem to be disconnected from the preceding verses. I don't want to concentrate a lot of our effort on this part of the passage. Historically, these two sections have been placed together in the lectionary. What is important in verses 41-46 is the implied claims that Jesus is making about his messiahship. The Pharisees believe that the Christ, or messiah, will be a descendant of David. Jesus, in quoting Psalm 110, intends for the Pharisees to see that this messiah who is the son of David will be much more than just a man. Bruner comments, "All Jesus is attempting to do is to pry open his hearers' minds to the possibility that the future messiah will be more than a son of David, more than even David's glorious successor..."[4]

What ties these two sections together is the messiahship question. If Jesus is the messiah than his double command to love God and neighbor becomes the legitimate authoritative way in which we must interpret all of the law and prophets. Because we live on this side of Jesus' resurrection, we can confidently proclaim that yes, Jesus is the messiah, the one we had been waiting for and yes, his words and commands are right and true because they have been vindicated by the death defeating, death defying power of the resurrection. Let us live confidently in the power of the resurrection by loving God and our neighbor as ourselves.

So What?
As the church, not just our local church, but the church in America and else where, we often get caught up in an unhealthy discussion about what one must do or believe to be truly Christian. All too often in American Evangelicalism we deny that others who do not practice Christianity or believe exactly the same as we do, are not truly Christian. We have equated love of God with right belief and have often failed to love our neighbor as ourselves.

This passage, however, calls to always discern how it is that we hold together our love for God, which certainly means moral obedience, with our love for our neighbors. How might we express our love for God through our love for neighbor?

There are two things that I think are of paramount significance about this double love command. First, the command to love God and neighbor in equal and complimentary ways makes Christianity not just about our own salvation. It makes it about our seeking the salvation, both physically and spiritually, of others. Christianity, then, is not about us, but about our becoming conduits of God's love and salvation for the world. Second, but equally important, it challenges us to read scripture in a Christocentric way. We must use this double love command as a lens through which to read scripture. As we read scripture do our interpretations of both the Old and New Testament violate our command to love God and neighbor?

Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?   
a.      God is love. God commands us to love, out of response to the love that we have first received.
  1. What does holiness look like in this text?
    1. Living a life of holiness means loving God and neighbor. As we allow the Holy Spirit to work within in us, showing us how it is that God has loved us, we can begin to respond to that great love by expressing our love for God through love for our neighbor. John Wesley described entire sanctification as the soul being completely filled with love for God and neighbor.

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. This passage calls us to examine our approach to Christianity. Are we followers of Christ out of selfishness? Or, are we followers of Christ, lovers of God, because we have been loved first and now desire to spread God's love to our neighbor? It also compels us to examine our reading of scripture. It invites us to don the glasses of God's desire for us to love our neighbor in our reading of scripture.

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Why would one of the Pharisees ask which commandment Jesus thought was the greatest or most important? 
2.     Read Deuteronomy 6:1-8 and Leviticus 19:18.  How similar are these two Old Testament passages with the command that Jesus gives?
3.     What are the kinds of things that we do to show our love for God?
4.     What are the kinds of things that we do to show our love for our neighbor?
5.     Jesus seems to be saying that through loving our neighbor we express our love for God.  Why do you think Jesus is saying that? Reference 1 John 4:19-21 as you discuss this.
6.     How does the church facilitate our love for God and neighbor? Is it possible to love God and neighbor without participating in the life of the church on an ongoing basis? Why or why not?
7.     As a Devotion Group, how are you doing with showing love for each other? 

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 411.
[2] Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 606.
[3] Ibid., 186.
[4] Bruner, 425

Friday, October 17, 2014

Matthew 22:15-22 – Questions about Paying Taxes

Lesson Focus:
Jesus wants us to live as faithful servants of God while remaining active participants in our country.

Catch up on the story:
We have just completed looking at three parables concerning true obedience.  Each of the three previous parables dealt with characters that refused to respond appropriately to figures of authority in the stories.  Over and over again, Jesus condemns the Jewish religious leadership for failing to or refusing to responds appropriately to God’s call and guidance.  What is clear is that the Jewish religious leaders, because of their unfaithfulness, will not easily find a place in God’s kingdom.  At the same time, however, the most unlikely kinds of people, prostitutes and tax collectors, will be invited to the party.  Even for these, proper response is mandated. 

Matthew now turns his gospel from parables to a series of controversy stories.  This week’s lesson is the first of these controversy stories. 

Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text? 
  2. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

The Text:
The setting of this week’s passage is still the Temple area.  There seems to have been some break in the action between verse 14 and verse 15, although the text does specify how long.  We can imply the break because the Pharisees, who were part of the audience in the preceding passages, have time to consort with the Herodians (See, Important Terms), so that they might trap Jesus.  In verse 15 we get, “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him…”  The intent of the questions Jesus will be asked, unlike Peter’s questions earlier, will be to entice Jesus into saying something that will get him in trouble.

A bit of political context is important before we dive into this passage.  First, Israel is at this time, a colony of Rome.  There is an occupying military presence as well local rulers who are mere puppets of Roman power.  As with most occupations, people take up different sides regarding the advantages or disadvantages of being under Roman rule.  Some, who were more apt to collude with the Romans, believed that the peace and rule that the Romans provided were beneficial for the country.  Others were staunchly against the Roman occupation.

In Israel, feelings concerning the Roman occupations take on religious overtones in addition to political ones. The question of supporting the Roman occupation quickly came down to the rightness of paying taxes.  Some believe that to pay the required tax was tantamount to supporting and condoning an idolatrous and religiously debased state, which endorsed emperor worship.  So, the revolutionary minded segments of Israel believed that it was wrong to pay these taxes.[1]

In this passage, Jesus encounters both those who want to support the Roman occupation, the Herodians, and those who don’t, the Pharisees.  Actually, the coalition that brings this question about taxes to Jesus dose not consist of the Pharisees, but the Pharisees’ disciples.

The Herodians and the Pharisees’ disciples gather around Jesus and begin to butter him up.  It is likely that the Pharisees send their disciples because such glowing talk coming out of their own mouth would seem disingenuous.  The questioners praise Jesus for his sincere teaching, which is in accordance with God’s truth.  They also declare that Jesus shows regard to no one.  In other words, they believe that Jesus is not likely to change how he will respond to a given question based on who is asking it.  Jesus will speak the truth, regardless of what people will think.  His accusers are right on that regard!

The questioners demand to know what Jesus thinks about paying taxes to the Roman emperor.    The tax being referenced is most likely the “head tax” that was paid once a year.  The “tell us” of verse 17 is not a casual request for an opinion.  No, they are asking for Jesus to make a definitive and authoritative statement on the issue.  They want to know if Jesus, as a respected religious teacher, believes paying taxes to Rome is in accordance with right doctrine.  A yes or no answer is what the Pharisees’ disciples and Herodians are looking for.[2]

If Jesus says that yes it is proper to pay taxes to the emperor, he would be discredited among the people who regard him as the messiah.  Part of the people’s messianic hope was that they would be freed from their Roman oppressors.  If Jesus gives the green light to pay the tax then, in some ways, he is legitimating Rome’s power.  On the other hand, if Jesus judges that it is not right to pay the tax, he makes himself out to be a revolutionary and an enemy of the state.  Rome does not deal kindly with revolutionaries.

Jesus will not respond with direct yes or no answers.  He knows their hearts and their thoughts.  Instead, Jesus asks that the coalition to produce the coin with which it would be appropriate to pay the tax.  The group produced a denarius.  An imperial tax, such as the one being discussed, could only be paid with a coin that had been minted by the empire.  It is likely that the coin that the coalition produced bore the image of Emperor Tiberius Caesar with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.”[3]  At this time coins were used to help encourage the practice of emperor worship.  The inscription on the coin obviously declares Tiberius to be divine, or at least semi-divine.  The coin amounted to a portable idol because it bore the emperor’s image. 

Jesus receives the coin, and then asks the group whose image was on it.  They respond, “The emperor’s.” Note that their response indicates that the coin actually belongs to the emperor.  That the coin actually belongs to the emperor is important for Jesus’ answer to the question.  Jesus then tells them to give back to the emperor what is his.  The NIV’s translation here is more precise, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s…” In fact, the word translated as “give back” carries with it the added meaning of debt payment.  To “give back” implies that the payment is in response to an incurred obligation.[4]

Here Jesus is counseling respect for the state.  The state is an agent of God to provide order, safety and justice for its citizens.  If we take advantage of the good things that the state provides for us, then we cannot refuse to pay the taxes that are due.  Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers, one of the church fathers, commented on this passage, “For if there remain with us nothing that is Caesar’s, we shall not be bound by the condition of rendering to him the things that are his; but if we lean upon what is his, if we avail ourselves of the lawful protection of his power, we cannot complain of it as any wrong if we are required to render to Caesar the things of Caesar.[5]

Jesus will balance his statement about respect for the state with his next breath.  “…and to God the things that are God’s.”  You and I are created in the image of God, and in some ways we are like the coin Jesus requested to see.  As we bear the image of God and we are God’s possession.  Our life and image are not our own, so if the coin that belongs to the emperor should be given back to him, how much more should our lives be given back to God?

If Jesus was counseling respect for the state in the first part of verse 21 then he is limiting our allegiance to the state in the second half.  The state, however, often seeks more of us and from us then it is right for us to give.  As Christians, our total and complete allegiance belongs to God.  There have been and will be times, like Hitler’s Germany, where the state grossly overreaches itself in regards to our allegiance.  Bruner remarks that, “The state becomes demonic in the measure that it asks for itself ‘the things of God,” such as total commitment, unconditional obedience, or uncriticizing allegiance (e.g., ‘America!  Love It or Leave It’).”[6]  When we are tempted to be Americans who happen to be Christians, rather than Christians who happen to be Americans, Christ gently calls us to give back “to God the things that are God’s.”  A country need not call us to participate in or condone mass genocide to become demonic.   

The coalition of Herodians and the disciples of the Pharisees are amazed by Jesus’ response, so they walk away.    
Important Terms:

Matthew tends to label the religious leaders as Jesus’ opponents, whereas Mark emphasizes that Jesus’ opponents were both religious and political. What then is the significance of Matthew’s use of “the leaven of the Sadducees” in place of Mark’s “leaven of Herod,” or “the Herodians”? Some have speculated that the Herodians were a political party composed principally of Sadducees. Some have identified them with the Sadducees, and others with the Boethusians, whose name more often than not was used interchangeably with that of the Sadducees. The Boethusians and the Sadducees were indistinguishable theologically, but the Sadducees were loyal to the Hasmonean dynasty, whereas the Boethusians were attached to the Herodian house and consequently were called the Herodians. Thus the Herodians had political affiliations with the Herodian house and religious affiliations with the Sadducees. Along with the Sadducees, the Herodians were men of influence—the aristocrats of Palestine.

Nevertheless during Jesus’ time the political differences between the Herodians and the Sadducees were not as distinct because of the marriage of the Herodian Herod Antipas to the Hasmonean Herodias. The Herodians and the Sadducees would have been on the same side politically against the Pharisees, the former being pro-government while the Pharisees were both anti-Hasmonean and anti-Herodian. Congruent with this, Matthew 16:12 and Mark 8:15 represent the Pharisees and the Sadducees/Herodians as contrary parties opposing Jesus.

In summary, the Herodians were also known as the Boethusians. Theologically they were in agreement with the Sadducees, but politically they were more pro-Herodian than the Sadducees. While the Pharisees looked for a cataclysmic messianic kingdom to remove the present Herodian rule, the Herodians worked to keep Herod’s dynasty in power.[7]

So What?
There is a tension in the coalition’s question that is real for us today.  What is our proper relation the country in which we live?  There is no doubt that America is a great country, and we should all be grateful for everything we have because we are citizens of this land.  We are blessed, often beyond our own ability to recognize.  Rightly so, our country requires something of us in exchange for all of those great gifts.  We must pay for the roads, bridges, utilities, police, fire protection and ambulance services.  It is appropriate for us to pay for those things.  It is also appropriate to participate in our country’s political process.   

Yet, often our country asks of us even greater things.  Our country often asks us to be loyal to it above any other loyalties.  We are to be Americans before we are anything else.  The American way of life is taught to us as something that is sacred.  The reality is that there is nothing sacred about the American way of life.  When we go all in, allowing our national identity to shape us more than anything else, we fail to give back to God what is his. 

This tension between giving to America what is America’s and giving to God what belongs to God is not new, and it will not go away overnight.  It’s a complex issue that requires our collective dialogue about what it means to be Christians who live in America.  What is appropriate to give to America?  How do we faithfully live as Christians in this country?  We must deal with these questions because the alternatives are not helpful.  If we fail to grapple with these questions well, we will either end up giving our complete allegiance to our country, like some of the German churches did during the time of Hitler, or we shrink away from the world and go into isolation, seeking to not be contaminated by the world.  Choosing either extreme will cause us to live unfaithfully in a world where God has called us to be salt and light. 

Our place in this world must be one of careful and thoughtful engagement with the powers that be.  At the same time, we must constantly recognize that because we are created in the image of God we belong to God and must give the entirety of who we are back to God.         

Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?   
a.     God is not interested in giving black and white answers that do not take into consideration our complex context.  God will not be trapped.  Rather, God will give us a way to live faithfully in the complex mess that is our world.   

  1. What does holiness look like in this text?
    1. For us, I think holiness looks like finding a way to live at peace with and fully emerged in our world while at the same time living faithful lives to God.     

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. We must find ways to be faithfully engaged in the political life of our country while faithfully giving our due to God.  This requires that we constantly ask our selves important questions regarding what it means to be a Christian in America. 

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     The Herodians were a group of leaders who were loyal to the pro-Roman government.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, were anti-Roman occupation that hoped for a messiah who would rid Israel of the Romans.  Why would these two groups get together to question Jesus?
2.     The Herodians and Pharisees who question Jesus begin by saying really nice things about him.  Why would they begin this way?
3.     Why might the question of taxation be a subject of interest to the Herodians and the Pharisees? 
4.     Why does Jesus want to know whose head is on the denarius?  Keep in mind that the Romans encouraged emperor worship. 
5.     Jesus tells the group to give back to the emperor the things that are his and to God the things that are God’s.  What does Jesus mean by this? 
6.     Jesus seems to be suggesting that we find a balance between our involvement with and commitment to the government and our allegiance to God.  How might we successfully participate in our country while at the same time giving everything that is God’s to God?
7.     Where does your supreme allegiance lie?   

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 397.
[2] Ibid., 398.
[3] Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999) 525.
[4] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 574.
[5] Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected Out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew, ed. John Henry Newman, vol. 1 (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841), 751.
[6] Bruner, Matthew, 400.
[7] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 972–973.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Matthew 22:1-14 – The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

Lesson Focus:
It is not enough to merely respond to the invitation of God’s salvation; we must ensure that we are growing in grace and holiness.   

Catch up on the story:
Jesus is still in the Temple confronting the Jewish religious leaders of the day.  They have asked Jesus questions that challenge his authority to teach and preach.  In many ways, they are challenging Jesus' claim that he is the Son of God.  Jesus, by way of response, launches into a set of three parables, all of which are connected thematically.  The first parable was the parable of the two sons.  One son is asked to go and work in the field.  He says that he will but then doesn't go.  The next son says he won't go, but then does.  The second son is the faithful one.  The Jewish religious leaders are like the first son. 

The second parable is about a landowner who buys some land and plants a vineyard.  He hires some farmers to work the land for him and then goes away.  When harvest time comes, the owner sends a servant to collect the fruit.  The farmers mistreat the servant and kill other servants that are sent.  Finally, the owner sends his own son thinking that he would be respected.  The farmers kill the son too.  Jesus asks the religious leaders what the owner will do when he comes back to his vineyard.  The religious leaders pronounce judgment on themselves by saying that the owner will do away with those wicked servants and will give the land to others who will bring forth the fruit when it is harvest time.

This final parable, the parable of the wedding banquet, shares similar themes and outcomes with the previous two parables.      

The Text:
Before we begin it would probably be best to keep in mind that this parable is most likely intended to be an allegory representing the history of God’s working of salvation for Israel and the world.  As such, some of the details will strain its credibility as a story of something that actually happened.  For instance, it would seem preposterous for a king to wage a war on his own people all the while keeping the food warm for a wedding banquet.  In a sense, though, this story really did and is happening for Israel and for us.  The table is set, the food is prepared and we are invited.  How will we respond? 

Once again, Jesus begins this parable with the familiar phase, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to..."  Remember, when we see this phrase Jesus is making comparisons between a known world and rule to living in the reign of God.  In other words, Jesus is painting a picture of life as it should and will be when Jesus' kingdom is fully established.  

To what is Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven this time?  The kingdom of heaven is compared to a king who had a son who was getting married.  The king planned to hold a great feast to celebrate this joyous occasion.            

Two things need to be noted here.  In the previous parable the son in the story was obviously Jesus.  In this parable, Jesus will once again be making a case for his sonship.  God is his Father and he is the Son, the messiah for which Israel has been waiting.  Which leads us to the second thing that needs to be noted, the image of the wedding banquet was a common image in Jewish thought.  It became the dominant image for the time when the messiah would come and finally establish his kingdom fully and completely in Israel.  Israel would live in perfect unity and harmony with God forever, always feasting at his table.  The image maintains a prominent place in Christian theology moving forward.  The messianic wedding banquet will occur when Christ has returned and has gathered his followers for eternity.  Those who have not responded to the invitation, or have not properly prepared themselves for the banquet will be left out. 

So, the day of the banquet came and the king sent out his servants to call in those who had been invited to the banquet.  It was common, in this time, for two invitations to be sent.  A first invitation was sent to let guests know that a banquet was being thrown.  It would have not have included a specific time for the event, rather it was a general call to be ready when the time came.  Then, when the time had come, when all of the food was ready and the table had been set, a second invitation would be made.  Guests would be summoned to respond to the initial call because the time for the party had come.[1]

The guests in this parable are obviously Israel and her religious leaders.  Israel has been called to be God's people, to join God in the time of fulfillment when the world would be restored to all that it was created to be and there would be abundance, peace, joy and celebration forever.  Israel had accepted the general call.  "Yes, we will be ready when it comes time for the party!"  This initial call works not just for Israel, but also for those of us in the church.  We have been issued an invitation of our own to God's end time banquet.  As the church, we have responded that, yes we will be ready to join the party when it begins.  In some sense, with the coming of Jesus the messianic wedding banquet has begun.  Jesus is ushering in the kingdom of heaven and he is calling Israel and us to the party.    

The first set of servants goes out.  They are met, not with a joyous reception from those who have been called but with excuses.  In verse three, the phrase, "but they would not come" is in the imperfect tense, conveying repeated and continual rejection of the invitation.[2]  The first servants were persistent, but to no avail. 

The servants come back and report that those who have been called are not willing to respond.  So, the king instructs his servants to tell his guests that everything is ready and the time is now.  The food is on the table and the party is beginning!  The second batch of servants met with no greater success than the first.  In fact, this time the called guests made fun of the situation and provided more excuses.  It’s important to note that these excuses were legitimate activities.  They were not refusing to come to the banquet to engage in shady or immoral activities.  Some of the servants met worse fates than being rejected; some of them were beaten and killed.      

As with the previous parable, the king in this parable exercises great patience by offering multiple invitations.  If Israel and her religious leaders are the guests in this parable, what emerges is a picture of God's faithfulness to Israel even after repeated rejections of God's invitation.  Many of Matthew's first readers would have been familiar with Israel's history, especially the history of the prophets. 

While Matthew continues to paint a picture of God's patience and faithfulness, even to those who reject him, he also warns us of the reality of God's judgment.  While God's forgiveness and grace are unimaginable (The parable of the Merciful Master, Matthew 18) there comes a time when the call must be either finally and fully accepted or rejected.  For Israel and her religious leaders that time has come.  Jesus is issuing the invitation now: the time has come, the food is ready, the table is set. 

When the king in the parable learns that his servants have been mistreated and some even killed he reacts with judgment.  He sends his army into the streets to bring justice to those who killed his servants.  The murders are dealt with and the city is burned.  Some commentators believe that this is a reference to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.  Others think it is merely a part of the story with no correspondence outside the story itself.  Although, it might have been impossible for the readers of Matthew’s gospel who lived after 70 CE to not see in this statement the destruction of Jerusalem.     

I think a word of warning is due at this point.  Our sense of justice almost always desires that those who are evil or unfaithful deserve their judgment here and now.  We call for justice, which often looks like revenge.  The point, in this parable and the previous one, is that God exercises great restraint, continually pursuing those who reject him.  Judgment finally comes when the time is right and wicked have finally and fully rejected God's invitation.  The judgment often takes the form of self-destruction. After repeated rejections of God, Israel brought destruction upon themselves (in the Babylonian exile).   God is always seeking out and pursuing those who reject him. 

The king in the parable is not done calling or inviting those who would respond to his wedding banquet.  He gathers his remaining servants and, once again, reiterates that everything is ready.  The time is now, the food is ready and the table is set.  The servants are to go out into the streets to invite anyone they can find.  The stress here is on the “anyone.”

So the servants make their way out into the city streets, even leaving the city to invite the poor and outcast that live outside of the city.  The good and the bad were invited and all sorts of people responded to the invitation.  The wedding banquet hall is finally filled. 

As with the previous parable of the vineyard, Israel's religious leaders are found unworthy and left on the outside.  In the parable of the vineyard, the land is given to another people who will faithfully bring the fruit to the owner.  In this parable, however, while Israel is left on the outside, the summons is to anyone who will respond, the good and the bad alike.  This points to the mixed nature of the church for Matthew.  Israel has not been completely rejected, only those, like the religious leaders, who fail to properly respond to the invitation, will be rejected.  For Matthew, the church and the kingdom of heaven will be filled with Jews and Gentiles alike. 

Jesus could have stopped the story right here.  It would be enough good news to know that God relentlessly pursues those whom he calls even when they reject him.  It would be enough good news to know that the invitation to participate in God's kingdom is extended to everyone.  But the parable raises another question, one for Israel's leaders and for us as the church today.  What does it mean to respond to God's invitation now that the time has come?

The king is now mingling with his guests, rejoicing in the fact that so many responded to his invitation.  He looks across the room and sees a man who is not properly dressed for the occasion.  The king wanders over to the man and asks him how he got in without being properly dressed.  The man is speechless in the face of this question.  The king, seeing that the man has no response, has his servants bind the man and throw him out of the party into the darkness.

Jesus ends the parable with a warning, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  We need not have a conversation here about predestination, the understanding that God chooses who is able to respond, electing some to an eternity with him.  The inclusive nature of the parable will not allow that kind of reading of Jesus’ final saying.  Rather, the point of the parable stresses the response of those who have been called.  All have been called, only some have responded in an appropriate way. 

This one that the king has thrown out into the streets, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, has not properly responded to the king’s call.  Sure, he has come to the party, but he has not made himself presentable.  Much could be said about the nature of the “wedding robe” mentioned in verses 11 and 12.  The wedding robe represents the inner and outer transformation of those who have been called and invited to participate in God’s kingdom.

At the heart of our Wesleyan theology is that we cannot be saved apart from God’s grace (the invitation and call).  At the same time, God’s grace will not save us without our “grace empowered, but uncoerced” participation.[3] In other words the wedding robe that we can choose to put on is our Spirit-guided growth in holiness.  To try and put it plainly, the man in the parable had accepted God’s salvation but refused to grow in the likeness of Christ.

So What?
Israel’s religious leaders had accepted the initial call but were not interested when the second invitation came.  Their own understanding of what it meant to be a recipient and participant with God and his kingdom had blinded them.  Jesus clearly states that they were given many chances to respond.  As the parable ends, it is clear that some did respond to the final invitation but had not allowed themselves to be properly transformed so as to be prepared for participation in God’s kingdom.

The warning in Jesus parable stands for us as well.  We have heard and responded to Christ’s initial call of salvation.  We have received God’s grace and have promised that we will be ready when the second and final invitation comes.  It’s easy, I believe, to not press forward in our growth and transformation into the image of Christ.  We get complacent.  We’ve said a prayer, perhaps we even read our bible, but we have not sufficiently made ourselves available to the Spirit’s attempts to transform us.  Or, worse yet, we have felt the nudges, some subtle and some not so subtle, but have not exercised the self-discipline necessary to cooperate with the Spirit’s work in our lives. 

The work of being a Christian is hard.  We do not work to earn our salvation, but we do need to work to ensure that we are properly dressed for the wedding.  Or, perhaps to change the image a bit, as the Apostle Paul says, “So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”  (1 Corinthians 9:27-28)  May we, after responding to the initial call and invitation of Christ, allow the Spirit to empower us to do the hard work of growing in holiness and Christ likeness. 
Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
a.     God is gracious and persistent in his calling of us.  The nature of God’s kingdom is inclusive, calling all those who would respond to dine with him for all of eternity. 
b.     At the same time God is gracious and persistent, God desires that we properly respond with our lives and actions to the call we have received.  It is not enough to merely show up to the party, we must be rightly dressed in holiness.   

  1. What does holiness look like in this text?
    1. Holiness is hard work.  We embark on the way of holiness with the power of the Spirit.  We are urged to love God with all our heart and all our strength all the while loving our neighbor as ourselves.    

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. We are called to be persons who don’t understand Christianity as something that is static.  We are not done when receive salvation.  We are called to seek holiness through the power of Spirit.   

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Who is the king in the parable?  Who are the initial wedding guests?  Who are the servants?  Who are the guests who actually respond to the invitation? 
2.     Why do the initial guests refuse to come to the wedding?  Why does the king say they are “not worthy” (v. 8) to attend the party?   
3.     Why is it important that both the good and the bad get invited? 
4.     In verse 11, the king notices a man at the banquet who was not properly dressed.  Why does the king throw him out of the party?  Can he be blamed for not being properly dressed? 
5.     Since the man needed a wedding robe to attend the party, what do you think the wedding robe represents? 
6.     Jesus ends the parable with this warning, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  What do you think this means?
7.     As a church, do you think we belong to the first group of invitees?  Do we belong to the second set?  How do we ensure that we are properly dressed for God’s end time wedding banquet?

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 386.
[2] Donald A Hagner, Matthew. 14-28, (Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1995), 629.
[3] Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville, Tenn: Kingswood Books, 1994), 19.