Matthew 21:1-11

January 9, 2018

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Matthew 21:1-11

Jesus lived in the day when social media consisted of village gossip. People talked. Word spread. Life was like a giant game of post office, tall tales abounded. It is safe to say that many more people had heard of Jesus than had actually seen him. It was an exciting day when word spread that someone had heard that Jesus was coming to town. It was time for a parade.

The controversy this year in college football had to do with who gets to claim credit for winning the national championship. Officially, the champion is the University of Alabama. They beat the University of Georgia and ended the year with a record of 13-1. Unofficially, according to themselves, the University of Central Florida say they are the rightful champion. They were the only team to go undefeated, 13-0, and they beat Auburn (which had previously defeated both Georgia and Alabama.) UCF even had a big parade through Orlando to celebrate “their” championship.

What is it with parades? Turns out it was a very “Roman” thing to do. Whenever a victorious commander returned to town there was no greater honor than to celebrate with a “triumph.” Part civil ritual, part religious festival, its ultimate pay-off was an increase in honor and glory for the leader of the victory. Caesar would lead the parade – consisting of his troops, the slaves he had captured, and the various spoils of war. It was a BIG deal. A triumph would go on for days at great expense as everyone so honored sought to “out-parade” all of those who had gone before.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was an anti-triumph. He rode in on a donkey, not a great white war horse or a chariot pulled by four horses. No captives. No spoils. Just a crowd of hopeful, nosy, and ultimately fickle people.

So who is the real champion? Jesus and his anti-triumph or the Roman Emperor and his glorious pomp, circumstance, and power? The crowd would soon make its choice.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, your entry into Jerusalem was a surprise to everyone. The crowds greeted you with cheers. Maybe their expectations were the same as ours – that you would make everything better in their lives. They didn’t realize that your work was to make them better and, through them, to make life better for all. They didn’t understand what winning would look like for you. Change our hearts that we might stick with you long after the parade is over. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Matthew 20:29-34

January 8, 2018

As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!”

 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”

Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him. Matthew 20:29-34

Again I am reminded that the author of Matthew probably had a copy of the gospel according to Mark in front of him as he wrote…and Matthew, for his own purposes, sought to improve Mark. Here Matthew has two blind men waiting by the road for Jesus while in Mark (Mark 10:46-52) there is only one. The long-held theory here is that Matthew was very aware that Jewish custom required two or three witnesses as confirmation of the truth.

That might not seem all that important but, to me, it is. On two levels. First, it is always helpful to remember that real live human beings doing the best they could to further faith in Jesus wrote the gospels. They weren’t perfect. The gospels aren’t perfect. Jesus is perfect. The writers, like us, are witnesses to what they have heard about Jesus and what they have seen in his effects on the lives of people. The Jesus story is told in stereo.

And second, Matthew himself, following Mark, becomes a confirming witness. Soon Luke would follow, then John. They would all be writing on the heels of the work of Paul and all of the other first century witnesses to the rise of the Christian movement. They would become a part of the great cloud of witnesses, stretching back to the first words put to paper and ahead to you and me. Most importantly, they spoke up. They didn’t keep the good news to themselves.

Two blind men are sitting on the side of the road. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” What did they have to lose? What other hope did they have? They heard that Jesus might be helpful to them and they weren’t going to let the opportunity to seek his help pass them by.

But the crowd around them – the crowd who could clearly see what was going on – sternly ordered them to be quiet. I wonder why. Why was the crowd bothered by their cries for help? Was it a Potemkin village moment – like cities clearing out the homeless ahead of a Super Bowl? Did they find the blind men to be an embarrassment to the dignity of dusty village of Jericho?

Why did the crowds shush the blind men? How did their pleas for help bother any of them? Was anyone else made blind by their cries? Did anyone in the crowd have anything to lose?

The story could read differently. The whole crowd could have joined the witness of the two blind men. The whole crowd could have directed Jesus’ attention to their hopeless plight. But they didn’t. They sternly ordered them to be quiet. But Jesus heard them anyway.

He walked through the crowd, past the crowd, and healed the men’s blindness. Jesus asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?” and he honored their request.

Remember this story the next time you find yourself hot under the collar because of the voices you hear pleading for justice and healing and full inclusion in human community. Will you shush them or will you join the cloud of witnesses advocating for them? You don’t even have to wonder about what Jesus might do in the same situation.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you hear the cries of the helpless and you help. You hear the voices of those on the edge and you come to their cause. We hear those voices all around us – those who fear deportation, those caught in addiction, those frightened in their own neighborhoods of those who ought to help them. So many voices, many too afraid to speak up, others afraid of what might happen as they refuse to remain silent. Open our eyes. Heal our blindness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 20:20-28

January 5, 2018

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”

He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:20-28

Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots, will be 40 years old when he takes the field for their next playoff game. He is, by NFL standards, ancient. Yet he still plays as well as anyone has. Whenever he is asked how he does it he says that he has learned, over the years, how to take care of his body. He is fastidious about his exercise and stretching regimen, his diet, his sleep. Amazingly, I read a quote last week where he said “I’m never sore.”

A lot of players might want to be like Tom Brady, but are they willing to put in that kind of work? Are they willing to go to the same extreme lengths to prepare and be prepared?

We could ask that same kind of question about any pursuit in life. Excellence doesn’t just happen. Natural gifts are wonderful but they don’t move beyond possibilities without being honed and exercised and used.

James and John want to sit in positions of honor next to Jesus. Matthew softens their request by having their mother bring it to Jesus but it is still a mouthful. The other disciples are appalled. They were angry. Why? Because they thought the request was impertinent? Maybe they wanted the same thing but were shocked that James and John said it out loud? Either way, the surprise here is that Jesus doesn’t get angry. He just tells it like it is.

There will be a price to pay – and Jesus assures the disciples that they will pay it. The price, the cup, will be suffering the consequences of self-giving love in a self-serving world. It will be facing rejection, humiliation, even martyrdom. Not to seek glory, but to serve and to live in the best interests of others. To join Jesus as conductors on the Underground Railroad helping people escape from the slavery of their misguided pursuits to the freedom of life in the Kingdom of God. Dangerous but worth it.

This text challenges me. I know how easy it is to be complacent and comfortable as a Christian living in the air conditioned, padded pew, world of the church. And I know how it feels when I am pushed, or I push others, beyond our comfort zones of beliefs, values, or actions. Pushed toward a place where we serve rather than being served, where we give rather than being given to, where we sacrifice “what will it cost me if I do?” to “what will it cost others if I don’t?”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, like gravity, we are inclined to seek the easy way out of many things. We might want glory and honor – whatever that looks like in our place in the world – without realizing what it is that we are seeking or whether or not we are willing to do our part. Let it be enough today that we simply shoulder the burdens that life puts before us with grace, gratitude, and the willingness to be helpful. To serve others. To do our part. Let that be enough. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 20:17-19

January 4, 2018

While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” Matthew 20:17-19

Supposedly there are a few people in the world who, when reading a mystery novel, prefer to read the last chapter first. As much as I love reading mystery novels, I can’t imagine doing that. It would take all the fun out of it. Intrigue and suspense require not knowing, at least not knowing fully. But there is something different going on with Jesus’ own predictions of his death.

It isn’t just foreshadowing. They aren’t spoiler alerts. They pop up at three key moments. Each time, wedged between whatever happens before and after, they remind us anew that Jesus’ mission and purpose are unlike anything the world has seen before. His purpose, his determination, his own commitment, is the definition of self-sacrificing love. Jesus is God’s grace, in the flesh.

Eventually we will walk with Matthew through his description of Jesus’ last days. That will come in the last chapters. Now we are just in chapter 20. We’ve heard Jesus twice – in his comments on the rich and in his parable of the generous landowner – use the phrase “the last will be first and the first last.” That enigmatic phrase hints that something different, something unsettling, is going on. It is about reversals, of expectations, of roles and rules.

As Matthew brings us along on this journey with Jesus and his disciples we come to these moments, these personal moments, where Jesus shares insider information. As we read his words, we join him as insiders. We know what is going on. We know what to expect. This new now hangs in the back of our own minds.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermons were peppered with stories and allusions that he used again and again and again. As wonderful as his words were, they weren’t always originally his. He drew from the deep well of many prophetic preachers before him. People he admired. People he emulated. People who shaped him. Thus, when he said things like “I’ve been to the mountaintop. I’ve seen the other side. I may not get there with you but you’ll get there” he wasn’t so much predicting his own death as he was taking his place in the sea of witnesses that stretched back through the preachers of his education and childhood, through Jesus to Moses.

Every great leader in history has died. Even those, perhaps especially those, who have battled the currents of culture in the cause of justice. But only Jesus rose from the dead. Only Jesus would be the living embodiment, the ultimate vindication, of God’s loving will and purpose for humanity. History is full of men and women worthy of our admiration. Jesus alone is our Lord and Savior.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we know the story. We have known the story a long time. But still it shocks and surprises us. Every time. To hear again of your commitment and courage, your steadfast persistence in the face of all we consider to be earthly powers. To hear again the story of the rejection and cruelty you endured. Why? Because you love us. You want us to see again what real love really looks like. As we share your journey you shape our lives, transforming us from the inside out, that we might be reflections of your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 20:1-16

January 3, 2018

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:1-16

I don’t know about everywhere else but I know that in a city like Houston it is easy to find day laborers. Home Depot parking lots are just about automatic. Gas stations in other parts of town. Every day they are there. It is hard for me to see them late in the afternoon. Hard to imagine anyone heading home empty handed. From their point of view, the owner of the vineyard was a great boss.

Well…except for those who worked all day and expected a bonus.

We still haven’t hired a contractor to rebuild my daughter’s house after Harvey. The hurricane is still very real to her as her home sits reduced to 2×4’s and concrete. I talked to a friend of mine who is in the business. He told me he couldn’t estimate the cost because he has no control over the costs of labor or supplies. Everything is more expensive. He said, “I used to pay $120 a day for a guy to hang sheetrock; now they won’t touch it for less than $500.” So there you go. You can’t blame them. Supply and demand. The invisible hand at work.

My sense is that the original hearers of this parable also first heard it from the point of view of eking out a living one daily job at a time. Working for bosses who may or may not pay them. Working without any recourse or protection. Hanging on to life by a thread.

And then came the wonder at the deeper meaning of the story. That God is a generous landowner, paying not what we are owed but always providing what we need. That God’s economy of love and justice seems so backward, so upside down, compared to the way the “real” world really works.

Except…even when it comes to running a business, treating employees with justice works out better over the long haul than using and abusing people like pawns whose only value is making a buck.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, everything we have, everything we are, everything we need, comes from you. You plant us in a garden of abundance. You give us enough. Yet we want more. We create a myth of scarcity without realizing how much that costs everyone. Help us trust your love today, one day at a time, and open our hearts to those who barely get by. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 19:23-30

January 2, 2018

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”

 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. Matthew 19:23-30

Let’s ask the question directly – does Jesus have something against rich people?

In today’s text Jesus says “it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven…” That sounds harsh in the ears of those of us who never worry about having enough money to buy groceries. It even sounded harsh to Jesus’ own disciples. They were “greatly astounded” to hear it. Yes, I have heard this comment explained away with a reference to the “needle gate” into the old city of Jerusalem. Hogwash. This comment sounds harsh in our ears – like Jesus telling the rich young man to give everything away and then come follow him – because it is supposed to sound harsh!

It isn’t that Jesus has something against rich people – it IS about Jesus having his finger on the pulse of how we think about life, about what we value and admire, about our wishes and dreams, IF we choose to leave God out of the equation.

Many people have pointed out what is commonly called Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. That is clearly central to Jesus’ way of being in the world. He notices and addresses what the world dismisses and discounts. Jesus’ value system is different than the cultural norms of those who equate financial security with success and God’s favor. Jesus would agree that is it the love of money, not money itself, that is the root of all evil. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus has a thing against rich people.

Yes, Jesus shocked his disciples with his comment that it will be hard for a rich person to live in the kingdom of heaven (a healthy relationship with God that begins now and continues into life after death) but he never said that such a relationship would be easy for a poor person.

At the end of the day, it isn’t about what we have but about what we do with what we have. Healthy stewardship of our lives isn’t about giving 10% of our income to charity because we are rich and we can, it is about devoting 100% of our lives to doing the next right thing in every area of our lives. God doesn’t create equality, God creates diversity. Yet God does call us to justice and fairness. Doing the best we can for the common good, mindful of those on the edges and those left behind, is the essence of Christian discipleship in all areas of our lives.

This isn’t easy but it is possible. As long as we don’t leave God out of the equation of our lives. With God, all things are possible.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, as we begin a new year, help us begin from the solid foundation of finding our lives in you. You are our Lord, our standard, our measure. You light the path to a life worth living, a life of meaning and purpose, a life that makes the world a better place. Guide us through this new year, that we don’t get lost following dead ends and empty idols. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 19:16-22

December 21, 2017

Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.

”He said to him, “Which ones?”

 And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?”

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Matthew 19:16-22

Yesterday our Children’s Ministry Coordinator at church reported to me that some of our little ones in Mother’s Day Out have decidedly mixed feelings when it comes to Santa Claus. It seems that they are terrified by him. Kind of like Kramer’s “I’m kinda afraid of clowns!” This is a problem because rumor has it that Santa will be visiting all of the classrooms on Friday. I trust they will handle it with care.

People might actually be more like that with Jesus than they care to admit. Some might find him scary.

We’re just days away from Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Ever since that song was written, pastors have drawn the distinction between the free grace of Jesus and the deed counting of Santa Claus. Children have internalized the lyrics. Parents have used it as the ultimate carrot for good behavior in this crazy time of year. You better watch out!

The young man in today’s text has been blessed to be living an “it is ALWAYS Christmas” kind of life. He has been a good boy his whole life. And he has plenty of possessions. He’s living the dream. But still something is missing.

It is a bit disorienting, isn’t it, when you think you have it all only to discover that you know you are missing something?

He wants one more thing. One more thing that might make his life complete. He wants to know, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

Jesus offers the classic answer to a world that sings “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” every Christmas. Keep the commandments. But then Jesus takes it one step further. What the young man seeks won’t be founding by accumulating more but by surrendering what is most valuable to him. Jesus says he will win by losing.

Some people are afraid of Jesus precisely because of this. He asks them to do what they are not willing to do. To give up what they don’t want to give up. To turn toward the very people they wish to avoid. Some people are also afraid of Santa Claus.

Let it go.

Let us pray:  Dear Jesus, we are such a score-keeping kind of people. Winning and losing, getting and keeping, such ideas fill our imaginations and drive our behaviors. We feel such kinship with this young man, both because we want the best in this life and the life to come and because we are burdened with so much. Help us loosen our grip on this life and these things and be far more mindful, and willing to act on behalf of, those who have so little. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 19:13-15

December 20, 2017

Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way. Matthew 19:13-15

I opened the newspaper this morning to read that Archbishop Bernard Francis Law, the former leader of the Boston diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, has died. While he did many noteworthy things in his long service to the church, he will always be remembered for his role in covering up the rampant abuse of children that had occurred, and been covered up, for years. Such abuse was a nightmare for the victims and their parents, and a dark stain on the church that will never be removed. The best we can do is learn from it and be vigilant that it never happens again.

But it will.

Despite the obvious priority and concern that Jesus demonstrated toward children, they will always be vulnerable to the big people in their lives. They will ever remain largely powerless in the grander scheme of things. By definition, they are dependent on others to make decisions and take actions in their best interests.

Two of my grandchildren and my daughter currently live with Kelley and I. They lost everything in the flood this year. Their home remains stripped to the bone, still waiting for the right contractor to start the rebuilding process. They came home last night to see the presents that my daughter had bought and carefully wrapped for them under the tree. They noticed them immediately and we got to hear those first squeals of delight that children bring to Christmas. It is easy for me to imagine Jesus scooping them up into his arms, assuring them that everything will be OK in time.

The strange thing about this text today is the reminder that the disciples “spoke sternly” to the adults who brought their children to Jesus for prayer. Can you picture that scene in your mind? Jesus’ handlers, his closest advisors, didn’t want him to be bothered with children. Why waste his time with children when there were far more pressing concerns…or so they thought. Jesus put children first and so ought we.

Many in our country are celebrating a decision to change our federal tax policies. Those supporting the decision are congratulating themselves for the courage to cut tax rates for corporations and individuals. Others point out that this will lead to greater spending deficits and another massive increase in the federal debt. Why mention it now? Because decisions like this defer the consequences of debt to our grandchildren and their grandchildren’s grandchildren. Children who need schools, health care, and public safety now and always.

When Jesus hoisted those children unto his knee with the words “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” his actions were a visible threat to all of the older people who were the first to say that things “belong” to them. The disciples who thought that Jesus belonged to them. The rich who think that everything they have “belongs” to them. The powerful who think that they can do whatever they can get away with because their power “belongs” to them.

Let the children among us remind us: Nothing belongs to us. We are caretakers of creation. We are stewards of the gifts of God. Always. In all things. “Is this going to be a good thing for children?” remains a central question in that stewardship.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for every opportunity you give to us to take good care of children. To provide what they need, to teach them what they need to know, to channel their energy and curiosity toward good ends. Thank you for loving the adults who brought their children to you by caring for their children in safe and holy ways. Give us that child-like faith that protects us from childish actions and ideas. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 19:1-12

December 19, 2017

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he cured them there.

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” Matthew 19:1-12

Don’t miss the technicality in this text. “Technical” seems such a clean and innocent word. In this case, it is a word that hides the pain of male supremacy and female subjugation. The Pharisees are right. All the ancient law required for the dissolution of a marriage was a man kicking a woman out of his tent. For any reason at all. If he didn’t like her cooking….gone. If he wanted some different wives….gone. If he was tired of feeding her…gone. Just like that. With no recourse for the woman at all. One day she is living under the thumb of her husband and the next she is homeless, hoping a family member might take her in lest she end up begging for food or selling her body.

Read the rule yourself from Deuteronomy 24, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house…”

Clearly Jesus sees more to marriage than a man’s pleasure and a woman’s utter vulnerability. Yet the Pharisees express surprise. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that marriage be viewed from the point of view of God, let alone women…or children!

We should also note that Matthew, here copying from Mark 10:2-12, adds a little loophole, “except for unchastity,” which was not part of what Jesus taught there…and still it assumes that only a husband can divorce a wife.

What do we make of this? From the beginning there has been recognition of the social and emotional value of exclusive relationships protected by the legal and communal bonds of marriage. Marriage has taken on many forms but it is at the heart of every culture. That is ancient. What is modern is carrying the concept of justice into both marriage and divorce, including justice for all parties involved – the marriage partners, and their children. Like so many things, it might not be good but it isn’t as bad as it used to be.

This is a painful text. It is always painful. It is particularly painful when this text pops up so close to Christmas. For anyone who has experienced divorce – the leaver, the left, the children whose lives have been so disrupted – life brings many opportunities to relive the pain of the strands of life being slowly cut, fiber by fiber. It happens. It is hard. But life goes on. It can get better.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, divorce is a harsh reality of life. Relationships end. Whatever the reason, whatever the circumstances, divorce brings a big gulp of the brokenness of life. We pray today for those who have experienced divorced, those now caught up in the process, and especially the innocent children who don’t understand. This Christmas season we pray for moments of peace, for hope, help, and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 18:21-35

December 13, 2017

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.

But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.

When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Matthew 18:21-35

”Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” What do we make of these words? No one would think to carry around a special sin counting calculator – “That’s 78, no more forgiveness for you!” Or maybe they would. So Jesus backs up his words with a story.

His story puts flesh on the bones of the widely shared guide to loving our neighbors, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The obvious point of the story is that we, having been fully and mercifully forgiven by God, ought to therefore fully forgive our neighbors. Not to earn God’s favor but as our response to it. As the writer of 1 John would later put it, “We love, because God first loved us.

Forgiveness is God’s answer to sin. From the cross Jesus would later say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those are haunting words to me. I hear them and it strikes me that, on at least one level, those who crucified Jesus and those who taunted him in his misery, knew exactly what they were doing. They might not have fully known or accepted who he was. They might have misunderstood his mission in life. But this was not the first rodeo for those who drove the nails in. Crucifixion was not an unknown way for people to die. Yet the crowds still gathered, like the picnicking crowds at a lynching.

What if they had known? Would they have still treated Jesus to such a violent death? Maybe not. Maybe they might have known better. Maybe they would have treated Jesus better.

Perhaps this is the key to understanding Jesus’ call to a life of meeting sin with forgiveness. For Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, would have us see him in the face of every person whom Jesus loves and forgives. Matthew will later tell us, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

We come at life from a place of forgiveness as our response to God’s forgiveness of us. And we come at life from a place of forgiveness because we recognize Jesus in the face of our neighbor. Now we know.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we sin against our neighbor through what we do and through what we fail to do. Our sin sometimes drives us to blaming and victimizing others. Sometimes we internalize it in shame and self loathing. Always we stand before a wide open door that promises healing and relief – to forgive as we have been forgiven. To forgive others and to allow the good news of your forgiveness to sink in deeply and heal us from the inside out. May this be healing balm in our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.