Twenty first Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, 25th October 2020

What is the greatest commandment and how do we make sense of it?  The Gospel passage for this week is from Matthew’s Gospel and verses 34 to 40 of chapter 22 where we have these words:

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

This passage in Matthew’s Gospel suggests that the expert in the law (a Scribe or Pharisee and not a Sadducee) uses this question to test Jesus but in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 12:28-34) the tone is different and the Scribe or Pharisee seems to be on Jesus’ side in opposition to the Sadducees.  Be that as it may, this passage outlines the basis of all faith.  The Christian is called, above all else, to love God.  Everything flows from this.  Proof of our love of God will also be made manifest in how we treat God’s creation and particularly our fellow humans – who are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26,27).  If we really love God, we would love who God loves – humanity.  Also, if we really love God, we would love those entities who reflect what God is like – namely humans.  Note, we are called to love God first.  It is in only loving God first that we can fully love humans.  Without God, humans may be seen as selfish and beyond improvement.  That is, without God humans become un-lovable.  With God, love of humanity is not only possible but it is also the second of the two greatest commandments.

Old Testament reading for this week: Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 22:34-46

Epistle reading for this week: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Psalm for this week: Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, 18th October 2020

Is it ever right to go against the law of the land?  The established church has traditionally sided with the State throughout its history.  Is this always right?  The Gospel reading this week is the account of the trick question put to Jesus by the religious leaders about paying taxes to Caesar.

Up to this point Jesus has been attacking the Jewish leaders (the parable of the two sons, the parable of the tenants and the parable of the wedding banquet) so it was natural to expect retaliation from the religious authorities.  This counterattack comes in the form of a carefully framed question designed to discredit Jesus.  Let us be clear, that is all it was – there was no theological interest.  Interestingly the religious leaders were so determined to destroy Jesus that they sided with the Herodians (supporters of the Roman puppet king, king Herod).  Normally these two groups would fight against each other (religious versus secular) but they were united when it came to trying to get rid of Jesus.  There was a whole raft of legalistic and political meaning in this question with which we may be unaware.  For example, if Matthew’s Gospel was written after the destruction of the Temple in AD70, then the Temple tax would no longer go towards the Temple in Jerusalem but, by decree of Caesar, to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome.  You can imagine therefore how much Roman taxes were despised.  However, Jesus is wise.  Jesus seldom laid down rules and regulations which would have only been relevant to a specific context but, rather, he lays down principles.  That is why Jesus’ teaching is not out of date.  What does Jesus tell us?  Basically, every Christian person has a double citizenship.  Firstly, she or he is a citizen of the country where live.  A Christian should pay taxes, uphold the law, and contribute to the prosperity of the State.  She or he must be a good citizen who is fully immersed in the administration of that country – rather than leave it all to irreligious people.  The Christian must ‘give to Caesar’ in return for the privileges of communal education, health, transport, social security, defence etc.  However, secondly, the Christian is also a citizen of heaven.  There will be matters of conscience and principle where the Christian is accountable to God.

Is it right to go against the law of the land?  For many of us, the two citizenships above may never clash.  What the State decrees is in line with the Gospel.  Where there is a clash, the Christian should, as always, put God first.  Where does the boundary lie?  Jesus does not say but, rather, leaves it to the personal conscience of the individual Christian.

Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 33:12-23

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 22:15-22

Epistle reading for this week: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Psalm for this week: Psalm 99

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, 11th October 2020

Do we truly appreciate what God is offering us? The Gospel passage assigned to this week is parable of the wedding banquet recorded in Matthew’s Gospel.

The meaning of this parable is very similar to that of the parable of the tenants which has already been covered last week.  That is, it had a very specific meaning for a specific group of people at the time.  The guests who were invited to the wedding banquet were the Jews.  At the beginning of the Bible, the Jews were set aside as God’s chosen people (for the feast).  Then Jesus’ arrival marked the time when the preparations were finally ready.  Yet, even though they received this early warning they contemptuously refused the final invitation.  The result was that the invitation of God went out to others in the highways and byways or on ‘the street corners’ (these were the sinners and the Gentiles).  Verse 7 seems strangely out of place.  To have your city burnt because you refused a wedding invitation may seem harsh.  However, if Matthew was writing his Gospel after AD 70, he would have witnessed the brutal destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army where people were murdered.  Perhaps if the Jewish nation had fully accepted Jesus and shown love, humility, and self-sacrifice to their Roman oppressors then their city would never have been attacked and burned in the first place.  In this literal sense, refusal of the invitation did indeed lead to murder and burning of the city.  But in addition to this specific message, there are at least 4 other, broader, messages of this passage.  Firstly, it reminds us that God’s invitation is a joyful celebration – just like a wedding.  Secondly, it reminds us that putting our livelihood and business first, although not bad in themselves, are not conducive to a full life.  A person can be so busy making a living that they forget to make a life.  Thirdly, while those who refused to come were punished, the real tragedy was greater than this.  The real tragedy was that they missed out on receiving the kingdom of God.  Finally, these 10 verses reinforce the fact that the invitation is an invitation of pure grace.  Those of us in the highways and byways or on the street corners did not deserve or even expect this glorious invitation; and yet we have it.

Do we truly appreciate what God is offering to us?  The answer is clearly no, but God offers it just the same.

Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 32:1-14

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 22:1-14

Epistle reading for this week: Philippians 4:1-9

Psalm for this week: Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, 4th October 2020

How well do we look after the things that God has entrusted to us? The Gospel passage assigned to this week is the famous ‘parable of the tenants’ or ‘tenants in the vineyard’ which Jesus told.

To the people who first heard this story, and especially the Jewish leaders, this ‘parable’ has so many points of reference and relevance to the religious situation at the time.  The vineyard is the nation of Israel (Isaiah 5:7).  The owner of the vineyard is God.  The cultivators are the religious leaders of Israel who were in charge of the fruit of God’s people.  The messengers who were sent successively are the prophets and the son who came last is none other than Jesus Himself.  In this one short story we have the whole history of the doom of Israel.  Let us go deeper and draw out other truths.  The parable tells us about the nature of God.  The owner of the vineyard trusted the cultivators.  God has given us freedom to carry out His work.  The owner of the vineyard was also exceedingly patient.  He sent messenger after messenger and therefore gave the cultivators every chance to change their ways.  But the owner of the vineyard does eventually exact judgement on the cultivators.  He takes the work away from them altogether.  This parable, or allegory, also has much to teach us about humanity.  It shows human privilege.  The vineyard was equipped with everything: a wall, a winepress, and a watchtower.  God has given us everything we need in order to do his work.  It shows human freedom.  The owner of the vineyard is no tyrannical master who demands instant results.  Sadly, the parable shows us the deliberate and calculating nature of human sin.  Finally, the parable also shows us that there is ultimately a day of reckoning.  In addition to showing us the nature of God and the nature of humanity, the parable also shows us the significance of Jesus.  The prophets preceded Jesus.  They were messengers from the owner whereas Jesus was the son of the owner.  Jesus was both greater than any who went before him and He was also unique.  The parable also signposts the sacrifice of Jesus.  Jesus went willingly, at the behest of the Father in order to sort out the situation of human sin.  The parable then concludes with the picture of a stone.  There are in fact, two pictures here.  The first one is simple, the stone the builders rejected turns out to be the most important (Psalm 118:22).  There is also a more difficult picture of a stone from the Old Testament.  Three passages are relevant: Isaiah 8:14,15; Isaiah 28:16, and Daniel 2:34,44,45.  The interpretation of this focuses on Jesus.  Jesus is not only the foundation on which everything else is built and not only the corner stone which holds everything together but also the one who will break the enemies of God.

Back to our question at the beginning.  How well do we steward God’s gifts and, of course, the greatest gift of all in Jesus?  To be cruel and calculating stewards has clear consequences.

Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 21:33-46

Epistle reading for this week: Philippians 3:4-14

Psalm for this week: Psalm 19

 

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, 27th September 2020

What does true faith look like?  In the Gospel passage assigned to this week, Jesus tells the parable of the two sons.  Here we have some beautifully clear teaching of Jesus with these words:  28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.  Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

What do we make of this?  Let us be clear, neither son is perfect.  Both are imperfect but the son who actually does something for the father is infinitely better.  In our lives we often come across ‘religious’ and pious people who are keen to show their religiosity but, in truth, do nothing to help the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised. We also come across those who seem to have no interest in church or religion whatsoever, they may even been discourteous and yet, when it comes to helping others in need they step up to the mark and make a difference.  Jesus says that although the second position is not perfect, it is still infinitely better than the first position.  For us, the challenge is to show courtesy and respect to the father, like the first son, but above all else, to actually do something about it in terms of fulfilling God’s work, like the second son did.

Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 17:1-7

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 21:23-32

Epistle reading for this week: Philippians 2:1-13

Psalm for this week: Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

 

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, 20th September 2020

What does grace look like?  The Gospel passage assigned for this day is Jesus’ parable of the labourers (or workers) in the vineyard:  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.”  The extraordinary thing about this parable is that the landowner paid everyone the same wage whether they had worked all day or just worked the last hour.  What does this tell us about God’s grace?

Like much of Jesus’ teaching, this parable may be viewed as having many layers of meaning.  Perhaps two, obvious, meanings would have met those who first heard it.  The parable may have served as a warning to the disciples.  Just because they have known Jesus for longer does not mean that they should look down on those who came to faith later.  The kingdom of God exists in equal measure for all people irrespective of how soon they come to faith.  Secondly, this parable may be viewed as a warning for the Jews and particularly the Jewish leaders.  Even though the Jews were God’s chosen people, they should not despise the Gentiles for ‘coming to the party late’.  However, this parable also speaks of the infinite compassion of God.  A denarius was the minimum needed for subsistence living.  These workers who were not hired at the start of the day, through no fault of their own, would nonetheless receive the minimum wage.  It was pure grace and it meant that the worker and his family could survive for another day.  Finally, it may be possible to uncover a layer of God’s preference for service without counting the cost.  The first workers who were hired negotiated a contract.  They worked for money only, and this was evident by the argument about pay differentials at the end of the day.  The workers hired at the end of the day asked for nothing, they were just grateful for a job.  Again, is this an insight into the kingdom of God.  We do not deserve God’s reward; we simply receive it as a gift of divine grace.

Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 16:2-15

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 20:1-16

Epistle reading for this week: Philippians 1:21-30

Psalm for this week: Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45