Lectionary Reflection for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Matthew (BTCB) by Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew 25:14-30:

No parable has been more misused than Jesus’s parable of the talents. Once any parable is abstracted from Jesus proclamation of the kingdom, once any parable is divorced from its apocalyptic context, misreading is inevitable.

Speculation begins, for example, about how much a talent might be or whether the master’s observation that the money could have been put in a bank might mean that Jesus approves of taking interest. Speculative uses of the parable have even been employed to justify economic practices that are antithetical to Jesus’s clear judgment that we cannot serve God and mammon.

Jesus is not using this parable to recommend that we should work hard, make all we can, to give all we can. Rather, the parable is a clear judgment against those who think they deserve what they have earned, as well as those who do not know how precious is the gift they have been given.

The slaves have not earned their five, two, and one talents. They have been given those talents. In the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1–9), Jesus had indicated that those called to the kingdom would produce different yields. Those differences should not be the basis for envy and jealousy, because our differences are gifts given in service to one another.

So are the talents given to the slaves of the man going on a journey. It is not unfair that the slaves were given different amounts. Rather, what is crucial is how they regarded what they had been given. Jesus makes clear in this parable that we can do only what we have been given.

 

©2006 by Stanley Hauerwas. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Matthew (BTCB) by Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew 25:1-13:

In order to introduce the parable of the ten bridesmaids, Jesus uses the familiar formula, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this,” only this time he says, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” “Then” signals that he is telling the disciples how they must learn to live in the light of his death and resurrection.

Ten bridesmaids took their lamps to wait for the bridegroom. Five were wise and took with them extra oil for their lamps. Five were foolish and did not prepare ahead. The bridegroom was delayed, and the bridesmaids understandably became drowsy and went to sleep.

But late in the night the shout went out: “Look! Here is the bridegroom!” The bridesmaids arose and trimmed their lamps, but the foolish bridesmaids’ lamps had run out of oil. They asked the five who had brought extra oil to share their oil but they were denied because if they shared their oil it would mean that none of them would have light by the time the bridegroom arrived.

The foolish bridesmaids went to buy extra oil, but by the time they returned the bridegroom had come, the wedding banquet had begun, and the door was shut. The bridesmaids asked that the door be opened, but the bridegroom refused, saying that he did not know them. Jesus admonishes the disciples that they should “keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The parable of the bridesmaids, therefore, is at once an invitation to a celebration and a judgment against those who are unprepared. The wise bridesmaids rightly celebrate with the delayed groom because they had prepared for a long night of waiting.

The bridegroom arrived at an unexpected time. The foolish bridesmaids failed to understand that in a time when you are unsure of the time you are in it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do. In the dark you must keep the lamps ready even if they are not able to overcome the darkness.

 

©2006 by Stanley Hauerwas. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Matthew (BTCB) by Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew 22:15-22:

[The Pharisees] ask Jesus whether he thinks it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. It is a clever question that is meant to put Jesus in an impossible position. If Jesus says that taxes should not be paid, it would make him a rebel against Rome. If he says that taxes should be paid, he will appear to be on the side of the Herodians, collaborators with Rome, and he will not be a credible prophet.

Jesus is not taken in by their flattery, not only recognizing them as hypocrites but naming them as such. He refuses to respond directly to their question but instead asks them to show the coin used for the tax. Rome, it seems, not only required a tax, but wanted the tax paid in Roman coinage.

Those who sought, like the devil, to entrap him brought the required coin to him. He asked them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered that it was the image of the emperor’s head. Jesus then told them that they should give to God the things that are God’s and to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s. When they heard this answer, they were amazed and left him.

Unfortunately, through much of Christian history, Christians have not been amazed by this answer. Rather, they have assumed that they know what Jesus meant when he said we are to give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s. It is assumed that Christians are a people of a double loyalty to God and the state. Christians are told that they should never let their loyalty to the state qualify their loyalty to God, but they never seem clear when and if such a conflict might actually happen.

Jesus requests the coin, minted to pay the tax, to be given to him. He does not possess the coin. He does not carry the coin, quite possibly because the coin carries the image of Caesar. Jesus’s question is meant to remind those who carry the coin of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exod. 20:4–5).

Jesus’s answer that the things of God are to be given to God and not to the emperor is a reminder to those who produced the coin that the very possession of the coin makes them idolaters. Jesus is not recommending in his response to the Pharisees that we learn to live with divided loyalties, but rather he is saying that all the idolatrous coins should be sent back to Caesar, where they belong.

Just as Jesus knows no distinction between politics and religion, neither does he know any distinction between politics, economics, and the worship of God. Those who have asked him whether they should pay taxes to the emperor are revealed to be the emperor’s faithful servants by the money they possess.

That God and the emperor cannot both be served is, moreover, not solved. For many, this account of Jesus’s claim that we are to give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s creates an insoluble problem because they do not see how followers of Jesus can then live in the world as we know it. But to recognize that we have an insoluble problem is to begin to follow Jesus.

 

©2006 by Stanley Hauerwas. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Matthew (BTCB) by Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew 22:1-14:

A king gives a wedding banquet for his son, sending his slaves to call on those who had been invited, but they would not come. He sent other slaves to tell them that a great banquet has been prepared. But those invited made light of the invitation and went about their daily business. Some even seized the king’s slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged and sent his troops to destroy the murderers and burn their city.

Again he sent his slaves into the street, gathering all who were found there, both the good and the bad, and the wedding hall was filled. When the king came to see the guests, one man was not wearing a wedding robe. The king asked him, “friend”—the same address of the owner of the vineyard to those first hired—how did you get in without  a wedding robe? The man was speechless.

The king had the attendants bind him and throw him into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus concludes that “many are called, but few are chosen.”

This parable reprises Matthew’s gospel. Jesus has come to feed us. He has fed the five thousand and the four thousand. The kingdom is about food and, in particular, food for the poor. But the food given by Jesus is not only to feed the hungry but to stage a banquet.

This is a feast of God’s abundance. Yet many seem to think that they have all they need and refuse to take the time to attend the king’s banquet. They act as if they need no king, consumed as they are by their daily lives. Some, insulted by the persistence of the king’s invitation, even kill his slaves. Jesus, just as he had in the parable of the wicked tenants, suggests that the way the king’s slaves were treated is the way that Israel had treated God’s prophets.

This is an extraordinary parable that makes for uneasy reading for those who want Jesus to underwrite a general critique of elites in the name of creating a community of unconditional acceptance. To be sure, just as the previous parables had been, this parable is meant to make those in power and the well-off uncomfortable. Most of us, particularly in the commercial republics of modernity, refuse to recognize that we are ruled by tyrants or, worse, that we have become tyrants of our own lives.

We believe that we are our own lords, doing what we desire, but our desires make us unable to recognize those who rule us. We have no time for banquets prepared by the Father to celebrate Jesus’s making the church his bride. We have no time for the celebration of that great thanksgiving feast in which we are “living members” of the king’s “Son our Savior Jesus Christ” (Book of Common Prayer 1979, 365). Such a people are right to be challenged by God’s hospitality to those who must live in the streets.

Yet this parable also makes clear that those who come to the banquet from the streets are expected to be clothed by the virtues bestowed on them through their baptism. If the church is to be a people capable of hospitality, it will also have to be a community of holiness. Jesus expects those called to his kingdom to bear fruit (Matt. 21:43). He has made clear in the Beatitudes how those called to his kingdom will appear.

To be poor and outcast may well put one in a good position to respond to Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom, but Jesus expects the poor and downcast to live lives worthy of the Lamb who will be slain. Only a people so formed will be able to resist emperors, who always claim to rule us as our benefactors.

 

©2006 by Stanley Hauerwas. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Matthew (BTCB) by Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew 21:23-32:

There is no place one might go to know with certainty that Jesus is who he says he is. To know that Jesus is the Son of God requires that we take up his cross and follow him. Having taken up the cross, Christians discover they have no fear of the truth, no matter from where it might come.

Jesus is not through with the chief priests and elders. Indeed he is just getting started. We have seen him use parables to instruct his disciples to understand the character of the kingdom of heaven. Faced with the chief priests and scribes, he uses the parables to help them see the challenge he presents to their rule.

He asks them to consider (“what do you think?”) a man with a vineyard who had two sons. He asked the first son to work in the vineyard, who declined, only to later change his mind and go to the vineyard. The father went to the second son with the same request, and this son readily agreed, but did not go to the vineyard.

Jesus asked the chief priests and elders which did the father’s will. They were, of course, forced to answer that it was the first.

Jesus draws for them the unmistakable conclusion, that they are the second son who has failed to do the father’s will. Therefore, the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before them because the tax collectors and prostitutes believed John’s proclamation that the kingdom had drawn near and recognized that they must repent.

The tax collectors and prostitutes had their lives changed, and so they—but not the chief priests and elders—believed in John.

 

©2006 by Stanley Hauerwas. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Matthew (BTCB) by Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew 16:21-28:

Jesus tells his disciples that if they are to follow him they must take up their cross. If they seek to save their lives using the means the world offers to insure their existence, then their lives will be lost. Rather, they must be willing to lose their lives “for my sake” if they are to find life. Jesus is not telling his disciples that if they learn to live unselfishly they will live more satisfying lives. Rather, he says that any sacrifices they make must be done for his sake. The crosses they bear must be ones determined by his cross.

What Jesus asks of his disciples makes no sense if Jesus is not who he says he is. You do not ask those who follow you to follow you to a cross unless you are the Son of God. You do not ask your brothers and sisters to contemplate the death of those they love if you are not the Messiah. You do not make Peter the rock on whom the church is built if you are not the one who has inaugurated the new age. But Jesus is all this and more, requiring his disciples to live lives not determined by death.

Yet what Jesus asks of his disciples is not new. From the time he calls them to follow him they were beginning to lose their lives. At this dramatic moment at Caesarea Philippi, however, Jesus makes clear to them what has been the case from the beginning. He has led them through the cities and villages of Israel, but now he will turn toward Jerusalem to face those who conspire to kill him. He clearly indicates the journey on which they are about to embark. He does not coerce them to follow him. They follow him willingly but they will abandon him at the end.

Jesus concludes this extraordinary exchange with his disciples with a clear statement of the apocalyptic character of the time in which they stand. The Son of Man, the just judge who alone has the right to judge, has come. Jesus will face and endure death, but his death is judgment on the world constituted by the fear of death. This is no delayed kingdom, but rather the kingdom has come. This is the recreation of time that requires a reinterpretation of all time.

That some standing before Jesus will not taste death before they see the Son of Man come is the confirmation of Matthew’s claim at the beginning of the gospel that this is the “beginning” of the new age. We, therefore, rightly claim, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.”

©2006 by Stanley Hauerwas. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Matthew (BTCB) by Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew 16:13-20:

Beginning in Matt. 11, Matthew has us follow Jesus through the cities and land of Israel, making us witnesses to Jesus’s healings, miracles, teaching, and the controversies that his work produces. We now come to the climax of that part of our journey with Jesus as he enters the district of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi, as its name suggests, is a city on the border between Israel and the Gentile world. It is here that Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples respond by stating some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. These responses have the common presumption, a presumption that is not clearly wrong, that Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition. His disciples, therefore, report the opinions of those who are part of the traditions of Israel. It is particularly interesting that some identify him with Jeremiah, for soon he will turn toward Jerusalem, expressing the same sorrow that Jeremiah enacted as the prophet of Jerusalem’s destruction.

Jesus receives the disciples’ reports, but then asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Some worry that when Jesus uses the identification “Son of Man,” as he does when he first asks the disciples who people say that he is, he is referring to the Son of Man in the third person. Yet Jesus’s subsequent question to the disciples leaves no doubt that when he asks about the Son of Man he is asking about himself. Jesus’s question is, moreover, directed at the disciples because they are the ones he has called, they are the ones to whom he has explained the parables, and they are the ones who have seen him still the waves and walk on water. Simon answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

The disciples had identified Jesus as the Son of God as he returned to their boat with Simon, but now for the first time a disciple recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, the one Israel long expected, the one who alone has the power to free Israel from its enemies. Jesus commends Simon, the son of Jonah, who recognizes that he is the Messiah—a king, but one not easily recognized. Jesus declares Simon, like those described in the Beatitudes, “blessed.”

At his baptism the voice from heaven identified Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). At this time, the voice of the Son declares that Peter is blessed because flesh and blood could not reveal to him that Jesus is the Messiah, but only his Father in heaven. Simon knows what he does only because it has been revealed to him. It is important, however, that Peter’s knowledge that Jesus is the Messiah not be used to develop a general theory of revelation. Simon does not learn that Jesus is the Messiah by some intuitive or mystical mode of knowing. Rather, Simon learns that Jesus is the Messiah because he obeyed Jesus’s command to be his disciple.

©2006 by Stanley Hauerwas. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Matthew (BTCB) by Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew 14:22-33:

Matthew tells us that immediately after Jesus has fed the crowd “he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead [of him] to the other side.” He dismisses the crowds and goes, like Moses went up the mountain to ask the Lord to forgive the people for their idolatry (Exod. 32:30–34), up the mountain to pray. He was alone most of the night, but toward morning he comes to the disciples, whose boat is far from land and is being battered by the waves.

When the disciples see him walking on water they are terrified. People do not walk on water. And so they grasp for any explanation that would return their world to normality—he must be a ghost.

Jesus responds to their cry of fear and after identifying himself tells them not to be afraid. Just as God names himself to Moses in the burning bush, Jesus identifies himself as “I am.” This is the “I am” of Ps. 77:19, the “I am” who provides a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, leaving footprints unseen.

Peter asks Jesus to command him to meet him on the water, and Jesus does so with the single word, “Come.” Peter walks toward Jesus but notices the strong wind and begins to sink. He begs Jesus to save him. Peter does not begin to sink and then become frightened, but he becomes frightened and so he begins to sink. Losing sight of Jesus means that Peter, like all of us, cannot help but become frightened, which means we cannot survive. Jesus, as he has so often done, stretches out his hand and saves him.

Peter is often criticized for being impulsive, for having “little faith,” and for doubting, but such criticism should not overlook that he asks Jesus to command him to come to him. Peter begins his journey across the water toward Jesus with the recognition that this is not something he can do on his own initiative. He asks Jesus to command him to come, recognizing that he has no ability to come to Jesus unless his ability to come to Jesus comes from Jesus. Peter’s faith is little, but he at least is beginning to recognize that faith is obedience.

We are, of course, sympathetic with Peter because we too doubt. We doubt because, like Peter, we are frightened. Our fears are not governed by our fear of God, because we fear, like Herod, the opinions of others more than we fear God. As a result, we sink beneath the weight of our desires, hoping others will think us normal. But followers of Jesus, those who refuse to live in a world devoid of miracle, cannot be normal. We worship, as the disciples did, this Jesus whom they now recognize to be the Son of God.

Soon Jesus will rename Simon as Peter and declare that “on this rock” Jesus’s church will be built, making this story ripe with ecclesiological implications. The church is the ark of the kingdom, but often the church finds herself far from shore and threatened by strong winds and waves. Those in the boat often fail to understand that they are meant to be far from shore and that to be threatened by a storm is not unusual. If the church is faithful she will always be far from the shore. Some, moreover, will be commanded to leave even the safety of the boat to walk on water.

©2006 by Stanley Hauerwas. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Matthew (BTCB) by Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52:

Jesus’s great sermon on the parables can be read as a commentary on his claim that those who do the will of the Father are his brother, sister, and mother. You do not become a brother or sister to Christ through birth, but you become his brother and sister by learning to be his disciple.

As we shall see, the parables become one of the ways in which Jesus trains his disciples to constitute this new family. In particular, he uses parables to help the disciples discern how the kingdom of heaven is established.

The parables, therefore, like the Sermon on the Mount, have always been crucial for the church to imagine the kind of community that we must be in order to survive in a world that assumes that biological kinship is more determinative than our kinship with Christ. The boat on which Jesus sits to deliver his parabolic sermon on the parables is the church that the parables bring into being.

Matthew does not tell us when or why Jesus is in a house, but only that on the same day in which his disciples are accused of breaking the Sabbath Jesus leaves the house and sits beside the sea. As soon as he leaves the house a great crowd gathers around him.

Indeed, the crowd was so great that Jesus must get into a boat in order to address the crowd, who stand on the beach while he sits in the boat to instruct them. We have, therefore, a situation quite similar to that in which Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

When Jesus delivers the sermon, the crowd hears Jesus, but the disciples are the ones to whom Jesus directs the sermon. In a like manner, Jesus instructs the crowd through some of the parables, but he explains the parables to the disciples because they are the ones who must learn to live in the light of the world revealed by the parables.

 

©2006 by Stanley Hauerwas. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Matthew (BTCB) by Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew 11:25-30:

Jesus adds insult to injury by thanking the Father for hiding the secrets of the kingdom from the wise and intelligent but revealing them to infants. Jesus will later use children to answer the disciples’ question concerning who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:1–5).

Only by becoming like children, only by being humbled like a child, will we recognize those greatest in heaven. Intelligence and wisdom are often names for the power and violence employed to sustain our illusions of superiority.

In 1 Cor. 1:18–31 Paul tells us that God choose the cross to “destroy the wisdom of the wise.” Paul directs the Corinthians’ attention to their own selves, pointing out that most of them are not wise by human standards or of noble birth. They were chosen not because they are strong, but because they were, in the world’s eyes, weak and foolish.

Paul is not suggesting that Christians ought to try to be weak or foolish in order to show that they are Christian, but rather that their weakness or their foolishness is only fruitful as a witness to the cross. The cross, moreover, is the deepest wisdom of God.

Jesus, like Paul, is not suggesting that we try to be infants, but rather as those engrafted into the kingdom, we in fact are infants. We are just beginners, dependent on Jesus and one another for our very survival; we become a “new creation,” in Paul’s language.

That the deaf, the mute, the blind, the poor, those rendered helpless in the face of suffering, recognize Jesus is not accidental. To be disabled does not make one a faithful follower of Christ, but it puts you in the vicinity of the kingdom. To be disabled is to be forced to have the time to recognize that Jesus is the inauguration of a new time constituted by prayer. To be disabled is to begin to understand what it means to be an infant vis-à-vis the kingdom brought by Jesus.

 

©2006 by Stanley Hauerwas. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.