The story of the emperor's coin describes three failures of religious leaders. The first failure was hypocrisy. The Pharisees would not acknowledge John or Jesus as sent by God (21:27), and tried to arrest Jesus (21:46). They pretended that they were open to Jesus so that they might test him as the devil did (4:1-16). Jesus acknowledged their trickery, but took their question seriously. The second failure was a wrong understanding of godly teaching. For the Pharisees, a true teacher debated and discerned how those who lived by the Jewish law might have managed under Caesar's tax. This was not Jesus' kind of teaching. He called for repentance due to the rule of God coming into the world in him. His teaching was divine prophecy, not human legality. The third failure was replacing the divine perspective with a human perspective. The Pharisees perceived correctly that Jesus paid heed to no one's prominence or position, but they did not see that Jesus' impartiality to humans was an expression of his partiality to God. As the parables of the two sons, the wicked tenants, and the great banquet have shown, thanksgiving and devotion to God's goodness and authority take precedent. The self-interests of the Pharisees - and of Caesar, as it affected them - were not worth a penny's attention compared to the attention due God's reign. Caesar might get the coin, but God gets our whole life. We are made in the image of God, so to give to God what is God's is to give God our whole life.
To understand this Gospel parable (Matt. 22:1-14), we need to see it as Jesus' attack on the religious leaders of his day. The parable, unlike most parables, is an allegory where each element stands for something else. In this parable: - The king is God, the Son is Jesus. - The invited guests are the people of Israel. - The first servants were the Hebrew prophets. - The later servants were Christian missionaries. - The "good and the bad" were members of the early church. - The wedding robe was the robe of "righteousness" given to Christians who, as sinners, were talking the talk, but not walking the walk. The wedding robe reminds us that we have become righteous by God's gracious gift to us - Christ's own righteousness. We have become righteous through the blood of the Lamb. The wedding robe symbolizes the righteousness of Christ we have been given (Rev. 19:8). This "wedding robe" represents putting on the baptismal garment of Christ (Galatians 3:27). It is being attired with a "new self" created in God's own likeness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). By this baptismal robe, we are clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col. 3:12). Luther said, "Christ himself is our garment of righteousness and salvation." In the Early Church, all those who were to be baptized stripped and were baptized naked, after which they were clothed in a white robe to symbolize putting on the righteous robe of Christ. The white robes (albs) that worship leaders wear today are symbolic of the white baptismal robes the first Christians were given after their baptism. Through baptism, our sinful nature has been removed and we have been re-clothed with Christ's own righteousness (Galatians 3:27).
As God's people, we might reflect upon what God has given us. God has created us and our world and all that is in it. God has made a covenant with us in baptism and sealed that covenant through the blood of his Son. God sent his Holy Spirit among us to renew our potential for life. We, too, have received all that is necessary for productive lives. We are responsible to become mature in Christ. The householder of the parable showed great patience. He sent servant to the tenant. The tenants beat one of those who were sent, stoned one, killed one; still the householder sent additional servants. Even though the householder's servants were mistreated, he continued to give the tenants a chance to change and become the people they were meant to be. Finally the householder sent his son to the tenants. The patience of God as he deals with us is something to behold. Again and again, we experience his power and love. Every day God comes to us, loving us and forgiving us. The householder of the parable finally acted in judgment. He removed the tenants and entrusted his vineyard to others who would be responsible to the householder for what was his. We too are responsible for our actions. God is patient, but we are accountable. The freedom of the tenants is contrasted with their action toward the householder. The tenants want complete freedom; they do not wish to deliver to the householder what is his. The tenants wish to own and control the vineyard themselves. However, they discover that they are answerable to the householder.
Jesus' question about the two sons can be easily answered…it is the repentant son who is the obedient son. The first son, although he at first rejects the father's will, is the true heir of the father. The "other son" (Israel) quickly agreed to work for the father, but "did not go." Like Israel, the "other son" rejected work in the father's vineyard (kingdom). Because of Israel's disobedience, they were unable to be the father's heir. They were unable to work in the kingdom. There are times that our stubborn refusal to change our behavior are just as obstinate. In God's kingdom, only those who accept the will of God and repent are welcomed. The challenge is to be repentant of those obstacles which keep us from maturity in Christ. What kept the religious leaders from accepting Jesus? What keeps us from more fully accepting Jesus? Why is it so comfortable to be a "Sunday morning" Christian? What is keeping us (obstacles) from a maturing relationship to Christ?
This Gospel is a call to be a follower of Jesus, as a gracious act of God. Following Jesus is something we are able to do because God loves us and has forgiven us. God's love and forgiveness enable us to be like Christ, and with his own Spirit change our lives from one of self-serving to serving as a servant. The challenge of being a disciple of Christ involves a complete change in our lives. Jesus speaks plainly about what it will mean to be one of his followers; we must deny our tendency toward living a self-centered life to living a Christ-centered life. No longer are our personal concerns of primary importance. As a disciple, our concerns are consistent with God's will. God becomes the guiding force in our lives. No longer can we set the conditions for our lives and the lives of others. As a follower of God, it is God's will that rules. A disciple of Christ must be willing to "take up their cross." That is to say, we must be willing to adopt the principle of self-denial. A disciple's life involves sacrificial service. Each day a disciple has the opportunity to renew the character of their baptism; we have the challenge to put aside self-service in order to take up self-sacrifice. Each day we have the opportunity to let Christ lives through us and to take seriously the demands of God and the needs of others. Self-concern gives way to the greater concern of the love of God. The disciple is to learn from and follow Christ. This means we will regularly be renewed by forgiveness, have love for one another, and care for those who need our help. As a disciple, we are involved with a new way of life. When we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our entire lives are affected. Christ enables his disciples to lose, to give up, desires that do not reflect who we are as people created in God's image. Christ empowers his disciples to live life as the Creator originally intended us to live our lives.
This Gospel reading (Mt. 16:13-20) is usually divided into two parts: the first part (vs. 13-16) tells what various people and what Peter himself thought about Jesus; the second part (vs. 17-20) records the answer of Jesus to Peter. Just like Mark and Luke, Matthew places this event at the center of his Gospel and the reading is quite clear: he wants his readers, who have known Jesus for some time, to proclaim Christ as the Son of God. Not unlike the people of Jesus' day, we can also today hear opinions about "who" Jesus is - a great teacher, a social activist, an exceptional person, and a visionary who has transformed human society. However, to profess that Jesus is the Messiah is to say that he is the Son of God, the Savior of the world. In the second part of today's Gospel reading, Jesus tells Simon: "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. With these words to Simon Peter, Jesus is referring to the faith that is in Peter, which enabled him to make his confession. This faith is the solid foundation of the Church. All those who, like Peter, will profess faith in Jesus as the Son of the living God, are a part of this solid foundation that will never fall. Then, Peter is given the "Keys" to bind and to forgive sins. This power is not limited to Peter, it is the ability of all those who live with faith (Mt. 18:18; John 20:23). The disciples now have authority to forgive sins. Christ said to his disciples, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld" (John 20:23). In Matthew 18:18, Christ speaks to congregations in every place and in every time, entrusting his Church with the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. We have received from the Lord the power to share the gift of forgiveness with one another.
In the early times of the Church, the Apostles found themselves with the serious problems of whether to admit, or not to admit, foreigners into the Church. One day, a foreign woman comes to Jesus. She belonged to the Canaanites that had often drawn Israel from its faith in the Lord to the worship of Baal. At first, Jesus relates to the woman very harshly, and rudely says to her: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel….not to wild scavenger dogs" (!). At first Jesus relates to her with contempt as any of his fellow Israelites would have treated her. However, the rest of the story reveals how Jesus challenged the Apostles to accept a radical change of mind. In the end, Jesus says: "Woman, you have great faith!" By healing the daughter of the Canaanite woman, Jesus is showing that the time has come to pull down the barriers that have divided people throughout the ages. The greatest thing to come out of Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman was the "great faith" she was given by Jesus. The New Testament teaches us that faith is a gift God gives us to:
Realize the damning consequences of our sinful nature and our need for a Savior.
Accept that God freely gives us his own Son as our Savior from sin, death, and the devil.
Celebrate that this "great faith" within us is an unconditional gift of God which we were "predestined to receive" (Eph 1:4).
For St. Paul, and the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers, nothing can surpass the "saving faith" we have received as a gracious gift from God.
This Gospel provides a summary of how our faith matures: At first we are attracted to Jesus and give him a place in our hearts, trusting that our life will be better with him. For the most part we limit Jesus to our hearts. The areas of our daily life - school, business, leisure, relationships, marriage, etc. - are experienced without Jesus. Then it happens, a storm of life appears. Whether or not we turn to Jesus for help is not always certain. At some point our faith in Jesus experiences a new level of maturity when we cry out for Jesus to help us through one of the storms of life. As we go through life there are many storms and many opportunities to cry out to Jesus to help us. Usually, at some particular point, usually out of necessity, we deepen our dependency upon Jesus' saving power in the midst of a difficult storm. The Church's first great theologian, St. Augustine, wrote much about how our faith in Jesus becomes more mature. His commentary on this Gospel says, "The boat that is carrying the disciples is like the Church, tossed and shaken by the tempests of temptation, which come from the devil. But, greater is, 'He who is the Lord' (v. 30). In times of illness, troubles, and a multitude of difficulties we need to be reminded that Jesus taught that, 'God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.' Fortunately, the storms of life can be for us Christians a great blessing. Unless we experience the storms of life, like Peter, our hearts will never truly learn to cling to Jesus as our Savior. A fearful, broken and troubled heart is the door through which Christ Jesus can find entry. Jesus, the one who saves, comes to us in the midst of our troubles saying to us 'take heart it is I, do not be afraid' (v. 27). Christ uses all the troubles of life to reveal his presence in our hearts and in the world."
Buried Treasure A man somehow finds a treasure buried in a field. How he finds it we do not know. What he was doing when he found it, we are not told. Unexpectedly, he came upon a treasure he wasn't looking for. He covers the treasure up in great excitement and goes to find some way to buy the field so he could own the treasure in it. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is such a treasure. We happen upon it in an unexpected place, and we are surprised and overwhelmed when we find it. Immediately we know that we must have it, even if it requires giving up all that we have to obtain it. For him, the discovery of the treasure is an experience of transforming joy. It is an aspect of the Gospel that is often overlooked. The Perfect Jewel A merchant, after years of searching, finds at last the perfect jewel. He is probably a rich man, in contrast to the poor man of the first parable. Pearls were the most valuable things in the ancient world, even more precious than gold, and this merchant has found one of extraordinary perfection and value. A perfect jewel is worth having for the purely aesthetic pleasure of handling it, admiring it, contemplating its perfection. The implication of the parable is that there are other attractive things in the world, but the kingdom surpasses them all and by comparison makes them of little worth. The beauty and perfection of the kingdom of heaven surpasses all other objects of beauty and loveliness. The Dragnet There is a third parable in this Gospel, and it presents an old theme, something that we have heard before. Like last week's parable of the weeds, the parable of the net teaches that we must wait until the end for the final separation of the good from the wicked, and that until then we must have patience. The kingdom is like a fishnet that is dragged through the sea and catches every kind of fish in its path, some good, some worthless. The net of the kingdom will not be full until the close of the age, and then the separation will take place. The time of transition between the appearance of the kingdom and its fulfillment must occur. The fullness and perfection of the kingdom will be achieved only at the final period of history. In the meantime, we must be patient. Finally, after telling these parables, Jesus asks the apostles whether they have understood "all this." They say they have. Kingdom is the key word in today's Gospel. The kingdom of God, or of heaven, is the central theme of the teaching of Jesus. It involves his whole understanding of his own person and work. The kingdom means the "kingship" or "kingly rule" or "reign" or "sovereignty" and expresses the lordship of God over his people and over the world that he has made. The kingdom of God is where God reigns. It cannot be the product of our own efforts. It is an act of God himself to break the power of evil and to establish his rule in the world. God rules eternally, but in the person of Jesus God rules in a new way. In Christ, the kingdom has arrived though it is yet to be completed. The kingdom is both "now" and "not yet."
At the time of Jesus the people believed that the coming of the Messiah would be the start of a Kingdom where there would be only good people. And what about evil? What was going to happen to the wicked? Simple: they would be burnt up by fire from heaven! John the Baptist predicted about the coming of the Messiah saying: "His winnowing fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat in his hand; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out" (Mt. 3:12). Even the disciples of Jesus shared his thinking (Lk. 9:54). But Jesus did not approve of or share this kind of thinking at all. He held the Baptist in great esteem, but he did not want to hear any talk of fire. He not only never intended to destroy sinners, but he welcomed them into his house, he invited them to share his meals, he kept company with thieves, heretics, prostitutes. In short, he was not that energic Messiah everybody expected and, as a matter of fact, at his death there was no change to be seen in the world: evil was still there. Fifty years after the death of Jesus, Matthew, now an old man, looks around and what does he see? There is still a lot of evil in the world. There is also some good, it is true, but side by side with it evil grows luxuriantly. The Christians of his community keep asking him: what kind of Kingdom did Jesus start if it cannot destroy evil once for all? The evangelist gives the answer to this question in the parable of the weeds. The servants would like to destroy all the weeds, eliminate them. Why doesn't the owner accept their advice? He keeps his calm; he does not show surprise, and does not share their anxiety. His answer (that takes up more than a third of the whole parable) reveals to us the attitude of God towards the evil that exists in the world, in the Church, and in every individual. Good and evil, says the owner, cannot be separated, they have to grow up together and it will be like that to the end of time. The separation will take place, but not this year, not today, not immediately. Why can it not be done immediately? The line separating good from evil does not pass in the space between individuals, or between different groups of people, or between nation and nation; it passes within the heart of every person. We find good and evil in every person. That's why it is not possible to intervene with fire from heaven: everything would then be destroyed, the evil as well as the good. Even the most wicked of people have, together with a lot of weeds, some good grain in themselves; why burn it up also? "Keep calm!" says the owner of the field. People are instinctively led to divide humankind into two groups: the good and the wicked, the friends and the enemies. The tragic consequence of such a distinction is intolerance and the desire to solve problems rapidly and violently. Thus we might have believers who, since they cannot do all this personally, ask God to intervene to judge and punish. The readings of today tell us very clearly that God will never carry out these crazy wishes. The gospel tells us to accept with peace of mind the presence of evil in the world, and invites us to recognize the weeds present also in our hearts, and it assures us that the love of God will one day destroy all evil.