One Man's Web

When the chief priests and elders of the people ask their deadly question, Jesus outmanoeuvres them. He agrees to answer their question— he recognises the numbers— if they will answer his question. And then asks a question of great topicality, a question which plays to the crowd’s sense that John spoke truth and that there is something hollow about the teaching of the authorities, something which stinks about their closeness to the Herods. So they cannot refuse to answer, but because either answer that Jesus allows them will undermine their power, they retreat to, "We do not know," and are humiliated.

They have no authority of their own. And, suddenly, they don't have the numbers. They have to weather the storm and wait for another opportunity to take him down. They can only concede that at this moment Jesus holds the power. He has the numbers.  For all their privilege and prestige they are mere humans, just like the rest of us, always at the mercy of the crowd. Like all of us, they live in fear of the crowd.

They see Jesus push home his advantage. He asks another question. The answer is obvious; it has only one possible answer, such a transparently obvious answer that, again, they cannot refuse to answer him. Because he has the numbers— the crowd is on his side, they have to answer.

And they can see only that the trap is sprung. They are the sons who did not obey the father, and therefore the tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of heaven before them. They experience condemnation, and live in fear of the mob which might at this moment explode. Because they live by the numbers they can see no hint of grace in what Jesus has said to them… although grace is there, writ large.

So where does authority lie. Is it in numbers?... Read on >>>>

This is a hard text!

To really hear what's going on in Matthew Chapter 20, we need to back up to the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus, in Chapter 19, "What good deed must I do to have eternal life?"

Eternal life is not about getting to some place called 'heaven' when we die. Eternal life is life in the presence of God… now.  It is life listening to God… now, and seeking to follow God… now.  It's a life which pays attention to God. And we either pay attention to God… or we don't— we may not even have noticed God. Or, like the rich young man, we may find something is blocking our relationship… that something is missing, despite all our riches.

Dying makes no difference! Where we are now, is where we will be then. Dying is not the end; it's just a biological marker which does not change our relationship with God.

So the man was not asking Jesus how to get to heaven. He was asking Jesus, "What good deed must I do to be alive with God— relating with God— now."

Jesus said to the young man, "If you want to be complete— to find life coming together— that's what the word "perfect" implies, then sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

Get rid of your possessions— the things that are stopping you following me—  be free of them, and you will enter the life of the kingdom, the life that lives with God, which we call Eternal Life."

When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions which he didn't want to give up. So at that moment, he chose not to enter into eternal life, but to continue a life separated from God....

The sermon does get to the vineyard... :-)

Here's the thing: Like the landowner, God has given me what is right, and what is just. But the landowner was not God. The landowner could have paid more to the men who worked harder and longer! Why doesn't God do this?

It's because God gives "to each of us the whole of what there is to give." (Michael Hardin) There is no more that God can give us than giving us relationship with God.  All of us will sit at the right hand of God, at the table, because that is what salvation is. That is all God can give us, for relationship with God is everything.... Read on >>>>

One of my childhood ministers told us this reading was about Christians who were cross that people who were converted on their death bed, or something like that, received all the same benefits as those who had been disciples for decades. "So it's a parable talking to us who 'have always been in the church.' It's a warning to us," he said.

Since this would be the first time a warning from Jesus didn't apply to me, I'm suspicious about the interpretation! That interpretation also ignores the fact that the parable is clearly a follow-up to the story of the rich young man. (Matthew 19: 16-30) Matthew tells that story and then has Jesus say, "For the kingdom is like…"  And the parable ends with the same words as the story of the rich young man: "many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."

Jesus said the young man looking for eternal life,

…  ‘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.’22When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

So Peter, who knows that riches are a sign of blessing, that riches are to be desired—  No! Peter knows that riches are a sign of an unjust man!... Read on >>>>

This is the most disbelieved of all Jesus' parables. It should delight us, or horrify us, but mostly, we simply do not believe him.

Someone, a slave of a king, under condemnation for an utterly unpayable debt, begs for mercy and is forgiven. In his forgiveness, the King does not even require repayment of the debt! Does this not sound like a parable of grace? And yet that same someone will not forgive something utterly trifling by comparison...

...the text describes to us a king whose actions, to  the eyes of the world, are both incredibly generous and then entirely reasonable. Onetalent was worth more than fifteen years’ wages of a labourer! (NRSV text notes)  But what sort of king is it that can forgive such an unpayable and unforgiveable debt, but cannot forgive the small minded and the ridiculous— three months' pay for a labourer? What sort of king is so magnanimous as to forgive the huge debt, but is unable to haul the slave back in, and confront him with his pettiness, and then send him out to forgive in the way he should? Is it not that we are creating God in our own image, here? We would act with that sort of rage at a petty, unforgiving, totally unworthy slave. But is God like that? Is God's mercy stunted by outrage? Is God's forgiveness of all sins— that's what the forgiveness of the debt stands for— only available on a good day? Is God the sort of God of whom our Advocate says, when  we enter the Court, "He's in a good mood today?" Or not. ... Read on >>>

I want to be loved… I want to be cared for, to be safe. I want to be happy. I want to matter, I want to be worth something.

And Jesus says, "I have come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly… in all its fullness." (John 10:10)

The trouble is that my whole learning… our whole learning and indoctrination…  says that we get love, and happiness, and worth, by putting ourselves first.  In our house the cat, who is, frankly, needy, jumps up on our lap mewling for love and attention. And when she does, the dog often flies into our lap and pushes the cat out… and not gently. The dog is just like us. It doesn't believe that we still love it… if we love the cat; and we can't believe we are loved if we are not at the centre of things.

In fact, the doctrine of Original Sin might be understood this way:  in the fact that we are almost unable to conceive of being worthwhile without winning, or without putting ourselves first, without being at the centre of things. All the other stuff we call sin flows from that.

This stuff is insidious. For a while, I worked very hard at being better than everyone else …. by putting myself last, and by being more humble than everyone else! My love was actually all about me.

And… I used to work at doing things really, really well. And had to learn I was not really serving God with excellence, at all; I was proving to myself, and to God, and to other people, that I was better, and that I was deserving. This stuff is what is called a "wicked problem"; that is, it is seems almost impossible to get a solution to it. How can we not be at the centre of our universe? It's not as though we can step out of our self and walk away, is it?... Read on >>>>

... We are often taught to read this text morally; that is, we interpret the word sin as immoral behaviour, such as stealing, or gossip. We are often unconscious of this teaching; we simply absorb it, and take it as given. But if morality is the imaginative and interpretive lens through which we read this text, morality will shape and constrain; that is, limit, all our response to the one who sins against us. But morality is generally not something decided by God. The old joke says that when the American church visited their denominational cousins in Holland, the Dutch men almost choked on their cigars over the makeup worn by the American women; my friend from North Carolina knew full well that drinking was a sin. Her Australian husband's family, good Lutheran vintners, were offended by the smokers* of her family. If we constitute our church membership according to morality, the church will simply become another institution that gives three warnings and then kicks a member out. The text will not be Good News to us, but only a slowing down of inevitable expulsion and division.... Read on >>>

Little Para Linear Park, near Bolivar

You can listen here.

I'm often asked about my South African accent, although I'm 6th generation Australian, on both sides. "I just pick up the accent of the folk I'm talking to," I say. That's the simple answer, and it's true. If I like you, I will sound like you before I know it— admiration, and a desire to be accepted, work in concert.

But there is more. I know exactly where 'the South African' comes from. It is Meryl Streep playing Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, talking down heartbreaking betrayal, with quiet and civil mastery, and clever words, in a refusal to be beaten and diminished. My accent is my 'tell,' and if I am present minded enough, I can often tell what is 'pressing my buttons' by my accent, phrasing, and cadence, alone.

We are all like this, formed by, and still imitating, those we admire;  those who had something we wanted. I have a senior colleague with whom I have some disagreement. When thinking hard, while preaching, he has a habit of placing his hand on the top of his head. We were vastly amused when one of our number preached his Homiletics sermon one College Chapel, with much placing of his hand on his head. A friend told me, of arriving rather late to a church function on the other side of the country:  he could hear that same senior minister holding forth as he entered the church porch. Except… it was our same student colleague! The joke is that a few weeks later in my student pastorate, a parishioner kindly told me that "to be a good minister you don't have to preach for as long as [insert same senior colleague here]... Read on >>>>

... In response to Simon's statement,  Jesus tells Simon that he is changing his name to Peter, which is the word for Rock:  This is a symbol of the fact that on this rock, on you, I will build my church. And this means that, in the end, the church will be built upon us, as Peter's successors. How will people know what God has done, or who Jesus is, if we do not show them?

But then, straight away, Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, says he will be killed by the very people who have waited centuries for him to come. And Peter tells him that can't be; we saw Jesus telling him he was absolutely wrong. And telling him that if he wants to follow Jesus, he— and we— will need to need to walk the same road. Our discipleship is only real when it faces death, when it risks death. We must deny ourselves, it says.

You may remember that later in the gospel, instead of denying himself, and risking death, Peter denies Jesus.

Now in this story, Jesus gives Simon two new names. Why? ... Read on >>>>

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