By Rev. Michelle Magee
Commentary on Matthew 21:33-46
Where does authority come from and how does it work? This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is the second of three parables Jesus tells in response to the question from the chief priests and the elders: “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Matthew 21: 23). The deeper I go into this parable the more I sense Jesus flipping all of our notions about authority upside down.
As I read this question from the chief priest and elders I imagine their tone and guess that their question comes from place of: “WE are the leaders of the Jewish people. WE are the ones who will teach about God and religion, thankyouverymuch.” They ask the question not because they want a sincere answer, but because they want to establish their authority and emphasize that things should be done by the rules, and top-down.
Jesus has already given a (non) answer and told one parable in response to their question, but then seems to step it up a notch. In verse 33 Jesus begins with the very familiar imagery from Isaiah of the vineyard which is understood to represent the society of God’s people (aka Israel). In Isaiah the leaders (political and religious as they were very much intertwined) are taken to task for not caring for the people. Now Jesus speaks to the chief priests and elders, he asks them, “Who is responsible for caring for the people while the owner of the vineyard is away?” D. Mark Davis suggests that the religious leaders talking to Jesus assume the evil tenants in his parable are the Roman occupiers, hence their answer in verse 41: “God will put those wretches to a miserable death!” But by the end of the parable, Jesus has flipped their own violent judgment upon them (v. 44).
I see this as Matthew’s version of a “he who has no sin, throw the first stone” ethic. Jesus raises the question: If you--chief priests and elders-- have the authority of the One True God, why aren’t you using it to care for the people? If you are going to have a god who puts evil tenants to death, then you are those evil tenants. Judge yourself by the same code with which you judge others. Your pretty words about God and your actions don’t line up.
When the chief priests and elders are called out, rather than admitting that Jesus does have the authority of the One True God, they see that he is exposing their hypocrisy and want to arrest him (v 45-46).
So it goes every time those with power resist accountability.
Jesus tells them that their power of caring for the people and instructing in the Way of the One True God--in other words, their authority-- is taken, according to Jesus, from them and given to the new followers of the Way who are producing fruit. Those with true authority are the ones living with deeds that match their words (v 43).
There is always a temptation to make our god in our own image, to assume a god who wants revenge like we want revenge, who would do what we do, right or wrong, while only looking at us with favor. The gospel frees us to repent of that hypocrisy and examine our words (as individuals, movements or institutions) alongside the deeds and outcomes of those words. The gospel frees us to place authority not in the by –the- rules, top-down hierarchy, but to put authority in those who bear fruit of the kingdom.
Sermon illustrations in the negative abound: think perhaps of the sins of your own church institution, the democracy or lack thereof in our nation, who is indicted for which crimes, billionaire CEOs with idealistic sounding mission statements but whose employees live below the poverty line.
But what about the positive illustration: Who produces the fruits of the kingdom today? Which people are living lives of truly caring for others? Stories come to mind of immigrant communities who look out for one another, of homeless people helping each other find the resources they need. The less power people have, it seems, the more accountability they have to living lives of care. Perhaps there-- in communities rather than individuals, in those with the least power in worldly terms rather than the most--is where we ought to locate authority as followers of Jesus.
by Joseph Castañeda Carrera
Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32
To begin with the Matthew text we must look at how authority and Grace function at the juncture between oppressed and privileged peoples in our own neighborhoods today.
God’s Grace will always be with us. In fact, it cannot be separated from us.
Grace will always be most powerful, forever redeeming, upon each of us before we need it.
by Rev. Collette Broady-Grund
Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16
Does this story make you mad? From paying equal wages for unequal work, to the whole system of day labor that benefits only the landowner in the end, a lot of things in this parable are unfair, unjust even. If this story doesn’t anger you, you might not be getting the point.
Jesus begins a tale of a landowner and a vineyard, which hearkens back to many references from the Hebrew scriptures, as well as other gospel parables, casting Israel as the vineyard. God is often the landowner, or at least the tender of the vines. But, as usual, Jesus is going to turn these normal tropes on their head.
The story begins to unfold just as we’d expect: the landowner goes out first thing in the morning to hire day laborers to pick grapes and tend vines. In some places where produce is grown in our country, this is a familiar scene, though instead of gathering in the town marketplace, the day laborers show up at first light in the Wal-Mart parking lot and wait for the landowners and managers to pick them for work. A wage is agreed between them, and off they go.
Here’s where the story starts to get interesting. The landowner goes out again a few hours later, sees that there are laborers waiting for work, and hires them too, with a vague promise to pay them whatever is right. Maybe it’s the height of harvest and he can’t get those grapes off the vine fast enough, or maybe a number of his regular workers are quarantined at home with COVID-19.
But he comes out AGAIN, at noon, again at three in the afternoon, and does the same thing. And when he comes the final time, at the 11th hour, it’s clear the landowner doesn’t need this labor, yet he hires them anyway.
When he asks these 11th hour folks why they’re standing around all day, they say, “Because no one has hired us.” Though some readers will be quick to assume that these laborers slept in, or are just plain lazy, a look at our own agricultural day labor system suggests a different answer.
For day laborers picking food in the U.S., the ones still waiting in the Wal-Mart parking lot at the end of the day are not the ones that showed up late. Rather, they are the elderly ones and women who look like they can’t work as hard. They are the workers lacking steel-toed boots and PPE, because they can’t afford or access it. They are the people who speak almost no English, which will make the supervisor’s job harder. So, when the 11th hour hires say “Because no one hired us,” what they probably mean is, “because no one wanted us.” So far, this kin-dom of heaven doesn’t look much different from the United States of America.
But then, payday comes. The laborers line up as they’ve been instructed, starting with the last hired. And surprise! These 11th hour laborers get the same pay as those who worked 12, and 9, and 6 and 3 hours. No matter the work, the wages are the same. It appears this landowner is in favor of a universal basic income.
Or maybe this is a performative act of justice, meant to make him look good to his fellow landowners, but doing little to disrupt the unjust system of day labor, on which empires, both then and now, are built. As parables often do, this story raises many more questions than it answers.
Is God really like this landowner? In some ways, yes: equal love, equal grace, equal reward for all who labor in God’s kin-dom. The part of me that still thinks like a born and bred white American, a descendent of the Puritans who invented the Protestant work ethic, is irritated by this equality. I’m Jonah sitting under my dying vine, lamenting that God is merciful to THOSE NINEVITES too. That’s the part of me that needs to be reminded that the economy of God works differently than the economy of America.
That same part of me also needs to be reminded that God should not be easily equated with the landowner, who seems only concerned with this one day and its wages, but does nothing to dismantle a system that makes the rich richer and keeps the poor powerless. As we see image after image of laborers in the vineyards of California, working despite smoke-filled skies and a global pandemic, we must proclaim that God wants more than a generous day’s wage for these beloved people. It is not God’s justice that endangers the lives of those deemed essential workers so that the rest of us can stay safely home and order the produce they’ve picked for home delivery at reasonable prices.
Jesus came not only to be sure that those who had been left out had equal access to God’s power and healing, but also to put an end to the whole system of tit-for-tat, sacrifice for sin, and rigid social hierarchy. Like this parable, Jesus’ story is about coming out into our midst, calling not just the hardest workers, but those who are left out and left behind to join in the work of the kin-dom. Jesus’ story is about coming to the world again and again and again, not until everyone is laboring under a wealthy landowner, but until all are laboring together as equals in the kin-dom.
by Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin
“How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?” Matthew 18:21b
Grace and peace be with you, fellow Disruptors,
When I write for Disrupt Worship, one of my objectives is to offer seeds for preachers to disrupt old patterns of thinking for their congregation. But today, I want to disrupt you, preachers. I want to disrupt how you source your exegesis. And as someone who frequently names capitalism and nationalism as sinful, I am also going to disrupt myself.
So I begin today’s reflection on the text (Matthew 18:21-35) with a quote from the United States Constitution and another from Forbes Magazine. Yes, Disruptors, I want us to look at this week’s Gospel through the lenses of the U.S. Constitution and capitalism:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. US Constitution 14th Amendment Section 1
On any given day, there are 450,000 people waiting for trial in jail, purely because they couldn’t afford to pay their bail...
...the United States and the Philippines are the only countries in the world that have a cash bail system. Forbes, June 2020
Jesus is responding to a question from Peter about how often we should forgive those who offend us. It’s curious to me that while Peter asks about a personal offense, Jesus responds with a story/parable about economic debt. I believe that Peter is checking in with Jesus to see when he can turn someone over to the authorities. How much offense must we tolerate and forgive, Jesus? And Jesus’ reply is: here’s how your systems could work, and do work.
We live in a society where we herald the ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while 450,000 people sit in jail for an inability to post bail. They can’t pay their debts and thus are sitting in debtors prison, a concept which we deem to be unconstitutional. Yet, we support the system by not questioning it. In Jesus’ story, the king calls his subjects to account for what is owed to him. He takes pity on one privileged member of his realm, an official. That official is granted immunity: full forgiveness of his debt. But that same official, understanding how the system works, demands payment from a more marginalized member of the community and has the poor man, “thrown in jail until he could pay what he owed.”
How does one pay a debt from prison? This action is clearly a passing of that debt from the person to their family. Does it align with Jesus' message of forgiveness? Does that align with our constitutional values?
Kalief Browder, was 16 years old when he was arrested for stealing a backpack; charges which were eventually dropped as the case against him continually fell apart. Unable to post bail, he spent 3 years in prison on Rikers Island, much of it in solitary confinement. Kalief paid the debt with his sanity and, eventually, his life. Where was forgiveness for Kalief? In what ways is the official in Jesus’ parable like the prosecutors of our day? Consider the cases of Kalief Browder, Sandra Bland, and too many more to name. Who are we in Jesus’ story? And most importantly, who is Jesus?
Through the lens of our unjust bail bond system, it is clear to me that Jesus is neither the unforgiving official nor the forgiving king who takes back his forgiveness. Both characters expose our sinful bondage as a community to debt as a communal value. Neither is particularly interested in deconstructing that system. Instead, I see Jesus in the person of the one who is beaten and jailed. Christ took on our debts and was punished severely for them while the community looked on. Every day, some 450,000 people in the image of Jesus, sit in prison, waiting for family to pay their debts. As you ponder what to preach this week, Dsiprutor, I hope that you will look to the other officials, the ones who could not stand by and be silent.
Resources about disrupting the Cash Bail Bond System
Bail reform, which could save millions of unconvicted people from jail, explained, Vox October 2018
How Cash Bail Works, Brennan Center for Justice, 2019
Color of Change No Money Bail Campaign
Netflix documentary on Kalief Browder
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