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
by Carla Christopher Wilson
This week's lectionary text takes us back to the very beginning of Jesus' ministry. Jesus has finished giving his initial instructions to the twelve disciples he called and has begun a traveling and teaching ministry. Who is this new human source of wisdom and theology shaping knowledge anyway? At this point Jesus is still a minimally known and minimally resourced man of dubious origin. He is a rural tradesmen; brilliant but without prestigious bloodline or extensive economic privilege. He begins by speaking about an even more marginalized "outsider" character, his herald and cousin, John the Baptist.
by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
Peter. Oh Peter. How I wish you had just not been included in the canon. But, here we are.
I have had to sit with this a minute. There are two ways to go at this and I am not sure how to bring them together. On the one hand, this is a letter to immigrants living in lands that despise them. This is a letter telling strangers in strange lands to keep going, to keep pushing, because the people in the nations in which they are living are being terrible to them. We can talk about how we treat immigrants, how God is on the side of the stranger, giving them strength and uplifting them.
On the other hand, this idea that God tests us, that God tests our faith is so harmful and often furthers oppression. Those of us who are white, wealthy, and/or abled generally hear this idea when in moments of personal strife. When a loved one has died, when we have a setback in our career, when we have been the victim of violence, or when we are diagnosed with a health problem for the first (and possible final) time.
And when this happens it SUCKS. We know, in our heart of hearts, that God doesn’t do this. Jesus never talks about God testing our faith. As a Lutheran theologian of Grace, this just doesn’t work with my lens. And yet, the idea that the bad things happening is God testing us is pervasive in our culture and deeply harmful to individuals and individual faith.
However, this idea is so much more harmful to people living on the margins. For generations those without power have been told that whatever pain they were going through was God’s will, that God was making them tougher, and that to fail to put up with a situation of abuse, violence and oppression was to fail God. And so we use these words written to strengthen outcasts being tried by everything from ostracism to violence to further oppress. We use scripture to cause suffering. These words have been used to keep people enslaved, to exclude and harm disabled people, to uphold abusive relationships, & to keep people in all manner of prisons.
We read scripture through the lens of Christ. What does Christ tell us about God? That God loves us endlessly, forgives us endlessly, wanted to be in relationship with us so badly they became human and put up with all the shit we put up with on the day to day. That is the God we know. Does God want us to cast all our anxiety on God? Yes! Jesus said something similar, and that is a word of hope in this time.
But maybe it is also a word of hope to preach against this idea that God tests us through putting trials in our lives. To encourage people by speaking of a God who is not that petty, who strengthens us through presence not trial. That suffering will come and go but God will always be there, with us, in the midst of our pain.
Another option for something to highlight this week might be the part in the gospel of John that says, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Eternal life is to know God. In this life. We read this lesson and it tempts us to look to the clouds for the day of Jesus’ return (which he is very clear we will not be able to predict) or for our own eventual ascension, especially in times as difficult as these. We may be dreaming of heaven as an escape from the pains of this life. But here Jesus clearly tells us that eternal life is life with God, knowing God through Jesus. And that happens in this world. This dirty, diseased, painful, beautiful, complicated, amazing world.
Note: Due to the stress all y’all parish preachers are under, we’re producing our commentaries right now in house. Y’all have enough to do.
By Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
WOOOOOOHHHOOOOOOO!!!! SOCIALISM IS BIBLICAL!!!
SAY IT AGAIN!!!
The earliest followers of Jesus, led by Jesus’ disciples (the people who knew him when he was live) lived in a way where they shared what they had communally *and* sold what they had in excess and then gave the money to any who had need. NO ONE HAD PERSONAL POSESSIONS.
This is revolutionary and runs counter to so much of what modern Christianity tells us about how to follow Jesus and how to live in this world.
I am fascinated by how many commentaries I read try to explain this description away as an ideal or short lived or didn’t really happen in ways I very much do not hear with other stories. Like, I’m not seeing these same denials for the very wild story of Pentecost that comes at the beginning of this very chapter. People not having possessions held in common trust instead of privately makes us more uncomfortable than the Holy Spirit descending on a crowd, inspiring a cacophony of languages to erupt from people who did not know them. That is WILD, friends. I’m not sure if that says more about how private property has perverted our lives or our lack of faith in humanity. Not just humanity, but the Holy Spirit. After all, that’s what enabled these people to live like this, right?
One can draw a direct line between this Acts story of, well, socialism (communitarianism maybe?) and Jesus’ statement as recorded in this weeks’ gospel lesson, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” What does abundant life in God’s kingdom look like? It means a home, a community, medical care, enough to eat, clean water, clean air for all God’s children. We would be a whole lot closer to abundant life for all creation were were to release the idea that we individually own things, that we, individually, earn things. But we all know that’s a real hard sell in the US, particularly in the more privileged communities in which many of us work and live.
This week we get to *explicitly* talk about how the disciples lived and draw comparisons to how we live as Christians and as Americans. This is an excellent opportunity to dig into the economics of what is happening right now and how things might be different if we were more willing to go half as far as the disciples and their followers and share. This community in Acts is going beyond sharing – they relinquish the idea of owning. That’s what is at the heart of this. It’s not sharing. It’s not owning, not possessing, not having the ability to claim a thing as “mine.”
Can we ask our people do take a moment and dream of a world in which we all held possessions in common?
What would it look like if a farming community struggling right now with distribution because of the way the food chain has become both concentrated and globalized had a communal way of processing the food they raise and grow instead of having to send it away? What if the whole community bore the responsibilities for the crops and livestock? How might things have been different if the community owned the coal mine or the steel mill or the fancy hotel chains? What if we started to let go of owning and possessing and started to hold things in common?
We cannot have conversations about abundant life or sharing (much less collective ownership) without talking about racism. Racism is why Black and Indigenous people are being infected with and dying from the Corona Virus and disproportionate rates. Racism is why we don’t have a robust public healthcare system. Racism is why government benefits can be so hard to access (which many people may be learning for the first time, and of which Florida is a prime example). According to study after study, white people don’t mind it so much if they think other white people are getting benefits, but they will be damned if Black people, Latinos, or Native Americans get benefits. White supremacy has convinced White people that People of Color are lazy, shiftless, unintelligent, and completely undeserving of public support & that to lift up People of Color is to demote White people. These beliefs have disastrous effects on Black & Brown communities including lower life expectancy and poor health outcomes. These disparities are being brought into the spotlight due to the mush higher infection & death rates seen in communities of color, particularly in Black & Indigenous communities. Not only does racism have disastrous effects on Black and Brown communities, it has disastrous effects for all of us, particularly poor white folk. In order to keep public benefits, public goods, and economic development from People of Color, white people have kept it from themselves.
The people of the first Christian community, according to this story, held all things in common. This is the Christian ideal; a model for who we should live together in the Holy Spirit. We can’t get there unless we dismantle white supremacy which has taught us that everything can be owned, even other human beings. But this world in which we hold things in common and sell our excess to benefit those in need is a dream worth aiming towards. The kingdom always is, especially in difficult times.
Links with facts to back up these words:
Heather McGee's Ted Talk Racism has a Cost for Everyone
Heather McGee on WTH Pod w Christ Hayes
Demos, a think tank on economics, and justice
USA Today Article on disparities in COVID cases
by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
We are living in a time between, “We just want things to get back to normal,” and, “What was wasn’t that great, can we imagine something different?” While there are some people who are firmly on one side or the other, I imagine many of us are stretched between these two statements. We recognize the world as it was (and as it is) is filled with inequity and injustice. We know something must be done about the giant gap between rich and poor, that we have to fix our nations healthcare system, that racial inequality is deadly. These things are all killing people. And yet, particularly for those of us who benefit from the system as it is, it is really hard to actually muster the energy to change. Change is hard and scary. Even when what we know is terrible, fear of the unknown often keeps us stuck in situations we know need to change.
We Christians know this all too well. For decades voices have been telling the church it must change, adapt, become made new, and yet comfort has called and we have remained the same. Which is ironic, because the Christian life is one of being transformed. In particular, it is a life of being refined and purified by the Holy Spirit that we might love.
Love is the result of the transformation we undergo in the name of Christ.
“Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth (of the spirit) so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”
As much as we may… aspire to? hope for? agree with the idea of? being so obedient to God we are transformed to the point that we have genuine, deep mutual love, we also also tend to resist it with all of our will and/or don’t actually know how to do this. Who are our models for being transformed to this degree? How do we heal enough to allow ourselves to be consumed by love? What will happen to the person I know as “me” if I allow this to happen? For most of us, the fear of who we could become or what it will actually take or what we will have to give up to be transformed by love so that we might love in the way of Christ. Even though we know God will be with us the whole time.
This inner transformation and the possible transformation of our society have much in common. For each we will have to be willing to give of ourselves in ways that may be uncomfortable. For each, those who have more than they need will be called to open their hands and hearts and share privilege, power, money, resources. Each process calls for deep introspection, and in neither case do we know what lies on the other side of the transformation.
We also know these transformations, rooted in, transformed by, and growing towards love, bring us closer to the kingdom. These transformations are a piece of what we pray for every time we gather together in the words, “your kingdom come.” As we reach towards the kingdom and the kingdom approaches us, God is bridging that gap and holding us all the time. If you feel so called, this week could be an opportunity to move your people towards the transformation – their own and transformation for the new, just equitable world that could begin to rise out of this crisis.
by Rev. Steve Jerbi
Most of us as church leaders are trying to reimagine how we strengthen our communities while living in separation. In the midst of zoom meetings and streaming services I also have this nagging thought. Most of the time it lies in the background but there are moments when it comes to the forefront. Hearing the surgeon general say, “This week, it’s gonna get bad” was one of those moments. And reading these texts - about death and death and death - is another.
People are getting sick. People will die. People we know. So preaching about dry bones and the death of the flesh and Lazarus seems about right.
by Rev. Jess Harren
John 9: 1-41
The passage for this Sunday, Lent 4, is full of sayings of Jesus, and a seemingly miraculous healing -- that is barely believed. Is Jesus from God that he healed a man? What about that he did it on the sabbath? Did someone sin? Yes, someone sinned. It wasn’t the man born blind or his parents, though. It was a group of someones. Jesus allows this sin to be removed, but gets in trouble for it with the authorities.
by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
Part the first:
This reading from Romans is so abused. Far too often, people are told that God causes suffering to make us strong, to give us hope, to turn us into better people. This version of theodicy, or why bad things happen, is at the root of so much suffering. Historically, people who have suffered under various kids of oppression have been told that God is behind the suffering, that the people causing the suffering are doing God’s work, and that the purpose of the suffering is to strengthen the person suffering -- their soul, body and faith. This theology is also peddled to people who are grieving the death of a loved one, people who are sick, and people who have been victims of violence. Even when not explicitly taught from the pulpit, this belief that God hands down suffering is so pervasive in our culture that it necessitates firm and loud rebuke. I have cared for more than one victim of sexual violence that has walked way from God because they could not understand why God would do that to them -- this terrible theology had become ingrained in them so deeply before they were hurt that no amount of correction attempts on my part could convince them otherwise.
Here, Paul is writing of the specific kind of suffering that comes from living a life of faith. The Christians to whom he was writing were being cast out of institutions from family to civic life because of their embracing of Christ. God wasn’t doing it to them (in fact, Paul never says that God is behind it), rather society is causing suffering by exiling people for their embrace of the message of Jesus. A life of faith is difficult, particularly when a life of faith goes against how society tells us to live. This message is buttressed by the reading from Exodus, in which the people are suffering for following Moses, under the guidance of God, into the desert. In both of these stories, it isn’t God causing the suffering, but, well, life, and the message in both readings is that God has our back as we suffer.
In our time in American society, there are many who claim they are being outcast from society because of their Christian faith. But, in a capitalistic society where white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia are the norm, who is it that is truly suffering for following Christ against the ways of the world? Those who are fighting to reinforce these ways, raking in millions as they do it, or those who fight against these oppressive structures in the name of love? How have our heroes of Christian life modeled suffering? By amassing wealth and fighting to have oppressive structures upheld, or by giving up what they have so that others might have abundant life? Suffering for your faith is not being forced to make a wedding cake or having your youtube channel shut down because you preach hate. No, it is being doxxed when you dare to challenge white supremacy, giving up your wealth so others may have more, and giving your life for preaching love.
Part the second:
The woman at the well is possibly my favorite story in scripture. Here, Jesus crosses all kinds of social boundaries to be present with a woman who has been outcast from her society to truly be present with her as a beloved child of God. I see her as the first female preacher, as she went out and told people what Jesus had done for her. In the act of presence, Jesus gives this woman new life.
Right now we are experiencing a horrible rising up of anti-Asian, particularly anti-Chinese sentiment. A contributor on Fox news questioned how we allow the Chinese to interact with “the civilized world.” Politicians on the right are calling COVID-19 “the Wuhan Virus,” and when challenged on this blatant racism, they double down with jokes like, “okay, fine, what if I call it the kung-fu virus.” Many members of our congregations are hearing this racist nonsense (and possibly spouting it themselves). The story of the woman at the well gives us an opportunity to talk to our people about the racism currently affecting people of Asian, particularly Chinese, descent and how Christ calls us to act differently. We can talk about Jesus example of not judging people by the stories we have heard about them and/or by the ways others are judging them. Jesus shows us welcome and compassion to those who have been marginalized by society. This story allows us to speak into this moment by talking about the care and nurturing Jesus shows a person who has been outcast by society, a woman his followers don’t even think he should speak to.
Now, we need to be careful here because the parallel could sound like we are decrying racism against people of Asian descent and simultaneously declaring them unclean or sinners. For too long, this story has centered around the supposed sinful nature of this woman because she has had five husbands. Instead of a story of welcoming the outcast, this story has become a weird intersection between slut-shaming and compassion. There is actually nothing in this passage that declares the woman a sinner! Jesus simply tells the woman he knows she has had five husbands. He doesn’t decry this as sinful or accuse her of anything. Her husbands could have died and/or left her because she couldn’t have children. Jesus understands her and why she has been ostracized. He does not call her a sinner, which, as we know, Jesus does! He routinely tells people they are clean from their sins or to go forth and sin no more. At no point does Jesus say anything about sin to this woman. He feels her pain, notes that she has had five husbands, and says nothing more about it.
In our time, as in the time of Jesus, there are so many people who have been and are being cast out and ostracized for myriad reasons. This is an excellent opportunity to proclaim that Jesus calls us to be in relationship with and show love to those who have been and are being ostracized and to center the ways people of Asian descent, Chinese descent in particular, are being harmed by racism as a result of fear-mongering about COVID-19. We can speak truth to this moment, explaining to our people that this is not a Chinese virus, it is not an Asian virus, it is a virus that attacks all people and there is no reason to aim our fear and anger at people of Asian or Chinese descent. Jesus shows us that in God’s kingdom, not only is there no room for racism and prejudice, but God specifically centers those who have been victims of hate and fear. We are called to go and do likewise.
From a pastor living in Seattle, in a center of the epidemic, I highly advise you (if you haven't already) to get with your leadership teams and your people and make preparations for what you will do if your local health organizations begin to advise you to not hold gatherings of more than 50 people and for people who are at highest risk to practice social distancing. Many of our faith communities are canceling worship and finding other ways to worship. One of the issues with COVID-19 is people can have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, so holding gatherings with people who appear healthy can spread the virus. While most people who have COVID-19 will be fine, we don’t want to expose people at risk of developing the virus in its more severe forms nor do we want to overload our health systems. We’re at a point here where it took hours for a nurse hotline to call me back because people are flooding all of our systems because they are afraid. We need to be calm but cautious.
Prayers for all of you in this time of stress and worry.
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Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:1-2)
In the stillness of the night he's risking his life, status, world, testing the ground to see if Jesus it's worth it. He's a learned man, a scholar, a thinker. He is a man of reason, rationale and facts. But he is also a man of faith.He has studied the scriptures, the Torah, Pentatuech, Talmud and midrash of various teachers. He has read between the lines of scripture to understand the way of life and found himself in alliance with the Pharisees; legalists who believe the letter of the law the literal word as written. Yet something deep within tells him that everything he has learned and everything he sees in this Jesus is somehow colliding. He must be sent from God!
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.