ISAIAH 45:1,4-6 | 1 THESSALONIANS 1:5B | MATTHEW 22:15-21
“Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” is certainly on the top ten list of biblical quotes. Jesus said this to circumvent a difficult situation. Two groups, hostile to each other, united in an attempt to take him down. The Herodians were a political party loyal to Herod who was set up by Rome and worked hand in hand with it. The Pharisees were a conservative, ultra-orthodox Jewish group that wanted Israel to be a theocracy. Both groups felt threatened by Jesus. As a popular Jewish preacher, he was seen as a threat to the stability of the Roman occupation. As a rabbi, his “liberal” approach was seen as a threat to Jewish orthodoxy. They thought they had come up with the perfect trap to stop this Jesus once and for all by asking, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
If Jesus answered “yes,” the Pharisees would condemn him as a traitor to the Jewish people.
If he answered “no,” the Herodians would have him arrested for inciting revolt. Jesus’ answer was simple – you know your obligations to the state and to God; now act on it!
Jesus’ answer is of utmost importance for us to hear today. We’re in the midst of a tremendous existential challenge. The divisions that are tearing our country apart have become so toxic that the future of our democracy is in jeopardy. We cannot allow ourselves to be sidetracked by any one particular political issue.
Jesus looked at the big picture, collaboration and harmony. And so must we. It’s the only remedy for the healing of our republic. Another teaching of Jesus is closely related to this one and well worth taking note of at this moment. “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and no town or house divided against itself will stand.” We need to discard our boxing gloves. We need to find ways to clasp hands again so that we can work for the common good.
The work that lies before us is daunting. Hard-headed focusing on one issue or another can only intensify the divide. We must keep our focus on the big picture. We must never forget the ideal our republic is built on. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Can there be any ideal more profound than ours?
Father, I pray for myself
and my brothers and sisters
throughout our nation.
We’re drowning in hate and anger.
Deliver us from the grip of the evil one.
Rend our hearts
that they might beat in rhythm with your own.
Heal us that we might love
as you love and forgive as you forgive.
ISAIAH 25:6-10A | PHILIPPIANS 4:12-14 | MATTHEW 22:1-14
Today we have a double parable, an interpretation, and a warning to think about. The first parable is very well known: the story of a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. (This is a big-time celebration – no sane person would skip this bash.) But…in the story, people found excuses not to come! They were too preoccupied with the day to day: a farm, a business. The interpretation may, at first, seem obvious. The invited guests were the Jewish people, the first to receive the invitation to the wedding feast. Many rejected the invitation, and some even killed the messengers God sent them.
So, the king sent his messengers out to the roads to invite everyone, good and bad alike, and the banquet was full. An interpretation: The Jewish people were the first to receive an invitation to the wedding banquet, and now everyone is invited. At this point an interpretation was inserted into Jesus’ story.
This Gospel was written between 80 and 90 CE, shortly after the Jewish revolt of 66 CE and the subsequent destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Hence, the interpretation: “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” The destruction of the temple, and the permanent transformation of Judaism that followed, was interpreted as God’s punishment of the Jewish nation for its lack of faith. (A dangerous interpretation that has fed antiSemitism through many generations of Christians.)
Now, the second parable…..A man came to a wedding not wearing a wedding garment. Seeing him, the king commanded his servants: “Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” He missed the opportunity to enter the kingdom because he wasn’t dressed properly. He tried to pour the new wine of the kingdom into his old wineskin. This would have been a more appropriate, and less toxic, conclusion to the first parable.
Every time we gather for the Eucharist we pray, “your kingdom come.” These words are a continual reminder that everyone is invited to the kingdom – there are no exclusions. But the invitation to eat at the table in the kingdom isn’t without a stipulation. It calls for a change of heart, a separation from worldly distractions, and an uncompromising focus on the kingdom.
ISAIAH 5:1-7 | PHILIPPIANS 4:6-9 | MATTHEW 21:33-43
Jesus continues his duel with the chief priests and elders in the gospel passage today. He confronts them with yet another parable about the vineyard. Every Jew knew and loved Isaiah’s prophetic proclamation: “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.” In fact, over the entrance to the sanctuary of the temple there was a great vine cast in gold. The faithful added golden grapes, leaves or berries to it in memory of loved ones or as an act of personal devotion.
Jesus began the parable with a description of an active vineyard. The Israel of Jesus’ time was in bad shape politically and economically. Landowners often lived outside of Israel and rented their property. The landowner of this property planted a hedge around it to keep out wild animals and thieves. He dug a wine press, and built a protective observation tower in the middle of the vineyard. The time had come for the tenants to pay the rent.
The situation presented in the parable mirrors the situation in Israel. God, the landowner, did all he could to make the property safe and productive. However, when vintage time came and he sent out his servants to collect his rent in the form of produce the tenants beat then, and they even killed some. So, he sent his son to them believing that his son would be able to speak some sense into them. But they killed his son.
At this point Jesus engaged the elders and chief priests. “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” Their answer was a self-condemnation. “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper time.” Israel was God’s vineyard. The chief priests and elders were the tenants entrusted with the harvest, but they returned nothing. They mistreated and killed the prophets God sent to help them. Prophetically, Jesus revealed to them that they would also kill the landowner’s son.
So, that’s the parable and its interpretation as Jesus spoke it. But his parables transcend specific times and places. What might this parable mean for us today?
When we were baptized, each of us was anointed, commissioned to carry on the ministry of Jesus – to work in the vineyard of the Lord – to gather the harvest. To connect with another metaphor Jesus used, we were called to be “fishers of men.” To accomplish this, we’ve been asked to follow one commandment, a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Jesus’ love was, and continues to be, a sacrificial love. The message of the kingdom isn’t always a spoken one. In fact, most of the time, it’s manifested through our everyday actions and attitudes. As Marshall McLuhan would say, “The medium is the message.” The way we live and interact, mirroring the sacrificial love of Jesus, is the way we preach the kingdom. It’s the way we pull in the great catch of fish. It’s the way we gather the harvest. We’ve been given the vineyard to till. Let’s never forget our baptismal agreement to work in the vineyard of the Lord.
EZEKIEL 18:25-28 | PHILIPPIANS 2:1-11 | MATTHEW 21:28-32
Let’s put today’s Gospel passage into its context. Jesus had recently entered Jerusalem with great fanfare, cheers and waving of palms. He went straight into the temple where he performed a prophetic act. Quoting from the prophecy of Isaiah, “My temple shall be called a house of prayer for all nations,” he overturned the tables of the money changers and those selling pigeons. The chief priests and elders confronted him the following day when he returned to the temple. They demanded to know by what authority he had performed the prophetic act. As an answer, Jesus confronted them with the parable we’re reading today.
A man had two sons. He asked both of them to work in the vineyard. One refused, but eventually went. The other said he would go, but never did. Jesus then directed a question to them. “Which of the two sons did what the father wanted?” They had no choice but to say it was the one who refused to go but eventually did. It was the better of the two choices, but neither was pleasing to thefather. They knew that Jesus was comparing these two sons to them – stubborn, rebellious, contrary. Neither son was a joy to his father. Just in case they didn’t get the point, Jesus moved in with the big artillery.
The religious leaders looked down on the ordinary people. They were smug and judgmental. They scrupulously obeyed the laws, but never allowed the spirit of the law to touch their hearts – melt their hearts – transform their hearts.
“The prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you!”
This parable about the two sons is a call to conversion. A person may follow every letter of the law, but isn’t guaranteed entrance into the kingdom of God. The heart is the path to the kingdom of God. The prostitutes and the tax collectors opened their hearts when they heard Jesus’ message, the religious leaders hardened theirs.
We’re being called to conversion, to open our hearts to God, to follow the new commandment Jesus gave us. “Love one another as I have loved you.”