In this week’s gospel we again find Jesus in debate with Hebrew leaders. Today’s passage is the last of the questions put to Jesus to try to disperse the charismatic power he had among the people. The leaders knew that if they could discredit him or pose a question that he could not answer, he would no longer be a threat to them. The challenge Jesus represented to the status quo would be over.
Over the past month in the lectionary we have heard about Jesus coming out on top of every argument with different groups of established religious leaders. Today’s reading ends with the statement that no one dared asked Jesus any more questions. Those in power realized this strategy would not work and that they must take more drastic measures to get rid of the man.
The question heard today comes from a member of the Pharisees who asked Jesus, which commandment in the law is the greatest? Jesus answered with words that observant Jews both then and now recite each morning and each evening as a part of the Shema. For Episcopalians who grew up with the 1928 Prayer Book, or now, who are familiar with rite I, Jesus answers with words that we also recognize and perhaps even know by memory.
The scripture is Deuteronomy 6: 5. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That was the first part of Jesus answer to today’s question.
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed.” That’s one of many, many times we hear that reaction throughout the Gospels. The descriptions just keep coming: He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished. Amazement came upon them all, and they began talking with one another saying, ‘What is this message?’ When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching. Astonished by his answer, they were speechless. Amazement, speechlessness, shock. If we don’t ever react like that to the things Jesus did and said, I wonder if we haven’t found some way to hit the mute button on the message.
Mark and I worked in a shantytown in South Africa for a few months during the decade where I was not in parish ministry. This was long after the end of apartheid, but the structures of that system were still very much in evidence. Most of our time was spent out among the shacks day to day, but we did get to visit key sites like Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and the District 6 Museum, honoring a neighborhood where more than 60,000 people were forcibly removed and their homes bulldozed after it was declared an area for whites only.
Consider the finale of the epistle lesson today; I’m sure you heard this before -- it’s definitely one of those refrigerator magnet verses.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Now the thing is, I’m not much of a to-do list person. I mean, if I have a few tasks that I want to get done in a certain order, I might jot them down real quick, but beyond that, I’m never derived much benefit from grand organization plans which require writing stuff down. I didn’t take notes in college or seminary, which always stood in stark contrast to my wife whose binders and daily planner system rivaled the complexity and detail of a Swiss watch.
So when I come across this famous list from Paul at the end of his Letter to the Philippians, a part of me senses a real challenge. It combines two things that, in my experience, are often mutually exclusive: peace and intentional thought. The effort to think about truth, honor, justice, purity, about that which is pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise is difficult. Not to mention the struggle of trying to keep up the imitation of Christ and his saints, “to keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen.” Oftentimes, peace is the last thing that I feel in the midst of these endeavors. It looks like another to-do list.
I had no idea before moving to Central Illinois how many vineyards there were in this area. Sleepy Creek near Danville, Alto Vineyards right here in Champaign, Sunset Lake north of Bloomington… If you look at the whole state, there are over 100, with maps you can download of wine trails, and even an annual expo called Vintage Illinois. Running a vineyard is an art requiring management of several ingredients – soil, climate, grape choices, watering, the daily weather, how you prune, when you harvest, when you take the stems off – It goes on and on and some of you here know far more about it than me.
But perhaps that complexity and nuance is part of why a vineyard is what keeps getting chosen, all over scripture, as a way of talking about the people of God, about God’s kingdom project of growing, nourishing, and fine-tuning a community that lives his way in the midst of a world that doesn’t. We saw that today in Isaiah, the Psalm, and the Gospel. Just like a real vineyard, there is a constant, complex management of ingredients God engages in, trying to obtain the fruit he wants from his vineyard – whether in the large sense of all the people of God, or the smaller sense of a church like us, as one instance of that people.
At first read today’s gospel seems to be three separate messages, a question and answer time between the temple leadership and Jesus, a fairly straight forward parable and a statement from Jesus of who will be first in the kingdom of God. The three parts seem random and disconnected, at first. To see how they are connected, it is necessary to know the timeline of when these comments originally took place.
This gospel taken as a whole is about a power struggle, who has power and who does not. It begins describing a meeting of Jesus with the chief priests and elders in the temple in Jerusalem. This happened near the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, what we celebrate as Holy Week now. Just before this meeting, Jesus had entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, with great cheers and affirmation from the people. Hosanna in the highest, they have shouted. And then right after that parade, if you will, Jesus had entered the Temple, his Father’s house, the holiest of Jewish sites, and had overturned the tables of the money changers. Jesus expressed great anger at those who had used this holy place to extort money from those who were there to worship. Although the Temple leadership was usually recognized as the top of the power chain, at this moment, Jesus was in the place of power with the people. The Pharisees, the chief priests, knew their position was in jeopardy and that they needed to tread lightly as they sought to get rid of this man Jesus.
As the morning’s gospel story begins, it is the day after his triumphant entry, the second day of his occupation of the temple and we find Jesus teaching. Most likely he has drawn a large crowd of those who had been there the day before and who had seen and participated in all that had happened. At this moment the crowd would have been on the side of Jesus in any argument with these Temple authorities.