Peter Misselbrook's Blog
19/09/2020 - Matthew 20:1-28 – The unfairness of God

Many of Jesus' parables, as told in Matthew's gospel, begin with the phrase, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." The one in our reading this morning tells the story of a landowner who hired workers for his vineyard. Some are hired early in the morning and work through the scorching heat of the day. Others are hired later in the day, some as late as the final hour of the working day. Yet when it comes to the time for them to be paid, they all receive the same amount.

How might this parable have been heard by those to whom Jesus first told it? Perhaps it was told against the background of the resentment of the Jewish leaders against the "sinners" and tax collectors who were so attracted by Jesus and his teaching and whom he seemed so ready to welcome.

How might this parable have been heard by those for whom Matthew included it in his gospel? Maybe it was written against the background of tension over the expansion of the church among the Gentiles; why should these latecomers enjoy the same blessings as those who had laboured so long and suffered so much for the God of Abraham?

How do we hear this parable?

The parable is all about the generosity of the landowner. The parable is about the grace of God. The dying thief is welcomed into the kingdom equally alongside the apostles who have devoted their lives to labouring for their Lord. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of grace.

The disciples found this very difficult to grasp. The mother of James and John asked Jesus for one of her sons to sit at his right hand in the kingdom and the other on the left. She felt that those who had spent so much time in Jesus' company and had laboured with him for these three years deserved the chief places in the kingdom. That's not the way my kingdom works, Jesus says, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28).

Our labour in the vineyard is as nothing compared with that of the Lord Jesus. He, the Son of God, came to give his life as a ransom for many. He paid the penalty for our sins so that we might enter freely into the blessings of his labour. He worked through the scorching heat of the day. We are all latecomers to the kingdom. Praise God that he does not treat us as our sins deserve but embraces us in his love – the love that moved him to give his Son for us.

How does this truth shape our attitude towards others who have come to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ? Do we have a hierarchical view of the kingdom in which we try to fit ourselves and others into some sort of pecking order? The grace of God is a great leveller.

Lord, teach me what it means to follow you. Teach me what it means to live a life of glad service of the servant king. Keep me from the deceit of looking for status in your kingdom because of the many things I imagine I have done for you. Teach me to revel in the glorious unfairness of your grace – that you continually lavish blessings upon me that I do not deserve.

18/09/2020 - Matthew 19:13-30 – The rich man’s question

A rich man once came to Jesus to ask what good thing he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus' response to the man does not seem to fit well with our handy summaries of the gospel. It's obvious how Jesus should have dealt with the man. First he should have challenged his understanding of works-righteousness and told him that there was nothing he could do to gain eternal life. It's not about earning salvation, it's a matter of receiving it as a gift. Then he should have explained that the death he was shortly to suffer was to be an atoning sacrifice for this man's sins. He should then have told the man that he could only be justified through faith in Jesus and his sacrificial death. So he should have urged the man to believe in him and be saved before returning to enjoy his riches.

The way Jesus deals with this man defies all of our simplistic reductions of the gospel. Indeed, it may even be argued that the message Jesus had for him was not good news at all, for he calls him to let go of all that was precious to him.

Should we seek to press Jesus into the mould of our pocket-sized gospel or do we have to rethink our understanding of the gospel in the light of Jesus words?

Jesus calls this young man not to a moment of decision but to a life of following him. This call demands a radical reordering of every part of his life. Jesus' demand for the young man to give away all that he has is a call to toss aside all that stands in the way of following him. It is a call to reassess what is truly valuable. It also challenges him to rethink his easy assertion that he has kept the law perfectly from his youth. Has this man truly loved his neighbour as himself when he is so reluctant to use his riches to help the poor? Is he free from the sin of covetousness just because he did not want what was possessed by someone else?

The disciples' are perplexed when Jesus goes on to speak of how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. In their culture, riches were viewed as a sign of God's blessing and approval. But Jesus warns that riches are all too often a stumbling block; the one who possesses them feels self-sufficient and in need of nothing. The disciples' understanding of the kingdom needed a radical makeover.

Is this any less true of us – we who live in the prosperous West and who seem so reluctant to sacrifice our lifestyle so that our neighbours in other parts of the world may have food enough for themselves and their children? What would Jesus say to us?

Jesus challenges our understanding of the gospel. It's not just about faith as a set of beliefs or simple confession; it's about the lifelong transforming call to follow Jesus. If we have a concept of justification by faith that makes us feel that the letter of James is an epistle of straw, we need to look again at the message of Jesus. Jesus does not allow us to get away with a simplistic gospel. He calls us to costly discipleship which has the promise of a hundredfold treasures in the commonwealth of the people of God and an inheritance of glory to come.

Father, forgive me that I so often rewrite the gospel to suit my own desires. Lord Jesus, open my ears to hear clearly what you are saying to me and teach me what it means to follow you. I own you as Lord; may no part of my life be excluded from your kingdom rule. Spirit of God, help me to give up my own treasures in the light of the matchless treasure of Christ and his kingdom. May following him be all my joy and my delight.

17/09/2020 - Matthew 18:21-19:12 – Forgive as the Lord forgave you

In response to Peter's question concerning how often he should forgive someone who sins against him, Jesus tells a parable concerning a king and his servants. The king forgives one of his servants who owed him an immense debt which he could never repay. That same servant then went out of the king's presence to lay hold of a fellow servant who owed him a small amount and threw him in prison until he could pay the debt. When the king heard of it he was very angry and, in turn, threw the servant who had owed him an immense debt into prison. This, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of heaven is like. And, "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart" (Matthew 18:35).

This is a complex and challenging parable. On the one hand the basic message is clear: God has forgiven us a great debt which we could never repay; in response, we should freely and gladly forgive those who sin against us. This much is clear, yet how difficult we find it to forgive from the heart. How easy we find it to harbour resentments against those who have hurt us. Hurts and injustices from years back seem somehow indelibly stamped on our minds and the memory of them floods back when we meet the person again. The only remedy to such resentments and feelings is a deep awareness of our own offences against God and the wonder of his forgiveness of us. We need also to remember the cost of our forgiveness; our great debt was fully paid by another. It is out of the heartfelt awareness that we are a forgiven people that we become a people who forgive others from our heart. Paul urges the Christians to whom he is writing, "Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Colossians 3:13).

But there is a sting in the tail of this parable. Jesus suggests that if we do not forgive one another, neither will God forgive us (Matthew 18:35). This is a hard saying for we are all aware of our own imperfection. We know that we ought to forgive others as we have been forgiven, but we know also that we are not yet all that we should be – and hope yet to be. Is it really true that if we fail in the smallest regard to be like God we will for ever be condemned? I do not wish to dilute the seriousness of this saying of Jesus, but neither do I want to leave us without hope. I think that Jesus is telling us that if we harbour a resentful and unforgiving spirit we show ourselves to be those who have not been touched by the grace of God. Jesus' parable is not told to condemn us but is told to Peter and to us as a call to continual forgiveness, even as God forgives us.

Mutual forgiveness is essential if we are to live well with those closest to us. The harbouring of resentments against a spouse destroys a marriage even as self-denying love strengthens the bonds of family and friends. We need to keep guard over our hearts that they may not become hardened through the imagination that others have not treated us as we deserve; they need constantly to be softened through the wonder that God has not treated us as our sins deserved.

Loving Father, help me to see more clearly the marvel of your grace towards me in the Lord Jesus Christ. Help me by your Spirit always to treat others in ways which reflect the love and forgiveness you have lavished upon me. Help me to value and nurture my relationships with others rather than undermine them through dissatisfaction, bitterness and resentment.

16/09/2020 - Matthew 18:1-20 – Little ones

Jesus had spoken to Peter rather cryptically about the status of the sons of the kingdom and the freedom they enjoy (Matthew 17:24-27). Maybe the disciples had begun to talk together about what Jesus had said and to ask each other what it could mean. Maybe they had begun to weave together grand views of their rights as sons. Something like this seems to have prompted them to come to Jesus with the question that appears so often to have been in the forefront of their minds, "Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (18:1). The very question indicates that they had not understood the nature of the kingdom that Jesus has come to establish. They are concerned to secure the chief places in his kingdom even as Jesus, their king, is on his way to the cross.

In response to their question, Jesus finds a little child whom he makes the centre of attention. Then Jesus answers their question, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" (18:3-5). In the culture of first century Palestine, children had the lowest place in society. The little child is a picture of one utterly devoid of power and status; one who is entirely dependent upon others. This, says Jesus, is what his kingdom is like. The kingdom that he is establishing is not like the kingdoms of this world. It is not built upon achievement and self-centred status; it is the creation of grace – grace that embraces the little ones of this world.

And this is to be the spirit that marks those who belong to the kingdom and shapes their attitudes to others. They are not to despise the little ones – those whom the world counts insignificant. They are to cherish and encourage such folk and never cause them to stumble. We are to reflect the character of our Master, the Good Shepherd, who came to seek and to save those who were lost – read 18:10-14 in context. We are to welcome and embrace the stranger and the outcast.

We need to ask ourselves whether our church life embodies and reflects the words of Jesus. Do we reflect the genuinely humble and gracious character of the one whom we serve? Might it be that we are sometimes guilty of the faults which James exposes and criticises in James 2:1-7? Could it be that we sometimes favour the great ones of this world more that the little ones because we aspire to similar worldly status?

And the same spirit is to mark the way in which we live with one another as children of the kingdom. When others upset us or do us harm we are to go out of our way to try to mend the situation and be reconciled. The activity described by Jesus in verses 15-19 is not to be viewed in legalistic terms, as if it were canon law or procedures for church courts. Rather, Jesus encourages us to do all we can, individually and corporately, to win back someone who is disaffected towards the fellowship. Again, like the Good Shepherd whom we follow, we are to go out of our way to bring the wanderer back home. Forgiveness and reconciliation are to be key characteristics of the children of the King.

Lord Jesus, teach me what it means to follow you and to reflect the character of the Father who "is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost." Help me by your Spirit, as far as it is in my power, to live at peace with others and so to reveal your character to the world.

15/09/2020 - Matthew 17:9-27 – The days of Elijah

Peter, James and John had been with Jesus on the mountain top and had seen him transformed – "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light" (Matthew 17:2). They saw him speaking with Moses and Elijah and heard God's voice, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" (17:5). Now, as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructs them not to tell anyone else of what they had seen, "until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead" (17:9).

Not surprisingly, the disciples are confused. They cannot understand what they have seen and they cannot work out how it all relates to the resurrection of the dead. They know that the resurrection of the dead will occur at the end of the age, when God finally comes to visit his people. On that day the dead will be raised and everyone will stand before the judgment seat of God. That day will mark the beginning of the age to come. But Elijah must come first. That's what the teachers of the law say, and in this they were only expounding what God himself has said in Malachi 4:5-6, "See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction." So the disciples ask Jesus, "Surely, Elijah must come first?"

Jesus does not contradict any of these assumptions; rather, he tells them that Elijah has already come. Elijah has come "and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands" (17:12). The disciples then understand that Jesus is speaking of John the Baptist.

If John is the one who fulfils this prophecy concerning Elijah, then "the great and dreadful day of the Lord" is soon to follow. Judgment day, and the day of resurrection are about to appear. And in some way that the disciples just cannot understand, all of this is centred upon Jesus: he must suffer and die; he will be raised from the dead. He is God's Son, the Christ, who will bring in the age to come.

The disciples could not understand the things that Jesus was telling them – though they were to understand them later, when he had been raised from the dead. Sometimes we also seem slow to understand. These are not the days of Elijah. This is the day of the Lord, the one of whom Moses and the prophets had spoken. Christ has come; Christ has died; Christ is risen. In Christ, judgment day has come; resurrection day has arrived; the age to come has broken into the now of human history. All the world is called to listen to him, own him as Lord, trust in him and serve him.

Father God, you spoke to us in many ways and varied circumstances down the centuries. I thank you that you have now spoken to us through your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you that you have made me a child of the King. Help me to listen to him and to have faith in him. Enable my faith, though it be like a grain of mustard seed, to grow strong and true. Lord Jesus, help me to serve you through the power of your risen presence within me that I may minister your life, healing and freedom to those around me.

14/09/2020 - Matthew 16:13-17:8 – “Who do you say I am?”

Some time ago, I attended a lecture given by Tom Wright on the relationship between the cross and the kingdom in the Gospels. He suggested that the Christian Church has generally failed to understand the connection between the two. The Evangelical churches have majored on the centrality of the cross but have tended to neglect Jesus' teaching on the kingdom. The liberal churches have preached a social gospel, majoring on the theme of the kingdom but have tended to side-line the cross1.

This is, of course, nothing new. In the passage we are reading this morning, Jesus challenges his disciples with the question, "Who do you say I am?" (Matthew 16:15). Peter responds, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Peter has got it. He has understood who Jesus is. He understands that Jesus is the Messiah, Israel's King, David’s greater son, come at last to establish his kingdom. Jesus acknowledges Peter’s insight; God himself had opened Peter's eyes to understand this truth. It is upon this revelation and upon this confession that Jesus will build his church – a movement that will lay siege to the kingdom of darkness, will capture its citadel and destroy its power.

But with his next breath Jesus goes on to speak of the cross. He tells his disciples that he must go up to Jerusalem where he will be opposed, mistreated and will suffer and die. This is something Peter cannot understand. Jesus should go up to Jerusalem to be acknowledged and enthroned. Peter therefore took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him saying, "This shall never happen to you!" (16:22). For all Peter's insight, he has not really understood Jesus mission; he cannot hold together the message of the kingdom and the message of the cross. He who was later to spearhead the assault on the kingdom of darkness is at this moment an ally of the dark power.

Jesus is seeking to teach his disciples that cross and kingdom are intimately connected. They are intimately connected in the Lord Jesus; his kingdom comes through his cross. And this is no incidental precondition for the coming of the kingdom; the cross defines the very nature of his kingdom even as the kingdom, with all the wealth of its Old Testament background and promise, shapes the meaning of the cross. When the two are separated we understand neither and are in danger of setting ourselves against the purpose of God rather than being the people through whom his kingdom comes.

The close connection between cross and kingdom not only shapes the ministry of Jesus, it must also shape the life and ministry of all who follow him. Jesus says, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (16:24). The kingdom is still cross-shaped. The agents of the kingdom are not to be conquering warriors – Crusaders; like their Master they are called to be suffering servants. Jesus’ message of kingdom and cross leaves room for neither shallow triumphalism nor pietistic withdrawal from the world.

Are we really listening to the teaching of Jesus? How do his life and words shape our understanding of what it means to be the people of God – disciples of Christ? How do they shape our understanding of the commission we have received from King Jesus?

Lord Jesus, help me not only to understand more of the paradox of your cross-shaped kingdom; help me also to live gladly as a subject of the King and an ambassador of the kingdom. Keep me from telling you what you must do – and what you must do for me. Help me rather to listen to you attentively, learn from you daily, follow you closely and serve you faithfully.

1That lecture is now expanded in his book, How God Became King

 

13/09/2020 - Matthew 15:29-16:12 – Give us this day our daily bread

Matthew 14 records Jesus feeding the five thousand from five small loaves and two fish. Matthew 15 records a similar feeding, now of four thousand with seven loaves and a few fish. In both accounts the background is similar: Jesus had sought to find a place where he could be alone with his disciples but the crowds had sought him out. They had come bringing their sick for healing. Jesus not only healed their various diseases, he also had compassion on them and fed them before sending them away. In both accounts it is emphasised that the crowd were fully satisfied; they ate their fill and there was food left over.

Jesus' actions with the crowd stand out in strong contrast with his conduct when tempted by the devil after his baptism. Jesus had been fasting for forty days in a desert place when the devil tempted him to turn stones into bread. Jesus would not use his miraculous powers for his own benefit but answered that God's people should live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. And this was how he continued to live; this was the food he had that the disciples failed to understand (John 4:32). But here, on two occasions he feeds the crowds in the "desert" place – the uninhabited countryside. Jesus will not use his powers for his own comfort, but he will use them to meet the needs of the crowds, for he has compassion on them. He heals their sicknesses and provides food to sustain them.

In his Gospel account, John tells us that the crowds saw a parallel between Jesus' feeding of them and the manna which the Israelites ate in the wilderness. And they were right to do so, for the God who had compassion upon their ancestors and provided for them in the desert is the one who now stands among them showing the same compassion. But they fail to see the depth of God's compassion for them. They would be satisfied with bread in their stomachs but Jesus has come to give himself for their healing.

The Pharisees and Sadducees came asking Jesus for a sign. Jesus refused to offer them yet another sign. They had seen the things he was doing and had heard the things he was teaching and that should have been sign enough if they only had eyes to see it (see 15:31). Yet he does tell them that they will witness one further sign, the sign of Jonah. By this, Jesus refers to his own death and resurrection. This is the ultimate sign and the ultimate display of his compassion. Jesus gave himself that we might live. He is the Word of God by which we live. His death has defeated death and his resurrection is the beginning of the life of the age to come.

Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but Thou art mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee;
I will ever give to thee.

Father in heaven, give us this day our daily bread. Jesus, Lord of compassion, feed me and satisfy me with your goodness. Lord, open my eyes to see the needs of this crowded world. Give me your heart of compassion that, by the power of your Spirit and out of the abundance of your provision, I may minister freely to those who are hungry, those who are sick and to those in desert places who thirst for the water of life.

12/09/2020 - Matthew 15:1-28 – The tradition of the elders

The Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus why his disciples did not observe the tradition of the elders; they did not ceremonially wash their hands before they ate. In reply, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy. He shows that they have developed traditions which undermine the commands of God and excuse people from their obligations towards family, obligations that God has laid down in his word; "Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition" (Matthew 15:6).

We all have our traditions. We have ways of reading the Word of God which have been handed down to us, ways of reading which we have learnt or absorbed from others. This is not a bad thing, it is inevitable. Indeed, those who treasure Scripture most will be those whose traditions are most highly developed – they are our "theology", our way of reading the Bible. We do not read the Bible alone; we read it from within the community that has read it down the centuries and is reading it with us today. We read and hear it with the eyes and ears of our community of faith – how many will tell you that "the eye of a needle" was a very small gate in the walls of Jerusalem?

This is both a blessing and a danger. It is a blessing inasmuch as we learn from and with those who have gone before us. We are the heirs of their collective wisdom, and for this we give thanks to God. But it is a danger inasmuch as it is all too easy to blunt the edge of the Word of God through the myriad of explanations and qualifications that are passed down to us. The voice of God may become muffled, sometimes even silenced, by the overlay of our traditions.

We need to seek continually to hear the word of God afresh. We need to be like the Bereans who listened to the preaching of Paul; to value those who have helped us to understand the Word of God, but also to be always searching and studying the Scriptures to check that what they have taught us is faithful to the word – that it acts as a hearing aid rather than ear protectors.

Sadly, the re-examination of our traditions can often be viewed as threatening by those who cherish them most. To question how our party has interpreted the Word of God on a particular matter may be seen by the party faithful as the questioning of God himself. It is desperately sad when such party-spirit prevents people from allowing God to speak for himself – he must always speak through his self-appointed spokesmen.

The need to hear afresh what God is saying is never more necessary than when we come to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus says difficult things which continually challenge our settled lives. He will not allow us to become comfortable in our traditions; he demands that we examine the character of our hearts and the way we act towards and speak with one another. He calls us to be a pilgrim people, a transformed, transforming and transformative community. We need always to listen afresh to the words of Jesus and seek the help of his Spirit to hear his voice and go on following him.

Open my ears, Lord, to hear what you are saying to me from your Word. Let me feed on the crumbs that fall from the master’s table and dare even to sit at the table and feast with you. Keep me from a critical spirit that easily dismisses the views of others. Help me rather to continually re-examine my own heart that it may be cleansed by your Spirit and that it may be the source of words and actions that reflect the beauty and grace of your own life within me. Keep me following you closely in the fellowship of your disciples.

Peter Misselbrook