Who do you think you are? (Matthew 20-22)

December 19, 2010

Today I read Matthew 20-22. The thing that seems to recur here is Jesus letting people know, disciples and Pharisees alike, that those who believe they are the greatest are invariably not. In 20:26-28 Jesus tells his disciples that if they desire greatness they will become servants; pretty counter-intuitive stuff. Then in 21:28-32 we have the parable of the two sons, where Jesus says to the chief priests and elders “truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Pretty strong stuff there, as is the parable of the wedding banquet, 23:1-14.

One of the most infuriating readings of these passages of scripture, in which Jesus debates with temple leadership and later with Pharisees (22:15-22) and Sadducees (22:23-33), is to simply say “Oh, look at those first century people, how wrong they were! Good job we’re not like them isn’t it?” Even worse is the extrapolation that Jesus was criticising first century Judaism en masse, that he as tell ‘the Jews’ all the stuff they’d been getting wrong. There is danger of casual antisemitism when dealing with these texts.

So let’s get a few things straight. First, Jesus was Jewish and so were all of his first disciples and the ‘last supper’ was a passover meal so it’s unlikely that he was rejecting Judaism. Second, part of Jewish culture was and is debate, so the fact that Jesus is often found debating with groups like the Pharisees doesn’t mean they are some sort of evil villain figures in the gospels, but rather that he was engaging with as fellow believers, and often ‘astonishing’ them with his arguments (22:33). For those of you who know all this twice over, sorry, it just can’t be said enough.

So, if the message of the parables of the two sons and the wicked tenants and the wedding banquet don’t just apply to Jews of first century Jerusalem, if we can’t read them and simply see ourselves as the people who ‘got it’ and so get to be in Jesus’ club, then what can we learn?

The whole “us and them” mentality seems to be being attacked here. Those Jesus was criticising were perhaps those members of the temple leadership who treated religion like a members only club; you’re either in or your out. And what’s more, we’ll tell you who’s in and whose behaviour or status means your out.

Thank goodness there’s no churches like that nowadays right? Erm…well…maybe there are a few. And I could have a nice long rant about churches that would describe themselves as ‘biblical’ and use that very status to exclude. I am deeply suspicious of any claim to knowing who’s in and who’s out of the kingdom of God. Jesus makes it very clear that people who interpret scripture in this exclusive way are rather missing the point.

But if I spent this post going on about other people and how bad they were at listening to Jesus I wouldn’t really be heeding my own advice would I? So how does this apply to me? Who do I look upon and feel superior to? Who do I seek to exclude from the kingdom of God? Perhaps those very people I have mentioned above, with whom I differ theologically. Or let’s turn it around, how do I think of myself? Am I confident that I’m in the club, confident that my soul is safe, whilst speculating that others aren’t?

I hope not. But I can’t be sure that these thoughts enter my mind. And this kind of judgement is a big deal, the biggest perhaps, because it’s a judgement not on personalities or behaviour, but on souls. If you think you know who’s in and who’s out then beware “for with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:2). And I don’t think it’s just about knowing “who’s going to heaven”, most of us would admit that’s beyond the limits of our vision, but also about who’s really close to God, who really gets it. I suppose the point is, if you think you know that, you probably don’t get it.

So are we prepared to leave judgement up to God? This doesn’t mean not challenging each other, we see that debate is vital in Jesus’ interaction with various groups; as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another, after all. So it’s not that I have to say to those who I see as exclusive “go ahead, I affirm your actions!”, but at the same I must address these issues in a spirit of humility, remembering the log in my eye (Matthew 7:3). I can only address my fellow human beings as what they are; equals in the sight of God. If I think of myself as more useful or of higher standing in the sight of God, especially if that’s simply by the fact that I’m a Christian, then how am I any different from those who Jesus admonished?

It is difficult to find the balance between affirming who you are in God and getting an ego about it. It is difficult, too, to challenge and admonish your brothers and sisters without having a sense of superiority. Difficult, but very very important.

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