Weekly Reflections and Questions
Power and authority are key issues in the context of this week’s reading. Between this week’s lesson and last week’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Matthew describes a gathering storm of controversy over Jesus’ authority. Jesus foretells his death and resurrection (20:17-19), only to have the mother of the disciples James and John ask for her sons to be in a position of authority in Jesus’ kingdom. (Matthew 20:20-28) Jesus enters in triumph into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and promptly overturns the tables of the money-changers in the temple. (Matthew 21:1-7)
The multitudes are following Jesus; after all, he reaches out to the outcasts and sinners. The religious leaders are threatened and question his authority. They confront Jesus in the temple. Their weapons are barbed questions; Jesus responds with the parable of the two sons. (Matthew 21:28-32)
Once again, the setting of the parable is the vineyard – the place where the landowner offered free, unmerited grace in the previous parable. (Matthew 20:1-16) Now the hearer is challenged with the implications of this grace. Such grace leads to changed minds and hearts – repentance.
This change is seen in the first son, who at first refuses the invitation and call to work in the vineyard, but later experiences a change of heart and goes to work. He experiences a change of mind that leads to a change of life. In contrast is the second son, who initially says, “Yes,” to his father’s invitation but then fails to respond.
Grace is amazing – and challenging. It is amazing in its breadth – the outcast, the sinner, the least expected are all included. And it challenges the usual, expected, acceptable order. It offers the freedom to change and be changed. And it calls forth trust and belief.
The first son experiences the grace to turn back from his first word and offer the “yes” of faith. The second son knows the right words to say but fails to put the words into practice. The tax collectors and the prostitutes seem at first glance to say “no” to God; but their hearts are open to God’s message and messenger. In contrast, the religious leaders and scribes appear to be obedient – to say “yes” to God; but they have failed to be open to God’s life-changing grace.
Imagine picking up the morning paper and discovering that you had died the day before! That happened years ago as a newspaper erroneously reported the death of a famous man. The error gave the man the interesting opportunity to read what people would say about him after he had died.
So he began to read. He read past the bold caption that said, “Dynamite king dies,” to the text itself. He was taken aback to find that he was described as “a merchant of death,” for he was the inventor of dynamite and had amassed a great fortune from it.
The description in the newspaper sparked a change. Did he really want to be remembered this way? In that moment, he experienced a healing power greater than the destructive force of dynamite. He changed his life direction and devoted his energy and money to works of peace and human betterment. Today, he is best remembered as the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize – Alfred Nobel – all because he had the grace-filled experience to see himself as others saw him and the freedom to set his life in a different direction.
Grace leads to a change of heart – to repentance, which is an awesome and sometimes terrifying gift. Repentance forces us to look at ourselves honestly and acknowledge our failings, our times of saying, “yes” and then not doing anything, or our times of saying “no” when we should have said, “yes.”
But repentance is also a grace-filled gift because it leads us back to the grace of God, where we are reminded that we are not ultimately bound by our past actions and by what we have done, but by what God in Christ has done for us. The question becomes, “What do we do with such unbridled grace – grace that both judges and forgives, grace that includes both those inside the religiously acceptable circle as well as those who are seemingly on the outside?” This is the challenge for the Christian disciple.
1. Count the number of times the word “authority” is used in this passage. What is at stake over the issue of authority?
2. How does grace lead to changed lives– to repentance?
3. Which person would you rather work beside: the one who says no, but comes through or the one who says yes, but doesn’t show up?
4. How is your life different because of God’s grace?
The description of Paul’s visit to Philippi, a large Roman city in Macedonia, is described in Acts 16:11-40. It is in Philippi where Paul heals a slave girl, prompting her owners to drag Paul and Silas to the marketplace and have them imprisoned. While in prison, Paul prays and sings hymns. That night an earthquake occurs, but Paul and the other prisoners do not escape. By the end of the night, the jailer and his household have become believers. Paul and Silas are freed the next day.
All of this is important information to understand the context of Paul and his relationship with the followers of Christ who live in Philippi. He writes his letter not to strangers, but to those he knows and loves, fully aware of the opposition they face. In part, he writes this letter to offer further encouragement.
Paul feels comfortable enough to get personal. He encourages them to make his own joy complete. It sounds simple, but it is not. “. . . be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Philippians 2:2 NRSV)
Paul pleads for maturity to reign. Followers of Christ are not to be concerned about their own self-interest, but regard others before themselves. Paul knows selfishness is a chief obstacle to the goal of a loving community. An attitude of humility is to be adopted by each follower of Christ.
What follows in Philippians 2: 5-11 is one of the beloved hymns of the early church. Take a moment to slowly read aloud Philippians 2:5-11. If you are with others, try to read this section in unison
When Paul describes the mind of Christ, he emphasizes the servant aspect of Christ. Although he is God, Jesus empties himself and lets go. (See Philippians 2:7) He lets go of any selfish desire or need to be right. He lets go of pride. He lets go of himself as the center of the world. He empties himself, allowing God’s will and love to fill him.
What a powerful image and approach to life, especially when we see this emptying leads to his death on the cross. In a moment, Jesus could have changed the outcome. Instead, Jesus humbled himself to the point of death.
By most standards Sam and Junior had nothing in common. One was married and the other was single. One was wealthy and the other not. One loved sports and the other did not. One was politically conservative, the other radically liberal.
And yet when it came to the church, there was a deep bond. They both loved Christ and looked out for each other’s interest. Over the years, they created a system where they showed up after big church events to help with the final clean-up. They willingly took out the trash and swept floors together. Often Sam and Junior would be the last ones to leave a function, locking the doors behind them.
Rather than quarrel about their differences, Sam and Junior built a friendship on Christ. They encouraged one another and listened attentively to each other’s joys and sorrows. Their humility and willingness to serve set a tone for their congregation.
Sam and Junior appear to embody Paul’s vision of followers of Christ described in Philippians 2:1-5. Paul writes “. . . be of the same mind, having the same love, being fully of the same accord and of the same mind.” Nothing is done out of conceit or selfish ambition. The connection to Christ allows Sam and Junior to forge a friendship despite their differences.
Take a moment to name conflicts which sometimes occur within faith communities. Speak only in generalities.
1. How difficult or simple is it to be of the same mind, love, and accord with others?
2. Why is humility essential for a mature congregation?
3. What tends to divide followers of Christ?
Reflections and Questions from McCullough-Bade, “Daily Discipleship,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2005. McCullough-Bade, “Daily Faith Practices,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2011.
Prayer, “The Oxford Book of Prayer,” Ed. George Appleton, Oxford University Press, 2009, pg 81.