Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
March 27, 2022
1 Samuel 8:1-22; Luke 20:1-19
The sermon writing process always has its hurdles and walls that a preacher must get through to reach the final message. For me there is one particular wall that comes up every single time I preach. Spray painted in huge graffiti letters across the face of this wall are the words, “The Bible Says…”
I do not like this phrase. I have giant red flags that shoot up and alarms that go off when I hear “The Bible Says…” Here is the way. If you have spent any amount of time interacting with scripture that spans a significant time period of your life you know that “what the Bible says” changes. I don’t mean the words on the page, though scanning different translations you will find the words change from one to the other, I am talking about the meaning that fills us as we read.
You can read the same chapter as a child, a teen, a divorcee, a grandparent, and just before you die, and each reading of the chapter will say something different to you as you experience different corners of life.
This is why the wall of “The Bible Says…” causes me so much anxiety when I preach. I never want anyone to hear one of my sermons and think they KNOW what that scripture passage says and never again challenge their understanding. I don’t want someone to have a brilliant insight later on and feel like they are wrong because that isn’t how Pastor Bethany explained it.
But when I preach, I do want to offer you AN interpretation; something that could help your spiritual health and your relationship with God. To offer you that, I have to pick a direction to go and risk that someone might think what I say is the only thing the Bible is saying.
I bring this up this week because this parable is extremely debated among biblical scholars. It is still unclear to us what Jesus was trying to say. It is so frustrating and yet…one of the greatest gifts Jesus gave us. This parable shows the genius of Jesus’ teaching style, and I don’t want to ruin your interaction with this parable by telling you what it means. This week I decided not to decide. I’m going to make you do some of the work with the Spirit to get to a meaning that is valuable for your moment in this faith journey.
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants. First off, we are being primed to put the tenants into the villain category with the title of this section. Fun Bible fact: those titles were not in the original writings so we have to be careful not to let something a translator added relatively recently color the way we read these verses. They might be wicked, or there might be a plot twist we will miss if we start with that assumption.
First thing to do with any parable is identify what might be used in the metaphor. Characters can be stand-ins for other people, or groups of people, or God. Places can be significant and give hints to the meaning. Animals or inanimate objects that are key to the parable could represent something else like a coin or yeast. Parables are not metaphors, so not everything in the parable will be there to represent something else, but it is good to identify what could be used.
In this one we have a landowner, tenants, servants, and the landowner’s son as characters. The setting is a vineyard, but we also have a second implied setting of the landowner being “somewhere else” which could be significant. And that’s about it. There is the implied produce that has been harvested but we don’t know what it is and it never exchanges hands, so kind of a non-player in the action of the parable.
Since the people are central to the story, most likely they are where we need to focus our attention. Whom do these people represent?
Currently, in the last 1,000 years or so, the popular interpretation of this parable goes like this. God is the landowner who has entrusted the vineyard to Israel. God sent prophets to gather the fruits of the vineyard but the prophets were beaten up and insulted by Israel and God did not get the harvest God desired. So then God sent the son, Jesus, to meet with the tenants and get the fruit but they killed him. God’s response will then be to destroy Israel and give the vineyard to new tenants.
Did you catch the antisemitic undertones in that interpretation? Hitler did. That way of understanding this parable was very much a part of why Hitler thought it was right to kill every Jewish person in the world. They had their chance with the vineyard and Hitler was the arm of the landowner coming to reclaim the vineyard.
I know there are many more people who grew up with this interpretation of this parable who did not come to that particular conclusion but it is an extreme example of why we need to be skeptical of the phrase, “The Bible Says…” Trying to capture scriptural meaning into an airtight box will rot any interpretation in the wrong environment.
Scripture needs to breathe to remain valuable and fresh. God as the landowner could be what Jesus meant. This could be a parable of warning that those of us who are currently tenants need to produce the fruit our landowner requires or else we will be destroyed and the land will be given to someone else. But let me show you how one adjustment changes the parable completely.
Critics of that interpretation say it misses a crucial element of the act of interpretation: it ignores the context. It is not our worldview that this parable is being told from, it is Jesus’. Jesus’ life exists in the matrix of Roman occupation. Rome was the greatest economic and military superpower the world had known, and in the first century Judea/Palestine became part of the empire roughly sixty years before Jesus’s birth. All he had ever known was centurions in the streets, and hillsides riddled with crosses, as a public warning of what happens when you cross the empire.
The Romanization of Palestine introduced the practice of tenant farmers. It was commonplace to have a wealthy, absent landowner, and tenant farmers. Tenant, meaning that they owned no land of their own. Why? Because the process of Romanization, and the taxes that came with it, caused them to amass debt, and eventually lose their land.
It is just as plausible that Jesus meant the Roman empire to be in the role of the absent landowner. I am going to give you a second to sit with that change. God is not the landowner; Rome is the landowner. Israel is still in the role of tenant farmer. We have only changed who the landowner is.
So, in Jesus’s day, there was a lot of discussion about when and how God would act to liberate the people from their oppressive overlords. When will the land be ours again? There were multiple opinions about how this liberation would occur.
One approach, seen in the life of Jesus, was that of nonviolent resistance. This isn’t pacifism, but a form of resistance that asserts one’s dignity, while refusing to descend to the level of returning violence for violence.
Another option present in Jesus’ day was that of violent resistance. How will we rid ourselves of the oppressors? We’ll kill them. This is the option that won out in the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 CE. Rome responded to the uprising, retaliating by devastating the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. This would be recent history to the gospel writers and a motivating factor to why they want more people to know about the option Jesus taught.
An option that is nonviolent, that does not kill the tax collectors and soldiers, or anyone else Rome sends to keep them in line. That kind of violence will only lead to the landowner, Rome, showing up and killing Israel and giving the land to someone else.
Putting Rome as the landowner turns this parable into a warning that violence against oppressors will lead to more violence. They must choose a different way to resist.
I’ll give you one more quick interpretation option that turns this parable from a parable of warning to a parable of hope.
Some Biblical scholars put God in the role of the landowner and Rome in the role of the tenants. Then this becomes a story of leadership that was once ordained by God but who have turned away from their duties. The landowner, God, eventually will come to destroy the wicked tenants and give the land to other leaders. Hope for those oppressed that God will destroy Rome and give the land to them.
There are lots of other adjustments we can try and maybe the options I gave you have already made your head start to spin. This is why reading the Bible seriously can be such a challenge. How do we know which is true?
We read, we discuss, we question, we experience, we gather, we debate, we research, we wonder, we live, and with the power of the Holy Spirit in you, in me, in us collectively, we find truths.
It is true that if we do not produce the fruits God desires, that duty will be taken away from us and given to another. It is true that impulsive violence against oppressors will lead to our own ruin. It is true that God will have the final say in who tends to the land in the Kin-dom.
All of these are true and how incredible this book is that it grows with us AND is ready to meet us exactly as we are in every moment of life. If we do not bring our understanding to Jesus, he will not be able to guide us further. The religious leaders were not willing to claim an interpretation of John’s baptisms and they tell Jesus, “We do not know where it was from.” And so Jesus has nothing to work with and can only answer, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
We must be willing to do the work to seek difficult understandings and stay open to the guidance of the Spirit towards another interpretation. Together, in community, in all our different comprehensions, we hold THE truth, and yet none of us hold it absolutely.
So let us sit with the sermon the Spirit has preached to each of our own hearts.
Praise be to God.
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
Genesis 24:10-28; Luke 19:1-10
There are some stories in the Bible we wisely save to teach our kids when they get older, but when we come across a kid-friendly story we tend to go overboard. Zacchaeus is one of those stories. There are cartoons about Zacchaeus, songs and coloring books. His story is in every children's bible I have ever seen, and I have even walked past a plush toy Zacchaeus at a baby store. One problem with that is we can start to think this IS a kid's story and there is nothing in the story for adults.
However, with the adult experience, we can see some underlying problems that escape us as children. For one, when was the last time you climbed a tree? Climbing trees for kids could happen on any random Tuesday. As adults, we realize how badly Zaccheaus must have wanted to get a glimpse of Jesus. Badly enough to stretch his tendons beyond any recent ability, endure the bone cracks and muscle aches to pull himself up onto a branch, and test his aging sense of balance to position himself just right to see the top of Jesus’ head as he walked by.
A glimpse of Jesus was all Zaccheaus expected when he chose to climb that tree. It was worth all that effort and risk to just see the top of Jesus’ head. Zaccheaus would have been thrilled with that outcome. He could have told that story for the rest of his life about the day he saw Jesus’ hair. Then comes the part that as an adult, I am even more stunned by Zaccheaus. Jesus stops at the foot of the tree, looks up at Zaccheus, and… invites himself over for dinner.
Now when I put myself into Zacchaeus’s place the first fear that flashes across my mind is, “I’m not ready.” I don’t know about your house, but mine needs at least 24 hours of notice before company comes. I need to clean, I need to make sure I have all fresh ingredients for my most impressive recipes. I make sure I have wine fit for the caliber of guests in attendance. There is a lot to be done to host someone for dinner. My second fear would be, HOW AM I GOING TO GET DOWN OUT OF THIS TREE?!
None of those fears seems to phase Zaccheaus. He doesn’t even flinch when the people around him start to mutter about how he is not worthy to welcome Jesus. Somehow Zaccheaus can listen to Jesus’ voice louder than the fears begging for attention. He ignores all the excuses to refuse Jesus and is ready to say “yes” despite the fear.
As an adult, the story of Zaccheaus shines a light on two things I think are key to learning from his encounter with Jesus. 1) Set achievable expectations, and 2) be ready to say yes when the big opportunity comes. Zaccheaus set an achievable goal when Jesus came into town. He wanted to get a glimpse of him. It wasn’t an easy goal. He had to fight the crowds of people who did not care for his presence and then climb a tree to even have a chance to see Jesus. There was a possibility Zaccheaus would fail to see Jesus and would have to go home a failure, but he went out ready to do what needed to be done to reach his goal.
That tenacity to try may also be the reason Zaccheaus was ready to say “yes” when Jesus invited himself over. Zaccheaus probably wasn’t ready in the ways I would like to be for company coming over. He wasn’t cleaning or stocking his pantry thinking he would have such a guest of honor visit. Zacchaeus’s “readiness” was that he wasn’t going to let fear steal this blessing away from him. He did not let fear convince him that he was not ready.
Expectations and ignoring fear come up a lot on one of my favorite TV shows. Do I have any fellow Shark Tank watchers out there? I love Shark Tank. If you don’t watch Shark Tank, the show has five billionaires who hear pitches from new businesses and products that they might want to invest in. The entrepreneurs do their best to win a Shark’s investment and mentorship.
If you watch Shark Tank you know that sitting in the center chair is always Mr. Wonderful. He invests in all kinds of products and companies and he is the shark among sharks. With all these different investments, he often researches why some of his companies are doing better than others. He analyzes their strategies and meets with the founders to see if he can learn something from the top performers and teach that to the underperforming businesses. In 2016, Mr. Wonderful noticed something as he was meeting his top-performing companies. When meeting with the founders and CEOs of those top companies there was at least one woman in the room. Mr. Wonderful then asked his researchers to do a specific analysis of female-led companies versus male-led companies.
They found that their investments in companies with at least one female founder performed 63% better than their investments in all-male teams. Well of course Mr. Wonderful wanted to know why. They dug deeper and found it all came down to how they set goals for their company. The companies that performed the best set achievable goals.
The underperforming companies were setting goals that shot for the farthest star hoping it would motivate their teams to hustle harder and win bigger. What they found was it was leading to low morale and high employee turnover. The companies that set sky-high goals would do great in the first quarter, but then they would coast in the second and third quarter thinking they were almost to the goal and could pull back. When the end of the year loomed, they burnt themselves out trying to get across the finish line in the last days, often failing to meet their goal.
The companies that set achievable goals weren’t just reaching their goals, they were setting higher ones, sometimes even in the first quarter. They were ending their year beyond the goals other companies set on day one because they had gotten there step by step. The employees celebrated multiple wins along the way. They were building morale, attracting better talent, retaining valuable leaders within the company, and feeling fulfilled by their work.
Now, Mr. Wonderful coaches all his businesses to set achievable goals. That doesn’t mean easy goals, you may have to climb a few trees to get there, but when you get there the “win” can power you through the next goal. Achievable goals are the first thing we can learn from Zaccheaus.
The next thing is to not let fear fool you into saying “no” to great opportunities. Last week on Shark Tank there was an entrepreneur who was pitching a new kind of deodorant. She talked about the harmful chemicals in most deodorants on the market and her journey to try natural options that didn’t deodorize anything. Then she talked about her formula and how well her company was doing. I thought for sure she would get an offer because she had all the numbers ready to go. But one by one the Sharks said they were out, they were not going to invest.
With one Shark still interested, she mentioned to them how an hour before this moment she was hiking around the Griffiths Observatory. While deep into her hike, she got a call from Shark Tank producers asking her if she could come to make a pitch RIGHT NOW. The athletic clothing she was wearing was not a choice to market her deodorant; it was what she put on when she left her house thinking she was going for a hike in the mountains.
This revelation changed how the other sharks saw her. Two sharks started talking in hushed tones on the side to each other and quickly came back in to make her an offer better than what was being offered to her. Their reason for suddenly deciding to invest after initially turning her down was her willingness to say “yes” to an opportunity despite it not coming at the perfect moment. She did not let her fear of being unprepared, not having the right clothes on, the right display boards, the right makeup, the right whatever scare her away from taking this chance. And the reality, in the end, was her recent hike convinced the sharks even more that the deodorant worked.
Fear is very good at pointing out all the ways we can fail. Fear will convince us that we are not ready or worthy of the blessings and opportunities God sends us. But Zacchaeus shows us that if we are willing to put the effort into achievable goals, God will meet us with amazing opportunities.
This is not to say burn your vision boards, but make them adaptable. Draw out the steps that will need to happen along the way to the grand vision. The wins along the way will catapult you on to the next win. And when something great comes along, don’t let any fear have a say about what you are ready for or what you deserve. With God, those who are willing to climb to the top of the tree for just a glimpse of God’s glory will find themselves being offered opportunities they could not even imagine when they were standing on the ground. God honors those who are content with a glimpse with even more.
Set achievable goals and say “yes” in the face of fear. May we all allow Zaccheaus to inspire us this week and in the weeks to come.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 18:18-30
Things had started well. In the beginning they were approved of and appreciated for their allegiance to the church and to the Papacy. But over time this changed, not their allegiance to the Papacy but the appreciation of the Papacy for them. In fact, in the eyes of many Popes and church leaders, these people became seen as some of the most dangerous members of the church. They were so dangerous that many of them were arrested, deposed, excommunicated, and even executed. Their battle with the Papacy was waged off and on for more than two hundred years as the church attempted to bring them to heel. So, who were these most dangerous of people? Who were these folks who were seen by many as an existential threat to the church? They were the Order of Friars Minor, or as we know them, the Franciscans. The Franciscans were seen as a danger to the church because they believed that followers of Christ, and especially those who served Christ in the church, should own nothing. Poverty and compassion, rather than wealth and power, were to be the marks of the church. They were, if you will, an uncomfortable reminder not only of Jesus’ own mendicant ways, but of Jesus’ words to the rich ruler.
My guess is that if we are honest with ourselves this morning, the Franciscans and their continuing vows of poverty, make us a bit nervous as well, as does this story out of Luke. I say this because over the years of my ministry this story is one that always causes great consternation. It is probably one of the most asked about stories in my ministry including questions such as: “John, do you really think we are supposed to be poor?” “Do you think we are supposed to sell all that we have and give it to the poor?” I think people ask because, well, none of us want to be poor beggars on the street. None of us want to be those who stand on street corners with a sign saying, I follow Jesus so will pray for food. We like what money provides. We like a warm place to stay. We like having food in our fridge and pantry. We like to travel (he says as he prepares to take a vacation). So when I say we, I mean we, including me, because I am always appreciative of the generosity of this church that pays my salary, health care, and pension. With that having been said, the question is, is Jesus calling us to a life of poverty?
The simple answer is, no. I say this because Jesus never asks all his followers to do the same. Though his disciples remind Jesus that they have given up everything, Jesus never makes this a rule for following. When, after his resurrection, he finds his followers fishing, he does not castigate them and insist that they give up their family businesses. Ultimately, they chose to do so, but the church understood that people needed to work. The Apostle Paul in fact castigates Christians who quit working because they believed that Jesus was returning any moment…and so those folks begged from other Christians who were still working. Paul also addressed the obligations of the wealthy to share what they possessed. Finally, if we look at the passage from Deuteronomy, we read that what is set before the people as they are about to enter the Land of Promise is “…life and prosperity, death and adversity.” In other words, God desires that people not be poor, but have their needs met so that they might enjoy the life that God gives them – that God gives us. So again, what is Jesus up to?
My answer is that Jesus is trying to save this man by getting him to stop pursuing and start following. Let me explain. The rich ruler in the passage was a man on a mission and had been a man on a mission his whole life. His first mission was to become rich and powerful. How do I know this? I know this because no one in First Century Galilee or Judea became wealthy simply by having a good job, great stock options, or by being a frugal saver. The economy of this time and place was one of subsistence farming, animal husbandry, or small shop keepers. Unlike today where someone can create a successful business, pay their employees well, and make a profit that allows wealth to be accumulated, this was not the case in the time of Jesus. To be a rich ruler one had to purchase power and then use that power to cheat others. This would entail using one’s connections to loan money at high rates of interest, foreclose on those who defaulted, purchase the property of struggling farmers, and merge field after field into larger holdings while paying as little as possible to workers. This was the only way to become wealthy and so this rich ruler had been pursuing wealth.
This man’s second mission was to find a way to be part of God’s inbreaking Kingdom, the Kingdom of eternal life. We see this in his question to Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” Note carefully that he asks about what he must do. This implies that entry into the Kingdom is something that can be pursued and caught, like one pursues and catches an animal. He tells Jesus that his pursuit of eternal life has consisted of obeying the many commandments of Moses; something that the rich ruler had done from his youth. What this implies is that just as he pursued and caught wealth, he could pursue and catch the Kingdom. It is at this point then that Jesus tells him to sell all that he has and follow. In other words, Jesus says you cannot pursue and catch the kingdom of God. You can only follow Jesus into it. You can only enter the kingdom by following in the way of God, by loving God and neighbor and doing one’s best to live in imitation of Jesus. Pursuit of anything else takes people in the wrong direction. It moves people away from the path of Jesus and into a path that cannot bring the life and peace that Christ can offer. This is what Jesus means when he says that those who follow him will get back much more in this age and in the age to come.
Year ago, Cindy and I liked to watch The Apprentice, the show that made Donald Trump famous. The show had various people competing against one another for a coveted place in the Trump Organization. It is where the phrase, “You’re fired!” gained prominence. But there came a moment when I soured on the show. It was not something that Trump said or did, but it was what one of the contestants said. He said something to the effect of, “I want to be Trump. I want the helicopter, and the plane, and the penthouse, and the wealth.” And it wasn’t just what he said, but how he said it. You could hear the longing for these things as if they were the be all and end all of existence. This is pursuing. This is what our society encourages us to do. We are supposed to pursue these things to the exclusion of almost anything else. But ultimately, all the wealth, power, and privilege will not give us what following Christ can offer, because my friends, pursuing says enough is never enough. In following Christ, we can do well, use our gifts, save, enjoy life, serve others, share what we have, and in the process, find a peace that really does pass understanding. We can find the Kingdom of God opening before us and welcoming us in.
The challenge I want to offer all of us this morning is this, to ask ourselves, “How am I ceasing my pursuing and increasing my following?”
First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. John Judson
Leviticus 13:45-46; Luke 17:11-19
It had been a stressful week. Two weeks ago, Cindy and I flew to St. Pete to help move my mother-in-law and her husband into assisted living. For any of you who have done this, you know that the process of uprooting people from one place, packing, unpacking, and tossing long help items is stressful. So, when we made it back to the Tampa Bay airport, I could still feel the stress. But then something happened that seemed to set me free from much of what ailed me. I was coming out of one of the stalls in the airport restroom when I saw a man all dressed in white. No, he wasn’t an angel, though maybe he was, but he was the man cleaning the restroom. Upon noticing him I engaged in one of my spiritual practices; the practice of saying thank you to those who often serve unnoticed. I said, “Thank you for keeping this place clean for all of us.” I began to walk away when he replied that he seldom or ever heard anyone say thank you. I replied, he replied, and then we engaged in a short conversation about how he liked his job, but how much he appreciated knowing it made a difference. As I headed back to the gate to wait with Cindy for our flight, much of the stress from the move that I had been feeling seemed to have been lifted. What I didn’t realize at the time was that what I was experiencing was the liberating power of gratitude.
To understand the healing power of gratitude we need to go to our Jesus story this morning. The story begins with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem…meaning that he knows that he is going to his death. Suddenly ten lepers approach him. This was not the usual way of things. The usual way of things was that lepers kept their distance and begged loudly for alms – for a monetary gift. Lepers needed the money because their disease kept them from working in any capacity. In fact, if we read the Leviticus text, which by the way was taken very seriously in Jesus’ time, lepers had to live outside of any human contact and then had to cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” When anyone came near. It was a sad and difficult existence. Evidently Jesus’ reputation preceded him, and they asked for mercy. It is not clear if they were asking to be healed or were simply asking for money. Jesus being Jesus of course, heals them of their disease. He then instructs them to go and show themselves to a priest who will declare them to be physically and thus ritually clean, meaning they can reenter society. The story could have ended there, but then the unexpected happened. One leper returned.
One of the ten lepers does not follow through on Jesus’ command to go and show himself to the priests. Instead, the leper returns to give thanks to Jesus. In other words, the leper shows his gratitude and in so doing experiences the healing power of gratitude. Jesus’ first reaction to this man’s gratitude is to wonder out loud about the other nine. Where were they and why had they not returned to say thanks? But to this man, a foreigner, Jesus says the following words, “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” What did Jesus mean by that? The man had already been cured. His leprosy had left him. What did it mean to be “made well?”
The answer can be found in understanding that the word translated as “made well” means to be liberated, to be set free. In other words, something more than physical healing took place when this man expressed his gratitude to Jesus. I would argue that what happened is that this Samaritan, who would have seen Jews like Jesus and his disciples as enemies, now saw them as friends. By thanking Jesus, a Jew, the Samaritan leper was set free, liberated from ancient prejudices and hatreds that had kept him from seeing that he was a beloved child of the God of the universe, that he was worthy of being embraced and cared for by God and God’s people. His demonstration of gratitude had allowed the fullness of God’s reconciling, healing, and life-changing power to touch his life.
Gratitude can do the same for us. In those moments when we are feeling angry, alone, down, and in despair of what is happening in the world around us; when we find our stress levels surging off the charts, gratitude can liberate us. It can set us free by turning our attention away from all that ails us and entering into God’s presence in a way that allows God’s love and grace to enter into us. This morning then, I invite you into my spiritual practice of offering gratitude. What I ask you to do is to begin by sitting comfortably. Next, place your hands in an open position, then close your eyes. With your eyes closed let your mind imagine something or someone for whom you are grateful. It might be a friend or family member in the present or the past. It might be warm water or clean air. It might the trees, birds, or the beauty of nature. It might be anything that brings you joy. Then hold that image. Finally, give God thanks for that person, that object, that moment…and then feel God’s love washing over you. Feel God’s presence as God intones, your faith has made you well.
My challenge to you for this week is to continue this practice by continually giving thanks to God for all that you have been given.