Click here to read Philippians 2:1-13, and here to read Matthew 21:1-16.

The lectionary is supposed to guide us through the arch of Christian year. It keeps our hearts open to another kind of time—time not determined by the day of the week or the hour of the day, but the cycle of the Christian story. The lectionary year begins not in January, but on the first Sunday of Advent. The story of Jesus is told and retold across the span of a years’ worth of Sabbaths: the anticipation of his birth, the agony of his death, the triumph of his resurrection. After Pentecost, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, we enter a period of the church called Ordinary Time. In Ordinary time, we are in between the big Holy Days of the church calendar. We stretch out, slow down, and spend more time contemplating the teachings of Jesus, especially his parables about the Kingdom of God. Indeed, the reason why the church traditionally dresses itself in the color green during Ordinary time is because so many of the parables evoke images of growing.

Well, at least that’s what they told me in seminary. There are also additional patterns woven into the unfolding of the lectionary passages through Ordinary time. Last week we had a parable that trashed the human concept of fairness, proclaiming that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

This week’s parable continues along these same lines. Matthew seems to be saying Hey— if you weren’t offended by the parable in which the landowner pays everyone what they needed for the day—regardless of how many hours of work they had completed— don’t you worry your little head. This week will surely do you in. Because this week, Jesus teaches the religious authorities that prostitutes and tax collectors have a running start on the Kingdom of Heaven. Meanwhile, in the letter to the Philippians, Paul is singing a hymn about Jesus—a hymn that celebrates Jesus for reasons that are completely inside out and upside down. Paul reminds us that the reason we worship Jesus is because of his humility, his willingness to take on flesh and bones. We worship him because he became ordinary—emptied of glory and filled with suffering.

The theme we seem to be returning to this month is scandal. Paul describes the gospel as scandalous, although the Greek word “scandal” is usually translated into English as “stumbling block.” The phrase “stumbling block” works, to a certain extent. It certainly makes sense that we could be tripped up by mind-boggling parables and sent reeling by the story of a servant King who overcomes death only after experiencing it. But “stumbling block” only goes so far. The gospel is truly scandalous. It is full of surprising stories, radical paradoxes, and countercultural wisdom. The lectionary—the selection of texts that are being read by countless Christians throughout the world—seems to be reminding us that the gospel is fully capable of delivering a swift kick in the pants to anyone who would try to domesticate it.

Today’s parable scandalizes the religious authorities. We have a story of two sons. One publicly dishonors his father by verbally refusing to respect his father’s wishes to go work in the vineyard. He looks like the wayward son, the son who will be judged, the son who is an example of disobedience. But he goes to work in the field. He obeys his father. His brother, on the other hand, said he would labor in the vineyard but played hooky when it was time to show up for work. He only pretended to honor his father. This story was served up to religious authorities who were understandably angered. Jesus was telling them they were like the son who pretended to honor his father. Jesus had little sympathy for hypocritical and prideful behavior. The need to impress people with piety seems to be a common thread of human nature. That Jesus would dare claim that prostitutes and tax-collectors—the most reviled of all persons in ancient times—would be the first heirs to the Kingdom of God is a completely appalling, surprising, and infuriating notion. This is the gospel, and this is scandalous.

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul recounts the life and work of Jesus Christ in a way that is so simple, it functions like a silhouette: by condensing the picture to black and white, we are able to more clearly see the stark and dramatic shape of the story. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” We worship a God who not only became incarnate, but took on the whole spectrum of what it means to be human. Jesus was born like any other child, from the womb of his mother. He learned to speak Aramaic and Hebrew. He grew into an astounding teacher, sharing parables that are bottomless in their depth of wisdom and spirit. He laughed, he feasted, he wept. And he died. He died a terrible death on a cross. He was the Son of God sent to redeem, and instead of showing up with an army and a battle plan to win an earthly Kingdom, he died promising a Kingdom of Heaven.

That wasn’t supposed to be the way it happened, friends. The Christian church grew out of two major traditions: the Jewish tradition of Jesus, and the Greco-Roman culture that ruled the day. And the gospel managed to subvert the expectations and assumptions of both of its cultural parents. The messianic tradition of the Jewish faith called for a King that would drive out the Roman occupiers and reinstate Israel as a nation. Greco-Roman religious mythology was full of stories of gods taking on human form; that part of the Christian story wouldn’t come as a surprise to Roman citizens. But in Roman mythology, the gods and goddesses pretended to be humans for less-than-honorable reasons. Zeus, for instance, was said to become human in order to seduce women. That’s the kind of myth that would have been perfectly familiar and totally ordinary to Roman citizens. But that is a far cry from the incarnate Christ that Paul glorifies in the letter to the Philippians. By taking on a humble human form, Christ Jesus demonstrates to us a compassionate God who suffers with us, and a loving God who is merciful enough to give the astonishing gift of resurrection. This is the gospel, and this is scandalous.

Robert Kysar writes that “unless one is scandalized by the gospel message, she or he cannot embrace it with authentic faith.” I think there is indeed a terrible danger in forgetting the scandal of the gospel. If we pretend that Jesus didn’t really mean that the last will be first and the prostitutes will be welcomed into the Kingdom of God ahead of even the most religious among us, we are in danger of following a hollow gospel that helps us serve ourselves, not our Lord. In the letter to the Christians in Philippi, Paul calls upon the church to imitate Christ—to live in the same scandalous and holy way that Jesus lived when he walked the streets of Galilee. We are called to love, to serve, to put others interests before our own. We are called to follow the hard sayings and narrow path of Christ, called to empty ourselves of pride and let God fill us back up again with songs of praise. We are called to live and to love as scandalously as the living and loving Christ.

Today we sing songs of praise, hymns that were written in light of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. These hymns praise the name of Jesus; as Paul wrote, “At the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” What we cannot forget as we sing these hymns is that the reasons the name of Jesus has such power is because he relinquished all power. We can’t skip over Good Friday and go directly to Easter Morning, and we cannot skip over the scandal to get to the praise. Amen.

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