Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday 28th September 2014 - 26th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Obedience / Authority / True to Jesus / Example of Jesus / Christian unity

Sentence: 'Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regards others as better than yourselves' (Philippians 2:3)

Collect: P17:2

We pray you, Jesus, take the cold water,
our busy, conscientious lives,
and turn them into gospel wine,
that everyone may see your life and thirst. Amen.

Readings (related):

Ezekiel 18:1-14, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32


Ezekiel 18:1-14, 25-32

This stirring prophecy nails down the importance of personal responsibility. Fathers will not be punished for the sins of their sons, nor vice versa.

From a 'history of theology' perspective this passage marks a development away from Exodus 20:5 where God indicates that he will punish 'children for the iniquity of the parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.'

Psalm 25:1-9

In the context of our Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading, the psalmist offers a prayer which both implores God to help him to know the will of God and seeks God's help to be led in the right way.

Philippians 2:1-13

With a strong line in theological reasoning, Paul is hugely emotional in this letter: he pours out his heart to his readers. In chapter one he has written about his devotion to Christ. Out of that devotion he now pleads with the Philippians that they, also devoted to Christ, allow the mind of Christ to be their mind (1-5). From that one mindedness he wants to see them united. But the hopes he has for the Philippian church are not that they will agree with Paul but that they will understand who Christ is.

So verses 6-11 become the 'christological clincher' - Paul's reasoning cites the example of Christ himself. To be one minded the Philippians need to treat each other as better than themselves and to set personal agendas aside (3-4). They should do this because of the example of Christ himself (5).

Verses 6-11 may be a hymn to Jesus already in existence when Paul wrote. In that case he is claiming some common Christian theology to support his argument. Whether cited or composing from scratch, Paul offers powerful support because he discloses the example of Christ himself as one who 'though he was in the form of God ... emptied himself ... humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross' (6-8). No greater humiliation can be invoked than that one in the form of God ends up dying on a cross (a shameful, shocking end to life). The point would have been obvious to the Philippians: if Jesus Christ humbled himself so abjectly, one Philippian Christian could humble herself or himself to treat a fellow Christian better than themselves.

The hymn goes on to conclude with the exaltation of Jesus (9-11). One implication of this part of the hymn is that when we humble ourselves in order to treat others as better than ourselves we may rely on God to eventually exalt us.

(Necessarily, for reasons of space and time, I pass over interesting but tricky christological issues in the hymn, focused on the meaning of words and phrases such as 'form', 'equality with God', 'exploited' (6), 'emptied himself' 'form' in 'form of a slave ... human form' (7), 'the name' (9). Good commentaries will assist with exploration of these matters).

The final verses in the reading, 12-13, open up a new question: how is salvation worked out in each believer? Do we sit around and watch on as God works within us? Do we engage in frantic effort to please God and show that we remain worthy of his saving us? Neither, says, Paul. 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling' (12).

Matthew 21:23-32

We have skipped a bit of Matthew (because the church year accommodates it on other Sundays) and are now in the last week of Jesus' life, but a week, as the next Sunday or two unfolds, in which Jesus continues to engage us through parables.

Today's passage sets the scene for three parables (21:28-32; 21:33-41 [part of reading for Sunday 5 October]; 22:1-14 [Sunday 12 October]). Each of the three parables is told 'against' the religious leadership of Israel.

Today's passage begins with Jesus entering the temple. To teach there was sure to excite interest and sure enough 'the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him' (23). But theirs was no idle curiosity. They had a question to ask, indeed a trap to set him. Their question concerned the authority by which Jesus was 'doing these things' (presumably meaning, doing deeds (including Jesus overturning the traders' tables (21:12-16) and doing teaching).

If Jesus said he did it with God's authority they could pounce on him as a blasphemer. If he said he did it on his own authority they could dismiss him as an eccentric, if not lunatic false prophet.

But Jesus is clever. He says he will answer the question if they answer a question he sets them. Essentially he asks the same question of them. 'Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?' equals 'Where did John's authority come from?'

The leaders are caught. John's ministry was  both popular with the people and the people believed the ministry was godly. But they had not accepted that this was so.

When Jesus asked the question they could neither affirm one origin or another for the baptism of John. 'We do not know' (27) gave Jesus a let out from answering their question. He would live for another few days.

But Jesus was not about to let go of the opportunity to make some points against his opponents. He continues with his questions (28).

He wants them to answer which of two sons did the will of their father, the one who said he would work in the vineyard but did not or the one who said he would not but in fact went to work (28-31).

To this question they give an answer ... and fall into the trap which Jesus has set. They collectively constitute the son who has said he will do the will of his father but has not. The point is rammed home with further reference to John the Baptist and the kind of people who responded to his preaching.

OK, this is well and good in the context of the narrative of the gospel: Jesus is in opposition to the religious leaders of Israel. It is deeply theological (where is God in relation to their lives?) and brutally political (do they or Jesus connect with the people and the beliefs which motivate them?). The differences between them are not the differences of theoreticians. Within a few days these leaders will have arranged for his execution.

But what does the passage say to us, the followers of Jesus and readers of Matthew's Gospel today?

It is possible to work from the passage to a lesson about actually doing God's will rather than just talking about it, to being what we say we are by virtue of action rather than being a hypocrite by saying one thing and doing another.

We could also work from the passage to say something about the importance of being on God's side as history unfolds rather than deceiving ourselves that we are on God's side when the effective outcome of the way we live is that we are against God's plan for the world.

But the strongest point from the passage, and one in keeping with the most pervasive concern through the whole passage is the question of 'authority.' Who or what authorises the claims of Christ (and therefore our testimony to Christ)? 'God' is obviously the answer! But is this obvious from the way we presently live and talk?

Sometimes Christians take a 'pick 'n' choose' approach to what parts of the gospel we take as 'from God' and what parts we treat as 'optional, up to each of us to do as we see fit in our own eyes.'

The religious leaders with whom Jesus was in conversation had developed a response to God which suited them. When challenged by a prophetic figure such as John the Baptist they were momentarily unsettled (until Herod solved the situation in their favour). Now Jesus continues the challenge.

Is Jesus challenging us today about the way in which we respond to God? Do we foster a church which suits us more than it is faithful to God's will?

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