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Readings: 15th Sunday after Trinity

19 September 2014


Proper 21: Ezekiel 18.1-4, 25-end; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32

God, who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit upon your Church in the burning fire of your love: grant that your people may be fervent in the fellowship of the gospel that, always abiding in you, they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

AUTHORITY is the issue in the Gospel. It was reasonable for religious leaders to ask the source of Jesus's authority, given that he was in the Temple, where he had caused disruption the previous day. If someone came into Durham Cathedral and started proclaiming things contrary to what we believe, we would have a duty to ask similar questions. The Church is very careful, when commissioning people for ministry, to indicate where their authority lies: it is God-given, expressed through the actions of the Church.

The crowds had seen that Jesus taught with authority; indeed, they glorified God for giving such authority to a human (Matthew 7.29, 9.8). Jesus claimed authority when healing (Matthew 9.6), and gave authority to his apostles in a limited way when sending them in mission (Matthew 10.1).

After his resurrection, claiming that God had given him all authority, he sent his apostles out with authority to make disciples of all the nations. There is no doubt in Matthew's Gospel where Jesus's authority lay, and that he used it for good.

The reading from Philippians sheds another perspective on this: Jesus's authority over everything in heaven, earth, and under the earth (a comprehensive cosmology in the thought of the day) derives from God in response to Jesus's disregarding his equality with God and being put to death as a human. Total self-emptying led to total exaltation and authority - the name above every name.

Jesus, however, refused to discuss the source of his authority with the chief priests, whose questioning was clearly hostile. Instead, he put them on the spot. Like a good rabbi who answered a question by asking a question - thus teaching his disciples to think - he asked a question.

But this question trapped them. Their problem was not just the crowds, whom they feared, but that some Pharisees had previously gone to John the Baptist for baptism (Matthew 3.7), thus accepting John's authority as God-given, even though John rebuffed their claim to authority: "We have Abraham as our ancestor."

Having gained the upper hand, Jesus rubbed it in with a parable about a vineyard, which everyone understood to represent Israel. The parable was linked to their question, and his opponents knew it: they were the people charged with working in God's vineyard.

The second son could easily be the Pharisees who went to John for baptism, but did not act on their repentance (Matthew 3.7-8). We can almost hear the reluctance in their answer when Jesus asked which son did the will of his father. There are echoes of Jesus's solemn words: "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my father in heaven" (Matthew 7.21).

Then Jesus made it worse: he made prostitutes and tax-collectors appear more righteous than the Pharisees, claiming that they did the will of the Father. This was all said in the Temple - the religious leaders' territory - and it was acutely embarrassing. As we will hear next week, Jesus was still not finished: yet another awkward parable followed hot on the heels of this one.

This parable acts as a vivid commentary on the reading from Ezekiel, because both are about turning, however slowly, from wickedness to righteousness; from disobedience to obedience. It can be embarrassing to have to change our minds, but it can also be a sign of maturity.

So, as we ponder the readings this week, and pray the collect about being steadfast in faith and active in service, it might be worth pondering what causes us to change our minds when we need to, and what stops our changing our minds when we ought to.

The Benedictine vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of life can reframe, helpfully, what lies behind this. Obedience raises the question of the source of authority in our lives. Meanwhile, Michael Casey's graphic image (in Strangers to the City, Paraclete Press, 2005) of stability as what it takes to stay upright on a surfboard clarifies the point that stability is never stagnation, but being able to handle in a godly way whatever happens in life. Our aim is conversion of life to become more Christlike. Is there a pinch-point in all that for us?

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