Proper 21: Ezekiel 18.1-4, 25-end; Philippians 2.1-13;
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 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
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?