16th Sunday after Trinity

28 September 2017

Ezekiel 18.1-4; Psalm 25.1-8; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32

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 O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

FAMILIARITY can domesticate the most majestic passages of scripture. This is the danger even in the case of Philippians 2.5-11: an extraordinary statement of the whole mystery of Christ, who was “in the form of God” before he entered time, took on human dimensions without any thought of grandeur, died on the cross, and was gloriously raised and named by God.

Frequently read in public worship; adopted as a credal text to be used, on occasion, as an alternative to the Nicene Creed; and known for shorthand purposes as the kenotic hymn, it is a passage whose force might not be felt immediately.

This week, the lectionary invites us to return to it with new eyes and ears. That means allowing ourselves to be amazed that Paul could have moved seamlessly from commending the Philippian Christians for bearing suffering similar to his own in Christ’s name (Philippians 1.29) to a piece of advice on unity and humility which suddenly explodes into a poetic celebration of the Christ whom they are to emulate.

Does it matter that Paul might have been quoting a hymn already in circulation? Fr Robert Murray SJ points out that, wherever it may have come from, this is the only evidence for its existence (The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford, 2001). Placed where it is in the letter, it connects the audience to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy (52.13-15; 53.1-5), and also encourages them to take the same risk of giving up self.

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Murray sees the purpose of the hymn as working out the call of Philippians 2.1-5. Here, Paul asks his audience to look outwards, forget about themselves, and put the concerns of others first. The hymn translates this plain exhortation into a magnetic portrait of what it means to have “the same mind . . . that was in Christ Jesus”.

What makes this picture of total self-giving sustainable is that it does not end with “death on a cross” (Philippians 2.8). Christ’s obedience and humility are caught up in glory and majesty, to which the only adequate response is worship (Philippians 2.10).

Paul, writing from prison, has risked everything on what he declares through this hymn, and it stands here as testimony to his faith in Christ. Our task is to hear and recite it, conscious of what it has cost many brave disciples to make the same profession. The hymn is also the basis on which Paul claims authority to present that faith to others.

It is Jesus himself who faces challenges to his authority to teach and heal when the chief priests and elders confront him in the Temple, on his final return to Jerusalem. Their question is a matter of authentication and legality: “Who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21.23-24). In reply, Jesus offers another question concerning the baptism of John. His opponents must now commit themselves, and say whether its authority came from God or from human powers.

Those who are themselves trusted as teachers and leaders are suddenly thrown into disarray. To ascribe John’s baptism and call to complete reordering of life to God would expose the fact that they had done nothing to follow his urgent invitation. At the same time, to ascribe it to human agencies would place them in conflict with the people who had accepted John as a prophet. Thus they take cowardly refuge in professing not to know (Matthew 21.25-27).

Jesus treats this with the contempt that it deserves, and refuses to tell them the source of his authority. Instead, he offers a parable of two sons.

The first, when asked by his father to work in the vineyard, refuses, but later has a change of heart and puts in a day’s work. The second refuses outright. Jesus’s subsequent question which son fulfilled the father’s instructions is, apparently, simple, and the chief priests and elders fall into the trap by correctly naming the first son.

What they have not discerned is that committing themselves to an answer entails self-recognition. Even stories are not safe places, as Jesus goes on to show them.

John’s message announcing the Kingdom should have been grasped most readily by those best equipped to comprehend it — and, indeed, many Pharisees and Sadducees had presented themselves to be baptised. John was not under any illusions, however, and saw their motive for what it was: a flight “from the wrath to come”. There would be no special terms for those who claimed descent and a position within the Covenant from Abraham without genuinely repenting (Matthew 3.7-12).

Jesus demonstrates that John’s warning has become reality: prostitutes and tax-gatherers, who took his words to heart and addressed their way of life, are already preceding the acknowledged interpreters of the law and the prophets into the Kingdom (Matthew 21.31-32).

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