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16th Sunday after Trinity

17 September 2020

Proper 21: Ezekiel 18.1-4, 25-end; Psalm 25.1-8; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32

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BETWEEN last Sunday’s passage and this week’s lies Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the Temple. The space in which we find him teaching is the one from which he has just driven out all who were selling and buying, and where he overturned the tables of the money-changers.

These events “have de facto presented Jesus to the world — and within the very holiness of the temple — as king, judge, healer, and teacher”. It is not surprising that the chief priests ask Jesus on what authority he has been doing “these things”.

Jesus discerns, however, that the question is not being asked in good faith. It is a symptom of their wider spiritual condition; for, as he observes in Matthew 23, their deeds contradict the Law that they expound — a Law that they twist to place the heaviest burdens on the very people that it was given to defend.

“Jesus paradoxically engages them at the existential level precisely by not engaging them at the intellectual level.” Their contortions in responding to his counter-question about John the Baptist reveal their “self-contradictions and spiritual vacuity” (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew).

In Holy Week, Jesus’s fearless yet peaceable witness provokes an increasingly violent reaction from those whose “spiritual vacuity” he is unmasking. They are like the second son in the parable that he now tells, whose words are faithful but who does not follow through with action. In contrast, the “tax collectors and outcasts” who have never claimed an exalted spiritual status are the ones who (like the first son) exhibit a genuine change of heart and life in response to Jesus’s ministry.

The sins that Jesus is unmasking remain a constant temptation in the Church. Pope Francis warns against a “spiritual worldliness” that pays lip service to the gospel, but acts in ways that reveal a lack of faith. For such “worldliness” flows from the failure to believe in the power of the Cross — and, instead, the placing of faith in this world’s hierarchies of status, wealth, and power.

The power of the Cross is described in our epistle, in which Paul celebrates the self-emptying love of Christ, and declares that it is precisely because of this sacrificial humility that he is “highly exalted” and given “the name that is above every name”.

As Stephen Fowl observes, Paul’s account is “a direct counter to the claims of empire”. The apostle is inviting his readers to understand their own circumstances and trials, not according to the mind-set of imperial Rome, but “in terms of an alternative story of the way the world works”. It is to the Crucified One, not to the powers that executed him, that every knee will bend.

Paul draws a direct connection between the events of Holy Week and Easter, and the manner in which the Philippian Christians must treat each other. As he writes in verse 5, the same mind must be in them as is in their crucified Lord. His words “lay the foundation for the counter-politics that Paul desires the Philippians to embody in their common life” (Two Horizons New Testament Commentary: Philippians).

It is to such a common life — of humility, obedience, and care for the poorest — that Ezekiel also summons God’s people. He calls them to “repent and turn” from their transgressions, and to “get [yourselves] a new heart and a new spirit”. It is “tragic” to read God’s plea, knowing that it will be rejected, and that Jerusalem will fall (Corrine Carvahlo, New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Ezekiel, Daniel).

We might feel that same sense of tragedy as we read Jesus’s words to the religious leaders of his day. Like Ezekiel, he confronts his hearers and also invites them, longing that they might “turn, then, and live”.

Yet as this Sunday’s lections reveal so vividly, stubbornness and rejection do not have the final word. Even in the midst of the most vehement and violent human rejection, the love of God finds a way to triumph; for among the religious leaders who rejected the message of Jesus and persecuted his disciples was Saul the Pharisee — the very man who, decades later, would pen some of the best-loved words in scripture in praise of Christ’s self-emptying love.

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18 November 2020
Books for Advent
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28 November 2020
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