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17th Sunday after Trinity

22 September 2023

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

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JESUS sometimes answers one question by posing another. This is not because he is sneaky, but because, among rabbis, it was a common way of arguing. In the next chapter, he will use the same method to avoid condemning himself (“render unto Caesar”, 22.15-22).

The question put to him is not trivial; for sources of authority are a sensitive matter. Human beings learn to observe where authority lies in social situations, taking cues from the behaviour of an individual or group. The signalling of authority can be subtle (are others deferring to them?) or manifest: I recall a bishop’s wife who regularly referred to her husband as “Bishop N”. James 2 is a recent lectionary example of how Christians ought (ideally) to make such calculations.

Naturally the religious authorities want to investigate the course content of Jesus’s teaching. If he is promoting resistance to the Romans, the whole people will suffer for it. If his teaching about the law and the prophets is wrong, it could bring down divine judgement upon them.

Authority is at issue in Ezekiel, too. This passage of the prophet is precious because it speaks of the new heart and spirit that are central to the Christian experience of redemption. It also denounces the belief that God makes people suffer for things that are not their fault. Corporate punishment for an individual sin, or a penalty laid on offspring for the faults of parents, is not just. It forms no part of God’s plan.

This is controversial stuff, because Ezekiel is challenging no less an authority than the Pentateuch (Exodus 34.7). Last week’s Old Testament reading taught Jonah a lesson about God’s sovereignty (his freedom to act as he wills) and his equity (the fairness of his judgment): both characteristics are foundations on which trust in God’s authority is built.

One of the lessons that we can take from such passages is that there is nothing wrong with challenging someone (even God) to justify their behaviour or attitude. The chief priests and elders are not in the wrong because they question Jesus: they are in the wrong because the Gospel reveals that they are not motivated by a search for truth.

We may well ask how Matthew could know what the chief priests and elders said together (otherwise, we might assume that he has simply dreamed up some plausible words). On this point, my commentary annoyed me by flannelling: “The thoughts of Jesus’ opponents are manifest from their deeds.” That disguises the difficulty. It is one thing to accept that they mistrusted the Nazarene and his motives, but quite another to treat the words that Matthew reports as a verbatim record of what was spoken on that occasion.

Thus, the first part of the passage, which is ostensibly about Jesus’s authority as a teacher, also invites us to consider Matthew’s authority as an Evangelist. Why should we believe that he knows what he appears to know? Consciously or unconsciously, we apply our different tests: (1) Does the Gospel “hang together” as an internally consistent piece of writing? Yes. (2) Does Jesus display integrity and consistency in his words and actions? Yes. (3) Does the Gospel as a whole cohere with what we know of Jesus from other writings? Yes.

To this, we should add a fourth point: (4) Is Matthew’s account based on any extant source material? Again, the answer is “Yes”; for, if we look at Mark (11.27-33), it is clear that Matthew has followed his account with only minor variations.

Once we are sure that the Gospel hangs together, that its picture of Jesus is convincing, that it is consistent with other evidence, and that it is based on a reliable source that we can verify independently, where does that leave us? We still do not have 100-per-cent certainty. If responding to Jesus our Lord with faith and love does not happen without proof, it is hard to see how a demonstration of his full identity would change hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.

However far back we go into the origins of the Gospel, we will never have “enough” proof. Sooner or later, we still have to take the leap of faith over the abyss of doubt and ignorance. But the voice of the one who speaks with authority — and not like one of the scribes (Matthew 7.29) — fills us with courage to take that leap.

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