... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

PENTECOST 15 Year A, Message Sept 25th, 2011

Divine Grace vs. Self Righteousness

Text: Exodus 17:1-7; Matthew 21:23-32

The theme linking the four readings for this Sunday is God’s grace and mercy in the midst of human distrust and quarrelling. In various ways the texts attest to God’s providence while at the same time showing how the people deny and even test God appearing wrapped up in their own situations and focusing on their own self importance. In the narrative from Exodus 17 Israel is portrayed as a nation of discontents having little if any faith or trust in God. Despite having been the recipients of Divine approbation in supplying manna and quail they continue to quarrel taking Moses to task about a lack of water. They seem to be distrustful of both Moses and God, putting both to the test. Moses the intermediary is on the verge of exasperation as he asks, “What shall I do with this people?” Again the Lord provides and at Meribah Moses, following God’s command, strikes the rock and the water flowed forth.

Psalm 78, encapsulating the Exodus story, invites a generation far removed from their ancestors who had experienced the forty years in the wilderness to reflect on those ancestors and see how they had been guided and protected by God even from the time of Jacob. In the years following their escape from Egyptian bondage God had fed and watered the people in spite of their rebellion and no matter what God provided the people continued to sin. Yet upon reflection the new generation is being urged to regard God’s faithfulness and in that faithfulness recollect how the people had experienced joy even despite themselves.

In Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians he demands that they “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Paul knew full well that one of the great human failings was, and still is, self centeredness. When one’s view of the world is focused on self it’s pretty difficult to have empathy for others, to see other options or to imagine possibilities beyond the box of one’s own sphere of existence. Yet despite this human frailty Paul holds out the truth that God had and does provide. In Christ Jesus God gave an avenue toward salvation and with that in mind we should all act in such a way as to honour and give glory to God.

Likewise Matthew’s account of Jesus’ confrontation with the religious leaders of his day was a call to honour God. Matthew 21 records Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and the first of many intense and often violent controversies between Jesus and the temple leadership. Today’s reading placed in context occurs on the day following the cleansing of the temple. It was then that Jesus had driven out those who had been selling and buying there and had his first verbal exchange with the chief priests and scribes. It was on his return the following day that the chief priests and elders again came to him and demanded to know by what authority he was doing these things.

You might well imagine that having someone come in tossing out what had been a traditional and normative way of temple life then setting up a practice of healing and teaching would be a challenge to the hierarchy and institution of the Temple. I think if someone came into my house and tossed out my books etc, I too would be upset and want to know why and on whose authority it was being done. Yes! The Temple priests in their own minds would have been justly upset and would have tried to bait Jesus in order to have grounds to have him arrested and punished.

However, Jesus turned the tables yet again. Instead of answering their question he, in true rabbinic fashion, posed a question to them. This question was of course the authority of John the Baptist. This put the leaders in a great quandary. Had Jesus chosen one of the ancient prophets or patriarchs it would have been an easy rebuttal. However, John the Baptist was a contemporary and much debate had surrounded his ministry. The Temple authorities had not accepted John but on the other hand could not negate what he had meant to the people or their acceptance of him. The situation was well summarized in verses 25 and 26. And in this rhetorical exchange between Jesus and the chief priests and elders much more takes place. As Jesus is victorious we read into the outcome the inability of the establishment to see beyond their own self interests or to think outside of the box. They were not able to see the actual link between John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ ministries – how both were calls to the people to trust God, to turn from their present sinfulness and, to obey the precepts God had given.

The parable of the two sons is a further illustration on the verbal encounter. As far as a typical parable goes there is not a lot of depth to it. The father goes to his two sons asking each in turn to go into the vineyard to work. The first says ‘no’ but later changes his mind and goes; the second says he will go but doesn’t. Which of the two did the will of the Father? The natural answer is the first son. The surprise of the parable is in its application. The temple elders in making the right answer highlight their own behaviour as being that of the second son. The first son would be seen as representative of the tax collectors and prostitutes.

For Jesus, the Temple chief priests and elders had been negligent in their call by God. They had been called to be the light to the nations including the ordinary peoples. Despite this call of duty they had spurned God focusing instead on their own self-importance and their own riches. Their ministry had become a ministry of institution and temporal concerns.

John the Baptist on the other hand had come preaching a baptism of repentance and a ministry of relationships to, with and, in God. Those who accepted this were mainly the ordinary people including many considered the outsiders – the tax collectors and prostitutes. They had accepted John’s invitation and supposedly changed. They had believed John. The elders, the establishment had not. The parable then was and continues to be an attack on those in authority; those who talk the walk but refuse to walk the walk as well as those who do not operate in the way of righteousness or regard others who do.

In many ways this parable is a just caveat on our ongoing discussions concerning right relationships. Those in authority – those who have abilities and powers to affect the lives of others – need to sit up and take notice. This parable demands of all such privileged, “Are you really doing God’s will? Are you really able to see the righteous or are you stuck on the self righteous?

All too often in our congregations we become deaf to this parable thinking it is meant for others. However, we more than any others – and I do here include the clergy, myself among them, need to listen to this parable’s message and use it to measure our own ministries and actions. How do we treat new comers? How do we regard the situation of changing liturgy or the views of younger people with regard to the services?

This parable is meant to question all of us as to our own claims of righteousness and invite us to self examination. In examining ourselves, hopefully we might become opened to be changed by God’s call. Are we the son who says yes, but then walks away without doing, or are we the son who is able to change and do God’s will?