Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 1, 2017
Ezeckiel 18:1-4,25-32; Phillipians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Rev. John Hayes
We miss the point of scripture if we think it speaks about some ancient far distant debacle. We miss much of the meaning of the scriptures when we do not have the context.
What is not readily apparent in the reading from the prophet Ezekiel is that his words are spoken to the Jews now living in exile in Babylon. They had forgotten how to live according to God’s way. War came and the city and temple were destroyed and all the people with talent and resources carted off to Babylon. They are longing for home and now wondering whom to blame for their plight. They want to blame it on their parent’s sins. See they want to believe they are merely victims of bad fate they did not create.
God tells them to knock off the kvetching already, and wise up. This idea you have that you are suffering for your parents’ misdeeds is way off base. Nice try. You brought exile on yourself. Sin has consequences.
We misread things if we think of God sitting up above on his throne, crankily and arbitrarily meeting out punishments for those who break his law. God’s law merely points the way of human flourishing. When we sin – and we all sin – when we give into temptation to lie, steal, cheat even in small, subtle, but corrupting ways – our lives do not work and we live in exile. Exile from our true selves, exile from each other, and ultimately exile from God. We look to blame our environment, our relationship, our upbringing – someone, anyone, but ourselves.
God wants to shatter that misperception. God tells us to look no further than the mirror. We freely choose exile over relationship and integrity that are our true calling.
As a people and a nation we sin – we neglect the widow, the orphan, the impoverished –our economic and legal justice become a laughable tragic pretense – we worship false gods of security, wealth, military might, racial superiority – we greedily foolishly plunder the resources of this good earth – and our collective life show every sign of deterioration. We also now live in an exile of our own creation, exile from our true home. And now we are ruled by foreign, wicked powers of state and corporate greed that make a mockery of our true national values. And we would like to have someone else to blame.
As God says: “O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?”
Exile is a terrible fate. To be far from home, defenseless and lost, at the mercy of others. The exile of sin is made all the more terrible by the realization that we freely chose our fate.
For home is not really a place. Home in essence is relationship. When we sin – personally or collectively – we are not in right relationship with ourselves and our true nature, and ultimately we exile ourselves from God our only true home. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God – he speaks of our ultimate home in relationship with God and each other when God’s law is obeyed and human life truly flourishes.
More than five hundred years after the return from exile in Babylon, after Jerusalem and its temple rebuilt more splendidly than ever, many Jews still felt that they were very much in exile and were expectedly longing for the restoration of their true home. To the alarm of the chief priests and elders, many were coming to believe that Jesus might be the Messiah to usher in that new age of peace and freedom.
It is important to know that the piece of Matthew’s gospel read comes immediately after the entry to the city on Palm Sunday and the cleansing of the temple of money changers. So the chief priests and elders are not asking an idle philosophical question of Jesus, when they want to know “by what authority are you doing these things”. This Jesus has come to Jerusalem with renown as a man of God, one who heals the sick and afflicted, who casts out demons, who even the week before raised Lazarus from the dead. Who does such deeds? This Jesus is clearly intent on overturning the established religious order, the status quo that the chief priests and elders had so much invested in – position, security, power and wealth.
They try to give Jesus enough rope to hang himself with their question. They hope to catch him exposing himself as a fake or better blaspheming by claiming to be the Messiah. But Jesus like a good astute rabbi, answers their question with another, one that puts them in an impotent bind. They can only answer, “I don’t know”. If you can’t answer my question, we don’t have to worry about yours.
Then Jesus tells the parable of two sons – one who was initially reluctant but then was obedient, and the other who offers compliance readily, but then betrays the promise. He asks them, “Which did the will of the father?”
The chief priests and elders fall right into his rhetorical trap and answer that of course, only the first son was really obedient. Then Jesus lowers the boom, shatters their pretensions and self-delusion: Jesus tells them they actually are just like the disobedient second son and headed for catastrophe. Repentant sinners – the tax collectors and prostitutes – are like the first son and will enter God’s kingdom. They faced themselves honestly and returned to right relationship to God and amended their ways.
Everyone sins and needs forgiveness. Echoing the words of Ezekiel, Jesus makes it clear that those who sin and repent, those who turn homewards and make their lives right with God, will live and flourish. God’s forgiveness and mercy are bottomless, but we can only access it with sorrowful and truthful recognition of our sin. Those who repent will be saved and those who in their spiritual pride or self-sufficient complacency think they have no need of repentance condemn themselves to exile from all that is good, from their true home.
Bonheoffer told us that when we complain about having tepid faith we should examine where we are failing in obedience. Faith means immersion in the truth about our existence, the truth of our sinfulness, and the truth of our need of God. But more than that faith means immersion in relationship with the living God who knows us and loves us from all eternity and wants us to come to our full humanity.
What does that full humanity look like?
The only fully human being is Jesus. And when we come to our full humanity we will – as Paul has it – let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. We could just as well translate “mind” as “heart”. Knowing and loving are of a piece. To know God is to love God; to love God is to love God. To know and love God is to know how far from God we have allowed ourselves to fall and to know our sin and to have heart felt remorse for our sin, and to long for release from our self-imposed exile to our only true home. When we turn from sin and open ourselves to God’s new life in the Holy Spirit our lives are broken open, transformed, and restored.
Each of us in his or her own unique idiom, in his or her own unique life circumstances, is called by God to repentance, to put on the mind and heart of Christ, and to show forth the self-emptying love of Christ, broken and given for the life of this broken, wicked world, lost in exile.
Perhaps that is our only hope of ending the tragic exile and beginning our journey home.
May it be so.