September 28, 2008
Exodus 17:1-7 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
Philippians 2:1-13 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Matthew 21:23-32 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Last week’s Gospel taught us that the kingdom is like a vineyard where there is room for everyone and everyone’s contributions are valued; and God is like a vineyard owner so generous that everyone in the vineyard receives what they need.
Today’s Gospel offers another very down-to-earth kind of image; again using the metaphor of the vineyard. In this parable, Jesus tells the religious leaders a story about God, as a vineyard owner who attempts to get his two sons to get out there into the vineyard and do some good. One makes promises, and does nothing. The other initially says he can’t, but then does.
All of us have made promises we have failed to keep, and many of us have found ourselves doing good things almost in spite of ourselves. We can identify with the parable in that level at least. But there is a deeper meaning to the story. The parable is prefaced by Jesus’ encounter with the chief priests and the elders of his people in the Temple, which is the key to understanding his comment on the two different approaches to the vineyard. The parable is aimed at the chief priests and elders and their arrogant and antagonistic attitudes toward those who are not of their faith.
Jesus is basically accusing them of practising an empty religion in which they say the right words but fail to make any real difference; he is confronting their ivory tower religion which is elitist and indifferent toward the real needs of the world, symbolized by the vineyard. He is telling the religious leaders that they don’t know what they’re doing – that they are out of touch. He contrasts their behaviour with people who have no benefit of scripture or covenants or religious traditions, who nevertheless seem to be good people. We all know people whom we would call “good” people, who are not connected to a church or religious practice, yet it has always been a concern to some religious people who seem to equate kingdom with church.
There is something in all of us that would love to see something like what Jesus does in today’s Gospel. It’s really hard to imagine how shocking Jesus must have been – how radical, how offensive. In our society, the equivalent of what Jesus does would have to be something like going to the Supreme Court and proclaiming that a notorious child molester is more just than the judges; or going to the Vatican and announcing that Muslims are closer to God than the Pope and the cardinals. This is not just a rebellious student walking up to the smarmy, overbearing teacher (or priest, etc.) and tweaking him/her on the nose. Jesus confronted the leaders of his people right in the Temple – in the religious, legal and social heart of his entire culture. And he not only told them they didn’t know what they were doing, but also that tax collectors and prostitutes would be welcomed into the Kingdom of God ahead of them.
In today’s Epistle (from Philippians), St. Paul says: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
For a brief time, I attained equality with God – at least in the mind of a 4 year old. In a previous parish, there was one little guy named Jared who thought I was God. I guess he associated me with the church – God’s house –I assume he thought I lived there – and he saw me wearing all these colourful robes – and I was a lot bigger – so for him, I was God. And he wanted to know about God-things, so he’d ask a lot of questions. I didn’t cooperate with his (mis)perception but attempted to tell him I was just one of God’s servants. He would just ignore my rude interruptions and carry on by saying things like, “God, why did you make the stars?” It has always served as a reminder to me of how difficult and presumptuous it is to represent God (and yet . . .)
It’s interesting, as we continue to hear the saga of Israel departing from slavery in Egypt, that we hear Paul speaking of the necessity of becoming a slave or servant in order to identify with Christ — not as an argument for allowing yourself to be owned or abused, but as a call to humility, to a capacity for seeing the value of others in the scheme of things. Paul obviously saw a redeeming purpose in that association with Jesus as slave, and constantly reminded the faithful that being a Christian does not place us ABOVE others. He reminded them by pointing to the person of Jesus, who appeared to have abandoned every privilege and power in order to be among the weak and the vulnerable. In Paul’s mind, Jesus “did not count equality with God as something to be exploited.”
Jesus himself had said, “those who exalt themselves will be brought down, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.” But the example of Jesus has not always (or even often) been faithfully followed. Many religious people, and especially religious leaders, come to see themselves as exalted, special – almost the equivalent of God. That phenomenon is never helpful. Today we in the Church are being challenged by the very words of the Lord we follow (they used to call that being hoisted on your own petard). That is, we have people around the world responding positively to the compelling person of Jesus, but very reluctant to embrace the Church or religion. We need to pay attention to that dynamic, because people today are basically saying the same thing Jesus said to the religious leaders of his time — that our institution is out of touch, disconnected from real life, even judgmental and arrogant. Like the Pharisees? Yes—for many, the Church now is seen in that same light – as being preoccupied with saying the right things, performing the correct rituals, but failing to act on those words with integrity. Whether or not that’s actually true doesn’t matter, because as they say, perception is reality.
Jesus was a faithful, practising Jew, who loved his people, but he confronted the religion of his birth because it had become closed and distant – it had the lost the common touch – it had lost the great vision of being a light to the nations and instead had become a parochial, inward-looking, and largely irrelevant cult. Today the parable could be aimed at Christians and Muslims: why can’t you realize you are both children of God, and why can’t you get out in the world and work together for good?
In the late 1950’s, in the wake of the Second World War, and all the compromise and collusion the Roman Catholic Church was guilty of during the war, newly-elected Pope John XXIII spoke of the need for opening the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air, which led to the council known as Vatican II, and one of the most massive reforms of the Church in history. Every now and again it is important to examine ourselves to determine whether we are really on track – whether we are being faithful and effective – and especially if attitudes of entitlement and elitism have crept in.
Until Good Pope John (as he was known), the popes were often called “prisoners of the Vatican.” One bad thing about institutions of any kind is that they are symbolized by walls. Jesus offers the image of a vineyard in which there is room for everyone, no matter who they are, or what they have done to “deserve” that privilege. The message of our faith, which is more important than any Temple or Church, is: never lose that compassion for those outside the walls we erect, whether it’s hurricane victims, drug addicts or people of other faiths – or simply people searching for a supportive community or a way to make their lives make sense, in the midst of a confusing and broken world. And never sneer at an opportunity to work side by side with other people – the vineyard is a common cause. We are not given the right to determine who is worthy of inclusion, or exactly where the vineyard begins and ends.
Jesus’ message is not a condemnation, it’s a stiff challenge – a reminder to the Church of its responsibility, its calling, to represent faithfully the God that Jesus proclaimed and embodied. It’s not a condemnation, but an invitation to enter into and embrace the fullness of life, rather than choosing a narrower, more isolated version of life and attempting to say that’s God’s way. The question Jesus raises in this story of the owner of a vineyard trying to convince his children to get out into the vineyard has as much relevance and challenge for us as it did in the first place: Who is really serving God — those who talk about doing something but do nothing, or those who just do something about it?