Jesus' response to his critics

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Revd Dr Ray Williamson
28th September 2008, Pentecost 20

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 11-16 (page 301); Philippians 2; Matthew 21:23-32

The Anglican Diocese of Sydney has a monthly magazine, "Southern Cross". I never read it. I rarely even glance at it. I find it is not good for the health. On the other hand, I subscribe to "Church Times". But in the copy that arrived last week there was an article about something in "Southern Cross". I read it; and immediately felt the health issue coming on! The Church Times article was about what both the Archbishop and a leading layman in Sydney had written in defence of their boycott of the Lambeth Conference — they had been completely justified; Lambeth had achieved nothing.

While it is easy to feel the blood-pressure rising, one has to remember it is not the first time meetings have been boycotted. Nearly ten years ago, there was a meeting of the ACC in Edinburgh, where the Bishop had expressed opinions on some moral issues with which the Archbishop of S.E. Asia disagreed. The latter refused to attend the meeting. The Archbishop of Canterbury got stuck into both sides of the dispute, but in reference to the boycott he said, "building fences around our particular perception of the truth leads us into the danger of believing ourselves to be perfect". Many think that the attitude that leads to building fences was the basic cause of the more recent boycott of Lambeth.

It was such as attitude — an attitude easily and too frequently adopted by religious people — that Jesus was confronting in the gospel passage. In the parable we have heard, Jesus was confronting the so-called 'religious' people who go through the motions of being God-directed people, mouthing the right words and performing the right rituals, but not putting their lives where their words are. They were people who were so completely convinced that they possessed the truth, which they had to defend at all costs, that they could not 'see' their own failure to live the truth in their own lives.

The setting of today's parable is Jesus speaking to "the chief priests and the elders of the people". A significant turning point has been reached in Matthew's account of the story of Jesus. Jesus is now in Jerusalem. He has entered the city triumphantly, and taken possession of the Temple — driving out all who would make that sacred place a robbers' den, and welcoming and healing the blind and the lame who, by law, were not allowed into the Temple area. But Jesus' critics, the Jewish chief priests and scribes, who were responsible for keeping order, confront Jesus with their indignant complaint. The crisis point of Jesus' ministry has arrived. He will enter into conflict with the established religious authorities, forcing them to exercise judgement on themselves.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the civic, cultural and economic centre of Judaism, as well as the sacred place where the Jews gathered to worship God. It was in the Temple that the Jewish authorities confronted Jesus. First, the chief priests and elders, those responsible for worship in the Temple, ask Jesus about his authority. Then it was the Sadducees who questioned him on a theological issue. But although all the Jewish authorities challenge Jesus, the Pharisees, who had confronted him in Galilee, remain Jesus' chief opponents. Now, in the Temple, the same Pharisees begin to orchestrate the opposition against him.

Between all these conflicts, Jesus tells his enemies three parables about God's judgement on official Israel. In the first of these stories (today), a son does his father's will after repenting of earlier rebellion, but a second son renders only lip-service to the father's wishes. The parable is a story of two sons, one of whom says he will not work in the vineyard, but eventually does; and the other, who is full of promises, but does not act to make the promises a reality. As always with Jesus' parables, the sting is in the tail of the story, as he asks his critical listener, "which of the two did the father's will?" But he had already warned them to expect the question, and they correctly chose the first son.

Jesus has led his audience, so critical of what he has said and done, to make their own decision on how to live the way of God. It is not a matter of mouthing the right words and going through the right rituals; one is called actually to live in accord with the purposes of God. It is not a matter of building a fence around our particular perception of the truth, and living comfortably with the self-deception that we know it all and already do it all. One is called to do, because one is called to live into, the truth that is God. Such a call comes to us from the one, who, in his own life, embodied that truth — which Paul, in his letter to the Philippians — explained in the following way: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus; …he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.

They are inspired words that have the capacity to direct us to what is ultimately unspeakable, to direct us to the Truth, to direct us the mystery, the mystery of life! That which has shaped our spiritual experience/being convinces us that at the heart of the mystery is love — that loving is part of our whole being, of who we are. Even though we are not conscious of it all the time, we still know it: that as persons we are part of the mystery of life, the truth of which is love. That is the truth that we are called to be and to do — the truth into which Jesus calls us to live.

Last week the government leaders of many nations gathered in New York for a meeting of the General Assembly of the UN. One of the major agenda items was to have been further commitments to the WDGs for the alleviation of world poverty. Of course, the meeting was completely distracted by the economic crisis in the USA. To avoid an even greater crisis, dealing with the disaster created by the greed and irresponsibility of the world's richest had to take priority over fulfilling commitments to the world's poorest of the poor.

Coincidentally, here in Australia our churches are invited to observe this Sunday as social justice Sunday, and this year the focus is on 'Faces of Poverty'. The resource material certainly recognises our awareness of the desperate poverty that exists in the world, with billions of people suffering hunger and thirst every day of their lives. But the particular images of poverty it presents to us are images of poverty in Australia: poverty caused by not enough money; poverty caused by homelessness; poverty experienced by people who have fled to this country because of being displaced from their homeland; and poverty of a different kind — poverty in the quality of life caused by the increasing demands of work.

While all these images may not be exactly what we might expect when we think about poverty, they are being offered to us as a means of stimulating our thinking about the meaning of poverty and the appropriate response that we can make as Christians, such as supporting organisations that offer services to those who live in poverty and social isolation. The Northbourne Community Centre is a local and significant response to many faces of poverty in the community. Another example is our support for programmes of the NCCA (Christmas Bowl and Partners4Peace) that do seek to respond to that desperate poverty that exists in many parts of the world, and even here in this country, especially among some Indigenous people. There are many ways to live in solidarity with those who are vulnerable — not least, challenging attitudes and structures that breed and perpetuate poverty.

This morning, we have heard something of what Matthew's Gospel tells us about Jesus' encounter with his critics in the Temple. The Temple, as well as being the civic, cultural and religious centre, was also the economic centre of Judaism. It was in the Temple that Jesus overturned the trading tables because they were used as places to exploit the poor and the weak. It was to those who controlled the Temple, who were enraged by his actions, that Jesus told a parable of two sons — thereby inviting them to condemn themselves as self-satisfied leaders of Israel, who felt no need to repent, and failed to live in the way of God.

In our corporate, globalised world, in which the Temple has been relocated to the stock-market, Christian values no longer play a determining/moulding role in society at large. But the Christian Good News for the world is still about love, not about wealth. And it is only through lives that speak to a society in danger of losing its soul that Christianity will give evidence of the truth and reign of God.

St Philip's Anglican Church,
cnr Moorhouse and Macpherson Streets, O'Connor, ACT 2602.