Proper 21 – Series A
At the start of my intro to the NT or OT classes I often ask my students what they think the Bible is about and why it was written. My Christian students have the most difficult time of this. The unbelievers and unchurched are willing to say honestly and simply that they don’t know. But the Christians often seem to think that they should know. What is more, they seem to think that the Bible is all about the rules of life, an owner’s manual in which God demands the behaviors which God finds acceptable. They are able to turn just about any passage of Scripture into a moralization, commanding them to live the right way. Did you know that while the Lord is my shepherd, that is because I am a good sheep?
There are some who think otherwise. Interestingly, I can almost point them out on the first day. They “get it” and are in an obviously personal relationship with Christ. I wish there were more of them, but the majority of my students are in that crowd of Christianity which comes to Church, attends some Sunday School and generally ignores the text the rest of the week. These students have a very difficult time getting their heads around the concept that the Bible is a love letter from God to his creation, that the purpose and content of the bible about reestablishing the relationship which was broken in the fall. This is true of Lutheran and non-Lutheran students. They are virtually indistinguishable.
I find myself increasingly calling this the “Calvinization” of the American Lutheran church. We are defining sin as “naughtiness,” a breaking of the commandment, and losing sight of the fact that sin is a condition, a way we are as much as a deed we do. The deeds are simply the way our natures are coming out and showing up.
Today’s readings will lend themselves to this misunderstanding easily on the part of the preacher. Ezekiel says that God only punishes us for our own sins, not for our fathers. If we see those sins only as our misdeeds, however, we miss something important that Ezekiel has for us. Paul exhorts us to a life defined by humility and service, warming the heart of every LWML devotee. Jesus tells the parable of the two sons, one of whom says no but later goes out to work in that vineyard and the other who says yes but then does not go. “Who obeyed?” asked Jesus? It seems so obvious and so easy. This is a day about getting our lives straight. And it is true that we need to do just that.
But the empowerment of the life which is right with God is not found in our will or in our ability to fix what is broken. Jesus speaks this parable in Holy Week, days before his death on a cross. Ezekiel speaks to a people who are in exile, God’s dramatic attempt to restore his covenant relationship with his people. They cannot restore themselves to the covenantal promises of the Holy Land and many children. God must restore these things. Paul writes from prison to people who have already sacrificed and given to him in love. These contexts will be critical to see these passages in a different light. It is not really about the morals, about the good deeds; it is about the Good Deed and especially about the Good Doer and what he has done for us on that Friday we call Good.
In the past when we talked about this essay, we thought perhaps a greater emphasis on the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer might help us with this. The opening words are built on the fact that we are, right now, not future nor past, but right now, the children of God. Everything that follows flows out of this fact – we are the children of God, existentially each one of us. Baptism has done that to us.
Almighty God, You exalted Your Son to the place of all honor and authority. Enlighten our minds by Your Holy Spirit that, confessing Jesus as Lord, we may be led into all truth; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Christ sits in the position of all honor and authority. That means he gets to make the important decisions and we really don’t have either the right or the ground to make a complaint. But that is hard. We are so used to seeing power corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely (Lord Acton) that we don’t really see how someone can hold all honor and authority at the same time.
And so, we must pray that our minds be enlightened so we may, confessing Christ as Lord be led to all truth. This is odd. Isn’t the enlightenment already the bestowal of truth? If Jesus is the Truth, how can we be led to it? Perhaps the issue is that the enlightenment of the Spirit gives us some truth – Jesus is Lord, but that this side of heaven, we are always growing in truth. It may be that old tension which is best explained in marriage. Is the old couple celebrating their 50th anniversary more married than they were on their wedding day? No, not legally, and yet relationally I sure hope they are.
The prayer seems to acknowledge that it is our mind, our memory, our thoughts that trip us up here. The simpleton, the mindless man does not see the problem and in that we might be tempted to envy him. But further reflection on that does not lead this author to envy. The prayer instead of asking for the simple faith of a child which does not think about these things, instead asks for an enlightened mind so that making the same confession as the child we may also be led to all truth – truth which also takes the participation of the mind.
Is there an enlightenment which leads to falsehood and death? It is a form of darkness, I supposed, but it often appears as light. Like the swamp gas that sometimes leads the traveler astray and into the quicksand where they are ensnared and die.
The prayer assumes a positive which many within our culture do not assume. The mind is a good thing, corrupted by sin, yes, but created by God and intended for good. The mind is also something that our Savior has redeemed with this blood. Heart and mind are not naturally at odds with one another and in the Christian they are both on the same team. It is true that the mind can occasionally give us fits and the intellect has caused many to stumble, but the mere fact that is a problem also points to its great value as well. The more potent something is, the more problematic it is when corrupted.
For my PhD dissertation I read a great deal of Augustine, a pastor and theologian of the late 4th and early 5th century (he died in 430) as well as Thomas Aquinas, a theologian of the 13th century. Confronted with a number of challenges, they both remained steadfast in their belief that we could use reason to great effect in our Christian faith. The mind is a great gift from God as well as a great occasion for our enemy to work mischief.
I bring all this up because there are many inside our own Lutheran community and certainly within the larger Christian community of North America who would pit mind against heart, who would say that it is impossible to think and believe at the same time, who retreat into a sort of emotional reactionary state which assumes an antagonism between the rational and the faithful. It does not have to be that way. Does not Paul speak of the renewal of mind/self in Romans 12? Was he wrong? I commend to you an interesting article in the Lutheran Forum about the need for more philosophy in our theological education. Check it out in the Fall, 2011 edition. It was written by a fellow named Beilfelt, whom I otherwise do not know. I have been directed to an article in the recent Concordia Journal written by Joel Okamoto of Concordia Seminary which also addresses this.
This prayer asks Jesus, through the Spirit, to enlighten our minds. There is a native intellectual darkness which sin has brought upon us and which is dispelled by the Light of the world, that is
Jesus. He is the wisdom from on high. We understand the world best through Him and His cross. That darkness of sin manifests itself in a number of ways, especially through the way we perceive God and our neighbor, which in turn has a souring effect on the way we act, worship, and speak. Jesus fixes that. He shines on our darkened minds and illumines a whole different path in which we believe and know God, a path in which we understand and realize that there are limitations to our understanding and that is alright with us. In the same way that illumination helps us navigate a path through a room full of furniture without stubbing our toe, Jesus’ illumination of our minds helps us avoid many pitfalls and problems. He keeps us from stubbing our spiritual toe on some dubious doctrine or breaking our shipwrecking our faith on some heresy.
Perhaps the great take away from this prayer is simply the posture that we all need to be enlightened. It is too easy to assume that we are already in the truth and the other guy needs it. But the prayer is explicit. I am in need of spiritual enlightenment. I may have the confession right, but I am not in all truth yet. I am still arriving.
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 Here the editorial omission makes some sense – the bookends of this chapter both address the same issue which the editors want to highlight. I have included the middle portions, however, because it provides the preacher some necessary context.
The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.
5 “If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— 6 if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, 7 does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, 9 walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD.
10 “If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things 11 (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.
14 “Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: 15 he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of
the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17 withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity.
19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24 But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.
25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?
30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.”
What does this text say about God? Perhaps that is the best question to ask of it, and the question which leads to sermons. The last verses give us a peek into God’s heart. He does not delight in the death of anyone. God is not interested in what you have done, he is interested in what you are doing. Rhetorically, the text really hits hard the fact that we have a God problem, each one of us has a God problem. But the ultimate goal of the text is not to leave us there, but it invites us to God’s solution for that problem. God has a tendency to forgive folks who make death-bed
conversions. His love is scandalous.
We also learn that God condemns us because we are guilty, not corporately for the sins of our parents or others. But there is no comfort in this. It simply means I have my own God problem and I cannot fob it off on someone else.
Is leading us to all truth a task which requires us to accept the fact that we are not good? Who can preach a sermon in any of our parishes which admits that the dead person whom we have gathered to grieve was a sinner who deserved to die? People come to funerals these days ready to celebrate life and they want to hear that their friend, mother, father, etc., was good enough that of course God would join us in loving them just the way they are. But they are dead. They are dead because of sin. The Bible is rather clear about that. Are we clear about that? Ezekiel seems to be pretty clear about that.
This reading falls in the difficult first phase of Ezekiel’s ministry. He was in the first wave of exiles and had the difficult message to bear, much like his contemporary Jeremiah. God called Ezekiel to say that the Babylonians were going to win this war, the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed and the exile would be long and difficult. In the second phase, which starts shortly after the fall of the city, he becomes a prophet of great hope, hence the vision of the valley of the dry bones in chapter 37 in which the dead are raised. Right now, however, he has to tell them that things are not going to go well.
Here, he seems to be dealing with the fallout from this first ministry. He has told them that the exile is the just punishment and result of the sins of the nation. This reading depicts the people of Israel in exile struggling with an essential element of fairness on God’s part. It was their fathers who sinned by following the Baal and Asherah deities of the Canaanites, why do their children have to live in exile? It is not fair, they say, and as they have couched the conversation they are right. But the mind is a tricky thing this way. You can phrase just about anything in way to make it sound right. The Sophists of ancient Greece were masters of this, hence the pejorative term “sophistry” today which means that you are using language and twisted logic to make a lie look like the truth.
God cuts through all the sophistry here. He does not delight in the death of a man, but he desires that men turn from their wicked ways. What Ezekiel really is addressing here is an attack on their assumption that they do not deserve what they are getting. In other words, their cries of “unfair” are without genuine basis. As you can imagine, this is not going to be well received.
One of the most difficult pills to swallow is when I believe that I have a genuine grievance and it turns out that I was really in the wrong.
The man who owned my first house prior to my purchasing it had filed a law suit against the neighbor over what he thought was an encroachment upon his property. (I think it was 18 inches he claimed on a 3 acre property) The judge did not agree and found against him and even made him pay the court costs of the neighbor who was forced to defend against him. Even though I bought the house years later, he was still not really able to talk about it without getting extremely agitated. I actually found the neighbor to be a great guy, but that was simply impossible for this
old owner of the house to see.
Notice the list of infractions in the omitted paragraphs above, starting at verse 5. God says that if you avoid these sins, the first one, of course, is the idolatry of the parents, but follow the list down. It gets harder and harder to avoid. This is not just about which temple gets your offering, it is also about keeping promises, and helping out the neighbor, and keeping the marriage bed pure, etc. The people of Ezekiel’s time were seeing this issue of God’s fairness through a single lens, the lens of idolatry, but God was looking at the whole picture, the whole of a man’s life.
But what of folks today? How does this impact the Christian in today’s world? I suppose that we might just think that this is an ancient story, but it is not. God’s essential fairness is still called into question today. Recently in bible study I heard a man raise this very question about the eternal fate of folks who had never had the chance to hear the Gospel. He thought it very unfair of God to consign such a person to hell. I held my tongue, I was not teaching the class, but the question itself has the very same assumption as the Israelites were making. They had not bowed down to other gods, but keeping one commandment and breaking another does make one righteous. Likewise, the aborigine who has never heard, according to Paul, also has the law of God written upon his heart. He is accountable to Law, perhaps not written in the Ten Commandments, but still it is a law. Judgment is not arbitrary. There is one name under heaven by which men might be saved. Praise God that the Gospel has been preached.
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me. 3 Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame; they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.
6 Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!
8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. 10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.
This is a truly beloved Psalm. Vs. 7 has been a comfort to many an old geezer who regrets his youthful indiscretions. Might even be true of a few preachers. In light of this Old Testament reading and the Gospel, I would have you note the existential posture of the psalmist. This is not about anyone else, but the individual and God. Unlike Ezekiel’s people he is not blaming someone else for his issues. He wants God to forgive his sins.
That of course is not the whole Biblical witness about the relationship of the sinner to God, but it is an important part of it. God’s relationship is both communal and personal. Isaiah confessed that he was a man of unclean lips who lives in a people of unclean lips. The psalm notes the personal responsibility of the first half of Isaiah’s confession. He is just such a man, a man whom God has touched with the searing coal of his presence. The Psalmist appeals to God’s mercy, the only honest prayer of every sinner and every sinful community.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
Paul continues his treatment of Joy with an exploration of the heart of joy. His proclamation is that the joyful heart is in fact the heart of Christ. It is too easy, especially if you don’t read the middle verses of this passage to turn this into a moralizing sermon, as if it was a set of rules which we are supposed to obey. It is much more. It is a description of the very sort of life we have received from Jesus because of his great sacrifice for us and the great exchange which is at the heart of the Gospel. His right-ness becomes mine and my sin becomes his.
Paul was in prison when he wrote these words, quite likely in Rome. He was writing to a group of Christians who lived in an imperial city, what the Roman law saw as an extension of the city limits to include the environs of that distant city in northern Greece. It had been created as an extension of the city to honor the roman pledge to military retirees that they would be given citizenship and enough property to sustain themselves as a pension. Philippi is really a sort of VA city, filled with many former military men and their families.
Roman culture as a whole, and especially among the military types, was a boasting culture, and very competitive. One succeeded in this culture at the expense of the competitor. Everyone you met was a competitor; there were few real friendships only arrangements of mutual convenience. For a roman there might be two or three people he would honestly call a friend and whose loyalty he would be able to count upon. These were his “amici” which we translate “friends” but it was so much more than what that word means to us, especially in a Facebook age.
In this context it was not considered uncouth or improper to talk up one’s accomplishments, as long as one was honest about it. Think of writing a resume today. If one is serious about getting a job, especially a promotion, one has to highlight the accomplishments, honors, etc. that one has achieved. If you start fabricating them, then you might get in serious trouble, but if you play the false humility card and say nothing about them, you might get passed over. The world of ancient Rome and the world of business or politics today are not that far apart really. They called it boasting and it was considered a virtuous act. We have been told by our mothers since we were little not to boast. But their mothers encouraged them to boast honestly. It was the way to succeed. The classic example of this is Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars in which he recounted his exploits in subduing the Gauls of modern day France. (Except of course Asterix and Obelix if you are into the same comic books as my son.)
But notice what Paul enjoins upon the Christians of ancient Philippi. This is terribly counter cultural. They are to put the needs of the other, the competitor, first. For many of us, having grown up in a Christian society and largely influenced by the ethos of that Christianity, we don’t hear these words of Paul as countercultural. We just hear our Sunday school teacher’s moral
and proper instruction of us as children ringing in our ears. This sounds like Mrs. Weber, my Sunday school teacher telling us to put others first. It was a good message for a kid to hear when I was a kid and still is one today. At the time of Paul it was considered subversive and radical. It was overturning a basic tenet of survival in the roman world. In that world you survived by overcoming your opponent, not by loving him. Paul is describing a totally different world than the one in which the Philippians live.
The empowerment of this different world is to be found in the crucified Christ. Jesus’ humble submission and giving of self to the whole world, even the guys who killed him, has become both the empowerment and the pattern of the Christian life. Like Jesus we are supposed to and can put others first, not considering our own needs but those of the other. We do not grumble and complain but shine like stars in a wicked and twisted generation of people. They see us and see Jesus.
For the first century Christians this was really true. We have a marvelous letter by Pliny the Younger to the emperor Trajan in the early part of the second century. He was the governor of a province in Asia Minor and had several people brought up before him on charges of being a Christian under the old laws which had been promulgated when Domitian was emperor. (Domitian was the fellow who had John imprisoned on Patmos in the late first century.) Pliny started investigating just what was a Christian and his letter is really important for understanding the early church because he was not a member and his observations are considered fairly unbiased. He said that they were known for “loving one another.” In the Roman context, that was radically different. We have a passage in Hebrews which enjoins us to practice hospitality. It seems that the early Christians never stayed in motels, they just found another Christian and did some couch surfing. It seems that Christians persevered in times of famine because they would share their food with one another, it seems that when one member of the community suffered a loss such as a fire, the whole Christian community would help him rebuild his house. There were some real tangible benefits to being a Christian. You could travel cheaply, you could count on a form of insurance in case your house burned down, you could even, it seems, go to another city, and be fairly sure of finding a job with another Christian, simply by being a Christian.
It appears that the early church was not only a worshipping community but also something of a mutual aid society or a network of people which functioned as a safety net for folks. This enabled them to take advantage of opportunities which otherwise might have been deemed too risky and they Christians were succeeding in ways that their neighbors were not. You might see this in the Amish who do not carry insurance on their buildings, but if a farmer’s barn burns down, the neighbors all come together and help him rebuild it. For another image of this you might look at the LDS communities, especially of a few decades ago, you will see something of the same dynamic at work. The bishop’s storehouse is essentially a grocery store at which LDS members can “shop” if they lose their jobs or simply have need. If the bishop gives you the letter of admittance, you can go fill your cart and, as I understand it, you check out, but pay nothing. The members are all expected to work at the large, commercial quality, food processing centers to
keep it stocked. When we operated the foodbank in Utah, one local ward adopted it as a project and set their people one day to packing breakfast cereal for us in their dry goods packing facility. It was a whole parallel system of food processing and delivery.
As our culture grows increasingly competitive and as food prices rise and if the cost of living continues to increase faster than wage growth, we may be seeing a need to return to these sorts of structures. And we should probably welcome it. The generation of Americans who came out of the great depression and Second World War were faithful members of their churches. In part that was due to the fact that in the depression you needed your neighbors in ways in which the post war, baby boom generations did not. When you lost your job or the farm failed in 1934, your neighbors might well have made sure that you did not starve, especially in the rural communities. At that point, going to church or being part of the group was not optional. My mom remembers the congregation meeting with the pastor and admitting that they could not pay him, he agreed to stay as long as he and his family did not starve. So they paid him with food and kept the coal bin stocked so they could stay warm in the winter. When their kids outgrew their clothes, the women in the congregation made sure that there was something for them to wear. There was none of this “I am self-sufficient” nonsense. No one was. The preacher preached, and the farmer raised his food, and no money exchanged hands for a few years there. They needed each other.
To what extent is this counter-cultural today? Are there other ways than this communalism for this to find expression today? Can we be this Christ-like in our humility and service and attitude in other ways? What are they? How would that look in your situation?
Matthew 21:23-27 (28-32) I thought the strange little story immediately before our reading was important.
18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 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 when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
Where is the Gospel in this? I seems to me that it is in verse 31. The tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom. Notice he does not say that the tax collectors who have changed professions are getting in or the prostitutes who have taken up knitting for a living are getting in. It is just prostitutes and tax collectors. There might be room for me too.
Article XII of the AC is really interesting here. It says that true repentance has two parts. First the person recognizes that their situation is utterly broken. But the second part is that they believe Jesus is the solution to that problem. (I am paraphrasing here, obviously.) We make repentance into our work of salvation/faith. Notice the confessors did not say that repentance consisted of appropriate levels of behavior modification. Repentance was an enlightenment, to use the language of the prayer, in which we observe two truths: I have a problem, Jesus is the solution. Luther would translate the Greek and discover that the Biblical word was “change mind” (metanoiete) but his Vulgate had translated it “penitentia agite” (do penance).
The preacher will want to remember the context. A lot has happened in the verses which lie between this narrative and the parable we heard last week of the workers in the vineyard. The mother of James and John has made her request that they sit on the right and left of Jesus. He has healed two blind men (I wonder if the point is that the disciples were blind.) In the beginning of this chapter Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the donkey and the crowds cheer but the Pharisees chide him and ask him to silence his disciples. Then Jesus makes lots of friends by clearing out the temple. As if the situation wasn’t stressful enough, Jesus curses a fig tree and it withers and dies (at least it was stressful for the fig tree – Capon takes this to be an enacted parable – it looks like Matthew reminded us that Jesus’ word is potent.)
It is in this context that Matthew gives us these encounters with Jesus and the chief priests and the elders. You can imagine they are not really too happy with Jesus when he shows up, and when he is done with this little speech, they are even less happy. At the conclusion of the parable of the two sons and the next one about the vineyard, Matthew tells us that they are ready to kill him. But this is all working according his plan.
Jesus has come to die on Friday of this week, for this is Holy Week and he has come to make the Passover sacrifice which will take away the sins of the whole world. He needs them to be angry enough to kill him by the end of the week. He is well on the way.
What does this mean? I think the preacher needs to be aware of that master plan that Jesus has and the tension he is purposefully building. While Jesus speaks the truth always in this, he is also speaking the truth in a way which is designed to tick some people off. I am not sure that the preacher as the same goal in mind when he preaches or that even Matthew had the same goal in mind when he wrote it. But he wrote these words to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted by these same Jewish leaders some decades later. That also is a tension filled situation which the preacher probably does not want to replicate in the same way. Our pericope system has sought to soften this through the omission of verses and re-use these readings, but I am not sure that was such a good idea either. What I tend to do, and what I think many others do in that situation is turn these into moral teachings, but to do so is to miss the point. Jesus is trying to get himself killed here, so he is speaking a brutal and difficult truth. To take some of this and universally apply it without some sense of the context is a mistake.
The first paragraph has a fairly frontal assault by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. He has driven out the money changes and the merchants from the temple. Paul Maier estimates some 20% of the city’s population derived their daily bread from the workings of the temple. Jesus has just threatened that. These religious leaders have an angry constituency to contend with and they are themselves losing money because Jesus threw the bums out. What is more, the Galilean pilgrims who have been bilked by these guys for years are all cheering. The leaders have a reason to be angry and afraid, or at least give the appearance of being angry. They challenge Jesus on the authority question. It is a no win situation for Jesus. If he says he has God’s authority, they will say that their authority as priests and Rabbi’s is higher. If Jesus claims his own authority, they have a potential rebel on their hands and can have the Romans deal with him. There is no right answer for Jesus to give, so he asks them a question instead. (You’ve surely heard the one about a Jewish guy who asked his Rabbi, “why do Rabbis always answer a question with a question?” the Rabbi said, “do you have a problem with that?”)
Jesus question is a master of deflection and insight into the minds and hearts of his opponents. Matthew very much wants you to see that Jesus is the master of the events of Holy week. Jesus is not the helpless itinerant preacher who has been caught up in the machinations of power and intrigue. He is pulling the strings here. The poor Pharisees and Sadducees are helpless before this. It is an even trickier question than the one they asked him. They punt and Jesus smiles and simply says that he will not answer their question either.
Then, as if they are not angry at him enough, and while he is on the subject of the sinners and tax collectors and talking to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, he launches into another parable which is designed to portray them in a bad light. The man with two sons is pretty straight forward. He wants help in the vineyard and one son says “yes” but doesn’t do it and the other son says “no” but then changes his mind and goes out and works. Which is more important, to say that you are a Christian or to actually do it? The Pharisees were all about insisting that they were following the laws of Moses, but Jesus does not have to look too far to see how they are being broken.
The implications are obvious but Jesus points them out anyway. Remember, he wants to make
these guys angry. The tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom before the self- righteous Pharisees.
This is a great text because with the same story it does three things. First it accuses us. We compare ourselves to this Jesus who dials up the truth and goes all out. I have failed to do that. But with those same words it portrays the Gospel, Jesus is machinating and working the system so that they will kill him on Friday for my failings. And in the process, these words will reveal the heart of God to me. Jesus is ultimately killed because he is desperately reaching out and with truthful and difficult words to call the people who hate him to repentance and life. It doesn’t have to be this way. They can repent, even now. He pleads, and in that plea we see God’s heart, which he was revealing in Ezekiel as well.
1. The devil and the world, aided by our own ability to self-deceive, have fed us a line about our essential rights before God. To our own destruction, we might just insist on fairness from Him. The brutal reality is that we have no right before God and our sins stand in a great accusing mass. We ought to be condemned with the monsters and the murderers.
2. Attending church and bearing the name of Christian is not sufficient. Calling oneself a good person does not make one good. Goodness is found in the actual deed. Obedience is more than just hearing about doing good things in a Sunday sermon. Obedience is walking out the door and actually doing them.
3. Like the Pharisees of old, we reject the help that God gives us, convinced that we know better ourselves.
4. We are in love with the idea of self-sufficiency. We have all run into these old codgers who insist on staying in their homes long after it is safe or wise for them to do so. If anything the events of the past week should reveal to us just how ephemeral the things of this life can be as billions have been lost in the financial crisis. God has called us to a fellowship and to be part of a body called Christ and his church – this is not an optional thing for the Christian.
5. The very structures and institution of the church, which ought to be there to help us see and help us believe and help us know, often are working in the exact opposite direction. How often hasn’t the budget obscured the mission or the politics and conflict served to drive people out of the fellowship which should be welcoming the sinners and the repentant.
6. Unwilling to trust God fully, we make our excuses for what we have done and hide behind contingencies. Jesus comes exercising his authority in our lives and we refuse to answer for what we have done and for who we are.
1. Jesus has come to save, not condemn. He does not delight the death of the sinner but in the salvation of people. Though we are rebellious and sinful by nature, he has turned our worst act of rebellion into the very act of salvation. The men who were his adversaries and his murderers on that Friday we call “good” were also the objects of his intense love and forgiving mercy. Jesus died for the men who sought his life.
2. Our obedience has failed us, it is true, but Jesus’ obedience is pure and good. In the cross he has given us what he has by right and taken our guilt and sin from us to himself. God sees us this way and we are children of heaven by a strange, vicarious right and a strange rite called baptism.
3. Our failures to live up to that and to walk in that light have not disqualified us from the kingdom. Jesus dwells within us and has begun the transformation which he will bring to completion on His day. While the old man struggles and rebels against His righteous rule, He does not lose patience with us but works toward our sanctification every day.
4. Jesus has united us to Himself and one another in baptism, knitting us together into a great tapestry which stretches now over thousands of years and is replete with color and languages from every continent. These men and women of every race and nation and background do, however haltingly, the works of repentance and faith through which Christ establishes his righteous reign one sinner at a time. He establishes another way to
live and work together, a way of humility and service without the self-centered grumbling and complaining which marks so much of society.
5. Though we too often resemble the Pharisees in their prideful rejection and the disciples in their thickheaded-ness, Jesus has not given up on the church and so we don’t need to either. It is still his beloved bride whom he has washed with his blood and the instrument through which he continues to work his salvation. Sometimes we do need to close our eyes and tell ourselves this but we also have the joy of telling her this and seeing the creative and potent word of God accomplish what he says as it did in creation so many years ago.
6. All this means that we see a different world that what our eyes might otherwise show us. The collection of sinners who show up on Sunday morning are clothed with the righteousness of Jesus, the voters meeting is an instrument for God to work. Our bank accounts and home equity are not our security and we need one another, and Jesus has answered this need by bringing us together this morning.
1. God works his good pleasure in you! (That the Holy Spirit would lead the hearer, united with God and his people of every time and place, to put his/her faith into action.)
This sermon builds on the fact that verses 5-12 in this Epistle lesson are really a proto-creed. It follows the same outline as the second article of the Apostles Creed. The next verses, the ones that we want to focus on, begin with “Therefore…” This sermon is really designed to be the therefore for the folks after they recite the creed. Too often we simply say those words, check off that box, and never think about it again. This sermon asks us to think and to do it. The creed is a unifier. It is a time when we as a congregation speak the words of the common Christian faith. People in heaven, Christians throughout the world, and generations to come, will all speak these words. The Holy Spirit has called, gathered, and united us. Praise him! We are not alone!
In vss. 13-14 Paul says that God works through us. He says, “Therefore….” We are not going to take credit for doing the good because we got the confession right. We will, on the other hand, say that God works through us. This is a vocational sermon. Our lives, our daily deeds, our words said, are part of a much larger thing that we can imagine.
1. This means we are part of something larger than we can see. We might be worshiping with a little clutch of old folks on a Sunday, a small and humble parish, but we are joined in Jesus with people all over the world, and all through time. Peter, Paul, Luther, and Walther are all here today. The great heroes of Christianity, and more than a few scoundrels are here with us. The same Jesus who works here works in all that place.
2. This means that our words and deeds are occasions for this amazing Jesus to be at work out there. We may have seen/felt that in the comfort and fellowship of this place. The
widow and widower who has someone put an arm around him/her or who gets a card on an anniversary, is experiencing much more than just friendship common humanity. That person is experiencing the touch of Christ himself. Those words and deeds are much more than human, they are also divine. God has worked through us because he still cares about the grief which sin has brought into this world.
3. We are also part of an amazing and much larger fellowship. Today people all over the world are preaching this same Jesus. They confess the same words, in a hundred and more different languages. We are part of a mighty host.
4. Today, even though we often find it hard to see, Jesus is building his kingdom in this place too. Through our words and deeds Jesus is working. We don’t have to know exactly what he is doing with our lives. We have a promise today through Paul that God continues to work through us for his glory and for his kingdom purposes. It is too easy to look at our feeble efforts and our small resources and wonder what good we are doing. We have confessed Christ. The “Therefore…” of vs. 13 belongs to us. That confession was not an idle thing. We are part of His kingdom, and he wastes nothing. I don’t know just what he is up to all the time. Often it is hard to see, but his Word never returns empty but it accomplishes the purposes he had set for it (Is. 55).
This sermon intends to encourage and inspire and move folks. Some will need the encouragement and that will be enough for one day. Others will be ready to be inspired and moved. Be ready to see what God does with them through your words. It might be really beautiful and interesting to watch. It might also be a really wild ride!
2. Have Hope (OT and Gospel – that the congregation which looks itself in the mirror and is disgusted by what it sees would remember that God loves his broken people)
This sermon is designed for a particular sort of audience, a congregation that is feeling the burden of its own sinfulness. Such a parish has been rent by conflict, battered by scandal, and/or tarred with a negative image in the community. The congregation that is rent by conflict may feel that it is unworthy of God’s love and its work is in vain. I served a parish like that. They really felt that God had abandoned them. Conflict, especially unhealthily expressed and unresolved conflict really does terrible things to a worshiping community. I would guess that many of us have seen that.
This morning Jesus confronts a group of men who look anything but like the people of God, yet by Friday he will lay his life down to forgive their sins. He has come to die for just such people. It is true that we often look too much like this broken world in which we live, but he has done something about that and continues through his Spirit poured out upon us to do things about that. He has cast all into a new light this day. Repentance and forgiveness are indeed also a corporate option, sin is not only an individual burden and Jesus words of forgiveness can also be for a whole community. Ezekiel seems to tell us that. While it is true, God judges each of us, the words of Ezekiel are addressed to a community.
Ezekiel spoke of a change which would take place in that community. Jesus died for the church that killed him. We are never beyond the mercy and love of God. If our fellowship doesn’t look like something that we can love, we should not assume that God cannot love it still.
But the preacher will want to go beyond that. The community which Jesus loves finds in that love expressed to them both pattern and power to become a different sort of place. God’s loving words spoken through Ezekiel profoundly changed the people of Israel. From an idolatrous community they became a faithful community. God’s love for us does not simply say that we are OK, but it becomes a transformative love which creates in us another sort of life which finds expression in the ways we deal with problems, we love one another, we envision the future, and comfort one another.
3. Turn to the Gracious Future God has in Mind (Gospel and OT – that the Spirit of God would encourage and lift up the spirits of the discouraged congregation of God’s people.)
This sermon is designed for the congregation which is not facing a specific issue such as the sermon before, but a parish which is simply in decline. Demographics and forces beyond its control have conspired to create a situation in which simply maintaining membership is an impossible goal. Such a parish is struggling with finances, unable to fill positions, operate a Sunday School, or even find folks to serve on the church council. Its declining or aging membership may feel that God has either abandoned them or is punishing them. But Jesus loves his bride; she is always his precious and beloved. The son who once said no got up and served the father. Jesus is not concerned about the past, he has dealt with that. He is concerned about the right now. His kingdom of grace and mercy cries out to be actualized in this community in which we live. No group is too small or too old or too feeble to be a grace-filled (graceful) place. Remember Jesus did his best work when we he was helpless and hanging on a cross. That is just the way of His upside down kingdom. Let forgiveness reign in our hearts, let his love abide in our fellowship and we too may know that old women like Elizabeth and Sarah can still give birth to new life.
This sermon wants the membership to life their eyes and look up to what God has in mind. We cannot know exactly what that entails. The people who heard Jesus surely did not think that the events of Holy Week would turn out the way they did. The first Christians who endured that tumultuous week thought all was lost on Friday when Jesus died. They did not call that day Good in real time, but only retrospect. Likewise we may not assume that we can figure this out right now, but we can trust that God has it figured out. He was the only one, it seems, who understood what Jesus was up to in that Holy Week. He was the only one who could envision the final outcome of Israel’s exile.
And so we hear and see today the same God at work in our midst, giving us a trusting expectation of God’s good work. The events depicted in the Gospel and OT lessons were undoubtedly confusing and problematic for the people of that time. But looking back on them we can see that God was afoot in all of this. We can look at the confusion and discouragement we face and come to it with the same hope. The God who works in just such situations is in our
midst as well. The Jesus who climbed the hill to the cross for us, is walking in our midst making sense of what we cannot make sense of.
4. Get out of yourselves and get into Christ (Epistle – that the Spirit of God would reorient the hearer’s life around Christ and thereby energize it to truly humble and beautiful service.)
The complacent congregation is probably the most difficult to preach to today because the message is the hardest. Christ has called us to a noble and self-sacrificing ministry not to be a country club for folks just like us. The Gospel preacher today will want to point them to the compassion, the encouragement, the sympathy and affection of which Paul speaks in verse 1. The world’s way of solving problems does not make joy complete. It has some ability to do some things, I am not saying it is a total failure. After all it usually keeps us from picking up blunt instruments and bashing one another, but it does not make joy complete. Paul offers to make our joy complete with his today, and that is through a path of Christ’s mind, his humility, his service.
This will not be easy and it is uncomfortable. The way of Christ-like humility is frightening to the Old Man who clings so tightly to us. The world’s ways of solving our interpersonal problems make sense. Being a scale balancing, bean counting, score-evening human is so natural for us. But it is not Christ’s way. He goads the Pharisees today to the point that they kill him. He literally gives up all for us, and it is that mind which lives in us, Paul says. Christ empties himself, he completely gives himself to us. That has established in us a similarly self-giving way.
Unlike the folks in Ezekiel’s day, we are not crying for a re-evaluation of the situation, we are hoping to return to the days of our fathers when we knew how the church worked and things were growing. Alas, those days are gone from us and the truth be told they weren’t always so great either. The real key here is what Paul says. The indolence and apathy which plagues so many of our congregations is not because there is nothing to do, but because we have a fundamental faith problem. The center of our universe is ourselves, not Christ where it belongs.
Such complacency and willingness to succumb to the world’s way of doing things will be our undoing. God is calling sinners to himself and the sooner we realize that the church is not a building and not an organization, the sooner we can start to see it for the collection of sinners who are charged with gathering more sinners to their forgiving Jesus. God will not be impressed with how smoothly our constitution worked on the last day nor with the amount we have in the bank. Those things are there to serve a mission, a Jesus-defined 20
mission to the lost. This works off Jesus’ observation that the kingdom is reaching to the prostitutes and tax collectors, they are hearing and repenting. That is the way of the kingdom.
5. Believe and Repent!! Repeat! (That the Holy Spirit would call the hearer to true repentance and faith in Christ.)
This sermon hears that the prostitutes and tax collectors are getting into the kingdom because they believed John’s exhortation to repent and believe that the kingdom was near/at hand. The problem with the Chief Priests and the teachers of the law was that they saw no need for repentance. Jesus calls them to task for this.
We also love to make the same sort of distinctions. We love to say that we are somehow different or better than the others. Surely God notices that I am in church today. Surely he notices all my hard work in the kingdom. I have a little less to repent of that then child-neglecting drug addict who I see downtown. But that is not so. Ezekiel makes that abundantly clear. We all deserve the wrath of God, we are each punished for what we have done. The wages of sin is death and the human condition has a disturbingly high mortality rate.
The Lutheran confessions (AC XII) defines a true repentance as an observation of two truths. 1. I have a problem. 2. Jesus is the solution. We have to believe them both, but to believe them both is true repentance.
This will be cast against those who would try to measure our repentance with a contrition measuring tape of some sort. How sorry is sorry enough? That is a fruitless task and Jesus seems to be looking for fruit today (see the story before the Gospel reading.) The prostitutes and the tax collectors are getting in. The believed they had a problem, they believed that in the one whom John proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was coming for them.
How does such faith show up today? It shows up in a number of ways. We are not asking God to cast this or that mountain into the sea. We are instead looking at everyone whom we see through a new lens. They are all people for whom Jesus died, just like he died for me. That makes us all a brother or sister of sorts. We don’t make the old distinctions we like to make. (See Paul’s words in II Corinthians 5:16ff.)
But even more importantly, this gives a peace. We will repent of what we have done today. We will see this repentance and yet we also know that we will go out of this place and likely fall into the same sin again. Has our repentance failed? Notice Jesus does not say that the reformed tax collectors and prostitutes are getting in. The believing sinners are getting in. That is us! It is not that we have sufficiently reformed our lives or made the progress that we are supposed to make. It is that we have a serious, insurmountable problem in our own sinfulness and Jesus has come, taken up our sinful humanity to himself and in that cross and resurrection he has dealt with the problem we could not solve.
Believe, repent, repeat! It is the Christian way.
6. By whose authority? His Authority (Gospel and Epistle – That the hearer would acknowledge the
authority of Christ, spoken in this worship event, to define his/her life.)
Jesus has come in authority. He has cast out the money changers and here he is pushing the political and religious authorities with the truth, pushing so hard that they will act out and kill him on Friday morning of this very week in which these events take place. These men who challenge Jesus authority will try to seize power and authority when they kill him, but even then, the merciful and gracious authority which is vested in Jesus cannot be thwarted. Paul speaks/sings eloquently about that great deed by which he gained all authority.
He will reign, in love and mercy, first with a crown of thorns when he lays down his life for us and with a glorious crown in his resurrection and ascension to heavenly glory. But always he rules in true love, compassion, mercy, and grace for us, not only for us, but even for the very men who conspired against him and drove the nails that took his life.
Jesus’ words in the parable strike us to the core. Too often we have looked too much like that one son who said yes and did not obey his father’s request. No one eagerly says yes and always does it. We look like both of those sons all the time, in fact both of them have a problem. We ought to always be willing and always be doing, but we don’t. That is why Jesus came that day and pointed this out. It is a universal truth which we cannot avoid.
Those words cut those Pharisees to the heart that day, so much so that by Friday they would make sure he was on the cross. But even those rapier words were all part of that great plan and ambition which Jesus set in motion to die for all the sins of the world, rendering righteous even those who conspired against him.
Jesus defines us now, not our sins, not our past, not our old sinful self. Jesus defines us now. Now, being the people united with him in death and resurrection, we shine like stars. Jesus has declared and his declaration is spoken with all the power of our creator God. He has declared us to be right and good, holy and pure. For this reason all creation sings his praise. The great evil of our ancient foe has been undone.
Such a declaration is not just statement made, but a reality which is authoritatively created in such word. The absolution which we spoke at the beginning of the service, the truth we articulate in the sacrament, these things create in us the clean hearts which we so desperately need and cannot achieve on our own. But we no longer need to try to achieve them ourselves, now we can live our the definition which Christ has rendered.