17th Sunday after Pentecost
October 1 2017
Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
In the year 70 of our common era, a Roman soldier threw a flaming torch into the temple in Jerusalem and changed the course of history.
A few days earlier, the Roman general Titus, who with 15,000 troops was laying siege to Jerusalem, had decided not to destroy the holy place after the Jews had surrendered. In the heat of battle, his orders counted for nothing. Both Roman and Jew tried to save the temple, but in vain. The temple burnt, and to this day has never been rebuilt. Among the religious Zionists there are, to be sure, zealous souls who would rebuild it, but cooler and wiser heads know well that this would set off a global conflagration.
Six centuries earlier, the Jews who returned from Babylon to Jerusalem and the hills surrounding it rebuilt their community on a double foundation: Torah and temple, the law and the sanctuary.
Now the second temple had gone the way of the first, and over the course of the next centuries, the many parties and tendencies within second-temple Judaism would crystallize out into two distinct faiths: the Judaism of the rabbis and the Christianity of a now largely gentile church.
Adherents of both faiths claimed to be imitating God – to reflect in their lives as communities the character and activity of God.
Rabbinic Judaism emphasized the holiness of God, called its adherents to a life of holiness, and could claim plausibly to be in continuity with the characteristic emphasis of second-temple Judaism and, indeed, with an important strand of thinking in the Tanakh: “You shall be holy to me,” we read in Leviticus (20.26), “for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine.”
Christianity emphasized compassion as the leading characteristic of both God and the church and could claim plausibly to be in continuity with the characteristic emphasis of Jesus of Nazareth. “Be perfect,” says Jesus in Matthew, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5.28) “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” says Jesus in Luke. “Love your enemies,” he exhorts us, “do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (Lk 6.36, 35)
Kindness, mercy, compassion: It’s the same thing.
But we are getting ahead of our story, for in our Gospel reading today the temple still stands.
Our reading is set in Holy Week. Jesus rides into town on a donkey. Clearly he is making some kind of claim to authority. “Who is this?” The question runs through the city. “This is the prophet from Nazareth,” say the crowds; but as the week wears on, that answer seems less than adequate.
Later, in the court of the gentiles, Jesus causes a minor uproar by driving out those who were selling and buying, overturning the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves.
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” the chief priests and the elders of the temple ask him; and so we enter into today’s exchange.
The temple was a profoundly ambiguous place. It was the centre of traditional Jewish devotion and pilgrimage. It was the place where sacrifices were offered for impurity and sin. Here, above all, was where the Lord was among us.
Two centuries before Jesus, it was in defence of temple and Torah that Judas Maccabaeus and his brothers led a successful revolt against the Hellenistic tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes. Ever since, the temple had been a symbol of resistance to everything that was not Jewish. Now, it was a symbol of Jewish resistance to Rome.
But it was also the centre of power in Jewish society. It was the seat of the chief priests and the elders, the Jewish political establishment through whom their Roman overlords ruled.
The law, the Torah, required the peasant farmers of Judea and the Galilee to pay tithes to the temple. The Romans required them to pay taxes. Tithes and taxes together could amount to almost half of their produce. While some regarded the tithes as a religious duty, others resented them. No one liked the Roman taxes.
This dual system of domination forced many famers into debt, off their land, and into a precarious existence as day labourers. The holiness that the temple wore on its face was in practice contradicted by the burden it laid on the people.
All of this was at play in the exchange between Jesus and the priests: resentment of Roman rule – resentment that will lead a generation later to the disastrous Jewish War; resentment also of tax and tithe.
The chief priests ask Jesus by what authority he is stirring up trouble, and he throws the question back at them. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
This is, they realize, a trap question: however they answer it, they are in trouble. But we need to be clear why it is a trap question.
For John the Baptist, the system of holiness centred on the temple was not enough. For John, his people were going in the wrong direction, as so often in the past, and therefore, like the prophets before him, he summoned the community to repentance and renewal (Matthew 3). The leaders of the people he called a “brood of vipers” – a bunch of snakes – and he told them to bear fruit worthy of repentance. “Even now,” he said, “the axe is lying at the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Put simply, you have a choice: continue walking in the wrong way, or realign yourselves with God’s purposes.
Jesus of Nazareth agreed with John. He saw his own work as in continuity with that of John. And it was when John baptized him, Matthew says, that Jesus was first declared God’s beloved son, God’s messiah, the Christ. It was then that Jesus was commissioned to do his own work.
The chief priests agreed with none of this. The system of holiness over which they presided was fine by them. Their difficulty was that ordinary people regarded John as a true prophet and were beginning to acclaim Jesus as also a prophet. So, rather than answer the question posed by Jesus, they shuffled.
Jesus breaks the stalemate by telling the story of the two sons and inviting the chief priests to judge themselves. It’s not enough to say that you will do what your Father asks of you; what counts is actually doing it. This is so obviously true that the chief priests have to agree.
But then Jesus points the moral: John the Baptist came in the way of righteousness, the way marked out by God, and the priests and the elders did not join him. They did not believe John. Even when they saw sinners believing, they still did not change their minds and believe him.
It’s not too late, of course. It’s never too late. Face to face with Jesus, they can still change. But they don’t do that. By the end of the week, they are handing Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found,” says Third-Isaiah (55.6), “call upon him while he is near.” But the chief priests and the elders of the people cannot see God standing in front of them.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” The question asked by the quarrelsome and complaining people at Massah and Meribah (Ex 17.7) is our question also: Where is God to be found?
For second-temple Judaism, God was to be found in Torah and temple. For rabbinic Judaism, after the destruction of the temple, God was to be found in a life of holiness centred on Bible and Mishnah and Talmud.
We Christians find God, above all, in Jesus of Nazareth. But this isn’t a matter of pinning a Christian badge to our chest and feeling proud. It was, after all, those in Antioch who did not believe in Jesus who first called his followers Christians, and they didn’t mean it nicely.
We should be clear how subversive it is to find God in Christ Jesus. Our reading from Philippians should help us to do that. Jesus the Messiah was equal in status with God but didn’t regard this as something he should exploit. Instead, he emptied himself and received the form of a slave. He humbled himself and became obedient even to death. And we, says Paul, are to be like that: We are to let that same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. We are not to act out of selfish ambition or vanity but to look to the interests of the other.
This is deeply counter-cultural, and not just in the age of Netanyahu and Trump. It was Adam and Eve, those prototypical human beings, who first sought to be equal to God; and so it has ever gone. In Jesus’ day, it was Alexander and Augustus who were seen as great; but true leadership is found in the carpenter from Nazareth.
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
In characteristically Irish fashion, let me turn this question around: Are we seeking the Lord while he may be found? Are we trying to walk in the way marked out by God? Are we striving to imitate God’s kindness, mercy and compassion?
We must not be presumptuous about either ourselves or those outside the Christian fold. An apparent refusal does not have to be or stay a refusal. And a professed assent is not enough. It has to be lived.
You Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd (CH4 355)
Let children hear the mighty deeds which God performed of old (Psalm 78, Isaac Watts)
Teach us, O loving heart of Christ (CH4 488)
Lord you were rich beyond all splendour (CH4 318)
“I have a dream,” a man once said (CH4 710)
Helen K Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (London and New York: T and T Clark International, 2012)
Marcus J Borg, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (London and New York: Continuum International, 1998)
Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War (many editions)
Gerhard Israel and Jacques Labar, When Jerusalem Burned (New York: William Morrow, 1973)
Klyne R Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008)
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, part 2 (London: SPCK, 2002)
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (London: SPCK, 2002)
Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16 (Isaac Watts)
Tune: Caithness (CH4 50)
1 Let children hear the mighty deeds
Which God performed of old,
Which in our younger years we saw,
And which our fathers told.
2 He bids us make his glories known,
His works of power and grace;
And we’ll convey his wonders down
Through every rising race.
3 Thus shall they learn in God alone
Their hope securely stands;
That they may ne’er forget his works,
But practice his commands.
4 They saw him cleave the mighty sea,
And marched in safety through,
With watery walls to guard their way,
Till they escaped the foe.
5 A wondrous pillar marked the road,
Composed of shade and light;
By day it proved a sheltering cloud,
A leading fire by night.
6 He from the rock their thirst supplied;
The gushing waters fell,
And ran in rivers by their side,
A constant miracle.