SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–32
PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
There were two couples. The first couple never married, but remained faithful to each other throughout their lives. During the course of their shared life, they adopted several special needs children, provided for them a stable home and supported them as they sought to live independently in a society not particularly accepting of people labeled “disabled.” The second couple was legally married in a church ceremony. Over the course of their lives they had numerous extramarital affairs, fought continually, neglected and abused the children born to them and ultimately ended the marriage. Which of the two couples did the will of their heavenly Father?
I suspect that some of you might object that the question is not fair. You might argue that neither couple did what God requires, but they each disobeyed in different ways. On the surface, that appears to be a legitimate point. But Jesus’ parable in Sunday’s gospel about the two sons challenges us to look deeper into the matter. At the end of the day, neither the first son’s refusal to work nor the second son’s insincere promise to work amounts to anything. What matters is what each son finally did. The first son did his father’s bidding. The second did not. By the same token, the first couple in my above example did not enter into a binding legal covenant requiring faithfulness to one another until death as did the first couple. Nonetheless, the first couple was, in fact, faithful. They were in fact good and compassionate parents to their children. They did everything the first couple promised to do in the presence of God and God’s people-but did not.
I am no more attempting to undermine the institution of marriage here than Jesus was promoting tax fraud and prostitution when he pointed out that the harlots and tax gatherers responded faithfully to John the Baptist’s message, whereas his opponents, the religious authorities, did not. The point is that righteousness is not measured by the cannons of respectability, whether they be the religious standards of first century Palestine or the cultural expectations of twenty-first century white middle class America. Righteousness is not achieved by keeping all the rules. Righteousness is measured by one’s response to the gracious call of Jesus and takes the shape of love for God and for one’s neighbor in concrete action. Such love does not necessarily negate religious, social and legal norms, but it surely transcends them.
Much of the debate these days over the “institution of marriage” centers around arguments over its definition. My evangelical friends often insist that marriage is by biblical definition the life-long monogamous union between one man and one woman. But that, quite frankly, is not the exclusive biblical model. Polygamy was widely accepted in the biblical world-as was sexual slavery. In much of the Hebrew Scriptures, marriage was practiced as a commercial transaction between men rather than a courtship ritual between a man and a woman. Because women were deemed the legal property of some man, adultery was not considered an offense committed against a person’s spouse, but an offense by one man against another. The New Testament is not inclined toward a single definition of marriage either. In I Timothy we are told that a bishop must be “the husband of one wife.” I Timothy 3:2. Does that mean that the bishop must be married only once or does it mean that he must be monogamous-suggesting that there might have been bigamists accepted as members of the church, though not qualified to be bishops? Church weddings are foreign to the New Testament. Marriage, whatever shape it took, was considered a civil affair. Though believers were urged to honor it, the early church seems to have taken no interest in regulating or defining marriage.
That isn’t to say that anything goes. I believe that the Bible does inform our view of marriage, but in a far more nuanced way. For example, Paul likens it to the relationship between Christ and his church-an analogy that would seem to rule out hierarchy and polygamy/polyandry. And by the way, for those who might find this analogy patriarchal, I believe you can switch the roles such that Ephesians 5 reads: “Husbands, be subject to your wives; wives, love your husbands” rather than the other way around (as it is in the text) without changing the sense of the text one wit. That is because Christ reigns through serving and pouring out his life for the disciples who are, in turn, called to pour out their lives in service to him. The theological implications of this imagery thus undermine Paul’s patriarchal instincts. Marriage must also be seen through the lens of what Paul declares concerning unity in Christ that recognizes no gender distinctions. Galatians 3:28. The gospel frees us from strictures of cultural, political and societal expectations to become the unique and wonderful persons we truly are.
In the final analysis, the formal definition of marriage is less important than the narrative it creates for two persons finding in one another the mystery of love, the jewel of faithfulness and the sometimes joyous and often tragic beauty of a shared life. The miracle of two lives, ever unique and separate, discovering that together they are even more as they become one tells us whether, in the end, a marriage has been a reflection of the eternal dance between Christ and his Church. That miracle is as likely to be found among gay and lesbian couples as among the straight. It is no less common among those married in courthouses as among those married in churches-or never legally married at all. As in Jesus’ parable, the truth about a marriage is seldom revealed in how it starts out, but only in how it finishes.
Here’s a poem by Dana Gioia about a marriage finishing well.
Marriage of Many Years
Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin—
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.
This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.
Source: 99 Poems (c. 2016 by Dana Gioia, pub. by Graywolf Press). Dana Gioia (b. 1950) claims to be the only person in history ever to have gone to business school to become a poet. He was, in fact, a graduate of Stanford Business School and became a vice president of General Foods. He committed himself to writing full time in 1993. Gioia served as chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2008 where he led Operation Homecoming which provides writing workshops to U.S. soldiers and their spouses. You can find out more about Dana Gioia and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
For my general comments on Ezekiel, see the post from September 10th.
The prophet’s dialogical oracle is incited by what appears to have become a popular proverb among the Babylonian exiles: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Vs. 2. By this saying, the exiles are placing the blame for their predicament upon the sins of their ancestors. They are not altogether mistaken about that. There is no question that the economic exploitation, nationalistic policies and foolish decisions of Judah and her leaders put the nation on the trajectory of her disastrous clash with Babylon. Much of this pre-dated the births of people living in the present community. In the same way, exploitation of the African continent, the slave trade and legislatively imposed segregation pre-dates the lifetimes of most people now living in the United States. Nevertheless, the sad legacy of that history still haunts us and racism continues to infect the very structures of our society. We are all born into a world we did not make.
But that is not the end of it. The problem with the exiles’ proverb is that it purports to place full blame for their predicament on the shoulders of their ancestors, thus making the exiles themselves innocent victims. That, according to Ezekiel, amounts to self-deception. It allows the exiles the luxury of despair and inaction. The prophet would have his people know that they are still in the game. Though they may have been dealt a bad hand, they are not excused from playing it. That is where the proverb breaks down. While we cannot change the historical realities that made American cities like Charlottesvile, South Carolina flash points of racial violence, we can, if we have the courage and determination, shape what that history will mean for us today and how that understanding will, in turn, shape the future. We can refuse to be shackled by the chains of our past and open ourselves up to God’s future. In biblical terms, we can repent.
Ezekiel’s message is an important one for an increasingly cynical culture obsessed with movies of apocalyptic doom and dystopian scenarios for the future. This prophet is no shallow optimist. I have no doubt he would agree that global warming, militarization and nationalism are genuine threats placing our planet in dire peril. A lot of damage has been done that our best efforts will not be able to repair anytime soon. Nevertheless, the God of Israel is the one who breathes life into dead bones. Ezekiel 37:1-14. For that reason, despair, inertia and inaction are not options. God has not given up on the world, but is still very much at work redeeming it. Neither has God given up on his people. Though acts of mercy, compassion and healing so often seem ineffective in a world so torn by violence, cruelty and death, God assures us that the future is God’s new heaven and new earth. God’s people are privileged to take part in its birthing.
This is another of the “acrostic” psalms. The others are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. The first word of the first verse begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second verse begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author, though I would exercise caution in making such a judgment. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.
The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-9, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.
Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer filled with all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. By virtue of our baptism into Jesus, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It strikes me that the psalmist’s understanding of forgiveness is in some respects complementary to Ezekiel’s message. Both the prophet and the psalmist insist that sin and punishment are not the last words spoken. Even when one stands amidst the ashes of a ruined past, one nevertheless stands. Because the future is God’s future, it has power to redeem the past.
Once again, to reprise what I said last week, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
As was the case last week, Sunday’s lesson is from Paul’s Letter of Friendship. Paul encourages the Philippian church to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Vs. 2. There is something repugnant about a group of people having “the same mind” or “one mind.” Our culture treasures the right of every individual to his or her own opinion. But the church is not made up of individuals endowed with a bundle of rights. It is the living Body of the Resurrected Christ of which all disciples of Jesus are members. Clearly, a body cannot function where each member has its own self-interested mind and will. As I have often said, the language of rights is not one that can articulate well the polity of the church.
It seems to me that in spite of our fierce dedication to preserving our individual rights, our preference for personal “spirituality” (whatever that is) over “organized religion,” and the value we place on making up our own mind, we are a good deal less independent than we think we are when it comes to thinking. “Movements” often tend to break out without any prior organization or structure. Groups of people are seized by images on the internet to take action of one kind or another. Crowds are whipped into a frenzy by news of some injustice, real or imagined. Celebs, political leaders and talk radio hosts collect followings of people who are infatuated with them or their views. Perhaps Paul understood better than we do the inevitability of some mind greater than our own dominating or at least influencing us powerfully. That being the case, says Paul, let it be the mind of Christ. Let your outlook, your words and your actions be shaped by your relationship to Jesus.
There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah. See, e.g., Isaiah 53. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.
In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Vs. 12. That phrase taken alone is troubling-as well it should be. Salvation, to be sure, is God’s free gift. Yet, like the gift of a fine musical instrument, much time, hard work and dedication are required to make proper use of it. If the recipient simply thanks the giver and packs the gift away on a closet shelf, it loses its transformative power. It becomes, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, “cheap grace.” Nonetheless, lest anyone should conclude that salvation is less than sheer gift, Paul goes on to remind us that “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Vs. 13. Salvation is God’s work from start to finish.
By this point in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph (Matthew 21:1-11) and cleansed the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). He has now re-entered the temple on this, the following day, to take up teaching the people. It would seem quite natural for the chief priests and elders of the people to question Jesus about his credentials. What is your authorization to do these things, Jesus, and where did you get it? Vs. 23. At first blush, it would seem a little unfair for Jesus to demand from his opponents an answer to a subsequent question of his own without first answering theirs. But in reality, Jesus’ question is his answer. The source of Jesus’ authority is also the source of John’s authority. It is obvious, though, that the chief priests and the elders have been dodging the issue of John’s authority. As John was put to death by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, these leaders whose seat of authority was in the jurisdiction of Judah might well have managed publically to dissociate themselves from John’s execution. But in Matthew’s gospel, the ministry of John is intimately linked to that of the Messiah. John is the figure of Elijah who heralds the coming of the Lord. Matthew 11:7-15 cf. Malachi 4:5-6. The leaders are thus caught in a double bind. They cannot acknowledge John without acknowledging Jesus. Neither will they denounce John in the presence of the people. By confronting the chief priests and the elders with the ministry of John, Jesus has answered their question, though not in the way they had hoped. Rather than gaining an admission they could have used to prosecute Jesus before Pilate, the religious leaders receive a question they cannot answer but which leaves little doubt as to the source Jesus’ claims for his authority.
By this time, the chief priests and the elders are no doubt beating a hasty retreat. But Jesus will not let them off the hook. “What do you think?” He calls to them as they seek to disappear into the crowd. “A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today,’ And he answered, ‘I will not;’ but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered ‘I go sir,’ but did not go. Which of these two did the will of his father?” Vss. 28-31. It is significant here that Jesus asks specifically which of the two children did what the father asked rather than which of the two was properly obedient or respectful. There could be only one response and that is the one the leaders were compelled to give, namely, that the first child who showed profound disrespect and disobedience to his father was nevertheless the one who did as he was commanded. Jesus then returns to the uncomfortable issue of John the Baptist. The tax collectors and prostitutes, people clearly outside any definition of righteousness, nevertheless did what righteousness required by heeding John’s call to repentance. By contrast, the chief priests and the elders, with all of their righteous credentials, refused to recognize the one who came to them in the way of righteousness. Vs. 32. Now the religious authorities are clearly on the defensive, where they will remain until the end of chapter 23.
Once again, Matthew redefines righteousness for us. Righteousness is not, as the chief priests and elders maintain, adherence to any written code, even the Torah. Right conduct grows out of a faithful response to Jesus’ call to discipleship. It is neither definitional nor behavioral, but relational. As observed by Professor Stanley Hauerwas,
“The chief priests’ and elders’ question has been repeated through the centuries of Christian history. Attempts to answer the question as posed inevitably result in diverse forms of Christian heresy, for the attempt to establish grounds more determinative than Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for why we should believe in him results in idolatry. If one needs a standard of truth to insure that Jesus is the Messiah, then one ought to worship that standard of truth, not Jesus. There is no place one might go to know with certainty that Jesus is who he says he is. To know that Jesus is the Son of God requires that we take up his cross and follow him. Having taken up the cross, Christians discover they have no fear of the truth, no matter from where it might come.” Hauerwas, Stanely, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 185.