Reading Ramblings – September 27, 2020

Date: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ September 27, 2020

Texts: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-10; Philippians 2:1-4, 14-18; Matthew 21:23-27 (28-32)

Context: God’s Word convicts us of our sin and offers us eternal life. This Word can be rejected, but we have to consider whether what we reject it for is more reliable or not, whether the directives that contradict it are better for us or worse. What we often find is that our own good authority is often compromised by self-interest or self-preservation, and sometimes we aren’t even aware this is happening. Even authorities of God’s Word have to be acknowledged as sinful and compromised, though hopefully well-intentioned and guided by the Holy Spirit more often than not!

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 – God responds to accusations from his people that He is unfair in his relationship with them, punishing the innocent for the sins of the fathers. God responds the accusations are incorrect and unfair. Who stands innocent before God? And who can say to the God who created him, I have no business with you? The irony is Israel stands guilty of abandoning her covenant with God and seeking help and wisdom in other gods and other ways. But to deflect her guilt, she accuses God of being unfair, as though his ways are inscrutable and undesirable. God demonstrates the foolishness and evilness of her accusations, though. With God there is mercy though his people have become notorious for perverting truth and justice among themselves. As such, God can judge them even by their own invented alternatives to his Word, his Truth, his mercy. And they will be found guilty even by the systems they claim as superior to his. Their guilt is only compounded by trying to cast God as the villain, as though they could invent a system that would be superior or independent to his!

Psalm 25:1-10 – When all the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket around us, we are called by the psalmist to keep our hope and trust in God alone. Regardless of what our world tells us in politics or economics, God alone oversees all things, and any and all efforts towards improvement that leave him out of the equation will be shown eventually for the foolishness they are. God’s people are to put their faith and trust in him which means a focus on seeking his ways and paths, looking to God to provide wisdom and answers rather than trusting the schemes of the world. Such hope and trust is well founded as God has proved himself faithful over and over again. And in him alone do we find mercy and forgiveness that wipes clean our sins so we might truly trust in his goodness. Unlike any human effort, God alone is good and upright in all things, never pandering or compromising, never discovered to be unfaithful or untruthful. Rather He extends to even the least of us the fullness of his love and mercy, so that those who trust in him will never be disappointed even if the ways of the world appear to be winning for the moment.

Philippians 2:1-4, 14-18 – Verses 5-13 are optional in today’s reading and I’m omitting them as mostly a supporting discursis explaining that in the behaviors the Holy Spirit exhorts us to through St. Paul, we are only emulating Christ. We are not called to do anything more than our Lord, and frankly are called to do and be immeasurably less as, by definition, we are not divine. Once again the theme of unity is driven home, with the first four verses of this passage all dealing with aspects of unity. Unity doesn’t simply happen. Unity isn’t a feeling but rather the result of concerted efforts, a singleminded insistence that the unity we have in Christ is most important, far more important than our own personal goals, ambitions, preferences, or wisdom. Once again humility is highlighted as essential to unity. When we allow (or insist) that our ways of doing things are best or right (even if they are) we do damage to the unity of the body of Christ. This unity demands we look to the interests of others, not simply in an economic sense but in terms of this same unity. Is our insistence on our way of doing things driving others away? Then our selfishness needs to be reigned in. And this is not a bitter, snippy restraint, as v.14 continues. It is a joyful setting aside of the self for the betterment of the whole. Such behavior is not natural or normal but rather is a demonstration of the presence of the Holy Spirit at God at work, so He receives the glory in our unity. Not even life or death should dissuade us from this insistence on unity to the glory of God! Rather, even as individuals come and go in life and death, the body remains whole, knowing that not even those who die are fully and completely gone, but are part of the vast multitude of the saints we will enjoy perfect unity with for eternity.

Matthew 21:23-32 – This passage is a complicated one. Jesus is challenged as to the basis for his teaching (what He was doing at the moment). They say this because they do not acknowledge Jesus’ acclaimed status as a rabbi or teacher as He has no formal rabbinical training, and is not teaching the sayings of an accepted rabbinical tradition. This issue of authority is prominent in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels. Jesus is marveled at as one who preaches as though He himself holds authority, rather than relying on the authority of other rabbis and teachers. But to the religious leaders who see Jesus as a threat, this lack of rabbinical authority is a means by which they seek to discredit him or silence him. Instead, Jesus makes his answer contingent on their answer to his question – a question regarding the work of John the Baptist. Unwilling to fall into judgment from Jesus (if they say John’s authority was divine but they refused to listen to it) and unwilling to risk censure from the crowds (by saying John had no authority when clearly the majority of people held him to be a prophet), they think they will end the discussion by not answering Jesus. This appears to be the case, as the parable Jesus then tells seems unrelated in some ways to this exchange. But it isn’t. The two are linked together and Jesus intended it this way.

Jesus’ parable of two sons paints the religious leaders into a deeper corner than it first appears. It seems as though they might be able to save some face depending on their answer. It’s a matter of choosing the lesser of two bad choices, which would appear to be the first son. Except that the religious leaders haven’t repented and embraced John the Baptist as a prophet! Both sons are disobedient and obedient. The first son is disobedient in his response to his father, and the second son is disobedient in his actions to his father. The first son is obedient in his actions while the second son is obedient in his words.

But the religious leaders are disobedient in both counts – with their initial response to John the Baptist’s call for repentance – and in their continued refusal to accept Jesus, the one John the Baptist proclaimed to be the Lamb of God (John 1:29). They are worse than both sons!

What is the way of righteousness in which John came? The same righteousness referred to be Jesus himself when John protests baptizing him (3:15). Jesus’ baptism is to fulfill all righteousness, and this means not a personal righteousness, as though Jesus needs baptism or repentance, but rather the righteousness of God the Fathers’ plan of salvation that has been in the works since Genesis. John the Baptist fulfills his part in that plan by baptizing Jesus, and Jesus fulfills part of his role in that plan by receiving baptism. Likewise, John the Baptist is fulfilling his role as forerunner of the Messiah as part of God the Fathers’ plan, just as Jesus is now obediently fulfilling his role as the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world. The righteous response to John the Baptist and Jesus is not fundamentally or exclusively a call to ethical or moral living, but rather a call to believe what has and is happening, and to place faith and trust in Jesus. Tragically it may be the religious leaders of Jesus’ day never touch the righteousness of God because they refuse to acknowledge what God is doing right in front of their eyes!

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