September 25 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Pentecost 15
Texts: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-33
Theme: I suggest "A Change of Mind". At the literal level that applies pretty well to the tale of the two sons in the gospel passage. But in the broader sense, repentance is a change of mindset or attitude, which both lessons talk about.
Introduction. God makes all things new. Fresh starts, fresh ways of thinking and looking at things. Pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and start all over again, as the old song had it. Not great music, perhaps, but sound theology. Repentance (Ezekiel), kenosis – self-emptying (Philippians), and essence rather than form (Matthew) are all ways in which this idea of being open to the new plays out in practice.
Background. There is a specialist Christian ministry group offering to set us free from "generational sin". This is not meant in the sense that politicians talk of generational poverty, unemployment or delinquency. It means that the idea denounced in our first lesson today that we can suffer the penalty for sins committed by our ancestors is still not dead over 2,500 years later! I have on more than one occasion been "advised" by a well-meaning (though not well-informed) Christian that X is suffering because his "Great Uncle Charlie" was a Freemason! "Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past...' (Isaiah 43:18!
Every parent will have had experience of a child saying one thing and doing or not doing something else! Jesus' story would immediately have heads nodding.
Ezekiel. Even those who believe that we are punished for the sins of our forefathers consider it is unjust – and such a view is, of course, critical of God's law. Their complaint is that God's law on this matter is unjust. But it is also a very useful defence: I am not the sinner; it was my Great Uncle Charlie who sinned. So this passage is really aimed, not so much at defending God against their criticism of his law, but at blowing this would-be defence out of the water. You are being punished for your own sins, not Great Uncle Charlie's, so grow up, take responsibility for your own faults, and repent. However, we are not simply dealing with a common proverb here: see Exodus 20:5: for I, the Lord your God am a jealous God punishing the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Repentance is the way out of the rut, the way back to God. It is the way to "get a new heart and a new spirit" (v.31). This is much more than confession of particular sins: this is a whole transformation of attitude and personality. There is also a warning against "reverse repentance": if the righteous person turns to sin his former righteous self will not save him. In a real sense we choose whether or not to be saved. Freewill and salvation are intimately linked. (Obvious connection with the story of the two sons.)
Important to note that God does not take pleasure in the death of anyone. God is not in the business of meeting a quota! His will is that all will be saved.
Taking It Personally.
· Consider your genetic inheritance. Are you aware of any weakness or disability you have inherited? How do you feel about that? If not, have you given thanks for your good genes?
· Consider your upbringing. Are you aware of any adverse effects on your personality, attitudes, etc? How do you feel about that? Have you ever caught yourself blaming your parents, grandparents, etc for some negative trait in your character?
· Are you inclined to explain away your shortcomings and failures by blaming past experiences of any kind? Is there "baggage" you need to let go?
· Would you like to be set free from any part of your past? What might such liberation entail? Which Bible stories come to mind as you ponder these questions?
Philippians. The centre of this reading is the much-loved "hymn of Christ's humility". But this is preceded with Paul's teaching on the relationship between believers within the Body of Christ. He starts with the "benefits" of being in Christ – encouragement, comfort, fellowship, etc; then exhorts the believers to be "like-minded". Not that we must agree on every point, but that we should be "one in spirit and purpose". This calls for less "I" and more "we"; less "me" and more "us". Perhaps our democratic upbringing encourages each of us to push our own barrows in the hope that all our competing interests can somehow be mediated through the democratic process. But in the church there should be no competing interest, because each of us should be as concerned with the interests of others as we are with our own. So, out with self ambition and vain conceit, and in with humility.
In short, out attitude should be the same as Christ's. The key concept here is "kenosis" – Christ emptied himself of all his divine rights and prerogatives, and made room for God and other people. He gave himself entirely to do his Father's will in all things and at all times. "...yet not my will but yours be done" (Matthew 26:39; Luke 22:42; see also Hebrews 10:7; and the Lord's Prayer "your will be done".
Taking It Personally.
· Reflect on your present relationship in and with Christ? Do you draw encouragement from it; do you gain comfort from his love, and fellowship from his Spirit? Are you more tender and compassionate towards others because of your faith?
· Reflect on your relationship with others in your local church. Are you ever tempted to push your own barrow? Do you consider them better (more Christlike) than yourself? Are you as mindful of their best interests as of your own?
· Would you describe yourself as humble? How would you feel if someone else described you in that way?
Matthew. Suddenly, we are in Jerusalem. We are past the triumphant entry (Palm Sunday and all that) and past the cleansing of the Temple. It's probably that episode more than anything else that has caused the chief priests and the elders to come to Jesus and demand to know what authority he has to do these things, and from whom? From the very beginning this issue of Jesus' authority has been bubbling away. Early on we were told that the crowds marvelled at his teaching, because he taught as one having authority, and not as the teachers of the law who relied on precedents and rulers from other scholars: Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:27.
Jesus is reluctant to give a direct answer; he is not accountable to them. Instead, he asks a question of his own concerning the authority of John the Baptist. When they kick for touch, so does he.
His authority does not arise from his training, education and experience, but from his identity. This provides our link with the parable of the two sons. Neither son questions his father's authority for giving the command he does: He is the father and that is the source of his authority over them. In refusing to do as he is told, the first son rejects his father's authority and thereby rejects his father. But then he changes his mind – he repents – and thereby restores his relationship with his father. The second son does everything in reverse. At the end the test is, which son is in right relationship with his father?
Obedience, in the religious sense, is recognising who God is and accepting his authority over our lives. In refusing to listen to John the Baptist who was God's prophet (authorised spokesman) the religious leaders are rejecting God's authority; in heeding John's message, the prostitutes and publicans are accepting God's authority in their lives.
Taking It Personally.
· Can you recall an occasion when someone challenged your authority – "Who do you think you are?" How did you respond?
· What is your general attitude towards those in authority?
· Which of the two sons are you most like?
· How is God's authority over you manifested in your daily life?