Reflection for 1st October 2023
The Seventeenth Sunday After Trinity
Ezekiel 18.1-4,25-32, Philippians 2.1-13, Matthew 21.23-32
Our reading from Matthew is about the chief priests and elders questioning the authority of Jesus. Surrounding Jesus in the temple, they ask, "By what authority are you doing these things?" "And who gave you this authority?" I wonder why these are their questions. Why are they not asking to know more about what He is saying or thanking him for bringing new revelations to the scriptures? With the benefit of hindsight, we know that their questions come from a place of fear, not love. They are scared of their positions of authority and the power that goes with them. In fact, they are hiding the real question they want to ask, which is "Do you think you’re the Messiah?" Now that is a big, scary question to ask, because what if he says yes? What will then happen to their lives? What changes would that bring? For one, they would lose their authority over the Temple because that would belong to the Messiah. The very thought of this seemingly uneducated country boy from Galilee walking into the big, smart capital city and taking over its holiest shrine really shook the chief priests, who had ruled for centuries. Yet they wondered: could this really be God’s anointed King, the Messiah? Other ‘wannabe’ fake messiahs had come and gone, but this person, this Jesus, had spoken as if he’d had the right to do so.
Jesus’ reply doesn’t pander to their fears or show any need to please them. His answer is both straight-forward and not. Neither is his answer a trick, designed to get them muddled or embarrassed, though it succeeded in doing that as the crowd gathered around them would have whispered throughout the city "The priests didn’t know the answer". The chief priest, by trying to play safe with their answer, reveals their unsureness about whether John was a prophet or not, as they said the people believed he was. Following John, the Baptist caused conflict within the community as those who did listen to him looked like rebels against God, but those who looked like God’s chosen ones refused to do what John said. This point is driven home by Jesus’
story about the two sons, one of whom said no to his father but then did what he had been asked, and the other of whom said yes but then didn’t do it. Then, to further rub it in, he compares the rude son to tax-collectors and prostitutes, whose daily lives seemed to be saying no to God, but on hearing John’s message, they repented and changed their lives. Whereas the polite son stands for the temple hierarchy, who look like they’re doing God’s will with their worship and keeping up appearances but reject God by not believing in John’s message or in the Messiah who stands before them. Jesus ultimately calls them to account, which, unsurprisingly, they don’t like.
For us, this passage from Matthew (21.23-32) challenges us on two levels. We are reminded to make sure we are responding to Jesus, allowing him to confront us at any point where we have been like the second son and said yes to God while in fact going in the other direction. We are also reminded to consider what, as Jesus’ followers, we should be doing today which is to challenge the powers of the present world with the news that He is indeed the rightful Lord. I know it is difficult to challenge other people’s lifestyles and business practices. But you have been given authority by God to do just that: love and care for all who are suffering today in the name and power of Christ.
Blessings and prayers,