As I remarked this weekend, none of the readings seem to speak to a particular pastoral problem we are experiencing at St. Alban’s. Sure, the Exodus story reminds us that we are very much like the people of Israel. Even when God provides for us in ways unimagined, we soon find ourselves once again questioning whether He is able to provide for our newest perceived need. We quarrel with God like professionals. The letter of Paul to the church at Philippi reminds us of, among other things, the eschatalogical end when every knee will confess Christ is Lord and every knee will bend. The psalm reminds us of the need for us to remember God’s provision in the past as a way of reminding us that He will provide in the present and the future. And Matthew’s stories seem to be better discussed among the leadership in the Church.
I say stories because we have bits of two different pericopes combined in the one reading for Matthew’s Gospel. The first part of the story deals with Jesus’ condemnation of the temple elites’ and elders’ complete lack of integrity. When Jesus asks them by whose authority John proclaimed repentence, the best that the leaders can come up with is a feeble “we do no know.” To say that John’s baptism came from God would simply highlight to the audience and to us their unwillingness to repent and their unwillingness to follow the One to Whom John pointed. And, of course, like all good church leaders, the temple elites cannot say what they want to believe for fear that the people will revolt. The festival is in full swing. To deny the most recent great prophet would be to lose their support. They might take up arms and remove them, or they may simply cut their giving. In a brief question, Jesus unmasks the lack of integrity which the leaders who question Him possess.
For some strange reason, however, the editors of the RCL have us proceed immediately to the first of Jesus’ three parables which point out human culpability in the face of divine judgement. The parable of the two sons is meant to demonstrate the difference between the people of Israel and its leaders. The prostitutes and tax collectors hear the call to repentance by John and return to God. Confronted with the living Christ, many submit and are so loved into the kingdom of God. Yet, like the second son, the leaders of Israel not only reject the ministry of John, but also of Christ, and so find themselves outside the Kingdom of God. What is worse is that even after they see the tax collectors and sinners repenting, they “refuse to repent and to believe him.” The very people who should most understand the call of God upon His peoples’ lives are the very ones who will not repent, will not submit, and are judged as wanting. Like the Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the leaders of Israel are unable to see that they are need of God’s mercy.
Naturally, the story would not be Gospel were it not full of good news,. And, though we might first miss it, the parable is full of good news! God has waited on the tax collectors and the prostitutes to repent and, so long as the Day of the Lord has not come, even the leaders have an opportunity to repent. As our collect reminded us this week, their and our trust, their and our faith must be in the mercy and grace of God. Only He can accomplish all the He purposes; only He can save.
Though our stories are somewhat squashed together this week, the two remind us of the need for repentance and the need for faith. Once we recognize our position before a holy, righteous and just God and repent of our sin before Him, He is ever quick to grant us mercy. And if we repent, then we can certainly begin to believe in all of His promises. You and I live in a period not unlike that in which Jesus ministered. There are challenges to His claims. Differing truth claims assault us nearly 24/7/365. There is an understandable desire to take the position “I do not know.” Yet, unlike those Pharisees and other who came before His work on the cross, we have seen the validation of His claims; we know His claims are the Truth. The One who makes these judgements and the One who drives home the teaching about human responsibility is the One who died, was raised, and ascended to the Father. God has validated all that Jesus said and did by, as Paul reminded us this weekend, giving Him the name that is above every name. So, by what authority do you say He did those things?