XVII Pentecost, Year A
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
The word of the LORD came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, `From heaven,’ he will say to us, `Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, `Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, `Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, `I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, `I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
The question posed to Jesus today comes from the religious establishment. This is important. Had the question come from the disciples it would have received a different answer. The question posed to Jesus comes from those who held ‘power over the people’ those authorized to hold power, the most important power of all, religious power. These authorities are the keepers of the sacrificial system in its many manifestations: they hold control over religion as keepers of the temple; they hold power by virtue of their wealth, their social status and their land ownership. They are the keepers of knowledge, of what to do and what not to do, they are keepers of the social order, keepers of the ‘rule of law.’
Jesus’ interlocutors are completely at odds with him. He does not keep to their ‘law’, their interpretation of what constitutes social organization, social order. They are in fundamental disagreement with him as to what constitutes right relationships. Their structuring of relationships is predominantly sacrificial. They operate in the sphere of the generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism. They sacrifice humans all the day long; not caring for the poor, marginalizing the peasant, taking advantage of the elderly, the widows and orphans, those within society who had no one to defend them. These were easy prey, expendable and necessary to keep the oiled machinery of scapegoating and redemptive violence functioning.
The ‘authorities’ view of God is also sacrificial; they continue to take the life of animals, transferring their hostility (sins) onto the appropriate sacrifice, they practice and teach a punishing God. Their entire religious hermeneutic is grounded in sacrifice, their view of God is sacrificial, as though God demanded sacrifice in order to be appeased.
Jesus’ action in the Temple is a polemic on this way of seeing things. Not only does he break the powerful connection between money and religion, he also freely heals and forgives those who were perceived as cursed, those who were perceived as under punishment, as those who need some serious blood atonement. Jesus’ actions are a bullet in the heart of sacrificial religion, they challenge the ultimate structuring of relationships proffered by the ‘authorities.’
When Jesus is asked about his authority, his authorization, why does he not come out and give a straight answer? What or who gives Jesus the right to challenge the reigning ideology? Who or what authorizes Jesus to do away with the old order and usher in a new order?
When Jesus challenges the sacrificial system of the Temple by severing the relationship between money (the ultimate substitutionary system) and religion, he engages in what we might call an ‘act of conscience.’ This ‘act of conscience’ will be brought up at his trial: his act will be twisted by the logic of violence and a lie created: Finally two (false) witnesses came forward and declared “this fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in 3 days.’” They will kill Jesus, they will do to Jesus what they had done to so many others before him; Jesus will become the victim of their violence. They have to kill him to set an example for others so that others will not follow Jesus’ example.
“The logic of the use of violence to deter others from acts of conscience – and from the social revolution such acts add up to – comes from the assumption that systematic violence can dictate its own terms to anyone on the face of the earth. The systemic evils based on this assumption cover the globe. A systemic evil is a social organization of killing and injustice into which we have become locked by coercion, propaganda, and our own passivity. Hiding death and lying about death head the agenda of any systemic evil. The first lie systemic evil forces us to accept is our obligation to believe its official lies about killing.” James W Douglass The NonViolent Coming of God (New York: Maryknoll, 1991)
There is also an interesting twist to Jesus’ question as an answer. Jesus captures his questioners in a double bind, a catch-22. His question to them cannot be answered without implicating them. A double bind can be traced to the mimetic doubling that happens when a model says ‘be like me but don’t be me’ or ‘do as I say, not as I do’ or it can be experienced as ‘scandal’ when the speech and the behavior of the model are different. Jesus uses the double bind of mimesis ‘to bind’ his questioners in such a way that they are completely flummoxed. No matter how they answer they are turned back to their fear, either their fear of the people if they deny the authority of John’s baptism or their fear of divine retribution if they affirm John’s baptism. Either way Jesus has confronted them with the real issue that drives them: fear.
We prefer stability, the good old days when we were happy, when nothing rocked the boat of our little worlds. But we have simply forgotten that in those days too, we were afraid. Our current experience of fear is more palpable to us, so we prefer the illusion of the past. But “for those liberated from the fear of death, the law of violence is powerless. Violence can impose its will only to the extent that its companion, death, is feared. The law of violence can continue to rule only if it is met by another form of itself – by a counter threat of death or by a surrender to the fear of suffering and death. Nonviolence is neither of these. Nonviolence is the overcoming of death by a fearless love.” James W Douglass The NonViolent Coming of God (New York: Maryknoll, 1991).
Like Jesus we too may be called by God to engage in acts of conscience, acts that defy authorities and challenge their right to exist as authorities. We too may end up paying a price, as did Jesus. But we will also have the opportunity of turning the questions of our Inquisitors back upon themselves, in the hopes that, perchance, they might see and repent.
Some Sermon Thoughts
Where is the Good News in this passage? Where is the liberation? the reconciliation?
The only good news here is the good news about the tax collectors and the prostitutes. They get to go first into the kingdom. (Note: They aren’t the only ones who go, they just get first pick of the “dwelling places.” Of course, this is a figurative thing, the notion of some kind of order of entry, but it speaks of the closeness many feel who have turned from an illusion of “right living” to a life submitted to God.
Lately, I’ve been reading the “Blue Book” published by Alcoholics Anonymous. As I read it, I am astonished to discover that these folks in recovery are, for the most part, a lot closer to those gates of heaven than I am. If we started a race to the gates right now, they’d surely get there ahead of me. This doesn’t mean they’re better folks than I am, or that God loves them more or better than me, just that their lives have made them better able to respond to the Gospel than I am.
I think that, if I could find the desperately broken sinner in myself, the one who no longer held any hope of being redeemed by/within the system, I might be able to catch up a bit. If I can help my congregation find that person in themselves, maybe I can give them a head start.