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Saturday, 24 September 2011

A Tale of Two Siblings


Readings:  Exodus 17.1-7
                 Ps 78.1-4, 11-16
                 Philippians 2.1-13
                 Matthew 21.23-32

The late Colin Slee, until his recent untimely death the Dean of Southwark Cathedral in London, was known for pushing a complacent Christian community outside the boundaries of its cosy-zones. One powerful example of this, with considerable relevance to a reading of today’s gospel passage, was when Slee pronounced that Christians – perhaps he said preaching Christians – need a licence to read the bible.

Such a claim of course sends evangelical and reformed Christians scurrying to their reliquaries to clutch relics of Martin Luther, but Slee has a powerful point. The bible – apart from being one of the most abused collections of writings in human history – is potentially as toxic a resource pool as any mining company’s arsenic wash-pools.

Perhaps the most potentially toxic of writings, with their other worldly worldview and disinterest in the fate of those beyond the chosen or redeemed, are the ‘apocalyptic writings’. Unfortunately, and we need to remember this every third year, Matthew is the most apocalyptic-influenced of the gospel-tellings, and, tucked away in our tiny sample of Matthew’s good news, is an example of a Jesus saying, retold by Matthew, which has had horrendously noxious implications for some of society’s victims ever since Matthew made its way to the front of the New Testament.

It got to that position because of the large degree to which Matthew told the Jesus story within the context of the story of the Old Testament people of God. That chain of events is a continuum: Matthew made such strong links with the Hebrew as he turned to the language of apocalyptic, that relatively late strand of Jewish thought that is so full of vision and codified reference to political leaders, military dictators and oppressors who had made hell of the lives of Jewish people. He did so because Matthew’s own faith community was similarly experiencing persecution and oppression. Ironically this is now coming in part at the hands of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, as the wedge between Christians and Jews became wider and wider, and as the Jewish leadership were keen to make clear top the Roman authorities that Christians, including Matthew’s largely Jewish Christians, were not Jews.

Why does this matter? It matters because, when Jesus told the story, and when Matthew recorded Jesus telling the story, of a first son who initially refuses and then accepts the mandate of the father, and of a second son who initially accepts and then neglects the mandate of the father, it was quickly applied to a Jewish community that once served God and Torah, but neglected Jesus (the second son), and a Gentile community that once neglected God and Torah, but in the person of ‘tax collectors and the prostitutes’ changed its mind and received the (law-observant) gospel-message. In our scene it is the Jewish religious leadership that are challenging Jesus, who are his co-conversationalists, and who stand condemned by the exchange. In the hands of the history of later Christian leadership, however, the passage became one of many in which the Jews were condemned as executors of Jesus. Such condemnation, culminating in the atrocities of Hitler’s Third Reich, but much foreshadowed in the anti-Semitism of all Europe in the pre-Hitler centuries, is a blood stain on the hands of the Christian community, and one for which we must always be humbled in our relationships with those of other faiths and none: we got this wrong.

Matthew, however, was telling this Jesus story in a different world. To his audience the saying of Jesus about two brothers was a reassurance that there was for them the assurance of grace, that God had received them, and that even though the power-players in the Jewish community were persecuting them, God was on the side of the persecuted, the new Jesus community. For us reading these Matthew stories interpretation is a delicate tight-rope walk. The simple message is timeless: that God does dwell with the people of God the Christ community, in those times of trial that we pray deliverance from in the great prayer of Jesus. At the same time we do need to remember and acknowledge that we live in a different world. In our history we have become the persecutors, the Jewish leaders trying to trap Jesus, rather than the broken and vulnerable, God-needing Jesus community, the son who gets it right. In our opening decades of the twenty-first century the pendulum is swinging again, and we are no longer a people of power – the interpretation of Matthew’s stories is in a sense far easier when we are a marginalised, if not yet victimised people of God.

We can be assured of the presence of God in our trials, though we might also always make sure that there are none who we victimize or oppress by our faith or even our lifestyles, seeking to set to right where we do wrong. Helpfully (and ironically, given, I suspect, the lack of love in Matthew’s mind for Paul and his law-free gospel), Paul’s great hymn of the self-emptying Christ may always serve as a litmus test of the appropriate nature, or otherwise, of our Christian living. Are we indeed emulating the Christ who, as Wesley put it after Paul, emptied himself of all but love, emptied himself particularly of power? Or are we like Christians of many centuries, wielding inappropriate power, oppressing others, and by that using the name of God in vain? For too long we oppressed in the name of Jesus, but in the 21st century we have new opportunity to be a servant community, rumouring resurrection by the quality of our lives, not the power of our society. We have opportunity at last to hear the words of Jesus spoken to a community whose sole weapon is that of Christ-pointing love. May God help us to be the son who gets it right!

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