The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 27, 2020
O God who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running to obtain thy promises, may be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Today’s Gospel marks a distinctive shift in setting from the stories we have been hearing. We are now in Jerusalem, signalling that we have turned to face the final stretch that leads us to the end of the liturgical year and our contemplation of the arrival of the messiah. We are heading towards stories of endings and judgement, of the separation of the sheep from the goats, of the fates of those who have and have not shown love to God and neighbour. Advent, judgement, and our fate hang in the air and our conversations about forgiveness and reconciliation begin to seem more urgent.
Jesus has entered Jerusalem, our “king ... humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.” He has been hailed by the people who have “spread their garments on the road, and others [who] cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.” He has “entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he over-turned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.” He has healed the blind and the lame and withered the fig tree, showing his power over the forces of the cosmos.
He then reentered the temple and the “chief priests and the elders of the people” demanded to know “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority.” Jesus then turns the tables on these religious officials who bear the stamp of having cooperated with the Roman authorities in the maintenance of their own power. He puts them to the test by saying he will answer them if they can tell him whether the baptism offered by John the Baptist is “from heaven or from men.” Unwilling to risk their political position and anger either the Romans or the people, they refuse to take a stand, showing themselves more interested in appearances and power than in either the truth or manifesting the works of God.
The question Jesus next poses to them, “What do you think?” does not, therefore, come out of the blue, but arises from a particular moment in his discourse with the chief priests and elders, who have, on account of their hypocrisy, forfeited their right to a direct answer to their own question.
What do you think? [Jesus says.] A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”
The priests and elders clearly, and unhesitatingly show Jesus that they know the correct answer. The one who at first refused the task, but in the end did as he was asked is the one “who did the will of his father.” Saying you will do something, but not following through is far worse than a bit of pig-headed stubbornness or reflexive laziness. Even if all the world saw was the refusal of the one and the acquiescence of the other, what matters is what happened in the end, whether anyone was there to see it or not. Public pronouncements of a willingness to do the bidding of the father, to carry out the works of God in this world, are all well and good, but they must be followed up with action. Their answer to Jesus’ question has kept the chief priests and elders on the wrong foot.
This, however, is not enough for Jesus. He wants to drive the point home, so he continues: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” We have already heard in this Gospel of Matthew the tax collector how we are to pursue the one lost sheep, how tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, and Gentiles must be given the chance to be reconciled with the community, and that in doing so they will be welcomed into the Kingdom of God. What we also know about these individuals, these tax collectors and prostitutes, especially, is that like the chief priests and the elders, they have worked against the interest of the Jewish people in their cooperation with the Roman authorities in Judea. Yet these people, considered far worse betrayers of their people than the chief priests and elders, will come into the kingdom before these seemingly righteous, yet thoroughly wicked, leaders of the people.(1)
So there is no room for doubt, Jesus brings his attack to its culmination: “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him.” Here Jesus both asserts the divine nature of his ministry and John’s, at the same time as is deeply critical of the Jewish authorities for their unwillingness and inability to see it.
For Jesus, the authorities above all wish to keep their own power. They fear anything that brings it into question or, even worse, poses a major threat to it. Jesus and John the Baptist both represent such threats, even though neither is a political actor in the conventional sense. John called on the people to repent of their sins and prepare themselves for a major upheaval in the world order. John recognised that Jesus was the one who would effect these changes, but even more dangerously had a following, a group of people who listened to him and could cause trouble. Jesus, who never spoke of politics, who never sought to wield the power of a professional religious leader, and certainly never desired to enter the political sphere, nonetheless, represented a threat to both established orders in the inversions he preached.
Jesus’ preaching and teaching amounted to nothing less than social revolution, the upsetting of the political and social order and the overturning of ideas of what power looked like and who exercised it. God’s order was what mattered, not that of the great empire at the heart of the known world or of their lackeys in a small province like Judea. The Kingdom of God Jesus was preaching is abundant, dynamic, inclusive. In that Kingdom those who come at the eleventh hour are welcomed and recompensed the same as those who have been there from the beginning. In that kingdom what matters is the doing of God’s will, not the lip service paid to God when asked.
In our country at this moment we are at a crossroads. We have seen our elected (and unelected) leaders lie and cheat. They have been shown to be hypocrites, just the kind of people who promise they will go and work and then just don’t turn up. They have sought to maintain power and have appealed to our worst instincts. They have done everything they can to further marginalise the poor and needy, the immigrant and the refugee, the outcast and those who are different from the norm or ideal of white suburban prosperity. They have baldly said that the suffering of people with whom they disagree means nothing to them, and they can find no empathy within their hardened hearts.
In this moment, it is the duty of every Christian to exercise their civic right and responsibility to participate in the upcoming election. I have seen several times recently a TV commercial sponsored by an atheist group demanding religious people stay clear of politics. I am telling you just the opposite. It is the duty of every Christian to participate in civic life and weigh the choices we are called upon to make as citizens on the criteria not of human power, but on the values of the Kingdom of God. Today we are asked to go into the field, to work and cooperate with God in the achievement of the Kingdom, to help bring forth those divine values in which the meek and poor are cared for, where the hungry are fed, the sick are tended, the prisoner visited. We are to cooperate with the work of the kingdom, to exercise our vote in this American democracy, and then, when it is done, to practice the works of reconciliation. We are to remember the inclusion in Jesus’ and Matthew’s visions of the Gentile, the tax collector, the sinner, and then forgive those who are penitent seventy times seven times.
The Gospel today seems to appear from nowhere, but it is the first in a series of stories that will challenge us to think about how we shall be judged for our actions towards those in need as this Kingdom of God unfolds into a new Advent. Today’s gospel comes to us at a moment when we face the very kinds of leaders Jesus met in the temple. We have been given the authority and the tools to challenge them with the standard of the Kingdom of God, the standard of neighbour love, of the inversion of power, knowing that Our Lord did this before us and that this gives us the authority to act in his name. And so when we are asked why we are doing what we do, with whose authority we do it, we need not obfuscate, but say directly that this authority has been given us in Baptism by Jesus Christ and that we are exercising the ministry with which we are charged to firmly engage the works of love and help usher in a new age.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, 19 September 2020
(1) For the political interpretation of this passage see Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina Series, 1, 1991 (Collegeville: MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 300-301.
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume