Pentecost 20

Proper 21  ~  Lectionary Year  A  ~  September 21, 2008

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar


Christ, for us, became obedient unto death


+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity


            The passage we have just heard is part of a longer, unfriendly dialog with the temple authorities. The guardians of traditional observance and the religious scholars want to know the source of Jesus’ teaching. Where does He get the authority to teach as He does? This is a perfectly reasonable question. Only in hindsight does it appear hypocritical. The chief priests and scribes had no idea Who Jesus was.

He appeared to be one more self-appointed prophet, like John the Baptist. A disinterested observed might think them justified to ignore Him altogether. But they didn’t. They gave Him a chance to explain Himself. In this passage, at least, they weren’t necessarily trying to trip Him up. But His reply lays a trap or them: “I’ll tell you where I get My authority IF you first tell me whether John the Baptist was a prophet or not.” Well, the authorities thought for a minute and realized that they were in a no-win situation: if they said John WAS a prophet, then Jesus would ask why they didn’t follow his advice. But they also knew that John was doing very well in the polls, and if they said John WASN’T a prophet, they would be in big trouble with the populace.

So, they said they didn’t know. And so Jesus refused to tell them where He got the right to teach. But Jesus went on to tell them today’s parable, and compared them to the second son, the one who promised to work but didn’t. If they had really been interested in serving God, they would have listened to John the Baptist. Like the second son, the religious authorities constantly proclaim their obedience by their public position in society and by their religious observance. But when God sends them a real messenger, they ignore him. Their hypocrisy is revealed. Like the second son, they don’t actually obey, although they proclaim they do. Jesus is very rough on them: “publicans and harlots are holier than you!” Tax-collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God before these top religious authorities.

By contrast, John was like the second son. He may have been short on public observance – he may even have been defective in the externals of religion, but he was truly obedient, a real prophet, a true messenger of God. Jesus is implying that He too, an outsider like John the Baptist, may be a disobedient son, from the authorities’  point of view, that is from the viewpoint of surface appearances. But, like John, it is He and not they who is genuinely obedient. Things are not as they seem, particularly in spiritual matters. The disobedient is obedient and the publicans and harlots are closer to God than the priests and religious scholars. Jesus did give these authorities and answer: “My authority comes from the same Source as John the Baptist’s.” In other words, “You don’t know spiritual authority when it is right in front of you.”        

The authorities are like us. How on earth are we to discern who is real and who is a charlatan? The lectionary today gives us some direction, I think. Real authority has nothing to do with position in this world, or success. In fact, those things ought to make one suspicious. That is the pagan idea of spiritual authority: power. But as the Collect says, God’s mighty power is shown chiefly in mercy and pity. The prophets are not heroes, like Hercules. More often they are ne’er-do-wells, whom God allows to suffer all kinds of abuse and disrespect, but vindicates in the end. Usually they are not killed.

But John is a new kind of prophet ~ one who dies in the cause. And John’s cause was Jesus’ cause, the Reign of God. Jesus, too, would die in this cause, as Pilate’s note nailed up above Him clearly proclaimed. What is new about this is the display of God’s majesty in humility, the revelation of Absolute Power in weakness, of creation in death, and of triumph in suffering. Things are not as they seem, in the world of the Spirit Pagan divinities appeared as heroes, whereas crucifixion was the worst thing that could happen ~ a lingering death of unimaginable pain, which could last for days. To claim that this is a glimpse of the Majesty of God was just absurd. Still is. Zeus is not crucified. Neither is Allah.     

But that is the proclamation of the Church: the suffering of God, proclaimed in fear and trembling. Paul quotes what is generally regarded as the earliest existing hymn of the Church:

[the Messiah], though He was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be held on to,

but emptied Himself,

taking the form of a slave…

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 the Messiah is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

The exploits of demigods like Hercules are expected. The exploit of the one Who is True God and True Man are not. The mighty power of God is shown in mercy and pity, not in conquest and domination. One might add that the power of God is displayed in his infinite capacity to suffer. But this is incomprehensible to the religious authorities. And the Cross remains folly – just plain madness – to the unrepentant, to those who will not listen to John the Baptist and go down into the water and change their minds.  

But the Cross IS the Source of Jesus’ authority. It represents His obedience to the Father, in the context of the parable. But more than that, it represents God’s mighty power declared in mercy and pity by absorbing everything that is wrong with the world. Jesus will answer the question. We will know the Source of His authority when we are able to look at the horror of the Cross, the suffering of our Creator, and say with the early Church in fear and trembling,

Christ, for us, became obedient unto death, even death on the Cross, wherefore God has given Him the Name that is above every Name, that every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.