[Most weeks, I try to publish at least one post dealing with the appointed Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday. My hope is that I can at least help the people of the parish I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. Others may find these explorations helpful because we use the same Bible lessons used by most other North American Christians each Sunday. For information on the Church Year and the plan of lessons called the lectionary, see here.]
The Bible Lessons:Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32Psalm 25:1-9Philippians 2:1-13Matthew 21:23-32
The Prayer of the Day:
God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen
1. A little background on Ezekiel
The Book of Ezekiel has the most logical arrangement of any of the prophetic books. It contains three sections, each of which addresses a different subject matter. Chapters 1–24 concern the fall of Jerusalem. Chapters 25–39 contain a series of oracles addressed to foreign nations, concluding with a section in which the future of Israel is contrasted with that of the foreign nations. The third section, Chapters 40–48, presents a plan for rebuilding the Temple and reorganizing the restored state of Israel.
Ezekiel was one of the younger men taken to Babylon in the first captivity, which occurred in 597 B.C. He served as a kind of religious counselor to the Hebrew exiles who were allowed to live in a colony by themselves near the banks of the Kebar River. Scholars generally assume that most of what is contained in Ezekiel was written by the prophet himself. For some time, they believed that he wrote practically the entire book while living in the colony of exiles. However, more recent scholarship has pointed out several reasons for thinking that at least a portion of the chapters included in the first section contains speeches personally delivered by the prophet to the people who remained in Jerusalem until the city fell in 586 B.C.
2. There are two ways in which this passage may cause us some confusion. First, is the assertion, repeated in several different ways, found in the first four verses:
The word of the Lord23 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 God4, 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.
But how do we square that with words that appear in the Ten Commandments?:
I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:5-6)
And while we're at it, how can it be squared with the doctrine of original sin, the notion that we are all born into the common human condition of sin, alienation from God and a predisposition to be turned inward and away from God and others?
And, does Ezekiel uphold a highly individualistic view that reverses the communal orientation of much of the rest of Scripture?
These are big questions, not easily answered in so short a space. But a few thoughts...
(a) Ezekiel is in no way saying that the sins of parents and grandparents are unfelt by subsequent generations. Peer into the history of any dysfunctional family (that, in some ways, is all families, by the way) and you see threads running from one generation to the next.
(b) Ezekiel is saying that each of us is able to turn to God (repent) and live new lives. Our inborn predisposition to committing acts of sin--lovelessness toward God and toward others and ingratitude for the life that God has given to us--can only be overcome, as our Philippians text puts it, when "God is at work" in us. God does this when we turn from sin and trust in the Good News of new life Christ brings to the world (Mark 1:15
(c) Because sin is an inherently communal thing, in that it always involves either sin against God or others or both, repentance is also a communal thing. This is why we offer both public and private confession in the Church. It's why our private relationship with God and our individual confession of sin is to result in restored and renewed relationships with others. Sometimes, we will need to overtly reconcile with those we have harmed (Matthew 18:15-20
3. A second issue: What about Ezekiel's insistence that God is fair in the face of the exiled people's assertions that God isn't fair? I mean, just last Sunday, I preached a sermon titled, God Isn't Fair
. Ezekiel seems to say that God is fair. Who's right, Ezekiel or me?
First of all, my sermon of last week wasn't based on my say-so. If it were, it wouldn't have been worth a thing and I wouldn't have dared stand in the pulpit! The theme of "God isn't fair" was the thrust of both the Old Testament
lessons of last Sunday.
But the assertion that "God isn't fair" in those two texts came in response to a different question than the one Ezekiel was addressing during the Babylonian exile. Whether it was Jonah's anger over the hated Ninevites being allowed by God to live in light of their repentance or the johnny-come-lately laborers in Jesus' parable receiving the same pay as those who had worked all day long, the answer was that God isn't fair. God affords grace to all who are repentant
. In the eyes of the world, that isn't fair.
But Ezekiel is answering a different question. Or, more accurately, if you read the entire eighteenth chapter, a different set of questions. His people feel that they have been devoted to God, for one thing. And they wonder if it does any good to repent, to turn back to God.
In this sense, God is
fair. God will not hold our parents' sins against us or even our own sins, if we will genuinely turn back to God. "For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live," Ezekiel reports God saying. Through Jesus Christ, that is a call that God continues to issue today!
1. Philippians is one of the most extraordiary books of the New Testament. It's a letter written by the apostle Paul to the church in the Greek city of Philippi. Paul founded the church, with the help of his traveling companions, during his second missionary journey, recorded in Acts 16:11-40
. The letter was written in about 61AD in Rome, where Paul was a prisoner for his faith in Jesus Christ.
In spite of Paul's grim circumstances, the letter is filled with joy. That joy is rooted in Jesus Christ, Paul says.
2. In our lesson, Paul urged the Philippians to interact with one another with humility. Humility is a repudiation of selfishness and conceit, an embrace of mutual encouragement and servanthood. "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit," Paul writes in the verses just before those of our lesson appear, "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."
This is subversive stuff. We all recoil at the selfishness we see in others. Yet we tend to rationalize that our selfishness is okay. But if everybody always looks out for number 1, chaos ensues, as we see in an American society that puts a high premium on indivdualism.
The call to follow Jesus is a call to think less of me, to think of God and others.
3. And as our lesson demonstrates, in calling us to love God supremely and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, God isn't calling us to do any more than He Himself has done in Jesus Christ.
4. But, here's what is most important to see about this passage. Most religions of the world and most ethical people would agree that selflessness is a good thing, even that Jesus' example is a good thing.
Jesus, though, didn't come to be our example. Jesus came to be our Lord and Savior. What that means is that He doesn't just come up to us like a motivational speaker, urging us to learn from His example. As Paul says, through Christ, "it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." In other words, our "job" as Christians is to get out of God's way and let God work and do God's will in our lives. If we want to believe and we want to be more like Christ, the answer is found in our jumping through some proscribed hoops. "Sanctification," the process of becoming more godly, is a matter of daily repentance--there that word is again, which allows God to renew us. This renewal is what Paul talks in Romans 12, where he urges believers in Christ "to be transformed by the renewing" of their minds. Here, he asks people to have the same mind that was "in Christ Jesus." Through daily repentance and renewal, we undergo what I call a holy lobotomy
5. The words of our lesson probably were the lyrics of a song the early Church sang when it worshiped together.
1. As always, it helps in understanding a specific passage of Scripture to look at its context. Chapter 21 is a pivotal chapter in Matthew's Gospel. It begins with Matthew's account of Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered the holy city of Jerusalem, welcomed by the crowds as a conquering king
Later, Jesus, the Messiah with heavenly authority over the temple, drives the money changers out of God's house
. For the chief priests, this action on Jesus' part brought the question of His authority (as opposed to their own) to the fore. This is why they confront Jesus with the question, "By what authority...?"
2. For "the chief priests and scribes," authority is something acquired from other people or by human tradition. Jesus' authority is constantly authenticated by actions that demonstrate His submission to the Father, the sort of submission about which Paul writes in the second lesson. No matter how many miracles Jesus performed or how often He displayed compassion, they wouldn't be convinced--or allow themselves to be convinced--that Jesus was the Messiah.
3. The parable can be read in several ways. First and most immediately, it's a parable about people who seem to say Yes to God versus people who seem to say No to God. The chief priests and elders publicly confessed faith in God all the time. Yet when confronted with evidence that Jesus was God-enfleshed and called on to repent and believe, they asked what hoops Jesus had jumped through to rid the temple of extortionists and religious profiteers. What authority, they wondered, did Jesus have to issue such a call? The tax collectors and prostitutes had made no pretense of living for God. Yet, when confronted with Jesus, many turned from their sin and believed in Jesus.
Another way in which this parable can be read is in the context in which Matthew presented it. He wrote to a church dealing with tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers, a tension addressed in last week's Gospel lesson as well. The parable, I believe, really comes from Jesus. But Matthew included it and presented it in the way in which He did, because it addressed a circumstance with which the church of his day was dealing.
In today's church, we can see similar tensions between longtime and new members, or long-confessing Christians and people newborn in the faith on fire for Christ.
As Brian Stoffregen says
, in His parable, Jesus does more than extol the virtues of those who may initially say, "No" to God and then do His will. He commands both public profession and personal surrender.