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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings:   Exodus 17:1-7.    Philippians 2.    Matthew 21:23-32

I think it is safe to say that we live in very challenging times and throughout the Covid-19 pandemic of the last few months we have seen the Federal and all the State governments exercise their authority by implementing rules that they say are there to protect us all and are for our own good.   Most people have complied and have followed the rules but there are some who have not.

I think all the governments have faced a certain amount of criticism and some people have said, ‘who do they think they are, where is their authority?’    So even though it is the law, we have watched the television news and seen people who have been defiant of the rules – the protesters who say it is an abuse of their human rights to have to wear a mask or to be in lockdown at all.

It is quite an interesting exercise to ask ourselves where we feel our sympathy lies.  Are we so fed up with lockdown that we feel like rebelling against the rules or do we still comply because we feel they are for our own safety and for the good of all?   I guess it’s a question of who do we trust?   

There are many areas of our lives where we have to make a choice of who to trust, whether to follow rules or ignore them.   But most rules, whatever their context, are there for the good of all.   However, I think it may be true to say that years ago people obeyed rules more readily than they do today.     We have seen how the age of unquestioning obedience to authority is long over and many people, for good or bad, tend to consider themselves to be their own best judge and wisest guide in all areas of their lives.   

But this certainly was not the situation in Jesus’ day, when the word of the religious leaders, in all matters of life and religious observance was the absolute law.   The people trusted that the laws were directly from God and so they obeyed the law to the letter.  The chief priests were not used to having their authority or their teaching questioned but in today’s gospel reading, Jesus is doing just that as he has another encounter with them.

It was only the day before this that Jesus had triumphantly ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey.    

He had then visited the temple where he threw out the money-changers and dove-sellers, accusing them of turning his Father’s house of prayer into a den of robbers.   He followed this by setting up an impromptu clinic to heal blind and lame people.  

Jesus had been openly challenging the authorities and putting their positions of power into question and so his presence in the temple again must have been deeply disturbing for them, as the people flock around him to hear his teaching.   We can just imagine the religious leaders saying to themselves, ‘Who does he think he is?’   These leaders cannot allow such a threat to their authority and so challenge him by asking, ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’

Jesus however, turns the challenge back to them in a manner that exposes the hypocrisy of the establishment as he asks them where they think John the Baptist’s authority came from.   John’s authority came from God but they had rejected his teaching and are now unwilling to change their minds as they think it would be seen as a sign of weakness.

So they give the lame answer of, ‘we do not know,’ and consequently Jesus also refuses to answer their question.

Instead, Jesus tells the parable of the two sons.  The first son refuses to do what his father wants but later changes his mind and does it anyway.   This son represents the tax collectors, the prostitutes and other outcasts who lived outside the Jewish law, but when they firstly heard John the Baptist preach and then Jesus, they believed their authority came from God and so changed their ways.   

The second son says that he will do what their father wants, but doesn’t.   He represents the chief priests and elders, the religious professionals who are supposed to follow God and have promised to do God’s will.   However, when they heard John and Jesus preaching, they did not change their ways.   They continue to act in their own personal interests, rather than listening to the message and trusting in God.

Jesus makes it clear to everyone that those who may appear to be furthest from God are actually the ones who most know their need of him.   And in knowing that, they are closer to God than many of those who are supposed to be his chief representatives on earth.   On hearing this, the chief priests and elders would feel very threatened as Jesus represents their downfall and an end to their power over the people as he challenges their authority.

So again, it is an interesting exercise to ask ourselves where our sympathies lie.  Are they with the religious leaders, the ones in authority whose ordered religion is being challenged or are they with the outcasts who reach out in astonishment to the one who offers us hope, love and acceptance?   Again, the question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘in whom do we put our trust?’

I am sure we are all law-abiding people who follow the rules – but we are only human and we may grumble about them and in our Old Testament reading this morning, we hear how the Israelites are grumbling again!   The people complain to Moses that they are thirsty but have no water and they ask, ‘why did you bring us out of Egypt only to die of thirst in the desert?’    They doubt the authority of Moses, but Moses continues to trust God who provides water for them. 

And in Pauls letter to the Philippians, he urges us to do as Christ did, to be humble and obedient to God and to put others before ourselves.   Paul urges that new church to be of one mind, taking the example of Christ as their pattern for life.   Paul is setting out the fundamentals of Christian life which is as valid now as it was then, as he urges us to trust in God and to be a light in the world.

We may be asking lots of searching questions with regards to the situation we find ourselves in at the moment.   We may feel challenged by the authorities and the rules we find ourselves under but we may also find ourselves challenged by the authority Christ seeks to exercise in our lives.

Jesus asked questions of the religious leaders of his day and he also asks questions of us.   Christ challenges us to move out of our comfort zone and to allow our relationship with God to grow and deepen.    He asks in what areas of our lives do we need to listen to God and respond?    Are we ready to put our trust in God and submit to him in all areas of our lives?

Sometimes the rules and the expectations that our faith imposes on us are not easy but we know that God’s rules are there for our own good and that God has our best interests at heart.  

Jesus trusts in the authority of God and we too pray that we can trust and commit the future God, that he will strengthen us when anxiety or doubt threaten to overwhelm us knowing that God’s motive is his pure, unconditional love for each and every one of us.     Amen


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