The question for this day is about the identity of the true authority. Jesus condemns the temple leadership; Ezekiel calls cultural prejudices into question. For our time, the authority of God is given so many faces, the responsible preacher will take this opportunity to revisit the question and take the matter into the generosity of God’s mercy.
The gospel text follows the theme of repentance introduced by Ezekiel. Because Jesus enacted a prophetic declaration of judgment against the temple and its leadership (21:12–13), the religious authorities demand that he explain who authorized him to speak and act this way. In this demand, there is also a trap. If Jesus claimed divine authorization for his actions, the religious authorities could accuse him of blasphemy. But if he were acting on his own, they could condemn him of disrespecting the temple and stone him to death.
Jesus answers with a question to his opponents. He leaves them unable to answer, giving him, as well, the justification for declining their question to him.
But then Jesus takes the matter further, asking his challengers whether obedience is the same as faith. (This is a question for any of us whose understanding of true Christian witness revolves around adherents’ behaviors or understandings of the faith.) The religious make a stab at answering according to the parable Jesus tells.
The authorities identify . . . the one who at first refused to do the father's command, but then changed his mind, as the one who did the will of his father. Jesus then condemns the authorities for acting like the second son, who [gave] lip service to his father, but failed to obey. Jesus contrasts [the authorities’] failure with the way in which the tax collectors and prostitutes have lived out the right answer because they heard John the Baptist's summons and responded with repentance.
This story provides a helpful corrective to the tendency to reduce Christianity to a matter of having the correct doctrine. Following Jesus is not so much a system of teaching as a way of living embodied in certain practices, such as hospitality, forgiveness, generosity, service, and compassion.
– Aaron J. Couch
What Jesus asserts is also Ezekiel's point.
It is important for the preacher to demonstrate that Ezekiel is not providing a program for the exercise of God's judgment. The key is to observe the intended function of the prophetic announcement.
This passage is not an objective discourse on the topic of divine justice, but a personal address, summoning the listener to repent and turn his or her heart toward God. The problem with the proverb is that it permitted the people of Judah to persist in their wickedness and irresponsibility, while also maintaining the illusion of powerlessness and relative innocence. Ezekiel invites the people to see the truth of their conduct and to take responsibility for their lives while also trusting God's love and God's justice.
– Aaron J. Couch
If Christian witness is something deeper and more universal than the embrace of culturally acceptable behaviors and even biblically commanded actions or particular doctrinal assertions, what is it? Paul gives his answer.
Christian leaders and the Christian community who follow Christ's example must engage in patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting that facilitate the emptying of themselves of practices that are detrimental to the shalom of the community. These detrimental practices include but are not limited to self-seeking gratification, lack of demonstrable hospitality, deceitful financial gain, and many others. Paul encourages the community to engage in living lives “worthy of the gospel” (Phil 1:27).
Paul aspires for the Christian community to live in a way that holds up the excellence of Christ, an excellence shaped by kingdom principles and not the cultural malfeasance of a society tainted by self-interested ambition or complacency and mediocrity. The Christ hymn holds up the life of Jesus for everyone to see and says this kind of life is what the Lord of the universe honors. This is the example of a particular way of being, a way of living to which the Christian community is called.
– Chris L. Brady
How a preacher might address these concerns in a culture such as ours in the United States involves carefully bringing the assembly to see all facile conclusions as warped. You can’t sloganize politics and be living up to the shalom of community-building. Self-emptying is a vision to behold, a plumb line for measurement, a way to make judgments about community and church direction. It is not a tool for condemnation but a hope for change.
Aaron J. Couch is co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.
Chris L. Brady is lead pastor of Wilson Temple, United Methodist Church, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Homily Service 41, no. 4 (21 July 2008): 37-48.