Saying It or Doing It (Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32)
Do you remember the old line: “Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear a word you say”? It’s designed, of course, to point to the truth that our words certainly need to be consistent with our actions. This ought to be true of everyone. Even politicians. But it ought to be especially true of those who are disciples of Jesus. Today’s scriptures emphasize how important what we do is to our witness. Sometimes religious people seem to think their first duty is to confess what is orthodox (which means what is “straight, right, or correct), and so some affirm lists of doctrines or creeds or statements of faith. Our lessons today all deal with the contrast between saying the orthodox thing and doing it. This comes out in several ways.
I have time only to go for the bottom line in the Old Testament lesson today because it’s full of ancient language and concepts. The context of the passage was that Ezekiel’s community was suffering separation from everything familiar that gave their lives meaning, in exile in Babylon. Although Ezekiel (and Jeremiah before him) had assured these folk that the exiles were actually the future of Israel, rather than those who remained in the old city and old land, the people complained that God was unfair, and really unjust suffering of women and children who had not sinned, at least to the extent their parents had. This is reflected in an old proverb, much like that one about actions and words with which I started. This proverb is also cited in the book of Jeremiah, “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” I think we all know the experience to which this refers: that tingle or zap one’s teeth get from eating something sour. Well, who would ever think that anyone but the one who actually ate the grapes could get zapped? The saying was taken to mean that the sins of the parents were visited on the children. When we put it that way, we can see some truth to it. It happens sometimes. Back in the ten commandments there’s a line about God’s visiting iniquity on children to the “third and fourth generations.” So they had a Bible verse to quote on it. Proof texting is always a dangerous occupation. What Ezekiel was saying was that they were using this reasoning as an excuse to let themselves off the hook for bad behaviour. “It’s not our fault, it’s our parents’ fault.” We ought to understand this kind of reasoning, because today we blame everybody else than ourselves for almost everything. If we ever want change however, this reasoning is disastrous, because we can’t take responsibility for our future or even our present because it’s all about what our ancestors did. We are robbed of hope.
What Ezekiel is saying is that God holds each individual accountable for her or his behaviour, not for the parent’s. The actions we take are what makes the difference. In the end, it will avail nothing if our parents (or our society or our church) was good or bad (whatever that may mean). What we do in the present is the thing that makes a difference. It’s not what we inherit that’s the bottom line, it’s what we do with our lives. Again, this is crucial if we really want an open future that’s not locked in to what the past has handed us.
Fast forward over half a millennium. Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey. He has gone into the temple and caused a huge ruckus by interrupting the commerce that supported the elite who controlled things there. He had, so to speak, done something unthinkable, like letting homeless people sleep in the church, or feeding poor people in the fellowship hall. Jesus was a doomed man. This is the last week of his life. Anyway, after sealing his own fate, Jesus went off to Bethany to be with his friends, but came back the next day to teach and heal in the Temple.
Now Jesus’ world depended on the concepts of honour and shame to give it basic meaning. Everyone was also convinced of the principle that the whole of everything already existed including wealth, poverty, honour and shame. If I got more honour, I didn’t just get it out of the air, I had to take honour from someone. The same applied to wealth and everything else. This led to a society that was constantly challenging others for the most important quantity in the world, not money, not fame exactly, but honour. There were two kinds of honour; honour that came from who your family was recognized to be (inherited honour), and honour that one got in challenging others (acquired honour). Jesus had inherited no honour via his family. The only honour he could get was by taking on those who were above him in the societal pecking order of honour and taking it.
When a carpenter’s kid from Nazareth in the sticks of Galilee came to Jerusalem (kind of like, New York, New York, “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere”) and began teaching as if he belonged there, those who had been on the synagogue board for a long time and had lots of inherited honour said, “Who is this hick”? “Did he go to seminary”? “What are his credentials”? “Where is his (inherited or acquired) honour”? That’s what they asked him. They were, probably, still upset about the money-changers thing. Jesus took them on. “I’ll answer your question if you answer just one of mine” (what arrogance, what chutzpah). Did John (the Baptist) have inherited honour from God, or did it simply come as acquired honour from besting people like you”? Cheeky. The religious leaders knew they were in trouble, they talked (probably among themselves). “What do we say?” “If we say John’s honour was from God, this guy’s going to say, ‘Then why didn’t you take him seriously’”? “If we say it was only acquired, then, among other things, we’ll be in trouble with all kinds of people who thought John was a prophet.” Let’s cut our losses. “We don’t know.”
There were no ties in these challenges. Jesus won and acquired honour, even if it even more surely sealed his fate. Next, Jesus, now on a roll, said, “Since it seems I’m your teacher, even though I’m just from the sticks, “Tell me what you think”? (Recite your lesson for me now). “A landowner had two sons.” “He asked the first to go work in the vineyard, and he said, “Take a hike, won’t do it,” but he did.” “He then asked the second son. He said, “Sure, pop.” “But he did exactly nothing.” “Which one did the will of his father”? They said, “Obviously the first.” Jesus said, “Well, guess what (as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message), “Crooks and whores are going into the kingdom of God before you do.” They don’t cite the Bible at every turn and don’t spout doctrine, but they followed John’s way of righteousness (which is a Hebrew way of saying, “the right way”). You, on the other hand, were satisfied with your inherited honour, privilege, doctrine and all of it, and stood pat on what you said things were all about and did exactly nothing (like son one). Although you, like son one, got the word first, you did not do anything you only talked about it. Jesus leaves us here, quite literally, hanging on his words.
Around thirty years before the Gospel of Matthew was written, Paul wrote a letter to a little congregation (or maybe more than one house church) in a small, prosperous community in Macedonia named Philippi. There, the people were having trouble in their culture, someway, we don’t know how or why really, but Paul wrote enough about their struggles to know that there was strife. But the resistance that the church was meeting in their culture was not what Paul was concerned about. It was that external pressure was leading to internal dissension and in-fighting (he talked about that at the end of Philippians chapter 1).
It is, alas, true that one response to trouble from the outside is to begin to find fault with one another. “If you weren’t so difficult, more people would like us.” “If you’d only be a little more fervent in your prayer life, God wouldn’t punish us like this.” I’ve heard churches pick themselves apart like this, and, I’ve seen it destroy many good folks, including some of my students who were sent to be their ministers. Paul says that the answer to all this strife is to pull together in unity (not to be confused with uniformity). Whatever your differences, “be of the same basic outlook, have the same kind of inclusive love of one another, do things together rather than each doing things because they want to acquire honour for themselves or their family, regard others as better than you are. Look out not only after yourselves and your stuff, but others and theirs.”
And, then, as the example of what he’s talking about, he presented them with an old Christian hymn that sang about Jesus. He said, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” That word “mind” there means “way of doing and thinking about everything.” Jesus was equal with God, Paul said, and even at this early stage (this hymn was probably written in the 40’s CE, ten years after Jesus’ death), the church trusted that thought. Jesus showed that equality, not by going for all the acquired honour he could get, but by emptying himself of all that honour stuff, and becoming as humble as you can imagine, even accepting the most unacceptable death a Jew could die, crucifixion. And, in that very act of taking the lowest place, identifying with the least and the last, God’s granted Jesus’ honour and exaltation so that people could bow to this one who, in his humility is Lord of all, for God’s glory.
There’s not a word here about what Jesus said, only about what he did. As it was with him, so may it be with us. As we come to the Lord’s Table today, May it be this we remember and imitate.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.