Sunday, September 28, 2014

which of the two brothers are you?

 May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

We enter the picture mid-scene in our Gospel reading today, as it were. The day before, Jesus had entered Jerusalem in triumph, the crowds casting down their cloaks on the road before him to carpet his way, tearing branches from the trees to wave as flags and banners, chanting Hosanna, calling him the Son of David, and crying out that he came in the name of the Lord. Then he went into the temple and turned over the tables of the money-changers, and drove the dealers in animals out with a whip made from cords.

The religious authorities were indignant, but could do nothing in the face of the adulation of the crowd. Jesus left; but the next day he was back, teaching. The chief priests and the elders were waiting. They were no lovers of Jesus. Not only was he a threat to their authority, but he stirred up the people. They feared he might lead a revolt that would bring the wrath of the Romans upon them, as false Messiahs had done before. And they thought Jesus was false, of that we may be sure – why else would they, in the face of all the signs and wonders he performed, have declared that he cast out devils by the power of Beelzebub, as St Jerome points out?

But they have not been idle in the night; they have been plotting; and when he returns to the temple they have ready a trap for him, as they have so many times before. They have prepared a question which, no matter how he answers, they believe, is bound to condemn or undermine him. And so they ask him: By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?' If he claims divine authority, they will declare him a blasphemer; if he does not, they will ridicule him before the crowds.

They expect to trap God incarnate in their snare of words. But Jesus turns the tables on them, as he has done before. He says to them I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’

His accusers are thrown into confusion. They dare not admit that St John's baptism was of heaven; for they had refused it for themselves. And yet they know the people accounted the Baptist as a great prophet and they are afraid to deny him publicly. And having discussed the matter among themselves they say 'We do not know.' Their refusal to give an honest answer shows that their care is not for truth, to pursue it fearlessly wherever it may take them; but rather their concern is for the things of this world, for power and the approval of men.

But our Lord wants these men who think that they are righteous to know that they in fact are risking their own salvation. And so he tells them the parable of the two brothers. The Church Fathers – those great leaders and writers of the early Church – bishops, teachers, theologians, saints, and mystics – assure us that the first brother stands for the gentiles, those the Jews thought of us as sinners, people who had not before obeyed God's Holy Laws, but who now, with the coming of Christ, will become the New Israel; and the second stands for those who think they are righteous, but in fact are worse by far than those they reject as sinners. Because those sinners – gentiles, harlots, the tax-collectors who collaborate with the Roman invaders, and more – they will come to salvation. Because they will see and believe the evidence that these men reject – the righteousness of St John, that Jesus is the Son of God – and they will be saved; while they, in their hard-heartedness will fail to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The message for us today, I think, is not to allow ourselves to become hard-hearted like those men of long ago, not to say 'yes' with our lips to God's teaching, even as we say 'no' to it in our hearts and in the way we live our lives. There are times when we struggle with our calling to live lives in as Christ-like a way as possible; but God helps us in that struggle. As we read in our Epistle today: 'Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.' God is at work within each and every one of us, helping us to obey his Holy Laws, enabling us to hear and obey his call to be like his Son in every thought and word and deed; to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, in awe, reverence, and love; and at the last to enter his kingdom. I pray you will let his work within you bear fruit. Amen

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