SERMON FOR 1.10.17
Sometimes I think the Bible has an obsession with sibling rivalry. Let’s think about some of the pairings in the scriptures:
Cain and Abel, for starters. The first-born is so jealous of his younger brother that he kills him.
Ishmael and Isaac. The younger son is clearly his father’s favourite, and the older one nearly dies in the wilderness and has to go and live in exile.
Esau and Jacob. The wily younger brother, his mother’s favourite, cheats the older one out of his birthright.
There’s the whole cycle of stories about that special snowflake Joseph, whose ten older brothers plot against his life and have to grovel to him for forgiveness when he is a power in the land of Egypt.
I could go on in the Hebrew Scriptures but let’s jump to the New Testament.
We have Martha complaining about Mary choosing to sit at Jesus’ feet instead of helping her big sister in the kitchen, and James and John battling it out for the best seats in heaven.
And in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the older brother is a sour-faced prude, sulking in the fields rather than celebrating his naughty brother’s homecoming.
Someone once said that the doctrine of original sin was one of the few you can prove from practical experience. You see it in action even in the nursery, with the perennial cries of “you like him more than me” and “she’s got more than I have – it’s not fair”.
Competition and bitterness and anger between those who belong to the same family are universal features of the human story.
In today’s gospel Jesus tells another story about a man with two sons. In this case, hurrah for older siblings, it seems the first-born is the good guy for once. He refuses his father’s command to work in the vineyard, but then he changes his mind and gets to work. The second son says he will do what he is asked, but he doesn’t lift a finger.
This story is told as a commentary on the debate that Jesus has been having with the religious authorities in the Temple in the final week of his life. He has ridden into the city on a donkey and then overturned the moneychangers’ temples, causing quite a stir. The next day he is back in the Temple, and his opponents are doing their best to trap him. But in typical rabbinic fashion, he turns their question around and skewers them on it.
It’s a bit like the conversation between God and Jonah that we considered last week.
Jonah resented God’s outpouring of grace and forgiveness on the undeserving, and he made his views plain to God.
Today we find the Temple full of Jonahs as they debate with Jesus and try to trap him. Like God in the Jonah story, Jesus asks them a trick question. Instead of “is it right for you to be angry on behalf of the withered plant?” it’s “where did John’s authority come from?”
This is a question they can’t answer – if they say his baptism was from God, then they are wrong for having dismissed him. If they say it was human, the crowds who idolized John will turn on them. So they shrug their shoulders.
Then Jesus hits them with the parable. The religious elders are like the son who says yes, yes, I’ll do it, but does nothing to help his father. The tax collectors and prostitutes, who so scandalize the righteous, are the ones who know their need of repentance. They have followed John’s invitation to turn their lives around, and now they are going ahead of the pious into the kingdom of heaven. They may have rebelled to begin with, just like any unruly teenager, but their actions show that their lives have now been transformed.
But the problem is that the welcome comes before the transformation. Saying yes to the invitation is all that is needed. That really bothers the elders. They have been faithful all their lives, and their ancestors have been faithful before them for countless generations. Surely they deserve a reward ahead of the flagrant public sinners who gathered around John the Baptist and now Jesus. They say their prayers – they have all the right words – and they know the things of God – they have all the right beliefs – but somehow it doesn’t make any difference in their lives.
They need to reread the prophet Ezekiel, who makes the point that is often summed up in the saying that God has no grandchildren. Behold, all souls are mine, says God; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine. Just as no one will be punished for their parents’ sin, so no one will enter the kingdom because they have inherited the right belief system.
Real obedience to God means knowing our personal need of that generous, inclusive forgiveness. We are all entangled in sin and weakness, and if we think it’s otherwise we are kidding ourselves. True obedience is not shown by saying the right words and remaining untransformed. True obedience needs to start with acknowledging our own reluctance and rebellion, and then responding to the gracious invitation of God.
Every day we have to begin again, and never in this life will we reach the place where we are finally and entirely converted once and for all. That point was made in this church on Friday by, of all unlikely people, Russell Brand, as he spoke at a pop-up signing of his book about recovery from addiction.
No one but Christ has ever been perfectly and entirely obedient to God. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul quotes an Aramaic hymn about Jesus, who went willingly into the vineyard of this world to work, rendering himself as powerless as a slave. He didn’t cling to the privilege of being a son, but poured out his life in service. The outcome of that service was the most miserable death, but God glorified him and made him Lord of the universe. At his name every knee should bend, says the hymn.
I am sure that, like me, you have seen the photos last week of American football players who have “taken a knee”, as they call it, rather than stand for the national anthem before the game, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They have been vilified for dishonouring the flag, even for disrespecting the military, though it is black soldiers who die for their country in proportionately much higher numbers than white ones. They risk their jobs and their reputations by this action. But as Christians, they are taking a private gesture of prayer and turning it into a political protest, holding their country to account for its disregard of the dignity and even the lives of its black citizens.
Dr Sam Wells said this on Thought for the Day last Tuesday: “Taking the knee is a gesture of genius, because how could kneeling before flag and anthem be anything other than respectful of the values on which America believes itself to be founded? It’s the fact the kneeling in submission is exactly what African Americans had to do as slaves for 300 years that makes the gesture prophetic and poignant.”
You might say that it is a vivid illustration of turning the other cheek, making a virtue of a necessity and turning the tables on the oppressor. It’s an act of obedience, but free obedience to God and to values of human dignity and equality, rather than cowering under an oppressive majority. Rather than just speak, these athletes have chosen to act courageously and silently. And they are putting the spine into many others who have decided that obedience requires similar courage from them.
America is a deeply divided country. Britain is a deeply divided country. And as we have seen from recent elections across the channel, Europe is a deeply divided continent. Families and communities square off against one other, each of us sure that our competing ideas of what a good society looks like are the right ones. We are absorbed in sibling rivalry on a grand scale.
Instead of sulking in our righteousness, or shrugging our shoulders as the elders in the Temple did, we could take some action that shows we know our need of forgiveness from God and from each other. As baptized Christians, we live “in Christ”, and his life of humble service and obedience to God should simply bubble up in us like a spring of living water. What action might we take this week that shows that we know we are forgiven, that Christ lives in us, and that every day we are trying to love our sisters and brothers as God loves us?