Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Proper 21 Year A

Proper 21 A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Exodus 17: 1-7; Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16


Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25: 1-8

Philippians 2: 1-15; Matthew 21: 23-32

Just three days after their miraculous deliverance from slavery, God's people "murmur" against their leaders about the lack of water (Ex.15:22ff); just two months later, they "murmured" about the scarcity of food and water (Ex.16:1ff); and now they "dispute" with Moses, again, about the lack of water.  This time, Moses fears for his life.  But the Lord instructs Moses to "pass"  in front of the people with some elders and carrying the (shepherd's?) "staff with which you struck the Nile..." with the foreknowledge that the Lord is about to enable Moses to strike "the rock in Horeb" and "water will come out of it and the people will drink."  When this spectacular display of God's goodness happened, Moses named the place "Testing and Dispute", "Massah and Meribah" "for the disputation of the Israelites, and for the testing the Lord, saying, 'Is the Lord in our midst or not?"

The psalmist declares that he will rhapsodize the history of God's "wonders," for the next and future generations, including when Moses "split" rock in the wilderness and the Lord brought forth water "like rivers...."


When life is not fair, is it a result of our action, our parents (or some others) or God? Through Ezekiel, God informs that each person knows the consequences of her or his decisions-- not others, not God, no one else. "Turn and live."

Painfully aware of his "youthful offenses" and "past crimes," the psalmist calls for God's mercy as he "lifts his [
nefesh] heart." According to Robert Alter, the Hebrew noun nefesh means my "essential self."

Paul identifies ideal traits of the community of
believers: "encouragement in Christ," "love," "sharing in the Spirit," "compassion and sympathy," "humility." In vv 6-11 he seems to quote an existing hymn which comments on the paradox that Jesus did not exploit his status but "emptied himself." Within this community of believers, each person should emulate Jesus in her or his own unique way: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling: for it is God at work in you."

While all three synoptic gospel narratives include this story of this particular conflict over his "authority" between Jesus and the "chief priests and elders" ("Scribes") soon after he enters Jerusalem and the Temple, only Matthew continues with a scathing story.  When challenged about his authority, Jesus responded that after they answer a question he has for them, he will respond to their question:  Who gave John the Baptizer his authority; was it from "heaven" or "human?"  The religious leaders argued among themselves: if they said "heaven," Jesus will ask them why they did not "believe" John; if they said "human," they risk the anger of the people, who regarded John as a "prophet."  "We do not know," they finally replied.  "Neither will I tell you by what authority" I do what I do.  Now Jesus asked these religious authorities their opinion about "a man who had two sons."  The father told the first son to go tend the vineyard "today."  At first he refused, but then went and did as his father had told him to do.  He went to the second son with the same command.  At first he said he would go, but actually did not.  "Which of the two did the will of the Father?"  They answered, "the first."  Then Jesus confronted them harshly: "tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you," because they responded to John the Baptizer and you did not.  Even after you saw God's work through John, "you did not change your minds and believe him."

Two important themes in these important readings enter into a powerful conversation.

1) Our expectations, which give us comfort and security, can and will be disrupted.  The children of Israel had come to expect God's miracles as routine and complained when they felt God was not reliably present. When John the Baptist and Jesus came out of nowhere, declaring and acting out God's work in the world,  and gained popular followings for their message and deeds, the established religious leaders and the venerable traditions in which they had invested their lives, their status and from which they received their livelihood were threatened.  They did not respond to God's word/Word.

2) Each person endures the consequences of a lifetime of decisions; we cannot hold others responsible, (including our parents). Or, as Paul so memorably puts it, "work out your own salvation in fear and trembling...."

Here is how these two themes could comment on each other. Our expectations can be disrupted so thoroughly that we are forced to face ourselves without the web of image, status, and reputation that we have invested our whole lives in constructing for ourselves. Our human habit is to shape expectations to suit our needs. We find and then help reinforce systems, messages, institutions, leaders and even beliefs that support our needs, our status. But when they are threatened or even taken away from us, we are left with our own "essential self," as the psalmist says.

Martin Heidegger made many keen observations about the "essential self" in
Being and Time. A key distinction made right at the beginning of his major work is between "averageness" and "authenticity." Averageness includes the superficialearned knowledge of ourselves as we really are, our actual aspirations, motives and goals, our unfinished, raw self. He uses synonyms for authenticity which can be translated as "mineness" and "ownedness." The ultimate crisis, he says, that causes us to face our self is our own death. But other loses throughout life can jolt us out of "averageness." At such times, when we "own" our true self-- or at least as fully as we can-- can, in its very being , 'choose' itself and win itself; it can also lose itself and never win itself; or only 'seem' to do so." (p. 68) Or as Ezekiel demands, "Turn and live!"

Jesus insists that the person who has some insight about her or his true self and has also experienced some life-changing encounter with God's justice, mercy, and compassion will enter the realm of God's domain before those who are so successfully invested in illusions about themselves, no matter how well it all comes together for them in everyday life. "Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling: for it is God at work in you."