There’s quite a bit of arguing going on in today’s readings – and not for the first time in the Scriptures. First, we find God putting right the prophet Ezekiel for perpetuating the old notion that the sins of fathers are visited on their innocent children. No, says God, everyone must take personal responsibility for their own actions. To the charge that the way of the Lord is unfair, God counters that it is actually human ways that are unfair. Repent – turn your lives and your priorities around – so that you might live, because I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says God. The implication seems to be that the divine advice is to get a life rather than merely acquire a religion. A religion runs the risk of being divorced from everyday life and living, and potentially fossilising your attitudes and your actions. At its worst, it may imprison
you in a straightjacket of doctrine, creeds and texts, and confine you to the past.
Then today’s epistle. In the NT, much of Paul’s letter writing seeks to address divisions and arguments in the early Christian communities, urging them to have the same mind that was in Jesus. Don’t do anything from selfish ambition or conceit, looking only to your own interests, Paul tells the church in Philippi, but rather, in humility, put others first. Note that Paul does not say that others are actually better than we are: he just advises us to regard them as better. With this attitude, we won’t
look down our noses at others because of their ethnic, racial or national background. We won’t shake our heads condescendingly over the plight of the poor, or consider ourselves socially superior to rioters, looters, drug addicts or alcoholics. Equally, we won’t consider ourselves better than other Christians, or Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, agnostics or even atheists. That is because when we view others through the lens of humility, we see them as God sees them, as people of worth – indeed, as people of immense value and potential.
Thirdly, in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus in a tussle with religious leaders, part of a context of deepening conflict with those who were supposed to have said ‘yes’ to God’s ways already. When the elders question Jesus as to where his authority comes from (bear in mind he was perceived to be a threat to their authority) he turns the tables on them. At the risk of over-simplification, the parable of the two sons in the vineyard could perhaps be interpreted like this: the son who at first refused to obey his father and then changed his mind represents the tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners. The son who said he would obey his father, but then didn't, represents the chief priests and elders. Jesus is here reinforcing a recurring theme in the Gospels, which is that the institutional religious leadership falls some way behind those routinely rejected by both religion and society when it comes to doing the will of God. In a nutshell, it's not so much what you say you believe; it's more about how you live. Or, as the proverb puts it: actions speak louder than words. This parable has echoes of Jesus' earlier statement in Matthew during the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’ The elders of the synagogue were the religious
professionals, yet Jesus concludes they had singularly failed to do God’s
will. The church, not least its Gentile converts, were those who had originally said ‘no’ to God, but who had changed their minds. In New Testament terms, this changing of the mind may be linked with both rep
entance and conversion, a conscious decision to turn around both mind and life, seeking to replicate the example of Jesus.
We often restrict John the Baptist to Advent, as the forerunner of Jesus, but perhaps we should recall him more often, for John is the prophet in search of truth and justice, with a fearless disregard for the establishment. This, of course, makes him a target that is both feared and victimised. The two references to John in today’s Gospel remind us that his preaching pulled no punches, and observed no social boundaries. In
the eyes of the establishment, John was dangerous, principally because of what he said in terms of the need to repent. Jesus is similarly dangerous because of what he says and does. In both cases, words and actions indicate an identity that is deeply disturbing to religious institutions, if – then as now – they seek to take the place of God, and to forget human accountability to God. John the Baptist touches a nerve of truth in his hearers. He continues a vital ingredient in the preaching of the prophets: their relentless attention to the quality of worship in the Temple. Their vision is of a time when Israel’s worship of God will be matched by the exercise of justice in society. Only then will the glory of God be seen in their midst.
From the Christian perspective, John is the prophet who ushers in this convergence
between how you worship and how you live, and Jesus is the person in whom this is exemplified. John’s preaching had already evoked the message of justice and repentance, but it is Jesus, in his life and teaching, who embodies it. No wonder the chief priests were so edgy: the implication is obvious, for Jesus is usurping their place as the religious professionals, and doing so very publicly. The vital connection between worship and integrity is what lies at the root of today’s Gospel reading. It is also what Paul is striving for in his letter to the Christians in Philippi. Their
integrity as a church is founded on their likeness to Jesus: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus”, he says.
In the contemporary spiritual search, the aesthetic aspect of worship can be one of the undeniable attractions of Christianity. It may be encountered in music, art, architecture, candles, incense, in the dignity of the Mass celebrated with awe and the use of antique, sacred vessels and vestments. All these have value, but we delude ourselves if we consider these things alone are a complete account of Christian faith.
For worship divorced from the practice of daily Christian living has no real purpose or value. It is ultimately what Christians do, not merely what they say they believe, that stands the best chance of convincing the world of the worth of a Gospel that is truly transformative in its power to revitalise human values and our relationships with God and neighbour. Jesus has harsh words for the religious institutions. He says: you had a chance to hear what John had to say about justice and righteousness, but you chose to remain fixed on laws and those things that secured your own status and power. He
confronts their lack of integrity directly, criticises their priorities, and extols the faith of the tax collectors and prostitutes who heard John’s message and changed their ways in the light of it. Once again, it is the outsiders who demonstrate a willingness to change, and who therefore get the point of the Gospel. In the end, it is not words, doctrine or tradition that matter the most. Historically, and still today, Christians can be justly accused of wasting far too much time and energy on all of that. It’s nothing new, but, as we all know, deep down, what really matters is how what we do here and now impacts on the way we live when we go out of the church door.