Sunday, October 5, 2014

Seventeenth after Pentecost

Matthew 21: 33-46

As we’ve been following the story in Matthew,  beginning back in the 17th chapter, Jesus and his disciples are on a festival pilgrimage from the Mount of Transfiguration, moving along those dusty back roads with the ever-growing crowds of the faithful—men and women, boys and girls—joining what we might almost think of as a grand parade, assembling from all the towns and villages along the way, toward Jerusalem, which is at Passover the center of the world. 

Echoes of Psalm 122 again, as I had quoted from another part of the same psalm last week.  Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity in itself.  For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the LORD, to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.  For there is the seat of judgment, even the seat of the house of David.  O pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee.  Peace be within thy walls, and plenteousness within thy palaces.  For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will wish thee prosperity.  Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek to do thee good.

At the beginning of Chapter 21 we see their entry at the gates of the city, Palm Sunday.  Such a familiar scene.  We hear the cheering crowds singing Hosanna, waving branches of palm, throwing their coats onto the road to create the atmosphere of a royal procession.   The king has come.  And entering through those gates, Jesus and the twelve and all their company go directly to the Temple, carried along in the tide of swirling crowds to the holy center of the holy center, the place which has been indeed from the beginning of time prepared for him, his earthly throne.  In the realms of heaven there must echo the great acclamation, angels and archangels cry aloud:  “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” 

But in fact,  as we saw last Sunday, at the Temple he is not welcomed--not by the ecclesiastical leadership, those whose office would indicate that sacred trust and stewardship.   The official gatekeepers.  The stewards of the holy mysteries.  As St. John tells it in the first chapter of his gospel, “he came to his own, and his own received him not.”   Instead there is confrontation, rejection.  The rebellion at the very core of our sinful character made manifest.  A snarling resistence. 

We remember the moment in last Sunday’s readings as the authorities challenge Jesus and demand that he account for himself.  Who do you think you are, Jesus?  Who do you think you are?  They make an effort to put him in his place, we might say.  Which the highest and richest irony, since this of all places is his place.  In any event, Jesus then turns the table on them, with all the crowd looking on and listening-in.  Asks them with a bit of clever political intuition about their relationship with John the Baptist.  With the help of their ally King Herod, John of course has been taken out of the picture.  But the crowds in the street respected John and loved him and believed in fact that he was indeed God’s messenger.  Hearing him and responding to him in heart and mind as called them to repent, to turn around, to put on a new mind and a new heart.  Knowing that in John God was reaching out to them with an authentic voice far more meaningful than any word or ceremony or sacrifice the official clergy would ever give them.  When John spoke of the coming of the Promised Savior, they were filled with hope and believed him with all their hearts. 

In any event, John the Baptist is obviously a difficult political subject for the authorities, and they are knocked a little off balance.  A public relations nightmare if they’re not careful, especially with all the crowds in town for the Passover. 
Then Jesus follows with this series of parables.  We heard the one last Sunday.  Two sons.  One tells his father that he won’t do what he has asked him, but then has a change of heart and fulfills his request.  The other tells his father that he will do what he has asked, but then doesn’t.

Jesus isn’t being too subtle here, obviously.  The Masters of the Law, teachers of the Torah, leaders of worship, ministers of the holy of holies.  Scribes and Pharisees and Temple Priests: they say all the right words.  They go through the motions with perfect attention to every rubric.  But when it’s time for action, they are nowhere to be found.  Almost as if it’s a game for them.  Playacting. 

You can almost hear their teeth grinding in anger. And then Jesus presses the not-so-subtle approach even more emphatically in the reading this morning, the Parable of the Unruly Tenants.  This precious treasure placed in their hands, under their care and keeping.  A sacred trust.  Holy Israel, the Vineyard of the Lord.  But what boils up in their hearts is not gratitude, but rebellion.  Self-centered hatred.  Betrayal.  Lies.  Murder.  They already have the blood of John the Baptist on their hands, and within days they would see that Pontius Pilate would rid them of this troublemaker as well.  “This is the heir.  Come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”  Jesus knows what is in their hearts, and now they know that he knows.  And you can hear the buzz in the crowd.

In some ways this one great story of salvation is played out again and again, in every generation, I suppose, and in every heart.  The world resists its true King at the Temple on Palm Sunday, and so the story goes in every place and time, and in every heart.  The Greek word metanoia, translated “repentance,” means literally, “another state of mind,” a new mind, a new heart.  The first word in John the Baptist’s appeal to the people.  In Matthew 4:17, the first word of Jesus’ first sermon as well:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”   Start new.

  It’s not just about being sorry for something we have done or haven’t done, but about making ourselves available to him, opening the doors of our minds and our hearts.  Not simply a change of external direction and behavior, though that’s an essential part of it.  Deeper.  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Rebirth.  Renaissance.  If the Temple authorities will serve God, but only on their own terms.  As it conveniences them.  As that service simply confirms what they already believed.  As it secured their perspective.   We’ve heard about “cafeteria Christians.”  Move down the line.  Sample a little of this, a little of that.  Whatever looks good to us.  And skipping over whatever perhaps looks like it’s not quite to our taste.

The word of power at the end of the parable tells them and us all that we need to know.  To the very end this desire to invite, to warn.  Here right at the very place the Psalm calls the “Seat of Judgment.”  And yes, there will be a Judge and a judgment, a final accounting.  When all the cards are spread on the table.   Look at what is going on.  Be new, before it’s too late.  Said John.  Says Jesus.   Before we’ve gone too far.  Past the point of no return.  Turn again to the Lord and he will have compassion, come to him, and he will quickly pardon.  Renew your hearts and minds, set your feet on his path.

Again, before the great Temple, the holy of holies.  The throne of the High King.  The story plays out in our hearts, and in our lives, in our society, our world, even as we come forward and kneel at the communion rail this morning.  Let all mortal flesh keep silence.

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