Ezekiel 18, 1-4, Ps 25, 1-10, Phil. 2, 1-13, Matthew 21, 23-32
Today’s readings elegantly speak to the fact that, unless change is forced by exile, illness, death, change in a person’s life will at some point demand their intentional choice. A plump person might begin to lose a little weight without realising but sooner rather than later, the choice will be there: do I continue to reduce my girth, or eat that luscious torte? Likewise, the slightly churched may begin to be interested in Jesus as a shining example for living, but at some point, that choice to go further, to explore Jesus as the Child of God and Christ for the world, that choice for change will come. As long as we live, it is never too late to make a decision for God, but that choice to accept at all, or to accept more fully, has to be made, and usually re-made, by each person, each individual. And the response of each person to that choice, and the responsibility to follow through in action, must be made independently, without coercion or pressure, for we are all capable beings. Irrespective of the choices of our parents or their behaviour, the choices of our family and friends, we have to decide. And yes, the outcome, whichever outcome, can be lonely: but while we all exist as part of relationships, family, friends, community, we are also each made singly in the image of God.
Let’s skim the guide offered in the readings, one by one. We are not alone in the quest, as Psalm 25 says: give me, God, that capacity to open myself and actually receive God: make your ways known to me, a sinner who did silly things in youth, so I can receive and live out the all-round peace of God, my guide-star and guide. So far so clear. But did you notice: ‘he teaches the humble how to be‘? This is getting tricky: are the humble everyone? Before God, yes, all should be humble and modest. Yet in practice, ‘they,’ the humble, are too often ‘the other,’ those excluded by race, gender, wealth, ethnicity rank, caste.
The Philippians lines, written by Paul from his prison in Rome, starts beautifully in an echo of 1 Corinthians 12: ‘if there is any warmth of affection and compassion between you, live in unity and love,’ so that the energy of each be used to reach out to others. And he ends with that plea, indeed that demand: ‘You must each work out your own salvation in fear and trembling,’ a salvation based on the earliest hymn to Jesus in lines 6-11: Jesus humbled himself, voluntarily giving his energy for others. Yet the expectation that others be humble if that means, as it so often does, their staying in poor circumstances, ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’ – if he has one – is a very easy step to take. It follows that the phrase used by Paul to stop the Philippians from squabbling over position- ‘you must humbly reckon others better than yourself-’ easily becomes a weapon for the more powerful to apply to others, fitting ill with the fact that before God, each person’s choice starts from the same base-line.
Ezekiel is rather clearer: everyone has a personal responsibility to decide to follow or not, and everyone has an equal chance, irrespective of rank or status, for there is no inherited sin, no inevitable end. Yet the exiles to whom he was speaking was not too pleased, for they wanted to continue blaming the elite, the governors, for their plight, even though it was brought on in part by their regular rebellion. They were in a sense at the bottom, the ideal humble, but were far from perfect, for they preferred blaming forebears, parents, – so ‘the sins of the fathers are visited on the third and fourth generation’ was their motto- rather than squarely face their need to choose, to decide. Virtue does not reside with the poor, or the rich, but with people who choose the better if harder path.
Ezekiel offers us, in section omitted today, a good man with a lousy son: is the father responsible for the son? Yes, say the exiles: No, says Ezekiel: the son chose. And if that bad son has a good son, he is no more responsible for that one’s goodness than his father was for his evil. Good-living people can, in their life-time and by choice, become evil-doers, and the rotten can, by choice within God’s helping arms, turn from bad ways. God prefers all to live eternally: but for that, each individual must become a moral agent, to which the exiles object as being far too demanding! Now of course we know full well- I work on this myself- that a growing child will be hampered if they have been abused, or seen a parent, usually the mother, abused, and there is indeed a slightly higher incidence of wife-beating among sons of beaters, echoing the sins of the fathers. But not all! Some are or become aware, and choose never to hit their wife because of what they have seen as a child: they choose the act as conscious moral agents, responsible for their acts. No person grows up unscathed, without any vulnerable sore spots, for growing up for us all is coming to terms with inevitable inadequacies of our upbringing, and that goes as much for each here as those thronging the streets today for the Heidelberger Herbst! But each can make that choice intentionally to grow in the knowledge and the love of God.
Even, Matthew implies in that brief parable, those people who rejected Jesus, the Romans and the Jews: they too, and we, can decide for Christ, just as the bad person can decide at any point in live to change. As Jesus says to the irritated Pharisees, ‘the tax-collectors and harlots who accept me will reach heaven before you lot get your little toe in.’ That this refers to accepting and rejecting Jews is just one reading of this parable, a reading which says that the older brother stands for yes-saying but not acting Jews and the younger for sceptical but finally acting Jews and Gentiles.
But one thing is clear! Those who refuse to open themselves to God, even to the possibility of God as guide-star for thought and action; those who automatically blame their situation on others without making any effort to take even a little responsibility, place a little trust in God; those who say a loud yes to God but a silent no to actual people, are cutting themselves off from the chance to be healed through the all-round peace of God. As Paul says, ‘God is at work in you.’ Let be open to that and comforted by that and, loving and respecting ourselves, make and remake that choice to love and respect all others under the guiding hand of God.
Heidelberg September 28th 2014