Ezekiel 18:1-4 and 25-end, Philippians 2:1-13 and Matthew 21:23-32
On Thursday afternoon I watched as two of the children from St. Mary’s School, stood here in church during a Year 5 Act of Worship and drew faces on a piece of black card, with toothpaste. Their teacher made it into a bit of a race, but I was as mystified as the kids as to what the purpose of this strange activity was. Until that is, he asked them to try and get the toothpaste back in the tubes!
Of course, the children couldn’t do it, and there was considerable hilarity all round.
The key word for the last couple of weeks in school has been RESPONSIBILITY and the point was made that once we’ve said, or done, something, we have to take responsibility for the consequences, whether or not we did or said that thing deliberately.
It’s a tough lesson in life isn’t it? Whatever we choose to say or do in our lives, however minor, will have consequences for which we have to take responsibility. A lot of the time, things go smoothly. Sometimes however, we make wrong decisions, either because we simply haven’t thought things through for ourselves in the heat of the moment, or perhaps because we’re scared of the consequences of all the possible options, or perhaps we deliberately decide on something to avoid the embarrassment factor of having to admit that perhaps a decision we made in the past was the wrong one.
There are in fact lots of reasons for making the wrong decisions, but the chief priests and elders of Israel seemingly manage to notch up several of them all at once in our Gospel reading this morning.
They are all out to get Jesus to state unequivocally that he is the Messiah, but they don’t want to raise the question directly. After all, Jesus has just had the nerve to make it look like he thinks the Temple is his, by turning over the tables, throwing out the money changers and sacrifice sellers, and firmly quoting scripture: “my house shall be called a house of prayer”. It’s a provocative act, and it inspires the chief priests and elders to try and get this upstart from Galilee to blaspheme in the way that others have done before him, by declaring himself to be the Messiah, God’s long-awaited, and chosen means of drawing people to himself.
Trying to trick people into declaring a particular stance that you want to be theirs, is rarely a good way of moving a conversation forward, as the leaders of Israel discover, when Jesus carefully uses one of their own, long-held, rabbinic forms of debate to try and get them to think through and declare the answer for themselves.
Then, by dodging that responsibility and taking the route of diplomatic uncertainty, rather than offering their own viewpoint honestly, they forfeit their own right to a straight answer to the original question. It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s an act of self preservation: they don’t fancy being lynched. Equally, they don’t want to suggest that John the Baptist was divinely inspired to baptise people, including this Jesus, because that leaves the door open to the possibility that he is exactly what they don’t want him to be, but they do want him to claim he is. If he were the Messiah, God’s anointed, it not only places him in authority over them, but it rather puts them out of a job with regard to the Temple! One could say they are jealously guarding their existing rights and ways of operating, and that’s an unhelpful motivation in anyone.
In the parable that Jesus goes on to tell, pointedly directed at the priests and elders themselves, what counts is not what we promise, but our performance, and for this we have to take personal responsibility. Jesus even gives them the answer to their original, unspoken question in a roundabout way, by pointing out that they have failed to recognise and acknowledge God’s saving action towards all people, including, and particularly the outcasts of their society. The point is of course that if the chief priests and elders had themselves believed that the baptism John offered was divinely inspired and directed, they would also be accepting of Jesus as the Messiah.
It’s not like their scriptures didn’t show that God had clearly and repeatedly asked them to take responsibility for their own misguided understandings in the past, including a tendency to blame God for their own mistakes. Our reading from Ezekiel (18:31) shows this as they are as to get themselves ‘a new heart and a new spirit’. Generations of leaders had it seems failed to learn from their own mistakes. It was a theme which is warmed to in our Epistle this morning too, as the early Christian community in Philippi are exhorted to ‘work out their own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil 2:12), to take seriously their own spiritual inadequacies!
Just like the chief priests and elders of Israel and these early Christians, we all do it, sadly. We all would prefer to avoid the responsibility of thinking for ourselves, taking the consequences for our actions, making our actions live up to our words, and making our daily lives live up the Christian faith we profess. We don’t like the fact that we can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube!
In the case presented in our Gospel today, the inability of the chief priests and elders to set aside their own prejudices, jealousies and unwillingness to seek a new heart and a new spirit before God, cost Jesus his life and fulfilled the ultimate expression of God’s love for us all, as is so beautifully expressed in the early part of the Philippians passage.
The key, I think, is in the very last words of that passage…’God is at work in us, enabling us to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Phil 2:13). It is incredibly hard, but we have to give God free reign/rein in our lives, that is our prime responsibility. That’s why as a church we create opportunities for prayer and worship throughout the week, why we’re running the Pilgrim Course, we share fellowship together, collect for the Food Bank, care for the churchyard, seek new opportunities to share the Gospel etc.
Of course we have to make sure that we’re allowing Jesus into every hidden part of our lives – that’s our individual, private responsibility day by day, that gives our outward actions integrity. We have to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and then ask for the strength to move forward and make changes in our lives, explain or face difficult truths or toughest of all accept that we can be wrong, and do wrong. After all the cross and resurrection offers us God’s forgiveness and the hope of new life with him, every time we come before him with honesty and ask to start again. He’s the only one that can, metaphorically speaking, put the toothpaste of our lives, back in the tube.