Franes writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Here we meet Jesus, already in Jerusalem for his Passion.(Matthew 21:28-32) We see, through a series of ‘parables of the kingdom’, how he engages with and confronts those in authority and influence in Judaism, and how the rift between them and Jesus becomes ever deeper; completely irreconcilable in fact. Last week we had another ‘vineyard’ parable. As I said then, these parables are nothing to do with the growing and making of wine. Both last weeks ‘landowner’ and today’s ‘father’ represent God, calling his people to make choices, either to follow Jesus the Son, or to reject him.
It is extremely unfortunate that the translators of our bible have completely altered the text however. In Greek it is clear that it is the second son who, having at first refused his father’s bidding, changed his mind and went and did his father’s will. The first son is the one who says “Yes” and then doesn’t go. The implications of this switch are highly significant, as it indicates Jesus’ rejection of the authorities in Judaism, (the first born, the chosen people), in favour of the pagans. Quite clearly this did not mean the loss of all those who were technically ‘sinners’ in Judaism – the sick, tax collectors and prostitutes to whom he had such an extensive ministry – but it marks a decisive and radical shift. Jesus understood that his saving death would be for the sins of the whole world and that his ‘own’ would reject him.
Our reading from Philippians (2:1-11) gives us a real insight as to the nature of this shift and the demands it made upon pagan converts. “There must be no competition among you, no conceit; but everybody is to be self effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead.” In Greek these people share ‘one soul’; one mind; that of Christ and the Father. They are sharers in the community of the Spirit, sharers in community in the compassion and pity of God. The implications for the converts were enormous, just as they are for us today, and the impact of this is lost in the rather sentimental language of our translation which speaks of ‘tenderness and sympathy’ rather than the truly gut-wrenching. Greeks saw the bowels – the guts – as the centre of feeling. So Jesus’ response to the needy is about him being torn apart, not compelled to have some vague feelings, and it is this that Paul takes up in his letter.
We have to remember that Philippi was the imperial capital of Macedonia. It was hundreds of years old, but after the battle and defeat of Caesar’s murderers in 41BC Mark Antony had settled his veterans there, and subsequently so did Augustus later in the last century BC. The city was then, largely Roman, as we know from the multiplicity of inscriptions in Latin, and this prosperous trading and military centre had all the structures and ways of life of Rome. It worshipped numerous Roman gods and was full of their temples. Its prosperous markets sold every conceivable item, including slaves and, as was usual, its civic buildings and amenities were the donations of its people. This was a very upwardly-mobile society, intensely competitive, in which status and the achieving of ever greater civic acclaim truly mattered. Those who donated temples, market facilities and theatres etc expected to see the details of their gift and their names recorded for eternity on their buildings. Competition, conceit, concern for ones own status and pumping it up, was vital in such a society. Being somebody, and the public following it gave the wealthy donor every day as his entourage paraded the streets, was at the very heart of what it meant to be Roman. Imagine then, the impact of Paul’s words on this society, where he stressed their communal obligations and their common spirit to the detriment of their normal way of life. Putting others before one’s-self, indeed, at the cost of one’s own needs is the Christian way. If it was a huge call to the Christian inhabitants of Philippi around 52 AD how difficult is it for us too? They and we are people with radical choices to make.
It was the same when Ezekiel, (18:25-18) wrote to the exiles in Babylon in the 6th century BC. They had made choices to abandon their faith in the God of Israel and refused to listen to their prophets, but favoured the attractions of those who persuaded them to rebel against their overlords, with appalling results. Yet, when subsequently they were invaded by the Babylonians and deported, they complained to him, saying that God was unjust. Ezekiel, who knew precisely what the people were like chastised them for the failures, and acknowledged the evil consequences which they had brought upon themselves by their folly.
Clearly all three of our readings are a call for all of us to recognise our personal responsibility for the part we play in society, as part of the Christian, corporate body of humanity. We may think this may be on a small and very local and restricted field, but our biblical teaching is that this is not so, for we all together make up the corporate and international society, part of the human race, and the implications of this for each of us is profound and enormous as we are just beginning to appreciate with the situation in the Middle East. The point, as our gospel makes very clear is that we are not permitted to whine, ‘It’s all to big, I won’t think about it’. For we are committed to it come what may by the Creator God who gave us this responsibility and this gift and grace. We have been entrusted with the kingdom and the stark question for each of us, just as it was for Jesus, is whether to embrace this challenge or reject it.