Proper 21A

September 25, 2011
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Exodus 17:1-7
Reading 2: 
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Reading 3: 
Philippians 2:1-13
Reading 4: 
Matthew 21:23-32
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Exodus 17:1-7

There is a pun in the opening clause of the opening verse of this passage, which has no basis in the original Hebrew, but which seems irresistibly inviting in English: “From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed.” “Sin” here is of course a place name, related to Sinai, the area through which the people must travel to reach the mountain of theophany and covenant. It is mere accident that it sounds in English like the state of being alienated from God; yet the accident seems significant enough to comment on.

The wilderness wandering represents, as I said last week, the period in which the people learn how to be faithful; and this learning happens through a repeated cycle of grumbling, rebelling, and rescue, in which some danger or privation makes the people question whether God and God’s proxy Moses can really be trusted, and each time God proves to be trustworthy. Bit by bit, estrangement from God becomes familiarity with God’s ways.

In last week’s reading the issue was food; here the issue is water; but the question in each case is the same: has Moses, acting for God, brought them out into the wilderness to die? Can Moses’ God be trusted to provide for them on the way God has called them? In response, God tells Moses to take the staff with which he struck the Nile — a sign of continuity between God’s deeds of power before Pharaoh in Egypt and God’s deeds of power in the new situation of the wilderness — and to strike the rock; water comes forth, and the people are saved. The moment becomes another lesson in the faithfulness of God, which the people can internalize by learning how to be faithful to God. By this kind of circuitous route — grumbling, rebellion, and rescue — the people make their way through the literal wilderness of Sin and the figurative wasteland of alienation toward covenant and faithfulness.

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

As with the psalm choices of the past few weeks, this catena of psalm verses is chosen to reflect in liturgical language the same events narrated in historical mode in the Exodus reading, the key verses being 15-16, “God split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. God made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.” Noteworthy here is that the reference to the Massah and Meribah incident is not only hymnic, but is particularly set in a wisdom context: here to tell the story is to “open my mouth in a parable,” it is to “utter dark sayings from of old.”

This indicates that the story is intended to be not only informative but transformative; it not only tells of something God did long ago, but enacts some new parallel deed of God in the hearer in this present moment. We may be reminded of Isaiah’s image of God pouring “streams on the dry ground,” paralleling the pouring of God’s “spirit upon your descendants” (Isaiah 44:3); or Jesus’ imagery of the Spirit flowing from the believer’s heart like “rivers of living water” (John 7:38). The psalm suggests that to tell the story is also to flow with God’s Spirit, to sing the song of divine wisdom is to participate in divine wisdom. In congregations where the Psalm is recited or chanted by the entire assembly, it could be an interesting reflection to consider how taking these words on our lips invites us to let them form our hearts, so that we also may become fountains of wisdom and spirit for the thirsty world around us.

Philippians 2:1-13

Commentary on this passage is often directed to the Christological hymn in vss 6-11; but from a process perspective, I am particularly interested in the conclusion of the text, vss 12-13, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” These verses present very neatly a panentheistic view of the work of salvation. In a world in which all-is-in-God and God-is-in-all, salvation cannot be simply and solely the activity of God upon a passive human object, but can only be conceived as a work of divine activity and human activity acting together.

If we take “salvation” in the broadest sense, meaning not only juridical acquittal of the charges of sin, but generally all those factors that lead to health and wholeness and well-being and richness of experience and our flourishing as the creatures God calls us to be, then salvation can only be something that grows in us as we actualize in our own self-constitutions those potentials for compassion, peace, justice, creativity, and love that God gives us. That is, we must work out our own salvation in godly action. But of course the only reason we can do that is because God is at work in us, giving us initial aims, opening up for us new possibilities, calling us moment by moment into that which is best and most whole for that moment and also lays the best foundation for the next moment. In that way God is at work in us, enabling us to work in God.

It is to that end that Paul points to the kenosis of Christ in the quoted hymn: entertaining divine aims for our moments of experience requires a measure of humility, as we must look beyond our immediate gratifications, “selfish ambition,” “conceit,” and “interests,” in order to perceive the broader contexts of “the interests of others” and those factors that will conduce to the greatest mutual well-being possible in that moment. And in panentheistic thought that mutuality must include divine well-being, as the happenings of the world enter into God’s experience and have their effect on God’s feeling of the adventure of the universe as one. Adopting aims toward that greatest mutual well-being, creaturely and divine, was the defining characteristic of the one who emptied himself of the form of God to take the form of a slave and is therefore now exalted in God. For us to adopt aims toward the greatest mutual well-being is for us to have the mind of Christ. And thinking, perceiving, choosing, acting, responding, and feeling with the mind of Christ is precisely to enact our salvation as God acts in us.

Matthew 21:23-32

This passage brings together two distinct controversy-stories, which together set in motion a whole series of controversy-stories presented by Matthew as Jesus’ teaching in Jerusalem in the final days before his arrest and execution. There is therefore a rising tide of tension through the whole series, and that tension is first exposed and illustrated in the two confrontations in this reading. Jesus has entered Jerusalem and received a royal welcome from the populace; the next day he comes to the Temple and begins teaching there. Immediately the religious leaders challenge his right to be there, asking by what authority he claims to teach, by what authority he claims to represent God. Jesus counters with a question of his own, asking the leaders to state their assessment of the origin of John’s practice of baptism.

Though we may not see it at first in English, there is a close connection between these questions of “authority” and “origin.” The Greek word used for “authority” here is exousia, which literally means “from the being”; “authority” here is not so much an external conferral of rights and responsibilities pertaining to an office, which is the sense of the word most typical in today’s English usage, but is an inner quality of appropriateness and capacity from which flows a rightness of ability; we might come close to capturing the sense of this Greek word by remembering that the English “authority” and “authenticity” come from the same root. Jesus’ authority to do “these things” flows from the authenticity of his embodiment of divine aims; that is his exousia, what comes from his being.

The chief priests and elders either cannot or will not see this, being more concerned about the external conferral of the right to teach, and there is therefore no kind of direct answer Jesus can give to their question: he cannot speak to them of authenticity when all they want to know about is authority. So Jesus must answer with a question, asking them about the exousia of John’s baptism: from what being, divine or human, did it originate? The priests’ and elders’ inability to answer Jesus’ question reveals their own lack of authenticity: not only are they unable to discern for themselves the origin of John’s baptism, they weigh their possible answers in terms of how they will be received by Jesus or by the crowd rather than the possible truth, the authentic being, of the answers themselves.

If they had been willing to make a definite statement one way or the other, either recognizing John’s baptism as proceeding from divine aims or rejecting it as a merely human projection, at least they would have been attempting some sort of genuine discernment: even if they’d been wrong, they would at least have attempted some authentic exousia of their own. As it is, they care more for their external reputation, and therefore refuse to answer Jesus’ question. To that refusal Jesus responds “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things,” not so much because he is withholding information from them as because they have demonstrated they could not understand Jesus’ answer if he gave it to them.

This leads then to the second controversy-story, the parable (actually I think “exemplum” would be a better term) of the two sons. Here again, although the words are not used, the issue is authority and authenticity. The first son appears to deny the authority of the father but then responds in authentic obedience; the second son does the opposite, apparently accepting the authority but not making an authentic response. It may be that Jesus’ original saying ended here, with the parabolic meaning hanging, as it were, right before the hearer’s consciousness; the specific application to tax collectors and prostitutes and priests and elders may have been added by a later editor. Either way, the exemplum draws attention to the authentic embodiment of divine aims, the authentic response to divine call, that is the core of any real exousia human beings can have in and from and through God.