Out of Whose Being are You Doing These Things?
by The. Rev. Daniel Strandlund | September 28, 2017Hi friends, this Sunday is the first Sunday of the month…which means the sermon will be a little different J I’ll be asking for some volunteers from the congregation to help with a visual aid as we try to better understand our role as human beings within God’s good created order. Specifically, we’ll be talking about angels, people, and animals—three of my favorite things! The reason for this is because this Sunday is also our Blessing of the Animals service—2pm at the Gazebo! Bring your pets…and please keep them leashed or in crates!
Since our sermon will be connecting us to St. Francis and our Blessing of the Animals service, I won’t be talking much on Sunday about our lectionary Gospel passage, so I wanted to write about it here. It’s Matthew 21:23-32.
Remember from last week that Jesus has crossed the Jordan River and is headed south into Judea, towards Jerusalem. In chapter 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem for the first (and final) time. He goes straight into the Temple and cleanses it, driving out “all who were selling and buying” (Matthew 21:12-13). Needless to say, this makes some religious leaders very angry.
Our passage for this week happens the very next day on Jesus’ second visit to the Temple. The passage is split into two parts: first, the chief priests and elders ask Jesus by what authority he heals and forgives and drives out money changers. Jesus gives a sly response: he asks them if John the Baptist’s work was from heaven. If the Chief Priests say it was from heaven, they must listen to Jesus because John the Baptist testified about him. But if they say John’s baptism was only human, then they’ll make the crowds angry, for they loved John. The big question here is authority: by what authority did John minister? Is he a rogue madman, or did God send him?
The second part of the passage is a parable. A man has two sons and tells each of them to work in the vineyard. (There’s that vineyard, again!) In Jesus’ day, sons depended on their fathers for their livelihoods and were expected to obey. A father provided his sons with work, food, land, shelter, inheritance when he died—in short, the son’s very life, his substance, depended on the father. Likewise, if a father sent a son on an errand, it was as though the father himself had gone: the father’s ‘substance’ was with him. (See Matthew 21:37-38.)
The first son says, “No way!” But then he thinks it over, realizes he is wrong, and works in the vineyard, anyway. The second son says, “Sure, right away,” but never works. The issue is one of substance: the first son gives the wrong answer, but pretty soon his true colors show: he is his father’s son. The second speaks hollow words. The second son has no substance because he disobeyed: he disconnected himself from his father.
There’s a subtle link between the two halves of the passage. Did you happen to wonder, “Why isn’t there a son in the parable who both agrees to do what the dad says and actually goes and does it?” It seems to me that Jesus implies that John the Baptist is that unmentioned 3rd son. Surely, that one would be the best, right? The one who both agrees to go where the father sends him and actually does it?
The question about Jesus’ authority is a question about substance. If John’s baptism is from heaven, then John the Baptist is like a ‘son’ whom God told to go into the vineyard and work: he’s doing exactly what God the Father told him to do. And if that’s true, then how much more of a Son is Jesus, the one about whom John the Baptist testified?
There’s the rub. The Chief Priests (and who can blame them?) can’t fathom that the authority by which Jesus acts is God’s own authority. Jesus’ authority is even greater than that of John, whom they feared already. Jesus isn’t simply a parabolic son sent by a vineyard owner into the vineyard. His Sonship is of a different order.
On Sundays, we say in the Nicene Creed that Jesus is “Of one Being with the Father” (BCP, 358). God’s being is Jesus’ being. Or, to use the word I used above, God’s substance is Jesus’ substance. In Greek, this part of the Nicene Creed reads “having the same ousia as the Father.” Whereas in English we have two different words, being and substance, in Greek there’s just the one: ousia.
This is important because in our Matthew passage for this Sunday, the word for “authority” that the Chief Priests use when they challenge Jesus is exousia. Ex- means “out of.” So, when the Chief Priests ask, “By what authority do you do these things,” it’s like they’re asking, “Out of whose being are you doing these things?”
Deep down, we know the answer to that question. When we read Matthew’s Gospel, we witness at least three responses. First, there’s terror. This is how the demons respond: they’ve no problem acknowledging who Jesus is, it’s just that they’re terrified. (See Matthew 8:29.) Second, there’s denial. The Chief Priests are too afraid to let it be true, and their denial ends in violence: Jesus is crucified. Even after the resurrection they feel like they have to make up a story about it (28:11-15). Third, there’s worship—joy, gratitude, the best kind of tears (28:9). To think that God, the Creator of the sun and stars, the stiller of storms and forgiver of sins—to think that God would share his substance with us? To think he would invite us into his very being? To think that we too are daughters and sons?
Good news, indeed, friends.