01 October 2017
Revd Jonathan Cain
Ezekiel 18: 1-4 & 25-end, Matthew 21: 23-32
In 1977 a young man aged 16 stood up at the Conservative Party conference and gave a speech that the then leader, Margaret Thatcher later described as thrilling. The young man was of course William Hague; the speech was well received by the party faithful; subsequent history might suggest that the young Mr Hague successfully read the sign of the times … that his words were prophetic …
Last week, some forty years after Mr Hague’s political debut, another 16 year-old stood up, this time at the Labour Party Conference. Her name was Lauren Stocks and, like Mr Hague she received a standing ovation following a passionate speech about the poor state of education in the UK, and the mental health of teenagers. Did this speech reflect the sign of the times? Was it prophetic? To coin a phrase from William Hague’s famous oration, in thirty to forty years-time most of us won’t be here, so what do we care? I guess time will tell.
I mention these speeches by young activists not to make any political point. I just want us to imagine for a minute what reception the young Mr Hague would have got if he’d made the same speech at the TUC, or indeed whether Lauren Stocks would receive a standing ovation if she made her speech in Manchester this weekend. I’m not sure in those different contexts whether the two teenagers would have been heard. Those different audiences may have been deaf to any truth that the young activists had to impart. Deaf because of certain beliefs, traditions, allegiances, prejudices even. Some of this might be going on in the scripture readings we’ve heard this morning.
The confrontation between Jesus and the leaders of the Temple comes after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. ‘Hosanna! Hosanna!’ shouted the crowd on that day as Jesus received his own standing ovation.
In our passage Jesus is teaching, not on the streets, but in a different context, the Temple. Instead of giving him a warm reception, the chief priests and the elders attempt to lay a trap for Jesus by questioning his authority. Jesus doesn’t answer their question directly, but instead responds with a question of his own about his cousin, John the Baptist: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” With this question the focus moves from Jesus to the leaders of the Temple. Their answer, “We do not know,” reveals one of two things. Perhaps the chief priests and the elders genuinely do not know the truth about John the Baptist, in which case they appear less spiritually perceptive than their flock, who have little difficulty in recognising John as a prophet. Alternatively, the chief priests and the elders do know or at least suspect the truth about John the Baptist, and their answer is a lie. If we are generous and go with the first of these two alternatives, the answer “we do not know” reveals that the leaders of the Temple had become deaf to God’s messengers.
The question for us: how is our hearing? What might we be deaf to?
Jesus presses home his point with the parable of the two sons, which we might read allegorically. The father represents God; the first son the tax-collectors and the prostitutes; and the second son the chief priests and elders. Jesus’ message: in the kingdom of God dynamic hearing and responding to God’s word in the here and now, no matter your past or your background, beats static religious observance. John the Baptist was a herald of some new work of the God of Israel – Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Christ; believe in the message of John the Baptist; believe in Jesus.
The prophet Ezekiel was a Temple priest writing from exile. The Temple, the great symbol of Israel had been destroyed. The people of Israel had been dispossessed, many had been carried off to Babylon. The people were looking for somewhere to locate the blame for their misfortune, and recited a well-rehearsed proverb: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In others words the exiles were saying, “It’s our parents fault. Their iniquity, their wickedness is to blame for our current misfortune.”
God addresses the people through the prophet Ezekiel: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb? As I live, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine.”
I’m not sure that this prophecy completely supersedes the tradition we read in the book of Exodus and the prophecy of Jeremiah that ‘the sins of the father are visited upon the children’; sometimes they are. It would seem that God is saying, in this particular circumstance, at this particular time, individuals need to take responsibility for their own situation.
The peoples’ complaining goes on. They are concerned about fairness based on their own judgement of who is righteous and who is not. “The way of the Lord is unfair!” they say. It was the same in Jesus’ time; it was why hanging around with the wrong type of people made Jesus unpopular. God doesn’t answer the people directly, but instead shifts the focus from the action of God to the action of individuals. “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” This is what we experience in the water of baptism; this is what we pray for in the words of the confession.
Sisters and brothers pray that we are not deaf to words of truth in our own time. Believe in Jesus, and above all be not deaf to the Word of God.
“I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord. Turn then and live.” Amen.