9/27: Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 • Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Psalm 25:1-9 • Philippians 2:1-13 • Matthew 21:23-32
Just a few verses before this Sunday's gospel reading, Jesus drove the money-changers – a first century version of people making a buck from religion – out of the temple. Now the chief priests and elders are asking him what right he has to come into the temple and upset the applecart, so to speak. Who invited you to the party? Who gave you a say in how things are run?
I'm reminded of a time when I went home to my mother's, got up early one morning, and began cleaning her kitchen. I moved things around, making for a more efficient use of the space. I tossed out the dated food products, making it easier to access the groceries she used regularly. I cleaned the counters, reducing the amount of clutter. Was my mother pleased with all this effort? You can be sure she was not. Confronting me, she wondered: Whose kitchen is this? Who asked you for help?
The challenge of watching one's parents decline is a difficult one; and a full exploration of this topic would take a book, at least. But, at its most practical level, and for purposes of this conversation, I had trespassed. I had failed to see the kitchen as a symptom of my mother's loneliness and had instead pursued a quick fix to shore up my own feelings about her decline. I had not engaged the real problem with her. I had violated my mother's agency in her own home.
The chief priests and the elders are accusing Jesus of the same things: trespassing, violating their agency over their temple. Jesus tries to tell them that this is not their kitchen, so to speak. The temple is everyone's. He tells a story of two sons, asked by their father to go work in the vineyards. One says he won't go, but later changes his mind, and completes the task. The other says he will and then never follows through. The point that actions speak louder than words is clear. More basically, though, the story is about responsibility for the vineyard and responsibilities to one another.
Getting clear about one's responsibilities – what is, and isn't, one's work – can be a challenge in life. Getting clear about one's shared responsibilities can also be hard: how does a person understand her part in a cooperative venture?
Well, it depends on how one sees the problem. In the text, Jesus had mentioned John the Baptist, who had reframed the problem of the Israelites from a political issue with the Romans to the need for repentance for all the people. It was a call for humility, for seeing one's own part in the problems. It was a last call for the religious leaders to wake up and see the reality of their situation, a last call which they failed to heed, leading to the complete destruction of the temple in the years ahead.
From wildfires to covid outbreaks, a lot of destruction Is occurring these days. Something has gotten in the way of our ability to cooperate and engage our huge capacity for creativity. The anxiety around covid has served to heighten fears already in place, keeping us from being able to think clearly. More than that, the worry is keeping us from dialogue about the problems and a willingness to engage them. Mired in helplessness, blaming each other, seems to be our strong suit. Not only that, we seem unable to face the basic questions. Whose vineyard is this earth, which we all inhabit? How can we cooperate as a species for the benefit of all? Who is talking a good game but shirking the responsibility? Who is showing up?
Overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple was in many ways an extension of earlier choices made by Jesus. He had already broken strict sabbath laws to heal the sick. He'd already stood up to the Pharisees regarding their tithing of herbs while neglecting the poor. In general, over his lifetime, he had declined to focus his energy on the legal requirements of Judaism to move towards the broader concepts of justice and mercy. In the end, he is crucified for these choices – killed for being true to himself and his own principles. It's the choice available to everyone, every day.
Morning: How can I engage the problems I will face today? When might helplessness be avoided?
Evening: When did I trespass today? What principles did I fail to own?
Psalm 78:16 He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.