HOMILY SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN PENTECOST, 2014
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”
“I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me” (Exodus 20:5)
“for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me” (Deuteronomy 5:9)
… “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
So is this how God is, angry and punitive, visiting his wrath on the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who have angered him? Are we wretched sinners in the hands of a vengeful Creator, set to suffer because of what our great grandfather or great grandmother did?
“Not so” says the prophet Ezekiel. “Not so” says the Lord God through his prophet: “Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die”. Death is physical, we all die; but death is also spiritual, and that is what we can, with God’s help avoid: spiritual death. People often cut themselves off from God, sinning and never repenting. If our actions as individuals cut us off from God, if we alienate ourselves from him, is there any way out for us? For me the key themes of today’s readings are our individual responsibility for what we do and for whom we become, and the open door of repentance which leads us to God and his transforming love, to his Grace.
You and I are responsible for what we do. It is not our parents who will answer to God for what we do, neither will our children be answerable for what we parents did, do or shall do. When you were a kid did you ever try to get out of trouble by saying to your parents, or your teachers things like “I didn’t mean to do it”, “He or she made me do it”, or even “the devil made me do it”? Did that wash? Did that get you off the hook? And does that get you off the hook with God? Will God buy that? We know better. We are responsible for what we have done, for what we do, and for what we will do. Yes, we have a tendency to sin, but with God’s help we can overcome sin. “A man is the sum of his actions, of what he has done, of what he can do, nothing else” Mahatma Gandhi said. I think what is important in this quotation is the “what he can do”. In other words if what we have done, and what we have left undone as women and men have made us who we are, and if this sum of deeds and misdeeds, commissions and omissions is not satisfactory, not pretty at all, we still possess the ability to change who and what we are. We have the option, you and I, of “can do” open to us while we yet draw breath.
God reveals himself to you and me through Ezekiel as compassionate and merciful. When the word of God came to Ezekiel on the eve of Jerusalem’s destruction, Israel as a nation was in a state of sin, of rebellion against God. God pleads with Israel: “Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn then, and live”. It is not God who will wreak havoc on the house of Israel-it is their iniquity that will bring ruin on them. Israel has chosen to live unmindfully of God, and it will pay the price of its actions, because these have been foolish, unwise, and even treacherous. The counsel of God and God’s prophets has been ignored.
Our Gospel today also deals with questions of belief and prophesy, repentance and conversion. What God asked of Israel through Ezekiel is still largely unaccomplished. Now, in Jesus’ time some have gotten new hearts and have a new spirit, but they are not the priests, or the temple authorities, or the theologians, the keepers and interpreters of the law. These last challenge Jesus. For them he does not have the right credentials-he has not asked them for permission to teach. They ask by whose authority he teaches-you and I know the answer, but they don’t, though they must realize that he is indeed a prophet.
Jesus answers their challenge with one of his own. If they answer this, he will tell them by whose authority he teaches “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?” It is a lose- lose question for the religious hierarchy. If they say from heaven, the follow-up question is “Why then did you not believe him?” If they say of human origin they will fear the reaction of the crowd for most believe John to have been a prophet. They duck the question: “We do not know” they tell Jesus. That statement allows Jesus to refuse to tell them by whose authority he is teaching.
John the Baptist was in Jesus’ own estimation the greatest prophet: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist”. It is baptism by John that triggers the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus. It is at his baptism by John that the voice from heaven is heard proclaiming Jesus to be the beloved son with whom the Father is pleased. Jesus’ own experience and the Gospel accounts show that John’s baptism was from heaven. Yet the chief priests and the elders did not believe John.
Now Jesus stands the assumed moral order on its head, as he so often does. It is not the powerful or the respected members of the religious hierarchy who are entering into the kingdom of God. It is the prostitutes and tax collectors. Why? Because they heard John’s message of repentance, believed it, and were converted. They believed and changed their lives. The temple authorities heard John, saw the effect of John’s message on the most notorious sinners of their society, yet remained locked in their unbelief-“even after you saw it, you did not change your mind and believe him” Jesus tells them. The repentance and conversion of whores and extortionists said nothing to the religious hierarchy of Jesus’ time. It should have.
It is not who we have been, it is not whom we might presently be, it is what we can become and do from now on that matters. When we repent from our sins, ask God’s forgiveness and amend our lives we too enter into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the professionally righteous. Once again the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Such is the power of God’s grace at work in us.
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