Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-end
Well it’s a funny kind of September. After a rather chilly and damp August we seem to be having shorts bursts of summer and autumn mixed together. I never know what to wear in the morning or how many blankets to put on the bed at night. And to make matters all the more confusing, today is – Palm Sunday!
Well, of course it isn’t really. But today’s Gospel reading is set on Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph, greeted by the crowds as the Messiah, God’s anointed leader. The same crowds who in five days will turn on him and demand his crucifixion.
The first thing Jesus did when he entered Jerusalem that day was to go to the temple. Now the temple was meant to be a sign that God dwelt in the midst of his people, and was always accessible to them. It was meant to be a “house of prayer for all nations”. It was meant to be the place where God’s love for all people would be made known.
Instead, by the time of Jesus, it had become an oppressive and authoritarian institution. It swallowed up the last meagre savings of the poor to feed its insatiable sacrificial cult and to keep the priests and religious elite in the style to which they were accustomed. It stood as a reminder, not of God’s presence, but of human authority. An authority which was all about power and control and keeping the status quo.
Just before the scene we read this morning Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers and declared that the temple, instead of being a house of prayer for all nations, had become a robbers’ den. And then, we are told, the blind and the lame had come to him in the temple and he healed them. Now according to the purity laws the blind and the lame weren’t allowed in the temple, but Jesus is showing what the temple really should be about, the place where God is present and accessible for all people to heal and restore them.
It was after Jesus had done this, in the temple, that the Pharisees came up to him and asked, where does your authority come from. Now the Pharisees in Matthew serve a dramatic function, they illustrate what Jesus is about by contrast, by always opposing him and failing to understand him. So when they ask Jesus about his authority they mean the kind of authority they understand, all about power and control.
But Jesus’ authority is completely different. St Paul in the reading from Philippians this morning tells us what authority that comes from God looks like:
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
The authority of God is not self-asserting but self-emptying. It does not impose itself but suffers what is imposed on it. God makes himself known in Jesus by, so to speak, falling into the tragedy of the human condition.
But the temple, as the Pharisees understand it, has no place for tragedy. The imperfect, the unclean, life’s failures, are not allowed in. It demands perfection and purity. Ordinary people really aren’t good enough. The temple cult is constantly demanding more and more – money, livestock, livelihoods, all must be subservient to the demands of an authority which imposes itself as a crushing burden. The Pharisees cannot imagine that God’s authority might be found instead in failure, in tragedy, in suffering and rejection. This, I think, is why Jesus does not answer their question. They are incapable of understanding.
Jesus, instead, tells them a parable. The parable of the two sons – one says to his father, “yes, I will work for you”, and then doesn’t; the other says “no” but then does. And it is the one who fails and repents who does the father’s will. To repent is to change your mind, to change your understanding. The discovery of what God’s authority is really like changes our understanding, leads us to repent. And we happen on that discovery by failing.
In the gospels almost nobody says “yes” to God and simply does what they’ve said. Only Jesus and Mary can be seen to do so, and even Mary at the annunciation says “yes” to the unfolding of a tragedy she cannot at the time imagine. For most people the pattern is to fail and repent. Peter, who denied Jesus; Paul, who persecuted the Church; Matthew the extortionate tax collector. There is something fundamental to the Gospel here. It is those who fail and fall who are able to discover what God is really like, and by that discovery can change their understanding and repent.
Somehow it is necessary for us to fall, in order to be caught in the movement of God’s falling, the God who empties himself to meet us where we are. It is necessary to own our fallenness, our part in the human tragedy, because that is where God is. The cross is not, as some Christians would have it, God venting his righteous anger on Jesus because we’re not good enough. When we look at the cross we see God suffering the inherent tragedy of being human, in a world where all the time we are falling, failing, and needing to be forgiven. The cross is God with us and for us, not God against us.
In this scene this morning in the temple, the Pharisees and the temple structure represent something very deep and oppressive in our consciousness that we need to be liberated from. A terrible idol enthroned in our ego, which is always demanding more, always whispering that we’re not good enough, always running in fear from the possibility of failure. And so turning away from the very place where God is really waiting to meet us.
The Franciscan Richard Rohr writes this:
In the divine economy of grace, sin and failure become the base metal and raw material for the redemptive experience itself. Much of organized religion, however, tends to be peopled by folks who have a mania for some ideal order, which is never true, so they are seldom happy or content...
Sin and salvation are correlative terms. Salvation is not sin perfectly avoided, as the ego would prefer; but in fact, salvation is sin turned on its head and used in our favour. That is how transformative divine love is.
So often we try to avoid the inherent tragedy of life, to pretend to perfection in ourselves and demand it of ourselves and others. So many people hate themselves because they’re not perfect, not successful, not good enough. This is to set up a interior “temple”, a structure of sacred violence, an oppressive authority, an idol that demands that there be victims. The gospel tells us otherwise: God is found in the midst of our constantly failing and being forgiven and learning to forgive.
Repentance means first of all owning the truth about ourselves. By that means alone can we dethrone the idols of success and perfection. By that means we are caught into the movement of God’s falling into our abyss of tragedy and death. Only there can we find resurrection, because Christ humbled himself even to death on a cross and therefore God has highly exalted him.
At the great liturgy of the Easter vigil the deacon sings, “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, that won for us so great a redemption”. The Church has hit on something profoundly true in rejoicing that we are sinners, in singing triumphantly the joy of being wrong. The demand of the ego for perfection in the end leads only to death. It is in the discovery that we are just the same as the prostitutes and tax collectors that we find we are entering the kingdom of heaven.