Transcending Boundaries Ezekiel 18.1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
On first hearing, today’s Gospel reading can sound like one of those peculiarly frustrating interviews on Radio 4’s Today programme. You know the format: the presenter asks the interviewee (usually a Government minister) a perfectly straightforward question, but instead of answering it the minister goes off on a frolic of his or her own, taking blithely about something completely different - reducing presenter and listener to impotent rage. ‘Just answer the question!’ we yell (or I do, anyway) before throwing the radio across the room.
But what Jesus is doing in our Gospel reading is fundamentally different. He isn’t avoiding a probing question. Instead, by turning the tables on the chief priests and elders, he shows up the absurdity of their presumption. Jesus has been doing astonishing and wonderful things: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, even restoring a young girl to life, and yet all the religious gatekeepers want to know is how he fits in to their rigid framework of rules and regulations.
‘Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth’, said Albert Einstein, and in today’s reading we see Jesus refusing to be defined by the authority structures recognised by the priests and elders of the temple. Instead, in the parable of the vine-grower and his two maddeningly inconsistent sons, he shows us that our fine words and empty titles count for nothing unless our lives reflect and embody the love of God.
There’s a lovely Christian hymn from the eighth century, traditionally sung on Maundy Thursday when we remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. ‘Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est’. ‘Wherever there is compassion and love, God is there’. And when people see this powerful force at work, Jesus suggests, they recognise it for what it is. The crowds had no doubt that John the Baptist was a prophet and they didn’t wait for any priestly sanction before welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem with shouts of acclamation.
This compassionate love should be at the heart of our lives as a Christian community, as Paul tells the young church at Philippi. ‘If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord.’
But if our energy and vision is focused only on our life in church, then we are in danger of making the same mistake as the priests and elders in our Gospel reading, the danger of trying to trap God in our man-made boundaries. In the words of one of my favourite hymns, ‘We make his love too narrow, by false limits of our own’.
Jesus crossed boundaries all the time. He broke the boundaries of race and gender by having profound theological conversations with women in Samaria and Tyre. He broke the boundaries of decent conduct by sharing meals with those whom respectable people despised. He broke the Sabbath laws and the codes of ritual purity to heal those who were desperately ill. He listened and stood beside the poor and the marginalised and the little children, those with no authority or status, and offered them love, healing and transformation. The picture he gives us of the Kingdom of God is of a society governed by a wild grace under which all the protocols are overthrown and where prostitutes and tax-collectors like Matthew himself are welcomed ahead of the wealthy and powerful: a space of redemption, relationship, fruitfulness and delight.
‘Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus’, urges Paul. May the generous love of God shown to us in Christ embrace us and shape our words and our actions this coming week, and may we see God at work in unexpected ways in unexpected places. ‘Wherever there is compassion and love, God is there’.