16 after Trinity

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Readings:

Philippians 2.1-13
Matthew 21.23-32

Sermon:

At the end of the 1988 film, Working Girl, the hard-working and put-upon secretary, Tess McGill, is rudely and rather publicly dismissed by her boss, Katharine Parker. Katharine has already stolen Tess’s ingenious business idea and is now pretending to the important client that it really was her idea, and that Tess is not even worth his notice. The client has suspicions of what has happened, and challenges Katharine, in front of her colleagues, to explain the genesis of “her” idea. She is unable to do this, and the client humbles her and sends her on her way, before congratulating Tess and offering her a job.

This is the climax of the film when the underrated, undervalued character gets her time to shine. But it is also the moment when the proud, privileged Katharine, who has taken her position for granted and trodden over people like Tess to reach the top, has a taste of her own medicine. In a simple, gentle, but effective way, she is exposed for her arrogant behaviour. The character leaves the scene, but does she go away and think again about how she treated those she considered beneath her.

Jesus is not always sweetness and light. Sometimes, his actions are direct, and his teaching is pointed. In today’s gospel we have an exchange with his critics and a parable demonstrating that he can be sharp, when the need arises. To understand the passage set for today, we need to see it in context. Jesus has, the day before, entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, to the cheers and adulation of the crowds. The people have hailed him, shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” After this, he enters the temple, the heart of the Jewish establishment, and throws over the tables of the money changers. He cures the sick, and the people proclaim him as Son of David again. The next day, as he approaches the temple, he curses a fruitless fig tree and it withers. He is, in other words, being rather provocative.

The chief priests, entirely understandably, ask what authority he has to do “these things”. In responses, Jesus is not impolite, but he is challenging. He has already criticised them for making it difficult for people to worship God and creating religious barriers in order to exclude. Now, he demonstrates perfectly how to make faith difficult and how to make people feel unworthy – by turning the tables on them. Firstly, he sets them a question that is impossible for them to answer, and then he tells a parable that will show them in a poor light. The elders and chief priests are unable to answer his question and revealed as less worthy of the Kingdom of God than tax collectors and prostitutes. This does not win him any favours, but it makes the point very well.

Challenging people, especially those in authority, is not easy. There are many networks, power structures and assumptions that underly how our society operates. We can’t always see them, and, even when we know that they are present, exposing them as unfair takes courage and commitment. It is far easier to keep our heads down, or to grumble to our neighbours, than to make a fuss.

Jesus give us an example. He is provocative, but he is not rude. He simply invites the chief priests to have a taste of their own medicine, to feel as they have made others to feel – ill at ease and a little inadequate.

When matters of justice are concerned, when people are marginalised or belittled, or prejudiced because of status or background, then, like Jesus, we look to stand with them. We campaign, we raise money, we support those who are voiceless or in need. But this is only part of what seeking justice is about. Challenge is also important. Asking awkward questions of those who have power to make changes is crucial. Most of us find this more difficult, but in order that all God’s children might have opportunity to become the people God would have them be, then sometimes, we need, like Jesus, to raise our heads, and call our leaders to account.

Questions for reflection:

  • Can you think of a time when you stood up for someone or something against a person in authority? How did you feel about it – before, during, and after?
  • What are the issues of justice and injustice that most bother you today?
  • How might you challenge these?


Page last updated: 22nd September 2020 11:28 AM
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