by Edgar M. Krentz
Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor Emeritus of New Testament
Ezek 18:1-4, 25-32, Psa 25:1-9, Phil 2:1-11, Matt 21 23-32
If I were taking my subject for today's homily from today's Tribune, I would be talking about the economic crisis we are facing; then again, I might talk about the ethical lows in the election campaign.
But one blessing of the lectionary is that it gives one the text for a given day; in fact, it makes one deal with texts one might rather not. That is the case with the Gospel for last Sunday. It raises two large difficulties for any one who gives a homily.
First of all, it is a proclamation of law spoken against the religious authorities. It introduces the first of three parables all spoken against the Jewish religious leaders.
It follows up the entry into Jerusalem in which Jesus comes as the judge of Jerusalem. When Matthew cites as fulfilled Zechariah 9, he omits the words 'just and saving he is.' Those are the words that Zechariah uses to announce the coming of the hoped-for king who would rescue Jerusalem from gentile rulers. Jesus immediately enters the temple and cleanses it. The next day, as he goes over the Mount of Olives to enter Jerusalem, he curses the fruitless fig tree, which withers immediately--and interprets it as a judgment against a lack of faith.
In the second place, as the second parable makes clear, Matthew raises the specter of anti-Judaism. "The Royal Rule of the heavens will be taken away from you and be given to a gentile nation that produces its fruits." C. F. D. Moule justly describes this book as "The Gospel written against the Jews." And we read this in the week of Judish high holy days, the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, between Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, the time when Jews stress repentance for their failures to observe God's demands.
II. Lex semper accusat
So this Gospel is a challenge for the homilist.
But given Matthew's stress in Matthew 21-22 and throughout his passion account, there is also a salutary reminder in this text that we do well to heed. It is a reminder that the God of the Bible is a God "who visits the iniquity unto the third and fourth generation." The Ezekiel text for today stresses such judgment. The fathers eat sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge.
Kurt Hendel stressed obedience in his homily on Monday, taking off primarily from Philippians 2:1-11; it's a motif that is certainly there. Today I am looking at the reverse to that coin labeled obedience, that is, judgment and condemnation. Lex semper accusat. The law always accuses, as Lutheran confessional theology reminds us.
A German theologian put it this way, "Eine Kirche die nicht verfluchen kann, kann auch nicht segnen," "A church that cannot pronounce a curse can also not pronounce a blessing."
That's put more sharply than I would formulate it, a rather grim reminder of what we confess in the Nicene and Apostles creeds: "He will come again to judge the living and the dead, and of his kingdom there will be no end.'
We--and notice I am including myself--tend to stress so much the love of God that we lose the God who pronounces judgment. Years ago J. B. Philips entitled a little book Your God Is Too Small. We settle for a lesser god than the God of the Bible. Alongside the "friend we have in Jesus" is the Jesus who cleansed the temple, who promised a sword and not peace, who spoke about the sheep and the goats and eternal judgment, about weeping and gnashing of teeth.
That brings with it a temptation: It is relatively easy to proclaim the law about the other; it is more difficult to apply it to ourselves. Notice that this judgment is spoken to the religious leaders of the Jewish people, those who think to pass judgment on Jesus.
Now you and I are their counterpart in the ELCA. How often we stand in judgment over others rather than stand humbly in repentance about ourselves. I am struck that we restrict confession and absolution to a liturgical act as preparation for liturgy--even though such liturgical rites were not, historically, the introduction to the mass. We almost never use private confession and absolution, and almost never pray petitions for forgiveness in the prayers we formulate.
I like many things about our relatively new hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, its great variety of liturgical settings, the providing of eleven different Eucharistic prayers, its inclusion of hymnody from different cultures around the world.
But I also miss certain great hymns--and hymn stanzas. I have noticed that there are very few hymns that speak God's word of condemnation or of final judgment.
I think of the dropping of stanzas from Luther's great Easter hymn, Christ lag in Todesbanden. In greater St. Louis we sang all seven stanzas of the Bach Cantata each Easter. Now we have a truncated Luther hymn with fewer stanzas.
Some of the great Latin hymns are lost. Let me mention only two. I think of Thomas de Celano's Dies irae, with its 19 3-line stanza: it begins Dies irae, Dies illa, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David et sibylla. "Day of wrath, O day of mourning, See fulfilled the prophet's warning, Heaven and earth in ashes burning."
Or Bernard of Morlais' hora novissima, tempora pessima, sunt vigilemus. Medieval art often pictures such a grim future. We admire the ceiling in the Sistine chapel, with its pictures of the creation of Adam; but we don't look at the large fresco of judgement that covers an entire wall. Google the art of the cathedral at Autun and look at the Tympanon sculpture over the main entrance. We write these hymns and such off as representatives of medieval fixation on sin and end up with a watered down Christology and faith.
II. The Gospel of Justification
But that is not the whole story, is it? The Gospel is not that the disobedience of others, in Matthew's case the religious leaders, provides the opening for us. We do not use Matthew's negative attitude to the religious leaders as the occasion for self-congratulation.
This week's Gospel gives us a hint about what our reaction should be. It is the son who says NO to his father's word, but then goes to the south forty who does the father's will. Just what is the obedience that is implied in the parable? The irony is that it is spoken with dominical authority by the one whose authority they questioned.
John, Jesus says, came on the way of righteousness. And what was the word of John the Baptist to which the publicani and prostitutes responded? "The proper moment has come close, the royal rule of the heavens impends; repent and believe the good news." Bear fruits worthy of repentance, John said. (Matt 3:2 & 8)
And they did. But the religious authorities were not stimulated to repentance as they were.
"Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my father in the heavens." They say that by the Lord's name they have prophesied, exorcized demons, and done miracles to validate themselves. It is not pyrotechnical acts done by the name of Jesus, not intellect, or advanced degrees, or a high grade point average, or winning the Echols prize for preaching that is the response. No, Jesus speaks of repentance and response to John's message. (Matt 7:21-23)
And there Paul agrees with Jesus. Think of Abraham in Romans 4. "Abram believed on the God who justifies the pagan, and that faith was accounted as righteousness." Abraham was not a believer, says Paul, when God called him. But he responded to the word God gave.
Recall how Paul says later in Romans that "God has locked up everyone under disobedience in order that he might have mercy on all." Rom 11:32 The path to stand before God is to accept God's condemnation, to appear before God as a pagan, as a publican and prostitute, to pray with our hands empty, to say with Luther "We are beggars, that's the truth," to gather in this chapel each day, not as the pious with something to offer God, but as those who come to receive God's forgiveness--and then to live out the will of our Father who is in the heavens.
It is not surprising that Paul adds to his statement about locking everyone up under disobedience his most glorious doxology.:
O the depth of the wealth and the wisdom and the knowledge of God
His judgments cannot be searched out,
And his paths cannot be tracked down.
Because the entire universe is from him and through him, and toward him.
To him is the glory into the ages. AMEN