This has been a big week for our family. On Monday, my dad turned 80. A good, round score – and last week, on Sunday evening the family held a big party, so we met up with relatives we hadn’t seen for donkeys’ years, friends of mum and dad, and when dad gave a speech he remembered the ways in which just about everyone gathered there had touched his life. He’s been reflecting on his life so far, and I guess I’ve started doing that too. Because you see, my dad is exactly 30 years older than me, and a bit later this year I’m going to be turning fifty – this last week, Alison has also had a big birthday, she has turned 40, then in a couple of months I turn 50. So we are all, I guess, thinking about our lives in the way you do when you see the meter turn over with a click to the next decade.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how much I can see my dad in me. This is one of the things psychologists have a field day with, isn’t it? Apparently the day I was born, the doctor said to my mum, ‘I don’t often see family likenesses in new-borns but I’ve just got to tell you, this one looks ridiculously like his dad’. But as I grew up, the last person I wanted to be like was my dad. I guess it’s the teenage thing, this need to strike out, to be yourself on your own terms, to work out your own identity and insist that who you are is totally unique. Dad was a Methodist minister, now
Our New Testament readings today both have got something do with this question of authenticity. And with the question of authority, which actually is related, because they both come from the same root, the Greek word meaning ‘author’. Where does a thing come from? Where does it get its legitimacy? How closely does something reflect its source? In our reading from his letter to the church in Philippi, we heard St Paul’s great statement of who Jesus is in relation to the Father – this very early writing, that St Paul wrote before any of the gospels had come into being, gives us a window onto the very early church who already had come to the conclusion that the question of who Jesus is can only be answered by asking what his relationship is to God the Father. Being authentic means reflecting clearly the source from which we come.
And the second part of being authentic is this – that there’s a necessary relationship between what you claim about yourself and what you do. Reflecting the depth of the relationship he has with his Father means that what Jesus does is consistent with that relationship. It’s not just an armchair thing. And in Matthew’s gospel the point is driven home relentlessly, being authentic is not just something that Jesus demonstrates, but it’s also what distinguishes real disciples from those who just pay lip service.
We’ve moved ahead a bit since last week. In chapter 21, Jesus has just entered
Matthew is a good one for insisting that what you believe and what you do are inseparable. In chapter 7, Jesus says this: ‘Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’ You see, it isn’t just directed at the Pharisees and the chief priests, the gospel writer has also got in mind those Christians who say they believe but who don’t follow through. Being a disciple is not a armchair thing, it’s about hearing, and it’s about doing – it’s about consistency between what we say we believe and how we live.
So when the chief priests say to Jesus, ‘well, what about you, then? What gives you the right?’ – and you can just about imagine, after all Jesus has been on their case all week - not only that, but Jesus has been flouting the system, a free-lancer who even though he isn’t a priest has been getting about telling people that God forgives them – well, forgiveness is what the temple is there for, and who does Jesus think he is? So fair enough, since Jesus has been telling them all week that they’ve lost the plot, they say, well, who are you then? And he answers them, as he typically does, with a story – actually, in Matthew’s version which is a bit different to the way Mark tells the sequence of events, Jesus comes out with three stories in quick succession.
And the first story is the one we heard today about the boys that change their minds. The one who says he’s not going to do what his dad asks, changes his mind and does it. The other one, who seems more agreeable a first, doesn’t follow through. This one represents Jesus’ opponents, the ones with all the rhetoric of faith, but when it comes down to it, they don’t do God’s will. Their actions and their words are out of synch, their self-serving actions aren’t consistent with the character of a God whose priorities are compassion, justice and mercy. And for Matthew, this criticism can also be applied to those in the Christian community who say they believe, but who don’t bear the fruit that real repentance brings. It’s an uncomfortable point that forces every one of us to examine what we are about – if we say we believe in Jesus we need to ask whether the things we do or don’t do reflect what we say we believe. And it’s certainly a point that strikes home against the church – is the church’s talk about God’s forgiveness and grace just rhetoric, or do we as a community actually practice the way of forgiveness?
But then the shallow lip-service of religious professionals is set in contrast, in Jesus’ example, with the tax collectors and the prostitutes – what a shocking comparison! Not that Jesus is saying there’s something better about being a tax collector or a prostitute than a priest – at least, I hope not! - but because these are the people who heard and responded to what Jesus taught. Hearing, believing, and living a transformed life is the point. Maybe they came late, maybe it was a long and circuitous route for them to come to the place where they could be vulnerable enough to hear what Jesus was saying, to let Jesus’ words of compelling compassion really touch the innermost places of their hearts, but this is the point about the response of faith – that it transforms who we are. And the second point is this – that transformation maybe takes a lifetime. Responding to God at a deep level isn’t like a set and forget thing, it’s not just a decision we make once in a lifetime and after that salvation is guaranteed. Rather, I think Matthew’s point is that responding in faith is a process, becoming authentic in faith takes the whole of our lives. As Christians I think every one of us comes late to the realisation that the deep structure and the real shape of our lives is God-shaped – that even though we didn’t know it, or we resisted it, that who we are comes out of the relationship we have with God our heavenly Father.
So who are you? the chief priests want to know – how come you’ve got the right to tell us off like this. Because who I am and what I do are one and the same thing, he tells them. Because who I am is my Father’s Son.