Today in the Spirit: Proper 21A

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Using the assigned readings in Proper 21A, the church takes us forward in Matthew to Jesus’ teaching in the temple after his final entry into Jerusalem. The Gospel reading in Matthew 21:28-32 is the Parable of the Two Sons. Our Lord’s primary purpose in giving this parable (found only in Matthew) is to illustrate the duplicity of the chief priests and elders of the people who give every appearance of obedience to God but disobey, like the son in the parable who says ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go (30). By contrast, Jesus points out to these leaders that the very people they despise, the repentant tax collectors and prostitutes, are those who show themselves obedient, like the good son in the parable.

The assigned OT reading from Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32 adds a note of impending judgment to the parable’s theme. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life (27), but not so if it is the reverse. About this theme, Psalm 25:1-4(15-21) “David” gives words to a prayer we all utter after hearing the hard words of the prophecy in Ezekiel: Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord! (7).

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For the NT reading, we move ahead in the sequential readings in Philippians. The assigned passage Philippians 2:1-13 takes us from Paul’s injunction to the church to possess Christ’s mind (attitude NIV) of humility through the great hymn about the obedience and exaltation of Christ (the Palm Sunday Epistle) to the exhortation to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (12). The Collect, in something of a contrast to the disquieting tone of the readings, calls upon God the Father to bring us “a quiet mind” as we follow Jesus by grace. Having absorbed the teaching in the readings, that peace of mind is the end we strive for, being assured of God’s mercy and grace in our lives through Christ.     

The Collect

O merciful Lord, grant to your faithful people pardon and peace, that we may be cleansed from all our sins and serve you with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Make Yourselves a New Heart and a New Spirit (Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32)

[YHWH to Israel]: “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live” (25-32).

It must be remembered that this prophecy was delivered at the time the Babylonians were on the verge of conquering Jerusalem, so the complaint cited ‘The way of the LORD is not just’ arises out of no casual philosophical reflection but the outcry of a beleaguered people to their God, “Why are you punishing us of the sins of our ancestors?” The whole point of the prophecy is YHWH saying to his people, “I told you, I am not doing that; look to your own sin.”

We Christians reared in secular society need to acknowledge the existence of weaknesses that pass down through the generations in various forms, as well as attachments and even curses that need to be broken and cast out. Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit is not saying do the work yourself: Who can give themselves a new heart? That gift comes to us from Jesus’ ministry on the cross and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. However, we have a part to play in distancing ourselves from spiritual bondages that do exist in us. So often, instead of repenting of fear and asking Jesus to cut the ties of our past, we either deny those ties are real or just live with them. Then we wonder why we are, for instance, lustful for sex like our father or vindictive in spirit like our grandmother. Christians, we are responsible for our own sin, even those we are more tempted to commit because of links to our past.

Today, in the Spirit, hear the word of the Lord to Israel in Ezekiel as directed to you. Face the ties that bind, and ask God to break them. Renounce them and repent for your wrongdoings because of their influence. Jesus wants us to have no part of bondages that can be broken or the sin that results from them when, by his power, things can improve. Take up your responsibility to approach the cross for healing. 

I Wait All the Day Long (Psalm 25:1-14(15-21))

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
    let me not be put to shame;
    let not my enemies exult over me.
Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
    they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
    teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
    for you are the God of my salvation;
    for you I wait all the day long (1-5).

When considering the message(s) of a psalm, it is helpful to ask in what spiritual stance (standing or sitting, moving or not moving) the psalmist finds himself as he is speaking in the Spirit. Twice in Psalm 25, “David” exclaims, I wait for (Hebrew also allows “I am waiting for” or “I am hoping for”) the LORD. Rather than imagine him busy plotting the overthrow of his enemies and praying between punches, he is still in the Spirit—internally quiet and actively hoping. And in that stance, what does he discover by revelation from God? 1) that God is good and upright (8); 2) that he leads the humble in what is right (9); and 3) that YHWH will instruct [the one who fears him] in the way he should choose (12). All this and so much more is discerned in an attitude of patiently waiting on and listening for consolation from the Lord. 

So often, our “waiting” is mixed in with so much worrying and thinking ill of our enemies. Far from standing in patience, we rock back and forth, placing our weight on one foot in the world full of self-reliance and acting out until we shift our weight again onto God. Just the length of our psalm for this Sunday, with its continual circling back on the steadfastness of David’s faith, should commend to us constancy in the Spirit in the midst of trouble.

Today, Holy Spirit, give us not just a taste but an insatiable hunger for the waiting posture of the singer of Psalm 25, so much so that we leave behind for good our sinful instinct to be satisfied by vengeful behavior, which ultimately provides no satisfaction at all.

Have This Mind (Philippians 2:1-13)

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (5-7).

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (12-13).

Many commentators note the work out and works in dynamic in this last verse. Paul exhorts believers to accomplish (the Greek word translated work out carries the sense of bringing to a conclusion) in our lives what God installs through Christ and the Spirit for his gospel purpose. We are not God’s robots programmed to act predictably. We are free agents, and it is up to us to act, however much we rely on the Spirit’s strength to do so.

But how do we work out? Paul’s whole point in this section of the letter is that we must choose to act with the mind (attitude, NIV) of Christ. The Scriptures display the model of Christ’s behavior for our reference and, in the life of Christ, the power to carry out things his way. Both the model and means are, Paul says, yours in Christ Jesus. What might taking on the mind of Christ look like in the personal circumstances before you now?

Today, in the Spirit, stop and pray through what it might mean for you to do the Father’s work in the Father’s way—in the attitude of the Son. We have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16).  

He Changed His Mind and Went (Matthew 21:28-32)

[Jesus to the chief priests and the elders of the people]: “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.

Here again is a parable of our Lord addressed to the Jewish religious leaders by which we all, resisting every impulse to detach, acknowledge the Pharisee inside us. The religious leaders are slow on the uptake on the big issue: repenting of their sins and believing the news, first announced by John, that the Messiah is at hand. But what is a devotional application for those of us who have trusted in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sin?

For us, it is to open our hearts and look honestly at those areas where Jesus has asked us to do basic things reflecting our commitment to him as Lord and Savior. What of faithfulness with our money in tithes and offerings, remaining in the fellowship of the local church, or simply reaching out to a family member or neighbor we know is in need? Are we, like the first son in the parable, giving the appearance of willingness but shirking off when it comes to the moment of action? Oswald Chamber writes, “To have a master and to be mastered is not the same thing… Our Lord never enforces obedience; He does not take means to make me do what He wants.”

That’s right: Jesus proves himself and commends himself as Master, calling us to exert ourselves in obedience. So Jesus says to his disciples during the Last Supper: You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you (John 13:13-15). 

Today, Christian, in the power of the Spirit both to hear and to act in conformity with service to the Son, let this parable call out of you repentance and obedience as sons and daughters of the Father.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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