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Sunday 27 September 2020

Passive assent or active obedience?

Matthew 21:23-32


By Nigel J Robb

Minister of the Church of Scotland; Presbytery Clerk of St Andrews Presbytery

Context: a congregation of 80-100 of mixed background who have worked hard and need to be encouraged to be witnesses in their village community

Aim: a reminder that the gospel imperative instructs us that what we say has to be reflected in what we do

Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about ‘cheap grace.’ A concept that willingness to experience the wonder of God’s love and salvation demands nothing more of us. It is not a demand to offer God virtuous activity in return, as if we can make ourselves worthy of the gift of grace by our own goodness. Jesus taught, instead, the concept of ‘costly grace.’ A sense of the depth of love which God has poured out for us in Jesus and a willingness to let the love of God enter us, transforming our lives and actions. Costly grace would have us live our lives as people who know God’s grace as that which T. S. Eliot said, ‘costs not less than everything.’

Today’s passage is set in the environment of Holy Week in the chronology of Matthew. It describes a dialogue and confrontation with the religious authorities of the day. The religious power brokers were frightened. They did not know quite how to answer the question posed by Jesus. They knew that the crowds might turn on them. By refusing to answer the question about John the Baptist, they evaded risking condemnation for judging John negatively, or outrage (and a riot) because they had not acted in his defence.

Then Jesus challenges them and us by telling the first of three ‘parables of disobedience.’ The issue is really how one responds to God’s call to repentance, and invitation to live as a recipient of grace. There has to be consistency between words and deeds, religious confession and active discipleship. Verbal expressions of obedience to the demands of God’s message of love become hollow and meaningless if they do not come out of a total commitment in response to God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. God seeks our hearts and lives, not just our words.

It also highlights the inclusive love of God for us. By his actions and his words, Jesus stressed both forgiveness and acceptance to the prostitutes and tax collectors, those we might term today as ‘living on the margins of respectable society.’ He did not accept their sinful ways of living, and yet was willing to meet them, talk to them with respect and even eat with them.

Both sons in Jesus’ story show that we totally depend on God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The good people, who speak the correct words yet do not follow through with their actions; and those who make no claims of righteousness but receive the Gospel in faith. We are all flawed, sinful human beings who are struggling to live according to God’s will for us. All of us depend on God’s love in Jesus Christ. God’s grace is at the centre of our Christian faith. Everything follows from God’s initiative in loving and accepting us even before we can do anything in response.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s opening words in a sermon on today’s Gospel were, ‘Let none of us take it for granted that we are Christians because we have helped to swell the numbers of a Christian assembly.’ He warned about all who speak the proper words about Christianity but give them little application in their daily lives. He pointed out that if a person says, ‘I believe my house is on fire,’ and then goes to bed and falls asleep, it does not look as if that person believed it.

No member of the Christian community can consider their privileged position to be a guarantee of salvation. The life of faith can give no assurance, except that we are summoned each day to learn and to respond to God’s offer of mercy to us. There is no room for self-congratulation, but instead acceptance of the discipline of discipleship by addressing the needs of the world for justice, mercy and peace-making, in the way of Jesus.

A short story by Flannery O’Connor is a comment on the reading. Throughout the story, Mrs Turpin feels superior to those who, she feels, are of a lower social class. She is shocked by seeing those ‘trashy’ people going up to heaven, ‘hooting and clapping and leaping like frogs’. At the end of the procession are the ‘respectable’ people like herself and her husband who ‘had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it.’ These move forwards ‘with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behaviour. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned way …’

Our lives are testimony to the love of God for sinners, as recipients of grace. We are ‘parables of obedience’ living out daily the implications of discipleship by offering compassion and care to others.

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