A teacher-pupil conversation
Text study for Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Matthew 21:23-32 Lectionary texts for Sept. 25, 2011
I don’t usually run to the defense of the Pharisees in the Gospel because like you, I know the end of the narrative. I know what they will do to Jesus. Thanks to other Gospels that tell us the Pharisee’s question is to trick Jesus, I know that their hearts are not in the right place when they come to Jesus with questions.
But before I read into the text, it must be noted that questions back and forth such as the dialog in the Matthew text are quite normal between two rabbis or between students and rabbis. This back and forth questioning that tests the authority and argument of the other is a tradition that goes way back into history and moves forward into the present. It is one way in which we learn.
Those tricky Pharisees
Even though the other Gospel accounts lead us to think that the Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus; in Matthew’s Gospel there is no such commentary. This is a normal interaction for a rabbi, especially one of ever-growing fame such as Jesus.
What’s more, the Pharisees thought their motives and their devotion to God were pure and truthful to their understanding of God and the Scriptures. Knowing this positive intention, we should read this passage again from their perspective.
They know that for years, the "official" prophets of God have been silent (there were probably lots running around with the claim, but at least according to the Bible, hundreds of years have passed). Then John the Baptist appears, attacking the Pharisee’s authority, calling them a "brood of vipers" and claiming that his cousin is going to be the Messiah.
Once John the Baptist is out of the picture, Jesus arrives gathering a large following and preaching a message radically different from the Pharisees’ understanding of God and the Scriptures. Prostitutes and tax collectors being allowed in heaven? They could not believe such a thing.
In Ezekiel, we see the question of the fairness of God. For the Pharisees, the message of Jesus and Jesus’ version of God seemed very unfair. After all, they devoted their lives to God and the Scriptures, they taught the people all they knew, and they thought they were doing right this entire time.
The problem is that they became the judge of people and felt it was in their power to decide who and who was not in God’s favor. How very human of them.
It is made clear by Ezekiel and the Gospel of Matthew that God’s imagination pushes beyond our human limitations. God knows the heart. God is the judge. And God chooses God’s people always.
• In what way is your experience of God challenged by new-comers, new stories and unexpected revelations of God’s love?
• How do you remain open to seeing God’s presence in unexpected ways? On what do you base your expectations of seeing God’s presence in the world?
Justin Johnson is pastor of St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Geneseo, N.Y.