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Proper 25, Year A, Tr 2, Last after Trinity, 20.10.05
Summary: The four-sons pattern in Matthew's narrative and Jesus' call for radical obedience.
Today I am going to tell you nothing new, but I hope to put it
in a new context.
In our Collect for today we have prayed ‘Teach us to be faithful in change and uncertainty that trusting in your word and obeying your will we may enter the unfailing joy of Jesus Christ our Lord.’ - ‘Faithful in change and uncertainty’: If we are to sail through life, we must keep our bearings. What is to be our lodestar? The Collect calls us to be ‘trusting in your word and obeying your will’. Note that these are presented as two things: Trusting in your word is one, and obeying your will is the second.
‘Trusting in your word’ can be taken a number of ways. One is to take it as trusting in God's promise to be with us; another is to take it as trusting in the written word of the Scriptures as a basis for guidance to God’s will for us, but in this case it is obvious that we must wrestle with the witness of the scriptures if we are to discern God’s will for us in many of our modern situations.
If we capitalize ‘Word’, then, above all, the Word is Jesus himself, and we look to him for guidance as to God’s will that we are to obey, but once again, we are led back to the witness of the scriptures if we would have a clear picture of the Jesus to whom we look for guidance. And it is the gospels that give us our clearest picture of Jesus as seen through the ‘eyes’ so-to-speak, of the four evangelists and their communities. This in turn leads to the problem of trying to understand their witness in their own terms.
What I mean is, have we not all had the experience of saying to someone, ‘Oh, I see what you mean’, only to have them reply, sometimes with exasperation, ‘No, no, no! You’ve missed the point; that’s not what I meant. You’ve got the wrong end of the stick.’ And that is usually because we have not been thinking in the same framework as the other person. It is with this kind of question in mind that I want us to look at today’s gospel to see it in its own context.
But before we take up today’s gospel directly, let us look
for a moment at story-telling.
Those of us who are parents have all at some time or other told stories to our children, even if only to read them a bedtime story. And if the story began with the phrase 'Once upon a time', then this usually signalled that it was going to be a fairy story. But I would bet that, more often than not, we have also told them about our own story, about ourselves, our past, our upbringing, things we have done and seen, so that something of our own past of who we are and have been becomes also part of their past and sense of self-identity.
As Christians we have our story, the story of what God has done for us in Jesus, and it is this story that we tell, time and again, in the eucharistic prayer whenever we gather to break the bread of the Lord together.
Now, our ancestors in the faith, the Jewish people, had a story which they considered to be very important, it was the story of the Passover and the Exodus out of Egypt. It was considered to be so important that there are four passages, one in Deuteronomy and three in the book of Exodus about the father telling his children the story whenever the family observes the feast of Passover.
Here are the four passages, each of which introduces the need for the father to tell his children about the Passover. In Deut 6.20 the Passover story is introduced by the words, ‘When your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the judgements which the LORD our God commanded you?”’ Now this son is taken by the rabbis to be a wise son, and so you tell him the whole story. You give him the whole works, so to speak.
In Exod 12.26: ‘When your children ask you, “What does this observance mean to you?”’ This the rabbis took to be a scoffing son, because he says ’to you’ and not ’to us’. And in Jewish tradition, the father is to set his teeth against him and say, ’You do not identify yourself with the commonweal of Israel, and I tell you if you had been in Egypt, you would have been left behind!’
The third passage is Exod. 13.14: ‘When your son asks you in time to come, “What is this?”’ This son the rabbis took to be a simple upright man who wants a brief explanation that will lead to righteous behaviour. It is with thought of this type of son that the rabbis discussed the question of what one verse in the Torah could one give to a would-be proselyte who said, ‘Teach me Torah while I stand on one foot’ - in other words, keep it very brief.
In our fourth and final
passage, Exod 13.8, it simply says, ’And you shall tell your son
in that day’. This was taken to refer to a son who is too simple to ask, and
so the father has to begin the telling of the story.
By the time of Jesus these four passages were being taken to refer to four different kinds of sons, and in turn, this was then extended to sons in general with regard to their attitude to the Torah: the wise son, the scoffing son, the simple son and the son is too simple even to ask.
Now today’s gospel, which Matthew has taken up directly from Mark, is set within the context of the pattern of these four types of sons.
And this brings us to today’s gospel, in which we have the
final two sons. First we have the lawyer, representing the straightforward
upright son, who simply wants to know the chief commandment in the Torah. After
that the son who is too simple to ask, is mirrored by the fact that Jesus
himself asks the next question, and this in turn is followed by the words, ‘after
that no one dared to ask him any more questions’.
So in the reply to the lawyer’s question, it is very much a case of summing up everything in a nutshell: Jesus’ answer is that of a rabbi, a teacher, and his answer combines two of the prime passages from the Torah settled on also by other rabbis of his day, namely Deut concerning loving God and Leviticus, concerning loving the neighbour, a verse we have already heard in our OT reading. It is the fulfilling of this verse that St Paul tells the Galatians fulfils the whole of the Law and the Prophets. This is indeed the heart of God’s will for us as focused on and presented very emphatically by Mark and Matthew, using the format of the four sons. And this is why Matthew adds the words ‘on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,’ which means that everything else of the will of God in the scriptures must be consonant with these two commandments.
In the original version in Mark it is a sincere person, a scribe, who asks Jesus the question. The scribe then says that Jesus is right, and that loving God and the neighbour is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. Jesus then tells him that he is not far from the Kingdom of God.
But in both Matthew's and Luke's versions, the question is asked by a lawyer who is presented as being out to test Jesus. In Luke's version, the lawyer, wishing to justify himself, then asks the further question of 'Who is my neighbour?' And, after Jesus tells him the story of the Good Samaritan, the lawyer is forced to admit that the Samaritan was the one who acted as a good neighbour.
So, no matter which Gospel we look at, the central aim is to
love and trust God with one's whole being, and to reach out with love to the
neighbour as Jesus has reached out, no matter who he or she may be.
Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi. The content of much of his teaching can be found among the other rabbis, but whereas they generally were calling for more obedience, Jesus was, and is, calling for deeper obedience, for a radical outpouring of God's love --through us -- to every neighbour.
Here is the lodestar by which we are to set our course through all the changes and chances of this life: keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.