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Proper 21A, Tr 1 (14 Trinity, 25.09.2011) (Back to Church)
Exod 17.1-7: Moses strikes rock, brings forth water
Ps 78.1-4, 12-16: wonders in wilderness, including water
Phil 2.1-13:  includes kenotic hymn
Matt 21:23-32:  heads I win, tails you lose (Was John from God or men?) (969)

Merciful God, your Son came to save us and bore our sins on the cross: may we trust in your mercy and know your love, rejoicing in the righteousness that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Jesus as Wisdom or as simply a human being is the one to follow.)

            According to the Book of Exodus the Israelites were a rebellious lot, bellyaching and complaining repeatedly during their time in the wilderness.   If last Sunday’s reading from Exodus told of how God filled their grumbling stomachs with manna, then today’s story includes Moses being told to strike the rock at Meribah, and when he does so it brings forth water to quench their complaining about having nothing to drink.  This is picked up in our psalm, which, like last week’s, tells of God’s wonderful works during the wilderness wanderings.  This incident is also mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians. But when Paul speaks of this event and applies it to Christ, you would probably scratch your head if I simply read it to you straight, that is, without any explanatory background.

          If there is a major lens through which Paul and the evangelists view Jesus, then I think it is probably the view developed in the Wisdom tradition.

          The Wisdom writings include in the OT the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, and The Song of Songs.  Two further books are in the Apocrypha, namely, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus.

          Put simply Wisdom, which basically stands for God’s will, is presented as a person, often feminine, who calls people to embrace God’s ways of righteousness.  Wisdom is also God’s agent through whom all things come into being.

          In the Book of Wisdom, Wisdom itself is presented as being wise, powerful, and well-born, terms which you have heard me more than once apply to that proper humanity which we see in Jesus through his total dependence on the Father, a theme that is echoed in today’s reading from Philippians which speaks of Jesus’ total emptying of himself, that is, for total dependence upon his Father.  In effect, in the biblical tradition, Wisdom is about being a God-fashioned humanity, both as individuals and as communities.

          So you can readily see why Jesus himself is presented as being God’s wisdom and God’s word, taking on all the functions of the figure of Wisdom in the Jewish tradition.

          Just one thing more and we’ll turn to the water-bearing rock passage in 1 Corinthians.  There was a Jewish tradition that the rock itself was Wisdom and that it travelled with the Israelites up hill and down dale, and this Paul has picked up and applied to Christ.       

          Here is the beginning of 1 Corinthians, chapter 10:  ‘I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.  Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.  Now these occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.’ (1 Cor 10.1-6)

          You can hear echoes of baptism and the eucharist in this passage, so, Paul says, don’t think these by themselves will be enough.  He then goes on to apply all the actions of the rebellious Israelites as examples to be avoided by members of the Corinthian community.  In this section Paul, following Jewish understanding, addresses four types of people: firstly, the simple; secondly, the direct; thirdly, the scoffer, and finally the wise. Three times in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy the father of a family is told to tell his son about the Passover, with the rabbis detecting a different kind of son being involved each time: a son so simple he must be told since he won’t ask, a straightforward upright son who needs a simple direct answer, a scoffing son who does not take in the instruction, and finally a wise son, who wants to learn all of it.

          I am not going into that now, but I have bothered to tell you since the next time I am on deck, the 23rd of October, the pattern of the four sons will turn up in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel.  So be forewarned.  Now back to Paul.

          In Paul’s terms, we are not saved, but rather we are in the process of being saved, that is of being made whole and healthy.  He even says of himself that he keeps on ... ‘lest having preached to others, I should find myself a castaway.’

          In today’s Gospel Jesus puts the Jewish authorities in a bind.  It has ironic humour in it when he forces them into what to them is an invidious choice where they can’t win no matter what they say.  It is simply, ‘Heads: I win; Tails: you lose.  But, seriously, since the question is basically about the status of Jesus, what is our answer going to be?  Is Jesus of God or is Jesus of men?  If we believe that Jesus is of God, then we are to follow him as embodying all that God calls us to, the Wisdom of being a true human being.  On the other hand, if we believe that Jesus is of men, then Jesus is the very best person that we know, and so we still follow his example as being the best there is, again, the true Wisdom.  ‘Heads I win; Tails you lose,’ or even heads – you win; tails – you win.

          In Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, ‘For I determined to make nothing known among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified’.  I would say the same to you, so decide and verify your decision by putting your money where your mouth is by following Jesus, our Lord and brother with joy rather than bellyaching.   And continue to gather with us as we together remember Jesus at this meal.