Material for Worship on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Good morning. Those of you who are unable to be in church or follow the service online are very much part of the worshipping community of St. Mary’s and I hope that you find the reflection and prayers below helpful to you. The readings this morning are taken from Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2.1-13 and the Gospel of Matthew 21.23-32. Moira

How would you describe the God of the Old Testament? In parts he comes over as being a gentle God, someone who is busy being Creator and caring for his people, a father figure gently admonishing and encouraging. In other passages he is more like an angry God, judging those who do wrong and who disobey his laws, and he certainly has justification in the way he is provoked by his people. However, in the Gospel passages, as we hear of the ministry of Jesus, things begin to change. We can see that God works quietly, changing the lives of those who will hear his word and who listen to his voice. He is honoured by obedience, and not by words of approval and acceptance that have no results.

In last weeks’ Gospel passage we saw that God is the one who gives us our reward. Not by looking at what we say we might do, or what we might be, but by looking into our hearts and seeing our intentions for what they are. We were reminded that God’s ways are not our ways. In our passage for today, the Pharisees have a problem in seeing just who Jesus is. They are known to be knowledgeable in their understanding of religion, and yet they are demanding to know where Jesus’ authority comes from.

Their curiosity doesn’t phase Jesus, and he replies with a question for the Pharisees, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” John the Baptist had puzzled them, and now this man was agitating them by healing and preaching without a licence. To top it all, Jesus now asked them a question which caused arguments to break out as to what the correct answer would be. No matter what they answered, from heaven or from human origin, Jesus would have a ready reply for them. If they said “Heaven” then Jesus, by right would ask why they hadn’t believed John and if they replied “by human origin”, then the followers of John assembled in the temple would be angry as they thought of John as a prophet. They were caught between a rock and a hard place and had to answer “we do not know.”

Since the Pharisees didn’t answer the question that Jesus set them, he declined to answer their question about his authority. It was obvious that the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus and instead of falling into their trap, Jesus turned their question against them and made them their own accusers. If they could not cope with the uncertainty they had about John, the forerunner of Jesus, how could they understand the status of the one whose coming he had prophesied? Once again, Jesus turned things upside down and put the ball squarely in the Pharisees court! Sometimes the silences of Jesus, when he calmly turned questions around and then stood in silence, were as powerful as when he spoke. Those who don’t respond to the signs of God at work in the world and in the personal lives of those around them, will never be satisfied by theological arguments.

What does Jesus do next? He does what he so often did in these situations to try to make people listen and think about his words. He told a parable. In this short parable, we have once again a vineyard owner, but this time he is looking for help from his sons. The first son is quick to respond to his father’s request for help with a straightforward “no!” However, later he changed his mind and went to work with the vines. The second son seemed to be quite happy to help his father and immediately said, “Yes” he would go and work with the vines, but somehow he didn’t get round to doing what he said he would do! Jesus then posed another question. “Which of the two sons did the will of his father?”

Of course, the Pharisees replied, “the first,” no doubt because he took action, albeit after some time, and did the work. So if they could see by his actions that the first son did the will of his father, why couldn’t they see where Jesus’ authority came from by Jesus’ actions in healing and preaching in the Temple? Why also could they not see that John had come in the way of righteousness – why could they not believe him when even the tax collectors and prostitutes did? Jesus points out that even after the Pharisees saw who John was, they didn’t change their minds and believe him.

Once again this parable shows us that God sees what is really in our hearts and not in what we say we are going to do and then fail to do it. God doesn’t want us to be like the Pharisees who argued amongst themselves and against others about the smallest detail of the Law. He wants us to live in unity with one another, building each other up in his love.

In the letter of Paul to the Philippians, Paul was encouraging his readers to be compassionate, to have sympathy and to be of the same mind. He says, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

As we continue to live through this Covid pandemic and once more have restrictions placed on our lives, especially our lives with our families, it is important that we listen to the words of Paul and keep thinking of others as we wear our masks and avoid meeting up indoors. If we know that someone is struggling with living on their own or from worrying about catching the virus, although we maybe can’t physically be with them to give them a reassuring hug, we can call them and have a chat. Sometimes all it takes are a few encouraging words or maybe just a listening ear, to help someone through a difficult time.

Jesus helped the Pharisees through their difficulty on the question of where the authority of John came from – heaven or from human origin – by telling them a parable to help them see what they couldn’t see before. He turned their question against them and made them their own accusers. God was at work in John the Baptist, yet the Pharisees couldn’t see it. This week let us ask God to open our eyes so that we can see Him at work in those around us, and to encourage and build up each other in His love.

Let us pray

God of Creation, we come to you asking for your forgiveness for all that pollutes the earth and our lack of care for the world you created. Help us to be more mindful of how we use precious resources, to help sustain them for future generations. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of love, we come to you just as we are, flaws and all and ask that you would help us to show your love to all we meet in our daily lives. We give you thanks for all who care for others, all who risk their lives to save others and all who try to bring others to know your unconditional love. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of mercy, we ask your forgiveness for anything we have said or done that does not please you. Help us to be mindful of the feelings of others and to remember that we cannot possibly know what other people are going through in their lives. As you are merciful, make us always ready to be merciful to others and to always be ready to forgive. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of humility, help us to remember that in your eyes all are equal and that we are not any more deserving of your grace than others. We pray that you would give to us a servant heart and keep us walking in humility at all times. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God our Father, we pray this day for all who are fearful, all who are anxious and all who are struggling to feed their families. We pray for healing for those who are ill and in a moment of silence we pray for those we know who are on our minds. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Eternal God, keep us, and all those we love, safe each day, that we might be refreshed and ready to share the good news of your Gospel with those we meet. Amen