Sermon for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost (Year A)
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”
When we look around at so much of what’s happening in the world politically, economically, environmentally it’s hard not to notice that the root of most of the awful things going on, is selfishness.
Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara once said “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Camara knew first hand that the very same people who praise him for giving food to the poor consider him to be the enemy when he questions the systems that make and keep those people poor; systems which at the same time make others rich, powerful, and comfortable.
When we look to Jesus’ ministry we see that a lot of what Jesus was doing and preaching in his day was against this very thing, against those with power, and clout, and wealth – that those whose love of themselves, their authority, and their money kept them from loving their neighbour.
For the past number of weeks now we’ve been hearing in our Gospel readings Jesus telling parables that stretch us to the limit of what we think might be fair.
Several weeks ago we were challenged with Jesus’ words on forgiveness – forgive seventy-times-seven times, he said. There should be no limit to the amount of forgiveness we have for others because that is the amount of forgiveness God has for us.
We heard the parable of the workers in the vineyard – that the ones who arrived early in the morning and bore the heat of the day working for 10 hours or more received the same pay as those who arrived at the last hour of the day and worked. And perhaps when we hear this we all nod our heads and say to ourselves, “Yes I see, that’s the right thing to do,” until we are put in the same situation. How would we feel to labour for 10 hours in the hot August sun only to have the worker who arrived 9 hours late get the same pay as us?
Through these parables Jesus is trying to teach us what the Kingdom of God is like, what God’s economy is like.
Now, the word economy makes us think of money and business, but the word is actually made up of two Greek words – oikos, meaning home, and nomos, meaning law.
God’s economy literally means the law of God’s house. How does God order and arrange his household, his kingdom? This is one of the central things that Jesus came to preach and teach a world in which there was and remains so much disorder.
The laws that govern God’s house, God’s Kingdom, are not like the laws that govern this world. In this world we do not forgive people an infinite number of times, there’s a limit (usually a small limit) on how much we forgive and for what we are willing to forgive others.
The law of the house in this world seems to me to be that wealth and power go hand-in-hand, and those without them tend to have very little voice at all. In other words, in this world the first will always be first and the last always last.
But Jesus’ preaching and his ministry is constantly showing that no this is not how God’s kingdom operates.
Jesus constantly turns everyone’s expectations on their head. It’s not the rich and powerful the son of God spends time with and ministers to, but the people at the bottom of society. The dregs, the lepers, prostitutes, and tax collectors.
When he tells the parable of the banquet, where a man puts on an extravagant feast and invites all his friends they one-by-one drop out and come up with excuses not to go, but the host says to the servants, “go into the streets and alleys and bring the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” This is a story about God’s economy – God is first and foremost for the last and least of us.
One writer once said that Jesus’ ministry was all about coming to earth to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable; to bring hope to those without it and to bring down the proud and powerful and those comfortable in their seats of power to remember their less fortunate neighbour.
But this message did not sit well with those in the comfy seats of authority in Jesus’ time.
Time and again we see them begin to murmur amongst each other and eventually begin to plot how they might take and kill Jesus.
The Gospel today is a strange passage in which Jesus’ authority is challenged – they ask him by what authority he does all that he does. And he responds in kind with a parable about doing the will of the father. Which of those two sons did the Father’s will – the one who said yes and didn’t, or said no and eventually did?
He gives no answer but reminds the chief priests that it was the last and least – the prostitutes and tax collectors – who first followed John the Baptist, and who would enter God’s Kingdom ahead of the chief priests and pharisees. Another example of how God’s kingdom, his household, his economy works.
Those who do the Father’s will, even the lowest and least likeable, get first share in the Kingdom.
But this parable is meant to challenge us, too.
Because perhaps we are meant to see ourselves in the chief priests and scribes.
Perhaps we are meant to think about the ways in which our own comfort – either in our opinions, positions we hold, privilege we have, or wealth we possess – stands in the way of loving others they we are commanded to love them.
Maybe it gets our hackles up and maybe that’s the point.
This is why St. Paul in the Epistle for today says so clearly, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others.”
Because if each of us truly did this. If each of us truly looked first to the wellbeing of others and not ourselves, then we would never have to worry about ambition, conceit, or selfishness.
Then could that same mind that was in Jesus be in us and we could love others with the love God has for them.