Obedient Unto Death

Twenty-Sixth Sunday Scripture Readings

I have a confession to make. Years ago, when I had completed my theological studies, I went back to school for one more year to study Church law. I did this for two reasons, one good and one not so much. One reason was to understand better what was being required of me. The other was to figure out what I could get away with. I was looking for the minimum I needed to do and still be okay, and for how I could get what I wanted without crossing that fine line. I know I wasn’t the first person to do that. In fact, it’s been the common approach to the legal system since laws were first invented. It was the attitude of the religious leaders of Jesus’s time, and it’s the attitude of many self-styled “religious” people today.

For those people, it’s all about behavior, isn’t it? When they quote Scripture, it’s never the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount, is it? It’s always the Ten Commandments from the Hebrew Scriptures—the Torah—or the letters of Saint Paul where he tells the early Christian communities what they should or shouldn’t be doing. It’s all the same attitude. It pretends that we can behave our way into a happy, successful life. But that’s not what the gospel says.

Take today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. His target audience was the early Jewish-Christian community—a community that was deeply disturbed by the success of the gospel among the Gentiles. The Israelite community had been brought up to believe that they were particularly privileged among all the nations of the world and that they were God’s specially chosen people. Their entire relationship with God depended on how exactly they followed the Law of Moses. Now, those same people were watching as the so-called “sinful” nations came to believe and were assuming equal status with them in God’s eyes. Those who had flaunted God’s law were now being welcomed into their community while their own people who couldn’t accept a crucified Messiah were being left out in the cold. It didn’t seem fair. Their centuries of scrupulous obedience to the Law availed them nothing. They were left disappointed. Once they had imagined that following the rules would be enough to guarantee them a peaceful, happy life, but it never seemed to work out that way.

If obedience to the Law can’t guarantee a happy life, what can? Jesus often talks about the Kingdom of God. That’s synonymous with the Kingdom of Heaven but, as I’ve often mentioned, this has nothing to do with the pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye “heaven” that’s so often preached about. The Kingdom of God is literally the Reign of God, where everything is in God’s hands. Jesus gives his followers extensive instructions on how to become part of the Reign of God, and it has nothing to do with following the rules. In fact, he says that the rule-breakers—the tax collectors and prostitutes that religious people of his day despised—are “pushing ahead” of the self-righteous in their quest to join God’s Reign. He’s telling the religious leaders—the chief priests and elders—that they can’t “good” themselves into a relationship with God. Something else is required.

What that “something else” is he makes clear in the last sentence of our gospel passage. He says to them, “Even when you saw that [tax collectors and sinners were repenting], you did not change your minds and believe.” There it is, the essential something that is required: change your mind. That’s what the Greeks called metanoia—a change of mind and heart. But what are we to change it from, and what are we to change it to? We change it from focusing on what we do to focusing on who we are. And that is spelled out for us in today’s second reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Paul starts by saying, “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.” There’s the change of mind and heart. There’s the metanoia. The gospels exist not because we want people to admire Jesus or even to follow Jesus’s rules of behavior. There really aren’t any. The gospels exist so that we can emulate Jesus. We are to do what he did, not do what he said. Paul tells us to have the same mind as Christ Jesus. What follows is an ancient Christian hymn that predates Paul’s letter. It describes Christ’s mind. It’s called the Kenotic Hymn from the Greek word, kenosis, meaning “emptying.” In each stage of this hymn, we see Christ emptying himself: from equality with God to human existence, from human existence to service, from service to death—death as a condemned criminal. Can you see the metanoia? It goes from “Look who I am” to “Look what I can do” to “Let me help you” to “I am helpless.” It’s death that brings home our ultimate and utter helplessness. Death kicks away all the props: both who I think I am and what I think I can do.

However, that’s not the last word. The last word is right there in our hymn. That word is, therefore. “Therefore, God raised him on high…” “Therefore, God.” In that phase is the promise of our metanoia: our strength and hope. It’s no longer I who am in charge. When I accept that I can’t do it, God can do it, and I’m willing to let him, then I can be raised on high. What does that mean? It means that, if I, like Jesus, am willing to surrender to life on life’s terms and to accept whatever life may throw at me—even and including death—I will be supported. I will survive.

The resurrection of Jesus is no magic trick. It’s God’s pledge to us—to you and me—that God is trustworthy. God’s got our backs. Our metanoia, our kenosis is not in vain. As the Preface of the Liturgy for Christian Death proclaims: “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.” Whenever we encounter death, we have a choice. We can either see it as the ultimate word in human futility, or we can embrace the “therefore” and trust that where Jesus has gone—through death to life—we shall surely follow. Death can be both a reminder of our powerlessness and a pledge of the power of God’s love. For those of us who have emptied ourselves of the illusion of power and control, for those of us who have laid aside our self-will run riot to let go and let God, our hope will not be disappointed. For us, too, there is a “therefore,” both here and hereafter.

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