If you came to the College last Monday, there have probably already been occasions when you have heard yourself saying, ‘the way of the Lord is unfair.’ Wrenched from my family and friends, from my church, into this unfamiliar place. If not, there is time yet …
The words appeared in the reading at Mattins this morning from the prophecy of Ezekiel. And those whom Ezekiel heard saying them had indeed had time and excuse for saying them.
These were the Jews taken into exile in Babylon.
They were in a far place;
a generation robbed of the inheritance they could have expected;
the contours of their society, culture and familiar lands ripped from them.
They reflected on God’s ways: –
God, their saving God, had given statutes and signs to their forebears.
They accepted that previous generations had acted unfaithfully. They weren’t exonerating their parents and grandparents, but they were complaining that God had not given them the chance to be Israelites faithful to God’s rule.
The Temple still stood – why couldn’t they have a share in it? Perhaps they should build a temple in Babylon? Under the conditions of exile, they wanted to assert their continuity with what had gone before, their Jewish identity. They wanted to be the Jews that their parents had failed to be.
‘The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
This may be sounding somewhat more familiar.
Familiar to Christians pining for a simpler age of faith – why did a previous generation find it so hard to believe, to practise what the Church had inherited?
Familiar to all of us exiled from the social life we took for granted before 2020.
And familiar in the context of the black lives matter protests – when God replies to these exiles’ complaints, saying, ‘Know that all lives are mine,’
there is the basis for protesting the social attitudes we have inherited and for demanding something better.
So, are God’s ways unfair?
Should the God who has taken up your life to be a priest, to be a monk, to be a Christian, have provided you with a more compatible college? worthier brothers? a stronger church? Times which challenge in more familiar ways? Ones you can share with others?
Are we having to live unfairly with the fruit of others’ faithlessness?
Exiles from God’s home?
When in St Matthew’s Gospel Jesus goes into the Temple and drives out the money changers and teaches in ways that overturn the prevailing religiosity,
he is addressing a society in which everything is about to change. This second temple will come crashing down, just like the Temple of Ezekiel’s day.
And Matthew’s readers know this. Already they are living that dispersion, that exile.
The question from the priests and elders about authority is meant to shut down the challenge. In fact, it opens up something real – something they are unwilling to face.
And Jesus responds with the tale of the two brothers told to work in the vineyard. One says ‘no’ but then goes and does his father’s bidding. The other brother readily agrees, but does nothing.
It sounds like a simple moral fable, to make a point about behaviour.
But once those familiar stock characters, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, are brought in to play the role of the son who said ‘no’ and changed his mind, we begin to grasp a wider vista.
Here, too – just as in Ezekiel – there is a change of the generations. People whom the inherited religion had excluded – exiled – are now invited by God their king.
And the other son? Jesus does not say of him that he changed his mind. He said ‘I go’ but it seems he never had the intention of doing his father’s bidding.
‘Therefore I will judge you, O House of Israel, all of you according to your own ways, says the Lord God.’
Or, as Jesus warns the Temple authorities, ‘Even after you saw it, you did not change your minds’.
Perhaps a change is coming. Perhaps, as many are saying, we are in exile, and need not to hanker after the past. Ezekiel rejected the hypocritical practices of Israel’s past, with its idolatry and self-centredness. But from exile he glimpsed a renewed Israel – a return to the promised land, a new temple and politics and – beyond even that – a transcendent order in which evil will be overcome. He used all his gifts of logic and rhetoric, his colourful language and images, to coax the exiles of his day to look in another direction, to get a new heart and a new spirit, to turn and live.
Ezekiel was priest, yes, detailing the structure of a new temple, and he was prophet.
Here is a bigger picture, beyond the unfairness that seems to enmesh us. And here, priest and prophet, there may just be a pattern for us.
So, when you are tempted to bemoan your fate, and the times you are living through and God’s unfairness, look outwards, look up.
That new world is here among us today.
The son – the one who did the father’s will – is here.
And it is to him, emptied and humbled, that every knee will bow.
God is already at work in you.
Turn then and live.