No one wrote in a vacuum. Our Scriptures are composed against the background of real life faith communities experiencing real life problems in living that faith. I often remind my students, “If there are no problems, we have no Bible.” Scripture only comes into existence when someone in the community is sharp enough to notice that the faith which is professed isn’t the faith which is being lived. That insight, together with the determination to correct the discrepancy, forces our authors to write.
There’s no doubt what triggers today’s gospel pericope. John L McKenzie’s late 60s book, Authority in the Church, laid out the background not only for this specific passage, but for many others, both in the gospels and Paul’s letters. The former Jesuit’s groundbreaking work contradicted lots of Catholic “popular wisdom.”
Growing up and formed in a close knit hierarchical church, whenever the issue of authority came up the emphasis revolved around obeying those above us in the authority structure. Our examinations of conscience often had us critically reflect on our “bottom of the pyramid” obligations. Never were we encouraged to question or critique those in authority.
No wonder we miss some of the major problems our sacred authors surfaced in their communities. We were led to believe such problems could never exist. The “Great John L’s” research and book demonstrated how naïve we’ve become about basic Christian problems. Passage after painful passage, McKenzie showed that, almost always, when early church authors brought up questions about authority, the triggering device wasn’t a situation in which people refused to accept or obey authority; it was a situation in which those exercising authority were doing so counter to the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth.
Today’s gospel narrative is classic. The historical Jesus has no problem conveying his message to the religious leaders of his day and age. He simply goes back to Isaiah’s image of Israel as the vineyard of Yahweh, pointing out that little has changed from the days of that 8th century BCE prophet. Some in authority still believe they “own” the faith given them as a trust, responsible to no one, not even God, for an accounting of what they’re producing. Since they refuse to help others surface God working in their lives (the “kingdom of God”), God’s rental property will be “given to a people that will yield a rich harvest.”
Before we get ourselves off the hook by pointing out that Jesus is castigating Jewish leaders, we must remember, as McKenzie pointed out, that if Christian leaders weren’t showing the same tendencies 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, this passage would never have ended up in a Christian gospel. Matthew’s complaint is against Christians, not Jews. His Jewish/Christian readers would have instinctively understood this.
Paul’s Philippians selection shows how insistent he is that Jesus’ followers accept Jesus’ value system. “Whatever is true... honorable... just... pure... lovely... gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.” Imitating Jesus’ dying and rising is a life-time project.
It’s interesting that the Apostle points to himself as someone to imitate. Takes lots of chutzpah to do that.
Might be good today to make our own list of those in the church we’d like to imitate. Perhaps we’ll discover that only a few of them are in “official” leadership positions. If so, is that a problem?