A sermon on Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13 & Matthew 21:23-32
by Dr Mark Brett, Professor of Hebrew Scripture at Whitley College
If I asked you to think of a powerful person, what kind of person would come to mind? Perhaps it would be the man who has charge of the largest military establishment on earth; perhaps an influential philosopher, with extraordinary analytical depth; perhaps someone with incredible creative power, like Shakespeare; perhaps someone with moral power, like Nelson Mandela. Then try to imagine a fictional person who has all these powers and imagine what they could achieve.
They might take the world by storm, but could they satisfy the deepest longing of our souls – for peace, for meaning, for love? I don’t think so. I want to risk the claim of faith that our deepest longing is for God, and that no person has the power to satisfy this kind of longing – not the most powerful leader, not the most intimate friend. This is a hard truth, not easily arrived at, not easy to swallow. And according to our scriptures for today, this hard truth is frequently mis-understood, not least because we are often confused about how to understand our deepest needs and who might fulfil them.
According to the exodus story, Moses was as good a leader as you’re ever likely to find. His staff, his symbol of power, could turn the Nile to blood; it could open the waters of the Reed Sea, and it could bring water from a desert rock. It seems that Moses could bring an oppressive Pharaoh to his knees, destroy an imperial army, and satisfy the most basic needs of his people for food and water. What more could the Israelites want? Yet each new miracle brings a new complaint. When the imperial army is approaching, the people tell Moses that they preferred oppression under Pharaoh to death in the desert (Exod 14.12), and then God intervenes and the waters of the Reed Sea were parted. When they start their journey into the wilderness, they decide that they preferred the meat in Egypt to starvation (16.3), so the Lord provides manna and quail. And then here in ch.17, they start to wonder whether God is really with them, because they are suffering thirst. So many needs, so many divine interventions, so little satisfaction. And Moses is stuck in the middle: the extraordinary leader with so much power, yet so little power actually to fulfil the needs of his people. They’re like a leaking jug: the more you try to fill it up, the more it just leaks out the bottom. Little wonder, that in another version of this story about getting water from a rock, Moses loses his cool (this other version is found in Numbers 20).
Human needs seem to be just insatiable, or more precisely, there are certain kinds of needs which, if we let them be the focus of our lives, will never lead to fulfilment. They might be real needs – to be free of political oppression, to have adequate food and water – but the Bible often suggests that there are even more basic needs which only God can fulfil. And so there are certain kinds of leaders who might appear to deal with human needs and aspirations, but they cannot ultimately address this deeper level of reality. Even Moses, who is in constant touch with God, and who can turn water to blood and rocks to water, has his limits. The parallel story in Numbers 20 implies that Moses misused his own power and distracted the people from seeing their ultimate dependence on God; it becomes unclear whether it is God providing the water, or Moses himself.
Our Gospel narrative from Matthew 21 also relates to this question of what leaders can deliver. The chief priests and elders are questioning the authority of Jesus, and Jesus responds by asking them an embarrassing question about John the Baptist – the man who distinguished himself by calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a ‘brood of vipers’ (Matt 3.7). John’s critique seems to have achieved enough popular support that the priests and elders in Matthew 21 could not risk any comment on John. Our Christian prejudice might lead us to enjoy an attack on Jewish leaders, without considering that the Pharisees might well have provided the best examples of moral leadership available at the time. And the weaknesses of any particular Pharisee may be no more, and no less, significant than the weaknesses of any particular Christian leader today. If we were to follow a popular view recently expressed in the media, for example, the current revelations of sexual abuse in the Church would mean that Christian leaders have no moral power left. It would be a mistake to believe that the power of God is revealed especially in strong moral leaders, whether they’re Pharisees or Christian ministers.
In our reading from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that collaborators (tax collectors in the traditional translations) and prostitutes will be going into the kingdom ahead of those who just talk about righteousness. The second son in the parable is perhaps to be seen as a bit of a Pharisee – a little too much given to verbal displays of righteousness. He agrees to go to the vineyard, but then doesn’t do what he says. And the first son – the one who doesn’t always do or say the right thing – is apparently more like the marginalized tax collectors and prostitutes.
So, for example, what does a prostitute have that a Pharisee doesn’t? A sex-worker in St Kilda might have a healthy skepticism about clients who, in their public lives, put on the appearance of moral superiority. In this respect at least, a prostitute might agree with John the Baptist that it is not wise to invest too much trust in people who claim to be moral leaders. But the point here is not just that we need to find better leaders; the point is that no human leader will ultimately fulfil the deepest needs of our soul. Not even Moses. Not even Old Testament scholars.
Another aspect of the parable in Matthew 21 is that the father has no coercive power over his sons. And this raises another question about what a leader can deliver. Think of those powers of destruction and creation which we attribute to great leaders. A prime minister can take us to war; a philosopher can take us to new analytical depths; Shakespeare can stun us with creativity; and Nelson Mandela can inspire us with his moral power. But none of them can generate the love of God, because this love, like any other genuine love, cannot be wielded or manipulated. And the power of God, unlike human power, is revealed most profoundly in love.
This, in effect, is what the poetry in Philippians 2 is saying. Jesus reveals God’s character to us by emptying himself of both cosmic and worldly power: ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’ (2.5-7a). His death on a cross can be understood as a consistent expression of this vulnerability.
Some of Paul’s argument in Philippians 2 sounds a bit like another lecture on Christians being morally superior, but that is not the core issue. If we are to follow Jesus, and to be as vulnerable as he was, then we cannot rest secure in any human power, not even moral power. This suggests perhaps another reason why Jesus preferred prostitutes to Pharisees: a sex worker is more likely to have a clearer sense of what it is to be vulnerable. I’m not saying that there is value in being weak for its own sake, but if anything provides us with a sense of security, it has the potential to lead us away from our ultimate dependence on God.
God’s power is not perfected in coercive force, not even in the coercive force which was used against the oppressive Egyptian army in the exodus experience. Nor is it perfected in the moral coerciveness which John the Baptist found in the Pharisees. We are not called to be falsely vulnerable, or to be blatantly immoral. But at the deepest level of our need, we are called to rest in the love and righteousness of God, which can never be forced. In this sense, the power of God is made perfect in weakness (cf. 2 Cor 12.9).