7th September 2014
The book of Ezekiel is an edition of prophecies from the time of the Exile: the 6th century when the chosen people of God had lost the land they believed He had given them and were mostly living in Babylon. A prophet there belonged to the priestly family and had experienced the worship of God in the grand Temple back in Jerusalem. He was a very intense and imaginative person, but just a ‘son of man’ as they used to say – a human like everyone else. The book records some very mystical experiences and some creative, parabolic stories. The depth of the theology of Ezekiel is remarkable. He considered God to be inaccessibly mysterious but that the marvel was that the impact of this characteristic of God on us was His unbelievable forgiveness and salvation for all. The extract we read today is one record of his multifaceted calling from God. In it he is not a prophet (one who speaks God’s words) but a watchman for the people. He was like those across the centuries posted in towers to alert people of danger and call for action. Like those in forests to spot fires, or those in the Peel towers during and after the Middle Ages to warn the borderers of Scotland and England of impending trouble. The few verses before our reading explain this purpose (33:1-6). As the psalm’s refrain says “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” .” But who watches out for us nowadays in our lives of faith; or should we be speaking out ourselves about the wrongdoing we know of?
Paul is writing this letter to Christians who had mostly converted from the Jewish religion and in consequence, perhaps, caused disturbance among the remaining Jews and to the Roman authorities. We know that there was religious trouble in the city of Rome under the emperor Claudius who took action against disturbances according to the historian of the time Suetonius, but we cannot be certain that the Christians whom Paul is addressing were the troublemakers. But here Paul is recommending respect for the legitimate civil leaders and makes the strong point about fulfilling the Jewish Law – the commandments; it draws on key passages from the Old Testament (e.g. Leviticus 19:18) and affirms that the practical expression of love for neighbour covers all that the commandments require.
In the gospel reading we detect again something of the nature of the Christian communities for whom Matthew is particularly writing. These communities are very much from a Jewish background similar to Matthew’s. This is in contrast to the writings of Paul the apostle to the Gentiles. What will jump out of this reading will be the use of the phrase “Gentile or tax collector,” to mean those people from whom you want to be dissociated; this reflects the very Jewish attitude of those living in a closed Jewish community. Yet in Matthew’s gospel he clearly indicates that this was not really the way Jesus regarded or treated people – it is just a turn of phrase used by Jews and here by a Christian Jew. Communities both religious and secular now and at that time, had ways of dealing with people who didn’t fit in; often these were quite harsh like excommunication but sometimes just marginalisation, as the well-off and ‘respectable’ people separate themselves from the ‘lower classes.’ In contrast to this the reading calls for the very caring and Christian practice that the church should have in dealing with interpersonal difficulties and ‘erring’ members. It reveals an interesting incipient understanding of the structure of the church. Whereas earlier Matthew alone of all the gospels has treated Peter as the one with the authority to bind and loose, here the same authority is given to the Christian communities addressed; there are not upper and lower classes. The passage concludes with the kernel of a deep theology of the presence of Christ in the church, when it says “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” If God is with us, how should we think and act and what should we determine to do?