- Exodus: 17: 1-7
Just three days after their miraculous delivery from slavery, God’s people start to “murmur” against their leaders about the lack of water (Ex 15: 22ff); just two months later, they “murmured” about the scarcity of food and water (Ex 16: 1ff); and now in today’s reading they “dispute” with Moses, again, about the lack of water. This time Moses fears for his life. But the Lord instructs Moses to “pass” in front of the people with some elders, carrying the “staff with which you struck the Nile…” with the foreknowledge that the Lord is about to enable Moses to strike “the rock in Horeb” and “water will come out of it and the people will drink.” When this spectacular display of God’s goodness happened, Moses named the place “Testing and Dispute” or “Massah and Meribah,” “for the disputation of the Israelites, and for the testing of the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord in our midst or not?”
- Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16
The psalmist declares that he will rhapsodize the history of God’s “wonders,” for the next and all future generations, including the incident when Moses “split” the rock in the wilderness and the Lord brought forth water “like rivers….”
- Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-32
When life is not fair, is it a result of our action, the actions of our parents (or some others) or of God? Through Ezekiel, God informs that each person knows the consequences of her or his decisions– not others, no one else. With this admission: “Turn and live.”
- Psalm 25: 1-8
Painfully aware of his “youthful offenses” and “past crimes,” the psalmist calls for God’s mercy as he “lifts his heart [nefesh].” According to Robert Alter, the Hebrew noun nefesh means my “essential self.”
- Philippians 2: 1-15
Paul identifies ideal traits of the community of believers: “encouragement in Christ,” “love,” “sharing in the Spirit,” “compassion and sympathy,” “humility.” In vv 6-11, he seems to quote an existing hymn which celebrates the paradox that Jesus did not exploit his status but “emptied himself.” Within this community of believers, each person should emulate Jesus in her or his own unique, personal way: “Work out you own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God at work in you.”
- Matthew 21: 23-32
While all three synoptic gospel narratives include this story of conflict about “authority” between Jesus and the “chief priests and elders” soon after he enters Jerusalem and the Temple grounds, only Matthew continues with a scathing story. When challenged about his authority, Jesus responds that after they answer a question he has for them, he will respond to their questioning. Who gave John the Baptizer his authority, Jesus asks his inquisitors. Was John’s authority from “heaven” or was it “human?” The religious leaders confer among themselves: if they say John’s authority came from “heaven,” then Jesus will ask them why they did not regard John as a prophet when he was alive; if they say “human,” they risk the anger of the people, who had come to regard John as a “prophet.” Finally they answer Jesus: “We do not know.” “Neither will I tell you by what authority” I do what I do, Jesus responds. Jesus launches into a story about “a man who had two sons” and asks the religious leaders what they think of his story. The father told the first son to go and tend the vineyard “today.” He first responded by saying no, but later went and did as his father had told him to do. The father went to his second son with the same command. At first he said he would go, but actually did not. “Which of the two did the will of the father?” They answered, “the first.” Then Jesus confronted them harshly: “tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you,” ” because they responded to John the Baptizer and you did not.” Even after you saw God’s work through John, “you did not change your minds and believe him.”
These readings, psalms and especially today’s gospel remind that questioning God can actually result in exposing the questioner to her or his own nature. In the first alternative reading from the Hebrew scriptures, Moses ends up establishing a site to memorialize humankind’s habit of quarreling with God. Specifically on that occasion the burning question was: “if the Lord is in our midst or not?” In the excerpt from Matthew’s gospel, the ordained and credentialed religious leaders who had doubted John the Baptizer, still disbelieving even after they saw God at work in him, now question Jesus. Our questions about God have the habit of turning the tables on us and we become the object of inquiry.
Martin Heidegger considered the way our “essential selves,” to use Robert Alter’s translation of “heart” in Psalm 25, get exposed in times of crises. He began his defining work, Being and Time with a distinction between “averageness” and “authenticity.” Averageness, he wrote, is the superficial knowledge of ourselves, especially as we cultivate an image in relationships and society, including our roles, titles, credentials, and status. Authenticity, which can be translated as “mineness” and “ownedness,” includes our raw unfinished self. Crises can expose our real selves. The ultimate crisis for human beings is, of course, death. But other loses throughout life can jolt us out of our “averageness.” Such crises, Heidegger wrote, can have consequential results. He writes that we can “own” our true self– or at least as best as we can to “chose” and to “win” our true self; but we can also lose and “never win” our true self. (p. 68)
In biblical texts, God’s appearance generally initiates a crisis. God’s people in the wilderness wondered if God was with them or not. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day knew that the appearance of John the Baptizer and now Jesus were disruptive to their own status and self-image. They had failed to recognize God at work through John and now they were repeating the same mistake. They were on the way to loosing their true selves, to use Heidegger’s language, or to missing out on God’s reign while “tax collectors and prostitutes” entered in their place, to use the bracing words of Jesus. The whole rest of the story of the Israelites is a story of a people who sometimes did and other times did not recognize God’s presence and allied themselves with it or did not and the consequences for their “true selves,” individually and collectively. The story about Jesus reaches its climax when various individuals and human institutions succeed or, more frequently, fail to see God at work in one so radially committed to including any and all in God’s love and passion for justice.
Crises disrupt and expose. In the most general existential sense, each person experiences doubt and loss. According to Heidegger, that is when we are more likely to discover our “true selves.” When we turn our accusations/questions to God, the tables get turned and the question becomes, who we really are. Now, Paul’s admonition becomes very serious: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The saying of Jesus in today’s gospel is bracing; those who had all the advantages to know where God was at work and the privileged roles, titles, credentials and authority to lead others (it was their image in society and deeply embedded in their self-image) did, in fact, give up their place in God’s kingdom to “tax collectors and prostitutes,” who could have no illusions about themselves. This business of “authenticity” plays a crucial role in biblical texts, especially when a person is face to face with God at work around us in some person(s) or in some way we would be wise to seek, recognize and become an ally. It might be someone we would not have thought of initially. (“Tax collectors and prostitutes ” could more easily understand and participate in God’s reign, after all!) “Testing” and “dispute” with God reveal ourselves to ourselves. It is a lifetime’s journey.