I wonder if you’re a fan of the BBC programme “Who do you think you are?”, as I am. It’s been an unexpected hit for the BBC, with 15 series so far, starting many people on a journey to find out more about their family trees. But the title’s an interesting one, because it implies that at least part of the hook is the search not for our ancestors, but for ourselves. It’s not called “who do you think they were?” but “who do you think you are?” It’s based on the premise that we’re all shaped by those who’ve gone before us, whether through genetics or the way their life choices and the things that happened to them have affected future generations. The subjects of the show often seem to find ancestors who were, say, in show business, or were political movers and shakers like they are. “That must be where I get it from,” they say.
It's tempting to look backwards to explain ourselves, whether that’s basking in past family glories, or blaming our parents or grandparents or even more distant ancestors for what’s not so good in our lives. The people who wrote the Bible knew that too. They saw that people’s lives were often affected by what previous generations had done. In the Old Testament reading, Ezekiel quotes what was obviously a well-known proverb. “The fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”.
The Israelites were in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had been destroyed and people thought it was a punishment from God for their nation’s faithlessness. But it was the current generation and their children, born in exile, who were suffering, not those who’d been in power in the old nation. They believed they were doomed from the start, because of the sins of their forefathers.
But Ezekiel challenges that view. Everyone’s responsible for themselves, he says. The past doesn’t have to define the future. God wants to give them “a new heart and a new spirit”, to take them in a new direction.
The Gospel reading talks about origins and destinations too – where people have come from and where they are going to. It was the last week of Jesus life. He’d ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, in a deliberately provocative gesture which echoed ancient prophecies about the Messiah, God’s chosen one, who would bring liberation to his people. Ordinary folk had flocked to him then, as they had done in Galilee, especially those who were on the margins; the poor, the outcasts, prostitutes and tax-collectors who were shunned because they were seen as collaborators with the Roman occupying force.
In this passage Jesus is in the Temple courtyard teaching, and word has reached the Temple authorities that a crowd is gathering - always a danger sign in the powder keg that was Jerusalem. “Who do you think you are?” they ask Jesus. Who has given him authority to teach here, in the place which was at the heart of their faith and their nation’s life? Jesus doesn’t come from one of the leading families – like every society, power and authority tended to be hogged by those who had been brought up to it and Jewish priesthood was hereditary. He’s just a carpenter from the Galilean backwater town of Nazareth. What right has he to speak as if he’s speaking for God? And look at the kind of people he’s attracting! The dregs of society. What’s the point of that? What use will they be in God’s kingdom?
Jesus isn’t fazed, though. By what authority did John the Baptist baptize? he asks. John, was still regarded as an important popular figure, although he’d been beheaded by King Herod. If they diss him, the crowd will have their guts for garters. But if they admit that John spoke God’s word, and did God’s work, why hasn’t his challenging message changed their lives? Why didn’t they speak up for him at the time? They can’t win. They know they’ve been bested by this man, carpenter’s son though he is.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, says Jesus, essentially. It’s not where we come from that matters, but where we are going, not our past, whatever failures it might contain, but what we do now and in the future. He tells a little story about two sons, one who says he won’t work in his father’s vineyard, but does it anyway, the other who says he will, but doesn’t. Which one of the two does his father’s will? Which one acts as a true son, part of the family, taking on the family work? The first, of course. He might have looked a bit dodgy, and sounded disrespectful, but he was the one who did the work in the end.
Looking good, having the right credentials, the right family background is neither here nor there, says Jesus. Whatever our family background, whatever our past, whatever we’ve done, whatever has happened to us, is irrelevant. “Truly, I tell you, the tax-collectors and prostitutesare going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” he says to those who are challenging him. Prostitution and tax-collecting for an oppressive power weren’t career choices anyone would have made willingly if they had any other option. They are signs that life has gone badly wrong for these people, and probably many of them were the product of cycles of deprivation in their families going back generations. Their lives seemed blighted from the outset, as if they’d never amount to anything. But they’ve found something in Jesus - love, hope, a sense of calling – and they’ve accepted it, seized it, stepped out into a new future with him. The kingdom of God is at work in them. They are already part of it. They’ve already entered it. Their lives are being made new as they learn to love and be loved, to serve others, to spread the hope they have received. Like the first son in the parable, they might have looked like unlikely material – just as Jesus himself did to the sceptical religious elites - but they’re what the kingdom of God is being made of.
These are readings which challenge us all. It’s very easy to assume that the past determines the future, for ourselves and for others. Of course, there’s a certain comfort in that. It can be easier to blame our ancestors for the situation we’re in than take responsibility for our own lives and futures, our own homegrown faults and failings. If we say “it’s not where you come from, but where you are going to that matters” then we have to actually set off in a new direction, put one foot in front of the other, start the journey, and that can feel like hard work, more of a challenge than we want. It’s easy to write others off too, to assume they’re not going to amount to anything, that they’ll never change. But when we do that, we miss the chance of finding God at work in them, that little patch of his kingdom which they have entered into while we are sitting looking down our noses at them.
These readings call us to take another look, at ourselves and at others. Who do we think we are? Who do we think others are? And perhaps even more important than that, who does God think we are? Beloved children – that’s for sure – each and every one of us.