a sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21A/Lectionary 26]
Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13
When I hear Jesus tell this parable about the two sons responding to their father’s request to go work in the vineyard, I feel like it’s speaking directly to me and how I’ve responded to different things over these months of pandemic. I have had all kinds good intentions but my follow-through hasn’t always been very good. We badly need to replace or repair our mailbox post at home, for example, and six months ago I told my own father I’d work on it, and he even made me part of a new post to help out, but it still stands there about to fall to the ground. Back in the early summer Hanne, our church administrative assistant, asked me to help her complete a project on funeral information that she’s been working on for several years now and I said, “Yes,” but guess where that file is right now: on my desk underneath a bunch of other half-done projects.
Perhaps the example of this I feel the most remorse about is the fact that I have been telling Council and other people in the congregation that I’d be happy to lead a book discussion on the topic of racism in the United States but as of now Pastor Joseph and I still haven’t put anything on the calendar or decided what that’s going to look like. We’ve been publicizing this idea since July, and I have at least read a potential book on the topic, but I’m still just not able to commit to a time or a format. Each week that goes by I think, the congregation knows I’ve said, “Yes” to this but in reality, like that second son, I’m just shirking my responsibility.
Have you struggled with this, too, not just during the pandemic but in life in general? Have you set goals for yourself or maybe consented to others’ requests but still haven’t checked those things off your list? In the parable Jesus gives us no indication why the second son never shows up in the vineyard. Maybe he never had an intention of going and he was just giving his father lip service. But maybe he just got distracted or overcommitted elsewhere. Maybe he thought about the realities of actually working in the vineyard and got cold feet.
In the end it doesn’t matter, because Jesus doesn’t tell this parable as a lesson about our To-Do lists, however noble they may be. Jesus uses this parable to illustrate for the chief priests and the elders the differing responses to his own authority. To give a bit of background, it may help to know that something really, really big has happened just before this gospel reading. Since June we’ve been steadily making our way through Matthew’s gospel and in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem where he knows he’s going to be handed over to the chief priests and authorities and be killed. In this morning’s gospel passage Jesus is finally there. The day he comes into the city he rides a donkey and all the ordinary people wave palm branches and shouted with excitement and hope that their new king has arrived. And just like if someone in this country wanted to go address the powers-that-be would head to Capitol Hill or the White House, Jesus heads to the temple, the epicenter of his Jewish religion.
He creates a bit of a stir. First he drives the money changers out and then he starts teaching there, drawing crowds. When he winds back up at the temple the next day the religious leaders immediately want to know just who does he think he is? Jesus presence in the temple and the kind of things he is doing—and the kind of energy he is kicking up among the people—are new things to deal with, and the people in charge, the religious leaders, are trying to figure out how to respond.
I have a friend who tells me the story of when her three children were all very young. They have an attic in their house that is accessed through a hole cut in the ceiling. You pull on a cord and down falls this wood hatch and a set of collapsible steps. Lots of houses have these, but it was a source of wonder and mystery to her three children. Her oldest, who was quite the storyteller and had a vivid imagination, had told the younger ones that there were ghosts up there and that mom and dad kept a creature up there. One day during a birthday party she came around the corner to find the hatch opened and the steps all the way on the ground. Concerned for their safety, she immediately climbed up the stairs to find the kids all huddled in the dark over by the edge of a window. “Get down from here right now, boys and girls!” she ordered.
“But, mom,” one of them responded, “we are looking for the ghosts and the creature up here.”
She explained emphatically, and with all the pleading authority of a caring, logical adult, that there were no ghosts, that there were no creatures and that there was nothing of any interest to them in the attic. At first, there was silence from the kids, and then one of the younger ones pointed to the eldest and said, “We believe him.”
The chief priests and elders are in a predicament. The steps have been pulled down and a new experience of God has been opened, first in John the Baptist, but now in Jesus. And people are believing them rather than the figures in the temple. How do to they respond? Do these leaders believe John, whose message was one of repentance, of having their minds and hearts changed to receive Jesus as God’s anointed One? Or do the chief priests and elders maintain their distance? Do they trust Jesus teachings on God’s kingdom and where that will take them, or do they shut the door and go with their status quo experience of religion? They don’t want to buck their religious safety, but they also don’t want to make the crowds angry. I think we’ve all felt the tension between doing a bold new thing that speaks of justice and peace or continuing along with the powers that be. The ministries of John and Jesus are both kind of tied together and Jesus is causing the people to figure out how they will respond.
And then Jesus tells this short parable about the two sons who have to decide how they’ll respond to their father’s request to work in the vineyard. The scenario involves a few more layers than we might understand from our modern angle. To say “No” to a father figure in Jesus’ time was a big deal. It was an insult to the father and a violation of the fourth commandment. The first son, by responding “no,” was doing something deeply offensive to his parents and to the whole system of power and authority in ancient Israel. No one would have liked that first son, even after he went and changed his mind. The second son would have shown honor due his father by agreeing to work in the vineyard. He would have saved public face and looked good to everyone, even if in the end he didn’t follow through.
This parable would have really challenged Jesus’ hearers. In fact, we know it challenged them because this parable is written down three very different ways in the oldest manuscripts we have of the gospel of Matthew. The idea of a son rejecting his father’s request was so offensive that it’s almost like original audiences couldn’t imagine that Jesus would find him to be the hero, and so in some versions of the Bible they changed it to the second son. Religious people couldn’t imagine that that first son, in doing something so disrespectful, could even, with a change of heart, be the one who did the will of the father.
In fact, it’s kind of like being unable to imagine that people like tax collectors and prostitutes are hearing Jesus’ and John’s message and responding to his grace better than the really religious folks. And yet that is precisely who Jesus says are entering the kingdom of God ahead of the religious authorities. Tax collectors and prostitutes are basically representative labels for sinners in general—those people who have, for whatever reason lived in ways and done things that are deeply offensive to God’s righteous ways. Sinners are like that first son who rejected the father’s commandment but now, through a change of heart, a change of mind come to respond to God’s call in Jesus.
It’s not anything that new. God has always been about seeking and loving the people who are lost, the ones who are the least. Jesus is just bringing that into sharper view again. The issue is that some people are better at recognizing that God is present in the life and love of Jesus before the religious experts are, and those are the people on the edges. They are the people who’ve been routinely sidelined and overlooked and oppressed. They recognize mercy when they see it. And they love its authority in their lives. It is an authority that values them. It is an authority that gives them another chance. It’s an authority that bestows them with freedom and honor. It is an authority that makes them heirs of the kingdom. This is the authority that Jesus wields.
Several weeks ago Robin Beres, a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote an article that generated a lot of buzz. Titled, “Do We Really Want to Give up on God?” the article argues that declining participation and membership in churches and communities of faith in America is a bad thing. She touts several statistics about the benefit of religion and worship on personal well-being and things like the rates of volunteerism. A few letters to the editor took her to task for saying this, arguing that religion was outdated or that church services need to be streamlined. It was a very interesting back and forth, and I’m thankful that a member of the congregation painstakingly cut all of them out and sent them to me so that I could read them. As the discussion over religion and its proper place played out in the pages of the paper during the weeks that followed, only one of the letters to the editor mentioned Jesus Christ by name. In a very succinct and articulate statement, our own Joel McKean, former council president explained that the focus on the cross has the power to change lives, and that is the focus of our faith.
There in the pages of our local paper was a profound and beautiful example of responding to the authority of Christ, explaining that God’s grace has a power over our lives that can’t be described by science or defined by philosophy. The issue of authority is a very tricky topic these days. We don’t really know which sources of news to trust anymore, which talking heads are being truthful and loving with us. We can have different experiences with religion and religious figures, some helpful, others not so much. But Jesus authority is something we can be sure of and respond to. It calls us and forgives us. It loves us and gives us gifts for service. His authority leaves the door of the vineyard open so that when we have that change of heart, when we find ourselves led to a new beginning, we will be able to come inside and work the fields of our Father. I would hope that if I were given the public opportunity to respond to God’s grace, I could name Jesus with the grace and confidence that Joel did.
And here’s the thing: while our witness and discipleship might come down to where we stand concerning Jesus and his message, we know ultimately our life and our worth comes down to where Jesus stands toward us. And he stands toward us in love. Our eternal life is in the hands of the crucified and risen One. Jesus has opened that hatch, that staircase, and descended from the tops of the mystery to be with us down here. He has emptied himself completely, never exploiting his equality with God, and he has handed himself over to not just any death, but a death on the cross, mocked and disregarded by all. Jesus’ authority is like an anti-authority, never seizing power, but always giving it up. Never demanding allegiance, but always inviting us to join his journey.
And one day, we are promised, every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess and every letter to the editor of the entire universe will proclaim him Lord of all. And we will point to him with confidence and say, “I believe Him.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.