Proper 21 Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 Psalms 25:1-8 Philippians 2:1-13 Matthew 21:23-32
The teacher asked her Sunday school class, “Can anyone tell me why we call what we sit on in church a pew?” Billy raised his hand. “Because sitting there next to your sister for a whole hour stinks.”
Kids, you got to love them! We know from today’s gospel reading that sons are very capable of acting differently. Clearly, we know someone like this family; it is drawn from common life. That doesn’t mean that they lived next door to Jesus any more than the prodigal father and his two sons did. We hear Jesus over and over again describing a common experience and relating it to God’s kingdom.
Politics and truth get mixed up in his passage, and the truth does not come out very well. The question from the authorities is not coming from a place of truth-seeking, but from a place of political power. The Gospel of Matthew makes it clear: the authority of Jesus comes from God. But to give this answer invites the Roman authorities to move against this political threat. So, instead, Jesus turns the question around: how do the critics make sense of John the Baptist? The result is a tie (for now).
But it sets the scene for the parable of two sons. When it comes to the reign of God, those who should know don’t live it, and those who don’t know end up living it. It is those who are excluded – it is the multitude – who are getting it right: those who have most expertise in the Torah are not getting it right at all.
The encounter between Jesus and the religious leaders has a certain flavor. They have come to trap Jesus with a question about the source of his authority. It’s a dangerous situation. Jesus avoids the trap and turns the tables on the religious leaders with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” It is a thorny question, because the answer concerns not only John, but Jesus himself. In making a commitment about John’s authority, the religious leaders would also make a commitment about John’s witness to Jesus – and to Jesus’ authority.
So, the interviewee becomes the interviewer; the one questioned becomes the questioner. Jesus not only avoids the question, but he puts it back on them. His question not only outwits the religious leaders; it also unmasks their deepest priorities and concerns. They really are not so interested in Jesus’ true identity or discovering how God would have them respond to Jesus. It is all about their privilege and power. That’s what concerns them. It’s about keeping the current order in place; they will have Jesus in their tidy little box or not at all. After Jesus’ question, the religious leaders are left speechless.
But Jesus doesn’t let up. With everything off balance, Jesus launches into a parable, asks another question and asserts that faithful tax collectors and prostitutes will enter heaven before they will. It’s not about power and prestige. I can imagine the scribes and elders standing there in disbelief - shocked, stunned, angry. They are struggling to understand.
Then he tells them about the two sons. The first child is honest. “No way, I don’t want to! Why do I have to do everything around here? You’ve ruined my life. I’m so tired.” A little later, with nothing good on television, bored with video games, and all his friends are at the mall, he decides he might as well go to the vineyard and help out. The second son responds respectfully, “I go, sir.” Polite, manipulative, but what does he really do? Nothing. The contrast between the words and the deeds, reflects a change of mind, if not heart, between one and the other.
The question asked, “Which of the two did the will of the father?” answers itself because only one of the two did anything. At this point I can imagine Jesus’ audience nodding their heads in approval. You can see the wheels in their heads turning, processing all that they have heard. No grandstanding and showboating for them. They aren’t like those who want to look like they are doing God’s will; they are the ones who actually do it. Hey, maybe this Jesus isn’t so bad after all.
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” What! That’s outrageous! Maybe prophets and priests get to go in before us, but not greedy traitors and harlots! This Jesus fellow is worse than we thought. Somebody’s got to do something.
Exactly. Do something. We saw at the end of the last chapter that Judgment Day is not going to involve medals and resumés, but showing the dirt under our fingernails. Showing the sweat on our faces as we do something to further the Kingdom of God on this earth. We ae the laborers in the vineyard. We are reminded that the kingdom of God is not about words, but about actions.
But don’t we feel more comfortable with words than actions? Isn’t that what we do with God. We talk, we rationalize. Oh, yes, I’ll do it because I know that I should and then never get around to it because my hearts not in it. In Jesus’ world, as in ours, people looked for the outward sign of authority – education, position, title, connections. But Jesus’ authority came from who he is, not from any outward and superficial trappings. As followers of Jesus, God has given us authority – we can confidently speak and act on his behalf because he has authorized us.
The Pharisees demanded to know where Jesus got his authority. If Jesus said his authority came from God, they would accuse him of blasphemy. If he said that he was acting on his own authority, the crowds would be convinced that the Pharisees had the greater authority. But Jesus answered them with a seemingly unrelated question that exposed their motives. They didn’t really want an answer to their question; they only wanted to trap him. Jesus showed that the Pharisees wanted the truth only if it supported their own views and causes.
In the parable, the son who said he would obey and then he didn’t, represented the nation of Israel in Jesus’ day. They said they wanted to do God’s will, but they constantly disobeyed. They were insincere, just going through the motions. It is dangerous to pretend to obey God when our hearts are far from him. God knows our true intentions. Our actions must match the intentions of our heart.
Such are the consequences when we engage with Jesus, when we engage with the honesty in our hearts. Jesus is not interested in conversations about the meaning of life. Rather, he always confronts us with the issue of his identity and the call to faith in him. Through his question about John, Jesus actually asks the central question of the Gospels: “Who do you say that I am?” He doesn’t beat around the bush. He wants our lives, and he will do whatever it takes to unmask our misguided priorities and call us to faith in him. We do not begin by interviewing Jesus, but by believing in him and following him. In the process, the world is turned upside down, prostitutes and tax collectors lead the heavenly parade, and privileged religious leaders are left with spinning heads and silent voices.
So with words and deeds we go forth. Will we be the voice for the voiceless? Will we acknowledge injustice and strive to make things better? We will not turn a blind eye, because we are too tired, or too rushed, or too indifferent. What touches our hearts that inspire us to do something?
Jesus wants us to be honest with ourselves, to look into our hearts and truly know who Jesus is for us…..to know beyond a shadow of doubt, who God is for us. Jesus will not be tricked and so we must not be. We are not to be tricked by our own ideas of righteousness. To believe John and Jesus is to walk in the way of righteousness in both words and deeds. We are called to be someone and to do something when we call ourselves followers of Jesus. I love the motto for the Daughters of the King, a prayer and service group says it all.. I am but one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do. Lord, what will you have me do?
Questions at the heart of words and deeds involve awareness. Faith is about being honest with ourselves, being honest with God. What causes us to change our minds, our hearts, like the first son? What allows us to be broken open so there is more room for God within us? What blocks us from allowing ourselves to be changed? Take an honest look……Amen.