Proper 16, Year A: Exodus 17:1-7, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
In some ways this morning, we’re getting more of the same. “Another Sunday, another parable,” you might be thinking. And not only that but another parable about a field or a vineyard. And not only another parable about a vineyard but about working in that vineyard. Remember last week’s parable where people were hired at all different times to go work in the field and then in a surprise ending that made many outraged, Jesus said that the owner paid them all the same wage no matter how many hours they’d put in. Because that that was how the kingdom worked. Well now today, the parables itself is a little more obvious in terms of the ending, but the impact was actually the same – outrage. And so before we go into the story, I want us to explore the setting a bit.
First of all there was really kind of a funny beginning to this gospel passage. Did you catch that? Before we got to the point of the parable, Jesus entered the Temple, and as he entered, he was teaching people, which all seemed sort of unremarkable at first. But before Jesus could even settle in, the chief priests and elders came to him and immediately asked him a somewhat accusatory question. And then Jesus immediately asked them a question back. And then while Jesus stood waiting, the chief priests and elders huddled together, debated how to answer Jesus and finally decided that “We don’t know” was the best they could do. To which Jesus said something like, “Well if you’re not going to answer me then I’m not going to answer you.” And then he told them the parable.
So what was that all about? There’s so much that doesn’t seem quite right in that. Where were the greeters when Jesus entered the Temple? Where was the handshake? The “good morning” or “good afternoon,” or the “nice to see you?” What a rude welcome to a place of worship. Before Jesus could even get his foot in the door they were confronting him. And then while we’re at it, why was Jesus so indirect and sort of evasive in his response to their questioning of him? It doesn’t exactly seem like the respectful dialogue or even reflective listening that one would expect from the Savior of the world. It just seemed to go downhill so quickly on everyone’s part which is not particularly impressive if you ask me, considering that the players involved were religious leaders and the Christ himself.
It just doesn’t make sense. So let’s take another step back and see how we got here.
If we back up a few verses in Matthew, it helps a bit. Because it turns out that the setting was already a hard one, harder than we’d know from just pulling this passage out by itself and reading its few verses. Just a day or so before this interaction in the temple Jesus had entered into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Followers of Jesus had shouted as they waved branches of palm in the air. Jesus was being hailed as king and the tensions around him had risen just about to the breaking point in Jerusalem so this parable’s actually told during the peak of the whole gospel story, the point at which Jesus had a large and significant following and when tensions were at their absolute highest. And so the questions from religious leaders that day reflected those tensions which is why they were coming at him with such intensity and even a bit of a threat.
It also helps to know that the first thing that Jesus had done when he entered Jerusalem, the day before the one we heard about in today’s gospel, the first thing he’d done was to visit the temple. So today’s story is actually his second visit there. And so on that first visit, he might have been greeted, offered a handshake but then Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers while shouting quotes from Jeremiah who prophesied about the temple’s destruction. So it’s no surprise really that the greeters had run for cover when Jesus came back this time. And it’s no surprise that the temple authorities didn’t roll out the red carpet in welcome.
And then to top it off the tensions that is (as if they needed topping) all of this took place around the Passover – so the city and the temple were packed – the Roman authorities were on high alert and the religious leaders were looking to put their best face forward. The religious leaders were prepared to serve their people but they were also trying very, very hard to make all appearances of being a calm and peaceful people so that they wouldn’t suffer at the hands of the secular authorities that ruled over them.
And so one of the things at the heart of this story is that the Temple leaders believed that they could not afford the kind of unrest that accompanied Jesus. The last thing they needed was someone who was being heralded as King turning over tables and stirring up the passions of the people, because the secular king who ruled over them would only react to that with force. And so, the Temple leaders in all likelihood believed that they were in their actions, actually protecting their people.
So this moment in the gospel wasn’t Jesus sitting on a peaceful hillside telling a story. And this wasn’t just a random day of worship on which a guest walked through the doors of the sanctuary. The stakes and tensions were very high before this passage even opened and so, the question that the priests and elders asked came in that context, “Just who do you think you are?” There was a lot of pressure on these leaders so they wanted to know who had given this guy the right to come in and completely disrupt the temple scene during what was in their minds anyway, and for the sake of their people, the worst possible time for something like that to happen.
And so they asked Jesus, “By whose authority are you doing all of this?” and then Jesus did what Jesus had been doing all along; and (just for the record) he had learned this method from the chief priests and elders themselves. He responded to their question with more questions.
And when the leaders responded, “Well, we don’t know.” Jesus told them a story:
A man had two sons and he went to both of them and told them to go work in the fields. And the first son said he wouldn’t go, but then later he changed his mind and did go and work. The second son, however, told his father that he would go into the fields but he never did. “So which of these two sons,” Jesus asked them, “did the will of their father?”
And unlike some parables, this one had an easy answer. “The first one,” they said. Which is obvious, right? It wasn’t what each son said that had mattered it was each son eventually did that mattered. And thank goodness they answered that way, because maybe for a moment or two there was some relief on the scene. And maybe this rebellious, so-called Messiah would key it down for a while and at least let them get through the week.
But Jesus wasn’t done yet, because his role wasn’t just to relieve tensions, it was to bring about a larger scale transformation and that’s a huge part of this story. Jesus pressed on with the already uncomfortable conversation and he did it with a direct hit – he told the chief priests and elders that they were actually the second brother in the story. They were the brother who “was not helping things,” the one whom nobody wanted to be. Right to their faces, Jesus told the chief priests and elders that they were the ones who said the right things, but weren’t actually doing the work that God was asking them to do.
And then Jesus added one final piece – he said that the tax collectors and prostitutes – the most outcast of the outcast – the most despised and least religious among them – would go into heaven ahead of them (not instead of them, catch that – but ahead of them which was bad enough.) And it was enough to send the chief priests and elders completely over the edge. And this whole exchange was probably enough – given everything else that was happening – to send Jesus to the cross.
And so this story is about a lot of things but I think primarily this is a story about how sometimes the Body of Christ needs to be that presence that agitates, that looks into the heart of a system that means well and pushes it over the edge, because the edges aren’t in the right places or they being used for the right purposes and are actually doing more harm than good. The painful irony here is that the leaders of the Temple were so intent on protecting their people by saying and doing the “right things,” that they themselves had essentially become barriers to God’s grace. And so my heart breaks for them in this story too.
And if you haven’t yet made connections to today’s world, I can help with that. Here’s just one example because there are so very many right now. It’s a parable for our day for sure.
The NFL of all organizations, led by many of its players and as of last week, some of its owners too has in some ways been turning over some tables in the temples of our society. Tensions are, as you might have noticed, high. Accusations and questions are being flung back and forth – in articles, on ESPN, in coffee houses, on twitter. . .
And “By what authority?” seems to be the question that rises to the top of the current shouting pile. By whose authority? The authority of the First Amendment? The authority of the flag? What does that even mean? The authority of individual conscience, of a professional league, of the President? And so then we have to ask what happens when very genuine, and (to give at least a majority of people involved the benefit of the doubt here,) what happens when very genuine, well-meaning responses to those questions clash and take us into the even deeper divides that we’re creating for ourselves?
Well either we continue to dig into those divides, or perhaps, we simply change the questions. Which is what Jesus did in this passage. Maybe the most productive (productive that is if we keep our eyes on the endgame of loving our neighbor) perhaps the most productive questions aren’t along the lines of “What time did you arrive in the field?” or “Who here has done more work or earned more rights?” Maybe the best questions aren’t along the lines that lead us only into shouting that my authority is bigger, stronger, faster – more holy, more right than yours is.
And so we need to shift. And the shift itself is a doozy but helping that happen is a part of the calling to which we have been called. Just for the sake of another approach, let’s try some of these: Why are you hurting? Why am I? What are you afraid of? What scares me? What is so meaningful to you that you risk your job, your life, the well-being of your family and take a knee in this very public arena? What is so meaningful to you that you risk your job, your life, the well-being of your family by taking on a call to serve this country? Why are we pretending the flag is the issue here?
My guess is that the answers to those kinds of questions if we answer them honestly don’t clash at all, nor do they divide us, just the opposite in fact. They might silence us temporarily because the answers to those kinds of questions come from a different and deeper place. And just like in this gospel story, we like Jesus, have to die a certain kind of death in order to be willing to ask them, let alone to engage one another in listening to ourselves and others respond. The answers themselves will change us.
And so for now like in this gospel story, we are living through days in which tables are being turned over, and some of them need to be. We are struggling to engage in a context in which tensions are high and accusatory questions flung at every turn. The good news is that while this is all so very hard, it’s not the worst thing that could happen to our temples. Sometimes our role as people of faith is to allow the agitations that need to surface, to surface. To name the barriers that hurt us and to name the ways in which we ourselves contribute systems that hurt others.
May we go into the vineyard today and in all the days that follow to do this work we have been given to do.