Matthew 21.(23-27) 28-32 | Pentecost 17

John Michael Guiterrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ 29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

The Gospel of the Lord

The first year Sunday lectionary lessons after Pentecost have focused on episodes from Jesus’ ministry providing us a compass in the direction of discipleship. As this lectionary year draws to a close, the Sunday lessons will feature Jesus’ most recognized teaching form – the parable. The point of view in Matthew’s selections gives us glimpses of Jesus’ thoughts about the transforming nature of the Kingdom at work in Israel, in the believing community and in the world. 

The literary/theological context for this morning’s parable begins in chapter 21 with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. It is set into the unfolding events that lead to his crucifixion.  Upon his arrival, Jesus made his way to the Temple where, in a messianic act, confronting the corruption, he flipped the tables of the money changers declaring the Temple to be a “den of robbers” no longer a “house of prayer for all peoples”. Note carefully, he is not arrested so he leaves the city to stay the night in the village Bethany

The next day, Jesus returns to the scene of yesterday’s unpleasantness.  Vs. 23 begins the context for our Gospel lesson. The Temple’s leadership, Chief Priests, Elders, ask Jesus the money question “By what authority have you done this in the Temple?”  The real questions they’re asking: “What right do you have to interfere with the Temple’s financial base and rulers”? and “Are you really claiming to be the Messiah”?  If this Galilean country bumpkin is going to engage in messianic actions, then he had better be able to prove that he has the authority. They’re ever so sure he can’t provide it, so they try to force him to make claims he can’t substantiate. 

Jesus moves the authority conversation to first and goal, asking about John the baptizer: “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from the Lord, or of human origin?” (vs. 25). Before his imprisonment and murder (ch. 14.1-12), John had been preaching a message of repentance and baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins (ch. 3.1-5). John was calling for humility.  Repentance is a visible “about face”, an obvious “change in direction”, an act of reorientation in the Sinai Covenant’s geography. And note this development, his message and baptism only set the stage. Something more powerful was on its way: a cleansing/filling/washing by the Spirit (ch. 3.11-12). In this Second Temple period both these ‘charismatic’ experiences were clearly outside the control of religious authorities.

Jesus’ redirected question puts the officials in line for considerable religious/political/financial embarrassment. On the one hand, cleansing ritual was ordinarily in the hands of the Temple’s priests. While there was technically nothing covenantally wrong with John’s ministry, in the eyes of the priestly elite, it amounted to a maverick enterprise. On the other hand, the question trades on the popular regard for John. It suggests there is something lacking in the Temple’s teaching/practices, something questionable.

So over their shoulders we don’t hear them discuss a genuine answer, only cost-benefit calculations:“If we say, ‘From the Lord,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we’re afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet”. (vs. 25b-26).  Clearly the costs are high. The problem is the Templars are not prepared to entertain that Jesus’ messianic act was done with the “Lord’s authority”. What began as an interrogative attack on Jesus quickly became an exercise in damage control. So they bluff:  “We don’t know” (vs. 27).

Jesus escalates the scene’s tension with a barbed “So what do you think”?(vs. 28).  He intends to call their bluff and to push them further. Quickly he recites a parable about a father, two sons and a vineyard. Images drawn from Israel’s cultural/ theological traditions. In first century Israel, family life rotates around the father who is responsible for the family’s well being. Children are dependent on the family and their active support is important. In this story, the father wants his sons to work in the vineyard. The father approaches the first son for his help. He refuses, “Forget it, Pops! I’ve got things to do, people to see, places to go. Then sometime after his father walks away stunned by the shame to his honor, the son’s sense of family obligation gets him to change his mind and he heads out to the vineyard. (vs. 29).  The father finds the second son to send him to their vineyard. This son says “You got it, Dad! I’m on my way”. The father walks away from this exchange feeling good that at least one son knows how to treat the old man with respect. But then, this son stops at the pub for a quick pint with his friends and never goes into the vineyard (vs. 30). 

Jesus questions the Templars again “Which son obeyed the father ”? The way the story is told we suppose the Templars will probably choose the son who said “no” but later obeyed. And we’re right but we also suppose they admit it through clenched teeth (vs. 31). They have played right into Jesus’ hand. Jesus is about to flip their tables identifying them as the second son – the religious authorities who said they would guard the way of justice in YHWH’s temple, but then did not. Jesus points to those who recognize and believe John’s “temple” work “Truly I tell you, the toll collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not trust him, but the toll collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you still did not repent and trust him (vs. 31b-32). These folk have made a genuine change of direction responding to the Lord’s grace. Notice the religious elite are not excluded. Only the order is reversed. They come in second.

This scene is framed to highlight the issue of the failure of religious authority and position in Israel’s temple. Their failure was maintaining the integrity of the temple’s intentions – “a house of prayer for all people” teaching people, leading them in obedience. Jesus isn’t just throwing eggs, rotten tomatoes. It takes real courage for the temple officials to come to grips with the way of justice and face-to-face with position, power, authority, choices and failures. That’s why this scene is grounded in covenant Wisdom literature. This parable’s characters and storyline have multiple points of resonance with Israel’s narrative. Fathers, sons/brothers is a theological storyline laden with shame/dishonor, envy, betrayal, disobedience, struggles for power, and sometimes reconciliation starting all the way back with Adam, Cain and Abel and forward through Abraham and Issac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Aaron and Moses, and David and his sons and on, and on. “Sons” of Israel” and “vineyard” are stock characterizations of YHWH’’s sometimes rebellious, sometimes repentant community. Jesus is, therefore, not asking the Templars merely to comment on fictitious brothers, but to locate themselves within Israel’s covenant story.  This parable is an attempt to show the religious leaders what they’ve done, giving them a chance to change, to repent, to restore the Temple’s covenant intentions.

Now parables present Wisdom in multiple ways. At one level, Wisdom involves intelligence or shrewdness. At another, it is about good sense, sound judgment, and moral understanding. At still another it is receiving instruction and responding obediently. This is Wisdom Literature so no one gets off the hook. In the parable both sons have made errors in judgement, violations of norms, acted disrespectfully and shown self willed arrogance. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Temple’s officials have made errors in judgement, violations of norms, acted disrespectfully and shown self willed arrogance.  

Now the scene might seem hard for us to believe it applies in a direct personal sense. Maybe we think of this parable as a handy moral tale parents can employ to make their boys feel guilty for not taking out the trash. But as good Bible readers we should step inside a scene to see what’s what. On the inside, the parable is about position and authority and how one responds. Although the chief priests and elders have been skeptical of John and Jesus, their continued rejection was their downfall.

So may I remind you what I said earlier that while this scene is framed to highlight the issue of religious authority and position in Israel, it applies also to the community of faith. And remember also in Wisdom literature no one gets off the hook. Wisdom always wants to know “Am I teachable”? So in Matthew’s teaching intention, disciples, you and I, need to come face to face with the parable’s examination of authority, errors in judgement, violations of norms, disrespectful acts and self willed arrogance.  The parable’s point is “It’s all very well to say I believe, but it means nothing if I’m not teachable, if I don’t live it out”. The difference between the sons is not what they say, but what they do. Such an unvarnished parable addresses the stark realities of self-willed disobedience and the inherent need for repentance. Now the temptation might be to identify with the first son like the temple officials. But the disciple is confronted as the tables are flipped by Wisdom literature. In Matthew’s thinking disciples are both these sons. At times we’re the second son: “Lord, Lord. Yes, yes. Sure, sure.” I’m good. And then we disappear. And at times, we’re the first son: “Ah, no, thanks, I don’t think so…/ leave me alone!” And when neither of these works, perhaps, we roll this spiritual excuse off our tongues “The dog ate my homework so I can’t”.

Now here is where it gets personal. I’ll close with some thoughts on the parable’s points about obedience/disobedience, trust, authority and discipleship. I’ll disclose some of Wisdom’s table flipping in my life and encourage you to reflect on yours. Matthew has laser focused on issues of religious position, authority and discipleship in this Temple scene. His questioning of position and authority led me to ponder seriously what I’m doing right now – a sermon. Here, I suggest, is Matthew’s underlying principle: Authority/position in discipleship and community is tested, proved, earned, lived. So the back and forth dialog in this week’s lesson reminds me that neither position nor authority should be taken for granted. Although a position with a history of authority is occupied, it doesn’t mean that authority is granted. It can be rejected, sometimes with good reasons. A preacher is granted a measure of authority. But it seems to me sermons have no authority if they do not compel a community to live their faith in a fundamentally different way, to tell others what matters, what is important, and what makes our lives so compelling so that we draw others in. The message of biblical faith teaches that we live in a disordered world. The problem of evil is a heart problem – a deeply embedded moral problem. The infusion of any social justice ideological chemotherapy will not eradicate that cancer. Gospel proclamation of the “way of justice” teaches transformation, holiness in living. Only Spirit infused biblical truth can awaken repentance in a broken heart. Only Spirit infused biblical truth has healing power. Do you see then the position, the authority to proclaim biblical truth is sacred. And I mean that. To deliver a sermon I have been invited into a pulpit that is holy. As soon as I think I deserve to be here, I have violated that space. The fact is I have been invited in by an authority that exists outside of me – a community of faith. And the burden on me is to earn the trust to be heard. Authority is derived from serving the community. This is why biblical position and authority is so different from what happens in a secularized culture. Secular authority isn’t built on trust or serving. It’s framed on power given to a defined position, on power out maneuvering the other side. And that’s why it is so devastating to the Temple, to a faith community when secular forms of authority/position creep in.  

And here is where it gets really personal. Discipleship is vineyard work. Discipleship involves obedience to the Father’s instruction. Discipleship begins in the vineyard of the household of faith. Discipleship in the vineyard is first and foremost about people. All too often discipleship in the vineyard involves common grace work, compassion work, mercy work, experiencing helplessness and suffering with others work. Here is where I teeter totter between the wisdom parable’s two sons. Perhaps I’ve said “No” too many times because I’m weary. At times during 50 years of ministry, the work has seemed overwhelming, life’s been too full of woundedness, the vineyard has seemed too difficult to care for. Perhaps I’ve said “No” because I take for granted that the Father will find someone else, that someone else’s “Yes” will meet the need to do the work. Perhaps because of my indifference I’ve taken for granted that harvest will come regardless. Perhaps because of my indifference I’ve taken for granted that the vineyard has no need for my labor – my mercy, my love, my caring. Or perhaps it is because I forget that the life I inhabit is also where work is needed, that I am part of a vineyard: I’m in need of nurture, in need of cultivation, in need of the pruning of Wisdom. Whatever the “perhaps…”, whatever the reasons, may my “No” become “Yes”, and my words become deeds. For I’m the Lord’s “Yes” – Jesus’ caring in action, Jesus’ presence in the vineyard which the Father so loves and is bringing to harvest.

Now my beloved may Jesus flip my/your views of responsiveness to discipleship of the Crucified, so that I/you work wisely in his vineyard.

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