Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21:23-32

When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

“Actions speak louder than words,” “Your life is the biggest sermon you will ever preach,” and “You do not GO to church, you ARE the church.” These are several sayings that I have seen floating around that connect to the parable given by Jesus this week. 

Rachel Held Evans was a theologian and best-selling author who was tragically taken from this world too soon, last year at the age of 37. I was particularly moved by a story she tells in one of her books. Rachel had lived most of her life as a good Christian, or so she thought, until she had a crisis of faith as a young adult. On her journey, as she discovered what it means to really follow Jesus, she had a spiritual awakening on a trip to India. Because I took a trip to Haiti many years ago and had a similar experience I felt very connected with this story. This is what she says about that trip… 

“James, the brother of Jesus, once said that true religion is caring for orphans and widows, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when my first religious experience in India happened in the company of widows and orphans. About thirty of us were packed into a fifteen- passenger van, windows down, speeding down the streets of Hyderabad on our way to a church in the city. The kids, ranging in age from five to fifteen, were dressed in their Sunday best and were piled on top of one another, singing as loudly as possible and with no inhibition songs about Jesus in English and Telugu. My eardrums rang. My stomach lurched with every sudden swerve of the van. My lungs ached from inhaling pollution, and my head pounded from the heat. But I hadn’t felt that close to Jesus in years. I felt certain that he was crammed in there with us, singing along. In India, I was introduced to the kingdom of heaven – not as it exists in some future state but as it exists in the here and now, where the hungry are fed with both physical and spiritual bread, where the sick are saved from both their diseases and their sins, where an illiterate widow taught me more about faith than any theologian ever could, and where children from the slums sing with God. In India, I learned that the gospel is still special. Jesus still matters and can make a difference in people’s lives.” 

We bring the kingdom of God to this world when we follow Jesus in not only our words, but in our actions as well. You know that phrase “do as I say, not as I do”? It’s often used when kids catch their parents doing the very things they’ve been told not to do. This phrase implies that our words mean more than our actions. But I think today’s message from Scripture challenges that theory. 

Jesus’ parable spoken to that specific audience implies a way to compare the two “sons” with those around him: the tax-collectors and prostitutes, on the one hand, and the chief priests and elders, on the other hand. Those most expected to understand and do God’s will—the religious leadership—fail to appreciate God’s working in and through John the Baptist and Jesus, while those least expected to understand and do God’s will—the ones most culturally despised by the rest—acknowledge God’s work in John’s baptism and message and follow Christ. 

Jesus considered both groups of people God’s children. But in the parable, the sons’ actions, not their words, determined which was obedient or true, that is, the one most willing to participate in the father’s business. In the allegory, Jesus equated involvement in the father’s vineyard with recognition of John’s baptism as a sign of God’s authority. And to do God’s will was to be and act in close association with Jesus. 

The parable sets up a comparison of two sons. One who says he will do what his father asks, but doesn’t, with one who says he won’t, but does. There is an accusation in the parable, particularly for the audience to which Jesus is speaking—some who claim to obey the Father and observe the requirements of the Law fail to actually do so. 

  • Is this who we are, as believers—as pastors, teachers, leaders, and members of the Church? 
  • Do we pretend to be obedient, or do we actually act obediently? 

Our thoughts and words are important. How we express and confess our faith is important. But God’s Word today tells us that faith doesn’t just mean thinking a certain way. Faith in Christ implies action. It means speaking and acting boldly by the authority of Christ. 

There are a couple of things that really stick out to me this week when I read this Gospel text this week. The first is familiar and the second is new:

The familiar is: tussles over authority are not new. Any pastor hearing opinions that are as strong as they are contrary from a wide variety of members on, for instance:

  • When to resume in-person worship amid the ongoing pandemic.
  • The scope and nature of a congregation’s response to calls for greater racial equity know this well! 

In the Gospel story, who is “right” and who is “wrong” is clear because, well, Jesus is always right. In our shared life in the Body of Christ, it’s often less clear or, even when it seems clear, there is no guarantee that we will find the words, much less a parable, to silence those who present themselves as adversarial. There are some many things to look at in this Gospel text, but I do take comfort that disagreements over authority and clashes of opinion are not new.

Now the new: I find it very interesting that while the stakes are high, and while some of these same leaders who are silenced by Jesus’ words and stories here will later conspire to have him crucified, yet this final pronouncement is not ultimate condemnation, let alone expulsion from the kingdom, but rather reversal. 

The tax collectors and prostitutes—representing the entirety of those typically considered beyond God’s reach—enter the kingdom of God ahead of the rulers, not instead of them. God pays attention not to roles but to the heart… and to our actions. But while this precludes the rulers entering first, as they may have expected—after all, they are the chief priests and leaders of the people—they are not banished. So even despite their shortcoming, there is still room for them. Still room, that is, for those who have been corrupted by power; room even for those who neglect their duties or perhaps even exploit their stations; room even for those who reject Christ’s words and deeds, just as they rejected John’s. Room, that is, for all.

Amid the controversies of the day, when it feels like there are few decisions that are uncontested, when we not only find ourselves in an increasingly polarized culture but when some of our leaders thrive by exploiting and encouraging that polarization, yet Jesus seems here unwilling to give up on anybody. Which feels important for me to remember when I am tempted to consign others to the category of despicable or unredeemable, and which also feels important to recall when I wonder if I’m in that category, if for no other reason—and, trust me, there are other reasons—that I am willing in the first place to think in terms of such categories and place people there!

Even amid the height of Jesus’ struggle with his adversaries; even in the last week of his life; even as he faces betrayal, accusation, desertion, and crucifixion; yet Jesus imagines more room in the kingdom of God than anyone would imagine or have right to expect. That, at this particular time, seems like awfully good news.

In telling about her trip to India, Rachel Held Evans illustrates the message we receive today from the Word of God. She says, “This radical Jesus wanted to live not only in my heart and in my head but also in my hands, as I fed the hungry, reached out to my enemies, healed the sick, and comforted the lonely. Being a Christian, it seemed, isn’t about agreeing to a certain way; it is about embodying a certain way. It is about living as an incarnation of Jesus, as Jesus lived as an incarnation of God.” 

Here’s the real trick: ultimately neither son in the parable is perfect. One says the right thing but does not do the right thing. The other does not say the right thing but does the right thing. They both get it wrong. Similarly, we are far from perfect. Sometimes we say the right things, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we do the right things, other times we don’t. We all get it wrong from time to time, maybe even more often than not. We are all in need of God’s love and grace to save us from ourselves. This Scripture passage, more than anything else I think, is about recognizing Jesus’ authority, and with that, God’s authority, above all else. 

The letter from Paul to the Philippians calls us to remember that we are a community in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and called to hold the interests of others and the will of God higher than our own interests. This may seem like a difficult task. But this Scripture text also reminds us that God is at work in us. The Spirit of God enables us to gather food for the hungry, comfort the sick or grieving, advocate for the vulnerable, show kindness to our enemies, forgive those who hurt us, and love and be loved. God empowers us to be the living incarnation of Jesus Christ in this world and to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth.