Proper 21 – Ordinary 26 – Pentecost + 17
1 October 2017
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9 pg 733
Gracious God, you call us to fullness of life: deliver us from unbelief and banish our anxieties through the liberating love of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
Today, I think I’d like to look at the role of parables, I’d like to examine what it is that Jesus tells us, today, and not just today, but on an ongoing basis, throughout the length and breadth of the gospels.
We see a parable today, which quite frankly, has puzzled me for many years. Its one brother saying he’ll go to work in the field, but doesn’t, and the other who says he wont, yet changes his mind down the road.
Yet Jesus uses it as an example for the chief priests, for the elders, for those gathered around him who have come to him to learn, today.
Parables are examples that Jesus uses to make a point. In the past we’ve seen examples on the nature of the kingdom of God that utilized everything from seeds, to yeast, to pearls, to treasure.
We’ve seen parables used when Jesus is trying to convey concepts to us that we just aren’t able to easily get, to easily wrap our minds around.
The parable of the sower, of the grain falling to the earth, and dying before it is resurrected as more grain than we will ever imagine. Of the soil and how it is able to germinate or destroy the seeds that are sown upon it, in it.
The parable of the camel through the eye of a needle, of lamps being put on posts, instead of under bushels. A parable of a person knocking on the door in the middle of the night and demanding bread, or one of a widow haranguing a judge in order to receive justice.
For whatever example, whatever point Jesus is trying to make, to help us open our minds to the love of God, he uses a parable to get his point across.
Now, ironically, for us, these parables used and continue to use examples that were obvious to the people of Jesus day, the people of the roman empire who lived two thousand or more years ago. But at the same time, with the parables that Jesus chooses to use, to employ to open minds, or to conceal wisdom, were puzzles to those who thought they had a handle, a grip on the world around them, so in that respect, the parables are doing their job admirably for our lives, of faith and our growth in our lives of faith.
So, today, we find Jesus using a parable with those who don’t want to open up and be honest about what is in their hearts and minds. At the same time, we’re asked to be honest with our hearts and minds in all of our dealings with each other and with God.
Today we find elders and chief priests feeling that Jesus is stepping on their ecclesiastical toes, that he’s invaded their territory with his teachings, teachings that they can’t verify, police, or, if they’re being honest with themselves, deny.
So, Jesus quizzes them, and when they decline to answer, instead he tells us a parable.
“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?” (Mt 21: 28-31)
Really, what we’re seeing here is that the institutional faith of Jesus day is trying to keep so tight a grip on people and their lives that they’re slipping through their fingers. Yet at the same time, there is a whole segment of the population who is not being served by the church.
Jesus goes on to tell us: “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.” (Mt 21:31b-32)
And this seems to hit the heart of what Jesus is trying to get across to these ‘gatekeepers’ at the temple, these keepers of the wisdom of God’s love for all of humanity.
They’re trying to keep the ‘riff raff’ out, and yet, these who aren’t part of the mainstream of society are the ones getting the message of God’s love, and God’s inclusion for all.
Perhaps the focus of the parable is those who cannot be honest in their hearts to say what is truly on their minds, so they say what they feel someone wants to hear, but then they ignore what they’ve said in order to do what they want. One says no, the other says yes, yet the opposite is what each does in the end.
Perhaps it’s the message of today’s gospel that we ignore what is beneficial for the world around us in order to do what we want, to maintain the power bases that make us feel comfortable, to make us feel secure, yet at the same time, completely ignoring the work that the Father needs to see being done.
And, we all fall short of the love of God that is lavished upon us. we all fall short of the teachings of Jesus, which is why we’re still here, still learning, still growing in our lives and in our ability to love our neighbour, to love our selves.
Jesus asks these people who come to question him a question of his own, and yet they can’t answer. They need to huddle up, they need to decide on a consensus answer, they need to compare notes, and cram, before choosing an option that isn’t on the page.
“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.” (Mt 21:24-27a)
I wonder, sometimes, why we value our position, our leverage in society, our ability to lord it over another so much more than we do the rewards of treating people as we wish to be treated.
Yet, at the same time, as much as we claim that we want to be treated as we treat others, this isn’t the evidence we see. We don’t want to challenge others to validate our cv’s, our resumes, our accomplishments; but this is what we see today in the gospel.
At the same time, Jesus question to the chief priests and elders has much weight. Prophets have come and gone in the history of the Jewish people. prophets whose job it was, it is, to point us back to a life in the faith. And the litmus test, the one true proof that a prophet is truly a prophet from God, is that their prophesies came true.
John had one message: to announce the coming of the Messiah. The coming of the Son of God, and to ease people’s minds, he offered a baptism of repentance for the people, to smooth the way, to wipe the slate clean. And Jesus is now asking about where John received authority to do what he did – to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, and to offer a baptism of repentance.
Its straight forward. After all, John wasn’t passed through this board of individuals any more than Jesus. These men, although representing the faith of the Israelite people are looking at it from the human end, rather than from the perspective of God, from the perspective of desiring an open path and a clear way to have a relationship with humanity.
And so the chief priests and the elders, those in the fine robes, and the entourages hanging around in the background, look at each other, they shrug, they compare notes, and out of a sense of fear, of losing the authority of their positions, so they come back with a collective “I don’t know.”
It’s a response made from fear. Fear of the people who held John as a prophet. Fear of what Jesus will say next if they say that John’s authority came from God. Fear of what will happen to them should they admit what their hearts already know: That John’s authority was no more of earth than Jesus’ authority.
Being open with our hearts can often make us feel foolish, vulnerable. It can lead to such awkward situations as we see happening here with the chief priests and elders of the temple.
They’re behaving like little dogs yapping at the door, hoping to scare off large intruders from what they perceive is their domain.
Jesus is in the temple courts. He’s teaching the people who have come to him. And in their attempts to look big and brave, instead, they look small and foolish because they already know the answers. Secretly they’d love to be in the midst of the crowd and to listen and absorb every word Jesus says.
But instead, they’re the object lesson, they’re the focus of the parable of the two sons, as are those sitting around Jesus. One son says yes, but doesn’t do the will of the father, and the one who says no, and eventually finds himself out doing what he should have been doing from the start.
In response to Jesus further inquiry about the parable, they stick to the decided upon cheat sheet, because they recognize themselves in the parable. They’ve caught the not so veiled point, but still want to hold on to the authority the dignity of their position, their place in society, and still they, we get it wrong.
Holding on to position isn’t succeeding. Positions are just titles that we give ourselves, or society gives us to form order out of chaos.
With God there is no chaos, there is only love, and those of us who willingly enter there, who do the work that the Father puts before us will always find ourselves surrounded by the love and the will of the Father.
“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.” (Mt 21:31b-32)
Pride over love; perception of position over actually doing the right thing.
God the Father reaches out to us, every day, with the teachings of Jesus, with the promptings of the Holy Spirit. At the same time. All we have to do is respond to God’s love. All we have to do is allow it into our hearts as we reach out to our neighbour, no matter who they are, no matter what we may think of them and believe, together with them, that we are loved by God.