I had fascinating conversations with you all last week after my sermon. Many of you commented on how you read the parable of the generous landowner, and its focus on payment, as largely a metaphor for how God dispenses grace. One of you commented playfully, "sounds like Marxism to me." But here's my question: can't it be both? Isn't it possible that Scripture works on multiple layers at the same time? This question came up for me again as I read the Exodus passage (17:1-7). And I couldn't help but read it with my eye on ever-increasing gas lines and economic woes giving us all pause and concern. And I never, ever want to be in a place where I am speaking for God; I pray that I'm more humble than that. But as I took my own anxieties to prayer this week, this answer came as clear as a bell: "Do not be afraid."
This is not a promise that there won't be difficult times; there will, very likely, be times of wilderness and desert and thirst. But God provides. The rock is split, and water comes out. Maybe it's not in the way that we want or expect, but God provides nonetheless.
And it is with this surprise that I turn to the Matthew text (21:23-32). In it, Jesus draws on this Biblical tradition of playfulness. Think about when Pharaoh approaches the Israelite midwives who are supposed to be preventing the Israelites from breeding. Their response? "Oh, those women are so robust that by the time we get there, the child's already born! What can we do?"
Jesus, most often when he's dealing with questions of authority and with the religious authorities, uses a similar kind of playfulness to get his point across.
The context for today's lesson is in the midst of Holy Week. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem, has flipped over tables in the Temple, and is now teaching just outside. When he is confronted by the religious leaders, they want to know what authority it is that he brings to this teaching. And Jesus, rather than answering their question (as usual), offers them a question of their own: "By what authority did John the Baptist do the things he did?"
They confer. And ultimately, it is fear that drives their lack of answer. If they say "by God's authority," then they fear their peers and that their own authority will be undermined. If they say "by human authority," then they fear the crowds that are following Jesus. So they say nothing.
One way of seeing this exchange is that the leaders are trying to trap Jesus. Instead, he traps them. They are caught up in their own words and exposed for the frauds that they are. But is it possible, perhaps, that Jesus is actually offering them a way out, a hopeful question that they might see the error of their ways, repent, acknowledge that they were/are wrong about John and him and come into God's presence?
The parable comes next, which might shed more light on our conversation. Two sons are asked by their father to go work in the vineyard. The eldest says "yes," but goes off to do something else. Maybe play Guitar Hero or something. The youngest says, "no," but then decides to go work any way. In a way, Jesus is setting up a conversation about words and works. Which is more important: to say that we believe in God and the promises of resurrection, or to live as though we do? The ideal, of course, is for our works to flow from our words. We say one thing and we act in concert with that which we say. But then again, any of you who have parented a two year old know that "no" can sometimes be taken with a grain of salt. But if we are set up into a choice between one or the other, the parable suggests that it is our works that trump our words.
Jesus uses this parable to show how the leaders ignored what it is that John did; he may have not been saying things the right way to them, but his acts showed a righteousness and a presence of God far beyond what they could manage, even though they were saying "all the right things."
And it is here that Jesus gets downright provocative: "tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kindom of God ahead of you." The worst elements of society, those tax collectors who took money from the Jews and gave it to the foreign occupiers, the Romans, those traitors, they got it. Those prostitutes, those who are not only ignoring God's ways, but those whom we see as being shunned and cast out by God for doing so, they got it. You think you're the best; but you may have it backwards.
And then he ends with this nugget: "You did not change your minds and believe in him."
Friends, we're in the midst of another political season here in our nation. And it is always presented to us by both parties that a person who changes their mind is the worst thing possible. Maybe that is true in the world of politics; but in the world of faith, there is always the chance to repent, to turn to God, to say that we have been wrong and desire to follow in the path God sets before us.
Who are those modern day prostitutes and tax collectors? Who are the ones whom we, chief priests and elders of the faithful alike, despise, consider traitorous, deem beyond God's love? Friends, God is saying "yes" to us, with open arms inviting us into that vineyard. What is it that we will say and do?