Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 27, 2020
When he 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.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
In this Gospel story, we can hear that Jesus’ patience is wearing a bit thin. His conversation with the chief priests and elders takes place during the final week of his life, on the steps of the Temple. The pressure from both his crowds of followers and his detractors is mounting, as he moves inexorably toward a final confrontation with the authorities. They try to trip Jesus up, but he bests them. He knows, even if his disciples don’t want to hear him say it, that he is going to pay a very high price for his clever answers and provocative claims. But Jesus is frustrated that even the bare bones of his message don’t seem to be getting through.
These last chapters of the Gospel of Matthew form a sustained polemic against the hypocrisy and self-righteousness and complacency of the religious leaders, and by extension, all religious folk right down to today. Here, Jesus sets us another parable, this one crystal clear. And the answer to his question about which brother did the will of the father is obvious even to his critics. You have to do God’s work, not just say you’ll do it. Jesus says, again and again, it isn’t a matter of who you are – a priest, a prostitute, a churchgoer, a politician. It isn’t a matter of the promises you make, or the good intentions you once had. It’s a matter of what you do.
This answer seems pretty simple really and doesn’t require any complicated theology or years of training in philosophy or ethics. We have all had parents or teachers who tell us that actions speak louder than words. We have probably said it ourselves. It’s as clear as a bell right now, here, as all levels of government try to cope with the second wave of this pandemic – just wear your mask, wash your hands, don’t hang out indoors with people not in your bubble. Just do it. As Tina read from the letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul, picks up a similar theme, advising unselfishness and humility. Writing to the young church at Philippi, he says, have the same mind as Christ, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
But if it is so simple, why don’t people just do it? Why not just obey the rules? Why not just do good works? What is the fear and trembling all about? No doubt there are those who are lazy, or negligent, or contrary. And sometimes it may be that people aren’t sure of what is good. We look back now and some things seem so obvious. How could people not have seen that slavery was wrong? How could they not have seen that women deserved a vote? That refugees should be cared for? On Wednesday, Canadian school children will hear the story of an orange shirt – the special store-bought orange shirt that Phyllis Webstad wore proudly for her first day of school – the shirt that was taken away from her and never returned. A poignant reminder of the many evils of the Indian residential schools – and how could they not have seen what was wrong with that? Worse yet, what are we not seeing now that will seem so obvious to those who come after us? Perhaps Jesus’ parable needs a third brother who says yes, and then goes off and makes a complete mess of the vineyard. Actions do speak louder than words, but they have to be the right actions.
Jesus praises the brother who changes his mind and goes to the vineyard after all. The capacity to think again and come to a new conclusion is what Jesus admires in the tax-collectors and the prostitutes. What makes him so angry with the religious leaders is their self-satisfaction. In their unwillingness to open their minds, they are too complacent to hear even the good news of love that he preaches. Jesus urges his followers – urges us – to become the kind of people who can be corrected. Time and again if need be. In the words of Paul, let it be God who is at work in us, as we find our way forward. And let it be God who leads us to openness and new life.
Image Credit: Justin Luebke – unsplash.com