Sermon for September 27, 2020

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 21:23-32

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

23When 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?” 24Jesus 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. 25Did 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?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So 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.

      28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which 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 dominion of God ahead of you. 32For 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.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Scholars believe that the Gospel of Matthew was written somewhere around the year 80 in the Common Era, a generation and more after the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It was ten years after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70. So, the time when Matthew was written was a time of tremendous social and religious upheaval.

Because of the destruction of the Temple, Judaism was beginning its emergence from a faith tradition focused on the Jerusalem Temple to an orientation centered on local synagogues. What would become known as Christianity was beginning to emerge as a faith tradition in its own right. The people in what we call the Holy Land still suffered under Roman imperial rule. In short, the latter part of the first century was a revolutionary kind of time. It’s this context of social and religious upheaval that helps us understand what’s going on in the gospel reading for today. The Gospel writer, Matthew, records a confrontation between chief priests, elders and Jesus, who was teaching in the temple. Shortly before this passage in Matthew, Jesus had just overturned the money changers’ tables, driving them out of the Temple.

Naturally, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day questioned his authority to do what he was doing in the Temple.

It’s easy for us to be critical of the chief priests and the religious elders. But let’s put ourselves in their shoes. They were only trying to protect their inherited religious traditions and traditional lines of religious authority.

When I worked in the Bishop’s office, that essentially was my job! My work focused on approving seminary candidates for ordination (or not). My teaching ministry in the Bishop’s office centered on preserving and communicating Lutheran identity. Both of these areas of focus had to do with protecting tradition and authority to lead, not unlike the chief priests and elders.

Or think of it this way: Resurrection Church is hosting a community festival on church property, seeking to raise funds for community organizations, and a self-proclaimed prophet shows up and goes on a mad dash to tip over our tables and cause quite a commotion. How do you think we would react?

So it is that the chief priests and elders confront Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Excellent questions, ones completely natural to ask.

Jesus retorts with a question of his own concerning the authoritative origins of John the Baptist’s ministry. Was John’s baptism heaven sent or of human origin? The religious authorities found that there was not an easy answer to that question that wouldn’t have significant religious and political implications and blowback, so they answered, “We do not know.”

That ended that confrontation. And it’s at that point that the Gospel writer Matthew records a brief parable from Jesus about the two sons and their response to a command from their father to work in the vineyard. One son at first refused to work, but then changed his mind, or regretted his first response, repented, and then went to work. The other son immediately agreed to go to work, but did not in fact end up working at all in the vineyard.

Jesus asked, which son did the will of the father? The answer, of course, was the first son who at first refused, but then repented and changed the mind and went off to work.

Matthew then makes the point, germane to the social and religious upheaval of his community’s own day, that the chief priests and elders were in error, and that they fall behind tax collectors and prostitutes in getting into the dominion of God.

Well, that was then and this is now. Here ends the history lesson on this portion of the Gospel of Matthew. What are we to make of this now? Are there lessons from the story and the parable for us in our own day?

We also live in a time of significant social and religious upheaval. This reality speaks for itself when we read or watch the news. For me personally, church and world now are quite different than when I last served as a pastor of a congregation two decades ago. Today is also a time when authorities of all kinds are questioned and doubted. So our age has significant parallels to when the Gospel of Matthew was composed and handed on.

There is an overlaying theme that seems to appear in today’s passage and which echoes through the centuries, from Jesus’ day, to Matthew’s day, and even now in our day. The theme I see is this: the tension between preserving tradition on the one hand and having an openness to change on the other.

The chief priests and the elders are presented as being more in the camp of preserving tradition. John the Baptist and Jesus are the ones identified as doing a new thing. Though it’s never that simple, for I am sure that John the Baptist and Jesus could claim that they were faithfully upholding religious tradition.

In the brief parable in Matthew, the son who at first refused to work in the vineyard but later changed his mind and then went to work might be identified with those on the willingness-to-change side of the spectrum. The son who said yes to the work but then didn’t work may be identified with those on the spectrum wanting to maintain the status quo.

Where do we find ourselves on this spectrum of preserving tradition and openness to change, both as individuals and as a congregation? This is an essential question as we continue to enter into a new season of ministry together at Resurrection Church.

Where do you see yourselves on that spectrum of preserving change and being open to a new thing? Where on the continuum do you see Resurrection Church? For now, these are rhetorical questions, but they will become more live as together we live into whatever the future has in store for us in our own age of social and religious upheaval.

But here again, human realities when they intersect with sacred ones defy the easy “this or that” binary kind of thinking that tripped up the religious authorities in the first place when Jesus asked if John’s baptism was of heavenly or human origin.

Maybe the right answer would have been and is, Yes! It was of both heavenly and human origin. And maybe our answer is: we both want to preserve tradition and be open to change.

Which is to say, when we talk about the applicability of today’s gospel reading for our own circumstances and realities in church and world, we are inevitably both sons in the parable. Sometimes we say yes to working in God’s vineyard and then don’t really do much of anything. Sometimes we resist, but then change our minds and end up doing the work.

As is usual when we take a deeper look at things, we live in the tensions of both/and, and not either/or. Or as Lutherans are fond of saying, we are simultaneously saint and sinner.

In fits and starts, we seek to do God’s will amidst the chaos of a church and world in upheaval with multiple crises going on all around us and among us and within us.

And true authority in today’s reading seems most rooted in belief, in faith, in trust in God and the ones whom God sent, namely, John the Baptist and Jesus. They are the ones who most perfectly did the will of the father.

Where does this leave us? As usual, falling trustingly into the arms of our God who is gracious and merciful.

When we find ourselves in the loving arms of our God, we cannot help but break out into some version of the beautiful Christ hymn that is a centerpiece of today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Therefore God also highly exalted [Christ] 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.” (Philippians 2:9-11)

And so it is that we, thankful yet again for grace amazing, live the words of Paul in today’s second reading as we “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in [us] both to will and to work for [God’s] good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12b-13)

By God’s grace, let it be so that God’s will may be done in us, through us, and perhaps quite often, in spite of ourselves. Amen.

Now I invite your reflection:

  • With which person do you most identify in the parable today? The one who said yes to working in the vineyard, but did nothing? The one who at first refused, but then changed the mind and went to work?
  • Where do you usually fall on the spectrum? Are you more often on the side of preserving tradition? Are you more often on the side seeking change? Or both?
  • What promise from God’s word gives you hope during our tumultuous age?