Matt 21 23 – 32
Jesus sometimes answered questions which were put to him with questions of his own which forced the argument into unexpected territory. For instance you will remember that he was asked whether people should pay taxes to Rome. Jesus asked to see a coin and asked “Whose head is on the coin?” This diverted an awkward question and also gave the onlookers something new to think about. In the passage I have just read it may seem strange that Jesus directed the questioner’s attention to John the Baptist but it probably comes from the fact that, in many people’s eyes, John was a charismatic and authoritative preacher and it was John who passed God’s authority on to Jesus when he baptised Jesus. There was a Jewish tradition that a Rabbi would pass on his authority to a pupil who had, as it were, qualified by learning all that the Rabbi could teach him, by placing his hands on the pupil’s head. So, if John were indeed a true prophet, then Jesus was the Messiah. When John baptised Jesus, the image of the dove and the voice from Heaven proclaimed as much. This story highlights the high status that John had in the people’s eyes and Jesus used it to try and get the chief priests (and the people in the crowd) to see him, Jesus, with different eyes.
The story of the two sons that follows was still directed at the chief priests and elders. They were the aristocracy and not like the more lowly priests who came into Jerusalem to serve at the temple. The chief priests and elders were those who worked in collaboration with the Roman authorities and had a vested interest in keeping the status quo. They were compromised leaders who would not challenge the ruling authority of Rome; they stood to lose too much. Jesus obviously disturbed them. They questioned Jesus but in turn he questioned them and they then dodged an answer. Out of this situation comes the parable of the two sons.
The first son, who rudely tells his father he doesn’t feel like working today, but then does after all go and work in the vineyard, stands for those people who were considered disreputable and selfish, say the tax collectors and prostitutes. Their daily life seemed to be saying “No” to God; but when they heard John the Baptist’s message, now reinforced by Jesus, they changed their minds and lifestyle (in other words, they “repented” and got themselves right with God).
The second son, who politely tells his father he will indeed go to work, but then doesn’t, stands for the temple hierarchy and other leaders; in this passage, the chief priests and elders. They looked as though they were doing God’s will, worshipping in the Temple and keeping up appearances; but their daily lives were full of hypocrisy and they also refused to believe in John’s message, not only about repentance but also about the Messiah, who was standing unknown in their midst. Now the Messiah himself was here to call them to account. Not surprisingly, they didn’t like it.
The challenge of this passage for us today is partly this; to make sure we are responding to Jesus, allowing him to confront us at any point where we have been like the 2nd son and said “yes” to God while in fact going off in the other direction. That’s important, but it’s not the only important thing. What we should also be asking is this. What should Jesus’s followers, challenged by the powers of the present world, be doing today with the news that he is indeed the rightful lord? What should we be doing that would make people ask, “Why are you doing that?” To which the proper answer would not be to talk in riddles about John the Baptist, but to tell stories about Jesus himself, stories about the myriad of Christians who followed him and changed the world and how, by following the path of love, we can all change at least a tiny bit of the world.
The Gospel reading mentions two extremes; those who are clearly in high positions of trust (but actually dishonest and corrupt) or those who are considered the dregs of society (but actually open to change). Most of us, sat in the pews here, are much more middle of the road; basically caring and wanting to do the right thing but with the odd fault here and there which stops us doing the right thing. But God is ‘speaking’ to us as well. We need to be open to positive changes in our outlook or lifestyle and thus more aware of God in our lives. Know God just a little bit more. The last six months should certainly have taught us that we should be ready for change and to reassess what our priorities are; and what we perceive as God’s priorities – creation’s priorities. Coronavirus has hit us hard and it has made us rethink but it is a feather blow compared to the hammer blows of conflict and oppression around the world and the 10 kilo-tonne bombs of pollution, and global warming. We must commune with nature, ourselves and God to really work out what our priorities are. Sanitizing hands, wearing masks and safe distancing are a considerable inconvenience but nothing compared to not eating meat, not using electric washing machines, not driving around in cars, not flying, not buying hygienically wrapped cabbage, not living in nice, warm homes. An exaggeration? In part, maybe, but in essence I think not. If we don’t listen to the God in Heaven, in creation and within us and change ourselves, life will become very difficult. Listen to God, know God better and change.