By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today we heard three readings from the Bible that share a common context, and that context is public dispute.
The story from Exodus deals with a dispute between Moses and the people he’s leading through the wilderness. They complain that they’re dying of thirst, and they demand that Moses give them water. Now at first glance, the complaint seems entirely reasonable. If they don’t get water, they’ll die. But in the greater context of the Exodus, the complaining seems far less reasonable. For God had quite recently turned foul, contaminated water into fresh drinking water for them and had given them manna from heaven and an abundance of quail to sustain them. Given this additional information, we see that the people lack sufficient faith in divine providence. Even so, at the request of Moses, God again provides for his people. So all’s well as ends well—except that for all perpetuity their lack of faith will be remembered in the naming of that place. It will be called “Massah and Meribah,” or in English, “Testing and Dispute.” The upshot of the Old Testament reading would seem to be: trust in God, even if you aren’t getting what you think you need.
Now, let’s turn to the reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians. The context here is again a dispute. Two faithful women of the church, Euodia and Syntyche, are publicly feuding, and it’s dividing the congregation. St. Paul writes a letter to his spiritual children, urging them to make peace and to be of one mind. Like many a preacher today, he turns to the words of a well-known hymn to make his point. According to this hymn, Christ emptied himself of his godhead and took the humble form of a human. Christ’s obedience to his heavenly Father was such that he willingly suffered death on the Cross, in order that his Father’s will might be done and humankind might be saved. St. Paul asks that his children share the mind of Christ, imitating his humility and his obedience to God. I’m sure that St. Paul would ask the same of us here today. Admittedly, this is a tall order! But the imitation of Christ is our calling.
Finally, we get to the Gospel reading from Matthew. Again, we encounter a dispute, this time between Jesus and the leaders of the Jewish Temple. If the Gospel reading were a Perry Mason mystery, it might be called “The Case of the Triple Whammy.”
Jesus has just entered Jerusalem in triumph, been acclaimed the Messiah by people on the street, and then “cleansed” the Temple. And by “cleansing” the Temple, I mean he staged a one-man riot, turning over tables and forcibly casting out the moneychangers. The Temple leaders ask him by what authority he’s causing this disturbance. The question would seem a straightforward one, but in fact, it’s a trap. If Jesus answers that his authority comes from God as God’s Son, he will be arrested for blasphemy then and there. If he answers that his authority comes from mere humans, he’ll be admitting that, in fact, he has no proper authority to intervene in the running of God’s Temple.
Since Jesus is not yet ready to be arrested, he temporizes by answering a question with a question. It’s an annoying practice, but it often works! Like the question of the Temple leaders, Jesus’ question is a trap. He asks them the origin of the baptism of John. If they answer “It came from God,” they will condemn themselves as unrepentant sinners, since they didn’t respond to John’s call to repent and be baptized. If they answer, “It was of human origin,” they will be condemned as spiritually blind by the attending crowd, who believed in John the Baptist. Either way they lose! So instead, they admit that they just don’t know. But by admitting such ignorance of things spiritual, they stand condemned as unfit to be spiritual leaders of the nation. This is Whammy Number 1.
But Jesus isn’t content with his victory over his opponents. So he tells an allegorical parable against them. The symbolism of the allegory is plain enough. The man with two sons is God. The vineyard is Israel. The son who says no but then changes his mind represents the sinners who responded to God’s call through John the Baptist and through Jesus. The son who says yes but doesn’t follow through with any action represents the religious leaders of Israel. The indictment against them is that they say the right things, but do not do the right things. This is Whammy Number 2.
Then comes Whammy Number 3: a prophecy. Jesus prophesies that the tax collectors who work for the Romans and the prostitutes who sleep with them will lead the way into the Kingdom of God, with the religious authorities trailing behind. (Note that Jesus doesn’t go so far as to exclude the Jewish authorities from the Kingdom of God.) I think we can safely say that Whammy Number 3 was the knockout punch in this religious boxing match.
Now, like all scripture inspired by God, this parable has something to teach us today. But before considering what this story means for us, I would like to say a few words about what it does not mean for us. In the past, this parable has been interpreted as a condemnation of the Jews—all Jews! The obedient son was said to represent the Gentiles who said no to God but eventually obeyed God by following Jesus. The disobedient son was said to represent the Jews who said yes to God but then did not follow Jesus. For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into, this interpretation is just plain wrong! In its original context, the story is undoubtedly meant as a condemnation only of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day.
But as I just said, this scripture does have something to say to us in our contemporary context. So let’s consider the parable again, and let’s put ourselves into the story. As before, the father is God. But now, the vineyard is not just Israel, but the whole world. And we are the sons—both sons! For at various times, we have been each of the two sons. There have been times when we balked initially but then finally obeyed God’s will for us. How many of us here have refused for a time to make a generous pledge to the church and then finally plucked up our courage and made the pledge? And then there are times when despite our fine words and pious sentiments, we simply don’t follow up with any action. A couple of years ago, our diocesan convention voted that, for one whole year, every vestry meeting in every parish should begin by prayerfully considering how our work in the church affects the poor. And yet I don’t recall a single vestry meeting that ever considered that question.
There’s really no doubt about it: we are both sons in this parable, the one who eventually obeyed and the one who didn’t! In the words of the General Confession, “we confess that we have sinned against [God] in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” I have a sneaking suspicion that the things “left undone” constitute the greater sin.
For us today, Jesus’ parable is a call to be obedient to God’s Great Commandment, the commandment to love, and to repent when we fail. We are meant to be workers in the world, actively sharing God’s love with everyone we encounter. If we fail to act on what we know to be the truth, we’ll be like the Temple authorities whom Jesus condemned. And while we might not be excluded from God’s Kingdom, we will be sent to the back of the line and end up with very bad seats. Instead, let us learn from the three stories of dispute we heard today. Let us learn to trust God, even when we are in dire need. Let us share the mind of Christ, imitating his humility and obedience to God. And finally, let us show the world through our actions that we practice the love we preach. If we can do these things, we’ll be guaranteed box seats at every performance of the angelic choirs!
© 2014 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Readings: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp21_RCL.html (Track 1)