The 17th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 21A (10/1/2017)

Lessons:
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
St. Matthew 21:23-32

Semicontinuous Reading and Psalm:
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Prayer of the Day:
God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Lesson:

21:23 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?” 24 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. 25 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?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 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.

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.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 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. 32 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.

St. Matthew 21:23-32, New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

The Will of the Father

I used to wonder why these two paragraphs were paired by our lectionary. It seemed to me that the first paragraph, with its narration of this dispute between Jesus and the chief priests & elders, had little to do with the second paragraph, with Jesus’ reflections on how these two sons responded to their father’s instructions. The first paragraph seemed to be about Jesus besting his adversaries in an intellectual dispute, proving his superiority. The second paragraph seemed to be about the importance of keeping promises made.

There is little doubt that Jesus and the religious officials of his day squared off time and time again. But the message of Jesus — the message that so angered his opponents, making them cry out for his death — can’t be boiled down to “it’s better to not promise and come through than to promise and not come though.” These two paragraphs are connected in a much more central way.

The story of the two sons is, in fact, Jesus’ reflection on those religious officials who opposed him. They, like the second son, are pretenders. They talk a big game about faithfulness, and drawing near to God, and living the kind of life that their faith makes possible. But the character of their lives suggests otherwise. They use the rules and traditions of the day to their own advantage. They don’t draw near to God and allow themselves to be touched by transforming power. In fact, when God arrives in the form of human beings, both Jesus and John receive a prophet’s reward. The chief priests and elders have a lot to say about their own faithfulness, but they don’t spend much time actually pursuing the will of the Father.

On the other hand, the tax collectors and prostitutes who draw near to Jesus, like the first son, are the ones who prove to be faithful. They may not think much of themselves. They may have become convinced, by the norms of their culture, that they are of very little worth. They may never in a million years stand in the streets of Jerusalem tooting their own horns — proclaiming their own righteousness. In fact, if quizzed, they most likely would respond, “Oh not me. There is no way I could be useful to the will of the Father.” But they are the ones who receive John’s message into their hearts. They are the ones who prepare for the coming of the Lord by confessing their sinfulness and receiving the gift of forgiveness. They are the ones who sit at Jesus’ feet, soaking up his wisdom and receiving his grace. They are the ones who actually do the will of the father, and as they do so they receive the gifts of God’s love and God’s grace.

It is a theme that lies close to our Reformation beginnings. Many religious officials in the Medieval Catholic Church boasted of their own standing in the church, while taking advantage of those who were vulnerable in their culture. Yet Luther and his colleagues called for a new faithfulness. One in which believers seek to do the will of the Father, loving God with heart and soul and mind, and loving neighbor just as much as they love themselves.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What are the differences between the religious officials and the people who follow Jesus?
  2. How do the religious officials distance themselves from the will of God?
  3. How do the tax collectors and prostitutes promote the will of God?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. With whom do I most identify in this Gospel lesson?
  2. Who, today, seems less interested in self-promotion and more interested in God’s will?
  3. How has my faith in Jesus helped me to experience God’s will more fully?

The author would love to hear what you think about this post.