Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sermon; Proper 21A; Matthew 21:23-32

If the only time you crack open a Bible is on Sunday morning when the Lectionary does it for you, you might get the idea that today's gospel passage directly follows last week's gospel passage.  It does seem like that would be the case.  Last week we heard the parable of the generous landowner.  If you have forgotten, or if you weren't here, this is the parable of the landowner who pays those who have worked all day and those who have worked only one hour the exact same wage.  Jesus closes the parable by saying, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Today we get yet another confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders.  After an argument about authority and where Jesus gets his, he tells a parable of two sons.  One son says he will not do what is asked, but eventually does; the other son says he will do what is asked, but never does.  Jesus uses this parable to proclaim that the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the religious leaders.

It certainly seems like those episodes happen back-to-back.  But in reality, they are spaced out over several days.  Last week's gospel took place on the road to Jerusalem.  Today, Jesus is not only in Jerusalem, but he's a day or two into Holy Week.  Palm Sunday has happened and he's overturned the tables and run the money-changers out of the temple.  And today he's back in the temple again arguing with the religious leaders.

Today I want to focus on the parable of the two sons rather than on the issue of authority because it does fit so well with last week's gospel.  Last week we were introduced to God's economy.  In that economy, God is distributed and dispersed equally to his people so that all may enjoy the presence of God.  In God's economy, there is no “better than,” or “more deserving than.”  In God's economy there are only humans who were created in God's image.  In God's economy, there is equal love for all people should they choose to accept it.  Or, as the parable suggested, equal pay for all invited.

This idea of equal pay for all for all people simply because they are people is reflective of the love God has for all people simply because they are all people.  And this economy of God, this love of God, is played out in the parable Jesus tells today.

“A man had two sons.”  We know right from the start that Jesus is talking about God.  The sons, though, are another matter.  There are a few common interpretations for who they are: Jew and Gentile being one, and Pharisee and publican being another one.  I want to look at them as those whom we deem righteous and unrighteous, and those whom God deems righteous and unrighteous.

If you recall, I wrote a little about righteousness in last Wednesday's Word.  I said that righteousness was the act of doing what was right in God's eyes.  The price of righteousness is a piece of bread, a cloak of no value to us, a mite.  Doing right in God's eyes has always included caring for those on the margins of society, the vulnerable and the less-fortunate.

Righteousness, however, seems to have developed a new meaning; or rather, not new but different.  This different meaning of righteousness is something along the lines of fulfilling our religious duties and obligations.  If we do what the religious authorities and leaders tell us to do, generally without question, if we have perfect attendance, if we follow the party line without question, then we, and maybe others, see ourselves as righteous.

The reason I say that this is a different meaning, but not new, is because Israel had this problem.  Amos prophesied against false pretenses when God said, “I hate your festivals and take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”  Jesus spoke against this when he called the Pharisees “white washed tombs.”  Christian history is full of leaders condemning others for not adhering to specific doctrines, or of not caring for the marginalized in favor of creating wealthy clergy.  And Islam has the same problem with any number of groups condemning non-Muslims and/or not-strict-enough-Muslims as unrighteous heretics.

To the first son (note – not the older son), the father says, “Go and work in the vineyard today.”  The son responds, “I will not,” but he eventually changes his mind and goes.  This son is representative of everyone who initially refuses God's invitation.  This could be an invitation from us or from some other mechanism, but these are the people who believe they don't need God or the people who believe God won't accept them.  These are also the people – sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes – who are seen as unrighteous because they are not part of the accepted religious community.  At some point, though, they answer God's call and begin living into his righteousness.

To the second son (also note – not the youngest), the father says, “Go and work in the vineyard today.”  The son responds, “I go, sir,” but he does not go.  This son is representative of everyone who believes they are doing God's will but really are not.  This is the person who is pious to the point of not wanting to get their hands dirty in ministry.  This is the person who is so focused on the church calendar that they don't see those in need gathered around their church.  This is the person who gets so wrapped up in defending and adhering to the right church doctrine that loving their neighbor becomes the gateway to damnation rather than the gateway to righteousness.

When asked which son did the will of the father, the religious leaders said, “The first.”  Tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners of all kinds will go into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the religiously pure and doctrinally focused.

We need to be careful of whom we deem righteous and those whom we deem unrighteous.  In God's economy, all people are invited into the kingdom to share God's love.  In God's economy, those whom we deem as less deserving are just as deserving simply because they are people.  In God's economy, how we treat those we deem as unrighteous and how we care for the marginalized is of more value than whether or not we defended the correct doctrine.

Do you want to see the face of God?  Then go, work in the vineyard and look into the eyes of those people for whom society's economy deems to be the last.



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