The 17th Sunday After Pentecost – October 1, 2017 – Matthew 21:23-32
I preached this sermon at St. John’s parish in Decatur, AL where I am doing field work in preparation for graduation and ordination. You can listen to me preach this sermon by clicking here.
Today’s gospel comes from the beginning of the Holy Week narrative. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, throws the money changers out of the temple, and struggles to convince the chief persist and elders that his authority comes from God.
“What do you think? he asks, “A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” His audience answers, “The first.”
The answer is obvious. That’s the only thing they can say. The first son doesn’t want to work, but he changes his mind and does what his father asks. The other son just flat out lied. It’s not quite that simple, is it?
We really want to root for the first son, but we tend to overlook is that his words matter, too. A story about a son who said no to his father would have shocked Jesus’ listeners. Even if he did change his mind! It simply was not done.
The priests and elders are in a bind. Jesus asks them a rather simple question for which there was no easy answer. Neither son did the will of his father. One says no—a big slap in the face! The other says yes, but he lies. Both sons disobey their father.
We all understand this. Once my father asked my sister to cut the grass. She said, “No.” That did not go well for her. (But let me tell you, the grass got cut.) Once I lied to my dad about feeding the dog. He found out. (And let me tell you, the dog got fed.) Sometimes we screw up because we give the wrong response. Sometimes we screw up because we lie.
Many people through the centuries have read this parable as an allegory describing God’s chosen people. The first son represents the Gentiles—those in Israel who came to believe in the Messiah though they did not at first. The second son represents the Jews—those who knew they should believe, but don’t.
It’s not hard to see why it would be read that way. Instead of hearing this story as an allegory let’s hear it more strait-forwardly as a parable.
It is not about which group we fall into. It is not about prejudicing one group over the other. It is about realizing that everyone gets it wrong sometimes—no matter who they are or what group they belong to.
On a recent trip to the Holy Land I learned about the political strife of the Israeli territory. Some Israeli citizens forcibly annex Palestinian land because they believe it belongs to them. Their actions are often violent and illegal. Some unfairly treated Palestinians retaliate by killing Israeli soldiers. Soldiers who in turn gun down Palestinian teenagers in the street. None of this is okay.
There is right and wrong in the world, and as Christians we are called to name it. It is our Christian duty to denounce hate, injustice, and oppression whether it’s in Charlottesville or Sewanee or Decatur.
It’s just easier when other people are doing it. But what happens when sin creeps a little closer to home?
What about those things we do in our daily lives that contribute to the tragedy of the world? What about the pounds and pounds of food we waste every week? What about the recyclables we throw away? What about the clothing we buy that was made by children in sweat shops?
What happens when we find ourselves getting angry when we listen to the evening news? Sometimes I hear stories about neo-Nazis and wonder if I haven’t become one myself. I’ve even said stupid things like, “They should all just be taken out back and shot.” We all get it wrong sometimes.
It’s easy to think others are in need of grace, but it’s harder to admit when we are. But there’s hope. Listen closely to Jesus. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
This is not damnation. This is a wake-up call.
Jesus does not say that the tax collectors and prostitutes will go instead of you. He says they will go before you. They will be there when you get there. And they will stay there alongside of you.
In this parable Jesus challenges us to understand that there is hope for all who sin, including you, including me.
Friends, it’s hard to fathom. If you are the one in the wrong, is there a chance for you? A chance?! There’s a promise for you! If you are the one in the right, is there a chance for the one who wronged you? A chance? There is a promise.
This is hard for us because we have been conditioned to believe that for us to be included somebody else has to be excluded. We expect that there are some who are too far removed to ever be included. Sometimes we might even feel that we are the one who is too far gone.
Let’s get really clear about what Jesus said. “Truly, I tell you, those who repent of their violent and illegal actions will go into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”
“Truly, I tell you, those who repent of their desire to condemn others will go into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”
“Truly, I tell you, those who repent of their wasteful and unethical habits will go into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”
There was a young woman who was away at college. She fell on hard times, dropped out,and started selling her body just to survive. She was drug addicted and living in the gutter. You don’t even want to know what her parents thought when they found out. You don’t even want to know the words that came out of their mouths. I bet you can guess.
They said, “You are never welcome in our house. You are never welcome at our table. We do not even know you.”
The good news is that God knows her. The good news is that God knows her parents. The good news is that God knows you and God knows me.
There is a table for her. There is a table for her parents. There is a table for you. There is a table for me.
Thank God there is a table for all.