Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost; 27 September 2020; Proper 21A (RCL); Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32.
Last week we had the parable of the owner of the vineyard paying all the workers, regardless of when they were hired, the same daily wage. This week we have the parable of the two sons, one who says he won’t work in the vineyard, and then does, and one who says he will and then doesn’t. What’s going on here?
There are lots of parables in the Gospels about vineyards and vines. I suppose we could just assume that vineyards formed part of the common cultural background of Jesus’ hearers and the readers of the Gospels, so it made an easy illustration – just like sheep and shepherds.
But, I think there is something more going on here – especially in this context. The chief priests and elders ask Jesus by what authority he is doing “these things.” I don’t know why the designers of the lectionary chose to chop things up the way they did, but we skipped over the “things” Jesus is doing. We’ve skipped over the triumphal entry, when Jesus comes into Jerusalem riding on a donkey’s colt, with the crowds acclaiming him as the David’s son, who comes in the name of the Lord.
That’s already shocking enough. No one would have missed the implications. Jesus is riding into Jerusalem as a king victorious over his enemies. It’s not called the triumphal entry for nothing. He is not coming as a conqueror, but as the rightful king of Jerusalem victorious over God’s enemies.
And then, once he gets into Jerusalem, he enters the Temple and overturns the tables of the money changers, and drives the animals out of the Temple. We call this act the cleansing of the Temple, and we tend to think of it as ridding the Temple of activities that should not be happening there.
But really, everything happening is perfectly fine. It was illegal to carry Roman currency in the Temple, only the Temple shekel. So, if you came from Galilee or anywhere else, you would have to change your coins. And, it was unlikely that you would drive a lamb on the three-day journey from Galilee to Jerusalem; instead you’d sell your lamb back home and buy another at the Temple.
The problem was the graft. The money changers took their cut; the animal sellers took their cut; and the Temple authorities took their cut. It was how they could afford to keep the whole affair going, and dress themselves in the best robes. The revolutionary feeling in the air was directed at the Temple authorities as much as at Rome. So, understandably the Temple authorities and Rome would be pretty distressed with Jesus.
So, they ask him on what authority he does “these things” – riding into Jerusalem, creating chaos in the Temple courts. So, Jesus responds with his own question: John’s baptism – from heaven or humans? They’re trapped and refuse to answer, so Jesus refuses to answer their question, and then tells this parable, and connects it to the tax collectors and prostitutes.
In the Old Testament, the vineyard was a metaphor for God’s people, and the justice they were supposed to live. In Isaiah 5, the prophet sings a song of God’s vineyard. God cultivates the vineyard, and it repays him by yielding wild grapes. The poem ends with God saying, “I expected justice, and instead found bloodshed; I expected righteousness, but instead heard a cry.” Jerusalem is the vineyard, and the poem is the prophet’s indictment of their failure to live up to God’s purposes.
So, in last week’s parable the vineyard owner paid the workers a just wage. We all say, “But it’s not fair.” Fairness wasn’t what he was going for, but making sure everyone in the village had enough to eat. And in this week’s parable, one son says he won’t work in the vineyard, and then does; the other says he will and then doesn’t. The implication is clear. The religious authorities appear to be the ones working in the vineyard, but aren’t. The tax collectors and prostitutes appear to be the people breaking the rules, but as a result of John’s preaching and baptism, are in fact working in the vineyard – that is working for justice.
This stands things on their head. The tax collectors, at least the little guys, were probably people who had been taxed off their land, and were collecting taxes on their neighbors as a way of working off their own debt. They had no choice; their families would go hungry otherwise. Prostitutes were probably women who had been divorced and had no other option to feed themselves and their children. These are people shattered by the systems of oppression at work around them, doing their best to scrape by.
And, according to the parable, when they hear John’s preaching, they enter the kingdom of heaven. That is, they start taking care of one another, helping each other get by. In the Old Testament there are laws about not harvesting all the grapes in your vineyard, so there would be some left for the widow and orphan, so they wouldn’t end up tax collectors and prostitutes.
The religious authorities, on the other hand, are benefiting from the systems of oppression. Jesus’ challenge to them is to see the tax collectors and prostitutes as the son who at first refuses to work in the vineyard, but who then go, and ourselves as the other son.
To the extent that we benefit from systems of oppression, we are those authorities. Think of the coca farmers in South and Central America. They are doing what they have to do to get by. The international trade agreements limit what those countries can export (mostly oil), so there isn’t much else they can do. Most of the coffee grown in Central America comes directly to us, and the conglomerates have pushed people off their subsistence farms in order to grow coffee. The little guys can’t grow beans on that land anymore, so they’re left to grow coca. The combination of these two parables asks us to rethink justice and our position in the kingdom of heaven. Maybe those people we find easiest to despise know something we don’t.