Below is my sermon from October 1, 2017, on Matthew 21. I find this parable–which is only found in Matthew–so interesting because it leaves so much unsaid. We don’t know any of the characters’ motivations, thoughts, or even the reactions after the fact. What do you think led them to make the choices they did?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When Jesus entered the temple, our reading begins today. The isn’t the first time he has entered the temple lately. Just a few verses before our reading today, Jesus enters the temple a first time—listen to what happened then:
“Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.”
Our reading today is the first time Jesus is back in the temple since creating chaos and disruption. Just imagine with me, if someone walked into our church in the middle of worship—not to join us—but to tell us we have made a mockery of Christianity, and to tear down and criticize the things we lovingly care for.
We, too, might ask: By what authority are you doing these things? Who are you to tell us, good people of faith, that we are wrong? Jesus turns the question back to them, though—asking where they think John the Baptist’s authority came from. Their careful deliberation of this question reveals that they are not truly interested in his answer, or even their true feelings. They want to say the right things to keep their positions secure.
Jesus knows that. He tells this parable of the two sons to catch them in their maneuverings. They can say whatever they want, but their actions reveal the truth in their hearts. They did not believe John, and they do not believe Jesus. Actions speak louder than words.
It’s easy to hear this parable and feel superior to the chief priests and scribes, who tried to trick Jesus and got tricked themselves instead. But these scribes and elders aren’t bad people. In fact, the scribes and elders are us. They are religious people.
They are the first-century equivalent of church council, Sunday school teachers, and altar guild. And here comes someone they don’t know telling them everything they do is wrong. They want to do what is right.
But just because we want to do what is right doesn’t mean that’s what always happens. How often are we that second son, who tells his father he will go and work but does not go? Often, our actions do not match our intentions, however good they might be. Things happen.
We don’t know why the second son doesn’t go and work. Maybe something important happened. Maybe something happened to prevent him. Maybe he decided he just didn’t care.
Sometimes, even despite our efforts, we fail to live up to our expectations of ourselves. Sometimes our expectations might be too high. Sometimes we might decide they’re just not worth it. Maybe it’s the little things—saying we’ll meet a friend for coffee and backing out at the last minute, saying that work project is top priority and putting it off, saying we’ll do that chore today and then not following through.
But sometimes it’s bigger things: saying we’re not racist, or sexist, or homophobic, but not calling out the inappropriate joke by a friend. Praying for the poor, or for victims of injustice, but not living in ways that will help them. In both the big and little ways—our actions speak louder than our words, and sometimes we fail to live up to our expectations of who we are.
There is another, though, who doesn’t do what is expected. And that is God in Jesus Christ. Our reading from Philippians, known as the Christ hymn, celebrates the ways that Jesus surprises and confounds our expectations: though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.
No one expects the God of heaven and earth to come among us in the form of a peasant from a country town. The chief priests and elders certainly didn’t. But God’s reversal of expectations leads to a savior who takes upon himself all of our failings and shortcomings, and gives us back only grace and mercy.
And so Paul exhorts the Philippians, and us, to live out their salvation, to live out that grace and mercy, by having in us the same mind that is in Christ Jesus. Were you the second son, failing to live up to your own good intentions today, or yesterday, or last week? I was, at some points. It’s ok.
Today, each day, presents a new day, a new opportunity, in which God asks us to go into the vineyard and work. To go into the everyday places of our lives and shine God’s light through our words and actions. Are we going to get it completely right? Probably not. But each moment is alive with the promise of God’s grace, with the possibility of what we might do in response to that love. Each moment is an opportunity to go into the vineyard. Amen.