Thursday, September 25, 2014

Reflections on the text – Matthew 21:23-32

Read the text here: Matthew 21:23-32
Will You Work?
Well, things are beginning to heat up.  Immediately before our passage for today Jesus has entered into Jerusalem in triumph – Hosanna to the Son of David!  He immediately goes to the Temple, enters it and begins to push over tables - …you have made (my house) a den of robbers – Jesus yells at them.  The next day Jesus is confronted by a group of the leaders of the Temple with an obvious question – Who gave you this authority to do these things?  It is of course a trick question.  Jesus cannot answer it without getting deeper into trouble.  If he says God is the source of his authority he would be immediately denounced as a blasphemer; if he names a teacher or a human source for his authority he would be denounced as misguided and dangerous.  So, he turns the question back on his questioners – Where did John the Baptist get his authority?  Wow!  This is an even harder and thornier question.  If the authorities agree that John’s authority came from God, then why did you oppose him; and if from a human source then that response would anger a large part of the crowd, for in death John has achieved a bit of celebrity status.  So – they refuse the answer the question.  And Jesus refuses to answer the question.  And the question of authority goes unanswered… but not really.
For what happens next is that Jesus changes the focus of the question with this simple little parable that he tells them: A man had two sons.  The man also has a vineyard, and if you know anything about vineyards you know that they require a lot of work.  The vines need to be pruned constantly, and when the grapes are ready they have to be picked right away in order to have the right sugar levels for good wine.  It is a tricky business.  So the day has arrived – the grapes need to be picked and the man needs all the help he can get.  Son #1, will you come and work in the vineyard today?  Yeah, sure – comes the answer.  Great!  Son #2, will you come and work in the vineyard today? No, I’m busy!  Fine.  The father does not argue.  He accepts the commitments of his sons as they are and, presumably, goes himself to work in the vineyard.  And there he is joined, not by Son #1 – who had agreed to work, but rather by Son #2, who had declined to work.
What is Jesus saying here?  As with all of Jesus’ parables there are any number of possible interpretations that are possible.  But for today this is what I suggest.  Think of the vineyard as life in this world, and the work to which the sons are called as the work of the Gospel.  This work also represents the future, my future and your future, and the future of the community of Christ, the church.  The invitation to work in this vineyard, in this context is in fact an invitation to enter into the future. Of course the future is uncertain.  Anyone who has ever grown grapes can tell you that you will not know if they are any good until after they are harvested.  So the work has the potential to lead to failure and to hard times, disappointment and loss.  But, at the same time, the work has the potential also to open up a wonderful and productive future, which is successful and filled with promise - and perhaps also a little of both.  So will you work in the vineyard – will you enter into the future – will you trust and take a chance?
Son #1 seems to want his father to believe that, yes he wants to participate, that he wants to enter into this unknown future and that he will do the work, even though there is no assurance that it will be successful.  But, wait.  Things are fine the way they are.  Why take the chance; why entertain the risk when I can just ignore the present work and hold on to the past.  The past is set.  I am familiar and comfortable with it.  I have a vested interest in maintaining it.  It makes me feel secure. There is no risk there – maybe.  So, I will not go to work in the vineyard of the future, because the past is so much more comfortable.  Even though I have promised to work, even though I am pretending to be all for doing the work – I really have no interest in it.  It is too scary.
Son #2 has an initial reaction that is probably pretty familiar to all of us.  You can just see him rolling his eyes and hear the sigh.  I don’t really want to do that.  It sounds exhausting; it sounds tiresome; there is no assured benefit.  I really have better things to do.  But, as he reflects on it he begins to realize – the work represents the promise of the future.  Son #1 thinks by ignoring the work, refusing the work he can forestall the future and maintain the past.  He is wrong.  The future will come; change will come regardless.  The question is really whether or not I, Son #2, will be a part of the work; will enter into and take hold of the promise; whether I will step into the future or take refuge in the past.
Jesus asks the Temple authorities at this point to tell him which of these sons is doing the will of the Father; which of these two sons is acting in harmony with God, the Father.  Well, they answer, the 2nd son, the one who went to work.  Right, says Jesus, the one who is willing to step out of the past and embrace the gift of the future.  You Temple authorities are the 1st son, you are too rooted in the past. This past is where you get your authority and so you have a vested interest in maintaining this past.  But God, the Father is inviting you to step out beyond it and into the uncertain yet potentially glorious future.
What about us?  Which of these two sons do we identity with?  How many of us are more like Son #1, who is afraid of change, refuses to try new things and just wants to hold on to the past even as that past is crumbling around us.  How many of us can join Son #2 and enter into the future, going to work in the vineyard of the world, the community – working to build a new future – trusting in the promise of the Gospel?  These are the questions this parable confronts us with.  It is scary and uncomfortable to accept change and to be willing to move beyond the chains of the past.  But no matter how wonderful the past was it is now gone and we must be willing to step into the future no matter how uncertain it is and embrace its potential.
So, will you go and work in the vineyard?  And when you get there I think you will find that God is already there working and ready to work with you and support and embrace you as you move forward into the future.

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