Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 27, 2020
Matthew 21:23-32 Commentary
A while back I heard an old Jewish witticism in which someone asks his rabbi, “Why do rabbis always answer a question with another question?” to which the rabbi replied, “Why shouldn’t a rabbi answer a question with another question?”
So also in Matthew 21: Jesus side-steps the question of the Pharisees as to the source of his authority by asking them a related question about John the Baptist. Jesus and John were not only cousins but they were also similar in that each had appeared from out of nowhere and performed a ministry that meant a great deal to a lot of people. So Jesus says, “Let’s back up one step to my predecessor John: if you can tell me where his authority came from, then I’ll tell you where mine comes from.”
Jesus asks this knowing full well that the answer to both questions was the same. Neither John nor Jesus had any human authority. Neither had gone to seminary, neither had been licensed or ordained. If either John or Jesus had any true authority to claim, it had to be from God directly. But no prophet or rabbi in Israel had ever had that distinction since Moses.
But that’s just where Jesus had them: it was a well-known fact that the chief priests had despised John the Baptist. John had, after all, called them names, placed them on a par with everyone else who came out into the desert to see him. Credentials, advanced theological degrees, and their Sanhedrin “Members Only” gold card cut no ice with John nor, John said, did it matter to God. If even the Pharisees wanted to be saved, they had to submit to John’s baptism of repentance the same as everyone else.
They didn’t of course, but a lot of other folks did because they believed John really was a God-sent prophet. So the chief priests were quite neatly stuck. If they said that God himself had authorized John, they would be revealed as opposing God in that they opposed John. Then again, if they said that John had no real authority from anyone, John’s admirers would get mad. Being cowards at heart, they didn’t want to have anyone upset with them and so say to Jesus, “We don’t know.” Since they didn’t live up to their end of this verbal bargain, Jesus then says, “Well, then I’m not going to tell you about my authority, either.”
On one level, it appears that Jesus is merely being cheeky. On a deeper level, though, Jesus is simply recognizing that there is very little sense in talking to people who are so closed-minded. They were not really seeking information. Their minds were made up about Jesus long before they asked their sly question.
Even at that, however, Jesus doesn’t drop the conversation. He goes on with a little parable. We have one father and two sons. When the father orders the one son to go to work, he replies, “Forget it, Pop! I’ve got plans, things to do, people to see. Pick your own grapes!” But then, sometime after his father walks away looking rather wounded, the young man’s conscience gets the better of him. So he changes out of his fancy going-to-town clothes, throws on his overalls, and heads out to the vineyard. Meanwhile the father has approached his other son and made the same request. “You got it, Dad! I’m on my way!” The father walks away from this exchange feeling good that at least one of his boys knows how to treat his old man with respect. But then, unbeknownst to the father, this boy high-tails it over to the mall to spend some time with his friends and so never does go into the vineyard.
“Which son would you rather have?” Jesus asks. “Who really did what his father wanted?” The answer is obvious, so the chief priests give it, but the meaning of it all was a little less clear, so Jesus spells it out for them. John the Baptist really had come from God and, as such, he really did tell people what God wanted them to do. The people who looked like lowlifes and spiritual losers–the folks who had, by all outward appearances, said “No” to God–they ended up coming around to God’s message after all. They admitted their sins, let John baptize them, and so did what God wanted in the end.
But there were others in Israel who had for so long been saying “Yes” to God outwardly yet ultimately didn’t follow through. They looked like fine and upstanding sons of God. They dressed right. Said all the right things. Made all the right promises. But when push came to shove (as surely it did when John the Baptist confronted everyone with his fiery message of repentance), these same folks turned away from God. Their former “Yes” was undercut by their having said “No” at what turned out to be the pivotal point in God’s plan of salvation.
Not all parables are allegories, of course, at least not in the sense that you can (or even should) try to line up each parabolic character with a real-life person. Sometimes you can even ruin a parable by over-interpreting it. In this case, however, the parable lends itself to an allegorical reading.
But I wonder if there isn’t a deeper meaning beyond just identifying who is who. After all, when precisely was it that the tax collectors and prostitutes and others said “No” to God? Wasn’t it more the case that they had never had a chance to answer God one way or the other precisely because the religious authorities never even addressed them? Because furthermore, although we can quite well understand that the Pharisees had said “Yes” to God, what exactly was it that they had agreed to do but then didn’t end up doing?
After all, from the outside looking in, it surely looked like the chief priests were following through on their “Yes” to God. Who followed the law better than they did? Who did more acts of piety and more stringently avoided sin than the Pharisees? How could Jesus compare them to the son who said “Yes” but then didn’t follow through? The entire existence of these folks looked like one giant effort at following through. Yet Jesus seems to indicate that when it came right down to it, they were missing something so fundamental that it was apropos to compare them to the duplicitous son who said all the right things but who finally failed to do what his father wanted.
How so? Because, I would suggest, they missed the core of God: grace. All throughout the Bible, including the New Testament, Israel is often compared to a vineyard. So in this parable, I suspect that when we hear the father asking his sons to work in the vineyard, it is the equivalent of asking people to do good work among the people of Israel, whoever they were. That’s where the chief priests failed. Think about it: why did it take an outsider like John the Baptist to issue a kingdom invitation to marginalized folks? John did it first, but then Jesus himself continued giving this invitation in his own ministry. Jesus was always hanging out with what the chief priests considered “the wrong crowd.” Indeed, the very fact that Jesus associated with “sinners” counted against Jesus’ being on God’s side.
But first John and then Jesus reached out to these lost, wayward, sorry souls and they did so because until then, no one else had reached out to them. What John essentially said and what Jesus went on to confirm is that it was precisely those people who constituted the vineyard in whose midst holy work was to be done. If you ignored those folks, wrote them off as hopeless and so not worth the Temple’s time, then it was the equivalent of telling God you would work in his vineyard but then never doing it. Because vineyard work is grace work; it is compassionate and merciful work. Vineyard work is not about focusing on yourself and other upstanding, good folks like you.
No, vineyard work was always supposed to be first and foremost about others, starting with the folks you feel the most tempted to overlook (if not outright condemn). The reason John and Jesus found so many people who were hungry for the message of salvation by grace is because no one else had been proclaiming that message. The Pharisees actually avoided these people. God, they thought, likes only certain types of folks, and so if a given person did not appear to be in that likeable category to begin with, then the duty of the devout was to steer well clear of such a greasy character. But John declared that God wanted exactly those fringe folks. We all get into the kingdom the same way: by the grace of baptism.
What’s more, if you really understand that your own salvation depends on that gift of grace, you are only too happy to share this good news with anyone who will listen. You won’t wait for other people to clean up their acts and become more buttoned-down like you before you share the good news. You won’t wait for anything before getting out into that vineyard of needy people so as to minister to them however you can.
When you say “Yes” to God the Father, Jesus claims, you are simultaneously saying “Yes” to the least, last, lost, and lonely people God holds dear. So if you say “Yes” to God but then focus only on your own piety or on other people who are already just as religious as you are, then you are essentially being like the son who said all the right things when Daddy asked but who turned right around and did nothing that the father really wanted.
Two notes on the text: First, The New American Standard Bible reverses the order in the Parable of the Two Sons. In the accepted Greek text (as reflected in most translations like the NIV and NRSV), the first son says “No” to his father but then does the work anyway and the second son says “Yes” but never goes to the vineyard. The NASB, however, based its translation on another Greek manuscript and so, based on that, reverses the order found in places like the NIV. The point of the parable is the same but if a preacher were not aware of the switch (and found him- or herself in a church that uses the NASB in their worship services), it could lead to confusion!
A second textual point ties in with a verb in verse 31 where Jesus indicated that the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God “ahead of you,” referring to the religious leaders. Commentator Dale Bruner believes that this is an example of a form of argument called meiosis by which the upshot here is that these other people will enter the kingdom of God not just first but rather they would enter the kingdom instead of the religious leaders and others of their ilk. The Greek verb there is prosagousin. So does Jesus indicate that the leaders would never get into the kingdom or is there hope held out here that they would/could do so, albeit only after these others? Is this an extension of Matthew 20:16 of “The first shall be last and the last first”? Calvin Theological Seminary New Testament Professor Emeritus Dean Deppe comments on this as follows:
The common meaning of the verb in verse 31 is “to go ahead” of someone, not necessarily “to go instead of.” This is brought out in Matthew at 14:22 where the disciples go ahead of Jesus across the sea. He does join them later, walking on the sea. Or in 21:9 the crowds go ahead of Jesus into Jerusalem with him then following them. Or in 26:32 Jesus will go ahead of them into Galilee. They will join him later.
But the context of Mt. 21-23 does need to be held in mind. In Mt. 21-23 Matthew is demonstrating that God did not forsake his people, Israel, even though the Jewish leadership has not accepted Jesus’ claims. Instead the Jewish leaders forsook God by not receiving the servants that God sent. Psalm 118 is placed at the beginning, middle, and end of this section as proof from Scripture. Jesus shows that he is the rejected stone of Ps. 118:22-23 so that the expected Messiah needs to be seen as a suffering, rejected Son of David. So there is an “instead of” idea in the passage. But it is not that Gentiles replace Jews. It is those who believe in God’s messengers and produce fruit (both Jews and Gentiles) that replace unbelieving Israel.
So in summary, the verb in Matthew 21:31 does mean “to go before,” but for those who do not repent, accept Jesus’ ministry, and produce fruit, it becomes “go instead.” Still the invitation to be gathered like a hen gathers her chicks remains as well. God has not rejected his true people.
Some while back I read an article by a pastor who had grown frustrated with something his parishioners often said to him. When people got into a difficult stretch of life, sometimes they would drop out of church completely. The pastor would, of course, call on them to see why they had disappeared from the fellowship but so often the answer he would receive went something along the lines of, “Well, pastor, as soon as I get this mess all straightened out in my life, then I’ll come back to church.” But, this pastor wrote, that is a little like saying, “My stomach ulcer is real critical just now but I’m thinking it might calm down and as soon as it gets better, I’ll check into the hospital.”
That’s a backward way to think but I would suggest we turn this analogy in a slightly different direction: because if it is wrong to avoid church when we find ourselves in a bad situation, it is equally wrong to say that we aren’t going to minister to people outside the church until they have first pretty much been cured of whatever has been ailing them spiritually. But that changes the church from a hospital (where sick people should be able to come) into a Club Med where only the already healthy are welcome.
That was the problem Jesus was targeting in Matthew 21: Jesus came to remind everyone that as bearers of spiritual healing, the first task God’s people must do is to stay with the sick (and with even the chronically ill, with those who struggle repeatedly with sin and temptation). The problem was that the chief priests and others had long since made their religious inner circle into a kind of “Members Only” club–a place that did not tolerate the messiness of people who did not keep the rules as neatly as the Pharisees could do.
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