Lectionary Reflection, 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
September 25, 2011
For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. Matthew 21:32
We have conflict and questions of authority aplenty in the twenty-first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. I suspect Jesus must have been pretty frustrated with the constant baiting and niggling questions of the religious leaders. Can’t a guy just teach and save people in peace? Now they want to know by what authority he acts and teaches.
True to his teaching methods, Jesus returns their question with a question of his own. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Check. The smell of entrapment fills the temple air, and no easy answers are forthcoming. Answer “heaven” and the leaders have to explain why they rejected the teaching of a man of God. Answer “of human origin” and they’ll face headless John’s angry followers. What’s their response? They pick the popular “no comment” out. Check Mate. Game of wits over: Jesus wins.
He could have stopped right there, but it’s story time in Jerusalem, so Jesus pulls out a parable. It’s a simple little story with a big point. A dad asks his sons to go out to work in the family fields. The first son says “Not me!” but then experiences a change of heart and goes to work. The second son says, “Sure, Daddy!” and then doesn’t show. Who did the right thing? “What do you think,” Jesus asks his esteemed opponents.
Even the religious leaders see this answer as a “no brainer.” The son who says no but then goes is the more honorable of the two. Shame and honor were everything in first century Jewish culture, so although neither son is behaving as the father deserves, at least the first son experiences a change of heart and mind and comes through in the end. It’s a classic case of lip service versus elbow grease, of saying versus doing.
The point of the story–and a sharp one indeed–indicts the temple leadership for their lack of faith and inaction. Even the worst scum (translate tax collectors and prostitutes) will be at work in the kingdom reality of God’s reign before the almighty religious leadership. Yup, the least and the lousy will change their ways and what they value, recognizing the source of real authority and leadership.
Lutheran Pastor Brian Stoffregen feels that the key to this parable is the word metamelomai, translated in the NRSV as “changing one’s mind” (vv. 29-32), in its more literal sense of “changing what one cares about” or “to change what one is most concerned about.”
Perhaps Jesus, the Living Word, asks us this question today. Are we willing to change that which we care most about? How will we answer? Who are we in the story? Do we in our congregations give lip service to the gospel? Does our worship say “yes” to God while our ministry and mission say “no”? Are we willing to get out there in the messy fields of life, roll up our collective sleeves and get to work?
Looking at the story from the point of the individual disciple, are we among the least and lousy who at some point have fought God tooth and toenail about following but who have experienced that change of heart and mind and gone to work for the divine family business? The alternative is choosing other forms of authority, other aspects of life about which to care and serve–self over sacrifice, stuff over selflessness, or work and success over worship and sanctification. Do we know better but choose otherwise?
What prevents a person from changing that which he or she is most concerned about and choosing instead to put discipleship first? This is a hard question that just begs to be spoken in proclamation and teaching. Are you willing to address it and ask those with whom you serve to think long and hard about it?
Whatever you do, don’t let this question be the “elephant in the room” next Sunday. It’s a big elephant, and it takes up a lot of empty pew space. Wouldn’t it be nice to move that ponderous pachyderm on out and start filling those pews with living, breath folk who experience a change in their lives concerning what really matters?
Oh, but don’t be too comfortable as you wrap up your teaching and preaching points. Take a sneak peek at next week’s gospel (Matthew 21:33-46)–wherein Jesus plunges ahead with another tough parable. We have our work cut out for us, dear friends. What will it be–yes or no?
Peace and blessing on your preaching, teaching, and leading.
Show the children a basket of cookies or other treats. You could also use stickers or small prizes. Tell them you will give each of them one in just a little bit. Keep them in clear view. Tell the children the parable of the two sons, but modernize it. You can even have the children act the story out. Instead of working in the field have the siblings do chores or be asked to walk the dog or take out the trash. When you have finished the story/improvisation, ask the children which of the two siblings did the right thing. Talk about this in terms of their lives, about the importance of doing what they say they will do. Finish with a prayer similar to this one:
Dear God. Thank you for giving us hands, feet, hearts, and minds to serve you. Help us to do what we say we will do and keep our promises. You are faithful to us; help us to be faithful to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Tell the children to go and have a good week! See if any of them remembers your promise of the treat. If they do, thank them for helping you remember to do what you said you would do. If none of them remembers the promise, then you “suddenly remember” and give them the treat.