At first read today’s gospel seems to be three separate messages, a question and answer time between the temple leadership and Jesus, a fairly straight forward parable and a statement from Jesus of who will be first in the kingdom of God. The three parts seem random and disconnected, at first. To see how they are connected, it is necessary to know the timeline of when these comments originally took place.
This gospel taken as a whole is about a power struggle, who has power and who does not. It begins describing a meeting of Jesus with the chief priests and elders in the temple in Jerusalem. This happened near the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, what we celebrate as Holy Week now. Just before this meeting, Jesus had entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, with great cheers and affirmation from the people. Hosanna in the highest, they have shouted. And then right after that parade, if you will, Jesus had entered the Temple, his Father’s house, the holiest of Jewish sites, and had overturned the tables of the money changers. Jesus expressed great anger at those who had used this holy place to extort money from those who were there to worship. Although the Temple leadership was usually recognized as the top of the power chain, at this moment, Jesus was in the place of power with the people. The Pharisees, the chief priests, knew their position was in jeopardy and that they needed to tread lightly as they sought to get rid of this man Jesus.
As the morning’s gospel story begins, it is the day after his triumphant entry, the second day of his occupation of the temple and we find Jesus teaching. Most likely he has drawn a large crowd of those who had been there the day before and who had seen and participated in all that had happened. At this moment the crowd would have been on the side of Jesus in any argument with these Temple authorities.
So the established leaders who are afraid of Jesus and the threat he poses to their standing come to him to discredit him. They do so by questioning Jesus’ authority. Jesus knows better than to answer them directly. At that point, he had the advantage. The obvious answer to their question from our perspective, post resurrection, is that Jesus was his own authority, or perhaps that his authority came from God the father. In this cat –and-mouse game though Jesus knew that a direct answer would only have helped his opponent’s cause. They could have saved face and gotten rid of him without any further action on their part. The confrontation that would eventually lead to Jesus’ crucifixion would probably not have happened if they could get rid of him now
So, Jesus asks them a question rather than give an answer to theirs. And the question he asks is to put them on the spot. It is a bit like a tennis match, advantage chief priests, advantage Jesus, back and forth. Jesus knew, as did his opponents in this argument, that John had been very popular with the people. The predicament for these Jewish leaders is that if they answer the question one way they will anger the crowd and if they answer the other way then Jesus has them in their non-belief. Either answer will have undesired consequences so they tell him they do not know. It seems then that they are at an impasse.
But Jesus does not let it go that easily. Next he tells a parable, on the surface a seemingly simple one. It is about two sons. Before Jesus gets very far into the parable, this in itself would carry meaning to his listeners, both the powerful Jewish leaders and those who had been listening to his teaching. The Hebrew tradition has many stories that are about sons: Cain and Abel, for example, born of Adam and Eve. The jealousy of Cain towards his brother comes from God seeming preference for Abel’s sacrifices, and it leads to the first murder. This was a well-known foundational story of the Hebrews.
Another example is Jacob and Esau. Again, one child is favored over the other, this time by the earthly parents. Then through deception one gains privileges that by birth order belonged to the other. And there are more examples, Aaron and Moses, Joseph and his brothers, David and his brothers. These are pithy stories of envy, jealousy, murder, deception, kidnapping, rejection, and struggles for power. Occasionally they are also stories of reconciliation, reconciliation through love and care that brothers have for one another.
Knowing his audience, Jesus tells this parable at this moment that resonates with the Israeli tradition. Most of his hearers would have recognized and paid attention to what he was saying.
As I said, at first it seems a simple parable. When asked to go work for their father one son says no and the other says yes. And yet when it comes down to it, the one who actually does the work, is the one who said he would not. When Jesus asks, what do you think? It seems on the surface that only one answer is possible, “actions speak louder than words”.
But perhaps, put into the context of this entire argument with the Jewish leaders, Jesus’s message might have been, it’s ok to change your mind about me. It’s ok to stop and think about what I have been saying and doing and to see me not as a threat to your power but rather a revealing of God’s power. Although time is short, you can still change your mind.
Of course, most did not get it; who Jesus was, where his authority came from, what change they were being presented with, and what repentance they were being asked to do. It is no wonder Jesus’ frustration with these leaders comes out in the last part of today’s passage when he tells them that notorious sinners and outcasts will enter God’s kingdom ahead of them.
The passage taken in its entirety pulls those listening into a decision about power. Does true power, authentic power, come from the Jewish establishment, these leaders, or does it come from Jesus?
Hearing this passage during Holy Week it would be a part of the tension leading to the climax of Jesus’ death. But in the church year, this is not Holy Week. The purpose in hearing it now in the green season is to dig deeper into it. So, I wonder, where do we fit in this passage; what might we be invited to learn from Jesus words and how might we respond to the argument that this passage describes. Is this struggle of divine power versus the world’s power still one we experience today?
Similar to what we are doing this semester in the “praying to go” meditations, I am going to read this gospel a second time. I invite you to listen to it again, to close your eyes if you want to and let the words invite you in. Take a few longer breaths now and relax into the message that comes through.
“When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
And they argued with one another, “If we say ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”
So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They said, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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.”
You may or may not want to share with another what you experience of this gospel is today. What I heard through this gospel is that Jesus speaks to us.
He asks us, you and me, “Will you go work in my vineyard today?” How will we answer?