Matthew 21:23-32 Philippians 2:1-13
16th Sunday after Trinity – Harvest
Today, most churches would celebrate the Harvest Festival, focussing on the goodness of God in giving us nourishment through his creation. In ordinary times, the church building would be decorated in keeping with the theme, and people would bring produce to be distributed to those in need. We would share a meal and rejoice in fellowship. It is right to thank God for providing. There’s also good reason to look at the subject of harvest in a wider and metaphorical sense which is what the readings for today are hinting at.
Keeping up appearances. When you hear those words, your first thought may be of a certain television show, in which one particular person tries to show herself off to her peers as more sophisticated than others. Or rather, she wants to fit in with a certain crowd, as a denial of her more humble origins. Whichever way you look at it, the storylines give us ample opportunity to laugh at her failed attempts, and sympathise with her long-suffering husband; after all, it’s only comedy.
In today’s world, comedy works like parables, a bit like last week’s clergy joke. We can choose to identify with one or more of the characters and chuckle at absurdities that are not our own. Or we can stay aloof and say it never applies to us. Whether we see it as something that entertains us or offers some enlightenment into our own behaviour, the choice is ours.
In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 21, we see Jesus at the Temple, and being challenged as to why he is there. Earlier, he had overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves and cured the blind and lame. The following day he was there again, teaching. The priests and elders came to him and began to question his authority: ‘Why are you doing these things? Who gave you the right to do this?’ Which was probably a nicer way of saying: ‘Who do you think you are?’ The Temple officials don’t get a straight answer, rather a question is asked back, about the baptism of John; whether they thought it came from heaven or was of human origin. Ah, now that’s tricky: if they say ‘From heaven’, then Jesus will say to them, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ And if they say, ‘Of human origin’, the crowd will take offence, because they all believe John is a prophet. In their minds, Jesus is just some upstart from Galilee, but he has a considerable following, so … They have to give an answer, so they decide to say they don’t know. ‘Well, in that case,’ says Jesus, ‘I won’t tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’ Jesus then tells a parable, about two sons, who are each told by their father to go and work in the vineyard today. One says, ‘Yes’ and doesn’t go. And the other says ‘No’, but changes his mind and does go. The latter, Jesus indicates, is the one who does the will of his father, and in the same way, the tax collectors and sinners – the despised groups of society – will be going into the kingdom of God ahead of the priests and Temple officials. In terms of harvest, those who were once out of God’s will have eventually shown fruitfulness with regard to the vineyard that is the kingdom of God. Because those who claim to be more religious than others nevertheless don’t really do what God says, therefore lacking in fruitfulness. But those who have first said ‘no’ to God and became lost in their lives, have later changed their lives around – have repented – and are counted among God’s people before the religious leaders, who thought so highly of themselves.
Keeping up appearances. It doesn’t always work, as we well know. In the end, you’re always found out. That is a painful experience, no doubt. But even there God offers redemption. Philippians 2 encourages all to regard others as better than ourselves; to look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others. To look at Jesus, who, for love alone, was found to take on human form and die so that we might live. Acknowledge him as Lord, and you will find life in abundance. Then thank God for the harvest in more than one sense. To the glory of God the Father. Amen.