Matthew 21 v23-32
21:23 When he 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?"
21:24 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.
21:25 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?'
21:26 But if we say, 'Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet."
21:27 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.
21:28 "What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.'
21:29 He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went.
21:30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go.
21:31 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.
21:32 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.
Immediately before our gospel reading today we have Matthew’s account of Jesus cleansing the temple and also cursing the fig tree , and then he teaches his disciples about the importance of faith , that if they have faith enough they could tell a mountain to throw itself in the sea and it would be done.
The chief priests and elders ask by what authority he does these things. Is this a genuine query or are they trying to catch him out? if he says that his authority is from God he will be accused of blasphemy and arrested. His time to be arrested has not yet come and and Jesus shows wisdom in that instead of answering their question, he poses the question about John the baptist, which the Chief Priests cannot answer.
We are to be wise. Wisdom is a Christian virtue; the book of Proverbs has much more to say about wisdom than I can cover in a short homily but in particular the writer of Proverbs exhorts us to ’seek wisdom.’
In Matthew 10 v 16 Jesus tells us to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves.
We are of course to try to be loving and kind and hospitable and to have all those other positive virtues which we know about. But we are not to be gullible or foolish, we are to be wise .
I’m sure you will have ideas about what wisdom means in your situation.
What occurs to me at the moment is the need for wisdom to stay safe and stay sane in the light of the pandemic with it’s attendant risks and rules and also the need for wisdom to avoid being taken in the the internet and telephone scams which seem to be an unfortunate part of modern life .
Then Jesus tells a very simple story about the two sons: one says he will help in the vineyard but doesn’t do so, the other says he will not help but then changes his mind and helps his father in the vineyard.
A first and very simple lesson from this story is that we are to keep our word, to be reliable. If we say we will do something, we should do it if we possibly can. This creates trust. The trust that people will do what they say they will is, it seems to me, an essential part of the oil which keeps society running smoothly. When trust breaks down, problems start.
You might think that the issue of trust, of sticking to agreements that we have made, is pertinent in the present political situation.
As Francis Urquart said in House of Cards, I could not possibly comment.
On a brighter note may I remind you of the elephant Horton in Dr Seuss’s ‘Horton Hatches the Egg’?
“I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful one-hundred percent!”
Actions and words
Another lesson from this same story might be ‘actions speak louder than words'.
Words are of course very important and can be very powerful for good or for ill. In this story, however, what the sons said to their father is over shadowed by what they actually did. And if we look through the gospels we find that much of Jesus’ teaching is about actions, about what we do rather than what we say.
Imagine the scene. The temple is the holiest of places for the Jewish people and Jesus is speaking to the Chief Priests and Elders. No doubt they would be dressed in fine clothes, the appropriate religious regalia. These were the religious professionals, the archbishops of their day, perhaps.
And one thing they really know about is religion. They know what to wear, how to pray, when to pray, what they can and cannot eat, how to stay ritually clean. They know the lot.
Yet Jesus tells them, to their faces and in public, that people at the other end of the social spectrum, the despised tax collectors and prostitutes will get to the kingdom of God before them. Can you imagine their faces? And maybe the response of the crowd? Maybe laughter or maybe a gasp of shock that Jesus had dared to speak like this to the Chief Priests.
The chief priests, for all their pomp and ceremony, their prayers and religious practice, either did not realise that John the Baptist was sent by God, or chose not to believe it. I suspect they were very comfortable as men of status, of wealth, of importance in the community: to follow John’s teaching would have meant some uncomfortable changes in the way they lived their lives .
So they were like the son who said he would go to the vineyard but did not actually go.
They said all the right words, the right prayers. They talked to God in prayer and they talked about God to the people. But they didn’t actually want to be challenged or changed by God. They were comfortable as they were, thank you very much .
What of us? This passage is a clear challenge for those of us who are people of faith.
Are we more like the Chief Priests or more like the tax collectors and prostitutes?
Do we say all the ‘right‘ things but not want to be challenged or changed?
Are we comfortable as we are or do we hunger and thirst for righteousness?
Do we long to be more Christ-like ourselves?
And do we long for a fair and just world? For God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven?
We live in very difficult times, so I want to end on a note of reassurance rather than challenge.
God’s word tells us not only that God created all things through Christ but that Christ holds all things together. You and I are known and loved by God.
St Paul tells us :
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And Theresa of Avila left us with this blessing :
Let nothing disturb thee,
nothing affright thee;
all things are passing,
God never changeth!
Patient endurance attaineth to all things;
who God possesseth
in nothing is wanting;
alone God sufficeth.
Finally, here is a link to a song which you may like to listen to. It is called ‘Let Nothing Disturb You‘ and is by Garth Hewitt. My apologies to those of you who are reading this on paper: the link does not work on paper! Maybe you could get someone to play it for you ?
Bless you all, Paul.
Click on the link above the homily.