Sermon in Ankara for Trinity XVI (27th September 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin
As we make our way Sunday by Sunday through the Gospel according to St Matthew it is helpful sometimes to remind ourselves of the context within which Jesus is teaching. Today's Gospel passage describes what happens after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. Jesus then entered the Temple and drove out the money-changers and traders. He healed sick people in the Temple before going to spend the night at Bethany, presumably with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. In the morning he returned to the Temple and continued to teach.
The chief priests and elders now challenged Jesus by questioning his authority: "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" They may well have thought that this was an ingenious question. Presumably they were expecting Jesus to name his teacher, which would enable them to place him in a convenient theological box and remind him that they, as the religious leaders of Judaism, were superior to any rabbi, however learned or inventive. They were probably not expecting the implication present in Jesus' counter-question, that his authority might come from heaven.
For Jesus responded to his questioners by asking them a question of his own. "Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" This was a clever question, as Jesus' adversaries immediately realised. We may recall Voltaire's observation that we ought to judge a person by his questions rather than by his answers. If Jesus' opponents said "from heaven" Jesus could reasonably ask them why they did not believe him, and if they said "of human origin" they would antagonise the crowds who regarded John as a prophet. Either answer would play into Jesus' hands, so they said "We do not know". One can imagine the answer being muttered through gritted teeth. They had not answered Jesus' question so he in turn declined to answer theirs. Round One to Jesus!
The question of Jesus' authority, of course, is fundamental to Christian faith. If Jesus' authority is of human origin then he would no different from other inspirational thinkers like Socrates or Gandhi, and his followers would merely be competing with those of other thinkers in trying to find the most attractive form of the Good Life. If Jesus' authority comes from heaven, however, it is an authority that demands full submission and obedience. It gives the Church a unique claim to be performing God's will. The word "authority" will return with the Great Commission with which Matthew concludes his Gospel narrative. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," said Jesus. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The Church's claims to be proclaiming God's word and obeying his commands are based fundamentally on this authority from heaven given to Jesus.
After confuting his opponents with his question Jesus now continued his teaching by telling a series of parables. The first of these, the Parable of the Two Sons, is short but rich in allusion. The Old Testament is full of encounters involving two sons. We may call to mind Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, and Moses and Aaron. As I was preparing my sermon I heard that friends had had a second baby boy. I pointed out to them that the pairs of brothers described in the Old Testament are often not particularly good role models! The "sons" in the Parable are actually called "children" in the original Greek, and in the Old Testament the people of Israel were often identified as God's rebellious children. The vineyard was often used as a symbol for Israel. All this Jesus' original listeners would certainly have known. So Jesus is not simply telling a story at random. The parable is firmly located in the context of God's relationship with Israel.
The contrast between the two brothers is one of action as opposed to word. Jesus and his adversaries agreed that only one son did the will of his father, namely the one who said "No" but nevertheless went to work in the vineyard. Actions speak louder than words. Jesus used this parable and his opponents' reaction to it to show that their refusal to believe and respond to John identified them with the son who said "Yes" and did nothing, unlike the tax-collectors and prostitutes despised by religious Jews, who did believe John and thus represented the son who said "No" but went to work in the vineyard.
In comparing the chief priests and elders and the tax-collectors and prostitutes to the two sons in the parable Jesus made clear that he regarded both groups of people as God's children. Yet it is their actions rather than their words which reveal those willing to obey their Father. The son most expected to understand and to do God's will represents the religious leaders of the day, who have failed to respond to God's calling revealed in the teaching of John and of Jesus, while the other son represents those despised as outcasts who have nevertheless acknowledged God's work in John's baptism and message.
The question for us who hear again this familiar parable is "which son do we most resemble?" Are we like the son who says all the right things but does nothing or are we like the son who changes his mind in response to God's call and does what is asked of him? On this occasion there are only two choices. Archbishop Robert Runcie once gave an interview in which he was asked his opinion on the controversy of the day. "On the one hand," replied the Archbishop, "but on the other hand...but on the other hand..." Quick as a flash the interviewer asked, "But what would you say, Archbishop, if you only had two hands?" On this occasion there are only two hands available. We have heard the Parable of the Two Sons. It is clear and it is memorable. It is for each of us to answer the question, "Which son am I?"