Sermon: "Working in the Vineyard of the Lord"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32
We have recently focused on two parables: The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant and the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Both parables reflect the immensity of God’s grace. In the second parable, the landowner asks those hired first who have grumbled about their pay, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” This parable serves to remind us that although we may be the recipients of God’s grace, we run the danger of begrudging others the grace they have received. As Ron Rolheiser put it, “This is the catch, we can have everything and enjoy nothing because we are watching what everyone else is getting!” (https://liturgy.slu.edu/25OrdA092020/reflections_rolheiser.html )
In today’s gospel, Jesus’ authority is questioned. In reply, he ultimately tells the Parable of the Two Sons. Let’s briefly consider the context. After having told the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, Jesus once again foretold his death and resurrection. Matthew further tells us of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, of his having cleansed and occupied the temple, and of his continued healing and teaching in the temple. Jesus has not only upset the tables of the moneychangers and driven them out of the temple – he has more importantly upset the proverbial apple cart of the chief priests and the elders. After all, the temple was their domain over which they held authority.
In Matthew 21.10-11, we read, “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee’” (NRSV). A few verses later, Matthew tells us, “When the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself?’” (Matthew 21.15-16; NRSV).
After having spent the night in Bethany, Jesus returned to the temple and continued to teach. The chief priests and the elders came and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21.23; NRSV). This is the first of five attempts Matthew cites which were designed to undermine Jesus’ authority and credibility. The chief priests and elders knew Jesus was not descended from the priestly tribe of Levi, nor was he recognized as a legitimate rabbi. Al
though he was teaching the crowds in the temple, he had no teaching certificate, no bona fides!
Jesus responded with a question – a common rabbinic technique: “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin” (Matthew 21.24-25a; NRSV). The chief priests and elders realized they were hooked on the horns of a dilemma: If they said from heaven, Jesus would ask why they did not believe, but if they said from human origin, they would lose their credibility with the people. Thus, they replied, “We do not know” and Jesus responded, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Matthew 21.25b-27; NRSV).
Jesus then asked, “What do you think?” and related the Parable of the Two Sons. A man went to the first son and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He said no, but later went and worked in the vineyard. The man also told his second son to go and work in the vineyard; he readily agreed but did not go. Jesus then asked which son did the will of his father. The chief priests and the elders responded, “The first.” Then Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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” (Matthew 21. 31-32; NRSV).
How are we to understand this parable? What is Jesus saying? The word ‘vineyard’ was a common metaphor for Israel. As Rev. Scott Hoezee observes, one who worked in the vineyard would have been working to better the lives of the people of Israel. Hoezee says,
Vineyard work is grace work; it is compassionate and merciful work … [it is] first and foremost about others, starting with the folks you feel the most tempted to overlook (if not outright condemn). The reason John and Jesus found so many people who were hungry for the message of salvation by grace is because no one else had been proclaiming that message … We all get into the kingdom the same way: by the grace of baptism” (Scott Hoezee: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-21a-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel).
The tax collectors and prostitutes originally said no to doing God’s work on behalf of the people of Israel, but upon hearing the words of John the Baptist, they repented and were baptized. Their actions were tantamount to those of the first son. The chief priests and elders, although supposedly about God’s work in the vineyard, were doing nothing to alleviate the suffering of the people, nothing to extend a message of grace – in fact, they made people’s lives even more difficult. After hearing John the Baptist’s message, they refused to repent. They were like the second son who readily said “yes” but did not go to work in the vineyard. Thus, Jesus said the tax collectors and prostitutes would go into heaven ahead of them, or instead of them. Ouch! That had to sting!
All of us begin as the first as did the first son, we begin by saying “no” to God and “yes” to self. We call this original sin – sin which has come down to us since the story of Adam and Eve. If we repent, we are to begin work in the vineyard – grace work. Yet, there are some who have said “yes” to God who are still caught up in legalism. For them the Christian life is primarily thought of in terms of what one does not do, e.g., “do not drink, do not chew, do not go with girls who do.” Legalistic Christians tend to be joyless; they are still committed to the idea that one earns one’s way into heaven; they have yet to realize fully that salvation is a gift of grace. It can’t be – there has to be a catch! Like the chief priests and the elders, they choose not to associate with certain people! They also see God as visiting eternal damnation on all who break the rules!
How do we become grace-filled Christians such that we may skillfully work in the vineyard? Paul’s message in Philippians is instructive. Paul exhorts the congregation of Philippi to be of the same mind, to possess the same love. If they have achieved these things, they will fully agree with one another and will be “of one mind:” as such, they will make Paul’s “joy complete” (Philippians 2.2; NRSV). But Paul has a particular mind in view! The mind of Christ Jesus!
Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to his own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2.3-5; NRSV). And how does Paul describe the mind of Jesus? “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … he humbled himself and became obedient even to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.5-8; NRSV).
When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he did everything in his power to keep Jesus from emptying himself. “Go ahead! Use your powers! Command these stones to become bread!” “Worship me, and all the kingdoms of the world will be yours.” “Throw yourself down, for God’s angels will save you.” Go ahead, exploit your equality with God! Jesus, you’ve got it! Now flaunt it!” Jesus refused. The satanic would have us exercise our selfish ambition and conceit, would have us look solely to our own interests. The satanic would have us worship vain idols and, thereby, deny ourselves the grace of God. With God’s grace, we, with Jesus, can refuse such satanic ploys. We can pick up our cross and follow Jesus. Our old self will be crucified, but in baptism we are reborn into a life of deepening love and grace.
As we have experienced God’s love and grace, God would have us share this love and grace with others by looking after their needs, by putting their interests above our own. As Paul exhorts us, we are to put on the mind of Christ that we might effectively work in the vineyard of the Lord.