Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – 10.01.17

Our gospel reminds that raising children is not for the faint of heart.  In his parable Jesus employs a theme that we can relate to today, and would have been very familiar to the people of Jesus’ day.  Many of the foundational stories of Judaism include sets of sons – Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Aaron and Moses, David and his brothers.  Those stories often have themes of envy and betrayal, struggles for power and sometimes reconciliation.  Jesus calls the sons in the parable “children” which spoke directly to his listeners because the people of Israel are often identified as God’s children.  The vineyard is also a symbol of  Israel in Jewish tradition.  The people listening to Jesus would have heard much more symbolism in the story than we do.

This story takes place two days after Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the day we celebrate as Palm Sunday.  The setting is the temple, which Jesus had cleared of the merchants and moneychangers on the previous day.  At this point, we might say Jesus is occupying the temple, he has the attention of the ordinary people and the chief priests and elders.  Although the chief priests and elders claimed to be the representatives of the people, in reality the people thought of them as being identical with the rich, powerful landowners in the region because they also controlled large parcels of land.  They were in collusion with the Roman authorities, not just to preserve their faith, as they claimed, but for their own power and enrichment.  They often manipulated the crowds to support their agenda.

The challenge presented by the chief priests and elders to Jesus is the first in a series of five challenges, we hear them as distinct stories but in reality, it was one long debate that they engaged in with Jesus.  This challenge asks two questions: “By what authority are you doing these things?” (cleaning out the temple) and “Who gave you this authority?”  Jesus has the upper hand, so he sets the conditions for his response to them.  Before he will even consider answering their questions, he asks them: “Was John’s baptism from heaven, or was it merely human?”

Now the chief priests and elders were in a bind, because they know if they deny the legitimacy of John’s baptizing, the crowds will be furious, because John was extremely popular with the people.  If they affirm John’s baptism as being legitimate in the eyes of God, Jesus will ask them why they weren’t baptized by John.  They decide to take an easy way out and reply “we don’t know.”  Score:  Jesus one, chief priests and elders zero.  They lost that round.

However, Jesus isn’t finished with them.   He decides to continue his challenge to their authority by speaking in parables, and the first is our parable for today about the two sons.  We are familiar with kids who tell us “no” when we ask them to do something.  In Jesus’ day, it would have been much more scandalous because for a son to talk that way to his father was deeply disrespectful.  We are also familiar with the son who tells his father “yes” but then never goes to do the work.  How many times do we tell our kids to clean their rooms but two hours later the room is still a mess and they are reading a book, playing with toys or, if teenagers, texting their friends.

The point of the parable is that actions speak louder than words.  Jesus is pointing out that the chief priests and elders failed to believe and respond to John, so it reveals the truth about them.  Jesus’ authority is affirmed by his integrity, because his words are always followed by actions which result in healing, restoration, forgiveness, table fellowship and compassion for all.   That is why the crowds followed him, they recognized integrity when they saw it, especially in contrast to the selfish actions of many of the chief priests and elders, which did not match the words of scripture and the law that they liked to quote.

Our reading from Philippians helps us to see how our actions can speak louder than words, especially when we emulate the actions of Jesus.  Paul was very fond of the community he had founded at Philippi, and his letter to them shows his love for them as well as his spirituality.  Paul is talking about living the Christian life both in community and as individuals.  They have enjoyed God’s grace as a community and so Paul reminds them to act as people who acknowledge that gift.

Paul appeals to the people to practice communal unity and individual humility.  Roman society at that time was based on honor and status, but Paul tells them that instead of focusing on upward mobility, they should be willing to relinquish privileges in favor of honoring and caring for others.  That does not mean to be degrading of ones’ self, or encourage low self-esteem, but to use the gifts that we have been given to honor and help others.  Paul insists that this way of life is not only important for us as individuals, but it is vital to the well-being of the community as a whole.

You might have noticed in verse 12 the phrase, “work out your own salvation.”  That might sound like works righteousness to us, because we believe that salvation is the free gift of grace given by God.  What Paul means is not obtaining our salvation, we cannot do that on our own, but living out the salvation we have been given.  Recognizing that free gift of grace means that we will show obedience, humility and public witness to the love of God for us.

Once again, we are back to the idea of actions speaking louder than words – because we are saved by the free gift of God’s grace, we will live a life that emulates the life that Jesus led to the best of our ability.  We will reflect on the gospel message, see the example that Jesus set of unwavering love, compassion and mercy for all, and act that way ourselves.  There may be times when we are like the first son – we may respond negatively to a challenge out of fear or a lack of confidence.  But ultimately, we will take action in the right way, we will honor God’s intentions for us.  It is far worse when we say yes but don’t really mean it.  Paying lip service to the lessons we are taught about how to live our lives in accordance with God’s will, without taking action that reflects that, means nothing.   When our actions reflect our faith, our belief in the example that Jesus set, that means everything.  Amen.

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