Sunday 27 September 2020
Jesus is sometimes referred to as Rabbi, so it is no surprise that he uses the rabbinic technique of asking questions in order to teach. The opening question, addressed to the chief priests and elders in the text of today’s gospel from Matthew, appears to be an open-ended invitation to them, and us as readers, to form our own opinion about the parable of the two sons that is to follow. “What do you think?” It’s an engaging question. It makes us think that we are free to come up with our own particular view. But then Jesus asks us a second question at the conclusion of the parable, and it does not provide us with all that liberty. You get the sense that Jesus is confident that anyone who considers the scenario in the parable is almost bound to come up with the response he is expecting to the question: “Which of the two did the will of the father?”
There is an echo of the method that Nathan used in a question that he put to King David in 2Samuel 12. Do you remember the situation? King David commits adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. When she tells him that she is pregnant, he eventually has Uriah sent to the front of the battle where he is killed.
The prophet Nathan tells David the story of a rich man with many flocks and herds who took the one precious lamb of a poor man to provide a banquet for a guest. Nathan means David to respond with anger against the rich man, which he indeed does. Then Nathan challenges him with the blunt statement, “You are the man!”
So Jesus is very much in this mode of forcing the chief priests and elders, and of course, now us who read the Gospel, into a position of admitting the only correct answer to the question: “Which of the two did the will of his father?” – which then has repercussions. Clearly, if the correct answer is that the son who initially says “No” to the father’s command, but then goes and does the work he was asked to do, and we know it, it has special consequences for us in relation to God’s commandments.
You see, the more that I read the passage from Matthew concerning the father’s direction, I am struck by the significance of the fact that the parable is concerned principally with work being done. The command is all about action. In the case of the parable, it is about the obligation to work which follows from the father-son relationship. For us, it is about the obligation to work that flows from the relationship that we have to God through Jesus by virtue of our Baptism.
In other words, there seems to be a clear expectation that God’s commands to us are about doing work – work for the proclamation of the kingdom. We have heard Jesus say earlier in Matthew’s Gospel: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock….And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.
Clearly, being a follower of Jesus does not allow us the luxury of saying our private prayers and going to Church on Sundays without actually doing some work for the kingdom in between. We pray and we worship to equip us and strengthen us for the task of work that God has for us.
In the parable, the work that needed doing was pretty cut and dried. Once in the vineyard, the son would know from the time of year and the progress of the fruit what exactly it was that he needed to do – whether to prune or pick or something else.
It is probably not quite as easy for us as we go into “our vineyard” – the daily rounds of our lives. It is for us to consider our lives and our circles of interest and contact and try to discern what it is that God might be commanding us to do as work.
The plain message from the Gospel passage today is that whatever the work is that we need to undertake to proclaim God’s kingdom in our place, God expects us to do it. There is no excusing ourselves and retreating into a world of private religion.
Let’s just reflect for a moment upon our lives and what it is that we think God might be expecting us to do this week to make a difference, to help make God’s kingdom evident in our world. And as we reflect on that, let’s pray for the courage and strength to carry it out.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen