Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

by Crossings

Matthew 21:23-32
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 21–Sunday between September 26 and October 2 Inclusive)
analysis by Michael Hoy

23When Jesus 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?” 24Jesus 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. 25Did 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?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So 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. 28What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go sir’; but he did not go. 31Which 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. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe in him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed in him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

DIAGNOSIS: Keeping the Old Way

Step 1-Initial Diagnosis: Promise Breakers–Not going (even after saying you will)
When the Father comes looking for those who will do his will, what will he find? More often that not, there will be those who will say one thing but do another. The response of the first son is an outright “no,” so obviously unrighteous that few of us would risk being that wrong. Hence, the response of the second son, “I go sir,” sounds more faithful. But while sounding promising, it is followed up by actions (really, non-actions) that belie going. So also Jesus’ inquisitors give every outward appearance that they are interested in doing the Father’s will, but they cannot give Jesus a straight answer to his counter-question. They give an answer that they think gets them off the hook, leaves them looking OK, but it really doesn’t. We are also prone to that tactic.

Step 2-Advanced Diagnosis: Not changing one’s mind (= not believing)
What they had was an opportunity in Jesus’ question to change their minds (unlike their own question to Jesus, which was only to entrap). But they did not. And why not? Because they were fearful of being incriminated–and not simply by Jesus or by the crowd, but by John’s call to repentance. That would signal that there is something wrong with their lives. So they pass on the opportunity, thinking that thereby they avoid incrimination. So do we, in our unbelief.

Step 3-Final Diagnosis: Not getting
But incrimination is not avoided. And the truth is, they (or we) really couldn’t change their minds, even if they (or we) wanted to. We are locked in to our way of depraved thinking. But that does not make us any less accountable for our failure to change our minds. The final result is that we get locked out as others go into the “kingdom of God ahead of you.”

PROGNOSIS: Gaining a New Way

Step 4-Initial Prognosis: Getting Authorized
The priests and the elders will follow through on their plans to have Jesus crucified, thinking perhaps that that will put the incrimination to rest. It will, but not in the way they could perceive. Jesus has another plan, a cross purpose, in mind for those who are promise-breakers. HIS Promise, even though death, gets kept! His authority is authority over death for all who are locked in the dungeon of being ultimately incriminated for their poor intentions, and even poor showings as God’s children. This Son of the Father sees to it that the incrimination to death is itself put to death, and he has the authority to triumph.

Step 5-Advanced Prognosis: Changing one’s mind (= believing)
We get to cherish Jesus’ unintimidating presence as “authority enough” over any incriminating presences. Even as the text appears to speak of believing “in John,” it is believing that John’s call to repentance is something not to be feared — even for all its incriminating, damning evidence; for Jesus’ cross-purposes are to have us claimed as his righteous ones. And that is something we get to embrace, to believe, to live with a changed heart and mind.

Step 6- Final Prognosis: Promise Keepers–Going (saying “yes,” even after first saying “no”)
What we get to do — note, get to do — is to go about the Father’s business in the vineyard today. Even after we said “no,” even after we had seemingly put ourselves in the Father’s dog-house with our disobedience and unfaithful being, Jesus’ reclaiming of our lives gives us the authority to say “yes” in spite of what we once were. We cling to his promise, we keep his promise, and we keep the promise in the Father’s work today.


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