Matthew 21:23-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
23 When he 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?” 24 Jesus 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. 25 Did 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?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So 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.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father[a] went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which 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. 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.
The world works in a hierarchical manner. There are the elites (the 1%), who have money and power, and expect to be able to exert it. There is always a bottom group (47%?), those who are poor and struggle to make a living. They live at a subsistence level – from pay check to pay check (if that). Then there are those in the middle. There are actually many levels to this middle, from those who manage to live just above the poverty line to those who are knocking on the door of the elite. There is often a hierarchy to religious life as well – and it’s not just a clergy/laity divide. There are different levels of clergy – their status often dependent on the size of their congregations. Sometimes, especially in smaller contexts, where pastors (often young ones) come and go with some regularity, it is the clergy that can be found at the bottom of the pile. I remember my time in Santa Barbara a colleague telling me that his congregation essentially treated him as if he were a service worker. That is, they didn’t really see the difference between his professional status and that of a worker at McDonalds. Now, we who are clergy are supposed to be servants, but having an advanced degree and years of service as a pastor should gain someone at least a degree of respect.
In the Kingdom of God, things tend to be turned upside down. Those on the bottom may find themselves on top, and those who lived at the top end up on the bottom. The first will be last, and the last first.
The Gospel reading from Matthew tells another vineyard story – one of several in Matthew. Before we get to the parable, we find Jesus in a debate with the religious leaders about the source of his authority. The conversation occurs on the day after he entered the city in a triumphant procession. He had been welcomed by the crowds as Son of David and Messiah. They had waved palm branches and shouted Hallelujah! That would be the high point of the week. From then on the road would be rocky – ending of course in death on a cross. As he headed into town he happened to curse a fig tree because it wasn’t bearing fruit – was it a sign of judgment or was he just having a bad day? Matthew does say that Jesus was hungry and the fig tree was barren of fruit (Matthew 21:18-22).
When Jesus gets to the temple the religious authorities want to know: By what authority do you do these things – like healing and teaching? They want to see his credentials. What seminary did you graduate from? Do you have a M.Div.? Or, even better a D.Min. from an accredited seminary? Is it one authorized by the denominational office or is it an independent one? If the latter did you go through a remedial course so you can fit within our system? Even though I believe in an educated ministry (and have decent credentials), I must acknowledge that Jesus didn’t go to seminary! Not even an unaccredited one. In response to their questions, he turns the tables on them. He asks them about how they understood John’s baptism – is it from God or not? They decide it’s a lose/lose situation, since most people thought John was sent by God – even if they didn’t, so they refused to answer. In response, Jesus refused to give an answer.
The issue here is one of power. Those who have it, or think they have it, rarely wish to share it. The religious leaders didn’t recognize John’s ministry as being valid, despite its popularity. They also didn’t recognize the validity of Jesus’ ministry. He wasn’t one of them. He didn’t come from the proper families or have the proper training. But Jesus also was popular with the people. They needed to find a way to discredit him, but how could they do this? Jesus decides not to play their game, and so he moves on to his purpose – he had come to teach.
In an earlier parable Jesus spoke of a vineyard owner who had hired three different groups of workers, paying each worker the same amount, no matter how long they had worked (Matthew 20:1-16). This time he tells a story about a vineyard owner who had two sons. When he asked the first son to go and work in the vineyard, he first said no, but then decided to go after all. Then he sent the second son to the vineyard, and this son said – “sure, I’ll go.” But, in the end he flaked out and didn’t go and work in the vineyard. I guess he got too involved in his video games and forgot about his father’s request. Jesus’ question was – which of the two did the will of his father? The answer of course was the first. He may have refused at first, but in the end decided he should go. The second just flaked out. This leads Jesus to tell the religious leaders that tax collectors and prostitutes would get in to the kingdom before they did.
This passage has long been used to privilege Gentile believes over Jews who refused to accept Jesus as messiah. That could be what Matthew had in mind, but we need to be more careful – living as we do with centuries of Christian abuse of Jews for their supposed refusal to believe in Jesus. It is important that we avoid supersessionist readings.
In my own preaching and teaching I want to avoid those kinds of readings. The question then concerns how we should read it today. Could it be that Jesus is saying to us that we need to recognize that God’s realm doesn’t operate the way the world works. It is not the elite whom God turns to, but those at the bottom. This is, it seems, recognition of God’s “preferential option for the poor.”
There is another group that might fit the conversation. We know that there are a growing number of people who have been burned by religion. There are those who have been sexually abused by clergy. There are those who have seen supposedly holy church members destroy each other spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. There are huge numbers of walking wounded, who have totally given up on religion. It is better, they have decided to be spiritual without being religious, and who could blame them. Religion is often a rather ugly environment.
Whatever is the case, Jesus seems to be saying to us that those who are at the back of the line get to go to the front. God is concerned about the “least of these” and the ones who have lost faith in the religious system. Of course the question for us is – how do we as church respond? How do we provide a wholesome and healing environment where the least of these can be fed and clothed and where the wounded can find safe haven? Perhaps they need to go to the head of the line!