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 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 past couple of weeks, Jesus has been speaking with his disciples and offering guidance on what it looks like to be his follower, one who helps to bring about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus has talked about how to handle conflict among the community of Jesus followers. He’s talked about how many times to forgive someone, which can be summed up as – if you are keeping track it isn’t really forgiveness. And Jesus has taught about how God is not fair when it comes to God’s love, but rather God is gracious – giving and distributing love even to those who we might think don’t deserve it.
Today, there is a scene change. Jesus is no longer standing around his disciples, but rather he is standing in the temple of Jerusalem surrounded by the religious authorities. And the tension is thick. Just a couple of verses earlier, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, with people waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna in the highest!” But not only did Jesus ride into Jerusalem, but he entered the temple complex, that holy and sacred space where there were people selling animals for sacrifice and exchanging Roman money for Jewish money, and he tore the place apart. Flipping over tables yelling and screaming, driving out, because as he put it, they were turning his house of prayer into a den of thieves.
Now, imagine that Jesus comes into your house, tears down all the wall paper, breaks the windows, flips over the furniture, and then has the nerve to show up the next morning.
Well, that is where our story picks up. It’s the next morning and Jesus has re-entered the temple area, that he had torn apart the day before. And it is important to remember that to the religious authorities, Jesus is a temple nobody (Feasting on the Word, vol. 4, pg. 116.) To them he is this unwashed preacher from the streets, who comes striding into town like he’s the Messiah.
Which would be like me putting on a suit and trying to walk straight into the House of Congress in D.C. so that I could tell them how to do their job. They would laugh and says, “And who do you think you are?”
Which is exactly the question the high priestly religious authorities in charge of the temple ask Jesus. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Who do you think you are Jesus, strolling in here and destroying our temple marketplace and acting like you own the place? What gives you the nerve to do that? They ask him because they think they are the only ones with that authority.
Well….it’s not like Jesus can say, “God told me to do it,” because that would just sound crazy. So like a good rabbi, Jesus answers the question with a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Interestingly, Jesus turns the attention away from himself and towards John the Baptist. That other rag-tag street preacher, who got thrown in jail for being a threat to the religious authorities and then had his head cut off by King Herod, an actual person with religious authority in Israel.
And with this question, Jesus traps them. They can’t say that John was from heavenly origin or else they will be asked why they didn’t follow him. And they can’t say he was only of human origin, because that big crowd gathered around Jesus thinks of John as prophet and they just might revolt and causes trouble if they say he was only of human origin. So they punt and say, “We don’t know.”
Why does Jesus turn the attention to John? Well, John was another person who was challenging what it meant to have authority. John was the one who invited people out into the wilderness for a baptism of repentance, which Jesus participated in. This wasn’t standard religious practice. It wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. People were supposed to go to the temple for their religion and to sacrifice an animal to have their sins forgiven, but John was just offering it freely in the woods. As you can imagine, this threatened the big wigs, the big deals in the temple. So by pointing to John, Jesus is saying, “Well, I’m like John. I come from the margins. I come from the outsiders. Just like John. And you couldn’t see God at work in John, so how could you possibly see God at work in me.”
“Jesus, where do you get your authority?”, they ask. “Not from any place you are familiar,” Jesus responds. Whatever and wherever Jesus’ authority comes from, it won’t be a traditional form of power and authority. He won’t be like any of the typical religious authorities that hang around the temple. He will be bringing a new way.
So, it is at this point, right after Jesus has trapped them with his question about John, that Jesus speaks three parables to these religious elites.. Today, we heard the first. The other two comes in the next couple of weeks.
Jesus tells them a somewhat simple parable about a man who has two boys. He asks the first to go and work in the vineyard and the son says no. But then a couple of hours later, the father looks outside and there he is working away at the vines. The father asks his second son to go out and work in the vineyard. This son says yes, but then four hours later, he’s still on the couch playing video games. Jesus asks these religious authorities which one fulfilled the will of the Father. Of course, they know the answer – the first one. The one who obeyed.
It seems simple, but it isn’t the clearest of Jesus’ parables. But then again, none of them really are. And if we are not careful, we can easily turn this parable into being about morality. ‘Actions speak louder than words’, or ‘Don’t be a hypocrite’, or ‘Obey God or else!’ We could say this parable is about about being good, obedient boys and girls, and then you would all leave here feeling guilty and thinking that the message from today is that you need to go and be better than you have been. But I don’t think that is the message. Or at least if it is, I think it’s kind of boring.
But whatever this parable is about, it seems to be about changing one’s mind. Jesus said that the tax collectors and prostitutes changed their minds about John. But the Pharisees didn’t.
I find that to be much more interesting. That Jesus wanted them to change their minds but they didn’t. We don’t like it when people change their minds. It makes them look weak or too unpredictable. Just look at John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential campaign. It appeared that he changed his mind on the war in Iraq and he was called a flip flopper and destroyed his campaign. We don’t like the idea of people changing their minds. Especially in politics.
But Jesus seems to be open to it. In this story, changing your mind is a good thing. To change your mind is to be open to something new.
For the Pharisees and the temple authorities, they had no interest in changing their minds about what God could be up to. For them, God and God’s action was confined to the temple. It was quite literally God in a box. God could not possibly be at work in a crazy man out in the woods offering baptisms of repentance, and therefore God certainly couldn’t be at work in this peasant carpenter’s son from Nazareth who is causing trouble in the temple, knocking over tables and telling people to get out.
They couldn’t or wouldn’t see it. They couldn’t be open to God doing something new. But even,, and perhaps especially the people who seemed godless (like the tax collectors and prostitutes) could see it.
And so we are confronted with the same question: can God do something new? Can God be at work inviting you to change your mind on something you have always believed?
This past week, something significant changed. I have often heard the complaint that if Muslims are against terrorism and violence, how come they never come out and say it? This week, they did. Twice. In Rochester, a moderate Muslim was frustrated by the lack of Muslims speaking out against ISIS and terrorism. So, she did something. She organized an interfaith event in Rochester last week calling for tolerance and peace. On top of that, this past week 120 Muslim scholars wrote a letter to the fighters and followers of ISIS saying that they are not following in the teachings of Islam. And they are, in fact, calling on all of us to no longer refer to them as Islamic. Because they aren’t.
Something has changed. Could God be at work, doing something new within the Muslim community that could lead to greater understanding and a more peaceful world?
Or take Sara Miles’ story. Sara Miles was raised a devout atheist, and as a result, she was never baptized as a child. But then, during a particularly difficulty time in life, at the age of 46, she found herself wandering into a church. She had never heard of a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer, and had no interest in becoming a Christian. But then, inside there were 20 people holding worship and they invited her in. And to Communion. And she went. And there, at the table of Holy Communion, she discovered a faith that fed her – literally. And that newly discovered faith led her further into the trenches of hunger and food insecurity as she proceed in the years ahead to turn that church into a food pantry for hungry people in San Francisco. Now, she is a well-known and highly sought after speaker and author for the Christian church. Atheist and unbaptized, yet invited to the table of Holy Communion. Could God be at work doing something new with people like Sara Miles, inviting the Christian church to make more room at our Communion tables for people we wouldn’t typically invite there?
So, can God do new things? And if so, what new thing might God be up to now? In the world? In this church? In your life? Because the moment we try to put God into a box and try to keep God there, like an old treasure in a museum in need of protecting, is the moment God will break out. In an unknown carpenter’s son from Nazareth who will speak of God’s love and forgiveness to people who will kill him.. In courageous outspoken Muslims, in Christians inviting atheists into the sacraments, and atheists brave enough to partake.
God is up to something new in the world. God is up to something new in you. And we are called to go out and look for it. And not only that, but to participate in it. So as you leave here and get back to your daily lives and the paths you’ve taken many times before, may you discover new eyes for God at work in the world and in your own life. And may the peace which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ, now and always. Amen.