The truth hangs over them like a cloud
Proper 21, Year A, Track 1,
Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
The truth is hanging over these elders and chief priests like a cloud. At least according to Jesus, they saw it yet they did not change. We try to understand where these leaders are coming from but we are only given the opportunity to listen to them speaking to each other; no arguing with each other. As a collective, they speak with one voice, “We do not know,” yet as individuals they argue with each other as to the origins of John the Baptist’s authority. Even in this disagreement, we truly do not know what any of them think personally, we only hear how they believe others will construe their answer.
For anyone who thinks politics has no place in the church, here is a great example of Jesus reacting to politics. These elders and priests know their constituents. If they say one thing their base will come after them and they may not be chosen as elders next year. If they give into the other side, they will give credence to the party they do not like and Jesus will be justified. Through their past and present rhetoric, they have painted themselves into a corner and the only way out is with indecision. These elders dodge the hard question by not answering it. There is no record of them even discussing the question at a later date in the privacy of their own confines. We don’t know of any open debates in which they tried to answer this contentious question. The elders just seem to be happy that they safely got out of it.
But really, how safe is their indecision? Jesus doesn't think that they got out of it at all. He tells them “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” I wonder if Jesus would have condemned them if they would have just answered the question. Jesus doesn’t say we have to have the right answer all the time.
Before Jesus tells them that they are going to be last, behind prostitutes and tax collectors, he tells us a parable of two sons. This seems to be such a simple parable and the answer seems obvious, but there are some helpful subtleties to point out. A father asks his two sons to do a mundane task, to work in the vineyard. Now often in the Bible, a vineyard metaphorically means the place where God’s people are. One of the sons says “yes, I’ll go,” but he never does. The other son, in my opinion speaks from his heart, and says, “I will not.” Though eventually, this boy does go work in the vineyard. It doesn’t matter why he hesitated or changed his mind, all that matters is that he did eventually go to work where God’s people are.
I find that seeing the vineyard as the place where God has sent us to work very helpful. It allows us to see the work that these elders and priests were to do. We see that they are the ones who say yes. They claim to be doing God’s work but are they actually doing it? Jesus sets up the comparison of these leaders with the lowest of the low. With the people who know that they are not doing God’s work in the world, the prostitutes and the tax collectors. But even these lowly people change when they believe in John and the news he is telling. They are changed by this news because to believe in John’s baptism is to believe in a baptism of repentance.
This is where I would really like to hear these elders in conversation over this issue. Opening ourselves up to ask the hard questions while being honest in answering them to the best of our ability is better than staying blind to the issue altogether. Even if our view is not socially acceptable, we can be in conversation with others around us so that we can learn and gain a deeper understanding of the other perspective. Whatever side of the issue we may be on we are living authentically only when we understand our neighbor. If we are like the Elders in this story and wall ourselves off from the reality around us, we haven’t even taken the time to understand the issues in depth. We are simply reacting to the people we disagree with and aligning ourselves with those who support us.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” Paul says. “But in humility regard others as better than yourself.” Paul is saying the same thing as Christ just a bit more directly and broadly. To be honest Paul’s words seem to be more convicting. After all, we can look at Christ’s story and say we are not like the Elders. We may be able to claim that we go into vineyard among God’s people to work, but can we honestly say that we do this without looking down upon others?
When I see a car bouncing down the street with the radio blaring, do I think to myself there goes a person who is better I? When I look at a house which seems a bit run down and trash strewn around, do I think here lives a person that is better than myself? I wish I could, but I don’t. Through Jesus’s ministry, he offers us many convicting ideas. He says we are to give to everyone who asks. He tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves even though we often cannot imagine our neighbor being anything like us. Today he says we are to hold them in higher esteem than we hold ourselves. Christ often seems to ask the impossible. Some people resign to the impossibility and they feel that they shouldn’t even try. But Jesus asks us to go out over and over again. To go out into the vineyard and do his father’s work in the world. He knows we, just like his disciples, will not always get it right.
I find that it is often in our failures that we learn humility. Have you ever cooked something that didn’t come out right but every just laughed and enjoyed themselves anyway? Or have you ever failed in a project or failed in a promise and had to ask forgiveness? In failures such as these, we become humble and our relationships became stronger with the people who offered you help? The strength that comes from these relationships is because at the moment of our failure we felt rather small. Yet the people around us didn’t continue to tear us down. Instead, they raised us up and put us as an equal to them again.
We can do the same for those we do not know so intimately. In building our relationships with one another we can begin to see others, not as failures, but as equals. We can see people in a new light insted of a disappointment to our community. This is the common humanity that we are called to. When we fail to realize our common humanity, we are no better than the leaders in Jesus story who all but scoffed at Jesus when he tells them that “the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”