17th Sunday after Pentecost – Vicar Stoppenhagen
Text: Matthew 21:23-32 (Series A, Proper 21) 9/27/20
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.
This Sunday we return to the vineyard. But I have to be honest with you. In today’s director’s cut edition, we sadly don’t have any labor unions, mostly peaceful protests, or fiery ascensions into heaven. No, today’s episode of The Vineyard Chronicles is relatively simple, straightforward, but somewhat unsettling, because it strikes closer to home. Instead of disgruntled laborers, the master has to deal with his own sons and their decisions whether or not to go to work in the family business. Let’s begin.
“Go and work in the vineyard today,” the man said to the first son. The son thought for a moment and said, “You know Dad, I really won’t have time to go to the vineyard today. I’ve got to finish up some of my online classes, then I have soccer practice, and then I’m planning to go downtown with some friends tonight. And Dad, I’ve got to be honest with you. I heard what happened at the vineyard last week… I…I just can’t go.” And the Father, with a gleam in his eye, answered, “Suit yourself.”
Then the Father went to the second son and said, “Go and work in the vineyard today.” The son’s eyes lit up. “Oh, the vineyard! I’ll be there,” he said without delay. You see, the second son had double-majored in Viticulture and Business at Cornell and was developing rigorous plans to improve worker efficiency and production. His father had always taken a rather “relaxed” approach in his management of the vineyard, yet miraculously remained the top wine producer in the region. Nonetheless, the son knew it was time to restructure and take profits to the next level. “I go sir,” he pledged.
The first son, meanwhile, struggled through his morning lessons and had an unimpressive soccer practice. About the ninth hour, he was on his way home, when he walked by his father’s vineyard. He looked in the gate, and what he saw astounded him. His father was laboring alongside the hired help. It was nothing taxing; truly, the work was easy, the burden was light, and everyone was at rest. They were like a family. Dad was showing off his “becoming all flame” trick. To top it all off, the servants were preparing a magnificent feast for all the workers to enjoy at the end of the day. The son thought to himself, “How did I not see it before? This place radiates life.” A man dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist looked up, saw the son at the gate, and waved him in. So the first son changed his mind and went into the vineyard.
The second son, on the other hand, hustled down to the vineyard straight away. But when he peeked in the gate, what he saw disturbed him. There was his father, just lounging around with the workers! Sure, it looked like a little work was getting done, with his father carefully guiding some of the laborers, but it definitely wasn’t enough to meet production needs. Everyone was enjoying themselves, but most of them appeared to have no experience working in a vineyard. They looked like they just came in off the street! This certainly was no way to run a business. So the second son closed the gate quietly, snuck away, and disappeared.
Here ends the parable. Jesus efficiently helps us interpret. “Which of the two sons did the will of his father?” he asks the chief priests and the elders. Unwittingly convicting themselves, they answer, “The first.” “Exactly,” Jesus says. “So the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” Like the first son, the tax collectors and prostitutes didn’t have any expectations of what the kingdom was supposed to be. In fact, they were just too busy leading questionable lives that were far outside the realm of the kingdom. But when John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness they took his words to heart. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he proclaimed. And the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. They believed that life in the kingdom would far surpass any worldly pleasure that their present lives might give them. So they changed their minds, changed their sinful ways, and awaited the kingdom.
Suddenly, with Jesus, the kingdom of heaven broke into space and time. Those who repented and believed suddenly saw that all John had foretold was fulfilled in Christ. But Jesus was different than John; Jesus had a divine authority. His word had power! Jesus spoke, and things changed: “Be healed”—and sickness vanished. “Come out of him”—and demons fled. “Arise”—and the dead came back to life. Through his mighty deeds, believers experienced life and joy in all its fullness, a fullness that their former lives of money and sex and power could never provide. Like a third son for our parable, Jesus both promises to do something and sees it to completion in unexpected and powerful ways.
On the other hand, the chief priests and the elders are represented by the second son—the one who reneged and skipped out on vineyard. We forget that these Jewish leaders had been along for the whole ride. When John was out in the desert preaching and baptizing, they were there. When Jesus was preaching, teaching, and healing, they were there too. The priests and scribes had come face to face with the kingdom of God—just like the tax collectors and prostitutes. But like the second son, when they took a look into the vineyard, saw the peace, the joy, and the forgiveness, they said, “No thanks.”
And that’s what makes the parable so unsettling—we don’t know why the second son chose not to go to the vineyard; we don’t understand why the priests and the elders didn’t believe. Perhaps it was all too mundane or too radical or too life-changing to be the kingdom they expected. We just don’t know. I can’t help but grieve a little bit for them and the life they missed. Jesus himself seems surprised when he says, “Even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe.”
In the end, we’re still left puzzling over anyone who would see all that Jesus has to offer and say, “No.” For those of us who are cradle-to-grave workers in the vineyard, it’s a no-brainer: It’s what we do every week! Even the latecomers to the party know that the Father’s feast is without compare. But there are still many who come into the land of living, see the goodness of the Lord, and shake their heads and say, “This isn’t for me.”
Faith is a fickle thing, and Jesus shows us today that we can’t simply thrust it into someone’s hands. The Holy Spirit generates faith when and where and in whom he pleases. We should certainly share the riches of the Gospel, and Jesus’ words do still have power to change hearts and minds. But in the end, it’s the Spirit who calls, gathers, and enlightens Christ’s Church. So we who are already in the vineyard have to take the humble and uncomfortable position: We kneel, and we pray, and we lean on God’s unfailing wisdom. We trust that, in his own time, God will open the eyes of those who wander through this life, unaware of the riches of Christ’s kingdom. It does happen. Even a few of those Jewish elite ultimately changed their minds and believed. (Nicodemus comes to mind for me.) Who knows? Perhaps that second son will wake up tomorrow with eyes opened wide, ready to see and believe.
The gates of the vineyard are still open, after all—so come, taste and see that the Lord is good.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.