The priests and the elders in this morning’s gospel are located somewhere near the center of power in their part of the world. No, they aren’t Romans, but they are high up in the religious and cultural life of their time. Their cultural and religious dominance may be under dispute—Jesus himself is clearly calling their temple-centered authority into question, and it’s important to note that they represent one kind of Judaism, not “the religion as a whole”—what they stand for may be under dispute, but they still manage to locate themselves at the top of a hierarchy. They are to be treated with respect.
And yet, for all their power and privilege, what’s most notable about them here is their fear and their lack of agency. As Jesus gets them to admit, they are so afraid of what they call “the crowd” that they can’t even think straight. For all their power and privilege, the high priests and the elders in this morning’s gospel are unable to make a simple declarative sentence about John the Baptist. They have nothing to say about him. How can you have nothing to say about crazy John the Baptist?
It’s clear that, from their central position of power in Jerusalem, they have been unable to make the journey out to the wilderness to be baptized. They may have gone to see what John is up to, but they have been unwilling to pour out their souls in a confession of sin, unable to repent by the Jordan River. But neither can they ignore this wild prophet. From their position at the top of the religious and social hierarchy, they are unable to go against the will of the people and declare that John the Baptist is a fraud. They fear the people. How can that be? The anxious priests have nothing to say.
No wonder, then, that they are baffled by Jesus, who has no problem making declarative statements. In this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem in triumph, in what we think of as the events of Palm Sunday. He has gone to the Temple and overturned the tables of the money changers. He has healed and cured and been proclaimed “The Son of David.” He has even withered a fig tree that failed to provide him with fruit. He is powerful and unafraid.
No wonder that the fearful priests and elders question him first about his authority. No wonder their concern is to tear him down. They’re afraid of being taken down themselves. They themselves are hostages. Hostages to their position of power, their lineage, their geographical location at the Temple, their position of wealth and honor. But Jesus is so free. He is so certain that the love of God is a gift to the poor and the lowly. He can be angry. He can forgive. He can face what will surely be death in Jerusalem, without apparent anxiety. Where did he get this confidence?
And he can talk to anyone about anything. We’ve been hearing him for some weeks now, teaching in ways that are challenging and rich. Whether you’ve noticed it or not, we’ve been going through some mental and spiritual gymnastics in recent weeks, hearing complex ideas about forgiveness, parables about farmers who sow seed in ridiculous places and servants who fail to be as generous as their masters. Jesus is a consummate teacher, a speaker who can communicate the most mysterious truths with power. And in this moment, confronted by some of the more privileged and sophisticated religious figures of his day, he shows his verbal skill again, even as they demonstrate their inability to answer a direct question about John.
This time, his verbal skill takes the form of complete and utter simplicity. Does he tell his sophisticated audience a sophisticated story? No! He tells them the easiest, most obvious parable ever. “There were two brothers, got it? One did the will of his father and the other didn’t, ok? So which one did the will of his father?”
Listen to him! This is the best teaching of all! He confronts these priests, and us, with the poverty of their own speaking. He shows up all our fearful “I don’t know” answers to tough questions. Our hypocritical “Yes, sir” when we have no intention of laboring in the vineyard. “What do you think?” he asks them, and us. “If I make it clear as day for you, will you rise to the occasion?”
“What do you think about the situation you are in? What do you think about your position in the world? Where are you really? Where within you is your authentic commitment to God? Do you have ears to hear and eyes to see? Can you speak? Do you have the humility,” Jesus asks, “to drop what holds you back, and step out with me into a new creation?”
It could be that Jesus is trying to embarrass the priests with this obvious story, but I think he is trying to reach them, trying to call them back to themselves. Commentators have pointed out that this parable is a stripped-down version of one of the central stories of the Hebrew scriptures. Time and again in those writings we hear about an older son and a younger son: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Time and again we hear about Israel as a vineyard that is cultivated by God. This simple story is the simple truth of Israel. You are God’s children, and God has work for you to do, a harvest for you to share in. That’s all you need to figure out. Drop your fear and the sophistication you use to cover it up. You don’t need to look good. You just need to be willing to go to the vineyard. Even reluctantly. You don’t need to be a highly respected religious authority. Just be God’s child.
Even now, it’s not too late for us to become free as Jesus is free. No matter what holds us in bondage, no matter who we think we have to be, no matter whose permission we are waiting for, or whose opinion we fear, it’s not too late for us.
It’s not too late for us to drop our defensiveness. It’s not too late for us to pour out our sins and be converted and be baptized in the Jordan River. We can hear the words of the gospel and walk through this world as free people, no matter what we are mired in.
We could be free as Jesus is free. We could be free to respond when God challenges us as he challenged those frightened priests. We could have the hope and the vitality and the joy to reimagine the world we are in. Even this world, mired in sin, the 2017 edition. We could be free.
We would be free to drop everything and respond when storms crush the people of Puerto Rico. Even now, after so much bad history, we could be free to rethink the bonds of debt and exploitation that have punished the people of that island for so many decades. We could be free to address the environmental damage that is wreaking such havoc there and throughout the world. Our bad past could be the prologue to repentance and a new world. We could decide that our own prosperity should not be bought at the price of other people’s lives.
Those of us who are white could be so free that when African Americans report that they are routinely taken for violent criminals instead of law-abiding citizens, the rest of us could listen without defensiveness instead of telling them to be quiet and grateful. Imagine a world in which inequality was automatically everybody’s problem! We could stop asking the police and the activists to fight this out for us, and acknowledge instead that “our” criminal justice system reflects our biases. That world is still available to us, if we are willing to go to the vineyard.
We are the body of Christ. We could have the mind of Christ. That same Christ who took Jerusalem by storm, armed only with truth and healing. He wants us to get it. We could be free and fearless like him. We could have the same mind in us, Saint Paul says this morning, as Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
We are made for that freedom. That kind of freedom is our rightful heritage as children of God. We could be free. Not haunted by the fear of losing some position of privilege that was never secure in the first place. Not hostage to the powers of this world. We could hear and respond and speak and act and love and change.
What do you think?