The 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK
September 29, 2002
Ezekiel 18:25-28 +Philippians 2:1-11+ Matthew 21:28-32
The entry to Jerusalem is complete. The palms are cleaned up. The Hosannas have echoed away. Jesus has made a mess in the Temple, and the authorities are demanding to know who he thinks he is. Tension is building that will eventually explode in a hostile confrontation. The vineyard is the focus of conversation. We heard it last week and again this week, and we shall hear of it again next week before we go to a wedding. All are full of hard sayings to those authorities who are closed to any action of God they cannot control.
This parable is a strange one, because neither of the two options presented are perfect. There are always three levels to the parables we proclaim: the original level at which the historical Jesus is the teaching Rabbi at a certain time in a particular place. The second level is where we find the evangelist; in this case Matthew retelling the parable at another time to a totally different audience. We are the third level: another time, a different place, and different audience.
Jesus addresses those confrontational Pharisees who remain closed to his ministry and the slightest change in the way God may be working. Matthew addresses the Jewish Christians struggling for their identity in the face of the Jewish communities emerging from the chaos of the Temple’s destruction. Today the parable is proclaimed in Norman, Oklahoma and everywhere else in the world this autumn day by a church stunned by its own sins against justice, children, and its own servants.
We have every reason to look at this family and wonder if the father might not have another son or two. If parables are supposed to move us to wonder, in this age we might then wonder if there could not be another option or two. Neither of these two sons is an example of what we want to be, and even though Matthew uses the parable as a story of conversion’s power when it comes to the work of the vineyard, many of us listen to this story from a much deeper spiritual level and don’t care to identify with either of them. Beside that, this Father, God, has plenty of children who say “No” and mean “No.” Another issue of wonder is how we are we to live with them?
The best option is not even offered, but perhaps we ought to wonder about it, and the wonder stirred by this parable might lead us there. There is the option of saying, “Yes”. It is, in the end, a parable about promise and performance; about words and deeds giving us cause to wonder about perfection and what it might look like for us who seek to do the Father’s Will.
True disciples are distinguished from false disciples by what they do, not by what they say. All the power in this world and the next means nothing; knowing all correct theology and making oneself look pious and perfectly orthodox means nothing. Doing the Will of God is what brings in the harvest from this vineyard. Our integrity as disciples of Jesus and as a church has to do with what we do when no one is looking. That is my favorite definition of integrity. It means we have integrated what we say with what we do, and the two have finally become the same. It has nothing to do with who is watching or what anyone is going to think. It has to do with backing up what we say with what we do, and that is the style of the third son we do not meet in this parable, but are left to wonder about. The third son – who says yes, means yes, and goes out to do his best. It’s a great ideal – integrity of this sort. My own experience is that only God pulls it off perfectly. God’s Words are Deeds. God speaks and something happens. Only God perfectly achieves this unity of word and action, or action that becomes one word: Love. But the children of this God strive to achieve this perfection, and this is the offer of this parable, that like the others says as much about God as about anything else.
Our prayer today springs from this parable and it is a prayer that we shall be worthy of the work to which we are called, that we shall become more and more a people of integrity, and open ourselves to the possibility that God can work and is working in ways we do not understand, and with people whose presence in this vineyard may surprise us.