On the Gospel of Matthew 21:28-32
26th Sunday of the Year
We’re in a vineyard again in this Sunday’s Gospel, and once again, Jesus uses the image of working in the vineyard to turn our expectations upside-down!
Just like last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus’ teaching to ‘the chief priests and the elders’ begins with the owner of a vineyard asking people to work in the vineyard. Importantly though, these are not strangers he is asking to work, but sons.
He asks one of the sons to work in the vineyard, and the son responds firmly: ‘I will not go’. Afterwards, Jesus goes on, he ‘thought better of it and went’. The second son is a different case. He responds eagerly to the father’s request: ‘Certainly, sir’. But he fails to live up to his enthusiastic promise…
Jesus asks a very simple question with a very obvious answer, the biblical equivalent of a ‘no-brainer’: ‘Which of the two did the father’s will?’ Following the dutiful response of the audience, Jesus delivers a stinging rebuttal of their prejudice: ‘I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you’. The tax collectors and prostitutes are of course represented by the son who refused his father’s request and later repented. What a blow it must have been to the pride of the chief priests to have been placed beneath such great sinners and traitors! Was Jesus merely rattling the cages of his political enemies, or is there a lesson for us still in what he said?
It seems to me that this teaching of Our Lord highlights two important points: men and women do indeed have the power to change, and God’s mercy is unchanging. While our cynical proverb informs us that ‘a leopard doesn’t change his spots’, the Gospel of God tells us differently. It is possible for sinners, even the great sinners that Jesus mentions, to renounce their sin, to be converted, and to enter the kingdom of God – even to be top of the queue to the kingdom! But this possibility isn’t just a human capacity that God allows to lie dormant – rather God actively seeks to turn wayward hearts towards him. This active mercy of God is seen above all in the person of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who sought out the lost sheep of Israel. He spent time with sinners – tax collectors and prostitutes – seeking to draw them to righteousness. In fact, he even chose such a sinner – Matthew the tax collector, and later, the evangelist – to be one of his closest disciples. When he was challenged for this behaviour by the Pharisees, he made clear his mission of mercy: ‘It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. Go and learn the meaning of the words: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice. And indeed I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners’ (Matthew 9:13).
This divine crouching down towards sinners is brought out for us by St Paul in the second reading for this Sunday: ‘[Christ’s] state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross’ (Phil 2:7, 8). In Jesus, the Word became flesh, but he did not become flesh in order to commune with the high and mighty, the respectable, the righteous. Rather, he reached down to those sunk in the mire of sin, and went even lower, ‘becoming sin’ (2 Cor 5:21) as St Paul tells us. In his death on a cross and descent into hell, Our Lord reached the lowest depths of the human situation, ensuring that no sinner would be missed on his saving pilgrimage. As the letter to the Ephesians tells us, Christ went ‘down to the lower depths of the earth’ in order to ‘fill the whole universe with his presence’ (Eph 4:9-10).
It is this concern for sinners, for broken and wounded humanity, that Christ finds missing in the chief priests and elders, and it is for this reason that he upbraids them so sharply in this Sunday’s Gospel. It is not that they are failing miserably in their sacrificial or legal duties, it is rather that they are complacent and comfortable in their righteousness, instead of mirroring the active mercy of God towards sinners.
This is a lesson that we Christians need to learn and re-learn. No matter how well-educated we are in Scripture and the teaching of the Church, no matter how well we pray and fast, no matter how self-controlled we are – we must never forget the lost sheep whom the Lord loves and whom he seeks.
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people, “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him”.