Proper 21A (RCL)
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
The authorities ask Jesus by what authority he is doing these things. One might ask, “What things?” Immediately preceding this interchange is the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of the fig tree, both signs of the judgment of God on the existing order of things (for the fig tree, cf. Isaiah 5 — I looked for fruit but found sour fruit, for justice and heard an outcry). The parable of the vineyard will follow.
Jesus refuses to answer, and instead poses a question: Was John’s baptism from God or from humans? This implies Jesus’ authority will be from the same place — however you answer one question, you will answer the other. Then the parable of the two brothers, again working in the vineyard, God’s community of justice (Isaiah 5). Tax collectors and prostitutes will be lead into the Kingdom of God before you. Notice, not into heaven, but into the Kingdom of God, where justice is done.
Who are the tax collectors and prostitutes? They have been pushed to the edge by the economic circumstance. Tax collecting and prostitution are never vocations of first resort. No one chooses them. They are driven to it. John comes preaching repentance of the sins of the nation, and these marginal ‘get it.’ They are living with the consequences of those sins, foreclosures, dislocation and all the rest.
Those people pushed to the edge might very well ask, like the nation at Rephidim, “Is God with us, or not?” Sure, he has shown us wonderful things in the past, but here we are dying of thirst, pushed to the edge. And God makes water to flow from the rock. God is with us. The first son does his father’s will, even though he had said no, he goes to work in the vineyard. He remains faithful, even after refusing. John preached to those who might question whether God is with us, and they repented. How do we learn to see things from the perspective of those on the edge, the tax collectors and prostitutes? What does God’s justice, God’s vineyard look like to them? Paul encourages us to have the same mind as Christ, who did not count equality with God as a prize, but took the form of a slave. Where is the community that does righteousness? Probably not among the Wall Street executive who earn 275 times what the average worker in their company earns. Who will go into the Kindgom first?