Work in the vineyard

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost; 27 September 2020; Proper 21A (RCL); Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32.

There are certainly a lot of parables in the Gospels about vineyards and vines. Isaiah 5:1-10 and Psalm 80:8-19 and other such passages give us a hint about why the Gospel writers should have used the image of the vineyard so often. In Isaiah 5, God expects grapes from the vineyard, and instead finds wild grapes; expects justice, but finds bloodshed; expects righteousness, but hears a cry.

At the beginning of the passage for this Sunday, the authorities ask Jesus by what authority he is doing “these things.” Unfortunately, we have skipped over the narrative of “these things.” What Jesus has done is to come into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt to the people’s acclamation of him as the Son of David, and once in Jerusalem to have cast out the money changers and merchants from the Temple.

Historically, it is unlikely that he would have lived much after he had overturned the tables in the Temple during a Passover feast. Retribution would have been swift. But, in Matthew’s telling, the chief priests and elders ask him by what authority he has done these things. In John’s Gospel, after Jesus cleanses the Temple, the Jews ask him what sign he can give for doing this. Clearly, there is an early memory of dispute over authority.

In Matthew’s telling, Jesus responds with a question of his own about John’s baptism — was it from God or not? They dither, so Jesus refuses to answer their question, and then tells this parable about the sons and the vineyard. A man has two sons (another them in parables), and says to the first, “Go work in the vineyard.” The son refuses, but then goes to work. The owner asks his second son to go to the vineyard. He says he will go, but then doesn’t. Jesus asks the chief priests and elders which son obeyed. They answer that the first has obeyed.

Jesus then answers that the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom ahead of his questioners. He places them in the position of the first son, who at first refused to work in the vineyard, but then went anyway. In last week’s Gospel reading, the vineyard owner paid all the workers the same daily wage, regardless of when the came to work. He was working justice rather than strict equality.

If what God is seeking from the vineyard is justice and righteousness, then we should be reading all the vineyard parables with that lens. So, it is the prostitutes and tax collectors who believed John who are the workers in the vineyard. They understand justice better than the religious authorities. Tax collectors (at least the small fry) and prostitutes are people who have been pushed into those professions for lack of any other alternative. They are doing what they can to keep body and soul together, to feed self and family. This is the justice God seeks; just as the vineyard owner in last week’s parable made sure everybody in the village ate.

This should be as jarring to our sensibilities as it would have been to Jesus’ hearers’. Who would we class in that group today? Is it the small fry drug dealer, who is doing what is available to put some food on the table? Or the sex worker? The Colombian coca farmer? What does it tell us about our concept of justice? Who are the workers in the vineyard?

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