What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go sir” but he did not go.
Which of the two did the will of his father? The first!
God wants us to change our minds.
And that’s a problem. Because changing our minds can be really hard.
God wants us to change our minds. God knows that changing our mind can be really hard. And so God creates space for us to change our minds.
The Father in Jesus’ parable says to the first son “go and work in the vineyard”.
“I will not”.
You can imagine the gasp from Jesus listeners. This was a culture in which sons didn’t refuse their father’s order to work in the vineyard. It was an act of rebellion, a breaking of the relationship. How would the father respond? Would he force him to go, would he get angry, would he kick him out of the house and cut off his inheritance?
This father does none of these things. As far as the story tells us, he does nothing; and later, we don’t know how much later, the son changes his mind and goes. The father did nothing – nothing, except to create some time and space for the son to change his mind and to go to the vineyard of his own accord.
And as we step out of the parable into the larger story of today’s gospel, we see that it too is all about Jesus creating space for the chief priests and the elders of the people to change their minds.
The dramatic confrontation between Jesus and these leaders in today’s gospel takes place the day after what we would call Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the cheering of crowds who acclaimed Jesus as King and Messiah. And the very first thing that Jesus did when he entered Jerusalem is go straight to the Temple and drive out all the buyers and the sellers, and overturn the tables of the moneychangers and those who sold sacrificial doves.
And the Chief Priests and the elders, the people in charge of the Temple, they are thoroughly pissed, and they resolve to get Jesus.
So when Jesus has the nerve to show up in the Temple again the next day and to start teaching the crowds that gather around him, the Chief Priests and elders confront him.
“By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?”
Jesus doesn’t answer their question right away, and instead poses a question of his own. Why does Jesus do this? Sometimes I’ve heard it said that Jesus his trying to outfox them, to outsmart them at their own game. But I don’t think so. I think that what Jesus is trying to do is to create some space for the chief priests and elders to change their minds. Which would be consistent with what Jesus has been trying to do for people since the very beginning of his public ministry. Do you remember the very first word that Jesus spoke when he began in Galilee?
Repent. Change your mind. Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.
And so Jesus asks the chief priests a question about the baptism of John. Do you remember what the baptism of John was about? John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance. A changing of minds. There it is again.
And when Jesus asks his question, “did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin,” it causes the leaders to argue amongst themselves, and in that argument, their agenda and concerns are brought to light.
“If we say, ‘from heaven’, he will say to us, ‘why then did you not believe him.’ And that would make them look bad, foolish, hypocritical.
But if we say, “Of human origin’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” And that would be dangerous, for a rebellious crowd might draw the intervention of the Roman military, and that might put the authority of the leaders, and the prestige and privilege that go with it, at risk.
The question and the argument expose the chief priests as schemers, as those who act out of ambition and self-interest, rather than any desire to seek the truth and do the will of God. The question of what is actually true about the origins of John’s baptism doesn’t even enter into their calculated response.
And so even as they finally agree and utter their pathetic “We do not know,” surely at least some of them have glimpsed a truth about themselves. I think that’s what Jesus’ question was designed to do, to give the leaders a chance to see their own truth. Because often the first step in changing our minds is to get a glimpse of the truth about ourselves. That’s what gets us into the space where a change of mind becomes possible.
But to simply glimpse the truth about ourselves is just a start. Jesus isn’t finished yet. Having created a space for repentance, he opens it up a little more. He knows that it’s hard for us, he knows that it takes time
“What do you think?” It’s an invitation to dig a little deeper, to open up a little more.
“A man had two sons.” Jesus tells a story, but not just any story. It’s the story about a man who had two sons. There were lots of stories in the Bible about a man with two sons, and most of them don’t go very well. Cain and Abel. Isaac and Ishmael. Esau and Jacob. The prodigal son and the elder brother. All of these stories have something in common: they end with a surprising reversal, a setback for the established order.
“He said to the first, ‘Son go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.”
The story is simple, sparse, lacking in detail. But the message is clear. “Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They answered, “the first.”
When our initial response is to oppose the way of God, and it often is, we need to change our minds and go.
Jesus is calling on the chief priests and elders to change their minds. He’s created some space for this to happen. And we know that at least one of them did change his mind. We are told in John’s gospel that Nicodemus stood up for Jesus, and at Jesus’ death, he arranged a proper burial for the body.
But most of the leaders refused to change their minds, and they left the temple to plot Jesus’ death.
Changing our minds is hard. Because God is calling for more than just a simple admitting that we were wrong about something. He’s calling for big changes.
Paul, who experienced big changes in his own life, puts it this way in his letter to the Philippians:
Let the same mind be in you that was in 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
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself
And became obedient to the point of death,
Even death upon a cross.
That’s what we’re being called to. A change of mind that would have us look not to our own interests but to those of others. A change of mind that would have us do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. A change of mind that would have us in humility regard others as better than ourselves.
That’s hard. That takes time. That’s why Jesus creates space for us. In fact you might even say that our whole lives, maybe even this whole universe have been created as a space for us to change our minds.
What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went.
Homily: Yr A P26, Sept 28 2014, St. Albans
Readings: Ex 17.1-7; Ps 78.1-4, 12-16; Phil 2.1-13; Mt 21.23-32
Image by Mark Goebel