Homily on Matthew 21:28-32
This is a homily a good friend of mine and permanent deacon for the Diocese of Duluth, Dr. Philip Mayer, gave last Sunday. Enjoy.
What are we to make of Jesus’ words today? He seems to be saying to us, “It doesn’t matter as much what you say, as it matters what you do.” But is it really that simple? It is always wise, when reading the Scriptures, especially the parables of Jesus, to consider their setting. To whom is Jesus addressing his message, and what is the situation of the discussion? This will often shed light on a very specific teaching he has in mind for us. Jesus is not trying to make it difficult, to mystify us with vague ambiguous stories. He wants us to understand as clearly as we are able, the Father’s plan for our lives and how we are to live in it. We make it difficult when we take things out of their context and try to simplify or generalize. So, lets take a good look.
Who is Jesus talking to? The chief priests and elders (Mt. 21: 23), the religious leaders of the people. That is very important. Note, also, the 13 verses immediately following today’s Gospel (Mt. 21: 33-43), where he tells the parable of the wicked tenants. This parable, for those who don’t remember (it will be the Gospel for next weekend), is about a landowner who leases a vineyard to tenants. These tenants prove to have very little respect for authority because when the landowner sends his representatives to collect his share of the harvest; they seize them, beat one, kill another, and stone the third. He finally sends his son thinking, “They will surely respect him.” They, in fact, show their utter disdain for his authority. They kill his son. Jesus poses the question, What will the owner of the vineyard do to these tenants when he comes? (Mt. 21: 40)
The parable of the two sons is taking place in the context of a discussion Jesus is having about authority, human authority. How do we live with authority? How do we react to the authority in our lives? Are we like the 2nd son and the tenants? Do we enter into agreements like the tenants, then break them? Do we pretend to be law-abiding citizens and then lie on our taxes? Do we vow to love and honor our spouses, then use and abuse them at our whim? Or are we more like the 1st son, willful, yet honest, rejecting authority then ultimately doing what it requires and living according to it? Keep in mind, the parable says nothing about the two sons’ reasons for what they do or the justice in what their father is ordering them to do. It only speaks about their response to human authority. It seems a little empty to me. Interpreting it as such; it doesn’t fit in a way that is satisfying with the parable of the tenants that follows. It is incomplete or inadequate in some way. Lets look further. Lets see what comes before….
The verses immediately preceding today’s parable record Jesus’ miraculous cures, his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his casting the merchants from the temple. After these events, he is challenged. Again note, by the chief priests and elders who ask him, What authority do you have for acting like this? Who gave you this authority? (Mt. 21: 23) Jesus, who knows their hearts responds, And I will ask you a question, just one; if you tell me the answer to it, then I will tell you my authority for acting like this. Was John the Baptist’s authority from heaven or was it human? (Mt. 21: 24-25) The gospel then explains to us how for political expediency the chief priests and the elders back off and claim not to know. Interesting…
With that in mind, should the parable of the two sons be boiled down to “it is more important what we do … than what we say… to authority in our family, government or in our business obligations?” I fear that to leave it at that is to miss a lot, perhaps, to miss entirely Jesus’ point. This parable is told in the context of a dialogue that Jesus is carrying on with the local religious authorities, the chief priests and elders, and it is a dialogue with people who have religious authority… about religious authority. More importantly, it is a challenge to them to see that there is a new age dawning, the dawn from on high is breaking upon them (Lk. 2:78). The Father’s plan for their salvation and their own role in that plan is unfolding afresh before their very eyes. There is a new order upon them. Christ’s Church is laboring to be born into their very midst. It is foreshadowed in the Baptist’s call for repentance. It can only be accepted by a humble, repentant heart. Jesus, in his love for them, is challenging them to see it, to reflect on how they are responding to this new authority and how His Father will view their response.
The context of our parable is essentially a dialogue about: 1) who has religious authority, was the Baptist’s authority from heaven or human? … 2) how do we respond to it, ….are we like the 2nd son who claims to honor it or more like the 1st ?… and 3) what are the consequences of setting ourselves outside or above religious authority, like the tenants did with the landowner and his representatives? All of chapter 21 of Matthew’s gospel is fundamentally a dialogue about who speaks for God and how we answer to them.
This was a difficult discussion for the chief priests and elders. Their role in their religious community was changing. They could feel it. They could sense their authority slipping away. They had questions…. legitimate ones. They needed to know was this of God? It was their duty to find out. But they also, for very human reasons, did not wish to lose their status, power and influence. Jesus knew this was not easy for them, so he made it as clear as he could. He, also knew they would not receive his message well. He was in a situation very much like a CEO who has to inform his managers that the company is reorganizing. They are no longer in charge. There is new personnel a-coming. Are they going to be onboard? You see, Jesus was already in the process of establishing His Church on earth. He had already selected His Apostles. He had already given Peter the Keys to the Kingdom, the power to bind and loose. Jesus knew what was coming next, that His Church would be born when the water and blood burst forth from His side on the cross, that it would know itself in His Resurrection, that it would breathe its first breath of life from the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, that it would be with us always until the end of time.
Now, understood as a parable about religious authority this is, also, very difficult for us to hear, but for different reasons. In Jesus’ time religious authority was readily accepted. What made it difficult for them to understand was the fact that it was changing. In our day, it is quite different. Religious authority is readily challenged. What makes it difficult for us is that it will not change!!! It will last until He comes again in Glory!! Jesus established authority in His Church around Peter and the Apostles. He declared Peter a rock; a solid, grounded, stable foundation upon which the Church is built. In case we worry about how sturdy that foundation might be, Jesus tells us the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Mt. 16:18). Peter and the Apostles are present to us today in our Holy Father and the Bishops who are in communion with him. Jesus has made this as clear as he possibly can for us!!
Now, the gospel for today, how are we responding to the religious authority in our lives, the authority in the Church? Maybe we acknowledge that the Church is established by Jesus, yet, we find ourselves not accepting or serving her authority? Challenged by her teaching, we cry out, as the prophet Ezekiel observed, The Lord’s way is not fair! (Ez. 18:25). This is part of the human condition; our intellects are fallen and our wills are weak. We, as most parents of teenagers know, are prone to rebellion. However, we must be very careful that we do not, like the 2nd son, say, ”Yes, I am a disciple in His Church,” then publicly deny what the Church definitively teaches, especially in matters of faith and morals. We must not dissent, that is reject, work against, undermine, and seek to destroy the divinely instituted authority. What will the owner of the vineyard do to these tenants when he comes? We must not, especially in regards to the young, lead others astray, sew confusion in the vineyard, and cause them to question and turn them against religious authority. For one to do so would be to wish to be thrown into the sea with a great millstone hung round his neck (Mark 9: 42). Jesus is telling us in this parable that it is better to be honest, like the 1st son, to say I will not, to declare openly your disobedience to religious authority, and then to quietly obey, rather than to be like the 2nd and declare your obedience, and then live in disobedience…. live a lie.
We are called first to be holy, true disciples of Jesus. We are called to be his universal, catholic witnesses to all. We are called to witness to people of all nations and languages, to people of all races, to believers of all denominations and to the unbelievers, to all people of all occupations, and all ages, …to the old, but especially to the young who we are responsible to form in the Faith. We are called to witness as one, humble and obedient followers of the apostles, of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing (Philippians 2: 2).
This is the big picture. This is living as a sign of Faith, living as sacrament, as an outward sign of the Church. The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic. It is not easy. We need the Holy Spirit to live it. It takes humility …… and Jesus is our example. Listen to the words of St. Paul: Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, …he humbled himself becoming obedient… (Philippians 2: 5-9). Even Jesus, who is the Son of the Living God, followed the plan and submitted to human authority. We must do no less.