TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2020)
Readings:Ezekiel 18:25-28Psalms 25:4-9Philippians 2:1-11Matthew 21:28-32
Readers will remember the striking parable from Luke that we call (wrongly?) ‘The Prodigal Son.’ While it is fully different in so many ways from this Sunday’s gospel, there are some similarities that help us to understand today’s parable from Matthew. You will recall the apparent insult levied at the Father (God) by the younger son who, in an inopportune and thoroughly inappropriate moment asks to have his inheritance given to him long before the Father’s death. It was considered to be an insult, even though the Father lovingly grants him his request. He is not unlike the first son in today’s gospel who refuses his loving and generous father and bluntly says, “no, I will not go.” One can almost imagine this petulant child throwing a tantrum with the words of Isaiah the prophet, whining “that’s not “fair,” I have other things to do, I want to play with my x-box, I want to talk with my friends.”
But the first son does eventually go to the vineyard, for reasons that are not explained to us, appearing in the short parable to almost have an immediate conversion. The younger son from Luke takes a while longer to turn the corner. In, fact he has to squander his entire inheritance, be reduced to abject poverty, and be desperate for something to eat. Only then does he return to his loving and generous Father, who welcomes him back with arms wide open. His older brother, who has done what he has been asked to do (and who insultingly throws that in the face of the Father), turns out to be the problematic child, for we never see him go inside to partake in the celebration surrounding his lost brother’s return. What the father had supposedly taught him about being generous and forgiving, was a lesson he refused to learn.
The problematic child in today’s parable is the second son, who says to his Dad, “of course, I’d love to go to the vineyard which is responsible for so much of my happiness.” But the second son just “did not go.”
Now the point of any parable is to garner a response from the listeners, and notice that in today’s gospel the listeners are not just anybody, they are “the chief priests. and elders of the people.” They are able to answer correctly that the first son was the only one to do “his father’s will,” but given how the entire story of Jesus will end, it is unlikely that they compared themselves to the first son. Indeed, Jesus does what he seldom does, he virtually tells them that they are like the first son who refused to do what the Father wants, and because of that refusal, others, “tax collectors and prostitutes” have a better chance at entering the kingdom of God. The attempted persuasion is not unlike the Father from Luke’s parable trying to persuade the elder son to come into the party, for everything the “father has was his.” This was one of Jesus’ last chances to persuade the chief priests and the elders that they were missing an important opportunity. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had already entered Jerusalem where He will be put to death, and His cleansing of the Temple did much to have the chief priests and elders question the authority of Jesus (Matt 21:23-27). Did Jesus hold out any hope that they would have a conversion of sorts, and accept the invitation that God was issuing them during His brief public ministry?
We know that at least for most of the chief priests, Scribes, Pharisees, and elders, that there was no conversion in their life times. Indeed, they would play out their roles as the prime movers in Jesus’ death.
We should ask what they might be missing that kept them from listening to Jesus?, and the answer can be found in our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. They lacked the humility that understood that “God’s ways were not their ways,” they lacked the humility to “regard others as more important than” themselves, and they were only interested in their “own interests” and in their favored positions in the community. The chief priests and elders, and ourselves, are meant to look to Jesus, “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Like so much that we will never fully understand, we will never understand the depth of the humility for God to take on “human likeness,” “emptying” himself and taking on the form of a “slave.” It is a mysterious humility that we, too, are meant to strive for, a humility that puts other’s interests first, a humility which demands mercy and compassion, disdains “selfishness” and “vainglory.” It is that kind of humility that will make us attuned to the whispered invitations of Jesus to follow Him, invitations that can prompt a true conversion, and make us sons and daughters who are truly ready and waiting to work in the Vineyard that is God’s kingdom, no matter the cost.