Sunday, September 25, 2011

Righteousness Delayed; Righteousness denied

Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Sometimes the meanings of Jesus' parables are so obscure that it is difficult to get any real, contemporary meaning from them. What often makes interpretation even more difficult is in discovering that the indictment that may be implicit is often directed at the reader ... IF the reader is genuinely open to hearing the Spirit. This is not to say we should all feel guilty or worry about being made to feel guilty each time we read a parable; not at all. It is, however, the height of arrogance to believe any parable cannot - or does not - speak to us but is instead directed at "someone else".

So goes the confusion in trying to assign each of the sons in Jesus' parable as representing one particular group or another. Each may have its own merit accordingly, and sound points can be made for each. However, trying to decide which person or group is "guiltier" than the other goes back to what was previously stated. We could change the meaning by reading a different Bible translation - OR - we can simply decide where we are less likely to be personally implicated.

We may do better for ourselves and Jesus' purpose for the Church in using this parable of the two sons if we were to first decide what the vineyard represents. Once this is accomplished, we can then more reasonably determine exactly what sort of vineyard "work" is being assigned - and put off or ultimately refused. If we can nail this down, we will have a better understanding of what each player represents for Jesus' purposes and where we fit into the story today.

First we must go back and bring the story into context. Jesus had entered into Jerusalem and was hailed as a conquering hero (Mt 21:1-9). He then moved into the Temple and sent the money changers packing (Mt 21:12-13). Inside the Temple Jesus healed the blind and the lame who came to Him. The chief priests and scribes were witnesses to these deeds of mercy and were only concerned with the delighted cries and praises of the children who were chanting what was chanted as Jesus entered into Jerusalem: "Hosanna to the Son of David!" After an overnight stay in Bethany, the scripture says Jesus was hungry but found nothing but leaves on a fig tree (presumably in fruit-bearing season). Because there was no fruit on what should have been a fruit-bearing tree even though it "looked like" what it was supposed to, Jesus condemned the tree and it "withered" away.

When the chief priests and elders confronted Jesus, He was back in the Temple teaching but we are not told exactly what the Lord was teaching. We can be pretty sure the people are eating it up as coming from One with substantial authority to teach because it is that authority which was being called into question. In AND outside the Church even today, the teachings of the Lord are called into question! By believers and non-believers alike! We pick and choose what makes the most sense to us or is most pleasing for our particular lifestyle or circumstance. And this, I think, is the key to what scripture can impart to us today if we are honest enough and open enough to believe the Spirit is speaking directly to us through scripture.

The vineyard itself can be as simple as representing an agricultural reality, a distinct cultural point of reference for the people to whom Jesus is speaking so they can understand His point. For our purposes, however, there is a much broader application since few of us manages a vineyard. For the purposes of the Gospel, then, the vineyard must represent the mission field. The work which must be done is that missional work for which the Church was called into being in the first place and for which the Church continues to be equipped, called forth, and set apart: the proclamation of the Gospel of the Lord. There can be no other reasonable task for the Church as the Body of Christ. None. Everything else is secondary to the primary.

We are called forward today as children of the Father, "heirs to the vineyard" with a legitimate stake in the care and well-being of that "vineyard", and we are assigned our role through the Church as "heirs" and sent into the mission field. So when we are confronted with Jesus' presentation to the authorities of His day, it does not fall upon us to determine exactly what Jesus meant 2000 years ago, which group was being implicated, or only within that particular context. To try to do so can have a useful role in interpretation, but it has a greater tendency to remove us from the story altogether. Yet the question for us is not which "son" we belong with. I think the more appropriate and profound question is: do we even fit with either one? Do we act in any way like "children of the Father" who would be trusted with the important work of the vineyard?

The chief priests may well have answered Jesus' question correctly. After all, even the delay and perhaps a second thought brought the first son around, and he went about his work in the vineyard. It should not escape our notice, however, that initially the first son - by his action - challenged and perhaps questioned his father's authority to assign the work in the first place. That he eventually got around to doing it does not account for the "in your face" attitude the father was likely confronted with in the beginning. We also cannot push aside the adage that "righteousness (or justice) delayed is righteousness (or justice) denied." Clearly some task in the vineyard was important enough that the father assigned the work to his "own" children. To deny the work and then come back later may run parallel to the concept of 'repentance', but we must then understand whose "will" was actually being done with a delayed response and reaction. Here's a clue: it was not the father's will that was being done.

The second son lied to his father outright. He gave the father the "correct" answer but he failed to follow through, and there is no indication he ever intended to do his father's will; he only needed to get beyond that moment. It would be a safe bet, however, to believe that son would expect his own share of the harvest! So it was easier, then, to tell his father what he likely wanted to hear. In refusing to do the work, however, the same result came into play: the direct challenge to the father's authority and the outright "denial of righteousness". It might be easy to suggest, then, that neither son was the "correct" answer although we can see a parallel between those who claim kinship but do not act within that relationship - and - those who deny the necessity and need for that relationship in the beginning but do finally come around - but on their own terms.

Even if the chief priests and elders answered the question correctly, however, it does not mean they escaped indictment which we can obviously see. We must also consider what we hear in Church and what we read in Holy Scripture and how we respond - if we respond at all ... or if it all goes in one ear and out the other. All the while, we stand firm and secure - as the chief priests and elders did - in our own sense of self-declared righteousness according to our own self-established standards while we stand in judgment of others - and ultimately question Jesus' authority over our own lives when we delay entering into the vineyard as we have been asked ... or if we refuse altogether. The indictment, I think, stands the same. Righteousness delayed is indeed righteousness denied.

It is not always easy to discern the Spirit. We can clearly see folks even within the Holy Church claiming to be led by the Spirit but clearly acting outside of what is written in scripture. They seem more like those of the time of the Judges, "doing what seems best in his or her own eyes", making up their own rules in spite of what seems clearly spelled out in scripture because they - perhaps we - claim a "kinship" but do not act within the context of that kinship. Neither of the two "sons" acted within the appropriate context of the relationship they enjoyed with the "father"; instead they each chose their own paths. One delayed the will of the father, and the other denied the will of the father outright.

We must be careful of the paths we choose for ourselves. Jesus' lesson in the parable seems clear enough. The Father owns the vineyard outright, and He means for the vineyard to be cared for, cultivated, and nurtured so that even more fruit will come forth. Because the work of the vineyard is so important, then, He will only trust His very own children to do the work because His own children have the Father's best interests at heart. It is the pursuit of holiness, of sanctification, of "wholeness" that bears fruit for the Father's vineyard. Those inside will be found working at the "harvest", the great Day of the Lord when Christ returns. Those outside the vineyard - by delay or outright refusal - will just be ... outside.

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