Matthew 21: 23-32 – True obedience.

You’ll have noticed two different parts to the Gospel reading set in the lectionary for 27th September 2020. ……

The first, a challenge to Jesus’ authority coming from Jesus’ religious enemies – the chief priests and elders. Jesus confronts some of the highest-ranking, most powerful authorities within Judaism. These chief priests and elders, members of a “scribal elite” class, played important, visible roles in the life of their community and in particular within their religion. Jesus’ catches them out in their duplicity. They are more worried about how they look in front of the crowd than they are about what was true and just and right.

The second, a story about two sons who vacillate between obedience and disobedience to their father. Listening to this second story about the two sons — one who verbally refuses his father’s command to work in a vineyard but later changes his mind and obeys, and another who agrees to toil in the vineyard but does not keep his promise — we might be tempted to moralize it. We may assume its message is simply “Actions speak louder than words!” or “Don’t be such a hypocrite!” or “Obey your father!”

In Jesus’ day, it probably was seen differently. For to refuse your father’s demand made in public would be to shame him and yourself, so you’d say ‘Yes’ even if you had no intention of obeying him. Public face was everything. Jesus challenges this assumption and his listeners pick up on the challenge. Of course, say the chief priests and elders, the one who initially said ‘No’ was the one who did the will of his father. The culturally appropriate behaviour of the son who said ‘Yes’ did not produce obedience to the father. It was the son who started off behaving in a way that shamed him and his father who was ultimately obedient.

So, says Jesus, to the chief priests and elders who have joined the crowd listening to him. You’re the ones who talk publicly about faith and about obedience to God’s will, but you fail to follow through on those public statements when it comes to the crunch.

John the Baptist came preaching and teaching, his message was from God, but it wasn’t you, the religious people, who listened to him, it was the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the outcasts. It was the ones whom you condemn, who listened and who acted on John’s words and whose lives were changed through their obedience.

Being religious gives you a standing, a place of honour, in your community but when it comes to the crunch, that place of honour matters more to you than obedience to God’s will!

So, if John the Baptist was the focus of debate in our Gospel reading; if John provided the catalyst to challenge religious dogma and to bring about change; if John’s message drew new people to faith, but left the religious people standing watching on the side lines. What might be this Gospel’s challenge to us, the religious people of our day?

Where might God be at work in ways that we who are religious struggle to comprehend?

Because, if God is active or discoverable in the efforts of someone like John, a wild-eyed long-haired prophet who sets up camp in the wilderness calling for a new world to come into being, a world marked by justice, changed lives, and a recognition that God intends for more than just things staying as they are …… then perhaps people who care about religious language, symbols, practices, and truth should be curious people, bent on keeping their eyes open for new ways in which God might be made known, or ways in which the God’s purposes might be expressed.

We have that responsibility to our wider world – to work for justice, fairness and peace, and to meet human need. … But where might God be asking us to be at work in our own towns, communities and parishes, and in what ways might we act obediently to the Father here?  How might those of us who have said ‘Yes’ to God, be people who come through on our commitment.

Many Churches have Mission Action Plans or equivalents which highlight many things that local parish communities see as the way in which they can make  that ‘Yes’ become real. Does your church have one? If so, are you familiar with what it says? Perhaps, if not, you could ask your church leaders for a copy, explore what it says and perhaps offer to assist with the implementation of the Plan,

Alternatively, you might read the Plan and feel that it needs to change to reflect the circumstances of your own local community at the time you read it.If so, you might want to offer to participate in a review of the Plan.

Or, if your Church has not thought about these issues in the past and as a result has no Plan, You might even want to help to develop one.

But it is not just what our parishes/churches do that constitutes our ‘Yes’ to God. There will be more than this, there will also be things outside the activities of our parish where you see God at work and where a ‘Yes’ to following God will need to become real for you in obedience to God’s will. There may be a community activity which you can participate in, or a gap in necessary provision within your community which you might seek to fulfil as part of your discipleship as a follower of Jesus.

What is God asking of you/us today?

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