Imagine if, while we were sitting here on Christmas Eve, someone came in the front door, walked up the aisle shouting at us, tearing poinsettias out of their pots, flinging them around, throwing me out of the pulpit and telling all of you that you were doomed to hell. How do you think you’d react?
Probably a lot like the temple leadership do in today’s Gospel reading when they ask Jesus “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
The “these things” they are challenging are not the things Jesus has been doing out in the towns: healing he sick, exorcising demons, teaching and preaching. The ‘these things’ are riding into Jerusalem like some kind of king and then driving the moneychangers out of the Temple just days before Passover was due to begin.
Any one of us might have decided it was time to intervene, before he caused any more of a ruckus. Honestly, we would probably not have even taken the time to start this conversation about why he thinks he has the right to do these things. We would have just had him arrested and removed. It makes this whole ‘take a knee’ controversy that has been buzzing this week look ridiculously tame, by comparison.
Jesus is using the venue available to him to disrupt the status quo, to point out that the way things are is not how they will be in God’s kingdom. He’s giving everyone the chance to ‘change their minds’ and accept the authority of God and God’s kingdom—which isn’t so much a place as it is a way of being in relationship. Relationship with God and with others.
Paul describes this kind of relationship in the portion of his letter to the Philippians we heard today, but I think our NRSV translation is, perhaps, a bit too soft in tone, so I’m going to offer you a more literal translation of verse three, so that you hear the challenge in it. “Do nothing from partisan interests, but in humility take the lead in treating others as more important than yourselves. Let each of you look not just to what benefits you, but to what benefits others as well.”
He then uses what is thought to be an early Christian hymn to show how, when we are willing to let go of our own desire to protect ourselves and use whatever power we have towards our own self-interests, we are like Christ. Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”
There is a fancy theological term, kenosis, which is used to describe this ‘emptying’ of himself, this letting go of any privilege or power or authority he has to rule others, in order to serve the ones he could command. But what is often lost, in those discussions about what Jesus did, is that we are urged to do the same. To empty ourselves of whatever power or privilege we have, and put our energy into the well-being of others.
Can you imagine a society where we embodied that kind of interaction with each other? Let go of partisanship (be it in politics or religion or sports teams) and make an effort to be the first to reach out to others, trusting that they in turn will reach back to us, so that everyone is cared for? That is a society where love, not fear, is calling the shots.
Kinda like God’s kingdom.
In God’s kingdom, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go ahead of the temple authorities, not because they jump ahead in the line (that’s more in keeping with last week’s parable), but because when they are given the chance to enter they don’t hesitate. They don’t stop and ask, “Do you really have the authority to let me in?” They don’t stop and assess how their actions will be perceived by the public. They just go. They’re already on the move while the others are counting the cost.
They are neither of the sons in that parable—they say yes and then they go.
In this parable of the two sons who respond to their father’s command, I’ve usually focused on the two sons, and what we are to take from their actions. Are we the son who says “yes” but then does nothing? Are we the son who resists the authority of God but ultimately obeys? There is nothing wrong in looking at it this way, and asking ourselves how our words and actions match up.
But if we are going to read it that way, we have to acknowledge that neither son gets it absolutely, perfectly, 100% right. They both mess up at some point in the story. I am not sure this story is entirely about the sons. There is something more we are to take from it, something about God.
Jesus didn’t tell this parable in answer to a question about what we should do to attain the kingdom of heaven (those come in other parts of the gospels). He tells this parable after being challenged about his authority.
In this story, Jesus is aligning himself—and John the Baptist—with the father. In a roundabout way, he is answering the question about the source of both his and John’s authority. It comes from God. Both John and Jesus offer everyone the chance to enter into this new way of being God’s community. And the temple leaders don’t like it, because participation in that community, God’s community, God’s kingdom, requires letting go of their own power. Demands that they allow their minds to be changed. Forces them to admit that the rules they have set for themselves and others may successfully contain the chaos, but also keep them just outside the kingdom.
Remember that when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God, he is not talking about the afterlife. He’s talking about this world, this life. He’s offering us a chance to go work in the vineyard—a biblical symbol of God’s kingdom—right now. To put our energy toward the building of God’s community. Sometimes that means taking a stand—or a knee—on behalf of someone for whom the status quo looks nothing like the kingdom. It means acknowledging the ways we haven’t challenged the status quo because it might mean letting go of some of our own comforts in order to make others more comfortable.
The good news is, it’s never too late to change your mind.