Pentecost 17 A: The Eternal Now

Matthew 21:23-32

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Sometimes, when I’m working with a passage, I like to clarify what I know and what I don’t know about what’s going on. I’ll start with those things I/we don’t know, focusing in particular on the parable and treating it as a deepened, if also parabolic (and therefore not transparent), response to the question of authority.

Okay, here goes: We don’t know if this behavior was typical of the sons or extraordinary. We don’t know what interaction or conversation the sons may have had with each other (or with their father) after their initial response. We don’t know what may have prevented (or enticed) either of the sons to act conversely to their earlier statements. And we don’t even know exactly why Jesus told this parable or Matthew shared it (or even that it really is an extension of the earlier conversation about authority).

So what do we know? Well, mainly that the son who said he’d show up and work did not and the son who at first refused changed his mind and did. We also know that most of those listening would probably agree with the maxim that “actions speak louder than words” and therefore believe that the first son, despite his abrupt, if not somewhat obnoxious, refusal of his father’s command is the one who “did the will of his father.” And we know that Jesus links this parable to the response of the tax collectors and prostitutes (shorthand, I assume, for those considered beyond the pale of respectable society) to the good news of the coming kingdom.

I find this to be a valuable exercise because a lot of what we don’t know has to do with motivation and circumstances, and this is true not only of our exegetical interaction with these characters but also of our regular interactions with the people who will be listening to our sermons. We don’t know what motivates many of our folks to come or – and this is the one that usually presses on us more deeply – to not come to church. We don’t know what motivates one parishioner to give so generously and other who could easily (as far as we can tell) do the same yet doesn’t. We don’t know what collection of experiences shapes the religious and political beliefs of our parishioners. We don’t know why a couple in our congregation may be struggling in their marriage or why another always seems like such a thorn in our side or why yet another seems so predictably contrary while someone else is so unfailingly gracious.

We don’t know these things. We may guess – just as we may guess about our questions related to the parable and its characters – we may make assumptions and judgments, but ultimately we don’t know. And that should introduce a modicum of caution, if not humility, in our judgments, again about these characters but even more about our people.

The general interpretive assumption about this parable and its placement at this part of Matthew’s Gospel is that it serves both to highlight the heightened tension between Jesus and the religious authorities of this day and to build the case against those same religious leaders for their failure: their failure to answer Jesus’ question about John’s authority, their failure to accept his message, and their failure to recognize in Jesus’ God’s promised Messiah. Perhaps this is the case (though the way those conclusions, even if accurate, have shaped Christian-Jewish relations through the centuries should give us pause before running with that interpretation). Perhaps. But I wonder if this parable does not also offer a word of surprise and hope. Indeed, perhaps many words of surprise and hope.

Here are just a few. I hear in this parable the surprising possibility of hope that someone who has refused to listen to God may yet change his/her mind. Hope that it’s never too late to respond to the grace of the Gospel. Hope that one’s past actions or current status do not determine one’s future. Hope that even those whom good folk – and, lest we forget, the chief priests and elders were good folk – in many ways the first-century equivalent of our church council members, elders, altar guild members, significant givers, and Sunday school teachers – have decide are beyond the pale of decent society are never, ever beyond the reach of God.

If this is so, then perhaps the first half of what we might proclaim to our people this weekend is that no matter what may have happened in the past, yet God is eager to meet us in the present and offer us – indeed, secure – an open future. It is not too late. God is here, inviting each of us into the kingdom that not only lives out in front of us but has the capacity to shape our every moment from this one forth. This is something, I think, of what Paul Tillich meant with his phrase and sermon “the eternal now.” Each moment is pregnant with the possibility of receiving God’s grace, repenting of things we’ve done or were done to us, returning to right relationship with God and those around us, and receiving the future as open rather than determined.

The second half of what we might proclaim is that God’s promise about an open future shapes our present here and now. And so perhaps we can invite our folks not only to give us their attention as we proclaim this promise about the future but also to look inside themselves for those things that are holding them back from receiving God’s promises. What things do we hold onto that make it difficult to believe and accept God’s forgiveness or to imagine that the future can be different than the past? Then, we can also invite them to look around at others in the congregation. In many of our churches there are people who voted for our current president and those who did not (and many feel quite strongly about those votes), people who are annoyed or offended by NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem and many others who applaud them, people who are optimistic about the future and those who are frightened, people who feel great about their church and those who don’t, and so on. We don’t know their motivations or experiences, but we do know that God is reaching out to each one of them with the gift of acceptance and love and forgiveness that are the hallmarks of the kingdom Jesus proclaims.

We live at time of such division. And without for a moment undervaluing the important values, beliefs, and concerns that underlie some of those divisions, can we remind ourselves that beneath all of those differences is a profound commonality and solidarity in that we are each a child of God whom God loves, adores, and is speaking to right here and now. And being reminded of that might we take a little more time to listen to each other, try to understand each other, and try to listen for God’s calling for ourselves and our community together, instead of isolation?

God will be present in our worship and preaching this weekend, Dear Partner, reaching out to us in the eternal now of God’s grace, love, and acceptance to call us to hope-filled and purposeful lives of service to our neighbor, but will we recognize it, will we help our people recognize it? That, I think, is the question each time we preach, but especially on this day, as God invites us once again to see, accept, actualize, and respond to God’s amazing grace and live into the future God has prepared for us. Thank you for answering that question through your proclamation. Your words matter more than you may imagine.

Yours in Christ,