I feel there is a sadness underlying the gospel reading for today. This is not the first time in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ story that Jesus has entered the temple. The day before, after his arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus had gone into the temple and caused a commotion, upsetting things and driving out those who were trading instead of praying. The temple authorities were indignant, confronting Jesus about all the turmoil around him. Though they could see the healing of the blind and lame, they excluded themselves from the joy of the children who shouted with delight at the wonderful things Jesus was doing as he confirmed the presence of God’s kingdom among them.
When Jesus returns the next day, those authority figures interrupt his teaching to question him regarding the nature and source of his authority. The question Jesus puts to them in return exposes the compromised position they find themselves in. I suppose they know that they should have received John the Baptist as a prophet sent among them by God, but they failed to do so because acknowledging John publicly would have created difficulties in the various political alliances they participated in and so would have undermined their social standing.
The authorities have backed themselves into a corner. Jesus will not play their game, but it seems to me that there is a graciousness in how he introduces the parable he tells next. “What do you think?” he asks them, and in that I hear an invitation to come out of the corner and consider their lives in the light of the parable he tells that reveals their situation and the choice he places before them. Even though they have not yet changed their minds about how to respond to God’s prophet John, they still can do so and in doing so respond positively to Jesus’ invitation to enter God’s kingdom.
I find it an interesting choice of comparison by Jesus, holding up tax collectors and prostitutes as examples for these religious authorities to consider. Tax collectors and prostitutes were despised by those who thought of themselves as righteous. That such as these sinners were believing John might have been reason enough for the authorities to reject him, except that I suspect they knew that God had sent him, which was awkward. Jesus makes it clear to the authorities that their insecurities and prejudices have combined to impede their entry into the kingdom of God. The choice remains theirs as to how they will respond to this challenging invitation from Jesus.
The choice remains ours as well. God’s kingdom has a way of including people whom we would rather not have to deal with, people whom we don’t naturally feel comfortable around, people who irritate or offend us, even (if we’re honest with ourselves) people we might be tempted to despise. What are we going to do about that? Are we going to allow our insecurities and prejudices, our desire to have things our own way, to keep us from entering into the fullness of life in God’s kingdom? I know that sometimes I have done that.
You can still change your mind, Jesus tells us. It starts with being honest about ourselves and our resistances to God’s will, both internal and external. It continues with paying attention to the ways in which God is at work even in the lives of people we would rather not be considering. If we pay attention long enough, letting go of our preconceptions, we just might notice the ways in which such people are responding to the loving mercy and the gracious invitation of the presence of God in their lives, however that presence might show itself. If we are able to notice that, it might allow us to respond more freely ourselves to the presence of God in our own lives.
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, the apostle Paul tells the Philippians, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, God tells the people through the prophet Ezekiel, for I take no pleasure in the death of anyone; turn then, and live.
As we discover more of the new heart and new spirit God places within us when we turn, Paul invites us also to acknowledge the encouragement we find in Christ, the consolation we find in love, the compassion and sympathy brought about by our sharing in the Spirit of God. These things gradually free us from selfish ambition and conceit and enable us to look to the interests of others as we enter into the joy of living in full accord and sharing the same love, the love which comes from God.