Twenty-sixth Sunday In Ordinary Time
The final week of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry has arrived. Most of his ministry of healing and proclaiming the kingdom of heaven was accomplished in Galilee – according to Mark and Matthew and Luke, though not in John’s gospel. In the chapter of Matthew in which we are now engaged Jesus is in Jerusalem – the last week of his life. Matthew has assembled confrontation after confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish religious leadership. The leadership most dangerous to Jesus was not that of the Pharisees and their learned scribes, but the high priestly families and perhaps the Sadducees in general. Nor did their animosity toward Jesus end with his death. Luke’s Acts of Apostles reveals that the chief opposition to the apostles in Jerusalem came from the high priestly families. See Acts 4:5-7, 21; 5:17-41.
These men wanted to retain the status quo and avoid anything that would stir up the Roman occupation authorities. The crowds Jesus drew in Jerusalem made them uneasy. His attack on the temple was the last straw. It was an attack on them personally because they were responsible for all activities in the temple. The temple was their living and that of a large percentage of the people of Jerusalem. They could not have appreciated Jesus’ denunciation of temple business, “You have made the temple a den of robbers.” The selling of sacrificial animals in the greater temple area was legitimate, as was the work of the money changers. The temple tax obligatory for any male adult had to be paid in coins that did not have graven images on them. The money-changers took in the various engraved image coins and changed them into the silver coin of the city of Tyre for a fee. This coin was free of graven images. So why did Jesus attack two legitimate businesses? Probable answer: higher prices charged to pay off the bosses of the temple.
The Sadducees, (meaning the high priestly families) were the first to confront Jesus after his attack on the temple. They demand to know by what authority he took over the temple. The answer the Matthean Jesus gives them is no answer, but a challenge. He accuses them of antagonism toward John the Baptizer, who by this time had been executed by order of Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. There is some evidence that the Sadducean high priesthood had some involvement in John’s death. In what seems almost tragically comedic he teasingly goads these “great” men. He will tell them the source of his authority over the temple if they answer his question first. “Was John’s life and ministry from God or merely human?” They knew that if they said, “Merely human,” the people of the land could turn against them and tear them to pieces, because they revered John as a prophet, just as they revered Jesus. If they answered, “It was from God, Jesus could say, “So why did you not listen to him?’ So they answered: “We don’t know!” Then Jesus’ punchline, “Then I won’t answer your question either.”
After this bitter confrontation, (bitter to the Sadducees, because Jesus made fools of them), Matthew arranges this Sunday’s parable as a puzzle for them to figure out. A man had two sons. He asked his oldest son to work in the vineyard. The oldest son refused, but afterward repented and went to work. The man went to his younger son with the same request. The younger son replied, “I am going,” but did not. Now Jesus’ question to the hierarchy of the temple, “Which of the two did his father’s will?” The question was easy enough as was the answer, but their answer led to their denunciation by Jesus. What will happen to them because of their negative treatment of John? Jesus begins with a mild oath, “Amen, I say to you, (or “I swear to you”), tax collectors and prostitutes enter into the kingdom of God before you. John came to you to show you how to live rightly before God but you did not believe him. Tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. But even after you saw what he accomplished with them, you did not repent and believe him.”
We must keep in mind that to these upper caste men tax collectors and prostitutes were examples of the most degrading ways to make a living. To these priestly men, they were the untouchables. Prostitution as a degradation is easy enough to understand, but why tax collectors? These men were Jewish businessmen, accountants perhaps, who bought a franchise from the Roman occupation authorities to collect taxes for the Roman government. Part of their contract would have been this, that they could keep a certain percentage of the collected money. Nothing wrong with that. It was how they earned their living. But they were considered traitors first of all because they worked for the Roman oppressors, and secondly because at least some of them were also guilty of extortion from their own people. Tax collectors had very limited civil rights among their fellow-Jews.
The meaning of the puzzle (parable): Some interpret the two sons as Jews and Gentiles, but that does not seem to do justice to the parable’s context in Matthew’s gospel. The two sons are both Jews – faithless leaders of their people and outcast Jews who became faithful, or false Israel and true Israel. The unclean sinners became examples of righteousness (repenting and living by God’s commandments), while those who were the guardians of God’s commandments became unrighteous sinners. We see here a reversal of roles expressed perfectly in last Sunday’s gospel selection, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Meditation on this parable and Jesus’ application of it can be a frightening experience for those of us commissioned to proclaim the Good News.