By Matt Skinner.
Americans talk about race.
It’s hard to follow through on our commitments. It’s hard to do what we know to be right.
We don’t need Jesus to remind us of all that. Most of us figured it out easily enough on our own.
What, then, does Jesus contribute to our understanding of what a well-lived life looks like? Can he help people of faith be agents of change, people who look at our fouled-up world and make differences that will benefit other people and will give voice to God’s desire for human flourishing?
A Parable and Its Surrounding Story
When we read about a parable Jesus tells concerning 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!”
More serious: how inattentive to what’s going on at this point in the Gospel according to Matthew.
In Matthew 21:23-32, Jesus confronts some of the highest-ranking, most powerful, and more widely influential authorities within the Judaism of his time and place. These chief priests and elders, members of a “scribal elite” class, played important and visible roles regarding religious practices, rituals and symbols, the interpretation of sacred texts, and Roman governance over the region. Jesus has not directly engaged people like this before, except for a brief encounter in Matthew 21:15-16, and the tension is high.
Jesus implicitly criticizes them for not recognizing John the Baptizer and his ministry as authorized “from heaven,” that is, as expressions of God’s own intentions or as means by which someone might glimpse God and God’s priorities for the world. By extension, Jesus insinuates that these religious authorities also fail to recognize the same in him and in the teaching and work he does.
Jesus tells his parable after that exchange, after he has exposed these particular leaders as unable or unwilling to grasp how God might be knowable—or even at work—in other places or in other ways.
Because if God is active or discoverable in the efforts of someone like John, a wild-eyed long-toiling 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 the continuation of an ongoing and corrosive status quo…
…then perhaps people who care about religious language, symbols, practices, and truth claims should be curious people, bent on keeping their eyes open for ways in which God might be made known, or ways in which the purposes of God might be expressed.
In other words, saying “Yes” to God should lead a person to say “Yes” to looking for God and “Yes” to getting engaged in God’s business—the business of seeing to the flourishing of justice, peace, reconciliation, security, restoration, and forgiveness.
That’s why Jesus, in his parable and in his words immediately after it, praises “tax collectors and prostitutes”—people who by most appearances have not claimed to say “Yes” to God but have nevertheless responded to or found their place within God’s activity.
Therefore don’t equate the parable with banal morality tales meant to extol hard work and integrity. Although the parable commends obedience, it does so in a context suggesting that a life of “working in the vineyard” is about playing one’s part in God’s ongoing work and enjoying God’s benefits. Such toil is not punishment or lifeless religious obligation. It is about going to where God is.
Which Vineyard Will I Choose?
Where might we encounter God now? Where might we participate in giving expression to God’s intentions for our world? Are there wilderness places you see, circumstances that appear hostile to human flourishing?
The problem is, there are so many places. And they can become easy to forget when the sirens stop and the video cameras and reporters leave town.
We don’t need many words to evoke the vineyards—places, issues, causes—where we might have been called to labor over the last few months. Consider, for starters:
- Domestic violence, provoked by NFL scandals
- Racial injustice and profiling, provoked by Ferguson
- Immigrants and immigration reform, provoked by children detained in Texas and politically-motivated delays
- Religious persecution and violence, provoked by ISIL
- Capital punishment reform or abolishment, provoked by the deaths of Troy Davis and Joseph R. Wood III
- Sensible gun-control legislation, provoked by the Sandy Hook shootings
Your list may be different, larger, more personal, or more urgent.
People of faith may not agree about exactly how to go about our work to address these and other issues, but we usually share a sense of outrage, pain, or dismay. Those feelings could very well be our summons to go into the vineyard.
It is easy to make pledges when an issue erupts. It can be easy to write a check or to resolve to put our faith into action into particular ways. Following through by working for long-term change is more difficult.
Working in a vineyard implies patient, hard work. Progress does not occur unless people come back and resume their work day after day. Usually in groups.
If we fail to do so, it does not necessarily mean we are evil or worthless people. The religious authorities Jesus criticizes in the Gospels were not, either. But Jesus insists their vision had become too limited. They weren’t able to see what Jesus saw. Their imaginations were too puny. Perhaps Jesus thought their view of what was possible had withered.
Because God might be there, out among the vines. God might be waiting for me to transform my good intentions into actions, not merely to keep me busy, but because of an eagerness for me to recognize places where God can be encountered and God’s intentions actualized.
For Further Reading
Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), pages 218-225
Chris Keith, Jesus against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Baker Academic, 2014)
Emerson Powery, “Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32,” Working Preacher
“Jesus, the consummate storyteller” (interview with Amy-Jill Levine by Michael Fitzgerald), The Boston Globe, 7 September 2014
Bible Study Questions
- The article makes reference to God’s intentions for the world. What do you think God intends? How do you arrive at those conclusions?
- What makes you unwilling or unable to glimpse the “places” where God might be discovered among us, or the “places” where God’s intentions are being voiced?
- Have you ever felt stirred to take action to address a particular cause and to work for change? What pressed you to move from intention to action? How would you help another person experience the same kind of thing?
Matthew L. Skinner is a native Californian who now braves Minnesota winters, serving as Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. His research interests focus on the Gospels and the book of Acts, the cultural world reflected in the New Testament, and the Bible’s potential for shaping the theological imaginations of its readers. Sought-after nationally as a teacher for conferences and congregations, he helped create the free site EnterTheBible.org and contributes frequently to WorkingPreacher.org. He’s part of the team that produces Sermon Brainwave, a free weekly podcast for preachers and others exploring the biblical texts assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). His most recent book is The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament, and he coedited Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible. For more information and more of his writings, visit MatthewSkinner.org.
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