October 1, 2017
I had been driving out and about in the Diocese and got hungry, so I stopped to pick up a sandwich. Instead of sitting in the parking lot I drove over to a pullout near a park to eat before returning to the office. I remember a Vaughan Williams piece was playing on Sirius, Fantasia on Greensleeves, when a car pulled up next to me.
I wasn’t paying close attention, but two people got out with a loaf of bread, and seemingly out of nowhere 30-40 seagulls appeared. Pieces of bread were being launched into the crowd as wings flapped wildly, with only bread on the mind. A cacophony ensued drowning out Vaughan Williams. The chaos was orderly as chaos goes when a funny thing happened.
A duck, a lone male mallard appeared and dared to enter the assembly. As he made some rather feeble attempts to join the party it became apparent that he was not going to be tolerated. Three gulls set upon him and chased the duck out of the group, down through some trees until I lost sight of them. Neither the seagulls nor the duck returned to the frenzied feast still going on. Evidently, the seagulls were so fixed on themselves and their place in the pecking order (ahem), and getting rid of one unlike themselves, they missed out on their own source of food and the great party that was taking place.
Enter, stage right, the chief priests and elders of today’s Gospel, the religious and civil leaders of their day. They, like the seagulls, were so caught up in themselves and their own sense of righteousness, they could not fathom the party of grace that God wanted to throw for the so-called tax collectors and sinners and indeed, wants to throw for the chief priests and elders as well!
Once again, the Gospel, as Jesus presents it to us, turns things upside down. You know: the exalted are humbled and the humble exalted; the last shall be first and the first last; the rich will be sent away empty and the poor will be given good things; the mighty are cast down and the lowly are lifted up. We don’t always do real well with that. We live in a culture that too often exalts the exalted and believes the first ought to be first and the last deserve to be so.
Do you see what is going on in this Gospel story? As Jesus engages the chief priests and elders who are wondering where he gets his authority, all by the way so that they can discount anything he says, he responds like a good rabbi and answers a question with a question. Jesus uses a very recent example in the life of Jerusalem and brings up his cousin, you remember, John the Baptist. They find themselves in a bit of a pickle as they cannot say what they really think about John the Baptist as he does not fit into their religious or civil categories. They’re stuck and so respond, “We don’t know.” Then follows the parable of the two sons that is a commentary on the dispute.
Amazingly, the chief priests and elders are pronounced guilty for their hearts are not receptive to God’s call. Obedient faith is always the final test for Matthew, so when the tax collectors and sinners, last on the list for God’s welcome on most people’s list are thrown a party of grace, it cannot be tolerated. This wild, welcoming, extravagant party of grace that is meant for everyone is what gets Jesus in trouble. It sets up the conflict between Jesus and the Jerusalem leaders, eventually leading to his excruciating death. The fear of the chief priest and elders, and sometimes ours, is that someone just might get something they don’t deserve.
The problem is not that the chief priests and elders or even the one son who did not do what he said he would do are bad people, or on the flip side, that the tax collectors and sinners and the son who first refused and then came around are such good people. The problem occurs when some wish to celebrate their own sense of righteousness as better than another’s, and thus have no need to repent – to walk in a new direction. And in this case, the tax collectors and sinners as well as the son who eventually came around knew of their need.
Garrison Keillor has said, “Every family needs a sinner to save us from self-righteousness.” Yet the Gospel goes much deeper than that. What makes the Gospel and the account we have today such a revolutionary word is the upside down message Jesus is telling us about God. It is this: God’s mercy, God’s loving kindness, is not dependent on human virtue at all. It is not based on moral rectitude, that is, getting it all right, or even moral turpitude, getting it all wrong. It is based solely on God’s generosity, a love that comes from God who desires that every person, regardless of personal history, is invited to enter the glorious freedom of the liberty of life in him. It is true for the tax collectors and sinners, for the son who finally came around, it is even true for the self-righteous as they are called to welcome the grace offered. In other words, it is true for us.
The heart of the Gospel is the shocking paradox, yes shocking, that the last, the broken, the sinners, the least, enter the Kingdom first. It is a danger to think that we are self-sufficient because we are so good at pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, to live at the top of the moral pile in order to look down at those beneath, or live off of the energy of contempt for others in the game of self-righteous one-upmanship. Our Baptism and Confirmation into Christ calls us to name the above as the trap and lie that it is. It destroys community.
Today’s Gospel is about knowing our need of God. If we see ourselves as we really are – children of God who know brokenness and grace, honesty and deception, not all good, not all bad, we can admit that merit on our own is not enough. Yet we know with certainty that it is God who is enough for us all. This is the promise of Jesus. All is gift. Welcome to the party of grace.