26th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people:
"What is your opinion?
A man had two sons.
He came to the first and said,
'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.'
He said in reply, 'I will not, '
but afterwards changed his mind and went.
The man came to the other son and gave the same order.
He said in reply, 'Yes, sir, 'but did not go.
Which of the two did his father's will?"
They answered, "The first."
Jesus said to them, "Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the kingdom of God before you.
When John came to you in the way of righteousness,
you did not believe him;
but tax collectors and prostitutes did.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not later change your minds and believe him."
Next Sunday is the 26th Sunday of Ordinary time—there are 34 in toto—and the Gospel of Matthew is a text from the end of Chapter 21—there are 28 in all, including the Passion and Resurrection. Thus, the liturgical year and the narrative of St. Matthew are heading with increasing speed toward the climax of the Gospel. For the evangelist Matthew, this will be the establishment of the worldwide Christian Church and, concurrent with that, the acceptance of Israel’s failure to embrace Jesus as the promised Messiah from God. I need to insert an important footnote: it is quite possible that Matthew’s antagonism toward the Jews was influenced in no small way by struggles taking place in Matthew’s own community, as well as Matthew’s belief in an imminent arrival of Son of Man and the day of judgment. Vatican II, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (most recently in 1993; paras. 35,36, and 71) and the catechesis of all popes since John XXIII have emphasized that hostility toward Jews and anti-Semitic attitudes and actions are sinful and antithetical to the full saving mission of Christ and cannot be taken literally from Scripture texts taken too literally.
It is true that the Matthean narrative is a story of effort and apparent failure. In the early stages of this Gospel, Jesus’ preaching ministry is centered in Galilee, far from the bright lights of Jerusalem. Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree that after a period of time in the hinterlands Jesus “set his face for Jerusalem,” the historical, liturgical, and theological center of Israel’s life. The purpose of this pilgrimage was the intention to proclaim the coming of the kingdom and the fulfillment of the New Jerusalem, described in Isaiah 60, an apocalyptic text that portrayed Israel as the universal home of all those of good will and thirsting for God. Jesus’ anger is directed in part at the narrow and parochial vision of his own people who even banned saving contact with its own blood—the tax collectors and prostitutes mentioned twice in Sunday’s Gospel text. Isaiah 60, by the way, is the first reading for the Catholic Mass of the Epiphany every year.
As I mentioned last week, Matthew uses the image of the vineyard three times in his Gospel: last week, in the parable of the generous employer; this week; and next week when the vineyard is the setting for a final judgment. The story line is easy enough to follow. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem; Chapter 21 opens with the “Palm Sunday” entry. Jesus is no longer addressing Galilean peasants but the old guard of Israel’s temple practice—the chief priests and elders of the people. To them he offers in question form the metaphor of two sons—one who “says no” to his father but eventually meets his responsibilities; and the other who quickly assents but proves to be unfaithful to his father’s order.
The authorities have no choice but to give the answer they did. It is not clear from this text if they realized they were the object of the metaphor. Next Sunday, in Matthew 21:45 they do, and the realization leads them to begin plotting Jesus’ death. In this text, however, Jesus is rather blunt that there is something amiss, that the answer given by the chief priests is not the de facto correct answer, that in truth they have still not obeyed the father’s will.
There are two lines of interpretation here. Jesus issues the stunning warning that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of them. Matthew is careful to avoid saying that public sinners are entering the kingdom instead of them; but the chief priests and elders are certainly losing place. The reason that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom ahead of them is that the former believed in John’s message of righteousness whereas the priests had not. John the Baptist exercised ministry closer to Jerusalem; his teaching, his baptism, and his martyrdom must have been well known to Roman and Jew alike in the holy city. Although Matthew does not mention baptism here, he implies that the despised sinners were profoundly changed; Jesus marvels that “… even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.” The charge against religious authorities is that they did not take John the Baptist seriously, which gives us some idea of his significance in the eyes of Jesus.
The second major interpretive theme of Sunday’s Gospel is the setting of Matthew’s Christian community in 80 A.D. or thereabouts. It centers around the mission of the Church, particularly the outreach beyond Judaea to the Gentile world which began in the late 40’s with the vision of St. Paul. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was understood by many Christians as God’s retribution against the Jews for their collective failure to accept Jesus as Messiah (though Catholicism does not hold that position today.) If we consider Sunday’s Gospel in the light of the tension between the Jewish and Gentile missions, the parable takes on another level of meaning.
The two sons become the Chosen People and the pagan Gentile world respectively. The first son [the Gentile world] rejects the father’s request at first, but later comes around. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, the Church in Rome was well established. The second son represents Israel, which embraces God’s word quickly at the onset but by Jesus’ day did not understand the meaning of its own Scripture and thus did not accept the kind of Messiah Jesus proved to be. In October 8’s Sunday’s Gospel—another vineyard vignette—the break will become solidified when the king sends a stream of representatives to his laborers, and finally his own son, to bring peace, but to no avail.