Growing up, my mother regularly read Greek myths and Aesop’s Fables to me. All of my goldfish were thus named after Greek gods and goddesses. And I can tell you that as a child who loved to please by following the rules, I adored Aesop’s Fables. They were succinct little stories with a very definite moral end. Full of rules. And full of characters to point a finger at who WERE NOT following the rules. I loved being able to tsk tsk about those fools. I was a barrel of fun as a kid!
One of Aesop’s fables, The Fox and Woodsman goes something like this…
There was a fox being chased by hounds and hunters for a long time. Exhausted, the fox came up to man cutting wood and begged him to give him a place to hide. The man agreed and took the fox to his own hut where the fox crept in and made himself scarce in the corner.
Soon the hunters and their dogs appeared. They asked the man if he had seen the fox.
“Oh, no,” said the man. Except while he was saying no he was pointing right at his hut.
Thankfully for the fox, the hunters were oblivious, and I guess they had really bad hounds because they ran off still looking for the fox.
After they left the fox was slinking out of the hut to get out of there fast. But the man saw him and fussed at him. “This is how you treat someone who has helped you? Without so much as a thank-you?”
The fox replied, “Some host you are. Thank goodness your mouth was more honest than your fingers, otherwise I’d have never had the chance to offer you the thank-you that I am NOT going to give you now.”
Saying one thing and doing another.
That is where we find the two brothers in the parable from the Gospels today.
I think it is worth noting that our gospel last week and our gospel next week include parables set in the vineyard. Jesus often uses the vineyard as a way to talk about what the Kingdom is like. Last week we heard the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. The one where those who have worked a full day and those who have worked just an hour get paid exactly the same. The laborers who have been there all day pitch a fit, which, if we are all being honest, most of us would, too. And the landowner replies, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Jesus has told us already that the vineyard is open to all, and our rules do not apply there. God’s love does. We will find this again today.
Today’s vineyard story is worth placing in its own context in the Gospel of Matthew.
Our passage today is part of the Holy Week narrative in Matthew. The beginning of Chapter 21 opens with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, followed by Jesus going to the Temple to set things straight and flip some tables to make room for the blind and crippled to come in and be healed.
The next day as Jesus was heading back into Jerusalem where today’s exchange takes place, he stopped to pluck a fig from a fig tree. What he found was a fig tree that looked great, green and leafy. But it had NO fruit. A seemingly healthy tree bearing no good fruit. And he curses it, and it shrivels up immediately. The disciples are standing there open mouthed looking at Jesus.
He says to them you think this is something? Just wait. If you get on board with what I am trying to do here, you’ll be able to do far bigger things than just make a fig tree dry up. You’ll be able to make mountains jump into lakes. Big things can change when you act in God’s love.
Today’s gospel picks up just after that. I do wonder if he ever got breakfast because, as David would say, he sounds a little “chippy” in this passage.
Jesus comes into the Temple and the high priests and elders immediately ask him for his credentials. Jesus slaps back. First, how about you answer a question I’ve got for you. By what authority did John baptize – God’s or his own? Well, they are stuck. If they say that John’s authority came from God, then they are exposed as liars. Or maybe worse. People who’ve gotten things all wrong about God. And if they say John’s authority was self-made, then the crowd gathered around who think of John as God’s prophet will swallow them up.
So, they play the “Uh, we don’t know” card.
And, as Jesus so often does, he tells a parable. The parable of the two sons sent to work in a vineyard. The first son called said no, but later on changed his mind and showed up to work. The second son called said “yes sir. of course, I will go work in the vineyard today” but instead just flat out didn’t show. Saying one thing and doing another.
When Jesus asks them which of the sons did the right thing, they reply the first.
Jesus then tells them that the tax collectors and prostitutes, which simply means everyone that the religious leaders had deemed unworthy in whatever way, everyone they said hadn’t worked long enough in the vineyard to get a full day’s pay, those folks are going to be in front of them in line on the way into the Kingdom. John came and you refused to change, refused to believe the repentance he was pointing to and instead you pointed at him as if he were the problem. You pointed at them, the tax collectors and prostitutes, as if they were the problem. But they are the very ones who heard the good news turned around toward God and changed their minds and headed to work in the vineyard. Even after you saw this with your very own eyes, you did not believe him.
It’s important to remember that Jesus says that the tax collectors and prostitutes will be ahead of the religious leaders he’s talking to on the way into the Kingdom. Not that they WILL NOT get into the Kingdom. They just won’t be first in line.
If I am honest with myself, I might as well cast myself, Amelia McDaniel, into the role of one of the high priests and elders or the son who said he’d show up and didn’t or into the role of the wood cutter, too. Saying one thing, doing another. Looking one way but being another. Like the fig tree with no fruit. Maybe you are in the casting line-up with me and feel you have the chops to be one of these characters, too. I don’t think I am unique here.
It’s not that I wake up with the aim of being the fig tree bearing no fruit each day. I start off with the intention of marching into the vineyard. Sometimes I can make it all the way past lunch before I turn into that tree. But, mercifully, Jesus, still offers me a place in line and the opportunity to try again.
Unlike fables that have a tight little punch, parables offer possibilities. Fables end with a moral statement. But parables are an invitation to think more broadly. Who is my neighbor? Is just one small coin worth searching for? What would I give up everything to be able to have? Parables push us to think of what is possible in the Kingdom of God because it is just so hard to fathom.
Theologian Douglas Hare says that even though today’s parable is directed at the religious leaders Jesus was addressing, “Matthew probably intended a wider application as well. Christians too can become blind to what God is doing in the world around them… We say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting the grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones along the path!” (Hare, p. 248)
As an expert stone arranger myself, I would like to get out into the vineyard, full of possibilities.
Is it possible to change one’s heart and mind and go to work in the vineyard?
Is it possible to summon the courage to meet Jesus in those whom we least expect to find him?
Is it possible to instead turn the finger pointed at someone else as the problem and touch one’s own heart and learn to bear good fruit?
Where are the places in our own hearts, in our own homes, and in our community that we could move from pushing rocks around the path to gathering up the good fruit to share?
And it may be possible that today this parable may find you ready to head to the vineyard to begin to work.