Okay, so there’s a back story to all this in our readings today. The “chief priests and the elders of the people” don’t just come to Jesus questioning his “authority” in a vacuum! They’re reacting to Jesus out of the previous scene, where Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple and accused them of turning “his” house of prayer into a den of robbers. Who is in charge of the Temple? Where does the authority lie? The chief priests and elders were pretty sure it was not with this renegade itinerant preacher from Nazareth! They had been appointed the guardians, they were sure, with the authority to speak for the people of Israel.
Jesus answers their question about his authority as any rabbi would, with another question! “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?” Checkmate – they didn’t see that one coming! Either way they answer, exposes their privilege, that they cling to. They did not believe in John, but they knew the people listening to Jesus teaching in the Temple did, regarding him as a prophet. A prophet who had boldly demanded they give up their privilege and prepare their hearts to receive the Messiah, Jesus. But the chief priests and the elders are more willing to endure public embarrassment than to “change their minds” and turn around – which is saying something in a culture based on receiving honor and avoiding shame. And so they endure the conclusion Jesus draws, “truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” The more they cling to their status and office, the more their honor and privilege evaporate from their grasp! They are like the son who says “I will go and work in the vineyard today, but he did not go.”
Are we able to see our privilege? Are our hearts open to change? Is the kingdom of God what, and where, we thought it was? Some of us may not have ‘privilege’ but instead are put in the position of ‘fighting for our dignity.’ The issue isn’t entitlement, but believing we belong as workers in the same Vineyard with the privileged. But either way, we all must turn around and return to God.
“The word of the Lord came to me,” said Ezekiel: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?”
The theme in Ezekiel is also about clinging to privilege, but by averting responsibility and blaming others. Ezekiel’s back story, is that, he’s living in Babylon with the first deportation of Jews, exiled from Israel, due to their disobedience, and failure to care “for the least of these,” some 6 C. before Jesus. Ezekiel was an “elder” of the people, but one who repented, turned around from his privilege, and advocated that all of Israel should do the same.
And so Ezekiel refuses to accept that the everyday proverb can be their excuse any longer, that they can have their “teeth set on edge” by the “sour grapes” their parents have eaten! In other words, he doesn’t accept that the children suffer, because of the misdeeds of their parents, any more than he would accept that they might benefit because of their parents success. Their righteousness depends on their own choices within the Vineyard of opportunity given by God’s grace. They are not locked in to the consequences of sin in the past. Even though they are in exile, away from their beloved Vineyard, the promised land of Israel, they are not destined for suffering forever. “Turn and live” says Ezekiel. God is a God of life, and we are free to take responsibility and choose it. You are not bound by the sins of the past, or your parents. Turn and live, is a word of Grace! The way out of exile, for them, and us, is turning around, repenting from the ways of death, and living in the way of life, the ways of the LORD. Why would you choose to blame your parents? Or insist you are bound to the sins of the past, when this only leads to more death!
But, we do! We blame others. Or we insist on the privilege we have received from our parents, instead of “seeing John’s righteousness.” “For John came to [us] in the way of righteousness and [we]did not believe him…” that there is a way out – the freedom to choose life – this life, this gift of grace. We have it not by our own deeds, any more than we have it by our parents’ sins. But we have life in proportion to our giving it away for others to have. Not to suggest it’s some kind of a Ponsy scheme, that depends on us finding one more person to hand it off to. God has given, and is continuing to give away, life, to us. It is limitless, whether we choose it or not. It is free, and it is the way of life that overcomes the way of death.
James Alison has said that, “There is no real freedom that does not pass through a recognition of complicity in death.” He referring, of course, to Jesus’ death and resurrection that helps us to see and to understand this journey. We do not just have to work a little harder at doing good to earn the gift. “Life is not something fought for,” Alison continues, “but something given.”
Are we able to see our privilege? Are our hearts open to change? Is the kingdom of God what, and where, we thought it was? The kingdom, or the Vineyard is not where John was – out in the desert. But John’s ministry of baptism in the wilderness is an excellent preparation to pass through on our journey to freedom. It is where our sin and separation from God is let go, and washed clean. We go through John’s baptism, to get to the promised Vineyard. We empty ourselves of the weight that holds us down, and we come up out of the waters ready to be filled with the new life of Christ. Our freedom is in turning around and choosing life.
Why in the world, Ezekiel wonders, do you want to be tied down to your parents’ sour grapes, their sins? Although there is momentary comfort in denying our privilege or escaping our responsibility, it only leaves us more separated from the reach of God’s loving embrace. We have been set free in the waters of baptism. Our exile ends in the freedom we have to choose life, and, in learning how to give it away again.
Welcome to the Vineyard! Even though we say, “I will not go and work in the vineyard today,” whether out of privilege, or out of rejections in our lives, we go! For here is work that frees the soul, and grapes that produce a harvest for the banqueting feast at the table of the LORD forever. Our exile is over! Choose life, and return to the Lord your God.