Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.
In the backyard of the house where I grew up, there was an enormous pear tree. Regrettably, this did not mean I got to eat fresh pears regularly. Since the tree was so large, the fruit it produced was completely out of reach until it dropped from the branches to the ground. Unfortunately, once the pears hit the ground, they either rotted almost immediately or were consumed by squirrels. Thus, around this time every year, my family had to collect these inedible pears and throw them away. This task had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The air would be redolent with that sickeningly sweet smell of rotting fruit, we would stoop until our backs ached, we would tenuously pick up those squishy pears so that the rotting flesh wouldn’t explode all over our clothes, and we would throw the woebegone fruit into battered aluminum trash cans that became so heavy they required three people to move them. Picking up pears is easily the most thankless, uncomfortable, and mind-numbing chore that I remember from my childhood.
It goes without saying that my younger brother and I dreaded the day we had to pick up pears. We dealt with the arrival of this day in different ways. My brother, who is more confrontational by nature, tended to shout something like, “I’m not picking up another pear as long as I live,” at breakfast, only to drift outside by midmorning in order to be helpful. I, on the other hand, would dutifully acquiesce to my parents’ instructions, saying something like, “Of course; it is my joy to serve you,” only to fritter away the day procrastinating. By the time I would emerge from the house, my exhausted family would point to the trash barrels full of pears, while I had nothing to show but my empty promises.
Given my history of procrastination when it comes to household chores, today’s gospel reading resonates with me. In fact, the parable that Jesus tells was a favorite of my father, especially on days when I was particularly lazy. In his interpretation, I was the son who said “I go, sir,” but did not go, whereas my brother was the defiant, yet ultimately obedient son. It would seem that my father’s use of this parable was effective; I still feel pangs of guilt when I hear this passage from Matthew’s gospel. But I wonder whether there was a level at which we both missed the point of Jesus’ parable. Our understanding of this story assumed that it was akin to one of Aesop’s fables, that it had a self-evident moral. Fables, however, are very different from parables. While fables tend to be literally minded and focused on proper behavior, parables hold a mirror to our lives. Parables expose something about who we are rather than how we should behave. Jesus uses parables not only to illuminate and expand his teaching but also to reveal to us something about the character of God.
So, what is it that Jesus is trying to illuminate with this parable? He relates this story in the midst of an exchange with the religious authorities, who begin by asking Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” Keep in mind that the “thing” they are referring to is the Temple incident, when Jesus turns over the tables of the moneychangers. Their question about Jesus’ authority, in other words, is not entirely unreasonable or unwarranted. “Who do you think you are?” is essentially what the chief priests and elders are asking. But in typical fashion, Jesus answers their question with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” His point is clear: well, where did John the Baptist derive his authority? Like the good politicians they are, the chief priests and elders plead ignorance. As a result, Jesus refuses to tell them where his authority comes from and continues with an apparent non sequitur, telling his audience a story about two brothers who are sent to work in the vineyard.
Though Jesus seems to change the subject, however, there is one key detail about this parable that connects it to the rest of the exchange. Notice that the two brothers are sent out to work in a vineyard, to cultivate and bear fruit. And remember that in Matthew’s gospel, the theme of bearing fruit comes up over and over again. For instance, John the Baptist’s charge to those who gather by the Jordan is to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Then there’s the moment the moment when John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the one who is to come. Instead of saying “Yes, absolutely; I’m the Messiah,” Jesus points to the fruit his ministry has borne: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have good news brought to them.” So by telling this parable of two brothers sent to cultivate a vineyard, Jesus affirms that his authority is derived from the fruits of his ministry. Ultimately, this is Jesus’ response to the initial question of the chief priests and elders. He explains that his authority emanates not from his title or his lineage, but from the fact that the disobedient, the tax collectors and prostitutes, have turned from their sinful ways and have reoriented their lives in relationship to God. This authority that is derived from bearing fruit is set up in contrast to authority of the chief priests and elders. The traditional religious authorities assume that their position of power is unassailable, that the mere accident of birth empowers them to mediate between God and humanity. Jesus challenges this assumption, insisting that true spiritual authority is derived from the fruit we bear. Just as I thought the empty promise of labor would cement my status as the obedient son, the chief priests and elders imagine their membership in a particular family guarantees their authority. And just as my brother actually showed himself to be the obedient son with that full barrel of pears, Jesus demonstrates his true authority by pointing to those whose lives have been transformed by the gospel proclamation.
Now, it might seem that the message of this parable is that one must accomplish a certain set of tasks, that one must bear a certain amount of fruit in order to be considered spiritual. Remember, however, that the primary purpose of Jesus’ parables is to reveal something about the nature of God. And just as the authority of Jesus is made known in the fruit he bears, in the lives he transforms, God’s nature is made known in the fruit God bears, and that fruit that is ultimately revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the cross and empty tomb, our God experiences the beauty and pain of human life, but also promises that there is hope even in the midst of despair. Thus, as a people who have been redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection, a people renewed by the fruit of God’s redemptive love, we are called to bear fruit that is shaped by the reality of the resurrection, to recognize that there is always hope, to build for the kingdom even in the midst of devastation, to insist that joy can conquer despair. Our lives are meant to be signs that point to the power of God’s resurrection love. In the end, we are meant to be the fruit by which others may know the promise of God’s redemption.