Reflection for the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Matthew 21: 23-32

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Reflection

Two sons, both received the same command from their father. One showed disrespect, he refused to obey, but later changed his mind, and went to work in the vineyard as he was instructed.

The second, said all the right things, he assented, respectfully: ‘I will go sir’ but then failed to live up to his promise and disobeyed. Neither of these young men were ideal in their response, but one recognised his failing and did something about it.

When Jesus told this parable to the chief priests and elders, he compared them to the second son, thereby accusing them of hypocrisy, for failing to practice what they professed. He went further and said that prostitutes and tax-collectors would enter the kingdom of heaven before them – the people they despised most. His stinging rebuke of the temple authorities and leaders could not have been more severe.

This exchange arose when the religious leaders demanded to know by what authority Jesus did the things he was doing. The particular thing to which they referred was his dramatic action in driving out the animal sellers from the temple and turning over the tables of the money-changers. That was an affront to those who presided over the temple – who did this rabble rouser from Galilee think he was, challenging their authority?

Our Lord’s action in the temple was condemnation of everything the leaders stood for. They were an elite, hereditary body who held a complete monopoly on God’s forgiveness and made a tidy profit from the poor who came to the temple seeking God’s mercy. To enter the temple involved paying a temple tax, but roman coins bearing the idolatrous image of the emperor could not be used, so money had to be changed into temple coinage. A sizeable mark-up was made from changing coins, there was profit from animals purchased for sacrifice and there was the tax itself all adding up to a sizeable economy.

Not only did the religious leaders have control of the temple, but they also stood in judgement over those who did not strictly observe the Law of Moses. They condemned and excluded those whom they judged unworthy or unclean. Against that background, John the Baptist’s mission was radical. He called people to repent and receive God’s forgiveness by undergoing the washing of baptisms, offering pilgrims the chance of a fresh start. He did not insist that they make sacrifice in the temple for atonement, but simply told people to confess their sins and to change their way of life. People responded in their droves to his message by coming to be baptised in the river Jordan. Such a radical mission could be seen as undermining the institution of the temple. John also had harsh condemnation for the hypocrisy of religious leaders.

Jesus devoted his ministry to drawing people to the love and mercy of God. He did not stand in condemnation and his only words of judgement were against those who failed to live up to what they taught. He actively sought the company of outcasts and he demonstrated by his words and actions that they were valued by God and welcomed by him.

Today’s gospel reading stands as a challenge to all who profess to follow Christ. Do our actions match our words? If we proclaim the love and compassion of God, do we practice that compassion in our lives? Do we erect barriers of exclusion, or do we welcome and accept all as Jesus did?

The gospel also provides us with reassurance and comfort. We get things wrong, we make mistakes, we fail often, but we are never beyond the forgiveness and mercy of God. As the parable of the two sons teaches us, the Christian gospel is about second chances. Amen.

Collect for sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

O Lord,
Hear the prayers of your people who call upon you;
and grant that they may both perceive and know
what things they ought to do,
and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayers of intercession

God our father, hear the prayers of your people, which we offer in faith:

Grant that as members of your church, knowing the source of all power and true authority, we may humbly obey and cheerfully serve you in our various callings. We pray for our parish, our diocese and for Pat our bishop. Help us to practice what we profess and to reach out in love and compassion to draw others to your love.

Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

Look with mercy on the world where stubborn hearts turn away from truth and refuse its challenge. We pray for the nations of the world, for the European Union and for our country and our government. May they act with honesty, integrity and compassion, protecting the rights of all people.

Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

As we see an increase in cases of COVID-19, we pray for all who bear responsibility for public healthcare during the pandemic. Guide with your wisdom all who are engaged in medical research and in the development of medication to treat the virus. We pray for all who have contracted COVID 19, those who have been admitted to hospital and those who care for them. Bring healing to the sick and protect all medical and care staff as they care for others. We pray for those known to us who are ill: those undergoing tests or treatment, awaiting surgery or treatment and those recovering from illness. Grant them your strength and healing. Support all who are worried or anxious about the health of loved ones and grant them you peace.

Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

We pray for our schools and colleges that they may be places of true learning. Be with all students as the return to university, especially under the current restrictions. Help them to cope with distance learning. Bless all teachers and lecturers in their work. We pray for the health and safety of all staff, pupils and students.

Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

We pray for all who grieve and mourn, comfort them in their loss and assure them of your presence. We remember with thanksgiving all who have died in faith. Bring us with them to the joy of your eternal kingdom.

Lord hear us: Lord graciously hear us.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit
be with us all evermore. Amen.

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