The Lectionary draws us abruptly from last week’s Gospel (Mt 20:16) to this week’s (Mt 21:28). The intervening passages, which include the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple, appear elsewhere in the liturgical calendar, so the church passes over them now.
‘Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.’ (Mt 21:31)
What can crowd out your perception of grace?
In what surprising places have you found God at work?
Now in Jerusalem, the setting for Jesus’ mission has changed. He had started on the peripheries of Israel, where his opponents were Pharisees. Although Matthew recounts their sometimes acrimonious response to Jesus, other passages affirm that they agreed with him on many things. Their disputes with Jesus were primarily over matters of interpretation, not principle.
Jesus had a deeper grievance with his opponents in Jerusalem. The great city housed two institutions vital to Jewish life. The first was the Temple, run by officials Matthew calls the “chief priests.” The second was the Sanhedrin, a council of elders representing the whole Jewish community. Although Jerusalem was a conquered city, the Temple and the Sanhedrin preserved vestiges of local autonomy and exerted influence on Jewish life throughout the Roman Empire.
Something was wrong. Many felt that in trying to mitigate foreign domination, the chief priests and elders had instead betrayed Israel. Greco-Roman settlers, bringing their own cultural and religious institutions, planted new towns on former Israelite lands now empty from centuries of warfare. Young upper-class Jewish men received a Greek education, often at the expense of traditional learning. Greek displaced Hebrew in prayer and Aramaic in everyday speech. Some high priests even exchanged their Hebrew names for names from Greek mythology, like Jason or Menelaus.
While the chief priests and elders may have been trying to preserve the nation, others saw their efforts as defeats and feared that Israel was melting away. When Jesus saw the crowds, he saw “sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). Many Jews found little in their religious tradition to give their lives a sense of meaning. Others followed their leaders’ example and collaborated with the Romans. For non-elites, this often meant serving as a tax collector or a prostitute. John’s preaching had reached many of these individuals, however. Jesus presents their conversion as evidence that John’s ministry was truly of God, unlike the policies of the chief priests and the elders, which had led only to decline.
Matthew recognized God at work when John drew in sinners and Jesus attracted Gentiles.
This is the background of today’s Gospel. Jesus offers a stinging rebuke to Israel’s leaders, who had promised to tend God’s vineyard but did nothing to arrest its decline. Sinners, meanwhile, who had forsaken God’s vineyard entirely, now returned to be its most reliable workers. Decades later, Matthew re-interpreted this parable to explain the inclusion of Gentiles. Though their ancestors had not followed God as Israel had, the same mercy God extended to returning Israelites was now theirs as well.
Matthew recognized God at work when John drew in sinners and Jesus attracted Gentiles. Matthew also recognized that leaders who pursued their own plans often missed these signs of grace. We who say yes to God today remain subject to the same temptation. To labor in God’s vineyard means that whatever our own preferences, we must first seek out places where grace is thriving and offer our hearts and hands to its service.