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What Is Just About That?

Matthew 21:23-32

The Rev. Jon Roberts

25 September


Good Shepherd Episcopal Church

Venice, FL

23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ 29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

What Is Just About That?

The Parable of the Two Sons by Eugene Burnand, 1850-1921

One is born and one is stubborn
into a world of right and wrong
But the one who does what he must,
rather than the one who does what is just,
will never sing His song.[1]

Is it "just" for a man to be a sinner all his life, and be able to make it into the kingdom of heaven? Right before he takes his last breath, he calls for the village priest, whispering oh so tenderly in the Father's ear a tender confession and a request for forgiveness. Is it "just?" It has been said that fairness is a human invention but righteousness is designed by God. Where does justice come into play?

The philosopher John Rawls touches on this in respect to society. It is about right and wrong, when we talk about justice.[2] It is about the punishment of the breach of said ethics. It is about the outcome and distribution of sources. Rawls says that it is the responsibility of government and of individuals to look after the least and the lost; the minorities and those who do not have equal access to resources. Without taking on this responsibility a society falls. Where would we be without grants and scholarships? Where would we be without food stamps? Where would we be without philanthropists? Where would we be without non-profits, say the church? Some are born into this level of giving back because they feel they must, yet others are stubborn to this, and do it because it is just. Who has the best ability to see this altruism?

The depiction of justice has been sculpted from an early age. It is in the form of a lady. One who balances the scales of truth and fairness. Mostly, you will find this sculpture in front of courthouses. Places like Berne and Frankfurt, Ottawa and London, Suganami and Brisbane. There are even a few more local, like the one we find in Memphis. Here, you will see not only the balance of scales but also a lady who has a sword which symbolizes the court's coercive power. Here, you will see not only a balance of scales, not only a sword, but a lady who is blind. She is blind because she is impartial. Someone who is without fear. Someone who is not partial to those who are powerful, wealthy or weak. The concern for the well-being for others is seen in Lady Justice.

Our Lord and Savior gives us a parable today, sculpted from an early age as well, to show us God's impartiality to call everyone into righteousness. It's another story of a man who owns a vineyard.[3] Instead of going to hire help at the first, third, sixth or eleventh hour, he turns to his two sons to go and work in the vineyard. One is born into a rightful place of duty, the other is stubborn. One is most certainly the eldest. Again it is the firstborn who has it the hardest. Not only are they expected to lead because it is their rightful place, but they are also expected to serve because it is a just thing to do. Most, never get beyond the rightful place part. Being born first means they lead by example. But which brother is the eldest? Is it the one who said, "I will not" but decided to go anyway? Or, is it the one who said, "I go" but didn't go?

Jesus is speaking to those who are Jewish; the chosen ones by God; his disciples. He tells them that it will be the harlots and tax collectors who are most inclined to go before them into heaven. In this respect he is saying that sinners will go before the righteous. The eldest is the one that the father asked secondly. It is already assumed that he will do what is right, by living up to his responsibility, to go into the field and pick up the slack. To lead by example means you are to look after the others. But in the parable, he did not go. He did not live up to doing what was just. How often are you the person who carries the responsibility of looking after others, but some times, although you know you should, you don't feel like it? It is the elder brother who is asked last because he is most trusted. The Father asked the younger brother to go first. He knew that it would be a challenge on his end, because he was always living in the shadow. Always trying to figure out his identity. Always feeling second best. This was the opportunity for him to step up.

To join in on the responsibility of caring for others, when it is something out of your comfort zone, is a hurdle. If you are this person, it may be very difficult for you. You prefer to let the elder brother do what he's always done. You prefer to be critical of him. It's safe and comfortable where you are. You may be stubborn. But even though the younger brother was stubborn, he still went. Somewhere in his heart, he knew he should mature in his actions. Not doing it because he had to, but doing it because he knew it was right. This is the parable of our life. He is speaking to those in his church; those who are believers in the Son of God; the chosen ones; the disciples. We may be the eldest doing what we feel we have to do, but are we truly sending our heart into the mission field; into the will of God? To serve him, means we are to go into a vast vineyard, where hard work and toil and burden awaits. To reach out to the least and the lost is to make ourselves known to them as one of them. We make ourselves available as Christ himself took on the form of the servant.[4]

We come to those who need to hear the word of God with humility and patience. We are impartial to those in power, wealthy or weak. If we are blind to these things and accept human frailty for what it is, a place ripe for the Word of God, then we are born into distributing God's mercy and forgiveness; even at the final hour; even if a person is on their last breath in need of an ear to confess their sins. Do not wait too long to go and join God's will. Do not say you'll go because you think you have to as the firstborn. Resist in measuring fairness, weighing your merits, and bale out by not going.

Remember this.
One is born and one is stubborn
into a world of right and wrong
But the one who does what he must,
rather than the one who does what is just,
will never sing His song.

[1] The Rev. Jon Roberts
[2] Alex Miele, “An Explanation of John Rawl’s Theory of Justice with a Defense of the Veil of Ignorance” Claremont McKenna College, Sr. Thesis, 2017, p.32.
[3] Matthew 21:23-32
[4] Philippians 2:7

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