October 1, 2023
Revised Common Lectionary
Exodus 17:1-7 or Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 or Psalm 25:1-9
Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9 (6a)
Philippians 2:1-5 (6-11)
You may be familiar with this saying that I heard my mother repeat many times: “Don’t answer a question with a question.”
When we meet Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, he is ignoring my mother’s sage advice. He responds to a query from religious leaders in Jerusalem with a question—and a challenge—of his own.
Prior to the story we hear today, Matthew recounts how Jesus had entered the city on a donkey to the cheering hosannas of the crowds, then went into the Temple area and created quite a disturbance—toppling the tables of money changers and the seats of merchants—then healing the blind and lame who approached him. All the attention that he attracted through his arrival in the city, cleansing of the Temple, and works of healing, both alarmed and angered those who had charge of religious matters in Jerusalem. Not only were his very public actions a direct challenge to their authority but were also likely to arouse the concern of the Roman occupiers.
And so, they question him: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority”? (Mt 21:23) Without skipping a beat, Jesus silences them by posing a question that they dared not answer: Was the baptism of John of divine or human origin? In this case, answering a question with a question turned out to be a successful strategy.
Jesus skillfully turns their questioning of his authority back on the religious leaders. It is now their authority that is being questioned. The terse parable that Jesus goes on to tell is a stinging critique of these elders and their lack of faithfulness to God. They could not help but recognize that he cast them as the son who expressed a willingness to work in the vineyard but stayed back instead. Worse yet, Jesus identifies the other son—the one who had first refused to go but later changed his mind and did the father’s work—as tax collectors and prostitutes, the very people reviled by the religious elite. Jesus concludes the parable with yet another question: “Which of the two did the will of the father?” (Mt 21:31) The elders have little choice but to answer that it was the one who went into the vineyard after first refusing.
Because they accepted the baptism of John and showed their willingness to embrace a new way of life, Jesus says that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Mt 21:31). By responding to the religious leaders’ question with questions of his own, Jesus exposes their failure to embrace God’s reign proclaimed first by John and then by Jesus.
The questions of Jesus to the religious leaders and the parable that drives home his challenge to them suggests that we should beware of familiar, conventional ways of thinking about religion. The God of Jesus has far less interest in maintaining the status quo than in drawing together those who are forgotten and rejected by religious, political, and social elites. This may seem unfair to those who do their duty and labor to uphold institutions, but as Ezekiel and other biblical prophets reminded the people of their time, God’s view of fairness does not necessarily correspond to our own. God’s ways are not our ways.
A Hymn for Today: “Help Us to Help Each Other”
In today’s Epistle reading from the Letter to the Philippians, Paul offers a heartfelt plea for unity in a community that he clearly loves deeply: “having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2) and having a spirit of humility in their regard for one another.
Charles Wesley, widely regarded as one of the greatest hymnwriters of all time, has captured the spirit of Paul’s message in this brief but powerful hymn, presented here in an updated version.
Help us to help each other, Lord,
each other’s load to bear,
that all may live in true accord,
our joys and pains to share.
Help us to build each other up,
your strength within us prove.
Increase our faith, confirm our hope
and fill us with your love.
Jesus, united by your grace,
and each to each endeared,
with confidence we seek your face
and know our prayer is heard.
Drawn by the magnet of your love,
we find our hearts made new.
Nearer each other let us move,
and nearer still to you.
Text: Charles Wesley, 1707-1788, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1742, alt.; stanzas 1, 2, and 4 rev. In Hymns for Today’s Church, 1982, © Jubilate Group, admin. Hope Publishing Co. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.
Tunes: MARTYRDOM (AVON), DUNFERMLINE, EVAN (HAVERGAL), BALERMA (BARTHÉLEMON)
Image Credit: Parable of the Two Sons, Andreĭ Mironov (Andreĭ Nikolaevich), 2013
“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.
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