Proper 21, Year A, St. Paul’s Church, Murfreesboro

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” (Matt. 21:28-29).

Our Gospel today uses a word that is unique to Matthew: the Greek word that is translated “change of mind.” In the story Jesus tells, there are two sons who are approached by their father to work in the vineyard. The first one declines to go, while the second says “yes,” but doesn’t; while the first “changed his mind” and went to work.

Jesus asks the religious leaders, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matt. 21:31). Obviously, the first son, even though it took a while for him to actually turn up for work. In a similar way, Jesus says, sinners who believe, do the will of God, even if it takes a while for them to move; while pious folk like the religious leadership who say “yes” and then don’t show up are just paying lip service. They too need “to change their mind” and believe.

This word “change of mind” illustrates the nature of repentance, the reality that lies behind our Gospel today. In fact, “repentance” is an alternative translation for this unique word. The “change of mind” required by the Gospel is a fundamental reorientation of the self, engineered by God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Repentance requires change, the last time I checked; and change for temporal creatures like human beings requires time. Please note carefully: in this story Jesus is not telling us to take our time, as if there were no urgency. Instead, he’s telling us that now is the time for change, for the change of mind that will get us moving. The harvest is upon us, as it is in the story, so now is the time to get moving. The new life unfolds in time, because we’re human beings, but now is the time.

I don’t know who first said that it’s never too late to change, but that person was surely on to something. This is good news for us that is embedded in our Gospel. The first son points the way for anyone who feels stuck with old choices, with disappointment or despair. God’s time, the now we are given for change, unfolds in our time. God’s time is our time, and now is the time for change.

I like the way the Presiding Bishop’s Rule of Life for the Episcopal Church uses the word “turn” as a placeholder for repentance. “Turn: pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus”: that’s the first of the seven disciplines that Bishop Curry commends to us. I think this is a good riff on repentance, pointing to the change of mind that is so well illustrated in our Gospel. “Turn” gets to the heart of this fundamental reorientation, this pause that leads to action.

That is where our Gospel today takes us. Change must lead to action. To follow Jesus is to be in active mode. The first son needed to think again, to repent, and then to move out. As Jesus says, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matt. 21:31). Belief needs to move us to action or it really isn’t worth much; less like faith, not reflecting a real change of mind.

Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, sounds this note earlier, in the Sermon on the Mount. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Note that it is the second son in the story, not the first, who respectfully addresses his father as “sir” or “lord.” There’s that lip service that doesn’t count for much; the lip service that avoids a change of mind and never moves out in service.

Today we are grateful, in this strange season of the church’s life, for so many people who are offering themselves or their children for baptism, and those who are renewing their baptismal promises in this community and receiving the laying on of hands. Your witness inspires us, as we join with you in renewing our own baptismal promises.

This moment is a powerful moment of “change of mind” and movement into action. God has engineered this moment, through grace, the generous margin that God gives us as a gift. We are not stuck in the old life but move forward into the new life that only comes as a gift. In the process our minds are changed and we are made able to live the new life. The grace of baptism and of the laying on of hands has power to transform us, if we will open our hearts and minds. Now is the time that God has given us.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee