I’ve had Neil Young’s song from 1969 “Down by the River” stuck in my head all week. It’s a beautiful song about a man whose girl sends him over the moon, she drives him mad with love and yet he sits there all alone. Because something has gone very wrong. The song doesn’t mention what it is, but the pain, the mystery of not knowing what will become of them, the uncertainty that comes from him being unable to repair things, to fix things, to do something, anything to prove that he is on her side, the pain of loss or separation or inadequacy, unable to put things back together—that pain is for him the same as having shot her, down by the river. I shot my baby, down by the river.
Our Gospel reading today provides another parable and series of questions that go unanswered, or at least leave us feeling far removed from certainty. It’s a passage that leaves us in a place of confusion and mystery, like so many others from the Bible and so many other situations in life.
I’ve heard it from so many people, particularly Christians, including myself at times, saying “but isn’t the wonder and beauty of the mysterious a nice thing, some sort of a comfort?” And some times I play along, or even believe it. Like when I see a sunset or read a beautiful story, something that makes me feel connected to something outside myself, something transcendent. But when it comes to the big things in life, like questions about God, or my future and my relationships—I don’t want anything to do with mystery.
I want to know; I want to see; I want my hands and my head wrapped around it, right here, right now. I want to be able to respond accordingly and show God and the world that I’ve got it together, I’m on the right track.
In this Gospel reading the Chief Priests, who are the religious and social elite, are trying to get Jesus in trouble by questioning his authority. They think they know exactly who God is and how they relate to God and receive his blessings, and they’re certain that Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with it. Or at least that’s the way we usually think of the Chief Priests and Pharisees in the Bible and in our own lives.
But maybe they don’t think they have it all figured out. Maybe they’re like you and like me. They just anxiously want to know more about God and about this guy who keeps talking about God’s love for the least of these. They’re tired of the mystery and they desperately want to know what they’re supposed to believe, what they’re supposed to do.
The great dramatic irony of this passage from Matthew is that these Chief Priests are trying to do whatever they can to find out what God wants from them so that they can do it in order to be in God’s good graces—to be closer to God, to be a person worthy of favor, of love and affection. They’re waiting to hear how they can bridge the mysterious chasm between themselves and God through their own knowledge and good deeds. But what they don’t realize of course, is that God, Jesus Christ, is literally standing right in front of them. And isn’t this the case for so many of us, the Good News is often too good to be true, too good to trust. It just can’t be this easy.
So Jesus poses these guys a question about who knows God correctly, and who does the will of God. He asks them a question on their own terms—a question that fits well within their world view—who is right and who is wrong? Who is in and who is out?
Is it the first son who doesn’t say the right thing, but does the right thing, who in the end does the work he has been given to do in the vineyard? Or is it the second son who knows and thinks and speaks properly, but doesn’t end up producing or performing as he should.
The reason Neil Young’s song has been stuck in my head all week is because of its opening line. It’s a line that sets up the world the character lives in, it’s a conditional world and unfortunately the very same world that we live in. Young sings:
“Be on my side, and I’ll be on your side. There is no reason for you to hide.”
It’s a catchy line, but when we stop and think about its implications, there are so many reasons for us to hide! There are so many reasons to hide because it’s no mystery, I’m not always on your side. I’m not always on God’s side, or the side of the people I love. I wish I was, but I’m just not. One false move and in this conditional world we find ourselves on the outside looking in, or with our mistakes just a quick google away. When we don’t perform like we should, things fall apart, and it feels like somebody, ourselves, our career, our relationship has been shot, down by the river.
Jesus’ audience thinks his question over and they give the answer that most of us would have. They think God and the world are saying show me progress and production. Your bank accounts, your diplomas, your family, your hours logged protesting or working in the soup kitchen. What can you show me? We don’t particularly like mystery with our questions or relationship with God, but we really don’t like mystery when it comes to our self-worth.
And so just like we would, the chief priests choose the first son, the one who has done the work. They take a deep breath and wait for Jesus to confirm their answer and their understanding of the way things work.
But Jesus doesn’t tell them they’re right, and he doesn’t tell them they’re wrong. He just looks at these anxious souls wanting to know what is right so they can do what is right and make themselves right with the world and with God. Jesus leans in and tells them, “prostitutes, hookers, tax collectors, thieves, they will all enter the kingdom of God before you.”
Jesus tells them to just stop. Stop trying. Stop thinking that any of this has anything to do with you. Stop wracking your brain for the right thought, or blistering your hands with the right works. Because your salvation and relationship with God has nothing to do with you. Jesus says you may not know it yet, but it has everything to do with me.
Stop trying to do it, whatever it is, for me to be on your side. It is finished. Be yourself, your messy, broken, tired and foolish self. You can’t be anyone else. And yet, despite all that I am already, eternally on your side. That is the truly beautiful mystery, that on the Cross, Christ stretched out his arms in love to draw us all in to him—whether we know it, like it, deserve it or not.
Be on my side and I’ll be on your side, it’s the mantra or the song always playing in our heads. Justifying our anger and lack of forgiveness, or convicting us for not qualifying for the right side, not being good enough.
Jesus hears this song we sing and says you fools. Prostitutes, priests, thieves and saints, all of you, just stop. You have all been baptized, sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever. You need not fear. There is no reason for you to hide.