‘What do you think? 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. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Tax collectors and sex workers seemed to have a hard time in first Century Palestine. The former worked on a franchise basis where they purchased the right to collect taxes from the Empire then recouped what they had paid by charging more than they were entitled to. Add to that they were collecting taxes on behalf of the occupying power – it would be like Russia collecting taxes in occupied Ukraine. Sex workers always deal with the shame of society – the shame of sexual failure, the shame of lack of support for (overwhelmingly) vulnerable women, the shame of not facing male power and abuse.
Jesus highlights that the tax collectors and sex workers heard John’s message and changed their ways but his hearers, part of the religious establishment, didn’t. Religious folk often have problems understanding what we’re sinners in need of redemption. We can dress up our failure to see in various ways – using (parts of) Reformation theology to assure ourselves we’re forgiven, seeing ourselves as righteous in no great need of forgiveness, or finger pointing at those dreadful other people who really are sinners!
Time and time again Jesus turns the table on such thinking, and on us, and reminds us that those who seem furthest away from the Kingdom are often closest to it.
we pray for those who are despised
and on the margins of our society;
we pray for those who sell themselves in order to simply live,
and for those who work with them
offering health, wholeness and a new start.
Help us to see your Kingdom
in the most unlikely of places.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston, Minister for Digital Worship and member of the Peedie Kirk URC in Orkney