Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21.31)
A big part of me wishes I were what tech gurus call an “early adopter.” But I’m not. When it comes to gizmos and Web-related stuff, I’m a 2.0 type of guy; before I jump on the newest wave, I hang back to see if it actually materializes as the next wave. And a big part of me is okay with that, because I seldom find the process of mastering the latest—allegedly “intuitive”—convenience intuitive or convenient. Deciphering inscrutable instructions and reordering one’s life to adopt new technologies can be maddening, particularly if the effort outweighs the benefits or one’s frustrations come to naught when the concept doesn’t catch on. So, despite appearing lazy and technophobic, I tend to wait until early-adopter friends can explain an innovation’s value and functionality in language I understand. This tactic has taught me to appreciate the wisdom and courage of early adopters and why watching them closely is so essential.
We all know conspicuous consumers who strive to be up-to-the-minute by spending fortunes on high-tech marvels and leaping on every Web craze. Yet they rarely do more with them than older models they replace. Their excuses for not availing themselves of progress’s potential typically boil down to resisting change that newness requires. In contrast, early adopters look before they leap. To welcome change, they need to know it’s worth welcoming. If they sense pushing new buttons and adapting behaviors will get them no further than they are, they pass. But once they’re convinced something revolutionary is underway, they trust their instincts. They’re unconcerned with whom they impress or how nerdy their enthusiasm looks. All they care about is what the new wave signifies in terms of eliminating barriers and opening new vistas in their lives.
In Matthew 21, Jesus silences a challenge to His authority with a parable that describes the first-century equivalent of conspicuous consumers and early adopters. He doesn’t embroider the tale. Indeed, it’s one of His least nuanced stories—and for good reason, because the religious leaders who confront Him about His disruptive behavior love nothing better than getting lost in the weeds. And before we examine His response, we should concede those questioning Him are well within their rights. Jesus has just staged a raucous Passover arrival in Jerusalem, intentionally mounting a young donkey to fulfill prophecy that the Messiah will come to Israel riding an untried colt. After dismissing criticism that He’s incited the palm-waving crowd’s adulation, He marches into the Temple’s courtyard market and literally turns it upside down. He returns the next day—as if nothing happened—and has the temerity to teach the congregation. The Temple leaders immediately shut Him down, demanding, “Who do You think You are? Who authorized You to behave so outrageously?”
Jesus responds by questioning them. (Talk about audacity!) “Answer Me and I’ll answer you,” He says, asking, “Was John’s baptism authorized by God or just a fad he started?” It’s a brilliant move, leaving His challengers no viable option. Saying God ordained John to baptize begs why they didn’t believe him. If they say he invented baptism as a signature gimmick, the crowd—who regard him as a prophet—will turn on them. “We don’t know,” they opt out. “Well, I’m not going to explain Who authorized Me, either,” Jesus says. Then He reframes their dilemma as a parable.
When a man with two sons tells the first to go work in the family vineyard, the son refuses. But after thinking it over, he does as he’s told. The second son agrees to work, only to welch on his promise. “Who did the will of his father?” Jesus asks. (Matthew 21.31) “The first son,” His accusers say. With that, Jesus yanks the rug from under them. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” He declares. They’re early adopters. They sensed something revolutionary transpiring and believed John. Reminding the Temple leaders they doubted John, He essentially casts them as conspicuous consumers who resist change. “Even after you saw it,” He asserts, “you did not change your minds and believe him.” (v32)
Going into the Vineyard
Although the parable and its application occupy only four verses, unpacking it opens numerous points of entry. We first have to come to grips with our fondness for the path of least resistance. It’s more convenient to maintain a 2.0 stance and let others deal with the frustrations of adopting—and adapting to—the new wave. It’s easier to promise and not deliver than to change our minds about what we’re unwilling to do. Appearing phobic and lazy seems less risky than summoning wit and courage to assess the validity of change and meet its demands. We’d rather be late than laughed at, safe than sorry. So we’re content to wait and see what the hubbub’s really about, never imagining it will amount to much and therefore never recognizing the significance of what we’re looking at. Besides, if this new wave does turn into the next wave, we can always catch up. (Note Jesus doesn’t say the Temple leaders will never enter the kingdom. He merely says their reluctance to change will ultimately cost their leadership status by putting people they revile in the vanguard position.)
But this parable also speaks specifically to those of us who—despite being misconstrued as sinners and reprobates—perceive faith’s revolutionary new wave and dare to believe it’s divinely ordained. Yes, it took a while to revise our views of what following Christ means and why it’s worth risking our reputations to believe. Being convinced of faith’s power to remove barriers and open new vistas in our lives, however, compels us to honor our calling as early adopters. We’ve got to do as God asks. Whether or not our brothers and sisters join us, going into the vineyard is the only way we’ll figure out how this new thing works. Being there is our sole means of bringing the promise of inclusion to fruition.
We should expect those tending the vineyard to be outraged when our presence turns everything upside down and challenge our right to be there. Still, we need not answer them, since they’ve yet to believe what we know is true and divinely ordered. Our task is to be seen obeying God’s will. Those who oppose us may not believe what they see. They may resist the change happening before their eyes. They’d rather be late than laughed at, safe than sorry. Nonetheless the new wave is here. It’s sweeping the Church, steadily demolishing barriers and opening new vistas. While appointed leaders balk at the excitement and disruptive behaviors it generates, we’ve been given divine authority to take the lead. And lest we get all cocky and confused about our vanguard position, we need to remember what early adopters do. They get there first so those struggling with newness can get there, too.
Dear Father, we’re tired of worrying about what people think and promising without delivering. Let them call us what they will and hate us for what we are. You asked us to work for You and we’ve decided it’s the right thing to do. So teach us to be wise and courageous. Lead us into Your kingdom and bless us to show the way to those who have yet to believe what they see. Amen.
Although early adopters stir up a lot of commotion and disrupt the status quo, they ultimately validate the significance of the newness they believe in.