Meditation on Matthew 21:23-32
Pastor Karen Crawford
The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH
Sept. 27, 2020
When Dorothy Totsch’s daughters were cleaning out the attic in her Coshocton home before her move 8 years ago, they found a box of letters dating back to the 1940s and 50s. These were love letters that their father, Bob Totsch, wrote to Dorothy Rea, whom he left behind to serve in the U.S. Navy in Korea.
Bob graduated from Coshocton High in 1948; Dorothy in 1950. Although the details of their courtship remain a mystery to their daughters, Nancy and Laurie, there’s no question of their long-lasting love. When Bob— a retired teacher, coach, and guidance counselor— was hospitalized before his passing in 2006, the couple had only been apart one day since they were married on Sept. 15, 1956 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Coshocton.
Dorothy went home to be with the Lord this week—on Sept. 23. She was 88.
Her faith and family were always important to her. After moving from Coshocton, where she had lived most of her life, to be close to her daughter, Nancy, Dorothy soon found a new worshipping community. She transferred her membership to Otterbein Lebanon Church in Lebanon, Ohio, in October 2013. She sang in the choir there and remained active in the church.
When I talked with some of our longtime members about Dorothy, I discovered that many people knew her as a friend. An active member with Bob since 1989, she rang bells with Margaret McDowell’s Joy Belles. She helped with community dinners and the PW rummage sale for local mission. Ordained a deacon in January 1993, she enjoyed helping Pastor Carlisle serve Communion to homebound members and giving elderly widows rides to church. It was a group of widows from our church, her daughters said, who helped her in those difficult early years after Bob’s passing.
Her love of God and neighbor was expressed beyond the church walls as a faithful volunteer in our community. She served for many years as a pink lady in the gift shop at Coshocton Hospital. She was a Friend of the Coshocton Library, helping with book sales. She was an artist and volunteered for the Pomerene Center for the Arts. She was a gardener, growing daylilies and arbor-climbing clematis; she and Bob were members of a local garden club. She was a gifted pianist; neighbors would tell her how they enjoyed her music when she practiced with the windows open.
She was a Girl Scout Leader and was active in 4-H and Brownies with her daughters. “Everything we were a part of, she was there,” said her daughter, Nancy. “She tried to let us flap our little wings, and then she would scoop us up when we needed her.”
Their childhood home in Coshocton was the place for all the family gatherings for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays. But Dorothy and Bob didn’t wait for family to come to them. They enjoyed traveling to visit their children and grandchildren. “Nancy and I were the apple of their eye,” their daughter, Laurie, told me. “And then the grandchildren were.”
Dorothy was often doing crafts with Nancy’s daughter, Emily, not shying away from messy projects with glitter or beads. She made cookies and played board games with her other grandchildren, such as Tripoli, with Laurie’s sons.
What a testimony to Dorothy’s faithfulness when her daughters say that she taught them good values and kindness by example. As Paul urges the church in Philippi in 1:27, Dorothy lived a life worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in 2:13, surely God was at work in her throughout her life, enabling her to will and to work for his good pleasure.
This is the message of the parable in Matthew 21 today: it isn’t enough to say we are faithful followers of Christ; we must be faithful. Amen? We must try to do the will of God. Our faith is expressed by loving and serving others, particularly those whom our society rejects and marginalizes, such as tax collectors and prostitutes whom Christ befriends in his society.
The parable is how Jesus ultimately answers the query of the elders and chief priests, “By what authority are you doing these things; and who gave you this authority?” No one questions the authority of the elders and chief priests; their realm of power goes beyond the religious life of the people. In First Century Palestine, there is no separation of church and state. The priests at the temple of Jerusalem are also rulers and judges over the community.
What’s amazing is that Jesus is still being allowed to teach in the temple. This shows, perhaps, the power of his popularity with the people—and how the authority and respect of the leaders may be slipping. The crowds are astounded at Christ’s teaching in Matthew 7:28 and 29, “for he (teaches) them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”
Jesus has already offended religious leaders earlier in chapter 21. He rides into Jerusalem on a colt of a donkey, with the disciples crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Children cry out to Jesus in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David” angering the chief priests and elders. This follows Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves in the temple and driving them out. “It is written, he says, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers.”
So now, instead of answering the chief priests’ and elders’ question about the source of his authority, Jesus has a question for them. What is the source of authority for the baptism of John the Baptist? Was it from heaven or was it of human origin?
Like politicians, the chief priests and elders talk among themselves, carefully weighing the political ramifications of their words before they give their answer. They are afraid of the crowd turning on them if they say his baptism was of human origin, for the people believe John is a prophet.
They decide to say, “We don’t know.” We are left wondering what they really believe—until Jesus tells us at the end of the passage.
The priests and elders don’t answer his question; Jesus doesn’t answer theirs. He tells, instead, the parable of the vineyard owner and his two sons. It’s about promises and choices that we make. Promises and choices. The vineyard is the Kingdom of God that Christ ushered in. It’s here, right now! It begins in this world! The owner is the Lord.
One son says flat out—he won’t work in the vineyard as his father asks. But then he changes his mind and chooses to obey. God doesn’t manipulate us into obedience., friends. He gives us the freedom to choose, offering us unconditional love when we mess up and return in repentance!
The other son says he will work in the vineyard. But he breaks his promise! He doesn’t go.
“Which one,” Jesus asks, “did the will of his father?”
He explains his parable, then, calling into question the witness and values of the chief priests and elders, who talk a good talk, and know how to say long, fancy prayers, but they aren’t doing the will of the Father! They are leading the people astray, demanding money from the poor, seeking selfish gain, rejecting the Messiah, and making outcasts of people in their community. These are the people whom Jesus befriends and lifts up as an example of godliness and faithfulness!
“Truly I tell you,” he says, “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.”
Friends, I’m going to ask you just one question. Are you laboring in the vineyard? Don’t tell me. That’s between you and God.
I keep thinking of Dorothy and how she will be remembered for her kindness and loving spirit. What a wonderful legacy to leave your children—to have taught them kindness, by example. Tomorrow afternoon, her family and I will gather to witness to the Resurrection, give thanks for her life, and receive the comfort of the Spirit—the one that is always working in us, helping us to do God’s will.
I keep thinking about those love letters. I asked Nancy what became of them. She kept them with her, she said, all these years. Talk about faithfulness and steadfast love—that goes on beyond the grave.
Our Lord loves us that much—and more, dear brothers and sisters.
God says, “Come, my beloved, to my vineyard. All are welcome here. I have works of love for you to do! I will help you. And you will find peace like you’ve never known. My Son will give it to you.
“Come and labor for me in my kingdom. I have plans for you!”
Let us pray.
Holy One, thank you for welcoming us in your kingdom and inviting us to do your loving works. Thank you for having plans for us and offering us a peace we’ve never known! Help us, Lord, to be a witness to the kindness and compassion of your Son, who gave his life for sinners and became righteousness for us. Grant us courage to overcome any social barriers and reach out and befriend, as Christ did, the marginalized and outcast of our society today. Give us wisdom to know your will and strengthen us by your Spirit, Lord, to speak the words you want us to speak and do the things you want us to do to be obedient to your call. Help us to keep our promises and lead others into a closer relationship with you. In Christ we pray. Amen.