(a sermon for September 27, 2020, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 21:23-32)
Let me just say this up front: I could have been either one of those two sons!
I actually remember a whole lot of times growing up when my father would ask me to do chore or another – raking leaves in the front yard, for instance, or stacking firewood in the garage at camp – and just like the second son in Jesus’ parable I would say, if not altogether happily, then mostly willingly, “Sure, Dad, I’ll do that!” But somehow, I never seemed to get the job done: there was always something else I “needed” to do first, always something that I wanted to be doing rather than the job I was supposed to be doing! And the best part of all is that I always had a perfectly reasonable, well thought out reason for not doing the job right then: I had the chance to hang out with my friends, for instance; or it was kind of looking like rain and I didn’t want to get wet; or (and thinking back, this excuse is my personal favorite), it’s only October, and all the leaves haven’t fallen off the trees yet, so why bother even trying to rake till all the leaves have come down? Suffice to say, in my callow youth I was the very model of that second son who tells his father, “I go, sir,” out into the vineyard, but “did not go.”
On the other hand, however, I can also recall a few times when I cussed and moaned pretty much without ceasing over some chore or another, to the point where I pretty much refused to cooperate because it wasn’t fair and none of the other kids had to do this kind of hard labor! So just like the first son of the parable, I said, “I will not.” But then, those were often the times when, for whatever reason – be it wanting to please my parents or to not be grounded – I changed my mind and did the job I was asked to do.
Like I said before: I could have been either of those two sons in Jesus’ parable. But which of these two responses do you think pleased my parents the most (ignoring, for the moment, that they would probably would have been the happiest if I’d just said yes and done the job in the first place!)? Certainly, when I (to borrow a phrase from another parable) “came to myself,” and went to do the job that I’d previously refused to do, perhaps having learned a lesson or two along the way!
At the end of the day, you see, our talk matters very little; it is the way that we “walk the talk” that is truly important. As the old saying goes, “actions speak louder than words,” and not only that, actions have a way of showing forth our true selves, especially as it pertains to our place in the Kingdom of God.
Our text for this morning from Matthew’s gospel is set just after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and just a few days before his crucifixion on Good Friday; so already there is an inevitably about the events that are unfolding. In fact, as Rev. Nikki Hardeman of McAfee School of Theology has written, as we pick up the reading today, “emotions are high, the politics are tense, and Jesus has a sense of the danger his life is in,” and “we also see Jesus laying all of his chips on the table and not holding back on his teaching.”
With all that in mind, now we have “the chief priests and elders of the people” coming to Jesus in the temple to challenge him regarding the “authority” by which he can teach the way he does. It is, of course, a classic “gotcha question” on their part: if, they reasoned, Jesus answers in defiance of their authority as priests and elders, he could be accused of blasphemy, but if Jesus answers in deference to those religious leaders, essentially “walking back” his revolutionary teachings, he’d most certainly lose credibility with the people; which, as far as the scribes and Pharisees were concerned, would be a “win-win” for them! Jesus, however, was not about to get caught in that kind of trap and so, as was typical of Jesus, answered the elders’ question with a question of his own, this one regarding baptism of John, a question that the temple leadership had no intention of addressing!
So there they all were; and it’s in the midst of this long and very awkward silence that Jesus shares the aforementioned parable about the two sons and their different responses to doing the will of their father. And what becomes immediately clear is that there’s more going on in this story than the comparative work ethic of that vineyard owner’s two sons! What Jesus is doing here – quite succinctly, in fact – is calling out those so-called “righteous uprights” who claim to and who may even appear to be following God but who, in truth of fact, do not; while at the same time, putting forth the notion that perhaps there are those who by their reckoning, aren’t doing “the will of the Father,” so to speak, but are in fact doing in every way they are able the will of God! In fact, Jesus goes on to say to this very silent group of priests and elders, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Which, by the way, was a statement not only shocking in and of itself, but also one rife with the politics of the time: because what Jesus was saying was that even those who were collaborators with the Roman occupation – as were many tax collectors of the time – as well as those who sold out their very faith to other religions and other nations – which was in the parlance of ancient Israel was regarded as akin to prostitution – would be more qualified for God’s kingdom than even these priests and elders, who were considered to be among the greatest adherents of the law and the prophets!). In other words, says Jesus, what you all say about faith and law and authority means nothing at all (!) unless that is actually practiced; unless you are “walking the talk” of righteousness and faith all these other so-called sinners will get into the kingdom ahead of you.
This text offers up the perfect denouement of how Palm Sunday became Good Friday, as well as a great illustration of the hypocrisy of the religious establishment of Jesus’ time. What’s interesting, though, is that this parable of Jesus also has a way of speaking to our own attitudes of what constitutes true faith and by extension the status of our own access to the kingdom.
To put a finer point on this, how easy is it for us to become a tad, shall we say, judgmental as to who may or may not be faithful in their walk or who are doing God’s work in their lives. Don’t think this doesn’t happen, friends: after all, we are currently living in days when people regularly make judgments as to the character of others based solely on their differing political views; so why wouldn’t that also happen as a response to matters of religion and faith? I remember, for instance, years ago as a young pastor serving on an ecumenical planning board charged with creating a charter for a Christian-based community youth center; but this was a job that was never completed because there were some on the board who refused to sign on because they argued that there were other people and churches in the community who were not Christian “enough” to be a part of the outreach (the project, sadly, fell apart in the wake of the arguing).
So, yes, it is tempting to dismiss those who we don’t think are doing the will of God: maybe their theology is different from ours; maybe the choices they’ve made in their lives don’t scream “capital G-good church people,” maybe we struggle with their points of view on some issues, or maybe they’re just… different from us. And so we cast them in the mold of the second son, the one who was quick to cut and run on anything we’d consider to be true to the faith… what we do, you see, if I can quote Nikki Hardeman again, is “to judge based on what we see, when what we see is a very small part of the picture!” And what makes this all the more ironic is that at the same time we’re apt not to recognize that there are a good many “believers” out there, maybe even a few of us who are more like the first son than we’d like to admit, people who seem to be doing everything right but whose faith ends up being shallow at best.
And here’s Jesus, who’s asking us now, “Who do you think is doing God’s will… the one who’s saying, “Lord, Lord, yes, yes, sure, sure,” only to fall away at the first sign of… anything; or the one who’s been struggling to live up to what they should be and how they should live and ends up with a deeper and more sincere faith than anyone ever thought possible?
Well, Jesus has the answer… and it’s the same one that the temple leadership was given: it’s the one who said “no,” and then relented in doing God’s will; the one who understood on some level, to quote David Lose, that “each moment is pregnant with the possibility of receiving God’s grace, repenting of things we’ve done or were done to us, returning to right relationship with God and those around us, and [truly] receiving the future as open rather than determined,” and then doing everything possible to opening themselves to the Kingdom and everything that God has to offer.
And what does this mean for you and for me in this very strange, uncertain and divisive days of 2020? Well, first off, it’s a reminder to you and me to, as the kids say, not to be so “judgey;” because God’s grace is amazing and that it extends to each and every one of his children “with the gift of acceptance and love and forgiveness that are the hallmarks of the kingdom Jesus proclaims,” (David Lose, again) regardless of how we might perceive their motivations, their experiences, or their worthiness. So be careful, brothers and sisters, and judge not…
But I also think that there’s something else about his passage, and it’s that Jesus knows that we struggle at times with “doing the will of the Father” as it regards living up to what we profess to believe in faith. Most especially right now: I dare say that there have been very few of us over the past six months who have not wondered aloud how anyone is supposed to live in love and with true Christian faith in times such as these; and who haven’t thought, however fleetingly, that perhaps – since the world is going to “heck in a handbasket,” anyway (!) – that maybe we ought to cut and run and just do whatever we can to get by! Bottom line is that the Lord knows what we’re going through in this strange and divisive time; but the Lord is also, even amidst our current struggles, is calling us to “embrace his grace” and “walk the talk,” returning to the vineyard of God’s kingdom in our midst. We are called to do God’s work in this time and this place, in our time and our place; and by that work our faith will be made stronger.
Beloved, may you and I answer the call today… and as we do, may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.