Sunday 28 September 2014
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Ordinary 26A
This isn’t the only parable of Jesus featuring two sons. The other one is much more famous. Those two brothers divided their father’s possessions between themselves. They took their inheritance before their father was dead. Not very loyal. One of them traveled away and lost his inheritance. When he returned, his father welcomed him, but his brother could not accept him. That is the more famous parable of two sons. It’s found only in the Gospel of Luke, and it is one of the most beloved of all of Jesus’ parables.
But the parable of the two sons that we heard today is much less familiar. It appears only in Matthew. And it’s quite short, isn’t it? A father has two sons. He instructs them each, in turn, to go to the vineyard and work. The first one agreed, but he never went. The second one refused, but in the end, he went and worked. “Which one did his father’s will?” Jesus asks.
And it’s not a terribly difficult question, is it? Whatever they each might have said, the one who actually showed up and worked is the one who did his father’s will. And while most parents would prefer their children to do what they are supposed to do without giving any lip about it, given the choice between having them do the right thing with lip and getting no lip but not doing the right thing, most parents will choose the right thing.
So is that it, then? Talk is cheap? Actions speak louder than words? Talking the talk vs. walking the walk?
Well, if it were, that wouldn’t be such a bad message, would it? After all, if what we are supposed to be is disciples of Jesus Christ, then that involves some doing, doesn’t it? Disciple, from the Greek word μαθητης, can mean student, pupil, or apprentice, but its most basic meaning is follower. A disciple is one who follows. A disciple of Jesus is someone who seeks to follow Jesus.
Following Jesus means going where Jesus goes, and it means doing what Jesus does. And what does Jesus do? He associates with undesirables. He shares meals with sinners. He offers hospitality, food, and healing to those who are in need. He loves his neighbors, and he shows that love not just with words, but with action.
And so, if we are trying to be disciples of Jesus, it would make sense that we would need to focus on what we do. Faith in Jesus Christ is not just a matter of intellectual assent. Faith is not about saying the right words, and then going on with our lives as if nothing has changed. Faith in Jesus Christ is faithfulness in Jesus Christ. Faith means seeking to do what it is that God has called us to do. Faith means following the way of Jesus. Faith means loving our neighbor as Christ has loved us, and seeking to put that love not only into words, but into actions.
And so we might ask, who does the will of God? Is it the one who says they will feed the hungry, but never manages to do it? Or is it the one who first refuses to feed the hungry, but then has a change of heart and actually does it? Clearly, it is the one who does it.
Which is a reminder that our faith is not just about good theology and good doctrine. Certainly good theology and good doctrine are good things. But if I know all the right answers, it is of very little use unless I actually put those right answers into action.
It’s not to say that we have to be perfect in order for God to love us. That certainly isn’t the case. God has shown love for us by coming to us while we were yet sinners. God loves us without condition. There is nothing we can ever do to earn God’s love, because God’s love is not for the earning, it is for the giving.
But it is a warning to us against a false sense of self-assured complacency. It is a reminder that God expects more from us than good doctrine or right speech. God expects right action. God expects us to step out of the safety of just speaking the right answers but never having the courage to do anything about them. God calls us to cast aside our fears, to leave behind our trepidation and to step out into the way of Jesus, to walk out into the messiness of the world and to get to the work of being disciples. Which one does the will of God? The one who does, not the one who says.
But there is more to the story than that. After all, this parable does not stand alone. It is spoken in a particular context. And within the Gospel of Matthew, what point is it that Jesus is trying to get across in this particular context?
I suggest to you that it is a message of broken expectations. There are two sons, and they each have a verbal response to their father’s request. And their words set up a particular set of expectations. We would expect, based on their words, that the son who says he is going to work will actually go out in the vineyard and work. And we would expect that the son who refuses to work will follow through with his promise and not do any work at all. That is what we would expect.
Likewise in Jesus’ context there are expectations. It is Jesus last week. He has already come to the temple the day before. What would one expect to find at a temple? Prayer, sacrifice, devotion to God. But, contrary to expectations, Jesus finds something else. And what he finds makes him angry, and he causes a disturbance. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is quite likely the main action that gets him killed. While he was just a traveling preacher and healer, he could still be dealt with. But once he disrupts the operation of the temple, once he disturbs the Roman peace, then he has to die.
And now Jesus has shown up at the temple again. Before he has done anything else, the religious authorities confront him. They don’t want him causing any more trouble. So they pose a question to him to which they know there is no correct answer. “Who gave you authority to do these things?” They know that he doesn’t have any institutional authority. He is not a recognized member of the priesthood. He is not a member of the tribe of Levy. He has not been approved or certified by any of the religious authorities, neither by the temple authorities nor by the Romans. He can claim no human authority. If he is going to answer the question, then he is going to have to claim authority directly from God.
But, of course, that would present its own problems. If he claims authority from God, then they’ve still got him. He cannot claim authority from God without committing blasphemy or without incurring the wrath of the Romans. If, for example, Jesus claims to be the Son of God, then he is not only committing blasphemy by Jewish standards, but he is also claiming one of the official titles of the Roman emperor. Stamped on every Roman coin, next to the head of the emperor, was the title Filius Divi: Son of God. It’s a catch 22 for Jesus. He cannot win.
So Jesus plays the same game with his opponents. He asks them a question they cannot answer. He asks about John the Baptist. Did his authority come from humans or from God? It’s really the same question they were asking Jesus to answer about himself. And his opponents have similar trouble answering. If they say that John’s authority came from God, then Jesus will shame them, because they had not followed John. But if they answer that his authority was merely human, then the crowds would revolt, because now that John was dead, it was safe for everyone to believe that John was a real prophet. They can’t answer either.
So Jesus tells the parable of the two sons. Which one did has father’s will? They are forced to admit that it was not the one with the right words, it was the one with the right actions. And Jesus follows up, saying: “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him.”
See, who would you expect to listen when God calls for repentance, when God calls for change, when God calls for a transformed life? Would you expect the priests and the pastors and the bible scholars to answer God’s call, the people who are paid to be righteous? Or would you expect the people who make their living from sin to answer God’s call? The prostitutes and those who sell out their own people to the foreign oppressors?
You would expect the religious types to answer God’s call, wouldn’t you? They spend all day thinking about God, studying the scriptures. They have all the right answers. They can speak righteous words. Of course they would be the ones who would answer when God calls through the voice of John the Baptist. Just like you would expect the son with the obedient words to be the one who actually obeys.
But they don’t. John said, “Change your hearts and lives! God’s Kingdom is coming!” But the religious authorities didn’t answer. Tax collectors and prostitutes did, though. No one would have expected it, but they did.
And so, we must ask ourselves: who would we expect to follow God’s call to love our neighbors, to care for the least of these, to be good stewards of God’s creation? Would we expect people inside the church to do it, or would we expect people outside the church to do it? And do we too often leave the work of God’s Kingdom up to others? Are we too often the one’s who say, “Yes,” but answer No with our actions, while others who would never darken the door of a church are out doing the work of the Kingdom?
May we be inspired to put our faith into action. May we be brave enough to follow the path that Jesus has forged. May we not only proclaim Jesus with our lips, but show forth his love with our lives.