17 Pentecost, Proper 21
Jesus told a story about a man with two sons. The father asked the first son to go to work in the vineyard, and the son said that he would ––but he didn’t. The father asked the second son to go to work in the vineyard, and the second son said that he wouldn’t ––but he did.
Jesus told this story to religious men ––the best men of his day –– men who prided themselves in doing what God wanted them to do –– except that, in fact, they often failed to do what God wanted them to do.
Have you ever promised to do something that you didn’t do? Why didn’t you do it? Did anyone find out, and if so, what happened? Has someone ever done this to you? And how did you react?
When I stop and remember all the promises I have never kept, all the good intentions that never quite worked out, all the ways that I have failed to be the person that I set out to be, it gets more difficult to condemn the disobedient person that Jesus describes in the parable. Like the priests and elders who questioned Jesus about his authority to teach and heal, don’t we all want to do the will of God, but too often are unable to live up to a perfect vision of ourselves? Do good intentions count for anything?
In our gospel story the chief priests and elders questioned Jesus’ authority. And Jesus uses a trick question to teach the Pharisees about the Kingdom of God. You see, they were living examples of the second son in the parable. Self-righteous Jews were the ones who always gave the appearance of serving God. They followed all the picky religious rules; rules about what they should eat, and what they should wear, and how they should say their prayers. They looked and sounded deeply religious. But when it came to issues like loving their neighbor, or showing kindness to the poor, or showing compassion to the lowly, they never showed up in the vineyard! They said they would; their religion was very impressive when they were at the synagogue, but they did not live it out in their daily lives.
But the first son in the parable wasn’t much better. He stood for the tax collectors and the prostitutes of whom Jesus spoke; people who lived lives that were notoriously sinful. They didn’t have time for religion, and even if they did, some were of the wrong ethnic origin to worship God. But they had the ability to change directions, and when Jesus called them away from their sinful ways, they left those lives behind and followed him.
Here’s the word of grace in this parable: both were called “sons.” The father does not disown either one of them, because of the things that they did or didn’t do. In fact, according to Jesus, both sons will still enter the Kingdom of God. One might go in ahead of the other, but neither is being excluded because of their sinfulness.
Jesus seems here unwilling to give up on anybody. Which feels important to remember when we are tempted to consign others to the category of despicable or unredeemable, and which also feels important to remember when I may wonder if I’m in that category of unredeemable.
Even amid the height of Jesus’ struggle with his adversaries; even in the last week of his life; as he faces betrayal, accusation, desertion, and crucifixion; Jesus imagines more room in the kingdom of God than anyone would imagine or have right to expect. That, at this particular time, seems like awfully good news.
Methodist pastor Nancy Ore makes this observation: ( “The Parable of the Wise Old Woman” by Nancy Ore in Best Sermons 2, edited by James W. Cox, Harper & Row, 1989, p. 416)
“Jesus didn’t say they’d get in because of their behavior. He said they’d get in because they knew they weren’t perfect and knew how desperately they needed God. They knew how much they longed to be in the vineyard… It’s not the folks like the Pharisees who are in God’s presence. It’s not the folks who think they know all the right words or how to do the right sermon. It’s not the folks who think they know the religious rules and are rigidly and self-righteously and joylessly living them out. The folks who get into God’s Kingdom vineyard are the folks who know they’re not perfect. The folks who are afraid, the folks who are hurt, the folks who feel guilt, who agonize over broken relationships… the folks who are sick… and tired… and sick and tired. The folks who are acutely aware of their separation from God. It’s the folks who say, ‘Yes, I’ll go into the vineyard and work with God. There’s nothing which could keep me away!’ It’s the folks who not only go, but while they’re there, they are the folks who will be making wine and when the work is done, they’ll drink that sweet flowing wine with their brothers and sisters… communion.” Thank you, Nancy.
A life toward God is better than life away from God. When we hear ‘repent’ maybe we should hear ‘turn around’. Consider this: sometimes the whole world is taking a picture of something very special. Try turning around and then take that picture. You might be surprised with the image you capture.
Jesus points to a new Kingdom in which repentant sinners – the tax collectors and prostitutes included – would be invited into covenant with God.
Today, Jesus tells a story where a son promises to do something but never does. But another son who, at first refuses to do the work, changes his mind and turns a poor choice into a better choice. German theologian Helmut Thielicke’s take on the parables is that they are a mirror for us to look at, and they only have significance if we can see ourselves reflected in them. Where do you see yourself today? Is there a promise you can fulfill or a poor choice you can turn into a better choice?
Remember…Jesus imagines more room in the Kingdom of God than anyone would imagine or have a right to expect. No matter our failures, we are loved and forgiven, so that we can forgive others, and try again. God loves you with an everlasting love. Amen.