18 Pentecost, Proper 21 – October 1, 2023
Let me start by giving you some context for our story this morning: Jesus has just spent the weekend entering Jerusalem on a stolen donkey, receiving the adoration of the crowds, cursing a fig tree, and slinging a whip around the temple to cleanse it of corruption. In other words, he has just spent the weekend making holy trouble, and the religious establishment is furious with him. They can’t believe this traveling preacher’s nerve. His gall. Which leads to the question, who the heck does he think he is?
As is typical of Jesus, he refuses to answer his accusers’ question about authority. Instead, he asks them a question that is just as tricky: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
The chief priests and elders know that if they admit that John the Baptist was a prophet sent by God, Jesus will ask them why they rejected John’s teaching, and refused his invitation to repent and receive baptism. At the same time, they know that if they say John was nothing more than a self-deluded charlatan, the crowds — who love John — will turn on them. So they refuse to answer the question.
This is when Jesus pulls out the story of the father and his two sons — and concludes the story with the zinger that further incenses his accusers, and just about guarantees his crucifixion five days later: You, Jesus tells the chief priests and elders, are like the second son in the story. You talk the talk, you make lofty promises, you speak “fluent religion-ese”. But when John came and offered you the good news of the kingdom, you refused to act. You refused to do the actual work of God.
Meanwhile, the people whom you deem the worst sinners? The tax collectors and the prostitutes? Well, they are like the first son in the story. When John offered them the gift of repentance and salvation, they responded — even though their lives until then had not been particularly pious. Recognizing their own helplessness and hopelessness, they flocked to the wilderness in obedience to God, and repented in the waters of baptism.
And yet even then — even when you saw countless others embracing the Gospel, you refused to change your minds. And so the prostitutes and tax collectors, the people at the bottom of your religious hierarchy of goodness and badness, will enter God’s kingdom ahead of you.
In her book Amazing Grace; A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes about a little boy who wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” In the poem the boy explodes about how he hated it when his father yelled at him. In anger he threw his sister down the stairs, wrecked his room, then destroyed an entire town. His poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.'”
Commenting on the boy’s poem, Norris writes, “‘My messy house’ says it all; with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in a fourth century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell.”
“Which son,” Jesus asks the chief priests and the elders after telling this story, “did the will of his father?” Of course we know the correct answer. We know it as well now as the chief priests and elders knew it back in Jesus’s day. The first son did the will of his father. It was not what either boy said that mattered in the end; it was what they did. So, we are invited to be like the first son. We are invited to be like the tax collectors and the prostitutes.
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.
A life toward God is better than life away from God. When we hear ‘repent’ maybe we should hear ‘turn around’.
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?
Jesus points to a new Kingdom in which repentant sinners – the tax collectors and prostitutes included – would be invited into covenant with God. 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.