By The Rev. Sherry Deets
September 25, 2011
Matthew 21: 23-32
In our gospel today, Jesus and the Pharisees are exchanging trick questions. The Pharisees ask Jesus where he gets his authority to teach and heal, and they’re hoping to trap him to saying something stupid. And Jesus asks a trick question of his own, having to do with John the Baptist, and any answer the Pharisees offer will back them into a corner, so they play dumb. It is then that Jesus tells them, and us, a parable.
A certain man had two sons, and asks each of them to go to work in the vineyard. The first says no, but then he has a change of heart. The second says yes, but he never shows up for work in the vineyard. Then Jesus asks the Pharisees “Which of these two sons did the will of his father?” The Pharisees say that the first son did his father’s will, but it’s a trick question, because neither one did. The first son blatantly disobeyed his father, and right to his face. The second son sucked up to his father – he even called him “sir” – but he failed to follow through. Which one did the father’s will? Neither one.
But Jesus uses this 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 very 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, you know, 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.
Now, here’s the word of grace in this parable: both were called “sons.” The father doesn’t 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’ parable is, in the end, a challenge. It asks us how we will respond to the truth of the gospel — will we change our mind and believe, or not? Will we be the daughter who pretends obedience or the son who turns around and changes his mind?
Author Saul Bellow wrote about a rabbi who lived in a small Jewish town in Russia. The rabbi had a secret. Every Friday morning the rabbi disappeared for several hours. The people of his congregation liked to tell others that during his absence from them their rabbi went up to heaven and talked to God. When a stranger moved into town and heard this explanation for the rabbi’s weekly departure, he was not convinced. So he decided to find out what was really going on. The next Friday morning, he hid by the rabbi’s house, waiting and watching. As usual, the rabbi got up and said his prayers. But unlike other mornings of the week, he then dressed in peasant clothes. He grabbed an ax and wandered off into the woods to cut some firewood. With the man watching from afar, the rabbi then hauled the wood to a shack on the outskirts of the village where an old woman and her sick son lived. He left them the wood, enough for a week, and then went quietly back home.
After seeing what the rabbi did, the stranger decided to stay in the village and join the congregation. From then on, whenever he heard one of the villagers say, “On Friday morning our rabbi ascends all the way to heaven,” the newcomer quietly added, “If not higher.”
So Jesus’ question, and the answer he points us to in the parable of the two sons, pushes us to the point of reflection and decision. Which will we be? Which can we be? Will we change our mind, and believe? Amen.
The text of this sermon is the property of the author and may not be duplicated or used without permission.