Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 29, 2002
The Gospel: Matthew 21:28-32
Sermon: "My Two Sons"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Jesus said, "What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John Came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."
"My Two Sons"
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost - September 29, 2002
I love the way Jesus could capture our attention. The story of the two sons is one that everybody can relate too. As parents we have probably had an incident just like this with our own children. We can probably remember the exact circumstances where we told one child to do something, like clean up their room, and they didn't do it, even though they said they would. As parents we can remember those times when our child griped and grumbled when asked to clean the room, but did it anyway.
Not only can we relate to this as parents. We can probably relate to this as a child or teenager. Do we ever remember a time when we were asked to do something by our parents and we didn't do it? We told them we would, but somehow we never got around to it. Or do we remember a time when our parents asked us to do something and we said no. However, either because of respect, or honoring our parents, or maybe for feeling guilty about saying no, we went ahead and did the job anyway.
Yes, somehow we can all relate to the example Jesus gives about the two sons. What is Jesus talking about in the story? Is this example only about what it is like to be a teenager? Or does Jesus have something else in mind?
Jesus does have more in mind than just advice about our teenage years. In the story, Jesus is responding to a challenge from the chief priests and elders at the temple in Jerusalem. Just a few verses prior to this story they questioned Jesus' authority. Jesus responds to their question with one of his own. Where do the chief priests and elders believe John the Baptist received his authority? Did it come from heaven or was it from human origin? The chief priests felt trapped. If they said it was from heaven then Jesus would say, “why didn't you believe him?” If they said it was of human origin they were afraid of the people. They were afraid because the people believed John was a prophet. So, instead of giving one of the two answers they turned to Jesus and said, "We don't know."
Now, when a teenager gets caught by their parent or by their teacher doing something wrong a strange thing happens. All of a sudden they don't know how to answer the questions the parent or teacher is asking. For example, “Johnny, how did the front of the car get the huge dent in the grill?” Johnny replies, "Well, uh, gee, uh, I don't know." The chief priests and elders are acting like this teenager. So, Jesus then tells the story about the two sons.
The first son is told to go to work and he says, Yes, but doesn't go. This son is like the chief priests and the elders of Israel. They have read the words of the prophets. They know the Torah. They heard the words of John to repent and return to the Lord. With all of this knowledge, they said yes to God's call. They said, “Yes, Lord, we will love you and obey your law. We will keep the Sabbath Holy. We will honor your name. We will love you with our whole heart, mind, body and soul. We will also love your people. We will take care of the sick. We will feed the hungry. We will protect the innocent among us. We will be kind and welcoming to the stranger.” And then they did not do these things. They turned the law on its ear. They made the law of love a burden for the people. You can only worship in this way or it isn't true worship. If you are sick, lonely or dejected, God is punishing you. Get yourself right with God and then we will help. They did not follow God's law at all. When John pointed out the flaws, they turned their back on him. They could not see they were following a flawed interpretation of the law.
However, in the story there is another son. This son says no to the father about working in the fields, but then he goes. The tax collectors, the prostitutes, the sick, the blind and the lame are all like this son. They originally heard the words of the prophets. They also knew the Torah and they turned away from it. They turned away from God. They said no. However, when John comes preaching repentance they heard the message. They heard God calling them to repent and love God with all their heart, mind, body and soul. They heard the Good News of God loving the unlovable, the untouchable, the sick, the hurting. They heard the message. They repented and they came to God accepting the message. Therefore, Jesus says they will enter the kingdom ahead of the chief priests and elders. The very people they rejected are the ones God says come home to first.
Well, how does the story now affect us? Do our deeds match up to our words? Perhaps we are like the chief priests and the elders. We say to God, "Yes, we believe", but we don't follow it with action. Instead of taking care of the sick we turn away. Instead of welcoming the stranger we turn them away. Instead of inviting the unlovable, the unwanted in Reidsville into this church, do we stand at the door and say, "You aren't coming in here. Get your life together first and then come in with us?" Instead of hearing John's words to repent and acting on them, we turn away from these words. We believe we have no sin. Or worse we believe our sins are not as bad as our neighbors. Therefore, God will love us more.
The wonder about this story is that it catches us today just as it did the chief priests so long ago. The story reminds us of our sinful human nature. We, too, can act the part of the teenager and say, "I don't know", when the hard questions get asked. But the real miracle, the Good News of this story, is that God is always ready to receive the penitent. God is always ready to forgive any who will turn back and put action with their words. We are called to be different than the world. We are called to respond to the world in love, not hate. We are called to be forgiving like God. Jesus caught the chief priests and the elders with his question about John. I got caught by a question years ago asked by a man at a retreat. I'd like to share his question to the group with you. The question dealt with action. The question goes like this, "If you were to be put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" Would there be witnesses brought against you who would say you treated them kindly, you ministered to their needs, you fed them when they were hungry, you clothed them when they were naked, you loved them when no one else cared, all in the name of Christ?" The question caught me up short and it still does. Because like the question to the chief priests, this question too demands an answer. We can't just sit back and say, “We don't know."