It’s painful to have someone you trust tell you that they are going to do something for you—and they don’t. Many of us can tell stories about people who have let us down by making promises and then not following up on them. For example, there is a story of a young widow whose husband died suddenly and left her to raise their two children. She told her minister that during the wake for her husband, a lot of family and close friends came up to her and told her that they would be there for her. During the following years, some people were there for her when she needed them, including some people who never made that promise, but there were others who were so eager during the wake to offer help and never called or visited.
Life has taught us to be wary of certain people, and it is a lesson I have learned the hard way. These people include not just blatant liars but those who are all talk with no follow-through. There is an old saying that “a promise made is a debt unpaid”. We expect family and friends to keep their word and come through for us when we have a pressing need, but sometimes they don’t. When a friend disappoints us we are not terribly upset. When someone close to us makes a promise and then fails to fulfill it, we are blindsided because often we do not see it coming.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that that there have been times when we have made promises and then not kept them. There might also have been times when, in order to avoid discomfort or confrontation, we’ve given a half-hearted “yes” to someone or something which we never planned to follow up on. Whether we have been on the receiving end of broken promises or have given a half-hearted investment of ourselves to commitments we have made, we are in need of the healing and the challenge the Word of God offers us today.
The Gospel reading from Matthew 21:23-32 is another discussion between the Pharisees and Jesus. It occurs just after Jesus has chased the moneychangers and animal sellers from the temple. Both types of businesses needed the approval of religious authorities to operate in the temple. They provided a necessary service. Only temple currency could be used in the temple, so foreign currency had to be converted to temple currency, albeit at outrageous rates of exchange. Animals that were offered for sacrifice had to be free of blemishes as determined by the temple authorities. Both of these services evolved into profitable enterprises, so it is not surprising that the chief priests and elders were upset. They wanted to know who gave Jesus the authority to do what he did. They wanted God to play by their rules, and they insisted that God’s prophets must make the distinctions they make. Like John, Jesus thinks that God’s freedom includes the freedom to forgive people who are not children by blood of the Covenant, who haven’t offered sacrifice, even the poor person’s sacrifice of a dove, in the Temple, who haven’t done anything to deserve forgiveness.
Jesus’ actions in the Temple not only broke the powerful connection between money and religion, they also freely heal and forgive those who are perceived as cursed, those who are perceived as under punishment, those who need some serious blood atonement. Jesus sought to redirect the tradition of Israel away from ritual legalism and a dominant priesthood toward a more meaningful trust by the individual in the gracious and forgiving love of God. Jesus’ actions are a bullet in the heart of sacrificial religion, and they challenge the ultimate structuring of relationships offered by the so-called authorities. Like Jesus, we too may be called by God to engage in acts of conscience, acts that defy authorities and challenge their right to exist as authorities. We may end up paying a price like Jesus did, but we will also have the chance to turn the questions of our accusers back upon themselves in the hopes that they might see and repent.
We know the answer to the Pharisees’ question, but the chief priests and Pharisees did not. God gave Jesus the authority. The Pharisees and chief priests were rabbis, and they could not believe that Jesus’ authority was greater than theirs. They forgot that God is the ultimate authority. He gave the Jews the Ten Commandments. The Pharisees expanded them with all of their rules and regulations because they were obsessed with not breaking any of the Ten Commandments. The Pharisees considered themselves to be so righteous that they thought they were doing God’s work, but Jesus pointed out in the parable of the sons in Matthew 21:28-32 they were sadly mistaken.
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.
If we profess that Jesus is our Lord, we must do what he tells us to do. The religious people were the ones who were a problem for Jesus. They were oblivious to the true demands of God’s righteousness. They just didn’t get it. They did not see that God was not so much interested in the pious rhetoric and ceremonial formality.
When Jesus asked the Pharisees if the baptism of John came from heaven or from man, he was really asking them if they thought John was a true prophet or a false prophet. They were caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”. If they said that John’s baptism came from heaven, they would be faced with John’s witness to Jesus and their failure to respond to John’s preaching. If they said that it was from man, they would risk upsetting the crowd, many of whom believed in Jesus and John. The Pharisees had the responsibility to know who was and who was not a false prophet. They had the duty to protect the people from false prophets. Their final decision, which was the refusal to answer Jesus, compromised their own authority.
Jesus also indirectly asked the Pharisees if they thought that his authority came from heaven or from man. If Jesus authority is from heaven, then his messianic claim is valid, and the church must stake claim to a unique mission, a mission that relinquishes power in bringing Christ to the world, just as Christ relinquished power in bringing himself to the world. The church living under Christ’s present, heavenly authority will embody Christ’s own ministry as a gracious transformation, a divine reclamation of the world.
Tax collectors and prostitutes were prepared to change their ways, but the religious leaders were not, even though they had time to change. In the parable of the two sons, the older son represented the religious leaders and the younger son represented outsiders such as tax collectors and prostitutes. The faithful son represents the faces of people such as a recovering alcoholic, a small band of worshippers in a storefront, a church that reaches out to the needy in the community, a church member who decided to tithe-all of whom, however reluctantly or painfully, obey Christ. The second son is the person in the pew who refuses Christ entry to the deepest recesses of his or her heart—a preacher whose sermon is designed to please people rather than to please God; the Christian who refuses to obey God in the sensitive areas of sex, money or power; a church that ignores issues of justice and mercy. In other words, they are the people who appear to be faithful but, deep down, are not.
The parable of the two sons means that those who are not religious may sometimes respond to the good news of God’s forgiving love more readily than those whose self-serving religious superiority makes them immune to its appeal. The main key is a person’s sense of self-worth which can deceive even the most perceptive to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think. The truth is that even keeping the rules can lead us astray if we end up with the attitude that we’re good and righteous people, pure as the driven snow. To believe this is a dangerous deception. It can cause us as much grief as if we dive headlong into living an immoral life.
When we believe ourselves to be good and righteous people, then we ignore a large part of who we are. We overlook our dark side, what some psychologists call the shadow. The shadow then acts on its own, swallows us up, and takes others along with us. This can happen without us even recognizing it.
Jesus’ parable asks us how we will respond to the Gospel. Will we change our minds and believe, or not? Will we be the son who says he will obey and does not, or will we be the son who turns around and changes his mind? The parable is an example of the old adage that “actions speak louder than words”. We will be judged not by what we say, but by what we do. The religious leaders wrongly thought that they were better than they really were, and they imagined that they did not need to repent.
How many times have we made commitments to God, only to fail on the follow through? How many times have we made promises to God that for one reason or another, we have not kept? How often do we find ourselves responding to God when we have already told God “no”? What we believe needs to be evident in the way we live and relate. There must not be any break between our words, actions and faith. We must be able to discern God’s voice in those expected and unexpected places. We must not only listen but be willing to change as we grow in our personal and corporate faith.
Most of us have been pretty religious for most of our lives. Still, there are those whose religion seems to be lovely when they are surrounded by other religious persons. They can quote scripture verses by the boatload. They know all the religious language, all the religious rituals. But they don’t go to work in the vineyard. And all the love, and all the kindness, and all the compassion that they speak of in church…tends to stay at church. But there are also those whose lives are laced with sin, whose language would make a sailor blush, and who wouldn’t know a bible from a dictionary if it were handed to them, but they are kind, and generous, and compassionate to no end. They don’t get it when it comes to religion, and yet they are walking examples of the very people Jesus came to love.
Which of those people is doing the will of God? It’s a trick question because neither of them is. But here is the word of grace: Which one of them is God’s daughter or son, which one of them does God want to nurture, and mold and change into walking examples of righteousness in the vineyard? The answer is, “All of us.”
Jesus says that it isn’t the religious folk who are first in the kingdom of heaven. It is those who are most open to turning their lives around who are first in line, those who take action when Jesus says, “follow me”. We need to be careful lest we get to feeling that God owes us something. God sent Christ into the world to die for our sins, because we are sinners, and we are in need of redemption. That applies to all of us—Sunday school teachers, choir members, clergy, and members of the congregation. God does not owe us anything. Our hope for heaven is based on one thing and one thing alone—and that is the grace of God. This parable comes with the flame of Jesus’ Spirit to quicken our resolve to try again to change what needs changing. We have hope that this time, in some small or large way, change is possible because we have heard God’s word and experienced the living Christ through it.
When we look over our recent past and notice the trend our lives have taken, with the thoughts and deeds that speak of our lukewarm disciples, we want the second chance this parable offers us. We want to be able to change our minds, repent and do the good things we know we are called to do—and do them with the wholehearted “Yes” the gospel requires of us.
- Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible, NASV
- Exegesis for Matthew 21:23-32. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- Jude Siciliano, O.P., “First Impressions, 26th Sunday (A)”. Retrieved from www.preacherexchange.org
- Karl Jacobson, “Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32”. Retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org/preaching_print.aspx?commentary_id=1047
- Ira Birt Diggers, “Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32”. Retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org/preaching_print.aspx?commentary_id=144
- Preaching Peace, XVII Pentecost, Year A. Retrieved from www.preachingpeace.org/lectionaries/yeara-proper21
- Saturday Night Theologian, 28 September 2008. Retrieved from www.progressivetheology.org/SNT/SNT-2008.09.28.html
- Daniel Clenendin, Ph.D., “Repentance: Cleaning Up a Messy House”. Retrieved from www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20080922JJ.shtml?view=print
- Sarah Dylan Breuer, “Dylan’s Lectionary Blog, Proper 21, Year A”. Retrieved from www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/009/proper_21_year_.html
- The Rev. Debbie Royals, “Sept.28, 2008-Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, Year a (RCL)”. Retrieved from www.episcopalchurch.org/sermons_that_work_100542_ENG_HTM.htm
- The Rev. Beth Quick, “Paved With…Intentions”. Retrieved from www.bethquick.com/sermon9-25-05.htm
- John Shearman’s Lectionary Resource, Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 25, 2011. Retrieved from http://lectionary.seemslikegod.org/archives/fifteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-september-25-2011.html
- Pastor Steve Molin, “Trick Questions”. Retrieved from www.lectionary.org
- Dr. Mickey Anders, “Show Me Now”. Retrieved from www.lectionary.org
- The Rev. Charles Hoffacker, “The Strange Parade”. Retrieved from www.lectionary.