10/1/2017 Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 21:23-32.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Whenever we are in the year of Matthew, the parables of Jesus serve as our Gospel lesson for weeks on end. Today, we have one of those parables of Jesus that anyone who have ever raised a teenager can identify with. It’s the story of a father who asks his sons to go into the fields and work for him. The two sons approach the request quite differently. The one, who seems all too typical, complains loudly and is openly rebellious. The other son, who knows all the right words to say, is actually just as rebellious as the first. But taking a passive-aggressive approach, he is a little sneaker about it.
The first son reminds me a lot of Luke Skywalker from the original Star Wars movies, arguing with his uncle about working on the farm. This first son obviously has reached his limit on taking orders from “the old man,” and he gets quite vocal when his own plans for the day at the beach (or whatever teenagers did in first-century Palestine) are messed up by his father sending him off to pick grapes. Really disgusted with his dad, the kid gets sassy and tells his father, “Forget it! I’m not going.” I can envision this kid leaving the house in a huff with a frustrated parent standing in the doorway, threatening to ground him for good, this time.
If the first son appears to be a parent’s worst nightmare, then the second child starts off as a parent’s dream. When confronted with the request to go and work in the fields, this child doesn’t get sassy. This son agrees to do whatever is asked of him. He knows what is expected of him and without hesitation, he leaves the house, heading in the direction of the fields. The only problem…he never arrives.
Both sons have a change in heart. The one who refuses to listen to his father…the one who gets sassy…changes his mind and goes into the fields and does as his father requested. Matthew puts this change of heart in the terms of repentance. Sometimes we think that repentance is simply “feeling sorry,” but it’s far more than that. It’s going in a different direction. It’s a change of mind which sets your feet going down a different path, like the path that sent the first son in our parable off to work in the vineyard. Who knows…he may still have been irritated with his father…but he went. He did what his father wanted him to do.
The other son simply “yessed” his father to death. He spoke all the right words, giving the appearance of compliance, but his good intentions were not enough for they had no follow through. Instead of working, he went off and did his own thing.
It didn’t take the Pharisees who heard this parable any time to answer Jesus’ questions about which son did his father’s will. Yes, the first son was far from ideal in the upfront, vocal way in which he reacted to the request, but in the end, he did what was asked of him. The second son was either deceptive, having no intentions of going to the fields, but yessing his father to avoid an argument, or he was full of good intentions, but lacking in the fortitude to follow through with those intentions. We all know that words mean nothing without follow through. It is what a person does that is important. The simple truth is this: action, not lip service, is what counts. All the good intentions in the world mean nothing if they are put on the back burner and not acted upon.
The danger for us in hearing Jesus’ story is that we may quickly identify with the first son who did better than he spoke. But, if we hold a mirror to ourselves and take a good look, we might find that we often act like the second son when it comes to comparing our profession of faith to our actions based on that faith.
Many of you are parents. On the day you brought your children to the font to be baptized, you promised to raise them in the faith, teach them the Lord’s Prayer and other basics, and bring them to worship. Your bringing your children to church today is in keeping the promises you once made. But sometimes, I am sure, you find it easier to leave at home the children who moan and groan and argue with you about getting up on a Sunday morning.
There are too many parents who make the baptismal promises and never keep them, or put a cap on the number of years to keep them. There are those who do not bring their children to worship except for special occasions. They do not teach their children to pray, nor do they set an example of Christ-filled living as their values are self-centered and self-serving, not God-centered and serving of others. But, they have said all the fine words! They have said the right words. They have given the best of intentions. Yet, the intentions are not enough in themselves. Words and actions must come together. For actions speak the truth of what is in the heart.
What are your good intentions which have come to nothing? Maybe you, children, have said that you’d clean your room and you never did. Maybe you fathers promised to make more family time in your schedule, but you’ve gone back to the same old grind. Perhaps you were determined to be more generous and giving, but as finances have been redirected and giving has fallen short. Maybe you made a new year’s resolution regarding taking better care of the body which God has given you, or spending more time with that elderly neighbor or relative, or looking for the best in people and being less critical, or using some of your precious free time in service to the church, but despite of all those good intentions, you have fallen back into the same old pattern of behavior.
If this is you or me, today is the day to stop trusting our good intentions as if intentions alone were enough! Today is the day to confess that we have not followed through – that our words and actions are not the same. We have had this quiet rebellion inside of us, and we have not done the father’s will. We need the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and a change in mind: a mind that doesn’t call good intentions good enough.
So take the mirror test, my friends. Look deep inside for Jesus did not tell this parable in order to condemn those who fall short of fulfilling the Father’s will. He told it to open the eyes of all who profess their faith in order that they might see their shortcomings and turn to the Lord their God for help and guidance.
God, like the father in the parable, is patient and is willing to take a lot of guff from us, for he knows we are a rebellious lot who need his grace. And in this grace, he sends us out into the vineyard of the world as his children to do his will. May his will be done, for us and for others. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.