Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 25th, 2005
Matthew 21:28-32, ESV
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
So, I wonder, which “son” are you? That is what Jesus is getting at here isn’t it? To ask the question that Jesus asks. “What do you think?” Are you like the son who insults his father, refusing to do what he is obligated to do, but has a change of heart and goes out and works? Or are you more like the son who eagerly answers his father saying he’ll go, but then changes his mind blows off the work and does something different? Isn’t that after all what Jesus is asking us? Isn’t he asking us to choose which of the two sons is the best one? Wouldn’t he like us to be more like the “better” one? So even more importantly than the doesn’t Jesus use this parable to tell us how to live?
Let’s look at it a little closer: The father didn’t ask his first son to do something difficult. He simply asked him to do what he was obligated to do. “Go work in the field today.” He said. It was like any other chore a father would ask, take out the garbage, wash the car, and walk the dog. It was a request just like you received from your father. It was perfectly with the bounds of fatherhood to ask the work be done. But the son answered, “I will not! I don’t want any chores. I want to do what I want to do, when I want to do it! and to heck with you, Dad.” Later on this son thought better of his words, changed his mind and went out and worked as his father asked.
Now the old German in us will quickly point out that at least the work got done. And that’d be fine but God our Father never just wants the work done. He wants us to have the right attitude. He says for things to be good, for good works to be acceptable to him, our heart has to be in it, we can’t just go through the motions. The folks standing around Jesus understood the boy wasn’t living up to expectation. There’s nothing good in what the son says to his father. He may as well have said “Father I want you dead!” So what if he changed his mind and went. The parable doesn’t say anything about being sorry for the way he treated his fatter. It says nothing about doing the work because he had a sense of obligation, or even that he felt guilty. Jesus asked who did the father’s will. Well, not this guy. It’s true he got the work done but it doesn’t look like his heart was in it.
Well, doesn’t that put us in our place as well? How many times do we end up working for God out of guilt? How often do we grudgingly drop the envelope in the collection plate? God loves a cheerful giver, He tells us. But what if you can’t be cheerful? God demands more of us than going through the motions of worship. He wants our whole heart. This father didn’t have his son’s whole heart. That were we often fall short of God’s will, too. So very often our bodies are here but our hearts are out in the bean field…
The second son was also asked to go and work. The father’s request was the same. And this son answered right away that he’d do what his father asked. I’m sure the father was happy with the answer. At least one of his sons was listening, and obeying. Later on, though, this son also changed his mind. He didn’t go out to work as he said he would. He found something more important to do.
I don’t know if the boy really wanted to help his father or not. I don’t know if he was feeding him a line. But the fact is he didn’t do what his father asked. Either he lied, or he was lazy. It really doesn’t matter. At the heart of it is not obeying his father. Now it’s very hard not to see ourselves doing that very thing with God, too. God asks us to defend all life, especially helpless children, like those who have yet to be born. God asks us to feed the poor without regard to how we’ll be repaid. God asks us to visit the sick and the lonely, even the ones who are not members of our families. God asks us to speak about Jesus at every opportunity. We gladly say we will. We brightly make promises. But often we just don’t follow through. Other things crowd out our willingness. Things like fear, and pride, or just plain laziness. And the work our Father has asked us to do goes without being done.
Well, now you’ve done it pastor. You’ve taken away both choices. Jesus asked which one did the will of the father. You’ve made it so that neither one is any good. You’ve made them both out to be scoundrels. You’ve taken away our real lesson for today. Doesn’t Jesus want us to be like the son show actually gets the work done? Isn’t that what he’s getting at, get the church work done?
Well, as important as getting everything done around here is, that’s not Jesus point. What he wants is for people to see the real problem of sin. He tells us parables like this one so we find ourselves painted into the corner. The best answer to Jesus question is neither. And that’s exactly the point here. He paints people into corners where they can’t see any way out but him.
He first spoke this parable to the chief priests and elders. He gave them a question that they couldn’t He had done the same thing before. When Jesus was preaching and healing in the temple they questioned his authority to do all the things he was doing. “Who says you can do the things you are doing, and say the things you are saying?” And Jesus confronted them. He asked them a question to answer their question. Speaking about John the Baptist,
Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. (Matthew 21:24-27, ESV)
Since they had answered, “I don’t know” in front of everyone before they didn’t dare not give an answer to Jesus’ question about the sons. But, to be sure, they were hardly happy with the answer they gave. And Jesus sharply turns their answer against them. He pronounced God’s law and convicted them of their sin by comparing them to the second son. The very one they said was the worst of the two. They claimed to be living in God’s will, but they refused to listen to John the Baptizer’s words about God coming into the world in Jesus. They refused to admit their sin. They refused to believe. They changed their minds about God and turned away from His Word and the promises given in Jesus. And then as if to pour salt on the wound, Jesus told them that the people chief priest and elders considered lost forever because of their sin, were closer to God than they were. The sinful hearts of tax collectors and prostitutes were changed by John’s preaching, and they believed. They repented their sin, believed in Jesus and found forgiveness with their Father.
This text, this parable of Jesus isn’t about how we should live at all, but it does tell us about how we do live. We make bad decisions. We hid our true motives. We fall short just like both sons. The will of God is not to do what either son did, but to say, “Yes, I will,” and then actually carry out what we say we’ll do. Anything less is sin. Anything less is not God the Father’s will. Anything less deserves punishment.
But I wonder if you’ve seen the third Son in the parable. There is another. There’s a Son who isn’t like either of the other sons. He obeyed the His Father’s will. He says He’ll go and do the work, and He actually goes. And not only that, He does the work fully and completely, perfectly. The Third Son is the one telling the parable. There’s a hymn by Martin Luther that tells it so clearly (LW 353, Dear Christians, One and All)
God said to his beloved Son:
"It’s time to have compassion.
Then go, bright jewel of my crown,
And bring to all salvation;
From sin and sorrow set them free;
Slay bitter death for them that they
May live with you forever."
The Son obeyed his Father’s will,
Was born of virgin mother;
And God’s good pleasure to fulfill,
He came to be my brother.
His royal power disguised he bore,
A servant’s form, like mine, he wore
To lead the devil captive.
Of life me thus bereaving,
All this I suffer for your good;
Be steadfast and believing.
Life will from death the victory win;
My innocence shall bear your sin;And you are blest forever.
That’s what this parable of Jesus is about. Jesus doing God’s will. Jesus coming in human flesh to take away the sins of the world. Jesus removing the guilt of God’s sons and daughtgers with poor attitudes and lazy hearts. Jesus taking the punishment for forgetful and prideful sons and daughters.
That’s just it, too. Sin backs us into corners. We find ourselves painted in with no where to go. God plucks us out of the corner and saves us. Through the Holy Spirit’s work in Word and Sacrament, He gives us new lives and hearts that want to do His will. Through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives He makes good on our promise to do what He has asked, and get the job done. And most importantly through His Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit works in our lives to offer us forgiveness when we fall short. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.