Ezekiel 18: 25-28 Philippians 2: 1-11 Matthew 21: 28-32
A preacher recently quit the ministry after more than 20 years of faithful, dedicated service and became a funeral director. When asked why he changed vocations, he said: “I spent 10 years trying to straighten out John and he’s still an alcoholic. Then I spent three and one-half years trying to straighten out Harold and Susan’s marriage problems and they ended up getting a divorce. Later I tried for two years to help Bob kick his drug habit and he is still an addict. Now, at the funeral home, when I straighten them out, they stay straight! Perfect obedience!”
Dear friends! What’s harder? Telling someone “no,” or telling someone “yes” but then not following through? That’s the dilemma Jesus creates in his parable this morning. The father asks his children to go and work in the vineyard harvesting grapes. The first son says “no,” dishonoring his father in public, even though he changes his mind later. The second sons politely says, “yes,” but then doesn’t do what he says. Doesn’t it make you feel better knowing that 1st century parents had to put up with the same stuff you do?
Like most of Jesus’ parables, this story isn’t really about the two boys. It’s about you and me. It’s about two kinds of people in this world. The one kind professes faith in God, but doesn’t live a faithful life. The other does the will of God while saying “no” to belief in God. One group has no fine words but they have good deeds. The other group has fine words but no corresponding good deeds. They represent two kinds of people and the different ways they try to relate to God.
There are those who have no fine words: like those who profess no faith, who do not go to church, who do not pray. But sometimes when there is injustice in the city they will be the first to rise up and condemn it. When there are people out in the cold they will be the first to donate a blanket. Wherever there is famine or earthquake they will deny themselves a packet of cigarettes to contribute to help the victims. These people have no fine words to say to God or about God but when they do things such as these, they are doing what God has commanded us all to do.
Then there are those of us who have the fine words: who come to church every Sunday and say to God “Amen! We believe.” We wear badges and medals as ways of professing our faith. But sometimes when it comes to concrete action in support of what we know to be the will of God, we are found wanting. If we carry on like this, then we should heed the warning that those other folks are going into the kingdom of God ahead of us.
An associate pastor, new to the parish, saw the need to start a Bible study group where people could learn to read the word of God and deepen their faith. After service one morning, he presented the idea to the people and received a unanimous and enthusiastic feedback. “It is a wonderful idea,” they all said. Then the young associate pastor went and told the pastor that the people were happy with the idea of starting a Bible class. The older and more experienced pastor told the associate to rephrase the question and consult the people again. The following day the young priest asked the same congregation, “Who would like to sign up for the Bible study group? Only four hands went up. Then it dawned on the young man that saying yes to an idea is one thing and doing what is required is another.
To conclude, we need to point out that today’s parable is really the parable of two bad sons. Which of the two boys would you have as an ideal son: the one who bluntly says no to his father’s face or the one who says yes and does not follow up on it? The answer is none of the above. Ideal sons and daughters are those who say yes to their parents and then go on to do what is commanded. This is what we should aim to be — men and women who profess our faith in word and deed – knowing that “Not all those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).