The main characters in today’s gospel story are a couple of real stars aren’t they? They are the kind of kids I’d rather not acknowledge as my own. The second son reminds me of the child who is asked to bring in the groceries and he “promises” to do it. When you go back to put things away, he hasn’t even brought in one bag. The ice cream is melting in the trunk, and he’s kicking the soccer ball around in the living room. The first son is just the opposite. When you ask him to mow the lawn, he says: “No way Mom! My friends and I are going swimming. You finally finish putting the groceries away and work up a good mad at this kid too, when you hear the lawn mower start. Typical kids right! You wish just once they would do what you ask without all the falderal. Do you know these kids? I do. The truth is that sometimes I am both of them.
In the Gospel today, Jesus equates this second son to the scribes and chief priests. This son says, “Yes father, I’ll do the work you ask.” And then doesn’t do it. He talks a great story, and looks good doing it; but there’s little or no action. It’s more important to look cool than to be cool.
Jesus likens the first son to tax collectors, prostitutes, and known sinners. What a great group to belong to! That son says, “No father, I’m not doing it.” Later on he regrets what he said and goes to work. His “no” changes with repentance, and he works to make things right.
Jesus is days away from being arrested and crucified in this story. He has come into the city in a celebratory manner, riding on a donkey that he basically stole from its owner. People have been caught up in the electricity generated by his presence. But he has also thrown the money changers out of the temple with a whip he made out of cords of leather. He has healed the blind and the lame inside the walls of the temple. And he has challenged those in control with his authority.
This bit about the two sons comes up because the chief priests had come to Jesus to try to put him in his place. These people are not “the Jews” or the people of Israel. They are a group of powerful thugs, the priestly aristocracy, who are in collaboration with, but under the ruthless control of the Roman Empire. (Some things never change do they?) These bullies challenge Jesus with a question to trap him and Jesus turns the question back on them.
There is a famous story of a student who asked a rabbi, “Why do rabbis always answer a question with a question?” The rabbi pondered for a moment and said, “So what’s wrong with a question?”
Jesus’ story ends with a question and when they refuse to answer, they trap themselves. To say that tax collectors & prostitutes & sinners would go to heaven before them, is a shocking way for Jesus to rebuke them! Tax collectors and prostitutes are completely outside the bounds of Torah, and therefore outside the bounds of salvation and redemption. They are no better than mangy dogs. They are the unclean, and have absolutely no claim upon God unless, for some unimaginable reason, God, in Jesus makes a claim upon them. And that is exactly what Jesus does over and over again from then until now. It’s not to say that the others won’t be there. It just won’t be on their terms or with their sense of the proper order of things.
The reason? Those tax collectors, prostitutes, and known sinners had repented when they met John the Baptist in the Jordan River. And they had been forgiven their sins. They were the worst of the worst, but they came in droves to John because he offered them something they could not have found in the world they lived in. Forgiveness! Wholeness, Peace, and Joy! All those things God wants for us.
The chief priests wouldn’t have anything to do with Jesus, and although they reportedly were doing the work of God, they did not accept the forgiveness offered them. They said they would be like the second child, but they never took to heart the one thing they needed to do. Repentance wasn’t anything they needed because they were too good for it. How sad!
Can you find yourself in the story? Sometimes we talk a great line like the second son and yet there’s little or nothing to show for it. At other times we are as disobedient as the first kid, yet through repentance we are returned to God. If tax collectors and prostitutes can be forgiven so can chief priests and so can those of us who find ourselves carrying on one way one day and another way the next.
Another way to consider this parable is to ask the question, have I been forgiven, or can I be forgiven for who I am and what I have done and what I have not done?
All too often many of us fail to embody in our lives what we say we believe with our words. And all too often our confession is just words and that true repentance doesn’t go deep enough to change us. To radically shift us from one place to another.
We’ve all been there…When I know I’m right and you’re wrong. When it has to be my way and my rules. When I only look out for myself. When I seek success at the expense of others. When hurtful things are said and not retracted. When I do what I want instead of what God wants. Where is the peace and joy in that?
Like the first child, there have been times when I’ve said “No” to God and to others and then regretted and repented and moved toward reconciliation. Thankfully, in our repentance – our turning around – our actions have spoken much louder than our original words. But when that happens I feel deep peace and great joy.
I don’t like to think of myself as a chief priest or an elder, much less a tax collector, a prostitute, or a known sinner. I don’t like thinking of myself as being like either of the two sons. But I am, we all are. I wish I could always say yes and mean yes and then follow through. But I don’t. I know that God is far more interested in what I do rather than what I say although it would be easier on everybody if those things jived more often than they do.
At a time like now, when words are tossed around like grenades and our actions often inflict pain on others, I wonder what we’re missing by not going down to the river to have John baptize us and make us whole. And I don’t mean that in the sense that we all here haven’t been baptized, so what’s the point? I mean it in the sense that conversion happens all the time and repentance happens all the time. At least it’s offered all the time. And for us symbolically each week in the Confession or with friends or just with yourself and God to think that you have that invitation to go down to the river to be washed and made clean again. It’s a great, great gift. It is the gift of wholeness, the gift of redemption, the gift of peace, the gift of joy.
Our coming up out of the water might bring us peace and joy in the midst of dread and fear that’s swirling around us. That is after all what Jesus wants for us – deep peace and deep joy – especially in the midst of the craziness around us. That is truly the Kingdom, or realm of God. That is where we can go and be in the midst of all the ugly stuff that’s happening.
Maybe this parable is attempting to tell us that repentance is always possible peace and joy are always possible. And God is far more interested in what we do, than in what we say. I don’t know about you, but I am grateful for those moments of Grace. And I invite you to seek out and search for them in the coming week. Find them in the oddball places where grace just pops up out of nowhere. Seek them in your actions, not just in what you say. Be reminded that the deepest thing that God wants for us is that forgiveness and that deep, deep peace and deep, deep joy. That is where we are all saved. That my friends is very, very good news in a world that is trying very hard to tear us apart. Amen.
The Rev. Patty Baker
St. Clare Episcopal Church
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