by Edward F. Markquart
Gospel: St. Matthew 21: 23-32
There was a tough minded football coach who had high expectations for his football players. At the conclusion of one practice, he demanded that his players run three miles that night, do two hundred push ups, and study the play book for at least an hour. And all the superstars and first team shouted out: “You can count on us, coach. We’ll do that.” That night, all the superstars of the first team gathered at the captain’s house to begin their exercises, but they happened to turn on the television set and the professional wrestling championships were on. Within a short time, the superstars were slouched into the couch and the evening was slowly wasting away.
At the conclusion of that same football practice earlier in the day, when the coach insisted on three miles of running, two hundred push ups and studying the plays for an hour, the third stringers whined out loud: “What do you mean, coach? We never get to play anyway. Why should we do all that work?” Later that night, when gathered over at the home of the water boy, the third string guys flicked on the television set, watched it for a second, and groaned when someone said: “Let’s run those miles and do the pushups.” The third stringers had a change of heart and went and did all the work.
Which of the two groups did the will of the coach. The answer is so obvious.
There was a piano teacher who was a very strict disciplinarian. Her hair was pulled tightly against her head, with sharp features and sharp eyes and a no-nonsense attitude. She said to her piano prodigy: “Tonight, I want you to practice your fingering on this complicated motet for at least two hours, in preparation for your recital,” and the prodigy said, “Of course, no problem.” That night, just as the prodigy was to begin practicing, her best friend telephoned and before you knew it, two hours had passed and it was time for bed. Meanwhile, the less gifted piano student groaned as her teacher insisted on two hours of practice that night, and she testily thought to herself: “Why, I never play a recital; why should I practice that hard tonight.” Her friend telephoned; she hesitated; had a change of heart and told her friend that she had other things to do that night. She pulled out her piano score and went to work on her fingering. Now, which of the two students did the will of the piano teacher. The answer is so obvious.
There was a father who had two sons. He needed the lawn mown. The lawn was such a mess and friends were soon coming over for dinner. The father asked his oldest son: “Son, would you please mow the lawn for me? We have friends coming over for dinner within the hour and a mown lawn would make the place look a lot better.” The oldest son replied: “Yah, Dad. That won’t take me long. And besides, you give me the keys to the car; you put gas in the car; and my threads are pretty nice.” The oldest son went outside just as his friends pulled up to the front curb, shouting, “Hey, it’s time to party. Let’s hit the drive-in,” and off they all went in a hot-looking car. Meanwhile, the lawn was looking tacky, so the father said to the younger son. “Son, would you please mow the lawn right now? We have friends coming over for dinner.” And that younger son gave such an agonized howl, a whine that screeched your ears, “Ohhhhh, Dad. Do I haaaaaave to?” He went outside, just as his friends pulled up with their bicycles, shouting, “Hey, let’s go. Girls down the street.” The younger son got onto his bike, thought for a minute, had a change of heart, and said, “I’ll catch up with you later,” and went and mowed the lawn. Now, which of the two did the will of their father. And the answer is so obvious.
We all have had these experiences, where the promises far exceeds the performance, where people say “yes” too easily and then don’t follow through.
And isn’t it aggravating when people say, “Yes, yes, we’ll do it!” and then don’t follow through. Like when the grandparents are coming over for dinner and the children are asked to pick up their rooms, and they nod a passive “yes,” and you, the parent, find them lounging in front of the television. Does this drive you up the wall? Or am I the only such parent who has such feelings about his children.
Or let’s say you help with a volunteer organization such as the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, a soccer team, a church. And let’s say that this soccer mom volunteers and says, “Yes, I will telephone all the parents and tell them about the change of time of the game.” But she don’ do it, and nobody shows up because no one was called. Doesn’t that drive you up the wall?
Or let’s say that you are a computer programmer, and the programmer at the cubicle next to you says, “Yes, I can get that work done tonight,” and you come into the office in the morning and it isn’t done. You can’t say anything, so you bite your lips and inside, shake your head in disgust and you do the work. It’s aggravating when people make promises but don’t follow through on them.
Since we all have had similar reactions and feelings, it is easy for us to understand the parable of Jesus for today about the two sons. The meaning is so obvious. That is, some religious people make all kinds of grandiose promises to God but their performance doesn’t live up to their promises. These Christians promise God, “O yes, God, I will be your faithful disciple. I will carry out the mission of the church. I will do your work in the world. Yep, count on me. I’ll get the job done for you, Lord.” But they don’t do a darn thing. And so God goes and finds some less churchy people who actually go and do what God wants done in this world.
To understand this parable about the two sons, it helps to understand the context, the setting, which are the Bible verses before and after the story. Like a diamond, its beauty can be enhanced by the right setting. And so it is with the parables of Jesus; the setting enhances the meaning of the parables.
This parable for today about the two sons is part of a larger section of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus and the Pharisees are in conflict. In Matthew 21-24, Jesus and the Pharisees are in conflict with each other, and this parable is part of that conflict. In fact, Jesus had been in conflict with these Pharisees since the first days of his ministry three before. For three years, Jesus had a running conflict with these folks.
As Jesus was approaching the temple that first day of the week, our Monday morning, he noticed a beautiful, green, well shaped fig tree that was so lovely to behold; but upon closer inspection of this perfectly looking fig tree, it was obvious that there was no fruit. And so it was with the religious lives of the Pharisees; they looked so religious; their religious lives looked so alive, so green, so well shaped, but upon closer inspection, they didn’t produce any fruit. Jesus cursed the fig tree and it withered and died. It wasn’t any good anyhow. That is, it didn’t produce any fruit. And so it was with the Pharisees; they looked spiritually alive but they were really dead. Their hearts were dead inside and so were their actions of compassion for people around them. Those acts of compassion were non-existent in their lives.
Later, Jesus compared the Pharisees to cups that look pretty and clean and shiny on the outside, but inside, the cups are dirty, moldy, and corroded. And so it was with the hearts of the Pharisees: they looked good on the outside, when people were watching, but inside, their hearts were polluted and corrupted and stained.
So Jesus and the Pharisees were interlocked in conflict that Monday morning in the temple. (Matthew 21:23 “And when he entered the temple.”)
Jesus said to the Pharisees: There was a man who had two sons. He said to the first son, “Will you go and work in the vineyard today? The vineyard is a mess, and there is so much work to be done. Picking up the rocks. Planting. Pruning. Picking grapes. Producing wine. Will you do the work in the vineyard today?” In other words, will you care for the sick and dying, the blind and the lame, the deaf and the dumb? Will you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison?” And the older son said, “Of course, you can count on me.” And the older son went off to the vineyard...where he conducted a worship service, and then held a Bible study in the Old Testament, and then enjoyed some wine and cheese and fellowship with his friends who also had come to the vineyard.
The vineyard was still a mess and there was much work to be done; and so the father approached people from the lower rungs of society to see if they would do the work. He approached the tax collectors and tanners; the pimps and the prostitutes; the bookies, the bartenders, the belly dancers and asked them the questions: “Will you do the work in my vineyard. It’s a mess. The world is a mess. Would you care for the sick and dying, the blind and lame, the death and dumb? Would you feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? Visit those in jail?”
And the tax collectors and prostitutes said: “Are you crazy? Who do you think we are? Some goodie-two-shoes? Get real.” They started to walk away from the mess, but took a second look, had a change of heart, and went and did the work that needed to be done.
And Jesus looked the Pharisees in the eyes and asked the penetrating question: “And which of the two sons was faithful to the father’s will?” And the answer was so obvious.
Jesus continued: “And so the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before you Pharisees, even though you look so religious and smell so religious.”
Ouch. A zinger.
So what does this story have to do with you and me?
This parable is an invitation from Christ to go and do God’s work in the vineyard, in the messed up world in which we live.
And living like a Christian is work in this messed up world. There are so many hurting people to care for, so many sick and dying, blind and lame, deaf and dumb, so many without food, clothing and in prison. And it is work to live as a Christian in this kind of world.
For example, the past week while on my late afternoon walk, I saw her wandering down the street, her mind almost totally gone; dementia, Alzheimer’s. As she came closer, I recognized that she was/is a member of our church. And there was Norma chasing after her. Norma, a friend of twenty-five years, is now in charge of her aging life because she has no family or children or anyone else to care for her. Norma was letting her run off her rage and anger, as she wandered down the street. Norma was caring for her for two weeks in her own home as they waited for a bed to open up in an Alzheimer’s unit. And let me tell you; it was work for Norma, caring for her demented friend. It is work, working in the vineyard.
I called a friend this week who is very, very sick and in the hospital. The voice in the hospital room answered, “So and so’s residence.” Yes, the family had been living there at that downtown hospital for three weeks. They were all tired, worn down by the onslaught of the disease. It is work, personally caring for the sick and dying.
This past week I attended a board meeting of Lutheran World Relief and heard of the disaster care after the immensely devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan. So many families without homes. So much to be done. I heard first hand accounts of the painful devastation as the result of wars in Kosovo and E. Timor. I heard stories of young girls and women who were raped by marauding soldiers in Kosovo, and were now pregnant by those soldiers. These young women had been cast out of their homes by their parents for religious reasons, that their daughters have been defiled. And who was to care for them?
The vineyard, the world, is always in a mess. There are always earthquakes in the Turkeys and Taiwans of the world. There are always wars in the Kosovos and the E. Timors of the world. There are always divorces and families falling apart. There are always poor families living down the street, with not enough money and emotional resources to make it.
And what is the reaction of the church to this pain and devastation in the world around us, far and near? Too often, we merely hold our worship services in the middle of the vineyard. We have our Bible studies and small group studies in the middle of the wine estate. We go out to St. Michelle’s (our neighboring vineyard northeast of Seattle) lovely vineyards for wine church sponsored tasting parties and fellowship events.
And so God, in the parable for today, in his disgust for our unwillingness to do the needed work in the vineyard says, “I will go and find somebody else who will do the work in this world of mine.”
In other words, this parable is an invitation for us not to be like the Pharisees. It is a challenge to go into God’s messed up world and do the necessary work.
In Jesus’ parables, the accent is always on the last figure, on the last personality of the story. That is where the focus is. For example, in my opening stories, the focus is on the third stringers who had a change of heart and went and ran three miles. The focus is on the second piano student, average in her ability, who had a change of heart and went and practiced her fingering for two hours. The focus is on the second, younger son, who saw that the lawn needed to be mown, had a change of heart, and went and did the work. And the focus is on the second set of people in Jesus’ parable, the tax collectors and prostitutes, who actually had a change of heart and went and did the work.
You see, Jesus’ problem was with the Pharisees who didn’t think that they needed a change of heart; that they were just fine the way they were; that they were appropriately religious and they knew it. And that’s the way it has always been: in the Old Testament, the time of Christ and throughout all of church history. God’s people have consistently been blind to our own need to have a change of heart about doing God’s work in the messed up world around us.
And so in this parable for today, Jesus is inviting you and me to have a change of heart...you and I need a change of heart...about the messed up world around us. You and I need a change of heart about the painful needs of hurting people around us...we need a change of heart about actually doing God’s work of love in a messed up world. We all need this change of heart, a change inside.
One time, Jesus told a parable about two sons. I am always amazed at the spiritual profundity of Jesus’ stories. They are so brilliant, so perceptive, so right on. Jesus’ stories seem to reveal the very mind and heart of God. One time, he told the story about two sons. It was such simple story. The father said to one son, “Would you go and work in my vineyard today?” and the son said, “Yes, yes” but didn’t do it. So the father said to the second son, “Will you go and work in my vineyard today?” and the second son said “No, I’ve got other things going,” but he had a change of heart and went and did what the father requested. “Now, which of the two did the will of the father?” And the answer was and still is so obvious. Amen.
Rev. Edward F. Markquart is with Grace Lutheran Church, Des Moines, Washington
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 1st Sunday after the Feast of Transfiguration
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