“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
A man told one of his two sons who were playing in the yard to please mow the grass. Guests were coming over for dinner so there wasn’t much time. “Sure, Dad, no problem!” said the son. As the father turned away to go inside, the son’s friends pulled up in a car, and without hesitation the son jumped in and the car sped off. The father turned around and asked the other son to mow. “No way, that’s his job! It’s not my fault he got into that car with his friends and went away.” The father shook his head and went inside the house. Then that son paused. He looked down the road, then he looked back at the house, and then he looked at the yard. Then he mowed the lawn.
There have been many other ways this parable of the two sons has been retold. You might imagine a coach telling his team to study the playbook, or a music teacher telling the students to practice for a performance. I love the parables of Jesus when they appear so simple yet hold challenging truths. At first glance, this one seems to be about parenting and rebellious children.
But as Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees, he made it about much more when he announced, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
Without question this was the first time that the Pharisees ever heard someone put the tax collectors and prostitutes above them. The Pharisees were so self assured that this was a ludicrous thing to say! Everyone, including the Pharisees, or especially the Pharisees, knew how they kept the laws, rules, and regulations required of the religion of the day. The word repent that is used in this parable is not the usual word repent that we find in the New Testament in the contexts of “be baptized and repent.” This word that is translated repent actually means to be remorseful.
One interesting study on this parable contrasted two songs, one by Willie Nelson and one by Frank Sinatra. Here are a few lines from Willie Nelson’s hit, “You Were Always on My Mind:”
Maybe I didn’t love you Quite as often as I could have And maybe I didn’t treat you Quite as good as I should have If I made you feel second best Girl I’m sorry I was blind You were always on my mind You were always on my mind Little things I should have said and done I just never took the time But you were always on my mind You were always on my mind.
These two verses from Frank Sinatra’s hit “My Way” represent opposite viewpoints:
Regrets? I’ve had a few, But then again, too few to mention. I did what I had to do And saw it through without exemption.
For what is a man? What has he got? If not himself – Then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels And not the words of one who kneels. The record shows I took the blows And did it my way.
You were always on my mind sought humble forgiveness, and an awareness that he had fallen short on the “little things I should have said and done.” My Way proclaimed that the regrets were “too few to mention.” These were two different ways to look at the past. Anyone who takes that “My Way” viewpoint has been blinded by pride and is missing out on a lot of compassion in life- missing out on God. Jesus presented this irony to the holy Pharisees, who were so good at being good that they missed seeing their need for God’s humbling grace. They had elevated themselves too high in their own eyes.
Since we try so hard to excel, it is easy to follow this trend, focusing so much on our selves that we become fully self-absorbed. I heard one reflection of this from German golf professional Bernhard Langer on Hilton Head Island at a breakfast for young athletes. He told how he moved up the ranks in golf until he finally reached arguably the most prestigious award in golf, winning the Master’s in Augusta, Georgia. He told how he felt when he put that green jacket on for the first time. Mixed in with that rush of accomplishment was a feeling that totally took him by surprise. It was a feeling of “Is this all that there is? There must be something more. Not more to golf, but more to life.” He went to the tour’s Christian Bible study, and soon golf was not the only devotion of his life. It was after that moment that he became interested in finding out more about God.
One thing that Langer realized was that he was not somehow competing against God. In life we tend to work so hard at climbing the ladder, at becoming the best that we can be, at maximizing ourselves, that God ends up mixed in with all of the other things in life that have become so laden with the pressure of intense competition. Maybe we don’t realize we are competing with God. That would be a deep realization, a heavy truth to accept, but many times we are.
This weekend I attended a Cub Scouts boating event at the Skokie Lagoon. The wildlife, birds, and trees were inspirational. At the end of the day the scouts set up their tents and played Frisbee. Poet Anne Sexton’s book, “The Awful Rowing Toward God” uses rowing in a stream to illustrate her life. At the end of her rowing, she is not playing Frisbee, she is playing poker with God. Her royal straight flush guarantees a win. But God puts down 5 aces. Of course that is impossible, but this is God she is playing with, and God’s laughter reminds her that God is not competitive with her. God is not measuring her and trying to win. She makes it clear that there is no losing with God. The Pharisees were so consumed in their competition to be first in God’s eyes that their goodness fell by the wayside a long way back.
Dr. James Dobson wrote about how his toddler daughter, Danae, received so much attention until she had an accident that hit her mouth and disfigured her appearance. Suddenly, what was sweet attention became awkward stress when people encountered his daughter. Dobson saw this behavior parallel the behavior of the Pharisees. He said that in their minds, God only had regard for that which was perfect, unblemished, without defect. The Pharisees had reduced God to the level of human beings who turn their back on a little girl because of a crooked mouth. The Pharisees had no concept of God’s grace, God’s love for all God’s children, and they certainly weren’t open to Jesus leading them toward a better understanding of it.
Usually when we hear a parable like this one, we have the tendency to place ourselves as one of the characters. So which one are we, the son who says, “Yes,” but then does not do the work, or the one who says, “No,” but then changes his mind after careful consideration? Jesus made this parable difficult because both sons fall short. Will we be inspired to follow the way of Jesus? Are we in a holding pattern still climbing to the top on our own merits? Have we said no to God but are now prayerfully opening ourselves up to God’s grace?
Our lives have moments of opportunity in which God reaches out to us. That is the good news. God is always reaching out to us, not in a one-time moment of decision, but again and again, calling us to consider looking outside of ourselves. God is always at work in our lives calling us to fulfillment and wholeness. Sometimes there are small things that happen in life that open us to decisions to follow God’s way; other times there are big things that happen. Sometimes moments in history, like the civil rights movement, call us to become aware of God’s grace breaking through.
An incident of this happening was the first African American student at the University of Mississippi in 1962. James Meredith caused many racial riots across the south by being so brave, but four years later he decided to exercise his courage again by becoming the first African American to vote. He decided to walk from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, a 220 mile journey with a walking stick and his Bible, but on the second day of his walk, he was shot four times on the road, gunned down and left for dead. Miraculously he survived, and as his story spread during his recuperation, people began to continue his journey that finally ended with 12,000 entering the capital of Mississippi, alongside the injured James Meredith. Every now and then we find an opportunity to open our lives to the miracle of God’s grace, too.
The Bible shows that God is waiting patiently for a response. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the ten commandments, he threw them down because the people were worshipping an idol. Moses prayed to God to forgive the people’s rebellion. God replied, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” David quoted this sentiment in Psalm 103.
Being on a journey with God is a lot like finding our purpose in life. He is patiently waiting because he knows we have an awareness of his love, an uneasiness with a part of life that we should attend to, a realization that yes, there is something else beyond the green jacket, and he is waiting for that to turn into something amazing. God knows our potential much more than we do. Like the handyman who showed up at his prospective employer and was asked, “Can
you do electric work?” No. “Can you do carpentry?” No, and no painting either. “Then tell me, what exactly is handy about you?” The painter replied, “I live just around the corner.” God knows our good intentions. God is patient. Even if the only ability we feel that we have is “availability,” being available to God puts us into the range of God’s voice, to hear his call, and begin a life of discipleship guided by God’s grace.
Today, on this first Sunday of our stewardship season, let us end with the prayer found in our stewardship brochure: O God, you promise to be with me always, and yet I forget that you are present, walking beside me; guiding my steps; leading me forward. When I think that I am on my own, draw near. When I know that I am lost, allow me to sense your presence. I am easily led astray. Show me the path to a deeper relationship with you. Open my heart in generosity. Bless the little children who come to church, bless the young and old. Bless the worship and music, the outreach to those in need, bless our fellowship gatherings, and our care for one another, so my part in our church’s ministry will help your light of love shine to the world. Amen.