Our Gospel begins, “When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him.”
Oh, oh, sounds like trouble ahead. The temple grounds are specifically the territory of the chief priests and we can anticipate conflict between the teachings of Jesus and those who have held places of authority and status.
The parable of the two sons was told by Jesus during the last week of his life in Jerusalem. After he had borrowed a donkey to ride into town, after he had chased the moneychangers out of the temple, after he had cursed the fig tree for failing to bear fruit, he went back to the temple to teach. He’s been attracting crowds, the hierarchy is getting anxious, things are heating up.
And now he is confronted by the chief priests and elders. Who does he think he is? By what authority does he come into town and do and say these disturbing things? He doesn’t answer them and as is typical of him he tosses a question right back at them.
It’s a little like a tennis match, isn’t it? A player serves the ball, the opponent slams it back, back and forth it goes until someone spikes that ball, placing it where it is impossible to return. Point scored!
Jesus asks them, “What do you think?” Not waiting for an answer, he tells a story.
Jesus rarely did give a straight answer to those who questioned him. He was a skilled teacher, he had a way of helping people discover the answer for themselves.
Have any of you ever sat in a classroom where a teacher used this technique? One of my most memorable teachers frequently taught in this way. A student would ask a question, then she very cleverly by questioning the student guided them to the answer. You never forgot a teacher like that and even today we are captivated by Jesus’ ability to tease us into discovering the answers for ourselves.
So we have the story of two sons, actually two children old enough to work in their father’s vineyard, young enough to be still working out their relationship with their father. When he asked his sons to go out and work in the vineyards, the first one said no, but later changed his mind and went. The second son said he would go but never did.
“Which brother did the will of his father?” asks Jesus. It was an easy answer for the chief priests and elders as it is for us.
It wasn’t this simple parable that made the elders angry, it was what Jesus said next. “Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
That was extremely shocking to those who thought of themselves as righteous before God. They studied and loved the law, they observed all the rituals and feast days, they believed all the right things, they said all the right things. They had become so attached to all their ideas about those things that they just couldn’t bring themselves to hear any suggestion that there might be something they were missing.
Jesus suggested that they let go of some of their beliefs for a fresh experience of God. They thought they were doing the right things and living the right way, they had studied hard and worked hard to earn the respect and admiration of others and they had come to enjoy their places of privilege in the human hierarchy of their time.
Our Book of Common Prayer recommends that baptisms take place on Easter, Pentecost, All Saints, and the Baptism of our Lord. If there are no baptisms on those special days we are to say the renewal of baptismal vows. So we are being reminded regularly throughout the year of what we believe and how we are to be living as Christians in the world.
If we claim to be Christians, promise to love one another as God loves us on Sunday, then go out on Monday living only for ourselves, we have missed the mark—we haven’t even come close!
I truly believe that you all here sincerely try to live and walk with Jesus. I have such good intentions and I’m sure you do also, but I mess up more often than I care to admit. Every day life seems to creep in and interrupt my best laid plans.
It is often a stretch between what we believe and what we do, and our Gospel reminds us we are to do the will of our Father.
There are plenty of people who say, believe and stand for the right things. In the words of Soren Kierkagaard, “Jesus wants followers, not admirers.”
In our opening hymn today, the last line reads, “Live we then in human choices lives that like our music sing. Hallelujah.”
May our choose every day to do God’s will. AMEN.