Two Siblings and a Job

Matthew 21:23-32
September 25, 2011
Mary Hammond

There were two daughters. Their mother said to them, “Please call your grandmother. She is all alone in Iowa and not very healthy these days. A phone call would mean so much to her.”

The first daughter complained, “Oh, mom, you are always badgering me!” She ignored the request, while continuing to text her friends as they figured out a game plan for that evening. Meanwhile, the second daughter said, “Sure, mom, I can do that!”

Before supper, the first daughter was cold. She wrapped up in her colorful quilt and remembered that her grandmother had made it for her. Recalling her grandma’s devotion, she realized what a small request her mother had made. So, she dropped everything and made that phone call. Boy, was she glad she did! Her grandma was thrilled to hear from her, and the girl could tell that it made her grandma’s day!

The second daughter, on the other hand, got distracted by many things. “I’ll do it later,” she promised herself. A friend stopped by, and off she went to have some fun. She forgot about her mother’s request.

One day, the grandma got sick and was in a coma before the girls knew it.

Now, which one of these daughters did what the mother asked?

Saying “no,” but relenting and eventually doing “yes. Saying “yes,” but ultimately doing “no.” We all know what that looks like.

Jesus engages this universal human tendency in today’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel. The context of the scripture is significant. At the beginning of Chapter 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey like a commoner rather than a stallion like a king. He is welcomed by crowds of struggling people, yearning for deliverance in many ways. The religious authorities in Jerusalem feel increasingly threatened by Jesus’ popularity. For a long time, they have been trying–unsuccessfully, I might add–to trap Jesus in his own words.

Once Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, his first stop is the Temple, the center of religious authority and practice. Instead of giving deference to those in power and quietly worshiping Yahweh, Jesus startles everyone by launching a protest against the abuses of religion that he witnesses there. He creates quite a ruckus, overturning the tables of the moneychangers, scattering the stalls of birds!

If Jesus wasn’t in trouble with the authorities before (which he was), he has now sealed his fate. They are bent on destroying him. In the first passage we read today, the Pharisees, elders, and chief priests interrogate Jesus about his authority. “By whose authority do you act?” they demand to know. Jesus recognizes their hidden agenda. So, in typical Jesus’ style, he answers their question with another question.

“About the baptism of John–who authorized it: heaven or humans?” Jesus asks. The religious leaders are cornered. To answer “humans” is to inflame the crowds; to answer “heaven” is to contradict their own views. They refuse to answer, and Jesus has bested them–for the time being.

Then Jesus tells them a simple story about a father, two sons, and a job in the family vineyard. In biblical times, the vineyard serves as standard imagery for the nation of Israel. The father’s request to go “work in the vineyard” has an underlying meaning. It reflects God’s yearning for the religious leaders to truly labor in God’s name among the people of God with the heart of God. No sweat. The religious leaders have that down–or so they think!

Both sons are asked to work in the vineyard. One refuses, later relenting and complying. The second agrees to labor in the vineyard, but never fulfills his word. ‘Which does the father’s bidding?’ Jesus inquires.

The answer is clear to the religious leaders. “The first,” they respond. Jesus agrees. Good enough! This conversation isn’t going too badly!

But, then comes the zinger. Jesus goes on, “Crooks and whores are going to precede you into God’s kingdom. John came showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him” (Matthew 21:31-32).

Matthew’s Gospel rejects claims of authority based purely on status or succession. A maverick leader like John is followed by a maverick leader named Jesus. Maverick followers like crooks, whores, and tax collectors prove themselves more open to God’s Realm than the religious elite.

The father invites both siblings to tend the vineyard. God calls the one who follows the rules and goes by the book and seems, at first glance, to do all the right things. God also calls the one who breaks the rules and throws out the rule book and seems, at first glance, to do all the wrong things.

Neither sibling has clean hands. In ancient culture, one is expected to obey the request of one’s father, the family patriarch. To do otherwise is a profound act of disrespect. Initially, it is the second son who honors his father. But in the long run, the tables are reversed. The second son ultimately dishonors his father by his lack of compliance, while his disobedient sibling changes course.

This is no gambler’s call to procrastination and ultimate compliance. This parable is a serious call to turn around, to recognize the work of God where we might not be looking for it, and get on board.

We began the service with a video from the Youth Sunday School Program, focusing on the theme of creation. As we approach the years ahead, voices around the globe are pleading with us as a nation to use, conserve, and consume energy in radically different ways and amounts. Meanwhile, big oil has its partners, even in religious communities.

“Come, work with–not against–my earth,” the Holy One pleads. One sibling says, “Sure, I’ll do that” but never does. The second one protests, but then starts listening to the groans of creation and begins experiencing a change of heart. A little movement here, a little there…pretty soon, that person, that town, that nation is toiling away in this 2011 vineyard that is a Planet in peril.

I have been thinking this week about Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19-20 to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” Progressives like to quote the beatitudes a lot and often bristle at this command in Matthew 28, rightly recalling the marriage of colonialism and evangelistic fervor, the terror of the crusades, and even the pushy Christian with the tract witnessing to them who won’t believe that they could already be a Christian. Yet conservatives like to quote Matthew 28 and often bristle at the beatitudes. We all need to start seeing these two teachings of Jesus as wedded to one another.

In his State of the Region address at the Annual ABC/RGR Meeting yesterday, Executive Minister Alan Newton asked the participants how many of them recommended movies to friends. Raise your hands if you do this. How many recommend favorite books? Favorite places to visit?

Alan then asked the gathered assembly, “How many recommend Jesus Christ to your friends? Do you recommend your favorite movies and your hairdresser to others more than you recommend Jesus Christ to them?”

We heard about the impact of the recession on the Region’s churches as well as trends away from Christian faith in Wales and in the United States. Alan told us that a recent study completed in Wales showed that 90% of self-identified Christians do not attend church. “We are one generation away from that phenomenon here,” he said. “The future of the church is not about more people on the pews or more money in the offering plate,” he continued, “The future of the church is about making more disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Alan went on, “These are challenging and exciting times, full of many threats and amazing possibilities. We need to remember, though, that the future never lies in the past. The past informs us, helping us venture forth into the unpredictable future. This requires faith, going out, and depending the Holy Spirit.”

Saying “yes” and doing “no.” Saying “no” and doing “yes.” Where are we today? Amen.