Sunday, September 25, 2011

Do you say "yes" when you mean "no"?

Mt 21:28-32
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people:
"What is your opinion?
A man had two sons.
He came to the first and said,
'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.'
He said in reply, 'I will not, '
but afterwards changed his mind and went.
The man came to the other son and gave the same order.
He said in reply, 'Yes, sir, 'but did not go.
Which of the two did his father's will?"
They answered, "The first."
Jesus said to them, "Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the kingdom of God before you.
When John came to you in the way of righteousness,
you did not believe him;
but tax collectors and prostitutes did.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not later change your minds and believe him."

Today’s Gospel contains one of the shortest and arguably one of the most straight forward of all the parables, and it seems we don’t even have to think much about it because it is even explained or interpreted to us by Jesus. But maybe it is more complex than we think. This parable is really one about honor, and in defining ‘honor’ it would be good to keep in mind the fourth commandment “Honor your mother and father.”

Jesus addressed today’s short parable to the chief priests and elders who approached him while he taught in the Temple and asked for his credentials, saying: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? We, who are the legitimate Temple authorities, didn’t commission or license you.” What they are doing is challenging Jesus’ honor. So I want to say a few things about honor, and in particular the concept of honor in the Middle East, which can be quite different from our own.

A Christian missionary in the Middle East used to share this parable about the two sons – the one who says “yes” and doesn’t do what the father asks, and the one who says “no” and ends up doing it – with Middle Eastern villagers that he visited and he would ask: “Which was the better son?”

He was amazed when the vast majority answered that the son who said yes to his father even though he did not go to work in the vineyard was without doubt the better son. Why? Because the son’s reply was honorable and respectful. It was what the father wanted to hear. That the son never went to work in the vineyard is beside the point, which in the Middle East is always honor. To lose one’s honor in the Middle East, especially publicly is one of the worst things that can happen to a person.

Remember that life in the Middle East was very public. Honor, which is the core value of this culture, requires such onlooking. The dialogue between the father and his sons in this parable takes place not in private, just between two at a time, but rather in public, within view and earshot of many villagers. Like their modern-day descendants, the Middle Eastern villagers in this parable favor the respectful but disobedient son over the disrespectful but obedient son.

Like the modern Middle Eastern hearers of Jesus’ parable, the ancients too would believe –against reality–that giving an honorable answer is enough. In their mind, conforming to the ideal of speaking respectfully is sufficient to fulfill the commandment to “honor one’s father and mother”

However, Jesus did not ask which son behaved honorably. He asked: “Which of the two did the will of his father?” Modern Middle Easterners would certainly echo the judgment of Jesus’ listeners: “The second son,” that is, the one who ultimately went and worked in the vineyard as he was directed by his father. But even though they recognize the importance of obedience, the honorable appearance would be more important.

This parable of the two sons allows Jesus a way to defend his honor and present a counter-challenge to his adversaries in this reading, the chief priests and elders. The point of the parable would have been quite clear to the listeners. With his explanation, Jesus rubs salt into the wound his parable has opened.

The tax collectors and prostitutes acted like the first son. Initially they said no to God, but hearing John the Baptist’s preaching they converted and are doing what pleases God.

The chief priests and elders are like the second son. They too heard John’s preaching and saw the responses of the tax collectors and prostitutes. They pretended acceptance of God, but refused to accept John as a messenger from God. Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” It is the first son, not eh second who will merit heaven. It is the tax collectors and the prostitutes and not the Pharisees who will merit heaven – because they have not done the will of the Father.

This is what it means to be a “hypocrite”. Many of us have said no to the church but here you are today and every Sunday in church doing the will of the Father. Yet there are many people say “Yes”. They believe in all the rules and in going to church, but never go.

The parable in today’s liturgy is one of three or four parables that we have been hearing and will hear for these next three weeks. Last week we heard about the hiring of the early and late grape pickers who all got the same check. Today we hear of the “Yes and No” sons.

Again Jesus is directing his teachings toward the scribes and elders of Israel. The tax collectors and prostitutes had said with their lives,” No!” to the call of the vineyard. Yet, by listening to the call of Jesus their choices are a strong “Yes!” as they repent.

The “elders and scribes” have been living a “Yes”, but do not respond to the invitations of Jesus. They do not gain entrance into the kingdom as do the former sinners.

Even more, the religiously upright elders have a problem with Jesus’ being so mercifully inclusive. They hear this parable and understand it to mean that though they have said yes, by their refusal to follow Jesus, they do not belong. Note the implication of the parable’s use of the father-son image: the chief priests and elders are brothers to the tax collectors and prostitutes! Just making them members of the same family was insulting! This is a very hard saying and a difficult little story.

What does it mean for us?

First of all, it means that God prefers actions over words. We are both yes-ers and no-ers. Our faith is an orientation toward trusting God’s care and mercy. Yet we stumble over that “yes” when the difficulties of life spin our minds and hearts around and we say “no!” by our not wanting to deal with, accept, or live through all that life might give us.

We can live a “No” as well by not allowing ourselves to go into the vineyard of life, because we can not accept the forgiveness that Jesus brought. The tax collectors and prostitutes were included, because they allowed their lives to be changed, their images of themselves to be rearranged by Jesus’ merciful touch.

Actions do speak louder than words. Our actions can move beyond our feelings. The “no” brother took his place in the vineyard with many of the early followers of Jesus. Peter protested his “no”, but got up and followed Jesus.

It is easy and honorable to say that we are going to do something to please our bosses or our pastors or our husbands and wives. But the real honor comes in doing. If we really want to honor our God, we must find ways to do the will of God. Sometimes it won’t be easy, sometimes it will put us out. Those can be the little crosses we bear that Jesus spoke of two weeks ago.

Just as the religious leaders have had their world upended by the teaching of Jesus, so too have tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. They had to change their minds about themselves: they were not beyond redemption. They, too, were beneficiaries of the blessings Jesus brings.

The call to repentance upends everyone’s world—the righteous and sinners alike! It should also upend our world, because we too are being told that there is hope and redemption is available for everyone. We pray in the Our Father – thy will be done! Even though we have often said ‘no’ to God’s call, the proof is in the pudding. There is always still time to go out into the vineyard. The pay will be the same! This is the great blessing that Jesus brings to us today, and this is the Good News that he wants you to hear!

Peace and love,
Reverend Sue

"This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. " (1 John 4:9-10)

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