Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In Scripture, the psalmist writes, “Sons are a heritage from the Lord. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.” I was nearly 40 years old, when we adopted our sons Vitali and Alexei, but I can assure you that two arrows in my quiver was enough. Yes, sons may be a heritage from the Lord, but I couldn’t imagine the disorder and chaos that children could bring to our very staid, calm and composed middle aged life. Janna and I were extremely naïve. We placed a small 4 foot by 6 foot rug on our living room floor and we expected that a four and six year old would play there nicely with their toys all day. We simply hadn’t learned that “A boy is an experiment always testing boundaries.” Truthfully, there has never been a day when I have not been proud of my two sons. But as I have had to remind them, there were also some days when I was louder about the other stuff, so it may have been easy to overlook my pride.
This morning’s gospel lesson of Jesus’ lesser known parable of the two sons shouldn’t surprise any parent with more than one child. It happens everyday in our homes. After “mommy” and “daddy,” the next word children seem to learn is “no.” And after that, it is, “Please, more money.” There are children, and I would dare say a goodly number of adults, who refuse to do what they are requested to do, while in the same home there are others who say emphatically that they will do it, but then neglect to carry through.
Now it would be easy to make the parable into a morality lesson for honoring your father and your mother. Perhaps that is the reason that I remember the parable so well. Miss Knutson, the Sunday School Director in my home church in Austin, taught us that even if you had said no to your parents, you could still surprise them by doing what they have asked you to do. But my friends, that would be over simplifying the message of the parable.
This morning, let us meditate on the lesser known parable of the two sons anew. For I am convinced that the true lesson of this parable is a timeless message to every generation: It is a word of promise: No matter what you have done, God’s future is still open to you.
In St. Matthew’s gospel, we discover three parables which are set against the background of the vineyard. Certainly, the images of farming and agriculture were commonplace in Jesus’ teaching. But the vineyard was also a well-known and important symbol for the nation of Israel. The prophet Isaiah, generations earlier, had described the people of God as a vineyard. He portrayed the people of Israel as a chosen vine that God had planted in his garden, and protected with wall and watchtowers. The first parable of the vineyard that we had heard last week, taught us that the work in God’s vineyard is not simply a task, but it is an honor, and it carries the assurance that you will receive a just reward for your labors. No matter whether you toil all day in the heat of the mid day sun, or whether you are only invited at the final hour at the close of the day, you will receive that just reward. It is of course, also a warning, that we should never question God’s gracious nature. To whom God has shown his love and mercy, no matter what the hour, we should not criticize.
The third parable, which we will read next week, portrays the human desire to overthrow the order and beauty of God’s vineyard, while today’s second parable of the two sons builds on the image of the first parable and the noble calling to work in the vineyard. The scene opened in the city of Jerusalem with Jesus criticizing the Pharisees and scribes by stating that there are those in this world who look like they follow God, when in reality they do not. That is the heart of the conflict. Jesus then told the parable about a man who had two sons. The father first asked the older son to work in his vineyard. The son refused, but then later changed his mind and headed out to work. Not knowing this, the father sent his second son to do the work his older brother had refused to do. This son said emphatically he would go, but then changed his mind and never set his foot on the path to the vineyards. “Which son did the will of the Father?” Jesus asked. “Which of the two sons obeyed?”
The chief priests and the elders knew the answer to that question. Perhaps they too had the heritage of sons. They knew that the son who truly went out to do the work, regardless of his protests, was the one who did the will of the Father. Unfortunately, it was hard for them to admit that their own lives might have been filled with the same empty words of a good confession and good intentions. You see, for God, good words alone are never enough. It is a warning for all of us that it is easier to say yes, than to do what God is asking us to do.
But here’s the good news. Jesus used the ancient world’s most outrageous and despised characters to both shock the Pharisees and scribes and to illustrate to Jesus’ listeners how great the possibility of God’s grace truly is. Jesus offers this same promise to you. It is not too late. No matter what you have done, no matter what may have been done to you, the future is still open. Whatever hurt you may have experienced or done in the past is, ultimately, it is in the past. You do not have to allow it to determine your future. You do not have to carry the excess baggage of the past with you. Jesus is offering your something new- a life laboring in the vineyard. Unfortunately, you and I often stubbornly hold onto the past simply because it’s all we know.
Now, the temptation for many Christians at this point is to celebrate the belligerent son’s moment of decision, as if that was enough. Both sons frustrated their father, but it was the one who changed his mind and repented who delighted his father. The parable, however, reminds us that good words and good intentions are not enough. That is what the younger son had demonstrated, when he said, yes. The true change in life for the older son occurred when he walked out into the vineyard. After all there are many who look like they follow God, when they do not. There are many who talk the talk, but never truly walk the walk. So where do you begin?
Let me offer three suggestions for committing yourself to doing the work of God’s vineyard. First, commit yourself to the work of God’s vineyard today… do not wait until tomorrow. The younger son who said “yes” may have had every intention of doing the work his father asked him to do, unfortunately, he simply never got around to it. It is one of the most embarrassing aspects of service in God’s vineyard. We come to the table too late. We visit the friend when the crisis has passed. We avoid the heat of the midday sun. As I often jest, as a pastor, you know it’s going to be a bad day when you finally remember the name of the person you were to visit in the hospital while reading the obituaries. The World War II French pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, wrote, “If you are to be, you must begin by assuming responsibility. You alone are responsible for every moment of your life, for every one of your acts.” To do the work of God’s vineyard, you must begin to take care of the needs today. Words alone and good intention are not enough.
Second, commit your time, strength and resources to lessening the burdens of those in need. I am no longer sure who said it, but it has become a pattern for my life. “If you want to enjoy and experience a meaningful life, you must allow your passion to meet the needs of the world.” There are human needs all around us. There are the poor and hungry calling to us everyday. Some are real and some are not. But going to work in the vineyard means committing your time and energy. They might be small gestures and small gifts, but in God’s hands they will make a meaningful difference. The blind and deaf American author and humanitarian Helen Keller, said, “I can not do everything, but I can do something. I must not fail to do the something that I can do.” Words alone are not enough for the workers in God’s vineyard. Commit your time, strength and resources to lessening the burdens of those in need.
Third, commit yourself to do the work of the vineyard to those who are nearest to you. The world turns away from a “wordy,” action-less gospel- those who look like they follow God, when they do not. What stops those outside of the church in their tracks are those who have learned to move beyond words. It isn’t only the Mahatma Gandhis, the Martin Luther King, Jrs., and the Mother Teresas of the world who remind us what faith and commitment are all about- that words are not enough. It’s the medical practitioners in Doctors Without Borders who travel on their own time and expense to work in out- of-the-way places. It is those who offer themselves selflessly to Habit Humanity, the Red Cross and countless other organizations.
In every church I have served I remember a few particular names and faces fondly. They were men and women who were too shy to pray in public or too uncomfortable to teach Sunday school. Some had little formal education, but they were the ones with came with a casserole and a dessert in hand when there was a death in the congregation. They were the ones who wrote notes and called parishioners when they needed it the most. They were the ones who took folks who didn’t own cars to the grocery store, and the ones who whispered as they took my hand at the back door, “I pray for you every day.” They knew that words and good intentions alone were not enough for the workers in God’s vineyard.
My friends, it is not too late. If you are the older son who once said, “No,” you can still change your mind, your heart and your will, to do what your father has asked you to do. The work of the vineyard is still waiting. And like my sons’ laughter… your good deeds, done in the name of Christ, will sparkle like a splash of water in sunlight. And if you’re the younger son who said “yes,” get out to the vineyard and be a living heritage of a loving Father. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.