Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Actions speak louder than words. People say things and make promises they have no intention of keeping. You can tell someone you love them as many times as you want, but until your actions match your words, the other person will probably not believe you. Surprisingly, this is true of faith as well. In the Sundays leading up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I will be examining the five solas or slogans of the Protestant Reformation. This morning we turn to principle of “Sola scriptura” By Word Alone, and the question posed to Jesus, “By what authority do you do these things?”
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. The third parable, which we will read next week, portrays the rebellious 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 opens in the city of Jerusalem a day after Jesus entered on Palm Sunday to the shouts of hosanna. There is an occupy Wall Street sort of protest happening. Jesus has overthrown the money changers tables, and driven out the animals which were to be offered as a sacrifice. He has criticized the chief priests and scribes for allowing God’s house to become a den of robbers. Their actions, Jesus insinuated, spoke louder than their words. While they boasted that they followed God, in reality they did not. That was the heart of the conflict. Jesus was not criticizing the entire nation. His words were focused on the religious leaders who would say one thing and do another. And so they came that day to discredit Jesus by questioning him publicly, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Interestingly, Jesus’ “bull in a china shop” stance would play itself out again 1500 years later at the time of Protestant Reformation. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church had made its traditions and teaching superior to the authority of Holy Scripture. This resulted in many practices that were contradictory to the Bible such as the sale of indulgences, prayers to the saints, purgatory and papal authority. In his writings and sermons, Martin Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church to correct these unbiblical teachings. The Church, in turn, threatened Luther with excommunication and death if he did not recant his writings. In 1521, four years after the posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg, Luther was brought to an imperial hearing in the city of Worms to respond to the Emperor and the Church. Luther answered, “Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me! Amen!”
During the course of the Reformation, Protestants would come to affirm that the Old and New Testaments were the only divinely inspired books and the only source of divinely revealed knowledge based on their inspiration, authority, clarity, efficacy, and sufficiency. The proper interpretation of scripture, however, would still need a corrective, and that is what we will focus on next Sunday, Solus Christus-“By Christ Alone.”
Returning to our reading, so the chief priests and scribes challenged Jesus. They were not searching for truth; they were instead scheming to trap Jesus. “By what authority do you do these things?” Jesus understood their purpose, and countered with a question about John the Baptist and his practice of baptizing. You see, there was no tradition or biblical command to be baptized and to confess ones’ sins. So Jesus asked, “Was this a practice ordained by God or by man? By what authority did John baptize? The chief priest and scribes were too cautious to answer in fear that they would enrage the crowds or discredit themselves, so they said simply, “We do not know.” Actions speak louder than words.
Then Jesus 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. 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. They knew that the right attitude and good words alone were never enough. Frankly, 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 there is good news as well: No matter how you have answered, God’s future is still open to you.
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 the true change for the older son, did not occur when he changed his mind and repented. No, the true change occurred when he walked out into the vineyard. After all there are many who look like they are about to follow God, when they do not. Actions speak louder than words. 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.
By what authority do you we do these things? The answer is written in scripture. “We love because he first loved us.” And we act by Jesus’ own command, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
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 if you’re the younger son who said “yes,” get out to the vineyard, and do the work God has called you to do. And remember, Actions speak louder than words. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.