Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Which son did the will of his father? I know who has my vote. As father to four children, three of them sons, I feel delighted when one of them helps out around the house regardless of what they might have said before. The example Jesus gives is common to our everyday lives. But the context is not.
The stakes were high when the Priests and Pharisees confronted Jesus in the Temple. The day before, Jesus entered the city in triumph. Crowds lined the road, shouting “hosanna!” Afterword, he fashioned a whip of cords and violently drove the moneychangers out from the Temple.
Now he directly confronts the religious authorities. The controversy draws everyone’s attention, much like a new post on Twitter from President Trump—except that for Jesus, the argument will cost him his life.
You would be hard pressed to find better examples of religious devotion than the Priests and Rabbis of Jesus’ day. They knew the bible back and forth. But their religion had become less about loving people and serving God than about protecting their own power and self-interests.
They ask a good question but are not open to Jesus’ answer. They are hoping he will claim to be a God, or a king, or anything they can take to the Romans to get him out of the way. The religious leaders may be saying yes to God, but they are living in a way that says no. Their walk doesn’t match their talk.
Research indicates this is a common complaint among millennials about the church today. We talk about social justice but settle for charity. We preach love but remain quiet about child abuse, poverty, animal suffering, or you name it. We hear Christians on television talk about God’s abundance and prosperity who are reluctant to put their bodies in gear or get their hands dirty, or who talk about mercy and forgiveness with folded arms, pronouncing judgements God will not own as if hurricanes and life tragedies were evidence of divine punishment for bad behavior or proof of our own moral superiority. Millennials take the church’s words seriously and for that reason feel they must reject belonging to a church.
Like Jesus’ story of the two sons, young people today are skeptical about our words and want proof of what we believe in concrete actions and life style choices. Don’t tell me about the good news. Show me the good life. Jesus said even the tax collectors and prostitutes put themselves far ahead of the chief priests and elders who professed their love and obedience to God but failed at works of love and mercy.
Over the centuries, Son number one—who said no but lived yes—has become an icon of what it means for us to be faithful followers of Jesus. God welcomes the service of sinners even while their hearts and minds remain divided. Truth be told, none of us say yes and live yes all the time. We have all rejected the will of God in both words and deeds, whether in outright opposition or through ignorance. If we can’t accept this deeply humbling truth about ourselves we can’t enter the vineyard of God’s grace. Hold onto your pride or embrace God’s mercy. You can’t do both.
For the chief priests this meant the price of admission into God’s vineyard was too high. But to those who recognize their need for grace Jesus’ fellowship is a lifeline –a way out of the disasters that so often befall our mortal lives.
But here’s where the trouble begins. No sooner do we enter the vineyard ready to spring into action than we notice a whole bunch of people who don’t agree on the work that needs to get done. In fact, they may go so far as to actually undo the work others have faithfully done. It’s enough to make a grateful tax collector or repentant prostitute throw up their hands and walk away from the whole grace loving—vineyard tending—kingdom building, thing. Once we say yes to God, it’s not clear how, or in what ways, we are to live yes—either with our deeds or our words.
God intends the church to be a living sign of grace. Travelers need good road signs. Otherwise, they’re liable to confuse where they are with where they’re going, or wind up in the ditch. Millennials and others who try to build a better world without reference to inherited wisdom quickly find themselves working alone, or in danger of losing hard won knowledge, or getting lost on the way to the vineyard.
The chief priests asked Jesus by what authority he did the things he chose to do to serve God and neighbor. It was a good question, if only they had had the courage to really pursue it.
What authority do we claim for ourselves today? Given all we know we are wise to be humble. As we go about our work in the vineyard, we must remember how we got here—that none of us could make sense of our lives on our own. We listen before we speak, and listen more than we speak.
More precisely, we Christians are hoping both our words and our deeds will more and more be taken over and transformed by the living Word of God. In our second reading from Philippians, Paul reminded us we do not labor alone. More profound than any work we do for God is the work the Holy Spirit does for us, in us and through us. Martin Luther wrote, “It is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep. So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us.”
Saying yes to God is not the end but just the beginning of learning to say yes to God with lives that become road signs of grace. We work out our own salvation “with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). Paul isn’t talking about our personal salvation but about the corporate “health” or “well-being” of the believing community and society as a whole. The salvation we work out in fear and trembling entails our work together to fashion a community characterized by mutual love, harmony, humility, and unselfishness (2:2–4). Rivalry, conceit, and selfishness are evaded, as well as grumbling and complaining (2:3–4, 14). Our salvation, therefore, is not simply and solely the activity of God upon us as passive human objects, but is a work of the transforming power of God’s grace and faithful human activity working together.
At the font and at the table, through water, bread and wine, through Word and witness, we trust in God’s word dwelling in us will provide guidance and counsel to all of God’s children—regardless if we are more like the first son or the second one – even as we struggle to ask all the right questions. Yet in welcoming Christ we receive strength to go into the vineyard of God’s creation, saying “yes” and living “yes,” all of our days.