Good Intentions

Matthew 21: 23-32 / Sunday, September 25, 2011 /26th Sunday in Ordinary Time / Norman B. Bendroth

We seem to have this innate need, you and I, this irrepressible need to divide the world into them and us, the saved and the damned, the insiders and the outsiders, liberals or conservatives, those who do it right and those who don’t. Maybe one reason why we come to church is to be reassured that we are, despite our occasional moral lapses, not like others who don’t come to church. We are on the inside this morning; they are on the outside.

Not that only church people play this game. David Read, long-time Sr. Minister of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, once noted in a sermon that today’s self-righteous people may not be those in the church who pray like that Pharisee in Jesus’ story (Luke 18: 10-14), “God I thank thee that I am not like other people.” Rather, today’s real self-righteous hypocrites may be more like those on the outside of the church who pray, “God, I may not be the best person in the world but at least I am better than all those self-righteous people who go to church!”

I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has told me, “Oh, I don’t go to church anymore. (Even people who used to go here.) They’re just a bunch of hypocrites. They say one thing and do another.” So? Join the human race? You think you’re exempt from that fundamental flaw in humanity? At least, at their best, Christians know they are hypocrites, but they also know that they are forgiven and, by God’s grace, they get up off the floor, after having fallen face down, and try it again.

Our neat categories of “insiders” and “outsiders” have often been rearranged in life when we meet people whose lives and actions seem more Christian than those who say they are Christian. There are genuinely kind and generous people, whose kids are on the straight and narrow, and whose marriages are exemplary, but they don’t have any religious faith. That doesn’t mean Christianity is less true or that God doesn’t want a relationship with them. It simply shows that you can’t sell the faith like a better box of detergent. “Try Jesus and your kids will be better behaved, your sex life will improve, and your clothes will be cleaner.” It doesn’t work that way.

On the other hand, we’ve all observed church members whose real-life actions mock their pious pretensions on Sunday.  We don’t always embody, in our lives, what we say we believe. The great gap between our verbal expressions of faith and our actions that arise out of our faith is wide.

At the last church I served I followed a pastor who had been their eighteen years and retired from the church. The search committee told me they were stuck and wanted to grow and attract more young families to the church. So I took them at their word. I started making the worship service a little more contemporary. I tried to loosen up the structure so the Holy Spirit didn’t have to go through twelve committees to get anything done.  I visited people regularly like I do here and I always told them if they ever had an issue or wanted to talk that my office door was always open. Several folks took me up on it and we had fruitful discussions.

But then the rumor mill starting grinding and parking lot conversations lasted longer than scheduled meetings. Some were upset that I took the picture of the church off the bulletin cover and replaced it with Scripture or other images that went with the sermon theme. Others were upset that I put a second phone line in so the secretary and I could both use the phone at once. The coup de grace came when some cowardly soul sent a poison pen letter to each person on the deacon and trustee board with a laundry list about everything I was doing wrong. It was nasty, narrow-minded, and so contrary to the spirit of Christ that I wondered if they were reading the same New Testament I was. Yet this person sat in church week after week singing hymns, praying prayers, and listening to sermons about forgiveness, love, and being honest and forbearing with one another, but apparently it didn’t sink in.

Perhaps few aspects of contemporary Christians are more troubling to the outside observer than the way our actions in life often appear unrelated to our beliefs we affirm in church. I asked a college student once who professed to be a believer why he didn’t go to church. “It just bugs me,” he said, “when I see so many BMW’s, Lexus’, and Mercedes in church parking lots when these same people say they’re concerned about the poor and hungry in the world.”

Is not that the message of today’s Parable of the Two Sons? Our story is a simple one. Jesus says there was a father who had two sons. The father asks them to go out and work in the field. One of the sons impudently replies, “No way! I’m not goin’.” A little later, the father looks out the kitchen window and there is his son working out in the field.

His other son, when asked to work, said politely, “Father, nothing would please me more than to go out and work in the field for you.” (Sounds like my kids.) Two hours later, the polite, docile, obedient son is still lying on the couch playing video game. (Now, that sounds like my kids.)

Now think hard, says Jesus, which son do you think pleased his old man more? The one who said no, but then went into action or the one who politely said yes, but then did nothing?  Jesus invites us to decide for ourselves, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” Of course, our inclination is to answer the obvious, to say with the crowd that day who first heard this parable, “The first one.” That is, the son who, though he initially told his father to drop dead, finally got off his duff, turned off the TV, put on his boots, and went to the field was the more dutiful of the two sons. Actions do speak a great deal louder than words. I would rather see a sermon than to hear one. Etc., etc., etc.

And that is true. He did the will of his father, although (particularly in light of the standards of Near Eastern patriarchal society) he publicly humiliated and insulted his father by initially disobeying a direct command with his smart mouth reply. In that culture, it would have been a terrible thing to do.

Our first inclination is to see ourselves as similar to this first son. Many of us know, from first hand experience, how easy it is verbally to assent to certain Christian views and standards here in church on Sunday, but then how difficult it is to do what we say when Monday comes. Yet, at least we have the satisfaction of knowing that we have gotten out of bed and come to church this morning that we are on the way to obedience. Therefore, we take some satisfaction when the crowd answers, “The first one.” We are the first one—we’re regular attenders, tithers; those who not only hear or say the word but also, on many occasions, can be counted on to do the word. “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only,” isn’t that how the Bible puts it? That’s us.

And yet, if we step back from the parable, as well as our innate, anxious attempts to be on the “right” side of this debate, we must admit that neither boy was an exemplary child of the father. One was openly insolent, but later obedient. The other was initially compliant, but later disobedient. Neither son is anything for the father to crow about. And neither are we.

Some of us are good with the word part. The creeds of the faith trip easily off our tongues. We are able to speak easily about our faith—about God’s activity in our life. When asked at a public meeting to pray, we have no problem. An easy familiarity with holy things pervades our speech.

Others of us have difficulty talking about our faith. We are embarrassed, uncomfortable, when someone asks us to pray or asks us what we believe. Often perplexed by the Bible, we have never been real good at finding our way around the intricacies of Scripture. Sometimes when we recite a creed on Sunday morning, there’s a nagging doubt about what we really believe. Our talk of things religious is halting, unsteady and difficult. Jesus once said, “In my father’s house are many rooms.” Can God have a place for both kinds of believers in God’s house?

Let’s look at what was happening when Jesus told this parable and see if that helps shape its meaning. Jesus has come into Jerusalem, the Holy City, and the center of our faith’s hopes and dreams. This is the last week of his life. The storm clouds of conflict, which have steadily building throughout this gospel, are about to break in a torrent of violence. Entering the Temple (Mt. 21:23ff.), Jesus he is encountered by critical, carping, religious authorities, Bible-thumpers and Scripture quoters. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they ask. This is pretty ironic, because most of “these things” are good deeds: the cleansing of the temple (Mt. 21: 12-13), and the healing of the blind and lame (Mt. 21: 14-17). The performance of “these things” provokes these keepers of the faith to question the credentials, power and authorization of Jesus. They counter every statement of Jesus with relentless objections. Though they know all the right words, they do not do the correct deeds that perform the words.

Jesus is also encountered by outcasts, people who don’t quote Scripture because they are too poor to have had the time to study the Bible—they’ve got to go to work for goodness’ sake. They are reprobates, deviants from polite, middle-class morality, tax collectors and prostitutes who gladly dance into Jesus’ kingdom. Although they cannot quote Scripture, many of them have an uncanny ability to exemplify Scripture in their daily lives.

I had a volunteer youth director like that at a previous church. She was sharp-tongued and rough around the edges. She smoked like a chimney and wasn’t real polished. But she loved God and she loved those kids. And they loved her back. She got the youth group going when no one else would.

Can the Father have a place in the family for both kinds of people? Can both groups—the faithful speakers but unfaithful doers and the unfaithful speakers but faithful doers—be in the Father’s family?

If this parable is about the family of God, then it is not a happy family. There are conflicts, tensions, within the kingdom, and ambiguity about just who is being obedient and who is not. The story allows us to decide, to think through which son would have pleased the father. Clearly, Matthew wants us to prefer the son who at first says no, but then repents and says yes. He sees this parable as being a stinging rebuke to Jesus’ critics—that they do not practice what they preach.

But the parable is open-ended. Bernard Brandon Scott in his book Hear Then the Parable notes that we’re never told how the father responds to the behavior of either son. Just like the story of the Prodigal son, we’re never told which son the father liked best—the one that ran away or the one that stayed home. Both children are still the father’s problem. The father has to deal with them both.

In this church or any other, whenever Jesus comes to town, he meets mainly two types of people: scribes and Pharisees who know Scripture backwards and forwards but don’t act on their beliefs; tax collectors and harlots who don’t always know what they believe, but whose actions in real life sometimes mirror the very best of our beliefs.

And both are in the family, both must deal with the Father, or more to the point of the parable, the Father must deal with both. And in Jesus, the Father has. So whatever kid you are this morning, you’re welcome here. And it’s not either/or. Some days we wake up the obedient child and get easily side-tracked by anger or a silly irritation, we look at stuff on the internet we shouldn’t, and go to bed without having thought about God once during the day. Other days we wake up grumpy and self-centered, mad at the world, but then we find our better selves—we give a buck to the street person and smile, we pray for our surly boss instead of talking back, we pick up flowers for our beloved on our way home for no particular reason.

It’s a tale about what goes on inside us and it’s a tale about what goes on inside our church. But most of all it’s a tale about our long-suffering, gracious God.

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