BIBLE READING: Matthew 21: 23-32
There doesn’t seem to be much for me to say here does there?
Pretty simple and straightforward. Easy to understand.
A man has two children. Says to one, "I need you to go mow the lawn." The child says, "Mow the lawn? I HATE mowing the lawn!! I absolutely will not! Forget it, Dad!"
But some time later, the child reconsiders, "What the heck. The lawn DOES need mowing." So out comes the victor and the grass gets cut.
Meanwhile, the father finds his second child. "I need you to go out and take care of the yard."
"Oh, sure! I'll get right on it, Dad!"
But as soon as the father leaves the room, the kid gets back to whatever it was he was doing before.
Now, if these were your kids, which would you appreciate the most? Which did the right thing? Which of the two children did the will of their father? Let's take a vote.
All in favour of the kid who first said, "No!" , but later came around and did what his dad wanted...raise your right hand. And all in favour of the second kid, who SAID he would, but then didn't...raise your left hand.
Okay. Since we're pretty much in agreement on this, I can make a simple sermon out of the parable, and then we'll all go home. Friends in Christ, even if you say, "No" to God at first, but then recognize your sin and turn around and do the right thing, God will be pleased with you and will welcome you. But don't be hypocritical. Don't say, "Yes" to God knowing full well you're not going to follow through on it. God appreciates honesty, but despises hypocrisy. So you and I should be like the first son, and not like the second..."
Amen . And now our closing hymn....
It's not quite that simple.
Here's an interesting Bible fact. Did you know that in various ancient manuscripts of Matthew, there are actually THREE versions of this parable? People back then seem to have been confused about the meaning of the story, resulting in three conflicting ways of telling it. There's the version we just read that has been preserved in the Bibles we use here in the West. But then there's a second version in another early edition of Matthew in which the only change is a reversal of the order of the sons. The first son says, "Yes" , but then doesn't follow through, and the second son says. "No," but does follow through. Not too much difference there. But then there's the third version. And it's fascinating.
And I bet you'll never guess how it differs from the version we read today!
In this version of Matthew, you see, the question Jesus asks - "Which of the two did what his father wanted?" - is answered in an astonishing way.
"Why, the SECOND son," the people answer without any hesitation at all! The one who said "Yes!", but meant "No!"
Now how can this be? How could anyone choose the second son over the first?
Well, in the ancient East there was something about honour. A man's honour was his most important possession. And honour required that children never talk back to, or refuse to carry out a parental order. To do so would be to bring their parent embarrassment and shame. And this first son, who responded to a direct request from his father by shaking his finger in his father's face and refusing to follow his father's wishes, committed a VERY grave sin in the eyes of the ancient world! And the other son, even though he failed to carry through on his promise, at least acknowledged the authority and the dignity of his father by giving a public, "Yes."
Okay, let's vote again! All in favour of that first little rat who dishonoured his father? Raise your right hand. And all in favour of the second kid who, even though he didn't have the spinal fortitude to do what he promised, at least upheld his father's dignity in the process? Raise your left hand.
And one more choice. All of you who are thoroughly confused and just don't know at this point, raise both hands
Good! You're right where Jesus wants you! Did you notice that, in the story Jesus never does acknowledge the answer given as being correct?
The parables of Jesus are full of surprises! And the puzzling nature of this parable is reflected in those three different versions of the story. You see, the first people to hear the story were people just like you and me. They couldn't vote for the first kid. And they couldn't vote for the second kid. They didn't know WHAT to do!
Because, you see, the correct answer to Jesus' question, "Which one did the will of his father?" is...NEITHER!!!!!
I see a lot of myself in the first son. Over the course of my life, even though I've sometimes been reluctant to do so at first, I have tried to do what's right and good. Though often tempted to do the opposite I have tried to uphold high values. I've tried to work for justice, and to meet human need. I've tried to be a good husband and father. I've tried to be faithful to my calling in ministry. I've endeavoured to be a healing presence in the community. But listen to my confession today. Throughout my life, I've often found that its very easy getting so busy doing God's good work that I end up neglecting my relationship with GOD! Like the first son, I'm eventually willing to do the work , but often don't have the time or inclination to be in prayer and conversation with God, to listen to God's guidance rather than follow my own instincts. To wait for the Lord and draw strength from God rather than rely only on myself. Sometimes I find it easier to do the work of God without the relationship with God.
Agnes Sanford, who grew up the daughter of a missionary to China, writes that she remembers watching her well-meaning father expend his life - and eventually even his health - trying to do good for others, trying to do - in Agnes' words - the work of God, without the power of God. Albert Camus observed this when he wrote that there are many people in our world who are trying to be "saints without God."
You see, God never intended for us to live life and face life's challenges all alone. God wants to be there for us. God wants to befriend us. God wants to provide guidance that is higher than our own, and inner resources deeper than our own, and strength beyond ourselves. God doesn't want us to just go and do God's work. God wants to work with us.
I wonder if you're a little bit like that first son. You try your best to do what's right, but find yourself sometimes neglecting your relationship with God. I know I do.
And, I hate to say it, but I see a lot of myself in the second son, too. I've made some big promises to God in my day...and never followed through on them. And, with all deference to the ancient Christians who thought this second son was better than the first, I completely disagree. When you love someone, you keep your promises. Faith is not a matter of just believing things in your heart. It is actually doing what God calls us to do.
Have any of you heard of Hugh Thompson?
On March 16, 1968, Mr. Thompson and two other young Americans were flying a helicopter in support of a ground operation in Vietnam. When they hovered over a small village, Thompson saw a terrible sight. An injured Vietnamese woman was laying in a ditch. He set the helicopter down and asked a group of American soldiers on the ground if they could help her. "Yeah, we'll help her," they assured. Thompson lifted off, and then circled back around. He saw that the woman was still laying in the ditch, but realized that she was now dead, with a river of blood flowing from her head.
Still not grasping what they were seeing, the chopper crew darted back and forth over the village, and everywhere it was the same. Soldiers were shooting unarmed civilians. The name of the village was My Lai.
Spotting a group of civilians hiding in a bunker and a group of soldiers moving toward them, Thompson swooped down and put the helicopter between the civilians and the soldiers. He then confronted the Lieutenant leading the soldiers - a young man by the name of William Calley - and told him that if they took another step forward, the chopper crew would open fire and kill them. Then Thompson radioed for support, and other helicopter gunships supporting the mission landed and evacuated the civilians to safety. That heroic action put an end to a day in which more than 500 civilians were massacred, including 123 children under the age of five.
For his actions that day, Mr. Thompson was nearly court-martialled. It was not until thirty years later that he was recognized for his heroism and awarded a medal. This is what he had to say when he was given a honorary degree....:
"I'm so very awestruck to be standing on such a platform before such accomplished people as you. I never went to college myself, and I have no wise thought to share. All I can tell you is what my church taught me when I was a little kid: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
You see, it is not enough to just memorize verses and not do them. It is not enough just to believe. Belief must produce action. Faith is not to be felt, but LIVED.
And the picture Jesus has painted today is not really of two sons. No, it is a picture of you and me. And in each of us there is this intersection of "Yes" and "No". The temptation to live life apart from God as a living Friend, and the temptation to have a relationship with God without a life and deeds to go along with it.
When Jesus asked the question, "Which one did the will of his father?" the Pharisees tried to answer that it was the first one. But when did the Pharisees ever answer one of Jesus' questions correctly?
No, Jesus simply ignores their reply and goes on to the answer.
Who among us is doing the will of God? Not the first son. And not the second.
No, the people who are truly doing God's will are people like Hugh Thompson, and people like those tax collectors and sinners out there who, when they hear God's call, come to God, and become God's best friends, and out of that friendship, go and do the things God wants them to do.
Today, you are standing at the intersection of "Yes" and "No" .
Which way will you choose to turn?