A Tale of Two Sons

Themes: Matthew

Mike Lowe

What are you like at doing what you’re told? A question like this during a sermon will often lead parent’s to take a small sideways glance at their children or perhaps one half of a couple to gently nudge the other regarding the taking out of the bins. Personally, I have a bit of a problem with authority, but possibly not in the way you might assume from the use of that phrase. I have been told that I am far too willing to give authority and then obey it, to the letter. I can guarantee that I was following the one way systems in supermarkets even when I was the only one in there. I must have looked ridiculous on CCTV circling back around the entire store to get the thing I missed on my first circuit. I’m particularly fond of obeying instructions on packaging, if it says shake well for 1 minute before use, you can guarantee I will set a timer because the people who wrote that must know best.

In our Gospel reading we read a passage titled “The Authority of Jesus Questioned”. Personally, lots of these little moments in the Gospels can have their significance lost a little bit, simply because we have heard or read them so many times. Let’s take a minute to think about how we have got to this moment in Jesus’ life. Three days earlier Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling an ancient prophecy, as crowds have flocked to see him and to announce his arrival as the messiah. The day after that he causes all kinds of mayhem in the temple, the centre of Jewish society, by kicking out all the money lenders and traders. The same day he’s healed blind and lame people in the temple. Between all that Jesus finds the time to curse a fig tree so it withers and dies, because, you know, why not. Then the next day he comes back to the temple and here we are for todays reading. I wonder what some of the traders, who were now set up outside the temple, thought when they saw him come back?

So, at last, some of the people in charge have wandered over and been like, “err excuse me, who do you think you are mate?” If you didn’t already know he was the song of God, like we do when we read it now, you’d have to say that’s a fairly reasonable question. Or I would anyway.

I think this is a huge moment in Jesus’ story. If there were ever a real chance for Jesus to walk away from his mission, I think it’s now. He is still relatively unknown to the real powers that be in Jerusalem. If he walks away now, he was just some minor celebrity from up north who had a really wild few days in the capital and then went home. He wouldn’t have been the first or the last I suppose. You see, this is Jesus’ first real encounter with the ruling classes of the day, the real holders of power. Not only that, this is an extremely public setting. He’s about to show up the religious, social and political powers and the whole community is going to watch. I suspect that after this exchange, they’ve no choice but to get rid of him. His card has been marked.

Large, public grandstanding debates were very common in the temple at the time. Various issues and scholarly disagreements were dealt with through back and forth cross examination, and holding sway over the crowd was key. I imagine it a bit like those election debates on TV, but much dustier and significantly more rowdy. So for the group of leaders to challenge the rabbi from Galilee to a debate is not totally remarkable. So they start with ‘By what right are you doing these things?’ And ‘Who gave you this right?’. Well, I think Jesus can’t really say his authority comes from God at this point in proceedings because if they don’t lock him up on the spot for blasphemy then the whole thing can only descend into a pantomime with an “oh yes he did, oh no he didn’t”.

So Jesus answers a question with a question, ‘Where did John’s baptism come from? Was it from heaven, or from this world?’. Now the crowd loves John, they are all big fans. He might have been super odd but they liked what he was selling. He talked about a new way of living, of justice, of forgiveness through repentance and faith. So the leaders can’t say what they really believe, because I imagine they thought of John the Baptist as ‘just a wild eyed lunatic in the desert’ . I’m paraphrasing of course, but the crowd will turn on them if they say that. But they can’t say his authority was from God because they ignored him, which makes them hypocrites, and they will have lost the argument. They essentially can’t win. So they bottle it, and Matthew writes that they say they don’t know. I find that a really disappointing account if I’m honest, I just can’t picture how they turned back around to Jesus in front of all these people and said, “um, dunno”. I think Matthew is robbing us of some detail, it must have been wild.

Jesus has them beaten but he isn’t done yet, he wants to show them up for everyone to see. So he tells them and the crowd a story of two sons. This would have instantly got the attention of those listening because the history of the founding of the nation of Israel is full of contrasting brothers, Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, Moses and Aaron. But we aren’t, or at least I don’t think any of us are, 2000ish year old Israelites so maybe some of the impact and relevance is lost.

So let me ask you the same question Jesus asked of the religious leaders, but I’ll attempt to bring it into the modern day. I say the modern day but to be honest, the best example I came up with puts us somewhere in the mid-90s, or anytime before it was really common to have a dishwasher in the house. But anyway, I want you to imagine, it’s Sunday evening, a family has finished its Sunday dinner. The adults have spent hours cooking dinner, everyone has had a lovely tea but the kitchen is full dirty pots, pans and dishes. Someone needs to clean up. We all know that Sunday meals are the messiest meals to prepare, there is always about 6 different pans and roasting trays and everything is greasy. Just grease and gravy everywhere. Urgh, it’s the worst.

So one parent says to their two children, “I would like for you to wash the dishes so that I can enjoy watching Countryfile”, (or whatever is on on a Sunday night, for my parents it was always the formula one highlights). The first child says, “oh I can’t, I have this thing that I absolutely must do plus it’s just so greasy”. Now let’s assume this is a family with a bigger emphasis on choice and free will than mine, because I honestly cannot imagine what would have happened if I’d given that response. Anyway, I’ve got side tracked…

The other child says “sure no problem, I would LOVE to do the dishes for you”. They wander into the kitchen, wait until no one is around to notice then leave and walk out again to go and do whatever they please. All the parents say “boooo”

Meanwhile, the first child goes up to their room, sits down and picks their playstation controller ready of an evening of leisure. Then thinks, “you know what, I really should go back down and help”. “That was a pretty lousy response to a pretty small request, my parents spent hours cooking that dinner, the least I can do is at least dry”. They put the controller down and go downstairs and get stuck in to the dishes.

So my question to you, like Jesus asked the religious leaders, which child obeyed their parent? Which child accepted their parent’s authority? Show of hands, the first who said no but changed their mind and got it done in the end? The second who said yes but did nothing?

It’s pretty obvious isn’t it. The religious leaders in our bible passage knew it too. Jesus used this story to point out to them that just because they said the right prayers, wore the right robes and went to the right meetings it didn’t mean they were doing the will of God. The religious, social and political elite were the second child. Whether it was a cynical choice or through genuine ignorance, they had turned their religious faith into a matter of appearance. They had got really good at looking holy, but they weren’t really doing anything with it. Then Jesus says that those whom their society had rejected, tax collectors, sex workers, those that the leaders decided weren’t worthy were more like the first child. They were full of faith and being obedient even if maybe they had started from a less than ideal position. They might not look like religious but they had repented with John the Baptist in the desert and come to faith in God.

There is a lesson for us all here. Maybe the people that society or the institutional church or even ourselves as individuals have written off as being incapable or unwilling to serve God are actually being obedient to his calling in ways we don’t understand. Maybe they don’t look like great Christians on the surface, or maybe they lead lives that others look down on but are actually getting on with Gods will. On an individual level also there is a reminder that we should always be listening to God and we should always be ready to do what he asks us to do. God has no need for us to expend energy looking like good Christians. God is asking us to follow the example of his Son, Jesus Christ. To love openly, to care for the outcast and to speak up against injustice and exploitation amongst other great things.

Please don’t hear me and think that this is some kind of guilt trip, or a veiled comment about some kind of notional spiritual appraisal, or a challenge to be perfect because it absolutely is not. When I think of the first son I am reminded of the story of Jonah and the whale. Do you remember the story? God asked Jonah to go to Ninevah, which he absolutely did NOT want to do, and Jonah spent a really long time NOT going to Ninevah. But he got there eventually and the people of Ninevah were saved as a result, just as God had wanted all along. Even though he spends most of the book refusing to do what he knows he should, he gets there eventually, and God uses him to do great things.

God is full of grace for us, he knows we will mess up and either refuse to do what we should, or say we will and then find a way not to. It’s God’s grace that will always give us the chance to change our minds and follow him when he calls. Like the father in the parable God is calling us to his vineyard all the time, every time we see someone who is broken and needs compassion, or someone unable to help themselves that needs to be served. He calls us to pursue justice for those who are treated unjustly and to love those who have been deemed unloveable. Even when it costs a lot, even when we aren’t sure we can, even when we really don’t want to and even when the dishes are really, really, really greasy.

Photo by Scott Umstattd on Unsplash