|A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father? Matthew 21:28-32
Jesus tells a simple parable this week. But who says a parable can’t get you killed.
According to Matthew, Jesus tells this little parable about two brothers during the last week of his life in Jerusalem. After he had stolen a donkey to ride into town on, after he had chased the merchants out of the temple, after he had cursed the fig tree for failing to bear fruit—Jesus went back to the temple to teach. You might even describe it as a hostile occupation of the temple and that is where the chief priests and the elders cornered him.
You have to remember that the temple was not only a place of worship, it was a center of both political and religious power. You might say it was more like the capital building downtown than our beautiful sanctuary on Peachtree Street. Jesus’ protest in flipping over the tables of the money changers was the decisive moment in which Jesus’ has gone too far. His temple protest damaged temple property and threatened the income of the power-brokers and decision-makers who hold on their power at all costs. The growing number of followers of Jesus each day meant to those in power that something must be done. This is where we see the machinery of Roman “law and order enter” the story. Before the week is over, Jesus is hanging on a Roman cross.
But before we get to the end of the story, the leaders in power want to know, “Who does Jesus think he is?” Instead of answering them, in typical Jesus style, he tells them a story. He tells them about two brothers who are asked by their father to go work in the vineyard. The first says he will not go but later changed his mind and went. The second brother agrees to go but never does. Which brother, Jesus asked his critics, did the will of his father?
It was an easy answer, as easy for them as it is for us. The first brother did the will of his father, of course. It was not what either boy said that mattered but what he finally did. Only that was not the part of the truth that got Jesus killed. What got him killed was the second part, when he told the chief priests and elders which brother they were. They were the Yes men, he told them, who said all the right things, believed all the right things, stood for all the right things, but who would not do the right things God asked them to do. Worse, it is the kinds of people they least respect, the tax collectors and the prostitutes who were heading to the kingdom of God ahead of them.
It seems to be another story about the hypocrisy of religious people; one we’ve heard before. We’re the ones who go to church on Sunday, talking about love, forgiveness, and generosity, while finding a dozen ways to slander, cheat, or basically ignore our neighbor on Monday. At least that’s what the world says, looking in from the outside. And it stings when we hear that because too often it comes very near the truth.
In her wonderful book Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen’s tells the story of a young boy named Kitau who appeared at her door in Nairobi one day to ask if he might work for her. She said yes and he turned out to be a fine servant, but after just three months he came to her again to ask her for a letter of recommendation to Sheik Ali bin Salim, a Muslim in Mombasa. Upset at the thought of losing him, she offered to raise Kitau’s pay, but he was firm about leaving. He had decided he would become either a Christian or a Muslim, he explained, and his whole purpose in coming to live with her had been to see the ways and habits of Christians up close. Next, he would go live for three months with Sheik Ali to see how Muslims behaved, and then he would make up his mind.
Aghast, Dinesen wrote, “I believe that even an Archbishop when he had had these facts laid before him, would have said, or at least thought, as I said, ‘Good God, Kitau, you might have told me that when you came here.’”
There is no shortage of people in this world who say, believe, or stand for all the right things. What God really needs are people who will go where God sends them and do what God needs them to do. And when the distance between what we say and what we do is revealed to us, it stings. It’s embarrassing. It might even make us angry enough to kill.
from Redeemer Pastor Mark H. Larson