Transforming No into Yes! :
A Sermon on Matthew 21:28-32
Back when I was in youth group, I was one of the kids that showed up to everything, and due to my mother’s borderline OCD, I showed up early. As such, I would often help my youth director out planning and preparing things for events. But in typical teenager format, I always told her that “I reserve the right to complain.” I was always going to help her, but at some level I felt compelled to resist and complain. As such, I heavily identified with this parable where the son says no, complains and whines, but ends up doing it. That was an example I could live up to! I thought I was perfectly living by the gospel. But hold on, because that was how I read the text as a teenager. In reality, there is more going on here than a cut and dry way to live. Jesus gives us two seemingly bad options for behavior and makes us choose between them.
You see, Jesus liked to ask tough questions. And he asked such tough questions precisely because he was always being hounded and tested by someone or another. People had trouble accepting he was the Son of God, much like today. In this particular situation, he was in the temple and the chief priests and elders were questioning his authority. Jesus doesn’t answer them, but asks them instead where John the Baptist got his authority. The scribes cant answer this because they neither want to offend the people that held him as a prophet, nor affirm that he got his authority from heaven. So they are reduced to silence. This leads Jesus to tell a parable.
Jesus tells the story about a Father. He was tired and worn out. The vineyard was an absolute mess. The vines needed to be pruned, shoots needed to be removed, and leaves need to be pulled. As the Father wiped the sweat from his forehead he suddenly remembered that he had two perfectly good Sons sitting in the house! He didn’t have to work all by himself. He went to the house and found one of his sons passed out on the floor. This son had developed quite a reputation around town, he certainly knew his way around a bottle, and was no stranger to the ladies. The Father had to nudge him with his boot in order to wake him up. “Son, go and work in the vineyard. Your old man is tired and its just too hot out there for me.” First only a growl was heard, then a firm “No! why would I want to do that. Don’t even think I can stand right now anyway…” He was asleep before the father could even complain. No Surprise there at all.
Shrugging his shoulders, giving up, he went to find his other son. Barricaded behind his door, he found his other Son amidst a pile of books. He was diligently reading a book called “Ethics of the Family: A Compendium on How to Obey Your Father,” completely absorbed. Again, the Father asked “Son, go and work in the vineyard. Your old man is tired and its just too hot out there for me.” As soon as the words crossed his lips, the 2nd son said “Yes, Father. Of course. Let me get dressed.” Smiling, the Father walked back to the kitchen, happy because he knew he could trust his good Son.
Some time passed and no one came to the vineyard. The grapes went unattended. The Father eventually started walking back towards the vineyard and just as he was about to start working again, he saw a silhouette leaving the house. “Oh thank God! My good son has come to help his Father.” But as he approached, he noticed that it was not his good son, but it was his drunkard Son! What shock! And the Father was speechless, as his first son walked pass him with a smile and began to work.
So, who, Jesus asks did the will of the Father? Without hesitation, they are forced to say, the first! Now Jesus has them right where he wants them. They’ve been totally set up at this point. This story is similar to Nathan’s parable to King David, where Nathan tricks David into condemning his own actions through a parable about a rich man and a poor man. In the same way, Jesus has told a parable that is a thinly veiled commentary on the actions of the chief priests and elders in their rejection of John the Baptist. Hear me! The prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you. You see, they, although they said no to God through the lives they lived and their lack of belief, have come to faith through John the Baptist. But you, did not come to faith when you heard John, and have not done the will of the Father. You did not repent. You did not believe him.
Needless to say, the chief priests REALLY didn’t like this. Whew! This and the following parable he tells made them look for a way to arrest him (21:46). Oh No you didn’t Jesus! We, the elite, the stewards of the temple, the keepers of God’s word, are not going to be behind some tax collector, some…some…prostitute! We’ve heard enough about John the Baptist, we’ve heard enough of your stories, getting the crowd all riled up. Why do we, the righteous ones, need to repent?
Setting aside the historical context, we can intimately relate to this parable. One of the most striking elements of this parable is not what Jesus does say, but what he does not say. A better answer to Christ’s question would be Neither! The unmentioned 3rdson who said “Yes! Father” and then actually went and worked seems to be the best option. That should be the best way to do the will of the Father. Jesus doesn’t mention this option, as I think Jesus is asking something different than the best way to be a disciple. The real question he’s asking is: if you had to choose between saying and doing, between professing God and doing the will of God, which do you choose? We have two sons, that shame their father in some way. The first son shames the Father in public, by denying his authority and rejecting him, but honors him in action later. The second son shames the Father by not following his humble acceptance of the command of the Father with the proper action.
Thus we get the sense from Jesus that it is more dangerous to profess faith and not obey the commands of the Father, than to just continue in denial of God. Because the picture we get is that of a God of forgiveness. Only with a God who forgives, against all reason, against all belief, can we find a Kingdom where the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the sinners, the drunkards, the thieves are all in line in front of the religious leaders, and all those who did not live into their faith. The Gospel is one of transformation, where you come out different after you believe it, tax collectors become saints. And thankfully, you are not at a disadvantage if you come late to the party. Those who had denied God with the way they lived their lives, and were completely hardened to God’s presence were convicted by John the Baptist. He baptized them, washed them clean of sin, and set them on the path of righteousness. Suddenly, they realized they had been living their lives incorrectly, and were made new. Jesus came and made the path of righteousness clear. Jesus preached repentance and forgiveness of sins, and he showed the way to obey the Father. The Kingdom of God is a place where disreputable characters such as these can be found, and drug out of the darkness. Our God chooses people such as tax collectors and prostitutes.
Let us not forget the listeners hearing this parable. Jesus has a way of saying one thing, but it meaning a whole variety of things to those hearing it. A recovering alcoholic reading this parable in the detox center will read this as a hopeful parable. He would see himself as one of the crowd, cheering Jesus on. Likewise a women forced into prostitution because of economic despair reads this parable differently, clutching her Bible as she falls asleep. But how do we, Divinity Students, how do we hear this parable?
I don’t know about you, I gulp a bit when I hear this parable. There are parts of me that are a bit similar to these priests. After having spent 3 years in Divinity School, I have a few questions to ask Jesus myself! Just in the context of this class alone, I would ask him: Did you really tell the parable of the Unjust Manager? I just cant make sense of it. Why does the 3rd servant get thrown into darkness for digging a hole, why does the guest get thrown into the gnashing of teeth for wearing the wrong clothes? Why didn’t those 5 maidens get in, they just forgot oil! See, Jesus is warning the chief priests because they have failed to repent, they have failed to see Jesus for who he is, they have yet to see the grace of God. In the very presence of God made flesh, all they can think to do is ask Jesus questions. Hey! Wait a minute Jesus! We have the authority here, in case you didn’t notice. Who are you to say such things? Let us see your degree. What seminary did you go to?
That issue of authority is one we are not unfamiliar with as well. What is it about us Divinity Students that accept a theological idea if somebody says “Barth, Hays, or Hauerwas” much more readily than we would hear theological truth from an elderly member of our congregation, or from someone we know to be in sin? The tragic thing about the chief priests, the elders is that they held all the correct information, the knew the scriptures better than almost anyone, they knew God, like the 2ndSon, they knew how to say “Yes, Father.” But in the gospel we continually see them “missing the point.” Its not that asking where Jesus got his authority is a bad question, its that Jesus wasn’t looking for questions, rather he sought for them to respond. To open their ears so that they may have all their questions answered, as they saw the living presence of God in front of them, they would regret their actions, and believe. They missed the forest for the trees, as they say. As scholars of the modern era, as “Masters of Divinity” we must never think that we have “Divinity Mastered.”
I am not saying theological inquiry is wrong. This is not at all the case, I will be the first to attest to the power of theology to change lives, to witness to Christ. I have been spiritually nourished reading the words of ancient scholars and pondering the exegesis of Scripture. The danger exists when we sink so far as to forget the beautiful simplicity of the gospel. When we forget the transformative power of the Gospel. Because it is simple. Jesus laid down his life, God gave his Spirit so that worthless sinners (and that’s all of us by the way) can enter the Kingdom first. Those that have said NO! to God, might unexpectedly find themselves walking the path of righteousness.
It is John the Baptist that showed the “way of righteousness.” John’s preaching was not an argument for his own authority, it is a sermon one sentence long with a scripture quote: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” The chief priests witnessed the transformation of the sinners through baptism. Saw them entering into a new life, Saw Jesus being baptized, but they didn’t SEE it. They didn’t see God transforming the lives of prostitutes and tax collectors so they could do the will of the Father. The will of the Father, as described here, is to “repent and believe.” Jesus gives us lots of commands for living properly but here, in humbling simplicity, Jesus calls out the priests for not “repenting and believing.”
That is the beginning of the road. That’s how we get from our “No” to our “Yes.” If we say “Yes” without repenting, we have failed see the sin in our life, we have failed to see our utter need for God. If we say “Yes, Father” without believing, there is simply no way we are living true to the Gospel. This is not only the danger for seminary students, for scholars, but also for our churches, for ourselves as church leaders. Forgetting that the gospel is transformative, that it asks us to repent, that it asks us to believe can cause a congregation to stagnate. To sink to a point where the church is a source of spiritual truths without passion, without transformation. Rather than timid hesitation where our “No’s” become “Yes!” it is a firm denial where our “Yes!” gets forgotten, when the doors close Sunday afternoon.
Out in the wilderness, there was a man named John telling sinners and other miscreants to Repent! For some reason, they listened to that locust-eater, and had their lives transformed. He was followed by Jesus Christ who laid down his life for those sinners, and now the Holy Spirit baptizes No’s into Yes by fire! As future ministers, we must not only know the theories of the atonement, but know the power the atonement has to create saints out of sinners. We must both be able to theorize about the love of God, while never forgetting the power of that Love, never forgetting that God loves prostitutes and tax collectors. May we never forget to trust in the power of God to transform our “No’s,” our denials, and our sin into an ultimate Yes to God, and a Yes to Christ. Because our God prefers children that do the will of the Father, that repent and believe over children who too readily say Yes and ignore the will of the Father.
In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.