Matthew 17:23-32 – Parable of the Two Sons

The Parable of the Two Sons by Jorge Cocco

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So, they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you – the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (New International Version)

The people entering God’s kingdom may not be the ones we expect. 

That’s because God’s kingdom is an upside-down kingdom. The spiritual insiders are really on the outside, while the spiritual outsiders are the ones inheriting the kingdom.

Today’s Gospel parable is a warning to all the spiritually serious to beware, lest their energies be spent entirely in correctness, believing the right things, and making obedience to Christ of secondary importance. 

This parable also encourages moral failures with the wonderful possibilities of a changed life. 

That’s because talk is cheap. Only what one believes, one will do.

Lip service to God, without loving service, is hollow and means nothing.

The Warning: Don’t Assume

Christ’s parable warns those who arrogantly assume they have an inside track by their belief, when in reality they aren’t obeying God, at all.  It’s a bit hard for us to imagine how offensive this story was to the religious authorities of the day, so here is a restatement of the parable in a more contemporary form:

What do you think? There was once a man well-respected in the community. He had two sons. The one son grew up and also became a respectable member of the community. This son was a successful businessman, and willingly gave a lot of money to causes in his community, including new lights for the football field – which was no small cost. He only asked that appropriate and prominent recognition be given him with a plaque on each of the light poles with his name on it. 

The other son was not so successful.  He was the one in school of whom the teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”  There was nothing spectacular about this son. In fact, he lived an alternative lifestyle and seemed to always be the talk of people behind his back. 

One day the father said to him, “Son, go and work at my place of business today. I am going away and need you to do some of the tedious paperwork I have gotten behind on so that I can get away.” “I will not,” he answered, but later felt heartsick about the way he had spoken to his father and decided to go to his place of business and do all the grunt work his father needed done.

The father also went to the other son, the well-respected one, and said the same thing about needing him to do all the thankless paperwork that was piled up. That son answered, “Yes, sir, I will. Anything you need I will do.”  However, that son did not follow through and go do the tedious work. Instead, he chose to go golfing with some people whom he was trying to coy favor with.

After telling the story, Jesus asked all the upstanding church leaders and people listening, “Which of the two sons did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they all answered.

Then, Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For you have had heard hundreds if not thousands of sermons about grace and the true way of righteousness, and you did not believe by putting the Word of God into practice; but they did. And even after you saw how grace can transform a life from the inside-out, you yourselves did not repent and believe.

For Jesus to tell such a story was so incredibly scandalous that it could get him killed – and it did. Simply believing the right things and living as an upstanding citizen is not the way of salvation. Tax collectors and prostitutes were the most despised people in Christ’s time. It was assumed they were on the outside and could never come to God, much like some might believe it unthinkable that a Muslim terrorist could be saved by Jesus. 

The proof of genuine belief is not in talking a good line; it is in actively obeying God when no one is looking to see what a good person you are.

Those who say, “I love God” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. After all, those who don’t love their brothers or sisters whom they have seen can hardly love God whom they have not seen! This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.

1 John 4:20-21, CEB

The Christian life hinges on obedience to the words and ways of Jesus. It is to be a blessing to a lost world in need of the grace and love of God.

There was once a Pastor in the 1890’s, Pastor Wright, who pronounced from his pulpit and wrote an article for his denomination’s newsletter on how people flying was both impossible and contrary to the will of God.  Pastor Wright had two sons named Orville and Wilbur. The Pastor was so sure of himself, but he was surely wrong.

The Invitation: Walk Through the Open Door

This parable is more than a warning; it is also a story that opens a door of grace and mercy for unlikely people, far from God, who have said “no” to God. It is a wonderful invitation for all us screw-ups and people with little to no faith to come to Jesus, and he will give rest.

One of my favorite Old Testament references is from the life of David. It is rather obscure and tucked away where no one notices it in Scripture. David was on the outside looking in. King Saul was trying to capture him, even though he had done nothing wrong:

David got away and escaped to the Cave of Adullam. When his brothers and others associated with his family heard where he was, they came down and joined him. Not only that, but all who were down on their luck came around—losers and vagrants and misfits of all sorts. David became their leader. There were about four hundred in all. (1 Samuel 22:1-2, MSG)

This rag-tag group of outsiders in Israel became Israel’s insiders as David eventually became king. These were the men, referred to later, as David’s mighty men, people on the cutting edge of bringing Israel into prominence. 

Jesus, Son of God, Son of Humanity, came and clearly identified himself as the Savior to the outsider when he quoted the prophet Isaiah: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me.
    He has chosen me to tell good news to the poor.
He sent me to tell prisoners that they are free
    and to tell the blind that they can see again.
He sent me to free those who have been treated badly
    and to announce that the time has come for the Lord to show his kindness.” (Luke 4:18-19, ERV)

In Christ, there is no lost cause and no person too far to be rescued and redeemed. And if we believe that, we will participate with God’s desire to reach the outsider.

Conclusion

Practicing the words and ways of Jesus happens when we locate ourselves within this parable. For the true outsider, this is the most wonderful news possible – that Jesus is reaching out and bringing you to himself – that changing a “no” to saying “yes,” entry to life is possible. 

Yet, maybe some of us need to locate ourselves as the insider who needs to get a clue before we miss out on the grace of God in Christ.

Take heart, for Jesus came to seek and to save that which is lost. It is time to act on what we believe – to affirm truth and right doctrine, and to embody it with obedience to God’s call on our life.

Song of Songs 5:2-6:3 – I Am My Beloved’s

Song of Songs by German illustrator Egon Tschirch, 1923

Beloved

I was asleep, but my heart was awake.
    It is the voice of my beloved who knocks:
    “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled;
    for my head is filled with dew,
    and my hair with the dampness of the night.”
I have taken off my robe. Indeed, must I put it on?
    I have washed my feet. Indeed, must I soil them?
My beloved thrust his hand in through the latch opening.
    My heart pounded for him.
I rose up to open for my beloved.
    My hands dripped with myrrh,
    my fingers with liquid myrrh,
    on the handles of the lock.
I opened to my beloved;
    but my beloved left, and had gone away.
My heart went out when he spoke.
    I looked for him, but I didn’t find him.
    I called him, but he didn’t answer.
The watchmen who go about the city found me.
    They beat me.
    They bruised me.
    The keepers of the walls took my cloak away from me.

I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem,
    If you find my beloved,
    that you tell him that I am faint with love.

Friends

How is your beloved better than another beloved,
    you fairest among women?
How is your beloved better than another beloved,
that you do so adjure us?

Beloved

My beloved is white and ruddy.
    The best among ten thousand.
His head is like the purest gold.
    His hair is bushy, black as a raven.
His eyes are like doves beside the water brooks,
    washed with milk, mounted like jewels.
His cheeks are like a bed of spices with towers of perfumes.
    His lips are like lilies, dropping liquid myrrh.
His hands are like rings of gold set with beryl.
    His body is like ivory work overlaid with sapphires.
His legs are like pillars of marble set on sockets of fine gold.
    His appearance is like Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.
His mouth is sweetness;
    yes, he is altogether lovely.
This is my beloved, and this is my friend,
    daughters of Jerusalem.

Friends

Where has your beloved gone, you fairest among women?
    Where has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?

Beloved

My beloved has gone down to his garden,
    to the beds of spices,
    to pasture his flock in the gardens, and to gather lilies.
I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.
    He browses among the lilies. (World English Bible)

God is love. God rejoices over you. 

There is a reason why so many people in this cruel and calloused world are unloving and unkind: They are unaware that God loves them. 

If we neither believe nor know God’s infinite love for us, then our words and our actions will reflect more of hate than love. God really truly does love you and me. This is crucial. Do not forget this. Believe it. Live it. Enjoy it. Know it. Tell it to yourself until you are thoroughly bathed in it, because it is more wonderful than any ‘70’s sappy love song could ever describe it.

I believe the small book of Solomon’s Song of Songs too often gets a weird hermeneutical spin of literalism from modern-minded simpletons. For nearly all of history, this poetic ode to love was understood as an allegory of divine love for humanity – and the believer’s reciprocal response.

When the beautiful text of Scripture says I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, and that his desire is for me, it is a wonderful way of communicating that God’s love for us is not abstract, distant, or detached. (Song of Songs 6:3, 7:10) 

The truth is: We belong to God. The Lord’s desire is for you and me. God has an intense and overpowering longing for you. Let the deep desire of God for you shape and form your thoughts so that fear is replaced with faith; loneliness with enjoyment; the fickle nature of others with satisfaction; praying as duty with praying because I want to be with the God who loves me so much.

Oh, how we need a vision of God singing over us with joy! Yes, God loves you that much! Grab a hold of what the prophet says:

The Lord will take delight in you with gladness.
    With his love, he will calm all your fears.
    He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.

Zephaniah 3:17, NLT

Even the most unlovely of people are made lovely through God’s persistent and pursuing love for them. You are being wholly seen every single day by the infinite gaze and eternal compassion of God, who watches our every step with delight.

Christianity does not “happen” simply by knowing some beliefs about God, as if it is a mere contractual signing-off on a doctrinal statement. Rather, Christianity “happens” when individuals experience the white hot burning love of God in Jesus Christ. 

Jesus came not only for those who skip church and only occasionally read their Bibles. Christ came also for the hard-hearted prick, the immoral adulterer, the strung-out addict, the terrorist, the murderer, and for all those caught in bad choices and failed relationships. 

“I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.” (Matthew 9:13, GNT)

“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life.” (Matthew 28:19, MSG)

“You will be witnesses for me.” (Acts 1:8, GNT)

“Love each other in the same way that I have loved you.” (John 13:34, GW)

All Christ’s words and actions are because of the Lord’s intense desire to love the world, and to love it through the divine beloved people of God.

God’s love is never based on our performance, or how good we look to others; it is never conditioned by our moods. The love of God only looks longingly at you and me with the potential of what we can become in Christ and cares for us as we are. It is a world-altering revolutionary thought that God loves me as I am and not as I should be. 

God loves me as I am, and not as I should be.

God has shown us how much he loves us—it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us! (Romans 5:8, GNT)

Despite the erosion of church attendance, the majority of people still believe God exists. Conversely, however, many people do not believe God really loves them. We are in a crisis of love. People need to know the God who is pure Love. 

Christianity never begins with what we do for God to make ourselves lovely. Christianity always starts with what God has done for us, the great and wonderful love that exists for us in Christ Jesus.

It wasn’t so long ago that we ourselves were stupid and stubborn, easy marks for sin, ordered every which way by our glands, going around with a chip on our shoulder, hated and hating back. But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life! You can count on this. (Titus 3:3-8, MSG)

All the wrong turns in the past, the mistakes and the moral lapses, everything that is ugly or painful, all melts in the light of God’s acceptance and love for us.

If the consuming passion of Christ’s followers is not showing God’s love, then we have lost both our mission and our first love of Jesus. Perhaps we must let time evaporate, as we bow at the foot of the cross, and experientially know the great love of God in Christ for us and for the world.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Hosea 3:1-5 – Reconcile the Past

Then the Lord said to me, “Go and love your wife again, even though she commits adultery with another lover. This will illustrate that the Lord still loves Israel, even though the people have turned to other gods and love to worship them.”

So, I bought her back for fifteen pieces of silver and five bushels of barley and a measure of wine. Then I said to her, “You must live in my house for many days and stop your prostitution. During this time, you will not have sexual relations with anyone, not even with me.”

This shows that Israel will go a long time without a king or prince, and without sacrifices, sacred pillars, priests, or even idols! But afterward the people will return and devote themselves to the Lord their God and to David’s descendant, their king. In the last days, they will tremble in awe of the Lord and of his goodness. (New Living Translation)

Sometimes you have to get your behind in the past before you can put your past behind you.

The ancient nation of Israel was in a spiritual pickle. Gradually, over hundreds of years, they made small decisions of compromised religion which added up to a severe breach of faith with their historic God.

The relationship between God and God’s people, throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament, is many times likened to a marriage of two spouses – God, the faithful spouse, and Israel, the unfaithful spouse who adulterated themselves by seeking the love of other gods.

This situation evoked feelings of sadness and anger within God. To help restore the broken marriage, the Lord used the prophet Hosea as an earthly illustration of the divine/human dilemma.

Just as Hosea graciously took a wife of dubious repute, so God mercifully took Israel. Just as Hosea’s wife, Gomer, slept with other men, so Israel went to bed with other gods. And just as Hosea remained faithful and actively sought to reconcile the past with his wife, so God tenaciously and dramatically honored the covenant relationship with Israel by showing steadfast love, despite her sordid past.

Israel needed to do her part by reconciling the past – returning to the Lord through acknowledging the truth of the situation and owning their responsibility to make things right.

Holy Scripture exhorts the believer to live according to truth. Whenever we fail to do so, we suffer spiritual loss. We are told to confess and reject unfaithful patterns of past behavior and not allow them to influence us today (Titus 2:12; 1 Peter 1:14, 18). 

Neglecting our responsibility inevitably causes emotional, mental and physical repercussions, as well as spiritual. In the New Testament, when the Apostle Paul said he was forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, he could say that because he had come to terms with and reconciled his own terrible unfaithful past with God. (Philippians 3:4-13)

It is both helpful and necessary to go back into one’s life and deal with the past on the basis of truth. In doing so, we honor our relationship with God. We must ask the Lord to turn the searchlight of truth on us and our past. 

Trust God to help you remember all the times in which you need to reconcile what has happened (or failed to happen). Make the choice before God to be as honest as you possibly can. 

The following are some suggestions from a former professor and mentor, the late Dr. Victor Matthews, (put in my own words) to carefully follow:

  1. Write out every time you were unfaithful or were hurt by another’s unfaithfulness (reject the temptation to just think and/or talk about it). Be complete, name the people involved, state what happened, do not try and protect yourself or other people and do not fantasize and let your thoughts run amok.
  2. Evaluate each past event on the basis of truth. If you were unfaithful, then confess it to God truthfully and receive forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:9). If you were hurt by someone, and it was their fault, then state out loud that “_______ should not have done that to me.” When you have finished writing out the event(s) deliberately stop and completely forgive the person(s) (Mark 11:25-26).  If you were at fault in some way, then confess that to God, as well.
  3. Resist the temptation to hurry with this process! Do not generalize by putting many events into one. Be specific and take the time necessary to get in touch with what God is trying to help you connect with.  This practice of reconciling the past is not introspection, so do not indulge in self-pity, self-criticism, or develop a martyr syndrome.
  4. Affirm that your inner critic, others, and any dark force may no longer use your past against you. “In the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ I take this event away from Satan and declare that he may not use it against me anymore!” (Ephesians 4:27; 5:11; 6:14).
  5. Receive the healing provided for those who believe and live according to God’s words and ways (Isaiah 53:5). “Now that I have made this right with you, O Lord, I receive the healing you have provided for me through the cross of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:19-20)

When you have finished your work, then count it finished. When Jesus said, “It is finished!” he meant what he said. (John 19:30)

Reconciling the past means leaning into the finished work of Jesus for our complete healing. If and when we think of our unfaithful past, then firmly state: “I have dealt with that truthfully. It is settled, once and for all.” 

Whenever unfaithful, from this point forward, confess it, receive forgiveness, and make the affirmations of truth. In doing so, we are living by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. Amen.

Psalm 57 – Prayer and Praise in the Middle of Trouble

Above the Heavens by painter Melani Pyke

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
    for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
    until the destroying storms pass by.
I cry to God Most High,
    to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me,
    he will put to shame those who trample on me.
God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.

I lie down among lions
    that greedily devour human prey;
their teeth are spears and arrows,
    their tongues sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.
    Let your glory be over all the earth.

They set a net for my steps;
    my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my path,
    but they have fallen into it themselves.
My heart is steadfast, O God,
    my heart is steadfast.
I will sing and make melody.
    Awake, my soul!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
    I will awake the dawn.
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
    I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens;
    your faithfulness extends to the clouds.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.
    Let your glory be over all the earth. (New Revised Standard Version)

One thing we all share about the human experience is that, sooner or later, someone or a group of people will let us down. 

On top of that, many have experienced, or will experience, some sort of abuse and victimization from another person or group – leaving one scarred by trauma. What’s more, there are those who have even had their very lives at risk because someone intentionally sought to actually kill them. That is the company David found himself in when King Saul, and when his son Absalom, sought to do away with his life.

To David’s credit, he never retaliated and did not try and turn the tables by putting a hit out on either Saul or Absalom. Instead, David cried out to God. And we get to listen in on the prayer. Today’s psalm is David’s prayerful reliance upon the God in whom he put all his trust and praise. 

The entire basis of prayer is to let God be God. So, how do we exactly do that?

When the storms of life assail us, calloused persons trample on us with impunity, devious individuals set traps for us, and greedy organizations prey upon us, we refuse to respond in kind. Instead, we deliberately praise God and rely on divine protection, praying to the Lord and steadfastly holding to our confidence that if God is for us, nothing can be against us.

That advice may seem like some sort of pie-in-the-sky rot of ginning up positive thoughts when there is nothing positive to be seen in the experience. Indeed, we must never, and I repeat, never invalidate another’s experience nor our own, when those experiences are hellish.

Yet, there is also always hope. There are two unshakable truths which are constant and never diminished by any adverse circumstance: God is present. And God loves.

If we know nothing else, and all else seems to be descending into the abyss of tragedy, the twin towers of divine presence and attention stand tall as the strongest sentinels over our dilapidated situation and struggling faith.

Letting God be God means not trying to exercise control over things we have no control over – but affirming that the Lord is willing and capable of handling our worst. It could be that we are stuck in the belly of whale because, without our knowing, there are sharks surrounding us who cannot get to us.

Our perspective of matters is, at best, severely limited. It is much better to place faith in the God who sees it all with an expansive eye which misses nothing.

One of the best things about the psalms is that they are a wonderful collection of prayers we can adopt for our own. Not only can we use them for ourselves, but we are also obliged to do so. If anyone has been in an adverse situation so deep that it feels like having ambled into a pride of lions, it is quite likely that the experience leaves one with no adequate words to say. It’s as if you are paralyzed with fear. 

So, let the psalm say for you what you cannot even begin to utter yourself. The Word of God is not meant to sit on a coffee table or rest on a shelf; it is meant to be opened and used for prayer. Allow it to do its intended purpose.

Who knows? Perhaps your faith in the mercy of God and your praises lifted to God will give rise to settled confidence and peace so that you can rest secure even when all around you is going to hell.

Be merciful to me, O God, for in you my soul takes refuge.  Even though I feel the slash of people with tongues as swords, my heart is steadfast and will exalt your name above the heavens.  Let your glory be over all the earth!  Amen.