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.

Hebrews 11:17-22 – Faith Forward

Sacrifice of Abraham by He Qi

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones. (New International Version)

Life requires faith.

To keep going, to endure and persevere, demands sustained faith over the course of a lifetime.

Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)

The biblical character, Abraham, let faith shape his actions. He obeyed God’s call on his life and left his home country to go somewhere he knew nothing about. And he did it with no GPS and no AAA tour books.

Even thought Abraham had a good life in his home city of Ur, he left, believing there was something better ahead.

After reaching the land which God led them to, Abraham, age 100 and his wife, Sarah, age 90, became parents. It happened because of faith. The two of them believed God’s promise of a child, even though it was biologically impossible.

Abraham kept his faith over the long haul of his life. He did it by looking ahead to the eternal city. Because Abraham had looked ahead on this earth and stepped out in faith, he was able to clearly discern that all his faith eggs were not in the earthly basket.

Against all odds, Abraham was convinced God was good for his promises and knew what he was doing.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6, NKJV

Isaac was the miracle child, the promised son born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. One day, God came along and gave Abraham a very strange command: Take your son, the child of the promise, and go to the mountain and sacrifice him there. (Genesis 22:1-19)

“Huh? What the @#$&*!!” we might say. But it only seems perplexing and weird to us. Abraham listened and obeyed. He simply went about the business of saddling up the donkey, chopping some wood for the sacrifice, and took his only son with him on the journey to the mountain – with no questions or talk back to God.

While you and I might try and figure out if we really heard God or not, Abraham had a history of faith with God. He knew God’s voice as well as he knew his own. Abraham was well down the road of relationship with the God he served.

Today’s New Testament lesson gives us an insight into Abraham’s thought process, a line of thinking consistent with a person who has a regular habit of talking with God. Abraham was willing to follow through with sacrificing his beloved son because he was sure that God could raise people to life. Abraham believed death would not have the last word.

Abraham did not try and figure out God’s mind. He didn’t get into a debate with God about the contradiction of ethics he was being asked to do. He just obeyed. Abraham reasoned that it didn’t matter if Isaac were killed because God could raise him from death. This, of course, is not what happened. It was all a test of faith. Abraham knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is the Lord who provides.

You and I rarely know why we are facing the unwanted circumstances we are enduring. We don’t always know what in the world God is thinking. Yet, like Abraham, if we have a spiritual history of walking with God and hearing the Lord’s voice, we don’t hesitate to respond. We are convinced God will provide.

Obedience for the follower of Christ is not a burden but a privilege, even when we are being tested beyond our seeming emotional ability to do it.

Grant, O God, that we may never lose our way through self-will, and so end up in the far countries of the soul. May we never abandon the struggle, but endure to the end, and so be saved. May we never drop out of the race but press forward to the goal of our high calling. May we never choose the cheap and temporary path but let go of all but you. May we never take the easy way and never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown.

So, keep us and strengthen us by your grace so that no disobedience, weakness, or failure may stop us from entering into the blessedness which awaits those who are faithful in all the changes and chances of life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Psalm 144:9-15 – Rescued from Evil

Rescued by Rodney J. Parrott

O God, let me sing a new song to you,
    let me play it on a twelve-string guitar—
A song to the God who saved the king,
    the God who rescued David, his servant.

Rescue me from the enemy sword,
    release me from the grip of those barbarians
Who lie through their teeth,
    who shake your hand
    then knife you in the back.

Make our sons in their prime
    like sturdy oak trees,
Our daughters as shapely and bright
    as fields of wildflowers.
Fill our barns with great harvest,
    fill our fields with huge flocks;
Protect us from invasion and exile—
    eliminate the crime in our streets.

How blessed the people who have all this!
How blessed the people who have God for God! (The Message)

Evil lurks everywhere. It resides in the human heart, hidden in the dark shadows, coming out sideways through shameful lies and guilty actions. Evil is also found throughout the world in every institution, organization, and group, ensconced as systemic injustice – hoarding resources for the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

Since there is wickedness found in all places and with all people, evil needs to be dealt with and expunged from both heinous hearts as well as the hoarding habitations of injustice. Part of the solution is to do away with all obstacles which stand in the way of human flourishing.

To be sure, the heart of humanity must be dealt with and be the focus of change. Yet, if we only focus one-dimensionally on evil, it will persist, and even grow into monstrous proportions, unless we equally direct our right and just efforts on institutional and systemic evil.

People and their institutions need deliverance from the power of evil in the world. And for that to happen, the hindrances and handicaps to human thriving must be eliminated.

Our entire concept of salvation needs a fuller scope. Not only do individuals need personal deliverance from sin, death, and hell, so do entire societies. Complete systemic rescue from oppressive obstacles is a must. Far too many people in this fallen world are weighed down from institutional sin.

Christ obeyed God our Father and gave himself as a sacrifice for our sins to rescue us from this evil world.

Galatians 1:4, CEV

To place this in a different context, the genius of the American experiment was that the founding fathers (and mothers!) of the United States created a political and societal system which sought to eliminate class distinctions and allowed people of lower means to achieve land ownership and business acumen simply through hard work and thrift.

Unfortunately, the experiment only extended largely to white men. Native American and African American people still had huge systemic obstacles to overcome. And the new republic had different expectations for it’s women. It took a Civil War and decades of grueling work to address political and social change (not to mention religious). We are still laboring to truly give liberty and justice to all and achieve the ideal of an egalitarian nation.

We, as both individuals and citizens, need divine intervention through deliverance. Like Gilligan and the crew of the Minnow stranded on a deserted island, we seek to be rescued – knowing we need help beyond ourselves for salvation.

Rescue us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:13, NRSV

The psalmist looked ahead in hope, convinced that a good God will deliver and provide good people with everything they need to thrive and flourish in this life, and in the life to come.

If God doesn’t fight our overwhelming battles for us, we are lost. This present darkness, this ancient and contemporary evil, is an extremely powerful foe. However, the Lord is greater and will have the last word.

Christianity asserts that Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation and the once for all answer to the problem of evil for both the world and the human heart. Christ, in other words, is the fulfillment of the psalmist’s prayers for deliverance, health, and hope.

In his earthly ministry, Jesus did not give explanations for our pain and sorrow. Instead, Jesus comes where our pain is most acute and takes it upon himself – bringing healing and hope. The Lord tackles evil, not by having a Zoom conference on the subject of wickedness, but by allowing evil to do its worst to him. Christ exhausts evil by draining it of its power, emerging resurrected with new life for all.

The good news is this: Jesus is Lord and has defeated the powers of evil. Now, reform can occur. Hearts can change. Systems can be revamped. God’s new world has begun.

God rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins.

Colossians 1:13-14, CEB

I, personally, am a Christian because I believe God is the one who satisfies the passion for justice, the longing for spirituality, the hunger for relationship, and the yearning for beauty. I see God in Jesus of Nazareth, the world’s true Lord.

Hope, like the psalmist expressed, is what you get when you realize a different worldview is possible. Hope springs to life when those experiencing and feeling the brunt of evil in the world become acutely aware that the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous are not the ones really in charge.

“Our task as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to a world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to a world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to a world that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion…”

N. T. Wright

May you know the place and the person of rescue from evil. And may you be buoyant in faith, confident in hope, and overflowing with love.

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.