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.

James 1:17-27 – Be Good because God Is Good

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of all he created.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (New International Version)

God is Good – All the Time

And all the time – God is good. That statement is a bedrock foundation for Christian faith. Without a basic affirmation and belief of God’s goodness, our faith will experience cracks and not stand the test of hardship and difficulty in life. Without the steadfast conviction that God is good, the alternative is that God is somehow fickle or even mean – that God does not care about my problems.

The trials and tribulations of life are intended by God to be watershed experiences that prove the genuineness, or lack thereof, of our faith. When life is good, it is easy to say God is good. However, when it isn’t, we may slide into a belief system that thinks God is the source of our trouble. And if we have not been working on a relationship with God, we will have scant resources to draw from to help us.

God is good, and not mean. Every single good gift there is in this world comes from God. Nothing evil comes from God. God’s grace is constantly around us. If his grace were not here, it would be like living inside a dystopian novel, or a zombie apocalypse, where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulders for the next evil thing to happen. Although evil exists, it could be a whole lot worse if it were not for divine grace and goodness.

“This is true faith, a living confidence in the goodness of God.”

Martin Luther

God is immutable, that is, God’s goodness is ever-present. On this earth we are constantly subjected to changing light as the sun rises and sets, and as the clouds come and go. Yet, God does not change like shifting shadows. God is not fickle or capricious. God’s goodness is always at high noon, standing like an eternal sun in a bright blue sky radiating unbroken grace to us.

God’s goodness has delivered people from sin, death, and hell. God’s grace has given us new life. God created the world and pronounced it “good.” God formed you and called you “good.” And God has forgiven you, in Christ, and says it is “good.”

God gave us a good word for us to accept and live by.

Hurry Up and Listen

There is a great need for listeners today. Precious little productive communication takes place because there are so many people in a hyper-vigilant state airing their opinions. They talk over and on top of each other because they’ve already made-up their minds about how things really are and what should be done. Nobody is listening.

Bible reading is a primary source for listening to God. Yet, although many people own multiple Bibles, and Scripture is freely available through digital sources, far too many persons simply don’t read and listen to it.

Slow Down and Speak

God has given us two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk.   

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut. (Proverbs 10:19, NLT)

A loose tongue and constant opining happens because of faulty listening.  An inability to listen leads to a lack of understanding because we do not take the time to get the whole story. It’s easy to pronounce verdicts with little information, and offer bad advice, when there is little listening.

Have a Long Fuse

Be slow to anger. A fool speaks without thinking, which stirs up strife. Slow to listen and quick to speak leads to anger flares. An angry spirit is an unteachable spirit, unwilling to listen to both God and others. 

Rash words said in anger produce an ugly unrighteous life. Selfish opinionated anger produces harsh bitter words and kills God’s plan for a good life.

We are to accept the Word of God. Throwing labels at people only de-humanizes them. They become objects of anger and scorn, and not people made in God’s image. Nothing good comes from ignoring God’s Word and giving-in to bitterness. It destroys good people.

Get Rid of Evil

Get rid of all moral filth, and the evil that is so prevalent. The unwillingness to listen, a loose tongue, and unrighteous anger are moral evils. Evil is not only perpetuated by serial killers, terrorists, and other people different from us. In fact, the face of evil rarely comes to us in the form of red horns and a pitchfork.

Evil also resides as soft-core wickedness – common ordinary evil. The demonic can work in an almost ho-hum manner, subtly questioning whether anyone can really live up to the precepts of God’s Word, and generally undermining all that takes place to the glory of God.

The face of evil is neither hot nor cold, but “meh.” It is the bitter slow-cooked seething anger bubbling just underneath the surface which comes out in a plastic smile while offering up a morsel of slander based on a lack of listening well. It comes out in fake gestures of niceness while being quick to make judgments with little to no information.

Put away the “meh.” Receive God’s Word. Take a teachable posture. Stop and listen to what God’s Word has to say.

Be a Doer of God’s Word, Not Just a Hearer

The Word of God is not truly received until it is put into practice. 

It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Romans 2:13, NRSV) 

Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11:28, NIV). 

The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears. He cannot stand because he has no feet.  He cannot do anything because he has no hands. Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes. And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing.  Profession of faith means nothing without a practice of that faith; learning the Bible is useless without living it; and acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up.  Profession, knowledge, and acceptance alone does not satisfy God’s plan for our lives. 

Pay Attention to the Person in the Mirror

A person looks at himself in the mirror. He clearly sees all his flaws. Yet he does not respond, likely because he doesn’t like what he sees. It’s silly to look into a mirror, see a major bedhead, and just do nothing about it and go to work as if everything were fine. We look. We examine. We hear. We see exactly who we are. And we can’t even identify ourselves in a police lineup.

The person forgets what he looks like because he does not really want to face himself. This isn’t a clueless guy. It is one who sees himself as he really is and chooses not to do anything about it.

Forgetfulness happens because of inaction. Remembrance, communion, and hope all occur through active participation. God blesses the one who looks hard into the mirror of God’s Word, then intentionally makes changes based on what he finds.

Obedience to God’s Word brings freedom, not bondage. Listening, seeing, adjusting, and changing is a freeing activity. That’s because it’s how we are designed to live.

Holy and good God, give me grace to see you, others, and myself clearly so that I will be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Amen.

2 Samuel 6:6-12 – Doing the Wrong Thing for the Right Reason Is Still the Wrong Thing

When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore, God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.

Then David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.

David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household.

Now King David was told, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God.” So, David went to bring up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. (New International Version)

“What you think is the right road may lead to death.”

Proverbs 14:12, GNT

The narrator who originally told and wrote this story wanted to communicate something of God to us, as well as our relationship to the Lord. It’s important to understand why God rained on David’s hoedown. At that time in the history of Israel, the Ark of the Covenant was the foremost symbol that God was present with the people. 

Contained within the ark were the tablets of the Ten Commandments (the symbol of God’s Word); the staff of Aaron, the first priest (the symbol of God’s choice); and a pot of manna (the symbol of God’s provision). The ark was a holy object, pointing to a holy God.

The ark of the Lord was built at the time of Moses when all of the ritual laws of God were established. Those laws included details concerning the offerings people were to bring and how to approach God in worship. The latter part of the book of Exodus describes all the prescriptions of how to construct the sacred articles for worship. 

The ark was at the center of it all, representing the presence of God among his people. That was nearly five-hundred years before David. The ark had become a familiar object in the life of Israel, always there, continually being the symbol of God to the people.

We have all likely had the experience of something becoming so familiar to us that we begin to lose sight of how important and valuable it really is. And it is not until we lose it, or something traumatic happens, that we come back to our senses and again take stock of its true significance. 

The Israelites had become lethargic and apathetic toward the worship of God, and it led to some disheartening and tragic circumstances. God’s people need to continually be on guard against the opiate of familiarity dulling our senses to the importance of true worship.

Moving the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant to Jerusalem was one of the first acts David did as the king of Israel and Judah. God was with David and brought him success against his enemies. David enjoyed a close walk with the Lord. Yet, he could still make mistakes. Even though David’s heart was in the right place, he made a huge error which was an affront to God. 

The way in which we treat God, the things of God, and God’s word and worship, are of vital importance and value.

King David had the best of intentions, bringing up the ark to Jerusalem and giving it a prominent place in the center of Jewish life. This was a good thing, a good plan. The problem, however, came in the way the ark was carried from one place to another. The book of Exodus lays out in careful detail how the ark is to be transported. (Exodus 25:10-22; 37:1-9)

Two Levites, Uzzah and Ahio, were charged with taking care of the ark. Only the Levites could handle the ark and all the holy objects of worship that went along with it. Since it was their job, they should have known better than to carry the ark of the Lord on a cart. 

“If you love me, show it by doing what I’ve told you.”

Jesus (John 14:15, MSG)

God had clearly told Moses the ark was to always have two long poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold inserted into four gold rings of the ark. In fact, the ark itself was made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold.  The ark was to always be carried on the shoulders of the Levites with the two poles.

We are not told why Uzzah and Ahio are pulling the ark on a cart with oxen instead of carrying it in the prescribed way. Perhaps it was because the ark was very heavy. It was no cake walk carrying the ark around.  Maybe they decided it would be more expedient and easier to have some much stronger oxen pull the ark on a nice new cart; it would save a lot of energy bringing it over a long distance. 

Actually, when you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. It is quite pragmatic. However, God was not okay with this arrangement. When the oxen stumbled and the ark was in danger of falling off the cart, Uzzah reflexively reached out to steady it.  That was the last act Uzzah ever did on this earth. God put him down for his “irreverent act.”

We must neither decide nor evaluate the worship of God by common sense pragmatism, what we think will work best, or how we feel it ought to be done. Everything in the church is to pay attention to the holiness of God through our obedience. Whenever we avoid the prescriptions of God, however best those intentions might be, is not a good thing and people will get hurt. 

One can never justify an action which goes against God’s Word, just because people are praising God and their hearts are in the right place. It doesn’t necessarily mean what is being done is okay.

David’s first response was anger, then fear. Although he gave his best effort, it resulted in God’s disfavor. Upon reflection, David realized that he perhaps took for granted the ark could be moved any way they wanted to move it. 

Whenever we value efficiency and expediency over obedience and submission to God’s holiness, there will be trouble with God. The great sin of Uzzah, resulting in his death, was that he was managing God. 

We do not take care of God; God takes care of us. God will not bow to us and allow creatures to manage the Creator. The Lord wants pure unadulterated obedient worship from people in the way it is to be done.

Doing the wrong thing for the right reason is still the wrong thing to do. David had to learn that the hard way. Let’s learn from his mistake.

Blessed Lord, who graciously provides us instruction for our good, give us faith to receive your word, understanding to know what it means, and the will to put it into practice, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

2 Samuel 5:17-25 – Inquire of God

When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over Israel, they went up in full force to search for him, but David heard about it and went down to the stronghold. Now the Philistines had come and spread out in the Valley of Rephaim; so, David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I go and attack the Philistines? Will you deliver them into my hands?”

The Lord answered him, “Go, for I will surely deliver the Philistines into your hands.”

So, David went to Baal Perazim, and there he defeated them. He said, “As waters break out, the Lord has broken out against my enemies before me.” So that place was called Baal Perazim.The Philistines abandoned their idols there, and David and his men carried them off.

Once more the Philistines came up and spread out in the Valley of Rephaim; so, David inquired of the Lord, and he answered, “Do not go straight up, but circle around behind them and attack them in front of the poplar trees. As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the poplar trees, move quickly, because that will mean the Lord has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army.” So, David did as the Lord commanded him, and he struck down the Philistines all the way from Gibeon to Gezer. (New International Version)

Ordinary Time of Prayer

Let’s take a step back for a moment and see the big picture of the Christian Year. We have thus far experienced Advent and Christmas with the birth of Christ. We moved through Epiphany with its focus on the light of Christ for the world. We experienced Lent, celebrated Easter and spent weeks in Eastertide, basking in the glory of the resurrection. Christ’s ascension, then the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost have come.

Now we are in Ordinary Time – the longest season of the Christian Year. It isn’t sexy. It goes on and on until Advent finally arrives again, months later. We are in the doldrums of summer and the daily reality of living with the tedium of doing what we need to do, over and over again.

Prayer can sometimes feel that way. Although it is the normal ordinary vocation of every believer, prayer is not always easy nor is it done consistently.

David’s Time of Prayer

David continued a practice of prayer in his reign, just as he had done repeatedly in the years leading up to becoming the king. The compiler of stories about David wanted to ensure the connection between prayer, obedience, and success. King David inquired of God, did exactly what God told him to do, and then watched God act on behalf of the people.

It sounds simple when I put it that way, doesn’t it? Pray. Obey. Succeed. Yet we know it really isn’t so easy. The monotony and demands of our lives have a way of crowding out such a simple plan. Although it might only require a few minutes of our time to stop and inquire of God before acting, we still may not do it, believing our anxious action to be more necessary than a brief pause.

King David faced and defeated the opposition because he deliberately took the time and effort to ask God for direction in what to do. David neither trusted in his own past experience nor his accumulated expertise. Rather, he kept up his ongoing practice of living by faith and trusting the Lord to guide him.

Sometimes we ask for divine guidance and get what seems to be weird answers. David was given precise instructions in dealing with the Philistines. From the vantage of a human General, the orders didn’t make a lot of sense. However, David did not hesitate to do exactly what he was told – and there was a decisive victory.

Our Time of Prayer

When it comes to our prayers, we ought to expect the unexpected. God’s answers frequently look more like problems than answers. They are often not what we expect. We may fail to see how they correspond to our prayers.

If we inquire of God to love others, the Lord just might respond by having us pay attention to someone in our lives who is obnoxious to us, whom we rather would not be around, at all. (Mark 12:31; Luke 10:29)

If we inquire of God to be near us, the Lord may break our hearts to especially be close to us. (Psalm 73:28; Psalm 34:18)

If we inquire of God to receive grace and mercy, the Lord will likely dismantle our pride and humble our hearts. (James 4:6)

If we inquire of God for justice to be done on this earth, the Lord might put the spotlight on our own lives and expose our spiritual bankruptcy, cause us to mourn, and make us meek, as the Son is meek. (Matthew 5:3-5)

If we inquire of God for wisdom and discernment, the Lord could send a muddle of confusion for us to work through, teaching us to distinguish between good and evil. (Hebrews 5:14)

If we inquire of God to save us from our predicament and take away our fear and anxiety, we may get only silence for a long while – prompting us to persevere in prayer. (Luke 17:5; 2 Corinthians 5:7)

If we inquire of God for money, the Lord might give us opportunities to give money away and deplete our resources – helping to build treasure in heaven, not just on earth. (Matthew 6:19-21; Luke 16:13)

If we inquire of God for happiness, the Lord just may take away a bunch of our stuff so that we will know the surpassing joy of knowing Christ. (John 16:24; Philippians 3:8)

Many of God’s best and greatest gifts come in the form of befuddling answers. If we learn to go with it and obey, a new world of possibility is opened to us that we never would have anticipated.

Being in Ordinary Time doesn’t necessarily mean getting ordinary answers to our prayers.

 Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.

*Above painting of King David by Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656)