A Parable of Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32)

The Lord of the Parables by Argentine artist Jorge Cocco Santángelo

“What do you think? A man had two sons. Now he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

“‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went.

“The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go.

“Which one of these two did his father’s will?”

They said, “The first one.”

Jesus said to them, “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him. (Common English Bible)

Contemporary persons aren’t the only ones who want to know whose in and whose out; it’s been around forever.

In the ancient world of Jesus, people were always concerned about conformity to the established system and society of the way things are. For religious folk, who gets in and who gets left out was an important issue .So, Jesus decided to tell a parable about entrance into the kingdom of God.

Turns out, there are spiritual insiders on the outside of the kingdom, and spiritual outsiders who are the true inheritors of the kingdom.

The parable, at its core, is a warning to all the spiritually serious insiders: Beware, lest your energies be spent in correctness of behavior, conformity of belonging, and cockiness of belief rather than following Jesus. And, at the same time, the parable encourages spiritually estranged outsiders with the wonderful possibilities of a changed life. 

Far too many people arrogantly assume they have the inside track by what they believe, and not by doing God’s will.

It may be challenging for us to imagine how truly offensive Christ’s story was to the original hearers of the parable, so I restate it in a more contemporary form:

There was a man who was well respected in the community and had two sons. One son grew up and became a respectable member of the community, too. He was a successful businessman and gave lots of money to causes in his community, including new lights for the school football field – which was no small cost. He only asked that appropriate and prominent recognition be given him with a plaque bearing his name on each of the light poles. 

The other son was not so successful. He was the one in school who 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 people murmured behind his back. 

The Parable of the Two Sons by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

One day the father said to this son: “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.” “No way!” he answered, but later felt heartsick about the way he spoke to his father and decided to go and do all the grunt work his father needed done.

The father went to the well-respected son 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.” But that son did not go. 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 faith leaders and the people listening: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, folks with different sexual orientations, unemployed persons on the low rung of society, the religiously different with esoteric beliefs, immigrants from other countries, ex-convicts living in half-way houses, and persons with addictions are all entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.

For you have had heard thousands of sermons about grace and the way of righteousness, yet you did not believe by putting God’s Word into practice; but the others did. And even after you saw how God can change a person’s life from the inside-out, you yourselves did not repent and believe.

It was parables like this that created a religious scandal and eventually got Jesus killed.

The offense for many upstanding citizens is this: that their right doctrine and clean living is not the way of salvation.

Tax collectors and prostitutes were some of the most despised people in Christ’s time. It was simply assumed they were on the outside and would be judged by God.

However, the proof of genuine faith is not lip service but actively obeying God when no one is looking:

My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you? 

If you know someone who doesn’t have any clothes or food, you shouldn’t just say, “I hope all goes well for you. I hope you will be warm and have plenty to eat.” What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help? 

Faith that doesn’t lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead!

Suppose someone disagrees and says, “It is possible to have faith without doing kind deeds.” I would answer, “Prove that you have faith without doing kind deeds, and I will prove that I have faith by doing them.” 

You surely believe there is only one God. That’s fine. Even demons believe this, and it makes them shake with fear. (James 2:14-19, CEV)

The Christian life comes down to obedience, not cheap talk. Jesus wants to bless a lost world in need of God’s love and grace.

Jesus Preaching to the Multitude by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

If we have the spiritual ears to listen, we can hear numerous lost souls crying in the dark.

If we have the spiritual eyes to see, we can observe people overwhelmed with life circumstances standing in front of us.

If we have the spiritually strengthened hands willing to labor, we can support needy folks around us who can neither help themselves nor ask for it.

Whenever we take the focus off who is in and who is out, then without judgment and a heart full of compassion, we can address the:

  • Loneliness of so many people living alone and dying alone.
  • Shame which thousands secretly carry every day.
  • Pain of broken bodies, broken hearts, broken spirits, and broken minds experienced by individuals everywhere.

The Lord Jesus feels the loneliness, shame, and pain of people – which is why he told a parable like he did. Christ is looking to activate grace through his people, the church, to a world sinking in the depths of incredible human need.

Christ’s parable, however, is more than a warning; it is a story that flings open the door of mercy for unlikely people seemingly far from God – people who ruined their lives by saying “no” to God. The parable is an invitation for all the screw-ups and those with little faith to come to Jesus.

There is a rather obscure Scripture reference, tucked away in the Old Testament. David was on the outside looking in. King Saul was on the inside trying to capture and kill him, even though David had done nothing wrong. Here is what happened:

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 and these were the “mighty men,” the ones who helped bring Israel into prominence. 

Jesus Christ came into this world and identified himself as the Savior to the outsider when he quoted the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21, NRSV)

In Christ, there are no lost causes and no persons too far on the outside to be redeemed.

Therefore, now is the time to act on what we believe – to not only affirm right doctrine, but to live out that doctrine in obedience to God’s call. Amen.

Get Rid of Sin (1 Corinthians 6:1-11)

The Apostle Paul at his Desk, by Rembrandt, 1657

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels, to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one person wise enough to decide between brothers and sisters? Instead, brothers and sisters go to court against one another, and this before the unbelievers.

In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and brothers and sisters at that.

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (New Revised Standard Version)

The one constant which every Church and each Christian will have to deal with until Jesus returns is the ever-present reality of sin

“Sin” isn’t a word that is much used anymore, even among many Christians. This is both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that we have expanded our vocabulary to better understand the concept and reality; and it’s bad because we sometimes label something as different than what it really is.

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church confronts the presence of sin within the congregation. The reason why the letter is so long is that Paul painstakingly deals with every sin that had taken root in the community.

St. Paul at His Writing Desk by Rembrandt, 1630

In our New Testament lesson for today, Paul mentions some of those sins, especially tackling the unhealthy way the Christians were dealing with their internal strained relations of each other. One of the ways sin manifests itself is through confronting another’s sin with our own sin. Yeah, it gets complicated pretty quickly when that happens.

In other words, we too often try to meet a legitimate need through illegitimate means. That sort of practice is at the core of many a sinful attitude and action.

So then, there were those in the Corinthian Church who had legitimate grievances but sought to rectify the situation using secular means to handle a sacred need. Instead of focusing on restoration and relationship, utilizing the spiritual implements of gentleness and humility, they gave into the temptation for retribution through unrighteous persons who would level judgment.

None of this is intended for Christians to avoid the established court systems of the land. Rather, it is a warning not to punch somebody in the face when they slap you on the cheek. Seeking punishment isn’t the way of Christ. Reconciliation and restoration has been achieved through the cross of Christ – and Paul expected the Church to live as a new community based in mutual encouragement and accountability.

Paul clearly saw the shadowy places of the human heart and understood that light needed to come to those hidden areas. And he wasn’t about to sit back and let bitterness spread like gangrene in the Body of Christ.

Sin is both things we do (1 John 3:4), as well as things we leave undone (James 4:17). Sin is both the breaking of God’s commands, and the lack of conforming to the teachings of Jesus. 

Christians throughout the ages have generally understood that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Christ’s law of love (Luke 10:27) constitute a brief summary of God’s holy and moral instruction for humanity.  This is all based in the character of God as a holy and loving Being. 

Sin, then, may be defined as anything in a person which does not express, or is contrary to, the basic character of God. All sin, whether in our actions or inactions, is rooted in an attitude and activity of self-centeredness, of thinking about ourselves as the center of the universe, rather than God. 

The Apostle Paul, by Rembrandt, 1633

The consequence of this sin brings about an obsession with lust (1 John 8:34; Galatians 5:16); a broken relationship with God (Romans 3:23; Galatians 5:17); bondage to Satan (1 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:26); death (Romans 6:23; 8:6); hardening of the heart (Hebrews 3:13); and deception (1 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22, 26) just to a name a few.

This means that we are guilty of transgressing basic morality; we fail to live into being ethically virtuous people on any sort of consistent basis. Yes, I know this all sounds like a total Debbie-Downer. Well, actually, it’s total depravity. But being depraved doesn’t mean we are never capable of doing good; it just means that sin has profoundly touched everything in our lives, without exception.

The ironic paradox is that experiencing true joy and satisfaction comes through knowing how great our sin is. We live above sin by being set free from it through the grace of God in Jesus Christ. 

In order to be redeemed from sin, a provision must be made – and sin has been dealt with, once and for all, through the person and work of Jesus. Christ is our representative, taking our place with the retribution we deserved (Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:9-15; Hebrews 2:17-18; 1 John 2:1).

Jesus Christ is our ultimate substitute (Romans 5:8); which resulted in our redemption (Galatians 5:13); which resulted in his sacrifice for sin satisfying all justice (Romans 3:25); which resulted in our reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10). 

Therefore the believer in Jesus is forgiven of sin because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to deal with all the effects, consequences, and origin of sin. The sin issue has been handled decisively and definitively; the Christian is now complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).

Sin is awful. It ruins relationships and destroys everything it touches. Sin leaves terrible consequences in its wake and a bad aftertaste. Yet, sin does not have the last word; grace does. 

Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is the decisive blow to sin’s power. The Church is built on this foundation of grace and reconciliation between God and people. Anything less is neither Christian nor a Church but a country club of people plotting to get back at others while eating tartlets and talking gossip. 

The bad news is that sin is really bad; but the good news is that Christ is really good, and overcomes the worst that sin can throw at him. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.

Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 – The Beauty in Brokenness

The Almighty God, the Lord, speaks;
    he calls to the whole earth from east to west.
God shines from Zion,
    the city perfect in its beauty.

Our God is coming, but not in silence;
    a raging fire is in front of him,
    a furious storm around him.
He calls heaven and earth as witnesses
    to see him judge his people.
He says, “Gather my faithful people to me,
    those who made a covenant with me by offering a sacrifice.”
The heavens proclaim that God is righteous,
    that he himself is judge.

“Listen, my people, and I will speak;
    I will testify against you, Israel.
    I am God, your God.
I do not reprimand you because of your sacrifices
    and the burnt offerings you always bring me….

“Listen to this, you that ignore me,
    or I will destroy you,
    and there will be no one to save you.
Giving thanks is the sacrifice that honors me,
    and I will surely save all who obey me.” (Good News Translation)

In the beginning, all of creation was a vessel filled with divine light. Then, it broke, and the shards of holiness were strewn across the earth. Those broken pieces are all around us. Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, we don’t see them because of our own darkness.

Ever since, the Lord has been on a mission, bending down, carefully looking for the broken shards, finding them, and picking them up. From east to west, God has been gathering together everyone on earth – the broken yet divinely lighted humans.

A major theme throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture is that God is reaching all kinds of people all over the world. Indeed, the Bible is a long unfolding drama of redemption in which the Lord does whatever it takes to restore a fundamentally broken world.

“Kintsugi” (literally, in English, “golden joinery”) is a centuries-old Japanese art form of repairing broken pottery with gold. Instead of rejoining broken ceramic pieces with a clear camouflaged adhesive, the kintsugi technique uses a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold. After restoration, beautiful seams of gold glint in the obvious cracks of the ceramic vessel. This also means that every restored ceramic piece has a unique appearance; no two of them are the same.

The Lord is presently in the divine workshop, putting broken shards of humanity together. And God isn’t trying to hide or disguise the cracks and flaws; it’s just the opposite: God celebrates the artifact by emphasizing it’s fractures and breaks. As it turns out, the restoration which the Lord employs brings the vessel to even greater beauty than it originally enjoyed. It’s the transformation of a new existence from the old.

The deepest yearning in every human soul is to become whole again, to return to their spiritual source, to experience belonging and union with the Beloved.

Amidst the human pain all around us, and within us, we can observe the sacred light, and turn in the direction of beauty. We can hear the call of God to respond with gratitude and thanksgiving, instead of relying upon some physical or monetary sacrifice to suffice our spiritual obligations.

We are here to participate with God in redeeming that which is broken. The sacrificial activity that honors the Lord, and gathers the strewn shards, is a grateful heart with lips that speak thankfulness. Humanity can only see the power of God to save and restore, whenever us jars of clay practice gratitude and obedience to the Lord.

The world’s observation of a perfect vessel is not what draws anyone to faith. Rather, it is seeing an imperfect vessel, put together with a divine glue of gold, the cracks visible and showing for all to notice. Perfectionism is repellent to most folk; it smacks of others attempting to appear something they are not; it’s disingenuous and insincere.

Imperfection, however, speaks of being genuine and real; it brings solidarity with others; it relates and seeks to connect. Observing broken pieces put back together through God’s kintsugi communicates that suffering can be changed into beauty.

Today’s psalm is a reminder for us to stay optimistic when things fall apart and to celebrate the flaws and missteps of life. It teaches us that, when God breaks and destroys, this is not necessarily a mark of judgment. It lets us know that we can be calm when all falls apart. It reminds us that the fragility of humanity is not ugly but beautiful. It reminds us that amidst so much complexity, there is simple beauty all around us, if we will but seek and see.

In a world that has a hard time accepting all the breaks, scars, and imperfections of life, there is a God who is undisturbed by it all. The Lord gently, patiently, and skillfully puts us back together again so that a beautiful transformation of heart and life results.

The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)

Grant us, O God, not to be anxious about earthly things but to love things heavenly and, even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Ephesians 3:14-21 – A Prayer for Every Believer

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul in St Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

For this reason, I fall on my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth receives its true name. I ask God from the wealth of his glory to give you power through his Spirit to be strong in your inner selves, and I pray that Christ will make his home in your hearts through faith. I pray that you may have your roots and foundation in love, so that you, together with all God’s people, may have the power to understand how broad and long, how high and deep, is Christ’s love. Yes, may you come to know his love—although it can never be fully known—and so be completely filled with the very nature of God.

To him who by means of his power working in us is able to do so much more than we can ever ask for, or even think of: to God be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus for all time, forever and ever! Amen. (Good News Translation)

In Jesus Christ, the believer has been given incredible blessings – adoption into God’s family and belonging with God, redemption through Christ’s cross and experiencing freedom from the power of sin, and intimacy and help by means of God’s own Spirit.

Today’s New Testament lesson is a prayer of the Apostle Paul for the Church. After three chapters of describing who we are and what we have in Christ as Christians, he goes to prayer, asking that the new life we have in Christ will be pressed firmly into our heads and our hearts so that this reality of spiritual blessings will be practically realized for the believer.

Here’s a quick remedial grammar lesson: a “verb” expresses an action between two things; a “participle” or “participial phrase” is a word or group of words which help describe the action of the verb.

There are two main verbs Paul uses: “I ask (pray)” for God “to give.” The participles all explain or modify the action of pray and give. In other words, the following actions are what Paul deeply desires that God will do for us as believers in Jesus….

To Become Mighty Through the Spirit

God grants us all the blessings of being in Christ. We are delivered from sin, death, and hell so that we will live into God’s purposes for this new life of freedom.

We live into the Christian life, on a practical level, as our faith is strengthened, and our inner person becomes powerful. This is the Spirit’s work in us – to strengthen our spiritual spine so that we can bear and carry our cross in this life, despite whatever the adversity or difficulty.

We are not alone. The Spirit is with us always. God is present. The believer is never promised that life will be a bowl of cherries and that being a Christian is all rainbows and unicorns. However, the believer is assured that God will be with us through the trouble – which is why we need a strong and robust faith.

You set a table for me
    right in front of my enemies. (Psalm 23:5, CEB)

To Dwell In Christ Through Faith

The “heart” in the New Testament is a reference not to the physical muscle in our chest but the seat or center of our inner person.

Paul’s prayer is that God gives or plants the seeds of the gospel in the hearts of people. Those good seeds then take root and become anchored firmly in the soul. They grow and mature, producing a harvest of love.

Not only do those roots grow down and deep, but they also grow out and connect with all other believers everywhere.

To Grasp God’s Love in Christ Through the Spirit

Enjoying this mystical union with Christ and connection with Christians, we come to experientially grasp together the vast dimensions of God’s love for us. God’s love is a multiverse of blessing. In fact, an eternity in heaven will never reach the bottom or top of the God who is Love itself.

When God our Savior made his kindness and love for humanity appear, he saved us, but not because of anything we had done to gain his approval. Instead, because of his mercy he saved us through the washing in which the Holy Spirit gives us new birth and renewal. God poured a generous amount of the Spirit on us through Jesus Christ our Savior. (Titus 3:4-6, GW)

To be filled with all the fullness of Love, is to be filled thoroughly with God – because God is Love.

My dear friends, we must love each other. Love comes from God, and when we love each other, it shows we have been given new life. We are now God’s children, and we know him. God is love, and anyone who doesn’t love others has never known him. (1 John 4:7-8, CEV)

Conclusion

Prayer is a gift. Like a little child bursting into her daddy’s office at work and crawling up on his lap, so we have the wondrous privilege of coming to God without hindrance and asking for whatever we need and want.

And what God wants and enjoys hearing, is us asking for spiritual strength, faith, and love. Because it is these things which create a thriving inner person who blesses others.

May it be so, to the glory of God, for the edification of the Church, and in the proclamation of the gospel. Amen.