15 Pentecost Proper A21
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 21:23-32 Sermon
September 25, 2011
Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
508 "Thou Whose Almighty Word"
416 "Oh That The Lord Would Guide My Ways"
628 "Shepherd Of Tender Youth"
PROMISES BROKEN, PROMISES KEPT
TEXT: (vs. 28-31) “28 "What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' 29And he answered, 'I will not,' but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”
There's a story about a man who was going through some of his father's old clothing, getting it ready to donate to the thrift shop. His father had died a number of years previously, and he just hadn't gotten around to taking care of some of the little details.
He decided that before he sent the clothes off, he would go through the pockets to be sure there was nothing left behind. So he reached his hand into the pocket of an old overcoat, and he pulled out a dry cleaning claim check from years ago.
Now he didn't know whether or not the dry cleaner was still in business, so he looked the name up in the phone book. Yes, the cleaner was still around. So just out of curiosity, he took the claim check into the dry cleaner and handed it to the man behind the counter. The man looked at the claim check, and then began to thumb through a small file box. He pulled out the cleaning ticket, looked it over, and then said, "Ah, here it is. It will be ready on Tuesday."
Now I don't know when this man's father took whatever article of clothing it was to the cleaners. But I sincerely doubt if the cleaners would have told the man that his garment wouldn't be ready for however many years it had been. They probably would have given him a more realistic sounding figure, most likely no more than a couple weeks at the most. If they had told the truth, the man would have gone to a different dry cleaner.
Now I have no idea if this story is true or not, but it does point out a situation that people experience over and over again. People make promises all the time, and those promises are really nothing more than pure fabrications.
Why do people do this? Why do people make promises that they really have no intention of keeping? It frequently happens because the person making the promise is telling the other person what they think they want to hear. If a repair shop thinks a person wants to hear that their item will be ready in a couple days, then that's what they will tell them. And when it isn't ready and the customer begins to get a bit irate, then the excuses will start to flow. "The situation was a bit worse than we expected." Or, "We had to order a special part, and it hasn't come in yet." Or, "We didn't mean this Thursday, we meant next Thursday." You get the idea.
As a pastor, I've heard a lot of promises in my time. I can't tell you how many people I've had stand in front of me at the altar, and in front of an entire church full of people they each will say: "...to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part..." Then several years later, they're in front of a judge signing papers that dissolve the marriage. The promise they made to God before witnesses has turned into a divorce statistic. And this happens in our society at the rate of 50 percent. The marriage vows ring hollow, and are regarded as so much excess baggage in life.
Every time I baptize a child, I ask the parents and sponsors to promise that they will bring the child up in the Christian faith. They are to bring them to church, teach them the fundamentals, and provide for their further instruction. They give a resounding "yes" to this promise, and I wind up never seeing them again.
And then with people I have taught and confirmed, they make a promise as well. They pledge to remain true to the Christian faith, to be a responsible member of the Church, and to regularly receive the Lord's Supper. Each one says, "I do by the help of God." Many who have made this promise will not darken the doorway of a church for years to come. It is so often a hollow promise.
Yes, people make promises based upon what other people want to hear. They'll promise something just to get another person off their backs. They don't actually mean it. And we have to deal with this kind of attitude all the time.
It wasn't any different in Jesus' day either. People did the same thing. People made empty promises. And that's what makes the illustration Jesus uses so timely and universal. This is something that everybody has experienced at one time or another.
The illustration is simple. It's the story of a father with two sons. He asks both of them to help him work in the vineyard with the grape harvest.
Now he really needed their help. As we discussed last week, the grape harvest had to be done in a very narrow window of time. Once the grapes were ready to be picked, it had to happen quickly, or they would begin to rot on the vine. And then they would be of no value to anybody.
Both of the sons would have known this. So the second son tells his dad that he will help, because he knows that's what his father wanted to hear. But he says it without any intention of keeping his promise. So he goes off and does what he wants, and neglects his father's business.
The first son was a bit more honest about what he said. He told his father "no," because he felt that he had better things to do. But after he thought a while about it, he realized how much his father needed his help. The things he wanted to do on his own could wait. His father's grapes could not. So he changes his plans and does what his father wanted him to do in the first place.
So the second son brings his father disappointment. The first son brings his father a pleasant surprise. Then Jesus asks the question in verse 31, "Which of the two did the will of his father?" The answer is obvious.
In order to better understand this whole situation, we need to look at our Gospel reading for today in its proper setting. Chronologically, this happened right after Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey amidst the shouts of "Hosanna! Lord save us!" This was during that week that would end with Jesus hanging on the cross on Golgotha. He would be tried by the Sanhedrin, and executed by the Romans. His work of salvation had almost been completed.
If we look at the verses just prior to our Gospel lesson, this is the account of Jesus coming into the temple, where he upsets the tables of the money changers and drives them out of the temple with a whip he fashions out of cords. He says, "My father's house is to be called a house of prayer, but you have made it into a den of thieves." And this really upset things!
So now we come to our Gospel lesson for today. Jesus comes back into the temple and begins teaching. And the elders and chief priests are there, waiting for him. They come up to Jesus and ask him the question recorded in verse 23: "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"
Now before we get too critical of those temple authorities, we need to remember that these men were in charge of the day-to-day activities in the temple. They needed to be sure that whatever was done happened according to the Law of Moses. This is the way that things were done "decently and in order." So when they ask the question about authority, it was a legitimate inquiry.
Jesus actually honored their question with a question of his own. This was not only an accepted tradition of that culture, but the question contained within it, the answer to their inquiry. Jesus answered them in verses 24 and 25: "I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?" This question told the high priests and elders that his authority and John's authority come from the same place.
It is at this point in today's Gospel that we get some insight into the true nature of these chief priests and elders. They were more concerned about their image than they were about the truth. They were not in any way, shape, or form interested in the right answer to Jesus' question. Instead, they were concerned about their standing before the people.
Jesus basically had them painted into a corner. They were smart enough to realize where each conclusion to the question would lead them. So they took the easy way out. They simply respond, "I don't know."
We have to remember that these officials were hypocrites. They would say one thing, but actually believed and did the opposite. Jesus uses this story of the two sons to show how hypocritical they were.
If we look at the two sons in Jesus' parable, the second son is the hypocrite. He's the one making the big promises, but with no intention of keeping them. Jesus uses this to demonstrate what God thought of the Jewish officials and their attitude. They didn't care about what God actually wanted; they were more concerned about their own image in the community. They really liked the fake facade of righteousness and holiness. They were full of empty promises.
The first son however represents the life of a true Christian. Jesus uses the comparison of the prostitutes, tax collectors, and the rest of sinful society. They had no false pretense of being holy. They knew their sinfulness only too well. They knew that they could not be righteous in and of themselves. They were honest with themselves, and so all they could do was come to God in a spirit of repentance. They didn't make false promises to God with the hope that God would believe their lie. They came to God desiring forgiveness and restoration. They make their appeal to God's grace.
The temple authorities refused to believe that they deserved any punishment. Therefore John's message had no meaning for them. There is no Gospel where there is no knowledge of sin.
When Jesus told that parable in today's Gospel, his primary audience was those temple authorities who challenged him, but he speaks to us as well. The war that began in us on the day that the Holy Spirit planted faith in our hearts continues. A day doesn't go by that we do not play the part of both sons. At times we scream "NO" in God's face until he draws us to himself through the words of the Gospel; and through the Holy Spirit he gives us the ability to say, "Yes." And sadly there are other times we say, "Yes!" with our lips, but our hearts are far from God.
We are often like the sons in the parable. Sometimes, we fight God's will until his love brings us into the Kingdom of Heaven. Other times we say "yes" quickly with no intention of keeping our promise. Thankfully Jesus is not like either son. He agreed immediately and obeyed perfectly. He has done all things well; and through faith in him we have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
In closing this morning, I'm going to tell you a true story, one that was told me by a highway patrolman. A teenage driver had been ticketed numerous times for seatbelt violations. His parents took his car keys and drivers' license away from him because he just wouldn't learn his lesson.
Then he landed a good job a short distance away, but he had to drive to get there. So he begged and pleaded with his parents to give him back his keys and license. They agreed to do this, but he had to promise that he would wear his seat belt. They even made him sign a paper vowing that he would do this.
It was a rainy afternoon, and he was running late to work. On the freeway, he began to hydroplane. He clipped the rear end of a lady's car, putting her into a spin and forcing her to crash into a cement barrier. She was wearing her seatbelt, her airbag deployed, and she came through it with nary a scratch on her.
The young man had a far different story. His vehicle spun around three times and his body was thrown out of the passenger side window. When his airbag deployed, he was no longer in the car. He was lying dead along side the road. The only part of him left in the car was the brain matter hanging from the broken passenger side window.
Broken promises can result in tragedy, as this story illustrates. The highway patrolman I was speaking to was the first responder to that accident. And it deeply affected him.
There's an old saying that goes, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." God is not impressed with good intentions and broken promises. They lead absolutely nowhere, and in the end they will lead to death.
We can be thankful that even when we break our promises, God keeps his. He kept his promise in his Son Jesus Christ. When we see the futility of our own righteousness, we know that through faith in Jesus our Saviour we will see our eternal reward. That's a promise that we can be sure will never, ever be broken.