Words are Backed Up with Deeds

Written by Joel on September 28th, 2011

Another parable set in a vineyard

Sep 25, 2011
Proper 21
Matthew 21:23-32

Which is better: To say the right words, or to do what is right? That is the dilemma presented in today’s Parable. It would seem that the Pharisees are yet again able to answer correctly with right words, and yet not able to back up their words with deeds.

Our gospel readings put us in the middle of a set of quite challenging parables, beginning last week (the first will be last, the last will be first), today and for the next 2 weeks, Jesus offers parables which upset the status quo. It would seem that Jesus is not in the business of making friends right now, especially not with the religious leaders of his day. The readings skip Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem when he is received as the messiah king, thus challenging authority. The very first thing Jesus does after arriving in Jerusalem is to kick over the tables in the temple, again exerting his authority. His is an authority that comes from heaven, and an authority which will not be satisfied with the conventional structures of his day – the way it has been. So it is in this context: Jesus is received as messiah king and he kicks over the tables that the chief priests and the elders ask “Who do you think you are?” and “What gives you the right?”

To some extent, perhaps this may be an honest question: Who are you, Jesus? He was a traveler to Jerusalem, perhaps they may have thought that Jesus represented a religious order or school of thought. They might be asking “Who are you, so we can decided if you’re worth listening to.” But on the other hand it could be an attempt at playing a trump card. There was no higher authority than the temple and the chief priests and elders which represented it. So those elders might be saying: “Tell us your authority, Jesus – is your authority by some teacher, some school, some institution? Well that’s great – well we have a higher authority, so shape up and listen to us.” It would appear that they did not consider Christ’s heavenly authority. Jesus has an authority that answers to no one. Jesus doesn’t need to try to explain it to them; the Pharisees are so blind to the real authority right before them. Jesus tries to help them along, to help them see it by pointing back to John the Baptist. Was John’s a human authority or a heavenly one? The Pharisees are so concerned about having the “right” answer and the crowd’s opinion, so paralyzed with concern for popularity that they fail to pick either answer. “We do not know.”

Jesus tries to help them see the source of authority in another way, with a parable. He lets this next parable serve as a mirror that these Pharisees will hopefully see themselves in. Remember last Sunday, I said parables are an invitation to see yourself in the story. That is what Jesus is doing for the Pharisees here, which son are you Pharisees? The church today, as we read these challenging parables must also examine ourselves in the light of these parables.

Two sons. Neither is perfect – the first is openly disrespectful to his father telling him “No!” to his face, what an embarrassment Yet in the end he does fulfill his father’s will. The other, while obedient in word to the father’s face, he does not follow through. Which is better? I don’t believe this is a trick question. The obvious answer is probably the correct one here. Which one did the will of the father? The first. That son was a little slow to get there, but he had a change of heart – he changed his will to match his father’s will. Jesus doesn’t yell at the Pharisees because they answered incorrectly, but because all they have is the right answer. The had the right answer but the still failed to see how they are acting like the second son themselves – with no deeds to back up their “yes.” Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of heaven ahead of you! Though these sinners reject the father’s will now, we hold out hope for a change of heart which leads to repentance and a will which matches the father’s will. Where is your changed heart, Pharisees?

This parable has often been understood as how Christ brought a new law of love and grace into the world. The Synagogue is seen as a way of law (right words) and Christ’s new covenant of grace being the more full acting out of how to understand God’s will. But, we as Christians need to be willing to also look in the mirror of this parable and consider if we are ever at risk for falling into the pattern of the second “yes” son. Being a people with plenty of good words, right beliefs, yet of little action. Yes, Lord, I’ll go work in your vineyard…and then choosing not to go.

Brian Stoffregen offers a modernized version of this parable which shows what is at stake. There were two couples. The first got married in a large church ceremony. They pledged life long vows to one another and exchanged rings. But their relationship has been marked with abuse, both physical and verbal. Both have been unfaithful. The other couple lives together. They haven’t signed marriage licenses, they did not exchange vows or rings, but their relationship is marked with mutual love and respect. Which couple is doing the will of God? Well, they both seem to fall short. The first couple in how the act out their marriage; the second in how they view the importance of words and saying “yes” to God’s will in the first place. And that is what this parable is all about – calling us to make our will match God’s will. That our yes may be yes, and not just a word.

Christianity is in some ways in the place of the temple today. It is the established religion here, and it is all throughout our society. An establishment with plenty of right answers; but perhaps finds it challenging to do the will of God. It would seem that Christianity has become more about a set of beliefs (right words) and less about a way of life (right acts). Christians who order their lives with a discipline of daily prayer, fasting, worship, and sacrificially helping their neighbor rather than those who just believe all the right things.

Imagine a “yes” church, which follows in the way of the second son who said yes and then choose not to go. We might call it “Church of the 2nd Son.” This church gathers together every Sunday. They recite the creed, read scripture, and hear biblical sermons – they have all the right beliefs. They say yes. They read scripture about mission, about hospitality, about welcome. They say yes. They hear about worthy causes in their community and abroad so Church of the 2nd Son sends money – but only money. They say yes. Church of the 2nd Son says that it is very important for them to welcome new people into their community, but when visitors do show up they decide that new folks are not worth any extra effort. “Well, I said hi to them.” Church of the 2nd Son reads the parable of the sheep and the goats – you feed me, clothed me, visited me. They here these things, they say yes that’s a wonderful idea. But Church of the 2nd Son has no ministry in the community. That church has the right beliefs, the right words; but it is not living it’s faith. We cannot be like this Church of the 2nd Son.

I have a call for you County Line Church. A call I hope you will both say yes to with word and with action. This whole year I have been preaching about the importance of mission, of going out into our community. We have prayed about here together about mission, you have prayed at home individually about the mission of this church, and now is the time to stop just talking about it. Now is the time to let our yes turn into action. I announced last Sunday that I will be joining Grace Covenant Church of Harrisonburg as the go to Paugh’s Orchard, right down the road, to reach out the migrant workers who are here picking apples. Grace comes from 20 miles away to do ministry in our own backyard. Will we reach out in love to those who are need of it – to offer a sign of welcome; or will we go on and just read about it – just saying “yes.” Let’s not be a “yes” church which likes the idea of God’s will better than actually doing it. Invite you to join me, this Friday. We will gather right here at The County Line at 6:30 pm. We’ll have prayer and we will go. You don’t have to speak Spanish, you don’t have to know what you are doing – just come and see what mission looks like in our community.

Which is better – good words or good deeds? What is best is when our will matches God’s will, when our yes is backed by our action.


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