This sermon was preached by the Rev. Nancy Vogele on Sunday, October 1, 2017, the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. The readings and Psalm were Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, Psalm 25:1-9, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32.
When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 21:23-32)
A Preliminary Remark: During the Spring Term of my first year at Dartmouth – towards the very end of the term – Billy Graham gave a lecture in Thompson Area. I convinced someone in the dorm to go with me. I remember bits and pieces of his talk but especially his invitation to stay after his lecture to talk with people from the area churches. A student in my French 2 class that term, Elena, and someone else saw that I had stayed and so approached me. We talked and they gave me a few brochures including one that had a verse on it: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility consider others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). I kept that little card in my wallet for years and thought I still had it in my keepsake box but couldn’t find it this morning when I looked. I did find the ticket for the Billy Graham lecture.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility consider others above yourselves” – let this mind be in you that was in Christ…
I love Paul’s letter to the Philippians – it was the book of the Bible chosen for my first Bible Study during my sophomore summer. It’s not very long so easy to read in one setting – though very much worth taking a little bit at a time to properly take it in and savor it. It’s a love letter to the faithful in Philippi: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Philippians 1:3-6).
Not today, but next week, my sermon will focus on the passage from Philippians chosen for the day.
This week, the Gospel reading is my main focus, in particular the second part – the parable of the two sons.
My mom tells the story about one afternoon before going out to do errands, she asked my brother Tom to mow the lawn. He protested, saying, “Mom! I always have to mow the lawn. It’s not fair! Mark never has to do it!” Undaunted, she next went to Mark (who was sitting in front of the tv) and asked him to take out the trash. “Sure, mom.”
When my mom came back from her errands, there was Tom mowing the lawn. She came into the kitchen and there was the trash which still hadn’t been taken out. “Mark, didn’t I tell you to take out the trash?” “Oh yeah. Sorry Mom.”
Which of the two did the will of his mother? Basically, Tom – even though he wasn’t very pleasant to my mother at first.
And at first glance, today’s message seems rather straightforward as well: it’s not enough to say you’ll do something. You have to do it. As the Epistle of James states, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
But Jesus didn’t tell simple one-dimensional parables, did he? There’s got to be something more to this parable than simply doing what you’re asked to do.
Jesus told this parable in the Temple immediately after being confronted by the chief priests and the elders of the people who asked him by what authority he was doing all the things he was doing?
Authority –this seems to be what Jesus is getting at in his parable of the two sons.
To what or to whom do you grant authority in your life? The government? Your boss? Your parents? Your spouse? Your car mechanic? Your doctor? Your pastor? God?
To what or to whom do you say you give authority but are just playing lip service in order to get them or it off your back? The government? Your boss? Your parents? Your spouse? Your car mechanic? Your doctor? Your pastor? God?
Why is it so hard to grant true authority to someone or something other than ourselves? Where does this problem with authority come from? One person might say, “Well, you see, I had an overbearing father, and so it’s difficult for me to give authority to men.” Or: “How can I grant authority to someone I’m smarter than?!” Or: “I didn’t vote for him so shy should I acknowledge his authority?” Or: “Well, I’m stubborn and rebellious. I just don’t like to be told what to do by anyone!”
Now we’re getting somewhere. While our problem with authority might be exacerbated by a difficult parent or differing opinions, the main reason that we have a problem with authority because we simply don’t want to submit. We prefer to play lip-service to authority.
This is what Jesus says the Pharisees and religious establishment we’re doing: playing lip service to God. They were the second son, sounding very obedient, and yet being disobedient. You see, they had confused what the work was. The Pharisees thought the work was following every detail of the law, keeping kosher, not defiling themselves, etc. They clung to these external works and forgot that the supreme work that God was calling them to was an inward one. Because they thought they knew God’s will, because they were excelling at their version of God’s will by following all the laws, etc, they refused to listen to Jesus when he told them otherwise. They refused to believe him…and to believe in him.
Like the Pharisees, we might think that the work is serving on Council or some other church committee, or being a reader or Assisting Minister or pianist or choir member, or helping with the upkeep of our property, or being a pastor. You might think that the work is being a good person – getting your act together. This might come as a shocker to you, but that’s not the work. The work is believing – having faith in Jesus. Everything else is a by-product of believing.
This is underscored in Jesus’ comment to the Pharisees, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31b-32)
Theologian Robert Farrar Capon writes, “It is not that those disreputable types will be saved because they straightened up and flew right; it is that they will be saved just because they believed. And it’s not that the rulers will run a poor second because they took a nosedive into evil works after a previously respectable flight pattern…they are condemned for their faithless nonacceptance of the grace that [Jesus offered]” (pp. 107-108).
I’m not saying that outward works are insignificant – that if you serve on Council, it doesn’t matter…or God forbid that if you help the needy that it makes no difference. It does. What I am saying is that, instead of getting caught up in these outward works, we must first concentrate on the inward work of faith – the one thing required – to believe in Jesus and his message. To trust it and live its truth.
There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love or our salvation, we can’t. But the Good News – the Gospel – is that we don’t have to. All we have to do is trust – not in ourselves or our good works or in the fact that we are becoming better human beings. No, the first step is to actually distrust ourselves actually and trust God. Augustine of Hippo is reported to have said to God, “I will distrust myself, I will trust in you.”
As Robert Farrar Capon writes, “The first son had the grace to distrust his own first formulation of what was actually going on between him and his father and to eat crow, [to trust in his father’s authority,] turning his self-regarding no of works into an other-regarding yes of faith. And for that faith, he is commended as having done the will of his father…And that will is one thing and one only: believing. It is trust in him – anytime, anywhere, anyhow.” (Capon, 110).
You don’t have to prove yourself worthy by your good works. That was the huge message I took away from the new PBS documentary on Martin Luther. As much as he tried to be good and please God, he was a sinner – a wretched sinner. And the church’s teaching on salvation – either by good works or by buying indulgences – was a lie. You can’t earn or buy your salvation. But, his great revelation was that we don’t have to – we only have to believe – sola fide – in God’s grace offered to us as a gift through his Son. And that, Luther said, frees us up to stop worrying about ourselves and our salvation – to stop worrying if we have done enough good to outweigh the bad. It frees us up to stop having to constantly focus on ourselves and our salvation and instead, knowing that we are accepted, loved, and free – able to then focus on others and how we might serve them.
This gave me a huge insight into the bible verse from Philippians. It’s not that I’m supposed to become a doormat or take second seat to everyone else’s needs. It’s that, now that I know I am saved – that God loves me unconditionally no matter what, I no longer have to always be thinking of me, myself, and I – I can let go of my own ambition and conceit – of trying to prove myself and flaunt it when I do – I can let go of my existential angst because in believing Jesus that angst is taken away. So I no longer need to worry about myself – I can, in humility, focus on others – consider them above myself.
We can and must stop trying to prove ourselves worthy through being good and doing good and showing the world that we have cleaned up our act or anything like that. We simply need to believe that we are already forgiven and loved – apart from ANYTHING we have done or need to do.
In a world that says you have to earn your place – earn respect – it is no wonder that Jesus’ complete reversal of that message is hard to believe – hard to trust. But it is the truth: “The Father’s will for you – his whole will, his entire plan of salvation – is that you believe in Jesus, nothing more. He has already forgiven you, he has already reconciled you, he has already raised you up together with Jesus and made you sit together in heavenly places with him. And better yet, Jesus himself has already pronounced upon you the approving judgment of having done his Father’s will. But if you do not believe him – if you insist on walking up to the bar of judgment on your own faithless feet and arguing a case he has already dismissed – well, you will never hear the blessed silence of his uncondemnation over the infernal racket of your own voice” (Capon, 110).
Jesus’ message is this: God loves you. God forgives you. God accepts you. – NOW just as you are. Believe it and be free. AMEN.
(The Parables of Judgment, Robert Farrar Capon, Eerdmans Press, 1989.)