“What do you think?” You ought to get a bit nervous when Jesus asks that kind of question. The divine Physician has his stethoscope right over your heart and is listening for faith and unbelief. The parables are tricky enough. Worse still are a question and a parable. So what do you think?
A man had two sons. The older son is somewhat of a snotty brat whose first words out of his mouth are “no.” First-borns can be like that. I know, I’m one of them. They’re used to their parents undivided attention. Undiluted praise and adulation for every little thing. And they aren’t exactly thrilled when number two shows up. Usually, they let the world know it, one way or another. First-borns are known for being the “high-maintenance” children. Demanding, picky, difficult. They tend to be the rule makers, the attention grabbers, the parent pleasers, the tradition keepers. It’s no accident that a large number of clergy are first-born sons. You’re listening to one.
We’re not surprised to hear a snotty “no” to the father’s request to work, followed by a reluctant turn on the heels as the boy heads out to the vineyard to work. Duty and obligation call. We don’t know if he was happy about it or if he kicked stones and dirt as he went. Did he run or shuffle to the vineyard? All we know is that he did what his father asked.
The second son does the exactly the opposite, which second sons are prone to do. What are you supposed to do when you live in the constant shadow of older brother who gets all the praise? He says a pious and respectful “yes, sir,” snaps a crisp salute, and then heads off to party with his buddies.
Which of the two did the will of their father? What do you think?
Before you answer that loaded question, notice a couple of things. Who’s the first son, according to Jesus? Not the religious. The tax collectors and prostitutes! The “unreligious.” Their whole lives were one, big fat “no” until they received the best offer they ever heard in their lives: Free forgiveness. Full pardon, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. “Repent and be baptized.” Such a deal! Such a gift, and they jumped at it like a handout. What could be better than free forgiveness?
For the religious, there is nothing more offensive, more dangerous, more obnoxious to religious sensibility, than free forgiveness. The idea that tax collectors and prostitutes and a whole world of poor, miserable sinners enter the kingdom ahead of the pious and the proper. That’s as bad as those eleventh hour workers we heard about last week, who put in a light hour and get the same day’s wage as those who worked the entire day.
Notice also that both sons are actually sons of their father. They’re both card-carrying members of the household. Deadbeat sons, to be sure. But sons nonetheless. Both have a place at their father’s table. Both live under their father’s good grace. And neither of them is really terribly likable or loyal. One despises his father to his face; the other despises his father behind his back.
Now then, what do you think? Which of the two sons did the will of his father? The easy answer is the first son, of course.. That’s the religious answer from the religious authorities, and Jesus will run with it, if you insist. It makes sense. The commandment-keeper did the will of his father. He may have grumbled and mumbled about it, like a teenager who’s just been asked to clean up his room. But in the end he did what his father asked.
But stop and think about it. Neither son really did the will of his father. Not with all his heart and with all his strength. Not by word and deed. Not with lips and life. Both need to repent – one of his words, the other of his works.
We’re each those two sons. Sometimes we’re quick to say “yes” to God, like Israel saying to Moses at Sinai, “Everything the Lord said, we will do.” And then we turn on our heels and go about our idolatries as usual with out Monday through Saturday “as though God didn’t matter and we mattered most.” Sometimes we just say “no.” Fear, love, and trust God – No! Honor God’s Name – No! Gladly hear and learn God’s Word – No! Honor father and mother – No! Don’t kill, be chaste, don’t steal, don’t lie, be content – no, no, no, no! We don’t need to be told what to do and not do. No!
And then we think better of it, and we go and do what needs to be done, but our heart just isn’t in it. We give it a try, the way we take up a new diet or exercise program or some other discipline, and then we glance over at that brat brother of ours who doesn’t even try and seems to be getting along just fine.
What do you think? I think the father of the parable needs another son, a son who said “yes” and then does his father’s bidding. A son who takes up the work of his brothers. I think we need a Son who empties Himself of all the honor and glory that are His as the eternally begotten Son of the Father, who sets aside His royal robes, rolls up his sleeves, and takes on the uniform of a servant. I’m thinking of the eternal Son who becomes human flesh and bone, being born of a virgin mother, to be one of us and one with us. And in our humanity, He humbles Himself to the depths of our death. He becomes obedient to His own law, taking on every commandment, every nuance of loving God and loving neighbor. And He does it all for us, in our place.
Let’s push it even further. Let’s say this perfect Son who says an eternal “yes” to His Father and always does His will, who lives and dies perfectly for all the bratty first sons and disobedient second sons, gives His perfect life to His brothers as a gift, all for nothing, gratis, by grace. He does the work in His Father’s vineyard, and the brothers receive all the vicarious credit.
Have this mind among you that is in Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in the form of a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-9)
He was made sin for us who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)
That kind of Son is telling the parable. Jesus is only a few days away from the cross where He lays down His life for the life of the world, and for your life.
“But you have to repent.” I can hear the religious protest already. The religious are always looking for something to their credit. The first son repented. The tax collectors and prostitutes repented. The chief priests and elders did not repent. You gotta repent. Repentance is one of those religious words we kick around to try and slip works through the back door. Something we do, as though Jesus were potential salvation and all we have to do is throw the switch of repentance and zap! He becomes our actual Savior.
Repentance is an orientation of the sinner before God, a recognition that no matter how religious we might be or not be, we are no better than the tax collector and the prostitute who have nothing more than a baptism to hold before God. That’s why they were getting in ahead of the religious. Not because they were good, or even trying really hard. Not because they were one year sober or six months straight or five minutes honest, but because they trusted the promise of God and were baptized into a baptism of repentance that washed away their sins forever.
Repentance is dying and rising, dying and living in Baptism. Daily. The old man drowning, the new man rising. Adam dying, Christ rising in you. “Not my will, but your will, O Lord. Not my life, but your life. Not my works, but your works. Not my sin, but your righteousness, your holiness, your perfection.” Repentance is the work of God, the Word having its double-edged killing and making alive way with you. Rebel sons and wayward daughters are children of the heavenly Father, all for the Son’s sake.
So what do you think?
Faith thinks, “Amen.” Gift received.
In the name of Jesus,