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To Everything Turn, Turn, Turn
September 27, 2020
Many years ago, our congregation joined several others to host a Marketplace 29 A.D. Vacation Bible School. That theme was designed to give the families who attended some idea of what everyday life was like in the Israel of Jesus’ time.
It meant that we set up a number of booths for participants to explore, each one hosted by someone in costume, showing how various customs and occupations worked in the New Testament era. That was supplemented by occasional plays that were enacted in the middle of the various participants. As I recall, my job was to teach a little bit of rudimentary Hebrew.
In any case, one of our members was going through a difficult time then, and I wanted to visit her as soon as Bible School ended. So when V.B.S. finished, I jumped in my car & drove over to her house, still in costume. I figured that she would think that was funny.
I arrived at her house just as one of her sons was about to leave. But he took one look at me in my costume, and got back out of his truck and demanded to know who I was. Presumably that’s because every burglar chooses to dress up in an ancient Israelite robe, sandals and headdress to be inconspicuous. In any case, I told the son who I was and he reluctantly let me ring the bell and talk to his mother. By the way, she really did think the fact that I came in costume was funny.
At least I came out of that situation better than a friend of Anne Le Bas’, who was arrested by the police for impersonating a priest. That’s ironic since he actually was a Church of England priest and, according to Anne, a good one at that. She writes:
“It was back in the 1970s and to be fair his long hair and probably rather scruffy jeans were quite unusual among the clergy at the time. I can understand why the lady he was trying to visit was a bit dubious and dialed [the police]. I assume that eventually someone vouched for him, because he went on to have a long and successful ministry, but it was a dodgy moment.”
It seems to me that those stories say something about how appearances color our expectations of reality. And isn’t that at least part of the point of Jesus’ parable today? It’s about two sons who were asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One refused, but changed his mind and did it; the other agreed, but never got around to actually going out in the vineyard.
Jesus then asks, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” In many regards, the real answer is neither since the first son disappointed his father by his initial refusal and the second disappointed him by not actually following through with what he said he would do.
I’ve read a few creative sermons in which the author comes up with a third son to illustrate yet another point, but what I’ve never seen is a sermon which creates an additional son who says he will go and then immediately heads out to work in the vineyard. And that’s really the main point of this parable. To explain that, it’s important to understand the context of this parable.
Jesus is in the final week of his earthly life. His enemies are rallying against him, held in check only by Jesus’ massive popularity with the crowds. So they attempt one line of attack after another in the hopes of undercutting that popularity.
Jesus isn’t really helping his own case since the day before — on the original Palm Sunday — he’d entered the temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and drove out the merchants who sold sacrificial animals. Jesus’ dramatic “cleansing of the Temple” was intended to be a prophetic action, but it was hardly a way to win friends and influence people, especially since those stalls were big moneymakers for the temple and its officials.
So on the very next day, he’s approached by the chief priests and elders of the people, who demand to know who gave him the authority to do things like that? That question was a vailed threat. In the minds of those officials, there really was no answer he could give that wouldn’t end with them being given their excuse to arrest him. But they didn’t count on the quick wit of Jesus, who posed a question of his own to them.
He simply asked where John the Baptist received his authority to baptize. They knew right away they couldn’t answer that, because if they said he just grabbed the authority on his own, they would anger the crowds who thought John was a prophet. If they said God gave him that authority, they would be exposed as faithless followers of God since they had opposed John. What could they do? So they refused to answer. Then so did Jesus.
Jesus could have stopped there since he used the officials’ own weapon against them and won spectacularly. Surely that would have been enough if Jesus were simply trying to score points off his opponents. But that wasn’t his agenda at all.
Instead, he wanted to teach anyone who would listen why they were wrong, even if it seemed as if they knew the scriptures backwards and forwards. So he followed up with the parable of the two sons. The second son represents those religious officials who apparently taught all the right things, but who really weren’t following God.
The first son represented the ones those officials considered sinners whom the officials would exclude from the Temple because they believed those people offended God. However, like that first son, they were actually people who repented from their sins and then tried to live the way God wanted them to.
Even though people in this country have an annoying habit of trying to divide the world into two categories, thus steamrollering over subtle distinctions, in this case, there really aren’t any other categories than these two. Even those people who don’t believe in God ultimately belong to the same category as the second son.
It’s like that old joke which says, “There are three types of people in this world: those who can count and those who can’t.” At the risk of ruining the joke by partially explaining it, that statement actually demonstrates there are only two types of people. Jesus’ parable functions in a similar way.
There really are no people who say they will do what God asks and who then follow through perfectly. For, as Paul writes in Romans (3:23), “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
And since that’s the case, the major theme of this parable is repentance. Saying the right things means nothing if we don’t follow through and embody those beliefs in our lives. At the same time, saying and doing the wrong things will be forgiven if we repent our mistakes and try to change the way we live.
Some years ago, an English atheist named Jamie Whyte wrote an article in the London Times saying that he had always been puzzled about how apparently intelligent people could believe in what he saw as the mumbo-jumbo of religion until the day came when he realised that most of them, despite what they said, didn’t actually believe it at all. If they did, their lives would be so radically different that it would be obvious to all.
Commenting on that article, one pastor wrote, “Frankly, although he had rather a narrow view of what Christian faith was all about, I think he had a point. His words leave us with some very uncomfort-able questions to ponder. Those who first encountered Christ saw in him a force that would change them so completely that they would never be the same again. For some that was good news, but for others it was a threat to all that they held dear. Which camp are we in? What difference does Christ make to us and to the way we live?”
As you think about that question, remember that if you aren’t happy with your answer, Jesus is telling us that it’s never too late to change and turn back toward the kingdom of God. That truth applies to those of us who are in either category of Jesus’ parable. That’s also true for those who make a transitory mistake now and then, as well as those who have embraced years of bad choices.
For example, Robert Wolgemuth tells the story of a teenager he worked with who had already developed a hardened edge and seemed to be on the fast track to prison. Wolgemuth writes:
“Sean took drugs and sold them to other kids. He befriended an elderly widow near his home, then stole her heirloom jewelry, pawned it and paid cash for a brand-new Porsche. As he’d done countless times before, Sean’s dad intervened and ‘fixed’ his son’s problem.
“One day at summer camp, Sean asked me if I’d go for a walk with him in the nearby woods. As we walked, he began to pour out his regret for his evil and perverse life. He asked if I’d pray with him.
“We found a large fallen tree and Sean climbed up, sitting cross-legged on the log. He prayed first, and I heard words of confession and remorse. This wayward and rebellious youngster cried out to God for grace and forgiveness.
“I opened my eyes to see if this really was the same young man who [said he] ’hated everyone because they’re all so stupid.’ Here’s what I saw. Sean, the bad boy, was sitting in God’s awesome presence with his hands and face turned upward. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. ‘I’m sorry, God, for the terrible things I’ve done,’ Sean prayed. ‘Please forgive me and help me to be new.’”
Your life and mine may not be littered with as much baggage as Sean’s, but our need for repentance remains the same as his. As we journey through life, all of us find ourselves tripping and falling over our best and our worst intentions. But the Bible assures us that God’s forgiveness remains available at all times and to all people.
Maybe the particular religious leaders Jesus encountered that day 2,000 years ago wouldn’t agree with that, but certainly most or all modern Jews would agree with it. Given that day is Yom Kippur — that is, the Jewish Day of Atonement — I’d like to share with you a couple of paragraphs from the modern Yom Kippur liturgy. It says:
“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red to orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the south. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals, turning comes instinctively. But for us, turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy. It means losing face. It means starting all over again. And this is always painful. It means saying I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do.
“But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways. Lord help us to turn, from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around, O Lord, and bring us back toward you. Revive our lives as at the beginning, and turn us toward each other, Lord, for in isolation there is no life.”
What more can I add to that than to simply say, “Amen.”
by Jim McCrea