Have you ever known a big talker? You know the type: whatever accomplishment you’ve just enjoyed, theirs was better; whatever operation you just had, theirs was much worse; whatever your summer vacation was like, theirs was even better! But you will notice with big talkers that when it comes time to get something done, they are usually nowhere to be found.
Because words are easy. Simple. It is far easier to say you will do something than to go out and do it. Far easier to claim to be a Christian than to be one. Don’t get me wrong, words are still important. What you say matters. Ask anyone who has heard a kind word on a bad day. Or has gone without praise for too long.
Words do make a difference, but not enough. Words are not enough on their own. Soren Kierkegaard created a parable about this. It went something like this:
Suppose a King issued an order to his Kingdom to be obeyed by all. But instead of obeying it the people created Schools to teach people to teach this order to the people. And these new Teachers then went out and held weekly study groups so people could study the King’s order and then they also had weekly Celebrations to sing praises to the King for giving the order. And, in the Universities, those who wrote the most interesting interpretations of the King’s order won prizes and important titles. What if they did all this, but throughout the whole Kingdom, no one actually bothered to obey the order? “How,” Kirkegaard asks, “Do you think the King would react?”
Jesus is making it clear that simply saying that one loves God and wishes to be a part of the Kingdom is not enough. The chief priests and the elders honored the Law and taught it to others over and over again. They followed the Law to the letter. While the tax collectors and prostitutes had turned their backs on the Law and therefore, seen as outside God’s salvation. It was pretty clear cut to the people of the time.
But it was these outcasts who were the ones who saw that God was doing a new thing in Jesus and were changing their ways – repenting of the sin and setting out on a new life that was to lead them into the Kingdom. They went and repented. They went and worked in the garden.
This means that it is never to late to follow Jesus and become a worker in the vineyard. God will embrace the son who turns and chooses in the end, no matter what they have been doing, to become a member of the community. No matter how bad you have been, God’s grace is still available to you. This is a wonderful thing!
Well, for some people. But for others, for those who feel they have led lives of great goodness and uprightness following the law, the very notion is horrifying and frustrating. What do you mean that person who spent so long lying and cheating is saved before I am? It’s not fair. I’m the one who spent all that time in church and studying the law. But, as Jesus points out here, studying the law isn’t the same as following the will of the Father.
It’s about here that you might be asking, what is the will of the Father? Both the priests and Jesus are clear that it is the will of the Father we need to be following. Yet what does that mean?
We’re told as much in our passage from Philippians this morning. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
In other words, love God with your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. That is following the will of the Lord. That is working in your Fathers garden.
These days it seems world turns away from our wordy gospel. The more we talk, the less nonbelievers want to listen. But what always stops those outside of the church in their tracks are those who have learned to move beyond the words. It isn’t just the Gandhis and the Rosa Parkses and the Mother Teresas who remind us all over again what faith and commitment are all about. It’s those medical practitioners in Doctors Without Borders who travel on their own time and expense to work in out- of-the-way places like Niger. They’re told that the people they treat are too far gone, that they will soon die from malnutrition. This doesn’t stop them – they do what they can do. It’s the people who take their free time and volunteer it for others, giving as much as they can and then some. That is doing the will of the Father.
Here’s the thing. Neither of the sons in the parable, did everything they were supposed to. The first son was rude and disrespectful to his father. “I won’t.” No excuses. No “I’m sorry I can’t…” but simply, “I won’t.” In short, while he comes across as the typical teenager of today, no father would have stood for such rudeness back then.
The second son at least started off polite and respectful. “Yes sir.” He knew the father deserved his respect and obedience. It was the follow through that he fell apart on. While the second son knew what he should do, he didn’t do it. Perhaps something came up. Maybe there was an emergency that prevented him from getting to the fields. It could have been something as simple as forgetting the task. Who hasn’t forgotten to do something they said they would before?
But when asked, which of these two did the will of the Father, the answer is clear. “The first one.” No matter how many good intentions or good excuses the second son had, it is the first one that in the end, did as the father asked.
And yet, who among us, has not been like that second son? We all know how hard it is to keep the promises we have made. As Elisabeth Elliot has observed, “The problem with living sacrifices is that they keep creeping off the altar.” It is far easier to make the promise, to say the words than it is to follow through.
Life interferes. Things come up. We get busy. Church becomes hard to fit into our schedule, let alone anything more. We know what we should do, but sometimes it’s hard to follow through. The more I read this, the more I think Christians should be nervous about this passage. Why? Because by being a Christian, you’ve already said yes to Christ. Yes to the Father. You didn’t say “I won’t.” You said, “Yes sir. I will do that”
In the September 2008 issue of e=”4″>Alive Now, Andrea Woods writes about a parishioner named Mr. Pritchett. Although he doesn’t have much education himself, he is one of the best teachers the young folks have. What he says: “I don’t care where you go to church on Sunday morning or how you sing your songs. What I care about is what you do with Sunday when Monday rolls around.”
They heard him say this, and they saw him live it. He fixed broken windows. He drove sick people to the doctor. When they were unable to take care of something in their daily lives, he would step in to help. He remained even-tempered. He was able to listen to other people’s troubles. The Monday man at work was exactly the same as the Sunday man at worship.
Being a Christian inside the church during the worship service is one thing. Being a Christian in the world during the week confirms that thing.
Unfortunately many of us in the church are like the Chief Priests and Elders; we are guilty of saying yes and living no. We have already said yes to the belief that God is the creator of all things, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth,” and yet how do we treat that which God has made?
We said yes to the truth that all that we have and all that we are gifts to us from God, we said yes to the idea that we own nothing but simply take care of it on behalf of God and the Kingdom. We all say “Yes, our time, talent and treasure belong to God.”
We agree to all this; and then worry about whether our percentage of giving is to be calculated on our gross or net earnings. Oh did you mean me? Oh, did you mean those poor people? We say yes; but end up living no.
We all said yes, the Gospel calls us to serve the poor and needy of the world, and to the truth that “if we do it for the least of these,” we have done it for Jesus. But when we see the homeless on the street or the sick and impoverished looking for somewhere to turn it is so easy to say no.
I think there is a third option to these two sons. We can say yes, and mean it. We can say yes and then go out into the garden to work. Let our actions match our words. We’ve already spoken up in our lives. By being a Christian, you’ve already told the Father yes. Will you have the courage to follow through?