Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost Matthew 21:23-32

A retired navy officer told a group of college men that when he was in officers training, the captain assigned him to get the ship underway next morning. That’s what he did, with all the numerous orders to move the ship away from the pier.  A few hundred yards into the Chesapeake Bay he dropped anchor.  He was about to send a message to the captain that he was awaiting further orders until a signalman said there was a blinker light back on the pier sending a message which he translated: “Before the ship leaves the pier, it is customary for the officer in charge to be sure the captain is aboard.” The retired officer said he was still embarrassed.

Jesus slipped an embarrassing message to the chief priests and elders. He told them, “The tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” The chief priests and elders were not disreputable people.  They were community leaders.

Jesus laid a trap for his hecklers and they walked right in. He described two sons, one who said he wouldn’t work but did,  and the other who said he would, but didn’t.

The people who were frowned on by the rest of the community were the very ones Jesus said would go first into the kingdom.

“John came to you and preached repentance, but you didn’t want what he was offering… The disreputable people came to hear him and they repented.”

Those religious-appearing listeners were exactly like the second son who said he would work but didn’t, and the people they called sinners were exactly like the first son who said “no” but worked anyway.

Where does that leave us? Jesus left no doubt about what sort of person would be first to enter the kingdom. The Pharisees knew they were trapped.  They were so intent on obedience to ceremonial laws that they did not translate God’s love into daily living. Usually when we read a bible story, we can find ourselves  in the story.  So in this story of the two sons, where are we? Suppose we tell ourselves that we are the first son.

We say we won’t work, but after grumbling a while, we go do the work expected of us. Now we get to the hard part.  Where, then, is the result of our labors? What contribution do we as individuals make to growing the kingdom of God?   Do we go beyond obligations and look for opportunities to proclaim the kingdom here and now?

Is there a signal light blinking out a message that we need to see and translate into plain language? Have we stranded the  captain on the pier? Once when Paul was urging the Christians in Corinth to help the victims of famine in Jerusalem, their gifts would show their obedience, he said, “by the generosity of your sharing with them and all others.”  Here was an opportunity to prove by their deeds that they were at work in the kingdom.

Are we willing to survey what we have done and are doing that brings the kingdom to others? Or do we talk a good line like the brother who said yes but did not go to work in his Father’s vineyard? If we stop and think of our individual circles of contact, I imagine most of us would have to admit that we could give a better Christian witness as we move through this world relating to all sorts and conditions of humankind.  If we understand that we are duty bound because of our fear and love of God that (as Paul told the Ephesians) “we have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory,” then surely we are willing to ask ourselves whether we fall short of that goal.

Surely we want to be more loving and forgiving, more willing to accept people as they are? Surely we will resolve to set a better example of Christian life-style in a world that gives less and less attention to God?

Are we good workers for the kingdom or do we try to sail our ship without taking the captain aboard? What Jesus had in mind means each of us should face the question of commitment. Can we claim obedience to his way?  If we want to apply the lesson of the parable, we’ll have to make ourselves look not at what we say but at what we do as our response to God’s love.  The Pharisees were famous for the way they fulfilled their religious interests but Jesus called them white-  washed tombs full of dead men’s bones.

He meant they were highly religious but their religion had no effect on the way they lived. Most disturbing to us should be that these otherwise good people had no doubt that they were right. They believed they were living as in God’s kingdom. Here’s where we can so easily fall into the same pit.  It is easy for us to limit our religion to a religious building.

Or we may think that the kingdom is confined to what we do here.

Or we may think other places are less holy and therefore we can limit our religion to a certain time, and by our Sunday observance we leave God standing on the pier as we go about our usual activities.

Or we can leave responsibility for the kingdom up to the professionally religious. But I can only say that is a slender reed.

In all these cases of limiting our response to the kingdom, the effect is the same.

When we think that faith or belief or the kingdom is something that happens in a certain building at a certain time led by certain people, then we are likely to excuse ourselves for not applying our faith to everyday living.

The denomination that puts a sign on their building saying, “The church of Christ meets here” is certainly on the right track.

The church is baptized people who live out their religion in the world.  We simply have a meeting here.

After the benediction, the church will leave this building. God nourishes us with his word and sacraments in worship, but the test of our faith comes in how we engage the world in ordinary everyday living.  The Christian religion testifies that in the midst of all our activities, God is present in love.  Jesus Christ is not locked in a sacred museum, but resurrection followed crucifixion and he is alive in the world in and through us.  It is expected of us that we will bear evidence of his presence day by day.

God loves us so much that he sent his son to become one of us. And whom did he pick for his company?  The proud, the successful, the jet set, the popular, the pretty people who have great abs?  No, when we identify with anybody in the New Testament, it has to be with the followers and disciples who could take an honest look at themselves.  The Pharisees could never see themselves in need of God’s help, nor could they see that their words about doctrine and ceremonies were useless until their religion was translated into deeds.

The people whose needs were the most obvious, who seemed to say that they were not willing to work in the vineyard, but who finally cast themselves on God for his mercy — these were the people whom Jesus especially loved.

People who were dishonest as a career, or who wanted love so much they counterfeited their need into selling themselves for sex — these tax collectors and prostitutes were the chief examples of receiving God’s love.

It is as though Jesus picked the two extremes, righteous people on one end of the scale, and public sinners at the other. He loved them both.

What then, is the message for us? Most of us are honestly somewhere in between.  The question for those of us who are already assured of God’s love and mercy is this:  “Are we demonstrating our gratitude to God by what we do in God’s vineyard?”  If we give less than a good answer, then we have time to amend our faith with what we do.


May God have mercy on us all.