Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
An old issue of Lutheran Digest contained this little number from “The Lighter Side”: “Salespeople are so rude these days,” complained a fellow in a leisure suit. “I went to a haberdasher to buy a tie and the salesman held one up for $20. I said, ‘Could you show me something cheaper?’ So he held up a tie for $10. I said, ‘Could you show me something cheaper?’ So he held up a tie for $5. I said, ‘You don’t understand. I’d like to see something real cheap.’ So he held up a mirror.”
Sometimes, seeing something (especially ourselves) from a different perspective is like seeing it for the very first time. Jesus used parables to give people a different perspective on things they thought they had down pat. This Sunday’s Gospel Lesson contains another of those jewels of communication and thought. For reasons known only to those who chose the lessons, the setting of the parable is omitted. If we are to get the point of a pointed story, it is very helpful to know what prompted it.
The place was the Temple courts in Jerusalem. The time was very near the tragic climax and triumphant conclusion of Jesus’ earthly ministry — probably Tuesday of what we call Holy Week. Jesus was teaching the people when some of His primary critics and enemies approached. “By what authority do you do these things?” the chief priests and elders asked. “And who gave you this authority?” As was His favorite way of dealing with them, He answered their question with one of His own. He promised that He would answer their question if they would answer His first.
His question was this little dandy: “John’s baptism — was it from heaven, or from men?” They immediately recognized it for what it was: one of those rock-and-hard-place predicaments. If they said it was from heaven, then Jesus would counter by asking why they didn’t believe John. But if they said it was from men, the people would be upset because they believed John the Baptizer was a prophet. They answered with the favorite response of little children: “We don’t know.”
Faithful to His promise, Jesus didn’t answer their question either, but He did ask another one in the form of a parable: “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
Charles Earle Funk, in Heavens To Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings, surmises that the phrase “over a barrel” comes from an early form of pulmonary resuscitation, performed by lifeguards. They would place the victim facedown over the side of a barrel and then gently roll it back and forth. Obviously, the person was entirely at their mercy. The chief priests and elders were drowning here, but they didn’t know it. Jesus had them over the exact same barrel as before, but they didn’t catch on. They didn’t see any trap here, so they answered that the first son was the one who did what his father wanted. At that point, Jesus gave the barrel a huge shove!
Let’s leave the chief priests and elders rolling along, for a moment, and turn our attention to the question involved. Let’s put ourselves, as much as we can, in Jesus’ time and place. It is the very beginning of the first Christian century in Near Eastern culture. The society is powerfully patriarchal — whether or not father knows best, father is obeyed. In public, father is obeyed without hesitation. Just questioning his authority in public, let alone refusing him, is considered verbal insolence. Such a father would be publicly humiliated and shamefully insulted. Consequently, when Jesus said that the first son refused his father’s order to go and work in the vineyard, we might have heard someone in the audience gasp in disbelief that the father could have such an insolent son. Likewise, we would not be the least bit surprised if the father took the equivalent of a First Century switch to the kid!
One of the most common Old Testament images for the kingdom of God was a vineyard. The very fact that a “father,” his “vineyard,” and his “sons” are involved could and probably should lead the hearers to think that the story might be about God and His people. In that case the insolence is even more ghastly, and the punishment could make a switch look like a wet noodle.
Nonetheless, the chief priests and elders chose the first son as the correct answer because the insolent brat eventually went out to work in the vineyard. Another factor also entered into their decision. By this time in Jesus’ ministry, His short fuse and scathing tongue toward lying and hypocrisy were well-known and documented. The Pharisees had been on the receiving end of more than one jarring tongue-lashing from Him because of it, so the chief priests and elders probably thought that the lying and hypocritical second son would be Jesus’ last choice. If he was the last choice and there were only two choices, their decision seemed easy.
Once they had committed themselves, Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” It seems as if Jesus was saying that they could make the correct intellectual choice, but had made the opposite and wrong life choice. The chief priests and elders were like the second son, sitting in the “yea-and-amen corner” of the synagogue, but not doing the will of the Father. The tax collectors and the prostitutes were like the first son, at first refusing God’s direction for their lives, but then repenting and following Him.
Jesus’ two questions form an introduction and conclusion to this parable: “What do you think? … Which of the two did what his father wanted?” Well, what do you think? And are you more like one son or the other? Those are the questions that matter to us, aren’t they? There is also a marvelous truth that pervades the entire story, but receives little or no emphasis. I wonder if the chief priests and elders caught it — did you?
Both sons are sons at the beginning. Both are sons at the end. The father does not alter that relationship — neither for the first son’s insolence nor the second son’s eventual disobedience. William Willimon wrote, “We may have chosen which son we liked best, but the father has not. We may find ourselves identifying with this or that character in the story, but that does not mean that the father embraces one child instead of another.” God’s call to repent and turn to Him came to everyone — chief priests, elders, tax collectors and prostitutes — when John first uttered it. That same call continued to come to all those groups through Jesus, and it still comes to us today.
Over the years, I have found or invented a number of stories (Feddersen’s Fables) that touch us deeply, but still only give us a tiny glimpse into the amazing grace and love of God. Patience is a totally inadequate word for God’s persistent calling us to repentance and relationship, but Jesus had no story to illustrate it. He became that story — He lived it. In Jesus it becomes clear that even the phrase “undying love” is inadequate, because it fails to take His dying into account. Yet, even at His death, the love of God does not die; it conquers! And in His Resurrection we are guaranteed that our death cannot separate us from the Father’s love.
On the other hand, we can separate ourselves! God’s love allows that for us, because it is totally love – – no restrictions. But what a tragedy it is if we sit on our tails and say “No!” to His call, and never repent and follow Him. His love becomes painfully frustrated, and we are forever lost. If we say “Yes,”
but never respond and follow, the result is the same.
For many years, I helped third through sixth grade boys learn a little something about basketball. I selected and then coached teams in little league competition. It was always tough to make the final choices and cuts. Some kids who didn’t get chosen for the teams were just devastated. But I never chose a player who did not show up for practice and games. I simply cannot imagine it happening. Our Father has chosen us to work His mission . . .