I am going to admit something to you all today. This is perhaps my least favorite parable in all of scripture. I think it’s because it was my mom’s favorite one to quote at my brother and me. Any time she would ask us to do something and we would say “Sure, not a problem Mom” and not immediately get up and start doing it, she would quote this parable to/at us. Instead of being a vehicle of grace, this parable for me has been a dump truck load of guilt.
Isn’t it sad that the word of God, something live giving, transformative, healing and hopeful can be twisted so that it become a weight around our necks that pulls us down rather than setting us free? I don’t think Jesus told this parable to make the Pharisees feel guilty or shamed, but rather to open their eyes to a new way of living, one that looked at the opportunities of love, rather than the obligations of law.
Our text this morning invites us to open our eyes and really see what God is doing in the world instead of being blinded to God’s activities. Church can easily disintegrate into little more than simply maintaining the institution, with no excitement concerning what God’s active grace is doing and so there is little energy to look toward evangelism and renewal. We may say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but too often we get caught up in rearranging the stones on the pathway and never really set foot into the bountiful harvest.
Jesus is in the final days of his life here on earth and he is at odds with the Pharisees, which was nothing new. He is in Jerusalem and as he approached the temple on the first day of the week, he noticed a beautiful fig tree, but upon further examination, the tree had produced no fruit. And so it was he said with the religious lives of the Pharisees; they looked religious, their lives looked alive, but upon closer examination, they didn’t produce any fruit. Jesus cursed the fig tree and it died, and so it was with the Pharisees; they looked spiritually alive but they were really dead. Their hearts were dead inside and so were their actions of compassion for the people around them.
On Monday morning Jesus is sitting in the temple teaching people about the grace and mercy of God, when he is confronted by the Pharisees and asked about authority. What are your credentials Jesus? Where did you go to seminary? Who was your mentor? Or perhaps more to the point, what right do you have to come into our place of worship and mess up the natural order of things?
To the Pharisees faith was a series of rules and regulations of which they were able to keep. To them there was not room for this new message of love and compassion that Jesus was preaching, and so instead of trying to learn, instead of opening themselves up to change, they question Jesus on authority. They want an excuse, any excuse at this point, to shut Jesus down for good.
But Jesus, good old Jesus, refuses to play by their rules even in this simple conversation. He asks them a question about John and the baptism John offered. John had become quite the rock star legend of the day with people enamored with his wild hair, odd diet and radical ways. After his horrible death, he had become something of a folk story a tall tale. The Pharisees knew that if they bad mouthed John, the crowd would turn against them, but if they praised him then they would be guilty of hypocrisy so they give that most honest of all human answers, “We don’t know.”
They were so worried about giving the “right” answer that they don’t really answer at all. We too can get bogged down in the idea of doing things the “right, proper” way and in so doing we often close ourselves off from the working of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspires us all differently, and when someone shares something about their faith, when the spirit moves outside of our box we get bogged down in the details unable to open up and enjoy the work of the spirit. We get comfortable just moving rocks in the garden instead pulling the weeds and planting the seeds.
Our scripture continues with Jesus saying there was a man who had two sons. He said to the first son, “Will you go and work in the vineyard today? The vineyard is a mess, and there is so much work to be done. Will you do the work in the vineyard today?” And the first son said, No of course not, let someone else do it. So the father went to the second son and asked will you do the work in the vineyard today? The second son said yes, got up, went outside, and decided not to work in the vineyard.
After some thought the first son heard his father’s call and decided to go and work after all in the vineyard.
Jesus looked the Pharisees in the eyes and asked the penetrating question: “And which of the two sons was faithful to the father’s will?” And the answer was so obvious.
Jesus continued: “And so the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before you Pharisees, even though you look so religious and smell so religious.”
So what does this story have to do with you and me?
The vineyard, the world, is in a mess. There are earthquakes. There are wars. There are divorces and families falling apart. There are people dying because of drugs. There are children anguishing in abuse. There are poor families living down the street, with not enough money and emotional resources to make it. There are people everywhere aching for someone to love them.
What is the reaction of the church to this pain and devastation in the world around us, far and near? Too often, we merely hold our worship services in the middle of the vineyard. We have our Bible studies and small group studies in the middle of the wine estate and close our eyes to the need around us. We say we are working in the garden, but all we do is move some rocks along the path.
God, in the parable for today, in disgust for our unwillingness to do the needed work in the vineyard says, “I will go and find somebody else who will do the work in this world of mine.”
In other words, this parable is an invitation for us not to be like the Pharisees. It is a challenge to us to go into our messed up world and do the necessary work.
In Jesus’ parables, the focus is always on the last figure, on the last personality of the story. The second set of people in Jesus’ parable, the tax collectors and prostitutes, who actually had a change of heart and went and did the work.
You see, Jesus’ problem was with the Pharisees who didn’t think that they needed a change of heart; that they were just fine the way they were; that they were appropriately religious and they knew it. And that’s the way it has always been: in the Old Testament, the time of Christ and throughout all of church history. God’s people have consistently been blind to our own need to have a change of heart about doing God’s work in the messed up world around us.
Jesus is inviting us to have a change of heart. We need a change of heart, about the messed up world around us. We need a change of heart about the painful needs of hurting people around us. We need a change of heart about actually doing God’s work of love in a messed up world. We all need this change of heart, a change inside.
It saddens me to read about the religious leaders in the Bible. Their hearts were closed to the work that God was doing in the world. I wonder if we are. Yes the world is a hard place to live. There are wars, and rumors of wars, we are faced with troubles on every side, there are many evil things happening in the world. But this is God’s vineyard, and we are the workers.
I ask this morning, are we admirers or followers? (repeat) One son said, "No, I won't go," and he later went. Another son said, "Yes, of course I will go." But he didn't go. Are we admirers or followers? You know this story hurts me. It gets under my skin. It challenges me. It challenges us. It would seem to be, maybe, a story that had no redemptive word—just challenge, just confrontation. Yet at the end, there is a word of grace. Jesus in explaining the story to his listeners, the religious leaders, said, "The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you." (Repeat) Do you hear it? Ahead of you. Not instead of you. Ahead of you. They, saying "No" initially, heard the teaching of John the Baptist and believed. Then there is the brother who is like us who say "Yes" to God all the time. "Yes, Lord. Yes, I come to church. I'm pious." But we don't always love our neighbor or feed the hungry. There is this hope for us that we will yet go to the vineyard. For the great grace of our Lord Jesus Christ continues to call all the children over and over and over again to go to the vineyard, to follow him. Will we?
I believe that God is doing something great before our very eyes. We can become blind to what God is doing in the world around us. Church work can easily slip into little more than simply maintaining the institution, with no excitement concerning what God’s active grace is doing and so consequently there is no enthusiasm for evangelism and renewal! We say we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones in the garden! My friends grab your tools; there is work to be done.