In the Name...
I was recently reminded of the story of a pastor who went to get gas the Friday before a holiday weekend and found a long queue at the pumps. "I'm sorry, pastor," the manager said, "But, folks just wait ‘til the last minute to get ready for their trips." "I understand perfectly.", the pastor replied, "The same thing happens at my store too."
In the movie, “The Good Son”, there was portrayed a child who appeared to be a model of correct behaviour. He was polite, courteous, obedient. He always said yes to his parents and never argued with them. So, when things went wrong around the house they never suspected that he was the devious, mean-spirited, culprit behind it all. His less endearing cousin always got the blame and the parents did not discover the truth until the end of the movie.
Well, when Jesus dealt with the Pharisees, he didn't need to wait until the end of the movie to know how mean spirited and devious they were. He heard them utter the pious words, but live self-centred lives. So, when they challenged his authority to teach, he told them a story.
"A man had two sons". Every listening ear immediately thought of his own family. Each man thought at once of his own sons. Jesus continues. "The father asked the first son to go and work in the vineyard today." The son answered, "I will not." It is a brief exchange but, Jesus does not need to expand on the son's response. Every man standing there would have known what happened. An argument, tempers flaring, doors slamming.
The story continues. The father turns to his second son and asks him to work in the vineyard. The second son cheerfully agrees but, then doesn't follow through. Later, the first son changes his mind. He admits to himself that he was wrong and does what he should have done in the first place. The second son, on the other hand, never had any intention of working and, so, never goes.
By the end of the story, the men standing around Jesus can feel both the anger of the father and the frustration of the sons. They may have played both roles at one time. Each man standing there may have been a son who got tired of having to do what Dad wanted. Or, he may have been a father whose simple request was met with rebellious antagonism. So, they vent their rage against that lazy second son who faked compliance, but, walked away in disobedience. Imagine their surprise when Jesus revealed that he considered that all of them were second sons - people who said "yes" but, lived a "no".
Now, we know right from wrong and prefer to see ourselves as being like the first son - the one who initially said "no" but, eventually obeyed. After all, we may be a bit slow in responding to God's call on our lives, but, we eventually get around to it, don't we?
A woman went to the post office to send one of those big old family Bibles to a relative. When the clerk saw the heavy package, he asked “Is there anything breakable in here?" The woman replied, "Just the Ten Commandments."
In the battles occasionally waged around the Ten Commandments these days there seems to be an argument made that if only we were free to display them in the classrooms, or on the courthouse lawn, then society would be happier and healthier, crime would diminish and children would always behave.
Well, despite the fact that 25% of Americans claim to be "born again", studies show that the lifestyle decisions for both the born-again and everyone else, including the self-described non-religious, are almost identical. In other words, the very people who claim to know the Commandments best aren't the best at following them.
Statistically, when it comes to most matters of ethics, values, and morals, there appears to be almost no correlation between a person's religious experience and their life experience. What we know is not always lived out in what we do. We may not like to admit it, but, we're really more like the second son than the first.
The second son did not throw a tantrum. He did not demand his inheritance and leave his family, like the more famous prodigal of another parable. He did not commit any crime. He simple concerned himself with his own affairs. He had his own set of priorities. The father's request was an intrusion into his space. He wasn't going to argue with the old man but, he certainly wasn't going to inconvenience himself, either. He had other important things to do.
And like him, we often say "yes", but, live "no". The saddest part is how we rationalize, or make excuses for, our behaviour.
There was once a hit song entitled "The Sounds of Silence". One line of it said, "the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls." Well, we don't have subways here but, bumper stickers may be a fair substitute. One of the ones I've seen reads, "Christians aren't perfect - just forgiven."
It's not bad. We certainly are not perfect and, despite that, we are forgiven - very true - but, the slogan presents a minimalist theology. It presents a Christ who brings forgiveness for our shortcomings without any expectation that we should try to rise above those shortcomings. Acknowledging the reality of imperfection becomes an excuse for staying that way, instead of being a starting point for improvement.
The challenge for us is how do we turn the word "yes" into a life that says "yes"? We're not angry with God. We don't have anything against Him; in fact, we're rather fond of the old boy. It's just unfortunate that our lives are so busy. Surely He understands, don't you think?
Are we shocked with the punch line of the parable? "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you." Tax collectors and prostitutes? Perhaps Jesus should have been more specific, “Former tax collectors and prostitutes."
To Matthew, he said, "Follow me" and Matthew quit his job. To Mary Magdalene he said, "Go, and sin no more" and she gave up the streets. People like them; people who had rejected God to follow cynical, self-centred professions repented and changed their ways. The Pharisees considered the people in those professions beyond forgiveness. But, those very people responded to the love of a God which would not let them go or write them off. They knew, all too well, they were not perfect but, once forgiven, they changed their entire lives.
This is not the parable of a good son and a bad son. This is a parable of two bad sons - one rude, one polite. The difference is that one did something to rise above his badness while the other was content to be so.
Sometimes we hear debates among church people about whether what we believe is more important or whether what we do is more important. Today, we are told that what we believe should dictate what we do and what we do should reflect what we believe. They shouldn't be in separate compartments.
After all, why wait until the last minute to prepare for our journeys. We know what we need to do now.
In the Name...