Sunday, September 27, 2020

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21

28 “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.’

29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 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.

You don’t need to be Lucy van Pelt to see that there is some complex psychology going on in our parable.

Actually, Lucy’s standard response—”Snap out of it! Five cents, please!—might not be up to the task of solving the interpersonal stuff that’s going on in these five short verses.  But before we dig into the Parable of the Two Sons, I want to talk a little bit about scripts.  

In most families (all families?), each member of the family is assigned a “part” to play.  In essence, we are given a script to follow, and the character we play tends to define us.  Thinking about your own family, perhaps you can picture someone when I describe some of the roles: the peacemaker, the fragile one, the helper, the victim, or the one who can always look after themselves.  I’m sure you can think of more.  

Reading the script, or following your assigned role isn’t a problem in-and-of-itself, unless you get locked in that role and can’t get out.  Sometimes people carry that role into other situations and cannot understand why it doesn’t work the way it does back home.  And then, of course, there is a common source of conflict in families: stepping out of your role and trying to be someone else.  Imagine the play where one character suddenly decides to go “off-script” and the chaos that follows.  

So the first son in our parable is the one who always says “no.”  You know that person, maybe even by looking in the mirror, the person who leads with no and needs to be convinced—or needs to convince themselves.  So the first son says, “I will not,” but then quickly changes his mind and heads off to the vineyard.  

And then there is the second son.  The son who will say anything that the questioner might want to hear (“Sure, I’ll go!”) but has no real intention to follow through.  There is a technical term for what the second son is doing, but instead I’ll call it balderdash, codswallop, hogwash, hooey, malarkey, or trumpery (more on that in a moment).

So, which of the two did what his father wanted?

Before we dig into the question, we should talk about meaning, and how meaning is the first-cousin of assigned roles.  Whenever we are confronted by a situation, or we’re trying to summarize some event, we tend to attach a particular meaning.  Whenever someone uses phrases like “a cautionary tale” or “a redemption story,” or my new favourite, a Bildungsroman—a borrow-word that means a coming-of-age story—we are attaching meaning.

Preachers do this all the time.  We assign meaning to a story, or receive an assigned meaning from others, and develop that meaning before we land the plane and go to lunch.  The problem with assigned meaning is that it tends to be fixed.  It’s hard to change your mind, or imagine that there are other ways to explain the same story.  So, in the Parable of the Two Sons we might say “deeds speak louder than words” and call it a day.

So, which of the two did what his father wanted?

In the “deeds speak louder than words” interpretation, the son who actually did the work was the one who did the will of the father.  And it fits with Jesus’ previous words on the same topic.  You can only judge a false prophet by their fruits, not by the words they say.  “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” goes the lesson, “but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” (Matthew 7)  Deeds speak louder than words.  Even in the context of prayer, Jesus condemns the one who prays “thank God I’m not like that guy over there” (I’m paraphrasing) in favour of the one who says simply “have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18)  The attitude of humility before God also fits in this “deeds speak” model, since it neatly defines who we are.

Now I want to try on a new meaning.  What if we shift the meaning and say “words matter.”  On the face of it, no one’s words matter in this parable, since no one did what they said they would do.  So let’s try again.  What if the matter was simply about what the father wanted to hear?  Hear me out.  Imagine that the father simply wanted a day without drama.  One son can never manage a day without drama, refusing to go to the vineyard while just as likely to go anyway.  The other son, never one for drama, says “sure pop, I’ll go.”  Is the work really that important?  Maybe the father just wanted everyone to get along.  

In years to come, when we try to make sense of the era we’re living in, we might reach the conclusion that sometimes people just want to be lied to.  Maybe it doesn’t matter if someone makes the best trade deals, or hires the best people, or even manages to make a beautiful wall that someone else will pay for.  What if people just want to be lied to?  Now you’re getting more than your original five cents worth, but this theory might explain a lot.  Maybe it was never about results at all, only the lies that drive some people crazy and give others a false sense of comfort.    

As you chew on that, we should return to the text and look for some real clues.  It turns out that the Greeks among us may have known the meaning all along, based on the word kyrie, a word that can mean either ‘Lord or sir.’  So when the second son speaks, he’s actually saying “Sure, I’ll go, kyrie.”  This is the same Greek word that Jesus uses when he creates the caricature of the obsequious prayer: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘kyrie, kyrie,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven...”  

In other words, words matter, because the person who’s first to make ardent promises (saying “Lord, Lord!”) is the least likely to keep them.  Yes, there is also a problem with Mr. No-And-Go, but the person who says the most and does the least is the one who truly disappoints.  If you think we have come full circle, you would be right.  Again, there is a link to Jesus’ thoughts on prayer, condemning the one who prays a Very Big Prayer (“Thank God I’m not like him, or him, or her over there”) while lifting up the humblest prayer (“Lord have mercy”).  

So it turns out our words matter, and our deeds matter, and the humility we bring as we encounter the Most High.  Maybe our role in the script dictates that we will be an initial “no,” before we become a resounding “yes!”  Maybe we stand with generations of initial noes, reluctant to follow, or take a risk, or give voice to the “yes” in our hearts.  It hardly matters, because God can read the “yes” in our hearts even as we say “no.”  

May God find us in the vineyard, labouring with others, working to turn every “no” to a “yes.”  Amen.  


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