Proper 21A 2005 Matthew 21:28-32
Let me begin our examination of the parable of the two sons with a series of modern day parables that have just come to my
Pablo Picasso, the great Spanish painter and sculptor, once said this about his ability: "My mother said to me, 'If you
become a soldier, you'll be a general; if you become a monk, you'll end up as Pope.' Instead, I became a painter and wound
up as Picasso."
Picasso would have agreed with Abraham Lincoln. "Whatever you are," said Lincoln, "be a good one." Lincoln demonstrated
the wisdom of that advice with his own life. It helps to remember that excellence is not a place at which we arrive so much
as a way of traveling. To do and be our best is a characteristic of those who understand what Lincoln meant.
Viennese-born composer Frederick Loewe, whom we remember for his music that includes "My Fair Lady," "Gigi" and "Camelot,"
was not always famous. He studied piano with the great masters of Europe and achieved huge success as a musician and composer
in his early years in Europe. But when he immigrated to the United States, he failed as a piano virtuoso. For a while he
tried other types of work including prospecting for gold and boxing. But he never gave up his dream and continued to play
the piano and write music.
During those lean years, he sometimes didn’t make enough money to keep up the payments on his piano. One day, bent
over the keyboard, he was focused on the music that he was playing and heard nothing else. When he finally finished and looked
up, he was startled to find that he had an audience. There were three moving men who were seated on the floor. They had
come to repossess his piano.
But instead they didn’t say a word or move toward the piano. What they did was reach into their pockets, pool together
enough money for the delinquent payment, place it on the piano and walk out, empty handed. (1)
Who will go? Who will step forward? I think this parable of the two sons raises an important question for us as we consider
our long-term response to Katrina relief – and now Rita. Some of those refugees must think they are being punished!
Already I’ve heard some of the radical fundamentalist religious people proclaim that such natural disasters as Katrina
are divine punishment for the victims – they’ll have a field day with Rita.
It does strike me that my fundamentalist friends – and I might have one or two left – will have trouble with this
parable of the two sons. What seems to be the point of it as the parable unfolds is suddenly turned on its head by the conclusion.
Such terrible sinners as prostitutes and tax collectors go into heaven ahead of them? It’s even a little unsettling
to us – they might be able to go into the kingdom of God ahead of us, too. How could that be? Surely not ahead of
us. Especially not tax collectors.
This parable of the two sons might not make much sense to us as it could unless we settle it in its sitz im leben –
German technical theological term for context. The context is this:
As Jesus continued on his journey to Jerusalem and the Cross, he encountered increasing opposition from the conservative
religious establishment. After all, once he reached the outskirts of the city, there was the Triumphal entry, the first
Palm Sunday, so to speak. And once in there, he had disrupted the finances of the Temple by driving out the moneychangers
and calling the whole lot of them a den of thieves. Not calculated to win friends. For some reason the established religious
authorities were upset at this.
So just before he told the parable of the two sons, the authority of Jesus to teach and heal was questioned by the chief priests
and elders: ”By what authority are you doing these things,” they asked, “and who gave you this authority?”
The conservative literalist religious establishment of the day, Jesus’ opponents, hoped to discredit and trap him
into declaring that his authority came from God, which would make him vulnerable to a charge of blasphemy. But as was his
style, Jesus replied with another question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
After all John had just been executed after having raised a large following for his baptisms in the Jordan – as you
recall, John even baptized Jesus.
At his challenging and questioning reply the priests and elders found themselves arguing with each other. If they answered
that John’s baptism was from God, then they would need to explain why they had not acknowledged and affirmed John.
However, if they replied that John’s baptism was “of human origin” they were afraid of crowds, who revered
John as a prophet.
Jesus’ question had put the literalists in a box. They had to admit, “We do not know”. Or perhaps more
realistically that they didn’t want to answer the question asked. To which Jesus responds, as he dismissed the authority
of the religious leaders to question him: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things”
Jesus then began to tell a series of parables, beginning with this story of a man and his two sons. The man asked his first
son to go and work in the vineyard, but the son refused. However, he later changed his mind and went to work after all.
The father went to his second son and
requested the same thing. This son answered, “I go, sir” but actually did nothing.
Jesus asked, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” The priests and elders replied that it was the first
son who obeyed his father.
The standard commentary interpretation is that the answer of the conservative religious leaders was correct. That deeds
were more important than words. That what you did was more important than what you said. And that the first son was an
analogue of tax collectors and prostitutes, the outcasts and designated sinners of proper conventional society. Because
it was these outcasts who eventually heard and believed in John’s message and the Good News of Jesus Christ these so-called
sinners would enter the Kingdom of heaven first ahead of the religious establishment that rejected both John and Jesus. (2)
The religious conservatives were like the second son, who professed to be righteous, but didn’t live it out. Even after
they saw the changed lives of the tax collectors and prostitutes, they still refused to understand. They refused to do good
and be good.
Who will go? Who will step forward? The message of the parable is that what matters is what we actually do in response to
God’s call to be about the work we have been given to do. The religious respectability of only affirming the right
thing, but not doing it, makes us seem too much like the second son, who did not go.
Tuesday night the vestry approved a concept plan for a task force to support or work with Katrina refugees – and that
may include some from Rita as well. The vestry also committed the parish to the task. You can read the details in the Newsletter
when it comes out. We need the help of us all.
Who will go? Who will step forward? Now is the time to live out our faith in a new and meaningful way. Now is the time
to go. Now is the time to step forward.
1. Adapted from Steve Goodier, “Be a Good One,” at firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Adapted from Synthesis for Proper 21A 2005