September 24, 2017

Willingness to Change

Passage: Matthew 21:28–32

Today, we are treated to another of Jesus’ parables from the gospel of Matthew.
This time, Jesus’ teachings are directed not at the disciples, to whom he was speaking in the text we read last week, but
to the chief priests and elders he happens upon in the temple.
This scene in Matthew takes place quite late in the gospel – it actually happens during the events of what we call holy
week, just after Jesus rode in to the city, triumphantly greeted by the crowds, and after he’d turned over the tables of the
merchants in the temple.
So, this scene takes place in what is becoming for Jesus an increasingly tense and dangerous situation. The religious
leaders are watching him more intensely, now that he is in the holy city Jerusalem, trying to trip him up, trying to find a
way to stop the momentum Jesus seems to create wherever he goes.
And so, as soon as Jesus again enters the temple, the religious folk jump on him with questions about Jesus’ teaching.
Where do you get your authority, they want to know, to do these things, like teaching and preaching and healing and
generally causing an uproar the way you do?
They hope Jesus will say something blasphemous and incriminating so they can finally put him away.
Instead, Jesus responds with his own trick question. Well, what about John the Baptist? His baptism for repentance –
where did it come from? From heaven, or human origin?
The leaders see they are trapped, knowing that either answer will land them in hot water – with God, or the crowds, who
perhaps they fear equally. So Jesus retorts, if you won’t answer my questions, I won’t answer yours!
He continues, and proposes a scenario to them: Two sons are asked to work in their father’s vineyard. One says NO, but
later changes his mind and goes anyway.
The other says YES, but then never shows up. Which did his parent’s will, Jesus asks?
They answer – the one who actually did as his father asked.
Jesus concludes that it is the tax collectors and prostitutes who are first in line for the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because
the righteous religious leaders wouldn’t be changed by John or Jesus, but the tax collectors heard and believed. You,
Jesus says, even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe.
This parable is about the road paved with good intentions.
Surely we can relate to the son who said he would go work in the vineyard but didn’t after all.
How many times have you said you would do something, and not followed through on what you said? How many times
has this happened to you? We all do it. We commit to something, say we’ll take care of it, put it on to our ‘to do’ list, and
never think of it again.
Or we have other things to do that simply become more important. Our intentions are good when we accept responsibility,
but our follow through not so good.
When we do it, we might experience some feelings of guilt at our forgetfulness, or feelings of burn-out and being
overwhelmed, when we realize we’ve just taken on too much.
However, when others fail to follow through for us, we’re frustrated and angry. But we’re probably not always surprised.
On the flip side, we can ask ourselves: How many times have we had no intention of helping out with something, but
ended up getting involved anyway?
I’m sure you can think of examples in your life….Perhaps you weren’t going to be very involved with a certain event this
year, and somehow ended up co-chairing it instead?
Maybe you showed up to visit someone who was lonely when you really didn’t want to go.
Maybe you donated money to support a need when you really had already figured that you couldn’t afford any more.
How many times has someone surprised you like this, when someone shows up totally unexpectedly to help you with
something….and how has it made you feel?
These are welcome surprises, aren’t they? Usually the doer and the recipient of such work both feel rewarded. It is good
to know that we can do more than we thought was possible, and good to know that we can give and receive so much joy
from one another.
If we translate these scenarios to our relationships with God, our responses are telling.
When have we made commitments to God, only to fail on the follow through?
How many times have you made promises to God that for one reason or another, you have not kept? And how often do
you find yourself responding to God when you had already told God, “NO?”
Probably, we have more examples of saying YES and acting NO than saying NO and acting out a YES.
But why? Why do we not follow through on what we say we will do, both in our human relationships and in our
relationship with God? Is it really a case of good intentions gone awry, as we want to believe, or is something deeper at
work here?
You see, when you say “Yes” or promise something, you can very easily deceive yourself and others too, as if you had
already done what you promised.
It is easy to think that by making a promise you have at least done part of what you promised to do, as if the promise itself
were something of value.
Imagine you are with a group of people and they are talking about how lonely Harriet is since her grown children moved
away. And you say, “I will stop over this afternoon and see how she is…spend some time with her.”
It sounds like a wonderful thing…your friends say how much Harriet will appreciate seeing you. BUT what if you don’t
actually go there to visit Harriet?
When you do not do what you promise, it is a long way back to the truth.
Beware! The “Yes” of promise keeping can make us feel as if we have already done something of value…just by
promising to do something. If we don’t do it…it actually has no value at all, does it?
An honest “No” possesses much more promise. He who says “No,” is being honest with themselves at the moment. But
those who say “Yes, I will,” are kind of pleased with themselves.
The world is quite inclined – even eager – to make promises, because a promise sounds just fine at the moment – it
inspires! Yet for this very reason God is suspicious of human promises.”
For Jesus, things, as usual, come back to a question of words and actions.
Remember, It’s not that Jesus just divides people up into believers and atheists. Jesus divides people into those who act
and those who don't act.
The religious folk in the temple had a lot to say about what was right.
They were careful to study the scriptures, and they spent a lot of time in the temple, and they tried to figure out, in great
detail, how to apply to scriptures for daily living.
Yet, they were so sure they had things right, that they became unwilling to examine their lives to see if they were living
what they were teaching, practicing what they were preaching.
And they were unwilling to change, to repent, and get back to work. Their words said YES, and their lives said NO, as
somehow they managed to overlook real ways to love God, active ways to love their neighbor.
What does this mean for us? Well, I think sometimes we even say YES to God when our intentions aren’t the best.
I don’t think we set out to deceive God. But I think we end up deceiving ourselves, convinced that we are doing all the
right things to be considered “Good Christians.”
Somehow, we’re missing the mark, because Jesus says that it isn’t the religious folk who are first in the kingdom of
heaven. It is those who are most open to turning their lives around who are first in line, those who take action when Jesus
says, “follow me.”
So I want us to ask ourselves: Do we intend to allow God to change us? Are we really going to leave here and let God
mold us and shape us and make plans for us? What will our actions, the way we live, say about us?
A parent had two children. The parent went to the first and said, “Child, go out and work for me today.” The child
answered, “I will not,” but later, had a change of mind and went out and worked.
The parent went to the second child and said the same, and the child answered, “Of course, I’ll go and work,” but then did
not go after all.
Which of these two did the will of the parent? They said, the first. And you, what do you think? AMEN

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