Sermon for Sunday, 27 September 2020
By Revd George Mwaura
Living God, we thank you for the gift of your word. As we reflect on it, speak to us by the power of your Holy Spirit and open the ears of our hearts to hear, understand and respond to the teachings in Jesus name.
Young Kevin of ‘Home Alone’, played by Macaulay Culkin, is one of Hollywood’s beloved characters. He is mischievous, playful, innovative and just as cute. But what really made Kevin such a fine character was how he taught us the value of family. We learnt that even if we’re not always that crazy about our family, when we’re separated from them, it’s terrible. In ‘Home Alone 1 and 2’, when Kevin was reunited with his family and ran into the arms of his mother, even the most stoic English men and women found themselves holding back tears.
His portrayal of a good child was so convincing that when he played a bad kid in the movie ‘The Good Son’, the effect was stunning. Here he appeared to be an ideal boy: polite, courteous and obedient, and since he was perceived to be all good, when things went wrong around his house, the blame naturally went to his less charismatic brother. It was only at the end of the movie that his parents realised that this son, who appeared to be good, was, in fact, evil.
That which appears to be isn’t always what it seems. This is what Jesus is teaching in our parable of two sons today. Jesus begins by saying. ‘A man had two sons’ – and right away we know we’re in for drama, for whenever two brothers are mentioned in scripture, drama is sure to follow: remember Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Essau, the prodigal son and his elder brother, and so on. Jesus says that the father asked his boys to work in the vineyard. The first said that he’d do it, but never did. The second son said he would not, but then changed his mind and did what his father had asked. Jesus asks, ‘which of the two did the will of his Father?’ and the answer is, of course, the second.
The point is made here that what we say isn’t as important as what we do. This is a parable which every parent and child understands. There are not many parents listening today who have not asked their children to clean their room, cut the grass, take the bins out or do their homework and heard, ‘Yes I’ll do it,’ only to learn later it was never done. And every child knows that the best way to get mom and dad off their back is to say, ‘Sure, I’ll do it … just give me a minute.’
Is Jesus’ point in this parable simply that actions speak louder than words? If that’s the case, then we might as well sing our closing hymn and go check that roast dinner in the oven! Jesus message is gleaned by taking a closer look at Jesus’ audience. Jesus was talking with the elders and priests, who were respected members of their communities but had betrayed their trusts. They had said yes to God, but had not done the job. They represented the first son in Jesus’ parable. But this is also a parable of integrity in that what we say should match what we do.
And it’s a parable for our time as well, because today we see with too much regularity that those who should be people of character and are not. You only need to look at Boris and Trump. Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of some of these leaders who took advantage of their office to exploit others and he told them that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom before them. Tax collection for the hated Roman government and prostitution were both serious sins in the Jewish culture.
Is Jesus overstating his case? I don’t think so. In our world, think of the disillusionment we feel when those we trust betray us: Jimmy Seville, Harold Shipman, Max Clifford, Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein. Some of you may even remember a few year ago the scandal of a famous oncologist from Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridgeshire, who was found guilty of abusing children under his care. Now Jesus was not saying that tax collectors and prostitutes are better than the priests; rather he was saying that when they heard God’s message and embraced it, they were better than those who had originally embraced the message but had not lived accordingly. They represent the second son in Jesus’ parable, who first had rejected the Heavenly Father’s call, but now were embracing it. As you can imagine, Jesus’ words did not go down very well with many in the religious circles. How dare he compare us to tax collectors and prostitutes, they hissed! They heard the truth but rather than change, they conspired with the Romans to kill Jesus. We could say that Jesus died in the cause of integrity. He taught people to live lives of redemption and to understand what it means to be created in the image of God and for this they put him to death. The story of Jesus and the priests is a sad story about resistance to judgment.
It is very much like the story of King David and the prophet Nathan. David was the good son and God chose him to be King of Israel. But David was not a perfect person. He took the wife of one of his soldiers and when she became pregnant, he had the soldier killed. Even though he was God’s choice to be King, he misused that authority to commit two terrible crimes. The prophet Nathan, being very diplomatic, goes to David and tells him a parable. There was a rich man who had many flocks, he says, and a poor man who had one little lamb which he loved as if it was a member of his family. When a visitor came to the home of the rich man, rather than serve a lamb from his large flock, he slaughters the beloved lamb of the poor man. David got very angry at the injustice and said that the man who had done that deserved to die, and Nathan said to him, ‘You are that man.’ Only then did David get it, and he remorsefully said, ‘I have sinned against God.’ Did David change? Yes, he did. Did he become a perfect person? No, he didn’t, but he sought God’s forgiveness, paid the price of his foolishness and God restored him.
Here we see two reactions to sin. Jesus confronts the priests and they plot his execution. Nathan confronts David and he repents. Which one are we? Are we like the priests: smug, self-sufficient and blind to our own sin; or are we like David? Are we smart enough to change when confronted with the truth? Have we disillusioned others by our betrayals? Is there still time to change? We can’t undo the past, but David teaches us that our shady past need not condemn our future if we are willing to change. And that is our hope; that we who have said that we will go into the vineyard will be helped by God’s grace to actually go there.
God does not love us because we are good. But God can make us good because he loves us. That should be our prayer today. Praise God.