Gospel reading: Matthew 21:23-32
The story I want us to focus on this morning comes from the second part of today’s gospel reading. It is the story of the two sons. This isn’t the most famous story of two sons, of course; that is the story Jesus told about the lost son. In this story, we could say that we see the two sons when they were younger. Those of you who know teenagers well will probably realise that these must have been boys of 13 or so!
So, let’s look at this story a little There are three characters: the father, the elder son and the younger son. Father seems to be a farmer or landowner. I think he is one of Jesus’ favourite characters, one that he tells a lot of stories about. The gospel writers had to be a bit selective, but I shouldn’t wonder if that particular man wasn’t a well-loved character in Jesus’ stories. Jesus probably gave him a name – why don’t we do the same, and call him Caleb, and call his sons Levi and Simeon. And maybe when Jesus said to the crowds, “You remember Farmer Caleb....” they all sat up a bit and made themselves comfortable, as they knew a story was coming.
We had a story about him last week, if you remember – the farmer who employed more and more workers in the vineyard as the day wore on, and who then paid the whole lot the same, even though some had worked the whole day and some had only worked for the last hour. We meet the whole family, as I’ve said, in the story Jesus told about the lost son. And now we meet him in this story.
He has his two sons, Levi and Simeon. And on this particular day, he needs some help in the vineyard, so he grabs the first son he sees – let’s say it was Levi – and says “Can you give me a hand in the vineyard this afternoon?”
Now, Matthew tells us that the boy said, “I will not.” But I bet that what he really said was something like: “Oh Da-ad! Do I have to? I’ve got masses of homework. And I said I’d go round to Sammy’s house and see his new scrolls.”
And Dad probably said something like, “Oh well, don’t help then. Be like that!”
So Dad goes and finds son number two, Simeon. “Will you give me a hand in the vineyard this afternoon?”
“Sure,” says Simeon. “No problem, Dad; I’ll be there.”
And then what happens?
Come the afternoon, Simeon’s best friend calls round. “You coming swimming?” And Simeon conveniently forgets he’d promised to help Dad, and goes off swimming without a care in the world. Or perhaps he doesn’t forget, but it’s so hot. Dad won’t really mind. After all, he’s of times before. Blow it, he’s going swimming!
Levi, meanwhile, the other son, has finished his homework. He’s about to go round to his friend Sammy’s, but then there’s a little niggle. Dad did want some help this afternoon.
Yes, but why should I help, he argues with himself. It’s my brother’s turn. I helped last week. I’m allowed some time for myself, aren’t I?
But he’s just seen his brother go off swimming. He won’t be helping this afternoon, for all he said he would. Oh all right, Levi says to his conscience. I suppose I can go round to Sammy’s house later. He won’t mind. And anyway, I bet his Dad’s clobbered him for some help, too.
So Levi takes himself to the vineyard, rather unwillingly. But he does work hard when he gets there, and his father is seriously pleased with him. And, as Jesus pointed out, he was the son who was obedient after all.
So then, Matthew tells us, Jesus goes on to explain why he told this story. The trouble, of course, was with the Pharisees. As you will remember from the first part of our reading, Jesus had just had yet another run-in with them, this time on the subject of his authority to teach.
Jesus was always having run-ins with the Pharisees. They were good, religious people, of course, but the trouble was that they did not see God in the same way that Jesus did. They believed that you had to keep the Jewish law absolutely perfectly if you wanted God to accept you. To help them do that, they had added some incredibly detailed “what ifs” and “in this case yous” to the Law. The Law, as interpreted by the Pharisees, provided for every single detail of life, and if you failed to keep it absolutely perfectly, then, they thought, God wouldn’t want to know you.
Well, that was all very well. The Pharisees meant well, of course, but they were, quite without realising it, imposing impossible burdens on people. It was quite impossible to keep the Law in their way. And the Pharisees themselves made one very big mistake: they rated keeping the Law more highly than human relationships. They were more concerned about the way people obeyed, or did not obey, the Law than they were about who people were, and how they were hurting, and why.
So you can see that it was absolutely devastating for them when Jesus came along and said “You’ve got it all wrong!”
What? They weren’t being perfect, after all? No, no, this couldn’t be right. They had to be perfect, or God would reject them. Of course they were perfect. Who was this silly teacher, anyway? What right had he to be telling them that they were all wrong? And so on.
They simply couldn’t handle Jesus’ teaching. For Jesus said, obey the Law, by all means, but do realise that it was originally written for a nomadic community which needed detailed regulations in order to keep healthy and increase in numbers. The Law, he taught, was your servant, not your master. God was far more concerned with truth, justice and right relationships than he was with whether you needed to give five or ten leaves of mint, or whether you washed your hands like this or like that.
So the Pharisees rejected Jesus and all he stood for. At last, most of them did. There were a few honourable exceptions, of course, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, and of course, much later, St Paul. But by and large, the Pharisees, and the rest of the religious establishment of the day, rejected Jesus.
But one group of people did turn to Jesus and accepted his teaching. These were the outcasts, people who had been considered quite beyond the pale so far as the regular religious establishment was concerned. The tax gatherers, who worked for the Roman occupying power and often had to charge excessive commission in order to have enough money to stay alive. Prostitutes. Other people who for one reason or another felt it was hopeless trying to keep the Jewish Law and so had stopped trying.
Until Jesus came, the politically correct response to these people was to ignore their existence completely. Religious people would not have been seen dead with them; what would people think? But Jesus knew that they were longing for God, needing God, and wanting only the least bit of encouragement to turn to Him. And sure enough, when he provided that encouragement, they turned to God in their multitudes. We know the names of some of them: Zacchaeus, Levi, Mary Magdalene. But there were many others whose names we don’t know.
So in the story, Jesus equates the Pharisees with the second son, the one who said “Yes” to his Father, but then did not obey when the crunch came. The outcasts were represented by the first son, the one who had said “No way”, but who after all went and helped his Father.
So what does this story say to us today? We are a long way in time and in culture from 1st-Century Jerusalem. The thing is – and I’m speaking from personal experience here – it’s all too easy to get stuck like the Pharisees. We think that God only loves us when we are perfect, and that we have to be perfect in order for God to love us. Now, said in cold blood like that, it sounds silly. After all, that was the whole reason Jesus came, to provide a bridge between us and God. We know that. At least, we know it in our heads – we don’t always know it in our hearts.
I’ve often said that these Sundays between Pentecost and Advent are a time when we are looking at the outworking of our faith; how what we do in Church on Sundays affects who we are on Mondays. And when we get our faith tied up in knots – I did, years ago, and I don’t suppose I was the only one – we end up not really being able to be who God created us to be and, arguably, not able to do the work we were designed to do. If we’re too busy worrying over whether we are perfect, we can’t be getting on with life.
And, also, if we’re too busy running around trying to be perfect – and I know I used to do this – we’re actually denying God’s love. Even when we see God doing wonderful things, we assume he will only do them for us so that we can spend our time and energy working for him. My friends, the truth is that God loves us. He made us. He is interested in us. He wants us to be whole because he loves us. And because when we are whole we will be able to do more to help bring in his Kingdom, that’s true, but first and foremost because he loves us.
Now, of course, sometimes we do terrible things, and God hates the things we do. But he still loves us. Sometimes we deny him, say we are agnostic or even atheist, but he still loves us, and longs and longs for us to turn to him.
And he still loves us. Every single person, whither Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, or any religion you can think of, and those with no religion at all. Even Richard Dawkins! Even George W Bush.
Those who commit terrible crimes, even terrorists. Those who live honest, upright and sober lives.
God loves us.
The Father in Jesus’ story loved both his sons. He didn’t stop loving the son who did not go to the vineyard, nor did he stop loving the son who said he wouldn’t go. God loved the Pharisees, even though he agonised over their obsession with perfection. He loved the tax gatherers and other outcasts. And he loves me. And he loves you.
So let’s respond to that love by recommitting ourselves to him again this morning. It doesn’t matter if we have never said “Yes” to him, or if we have been Christians for more years than we care to remember. To help us, we are going to sing that lovely hymn, one of my favourites: “Oh love, that wilt not let me go!”