The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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11am Holy Communion      27th September 2020
Parable of the Two Sons
Melissa Wilson

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

In today’s reading of the gospel we hear in Matthew 21-23-32 that Jesus’ authority is being questioned. The chief priests and elders ask Jesus where his authority comes from. His return-question is about John the Baptist. He asks them if John's baptism came from heaven, or from the human mind? His question reverses the trap which the chief priests and elders are trying to set for Jesus. This parable comes right in the middle of a fairly long confrontation between Jesus and the leaders of Jerusalem –this is the first of three parables intended to give them a message. So Jesus, in turn, doesn't answer their question about his authority , but he does tell them this parable and this story contrasts the tax collectors and prostitutes who accepted the message taught by John the Baptist with the "religious" people who did not.

One note about the “tax-collector” is Culturally, they functioned more like toll-collectors at city gates or on prominent roadways collecting the “tax” of traders bringing external goods into the city. The general cultural feeling towards them was one of hate. This was because these collectors provided a service on behalf of Rome; they worked for the Roman’s and were regarded as traitors and along with prostitutes they were despised and regarded as sinners.

The parable sets up a comparison of two sons. One who says he will do what his father asks, but doesn't, with one who says he won't, but does. For every individual who hears this parable the comparison helps them (forces them) to ask the question, Which one am I? Am I the son who presents himself as obedient while actually only paying lip service, or am I the daughter who to all appearances is disobedient  but in the end does what is needed? Which am I? Which are you?

The word “obedience” is often related to the word “authority”  But I think we can misunderstand the word “authority” and assume that authority comes from outside a person that it is given to them by their circumstances like their status and reputation, credentials, expertise, years of education, successes and accomplishments. When I was growing up I was a rebellious child and teenager, I failed to recognise my mother’s, teacher’s and generally all adult authority as anything but a threat to my liberty and individual right to say and do what I wanted.  I remember even as a small child being reprimanded and thinking “ why are they talking to me like a child?”

And I wonder how many of us have ever heard ourselves say:

“Who do you think you are?” What gives you the right to tell me what to do?” Or have you ever said “ You’re not my boss!” ? These statements represent some of our usual ways of understanding authority. We don’t always like someone else teaching us, correcting us or telling us what to do. This can also be heard in the challenge of the priests and elders to Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”.

We see it in the refusal of the two sons to go to the vineyard. However, there is another understanding of authority at play in today’s gospel and that is our failure and sometimes refusal to recognise, claim and exercise the authority within us; to go to the vineyard.

In this parable Jesus is not only teaching us about the dangers of hypocrisy but also reminds us that God is calling us into a relationship with Him. Not because He is some harsh, strict power wielding God of retribution. But, because we are His beloved, He calls us by name, He calls us His own. The father in this story represents God and his sons represent those of us who say we are doing the Father’s will but are not and those of who refuse to do His will but then change their mind. The emphasis is on the son who says no but then changes his mind. This pleases God more than anything. Actions speak louder than words. We are reminded in Luke 15-17 that there is “more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance”

Jesus' parable is, in the end, is a challenge. It asks us how we will respond to the truth of the gospel -- will we change our mind and believe? Or Will we be the daughter who pretends obedience or the son who turns around and responds to God’s call? Ultimately this passage is good news. It is good news for both camps of people. It reminds us that it is never too late to change, to turn around and respond to His divine invitation to abide in Him.

Amen.

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