The Real Tragedy Is Not What You Think It Is (Matthew 21:23-32)

Keep in mind that stories and particularly the parables of Jesus may mean different things, have different emphases in different contexts. It’s certainly possible that a story in the original life-setting of Jesus meant one thing, and then in the life-setting of the church years later meant something else. And no doubt these stories were modified and altered as they were orally passed down several decades before taking a particular written form. This is why New Testament scholars remind us that it is very, very difficult to speak with any certainty about the original form of a story, because the story has been modified through the many retellings of the story.

It is helpful, I think, to consider this story about the father and his two sons (which is very different than Luke’s story about a father and two sons) in light of its placement in Matthew’s Gospel. Just prior to this story Jesus has engaged in three prophetic acts – he led a peaceful procession into Jerusalem on a donkey, he staged an act of protest in the temple, and he denounced a fig tree. All three of these acts were performed out of a sense of his own prophetic authority. Now after all of this, he comes back to the Temple and is teaching, and the chief priests and elders say, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus, of course, knows they are trying to entrap him; he knows that they are looking for some justification for getting rid of him, and so he very cunningly avoids answering the question by throwing a question back at them about John the Baptist, which they are afraid to answer. Then he tells this parable. So the parable, very likely, according to Matthew’s placement of the parable in this narrative, has something to do with Jesus’ authority in our lives.

The parable turns on the different responses of the two sons, which are not initially what they seem. The first son appears to present the biggest problem. When the father tells him to go work in the vineyard, he says, “I will not.” But then later, he has a change of mind and heart, he repents, and ends up in the vineyard. The second son is actually the biggest problem because he deceives the father. He tells the father what the father wants to hear, but then doesn’t do it. This son is a master of avoidance.

It’s always a tragedy in a household when the children and the parents never meet. I girl went home after school with a friend. The friend and her mother got into an argument, a very heated argument – it got pretty loud and intense; so much so, that the girl decided she better leave. Later that evening the friend called and apologized. The girl said to her friend, “I love the way you and your mother fight. My mother lets me have it and then walks away without bothering to listen to what I have to say. Your mother takes you seriously.” It’s not a tragedy when parents and children have rather strong disagreements; it’s a tragedy when parents and children are not close enough or do not connect enough to have disagreements.

When we think about our spiritual lives, we cannot grow and become more by living in denial and avoidance. I wonder if this is not what some Christians do with the Bible. When I point out to some of my inerrantist friends the inconsistencies or contradictions in Scripture, I sometimes hear accusations that I pick and choose what to accept.

And my response to that is, “Well, of course I do and you do too, only you won’t admit it.” Every one picks and chooses what Scriptures are going to have authority in their lives. We all pick and choose. The only difference is: some admit it and are intentional about developing a sound process of picking and choosing, whiles others do not. We all decide what Scriptures will have the most authority in our lives, and we can either deny that we pick and choose or admit it, but we all do it. And to follow that up, we can either go about our picking and choosing randomly in order to uphold without question some set of doctrines or beliefs handed down to us, or we can develop an intentional, reasonable, common sense, Spirit-led approach that allows us to hold these things handed down to us tentatively as we question and seek the truth for ourselves.

But you see, as long as one denies that one has to pick and choose what will have authority in one’s life, one can live in denial of all the inconsistencies and tensions that are present in our holy Scriptures without acknowledging that they exist. That way one doesn’t have to confront these inconsistencies or struggle with them and make tough decisions. Living in denial and avoidance is much easier, but it doesn’t help one grow and become more Christ-like either. Generally, it just makes one more defensive, fearful, and angry.

And when one denies the inconsistencies in Scripture, it is much easier to deny the inconsistencies in one’s life. Once again, we all have our inconsistencies – the main issue is whether we can own up to them. Our holy Scriptures mirror human life, they mirror the tensions, struggles, doubts, inconsistencies, and contradictions that characterize all of our lives. They reflect the human condition.

A few nights ago Melissa and I watched the 2013 film “Words and Pictures.” The lead character, Jack, who is a writer and school teacher, has a drinking problem. His drinking problem is destroying his life: it’s diminishing his ability to write and teach, it’s about to get him fired, and it’s destroying his relationship with his son, but he is still unwilling to acknowledge that he is an alcoholic and get help. It’s not until his drinking severs the relationship he has with a woman he has fallen in love with does he finally admit his alcoholism and join AA.

The tragedy is not that we are addicts. We are all addicts. We are not all addicted to alcohol, obviously, but we are all addicted to something – to work, play, certain negative ways of thinking and reacting, conflict avoidance, money, power, control, perhaps even to American exceptionalism. The tragedy is not that we are addicted; the tragedy is our unwillingness to see and admit and confront our addictions and engage in a redemptive process that brings healing and restores life.

The second son simply avoids all conflict and honest struggle, but in doing so chooses death over life. This son was only concerned with outward impressions, how he appeared to the father. He didn’t want to have to confront the father, so he told his father what his father wanted to hear.

Some years ago in the days of the local drug store, a young man went in and bought 3 one pound boxes of candies. The owner commented to the young man that it would be cheaper to buy one 3-pound box of candy rather than three 1 pound boxes.

The boy explained that he had a date that evening and the three boxes of candy were part of his strategy. He said, “If she allows me to sit close to her she gets one box. If she lets me put my arm around her she gets a second box. If she lets me kiss her she gets the third box.” That night he was having dinner at her house and he asked if he could pray before the meal. He prayed the most fervent prayer. After dinner on the way to the movie his date said, “I didn’t know you were  so religious.” He said, “Well, I didn’t know your dad owned the drug store.” 

I suppose there are reasons, some quite vain I’m sure, others perhaps more noble, why we want to appear certain ways before other people.
How many of you, if you know someone is stopping by your house start throwing things under the bed, in the bath tub . . . wherever? There’s nothing wrong with that, but if we want to know God and live for God and participate in an honest struggle to know the truth, then we will need to go much deeper than appearances. That will require some vulnerability and honesty and humility, and some digging into our real intentions and motivations. It will require some honest, sincere soul work.

I think it is interesting that in the postscript to the parable where Jesus comes back to the question he posed about John the Baptist, the word for “believe” occurs three times. Jesus says to the religious leaders, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” Three times in this postscript the word “believe” occurs.

I think this tells us something about what faith is. This parable is about which son actually does the will of the Father. This is a theme that runs throughout Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus teaches with authority and the question is: What are we going to do with it? Are we going to obey what Jesus says? Or are we going to avoid what he says or find some way to dismiss what he says so that it doesn’t apply to us? At the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father” (7:21). It’s all about doing the will of the Father.

Later while Jesus is teaching the crowds, his mother and brothers appear, wanting to talk to Jesus. Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister and mother” (see 12:46-50). You see, it’s about doing the will of God. It’s about loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. It’s about treating others the way you want to be treated. It’s about actually confronting the status quo and working for the liberation of the oppressed. In Matthew’s Gospel believing is about doing. 

I think that in Christendom as a whole - in Christianity and the church at-large - we have a lot of fans of Jesus, who are just not that serious about actually doing what he says or emulating his life.
I want to be careful, however, about being too judgmental, because there have been seasons in my life where that has been true as well. 

I’m a fan of the Kentucky Wildcats, but I don’t bleed blue. I’m just not that committed. I’ve told this before, but it’s too good not to tell again. I heard about a woman who was an avid UK fan sitting alone at Rupp arena as the Cats were warming up to take on the Louisville Cardinals. There was an empty seat next to her. Someone asked about it and she explained that the seat was her late husband’s - they were season ticket holders and he recently passed away. The inquirer then rather brashly asked, “Couldn’t you have offered that seat to a friend or relative so they could have enjoyed the game too?” She said, “Well, I would have, but they are all at my husband’s funeral.” There are fans and there are fans – right?

It’s easy to be a fan of Jesus. Very easy. There are churches on just about every corner. I only live three or four miles away I guess, and I pass four churches on my way here – two on each side of this little stretch. It’s relatively easy to be a fan of Jesus. It’s much harder to actually do what he says. It’s much harder to actually love the way Jesus loved. It’s much harder to forgive the way Jesus forgave. It’s much harder to courageously take on the status quo the way Jesus did. It’s much harder to give of our selves the way Jesus gave. It’s much easier to just be a fan.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, believing is not about doctrines or facts or certitudes. It’s about doing the will of our Father in heaven, who incarnated what that looks like in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Believing is about struggling with the authority that is expressed through Jesus – surrendering to that authority and doing what he says. That’s what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. Confessing Jesus as Lord is not first and foremost a confession about Jesus’ nature or deity; it’s first and foremost a confession about our relationship to Jesus. It’s a confession of our willingness to follow Jesus and do what he says.

This parable acknowledges that this will not be easy. Like the son who said, “No” when confronted with the father’s will, Jesus’ teachings are not easy to obey. Loving the way Jesus loved, loving the way God loves, involves a lot of work and effort and sacrifice. There is nothing easy about it.

The tragedy of the first son in the parable, which is the tragedy of too many religious people, too many Christian people, is not that we fall and fail – the real tragedy is avoiding the struggle.

* * * * * * * *

Gracious God, help us to honestly consider and confront what it means to be a follower of Jesus. You know how we struggle with this. You know how difficult it is for us to stop hiding behind our excuses and denials and to actually surrender control of our lives to you. Give us the faith and courage and will to actually do what Jesus says and commit to love the way he loved when he was among us. And we believe that you are among us now, working in our hearts and lives, wooing us and prodding us to let go of our ego needs and wants and to allow your love to fill us and flow through us. Help us to be a people where your inclusive love and magnanimous grace have the day. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


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