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So… Do It

vineyard00 Introduction to the reading
Jesus stands in the synagogue teaching, drawing followers to himself as he opens up the Word of God to them in new ways. But a group of high priests and elders confront him, demanding to know who gave him the authority to be there, teaching.

The passage begins with this confrontation. But Jesus confronts them right back with a trick question of his own, which you will hear.

Keep in mind that by all appearances, in the time of Jesus, the chief priests and elders of the Jewish people were the exemplars of piety, keepers of the religious order, and teachers of God’s law. John the Baptist, on the other hand, was a wild man who wore a hair shirt and ate locusts. He did not fit any proper image of a respectable religious leader.

Here were two entirely different types of serious religious expression. Which one was right? And how do you judge? By way of a parable, Jesus leads us to an answer.

Many of you know that my husband Peter and I own a house in Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. We also have a boat. Peter is the captain and I am the first mate.

We keep our boat at Nauset Marine East, at Meetinghouse Pond, and take it out on Pleasant Bay. Sometimes we explore little riverways and ponds off the bay, but more often we go all the way down to Chatham. It is wonderful spending an afternoon out on the water surrounded by blue.

Tying up at the marina when we get back to Meetinghouse Pond, however, can be tricky. You head into the area they call the pen, which is enclosed on three and a half sides by docks. There are usually other boats tied up along the docks and so you have to carefully – sometimes jerkily - maneuver yourself back and forth in order to sort of parallel park without hitting anything. I’m usually in charge of leaning over the gunwale to fend off little collisions with other boats.

One afternoon this past vacation, when we were trying to wedge ourselves into a spot in the pen, Peter, a bit exasperated, said to me – as he has before, I do admit – “you should always be holding onto something.” Miffed in return, I said something like, “I know that…” And he said strongly and more exasperated, “But you don’t do it!!”

I was struck dumb. Was it the way he declared it or the absolute honest rightness of what he said? He wasn’t accusing me of being lax or stubborn or unconcerned for safety – all of which, in fact, I was. It was just the simple, bald truth. What good does it do to say you know what to do but then not do it? No good, no good at all.

Which is the first point of the brief parable we read this morning.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

The answer, of course, is the one who actually did the work his father asked him to do. A similar lesson to my own. What good does do to say you will do something but then not do it? No good, no good at all.

What else do we remember about parables besides their having a timeless object lesson?

  1. In Scripture, parables are about the kingdom of heaven, holy living, the Way of the Lord. Parables are religious stories, relationship with God stories, not Aesop’s fables.
  2. The characters and events in parables are symbolic, representative of people and events in the religious world, which is to say in God’s world, which is to say in the whole world.

That said, we can rotate this parable around the central figure, the father, owner of the vineyard. He represents God, creator and sustainer of the world. Then we can study the sons.

  1. The first of the two sons might represent John the Baptist, who came to his ministry as an adult. The second son represents the priests and leaders who were always part of the religious establishment. John’s work represents spiritual renewal and rededication, assuring that the gospel message was for all people, even including the likes of prostitutes and tax collectors, the most marginalized in society. The priests and elders don’t bother anymore with God’s real work of peacemaking, reconciliation, justice, compassion, mercy and love. They are busy tending to the rules.
  2. The first son might represent the early church, the followers of Jesus, in contrast to the second son, Israel, i.e., the synagogue and its leaders. The second son says, “Yes, Lord” but rejects Jesus as Messiah. The first son, the church, made up mostly of Gentiles, were converts to the communities of faith gathered around Jesus. They came late to hearing and following God’s Word, but they did so.
  3. Moving forward in time, the second son might be the church many years later, the church of Martin Luther’s day, that had become weighed down with priestly privileges and power, deeply in need of reformation. The first son, then, would be the churches that formed up as Protestants, who understood salvation to be a gift of God’s grace bestowed freely through faith, not something to be earned by good works or purchased from a Roman Catholic priest.
  4. Finally, in our own time, the second son might run the gamut from the political Christian far right that conflates American patriotism with Christianity to the struggling mainline church trying to muster a vital congregation life while still paying the heating bill on an aging structure. Who has time or energy for work in God’s vineyard? And where is that first son, who actually does do the work? Oh, we’re out there…

What good does it do to say you know what to do but then not do it? What good does it do to say you will do something but then not do it?  No good. No good at all.

We come to the table on this World Communion Sunday knowing that we share the bread and the fruit of the vine with Christians all over the globe. We declare and proclaim unity as Jesus’ people, not just in what we say but, I do certainly pray, in what we do in his name.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
October 1, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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