17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 27, 2020
“A Tale of Three Sons”
Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson previously read from Matthew chapter 21.
My dear friends in Christ Jesus,
It seems like everything I needed to know for life (before Seminary) came from watching old TV shows. If I needed to know how much I can expect to pay for a new car or for furniture, I could watch The Price Is Right. If I needed to know how to outrun the police, I could watch The Dukes of Hazzard. If I needed to know how to escape from a German prison camp, I could watch Hogan’s Heroes. If I needed to know how to make a working centrifuge out of coconuts and radio parts, I could watch Gilligan’s Island. And, of course, if I needed to know how to raise kids as a single parent, I could watch re-runs of My Three Sons.
My Three Sons ran for 12 years from 1960 until 1972. In My Three Sons, widower Steven Douglas was left to bring up three boys all by himself with the aide of his housekeeper “Uncle Charlie.” The series revolved around the trials and tribulations of life’s experiences as a single parent family. The show’s premise, which was one of a kind in 1960, is not uncommon now. Many TV shows have and still do feature single men raising children.
There are lots and lots of TV shows about families and kids, but how many parables are about or involve sons? It is not as many as you think. There is the parable of the Prodigal Son of Luke 15, the parable of the Wicked Tenants in Mark 12, and this “parable” in Matthew 21. And yet this is not so much a parable as it is an illustration of the identity and authority of Jesus.
To understand what Jesus is talking about in this text we must first examine the context of this event. In Matthew 21 Jesus has entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and then He brought judgment on those buying and selling in the temple. A bit later Jesus is teaching in the temple, and He is confronted by the chief priests and the elders of the people (21:23). They wanted to know who had given Him authority to do what He had done and to teach. Our Lord then turned the table on them and asked them a question in regards to John the Baptist: “John’s baptism– where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” (v. 25). After some deliberation, the chief priests couldn’t answer the question, and Jesus tells them, “Well then, I’m not going to tell you by what authority I do these things.” And then we get out text for today, a text commonly called “the Parable of the Two Sons.”
The first son in Jesus’ story told his father “no” to the father’s request to go and work in the vineyard. This might not sound like such a big deal to us in an age when respect for authority is at an all-time low, but to the original hearers, this would have felt like a smack to the face. At that time, you didn’t say “no” to your father…ever. But in this story the first son said “no,” but later changed his mind and did go work in the vineyard.
The point that Jesus was trying to make was that the first son was like the tax collectors and prostitutes of their age. These people – the lowest of lows in the minds and hearts of the public – had said “no” to God by their behavior. But once they heard the message of John the Baptist – the message of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2) – they did just that. They repented, they turned, and they began to do God’s will. This reminds us of the words from our Old Testament lesson for today from Ezekiel chapter 18: “If a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life” (v. 27).
Of course, this is just the opposite of the chief priests and elders of the people. Their behavior and attitude reflect what happened with the second son. In Jesus’ story, He compares their behavior with the son who said “yes” to his father, but turned from that promise and did not go and work in the vineyard. The same was true with the chief priests and elders. In their piety and self-righteousness they gave off the appearance that they were saying “yes” to God, but in reality they had turned from God and turned from doing God’s will.
So far we have discussed the two sons of the parable, but in keeping with the illustration of “My Three Sons,” there is another Son yet to be discussed. The first son of the parable said the wrong thing. The second son in the parable did the wrong thing. But there was a Son who did say “yes,” a Son who then also made good on that Word and went. Jesus, the only begotten Son of God the Father, said “yes” to coming to this world and to being born as a man. He said “yes” to perfectly keeping God’s will. He also said “yes” to taking on the sin of the world and the mistreatment and the blame and the beatings and the nails that came with. He said “yes” to the cross. And by doing so, Jesus’ death and resurrection brings us forgiveness for when we say the wrong things and when we do the wrong things; when we speak harshly or fail to keep our word or when we disobey God our Father.
The ideal response to God’s will is to say yes AND to do God’s will – to repent and to live in the knowledge that the Kingdom of God is near. The behavior and sacrifice of the third Son – Jesus Christ – enables us to both say “yes” to God and to do His will. Just what is the will of God for us to do? Well, it is found in the message of John the Baptist – “repent!” The tax collectors and prostitutes heard that message and they did. The chief priests and elders heard the message and they did not. As a result, Jesus pointed out that “sinners” were entering heaven ahead of the pious leaders which, again, was a harsh smack in the face!
The Kingdom of God is not about status or measuring up to certain standards. Maybe there are times when you’ve felt that way. “I’m not good enough for church,” or “I’m not good enough or smart enough to do this job,” or “I’m doing a lousy job or raising my kids,” or “my health just isn’t what it should be.” My friends, never forget the third Son, Jesus the Christ, like John the Baptist, amid life’s trials and tribulations calls us to repent and turn not to our works or our status or our piety, but to turn to Him for salvation and for the hope of life everlasting.