In the context of worship on Sunday September 25, we offered a simple liturgy of blessing for the marriage of Jaylene Johnson and Scott Urwin. This sermon on the parable of the man who had two sons (Matthew 21:23-32) ends with some words of blessing for Scott and Jaylene; words very much shaped by the force of this parable.
t can be tempting to hear that parable of the vineyard owner with the two sons, and reduce it to a lesson as to how “actions speak louder than words.” We have this picture of the father asking his two sons to go out into the vineyard. One declines, but later changes his mind and goes off to go to work; the other says, “I will go, sir,” but seems to have had no intention of actually doing so. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” Jesus asks his audience. And they answer that it was the first son, of course. He’s the one who in the end came through. Actual works trump words, full stop.
Except that Jesus is speaking to a very particular audience here, at a very specific moment in his ministry. This is set during the closing days of his life, after he has finally arrived in Jerusalem, and it is one of a whole series of exchanges he has with those wearing the hats of religious authority. In this instance, he is in the temple responding to the chief priests and elders of the people who are busily trying to discredit him and to challenge his authority as a teacher. Jesus does an end-run on their question, by asking them a question. “Did the baptism of John”—who was an extremely popular figure with the people—did John’s baptism “come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” They quickly see that they can’t give an answer that won’t either alienate the crowd or back them into a corner of contradiction, so they decline to answer. It is at this point that Jesus hits them with a parable intended to unsettle their own comfortable assumptions and judgments.
Which of these two sons actually did the will of the father? Well, they have to answer that it was the first son—the one who’d initially refused to go to work in the vineyard. “Where is he going with this?” they must have wondered. He’d already backed them into that corner with his question about the origin of John’s baptism, and now this.
“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.’” Pardon me? Where exactly did that come from? And then Jesus continued, “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.”
What just happened here? They’d started out by asking a question of the source of Jesus’ authority as a teacher, and now he’s suggesting that the dregs of society are going to precede them into the kingdom?
The good news—the great good news—of this exchange is that grace is extended even to those who had made a disaster of their lives. There is still room for those who, by the fabric of their lives, had originally told the father that they were not willing to go out into the vineyard. The tax collectors and prostitutes, the lost and the losers could actually turn it all around—which is more or less the literal meaning of “repent”—and find themselves in line with the will of the father.
The tough news—which is still a part of the good news—is that the ones who by their religious practice and devotion had always imagined themselves to be saying “yes” to the father still had some work to do. Those who had become so preoccupied with the righteousness of their “yes” had never really been able to hear the force of John the Baptist’s message. And even when they saw the extraordinary picture of tax collectors and prostitutes responding to John’s message they weren’t particularly moved to take a look at the fabric of their own lives. Any wonder, then, that they were so scandalized by Jesus’ willingness to actually share meals with that class of sinner and reprobate? They thought that saying “yes” was enough. Besides, who wants to go into a vineyard that is being worked by hookers and con men?
“I will distrust myself,” wrote St Augustine, “I will trust in You.” In their willingness to surrender the disaster of their lives to God, and to symbolize that by getting dunked in the Jordan River, this is precisely what those baptized by John had done. But the religious elite to whom Jesus told his parable just hadn’t been able to go there. They still trusted their own selves, their own judgments and their own righteousness as being sufficient. And again, even when they saw transformation happening in the lives of those sinners, they remained unmoved. Worse than unmoved, they remained skeptical, judgmental, and locked into their closed religious system.
Of course, they’re not the only ones who back themselves into that corner. Any time we hear Jesus telling a parable designed to rattle the assumptions of the religious establishment of his day, we should be prepared to made a bit uneasy ourselves. As with the chief priests and elders, we can easily back ourselves into corners with closed theologies on one side and confident pieties on the other. Christians can turn even grace and mercy into judgment and hypocrisy.
So no, this is not a simple tale of actions speaking louder than words. Read the gospels through, and you’ll find that Jesus is deeply interested in both words and actions, and that he uses both to teach the good news. He preaches sermons, tells stories, and engages in rabbinical debates with the Pharisees. He reaches out with healing to touch broken people, he shares food with outcasts, and he performs a powerfully prophetic act in cleansing the temple. And ultimately, he calls us to bring what we say we believe in line with how we actually enact our faith.
What he does challenge are closed systems of religious thought, merciless structures of judgment, and exclusionary pieties. And he challenges not in order to condemn and exclude the chief priests and elders, but to issue to them a wake-up call. “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Maybe you’d like instead to walk alongside of them in the rag tag procession that is the way of the kingdom?
But in order to do that, they will have to learn Augustine’s lesson: “I will distrust myself, I will trust in You.”
We are about to do something here, which is a little unusual for a Sunday evening liturgy. In a few minutes I am going to invite Jaylene and Scott to come to the front of the church, and with this whole gathered community bearing witness and offering prayer, I am going to ask them to speak to one another some very strong words. What they will say to one another are words that both affirm the marriage they have already begun to live—they were married a while back in a civil ceremony—and to set that in the context of faith and community. In a very real sense, they are words of surrender. By this I don’t mean that they are in any sense “giving up,” but rather “giving into.” Their words, as well as the words that we will speak over their lives, speak powerfully of finding a way forward together. Strong words, and as anyone who is married is aware, we will to some degree all fail at it. What we say and how we manage to enact that will not always line up, completely integrated.
Jaylene and Scott, this is a remarriage for both of you, so you both do know of broken deeds and failed words. Hear, then, in this gospel a word of grace—you’ve turned around and begun again, with new hope and fresh words. But hear, too, Jesus’ challenge to the chief priests and elders to not get trapped by closed systems, merciless judgments, or exclusionary ways of being. My blessing for you is that in your shared covenant called marriage you will taste deep grace and mercy, and find in this relationship both challenges to keep growing and opportunities to enact deep joy.
* * * * *
And just in case you were game to read a piece of fiction that really picks up on the verse in which Jesus says, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” I’d highly recommend Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” from the collection Everything That Rises Must Converge.