In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the second half of today’s Gospel reading, we hear Jesus confront some of His opponents with a parable. Yet while His immediate hearers were the chief priests and the elders of the people, every child — that is, everyone who now is or ever was a child — can relate to this story, and so can every parent. In fact, while this parable is commonly called ‘The Parable of the Two Sons,’ in the Greek it’s “two children”; so they could be two boys, or two girls, or a boy and a girl. Jesus doesn’t give many details: no parental anger expressed; just the parental command to each child, and the words and actions of each child in response. So we all can see ourselves in this parable, can’t we?
Mom, Dad, if you’ve had children long enough, you can probably think of half a dozen times, easily, when you asked your kid or kids to do some chore, and the scene played out much as it did with one or the other or both children in the parable. The father in the parable says, “Go out today, work in the vineyard.” You could just as easily substitute another chore. Clean your room. Your turn to do the dishes, or take out the garbage. Mow the lawn, please. And how many times have you heard the first child’s response: “I will not,” or as we could also translate it, “I don’t want to,” and said with at least a little whine (after all, Jesus does talk about working in a vineyard). Maybe you’ve shot right back with, “Who do you think you are, answering me like that? Now get going!” Even when your child says “Yes, I’ll do it” to your imperative, how often does he or she not do it? So you have to ask again, and maybe yet again.
Son, Daughter, if you’re honest, most likely you’ve done what each of the two children did in Jesus’ parable, haven’t you? You willfully, obstinately answered your mom or dad, “I don’t want to”; but later you come to regret it, so you change your mind and go do the chore. Then there are times you said, “Yes, mother dear,” or “Yes, sir!” but didn’t actually do what you were asked. What does God expect of you, according to the Fourth Commandment? “Honor your father and your mother.” What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” How well have you kept this? In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther explains this Commandment further: “To fatherhood and motherhood God has given the special distinction, above all estates that are beneath it, that He commands us not simply to love our parents but also to honor them.” Earthly fathers and mothers are sinners with flaws and failings, it’s true, and some can even be quite wicked; however, Luther also points out, “They are not to be deprived of their honor because of their ways or their failings.”
This is important stuff, and Jesus certainly teaches that we should honor our earthly parents; however, He has another, even more important point to make here: the obedience which the children of God owe to their heavenly Father. Jesus tells this parable in response to a group of chief priests and elders who have confronted Him as He is teaching in the temple. “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” Before He gets to the parable, Jesus answers, I’ll tell you if you tell Me. “The baptism of John” — and by this Jesus is referring to the whole ministry of John, his preaching of repentance and his teaching of the coming Messiah, as well as his baptism — “did it come from heaven or from man?” Did he proclaim the Word of God, or merely the thoughts of his own mind? They knew the truth, but they couldn’t admit it. Their answer, “We don’t know,” is cowardly and disingenuous. Though they refuse to take a stand, Jesus forces their hand with this parable; the answer to it is plain. “Which [child] did the will of the father?” They question Jesus’ authority, but Jesus questions their integrity. It’s time to put your money where your mouth is.
Jesus questions their integrity because they believe in their own righteousness before God, that they’re the best of God’s chosen people, the chosen above the rest of the chosen. Go back to the Book of Exodus, when the children of Israel had come to Mount Sinai, and through Moses they received the covenant of God with His teaching and His commandments for their life together. Three times they vowed their obedience, a bit more intensely and earnestly each time: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Then, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Finally, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Ex 19:8; 24:3, 7). How long did it take for them to disobey? Before Moses had even come down from the mountain! So it continued through their history. Later, the Lord would say through the prophet Malachi:
“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a Father, where is My honor? And if I am a Master, where is My fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise My name. But you say, ‘How have we despised Your name?’ By offering polluted food upon My altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted You?’ By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised” (Mal 1:6–7).
Instead of offering the first and best, God’s people offered Him animals that were blind, sick, or lame. “Is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts” (v 8). He knew what they thought and said about bringing Him their offerings, and treating with reverence the sacred things of the Lord’s house: “You say, ‘What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it” with derision (v 12). Jesus could and did lay the same accusation at the feet of the chief priests and elders. Their deeds didn’t match their words. How about you and me? Do we stand accused, or do our deeds match our words and our convictions? Who do you think you are? Are you the child who does the will of the Father, or the one who doesn’t?
The truth is, you and I are like each of the two children in this parable, at different times. Sometimes we are like the first. Through His Word, the Father says, “Do this.” Our word says “no,” but eventually our deed says “yes.” Sometimes we’re like the other child. To the Father’s command, our word says “yes,” but our deed — or rather, our non-deed — says “no.” Which of the two children honors the Father as He deserves? Neither one. That’s why we need Child number three, the true Son who says “yes” in both word and deed, who perfectly and completely honors and obeys His Father, even unto death.
Jesus’ confrontation with the chief priests and elders in the temple is during Holy Week, as Jesus is about to go to Calvary, to the cross, to offer Himself as the final and perfect Sacrifice for the sin of the world, to satisfy the righteous wrath of God against us and our sin. Let’s go back to the twofold question they ask Him. “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” Which things that Jesus did do they mean? There are three things recorded by Matthew which Jesus did in His coming to Jerusalem and the temple. First, His triumphal entry into the city on Palm Sunday. This is in fulfillment of the Word through the prophet Zechariah, and marks Jesus as the true King, humble and righteous. Second, His cleansing of the temple, where He also heals the blind and the lame, making them acceptable offerings before God. This marks Him as the true Priest, faithful and holy. Third, His cursing of the fig tree that bore no fruit, which withers at once. This marks Him as the true Prophet, powerful and just, whose Word actually does what it says. To that tree Jesus spoke a curse. On the tree of His cross, Jesus bore the curse for us, and spoke mercy and grace: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” When you face that conflict, within and without, when you don’t want to obey God, but you do anyway, or when your intentions are good, but you fail to act as God desires, Jesus, your Elder Brother, is the faithful Child, the obedient Son in your place. He pleads for you, interceding with the Father on your behalf. At His font He washes you clean, holy, and pure with water from His riven side and the Word from His mouth. At His altar you are fed the body and blood of Christ “who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, [to] purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb 9:14). By the Power, the Holy Spirit, at work in you through His holy Word and the blessed Sacraments, the integrity of Jesus Christ is made your integrity, so that when God says, “Do this,” both your word and deed are yes.
This past Friday, September 29, was the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, also called Michaelmas. Now you may think I’m mentioning it because it’s in honor of my namesake. That day is my name’s day, an event which is a custom observed in some cultures, but not in American culture at large. Rather, I’m mentioning it in consideration of who the holy angels are. In Martin Luther’s Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer we ask our heavenly Father, “Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.” In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, … Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Who is doing our Father’s will in heaven? Certainly His holy angels are! As Luther said:
For we who believe must be certain that the princes of heaven are with us, not one or two, but a great multitude of them, as is recorded in Luke that the heavenly hosts were with the shepherds (Luke 2:13). But if we were without this protection, and the Lord did not restrain the fury of Satan in this manner, we would not remain alive for a single moment … Therefore the good angels are busy in order that the fierce enemy may not inflict harm.
There are those whose words and deeds say “no” to God’s commands, for they are “a crooked and twisted generation” (Php 2:15), unbelievers who do not want to be His children. They deny that He is God, they reject Him as their Father, and reject Christ as Savior. Does it seem like they are gaining the upper hand in the world, as they attack the authority of Christ and of His Church, saying to Him and to us, “Who do you think you are?” His mighty angels know who He is, and they worship Him and do His bidding, serving as His divine protection over you. You know who you are, because you know Whose you are. He knows you, and you know Him, and He gives You His Word and Spirit that you, like His angels, may do His Father’s will. So go and do! For He is with you!
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.