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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Good Intentions - Matthew 21:23-32


When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“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 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?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “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.”


When John Wesley sent the early Methodist preachers out, he asked three questions upon their return: “Did you make anyone glad? Did you make anyone sad? Did you make anyone mad?” If the answer to all three questions was “no,” he concluded that their preaching on that particular occasion had been ineffective.

There are times when the Gospel message comes to us as news that makes us glad – glad for the good news of God’s love in Christ for us. There are times when it makes us sad – sad over our sin and failure to live for God. And there are times when it makes us mad – mad because we realize we’re the ones being talked about and being asked to change. Throughout the teachings of Jesus, we find ourselves responding in all these ways.

In our text today, Jesus has some very direct things to say to the religious leaders of his day. As someone who has become a religious leader of our day, I pay much closer attention to these particular stories than I used to. I realized, that as a leader in the religious establishment, as a church insider, as part of the good and upstanding church crowd, this thing was aimed right at me! “But God, I have good intentions!” I protest. This is one of those texts that just seems to say, “That’s all well and good, but you know where the road paved with good intentions leads!”

May we pray.
Gracious God, your people have gathered to worship, and also to hear from you. Now Lord, I ask that you would speak to me; speak through me; if necessary in spite of me, and always beyond me that the truth of your Word might not be hid. Amen.

Today’s text is a conversation taking place between Jesus and the religious leaders. It is his last week in Jerusalem before the crucifixion – the joy of his triumphal entry is behind him, and the cross looms ever larger in front of him. He seems to be ticking off the religious establishment left and right, and I’m sure this conversation helped bring the conflict to a head. This is a rare instance in which Jesus confronts the religious folks on their own turf. They engage him in a style of discourse commonly used by rabbis. They ask questions, Jesus responds with stories and additional questions, and he comes off sounding like a real smart aleck.

Jesus and the religious leaders were all in the hallway getting their coffee before Sunday School. He tells them this story: A man had two sons. To both sons he said, “Go work in the vineyard.” The first son said, “No,” but then later, for whatever reason, went and worked. The second son said, “Sure Dad, I’ll go do it,” but stayed inside chatting on facebook for the rest of the day. One son said the wrong thing, but followed through with the right action. The other son said the right thing, but failed to follow through.

Have you ever had an experience with someone who said they were there to help, but in reality, provided no help whatsoever? About a year ago, I was doing a wedding in another church for a wonderful couple from out-of-town. Their wedding director was a relative of the mother-of-the-bride. My usual arrangement with wedding directors is, “You run everything at the back of the church, and I’ll run everything at the front.” If you have your wedding here, you’re blessed to have Sara Kidd as your wedding director. I haven’t done a wedding with Sara yet, but just in our general worship planning, I love working with Sara. She makes my job easy. Things run smoothly. She and Polly Haney and the rest of the worship team are such a help in pulling off the logistics of worship. However, sometimes people say they’re going to help, and then make things more difficult.

I have wedding rehearsals down to a science. The whole thing, including seating mothers and grandmothers, the processional, the service, and the recessional, can be rehearsed twice in 45 minutes. With this particular wedding director, at 45 minutes, we were just finishing the first run-through of seating the mothers and the processional after several starts and re-starts. I freely admit that patience continues to be a growth area for me. It was a hot evening. The church wasn’t air-conditioned. We were all getting hungry knowing that the rehearsal dinner was prepared and waiting for us. The wedding party and members of the family were getting a little edgy and frustrated, and you could slice the tension in the room. After 45 minutes, everyone was finally assembled where they were supposed to be, and I had just opened my book and was about to begin our first run-through of the service. The wedding director interrupted. To me she said, “When everyone is coming in, I think you should be standing over here.” Her suggestion made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Perhaps I was frustrated. Perhaps I was concerned for the waste of everyone else’s time. Perhaps my patience had run out. Perhaps I just wasn’t interested in being told how to conduct the wedding, but in response to her suggestion I heard myself say, “No.” She began to argue. I said, “Ma’am, you’re going to need to have a seat now.”

Her intentions were good. She sincerely thought she was helping.

Back in our text today, Jesus asks the religious leaders, “Which son did the will of their father? The son who gave the wrong answer but did the right thing, or the son who gave the right answer but did the wrong thing?”

They decided it was the son who did the right thing, even though he gave the wrong answer. They know Jesus has told this story against them, though they can’t really prove it. As religious leaders, they were known for giving the right answers, but not necessarily for doing the right thing. But they know the old clichés as well as any of us: actions speak louder than words, talk is cheap, empty words are synonymous with broken promises, I would rather see a sermon than hear one.

So as a religious insider, I am warned against honoring the Lord with my lips while my heart and actions are far from what God expects. The truth of my commitment lives in my heart, and what I do is the best measure of what’s in my heart. Or, as it’s put by the great poet of our age, Toby Keith, “a little less talk, a lot more action.”

The son who gives the wrong answer but does the right action is elevated as the hero in many interpretations of this text, and there are even some who refer to it as the parable as the faithful and unfaithful son.

However, the response of both sons is lacking. Each response lacks integrity because word is disconnected from action. The son who said “no,” even though he eventually did what the father asked, was no prize, either. In many cultures—including the one in which this story is set—open, public defiance of one’s father was a worse offense than not doing what one’s father asked. What sort of father would raise his son in such a manner that the son thought it was okay to speak to him that way? The father is left with one son who says “no” with his words and “yes” with his actions, and another who says “yes” with his words and “no” with his actions. There is something about both sons that needs to be transformed.

When we are asked to choose, we are asked to choose between two sons who both insulted their father. I can identify with either son in this parable, which is the troubling part, because both sons are still so far away from the will of their father. If we say the will of God is primarily about saying and knowing and believing the right things – about saying the right creed, and attending the right Bible study, and thinking a certain way, and constructing our worship services appropriately, we can forget that a lack of action will make our words sound incredibly hollow. If, on the other hand, we say the will of God is primarily about behavior – about doing the right things, and acting the right way, and getting our hands dirty working in the vineyard, we easily lapse into a works righteousness in which we are trying to earn our way into the kingdom of God. It’s not as simple as a change in our words and beliefs, nor is it as simple as a change in our actions and deeds.

What Jesus calls for is a change of heart.

Jesus calls for a change of heart that is only possible by God’s grace. To rely solely on our own words or on our own deeds is to rely solely upon ourselves. Herein lies the danger of good intentions: they allow us to rest too easily upon ourselves and in the promises we ourselves make. We can become very comfortable with the contributions we’re making or the things we believe, or the contributions we intend to make or the things we intend to believe. Those who believe certain things will take false pride in those beliefs and chide anyone who doesn’t believe the same way, and those who act in certain ways look down their noses at others who don’t act just like they do.

Have you met these people? People who are so convinced that they’re right that everyone else has to be wrong? Who will go down a long list of things that they believe and do, and if you don’t believe just like they do, then you are completely wrong? If your experiences are different, if your values are different, if your worldview is different, then you must be in the wrong? Rather than recognizing the complexity of how we are fearfully and wonderfully made, they spend all their time arguing the correctness of their position in such a way that highlights what they perceive to be the incorrectness of yours. Or, worse yet, have you ever been one such person?

A friend of mine who is a United Methodist pastor has a fondness for Hardee’s sausage biscuits. I know, a pastor with a fondness for fatty, greasy food – who would have thought? One day, he was at the Hardee’s near his church wearing a polo shirt with his church’s name and logo on it. Some guy, apparently trying to pick a fight with him, looked at his shirt and said, “United Methodist Church, huh? What Bible y’all use over there?” My friend responded, “We use the one that has both the Old and New Testaments.” Not deterred, his antagonist pressed on. “Nah, man – you boys believe in the King James Bible over there?” Without missing a beat, my friend responded, “Believe in it? Shoot, I’ve even seen one.”

The man was like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, who thought that the absolute pristine correctness of their beliefs trumped everything else. They felt justified in looking down their noses and anyone who did not think and act the same way, that if people believed anything outside of their determined little realm, then they were wrong. However, is it possible to be firm in our convictions and still recognize the validity of other people’s beliefs and experiences, even when they don’t exactly line up with ours?

Even the Puritans in early New England recognized this complexity. Keep in mind that Puritans were not exactly the most open-minded people; after all, these were the same people who would burn you at the stake for witchcraft if you forgot the words to the Lord’s Prayer. But an old Puritan proverb said “God does not break all hearts in the same way.” In other words, God moves and works in different hearts in radically different ways. It is nothing more than spiritual snobbery to assume that we have the corner on the market and that we’re somehow superior because of some knowledge or experience or action of our own.

To this, Jesus says even the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God ahead of people who act and think this way. Even the most despised and reviled sinners of Jesus’ day would enter the kingdom of God ahead of anyone in the religious establishment who was placing their security in their own beliefs or actions or accomplishments. I would love to point the finger at someone else in this interpretation, and say, Jesus must be talking about them in this passage. I want to walk up to Jesus, shake his hand on the way out of church, wink, and whisper, “I’m sure SOMEBODY needed their toes stepped on, and you sure gave it to ‘em!” And what I would mean by that is somebody else – insert your favorite sin or marginalized people group here – needed to hear that. Certainly not me and my Godly friends.

But I’m exactly the one this is aimed at. Here’s why. People in the religious establishment, like me, too easily become comfortable in our own accomplishments and good intentions. Comfortable and complacent, we too easily become very satisfied with the position we’ve settled into and focus on being nice people instead of on the power of the Gospel. We too easily substitute politeness for transformation, and forget that we are still in need of God’s grace. We too easily forget that the resurrection is still the defining force in our lives, and that things in our lives still need to die in order for the things of God to be brought to new life. We too easily think we’re just fine and dandy, thank you very much.

People on the outside, however, those whose personal lives are in shambles, who are on the fringes, who are marginalized, know they need something. They know something’s not working. Those who are outside the pale of the acceptable circles of the religious elite may in fact be those who are most sensitive to their need for radical grace. It’s much easier to seek grace when you stand in desperate need of it. It’s much easier to seek radical transformation in your life when you realize how deeply you need it. The church is here to proclaim God’s grace. We need to remember that grace is still needed by those inside. And it is always available to those outside.

Perhaps Thomas Jefferson was right. Perhaps the church really does need a revolution in every generation. Those of us in the religious establishment would do well to trade in our public images and good intentions for a fresh dose of the transformative grace of God. We are still sinners whose lives have been touched and transformed by God’s grace, and it is imperative that we invite others to experience what we have. That’s what evangelism is – when we invite others to join us on the journey and experience what we have. Evangelism is not some expert giving all the right answers to those who are without them. Evangelism is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.

Every now and then, it’s good for the saints to be reminded that we’re also sinners. Every time I’ve gotten just a little too comfortable with the correctness of my words, or the correctness of my deeds, it’s good to be reminded that my heart is always in need of transformation. Every time I’ve started to think it’s about me – about my words, and my deeds, and my efforts, and my intentions, I’m reminded that it’s about God – about what God is doing and how I need to make myself available to the ways God is working and moving through me. If it were all about me, I think the hope for the world would be slim indeed.

Thank God it’s not all about me, or all about any of us, for that matter. It’s not about our deeds, our beliefs, our doctrine, or our words being right. It’s about our hearts being right. It’s about our hearts being broken and transformed into the likeness of the heart of God, a transformation that only comes about through the grace of Jesus Christ. That transformation is not something that happens only once. It happens day by day, each and every morning when we wake up and continue to a say a resounding “yes” to the transformation God works in each of us.

A man had two sons. One thought his words would save him; the other thought his deeds would save him. In the end, it was the love and grace of their father that saved them, love and grace that can transform every human heart, including ones like ours.


In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, may we pray.

Lord God, you call us not to correct words or action alone. You call us to have transformed hearts. We know we can’t do it on our own. We’ve tried to do it on our own accomplishments, on our own knowledge, on our own good intentions. Transform us, God. We know that such transformation comes about only through a relationship with your son, Jesus. We want to be his followers. We invite him into our lives, to transform our hearts into the likeness of your heart. For those who need to invite him into their lives for the first time, we pray. Right now, fill them with your presence and begin the great work of transformation within them. For those of us who have said “yes” with our lips only, for those of us who have said “yes” with our actions only, we know it’s not enough. May we recognize that we are in need of continual transformation, and that each of us always stands in need of your love and grace. Keep us open, Lord. Keep us open, and continue to pour out your grace on us and fill us with your Holy Spirit. We make a new commitment to you right now. We will live as your resurrection people in the world, full of your grace, full of your love, ready to serve you fully with our words and deeds, because you have transformed our hearts.

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