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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

It’s a short story. A man asked his older son to go work in his vineyard and the son refused. But after a while he changed his mind—and heart—and did go to work there. When dad asked the second kid—thinking that honorable son #1 was going to be a no show—he quickly acquiesced, but never got up off the living room couch.

What do you think?” Jesus asks the priests and elders, “Which one of these guys did the will of his father?” They pick door #1—the first one who refused but then later did go to the vineyard. And in doing that they expose their hypocrisy. The first son was like the tax collectors and prostitutes who eventually heard the Good News and followed Jesus.

On the other hand, the religious leaders professed to be authentic believers, but only gave lip service to the call to repentance. They talked the talk but did not walk the walk. They were known for their words and not for their deeds.

The message here is that it matters what we actually do—not just what we say in response to God’s call. Sometimes words are not enough.

The parables are meaningless if they don’t speak to us in our life here today. It is easy to shake our heads at the religious phonies of Jesus’ day—as it is easy to do so at the hypocrites of our own day. This is not a parable we can hold at arm’s length. This judgment is directed at anyone who claims to be follow Jesus, to be a disciple.

Now I want to remind us that the term “Christian” was never used by Jesus nor was it ever used by his followers themselves. It was first used by the pagans in Antioch long after his resurrection and ascension. The terms used by his followers were either “People of the Way” or simply “disciples.” Perhaps it makes more sense to use the authentic terminology of the first century, budding church to describe who you and I aspire to be—followers and students of the way Jesus has asked us to live our lives in the world.

What makes a difference in and for the world are those who have learned to move beyond the words and walk the walk of Gospel faithfulness. It’s not just the Rosa Parks, Dorothy Days, and Mother Teresas who teach us the hard lessons about commitment to the important things in life. It’s everyone of you who in quiet, or not so quiet, ways become the hands and feet and voice and heart of Jesus in the world by what you do—not just by what you say.

It’s not always those who talk a lot about what they believe or spew off about how righteous or faithful they are and what real “Christians” they are, who bear witness in the world to true discipleship. It’s the ones who do simple and ordinary tasks that get little attention or glory but who make the church and the world a better place.

So today Jesus blasts the phony baloney religious right of his own day and annoys the hell out of them by announcing that tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before them. Do we hear that as good news or bad news?

It may depend on which of the two sons—or daughters—we think we are. My guess is that, on any given day, we could be either.

When I gave this parable a little more thought it struck me that it’s really about generosity—the generous spirit—albeit after some hesitation—of the older son and the lack of it in the younger. Is Jesus making a connection here between our willingness to be generous—with our time, our gifts, our treasure, our compassion and our path to heaven?

There is an old rabbinic parable about a farmer who had two sons. When they were old enough to walk, he took them to the fields and taught them everything he knew about growing crops and raising animals. When he grew too old to work, the boys took over the chores of the farm. Then, after the father died, they found that working together had been so meaningful that they decided to keep their partnership.

So, each brother contributed what he could, and during every harvest season, they would divide equally what they had corporately produced. Across the years, the elder brother never married. The younger brother did marry and had eight children.

Years later, when they were having a wonderful harvest, the bachelor brother thought to himself. My brother has ten mouths to feed. I have only one. He needs more of this harvest than I do, but I know he is much too fair to renegotiate. I know what I’ll do.

During the night when he is asleep, I’ll take some of what I have in my barn and transfer it over to his barn to help him feed his children.”

At that very time, the younger brother was thinking to himself, “God has given me these wonderful children. My brother hasn’t been so fortunate. He really needs more of this harvest for his old age than I do—but I know him. He’s much too fair. He’ll never ask. I know what I’ll do. During the night when he is asleep, I’ll take some of what I have in my barn and I’ll move it over to his barn.”

And so one night when the Moon was full, those two brothers came face to face, each on a mission of generosity. The old rabbi said that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but a gentle rain began to fall. “You know what it was?” he asked his students. God was weeping for joy because two of his children got the point.

Talk is cheap if we don’t walk the walk. But if prostitutes and tax-collectors have a shot at it, it surely gives my sorry excuse for discipleship the hope that there is room for me too. And, if there is room for me, none of you have a thing to worry about.

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