“What God is Short Of”

September 27, 2020

Matthew 21:28–32

**This passage is set in Jerusalem during Jesus’ last week. The days have been full of drama as Jesus has co-opted a donkey to ride into the city, chased merchants out of the temple, cursed the fig tree for failing to bear fruit and then went back to the temple to teach. This is where the chief priests and elders corner him and want to know was who has given him the authority to do all those things. They wanted to know who he thought he was. Instead of answering, Jesus asked them a question: “What do you think” — and then he told them this story…**

“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.”

Dear Friends:

In March of 1979, a nonprofit organization by the name of the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network was launched. It is better-known by its acronym: C-SPAN. Its mission is to provide continuous coverage of the goings-on of the US Government. You may have tuned in to watch as Congress works — or, depending on your perspective, does not work.

Along with American programming, there are occasionally programs from other countries, including one from the United Kingdom: “Prime Minister’s Questions.” The program airs from the British House of Commons and features the British Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition party.

The entire program consists of these two figures, along with other members of the House, pummeling each other with rapid-fire and hard-hitting questions, above a cacophony of cheers, jeers, and occasional pleas for “order” from the Speaker of the House. This can go on for hours! One person bounds to his feet and asks a biting rhetorical question, then someone else jumps up with a pithy answer or an even more searing question. It is the political version of whack-a-mole!

If C-SPAN were around in Jesus’ day, there might have been a show called “The Messiah’s Questions.” Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is berated with all manner of rapid-fire rhetorical questions.

John asks Jesus, “Are you the one we have been waiting for?” Then the Chief Priests — the opposition party if ever there were one — ask Jesus one question after another. They ask why the disciples do not abide by the tradition of the elders, they ask about divorce, they ask about taxes, they ask about the role of the Ten Commandments, and on and on it goes until even Pilate himself asks Jesus if he is, in fact, the King of the Jews.

In today’s passage Jesus is questioned about his authority by the Chief Priests and elders: “By what authority are you doing these things?” and “Who gave you this authority?” In turn Jesus asks them some questions and they choose not to answer, not because they did not have one, but because they were afraid of how Jesus might respond.

So, Jesus asks yet another question — “What do you think?” — and then launches into a parable I call the “Yes and No Brothers.” A father asks two sons to work in the vineyard, one says “Sure! I’ll get right on it” but doesn’t follow through. The other says he will not help but does so in the end. “Which brother” Jesus asked the religious critics, “did the will of his father?”

It was an easy answer. We know it. It was not what either boy said that mattered but what he finally did. Only that was not part of the truth that got Jesus into trouble with the religious leaders. What got him killed was the second part, when he told them which brother they were. They were the Yes men who said all the right things, believed all the right things and stood for all the right things, but who would not DO the right things God asked them to do.

The Chief Priests and elders thought they were doing the right things, but they had gotten so attached to their own ideas about what those things were that it was hard for them to accept much correction. Their lack of doing the right things was going to result in a major shock when Jesus brings the parable to conclusion. He told them that people they despised (tax collectors and prostitutes) were going into the kingdom ahead of them.

At first glance, this is just one more story about hypocrisy, which has always been the number one charge leveled against religious people — that we say one thing and do another, promising we will love each other on Sunday and then finding oodles of ways to lie, slander, or just plain ignore each other on Monday. It is a serious charge against those who pretend goodness, wearing a fake fur of faith in God to gain advantage over people. But I do not think conscious pretense is the real problem. I am more concerned about the unconscious way many of us substitute our beliefs about God for our obedience to God, as if it were enough to say “I go, God” without ever tensing a muscle to get out of our chairs.

I understand it is easy to get beliefs mixed up with actions. We all know people who believe they love their families but spend little time with them. We know people who believe in protecting the environment but drive gas guzzling vehicles that get 12 miles to the gallon. We know people who believe in the American way but do not vote.

It is a peculiar thing, this vacuum between what we believe and what we actually do. The theological word for it is SIN — missing the mark — which is both inevitable and forgivable, but never tolerable for those who love God. When God is the mark we are missing, the vacuum is simply too painful to bear. It tears us up to say one thing and do another. It tears up our communities when we say love and then live indifferent, or say right and do wrong, or say, “I will go” and go nowhere at all. What we believe has no meaning apart from what we do about it. There is not a creed or a mission statement in the world that is worth more than a visit to a sick friend, or one cup of water given to someone who is longing for it.

The chief priests and elders got a shock that day based on their indifference. Jesus was going to make clear that God pays attention not to roles or stations in life, but to the heart … and to our actions. But while Jesus told the religious leaders they would be precluded from entering the kingdom of heaven first, as they may have expected — after all, they are not banished. Perhaps that’s good news for you.

In the book “Out of Africa” by Isak Dinesen, she tells the story of the young Kikuyu boy named Kitau who came to her door in Nairobi one day to ask if he might work for her. She said yes and he turned out to be a fine worker. Yet only three months later he asked her for a letter of recommendation to work for a Muslim named Sheik Ali in Mombasa. Not wanting to lose him, she offered a pay raise, but he was firm about leaving.

Kitau explained he had decided he would become either a Christian or a Muslim, and his whole purpose in coming to live with her had been to see the ways and habits of Christians up close. Next, he would go live for three months with Sheik Ali to see how Muslims behaved and then he would make up his mind. Aghast, Dinesen wrote, “I believe that even an Archbishop, when he had had these facts laid before him, would have said, or at least thought, as I said, ‘Good God, Kitau, you might have told me that when you came here.”

God does not tell us ahead of time. God has been telling us all along that there is no shortage of people who say, believe, or stand for all the right things. There have always been plenty of those in the world. What God is short of are people who will go where God calls them and do what God gives them to do — even, say, when it goes against their beliefs. To quote Soren Kiekegaard (Danish philosopher and theologian), Jesus wants followers, not admirers. Whether we say yes or no to is apparently less important to God than what we do. The important thing is what our lives say, and they are as easy for people to read as the story of the Yes and No bothers. If you are wondering which one you are, look in any mirror. What is moving? Your mouth or your feet?

(With thanks for the inspiration from Barbara Brown Taylor)

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.