Matthew 21: 23-32; Philippians 2: 1-13
Jesus teaches the parable of the two sons. Which son does what the father wants? Actually, neither. The father wants a son who says he will do the work, and then goes and does it.
But I don't think Jesus tells the story to make us believe that what God, our Heavenly Father, wants from us in instant unquestioning obedience.
The God of the Bible seems to go to sometimes extraordinary lengths to give his children, you & me, freedom of choice. He places his creation in a world of infinite variety, provides pointers for behaviour in the form of the teaching of the Law and the Prophets and then patiently waits for each person to turn to Him of their own free will. However long that takes – he is waiting for the wayward to return, not so that God can give him or her a flea in the ear, but so God can throw a party.
No wonder Jesus so often uses the term Father for God. Just as a human parent wants their child to grow to be an independent, thinking and caring person, so God the Father prizes human flourishing over human obedience.
So if Jesus' parable is not about snapping to attention to say " yes sir" and obeying the Father, what is it about?
We have reflected on the fact that neither son gets it right. Saying the right thing " yes sir " but not acting on those words is wrong. But it is also wrong to dismiss the request " I don't want to", to use words which show disrespect , even if later you relent and do the right thing.
Jesus is perhaps wanting us to speculate about the right response. To ask ourselves what the perfect child would be like – someone who managed both to say and to do what is right in the father’s eyes.
So Jesus could be pointing to the rightness of a way of life in which speech and action, feeling and thought, head and heart, even love of God and love of neighbor, are in harmony.
Jesus tells the story because there grumbles from the chief priests and the elders that Jesus is mixing with the wrong sort of people – “tax-collectors and prostitutes” and they are questioning Jesus’ teaching about God’s kingdom.
The chief priests and elders say they are people of God and are listening to God, but they do not follow Jesus.
The tax-collectors and prostitutes are following Jesus, although their lives do not yet show that they are putting Jesus’ teaching into practice.
Maybe both groups need to think more carefully about what it means to be people of God in word and in deed.
But Jesus is particularly scathing in the way he talks to the critical chief priests and elders. He says to them “tax-collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you”. There seems to be no doubt that the so-called ‘religious leaders’ need to brush up on the integrity of the words and actions. They could start by thinking about what it means to love others, at the very least.
Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi hits the nail on the head:
“Leave no room for selfish ambition and vanity, but humbly reckon others better than yourselves. Look to each other’s interest, not merely to your own.”
We do not need to be concerned so much as to who is reaching the kingdom of God first – we need to be asking how we can be part of ensuring that the way is clear for everyone to come to know God’s will, God’s way and God’s love.
Then Paul holds up for us the most perfect example there has ever been of obedience and integrity, in Jesus Christ.
“He humbled himself and was obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross”.
While the chief priests and elders are asking Jesus who has given him the authority to teach about the things of God – especially to sinners, they are missing entirely the example he is showing them of what a life lived in step with God actually looks like.
In Jesus we see love for God the Father and love of others – whoever they are – in perfect balance. We hear teaching of love and compassion for all, and we see that love and compassion healing all who need it, and ultimately healing the world itself by going through death to demonstrate the limitless nature of the love of God for each and every one of us.
Jesus is the perfect son – the one who both says what is right and does what is right.
But before we get too caught up in praise of Jesus and forget the challenge Jesus then gives us, let’s hear Paul again:
“So you to, my friends, must be obedient”.
Jesus does not show us what perfect obedience and integrity looks like so that we worship him, but so that we follow him.
But don’t despair if you find the Jesus standard of integrity a high one. Paul also reminds us that
“it is God who works in you, inspiring both the will and the deed, for his own chosen purpose”.
If we are to be more like the ideal child of the Father, which Jesus points to in the parable,
we need the help of the Holy Spirit to give us the desire to be obedient to the will of the Father
and we also need the Spirit to empower us to carry that desire through into our actions.
We need the Spirit to fill and transform us so that we are better disciples of Jesus, more like him, more holy, more one with God the Father.
We need the Spirit to help us to see what sort of child of God we are – do we say the right things but find them hard to carry out? Or do we do the right things because we know we should, but without whole-heartedly embracing them? Or do we just stumble and mess up from time to time?
God our Father waits patiently for us to return to him, to ask ‘what do you want me to do’ and to dedicate ourselves to loving God and our neighbour as we grown more like Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
May we grow in obedience, to the glory of the One God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.