"We are the two sons"

Proper 21.A.20
Matthew 21:23-32
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Before we get to the two sons in today’s parable. Take a moment and picture yourself standing in the vineyard. Look around. It’s a lovely place, the air redolent of harvest and the sun is hinting at a beautiful day to come. Breathe deeply. Doesn’t it promise to be a wonderful day!

Throughout the Bible, including the New Testament, Israel is compared to a vineyard. If we keep to this tradition as we read this morning’s parable of the two sons, we discover that the work to be done in the vineyard isn’t so much about harvesting grapes; it’s about doing good works among the people of God. That’s the work the Father is asking his children to do. Think of it as “Grace work”. Today’s parable can be read many different ways. However, I would like to approach it this morning as being about our willingness to do good to the people around us.

As we soon discover, neither of these sons of the vineyard owner is a stellar example of what we hope our children to become: responsive and obedient, ready to get right out there and do the parent’s bidding. One child declares that he is not going to the vineyard; but later changes his mind. The other says “I will go” and does not. It seems simple enough; but remember, this is a parable, so there’s more here than first meets the eye.

So, about that son who says: “I’ll go and work in the vineyard.” And doesn’t; who is that? Well, as Jesus tells it, it’s the Pharisees. Rather than focusing on questions of how best to share the good news of God’s love and doing good works among the least in God’s kingdom, they were focused on questions such as the one which prompted the telling of today’s parable—issues of authority. They perceived themselves as gatekeepers rather than greeters—seeing their position as one which vetted people for worthiness, kept the rules, followed the customs and maintained tradition with a stringency that would make your great aunt, you know, the one who memorized Emily Post, wilt in comparison.

Now, about the other son, the one who says: “I won’t go, but whose conscience eventually gets the better of him and he eventually makes his way to the vineyard; who is he? That son is representative of those whose lives represent a “no” to God; but whose hearts eventually turn, and they recognize the value of the vineyard. They are the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and others who fell outside the traditional understanding of who constituted the righteous people of God.

But here’s the thing—the important fact to keep in mind—if we look closely at ourselves, and hold to the intention of being honest, the truth is, we’re on close terms with both of these sons. And, there is this to bear in mind as well. Neither of these sons is wholly bad—or, for that matter, entirely good.

For their own part, the Pharisees tried hard to live up to what they believed were the standards of God. To their immense credit, they toed the line. They were inheritors of a great tradition, and they respected this. They took their faith seriously. They were good people.

And the others? Bear in mind that being a sinner and then recognizing the value of the promises of God doesn’t mean you get to go on sinning? It requires a change of heart—a re-ordering of values, a reorientation to life. These folks, they might have had a rough start on the road to righteousness. Perhaps the path they have followed unto this point resembles switchbacks on a mountain trail rather than a straight line to the Kingdom of God, but they too, are good people, and they are striving to follow God. And now, behold, they’re out there in the kingdom, doing good works.

So, back to these two sons. I don’t know about you, but I am both of them. I am the child who says they will go to the vineyard and then sits down to finish another chapter of a particularly engrossing book. And I am the child who has no interest in going to the vineyard, but whose conscience makes me drag my feet to the place I don’t want to be—only to

discover my heart’s peace there in the field with others. Which is why I like this parable. It speaks to me. I hope it does the same for you.

This parable speaks to the imperfect in all of us. It calls into question our predilection for placing people or groups of people into convenient categories. And it challenges us to ask ourselves difficult questions such as: When have we neglected the poor and marginalized in favor of our own prejudices? When have we ignored the commandments of God in favor of self-gratification? Take some time this week to ponder: When faced with a question, or information, or a particularly annoying post on social media, ask yourself where it is that you feel most defensive. For some folks that defensive response might be over issues of race or money; for others it might be prompted by matters of politics or faith. Then challenge yourself. Really, do it! Venturing into the vineyard to work means that we risk seeing where we have been blind. It means that we risk opening our hearts to truths we have been avoiding.

If you’re one of those folks whose hackles rise when you hear about Black Lives Matter: If, when faced with a Black Lives Matters sign you are tempted to point out that neither you nor anyone in your family ever owned slaves, and therefore cannot be held responsible for current conditions. Take some time to learn what white privilege really is. Better yet, take an online class about anti-racism, you might find your heart and mind opened. If you think those who are upset at the ruling from the Breonna Taylor case this week are out of line, and that protesters are all looters and rioters, this is something you should do, if for no other reason than to understand the experiences of people different than yourself. If you think all police officers are racist, violent and oppressive….pause, and get to know some of the people who work faithfully in such a difficult and dangerous calling. If you’re someone who has unfriended all Republicans on social media, take some time to hear them, and to really listen to their hopes and their fears. You might have more in common than you believed. If you are uncomfortable being around people who are in need, volunteer at the Dedham Food Pantry. They need your help. If you’re concerned either about voter suppression or illegal voting, volunteer at the polls. In other words, challenge yourself to grow beyond your prejudices (whatever they might be), because we all have them. Make yourself uncomfortable. See Jesus in others.

Now, none of this may sound like good news to you, but what I hear in this parable is the surprising possibility of hope. There’s hope here for all of us. Hope that it is never too late (no matter which son we happen to resemble at present) to respond to God’s call to grace. There is hope that one’s past actions or current status does not determine one’s future. There is hope that even those who think they are doing the will of God, but are not, will have their hearts turned. This is a parable that tells us that it is not too late. God is right here, right now, inviting each of us into the Vineyard. This parable calls each and every one of us to repent (a word which simply means to turn); that we turn from what is holding us back from entering that good and gracious Vineyard of God. Turn around, let go of our fears and our failings and walk into that place of light and joy—and work alongside others in the Kingdom of God to make our world a place of justice, righteousness and peace for all people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.