As parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, we try to teach our young beloveds to be respectful, to be kind, and –to varying degrees – to be obedient.
We want them to be pleasant to be around, yes, but we also want them to be successful in life – and that’s easier if other people experience them as pleasant and cooperative. We even experience these scenarios. I’m using “mother” since it is Mother’s Day – but mothers aren’t the only ones who have these conversations.
“Would you please wash the dishes?” “I don’t have time…” “Anhh..wrong answer. The correct answer is… “Yes Mom.”
OR “I love you so much, Mom.” “That’s nice sweetheart. But if you love me, please also do what I ask.” The struggle is real!
Jesus asks, “Who of you are doing the will of God?” Alyce McKenzie explains that when Jesus asks this, he’s actually asking several questions:
1. Are we participating in the in-breaking kingdom of God? 2. Are we committed to actively responding to Jesus with obedience? 3. By our actions, are we becoming a part of Jesus’ spiritual family? 4. Are we showing a commitment to saving the lost and excluded? 5. Are we willing to sacrifice when necessary on behalf of the kingdom of God?[i]
Who’s doing the will of God? There are lots of implications for living tied into that question.
1b. In order to understand what’s happening in this parable, we must take a look at the gospel context. This happens the day after Palm Sunday, with shouts of “Hosanna!” literally meaning ‘save us now.’
On the same day, Jesus stormed the temple, overturning the tables of the money changers and healing the blind and lame. In the process, he accuses the authorities of operating in their own self-interest – both Romans and temple leaders.
The next day, when Jesus set foot in the temple, he is confronted, not surprisingly, by the priests and scribes. They want to know “by what authority” he is doing these things that challenge their practices. What follows is a common debate form with question and counter-question.[ii]
Jesus answers them with another question: What is the authority for John’s baptism? They refuse to answer, seeing a trap. If they acknowledge that God called and empowered John, then they would have to explain why they refused to follow him. But, if they don’t acknowledge John’s divine authority, the crowds would be shocked.[iii] They won’t answer, so Jesus refuses to answer their question about the source of his authority, and proceeds to tell this parable about a man with two sons. [iv]
The gospels reveal Jesus as one who interpreted and followed the Torah in new and challenging ways. Jesus questioned some of the traditional practices of the temple, the guardian of Jewish religious practice. Jesus acts as if anything that doesn’t serve to heal and restore people in body, spirit, and relationship doesn’t deserve to be followed. He abandons unhelpful traditions – which offends the religious authorities. [v]
The immediate context of the parable is the controversy with the religious leaders over the source of Jesus’ authority – which they would have believed was either God, the devil, or himself. [vi] Jesus declared that God cared about sinners, offending the religious leadership, just as his table fellowship with the despised did.[vii]
This parable is a weapon of defense of Jesus’ practices and an offensive weapon against the religious leaders’ limited understanding of God’s purposes. Jesus challenges the religious leaders, immediately before he will be challenged by them. “Who of you are doing the will of God?” he asks as God’s messenger.
The secondary context is Christians through the ages. US. Jesus challenges the church today: Do our practices work for justice and the well-being of those who are oppressed? We can become blind to what God is doing in the world around us. The work of the church can too easily, as Douglas Hare describes, “degenerate into little more than simply maintaining the institution, with no excitement about what God’s active grace is doing, and consequently no enthusiasm for evangelism and renewal! We say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting the grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones along the path!”[viii] Jesus asks again , “Who of you are doing the will of God?”
Saying the right words isn’t enough. Just actions aren’t enough either. Obedience, according to Jesus in Matthew, is a matter of BOTH words and actions. Miss either one, and our obedience is called into question.
a.Words are not enough.
Even the right words are not enough. Jesus tells us that the right words won’t get anyone into heaven. “Many who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, (Kyrie, Kyrie) will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”(MT 7:21.) We know what this looks like. We say “YES” to Jesus and then waver. Even when our commitment is high, our follow through is lower.
The son who said, “Yes, Lord, I’ll go” but did not, would be despised in their patriarchal world. Disobedience was a sign of disrespect. Words are not enough. We struggle to follow through when following Jesus is hard: times when it means denying ourselves, when following Jesus will put us in conflict with family or friends, or when what Jesus asks of us is more than we really want to give. We live this son’s answer out in our lives more often that we want to admit.
But this matters. Obedience is tied very closely to salvation in the Gospel of Matthew.
The temple leaders claim to be obedient to God, but miss the fact that obedience to God is not based on blind obedience to tradition. “Obedience includes responding in faith to the NEW things God is doing!”[ix] They miss signs of God at work when it looks different than what they expect – as in the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus! They are focused on Jesus healing without temple sanction instead of the gift of healing! They ask for a sign…but miss anything that doesn’t fit their accepted patterns or agenda![x]
Actions alone aren’t enough either. The correct verbal response matters too. Words matter. In Matthew’s time, a defiant verbal response from a child was punished severely. Back farther to Deuteronomy, and mouthy adolescents were directed to be taken outside of town to prevent the spread of the contagion of ungodliness, and stoned to death. We don’t recommend beating, much less stoning, defiant children anymore. In fact, a certain amount of verbal defiance is considered normal in our time. The words matter.
This second son, who said, “I won’t,” but lived out his obedience, has our sympathy – but perhaps also our suspicion. He’s like folks we know who do good things, but have no time for God: college students willing to live on the ground for alternate spring break term, but never pray or read the Bible; neighbors willing to mow the lawn for someone recovering from injury but who do not attend church; activists for justice unmoored by faith understanding. It bothers us that good works can show up in people who appear to have no relationship with God.
Both words and deeds are required. “Whoever believes in me, and does the will of God in heaven….” They’re paired actions. They go together. Jesus says that when we get it all together we become (pause) his family.
“Are you doing the will of God?” Jesus asks. In this parable, Jesus shares that BOTH of these two sons brought dishonor to their father. NEITHER son did the father’s will. One had the words – the other had the deeds. BOTH need repentance, to turn things around and change their lives, in order to be obedient.
“To live a life of hearing and doing the will of God is to respect and adhere to Jesus’ authority as teacher and Lord. To live a life in which one gives lip service but not life service to his teachings is to disrespect the authority of Jesus.”[xi] To do good deeds, but fail to acknowledge Jesus with our words in another form of disrespect.
Do we do God’s will? “or is our faith kept from the world where people hunger and hurt, fail, and suffer silent, wailing guilt? Is faith, our faith, as removed from life as a cloistered chapel – all candlelight and altars?” [xii] Or is our faith kept in a closet – brought out only for Sunday mornings or times of need?
We CAN change the ending of our story – if we choose to say “yes” to God and also follow through with action. We can respond “I will and I do.”[xiii]
[i] Alyce McKenzie, The Parables for Today, 81. [ii] The Anchor Bible: Matthew. 260. [iii] Douglas Hare. Matthew. Interpretation Commentary, 245. [iv] Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A. 412. [v] Ibid. [vi]Hare, 245. [vii] Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables. 100. [viii] Hare, 248. [ix] Hare, 247. [x] D. Buttrick, Speaking Conflict: Stories of a Controversial Jesus. 137. [xi] McKenzie, Parables, 80. [xii] D. Buttrick, Speaking Parables, 122. [xiii] Ibid.