Both of the sons in Jesus “Parable of the Two Sons” are guilty of insulting their father. One of them pays lip service to the Father’s will but then chooses not to conform to it. The other rejects his father’s will to his face, but later comes around. This is essentially Matthew’s take on the ethical teachings we know better from Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son but told in a very different way. A father has two sons: one who treats his father well but doesn’t do what is asked of him; and one who treats his father badly, but later does his father’s will.
As we all know from repeated consideration of the parable of the Prodigal Son, we may be one son or the other. More likely, we’re both.
We’re the first son when we run amok through life only late to return, repentant and chastened. We’re the first son when we live our days forgetting to give any thought to God, only to lay our heads down at night and realize, “I really should have prayed today.” We’re the first son when we’ve given little or no thought to what God wants, and frankly don’t care; but then when push comes to shove, by the stirring of the Holy Spirit, we nonetheless make a good ethical choice, or we do right by someone we really don’t like, or we say thank you to God for a blessing we know darn well we don’t deserve.
We’re the second son when we call Jesus “Lord,” but live and work and treat others as though we’ve never so much as heard of the Sermon on the Mount, let alone read it. We’re the second son whenever we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” when God’s will is the last thing we want done on earth (because God’s will is not very often the same as our will, which is what we’d really like to see). We’re the second son when we are quick to declare our love for God, but slow to show love for neighbors, even looking down on them, as the Pharisee does to the tax collector in another of Jesus’ parables, as though their lack of sanctity somehow makes them less worthy of God’s love or ours.
In Matthew, Jesus doesn’t tell us how the father reacts to each of his sons, as he does in Luke’s parable; instead, he asks us, “Which of them did the will of their father?” His immediate point, in speaking to the Pharisees, was to point out that all their pious religiosity amounts to lip service; but ultimately, they have not changed their hearts and lives according to God’s will. Meanwhile, as he says, tax collectors and prostitutes, hearing John’s call to repentance, have changed their lives to conform to God’s will. Jesus’ larger point, keeping in mind the context of this parable in Matthew, was to compare his authority (which they questions) to theirs—his point being: authority comes not by knowledge of God’s Law (or, I would add, any particular systematic theology), but from knowing and doing God’s will.
Jesus tells the Pharisees that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of them, because those tax collectors and prostitutes, having heard God’s call to repentance through the preaching of John the Baptist, have changed their hearts and their lives; while the Pharisees have no regrets, continuing to believe they have nothing for which to apologize. Having just heard it last month, we hear echoes in our minds of Jesus having said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). And it’s no wonder since, in the Gospel of Matthew, this is perhaps the most foundational teaching of Jesus: real disciples don’t pay lip service; real disciples follow the master’s example. Even those who only get around to it eventually are still better than those who never get around to it at all. And Jesus’ final teaching in the Gospel of Matthew, found at the end of chapter 25, illustrates how God will judge the peoples by separating them out the way a shepherd separates his sheep from his goats. And again, the difference between the sheep and the goats is not that the sheep believe and the goats don’t. It’s that the sheep do what Jesus has taught: loving their neighbors as they love themselves, doing unto others as they would have done unto them; and the goat’s don’t.
The Elders of my congregation recently ratified a new vision for our church which will officially take effect in January. It is not altogether different from the congregation’s previous mission statement. For instance, whereas the former statement says that we are called to “make disciples,” the new statement says that we “seek discipleship to Christ.” The first is language borrowed from Jesus’ Great Commission, instructing us to make followers of others. The new language, in a subtle way, acknowledges that discipleship—following Jesus—is an area where we could still use some work, ourselves.
And even as it contains that subtlety, it also offers profound focus and specificity. We seek discipleship to Christ; not to church tradition, not to one theological forebear or other, not to some distinctively American expression of Christianity, not to some moral philosophy, not to a political party, not to an economic system, not to a nation. We seek discipleship to Christ, and Christ alone.
Discipleship to Christ means we follow the teachings and example of Jesus Christ to the best of our abilities, trusting in him to direct us through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, correct us when we miss the mark, and cover over our sins with his righteousness; and, we immerse ourselves in the study and contemplation of scripture, paying particular attention to the way Jesus interprets God’s will for us in word and act. As he pointed out to the Pharisees in this morning’s gospel reading, his knowledge of God is authoritative, because it is Christ—and no other—who does, and teaches us to do, God’s will.
The author of Ephesians tells us that God has given gifts such that “some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity [that comes by] faith, and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).
Discipleship, then, means constantly returning to sit at the feet of Jesus—hearing his words, watching his actions—and constantly seeking to conform our thoughts and actions more and more to his. Rather than be blown around by the winds of every competing philosophy or offer our allegiance to anyone else, we are called to grow—in every way—into Christ. Christ is the head of the body, and the whole body grows from him held together in him and by him and for him with love (Eph. 4:11-16).
We’re not going to get it right all the time. Discipleship is hard. Sometimes we know what Jesus wants us to do, and just don’t want to do it. Sometimes we do precisely what he would not have us do, and only later feel remorse for our actions. Sometimes we ignore the guidance of the Holy Spirit in those circumstances; sometimes we’re too caught up in our own selfish desires to even notice the Spirit’s work. But thanks be to God, as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, although “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory… all are treated as righteous freely by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-24).
Jesus’ parable—and ultimately the whole concept of discipleship—is not just about “where we go in the end.” In fact, when Jesus declares that “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” he means for it to be lived and experienced now, not someday in a glorious hereafter. Only a few chapters earlier, in another dispute with Pharisees, Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah, who said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines” (Matt. 15:8). As it is commonly said in the popular book and TV series, A Game of Thrones, “Words are wind.” Now this morning, Jesus has given us a parable illustrating the same point.
The Reverend Doctor Janet H. Hunt tells a story from her own family’s experience, dating back to the death of her grandmother, Beulah, when Dr. Hunt was only seven years old. She remembered fearing that her grandmother had gone to hell because she had never known her grandmother to go to church. In fact, while Beulah had sent all of her children to a Catholic school in order to be taught in the faith, she herself never attended mass.
Only as an adult—many years after her grandmother’s death—did she hear the heart-breaking story of why her grandmother never attended church. When Beulah’s husband had died very young, she had no choice but to help her family by getting a job selling magazines and cigarettes at a newsstand. There, Beulah “had no protection and found herself at the mercy of others. And so it was that for the rest of her life she would not forget that certain pillars of the community and the church—married men with families of their own—did not hesitate to make advances towards her. I cringe to think of it now,” Dr. Hunt writes, “how very painful and frightening this must have been for her. And without a doubt, her distress was compounded by this: that their ‘witness’ to her was that the faith they professed seemed to have no bearing on their behavior when they walked into that shop. It would appear that their example was that of the son Jesus describes today who heartily and eagerly said yes to his father, and then somehow forgot, failed, and did precisely the opposite of what God would want.”
It matters what we do. It matters how we live our lives in all of the places where we are privileged to live them—and not just how we aspire to live when we sit in our Sunday morning pews. Again, none of us gets it completely right; and neither in Jesus’ parable get it right, either. One could be said to have gone to church, and then behaved badly everywhere else. The other could be said to have refused to go to church, but nonetheless comes around to God’s way of thinking and doing anyway. The latter is the one, however imperfect an example he may seem to us, who the Pharisees (and we) begrudgingly admit does the will of his father.
It can be hard to hear this parable, as one who professes faith and then, upon self-examination, realizes that I have often failed to live as Jesus would have me do. Where is there grace for a Pharisee such as I? There is grace in realizing that our stories aren’t finished being written yet; that, just as those prostitutes and tax collectors who are ahead of me in line for entry into the Kingdom, I, too, can change my heart and change my life. In other words, it is not too late for anyone to start seeking discipleship to Christ, nor are our efforts in vain when we fall short since Christ’s righteousness is ours by the grace of God.
The New Wilmington Presbyterian Church, where I am privileged to serve as Pastor, seeks discipleship to Christ, growing in every way into mature adults—measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. All Christians are called to do the same, being gentle with ourselves and with one another as we do so, remembering always that discipleship is a life-long journey. We’re not all at the same point along the path, and we don’t all walk at the same pace. But what makes the Body of Christ a blessed community of the people of God is that we help one another along with gentleness and love, pointing in the right direction, picking one another up when we stumble, healing one another, even in our own woundedness.