“Oooohhh, burn!” Every here a kid say that (or even one of my very mature friends)? Someone gets a nice one-liner in, a quick but harmless teasing insult, and if it’s funny enough, “Oooohhh, burn!” You got burned.
“What do you think,” Jesus asked the Pharisees. That’s our first clue that a giant burn is coming, that Jesus is going to very nicely but also very pointedly insult a group of people who thought they weren’t susceptible to such things.
What do you think, Jesus asks. A father has two sons. “When the father orders the one son to go to work, he replies, “Forget it, Pop! I’ve got plans, things to do, people to see. Pick your own grapes!” But then, sometime after his father walks away looking rather wounded, the young man’s conscience gets the better of him. So he changes out of his fancy going-to-town clothes, throws on his overalls, and heads out to the vineyard. Meanwhile the father has approached his other son and made the same request. “You got it, Dad! I’m on my way!” The father walks away from this exchange feeling good that at least one of his boys knows how to treat his old man with respect. But then, unbeknownst to the father, this boy high-tails it over to the mall to spend some time with his friends and so never does go into the vineyard. Which son would you rather have?” Jesus asks. “Who really did what his father wanted?””1
The real question Jesus asks the Pharisees is “Which son do you think you are?”, a giant burn, considering their status as the holiest of the holy. Modern day priests and pastors need this parable more than most; my colleagues and I are the obvious analog to the Pharisees, people who have been set aside by God to both say yes to our Father and to go into His fields, but who rarely get both of those things right at the same time. We join with the Pharisees in getting burned today.
But this parable isn’t meant as just a way for Jesus to push back against the religious authorities of His day and ours – this isn’t just Jesus making a joke. The Parable of the Two Sons is also Jesus’ way of giving hope and encouragement to those who may think they are beyond redemption, beyond the love and mercy of God.
It should be pointed out here that the Pharisees answered the question correctly: the first son is indeed the one who did the will of his father. But Jesus immediately said to Pharisees, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him.”
The Pharisees missed it – they missed that John the Baptist was sent by God, was a true religious authority, but who saw it? The tax collectors and the harlots, the lowly and the forgotten, the very people who the Pharisees wouldn’t even look at in the streets, they got it. They heard the words of God from John, they saw the Word of God in Jesus, and even though they had spent their lifetimes saying no to God, they acted as the first son, they repented and turned to the Lord.
One of the ways we’re taught to approach Scripture is to imagine yourself as one of the characters in the story. In today’s Gospel, we have the two sons, stand-ins for the Pharisees and the Unwashed. For my part, I can picture myself in both parts, as one who has said no and then eventually said yes, and having said yes, has at times, in my weakness, said no. The good news in today’s Gospel, though, is that whoever you identify with right off the bat, we all have the chance to end up on the right side of this story. We all have judged others when we ourselves have been found wanting. We have all felt as if we are so low, so far from holiness, that we are beyond saving.
Whichever part you feel like you have been playing, know that Jesus is after you: whether He gives you a sick burn or big hug, it’s because He loves you, and wants you to be in His Kingdom.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-21a/?type=the_lectionary_gospel